29 December 2022

Digesting 2022

Judy took the photo (above) of people walking down our street in Elektrostal, Russia, back in February 2010. Over the years since, I've loved using this photo in my New Year greetings because I can imagine those neighbors of ours walking in the glow of the winter sun, into the new year.

In reality, they're simply walking on Yalagin Street toward the southwestern corner of the city, which is not far ahead of them. And by now most of the trees on the left side of the street are gone, with new apartment buildings along the same lines as our subdistrict having taken their place.

This year, the Yalagin Street photo is especially poignant to me. It reminds me of good times in Russia, of friendly neighbors, amazing colleagues, lively and curious students, convenient shops, the fitness center at the corner of Yalagin and Fryazovskoe Chaussée, the McDonald's on the other side of the street.

Diagonally across the street was the little shopping center where this conversation took place, as I reported back in 2015:

A few weeks ago, Judy and I went into a store at the Farmers' Shopping Center on Pobeda street, looking for Epsom salt. I began chatting with the sales clerk. She was intrigued by the fact that we lived just a block away from her store. "How long have you been here?" she asked.

"Seven years," I answered.

"So you know we aren't the kind of bad people that the West says we are! You know we are normal, decent people!"

I agreed. "We love our neighbors here. We tell our friends in America about the people we know here."

She spontaneously gave me a big hug and said, "So you know that we Russians are normal people like anyone else in the world. We have never attacked anyone!"

Today, ten months into a cruel war, and (for example) the day after Russian artillery struck a Kherson maternity ward, what would that sales clerk and I now say into each other? What future do I envision awaits those people walking along Yalagin Street?

Here's this year's digest of posts from the past twelve months, one per month. Not surprisingly, but very painfully, one theme dominates right away, from January on: the war in Ukraine—the dying, bleeding, freezing, and dislocations happening within Ukraine, and the degradation of social and spiritual life (or, alternatively, the awful isolation of dissidence, the anticipation of arrest, the choices of internal and external exile) for Russians. My God, I know these people! (Or I thought I did.) Don't they deserve better ... from each other, and from those who claim to be their leaders?

"We have never attacked anyone!"

JANUARY: An artificial crisis (January 20)

Waiting to board Train 34, Odesa-Moscow.
The most bizarre aspect of this artificial crisis is that Ukraine itself has actually posed no threat to the Russian Federation. In fact, there is no immediate threat to Russian security from anyone. Nobody outside Russia has any desire to occupy Russia or to subvert its best future as a prosperous and happy nation. Russia (that is, Putin and his associates) simply seem to believe that the time has come to disrupt the post-WWII collective security architecture represented by NATO and its presumably American puppet masters, and Ukraine is the convenient pressure point for Russian threats.

(I'm not defending that post-WWII collective security arrangement as being above criticism or reform, but threatening to kill Ukrainians seems more likely to reinforce that arrangement than pose an intelligent critique.)

In choosing specifically to threaten Ukraine, not principally for any Ukrainian-based danger to Russia but instead for NATO's supposed transgressions, Russian representatives have practically admitted this very point. Despite the lack of a logical link between Russia's desired changes in NATO policy (denying NATO membership to Ukraine, pulling back missiles from Russia's border countries) and Ukraine itself, Russia threatens military repercussions for any failure of NATO (read the USA) to accept its demands. Russian is not in a position to attack the USA directly; the calculation seems to be that threats against Ukraine would satisfy the need to make American non-cooperation costly.

Full post ...

FEBRUARY: On regarding Russia "vs" Ukraine: First principles (February 24)

For most of the last 24 hours I have been keeping an Internet vigil using livecams in Kyiv and near Kharkiv. Right now morning is arriving in Kyiv, and the birds are loud! Every few minutes there are explosions. When I hear the sound of airplanes I assume that they are almost certainly Russian. A building on the Maidan square is flying the Ukrainian flag on its rooftop. I am trying to use these feeds as a prompt to pray without ceasing: let the birds continue, but let the violence stop. It helps a great deal that I remain in touch with people who are in the region and whose perspectives (among the Russians) are similar to the newspaper Novaya gazeta and who are also praying without ceasing.

Another explosion. Another.

If you are reading this blog, you certainly have as much access as I do to sources of information on what is going on in Ukraine, and on the scramble of international players to adopt positions that will benefit Ukraine and themselves. Also, your predictions of short- and long-term outcomes are as good as mine. I just want to take a rest from my Internet vigil over Ukraine's cities long enough to propose a few first principles to help me stay centered in a moment where evil seems again on the march.

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MARCH: The fog of war (March 24)

AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty. Source.
What else do we know with reasonable certainty about the war in Ukraine?

It is a war. The Oxford English Dictionary defines war as 

Hostile contention by means of armed forces, carried on between nations, states, or rulers, or between parties in the same nation or state; the employment of armed forces against a foreign power, or against an opposing party in the state.

(The Russian word for war is not defined significantly differently; here it is in Ozhegov's widely-used dictionary; and here in the Russian Wiktionary.)

The Russian government prohibits its citizens from using the term "war" for the special military operation it began a month ago, but the plain word admits no ambiguity in this case. Since February 24, the armed forces of the Russian Federation have been using their weapons against Ukrainian targets on Ukrainian territory.

To date this war has caused numerous deaths and enormous destruction. We do not need to know who is guilty of each case of death, injury, and destruction of property to agree. Many people are dead and injured, and their homes damaged or destroyed, who were alive and whole on February 23.

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APRIL: The fog of war, part two: face to face with the curse (April 7)

What do we know with reasonable certainty? Violent deaths have occurred in the places in Ukraine that have been under Russian soldiers' occupation. The bodies display marks of individual, intimate cruelty that can be distinguished from the arguably accidental and random deaths (as terrible as they also are) that are happening in places damaged or destroyed by artillery and air strikes. Viewing the evidence, we come face to face with evil, whoever committed these crimes.


Is there a "Christian" way to look at this situation? I believe there is, and I summarize it as "shocked, but not surprised."

First of all, sad to say, there is nothing new about wanton cruelty and systematic cruelty in wartime. Degrees may vary from country to country, from army to army, but have we ever witnessed a war between 100% angels on one side and 100% demon-possessed soldiers on the other?

Alexander Solzhenitsyn (from Thomas P. Whitney's translation of The Gulag Archipelago, pronouns in original):

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place; sometimes it is squeezed one way by exuberant evil and sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish. One and the same human being is, at various ages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being. At times he is close to being a devil, at times to sainthood. But his name doesn't change, and to that name we ascribe the whole lot, good and evil.

The Bible is blunt ...

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MAY: Ukraine and the dilemmas of pacifism (May 12)

"Peace to Ukraine," Eddie Lobanovskiy, source.
Depending on this observer's political orientation, he or she might be tempted to abandon pacifism, pointing out that there is absolutely no hope that placating Vladimir Putin, giving him concessions so that he might be nicer to Ukraine, will result in peace. It might be better to support the Ukrainians with weapons as a middle way that is less likely to result in global war than actually fighting alongside the Ukrainian military.

Or he or she might say that we Americans (for example) have invaded any number of countries ourselves, so what basis do we have to criticize Russia, which just wants to ensure safety from NATO's dubious agendas? So sad to see all those awful scenes from Ukraine, but maybe they're fake.

But let's say you and I have put all our eggs into the Jesus basket. Abandoning nonviolence is simply not an option. What can we say that is different from the calculations of our peace-loving friends and neighbors who are casting about for political solutions and compromises when evidence suggests that the aggressor is completely uninterested in what we think of him?

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JUNE: A query on queries (June 9)

Queries were introduced as a practice early in Quaker history, as a set of standing questions that would be directed, perhaps annually, to constituent congregations by the quarterly and yearly meeting. As Jan Hoffman writes in The Historical Dictionary of the Friends (Quakers)

The earliest queries were sent to monthly meetings in the 17th century: "What ministering Friends have died in the past year?" and "How does Truth prosper among you?" New queries have been added, both to collect further information and to sharpen reflection on particular topics. Currently, queries are seen by both individual Friends and meetings or churches as a means of engaging their hearts, minds, and spirits in an examination of their spiritual condition. Only rarely today are written responses to the yearly meeting expected.

(At least three yearly meetings I've visited continue to ask local meetings to respond to queries annually; many others at least expect annual reports from local meetings and churches.)

So ... this practice of ending a sermon with queries for Friends to consider during the silence is a new variation of an old tradition. One important deviation: instead of drawing on a standing list of queries, perhaps seeking the query that most closely relates to the theme of the sermon, this form of query is written particularly for the occasion. As you can see from my examples, they ostensibly serve to encourage reflection on the sermon, but they may also be a way of making the sermon's central points more memorable. As with traditional queries, this new type sometimes includes rhetorical questions that imply a right answer. This may seem manipulative, and maybe that's so, but traditional queries also had a teaching function.

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Part two ...

JULY: "The beautiful Russia of the future," part two (July 21)

One of the most moving parts of that initial program was its footage from Bucha, Ukraine. This documentary segment reviews the horrors of the Russian occupation, and the fresh evidences of killings and tortures found when the Russians left. We come to know the rector of the local Ukrainian Orthodox church, Andrei Galavin, who has become a sort of tour guide for visitors to Bucha. This town has become an obligatory stopping place for politicians and celebrities visiting from abroad—including, as we see, Bono.

Father Galavin. Screenshot; source.

The interviewer speaks to Father Galavin in Russian, but Galavin replies exclusively in Ukrainian. When he's asked about his relationships with Russian people, he is sad but unequivocal: now he avoids them. "Do whatever you want at home," he tells his Russian audience through the interviewer, "as long as here we don't see or hear you."

This response came back to me when I watched a new episode of the interview show "To Be Continued: People," also on YouTube. This time the hosts interviewed Dmitri Bykov, whom I first wrote about back in January 2016, and whose attempted assassination I mentioned here.


Dmitri Bykov. Screenshot; source.

Galavin's words of alienation about Russians came to my mind when Bykov said, referring to the changes wrought by the current war, "It is clear that Russia crossed many red lines. It cannot live any longer as it did in the past. The world will no longer see [in Russia] a place of spirituality, a place of great culture, a place representing victory over fascism."

But there's more.

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Part one ...

AUGUST: Living without lying, part two: politically motivated (August 18)

From a G.O.P. e-mail.
So, in Trump's case, here is the fateful red line: the hero-figure cannot possibly be guilty. Variations and hedges abound: he's a businessman, not a politician; he sometimes speaks too quickly; yes, admittedly he's a bit vulgar; he's politically naive; the elites are mad because he's fighting for "us." But, crucially, he is never guilty. Any official attempt to hold him accountable is, in every case, "politically motivated," a "witch hunt," and cannot be allowed to run its course. Any resistance from the Trump side to such accountability, in contrast, is not politically motivated.

I read these paragraphs that I've just written, and I'm embarrassed by how stupid this conflict is. Isn't it obvious that we should all wait and watch carefully, and see how each side makes its case? Shouldn't we withhold insults and wild exaggerations while we wait? But people I love and respect have already declared that Trump must not be questioned, and all questions are politically motivated. One Quaker pastor said on Facebook that we now see how absolute power corrupts absolutely. 

In Living without lying, part one, I listed Solzhenitsyn's rules for truthful political speech. Those might have been difficult rules for getting along in the Soviet Union; shouldn't they be easier to implement here and now? (And not just in our personal lives, but also in our behavior on social media, and in our churches.)

Can we publicly commit to Solzhenitsyn's rules as an antidote to the poison spread by politically motivated manipulators--and to the cynicism that masquerades as wisdom in our times? Why or why not?

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Part one ...

SEPTEMBER: "You can never learn that Christ is all you need..." (September 8)

Corrie ten Boom
Corrie's words are a powerful corrective to much that is repellent about contemporary Christianity. Recently I've seen Christians mocking other Christians for stating their pronouns, for advocating being "safe men" (apparently what we need are dangerous men!), for using contemporary music in worship. (You know, even assembling this list might be a form of mocking; I better quit before I enjoy it too much....) So much of what passes for discourse among Christians (Quakers included) seems so hypercritical and crabby. And I won't even go into all the ways Christians scandalize the secular world we're supposed to be engaging.

For all this negativity, I hear Corrie's words as a severe but refreshing corrective. If the last choice I had in this world would be to stay centered on Christ, can I exercise, or at least imagine, that choice right now? What would that do to my priorities? How would that affect how I communicate what's in my heart and listen to what's in yours?

This same exercise is helping me to confront despair. God is apparently not forcing humanity to make decisive choices concerning global warming (although nobody could accuse God of hiding the evidence). God is not staying the trigger fingers on the front lines in Ukraine. Basically, God doesn't seem to be doing what I spend hours asking God to do. Intellectually I know that we humans have the ability and freedom to treat each other cruelly, to overthrow each other's empires and sabotage democracies, and even to choose self-extinction. We're not guaranteed happy endings to any story at all, except one: our relationship with our Creator. Prayer is an expression of that relationship, but not a form of control. The relationship itself is where we rest.

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OCTOBER: Threads of contact, seeds of hope (October 6)

Anna Kikina arriving at the ISS. Screenshot from source.
While politicians compete to propose the most severe sanction policies, non-governmental actors have proposed and imposed boycotts of their own, including the breaking of cultural ties. It may seem only fair to do so; after all, Russian leaders have openly declared that Ukrainian identity, even Ukraine's national existence, should be severely restricted or ended altogether; why should Russians not expect similar attitudes in response?

But how does boycotting Russian artists and musicians, human beings all, and insulting their domestic and international audiences, promote justice and healing for Ukraine? The primordial sin is objectifying each other, no matter who commits that sin, or why; and once you go down that path, you look more and more like the forces you oppose.

I think I understand the impulse to pile on ever more actions to isolate Russia's government. Each new Russian initiative ("partial" mobilization, "annexations") leads to another round of sanctions, as if to say, "now we're really serious." If only each new sanction were matched to an initiative to break through the isolation and reach Russian citizens with this simple message: we too yearn for the "beautiful Russia of the future—a happy, prosperous global neighbor, a land of justice at home and a blessing for the whole world."

In the meantime, this is what Russians are hearing from their celebrity commentators: The leaders of the USA and NATO countries do not want Russia to exist; they don't want the Russian language to exist. As long as such people run the West, war is better than peace; and, specifically, these enemies of Russia must be killed. As it turns out, the rhetoric of nationalist extremes in many places (the USA included) turn out to be remarkably similar.

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NOVEMBER: Quaker Shaped Christianity by Mark Russ (November 3)

One by one, Russ examines the false scandals that alienate many Friends from the depth and simplicity of Christ's invitation to follow him ...

  • threats of hell for those who have made mistakes in behavior or doctrine
  • misuse of the Bible as journalism or codebook
  • linking the execution of Jesus to a wrathful God and our own fatal flaws
  • the use of sin-talk to shame and dominate individuals without regard for sinful systems.

He also discusses the various work-arounds that Friends (particularly liberal Friends) tend to use to avoid these scandals ...

  • forms of universalism that claim an impossible (and condescending) objectivity
  • admiration for Jesus as a great moral teacher while stripping away his cultural location, his resurrection, the cross, and his origin story--all the elements that fixed his reality in the minds of his followers, and whose testimonies about him make no sense without those mysteries
  • early Friends' faith as limited by their cultural restrictions rather than enriched by insights into the radical immediacy of the Holy Spirit's work in them
  • the list of Quaker don'ts (the church ceremonies we don't have) that are not simply sectarian markers but actually signs that we are living in the unfolding presence of Jesus. Or as Russ puts it, the early Friends "... saw other Christians as still waiting for Christ to come again, and worshipping in 'meantime' ways. In their experience, Christ had arrived, meaning that all 'meantime' practices had to stop."

So far I've focused on the "argument" dimension of this sparkling book, but its real power is Mark's own voice, his transparency about his own life and his path into Christian community.

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DECEMBER: Churches and "political homogeneity" (December 1)

On the one hand, I love that segment of the church market that doesn't require everyone to have the same political orientation, because it's my fantasy that the church is one of the few institutions that is (or ought to be) totally independent of political allegiances—and therefore a place where people with dramatically different political views can worship together, while challenging each other lovingly.

Frank Chapman, source.
My Facebook Friend Frank Chapman and I agreed on very little politically, as you might guess from the photo with his gun and his hat, but what we did agree on was far deeper. Somehow he put up with my constant arguing, Other MAGA people on social networks have simply cut me off, but Frank was just not like that. Sometime last fall I began to miss his provocative posts, and I checked his profile to see what he was up to, only to learn that he had died. It felt like an enormous loss. I want room in my church for people like Frank (and in his church for people like me). Frank was someone who motivated me to make a real case for my values across cultural and linguistic lines rather than staying safely with people who already agree with me.

On the other hand, what if a political bias is built into my discipleship? My whole concept of church is that we're people who are learning what it means to live with Christ at the center, including the ethical dimensions of such a life, and are helping each other in that work. Everything that is distinctive to me about being a Quaker—the values of peace, simplicity, community governance based on group prayer and discernment, radical hospitality, leadership based on spiritual gifts and not false social distinctions—it's what we've learned about living with Christ at the center. Why should I be surprised that some political positions might be more congenial than others, to those of us who share this vision of discipleship?

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Is the new Israeli government so extremist that it is actually a gift to anti-Zionists?

Empire and the "small peoples of Russia."

A Lawfare roadmap to January 6-related reports, documents, and testimonies. (Thanks to Noli Irritare Leones.)

Another end-of-year list: Nancy Thomas on the best books of 2022.

"Queen Bee." Almost 45 years ago I heard Taj Mahal perform at a free open-air concert in Boston, Massachusetts. This year I finally heard him again, at the Waterfront Blues Festival in Portland, Oregon. To my eyes, he looked frail as he made his way onstage to his seat, but once he began performing, he was playing with power. Here's his recent contribution to the Playing for Change series—performing together with Playing's usual international collage of great musicians.

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