29 October 2009

Rules are rules

There have been a lot of discussions on blogs and other outlets concerning the Russian Ministry of Justice's proposed amendments to the 1997 law "On freedom of conscience and religious association."

The amendments propose a normative definition of evangelistic activity: "... activity of a religious association intended for the dissemination of its confessional teaching among persons who are not members, participants, or adherents of the given religious association, for the purposes of attracting said persons into the religious association, and conducted by religious associations or persons immediately authorized by them, in public with the assistance of means of mass communication or other legal means." Controversies arise on several accounts--the fact that such activity, to be legal, must be (1) conducted by persons who are members of the governing body of the religion or confession, or who are authorized in writing by that body; (2) must not involve any sorts of material, social, or other benefits, or any form of pressure or manipulation; and (3) must not seek to attract young people into its activities against their will or against the will of their parents.

Discussions among representatives of a wide range of religious representatives and the Ministry of Justice have revealed that many representatives welcome at least some legal clarifications. Others approve in theory but are not clear why the Ministry of Justice is competent to make these distinctions. (What constitutes "benefits" in charity work, for example; and did Jesus and the Apostles wait for documents before spreading Christianity?) Still others are quite alarmed at the possibility that an ordinary citizen might get into trouble simply for sharing his or her faith innocently with a seeker, or giving that seeker the address of the citizen's church. And must churches stop working with addicts or street people, if such assistance could be interpreted as pressure or manipulation? Will the rules be applied to minority confessions such as Baptists in the same ways they will be applied to Russian Orthodox believers?

I've also heard a more general observation: These proposed regulations are not part of a special drive to control religion, but might be considered examples of a wider trend--an increasing tendency toward regulation and bureaucratization. In support of this theory, I heard one scholar say, "It's now harder to get a dissertation approved than it was in Soviet times."

Other observers basically advise not getting overexcited. "People with common sense have nothing to worry about." Yes, individual abuses of power will happen, but in general, courteous people who talk about their faith in public without slandering other faiths or provoking intolerance will be able to keep doing so without worry.

We Americans tend to want absolute guarantees for our freedoms. Our Constitution and our truly extraordinary doctrine of "due process" attempt to provide that assurance, but real life has very few actual guarantees. U.S. history is checkered with due-process failures, especially for minorities. Even so, we (mostly) believe we have a covenant with our government--the latter agrees to enforce the rules fairly, and we agree to obey them. In many other parts of the world, an entirely different understanding prevails: the rules on paper may be stricter than we'd be comfortable with, and there are fewer guarantees of fair application, but people feel far more comfortable bending them and getting around them, and trading favors and negotiating exceptions on a common-sense basis with the powers that be. The attitude is something like, "Do what you like, but just be sensible, don't cause scandals, and everything will be OK."

In such a sensible society, "where are the prophets?" you might ask. The prophets' function is precisely to cause scandals in God's name when needed. Good point, but I wonder the same thing about our freedom-obsessed U.S. society, too. We have plenty of Americans who are proud of our religious liberty in theory, but when our own government was dancing around the definition of torture, where were our prophets? Have we devoted so much of our "freedom" to the dissemination of trivial vulgarity that we have no energy left to demand accountability from our so-called democratic leaders? Too often, we fall into the American trap of comparing our ideals with others' realities. Our ideals are in fact excellent--and far more attractive when expressed with more humility.

For a vivid illustration of many Russians' pragmatic attitude toward the authorities, just watch the fare-dodgers on our suburban train line. At some point on nearly every trip, we see people lining up in large numbers to leave the train car at the next stop. Well, that's normal, you might think. But (1) hardly anyone usually gets off at this next stop, and (2) all those passengers standing at one end of the car seem to be making frequent glances back toward the other end. They've somehow become aware that ticket inspectors are on their way. Sure enough, two uniformed inspectors begin checking the tickets of those passengers who've remained seated. We show our tickets, which get checked. The inspectors continue forward, but when they get to the front of the car, they don't wade into the compact mass of passengers waiting to get off.

As soon as the train halts and the doors open, we see a truly fascinating spectacle--a rush of passengers of all ages running full-tilt right past the windows, re-entering the train at a point already passed by the inspectors. They are right to run; it might be only a half-minute stop. When the train has departed that station and the inspectors have moved forward into the next car, many of our fellow passengers resume the exact same seats they vacated before the inspectors came.

These are the same people you can absolutely trust to hand your money forward to the driver and your change and ticket back to you in a crowded bus.

P.S. to my posting a few weeks ago on Gordon Browne: A friend of Gordon's and his family responded to my words with a very kind letter that helped fill me in on the last years and months of his life. My favorite part of this letter was the description of how the decision was made that Gordon should move into a unit that would have the support necessary for someone with Alzheimer's and similar symptoms:
...After a staff/family conference that Gordon actually clerked--the medical and social services staff sat there with jaws dropping as he determined that we all felt this was right and said "then this is what I ought to do"--he moved in for the last 18 months of his life.
Now that sounds like Gordon! Am I right?

Righteous links:

English translations of Russian religious news; most items are probably at the "worried" end of the spectrum.

Poemless asks us to look past the "managed democracy" headlines.

Deciding about Afghanistan--what do we do with the Soviet Union's hard-won experience?

"Russian charities hit hard by the recession."

One more Russian item ... on mushrooms.

The Pew Forum: "The 'zeal of the convert': Is it the real deal?"

Margaret Benefiel writes on "soulful leadership in the Republican Party."

"Christian Palestinians are an essential part of the Holy Land solution." A conversation with Elias Chacour.

Quaker time travel ... This item from Ireland Yearly Meeting has been attracting a lot of comment on the friends-theology list.

Gracebase guide to graceful e-mail handling and storage.

And in honor of Ubuntu 9.10 (downloading as I write), Google's Easy Linux Tips for Beginners.

Os Guinness is coming to Reedwood Friends. If there were any practical way, I'd be there.

Another slice of blues dessert from one of the most memorable slide guitarists (and wonderfully expressive singer): J.B. Hutto. Many thanks to YouTube contributor shrine52.

1 comment:

Bonnie said...
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