11 February 2021

Digesting 2008

It's humbling to look back on earlier years of this blog. As time has gone by, links have expired, I can see my inadequate photo handling (I can no longer recommend Photobucket), formatting and style decisions have been inconsistent, videos constantly need to be replaced ... and that's not even counting my miscalibrated analyses and outright ignorance! I hope I've chosen my samples carefully to conceal the worst.

The New Times, 22 December 2008:
2009: In expectation of a thaw
Even so, today, as I compiled this post, I found it interesting to see what the world looked like to me back in 2008, a year dominated for me by my hopes and concerns around the Obama-McCain presidential contest in the USA, and by the practicalities of settling in our new home in Elektrostal, Russia. I hope at least a few of these sample articles from 2008 might have at least some antiquarian interest for you, too.

Just as background: Starting in 2010, I began marking the end of each year by selecting monthly samples for a year-end digest. Last year, I also added a page of monthly samples for 2009. Today I decided to tackle 2008, thereby allowing me to avoid saying anything about the impeachment trial taking place in the U.S. Senate for at least another week -- in other words, this housekeeping task seemed like a valid escape. The next times I'm trying to avoid a subject, I'll add 2007 ... 2006 ... then 2005 ....

Back to 2008: I've tried cleaning up most of the dead links and videos, but I apologize for the inevitable loose ends. Let me know whether anything stands out, either helpful or just plain dumb.

January: Vanity of vanities (Quakers and class)

I do have a hypothesis: a group that has integrity and spiritual power can attract people from any race and social class. (Unfortunately, so can groups that fake it well: there's never a time when discernment isn't required.) I remember one very dear Friends fellowship that was pretty homogenous but yearned for diversity; half a block away was an Elim Fellowship pentecostal church where there was ACTUAL diversity--racial, social, class, temperament, language. Spiritual power does NOT necessarily mean emotional contortions, but it does mean crossing a threshold of conversion and self-abandonment not typically found among the self-satisfied or terminally autonomous.

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February: Remember what you know

These words came to me several times in the past few days: Remember what you know.
They came to me first as I was listening to a story about a church which was experiencing conflict between some church members and the pastor. Members were being drawn into pro-pastor and anti-pastor factions; I imagined some were feeling the temptation to resort to worldly tactics for the upcoming monthly meeting.
Although there were allegations about the pastor that needed to be taken seriously, I wasn't happy with the possibility of a struggle for or against an individual, a struggle that ignored the systemic "Lamb's war" dimension of the problem. I wanted to say to everyone, Don't get knocked off center; remember what you already know....

March: Conversion is just the beginning

After years of our son's influence, and after considering the persuasive arguments of a certain Northwest Yearly Meeting pastor, I've converted. My new Sony laptop is using Linux as its operating system, specifically Ubuntu 7.10.
It was not an easy conversion. First of all, who wants to live a clean, calm, pious life after you've seen the glamour and glitter of Windows Vista (which came with the Vaio)? Not only is Windows Vista attractive, with its soft, translucent, animated windows, but it works so hard to lure you further into its world. Most of the buttons on its opening desktop lead you straight into offers for even more delicious e-treats. It even comes pre-loaded with TWO Spiderman films ready to enliven your workspace, just waiting for your input of a credit card number.
But it was all those encumbrances that really put me over the edge. 

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(My first Ubuntu update made things better)

April: Eisenhower blues

So that is what is missing from this enmeshment of wealth, influence and deadly force: an ethical and moral center, pointing out the pervasive influence of this enmeshment ("economic, political, even spiritual"); arguing persistently and persuasively for a true balance of power, backed by a vigilant and informed citizenry. As Why We Fight noted, the American empire has no guarantee of immortality; therefore, sounding an alarm about the untenable corners into which our military-industrial complex has backed us seems like a highly patriotic calling.
... Although Eisenhower's warning rings true to me, I'm not personally interested in defining how much military power and war industry are too much, or not too much. The armed nation-state is a relic of an unredeemed world. The patriot in me wants to know how we'll implement his call for an informed, vigilant citizenry. But the evangelist in me wants to go further.

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(Honorable mention for April *blush*: Jeremiah Wright and cynics gone wild)

May: Does God hate divorce?

One thing that we've found from listening to so many stories of heartbreak and hope: domestic abuse is not confined to any social class or status, nor excluded from any. Domestic abuse occurs in every class, every income group, every level of supposed "sophistication." Despite my special scrutiny of the situation among evangelical church families, abuse occurs just as often among liberal or secular people. Two decades ago, Judy Brutz's research revealed that violence happens in liberal Quaker households--certainly a culture that honors equality and nonviolence. I don't suppose that even readers and writers of Quaker blogs are immune!

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June: Rolling and reading 

In Johnny Cash and the Great American Contradiction, [Rodney] Clapp is, in part, measuring Johnny Cash's stature by showing how the great country musician both embodied and deliberately defied the contradictions inherent in being a Christian performer, a Southerner and a patriot. But Clapp's primary purpose is not to cause us to admire Johnny Cash, although he succeeded in that (for me, anyway); it is to ask us as Christians to consider the hard intellectual and spiritual work inherent in advancing "democracy for grown-ups." If we can see "contradictions" as occasions for dialogue rather than for distress that we can't impose unity, then Clapp's book provides a whole series of interrelated dialogues, perhaps especially between the "democracy of the parade" that characterizes the U.S. North and the "democracy of the revival" in the South. An earthier formulation for dialogue is suggested by Rodney Clapp's first sentence of Chapter 3: "In country music, holiness is the pork to hedonism's beans."

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July: "Support our troops" and other incomplete sentiments

Two days ago I sat on a bench outside Aubuchon Hardware, Raymond, Maine, looking at the cars parked in front of me. A fair proportion of them had "Support our troops" stickers. I used to have a "Support our troops--bring them home" sticker on our car until someone pried it off.
In this USA election season, and in particular on this Independence Day weekend, it would be great to add more content to these laudable sentiments. Just as there is "cheap grace," there is "cheap support," and I suppose the "Support" sticker itself is the cheapest.
So here is the American Christian pacifist's manual on supporting our troops, version one:...

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August: To see light more clearly

As we shuffled forward, I lost track of distances altogether, but eventually we came to a widening of the path--the location of a cell where a monk once lived with his Bible and prayer book. We saw two or three such cells. We found a branch path where excavation was just starting, and returned to the main passageway. Just when were were becoming overwhelmed by the depth of the darkness, we saw the vertical shaft leading up to another exit, located inside the church on the hill above the entrance.
When we had retraced our steps back out to that first entrance, we blinked at each other and asked why monks had wanted to spend much of their lives in deep underground chambers. Nikolai, who had brought us, said that there was an ascetic belief that in total darkness you could see light more clearly.

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September: Baptism

...About seven years ago I sat in a Sunday school class studying Friends distinctives, and the subject of baptism came up. One participant, also from a Lutheran background, challenged us on the subject--specifically, what kind of threshold do Friends recognize between NOT being in the household of faith and BEING in the household of faith? What emotional cost is there in not recognizing or providing such a threshold?
One thing I love about Friends theology is its functional nature. We're not likely to agree on how baptism affects our eternal destiny, but may well be able to talk about whether and how we express repentance, convincement, and commitment to God, each other, and the world. I hope we do so, because for some Friends, our casual and tacit approach isn't adequate. (And it doesn't seem fair for those who are satisfied to impose a conversational embargo on those who aren't.)

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October: Faith and certainty

...[Chris] Hedges fears the sinful power of certainty in the social arena. And it's a legitimate fear. The inward certainty of a powerful intellectual or emotional conversion, presumably, is one thing. Billy Graham and Martin Luther King, among many others, both tell stories of having to come to grips with doubts before being able to move forward with courage; they reached a measure of certainty that empowered them for their public ministries. I had to make a decision to trust Jesus without reservation before I could overcome the principal block to faith, which was my deep and angry suspicion of all authority. However, that inward certainty may or may not lead to certainty of action--particularly of categorical and coercive action in the social arena.
Certainty is a slippery quality. In my experience, it comes and goes--and returns. More importantly, it is relational rather than operational: I can be certain that God wants the best for you and me, and that God will be with you and me as we work for that best, but I'm hardly ever certain about what concrete steps to take next. For that decision, I need a mix of intuition, prayer, plain secular fact-checking, the wisdom of others, and a willingness to risk being wrong.

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November: The Gift of the Stranger

[This turned out to be the most important book I read in my preparations for teaching in Russia.]
[The authors] root their vision in an interpretation of the Babel story in Genesis, the story of Pentecost in Acts, and other Biblical passages, that emphasizes God's delight in diversity and God's sovereign disapproval of imperial arrogance (as demonstrated, for example, by Babel's builders). With special attention to a 17th-century educational reformer I'd barely heard of, Comenius, Smith and Carvill show that a humane and God-centered understanding of foreign language instruction has deep roots in Christian intellectual tradition.
They go on to apply their three assumptions and three assumptions in a review of the various reasons currently used to sell foreign language learning--appealing to "The Entrepreneur," "The Persuader," "The Connoisseur," "The Tourist," "The Escapologist," "The Revolutionary." There are redemptive aspects to all of these motivations, but mostly they are oriented around "profit, pleasure, and power" for the learner, rather than developing the capacity to offer healthy hospitality and to be a sensitive stranger.

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December: Are you adequately ashamed?

Every country probably has its share of mindless pseudo-patriots, who display no capacity for reflection and regret. In the long run, no country is well served by ignorance, but politicians observably find it expedient to make appeals to this constituency--yes, even in the USA, where our recent political season featured flattering references to the "real America" where doubters are scorned and where people know better than to share the wealth. Those who do have a calling to be more reflective and prophetic about national traumas will probably always face an uphill battle. There's nothing wrong with Americans who love Russia to support transparency and healing, but only if it doesn't strengthen the impression that all we want to do is ignorantly pour salt into old Russian wounds for the sake of American political agendas or simply to reinforce our own prejudices.

[2021 PS: In the 12 years since I wrote this piece, I have the unscientific impression that younger people have become less aware of the full depth of Stalinist terror. On the one hand, this may be the costly loss of a history that touched practically every family; on the other hand, it may help to explain why some of them face a new season of repression with less fear than I might have expected.]

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I cannot entirely neglect what's going on in Washington, DC. Here's the Washington Post's inventory of evidence in the trial of Donald Trump. I cannot express my own distress at the prospect of an acquittal in this matter in calm and moderate tones. Too many Republicans have tacitly discounted Trump as a one-of-a-kind embarrassment whose legacy can somehow be managed without political risk to them or the country. However, the whole point is that the Trump personality cult made no such discount; they took him at his word. Meanwhile, the next demagogue is taking notes.

In the meantime, Heather Cox Richardson sums up the day.

Sydney Blumenthal on the martyrdom of Mike Pence.

QuakerSpring is holding an online gathering on March 6. 

In music news, Derek Lamson has revamped his Web site, including free tracks; Shemekia Copeland wants to fuse politics with the blues.

The feline-filtered jurist goes global.

One of my favorite blues videos from 2008: Albert Collins, "If Money Was Trouble, I'd Be a Millionaire."

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