26 December 2013

What was I thinking? 2013 edition

January--"Don't sign this bill" banning Americans from adopting Russian children.
"I'd help you, son, but my hands are busy." (Sign: "We'll save our
own children!!!")  Alexei Merinov, Moskovskii Komsomolets.

In the words of Russian Orthodox Bishop Panteleimon, eight days before the fateful Friday,
It is unacceptable to take decisions relating to the children on the basis of political considerations.

... We need the kind of law that will in each case decide what is more important for the child. And such a law must proceed not from some scandalous stories, not from rules of diplomacy, symmetrical or asymmetrical responses, but from children's interests. Of course, everyone knows there are dangers in international adoptions, there are certain problems, but these must be solved through normal processes, without resorting to hasty decisions.

February--"Conscientious abuse" (on conscientious objection and the "threat" of pacifism).

Our friend Vitalii Adamenko, who is familiar with conscientious objection in Russia, wrote to me:
My opinion is that these searches and attempts to declare the Jehovah's Witnesses extremists in the courts, and their systematic defamation on television, creating a negative image of them, all the other legal and illegal forms of harassment, in fact represent the state's struggle with pacifism. ... We all know that the Catholics used the Holy Inquisition to destroy their opponents, but nobody presents them as extremists. Everyone knows that the Old Believers practiced self-immolation, but nobody tries to label them as a totalitarian sect. Why? Because, for the most part, neither the Catholics nor the Old Believers have anything against participation in state violence, state murder. (In saying "for the most part," we do not intend to forget about those few who are exceptions.) But if there were as many Quakers in this country as Jehovah's Witnesses, soon they would be facing daily exposes proving that they are a totalitarian sect and in fact the most important extremists in our country.

March--"Faith, commitment,and aspiration" and the breaking up of Indiana Yearly Meeting.

We are at our most united, across our divisions, when we remember that we were gathered in God's power--once upon a time in the 1652 era, and at every occasion since when we truly yielded to God. On the other hand, our divisions are most obvious when we look at our favorite parochial counterfeits--one group hiding in silence, another in flavor-of-the-month evangelicalism, another in affluent inner-flashlight individualism, just to risk a few caricatures. In hyping our own group's specialness, we often resort to selective applications of beautiful antiquarian flourishes from early Friends--and hide the extent to which our wider contexts, the surrounding mass cultures, have distorted us practically to the breaking point.

April--"Straw feminists" and the Patriarch's memories of Geneva.

What is most disheartening about these speeches is their anti-evangelistic quality. This kind of talk must be very comforting to those who are already totally dedicated to the viewpoint that there is only one way to organize society, and that only men are qualified to define the boundaries around men's and women's roles. But for those who have an unquenchable, even God-given hunger for something more miraculous, something more trust-based rather than boundary-based, how can this rhetoric bring them to Jesus?

May--"Religion addiction, part two."

My point isn't the specific honorifics. It's the addictive quality of being privileged, honored, flattered, day in day out as a matter of routine. In one church culture, it might be jewel-encrusted tradition, in another it might be flashy celebrity-hood, barely distinguishable from secular showmanship. And it can also involve access to goodies, exotic travel, cozy get-togethers with other princes and princesses of the church, so to speak, and on a grimmer level, the ability to influence--or even control--the careers and lives of those serving you (that is, those whom you should be serving). There are other, even worse, ways that a church leader can abuse people who, at least at first, just want to trust that this person will bring them closer to God. And all this has even happened among Friends.

... I can't exaggerate how grateful I am to be in a tradition that so fiercely resists addiction ... and how frustrated I am that we're not doing a better job of proclaiming this anti-oppressive way to the world.

June--"Was it something I said? Part two." On mass surveillance and whistleblowers.

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.

July--"Being perfect" ... and some glimpses of the Waterfront Blues Festival.

Isn't it a form of bondage to seek constantly to be perfect? That's what I'd like to think, especially these days when we are in the USA, bouncing around from one guest bed to another, constantly on the move, and feeling stressed about dilemmas both here and back home in Russia. Stressed, brittle, a bit short-tempered, and not the least bit perfect.

So: I'd love to think that by being imperfect, I'm just taking advantage of scriptural freedom. But in the back of my head, a voice with a decidedly German accent says, "Grace is great, but a little effort might be called for, too!"

August--"Pamela J. Olson: 'How was I supposed to think about a world where the life of a Palestinian was utterly disposable?'"

If security were honestly the sole priority that some Israeli leaders claim, and government policies and actions were truly organized around this specific priority, there would be no necessity to treat a whole people with such systematic and searing contempt. Good police work doesn't require bullying innocent people and taking their land and water and limiting their freedom to isolated reservations that can be invaded or bombed at any time--and any country that respects the impartial rule of law knows this. These daily humiliations witnessed by Olson, by me, and by so many others--financed in part by U.S. taxpayers' money--could end the moment when a significant number of people stop living in complacent ignorance, or pretending they don't see and hear, and begin to require accountability of the Israeli leaders--and, for that matter, the Palestinian leaders as well.

September--"Exceptional pride: USA and Russia."

Toward the end of the Gorbachev era, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, author of the classic book on prayer, Beginning to Pray, answered some intriguing questions in another of his books (On Meeting), a book that's not yet translated into English as far as I know:
... No party at all should be able to claim the Church as its own, but at the same time the Church is not non-party, or above parties. She must be the voice of a conscience illuminated by the Light of God. In the ideal state, the Church must be in a condition to speak to any party, any movement: "This is worthy of humanity and of God, and that is not." Of course, this can be done from either of two positions: either from a position of strength, or from a position of complete helplessness. It seems to me--and I'm deeply convinced of this--that the Church must never speak from a position of strength. ... If the Church takes its place among those organizations that have power, that are able to force and direct events, then there will always be the risk that she would find power desirable; and as soon as the Church begins to dominate, she loses the most profound thing, the love of God, and an understanding of those who need salvation rather than the works of destruction and rebuilding.

October--"Godly uncertainty"

Coptic-language New Testament
fragment. Source: The Oriental 
Institute  of the University of 
Apparently, perfect certainty and perfect reliability weren't in God's plans, either for biblical translation or for human behavior. For better or for worse, we're stuck not knowing for sure what to do next. "When we pray, coincidences happen," as Douglas Steere said, but the people we pray for still die sooner or later. People we love will hurt us, and we will hurt them. God has given me a new family in the form of the Body of Christ, and what a wonderful family it is, even as it sometimes drives me to the edge of insanity. (And I'm not even commenting on what I do to others!) Somehow I have to come to terms with the reality that, for now, this is enough.

November--"Prophets, cynics, and tricksters," getting on each other's nerves.

In the slow-motion drama that is Russia today, and maybe the world as a whole, every human being, and certainly every politician, is playing a role. There are few, if any, total devils or total angels, as inconvenient as that fact might be for those who like to choose sides. We vary only in our degree of captivity or (as I see it in Christian terms) our choosing to accept and proclaim freedom in stubborn solidarity with our neighbors--and then working out through honest dialogue what that really means.

December--"Myths," as found among Quakers, politicians, and others.

The Quaker myth, using that word in its most positive meaning, has beguiled many for centuries now. We love to believe that the Holy Spirit has formed a community of disciples who want nothing more or less than to be taught by Jesus himself, to live by those teachings and their ethical consequences, and to help each other live that way in joy, peace, simplicity, and equality. Reality intrudes: we're wounded and betrayed; we're fragile and defensive; we mobilize along ancient patterns of "us" and "them"; we generate folkways to preserve echoes of the old beguiling feelings. Those folkways certainly come in handy when we're insecure or tired or just plain lazy. (I think of the yearly meeting that began its 300th anniversary sessions with a tour of the graveyard.) The myth wouldn't even exist if it hadn't been for a powerful reality, but some of us can't see the reality any more when our elders and teachers prefer endless caressing of the folkways.

"Duck Dynasty and the forgiving widow."

Micah Bales addresses "The Power to Trust" and how to respond to "... my country’s growing lack of trust and caustic bitterness in the civic life." I read this column with great interest: in my understanding of Friends discipleship, trust is the central testimony.

Internet Monk thinks that "sharing my opinion" is "Overrated." (Read the comments, too.)

"Can you be too religious?" ("Of course, I'd say you cannot be too Christian. That's a different kettle of fish.")

On the one hand, "India overreacts to diplomat's arrest." On the other hand, "India flap arises from America's Gulag practices...."

Plotting Peace, a new blog by Peggy Faw Gish. Thanks to Mondoweiss for the reference.

"Emptying Russia's prisons to fill the seats at Sochi 2014"?? Well, yes and no.

Enjoy this: "How the iconic 1968 Earthrise photo was made."

Oslo Gospel Choir, thanks to Anya Osievskaya.

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