15 October 2015


I've just left one of the several Friends committees I have been serving on. The last straw for me was when the committee made a decision over my explicit objection. I was not in fact opposed to the proposed decision -- to publish a peace book by a respected Quaker author -- but had requested that we receive some statistics and marketing plans before committing our finances. In the midst of all this, Russian bombs joined the American bombs falling on Syria, and our little group decided that (in my jaundiced interpretation!) what the world suddenly needed was yet another Quaker book on peace.

In my story, there is no villain. The abrupt decision probably reflected the majority view on the committee. I give you no guarantee that I've told this story in a fair and neutral way, but even with my one-sided recounting, maybe you can understand why Micah Bales's recent blog post, "'God' Is No Substitute for Strategy," felt like a healing message.

This is one of Micah's central points, reflecting much of my experience as well:
I’ve gained so much of value from the Quaker community, but one aspect of Friends culture that I have found crippling is our general inability to do long-range planning. I would encourage Friends – and anyone who comes from a faith background that is skeptical of our ability to plan for the future – to consider the possibility that God wants us to co-create the future with [God].
(To be honest, I have also been frustrated when we Friends seem to be too timid to let the Holy Spirit take over. But even when we seem reluctant to allow spontaneity and the immediate direction of the Holy Spirit, it's not to make room for prayer-driven long-range planning, but instead we let some leader or celebrity or script do our thinking for us. Is it unfair to ascribe some of this passivity to spiritual laziness? But that's another blog post!)

Again, I don't find it hard to understand some of the emotions swirling around the decision I objected to. Let's just think for a moment about the last few weeks: another mass shooting in the USA, a monumental refugee crisis shaking the foundations of the Middle East and western Europe, the USA's bombing of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan, Russia's entry into open combat in Syria, the slaughter of peace activists in Ankara, Turkey, and today's slice of unreality: the USA is not leaving Afghanistan after all. (Andrew Bacevich on why it's unreal.) To respond to all this violence, it seems that Friends are not in a position to "shock and awe" the world, so let's ... let's ... let's publish another book. Now!

A few years ago, in a Quaker Life editorial, I called impatience the "American sin":
Last December [1998], during a visit to Nebraska, I found myself dealing with three crises simultaneously. The U.S. House of Representatives impeached their country's President. The same country sent a rain of missiles and bombs on Iraq. And Nebraska was getting ready to execute the adopted son of Nebraska Yearly Meeting Friends Don and Barbara Reeves.

Was there any connection between these crises? I think so. First of all, they all reflect human sin. Clinton would not be in trouble if he had not misbehaved and lied. Congress's response, in turn, was a festival of sanctimony. In Iraq, the U.S. and Britain, who in an earlier era had helped arm the Iraqi leader, now found it necessary to kill his pawns in order not to lose "credibility," that psychic commodity which is more precious than life itself (as long as it is someone else's life). And an intoxicated Randy Reeves himself started the chain of events leading to possible execution, on the day he murdered two women in the Friends Meetinghouse in Lincoln. Since then, the state's "obsession" with the death penalty (the word used by Kenneth Mesner, father of one of the victims) has been reflected in inadequate jury instructions, a flawed sentencing process, and a stony refusal by state officials even to consider clemency. (Less than 45 hours before the execution time on January 14, a reprieve was granted by the Nebraska Supreme Court to consider new constitutional issues.)

To me, there is a peculiarly American twist to the ways these sad stories are unfolding: our national weakness for satisfyingly quick results. President Clinton's misbehavior is an example of instant gratification made available by the tempting conveniences of power. Clinton seemed unable to assess these gratifications against the claims of morality, or even against the danger to his reputation and that of his office. The danger was made acute by the fact that (and Clinton certainly knew this) he was being watched closely by a whole industry of conservative Clinton-haters, equipped with high finances and media technology. Their intense dislike of the President certainly fueled the unseemly rush to publicize, at taxpayers' expense, every sleazy detail of the President's foolishness. This campaign to expose, embarrass, punish at all costs, seems another example of unreflective impatience, instant gratification, overwhelming any sense of proportion.

In the Reeves case, eighteen-plus years of court process to decide the fate of the defendant hardly seems "instant." However, it is the insistence of the state on blood vengeance (a quick-fix gratification which seems unrelated to officials' stated desire to "protect" Nebraskans) which triggers this drawn-out process. A prison term would have protected Nebraskans without involving them in corporate killing and without costing taxpayers millions of dollars in appeal expenses.

As for Iraq, nothing is more outrageously "quick-fix" than to starve and blast a country whose renegade leader has succeeded in embarrassing his impatient enemies over and over. Pride and adrenaline are always a lethal mixture -- leading to a sort of national "high" which can hide the reality of total ineffectiveness. But who cares for effectiveness when we can feel powerful and the corpses are thousands of miles away? A different sort of calculation is needed: Americans must stop shielding Iraq's neighbors from their own responsibilities to deal with their regional troublemaker, and consider our own relations with the Arab world on a scale of decades and generations, not just the time it takes a carrier task force to get to the Mediterranean; and Christians and Muslims must seek to outdo one another in words and deeds of compassion rather than violence.

W. H. Auden said, "Perhaps there is only one cardinal sin: impatience. Because of impatience we were driven out of Paradise, because of impatience we cannot return." But maybe if we were not so impatient to send others to hell, God might grant us the grace to look heavenwards again.
(Originally published March 1999. And of course, by the logic of retribution, the story of that "renegade leader" had an appropriate ending.)

Forum 18 update on known prosecutions for religious literature in the last four months in Russia.

I thought I was the only crazy person who thought borders should be abolished completely. But I'm not.

How an 18th century philosopher helped Alison Gopnik solve her midlife crisis. (This is the Russian-language version that told me about her article, under the publisher's "Weekend Reading" rubric.)

The Guardian alerted me that one of my favorite writers, Marilynne Robinson, had been interviewed by Barack Obama.

I'm a bit embarrassed to admit that I'd never heard of Ron Thompson before this summer's Waterfront Blues Festival. What energy! There aren't many videos of him online; I chose this one for the audio, not the picture quality:


Marshall Massey said...

I recently read that the typical self-published book sells 100 to 150 copies. Getting it to sell significantly more usually requires a substantial commitment, on the publisher’s part, to marketing by every possible means (bookstore visits, public appearances, flogging it on one’s blog, even taking out ads). I hope your former committee doesn’t find itself stuck in that morass.

Johan Maurer said...

We have an established imprint, but most of our content is offered for free download on a Web site. I'd like to know how we'd sell even ten paper copies. Free distribution is possible, of course (a grant will pay printing costs) but even then I would like to know how the books would reach a committed audience. My queries: "Envision a potential audience member in concrete terms--who is he or she? How will this potential reader find out about the book?"