01 January 2015

What was I thinking?!

Highlights from the past twelve months, not based on any metrics...

January: Love--a heavy cross?

"Love ... is a heavy cross." Source.

... "Love is a heavy cross" only when I require reciprocity, only when I forget the words in the so-called prayer of St. Francis,
... Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
So it is up to me to work on not trapping people in convenient classifications, the more so because I know what it feels like--both when it happens to me, and when I have done it myself.

The Pussy Riot controversy here in Russia has been a festival of ruthless categorization: if you support these women, you hate Russia, you hate the church, you are in favor of blasphemy and vulgarity, of the corrupting influence of the West. If you criticize them, you are on the side of obscurantism, phyletism, totalitarianism.

(Also from January: "And the inquisitors sent for us.")

February: "The zombies are coming out"

Before we left the meeting, one of our younger people, always in touch with the world through his phone, told us that power in Kiev was apparently shifting even as we were sitting there, and that nobody knew where the elected president was. This was only one day after an agreement between regime and opposition had been brokered by international figures and signed by representatives of Poland, France, Germany, as well as the president and three opposition leaders.

All the calculations of politicians and pundits alike were confounded by the persistence of the Euromaidan protesters. These people could be sliced and diced by analysts into a spectrum of interests and identifications, but they were united by discontent. What was the exact nature of this discontent? Aside from a minority of paid provocateurs, pathological Russia-haters, habitual brawlers, and other extremists, there seemed to be two broad groups--young people who wanted a better future, and (speaking generally) their parents and grandparents who could not abide seeing these children humiliated and shot at.

March: Perspective

Here in Elektrostal, we've often been asked by our friends, colleagues, students--"What do you think of the situation in Ukraine?" As I said last week, our priority is not to give our opinions but to listen to theirs. After the Crimean referendum and U.S. president Obama's announcement of sanctions, some of the questions became a little more pointed. One of the cleaning staff at the Institute asked me this evening, "Is it really necessary to be so insulting to us? You know yourself that we're decent, normal people."

Just before the referendum, U.S. senator McCain said, "Russia is a gas station masquerading as a country." Of course the stupidity of such a comment rather neutralizes its offensiveness, but we have to live in the backwash. To restore a bit of perspective and provide some evidence that not all Americans interpret things quite as he does, we brought this Wonkette post to our evening class. This kind of sharp sarcasm isn't my preferred style of political commentary--it has a violence of its own--but I was actually rather relieved to show our friends that the biting humor of Russian political discourse on the Internet does have its American equivalents. Too often we Americans are portrayed here as pleasant idiots, and right now, not all that pleasant.

April: "Every knee shall bow..."

By the Philippians 2 standard (every resident of the country has confessed that Jesus is Lord), the UK doesn't get the label Christian, despite Christianity's huge embedded advantages: the nation's monarch is officially designated "Defender of the Faith"; old cathedrals display rows of regimental standards demonstrating the tight historical bond between faith and patriotism; the national culture is saturated with Christian references; and not least, a statistical majority of people are still willing to claim that label. Surely the UK belongs on the list of nations historically formed by Christian civilization (as even some non-Christians readily acknowledge, including to the BBC). But it's hard to argue that the trend lines are heading toward 100% Christian knees and tongues.

May: Worship and offense

In the town of Greece, New York, local ministers routinely give an opening invocation before town board meetings. These invocations have usually, but not always, been explicitly Christian. Two local citizens filed a lawsuit, not to prohibit prayers, but to require that they be "inclusive and ecumenical." Susan Galloway, one of the original plaintiffs, found the prayers offered at these town meetings "offensive," "intolerable," and an affront to a "diverse community." The case eventually reached the Supreme Court (from whose opinion I drew these quotations), which has just decided (5/4) in favor of the town's practices.

After surveying a lot of overheated articles on both sides of this controversy, I was happy to see Michael Miner's refreshingly calm take on the story. As it happens, I don't agree with him, but I do acknowledge his essential fairness, and admire his honesty in stating that he originally planned to go one way with his article but found one of the dissenting justices more persuasive in the other direction.

June: Deborah Haight and The Christ of the Indian Road

A couple of years before I arrived in Canada, Deborah had begun her retirement from government service by making an interesting decision. As she told me later, she was wondering whether she needed to buy a car. At the time, she lived on Queen Elizabeth Parkway in Ottawa, not far from our Quaker meetinghouse and conveniently located for public transportation, and she decided that, rather than buying a car, she would take that money and spend it on a round-the-world trip, visiting Friends at every point along the way. She also spent a term (or perhaps a "Theological Reflection Year") at Earlham School of Religion in Richmond, Indiana.

Some of my fondest memories of Deborah involved talking with her about books. Three of the books we enjoyed discussing were Gregory Dix's The Shape of the Liturgy, Agnes Sanford's The Healing Light, and the book I just revisited, The Christ of the Indian Road.

At the time I was a new Christian and was concerned to understand how Christian faith and experience could be distinguished from the secular, imperial uses for which it had been exploited for centuries. To my delight, Jones was asking this same question eloquently fifty years (now nearly 90 years!!) earlier.

July: Enthusiasm

... Once again I'm on a committee considering what Friends material to publish for a wider audience. And once again, rightly or wrongly, I worry about a tendency to prefer material aimed at hypersensitive refugees rather than people actually ready to make an enthusiastic Christian commitment.

It's not that we should do anything to close the door to people who have been wounded by religious authoritarianism or who have been conditioned by secular society's reactionary skepticism to discount any spiritual truth claim. Our insistence on evangelism with integrity--based on honest testimony rather than pious happy talk--gives us an opening to these audiences.

But these are not the only audiences we ought to seek. This very same commitment to integrity also gives us a responsibility to make our case to those who are ready to embrace with enthusiasm a Christian path that rejects manipulation, theatricality, hierarchy, and bombast in favor of the immediate leadership of the Holy Spirit.

(Also from July: Some cautious thoughts on enthusiasm.)

August: Sanctions

The USA's government is trying to weaken an already weak Russian economy. Apparently, that's what passes for statesmanship these days. President Obama said, according to the Associated Press,
Sanctions are working as intended in putting enormous pressure and strain on the Russian economy....

That's not my estimation. If you look at the markets and you look at estimates in terms of capital flight, if you look at projections for Russian growth, what you're seeing is that the economy has ground to a halt.

It has presented the choice to President Putin as to whether he is going to try to resolve the issues in eastern Ukraine through diplomacy and peaceful means ... or alternatively continue on the course he's on, in which case he's going to be hurting his economy, and hurting his own people over the long term.
We have supposedly "presented a choice." Does anyone really believe that the president of Russia, or any president of any country, would respond along the lines of the fantasy implied in Obama's words? "Oh my goodness, thanks to these sanctions I've seen the light! We have no choice but to bow before the USA's superior wisdom and shining idealism, and confirm our utter dependence on the good graces of the West by reversing any actions they find objectionable."

September: New martyrs

How does martyrdom relate specifically to Friends discipleship? R. W. Tucker, in his "Revolutionary Faithfulness," distinguishes "cult pacifism" from the cross-shaped testimony of early Friends:
Cultishness is the first and most conspicuous face of Quaker pacifism today. A prospective new Friend is likely to meet Quaker pacifism first in the shape of the dear old lady who rises in Meeting for Worship to speak to the children about why they ought to be pacifists. She tells homely little stories about pacifists who won through to victory in some worldly dilemma. Such cult pacifism is pretty easy to debunk. It is false doctrine in obvious ways. It discounts the Cross, and the whole bloody history of martyrdom.
In contrast, Tucker urges persistent and costly faithfulness, and by persistence he includes faithfulness in the face of clear evidence that many people are not nice, and will not become nice just because we are (at least in our own eyes). We remain peaceable, in other words, when we might have to pay for it with our lives. No wonder the late T. Canby Jones told us that a crucial step in understanding the peace testimony is coming to grips with our own mortality.

October: Resisting the mystique of evil

Signe Wilkinson; source
I'm not sure what is more disheartening--the beheadings videotaped and published by Islamic State, or the utterly predictable responses from world leaders. Yes, there is palpable evil in the premeditated cruelty of those shocking videos, but here's my question: is the effect magnified by the demonstrative shaking of fists by public figures? What might be a more adequate response from believers?

November: Kind cats

It's rare that a single word in one language is a perfect translation for a single word in another language. Words carry clusters of nuances that often are either wider or narrower than the most obvious equivalent in the other language. The Russian language provides lots of examples, as I've noted before.

Today's example is the word "kind," one of the translations of the Russian word "dobry" (and several other Russian words, for that matter). When those of us who speak English as more or less a first language use the adjective "kind," we're usually referring to people, referring to their warm, generous, tender spirits. We also use the word to describe acts associated with those sorts of people: "That was a kind thing to do."

The Russian use of this English word often goes wider. When our student described our cats as "kind," based on the photo, I think she was referring to qualities for which we might use the words "sweet" and "cute" and "appealing."

December: "Shocking honesty"

At this moment, I doubt any good would come from repeating my own outrage at having my tax dollars fund torture. I've written on this topic several times, including this summary of my responses to the usual excuses for using torture. (Scroll down to "Sunday No. 2.") If we don't already agree, it probably wouldn't be persuasive now.

I have a different question, and am hoping for a specifically Christian answer. My question is: what is so mesmerizingly attractive about violence and cruelty that we keep using violent and cruel methods repeatedly after they utterly fail to produce the desired results? What is gratified by those methods, and what can we do in the name of Christ to confront that gratification?

My favorite blues clip of the year. Kim Wilson with Kid Andersen and Bob Welsh (guitars), June Core (drums), Randy Bermudes (bass). Wish the lighting were better, but what a groove....

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