28 September 2023

Hostility "to the Christian faith"

American and Christian flags; source. (c) Kaihsu Tai.

Rondall Reynoso recently polled readers of his site Faith on View over the question, "Is America Hostile to the Christian Faith?"

As you can read in his poll's introduction, "The idea that America is increasingly hostile to the Christian faith is a common one in evangelical circles." 

It's not hard to find corroboration on the Internet. The Texas Scorecard, for example, informs its readers, "Christians’ ability to speak and live out the Word of God is under assault from the secular left. They seek to remove any trace of God or His people from the culture." You can instantly find many other examples—although you can also find pushback from Christians who disagree.

It's hard to know how representative Rondall Reynoso's audience is, or how many responded to the poll (posted July 5) but I was intrigued by the nuances revealed in his results:

NOTE: Avert your eyes if you'd like to vote without being influenced by the following numbers! (As of today, the poll is still live.)

No. America is not hostile to the Christian faith. 27.93%

Sort of. There is hostility but it is because Christians often behave poorly. 26.29%

No. We just no longer have a culture that is "Christian" by default. 22.07%

Yes. It is clearly more hostile. 16.20%

Yes. It does seem a bit more hostile. 5.63%

I'm really not sure. 1.88%

If we combine the second and third options (in order of popularity), it seems that almost half of the respondents understand that the category of people labeled "Christian" is no longer in a privileged position. If we extend the interpretation a bit beyond the numbers (admittedly risky), it's that loss of position and privilege, and resistance to some Christians' attempts to reassert them, that might be wrongly interpreted as persecution. That wrong interpretation could be from genuine distress or from a manipulative political agenda.

Or to put it another way...

Is it just possible that Christians are hostile to the Christian faith?

Consider this case study from seventeen years ago:

According to a current e-mail campaign, Northwest Yearly Meeting Friends (and many other evangelicals) are being urged by the American Family Association to protest NBC's presentation of a program in November by the pop star Madonna. As the AFA's Action Alert says, "NBC, Madonna Set to Mock the Crucifixion of Christ." This headline is followed by what sounds like a reasonable, even plaintive, request: "Help send one million emails asking NBC to show Christians the same respect they show other religions."

My reactions to this request are complicated. Might it be true that Christians don't get the same respect as other religions? If so, what might be the reason? I wonder if there's an intuitive calculation going on in much of society: maybe we perceive religions as having both a Godward face (which we become aware of through glimpses of their devotional practices, personal disciplines, scriptures, and to some extent, their missions, charities, and so on) and a social/political face oriented toward their neighbors and the larger society. Briefly put, perhaps Christians have low credibility because the general public sees so much more effort put into our social/political face—our demands to be respected, to be influential—than into our Godward face.

Os Guinness made a related point in this 1998 interview.

I remember when I was in Australia, speaking on modernity, a visiting Japanese CEO came up to me and said, "When I meet a Buddhist monk, I meet a holy man in touch with another world. When I meet a Western missionary, I meet a manager who is only in touch with the world I know." You could say today that many, many Christians are atheists unawares; they are implicit, practicing atheists because they are so secular in their consciousness. So we have words like prayer, supernatural, revival, but we don't actually operate in the world named by those words. To live with the spiritual disciplines opening us up to another reality, to other powers and other dimensions, cracks secularization very powerfully.

To make an unauthorized connection between my observation and Guinness's, the secular world has figured out that we Christians are actually operating in their [secular] world, all pious pretenses aside, and therefore does not give us the respect or deference we might think we and our symbols are due.

Are they right? Let's think: Wildmon is asking us to protest one program on a television network that is part of an industry delivering a profitable mix of information (a bit), drama (a bit), crass bathroom-level gratification (a lot), violence (a lot), and the culture of affluence (nearly all the time), to the very audiences who are now supposed to protest against one specific excess. Maybe the secular observer of all this is wondering, why are Christians watching any of this? Why do Christians even care about what NBC broadcasts?

Let's go one step further. As one Northwest Yearly Meeting pastor, Stan Thornburg, said in response to the AFA e-mail campaign,

I'm appalled beyond belief that this is what is garnering the alarm of American Christians.

With tens of thousands of innocent (let me emphasize innocent) civilians being slaughtered in Iraq, tens of thousands of innocent people being raped, displaced, murdered in Darfur, unimaginable suffering in the Middle East, TV Evangelists ripping millions out of the hands of seniors citizens, all kinds of suffering supposedly in the name of Christ and what do I get all upset about...MADONNA?! A pagan who mocks Christ for a living? What else would we expect from her? Where is the outrage because CHRISTIANS ARE MOCKING CHRIST? Where are the emails pleading with our "Christian government" to stop arms shipments to Israel, to cease and desist from their 'terrorist' practices in the world. My goodness, friends, what have we become?

By all means, let's turn our TV off, let's register our complaints against NBC, let's not neglect to be good and responsible citizens. We can do that in five minutes and get on with life as usual.

But if we are willing to spend five minutes on that, how about focusing our outrage on what is really breaking God's heart. "You Shall Not Misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name."?

Don, this is not an attack on you personally, it is just a cry of dispair over the relative silence of so many Evangelicals over the unbelievable atrocities that are committed in the name of Christianity in comparison to their reaction to the antics of some hollywood entertainer.

Maybe it is just a pious fantasy, but if we Christians were as passionate about the mistreatment of actual human beings, including those outside the church, as we are about our symbols and the loss of our privileged place in Western society, maybe our Godward face would have more credibility in this world.

For a future post: Why Christian self-flagellation isn't an adequate response to "Christians behaving poorly." In the meantime:

Talking (or not) about the theology that drives white Christian nationalism.

The Guardian reviews Robert P. Jones on the hidden roots of white supremacy. (I've just finished reading The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy and the Path to a Shared American Future, and recommend it.)

Quakers behaving badly? ... The uncomfortable feelings some of us grappled with at our Sierra-Cascades annual sessions, according to our epistle. "How could Quakers have ever discerned that removing children from their families and taking away their names was the right thing to do?"

Same category? Indiana Yearly Meeting leaves Friends United Meeting.

John Piper will read a woman's biblical commentary but won't listen to her give a lecture. Where is gnosticism in this picture? Beth Felker Jones explains.

Which Russians "never had it so good"? Let's ask Jeremy Morris.

Friends Peace Teams at work: training for peace workers from Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia.

Scientists have opened OSIRIS-REx's asteroid Bennu sample canister. But we don't get a full reveal until October 11.

Once upon a time ... Kirk Fletcher in Moscow.

21 September 2023

"This is Dea Cox"

Photo by Judy Maurer.

Roughly once a year for over twenty years, I'd answer the phone and hear this familiar invitation:

"Johan, this is Dea Cox. I'd like you to talk to our Forum class."

When we arrived at Reedwood Friends Church back in 2000, the Forum class had already been going many years. Fred Gregory recalls that he asked Dea Cox to establish and lead this adult education class back when Dea and Lois first arrived at Reedwood, over 45 years ago, and that Dea had participated in planning for the class as recently as August.

When I heard last Saturday that Dea had died the day before, just about the first thing that hit me was, "Oh! I won't hear that familiar voice again." 

But it's not true! It turns out that I can easily close my eyes and hear Dea....

Johan, I've been praying for you and Judy.

Lord, strengthen the bonds of love between us.

I am very concerned that our only answer to the world's problems seems to be violence. I'm sure Christ has a different answer we can't seem to find.

The most significant thing I can do for someone else is to introduce them to Christ.

Photo by Judy Maurer (2005).
There are certain themes we loved to hear Dea talk about. Childhood memories of Arizona. (Judy grew up there, too.) His life with Lois. His Christian faith and Quaker discipleship. Working on educational issues in the Lyndon Johnson administration. Running a family-owned jam-making business. (For years he supplied us with jars of their jam as gifts we would take to Russia.)

One Arizona memory particularly fascinated me. He recalled being paid to catch rattlesnakes so that they could be milked for their venom, which would then be used to prepare snakebite serum. I think he was paid (subject to correction) 5c a snake.

That jam factory brings up another important theme for Dea: food, and specifically, how to prepare amazing meals for large numbers of people. During our years at Reedwood Friends, no church event would be complete without Dea's planning and cooking. We got some insights into his organizational methods as a chef when we were part of his planning team for a Russia-themed fundraising event to help us get to Russia. A whole new cuisine? For Dea, not a problem.

I left most visits to Dea's and Lois's home with at least one book recommendation. Looking over at our coffee table, on a pile of books waiting to be read, I can see the last one he told me about: Timothy L. Smith's Revivalism and Social Reform: American Protestantism on the Eve of the Civil War.

We didn't agree on everything, of course, especially when it came to politics. Dea found it difficult to understand how nice people like us could be Democrats.

However, sooner or later, almost every serious conversation we had turned to one of the central themes of his life: education. He fondly recalled the bygone times of bipartisan unity in Oregon's political life when nearly everyone in politics agreed on the importance of funding education.

What follows is my blog post from eleven years ago about a book that described Dea's approach to being a school superintendent:

Dea Cox and the "people strategy" (October 18, 2012)

Back in September, I wrote about a book that affected me powerfully, Sarah Ruden's Paul Among the People. Whether or not the author intended it, this book seems to me to be one of the most evangelistic I've seen in a long time.

Today I wanted to mention another book that also has a sort of evangelistic quality—again, probably not by authors' intention: The Relentless Pursuit of Excellence: Lessons from a Transformational Leader. The two books are very different: Sarah Ruden wrote about early Christian history, while Relentless Pursuit authors Richard Sagor and Deborah Rickey wrote about an Oregon educator who is still alive and active. They wrote a secular book for a secular audience, but they are clear that this educator, Dea Cox, and the philosophy behind his successful leadership in the school district they describe, are grounded in Quaker faith.

Right from the start, the authors make it clear that Dea Cox didn't pursue a model that is sometimes fashionable today in the high-stakes world of school superintendents—namely the charismatic authoritarian. Nor did he begin his 14-year tenure in the West Linn-Wilsonville school district with a sure-fire set of formulas or educational doctrines that could be replicated by someone else with the right instruction book or guru close at hand. Instead, he pursued and implemented a "people strategy" that became part of the culture of that school district to this day.

Dea summed up his strategy this way: "The secret of being a successful school administrator is to spend your energy and resources attracting and retaining good staff." It's a deceptively simple statement with deep implications, and the book spends most of its pages describing the implementation of this "secret" in recruiting and interviewing new educators, decisions about tenure, budgeting, superintendent-staff relations, relations with students and parents, drawing school boundaries, adopting new technologies, and other areas of educational administration—all of which are loaded with opportunities for conflict and fragmentation. In all of these areas, the three core values of the people strategy are immediately relevant:

  1. No person has a monopoly on wisdom.
  2. We all have things to learn.
  3. Wiser decisions are made when we consider multiple perspectives.

Each chapter of the book is a case study, or set of cases, showing in practical terms how these values are applied. I particularly loved the description of how Dea and his colleagues handled the process of deciding what computer system to use for the district.

Other values important to Quakers are also recurring themes in this book, particularly truth and trustworthiness. The authors show how being truthful, instead of giving in to the constant organizational temptation to "feign certainty," had at least two very practical benefits: credibility with parents, and resistance to complacency within the organization.

Dea and Lois Cox have been a blessing to our meeting, Reedwood Friends Church, and to us personally. Over the years, we've heard Dea describe the values (and some of the wonderfully illustrative incidents) recorded in The Relentless Pursuit of Excellence. Thanks to Richard Sagor and Deborah Rickey, these rich insights have been thoughtfully organized and made accessible in this short, fascinating book.

Tomorrow (Friday), Reedwood Friends Church will host a service for Dea at 11 a.m. (Oregonian obituary.)

Goodbye for now, Dea. I will always cherish your voice.

Greg Morgan: "When someone who is suffering longs for your presence, they aren’t looking for a person with the right words."

Colin Saxton: On death, part two ("Life is what makes death so very precious") and part three ("After you, my dear...").

Frank Newport, Gallup: "Figuring out why the basic R and R [Religious and Republican] relationship exists provides a fascinating and important challenge for social scientists." How I wish I could discuss this with Dea!

The "empty chair" presidency. Hannah Brock Womack, British Quaker, was not allowed to take up her four-year post as Fourth President of Churches Together in England. Here's why she couldn't, and how she nevertheless served the ecumenical movement during those years.

Chris Durante: Considering multiculturalism as a solution to phyletism in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Two Nonviolent Peaceforce workers report from Odessa (video) in today's Friends Committee on National Legislation online presentation, "Repairing the Wounds of War: Nonviolent Peaceforce in Ukraine." 

I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on Jesus....

14 September 2023

Yearly meetings, myth and reality, part two

Yearly Meeting: a definition
(adapted from quakerinfo.org)

Yearly Meeting refers to a larger body of Friends, consisting of monthly meetings (or local congregations) in a general geographic area connected with the same branch of Friends. This body holds decision making sessions annually. The term "yearly meeting" may refer to the annual sessions, to the body of members, or to the organizational entity that serves the body of members. For most purposes, a yearly meeting is as high as Quaker organizational structure goes. Each of the 30+ yearly meetings in the U.S. has its own Faith and Practice, and there is no higher authority in the structure of the Religious Society of Friends, although yearly meetings network with each other through branch associations and other Friends organizations.

[Also see Margery Post Abbott's definition in The Historical Dictionary of the Friends (Quakers).]

Once upon a time, I was a Quaker denominational leader, emotionally invested in our structures and their missions. One weekend, I was visiting a Friends church in an evangelical yearly meeting. I stayed with a delightful family in the city where the yearly meeting's office was located, and I went with them to their Sunday morning meeting for worship.

The church was impressive, both in the size of its building and the breadth of its programming. Aside from the variety of Sunday morning options for all ages, there were programs for every day of the week, ranging from Bible studies to family finance seminars to Christian aerobics.

My hosts were very knowledgeable about these programs, which clearly had become a social and spiritual base for their family. They gently let me know, however, that they had never heard of my organization. As it turned out, they also knew nothing about their own yearly meeting or any of its wider affiliations, even though the yearly meeting office was in their own city. The word "Friends" meant little to them beyond the fact that it was in their church's name, and the word "Quaker" even less.

However, their Friends church gave substantial resources to that yearly meeting and its affiliates, in both money and people.

I thought about this visit, now a quarter century ago, during a recent committee meeting. We were considering how our own yearly meeting, Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends, could be of greater service to local Friends and their churches. In particular, how can we encourage the gifts of ministry among those local Friends emerge and flourish and be recognized?

There is arguably nothing wrong or "incomplete" about an individual Friend or family that finds all the spiritual resources that they need in their local church and their local community, just as that host family did during my visit years ago. But I still can't shake off some of that emotional investment in our wider structures and missions.

Source: masthead of our yearly meeting's Bulletin.

I wish I had asked my hosts at the time how they pictured their place in their world faith family. They would probably have said that their church was simply a local group of believers in the worldwide evangelical Christian movement. In my institutional tendencies, I might have felt a bit wistful about the specifically Quaker emphasis in our part of that movement, but who am I to question their identity and enthusiasm? Or, for that matter, in their apparent lack of interest in the intermediary structures for which their church was paying?

Now I'm thinking about the differences between the church I was visiting at the time, and the typical churches of our own yearly meeting. None of them have the resources of that seven-day-a-week church. Few if any are equipped to surround attenders and their families with such full-service programming. What can or should we as a yearly meeting do to strengthen our local congregations in their capacity to meet needs? Can we in fact affirm the advantages of a small-scale model of church (with its simplicity, intimacy, lack of hierarchy) by supplementing its programs, providing low-key mutual accountability, and helping identify potential leaders?

More than that: is it a legitimate aspiration for a Quaker yearly meeting to encourage Friends to say something like this...?

My Friends church is a local expression of something larger, a worldwide Quaker movement with a particular experience of Christian discipleship.

Furthermore, by belonging to this movement through my participation in this local church, I'm contributing toward this movement at a time in world history when this discipleship—with its practices of peace, equality, simplicity, and decisionmaking based on the discernment of the community—is needed to create hope and break bondages.

Does such a statement makes sense? Why or why not? (Or is it the wishful thinking of someone who yearns for the traditional structures and missions?)

If so, could it be affirmed by those who are eager to give their time to these wider relationships, such as the yearly meeting and its committees and affiliations, and equally to those whose focus remains local but whose awareness may, at one and the same time, be wider?

As I reflected on all these questions, I thought about my own history with Friends. As a college student who'd recently experienced a Christian conversion, I looked for Friends because I already knew that, with my inherited distrust of the religion industry, the simplicity of Friends as I'd read about them would be the most direct way for me to build upon my new faith. So, when I first stepped into Ottawa Friends Meeting in 1974, I already had that wider context, however superficially I might have understood it.

To my great fortune, Ottawa Friends had a wealth of mentors who were able to feed my hunger and my curiosity. Within months I was on a local committee; within two years I was sent to an international Friends conference with life-changing consequences for me. Around the same time I was appointed to a Canadian Yearly Meeting board that gave out grants from an endowment. Five years after that I was appointed as a Canadian member of the governing body of Friends United Meeting.

Shortly after the international conference, in that summer of 1976, I attended Canadian Yearly Meeting sessions for the first time. The presiding clerk of Canadian Yearly Meeting, Philip Martin, was a member of Ottawa Friends Meeting and was, therefore, someone I already knew and respected. One of the discussions at the center of the business meeting that year was about the formal importance of membership in Friends—a question that continues to arise among us to this day.

Given these early experiences that came to me through the care and mentorship of my meeting, without effort of my own, it's no coincidence that I see my membership at Camas Friends Church as being linked to a whole concentric series of wider Quaker networks, all supporting me as I try to work out the consequences of Christian faith in these times. It's my story, but it's not everyone's story, and so I continue to wonder: how will these wider engagements earn the attention of new and young Friends whose stories differ from mine, and whose lives are already full and demanding?

Some background from earlier posts:

Yearly meeting, myth and reality

Does the theory of the concentric Friends structure, with its simplicity and lack of hierarchy, still have power for Friends? In this structure, the local Friends meeting or church is the inner circle. It is where we know each other best, exercise hospitality to newcomers, and learn to ask, "What does God want to do or say through us?" It's where people are born, marry, die; it's where we witness new believers crossing the threshold into the household of faith.

By appointment or interest or both (depending in part on the local culture), some of those local Friends report to and from the next concentric circle, traditionally the monthly or quarterly meeting, then the yearly meeting, then the larger associations to which this yearly meeting is affiliated. Most local Friends probably won't be interested or called to serve in these wider circles, and that's no problem as long as the connections are rotated and renewed often enough to keep the relationships real.

"Becoming the church we dreamed of" part two

In some cases, maybe we've over-bureaucratized yearly meetings and routinized business rather than expecting our gatherings to serve as the forum where we ask each other whether Truth is prospering in each of our local settings, and how we need to coordinate with each other to meet the needs in places where our testimonies are being challenged. As we consider a world full of spiritual, social, and economic bondage, are we too busy maintaining our systems to consider these challenges creatively? Can we make room for new partnerships between the old yearly meeting-as-forum and new initiatives? Two generations ago, such partnerships included the New Call to Peacemaking and Right Sharing of World Resources. What are today's experiments in partnership?

I have heard of a couple of yearly meetings that have experimented with a radically simplified agenda—if only for one annual session. How did it go? I was present for one such experiment, a carefully planned session of Iowa Yearly Meeting FUM at which most routine business was set aside to consider whether to remain in Friends United Meeting. This example was a response to a specific crisis, but maybe at another time and place, the sheer urgency of focusing on the needs of people who have never heard of us would be "crisis" enough.

The Iowa example brings up another huge problem: local Friends have come to associate "yearly meeting" (the annual gathering as well as the ongoing structure) with conflict and church politics. I've heard this complaint in many places. We might be too busy arguing instead of figuring out together how to build our prophetic and healing presence in the world. We desperately need to restore the ability to extract value from conflicts and diversity instead of hiding or suppressing them.


I'm not ready to give up on the yearly meeting as an institution worth preserving and re-energizing. The simplicity of the concentric structure has a huge advantage, as long as its processes are prayer-driven and transparent. A yearly meeting serves as a clear and constant and public access point into the web of relationships that is the Quaker family beyond the local church.

Friends World Committee for Consultation offers World Quaker Day (October 1) as one way to spotlight our global family.

Judy Maurer's interview with Jamiann S’eiltin Hasselquist of the Alaska Native Sisterhood. "My story is not unique. It can be told all across Indian country...."

One of the rabbit trails I happily hopped along while writing this post: a history of Grindstone Island, a Canadian experiment in training for nonviolence.

Stan Cox at Tomdispatch: Young Montanans fight climate change for all of us. (Also see Tom Engelhardt on a global Maui moment.)

Pyotr Sauer in The GuardianKonstantin Dobrovolski has spent decades locating bodies of Soviet soldiers who died in World War II, and attempting to ensure their proper identification and burial.

“Every day I am confronted with the grim consequences of war. But it seems like our nation didn’t learn the right lesson from history,” [Dobrovolski] said as the conversation quickly turned to the war in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, on the home front, some Russian parents try to shield their schoolchildren from pro-war propaganda.

Friends Committee on National Legislation offers an online program on September 21: Repairing the wounds of war: Nonviolent Peaceforce in Ukraine.

Dusty Brown plays Jimmy Reed's "Honest I Do."

07 September 2023

Private faith and public worship in Norway (with Susanne Kromberg)

Commemorative bell (serial number 114)
from Bakkehaugen Church, Oslo, where I was
There might be something odd about Norway ...

... specifically, about the gap between personal faith and public religious behavior.

I'm referring to a study by political scientist and American Baptist pastor Ryan Burge, well known for his statistical analyses of religion in the USA. On this occasion, he was comparing religious behavior in Europe and the USA, asking "How secular is Europe compared to the United States?"

One chart in particular caught my interest, the one labeled "Comparing Europe to the United States on two measures of religion." The horizontal axis is "Share Attending Services Weekly" and the vertical axis is "Share Saying Religion is Very Important."

The countries of Europe and the states of the USA find their places on the graph according to those two indicators, with the size of their markers proportionate to their populations. As Ryan Burge summarizes,

It should come as no surprise that a lot of European countries are on the bottom left of the graph, which represents low attendance and low importance, while American states are in the top right with high attendance and high importance.

Burge goes on to draw our attention to the outliers—those states and countries where there's a big divergence between church attendance and the individual's sense of the importance of religion. In Poland, for example, the gap between attendance and personal importance is large, in favor of attendance, whereas the opposite seems to be true in Serbia and Croatia.

Sweden, Denmark, and Finland cluster together at the bottom left of the graph, seemingly indicating both low attendance (around 4%) and low importance of religion, around 10%. Norway's church attendance is about the same as Sweden's and Finland's, but the level of "religion is very important" is way up near 20%, practically equaling New Hampshire's.

I turned to Norwegian Quaker theologian, counselor, and chaplain Susanne Kromberg for some thoughts on Norway as an outlier in these statistics, particularly in comparison with the other Scandinavian countries. Judy and I have known Susanne for almost thirty years, and she's particularly sensitive to cultural contexts, having lived for at least ten years on each of three continents—Africa, Europe, and North America. Here's her reply, which she's given me permission to quote:

After trying out some different thoughts tied to the differences between the countries, I think it has to do with the self-image of the nations, which is tied to the particulars of our location and history and the great equaliser, the plague of 1349 called the Black Death. I’ll make some sweeping generalisations in the following, though I’m usually a big fan of nuance. In sum, I think the history of organised religion in Norway is closely tied to resistance to our colonisers, first Denmark and then Sweden, whereas neither Denmark nor Sweden have that recent history of domestic oppression that would drive them to seek the help of a higher power.

All three countries have a shared history of polytheism, traveling trade, and the kind of local autonomy/democracy associated with the Viking era. Though there was some fighting, pillaging, plundering, and raping, which is what the Vikings are known for, overall, their venture was more about trading, settling and integrating into the communities they encountered. Or Leif Ericsson, who ‘discovered’ North America, but found it wasn’t worth the effort and left again.

With regard to religion, the Scandinavian countries accepted Christianity with relatively little drama, as is often the case with polytheistic societies - ‘another God to add to the mix? Thor and Odin won’t mind having yet another deity, so why not believe in Jesus, too?’ It took another several hundred years before Scandinavians became monotheistic, in a gradual process.

The Danish self-image is of sophistication, of being close to the continent, close to French ideals, cuisine, appreciation of art, and the joys of living. But unlike the French, they think of themselves as unflappable and unlikely to get excited and emotional, they are above it all. These are not qualities that lend themselves to religious fervour or belief in the supernatural! Denmark had a brief stint as a colonial power, both abroad (Danish Virgin Islands, forts off West Africa and a merchant navy that was active in the African slave trade). Alliance with Napoleon and part of that vision of expansion and Empire. And occupation of Norway for 400 years, of course.

Swedes… a long era of Empire. I find it hard to say much about Swedish self-image, because identity is often forged in resistance to occupation, and that’s not Sweden's history. They don’t have an independence year/date. They were a European superpower and their territory expanded far into Norway, Denmark, Russia, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Denmark, and Germany. They had colonies in the Caribbean and West Africa, too. And of course ruled Norway for 91 years, following Denmark’s occupation of Norway. An often-expressed ideal is ‘lagom’ which doesn’t really translate into English, but is something like ‘just right’, ‘reasonable’ or ‘good enough'. As with peoples with a long history of power, they don’t pursue excellence, superiority, domination, assertion, expression of self, etc. Not qualities that lend themselves to religious fervour or belief in the supernatural, either!

Norway has a very different history, having been a colony for 500 years after a Norwegian. Following the pandemic of 1349, Norway’s elite and leadership were dead, and a royal marriage brought Norway into a “union” with Denmark. Norwegians had the usual experience of being colonised. Wealth was extracted to the coloniser, so Norwegians were heavily taxed on their farming or had terrible working conditions in mines. Starvation, disease and alcohol… The early wave of missionaries that were an extension of colonialism had little success. Turns out that threatening freezing Arctic people with eternal Hellfire doesn’t work - being warm sounded so lovely!

It was only when Danish pastors took pity on the starving, impoverished Norwegians that Christianity started to grow. Norwegians were not allowed to grow potatoes, lest they become independent of importing expensive Danish wheat - but pastors smuggled potatoes into Norway and subversively spread them to their impoverished parishioners, saving countless lives. The Pietistic versions of Christianity were powerfully subversive: Alcohol was banned, promiscuity outlawed, and the mindset of betterment was established. Without addiction and sexually transmitted diseases, people were empowered to read and write and take charge of their lives! The Lay movement of the 1800s, (led by Norwegian Hans Nielsen Hauge) was equally powerfully subversive because it placed religious authority in the individual, and the Danish pastor Grundtvig (also 1800s) led a revival based on Enlightenment ideas of universal Light and education, not just for children but also for adults. Nobility was Danish, the educated and wealthy class were Danish, so there was little inequality or stratification among Norwegians - the Norwegian movement was united.

Resistance to occupation grew and these religious movements mutually fed each other. Norway gained independence from Denmark in 1814, but was forced into a union with Sweden, and this was during the National Romantic era. Norwegian poets and painters rhapsodised about Norway’s nature, the fjords, mountains, valleys, rivers, water nymphs, forest elves, mountain trolls, and more. Norwegians gained their independence in 1905 through struggle, self reliance, national romanticism and religious revival - all the components of religious fervour and belief in the supernatural.

And therein lie the roots of current religiosity without religious participation: struggle for survival, national identity, national romanticism, and a Lay religious revival that coincided with each other and mutually reinforced each other. The Norwegian self-image, though pragmatic, is more down-to-earth, passionate, and nature-loving.

In this increasingly secular time, I think that original religious fervour has softened into a love of nature, romanticising nature, and belief in the healing quality of being outdoors. Which, as we know, is linked with awe, gratitude, well-being, and a sense of the transcendent. Makes me think of Psalm 8.

It was striking to me that Queen Sonja, in her recent memoir, said “We believe in something greater than ourselves, that wishes us well”. I don’t think she would have said that unless she believed that what she was saying was broadly reflective of Norwegians’ beliefs.

As for Norway’s missionary zeal, I think it has to do with the sense of solidarity that developed because of the entwined movements I’ve described. The struggle for survival, the religious Lay revival, and the relative lack of stratification in Norwegian society, all lend themselves to strong sense of solidarity. Marcus Thrane was Norway’s great Socialist and Labor organiser, and the movement he led coincided with the Lay Revival - the focus on bringing people out of poverty, educating people, and empowering the Laity also mutually reinforced each other. My understanding of the Norwegian missionary movement was that it was more closely tied to helping those in need than in converting. It's strongest base, if I’m not mistaken, is historically in the Lay movement, so that women sat in their Lay meetings and knitted socks.

These are just my reflections. Now I’ll go off and see what researchers and scientists have to say. I’ll report back on what I find....

Your friend in Christ,


In her further researches, she found much description but little analysis. "Not sure why, but it may be hard to pinpoint causal relationships. So many uncontrolled variables and confounding factors." She added:

Publicly, Norwegians don’t say much about our time as a colony, so as to avoid embarrassment. For instance, Norway mostly ignored the 100 year anniversary of independence from Sweden back in 2005, no official celebrations or events. It’s a bit puzzling to me.

I went back to Robert Ferguson's Scandinavians: In Search of the Soul of the North (see this post: "Shame is what turns societies around") to see if he could help. He thinks a lot about Scandinavia's humane rectitude and melancholic tendencies, but doesn't especially differentiate Norway. He doesn't, for example, mention Hans Nielsen Hauge (though he does mention another pietist rebel, Gustav Adolph Lammers, in passing), and doesn't touch on the Pentecostal movement in Norway—possibly the oldest in Europe.

Many thanks to Susanne for her insights into what started out as a reflection on a statistical puzzle.

Bakkehaugen Church, Oslo. Oddbjørn Sørmoen, source.

Former Mossad chief dares to use the word....

Olaf Scholz, a "quiet, unexcited" role model? (Compare with my post on Angela Merkel.)

An interview with the founder of Ukraine's Center for Civil Liberties. "There isn't a rational explanation for torture."

And a reminder that our weekly online prayer meeting for Ukraine under the care of Friends World Committee for Consultation, European and Middle East Section, continues. More details here.

After visiting a dear friend in hospice care yesterday, I particularly appreciated this post from Nancy Thomas on the positive power of negative thinking.

Olivia Chalkley believes that young adults want what early Friends had. "... [L]iving with integrity meant I had to choose to go deeper or go elsewhere." I may have more to say later in support of this powerful essay, but I didn't want to delay linking to it.

More from Sue Foley. "Say It's Not So."

31 August 2023

A Right Sharing reunion, part two

Phanice Kenyorwa, Keyo Friends Women Group, Kenya (Right Sharing partners). Photo courtesy RSWR.

Of Phanice Kenyorwa's eight children, four are still living at home. She has 6 grandchildren also under her care. Phanice has a husband who is older and cannot work. He once worked as a butcher, but he became diabetic and can't work anymore. Reasons why she chose goat rearing for her business: Phanice ventured into goat rearing and selling because of advice from her husband as well as high demand of goat meat at the butchery where her husband once worked. Together with that, she does some farming of indigenous vegetables. She is so confident of her business because her own children help her to graze the goats and therefore it saves on labor.The business has helped Phanice to renovate their house which was leaking and also to put food on the table.

Grace Akaranga, chair lady of Keyo Friends
Women Group, in her village shop. Photo
courtesy RSWR.
Anne Jahenda at Kapkereri local market.
Photo courtesy RSWR.
Jackie Stillwell, general secretary, RSWR
(right), with Judy and me at Britain Yearly
Meeting 2023. Photo courtesy Jackie Stillwell.

It's very hard for me to believe it, but it has been thirty years since I ended my service with Right Sharing of World Resources. To all appearances, the program is flourishing. I can't help wanting to know, how has it changed over the decades?

This may not be the most important answer, but for one thing, it's an independent Quaker program. My service with Right Sharing (1986-1993) was part of my responsibilities as a field staffer with Friends World Committee for Consultation, Section of the Americas. 

When Right Sharing was a new vision for global economic justice via "right sharing" of our resources (at least "one percent more" from individuals and nations alike), that affiliation with FWCC provided a trustworthy anchor in the Quaker constellation of organizations, open to participation by all Friends of whatever location or theology. It was also an economical way of managing a program of its small size. However, as it grew to become one of the largest units of FWCC in terms of finances, it threatened to pull resources from the wider FWCC mission.

It was also a bit of a category mismatch. As Indianapolis First Friends pastor Lorton Heusel pointed out to me at the start of my service, Right Sharing was an action-oriented program devoted to development and economic justice, while FWCC as a whole was devoted to communication and consultation across the Quaker world. Wouldn't that confuse some audiences?

As the program became larger, some Right Sharing donors resented paying a small percentage toward FWCC's administrative costs, although without that administration, there would have been no program. All in all, when Right Sharing became independent a few years after my departure, the new arrangement made a lot of sense, and I very much enjoyed my term on the new trustees, with the late, much-missed Roland Kreager as the Right Sharing coordinator.

A couple of years ago, I reported on a reunion of Right Sharing trustees. That meeting answered a lot of my questions about what had changed and what had remained of the "old" Right Sharing. 

A few months ago Right Sharing held another such meeting of current and former trustees. Among the highlights this time was the addition of a fourth country—Guatemala—to the three countries where Right Sharing's partners were then located: India, Sierra Leone, Kenya. In each of these four countries there are Right Sharing coordinators and trainers. One of them, I'm delighted to say, was a familiar face from my time on the staff: Dr. R. Kannan. His work with local nongovernmental organizations and grassroots groups may have been Right Sharing's very first experiences with what is now standard practice: providing local assistance, training, and evaluation services for new and potential partner groups.

One of our romantic notions in the early years of Right Sharing was that somehow we could form meaningful partnerships simply based on informal visitations by Quaker travelers and Quaker volunteers in the Peace Corps, and similar improvisations. Also, somehow the groups we worked with would already know how to write an attractive proposal (without paying to copy someone else's successful proposal, and without feeling forced to parrot the jargon already proven to be attractive to Western donors), and would also, without further help, be able to receive and account for a chunk of new money. Kannan began to show how these relationships could be made more meaningful and secure, to the benefit of everyone involved.

What does all this look like in practice? I'm very thankful to Sarah Northrop, RSWR's program director, for telling me about one specific community partner, the Keyo Friends Women Group in Vihiga county, Kenya, as a case study of today's Right Sharing. Sarah writes:

Development of Keyo Friends Women Group and its partnership with Right Sharing of World Resources

In Kenya, it is common for women to come together as a group. There are church groups, groups of women who work together, community groups, groups formed around an interest, etc. In many of these groups, women practice “merry-go-round”. At each meeting, each woman puts a specified amount of money into a pot and it is given to one woman - usually the woman who is hosting the meeting that day. The person who receives the pot rotates through all of the members and then it starts over again. This practice of merry-go-round binds the women together and the money itself is useful to pay for big expenses such as school fees or holiday celebrations.

Keyo Friends Women Group was started as a United Society of Friends Women group of Keyo Friends Church in 2015. It was established as a prayer and support group, but they practiced merry-go-round banking also. As in much of rural Kenya, all of the women of Keyo Friends were struggling economically. Their main source of livelihood came from their small farming plots, but over the years, the plots had gotten smaller and smaller as they were divided among all the male heirs in a family, and much of land was sold to large tea and sugarcane farming enterprises. By 2015, the farm plots were no longer able to feed the families and women all over rural Kenya were looking for another way to support their families.

The Keyo group decided to invite a government Social Services officer to teach them how to do table banking so that they could establish a group revolving loan fund to support personal small businesses. Table Banking is similar to merry-go-round, but the money the women put in is not returned to them. It is kept in the group treasury and women who want to start a business can take a loan from the treasury to have capital for the businesses. When the loans are repaid with interest, the group table banking fund is further augmented. The government of Kenya, through their Social Service department, has a program that encourages women groups to start table banking and small-scale enterprises.

Sometime in 2016 or 2017, some of the women from the Keyo group went to a USFW conference where Samson Ababu made a presentation about Right Sharing of World Resources. The Right Sharing program offers women groups a much larger capital fund than they can save on their own and also provides training and support to the groups. The Keyo women asked Samson to come and speak more about RSWR to their group. Afterwards, they decided to become part of the Right Sharing program. They received training in group dynamics and were assisted to register their group and put into place procedures to ensure that the group was run fairly and democratically.

When they sent their application for a grant in the fall of 2018, the RSWR Country Coordinators ranked them highly and commented that the group was a mixture of many different tribes who were working well together and that they were actively trying to overcome the poverty that they found themselves in. Their grant was approved by the RSWR board and they received the funds in January of 2019. Since that time, the group has gone through many hardships and struggles, including Covid-19 and extremely high inflation in Kenya. However, they have stuck together and are still working hard to improve their lives. Their RSWR revolving loan fund is still intact and it continues to help them keep their businesses going and even grow the businesses which are now their main source of livelihood. All 30 of the original women are still active members and 5 new women have joined the group.

Sarah Northrop is the Program Director for Right Sharing of World Resources. A graduate of Earlham College and a member of West Richmond Friends in Richmond, Indiana, Sarah has worked at RSWR since 2007, first as Assistant to the Program Director and as Program Director since 2013. Sarah’s job includes liaising with RSWR Country Coordinators in our four countries, preparing information on projects and overseas partners for board, staff and donors, receiving and processing reports and other communications from our partner NGOs and women groups, and maintaining the database of RSWR past and present projects. Sarah works from her home in Chelem, in the state of Yucatán, Mexico.

When I was the Right Sharing coordinator, working from home in Richmond, Indiana, and then Wilmington, Ohio, with at most one part-time staffer working alongside me, and no permanent staff anywhere else, it was a point of pride (and of our fundraising!) that we operated a lean organization and could plow most income directly into grants to partners.

Actually, it was misplaced pride. A significant part of Right Sharing's budget now pays for training and preparation to make the partnerships more sustainable in the long run, and to make the relationships far more real. In my own time, I might have worried that donors wouldn't understand how important it was that this intermediary role be funded, but it seems as if donors do understand. Not only do those coordinators and trainers add integrity to the relationships, they also serve the goal of shifting the emphasis of Right Sharing from funders' decisionmaking in favor of partners' experience and initiative.

A selection of links to Right Sharing history (some of these were also in part one).

And for more recent history, Right Sharing newsletter archives back to 2016.

Jacob Meador on why Americans really stopped going to church.

The theologian Stanley Hauerwas captured the problem well when he said that “pastoral care has become obsessed with the personal wounds of people in advanced industrial societies who have discovered that their lives lack meaning.” The difficulty is that many of the wounds and aches provoked by our current order aren’t of a sort that can be managed or life-hacked away. They are resolved only by changing one’s life, by becoming a radically different sort of person belonging to a radically different sort of community.

Are churchgoers more likely to see life as exciting?

Pastor Sean Muldowny on pastoring in the Trump era. (Via Kristin Du Mez.)

Jeremy Morris considers what we're learning from the death of Yevgeny Prigozhin. "...[A]mbiguity over the sources and reasons for violence are useful to the Putin regime."

Beth Felker Jones offers a prayer for back to school.

Frida Berrigan on facing a world that has become an oven. In large ways and small, we need to reinvent ourselves.

Micah Bales on what happens when the Holy Spirit tweaks a sermon.

For blues dessert, here's a rerun especially sent out to our former students. Hans Theessink, "Walking the Dog."

24 August 2023

Experiment with healing

As writers, Diana and John Lampen have an amazing ability to combine clarity, simplicity, practicality, on the one hand, and such sublime intangibles as mystery, joy, and beauty, on the other. This is certainly the case, to our immense gain, with their new book in the "Quaker Quicks" series, Inner Healing, Inner Peace: A Quaker Perspective.

In a way, the Lampens remind me of explorers—those remarkable people who have gone to distant and difficult places, to the polar regions, or deep underwater, or to the moon, with results that enriched our knowledge and our spiritual resources. Likewise, John and Diana, individually and together, have experienced a range of challenging situations that give them great credibility in talking about healing and peace.

They can speak from decades of experience with teenagers with emotional problems and long-termers in prisons, the urban warfare of "the Troubles" in Northern Ireland, the consequences of Chernobyl for a whole generation of children in Belarus, conflict in South Africa and Uganda, and many years of teaching nonviolent approaches to conflict in these settings and more.

There is, however, no heroic pose in their stories! Whether or not you have lived through similar dramatic settings, some of the most powerful stories told by John and Diana come from their own friends, families, colleagues, from those ground-level situations that happen anywhere to any of us: trauma, betrayal, resentment, anxiety, fear, and the ultimate fear of dying.

Among the obstacles to tranquillity are the unhealed hurts, wounds and scars within us. These may include bereavements, problems in our immediate relationships, or memories with which one cannot come to terms. One may try not to dwell on these thoughts, but they can force themselves on one’s attention, preventing people from relaxing or getting to sleep. We believe people need to find some peace within before they can respond effectively to their external problems—whether by taking action or by accepting or enduring them.

Diana and John at Pendle Hill, 2015; screenshot from source.
Here is the power and the joy of this book: the Lampens have taken these raw experiences, told candidly and tenderly, and have harvested spiritual practices from their Quaker faith and many kindred sources to open up ways of healing that people of all sorts of temperaments can use. After telling us these stories and outcomes, they distilled what they learned into a set of fourteen accessible practices. Many of these practices have a common thread: gently helping us to connect our minds, our spirits, and our bodies. 

Everywhere the Lampens ministered, they were teaching and learning at the same time. Here, for example, is one of the things they learned about habitual violence from the prisoners they worked with:

These prisoners explained to us that the initial response to a provocation was not anger; it was a feeling of humiliation, hurt, need or fear. This made them feel weak and vulnerable which they found hard to tolerate, so their brain flashed into anger mode, replacing the powerless feeling with a surge of strength. This enabled them to transfer the humiliation onto their opponent, who became the victim of the crime. We asked them whether there was a short time when they could have prevented this short-circuit into anger and violence. “Yes,” said one, “there was a moment, but it was as thin as a cigarette paper.”

This brief book is saturated with spiritual wisdom, from Jesus, George Fox, John Woolman, Isaac Penington, Rufus Jones, and others familiar to most Quakers, and also from Carl Jung, Patanjali, Dai-En Bannage (a Buddhist monastic), Thich Nhat Hanh, to name a few. Most of the explicit Quaker content will feel very congenial to unprogrammed Quakers of the tradition most familiar in the the U.K, and Ireland, but it doesn't all fit that category:

Unlike reconciliation, forgiveness does not depend on the other person showing remorse for the way they have treated us, though when this happens it can help us to forgive. Indeed, it does not even need the presence of the other; we can forgive the dead for hurts they have caused. One can rightly urge two parties to be reconciled; but no one has the right to say you must forgive, except “that of God” in yourself. A Rwandan Quaker pastor told us how he was leading his congregation in prayer when he felt God was saying to him, “I’m not listening to you—I’m not even here.” “Where are you, Lord?” “I’m in your house, comforting your wife after what you said to her before you came to church.” He immediately told the congregation to continue the service, while he went home to ask for her forgiveness. He added that this gave him insight into the general need to forgive and be forgiven after the terrible events in his country.

As you can see, the Lampens have not imposed doctrinal tests on the people and teachings of this book. Formal theology is not this book's focus. Nor do they deal directly with the politics behind some of the crises in which they served as healers and learners. As they say, other books in the "Quaker Quicks" series deal with some of these questions directly.

The temptation I face right now is simply to give you major chunks from this beautiful book, rather than imposing my own words. I hope I've given you enough reasons to get copies for yourself, and, best of all, explore the practices Diana and John have provided. The book ends with a carefully chosen list of references and further reading, including the Pendle Hill Pamphlet by John Yungblut that I recommended recently.

Although I'd read books and articles by the Lampens before 2000 (I particularly remember John Lampen's Twenty Questions about Jesus), it was in that year that we first met them. They spent six weeks at our Friends meeting at the time, Reedwood Friends Church, as part of our Center for Christian Studies program that year. Among the gifts they gave us during their residency with us was Rex Ambler's "Experiment with Light" practice. The group that began then at Reedwood continues to this day.

Another network that the Lampens have drawn upon, with mutual benefit, is the Alternatives to Violence Project, mentioned several times in this book. Friends Peace Teams, whose Europe Group I serve on, also collaborates intensively with Alternatives to Violence.

More about Friends Peace Teams in the latest issue of Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends newsletter.

Beth Allison Barr continues to consider complementarian theology. (And ... her students convinced her to see the movie Barbie.)

Heather Cox Richardson: When did the Republicans' "devil's bargain" begin?

Mark Pratt-Russum: Troublemaking as self-discovery.

Sue Foley: "Queen Bee." Ottawa's Sue Foley has a unique ability to match voice and guitar.