20 June 2024

The long defeat, part one

Top: Kristin Kobes Du Mez (source).
Bottom: Len Vander Zee (source).

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. (Romans 8:22, context.)

“Together through the ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.” (from J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings.)

Credit where credit is due: what follows was sparked by a message, "Growing Pains," given on Pentecost by our Camas Friends Church's pastor Matt Boswell. Not for the first time, his thoughtful message led me on some trails of my own, which I then put together as a sermon at Spokane Friends Meeting, later in May.

As I told Spokane Friends, Matt had spoken about the passage in Romans chapter eight that refers to all Creation groaning and awaiting its liberation. The passage continues (Romans 8:24-27; full chapter):

For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.

Matt invited us to consider how we’ve dealt with pain and growth, and how we’ve experienced the Spirit interceding for us. As often happens these days, my thoughts went in a direction that you may have already predicted: how some very specific parts of Creation are groaning, namely Ukraine and the Gaza Strip.

Although I'm not normally shy about connecting prayer with political implications, I have a different purpose here today. I want to consider how God’s Spirit intercedes for us when we run out of ways to pray. 

It was almost five years ago that I applied to Christian Peacemaker Teams, as they were still called at the time, to serve on their team in Hebron, Palestine. Somewhat to my surprise, I was accepted. I served there the last quarter of 2019. Somehow, even during the most violent episodes of those three months, I didn’t fear for my own safety. By the way, I’m not a total idiot; later on, and even now when I look at pictures from those months, I get retroactively scared, if you know what I mean. In any case, while I was there, I realized that the purpose of my service in Palestine was not to be some sort of hero of nonviolent accompaniment, but to learn what it means to pray without ceasing

All the same, I’m not claiming to be a very effective practitioner of nonstop prayer, because no matter how hard I prayed during those three months in Palestine, lives kept getting lost, houses kept getting knocked down, and different groups of people, all equally loved by God according to my own theology, kept insisting on seeing each other as implacable enemies.

Father Emmanuel Charles McCarthy, a Catholic lawyer and theologian, gave a sermon back in the late 1970's whose theme was, “Apathy in the face of preventable suffering is radical evil.” (I’m pretty sure I’ve quoted him on this subject before.) In that sermon he used this vivid phrase: “History is a butcher’s bench.” Among the people McCarthy has counseled over the years is Father Zabelka, the chaplain of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bomber crew. Father Zabelka’s conversion to Christian nonviolence a quarter century later was a powerful witness, but the reality is that those bombing crews made it to their targets. As did the Japanese crews that flew to Pearl Harbor. And the chain of violence and retribution stretches back to Cain and Abel.

God loves us but does not necessarily restrain our violent hand.

Of course it is true that we don’t necessarily know when God’s intervention did happen, only when it apparently didn’t. So God didn’t restrain the hands of Russian soldiers in Ukraine, though we have to wonder what happened in the minds and hearts of the thousands of soldiers who have apparently deserted since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. And God didn’t prevent the loss of thousands of innocent children in the Gaza Strip since the Hamas attack. It just doesn’t seem right to me to say that all of us who prayed our little heads off for peace and reconciliation just weren’t using the right words, or we failed to mobilize enough people to pray enough times day and night to finally persuade God to act. Ever since we ate those apples in the Garden of Eden, too many of us humans think we know better than God how to fix conflicts by eliminating our enemies, and God hasn’t seen fit to set us all straight.

So: Creation continues to groan. And we continue to search for the words of authentic prayer, and the assurance that, even if we fail, the Spirit will intercede for us.

On the day I gave this message at Spokane Friends, that morning I had read a remarkable substack post by Kristin Kobes Du Mez, reporting on a sermon she had recently heard from Len Vander Zee of the Church of the Servant in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Some of you probably recognize Kristin Du Mez’s name as the author of the book Jesus and John Wayne. Her post was very helpful to me as I prepared myself to speak about the ways we as the Church respond in prayer and in honesty to a creation in pain.

Her substack post quotes Vander Zee as saying,

What is the calling of the church? You know what that is. Take up your cross and follow me. The church is called to follow its king in self-sacrificing love.

Somehow the church tends to pick up the idea that we’re supposed to win. That our place in the world is not one of suffering love, but victorious power….

It’s so easy for the church to forget that Christ did not call us to rule but to serve. He called us, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, to come and die. The church’s role in history is to live the way of the King, the way of the cross, the way of self-giving love.

Now, Kristin du Mez lets us know that she had some other things going on in her mind as Vander Zee continued with his sermon. Here’s what she says about that:

As I listened to the sermon, I was thinking about steeling myself for the months ahead. I thought of the organizations and networks I was involved with, of the posts I had planned here, of the traveling I would be doing, of the projects (some yet to be unveiled) that I’d be dedicating my time and energy to. My mind was wandering, but I was still following along with the sermon. And then I heard the words that jarred me. Len was quoting Celeborn and Galadriel in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, saying: “together through the ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.” Tolkien expanded on this in a letter to a friend: “I am a Christian….so I do not expect history to be anything but a long defeat, though it contains…… some glimpse of final victory.”

“A long defeat.” Sounds pretty dismal, doesn’t it? 

Yet, on some level, doesn't it match the actual record? Despite all evidence that power and violence never work in the long run, the myth of redemptive violence keeps chugging along, generation after generation, raining bullets on the just and unjust alike. Here’s how Du Mez interprets this “long defeat” for herself, in the context of the campaign she sees herself waging, against the heresies of white Christian nationalism:

We all think our cause is righteous. And when you refuse to allow for the possibility of losing, it changes what you’re fighting for. It changes how you fight. And it changes who you are. …

As much as I want my side to win this next round, it’s not a given. The cause is urgent, and (I think) good. But we are not called to win, nor should we necessarily expect to.

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t work diligently to protect the good of our nation and our fellow citizens, and, for those of us who are Christians, to fight against what we see as a dangerous distortion of our faith. I’m planning on spending the next several months working to this end. But it also means that we need to be grounded in something deeper than winning the next battle. If we are, I think we’ll find the resilience to grapple with whatever the outcome of the next battle might be.

I began this message intending to address how we pray when we see Creation groaning beyond our apparent ability to intercede. First of all, I do trust that the Holy Spirit intercedes for God’s people, as Paul says in Romans 8. But I’m a verbal person; that’s how I express my faith, however clueless I may be at times. Here’s where another passage from Paul,  2 Corinthians 1:19-20 (context), helps me:

For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by us—by me and Silas and Timothy—was not “Yes” and “No,” but in him it has always been “Yes.” For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God. 

Here, Paul is explaining why he changed his itinerary on his way to meet with his audience, and that he did so not for trivial reasons, as if there were no difference between “yes” and “no.” When I first read this passage as a new Christian, a freshly minted Quaker in Ottawa Meeting, it struck me deeply, and as a result, the word “yes” became my lifelong one-word prayer. To put it another way, I see Jesus as the “yes” to God’s promises. The most important promise, in my view, is that God never abandons us. The world is not in a position to guarantee our safety, but the world doesn’t get to separate us from God.

For me, the word “yes” implies another one-word prayer, “no.” (More about "no" from Yakov Krotov.) We don’t have magical powers against violence, racism, greed, cruelty, elitism, and the demand that we see others as “enemies,” but when we have said “yes” to the Prince of Peace, we have the right to say “no” in his name to any force that seeks to harm those he loves.

I am not pleading for this list of one-word prayers or against that. I love the three one-word prayers that Anne Lamott suggests:  “thanks,” “help,” and “wow.” When all is said and said and said, I want and need to fall back on Paul’s promise that the Spirit will intercede for us through wordless groans, as if the Spirit, too, knows and understands this “long defeat” that the Spirit is equipping us to endure.

Nor am I saying that wordless prayer, or one-word prayer, is superior. Our prayers reflect our temperaments—some of us are severely practical, some of us are mystical and live in constant awareness of God’s presence, some of us are verbal, some visual, and so on. For many of us, the Lord’s Prayer keeps us well-rooted in God’s promises. Anthony Bloom, in his Conversations on Prayer, says that our prayer life should be as transparent and intimate as we are with our wives, husbands, our best friends. Douglas Steere, the Quaker philosopher, wrote in Dimensions of Prayer, that when we begin a time of prayer, it may help to pause at the threshold and consider whom you’re about to meet.

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 blessing of conversing with him. If this time of recollection is precious preceding a visit to a contemporary, how much suitable and necessary it is before coming into the presence of God.

This kind of pausing is, I think, already prayer, a prayer of relationship and reverence.

Finally, I’m also not saying that we must never pray for miracles. I’ve prayed for many people to heal from terminal diagnoses, and I will keep doing so. I’ve told you before that, when the full-scale invasion of Ukraine began and the missiles began flying, I would pray that God would send legions of angels into the skies over Ukraine. I still sometimes find myself praying for those angels to be sent. No matter how often my prayers seem foolish even to myself, I have a standing testimony against cynicism. But, however you and I pray, the Holy Spirit knows how to intercede for us. I’m just grateful to God for this. It means, after all, that we don’t have to adopt a piety that pretends that a good outcome will happen in this hurting world just because we finally find the right words.

When I gave my earlier version of this message at Spokane Friends, I ended with these queries:

Is the idea of history as a “long defeat” helpful or unhelpful to you? Do you sometimes see, with Tolkien, a “glimpse of final victory”?

What would it be like for you to pause at the threshold and contemplate the wordless communion or the conversation you’re about to enter?

When (or if) you say “yes” to God, what else might that lead you to say “yes” to? What might that lead you to say “no” to?

In the Woodbrooke course on "Quaker theology and whiteness," which is halfway through its six-week term, Mark Russ has just given us some glimpses of how Eastern religious cultures and practices were selected, categorized, and commodified for Western audiences. I had that class in mind when I read Jackie Bailey in The Guardian:  "Yes, praying and posing can bring joy – but true spirituality demands something more of us."

... Related? Richard Beck on contemplative elitism, part one, part two, part three.

Seraphim Sigrist reaches into his files for a beautiful reflection by Karina Chernyak on the power of a seeking, yearning, celebrating community—such as Karina herself wanted to help create in the early post-Soviet years in Moscow.

Philip Ball: Scientists wonder if the universe is like a doughnut.

More rocket science (referring to my June 6 post on Starliner and Starship): More Starliner drama, as its return from space is postponed again.

Gary Clark, Jr., and Jimmy Vaughan. "Honest I Do."

13 June 2024

Happy 20th birthday ...

... to this blog.

Last week Can You Believe? turned twenty years old. My post last week on "Rocket Science" was post number 1,081. Those posts have collected 2,005 comments on the Blogger platform, plus an uncounted number on Facebook and a handful elsewhere.

When I started this weekly weblog, in early June 2004, I was in my last weeks of a year-long academic fellowship at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Center in Birmingham, England. Two experiences in that year helped whet my appetite for a blog-like channel:

First, during my very first two weeks at Woodbrooke, Dan McCracken and Ron Woodward asked me to contribute to a feature on the Barclay Press Web site at the time, the Conversation Cafe. The assignment: two weeks of daily essays from me, followed by similar series of essays from a group of other writers. During those two weeks, I ended every day by writing an essay, which would arrive eight hours earlier in Newberg, Oregon, owing to the time zone difference, and be ready for that day's post. Here's one sample.

When my two weeks were up, I had enjoyed the experience very much, and found it helpful for my own personal reflections, but it didn't dawn on me to find another channel to continue creating that sort of expression.

My theme for my Woodbrooke academic year was "Evangelism and the Friends Testimonies," and I began reading and corresponding to build up resources for this theme. This title was admittedly a bit provocative, since the word "evangelism" was not in frequent use among British Friends, but my Woodbrooke collaborators were good-natured about my choices. My goal was to help Friends begin conversations between the Quaker groups that, broadly speaking, preferred to do outreach by emphasizing the Christian invitation to "repent and believe the Good News," and those who preferred to demonstrate their faith through prophetic action in the world, in the service of peace and nonviolence, simplicity and equality, leadership based on spiritual gifts instead of social status, governance based on community discernment, and care of Creation. Were there ways that the advocates of each emphasis could make creative connections with the advocates of the other priority?

After several months of accumulating resources, I realized that I needed a new way of sharing those resources and drawing more people into the conversations. I turned to the most popular form of Internet-based discussions in those years, namely Internet forums. I set up a forum on a service called Network 54. When it appeared that this platform might not last forever, I exported its contents to a Google group, which can be found here: Evangelism and the Quaker Testimonies.

Toward the end of my Woodbrooke year, my hunger for such exchanges of ideas, and my desire to provoke further consideration of the connections between faith and practice, particularly faith and politics, was not satisfied by the static format of online forums. That's when I discovered the Blogspot  platform and decided to give it a chance by posting a paragraph or two. To my immense delight, a Friend who may have been the very first Quaker blogger, Martin Kelley, responded right away with an encouraging comment. (Also see Martin's "The Early Blogging Days.")

I actually think my desire to go public with blog-like essays and invitations to dialogue started even earlier—when I was part of the Quaker Life staff, during the years 1993-2000. I provided a column for just about every issue during my tenure. There's a sample editorial halfway down this blog post. The pace was more leisurely for a monthly publication, as I now remember fondly, and I'm thinking that after twenty years of weekly posts on this blog, maybe it's time to slow things down.

Another reality: blogs don't have the readership they used to. In my peak month, some years ago, I got about 40,000 views. Last month my count was down to 16,349. That is a raw total; it includes people who are drawn by some search that somehow included me in the results, and I'm sure that it took the vast majority of them just a second or two to realize they weren't going to find what they needed on a blog mainly intended for a Christian and mostly Quaker audience.

Thank you for your good company to this point. As for the future, I've decided nothing so far ... except that I will be back next week.

Related: The blogging rules I usually break.

Here's a Facebook story about the "genius of the cello," Mstislav Rostropovich, which reminded me of my own memories of him.

Norman Solomon (Tomdispatch) on "The Absence—and Presence—of Daniel Ellsberg."

Philip Boobbyer on what it takes to break the blame-hate-revenge cycle.

Our friend, Ukrainian pacifist Yurii Sheliazhenko, has been on trial in Kyiv.

Many Palestinian farms, properties, and orchards in the West Bank are under constant physical and legal harassment, including the Tent of Nations near Bethlehem, while the world's attention is (for good reason) focused on the Gaza Strip. (Thanks to Gordon Matthews for the link.)

In my Genius of the Cello post, mentioned above, I described how we used such films in our classes in Russia. Another film we used was Standing in the Shadows of Motown, because so much American English slang comes from musicians. In the first clip below, Jack Ashford of the Funk Brothers demonstrates the "Motown Sound," using the song "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" as his example. ... "You see how that feels? That's part of the Motown sound, right? Now I'm going to add my tambourine to it."

The second clip: Joan Osborne, "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted?"

06 June 2024

Rocket science: two suspenseful mornings in a row

The flap begins to shred before our very eyes...can Starship hold together for just eight more minutes?
(Screenshots from source.)  

I have been a spaceflight fan since the days of Mercury Redstone and José Jiménez, so yesterday and today have been red-letter days for me. The starring attractions: yesterday, Starliner, and, today, Starship.

Yesterday's event was the very first flight of Boeing's Starliner spacecraft with passengers on board. Here the tension was focused on the very fact of the launch: after four and a half years since that embarrassing first test flight, and after additional technical problems surfaced along the way, and after last Saturday's scrubbed attempt that came within 3 minutes and 50 seconds of reaching "zero," it was hard not to wonder whether Boeing's counterpart to the enormously successful SpaceX Crew Dragon would ever take off. In the background: the contrast between these commercial spaceflight competitors, Boeing (expected at first to be the obvious choice for NASA's commercial suppliers for spaceflight) and the unexpectedly nimble winner of this commercial space race, SpaceX.


Back to yesterday's launch. As soon as the Atlas 5 with its Centaur second stage and Starliner cleared the tower, I was relatively sure everything would go well, and today would find the two test-flight astronauts, Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams, joining their colleagues at the International Space Station. And so they did, although the flight and docking were not problem-free. Boeing and NASA now have about a week to put their craft through all the steps of its trial voyage.

Even though there were no passengers involved, today's fourth test launch of SpaceX's Starship was high drama for me. (Somewhat confusingly to me, "Starship" refers both to the whole booster/spaceship combination and to the spaceship on top of the booster. By itself, the booster is called Super Heavy.) SpaceX has big plans for Starship, especially for the version that will carry crews to the Moon and beyond. But Starship has a long way to go before it is ready for such missions.

The process by which Starship is being developed has been called "iterative and incremental development," which reminds me of the advice the British Quakers drafting their new Faith and Practice gave us members of our own yearly meeting's Faith and Practice Committee: "fail fast!" Put prototypes (or drafts) together and then get them out for testing. Subject your prototypes to maximum stress and gather data as they fall apart or explode, so that the data collected can be used to get the next iteration farther.

And so it has been with the full Starliner combination. The first test flight (April 2023) went out of control, ending in an explosion at around the four-minute mark. The second flight (November 2023) did better; both segments exploded, but only after a successful separation of the booster and the spacecraft. The third flight (March 2024) did much better, carrying out several functional tests in its long suborbital flight to the Indian Ocean, but losing control and breaking up during reentry.

Since nothing is guaranteed during a SpaceX test launch, there was a sense of drama every minute of today's flight. All of us audience members could see right away that one of Super Heavy's engines did not light, but the 32 remaining engines did their job, and the craft was on its way. At booster separation, everything looked normal, and we could relax a bit (not too much, of course!) while Starship coasted along its near-orbital trajectory toward its destination off the coast of Australia.

At about 45 minutes into the flight, with Starship at an altitude of 105 kilometers and descending gradually, we could see the beginning of a glow developing around the leading face of the craft. As it continued on course, that increasing heat glow of compressed air told us that the temperature would soon test the durability of every exposed surface and every joint or gap, including the control flaps. At the 58-minute mark, we could see one of the flaps start to disintegrate, and even the SpaceX commentators frankly admitted that they didn't know how much more Starship could take. As molten debris hit the camera cover and obscured our vision, and the camera signal cut off briefly several times, I caught myself thinking, "Come on, only eight more minutes! You can do it!"

Indeed it could. As the end approached, we could barely see anything through what remained of the camera lens, but we could follow the telemetry, as Starship maneuvered into landing position and fired its rockets one last time in a successful watery rehearsal for future soft landings.

And I could breathe again.

This week's post marks twenty years since I began this blog. More thoughts next time on how things have changed over these twenty years ... and how I still repeat myself constantly. Thanks for your good company!

I recommend Scott Manley's excellent video overview of today's Starship test flight, including its most dramatic moments.

Pew Research Center on "Cultural Issues and the [USA's] 2024 Election: Immigration, gender identity, racial diversity and views of a changing society." Here's a teaser, although I should say that not all themes align so dramatically:

Among the major findings:

Enduring divisions on race and the legacy of slavery. Just 27% of registered voters who support Trump say the legacy of slavery affects the position of Black people in America today a great deal or fair amount; 73% say it has little or no impact.

Opinions among Biden supporters are nearly the opposite: 79% say slavery’s legacy still affects the position of Black people, while 20% say it has not too much or no effect.

More on Gaza: Some Quaker minutes of concern, collected by Western Friend.

... And what about sending unarmed peacekeepers to Gaza?

... And Tareq Baconi on what Gaza can teach us about the struggles that shape our world. (What do you find persuasive in his essay? Where do you think he might be stretching it ... or not?)

The success of hegemony is predicated on dehumanization, and the role Gaza plays in the Israeli psyche is exactly the role other unwanted and undesirable communities play in the popular imagination of the powerful. It is a mirror unto the Self, and through its very existence, Gaza showcases state-of-the-art ways the powers of our time can deploy for dealing with that unwanted reflection. Confinement, surveillance, mass torture, de-development, de-ecologizing, imprisonment, starvation, bombardment; through such tactics and others, Gaza offers a road map for confronting and managing populations that must be forgotten so that the civilized of the world can claim their humanity and superiority.

Palestinians in Gaza joke, morbidly, about their welcoming of a quick death from an F16 spewing fire over the slow suffocation of the blockade. They understand that the strangulation they live with, day in and day out, is the intended purpose—not their ultimate death. For the very unsustainability of Gaza, highlighted intermittently as if some urgent endpoint needs to be avoided, is precisely what sustains it: Unsustainability in this instance is a structure, a process with its own logic, persisting in perpetuity. Unsustainability is what allows the oppressors to pacify while also claiming a civilized status.

George Fox on the cover of Friends Journal: Bob Henry on his cover art.

Kate Bowler offers a blessing for everything we cannot buy.

"The Ice Queen"—Sue Foley.

30 May 2024

Stepping out of the boat, part two

Sierra-Cascades founding session (2017, George
Fox University); and 2018's annual session (Canby,

In my first Stepping out of the boat post, I gave a personal account of our new Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting's early development as an independent Quaker association of churches.

Among the tasks still ahead of us (I said at the time) was the development of a book of discipline—a book that many yearly meetings call Faith and Practice. Such books often combine content that helps express the spiritual commitments and culture of the community, with content that describes organizational details and processes.

Six years later, we are still working on how we will describe our spiritual values in this book of discipline. However, several of our committees have been hard at work developing polices and practices that will eventually be collected in our book, so our overall progress is encouraging. And our experiences and mistakes as a yearly meeting—and as individual churches—are also contributing to our task, as we build our to-do list of areas we need to work on. For example, we have done a lot of work on the recognition and recording of ministers, but have not done as well as we would like in supporting our existing pastors and others who offer public ministry.

In that earlier post, I summarized the balance that we (at least in my personal view) seek in daring to describe our spiritual culture and commitments:

Step two, building our identity: Here we really had to decide whether we as a body were in fact walking toward Jesus. Some of our churches are uncomplicatedly and unaffectedly Christian, culturally indistinguishable from other evangelical Friends congregations, except for the refusal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. None of our meetings identify as non-Christian, but some have more experience providing spiritual hospitality to people who have survived encounters with authoritarian religiosity. Those churches are particularly careful not to use Christian language in ways that could come across as glib and domineering. At our Canby sessions, this issue came up in considering what to require of applicants for membership. Rather than asking applicants to use specific language about themselves, we agreed to describe who we are—a Christ-centered community—and leave it up to applicants to decide whether this kind of community was something they wanted to join.

(Related: The Quaker high-wire act. A Quaker discipline.)

After a number of false starts and after many, many conversations, here is a sneak preview of what our Faith and Practice Committee will lay before our 2024 gathering in eight days. Among our challenges to ourselves: we wanted to draw on the values we explicitly expressed in our founding years' business minutes, and we wanted to be brief and use plain English. I'd be glad to hear your comments, and to know that you'll be praying for us as we consider this latest draft:

Your Faith and Practice Committee proposes the following paragraphs as an introduction to the draft Faith and Practice we will be compiling with your help. We plan to present it (with some background information) on Friday of our annual gathering, with time scheduled for your comments on Saturday.

The Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends is a voluntary association of Quaker meetings, churches, and individuals whose worship, ministry, and service are centered in Christ, guided by Quaker testimonies and experience, and committed to the full participation of LGBTQ+ people in all aspects of the life and leadership of the Yearly Meeting. We see these three values as interrelated and mutually reinforcing.

We understand the Quaker testimonies as a call:

  • to live simply and sustainably;
  • to seek nonviolent responses to conflict, and refuse participation in war and preparation for war;
  • to speak the truth and keep our promises;
  • to make common decisions based on our community’s practice of prayer and discernment rather than majority rule or force of personality;
  • to regard each other—and all people—with a commitment to equality and equity, rejecting all false distinctions based on social, cultural, or economic status;
  • in the wider world, to support, advocate, and initiate efforts toward peace, justice, care of Creation, and relief of suffering in ways that are consistent with these testimonies;
  • in all things, to put Love first.

As we set forth these values and commitments, we acknowledge that they are to some extent aspirational, not an inventory of our successes as of today.

We also understand that we have a variety of faith languages and experiences among us. We do not require of each other, or of newcomers, any standard interpretation or test to be part of our community. We are committed to listening and learning together, building trust in God and each other through the ways that we worship, conduct business, guard each other’s reputations, and resolve conflicts tenderly.

Anyone who feels drawn to our community based on these values and testimonies, and the ways we live them, will be joyfully welcomed.

What was behind Norway's decision to recognize Palestine as an independent nation?

We keep hearing new reports of people in Russia getting arrested for what seem like almost trivial expressions of dissent. The British organization Rights in Russia has a new program to support dissenters in prison: Write to Russia. And Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen talks about the consequences of getting onto one of those punitive official lists ("foreign agents" and worse) in this episode of the radio program This American Life. "Act Two," Gessen's part begins at 32:35. Thanks to Norma Silliman for the link.

"To me, writing is listening." Friends Journal's Sharlee DiMenichi interviews Norwegian writer Jon Fosse, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2023.

A Live Coal (Isaiah 6:1-8): Ashley Wilcox's message last Sunday at the celebration of the recording of Wess Daniels as a Friends minister.

Beacon Hill Friends House in Boston, USA, is looking for a Program and Engagement Manager. If interested, look into it right away; they'd love for this new staffer to begin this summer. Much of this person's responsibilities were among the things I did when I was on the staff of Beacon Hill Friends House back in the late 1970's.

Today is the Feast of Corpus Christi in the Roman Catholic calendar and some other confessions as well. This feast reminded me of the years of protests that were set off when the U.S. Navy decided to name a nuclear submarine Corpus Christi.  I mentioned those protests in this post: Worship and protest.

Here's a rerun, a video we used in class in Elektrostal. Wonder if we could do this now....

Down By the Riverside | Playing For Change | Song Around The World from Playing For Change on Vimeo.

23 May 2024

Pleading for Gaza: First Principles


AFSC staff in Gaza have shared horrendous accounts of starvation used as a tool of war. Children in Gaza are starving to death. The World Health Organization predicts that up to 80,000 more lives will be lost to disease and starvation if no immediate action is taken. This crisis surpasses anything many of us have witnessed in our decades of responding to disasters worldwide.

... Immediate action is needed so that killings and suffering can end. That starts with a permanent ceasefire, the release of hostages and prisoners, and unrestricted humanitarian access in Gaza.

—from Quaker organizations share a vision for peace in Palestine and Israel

We call on the US government to end its military aid of the Israeli government and to fully restore UNRWA funding to aid Palestinians. The US government must stop sending the Israeli military more weapons.

We call on the Israeli government to grant access and safety to United Nations and humanitarian agencies to fulfill their duties. We need immediate humanitarian access for Gaza and adherence to international humanitarian and human rights law.

—from Minute on Ongoing Devastation in Palestine, Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends

As the ongoing devastation, bombing, and ground invasion in Gaza continue into their sixth month, Palestinians, including our Palestinian Christian siblings, cry out to the world, asking, “Where are you?” World leaders have responded with empty rhetoric and political volleying about addressing the “humanitarian crisis” in Gaza while ignoring the direct causes of the catastrophe. Those causes are the daily bombing and ground invasion by the Israeli military, in addition to the shutting off of basic life-sustaining services to more than two million people who are suffering the consequences of crimes not their own.

... The horrific actions Hamas committed on October 7th in no way justify the massive deaths of tens of thousands of civilians in Gaza at the hands of the Israeli military.

—from March 2024 Global Christian Leaders Call for Permanent Gaza Ceasefire, Churches for Middle East Peace

Steve Breen's cartoon, and readers' reactions.
Hebron, November 26, 2019. (My photo.)

All over the world, faith communities have struggled to put into words their plea to world powers and leaders to respond with some actual effectiveness to the spectacle we witness on a daily basis in the Gaza Strip (and not only there) as Israel destroys homes, hospitals, schools, churches, and people. The three examples above all reflect this plea. Unlike the boilerplate activist rhetoric of some past campaigns, these voices are raw, urgent, as balanced as this terribly unbalanced situation allows ... but so far, it's hard to judge their impact.

All three statements refer to the International Court of Justice and the provisions required of Israel to avoid a judgment of "genocidal intent." Since these statements were published, the International Criminal Court has received a prosecutor's request to consider arrest warrants for major figures of both warring parties. Neither initiative has made any discernible impact on anyone's behavior, but I see the first hints of a positive development: a crack in the trance-like captivity of the major Western powers when it comes to Israel. They've been in a spell for many years; they don't regard international law as having any application to Israel's action, and they collaborate with Israeli propagandists who equate any criticism of this magical status with antisemitism.

The Israeli state and U.S. policy, as well as popular opinion in both countries, have not always lined up quite as they do now. Dahlia Scheindlin, in her Foreign Affairs article, "Can America’s Special Relationship With Israel Survive? How Gaza Has Accelerated the Social and Political Forces Driving the Countries Apart," contrasts the comparatively balanced situation during the Jimmy Carter administration with today's complex polarizations. Israeli public opinion, and Israel's strongest defenders in the USA, both prefer a future president Trump over a second term for Biden, despite Biden's fierce loyalty to Israel over his entire political life. 

Concerning Israel's right to exist, a huge percentage of USA poll respondents remain strongly in favor. On the other hand, when it comes to the current war, Scheindlin points to a generation gap:

A February 2024 survey by Pew found that 78 percent of older Americans (over 65) see Israel’s reasons for fighting the war as valid, whereas just 38 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds do—a 40-point gap. And although students in the Axios survey overwhelmingly agreed with Israel’s right to exist, nearly half of them—45 percent—supported the campus protests “which seek to boycott and protest against Israel,” whereas only 24 percent were opposed. (The remainder were neutral.) The Harvard CAPS / Harris Poll from April also found that respondents between 18 and 24 years old were almost evenly divided between those who believed that Israel was mostly responsible for “the crisis in Gaza”— 49 percent—and those who held Hamas mostly responsible—51 percent. By contrast, among people over 65, just 14 percent blamed Israel.

What can our well-meaning, even urgent and passionate statements say that can slip through these polarizations and affect hearts? I thought about this question this morning during a Friends' organization's video conference partially devoted to the war in Gaza. We were considering whether to sign on to a statement on this conflict and its human cost. (It was one of the three statements posted above. We didn't consider the other two; I added them here this evening for the sake of discussion.) Ultimately we decided to give this decision more time. Our key concern was simply this: would associating ourselves with this statement and its source complicate our colleagues' and partners' situations on the ground in Palestine and israel?

I'm not close enough to their situation to have a judgment. But if I were to write my own statement from scratch, what would some of my guiding principles be? Are these hopelessly idealistic? ...

  • No state or organization is beyond accountability. International law and the expectations of human decency apply equally to all. The actions and decisions of international tribunals are judged solely by their adherence to law and due process, not by their supposed "symbolism" or "message" or implications of "equivalence."
  • No population has the exclusive right to territory based on a religious belief or a sacred book. No person, family, group or nationality can be forced to move from their family/ancestral homes because of someone else's religious claims. Conflicting claims can be resolved through a process that gives conflicting parties equal weight.
  • There is no theory of "defense" that allows treating occupied territory as a legitimate military target, or that justifies terrorism in any form. (Terrorism is defined as the use or threat of violence for coercive political purpose, regardless of whether it is committed by states or non-state actors.)
  • Rhetorical flourishes such as "we demand," "we condemn," or "you/they must" should be used very sparingly. The main purpose of a statement is to persuade, to touch hearts, to open a dialogue, not to express hostility, even when that last purpose might gratify one's own emotions or one's own partisans.
  • The best form of Quakerly neutrality is equal openness to dialogue, equal readiness to listen to all concerned, and a rejection of all forms of exaggeration. Neutrality does not require pretending that all sides are equally innocent or guilty, or have equal access to the resources needed for a fair outcome.
  • I would hope to make a statement that reflects my own Christian faith, particularly in the doctrine that everyone everywhere is created in the image and likeness of God, and that wars and conflicts take place in a spiritual context where all sides may be caught in sinful systems of principalities and powers and evil in high places. Therefore we should be persistently seeking resolution and reconciliation instead of resorting to carnal weapons and deceptively attractive zero-sum solutions. Ephesians 6:12.

Related posts:  When do we shift from 'neutrality' to 'advocacy'? The rhetoric of righteousness vs the priority of humane effectiveness. Who wants to 'teach lessons'? Who wants to learn?

I've signed up for a Woodbrooke online course on Quaker Theology and Whiteness, part of this interesting lineup of upcoming courses.

Pope Francis calls for debt cancelation in Jubilee Year 2025.

Interesting case study of North American academic publishing: a "broken model"?

The video: this year's version of "Clothes Line" (Rick Estrin and the Nightcats). 

(And here's a link to the Little Charlie and the Nightcats version we used in listening comprehension classes in Russia. It was in good fun; nobody's grade depended on keeping up with Rick's rapid delivery!!)

16 May 2024

Barriers revisited (partly a repost)


THE Truth of God, being received into the inward parts, is found to be of a living, powerful nature, working mightily there for the cleansing and redeeming of the hearts. Yea, this is certainly witnessed, that as the mind joined to deceit is thereby defiled, so the mind joined to the truth of God is, by its power and virtue, purified.

Now, having felt this, and being filled with the love and good-will of God to the souls of others, how can we but testify it to others, who stand in need of God's truth (and its cleansing property and virtue) as well as we; especially being thereunto moved and drawn by the Spirit of the Lord?

— Isaac Penington, published posthumously in 1680; source. (My italics.)

In our meeting, we're frightfully private.

— Member of an unprogrammed meeting in Britain Yearly Meeting.

Yesterday I had my second cataract surgery this year, and I'm still getting used to the results. To reduce screen time on blog night, the solution is obvious: repackage an old post. So the second half of this post is an item I published back in 2016, near the beginning of our last academic year in Russia.

What reminded me of that post, "Barriers," was a conversation just a week ago with a British Friend. We were talking about whether Friends in her meeting felt freedom to reveal their faith. From her comments I gathered that, whatever the reasons, this kind of sharing rarely took place.

It may have been small comfort, but I replied that this sort of diffidence was not unique to unprogrammed Friends. (For a brief definition of "unprogrammed," see the sidebar here.) I particularly remember our beloved First Friends Meeting in Richmond, Indiana, forty years ago, discussing how to grow their rapidly-shrinking congregation. "What we need are young couples," someone said. (I'm sure I've told this story before!) My internal reaction was, "No!" What they needed was more confidence in their identity as God's people. It was a congregation with many mature disciples who had done amazing things with their lives. We found out accidentally that one of the harmless-looking older members had been a worker for racial justice in the South in the late 1940's! We were in great sympathy with the Sunday school teacher who asked those older Friends, "Some of you have been Quakers for 60 years—why can't you tell us more about why you became Friends and what you've learned about God in those years?" One of the answers she got was, "Our generational culture is very private."

In the first generation of the Quaker movement, there was little or no social incentive to be among us; you'd be risking legal danger and possibly mob violence, and you'd certainly earn the disapproval of the religious establishment. Either direct experience of God's power, or the desire to be among people who persuasively testified to such a direct experience, might overcome those dangers and lead you to throw in your lot with those despised Quakers.

What attracts people to us now? I've known Friends who reflect this same power, joy, and convincing conduct, but in my experience, our most attractive feature for many is a social atmosphere of gracious idealism and doctrinal vagueness that draws in seekers who are much like the people already among us. There are variations, of course; some of our churches echo the cliches of the (American) evangelical culture, but however pointed the preaching may be, the ethical consequences of that preaching (discipleship, or if you prefer, the Quaker testimonies) are often weak or absent altogether. If this seems unfair, let me know! (And what drew you?)

One explanation for our reluctance to testify to a powerful faith might be that we simply aren't experiencing the spiritual outpouring that shaped the first generations of Friends. The torch has been passed to others in the Christian movement who are living out a reality that we'd rather read about at a safe distance, for example in quaint ancient Quakerese.

But there's another explanation that may be less pessimistic. We have developed a barrier, an inhibition, that keeps our mouths shut. Maybe, if we dared, we might be free to share words and deeds (according to our gifts and temperaments, and always subject to the discipline of knowing when to speak and when to listen!) that would convey the love of God and the demands of justice.

I'll leave it at that. Here, with some minor edits, is that original "Barriers" post.

"How can I explain something to you if you don't even watch TV?"
A meme found on vk.com (original scene from late-era Soviet film Heart of a Dog, which I recommend).

When I was around eight years old, the subject of God came up one day in my grade school classroom. (There weren't the same restrictions on God-talk in public school then that there are now; that's another discussion.) Our teacher said, "Why should we be afraid to talk about God?" I was startled and panicky—in fact I was afraid to talk about God, and couldn't even imagine making my mouth emit the word.

I made a mental note of this reaction, but didn't analyze it at the time. Later, I connected it with the fact that, in my family, any mention of religion was absolutely forbidden, along with any mention of disease or death. Whatever the roots of this barrier, it blocked me from communicating with anyone about a huge part of what it means to be human.

Obviously, something happened between grade school and my decades of working for the church! But I'm glad that I remember that block. These memories came back to me the other day when I was talking with some colleagues about expanding our students' access to informal English-speaking opportunities. "Some of my students do a great job with grammar and vocabulary," said one colleague. "But when it comes to speaking in a group, they just can't open their mouths. There's that old psychological barrier."

These young people aren't exactly facing the same barrier in speaking English as I encountered in talking about God. (Or, rather, not talking about God.) There's no actual danger in overcoming the language barrier, but there are several hazards in crossing into God-talk territory. For me as a child, there was a safety issue within the family. But, on another level entirely, do we want it to become too easy to talk about God? Is there a place for some reluctance to become glib about the Ultimate?

We Quakers have a number of indirect ways of referring to divine realities—terms such as the Inward Light and the Seed, used generations ago to avoid an unseemly familiarity with holy realities, much as biblical Hebrew and its readers made substitutions for the Name. In my early years as a Friend, I remember hearing vocal ministry that referred to "the Author and Finisher of our faith" rather than naming Jesus explicitly. Nowadays Quaker terms such as Inward Light can mistakenly be used in the service of weakening our ties with Christianity, but that old impulse to curb our verbosity when referring to God still seems valid to me.

Even so, "faith comes from hearing the message," so there is something to be said for not letting psychological barriers get in the way of that communication. Part of our evangelistic task might be to confront the false barrier of cultural piety. Are we marked by a gooey sentimentality, a cloud of goofy cliches, or any other signals that you must, to gain entrance, turn off your critical faculties?

In John Updike's novel Rabbit Is Rich, there is a fascinating scene where the Episcopal priest, Archie Campbell, attends a family meeting to discuss Nelson's and Pru's intended marriage. The minister mildly defends "our brand of magic" while everyone else is trying to negotiate how much or little churchiness is necessary to accomplish the desired outcome—a respectable wedding. Rabbit's own defense of faith is not exactly zero ("Hell, what I think about religion is ... is without a little of it, you'll sink") but the church-wedding discussion is mostly about appearances, not reality.

As long as it seems that the religion industry is just selling one or another form of respectability, people will find their "magic" elsewhere. And rightly so. Maybe it's not a psychological barrier that blocks the audience from yielding—maybe it's a healthy boundary!

What exactly is the alternative that evangelists with integrity are offering? I think that there is no formula, no doctrine, no scare tactic, no magic that equals meeting someone who looks at you with God's love in their eyes, who offers access to a community that is shaped by trust in God. Some people in that community will know how to communicate this invitation quietly, with an assurance that doesn't depend on using loaded words. Others will know how to communicate with contagious enthusiasm, with generous love that covers a multitude of incautious cliches. There are infinite variations on this spectrum, and somewhere in God's economy, they probably all meet some blocked person's condition.

Along my own route, several people and incidents helped me overcome the barrier. Studying Asian civilizations in high school introduced me to whole cultures not shaped by the assumptions of Western materialism. The anti-war movement brought me physically into churches for the first time in my life. (It wasn't as weird in a church as I thought it would be. Specifically, it was the Ebenezer A.M.E. Church in Evanston, Illinois.) My high-school fascination with writers such as Dostoevsky and Alan Paton played their part. But I remember a much earlier crack in the barrier: a tract I happened to pick up off the floor of our apartment building's lobby, not so long after the incident with the teacher. This tract described someone's conversion. In the process of getting to know God, this writer would walk way outside of their normal routes to pass a church that had Christ's name on it. That Name had such an attractive power for the writer. Hmmm, that's interesting, I thought. Even though I didn't understand or respond to that tract's invitation at the time, I somehow understood even then what the writer was feeling.

If I have any ability at all to represent the Gospel effectively, I believe that in part it's because I still vividly remember being a non-believer who couldn't even say the word "God." But I am not permitted to define my path or emphasis as the only one. I'm glad to share the responsibility of communicating God's welcome with many others, some of whom have very different approaches to removing barriers.

(Originally published on September 7, 2016. To date there's one comment, from the late Vail Palmer, referring to Adria Gulizia's then-new blog: "That blog about suffering and God's suffering with us is so profound. What else would a God who truly loves us be up to?")


Right Sharing of World Resources has a new mailing address:

PO Box 2102
Richmond, Indiana
USA 47375-2102

Catch up with Right Sharing's latest news here. And learn more about the search for a new general secretary here.

Diana Chandler (The Roys Report) on the dwindling Christian presence in Gaza. 

How the Kremlin wants its audiences to think about Putin's cabinet reshuffle. (Meduza.)

Sam Adams (Slate) asks why A24 is burying its January 6 documentary.

The Fines have called their film nonpartisan, and in a less toxic political climate, its premise, that an election should not be disrupted by mobs in tactical gear assaulting law enforcement officers, ought to be one both sides could endorse without pause or equivocation. But....

Micah Bales asks whether we have been pruned.

From the perspective of our American individualism, this seems like a hard pill to swallow, but it is in fact good news.

Frederick Kaufman (UnHerd) on the mythical masculinity of Donald Trump.

“My power is great, greater than you believe, and I have gold and silver in abundance.” That was [Robert Bly's] Iron John’s promise to his acolyte. It is also Trump’s promise to MAGA and the manosphere. Thus do hordes of Redditers, Snapchatters, Xers, Instagrammers and sundry other amo-packing denizens of incel message boards feel the pain of the billionaire who now stands trial for hiding hush money payments to a porn star. And here, too, Trump will rely on truths Bly articulated decades ago — that much like infants, his followers will “refuse to remember ugly facts”, that they will “look away from disorganisation, abuse, abandonment."

The Open Culture Web site passes along playlists of the "3,300 best films and documentaries on YouTube." View the list at your own risk.

Nancy Thomas writes about choosing books to keep, Henri Nouwen, Rembrandt's Return of the Prodigal Son, and a visit to ... us!

Jason Ricci, "Scratch My Back"—2024 (below) and nine years ago.