26 December 2019

Digesting 2019

But first, the kitties!

Before getting to my annual digest of some of the past year's posts, I'm delighted to share some of the wonderful photos I received earlier this week of our Hebron kittens in their new home ... with the teammate and family who adopted them after I left Christian Peacemaker Teams in Hebron. My room in the Old City had been their nursery and I their happy foster parent.

January 2019: Truth and impeachment.

In making his case that the U.S. House of Representatives should impeach the president, Atlantic Ideas editor Yoni Appelbaum carefully argues that impeachment is a calm and rational response to Trump's off-the-rails presidency. It's not an extreme, apocalyptic, risky step for Congress to take. Instead, it would channel the wild, divisive argumentation we see everywhere now, fueled by slashing social-media campaigns, and potentially reduces this bitter torrent to the disciplines required by the very process of impeachment: an actual application of the Constitutional filter of "Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors."

Quaker cartoonist Signe Wilkinson,  Jan. 2013.
Appelbaum challenges Representatives not to base their impeach/don't impeach decision on Senate vote calculations, on scattershot investigations by Democrat-dominated House committees, or on the hopes that Robert Mueller or other judicial processes will either force their hands somehow or do the job for them. (It's also possible that many of us, acting from a misplaced sense of prudence or just disbelief, are waiting for Trump to commit, at long last, another outrage so scandalous that the country is galvanized into decisive action -- but somehow not so outrageous as to do us permanent damage!)

(Full post.)

February 2019: Is Jesus optional?

The awkward truth: we live in a pluralistic and secular world which often treats Jesus -- and every other aspect of divinity -- as optional, even trivial, occasionally laughable. It doesn't help when Christians themselves marginalize Jesus to bless cruelty, greed, racism, nationalism, or domination. Instead of those anti-evangelistic messages, we could be fearlessly and lovingly eager to learn what others believe -- what occupies the same space in their lives as our non-optional Jesus occupies in ours. Ilya Grits reminds us,
And here we must not forget one of the most marvelous thoughts of the Church Fathers, a thought that Metropolitan Anthony Bloom so loved to quote in the very last years of his life: “Just think – what happiness it is to live among these people. It’s not important whether they believe in God or not.

“God believes in them!”
There are many questions about Jesus I can't answer, and which my own confidence in his reality in my life does not eliminate. It's important for me not to pretend that such questions don't exist -- to avoid them is to lose the ability to evangelize with integrity.

(Full post.)

March 2019: Serves them right.

One of the most disturbing reactions after Manafort's first sentence, in Virginia (47 months) was the tendency of many commentators to reassure us that surely his second sentence in Washington, DC, would be much harsher. Wait! What is the social benefit of that punitive spirit? What the country should demand from Manafort is restoration of money stolen from the Treasury and a total ban from any future participation in selling influence, wangling mortgages, and faking credit-worthiness.

The Paul Manafort case focused our attention on bias in the court system. As a convenient target, it might feel very satisfying to seek to flog Manafort as a compensation for the wickedness of that bias. But the leverage really ought to work in exactly the opposite direction: question all harsh sentences everywhere! Ask whether harsh sentences accomplish any social good at all! Demand that every judge be a "Manafort judge" and assume a seed of decency ... and that every participant in the whole "justice" system work to learn why decency becomes subverted. Seek restoration as the goal in every sentencing decision, and reserve incarceration for the custody of dangerous felons, rather than to satisfy that righteous indignation that is the stock in trade of populist politicians.

(Full post.)

April 2019: Malice in Wonderland.

... I want to concede a generous assumption to [Tucker] Carlson and his segment of conservative media. Let's assume that all who call themselves conservative (and particularly the Christians among them!) want the USA to be a blessing to the world. One way or another, we all want God's will on earth as it is in heaven, with everyone treating neighbors as themselves. If someone in our current rhetorical battles wants a future that is nice for them but wretched for others, or disclaims any responsibility for those who suffer, let them say so publicly instead of simply trading on fear, jealousy, and resentment.

Given that assumption, can you discern a vision of a desirable future for the USA and the world in the anti-immigrant, anti-diversity party that makes up so much of Trump's base? With all that malice and venom, is there another side of the coin that would compensate? Persuade us with a conservative vision of a country and world at peace, where the better angels of our nature could come out and play. Let us hear the policy implications, and let us subject those proposals to the same questions of resources and realism as Carlson asks ... only without the mocking tone and implied eyerolls. Since it's fun to point at failures of socialism, what examples are out there of conservative success stories that have been blessings to the world?

(Full post.)

May 2019: Abortion and the cost of rhetoric.

Sources: baby bassinet; execution gurney
The actual Bible is achingly ambiguous about the "sanctity" of life. My serious summary: life is precious, except when it isn't. Babies are precious, except when they're not. My opposition to abortion is not based on any specific Bible verse, but on the whole tradition of interpretation that is summed up by the "consistent life ethic" -- which opposes abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia, militarism, social and economic injustice, violence in all its devious and addictive forms. Are there other traditions of biblical interpretation? Yes, of course. Can I prove that the "consistent life" interpretation is more correct? No! Does it even command the respect of most Christians? I doubt it.

However, for me there's a persuasive consistency of this "seamless garment" approach to following the Prince of Peace. It's internally consistent: the unborn life is important, but its survival is no more guaranteed than that of the life that has emerged into the world. Just as we ask for sacrifices and communal responses in situations where conception was unanticipated, we ask for sacrificial and communal responses to injustice. We ought to be just as diligent in caring for the born as for the unborn, knowing that all our outward fortunes are uncertain, all of us require care and mercy. It's consistent with the loving kindness and mercy of the God of the Bible. And, just as Jesus and Paul demand, it rejects the hypocrisy of forms for the countercultural reality of the Good News.

(Full post.)

June 2019: Whiteness.

Patrick Chappatte, source.  
In high school classes we learned that race had powerful social significance but no biological significance. That social weight was a huge part of Evanston Township High School's daily reality in those years, with 5,300 very diverse students trying to figure out, together, which end was up. To ratchet up my own tension still further, at home I had to conceal my fascination with race relations because that was a taboo topic with my parents. They became even more extreme when my 13-year-old sister Ellen began running away from home and being caught by police in predominantly black neighborhoods.

I vividly remember scenes from my junior year of high school. One student especially fascinated me: she was black, had brains to spare and a sharp tongue, and seemed refreshingly uninterested in the good opinion of white students or teachers. Among my white classmates was the first person I ever met who self-identified as a Communist; he too seemed more interested in the world of ideas than social approval. Mostly, that was the niche where I'd be hiding.

(Full post.)

July 2019: The Poor People's Campaign, a meditation on unity.

When a Christian community is united by a deep concern about racial justice, why would there be any caution about adopting a minute reflecting that concern?

For one thing, this particular yearly meeting was born, at least in part, out of conscientious opposition to adoption of a uniform discipline, and by extension, to hierarchical decisionmaking in general. It is not the business of a yearly meeting to impose a decision or a text on constituent meetings who are perfectly capable of developing and adopting their own statements. Of course, in theory, the yearly meeting sessions are simply all the monthly meetings gathered into one place, but pious theory doesn't prevent the alienation that local Friends can feel when an assembly located in another place claims to be speaking in their name.

There are other churches and denominations where pronouncements are routinely made from a central office. This can result in alienation between the central office and the grassroots membership. (What is gained by anyone when a denomination issues a righteous proclamation over the heads of their constituency? Does it lead to an increase in righteousness, or to a burst of superficial gratification among those who prevailed in the politics of that denomination?) Friends generally avoid such practices, and the Conservative yearly meetings seem particularly resistant to them.

If I sensed correctly, there was another basis for urging careful process: would our public statements be grounded in truth? Were we implying a greater degree of righteousness in overcoming racism than we were actually demonstrating, in our lives as individual Quakers and in our meetings?

(Full post.)

August 2019: Other people's anger.

We human beings generally feel entitled to our own anger. It's other people's anger that bothers us. Of course, when people are upset about things that upset me, it's easy for me to sympathize. But I'm white and male, I'm not Muslim, my relatives and I have no history of being mistreated by the powers that be. I'm half-Norwegian and half-German; the Norwegian half glows in worldwide praise for our peaceful and generous ways. As for the German half, at the risk of stereotyping, we're maybe more accustomed to giving orders than taking them. In the American context, we Northern Europeans don't have much experience being on the receiving end of persistent and systemic cruelty. Maybe we ought to exercise some humility and very careful listening when we encounter anger and disillusionment from people whose histories are very different.

When actual victims and survivors of cruel and coercive objectification speak up, or their family members and descendants speak up, we see at least two popular reactions: ....

(Full post.)

September 2019: The hyphen within, part three.

One of our friends in Russia has a Russian Orthodox father and a Muslim mother. She herself was profoundly influenced by evangelical Christians who conducted public meetings in the early post-Soviet years. When she speaks on spiritual topics, she draws from both wells -- Islamic and Christian -- and also from her own long life of prayer and reflection. After years of conversations with her, I would not dare to assign just one religious label on her. And, as committed as I am to my own Christian identity, anchored in a specific relationship with Jesus, I cannot imagine being deprived of the company of this unclassifiable friend.

Even so, my Western mind protests. Doesn't religious identification involve discipleship -- a singleminded, unembarrassed, and unhedged followership of a specific teacher? Biblical phrases such as "unequally yoked" come to mind, and "you cannot serve two masters." I remember the admonition of Canadian Friend Hugh Campbell-Brown to "plow deeply in the furrow you've been given." (To give him justice, I don't think he would want this quotation to be used in the service of a narrow approach to faith.)

Of course you don't have to go to Russia to find hybrids....

(Full post.)

October 2019: Is God nice?

Dolphus Weary (r) and 1975
version of me.
Jesus confirms that God permits seemingly random tragedy -- for example, the Galileans massacred by Pilate, or "those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fellon them -- do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no!" (from Luke 13:1-5).

If I rely solely on the recorded history of our understanding of God, and on the incredible diversity of ways that we've interpreted that history, my head starts spinning. So this morning, knowing that I was being led to write about whether or not we have a God who lives up to God's own standard ("compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love" -- Exodus 34:6, Psalm 86:15, Psalm 103:8, Psalm 145:8, Jonah 4:2), I decided to try asking God directly: "Are you a kind God?"

(Full post.)

November 2019: Giving thanks for small things.

I do a lot of climbing every day. Physically, I have to climb up the steep path to the kindergarten housed in the Ibrahimi Mosque complex. The prayer path is also sometimes steep. (Last night I spent most of the night at a home demolition, a topic I'll return to in another post, but you can imagine how that might lead to some spiritual questions.) But when the outward prayer and reading time is over, I need to remain in that place. I need to center down still further and spend a few minutes in God's lap.

I realized, sitting quietly in the Ramallah Friends Meeting, that this little group of Quakers has  represented a special place for me to get away and be with God in the company of others, in accordance with a regular routine. It's a safe place for me to be nothing more than a little kitten, resting in the presence of the Creator. I am not nearly as cute as our baby cats, but Friends seem to welcome me anyway. And after we greet each other in the entryway, we are ready to experience together that ancient rhythm: the prayer path, steep as that path may seem after some of what we experience in a typical week, but also the time of total rest as we remember God's promises together.

(Full post.)

December 2019: Praying without ceasing in Hebron. (Also: Send Judy to Bolivia!)

Ten days after the end of my three-month service with Christian Peacemaker Teams in Al-Khalil (Hebron), Palestine, I still struggle with conflicting urgencies in choosing what to report.

I want to report accurately about how, day after day, you can unexpectedly run into squads of soldiers with their fingers near their triggers, or clouds of tear gas, or someone being searched from head to toes, or checkpoints closed with no explanation. At the same time, you can expect daily encounters with playful children, helpful strangers, cries of "welcome to Hebron" on all sides, delicious food, parties with fireworks nearly every evening,

In other words, I want to convey a situation that is, all at once, both outrageously abnormal (the conditions of occupation) and persistently normal (the life that the people of Hebron make for themselves despite the occupation). Whatever I say, I don't want to discourage you from visiting this lively and friendly city, and seeing for yourself.

(Full post, including information on how to support Judy's participation in next April's Friends International Medical Teams clinics in Bolivia.)

Trustworthy churches: In December 2018, I posted a survey asking the question, "What makes a church trustworthy?" I learned a few things about surveys (such as "keep them shorter!") but still got some interesting and instructive answers. Those responses helped shape these posts early in 2019:

Trustworthy, part one: the cost of betrayal.
Part two: a colony of heaven.
Part three: choices.
Part four: churches' choices.

Commentary on the Christianity Today editorial by Mark Galli and its coverage continues to come in. A few samples: Slacktivist Fred Clark ... and two columns from GetReligion's Terry Mattingly: In religion-beat work, the facts matter; the one thing journalists need to learn from the Christianity Today firestorm.

Two helpful podcasts on authoritarianism: Trumpcast interviews Ruth Ben-Ghiat; Lawfare interviews Peter Pomerantsev.

Meanwhile, history is being rewritten.

Global Voices' RuNet Echo project brings us two posts on the Internet in Russia, its past and its problematic future: What lies ahead in 2020, and Andrey Loshak's documentary.

Instant nostalgia: Bob Ross and Christmas Eve snow, thanks to Open Culture.

Favorite blues clip of the year (and it wasn't easy to choose!) ... Steve Guyger, "What Have I Done?"

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