22 July 2021

Question from Russia: Are white American men oppressed?


"Is it true that white American men are being oppressed?"

I'm pretty sure that the Russian friend who asked me this question had no ideological agenda; it seems more likely that, out of the chaotic mix of slogans churning through social networks and mass media in this historical moment, that assertion caught his attention.

It reminded me of the Soviet-era whataboutism that I mentioned in this post following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Some of the emphases may have shifted, but today there's still a certain amount of smugness and even glee in Russian media coverage of American political and racial clashes. (To be honest, we sometimes see the same phenomenon in the opposite direction.)

To risk another generalization about Russians, many of my friends claim that, in contrast with Americans, they are free of political inhibitions or sentimentality, are ruled by common sense alone, and are ready to name things by their true names. (Hence the constant mocking of "political correctness.") So, for example, one of my Russian friends told me that poor people are responsible for their own poverty because they "breed like bunnies, don't they?" Proud of their capacity for brutal honesty, they may not pay attention to the reality that all political and social interpretations, yours and mine alike, rest on a complex fabric of mostly unexamined assumptions.

The raw truth behind my friend's question about American white males may be this: for some of us at least, our vast range of unquestioned freedoms has shrunk.

  • The #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements may have been the beginning of the end of the Important Man variety of impunity. Predators still exist, of course, but at least the tacit license they had from tradition and conventional wisdom is in the process of being revoked. Question: is the greater expectation of common decency really a form of oppression, or simply the imposition of boundaries that others already have to follow, or choose to follow as part of their membership in community?
  • White men may now be less able to make unilateral summary declarations of our own virtue. Before, when the Important Man declared "I'm color-blind," that was supposed to be the end of the discussion. Now we are learning to have the important conversations about how embedded racism distorts even our own choices and self-understanding, and that, after all, racism is as racism does. We are learning that our own personal virtue, and our consequent defensiveness, are usually not the central issue. Question: Is this greater accountability for our participation in objectively racist structures a form of oppression? Can we really find genuine freedom in remaining oblivious?
  • It can actually be hard work to distinguish the white male default worldview from all the other ways of examining and interpreting the world around us -- and history, for that matter. It might make us long for the good old days when this supposedly extra effort wasn't required.

    Nearly 30 years ago, the Economist published an article that described some of the stresses around the loss of this noxious white innocence:
    Etho-consciousness has this to be said for it: not before time, it has confronted the idea that there is only one, white, experience of America. It has fed through into a kind of general sensitivity (so that people do not say the so-called “n-word”, and so that school textbooks now give as much weight to black experiences of history as to white). But it has also underlined a strong disruptive tendency in America: the elevation of group and race rights over the interests of either the individual or the whole. What is presumed to be equality has turned into balkanisation, one camp against another....
    I'm not sure the Economist article describes the causes correctly, but this so-called balkanization is real, and may be a factor behind the dramas of alleged performative victimhood and performative repentance that sometimes frustrate our searches for genuine reconciliation and unity. We don't know how to talk about the possibility that claiming one's rightful equality and equity may not automatically make someone an angel, nor prevent them from exploiting the oppressor's shame. On the other hand, benefitting from generations of privilege has certainly not made white American males into angels!

    Question: does the hard work required of us -- that we learn to distinguish habitual white-male-centeredness from alternate views and from a genuinely shared perspective -- constitute a form of oppression? Or to put it another way, isn't this work worthwhile? Aren't we just now learning a form of curiosity that should have always been part of the mutual accountability of the human family?

(Note: for better or for worse, the PDF version of the Economist article linked above was used for years by one of my colleagues in her English classes at the New Humanities Institute in Elektrostal. It has some typos, probably from the scanning process.)

I just finished reading Francis Spufford's amazing novel Light Perpetual. If you don't have it yet, read Laura Miller's review and be tempted.

Speaking of worthwhile books, Jesus and John Wayne became a surprise bestseller.

The Friends Committee on National Legislation is searching for its next general secretary. Review of applications will begin on August 4.

Is Ben & Jerry's decision really a "shameful capitulation to antisemitism"?

Of course, it not only Ben & Jerry’s who think the occupation is “inconsistent with our values”. It’s inconsistent with most people’s values. It’s certainly inconsistent with Judaism. Or at least it used to be. But somewhere along the line, Jewish nationalism drowned out what had become inconvenient themes previously dominating Jewish thought and Jewish identity.

Hound Dog Taylor, Little Walter, Koko Taylor on German television, 1967.

14 July 2021

Digesting 2006 (and change in e-mail subscriptions)

Blogger housekeeping. If you subscribed to receive notices of new posts on this blog, using the Feedburner widget that used to be on the right-side column of the Web version of this format, you may begin receiving notices from a new service, follow.it. Feedburner is discontinuing its e-mail notification service, so I substituted follow.it to keep providing the same service.

You can subscribe by using the new follow.it widget in the right column of the blog (Web version), or enter my blog's URL (blog.canyoubelieve.me) into the subscription page on the follow.it Web site.

Of course you can also add other blogs, news feeds, and Web sites you'd like to keep up with, and use the follow.it service's options to decide how often you want to receive their updates.

If you were already a verified subscriber to this blog before the feedburner shutdown, you should be getting updates from this new feedburner alternative. If your subscription seems to have disappeared, let me know. I don't want to lose anyone!

Today's post -- digesting 2006. In my program of looking back and digesting previous years of this blog, I've now reached all the way back to fifteen years ago. Of course most of those old posts are very forgettable, but some seemed worth recalling. Many of the links within those posts have gone dead, of course -- although in a few cases I looked for archive versions at archive.org's Wayback Machine

In some cases, the Blogger service apparently can't cope with the original coding, so I had to rescue a lot of the formatting and photo placements. Sometimes paragraph breaks had disappeared altogether, for example, and sometimes photos had ballooned to original size. If you run across a blog post that seems worth rehabilitating but is suffering from corrupted code, let me know and I will fix it.

In the early years of this blog, almost all comments came to me via the blog's own comment form. I still get a few comments that way, but now the majority of the comments are posted on Facebook or Twitter. Whatever works!

Thank you for reading. Your suggestions are always welcome.

January: Worship Seeking Understanding

Is "going through the motions" underrated? Maybe one way of looking at the work of John Witvliet and his Worship Institute colleagues and their counterparts throughout history is that they are "going through the motions" in the very best sense. Each motion (gathering, receiving, expressing) evokes an essential component of worship, and without a public, reliable, communicable, multisensual recounting of those motions, would our community eventually flake away down to a few ancient intuitive introverts with long memories? During the most oppressive periods of official atheism in the Soviet Union, all the church was allowed to do was to celebrate the liturgy (in other words, go through the motions); the liturgy had to carry the message ... and it did.

(read full post)

February: Patriotism and grief


"Patriotism" has been a difficult concept for me. Maybe it's because I've not lived in the country of my birth and original citizenship for most of my life; or because I've lived in six countries at one time or another; or because I've read too much pop psychology and pop anthropology, not to mention Kant and Kierkegaard, so that all the mysticism has drained out of concepts such as "nations" and "borders." Maybe it is because as a Christian I have an allegiance that trumps all others.

But I can't live on some smug, abstract plane of superiority....

(read full post)

March: "Idealism is realism"

The complicated relationship between idealism and realism is at the heart of community life and politics. The Bible is, among many other things, an amazing compilation of the highest, most inspiring ideals ("Love your enemies"—or, as in the present example, "It's the same as receiving me") and utter realism ("The poor you will always have among you" and "Hard times are inevitable").

Some years ago, I heard Gordon Hirabayashi speak at Canadian Yearly Meeting—a lecture later published by Argenta Friends Press as Good Times, Bad Times: Idealism Is Realism. In his lecture, he described how his ideals—in fact, even his patriotism—sustained him when, as a university student in Washington state, he refused to cooperate with the forced internal exile and internment of Japanese-Americans. His theme, "Sometimes idealism is realism," has stayed with me ever since.

(read full post)

April: Evangelical machismo

One of the writers exemplifying the new evangelical machismo is Irwin Raphael McManus. In The Barbarian Way: Unleash the Untamed Faith Within, he writes: "Somewhere along the way the movement of Jesus Christ became civilized as Christianity. We created a religion using the name of Jesus Christ and convinced ourselves that God's optimal desire for our lives was to insulate us in a spiritual bubble where we risk nothing, sacrifice nothing, lose nothing, worry about nothing. I wonder how many of us have lost our barbarian way and have become embittered with God, confused in our faith because God doesn't come through the way we think He should."

An unkind little demon whispers into my left ear: "Did any of these new-wave celebrities go to live in Baghdad? Did any of them refuse war taxes? Why are most of them men?"

(read full post)

May: Why?

I drew a circle based on someone's diagram I'd seen once of the life cycle of a church. At the top of my diagram was the ignition of a new movement by a messiah or a messianic group. After a while, the cycle gets to the stage where the movement begins to gain structure. Eventually, if it survives, it can rest on its laurels or hands and maybe even become complacent, but as it heads up the other half of the cycle it can decay to the point of generating discontent, fragmentation, and, in the best case, new reforming impulses and a rebirth.

At every point of the cycle, people can go off on tangents. To oversimplify absurdly, the technocrats can keep asking "what" and the legalists can keep asking "how," forgetting that the way to keep on the life cycle is to remember the central "why" of the organization.

(read full post)

June: Are Quakers marginal?

I first entitled this entry "Quakers are marginal." As in "Quakers ARE marginal." In at least three ways—

First, our numbers are microscopic. The number of Roman Catholics in Philadelphia (somewhere over half a million) far exceeds even the most inflated number of Friends in the whole world. If there is anything to "the wisdom of crowds," the wisdom of the crowd representing the world's population seems to be that "Quakers are marginal."

Second, even among those who've heard of us, some criticize and some admire our characteristic ideals, but few seem to understand our core passions and conceits.

(read full post -- and part two)

July: The use and abuse of doctrine

Doctrines are nothing more than seasoned and corporately ratified insights into the ultimate nature of things, expressed in a coherent, communicable form. Doctrines deserve respect, even though the granting of that respect may require community members to lower their walls of autonomy enough to acknowledge that wIn the Night Kitchenisdom doesn't start and end with them personally. To dump doctrines altogether may be a sign of intellectual laziness, but it may also be a declaration of independence from the community that holds those doctrines dear. Well, 'tis the season (at least in the USA) for declaring independence; Independence Day was just two days ago. However, sometimes I get the feeling that people don't really want to leave the community, they want the benefits of affiliation with no costs. They want identity and autonomy, too.

I don't intend to caricaturize anyone; identity and autonomy are not entirely contradictory. We cannot honestly take on a doctrine if we don't understand it, if it appears to be in a language or from a social context with which we are completely unfamiliar....

(read full post, including significant quotations from Anthony Bloom and Randall Balmer)

August: Safety and "the nature of the world in which we live"

Many years ago...James Prothro and Charles Grigg found a distinct difference between people's support of political tolerance in the abstract and their considerably lower tolerance in concrete situations. Every once in a while, political scientists tweak the rest of us by showing that Americans claim to cherish the Declaration of Independence, but when shown actual unlabeled text from that declaration, they declare it dangerous, communist, and the like. So it's not surprising that today's politicians try out yet again that old argument that, during a "war," we cannot afford the luxury of our values. Or, rather, they propose another value, safety, that supposedly trumps civil liberties and due process.

However, to remain politically useful, "safety" as a value must remain abstract as well! When we begin studying safety in concrete terms, problems arise....

(read full post)

September: In the Night Kitchen (Elektrostal at 2 a.m.)

...The two remaining members of my late-night delegation and I have exactly the kind of kitchen conversation that I’ve always said I love about Russia--but this time my fellow conversationalists are well under half my age. Over the next two hours, we touch on the following fascinating subjects among others: corruption, democracy in Russia (“If Alexander II had not been murdered on the eve of his planned reforms, we would be in better shape; we would be a constitutional democracy today”), and how to translate the words “envy” and “jealousy” in Russian.

We talked about video games, role playing, and theology. (“Some people think I’m an atheist, but I believe in the one true God. I just don’t trust churches. Their leaders want us to feel guilty, but God wants us to love Him and each other. He is ready to forgive us, but the church people aren’t.”) We even spend nearly half an hour trying to decide on the best ways to translate the concepts of “redemption” and “exculpation.” One of my young companions tells the Biblical story of the winegrower and his hired hands to illustrate his point.

(read full post)

October: The golden age of evangelism

A flood of mixed news from American evangelicalism continues to tempt me into making my trademark overgeneralizations. Here's today's: we are entering a golden age of evangelism.

What, I don't miss the good old days? No, not at all. For example, I don't get overly misty-eyed over the founding of the United States. It is true, as John Gunther says, that our country was "deliberately founded on a good idea." And that good--brilliant--idea of democracy is undermined whenever we substitute sentimental patriotism for the clear-eyed and persistent labor of insisting that those founding ideals be honored far better than they have been so far.

We began this country, remember, thinking that some of us were only worth 3/5 of others and that most of us were not entitled to vote. Church attendance was far lower proportionally than it is now, and the nation's elite may well have been more unitarian than Christian. Domestic violence and addictions were to be concealed, not healed. Executions (not to mention lynchings) were once public events.

As for the church, too often it traded on privilege instead of the urgent merit of its message....

(read full post and part two)

November: Where our hearts are, and who cares?

Otis Spann
One of the worst consequences of not being deliberate, thoughtful, and explicit in providing for human hearts in distress, is that when distressed people come to our meetings, they exercise (without any malevolent intent) a disproportionate influence on us nice people. When someone comes to my meeting and says, "There's too much Christ language, too much salvation language" (yes, it does happen even in a member church of Evangelical Friends International!), our options should not be limited to those polarized twins, abject codependence or defensiveness.

Of course, we should check to see whether our faith language has become formulaic; we owe that to ourselves as well as to newcomers. But we can also ask whether the allergic reaction to Christian language is the symptom of a wound that deserves tender attention. We're not just moderately Christian, subject to political negotiations about how much language to use and to balance out with other constructions; we're Friends of Christ, and those with the least commitment to the future of this precious friendship don't get veto power over how we express it and embody it. But they are entitled to our genuine, active, painstaking love, a love that at times dares to ask, "How's it going with your heart?"

(read full post)

December: "Please don't go"

Am I becoming a Quaker curmudgeon? Here comes another newsletter from an international Friends organization I care about. Let's see ... four pages of tiny print, with God mentioned once (in the mission statement) and absolutely no reference to Christ or Christianity. And how are we asked to support the organization? By sending money and getting our meetings to send money; evidently no prayer is needed. In contrast to the lack of divinity, the words "Quaker" and "Quakerism" are used at least a dozen times. But the overwhelming tone is that of a secular nongovernmental organization.

Years ago, when my job required me to read lots of these sorts of Quaker newsletters, I had a similar experience. A newsletter from the Quaker Council for European Affairs sent me over the edge when I realized that there was not a word in it about the spiritual motivation behind the excellent work it described. Being an experienced Quaker bureaucrat myself, after cooling off I had to admit that I knew the temptation to publicize what was on my desk rather than visualize and speak to a human audience about what was in my heart. Furthermore, as Right Sharing of World Resources staff (which I was at the time), I was aware that most of my daily reading and much of my advocacy work was in a context and culture set by large and competent secular organizations, and I began to recognize that I probably had a subconscious desire to be credible in that community.

(read full post)

Nancy Thomas: Confessions of an ex-elder.

Carl Sagan and Johnny Carson exhibiting the malignant influence of critical race theory.

Meanwhile, Daniel K. Williams asks whether there's a theological reason for white evangelical racism.

... And the Mercy Culture Church (if this reportage is to be believed) provides a master class in mass emotional manipulation.

2006 was the first year I put blues clips at the end of my blog posts. One of the treasures I found was this video (although this is not the original link; that one was deleted by YouTube, as the person who contributed it explained). There are very few video recordings of Little Walter Jacobs, and few of Hound Dog Taylor as well. 

08 July 2021

"The church is like a ..." (part two)

(part one)
From Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat (1944); source.

Today I have three new words to introduce the concept of "church" to people without any experience of what a church can be: lifeboat, garden, and portico.

(Background: this is a follow-up to "The church is like a ..." back in May, where I presented comparisons to an incubator, laboratory, and observatory, and explained why I went in search of models in the first place. On Facebook, I was delighted to get several more interesting suggestions; the threads are here and here.)

Why "lifeboat"? The "boat" image came to me almost immediately -- probably because I was doing a lot of speaking and writing on Jesus on the stormy seas, Noah's ark, the ecumenical image of the church as a boat, and so on. Underneath all that, I was putting together the qualities of several other ideas -- particularly "hospital" and "sanctuary" -- but with the added emphasis that those in the lifeboat are trying to pull in others who are still in the water, but they're all, so to speak, in the same boat. They're risking everything in the belief that the boat is trustworthy. Those who pull at the oars don't just wait passively to help people -- they move toward the places of need.

I vividly remember one experience of a Friends meeting as a lifeboat -- even though that lifeboat came into my life years after the crisis had happened. During many of the years of domestic violence and family chaos that I've described in recent posts, our family was living on Maple Avenue in Evanston, between Crain and Greenleaf Streets. Less than a block away stood the Evanston Friends Meetinghouse, right on the corner of Maple and Greenleaf! Any mention of religion was forbidden in our family, so I never dared to satisfy my curiosity about that building. Another source of drama and tension in my family, Nichols Junior High School, was also just a block away from the meetinghouse.

Many years later, I was on the board of Right Sharing of World Resources, and it happened that one of our board meetings was hosted by Evanston Friends. On Sunday morning, we joined the community of Evanston Friends at their regular meeting for worship, right there at the corner of Maple and Greenleaf.

I settled into the silence and tried to center down, but my teenage years on Maple Avenue came back to me in the form of vivid memories. I tried to bring them to the foot of the Cross. What began happening inside me then felt like nothing less than spiritual surgery of the deepest and gentlest kind. I tried to give voice to what I was feeling, but I couldn't convey how much pain my sisters and I had gone through less than a block from that place, how much weight was being lifted from me that very morning -- and how much poison was being removed. I had read about "healing of memories," but that was my first experience of it.

"Garden" as a model for church came naturally as an extension of "incubator" and "seedbed." What I love about the garden image is not just the variety and lifespans of the plants involved -- the annuals, perennials, ancient trees, new seedlings, glorious flowers, deceptively drab but savory herbs, and even the greedy weeds. But look at all the people involved with gardens: from urban klutzes like me to dedicated amateurs and professionals, to admiring visitors of all ages and conditions.

In Russia, I sometimes helped my friend who had a dacha about half an hour's walk from her home, where she grew vegetables for the table, and flowers to sell for income and to give as gifts. In the summer of 1998, the water level was so low that we had to lower buckets by hand to get the last bits of water at the bottom of the well. I understood that this was not a game -- she and her family depended on canning the produce for part of their winter food supply. (Meanwhile, back home, stores of potatoes, carrots, and beets were under every bed and desk.)

Every detail of this picture mirrors the life of a church, from the earthiness of soil and worms -- engagement with the actual creation -- to the variety of life experiences in the community, to the presence or absence of Living Water and the willingness (to quote Fred Boots) to bring a bucket to the water rather than a teaspoon.

Finally, the church as "portico" (or foyer, lobby, vestibule, whatever term you use for the place between the front gate and the working heart of the whole site).... This is actually my favorite of all these models. Maybe it is linked with Theresa of Avila and her "interior castle," and maybe it relates to the Eastern Orthodox understanding of the church at worship as heaven's living room on earth, but I actually have a specific anchor for this word. When I was a brand new Friend and a nervous newcomer to the realms of prayer, I came across Douglas Steere's book Dimensions of Prayer, and I was enormously helped by this passage:

... [I]n prayer, our first step is to remember, to be successfully awakened to the fact of deep reality encompassing us on every side, and to want to be drawn within its range of radiation. Prayer aims at both a recognition of, and a human response to, something of cosmic significance that is already going on in the universe. François de Sales expressed this very simply by telling those who would pray to begin by remembering into Whose Presence they were to come. And Francis of Assisi used the device of repeating over and over to himself at spaced intervals, "O my God, who art Thou? and Who am I?"

There is no hurry, however, about plunging into prayer. We may well linger in the portico to be awakened, to remember into Whose Presence we are about to come. If one of us were to be ushered into the presence of one of the great spirits of our time -- Albert Schweitzer, or Alan Paton, Vinoba Bhave, or Helen Keller -- we should be glad for a little time in the portico to collect ourselves, to adjust, not our clothing but our spirits, for meeting this one whose reputation we cherish. During this waiting period, we might well think of how this person had lived, of how he or she had spared nothing to give of himself to some great human cause, and of how drawn we were to have the blessings of conversing with him. If this time of recollection is precious preceding a visit to a contemporary, how much more suitable and necessary it is before coming into the presence of God.

Many other writers have helped me get closer to learning what a life of prayer might be all about. Among my favorites have been Brigid E. Herman, Thomas H. Green, Anthony Bloom, Catherine de Hueck Doherty, and Thomas Kelly. But those simple and reassuring paragraphs from Douglas Steere helped me get through the gate, from a background of ferocious anti-faith, to a place where my heart really wants to be.

Steere's image of a portico or foyer, where we can collect ourselves, maybe wipe our glasses or calm our beating heart, might sound like a device more intended for the individual approaching God, rather than a community. However, this might be a result of our not having the freedom we should have, as participants in a trustworthy church, to confess our fears and (apparent) failures, our breakthroughs, and our need for control. What if we all have these same hopes and fears? Then maybe we are in the portico together, ready to give up our control in the expectation that the very next step will be into God's heart.

PS: And if we don't all get the inner confirmation we yearned for this time, we will not lack for company when we gather ourselves up for another visit, unashamed because we are all equally loved, and equally welcome, whatever life has put in our way to make us doubt. We won't push you through the portico too quickly, but we also won't leave you behind.

Why Kathleen Parker never had a chance to say goodbye. "Three funerals in a week sounds like a reductive movie title, but it applies."

A brief introduction to Canada's Doukhobors, thanks to BBC's Travel page. (Thanks to Tom Stave for the link.) I mildly dispute the author's statement that the Doukhobor story is "little-documented" but "little-known" is probably right. Here's a brief item on our own visit to Castlegar, British Columbia, eight years ago.

The Washington Post picked up this item about Friends Committee on National Legislation from Religion News Service.

Doug Bennett on critical race theory: a tale of two disciplines.

Pope Francis on the real threat to the church. (A homily on Galatians.)

"She had pickpocket fingers and a Buster Keaton smile." James Harman and friends. (Talk about an atmospheric setting!)

01 July 2021

Ellen Maurer remembered

Brother and sisters: Johan, Renee, Ellen. Christmas 1968, the last Christmas the three of us had together.

People tell me I'm smart, intelligent, talented.... It seems like I should be fairly well off -- but as I sit here in Audy, on October the fifteenth, 1969, after ruining my chances in a foster home, I realize I haven't got anything ... and I wonder, should I give up -- or not?

-- Ellen Maurer

Yesterday was my sister Ellen's birthday. She would have been 66 years old. I'm going to indulge myself with a few reflections. It's possible this post is just for me, but if you have a moment, please get to know Ellen and her context a little better.

Last week, in describing how suitable my family was for life in a neighborhood of "nice people," I mentioned that, at the very time my parents and I were at the real estate office, Ellen was in "Audy," Chicago's juvenile jail.

She was fourteen years old.

I severely compressed a lot of history last week by saying that "my 1969 diary chronicles many of Ellen's run-ins with the law." Those run-ins actually started in in 1968, the first year I began keeping a diary.

On June 19, 1968, I wrote, "B---- [her family nickname, which she hated, so I won't use it here] appears to be seriously considering running away." 

On July 5, I may have been trying to reassure myself: "B---- has been talking, not too seriously, about running away." The very next day she actually did run away around 7:30 p.m. -- and was picked up by the police about twelve hours later. With her was "a Negro laborer," who (my father ominously but obscurely said) "could get from 60 days to 30 years."

That last detail links to an undercurrent of racism that sometimes rose to the surface when my mother lost her temper -- often because she was irritated by a neighbor or a school board decision or her "serves him right" reaction to Martin Luther King's assassination. But the worst effect of all was the alienation between her and Ellen, when she found out that Ellen had a black friend in middle school.

These hints sometimes got recorded in my diary. On June 22, I wrote "Yesterday Mom showed herself to be a sort of 'intellectual racist.' I wonder where she picks up the sort of garbage she talked about." I may not yet have put together all the clues I know now about her German school in Japan and its Hitler Youth connections in those years. A few days later, on the 26th, I wrote "Mom really seems to dislike B---- and me. She hit me when I told her she hates Negroes, and she yanked some toys from Renee that B---- had given to her, and then threw them out."

Am I revealing too many family secrets? Maybe it's compensation for all the secrets I kept at the time, all the things I knew about our family violence, but did not divulge when neighbors and teachers anxiously asked me what was going on at home. But my biggest motivation today is to put Ellen's incorrigible rebelliousness into some kind of larger picture -- because she was, at age 14, a very memorable person. I can't imagine what additional impact she might have made.

The truth is, only after she began leaving home did I fully realize how much pent-up creativity she had in her. During her hours, days, and months of incarceration and involuntary hospitalizations she wrote ceaselessly. Her response to the racism at home was, in part, to embrace black culture. Her output included many songs and poems, and two novels, all eventually left in the care of my parents, and apparently now lost. But I saw much of this output with my own eyes. If I had known that I was to be terminally evicted from our family home in "nice" northwest Evanston in June 1971, I would have smuggled them out to take with me. As it is, all I have are three letters and a few scraps of writing.

My family nickname (which I ditched as soon as I began high school) was "Fred," from middle name Fredrik.

In reverse chronological order, here's a quick digest of some of my previous posts that help me remember her:

Serves them right 

My sister Ellen, who began running away from home at age 13 (in 1968), spent much of the year 1969 behind bars. At least three separate times she was in the Audy Home (Chicago's juvenile detention facility at the time); most of the rest of her detention was in psychiatric hospitals. Of all the people in our family, she was probably the most mentally healthy, but those psychiatric confinements provided a relatively safe alternative to jail.

March shorts (an excerpt from my testimony at an Indiana Senate hearing on the death penalty, February 17, 1999)

My father attended Tyrone King’s murder trial [King was ultimately convicted of murdering my sister Ellen], and mentioned meeting his mother, who attempted to give him a Gospel tract. I feel sure that God did not create the child Tyrone King to murder my sister. What happened to twist a little boy into an adult murderer? Don’t get me wrong: Tyrone King, and not his environment, bears responsibility for pulling the trigger. However, putting him to death would have been far too convenient a way for society to avoid the difficult questions about how innocent children can be overcome by evil as they grow up. It is too easy to kill the murderer and wash our hands of these dilemmas.

Ellen's 60th

Until the last year before her death, a year in which she ran away from home repeatedly, and was in either police or mental health custody much of the time, we were constant companions and co-conspirators. Our parents were constantly drinking and fighting, so we had to make our own world.

(Read on to find out how we repaired a television together.)

Losses, part two (how three novelists helped me through my grief)

For years after my sister Ellen was murdered, I dreamed about her. The dreams were always the same: she came back from wherever she had been hiding to tell me that it had all been a big mistake. She hadn't been killed--how could I have thought that!?--she'd simply disappeared to have some time for herself, or, in another variation, she'd been away at camp. Since, in real life, she had run away from home more than ten times, and had also run away from a foster home and a hospital, it was entirely believable, until I woke up again.

A fiftieth birthday

The terrible alienation that drove Ellen from our home over and over again began when she made a new friend at Nichols. That girl was black. Somehow I had subconsciously known to keep my interracial school friendships out of my mother's field of vision, but that kind of caution would not have been my sister's way! But in any case, how could she have anticipated such a devastating response from her mother? The warmth instantly drained out of their mother-daughter relationship, my father did nothing to intervene, and Ellen and I became conspirators for sanity in our own home.

On losing a sister to murder

From her hiding place somewhere in Chicago, she phoned on my birthday. It was the last time I heard from her. What happened in the next five days is not altogether clear. She was found dying of gunshot wounds on a canal bridge in Chicago. The first we heard about it was a phone call asking my father to come to the morgue to view a body.

More letters another time...

Screenshot from Day of Rage.
The just-published New York Times video on January 6: Day of Rage

Perpetual war dept.: what are we getting for the USA's $1.3 trillion national security budget?

The Marafiki organization (on whose board I serve) has just announced the creation of the Allan Afanda Memorial Fund, to honor the late son of Marafiki partners John and Rose Muhanji, and to advance the work he cared about.

How to convene a Spiritual Companion Group, through training offered by the Quaker Religious Education Collaborative.

Love, Actively: Paul J. Contino on reading Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov in 2021.

Micah Bales at Berkeley Friends Church: So long, and thanks for all the fish.

Nancy Thomas learns to swear.

Today's clip is from this exact period of my life. Blues music was my companion in my worst times, especially after Ellen died and I wondered why I was the one who was spared. This tune, "Too Much Alcohol" by J.B. Hutto and his Hawks, is from the first blues album I ever owned. This was the track I used in my high school television production class to make my first music video before I even realized that music videos were a thing.

If you've been with me so far, you won't be surprised that my teenage fascination with this music was something I had to keep concealed from my family.

Once upon a time there was a live-performance video of this song, but it has apparently disappeared. (Here's a brief documentary glimpse of the great J.B. Hutto.)

24 June 2021

Why evangelicals should like CRT

 Our home (center) in my high school years, and our "nice" neighborhood. Source.
At the end of 1968, when we were still living in our apartment near one of Evanston's tacit racial boundaries, my mother received $25,000 from her parents in Germany -- enough at the time for a substantial down payment on a house. On July 26, 1969, we as a family went to a real estate office, accompanied by one of my father's colleagues, to begin house-hunting.

I don't know how much I was supposed to hear in the conversations among the adults, but I distinctly remember my mother making it clear that she intended to live in a white neighborhood. No problem, the agent said; the neighborhood we were considering would be perfect. I distinctly remember the words "nice people."

My mother didn't mention that her daughter Ellen was at that moment incarcerated in Chicago's juvenile jail, the Audy Home. My 1969 diary chronicles many of Ellen's run-ins with the law, as well as the general mayhem that transpired in our home on a near-daily basis. In between White Sox scores, project Apollo coverage, and lists of unfinished homework, I regularly reported on the epic fights between my parents, some of which involved food being thrown about the kitchen and dining room. On one memorable occasion, my father threw my sister's copy of the Walker Report at me.

Obviously, we would fit right into a neighborhood of "nice people."

These are the memories that came back to me when I was reading Michael Gerson's op-ed, "I'm a conservative who believes systemic racism is real." His version of my story goes like this:

I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood of a middle-class suburb in a Midwestern city. I went to a middle-class high school, with middle-class friends, eating middle-class fried bologna sandwiches. And for most of my upbringing, this seemed not only normal but normative. I assumed this was a typical American childhood.

Only later did I begin to see that my normality was actually a social construction. By the time I was growing up in the 1970s, St. Louis no longer had legal segregation. But my suburb, my neighborhood and my private high school were all outcomes of White flight. The systems of policing, zoning and education I grew up with had been created to ensure one result: to keep certain communities safe, orderly and pale.

We're not just talking about the right to buy property among one or another group of nice people. Here's how the U.S. president, Lyndon Johnson, described how systemic racism sabotaged the basic right to vote, in his post-Selma speech to the U.S. Congress in 1965:

There is no reason which can excuse the denial of that right. There is no duty which weighs more heavily on us than the duty we have to ensure that right.

Yet the harsh fact is that in many places in this country men and women are kept from voting simply because they are Negroes. Every device of which human ingenuity is capable has been used to deny this right. The Negro citizen may go to register only to be told that the day is wrong, or the hour is late, or the official in charge is absent. And if he persists, and if he manages to present himself to the registrar, he may be disqualified because he did not spell out his middle name or because he abbreviated a word on the application. And if he manages to fill out an application, he is given a test. The registrar is the sole judge of whether he passes this test. He may be asked to recite the entire Constitution, or explain the most complex provisions of State law. And even a college degree cannot be used to prove that he can read and write.

For the fact is that the only way to pass these barriers is to show a white skin. Experience has clearly shown that the existing process of law cannot overcome systematic and ingenious discrimination. No law that we now have on the books -- and I have helped to put three of them there -- can ensure the right to vote when local officials are determined to deny it.

What was blatant in 1965 Mississippi may have been comparatively latent in middle-class suburban Chicago or St. Louis, but (here's the crucial point) the phenomenon of racism doesn't depend on the existence, disappearance, or conversion of individual racists. For a well-meaning white person to proclaim their own color-blindness misses the point.

[Related: Seeking to justify myself.]

Critical race theory, for example, is not a way to charge every white person with being racist. It is simply an analytical tool to help us go deeper, to explore why our neighbors continue to feel the effects of embedded racism, even if we personally do not. Is it the only tool? Probably not, but I cite it here because it is under such concentrated attack that, even if you are a loyal Fox News viewer, you must wonder sometimes how such a malignant danger could have struck such deep roots into mild-mannered legal scholars and sociologists! Isn't it possible that someone or something is benefitting from convincing you to distrust CRT? Are those critics of CRT describing something that its advocates are not actually advancing?

From an evangelical viewpoint, here are some ideas about that "someone or something."

First of all: Black people -- and Black Lives Matter activists of all colors -- are our neighbors, too! To many of them/us, the idea that our lives have all been made poorer by racism's long-time, persistent power to warp our laws and institutions is not new, and it's not rocket science. Don't we owe it to our neighbors to see if their perceptions are correct, and if they are, to work alongside them to confront this power? To reiterate this crucial point, the purpose is not to tag or shame anyone, because the problem is systemic, it weakens the whole community, and our individual virtue is totally beside the point.

Critical race theory is, by definition, unable to "essentialize race" for the purpose of condemning all white people, as some have charged, because CRT denies the objective, biological basis of race in the first place. Instead of encouraging us to look at people and judge them for their skin color, the tool helps us discover the systemic, embedded effects of looking at people that way.

Michael Gerson argues that studying systemic racism is consistent with conservatism because...

For me, part of being a conservative means taking history seriously. We do not, as Tom Paine foolishly claimed, “have it in our power to begin the world over again.” We live in an imperfect world we did not create and have duties that flow from our story.

There is an important moral distinction between “guilt” and “responsibility.” It is not useful, and perhaps not fair, to say that most White people are guilty of creating social systems shaped by white supremacy. But they do have a responsibility as citizens, and as moral creatures, to seek a society where equal opportunity is a reality for all.

Rather than slander the methods used to expose and explain the lack of equal opportunity, wouldn't it make sense to put that passion and urgency into questioning why that lack persists? After all, we have at our disposal the tools of "systemic anti-racism," as Gerson says. "We have documents — the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the 14th Amendment — that call us to our better selves.... The response to systemic racism is the determined, systematic application of our highest ideals."

Evangelicals are the last people who should be shocked that sin has embedded itself in our laws and institutions. In an earlier post on perpetual war and biblical realism, I pointed out that "Biblical realism allows us to confront perpetual war by reminding us that the hearts of nations as well as individuals are inclined toward deceit, and the Bible doesn't make an exception for us." The same goes for all forms of socially embedded sin. Ecclesiastes gives us a vivid example: "If you see the poor oppressed in a district, and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised at such things; for one official is eyed by a higher one, and over them both are others higher still." (Ecclesiastes 5:8.)

Given its origins, persistence, and ability to confuse, confound, and stir up useless controversy, I personally have no doubt that racism has a demonic stronghold in the USA. All of us who believe in the nonviolent Lamb's War against the powers and principalities and forces of evil in high places can play a role in tearing down this stronghold:

  • We can reject false allegations about the tools and methods at our disposal, including CRT for those led to use it. We can courteously remind our alarmed neighbors that the Sword of the Spirit is the Word of God, not Fox News.
  • We can also confront the misuse of those tools, their exploitation to shame people for political purposes, or the temptation to idolize the tools instead of keeping our eyes on the prize.
  • We can create and maintain multiracial communities of struggle that, by their very existence, subvert the myths of racism.
  • If we are far from the obvious centers of struggle, we can still participate by prayer, study, correspondence, making judicious contributions.

If by our faithful struggle we begin tearing down the stronghold of racism, chances are we will also be well on the way to healing the polarizations that threaten to tear us apart. Those polarizations distract us from focusing on our common dangers -- and I'm realist enough to believe that this is no accident.

Robert P. Baird, The invention of whiteness: the long history of a dangerous idea.

The idea of whiteness, in other words, was identical to the idea of white supremacy. For the three centuries that preceded the civil rights movement, this presumption was accepted at the most refined levels of culture, by people who, in other contexts, were among the most vocal advocates of human liberty and equality. ...

As though aware of their own guilty conscience, the evangelists of the religion of whiteness were always desperate to prove that it was something other than mere prejudice. Where the Bible still held sway, they bent the story of Noah’s son Ham into a divine apologia for white supremacy. When anatomy and anthropology gained prestige in the 18th and 19th centuries, they cited pseudo-scientific markers of racial difference like the cephalic index and the norma verticalis. When psychology took over in the 20th, they told themselves flattering stories about divergences.

Stuart Masters, A glimpse of heaven on earth -- the roots of Quaker utopian communities.... (Russian translation of Stuart's article.)

Mark Buchanan, it's time to set some rules for talking to extraterrestrials.

How Mindy Roll came to love embodied prayer.

My James Harman tribute continues. Today -- "Payback Time" from a pandemic-shaped streaming concert last summer, with the Rhythm Scratchers.

17 June 2021

How to write about Russia, part three

Part one; part two.
Screenshots from source.  

The first thing to be said: when describing Russia, it is not necessary to begin with politics. During my years of living in Elektrostal, and my visits to many other places in Russia, I was witness to the fact that Russians are normal people who can enjoy life, overcome personal crises, display amazing generosity and hospitality, and deploy wicked humor as needed. If the picture of Russia that emerges from Western journalism doesn't give this human context, it makes the whole of Russia that much easier to demonize.

It is not necessary to begin with politics, but it is also impossible to avoid politics. Everywhere we humans organize ourselves into communities, states, nations, empires, we are unavoidably caught up in systems where some seek to gain and maintain advantage over others, where some love to test the boundaries and others simply want to know where the boundaries are, where customs and rules arise to manage those inevitable conflicts, and where vast majorities simply hope to go from day to do, feeding themselves and their families without being noticed by anyone with power and an agenda.

What happens when someone is noticed? This is where a nation's politics meets its testing point. The philosopher David Hartman was right when he called "due process" the most important development in the history of humanity. Whenever due process is sabotaged -- in the USA, in Russia, or anywhere -- the demons that rushes into the vacuum are corruption and cruelty.

Each country must face its own reckoning for the ways it allows those with power to crush people, whether by intention, or by structural racism and elitism, or simply by caprice and neglect. (Maybe we should make an exception for nations that do not claim to observe justice -- are there any such nations?) Such reckoning is not achieved by pointing at another nation's failures, but by accounting for and amending one's own by one's own claimed standards.

Yesterday, ABC reporter Rachel Scott confronted Russian president Vladimir Putin in Geneva with a pair of pointed questions. (CNN's version of the full exchange, with Putin's answers, is here.)

First question:

The list of your political opponents who are dead, imprisoned, or jailed, is long. Alexei Navalny, whose organization calls for free and fair elections, an end to corruption -- Russia has outlawed that organization in calling it extremist. And now you have prevented anyone who supports him to run for office. So my question is, Mr. President, what are you so afraid of?

The transcript with Putin's full answer is below, after the video, but it was an extremely vague set of references to organizations operating in Russia with USA funding, and claiming that one such organization (referring to Navalny's) was calling for mass demonstrations and trying to manipulate young people. He went on to refer to the disorders in the USA that followed the killing of George Floyd, and said that such disorders would not be allowed to happen in Russia.

Scott followed up:

You didn't answer my question, sir. If all of your political opponents are dead, in prison, poisoned, doesn't that send a message that you do not want a fair political fight?

Putin this time decided that she should have asked another question entirely ... who is killing whom? He then proceeded to answer that question by referring to the January 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol. I think he is trying, with both of his answers, to claim, without saying it openly, that genuine political competition is too risky. And, the unspoken corollary is that it is better to arrest and poison people, and threaten their friends with loss of jobs, their children with loss of prospects, and a nation with bottomless cynicism, than to take the risk of an honest political fight which he and his whole "system" might lose.

Rachel Scott's question referred to Putin's political opponents ("dead, in prison, poisoned"), but last week brought a fascinating and shocking investigation into the apparent poisoning of a prominent poet, author, and literary critic, Dmitri Bykov. Bykov is not a political activist himself at all, certainly not on the scale of Navalny, and he leads absolutely no movement. However, he has made no secret of his opposition to Russia's current leadership. He is well-known, well-respected ... in other words, noticeable.

I remember when the original incident occurred, back in spring 2019; Facebook and Twitter came alive with requests to pray for Bykov, who fell ill on an airplane and remained in a coma for several days. Bellingcat's report is here; some of the puzzled commentary about the attempt on Bykov's life is here. According to Bellingcat, Bykov himself had no idea why he would be targeted; his very telling comment was that maybe he was just "next on the list."

I wrote about my own experience of one of Bykov's events on this post from 2016.

Does Russia in fact employ a team of poisoners working with their intelligence services to kill their own citizens who ask too many questions? This would certainly seem to be a way of reinforcing that desire, well-known in the former Soviet Union, of shrinking into the background, of simply living from day to day in the hopes of not being noticed by those with power and an agenda.

Back to Putin's reply to Rachel Scott. One of his rather disconnected phrases stuck out to me: "In many countries the same thing happens that happens in our country." Again, I'm guessing at his meaning: If something happens in Russia that doesn't seem to fit the ideal, then don't forget that it also happens everywhere else.

Scandals in other countries are not at all a reason for me to ignore or trivialize blatant cruelty as government policy in a land -- Russia -- whose people and culture have become part of me. However, it also is yet another reminder that when the USA's own people of power subvert due process, abuse and beat and kill suspects, harass peaceful demonstrators, weaken voting rights -- all that just makes life easier and more delightful for the world's smooth-talking authoritarians.

Just a reminder: cynicism is spiritual poison. If you're being invited to abandon your ideals because there also happens to be corruption elsewhere, resist! Together we can work toward the day when corruption and cruelty no longer have a home anywhere.

Among the winners of a survey of Russia's best speakers of Russian: Dmitri Bykov.

Putin's "master class" in whataboutism, and its possible weakness as a strategy.

Earth's energy imbalance has doubled. What does that mean?

This article about insomnia promotes a particular brand of bedding, but, having had several encounters with insomnia over the years, the article seems helpful to me. (Plus: Canadian content!)

Banda Health: Software developers in a frontline alliance with clinics in East Africa and Niger. (Thanks to Bob and Hope Carter, whose newsletter told us about Banda Health.)

Part two of my tribute to James Harman. Here he is at Buddy Guy's Legends club back in the '90's:

Rachel Scott (ABC News): The list of your political opponents who are dead, imprisoned, or jailed, is long. Alexei Navalny, whose organization calls for free and fair elections, an end to corruption -- Russia has outlawed that organization in calling it extremist. And now you have prevented anyone who supports him to run for office. So my question is, Mr. President, what are you so afraid of?

Vladimir Putin: Well, once again I would like to repeat what I said about so-called "foreign agents" and the people who position themselves as the non-system opposition. I've already spoken to your colleagues; now I have to repeat that to you. The U.S. has passed a law that said the U.S. would particularly favor individual organizations in Russia. And at the same time they declared the Russian Federation as an enemy. They publicly declared that they will try to contain Russia. My question is, "Which organizations, which political organizations in the U.S. are going to be supported by the U.S., especially if they pay them? We, the same as the Americans in the 1930's, have endorsed a law but their work is not prohibited. If the organization has an extremist character, that's another kettle of fish. I just wanted to tell you that that one in particular called for public mass demonstrations and also involved or urged minors to take part in street demonstrations and obviously they were being used or manipulated against the law enforcement agencies.

America just recently had to deal with terrible events after the killing of an African American. And an entire movement developed, known as Black Lives Matter. I'm not going to comment on that. But here's what I do want to say. What we saw was disordered destruction, violations of the law, etc. We feel sympathy for the United States of America, but we don't want that to happen on our territory. And we're doing our utmost in order to not allow it to happen. And some fears, has nothing to do with anything.

RS: You didn't answer my question, sir. If all of your political opponents are dead, in prison, poisoned, doesn't that send a message that you do not want a fair political fight?

VVP: As for who is killing whom, throwing whom in jail, people came to the U.S. Congress with political demands. Four hundred people. Over 400 people had criminal charges placed on them. They faced prison sentences of up to 20, maybe even 25 years. They're being called domestic terrorists. They're being accused of a number of other crimes. Seventy of them were arrested right away after the events. And 30 of them are still under arrest. It's unclear on what grounds. And as for the -- nobody from the official authorities has informed us about it. Some people, some people died. And one of the people who died was simply shot on the spot by the police, although they were not threatening the police with any weapons. In many countries the same thing happens that happens in our country. I'd like to stress once more that we sympathize with what happened in the United States but we have no desire to allow the same thing to happen in our country.