10 March 2016

March shorts

I'm so delighted to read that Francis Spufford's achingly good Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense is a finalist for the Michael Ramsey Book Prize for 2016. Here you can read a summary of this wonderful book by a member of the shortlisting panel, as he explains why the book is worth considering.

This bit at the end of Spufford's introduction helps explain his mission: presenting faith to a culture that not only marginalizes faith, but reinforces that marginalization with sneering condescension, or alternatively an attitude of total disinterest....
What else? Oh yes: the swearing. Why do I swear so much in what you are about to read? To make a tonal point: to suggest that religious sensibilities are not made of glass, do not need to hide themselves nervously from whole dimensions of human experience. To express a serious and appropriate judgment on human destructiveness. But most of all, in order to help me nerve myself up for the foolishness, in my own setting, of what I am doing. To relieve my feelings as I inflict on myself an undignified self-ejection from the protections of irony. I am an Englishman writing about religion. Naturally I'm f------ embarrassed.
I wrote briefly here about Spufford's mostly-fictional masterpiece about the Soviet Union, Red Plenty.

For years I was under the delusion that people who support gun control would eventually prevail based on sheer common sense coupled with the costly realism imposed by repeated massacres. Surely, somehow, gun-owners would rise up and give gun-worshippers a decisive talking-to. But as the corpses continue to pile up, I'm questioning this fantasy.

Two things helped me recover my sanity.

One was the eye-opening conflict over the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the San Bernardino iPhone that might have valuable information on terrorist links. It reminded me of other law-enforcement gambits to combat terrorism, such as going undercover to sell explosives to would-be jihadists, then entrapping them with the federally-provided evidence. Aside from the many other issues in such cases, I'm fascinated by assumptions that phones and explosives are fair game for law enforcement but guns are sacred. Bullets are usually driven by explosives, but this specific use of explosives is protected because it's in a gun. Never mind the large-scale constant havoc wreaked in a country flooded with guns; let's focus our efforts on everything but them. (Sarcasm alert.) Let the gun extremists who hate regulation control the definition of a "well regulated militia."

Anyway, I'm done arguing. I realize that this coddling of gun extremists is simply one of the flaws in a wonderful but flawed country. No country is perfect, after all; all countries have weaknesses and complexes, despite their wonderful qualities. Right now I love living in Russia, but to live here among these wonderful neighbors, colleagues, and students, I have to tolerate the near-absence of due process and the constant diversion of resources away from human needs (schools, roads, rural hospitals) into private pockets. Name a country that doesn't have equivalent flaws. The specifically American risks, I guess, include living among zillions of guns and a statistically significant bunch of people who can't control their trigger fingers. Evidence suggests we're a long way from fixing this.

By the way, Russians are their own best critics. They would be the first to stipulate that inadequate planning and attention to detail are often weaknesses here, and some might attribute these weaknesses to the national mentality of avos', a nearly untranslatable word that variously means "maybe," "hopefully," "on the off-chance." But our U.S. national attitude toward guns shows that, at least in this specific area, Russia isn't the only country whose citizens are willing to gamble their children's fate on avos'.

On the bright side, the death penalty seems to be weakening in the USA, not least because conservatives have begun questioning it -- according to an article by Nick Cohen in the Guardian.

When I read Cohen's words, I remembered appearing before a committee hearing of the Indiana State Senate on February 17, 1999. Republican senator Morris Mills, a Quaker, was leading an effort to abolish capital punishment, and I testified on behalf of Friends United Meeting's stated position on the issue, and on my own personal testimony as the survivor of a murder victim.

Most of the testimony that day was from opponents of capital punishment, including at least one prosecutor who described the enormous costs of pursuing the death penalty through trial and multiple appeals. There was one very emotional pro-death penalty testimony in which the advocate, a policeman, described a murder case that seemed, by the depth of its cruelty, to beg for the retributive finality of execution.

But how was that murderer formed? In my own testimony, I said,
My father attended Tyrone King’s murder trial [King was ultimately convicted of murdering my sister Ellen], and mentioned meeting his mother, who attempted to give him a Gospel tract. I feel sure that God did not create the child Tyrone King to murder my sister. What happened to twist a little boy into an adult murderer? Don’t get me wrong: Tyrone King, and not his environment, bears responsibility for pulling the trigger. However, putting him to death would have been far too convenient a way for society to avoid the difficult questions about how innocent children can be overcome by evil as they grow up. It is too easy to kill the murderer and wash our hands of these dilemmas.
What I didn't say was something that only hit me when I listened to that police officer describe the awful murder that led to his support for the death penalty: We owe it to the suffering survivors of the victims of such cruelty to ask them honestly and directly and humbly for forbearance. We should say to them, "As much as we would like to impose just closure on this case, society cannot afford to kill your relative's torturer and murderer. We cannot guarantee that the violence we unleash in your righteous cause will always serve justice. Please understand that we do not value the victim's life any less just because we don't kill the killer -- we simply can't trust the death-penalty mechanism to do reliably what you would like it to do." In other words, say honestly that victims' families must forgo the satisfaction of execution because society cannot tolerate the abuse of that satisfaction when the mechanism goes wrong ... and it has already gone wrong too many times.

Abolition didn't prevail that day in the Indiana Senate, but abolition does seem closer now.

There's something so evangelistically essential that unites the movements for abolishing capital punishment, confronting racism and elitism, recognizing men's and women's equality in church leadership, and stripping the romantic pretensions from violence and wealth. All those false "exceptions" to the good news -- violent pseudo-righteousness, false social distinctions, vanity of all kinds -- reveal our unwillingness to grant Jesus full leadership. Each "yes, but" weakens our case before the unbelieving world. Each compromise opens up another weak point for cynicism to penetrate.

I know that not everyone will simultaneously acknowledge all compromises, and I don't want to place perfectionist conditions on our fellowship with brothers and sisters in Christ with whom we disagree. After all, we Quakers have our own blind spots. (Don't we??)  But I want to urge more dialogue on precisely this point: the credibility of the Gospel in a world that has heard so many Christian excuses for supporting, on this or that pretext, the claims of the principalities and powers rather than the claims of Christ.

Sean Guillory on the life of a black agronomist in Soviet Russia and related historical legacies.

Why are Jehovah's Witnesses persecuted in Russia?

Russian authorities target social media users.

Another way of looking at the wrath of God.

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