11 June 2015

"My sin is always before me" ...

Farmers Shopping Center, Elektrostal.  Source.  
(Psalm 51:3) ...

... but let's be honest: we're often far more concerned with other people's sins!

A few weeks ago, Judy and I went into a store at the Farmers' Shopping Center on Pobeda street, looking for Epsom salt. I began chatting with the sales clerk. She was intrigued by the fact that we lived just a block away from her store. "How long have you been here?" she asked.

"Seven years," I answered.

"So you know we aren't the kind of bad people that the West says we are! You know we are normal, decent people!"

I agreed. "We love our neighbors here. We tell our friends in America about the people we know here."

She spontaneously gave me a big hug and said, "So you know that we Russians are normal people like anyone else in the world. We have never attacked anyone!"

It didn't seem like the right time to pick apart her assertion. I didn't tell her that I had been a student at the Institute of Soviet and East European Studies at my university, and that nearly half my professors were from countries that were either occupied by or dominated by the postwar Soviet Union. I didn't mention our visit a few years ago to the fascinating and horrifying Museum of the Occupation of Latvia in Riga.

(And when I go back to buy more salt, I won't be handing her a copy of the European Parliament's new detailed (PDF) list of official Russian sins.)

I interpreted her statement, not as a declaration of Russian perfection, but as a complaint about the negative way Russians are portrayed abroad compared to the genuine and elemental decency of Russian people like those she and we know.

This isn't just a Russian experience. There is a definite gap between American virtue as we see it in ourselves, and the experience of American influence in much of the rest of the world. For example, the values of due process and equal protection of the laws are a precious heritage of American democracy, and it is hard for us to realize that we appear to protect those principles at home by selectively ignoring them outside our own boundaries. We can hold prisoners indefinitely in our little Cuban colony, support governments abroad who deny freedom of religion or equality of the sexes, use covert forces and drone-delivered missiles with impunity, and the list goes on. Even within our boundaries, "equal protection" often doesn't extend to non-citizens, victims of racial profiling, and other groups who are invisible to middle-class voters. And in the meantime, every time I come back to the States, I'm struck by the increasing militarization of our society. It's not that Americans are flocking to join the military -- it's just much easier to glorify the military than to engage in an honest national debate about our imperial behavior.

I appreciate Philip Evans' article "Why Russia watchers should listen to Glenn Greenwald" -- that is, why those of us who look critically at Russia's human rights crisis should "start paying a little closer attention to what's going on at home as well as abroad."

Domenico Fetti - The Parable of the Mote and the Beam.jpg
"Domenico Fetti - The Parable 
of the Mote and the Beam" by 
Domenico Fetti - Metropolitan 
Museum of Art, online collection 
(accession number 1991.153)
Licensed under Public Domain 
via Wikimedia Commons.
There are lots of ways we demonstrate our preference to look at the motes in others' eyes rather than the planks in our own. In the USA, one of the favorite ways is to compare our current degraded state with the good old days when life was simpler, children could play in the streets freely, and (according to the song "Those Were the Days") "girls were girls and men were men." In reality, all we've done is reshuffled the lists of prevailing social and personal sins. For most people without wealth or power, there was not as much good in the old days as today's middle-class nostalgia might imply.

When I'm tempted to compare people or countries or historical epochs in terms of sinfulness, I try to remember Charles Spurgeon's great line: "The virus of sin lies in its opposition to God." Whether we're trying to carve out space for personal self-indulgence or for national-scale oppression, or simply prefer to shut our eyes to others' misery, we end up setting ourselves against God.

But neither rich people nor poor people, neither we nor the Russians, are especially wicked; sin is a virus that ruthlessly seeks and finds hosts everywhere. Like addiction, sin is unendingly clever at wrapping itself in rationalizations -- including national conceits as well as personal entitlement. There is no formula that guarantees a cure; the only antidote I know personally is to live in community with Jesus at the center ... and, with the support of that community, work to learn what God wants in my life and in the world, and what seems to be getting in the way.

Interpreting Russia ... the uses and abuses of history.

What came first: postwar evangelicalism or the religious right?

How evangelicalism built its brand loyalty.
Evangelicals ... trusted nondenominational institutions like MBI [Moody Bible Institute] to supply them with Christian workers, periodicals, and radio programs, just like they trusted the smiling Quaker gentleman to serve them "pure" oats. Churchly Protestants, by contrast, placed faith in denominational hierarchies and divinity schools to ensure quality, just like customers had once placed faith in the local dry goods store manager and his unseen supply chain. As we know, one mode of purveying spiritual and physical food proved more successful in the 20th century than the other.
The Internet Monk's Chaplain Mike believes in conversion. (So do I.)

A good prayer for my eleven-year anniversary as a blogger: Kyndall Rae's prayer for writers.

Moyers Moment (1990): Johnny Cash on Our Personal Prisons from BillMoyers.com on Vimeo.

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