28 September 2017

Your obedient servant

Mark Antokolsky, Ivan the Terrible (State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)
Mark Antokolsky, Christian Martyr 
Not of This World 
(State Tretyakov Gallery)
If worship does not propel us into greater obedience, it has not been worship. -- Richard Foster.

You are my friends if you do what I command you. -- Jesus

Trust and obey,
  For there’s no other way
To be happy in Jesus,
  But to trust and obey.
-- hymn by John Henry Sammis and Daniel Brink Towner

I admit that I have a terrible relationship with obedience.

At the Tretyakov Gallery I saw the striking contrast between Mark Antokolsky's sculptures of Ivan the Terrible and a Christian martyr. Ivan obeys nobody, but people obey him if they know what's good for them. The martyr is perfect in obedience, but it is to God. Nobody is forced to obey her, but the birds love her company.

Sometimes I feel as if I have both Ivan and Martyr fighting inside me. Not that I particularly want people to obey me, but I sure don't want to obey them.

I was brought up in a cult of obedience. We children were to do as we were told, or the consequences could be violent. As I grew into my teenage years, I realized that my atheist mother had been formed by more than traditional German respect for authority. Hitler ruled the German people during most of her growing-up years. The German community in which she grew up was not actually in Germany but in Japan, where there was of course yet another layer of authority and obedience -- the head of the Japanese state was supposedly divine.

The violence within my family, the violence of the Viet Nam and civil rights era, and finally the violence of my sister's murder on the streets of Chicago, all combined to rob me of any faith in the value of obedience.

As a teenager I was a voracious reader, and that didn't help! I remember a quote that I've not been able to track down since, but I think it was Kant who asked a question along these lines: why should people go off and kill others just because someone comes through town in a uniform, beating a stick on a drum?

My skepticism about obedience only increased when I read the collection of articles in War: The Anthropology of Armed Conflict and Aggression, (see brief excerpt here). This book revealed the zoological realities behind our behaviors and our pretensions. All of the elaborate social and political mechanisms we've build up to organize, conduct, and pay for warfare, recruit soldiers, and justify their actions and outcomes, are just extensions of animal behavior.

Later, at age 21, when I was a brand new Christian, it seemed to me that the obvious response to militarism was to demolish all this pretension by directing people's attention to the Biblical vision of peace and the Savior who mobilizes us into the Lamb's war. No longer do we need to fear and mobilize against each other. Instead of obeying, we should be evangelizing.

As idealistic as I was, I hadn't taken total leave of common sense. It made sense to obey leaders, traditions, and established patterns that we trust to make our lives better and to reduce unnecessary conflict. When the police department threatened to take away my surviving sister from my parents, I realized that the family-disrupting power they were asserting was in the defense of her own interests. I trusted them -- and when I offered to take my sister to a healthier situation in Canada, they trusted me and dropped the legal processes.

But how do we know when to trust? It helps when we judge that rules and commands make sense to us, and conflicts are dealt with transparently. Trustworthy governments derive "their just powers from the consent of the governed" (U.S. Declaration of Independence) and not from "divine right" or coercion.

As I started studying political science in college, I thought about how to balance a healthy skepticism toward obedience on the one hand, and a respect for society and order on the other. For me, the Church was a wonderful laboratory for these investigations. Here was an organization dedicated to doing what Jesus commanded, and helping each other to learn what that meant. I loved the ideal, but I also saw the reality -- churches that demanded obedience and even reverence toward church authorities that were all too human, where transparency and mutual accountability were absent. Some of my relatives were deeply caught in such structures. Obedience to Jesus was preached in the abstract, but interpretation was in the hands of licensed intermediaries whose pronouncements were final.

Looking back on my history of obedience and rebellion, I can see that joining Friends was a pretty natural choice. Our church was born in rebellion against authoritarian pretensions. Individual Friends churches and yearly meetings have sometimes forgotten this heritage, but by and large we've kept the faith.

One time an inquirer came to Moscow Friends Meeting and questioned us closely: Who is the real boss of the congregation? What organizational structures control us? Where does our funding come from? He found it hard to believe how foreign these hierarchies, scripts, and patterns are for us.

I want to believe that resistance to authoritarianism in church is growing. In the USA, I'm watching the reaction to the Nashville Statement. I read articles such as Grayson Gilbert's "Why We Name False Teachers By Name," and I wonder, don't these (mostly) men realize that the era of pronouncements from on high is coming to an end? The audience for these pronouncements is still big enough to make this style of rhetoric rewarding, both politically and financially, but who believes that they determine our relationship with God?

It's as important as ever to debate truth and error, but your voice, and mine, will have to be taken into account as well. False teachers may in fact be those who marginalize dissidents, who conceal the diversity of opinion in the early church, who feign certainty in the face of biblical silence or biblical minority reports (Ezra vs Ruth) -- or who insist that their own certainty must be ours as well.

In any given church or theological conflict, it isn't guaranteed that you and I are right. We might be way off beam! The very person who seems so wrong to us may have the argument that reveals the unintended consequences of our desired policy or doctrine. How do we know whether our correctors are trustworthy?
  • their love for us is evident; we can see that they want us to thrive
  • they are actually willing to listen to us explain why we think the established line is defective
  • they are known to be able to receive correction as well as dispense it
  • their power or prestige is not invoked to one-up us; instead, they engage with us on the actual merits of their arguments
  • if we say a loving "no" to them, they will not bear false witness against us.

Can you be happily married even as you live apart from your spouse?

Deep Space Gateway -- the latest expression of the will of USA and Russian space programs to continue working together.

Daria Litvinova on the Russian government and Internet censorship.

Another version of "Crow Jane" -- Samantha Fish:

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