12 March 2009

The American addiction

Ten years ago, in the March 1998 issue of Quaker Life, I wrote about "the American sin," for which status (in view of a cluster of events at the time) I nominated impatience.

I remembered that editorial as I was reading Tom Engelhardt's pithy article, "Addicted to force, addicted to failure," on his "Tomgram" Web site, and I couldn't help thinking about whether there was a lethal connection between the sin of impatience and the American addiction to force. Actually, force and violence are a nearly universal addiction, but with our usual industriousness, we Americans have let our national imagination, culture, and resources become enmeshed with it to deadly effect. To what extent has this gradual but thorough enmeshment resulted from our constant, and otherwise often creative, drive to get results now?

Here's a core sample of Engelhardt's article:
In these last years in Washington, force became something close to an American religion. The Bush administration's top officials were all fundamentalists in their singular belief in the efficacy of force. In fact, they arrived convinced that an all-powerful, techno-wondrous military, unrivaled on the planet, left them with the ability to project force in ways no other power ever had. When it came to remaking the world, anything seemed possible.

What this meant was that an extreme version of military fundamentalism went hand-in-hand with an extreme version of economic fundamentalism. Today, both of these fundamentalisms are collapsing, even if a pared down version of the military half of the equation is anything but dead.

In those same years, Americans also began to genuflect before the idea of our military in ways previously unimaginable. They pledged their unending support for "our troops," now commonly referred to as "warriors," who were repeatedly hailed as the bravest, most valiant, most successful fighters around, part of the most awesome military ever. It -- and they -- simply could do no wrong. Given this faith, when things did go wrong, mistakes would never be blamed on the military.

As a result, while actual American soldiers were sent halfway across the planet in a distinctly unreverential way on their third, fourth, and fifth tours of duty (with few here giving much of a damn), Americans treated the idea of those "warriors" and their "mission" with ritualistic fervor.

A cold-eyed look at the record of the U.S. military in these last years, however, tells quite a different tale. It's no small thing, after all, that U.S. military actions in two disastrous wars managed to burnish the reputation of one of the uglier fallen dictators on the planet and pave the way for the return, as a national resistance force, of a brutish, retrograde, failed regime almost universally rejected by its own people when it fled in November 2001. I'm speaking, of course, about Iraq's Saddam Hussein and the Taliban of Afghanistan. Worse yet, the ever greater application of force, including recently the repeated firing of missiles from CIA-operated drone aircraft into the Pashtun borderlands of Pakistan, has resulted in the spread of the Taliban, religious extremism, terrorism, and war into the heartland of Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country now being destabilized.
As evidence of our cultural bondage to force, in addition to our new tendency to "genuflect" to the idea of the American warrior--though not of course to the overextended soldiers themselves--Engelhardt also points out that the spokespeople for failed military policies somehow get to have permanent status as experts and pundits, whereas those who (rightly, as it turned out) counseled against military options continue to be excluded from their exalted ranks.

If any cultural bondage begged for passionate commentary by Christians, you'd think this pseudo-"religion" might be the one. Consider these words from Bryan Stone:
The practice of evangelism ... is to some degree confrontational and is, in fact, the sort of practice [Baptist/Anabaptist theologian James] McClendon calls a "powerful practice".... It challenges the violent, oppressive, and enslaving practices of the world (which are themselves also powerful) by forming us into a people capable of recognizing and resisting such powers and of recognizing and confessing our own sinful complicity with them.

That does not mean that evangelism is only or best carried out through strategies of irritation! Nor does it mean the universe or human life is founded on conflict. It is peace rather than violence that is the foundation of the universe, because God is the universe's source and end. But evangelism is inescapably a conflictual practice that counters and disarms the world's powerful practices, unmasks the narratives that sustain them, and ultimately subverts them by offering a story that is peaceful. Like other core practices of the church, evangelism is very much about power and inevitably involves a contest of power....

Within the ecclesial reimagining of evangelism I am attempting in this book, to be saved by God is to be saved not only from sin but also from powers that make us incapable of recognizing and resisting sin--powers that form and discipline us into the kind of people who are incapable of being the church. The demonic power of various institutions such as the nation-state, the military, the university, the market, and even the church derives from their having been co-opted by these powers. The church, however, bears a unique relationship to the powers, because it is the public of the Holy Spirit and because its worship has been made possible by the resurrection of Jesus and by his patient and lamblike triumph over the powers. [page 113]
And what is one of the primary red flags marking this pseudo-religious bondage?
At the heart of the Constantinian story [of the enmeshment of state and religion] is a denial of the apostolic conviction that Jesus is Lord. That denial need not be verbally explicit, indeed, it usually is not. But when Christians serve the emperor, the king, the president, or the state as Lord (whether confessed verbally or not), then, as [John Howard] Yoder argues, worship has been rendered and the lordship of Jesus has been refused.

One of the most important ways this happens is when Christians give their obedience to a state that has asked or commanded them to kill on its behalf.... [page 120]
Well, this is inspiring theology, but how does it look when translated into Christian practice--specifically, Friends practice? I would love to see some of our churches and meetings and yearly meetings, and some of the peace and justice boards within those bodies, begin to transform themselves into laboratories of love where we can apply our creativity and resources to a more powerful vision of evangelism. And, really, this would be a way of modeling the more creative paths we want our own countries to take when confronting international challenges. After all, if we succeed in breaking the monopoly of the violence-addicted experts and opinion leaders who mesmerize the public now, what would we suggest putting in their place?

The trouble is, I want this to happen now!!

Speaking of laboratories of love:

I was fascinated by 2nd Street Community Church's use of the "cardboard testimonies" program for meeting for worship on February 22. Sample it here at their Web site, click on "topical/holidays," and scroll down to TOPICAL TEACHINGS for the pdf documents. A video is promised.

More examples, as reported by Northwest Yearly Meeting's Gar Mickelson on the pastors' e-mail list and copied here by permission:
I was in Northern Idaho at the end of last month and stumbled upon some really cool stories:

River of Life--Post Falls Idaho, multi generational guys Bible study meets weekly, ages 17- 70’s! Get this: the younger guys bring their friends who have questions about God to this study so that they can benefit from the wisdom of the older guys! They younger guys love the support that they get from the older men, and the old guys love it that the younger guys WANT their help. This group started up spontaneously and has been going since last summer.

Hayden Lake Friends Church: The 24/7 recovery group has been meeting Wednesday nights for the last couple of years- (that’s not the story!). Last fall one of the classes from the Christian school that uses the building during the day, found out that folks in recovery used their room during the evening every Wednesday. This class of teens began to pray for that recovery group. Out of this praying a group of students got the idea to hang a piece of butcher paper on one of the walls, and they began leaving random notes of encouragement for the adults in the recovery group. From this the kids decided to ask the leader of the recovery group to tell the others that they wanted members of the recovery group to leave prayer requests on another banner sized sheet, which they hung next to their first one.

Soooooo, the adults in recovery began sharing their prayer requests with the teens from the Christian school, via a wall poster, and the teens responded by continuing their notes- some of them personal, to the folks in recovery. Each week there is a clean banner for new prayer requests, each week there is a new encouragement banner posted by the kids. The leadership of 24/7 has reported that this innocent and spontaneous act of love and kindness, (borne of prayer), has been the source of transformation in many lives. Folks in recovery immediately go to the poster every week to see if they have a message. Each week there are tears shed on both sides of the bridge, and much rejoicing!

This has been going on since November, I suppose it will end at the end of the school year. BUT, the seeds that the teens are planting will ripple out through eternity… AMEN to that?
The link between these examples and the "powerful practice" of evangelism advocated by Stone and McClendon may not be obvious, but when we routinely see and promote that link, and nurture it lovingly, I'm convinced that our meetings will find a whole new pastoral AND prophetic fertility.

We're forming a calendar for our visits to several local Friends meetings in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, USA, in the next few weeks. We'll try to post it soon on www.jjinrussia.org.

A few righteous links: Is a bad economy good for church attendance? Perhaps not. ~~ One of my favorite Oregon (USA) nonprofits, Free Geek, redoes its Web site. ~~ If you're going to be at this nearly irresistible Calvin College event, April 2-4, can you grab some souvenirs for me? Leave it to Calvin to create yet another amazing synthesis of voices for the benefit of the larger church. ~~ But here's a calendar that is more realistic for us. Note Derek Lamson's event on March 22. ~~ An interfaith "Charter for Compassion"--is it possible and useful? (Thanks to Joan Chittister, via Kathy Torvik, for the reference.) ~~ Christian Peacemakers try to turn the world's attention to the situation of Iraq's Kurdish villagers. ~~ Moscow as the Third Rome: RFE/RL reports on a contemporary manifestation. ~~ My brain asks "do we really need this expenditure of national resources?" but my heart loves it! And talk about patience!!!

I'm feeling blue about leaving Yalagin Street for a time, even though it will be wonderful to see our family and friends back in the Pacific Northwest.... Turning for comfort to my very first blues hero, Albert King:

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