29 December 2016

What was I thinking!? (2016 edition)

Judy and I are enjoying a very special Christmas gift. Having taught our last classes of the year, we have taken a train to the Golden Ring city of Vladimir, spending two days and three nights in the small, cozy Rus' Hotel. In all our years in Russia, we've never had an opportunity to get to know this city and its history. Tomorrow morning, after breakfast, we intend to put on boots and warm coats, step through the hotel doors, head down Gagarin Street, and begin correcting this deficiency.

In the meantime, thanks for reading! Best wishes for a fruitful New Year 2017.

In accordance with my tradition of recent years, and for the unlikely situation that you have nothing better to do, I present a digest of the sense and nonsense I've posted here over these past twelve months, one selection from each month:

January: Why are you still here?

Mikhail Nesterov's painting "The Philosophers" (1917)
Pavel Florensky (left) and Sergei Bulgakov (source)
On the train back to Elektrostal, my mind was still in a whirl of thoughts from the evening. For one thing, it was amazing that, on a cold winter's evening, a lecture on a dead philosopher could fill an auditorium. In how many places around the world would that be true? I spent a few minutes thinking about what [Pavel] Florensky and David Bowie (who died the day before) might have in common. I don't think it is an absurd comparison: both men were stubborn defenders of the right to define one's self and one's boundaries. In Florensky's case, his mannered modesty and alleged priestly affectations irritated his famous contemporary Nikolai Berdyaev, who made catty comments about Florensky's "artificial voice," according to Alexander Men'.

The other comparison that came to me was early Friends' doctrine of Gospel order. Florensky gave a very high value to Church as the community of believers who sought God together -- but Church is more than a community of contemporaries. It's a coherent phenomenon that participates in the mysteries of Heaven. Florensky the mathematician, scientist, and Symbolist/Christian Platonist worked out the implications of Gospel order further and in a more metaphysical direction than early Friends went, even anticipating process theology with his explanations of how earthly paradoxes relate to the unity of heaven.

(Full post.)

February: I don't have a bucket list

Astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson had this amazing
view -- on my behalf as well as her own.... Source.  
Many years later, I find myself teaching English in a gritty industrial town east of Moscow, Russia, but even here I see beauty and drama all around. Some of that beauty is the natural surroundings -- for example, the forest just a few blocks west of where I'm sitting -- but every day I observe the beauty of our intelligent, inquisitive, and kind students, colleagues, and neighbors.

Shortly after I saw that gallery of photos from Peru, I went to an Orthodox-Protestant discussion group, where the conversation flowed for over three hours, until I felt almost faint from joy at the freedom we had to discuss the most important topics I could imagine. Not that we only talked about sweetness and light; the topic of the evening was repentance, and I reflected that in my own life on this planet, I'll probably never see either Hiroshima or Auschwitz. But neither have I tried to avoid knowing about them, or what they reveal about each of us.

(Full post.)

March: Trust, the first testimony (now it gets personal) 
This is the most frequently read post of the past year.

Are there things we can teach sexually energetic people that respect their personalities and give them honest guidance about how to manage the task of being trustworthy sexual beings? When I joined the staff of Friends World Committee back in 1983, my colleague Gordon Browne told me that, when I traveled in the ministry, opportunities for recreational sex would pop up, often as a side-consequence of being seen as a safe mediator in local congregations' difficult situations. If I hadn't been alerted in advance to the seductiveness of the visiting-hero role, I would likely have found out about it the wrong way.

Working a twelve-step program in light of my family's legacy of alcoholism also proved very helpful in managing sexual yearnings. Just as my father hid stashes of alcohol around the house, I learned that we can develop human "stashes" ... people who serve in our minds as fantasy candidates for future sexual adventures, should the opportunities present themselves. These insights don't at all guarantee sainthood or prevent temptation, they're simply tools to reinforce the deliberate work of being trustworthy.

(Full post.)

Pastor Pavel Begichev outlines the history of attempts to
define Christian boundaries.
Ilya Grits: The 20th century is remembered as a century of enormous, horrible tragedies for many, many peoples: the Jews, Gypsies (Roma), Crimean Tatars, Chechens, Kalmyks.... Many of them came to the very edge of total destruction. In any case, that was the intention of those who made the decision and worked out the technical details to accomplish this destruction.

I'm absolutely certain that, for the organizers and perpetrators of the policy of genocide, this whole horror was directly connected to the question behind the theme of this paper: If these specific people don’t belong to the People of God, are we obliged to consider them as human? Wouldn’t it make sense to classify them as “subhuman”, with all the consequences of that classification? Wouldn’t it be correct and even humane to wipe them from the face of the earth?

Of course this isn’t what those 20th-century people – such figures as Beria and Eichmann – actually said. They talked about the master race, about enemies of the people, and so on. But they undoubtedly thought this way. After all, the people who decided, planned, and organized the destruction of millions of people, were not themselves aliens from another planet; they were people who had been raised in, and were well acquainted with, Christian tradition, the language of the Bible, and the Church.

(Full post.)

May: The hammer

Gifts included hammer for damaging nuclear warheads.
The beautiful choral songs we heard today, proclaiming Christ is risen from the dead, were followed by Cossack songs romanticizing killing and death on the battlefield. In one particularly famous and lovely song, a brave soldier dies "from the second bullet," the church deacon sings him off to eternal life, and I sat there taking it all in, including the reality that the dead soldier's comrades are surely about to cause the same scenes of grief among the so-called enemy.

Well, is there someone who should always mourn even the enemy's dead?

Who else but the church?

Back on the train, I rewound the funeral recording a bit and confirmed that, for those of us who believe in the resurrection, the Easter troparion and Dan Berrigan's funeral really meshed so beautifully. Christ is risen from the dead. He tramples down death by death. Or, as Stephen Kelly put it in the funeral homily, "Bomb-blessing has no place in Jesus' self-giving."

(Full post.)

June: Heaven

"Love ... is a heavy cross."
No, I'm not referring to Oregon, although right now it feels heavenly to be here! I'm referring to the place I glimpse in this cartoon.

I originally found this picture on the Russian Facebook-like social network Vkontakte a couple of years ago. I then used it in a post cautioning us not to engage in glib labels and assumptions.

This year, on Forgiveness Sunday, for some reason I felt led to post it again on my own Vkontakte timeline. One of our students (perhaps worried that I was condoning the blasphemy allegedly conducted by the Pussy Riot musicians) came up to me privately after class and asked why I had posted it. That's when it popped into my head: "This picture reminds me of heaven."

(Full post.)

July: Regarding

Ottawa Friends Meetinghouse (July 2016), where I became a
Friend in 1974
But we're not in Russia as political scientists -- we serve as educators and believers. We want to see the country and its people in a way that is somehow connected with the way God sees God's beloved creations. Furthermore, we want to do this not just when we're listening to incomparable choral music, or walking through the State Tretyakov Gallery, but even in our most routine and tedious daily interactions.

To develop this capacity, the first step is to learn how to regard Christ himself. The early Quakers (among others) understood and asserted that Jesus, God with us, is NOT a figurehead, trademark, brand, or symbol wholly owned by the religion industry. Christ does not represent a technique or metaphor or model to reach up the mountain to God, alongside any number of other metaphors or models. We are not dependent on ceremonies or priests or subtle adepts of any kind to accept his offer of reconciliation with God. He is already at our door, knocking, waiting for us to hear his voice, so that he can dwell in us and we in him. He actually wants to use us, the reconciled, to continue his reconciling work among those who might not yet have heard his voice.

(Full post.)

August: Russian avos' and American politics

Donald Trump, the other candidate in our de facto binary process, is another story altogether. He doesn't present us with a predictable set of likely policies, nor does he fit the behavioral profile for the role of our country's national representative to the world. He is the very definition of a loose cannon -- and that is his appeal to many of his supporters, because the tight cannons in charge up to now have not delivered for them.

In her article, "Trumputin: What Russia can teach us about the US election," Natalia Antonova writes,
Perhaps one of the most telling lines about Trump supporters was recently published by conservative writer David Frum, who quoted this line from his discussions with fellow Republicans who are set to vote for Trump: "You believe in institutions because they work for you… But our people don’t believe in institutions any more."

People who have lost faith in institutions have lost faith in institutional change. This makes them especially vulnerable to promises made by firebrand demagogues. And it places them further beyond the reach of facts or logic.

. . . 
(Full post.)

September: Barriers

Found on vk.com (original scene is from late-era Soviet film Heart of a Dog)
"How can I explain things to you if you don't even watch TV?"
When I was around eight years old, the subject of God came up one day in my grade school classroom. (There weren't the same restrictions on God-talk in public school then that there are now; that's another discussion.) Our teacher said, "Why should we be afraid to talk about God?" I was startled and panicky -- in fact I was afraid to talk about God, and couldn't even imagine making my mouth emit the word.

I made a mental note of this reaction, but didn't analyze it at the time. Later, I connected it with the fact that, in my family, any mention of religion was absolutely forbidden, along with any mention of disease or death. Whatever the roots of this barrier, it blocked me from communicating with anyone about a huge part of what it means to be human.

Obviously, something happened between grade school and my decades of working for the church! But I'm glad that I remember that block. These memories came back to me the other day when I was talking with some colleagues about expanding our students' access to informal English-speaking opportunities. "Some of my students do a great job with grammar and vocabulary," said one colleague. "But when it comes to speaking in a group, they just can't open their mouths. There's that old psychological barrier."

(Full post.)

October: Return to Sergiev Posad

Ottawa, February 1975.
There was actually a logical link between the two parts of my 1975 adventures. I went to Voice of Calvary in Mississippi as the result of a cancellation. My short-term service there was arranged through the American Friends Service Committee, who in those years offered a program of workcamps and service opportunities. When I first learned of these opportunities, I was a Soviet area studies major at Carleton, and a newly minted Quaker.

The AFSC menu included the so-called Tripartite Dialogues. These events combined seminars and travel; participants included young adults from the U.K., the USA, and a Soviet youth committee, and the Dialogues took place alternately among the three countries. 1975 was to be Russia's turn. I got in touch with Laurama Pixton of the AFSC office in Philadelphia, and signed up eagerly to participate -- only to find out that, because the Soviets had decided to dedicate their resources and energy to the upcoming 60th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, the Tripartite series was not going to continue after all.

Laurama Pixton did not want me to give up on the AFSC's service opportunities, so she put me in touch with Nancy Duryea, who worked with the AFSC's youth programs. Thanks to Nancy, I found out about Voice of Calvary, whose summer internship program was one of AFSC's partners. When the Soviet door closed, the Mississippi door opened -- but I just couldn't quite give up on seeing the Soviet Union for myself. Into the brief period between the end of the Mendenhall period and the start of the new academic year I squeezed two weeks of Moscow and St. Petersburg.

(Full post.)

November: The invitation

The door to our meeting room.
One reality we share with other fellowships: small Protestant groups generally have a hard time establishing themselves in Russia, in the face of Russian Orthodox opposition to all such imports, on the one hand, and popular indifference to overt religiosity of any kind on the other.

Within Moscow, groups with adequate funds can rent facilities to meet and then advertise their events. Our group, dependent on meeting in low-cost alternatives hosted by sympathetic organizations, is essentially prevented from doing such advertising. Outside Moscow, Protestants and other religious minorities sometimes face far greater challenges.

Small groups anywhere in the world often run into another obstacle to growth: the character of the fellowship takes on the internal pecularities and tensions of its participants, no matter how individually sweet and wonderful they might be -- and consequently newcomers may find it hard to feel at home. There's no possibility of an anonymous trial visit for newcomers.

Without a commitment to attracting and empowering newcomers, a church can soon become a chaplaincy for the care and comfort of its existing participants. There might not have been any actual decision to take this path; it simply becomes harder to hear or even imagine a call from God to risk anything else.

(Full post.)

December: Good News and identity politics, part two

(Part one, written four weeks earlier, is here.)

John Perkins (Mendenhall, Mississippi, 1975)
The distinction between persuasive and expressive is useful. It links with my perennial theme of the division of labor within the Christian community. Some of us are gifted pastors, elders, teachers and organizers. They are, in a way, stewards of identity. They cannot do their work without referring to specific identities, honoring them, helping them heal from bondage, if necessary. The concept of being made in the image and likeness of God is a beautiful abstraction, but it must also be activated in specific human beings -- individuals and groups -- who find and encourage each other through free expression. That expression may well be full of anguish and anger. The discomfort of others, including would-be allies, should not muzzle that expression.

Those who serve in this ministry of identity affirmation will inevitably develop tools and approaches that will irritate others, especially as their analysis begins to identify systemic patterns that we ourselves might be participating in. Organizers and activists have a vocabulary that is easy for conservatives to mock, but conservatives have their own in-group references as well. Within the church there is no excuse for dismissing each other because we get irritated with each other's cliches! Yes, push back if you think that my operating assumptions are degenerating into intellectual laziness or tribalism -- and I'll do the same -- but let's make an effort to understand!

(Full post.)

I watch almost no television, and had barely heard of Craig Ferguson before watching this series of interviews he did with Carrie Fisher. But these videos are a wonderful way of experiencing Fisher's fantastic energy and her animating interests and concerns. Be prepared for more vulgarity than I usually link to, but I think you'll see why I took the risk!

From Brian Drayton's Quaker toolbox: Making a testimony happen.

Hey, someone else is recognizing one of my favorite films of the last ten years -- a film whose lack of recognition has been a standing puzzle to me: Children of Men.

The shortest item I've ever linked to: The two pillars of Putinism.

Expulsion of 35 Russian diplomatic staffers from the USA (the news that met us on our arrival here in Vladimir) ... an American view and a Russian news site. Given the near-certainty of reciprocal responses this doesn't sound like a very helpful response to the situation.

I was a bit frustrated by the lack of context in the stories -- for example, how many Russian diplomats are there in the USA? The relevant page is missing from the embassy's Web site, at the moment anyway, but a cached copy lists 121 Russians (not counting family members) on the diplomatic list as of this month. To order more than a quarter of them out, and in effect conceding a similar expulsion in response, seems problematic. 

Two of my favorite blues desserts from the past year, both from James Harman:


James said...

Thanks, Johan. Best wishes for the new year. I look forward to reading your posts each week.

Bill Samuel said...

The "near-certainty of reciprocal responses" seems to have been avoided. Putin has decided not to take such actions, pending the new Administration. To the American media, that seems to be viewed as verifying their worst fears of Trump allying with Russia. And I saw on CNN this morning it put in the broader context of Trump getting along with foreign leaders with whom Obama does not.

Johan Maurer said...

Thanks, James and Bill. Actually, nothing surprises me anymore. My interpretation of the official reaction here is very different from CNN's, but I continue to think that the expulsions ordered by the USA were unwise.