15 October 2020

Digesting 2009

Nothing this week is exactly new. In fact, except for the links at the end, it's all dated 2009!

I started doing annual digests of my blog in 2010, but there's something in me that wants to catalog previous years the same way. This may be just for me, but I promise a more normal post next week! For today, here are some posts from January through December 2009 -- Barack Obama's first year as U.S. president. Whether or not there's anything useful I'll leave for you to decide, but maybe these posts convey something of the flavor of that year.

Most of these posts were written in our apartment in Elektrostal, Russia, where we lived from 2008 to 2017.

January 2009: Transfer of power (the inauguration of Barack Obama)

Listening to Obama's inauguration
I'm acutely aware that, in Washington, DC, power does not transfer very far. Some knots of wealth and influence have shifted a slot or two farther away from the apparatus of power, others have slipped a little closer. By and large, the same elites are in place today as were in place two days ago. Their world is probably less upset by a new president than by the last quarter's seismic shifts in the financial markets and structures of the world.

I don't mean at all to be cynical, for two reasons: First, it does matter who is president, and how he or she uses the presidential pulpit. If we are told unsustainable lies and platitudes, then our communal resolve, our dedication to common success, is weakened. On the other hand, if trustworthy leaders give us legitimate challenges, we can offer them in return a huge fund of goodwill and support for them to draw on, and may even be far more willing to adopt more sustainable practices in our own lives in the service of a better national and global stewardship.

(Full post.)

February 2009: Publishing Truth -- ethically.

For four very interesting years I worked closely with Crane MetaMarketing Ltd. as a writer and editor for educational and nonprofit marketing programs. Working with such wonderful clients as Calvin and Houghton colleges, the Washington Christian Academy, and similar institutions, I became convinced that marketing, properly understood, is as appropriate for Christian concerns as it is for those in the secular world.

Crane's "values-based" marketing philosophy basically says that ethical marketing equips potential customers (for example, students and their families) to make a decision that is in their own best interest -- and that the interests of the institution and the customer are best served when the choice to affiliate with each other is based on shared values. This kind of marketing means that the institution's communication resources can concentrate on the engaging, creative, and transparent presentation of who they really are, what they really promise and can faithfully deliver, and make those presentations to those likely to respond intelligently, rather than wasting resources on futile and unethical exaggerations or scattershot marketing.

(Full post. I recommend the comments.)

March 2009: Are Quakers Protestant?

Paul Tillich proposed a "Protestant principle"--
. . . the divine and human protest against any absolute claim made for a relative reality, even if this claim is made by a Protestant church. The Protestant principle is the judge of every religious and cultural reality, including the religion and culture which calls itself "Protestant."
Friends honor this principle in our radical skepticism toward presumptuous authority and, more positively, when we understand that "Christ has come to teach his people himself."

I do not believe that Protestants are better Christians than Roman Catholic or Orthodox people. The best insights of Protestantism are not in fact owned by anyone, nor are these insights, by themselves, a sufficient basis for a whole church. The original role of Protestants may have been to confront corruption in a specific time and place; but that focus probably also led to an undervaluing of the Holy Spirit, tradition, and the role of nonverbal communication of faith, which in part are the strengths of the Catholic and Orthodox streams. I just think that we Friends will be best equipped to participate in crucial ecumenical conversations when we operate as embodied people fully aware of our public history, with all its prophetic elements as well as its deficiencies.

(Full post. Again, the comments are important.)

April 2009: Love's laboratories.

Wouldn't it be interesting, maybe even liberating, if we saw our worst controversies as opportunities to experiment with love? All those years of division and agony around homosexuality, for example, or our memberships in the councils of churches -- what if we had said, "How lucky we are as a small denomination all laced together with bonds of love -- we're in the perfect position to confront this divisive issue! Maybe we can do something that would be harder for a larger denomination to accomplish."

Truthfully, I can't imagine any denominational executive greeting a controversy with joy and glee. Why would they? Aside from the cost in human relationships, I remember those angry letters, cancelled subscriptions to Quaker Life, financial contributions cut or eliminated, speaking invitations withdrawn, and yearly meetings departing or threatening to depart. I witnessed battle lines (yes, Quaker battle lines!!) being drawn, with the aid of the tired old rhetoric of factional mobilization -- the predictable cliches of both "evangelicals" and "liberals" sizzling through the grapevines, while too many of the centrists wrung their hands, bemoaning the end of the good old days of affable conflict avoidance.

(Full post.)

May 2009: Evangelism and enemies.

I don't want to think about how my country's equipment rained death down on people I never knew. Among the victims, those who did not wish us harm died for the glorious reason that they inhabited our margin of error, or because their deaths were seen as a reasonable price to pay to accomplish the deaths of the "real" enemy. Our officials knew that this real enemy apparently likes to cause or provoke us to kill innocents, and by the criminally stunted morality of low-intensity warfare, we oblige.

Well, I can't help going a step further. What about that real enemy, the Taliban, or El-Qaeda -- how do I know that they deserve to die at the hands of officials answerable to me and my neighbors, with bombs our taxes have purchased?

...The world's story (at least the Pentagon's story) is that (a) the Taliban are our enemies; (b) we have justifiably deployed forces within range of Taliban bullets; (c) their violence against our forces and allies is illegitimate; (d) our lethal response, including risk to civilians, is legitimate and normal.

Jesus severely complicates this neat arrangement.

(Full post.)

June 2009: Biblical realism and perpetual war.

Lots of smart people have been busy redefining the word "war." Maybe it once referred to lethal combat between nations or sharply-defined groups, with declarations and surrenders, truces and treaties. We Quakers were taught by our elders and our books of Christian discipline that war, and preparations for war, were inconsistent with discipleship. Sane citizens of all political persuasions at least united on wanting peace for ourselves and our children, imagining and working for the day that the country's war would end.

Now, things have become fuzzy. In particular, guerrilla warfare, counter-insurgency, low-intensity warfare, and the so-called stateless actors have changed the nature of warfare. In these bizarre times, a wealthy power like the USA can actually pay people not to shoot at our forces -- and take political credit for the resulting reduction in violence -- and at the same time define many detainees at bases abroad as implacable enemies and hold them for years without effective due process.

It's a crazy world, and it presents urgent challenges for believers.

(Full post.)

July 2009: Suffering.

From Pray the Devil Back to Hell
First, I don't want to be sheltered from this raw data about the world's agonies and God's frequent (apparent) non-intervention, because denial would make a fraud of my faith. As I've probably said before, my mother saw the flash of Hiroshima, and therefore lived much of her life under the shadow (she was told) of leukemia statistics. In the city itself, thousands of innocents were vaporized, roasted, or lethally irradiated.

When the war finally ended, both her own country (Japan) and her parents' homeland (Germany), and huge swaths of the world, were pockmarked with smoking ruins and mass graves, as great-power politicians strategized to reassemble their empires, and the sober idealists among them cobbled together the new United Nations to slow down our perennial cycles of butchery. This is reality, every bit as real as the Bible. Zooming down to family scale, my mother also endured the kidnapping and murder of her own fourteen-year-old daughter in 1970 -- but Ellen was only one of 86 school-age young people murdered in Chicago that year. I study and pray and trust without pretending to understand. Through prayer, I can remain aware of suffering as a prod toward mindfulness, as a standing query about remaining oriented toward justice, without becoming morbid or paralyzed....

Second, your sufferings and mine may seem mild compared to the Liberian civil war, Nazi atrocities, and Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. We should not inflate our own woes, but neither should we deny or suppress them -- they may be the key to our ability to empathize with those whose trials are more dramatic.

(Full post.)

August 2009: Publishers of Truth.

It's not the first time I've been involved in discussions of translating Friends publications into or out of English, but this time I just had a brief but shocking intuition: what if the material we publish and distribute gives an impression of a tiny, fastidious, legalistic, joyless, rootless group of theoretically progressive philistines? Do we resemble anything so much as 19th-century middle-class spiritualists, gathering for seances? Do our evangelicals really take Jesus seriously, or are they just stuck on the old-time cliches because that's the safest thing to do? When will the liberals acknowledge Jesus again as prophet, priest, and king among us, and get rid of all those sophisticated post-Christian excuses for avoiding his claims on us?

In all fairness, I don't think that we Friends have made a corporate decision to project a tiny and timid message, if any at all, to the world. But where is the forum to discuss widely what kind of message we should project? -- not a message about us and how wonderful we are or how safely innocuous we are, but about the world, the state it is in, its bondages on people's lives and souls, and what God demands of us?

(Full post. Also -- see comments.)

September 2009: Faith and certainty, part two.

Mary Travers
When I'm among people--I'm talking about committed believers, now -- who point out that crippled airliners that crash probably had passengers praying just as intently as airliners that made miraculous landings, I can respect their zeal for integrity, their determination that piety not trump rationality. There's no room for an innocency that ignores the Holocaust and Hiroshima. But when I'm among people celebrating answers to prayer, I will equally not pour cold water on their gratitude! In fact, I will join right in.

Do I seem inconsistent? Guilty! But, happily, the third thing that is happening to me right now is that I'm hungrily re-reading Thomas R. Kelly's A Testament of Devotion, along with a Googlegroup of others gathered by Mary Kay Rehard. (Invitation to join is [was] available here.) Much of this book is an extraordinary beautiful and persuasive call to a life of prayer -- in fact, prayer without ceasing -- but it's not prayer for "results." It's prayer as holy attentiveness, and holy obedience. It's prayer that may lead to suffering as well as to healing. It requires lowliness (смиренномудрие in Olga Dolgina's wonderful translation) as well as confidence. As Kelly says (retranslating), we stop trying to direct God and make God listen to us; we become God's joyful listeners -- listening to the Master who does all things well.

(Full post. More good comments.)

October 2009: Odessa blues.

Blues music (lyrics included) compresses history, pathos, and ecstasy into deceptively simple packages of sound that go far beyond my ability to analyze with words. I have to admire a scholar who tries! Nichols takes blues lyrics, shows links between them and the Bible (often mediated by the overlapping genre of spirituals), and also reveals how those lyrics reflect the realities of their writers' and performers' lives. Surrounding all these details are two overwhelming realities molding life and art alike: the thick social/political/economic/psychic reality of racism, and the "Christ-haunted" culture of the American South.

I've often wondered how to express the difference between musicians who inhabit the blues, and those who are just visiting. It's not strictly race -- as Johnnie Billington says, "The blues is truth," which tells me that its core is universal -- but it has something to do with being the one who is consumed rather than doing the consuming. It's not happy trails, it's more like the end of the line. Although the blues musician might lament being alone in the world, the appreciation of his or her music is definitely a communal experience -- we've probably all been there, and we feel a bit strange when someone who may not have "been there" tries growling those lyrics.

(Full post.)

November 2009: When do we shift from "neutrality" to "advocacy"?

Oslo Friends meet in this building
If I understand correctly, many Norwegian Friends have sympathy for Palestinians in their conflict with Israel. The Gaza war may have increased that sympathy and lent it urgency. However, for some Friends, sympathy is not enough -- it is time for strong action in solidarity with Palestinians. Other Friends feel strongly that to abandon Friends' tradition of neutrality in conflicts would be wrong.

The question of whether it is ever right for Friends to support (or appear to support) one side over another in a conflict is not new. I'm sure it predates the American Revolution -- a conflict that definitely provided Friends with a huge dilemma. Case studies and books have been written about Friends responses to these situations, none of which I have with me here in Elektrostal. But while I was in Oslo, I was asked for my own thoughts on how to decide when neutrality was no longer a sufficient position. Here are a few of my reflections....

(Full post with comments -- also see part two.)

December 2009: Ending the year, as I started, with Barack Obama. Nobel lecture.

Barack Obama gave his Nobel Lecture in Oslo exactly a week ago. A day later, I finally got a chance to look at it, and I admit I was very impressed.

In terms of content, I think both Joe Volk ("Obama’s Peace: A Now But Not Yet Kind of Thing") and David Brooks ("Obama's Christian Realism") provided excellent commentary, and I agree with most of what both said, although they come from different viewpoints.

As Volk pointed out, Obama recited all the usual obligatory justifications for a just war. However, Obama did so with a sense of regret and modesty -- something rarely heard in recent presidential speeches. In the midst of the current fashion to praise the military to the skies, we expect to hear the first part of a statement like this, but how often do we hear the second part? -- "So part of our challenge is reconciling these two seemingly irreconcilable truths -- that war is sometimes necessary, and war at some level is an expression of human folly."

(Full post.)

Here are the rest of the annual digests so far:  2019201820172016201520142013201220112010

November 7: Speaking Truth to Power in a Pandemic: A Quaker Scientist's Reflections -- the fifth in the Quaker Conversations series coordinated by Friends World Committee for Consultation.

Catholic activists praise Francis' move away from just war theory.

An introduction to Sean Guillory, whose podcast I've been following since it began.

An update on Kyrgyzstan.

Kathryn Ray on the power of a heartbroken community.

Floyd Lee at Ground Zero, Clarksdale, Mississippi. (From the film Full Moon Lightning. First included in this post: Notes from Woodland, April 2009.)

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