20 June 2013

Was it something I said? part two

Luke's first visit to Russia.
Luke and Judy about to leave Moscow for Elektrostal.
Enjoying our bustling courtyard.
Getting to know Fagot and Begemot, two characters from
Mikhail Bulgakov's Master and Margarita.
At Okhotny Ryad shopping center, near the Kremlin.
Last week I couldn't resist looking at the revelations and allegations around the U.S. National Security Agency's access to telephone and Internet traffic. Glenn Greenwald and David Simon made very different assessments of how seriously our right to be secure in our homes and papers is threatened by such programs as PRISM, but they agreed at least a bit on one thing: the danger of what Simon calls "authoritarian overreach."

Greenwald (along with his allies) and Simon differ on whether the data dragnet represented by PRISM and similar programs already crosses some kind of fateful constitutional Rubicon--see this more recent Simon article for a clear restatement of this divergence--but the matter of transparency and accountability in government programs remains a common concern among all observers of this current case. From Simon's point of view, however, this has always been the crucial issue, whether we're discussing 10,000 numbers being logged, or 300 million, and regardless of the technology used.

I have no permission from David Simon to draw the following parallel, and he might not agree, but I see a connection with nuclear power. On the theoretical level, I support the use of nuclear power. Reliable nuclear power plants, and safe storage of used fuel, are feasible today. The dangers of nuclear power are real, but no more real than the extraction hazards and pollution caused by some other methods of generating electricity, cooking food, propelling transport, etc. Furthermore, I can't see how the other power options can stretch to meet the predictable needs of the planet's growing population, even if every right-thinking progressive immediately cuts their own power consumption by 50%. To me, the issue is the reliability of the corporate and political safeguards that must ensure that safety standards and their enforcement won't be compromised. In the USA's current legislative near-paralysis and the far-right's war on legitimate government, can we trust that those safeguards will be there?

The value of whistleblowers such as Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden does not necessarily depend on their information being immediately and self-evidently outrageous. Snowden had an attack of conscience when he saw what the technology available to him could do to compromise privacy, but his attack of conscience is not itself proof of his case. He himself claimed a relatively modest goal: advancing transparency. "The government has granted itself power it is not entitled to. There is no public oversight. The result is people like myself have the latitude to go further than they are allowed to" and this lack of public oversight poses, as he believes, "an existential threat to democracy," according to his initial interview in the Guardian.

First of all, even if Snowden is totally deluded, his reasoning is a credible basis for an attack of whistleblower-like conscience, a basis that does not depend on an apocalyptic claim that we face an immediate end to privacy. However, he cannot (and apparently does not) expect that he has made such a strong case that he can duck the consequences of his own violations of law and of his contract with his employer. But neither should we respect the venom being directed at him by some politicians. To assert that Snowden is a "traitor" is to prejudge that his worries can't possibly be weighty enough to warrant whistleblower status, or, in short, that, in these matters, the U.S. government can do no wrong, period. Snowden doesn't get an automatic free pass, but in a democracy, he also does not get automatically condemned. And, best of all, the national (and international) conversation that he wanted is in full swing.

Should governments spy on peace groups and social justice advocacy groups? Of course the power to spy can become the power to destroy. Witness the attempts of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to sabotage Martin Luther King's campaigns using the alleged fruits of their surveillance. But on the other hand, every undercover operative remains a human being made in the image of God. Roles are roles, and are certainly to be taken seriously, but people are people, and everyone deserves to hear the Good News of Jesus and its implications for freedom, equality, justice, and stewardship. Why assume that the "spy" cannot be reached?

When wealthy Quaker businessman Wallace Collett, a military tax refuser, was summoned by his bank to explain why the federal government was serving them with requests for Collett's money, he welcomed the opportunity to explain to these representatives of the establishment the basis for his tax resistance. Our evangelism ought to extend even to the eyes and ears of spies, even as we work diligently for transparent governance.

From the date of his arrest, Bradley Manning has been treated and prosecuted with a degree of vindictiveness unworthy of a great democracy. Chase Madar asks why Manning, in particular, deserves this treatment when the people who arguably perpetrated the greatest strategic disasters in the world's recent history, thereby causing the death of many more people than died on 9/11, besides bringing the USA to the edge of bankruptcy, continue to enjoy impunity.

Sociological survey of Russian believers. (Russian version of article.)

Businessman and prominent Protestant leader Alexander Semchenko was placed under house arrest a week ago in connection with alleged felonious overbillings at two Moscow theaters. Here's the initial Kommersant newspaper report (along with several statements). Journalist Bill Yoder's article, which will shortly appear at this site, is reproduced at the bottom of this page.

The living Gospel on U.S. national television: Sister Helen Prejean speaks to Rachel Maddow about the book Dead Man Walking and its success in raising awareness of the death penalty.

"Listening to Young Atheists: Lessons for a Stronger Christianity."

Concerning words that Russian woman should not use online, even in a political blog, that men can say freely. (Warning: adult language.)

Alexander Semchenko Helped with a Whole Heart
Russian Protestant leader under house arrest

M o s c o w -- On Russian national evening news on 13 June, viewers were treated to the spectacle of Alexander Trofimovich Semchenko, one of Russia’s best-known Protestants, opening the door of his house early that morning. The ailing businessman and bishop (he recently suffered a mild stroke) was unshaven and in a housecoat. Semchenko then spent the next 48 hours in jail – sufficient time for the police to search his house, business and denominational offices. He is now under house arrest and wearing an electronic ankle bracelet.

Protestant observers have closed ranks and decried in unison the style of Semchenko’s arrest. Pastor Yuri Sipko, known in recent years for his gift of overstatement, spoke of sadism and claimed: “This is as in the days of Stalin. They (government representatives) have been humiliated and they compensate for their humiliation by humiliating others. They are a disgrace to Russia. They have performed a medieval orgy with ultra-modern means.” Semchenko’s allies are grateful for his support. One of them, Evangelical-Christian Pastor Pavel Begichev, wrote on 16 June: “In my view, Y. K. Sipko is almost totally rehabilitated.”

Sipko was president of the “Russian Union of Evangelical Christian-Baptists” (RUECB) until March 2010; he and Semchenko suffered an acrimonious termination of their long-term relationship in February 2008. After that, Semchenko became bishop of a tiny Evangelical-Christian denomination and formed the „All-Russian Fellowship of Evangelical-Christians” (VSEKh). It is a loose association of 700 congregations with Pentecostal ties.

There has also been a chorus of evangelical support expressing appreciation for Semchenko’s character and largess. Sipko spoke for many when he called him a “renowned altruist and philanthropist, a gifted leader with great vision.” Semchenko was talented enough to realise most of his dreams. Alexey Smirnov, Sipko’s successor as president of the RUECB, wrote that the accused “has done many good things as a Christian – not only for the church, but also in general for the well-being of our country”. Vitaly Vlasenko heads an office originally created by Semchenko: the RUECB’s Department for External Church Affairs. He wrote: “I have deep respect for Alexander Trofimovich. He has helped a lot of people and he helped with a whole heart. I am very sorry this has happened.”

Pastor Leonid Kartavenko, probably Semchenko’s closest associate, pointed out in an interview that even since being forced out of business 18 months ago, Semchenko had continued to offer support on many of the unresolved conflicts involving Protestants. As a member of the relatively powerful “Council for Cooperation with Religious Organisations at the Seat of the Russian President”, he was able to effectively protest the bulldozing of Pentecostal church in Moscow last year and the four-year-long-delay in the opening of a massive new Pentecostal church building in Izhevsk/Ural. Kartavenko assured: “Alexander Trofimovich tried to help and unify Protestants everywhere irregardless of their denominational affiliation.”

On the matter of corrupt business dealings, all Protestant observers plead ignorance and agree in unison that only a serious court-of-law could untangle the complicated mess. The foundation of the government’s case is an overpayment of roughly 100 million roubles ($33 million US or 25 million Euro) to Semchenko’s defunct firm “Teplotekhnik” for construction work done on Moscow’s Bolshoi and Maly Theatres between 2005 and 2007. Though Pastor Kartavenko told BBC that “this is religious repression and has nothing to do with economics”, he also concedes that he is unfamiliar with the details of the business issues involved.

Where opinions diverge
Protestant views display a wide gap though regarding the real cause behind the arrest. VSEKh and other close allies of Semchenko tend to believe that nationalist government forces – the “siloviki” – have regained the upper hand in their struggle with the pro-Western oligarchs and are unleashing a major campaign against Protestantism and religious freedom in general. Kartavenko believes Semchenko has been gathering and unifying the Protestant voice, irritating siloviki forces. “They have wanted to stuff Semchenko’s mouth and now they have achieved precisely that,” he concluded. Under house arrest, the ex-businessman is forbidden to make public statements and has access only to a limited number of personal friends.

Yet forces within the RUECB are much less excited and are instead stressing economics. Vitaly Vlasenko stated flatly in an interview with “Portal-Credo”: “I do not believe that his religious affiliation is a cause for the present legal prosecution. I think only his commercial and business dealings are at stake.” He therefore regrets that Semchenko’s allies interpret the present issue as a religious one.

Irregularities involving the case have reinforced suspicions that church politics are the source of the conflict. Why is only Semchenko accused? Why are not co-conspirators who signed documents and the subcontractors who did the actual work not sitting with him in the dock? Rev. Begichev asked: „Did (Semchenko) force others to sign documents at gunpoint?” “This is exactly as it was done back in Soviet times”, Leonid Kartavenko assured. “Believers were never persecuted for their faith. Economic transgressions or ‘anti-Soviet agitation’ were the usual causes given.”

Media have latched onto the topic that Semchenko is a religious leader and have allowed the business issues to remain a distant second. Vlasenko attributes this to the media’s love for scandal, not to a directive from government circles above. The price of the Swiss watches worn by Patriarch Kirill is another example of media preference for the sensational.

It is in any case clear that the Putin administration’s campaign against corruption must produce concrete results. In great contrast to the corruption scandal involving the Minister of Defence, Anatoly Serdyukov, last November, this case cannot damage the ruling administration. All Protestants are political outsiders and sacrificing a middle-level, maverick oligarch is a painless affair for the government. Attacking Semchenko also does little damage to government relations with Baptists and Lutherans, the “most traditional” of Russia’s so-called “untraditional” Christian faiths.

In business terms, it is claimed that Semchenko ventured too far from shore in a shark-infested pool (he made too much profit). That made him vulnerable to attack once the winds of political change came. They arrived after Yuri Lushkov was sacked as mayor of Moscow in September 2010. When ex-business partners later demanded Semchenko return a portion of excess profits, the cash had already been donated to good causes.

Semchenko repeatedly stressed his loyalty to the administration of Putin and Medvedev, which – along with the “Russian Orthodox Church - Moscow Patriarchate” - did not come to his aid in the present time of need. Though he did as a sign of good faith and Christian solidarity help fund two new Orthodox churches in Moscow, he was not regarded as a good friend of the ROC. Until the demise of his business dealings, Semchenko had been a strong supporter of the “Portal-Credo” news service. Portal-Credo, which is allied with a small, dissident Orthodox denomination, has long been a thorn in the flesh of the Moscow patriarchate.

William Yoder, Ph.D.
Moscow, 20 June 2013
“rea.org@mail.ru” or “kant50@gmx.de”
Webpage: „rea-moskva.org“ or “www.baptistrelations.org

A journalistic release under the auspices of the Russian Evangelical Alliance. It is informational in character and does not express a sole, official position of Alliance leadership. This release may be reprinted free-of-charge if the source is cited. Release #13-12.

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