23 March 2017

Evangelism and enemies (repost and update)

Sunday update:

(Link to article.)

More Marines might be heading for active combat in Syria, while the new U.S. administration discusses looser criteria for lethal drone strikes in the Middle East, and at the same time, State Department leadership and resources seem to have low priority. Meanwhile, apparently, innocent civilians continue to die.

Dear Christian taxpayer: Are you and I content with this state of affairs?

I wrote the following post eight years ago, shortly after Obama took office as president of the U.S. Some of the context has obviously changed, but I stand by my original point: who are these enemies in our target zones, and "how do I know that they deserve to die at the hands of officials answerable to me and my neighbors, with bombs our taxes have purchased?"

AND: is there a direct line we can draw between our answers to these questions and our behavior as evangelical Christians?

[07 May 2009, edited]

The New York Times reported today that "United States officials acknowledged Thursday for the first time that at least some of what might be 100 civilian deaths in western Afghanistan had been caused by American bombs. In Afghanistan, residents angrily protested the deaths and demanded that American forces leave the country."

A little later in the story, "The United States defense secretary, Robert M. Gates, questioned by journalists as he visited the capital, Kabul, apologized for any loss of innocent life. But he said that 'exploiting civilian casualties and often causing civilian casualties are a fundamental part' of the insurgents’ strategy."

I grieve these deaths and losses. I don't want to think about how my country's equipment rained death down on people I never knew. Among the victims, those who did not wish us harm died for the glorious reason that they inhabited our margin of error, or because their deaths were seen as a reasonable price to pay to accomplish the deaths of the "real" enemy. Our officials knew that this real enemy apparently likes to cause or provoke us to kill innocents, and by the criminally stunted morality of low-intensity warfare, we oblige.

Well, I can't help going a step further. What about that real enemy, the Taliban, or El-Qaeda -- how do I know that they deserve to die at the hands of officials answerable to me and my neighbors, with bombs our taxes have purchased?

I've been following this story for the last couple of days, and at the same time I am continuing to make my plodding way through Bryan Stone's Evangelism after Christendom: The Theology and Practice of Christian Witness. (The book is an inspiring/frustrating mix of excellent content presented in jargon-laden, underedited prose--but more about that another time [here -- see point 3].) I came across these thoughts (pages 179-80):
Much of the confusion regarding Christianity and politics swirls around whether (and if so, how) the church should be involved in politics, or which options a Christian should choose within a particular society or nation. But this typically cedes far too much to a secular politics, construing it as the only game in town and failing to recognize that living together as the people of God is itself already a politics. It presumes politics as an autonomous sphere of the social order having a fixed boundary that separates it from the realm of faith, so that faith can only ever be related to politics as a subsequent application or engagement. By contrast, to speak of the politics of evangelism in the way I intend it here is to begin with the church as itself a politics and to point to the visible, bodily, and corporate way that persons are invited to be formed into that alternative polis. The church then is not called merely to be political but to be a new and unprecedented politics; not merely in public but as a new and alternative public; not merely in society but as a new and distinct society, a new and extraordinary social existence where enemies are loved, sins are forgiven, the poor are valued, and violence is rejected. Yet if evangelism is political or if, for that matter, this politics is no utopian ideal, nor is it a lofty set of "causes" that we are merely summoned to stand in favor of. Evangelism is a summons to take the reign of God seriously, and it is an invitation to allow our lives, commitments, and relations to be ordered within that deviant politics called the church.
Skipping to pages 193-4,
We do not start with "world" in order to understand what we mean by "church." However subversive this politics may be, it is so precisely because it embodies the good news of God's reign in a situation where hostility to that reign passes for normalcy. Nor may we absolutize the difference between church and world. For one thing, there is a good deal of "world" in all of us, including the church. But more than that, while it is true that the church's story is not the world's story, Christian evangelism operates out of an unyielding trust that it can be, the audacious confidence that it should be, and the outrageous hope that it will be.
In my sorrow about the Afghanistan slaughter, I'm trying to make a concrete application of this theology. The world's story (at least the Pentagon's story) is that (a) the Taliban are our enemies; (b) we have justifiably deployed forces within range of Taliban bullets; (c) their violence against our forces and allies is illegitimate; (d) our lethal response, including risk to civilians, is legitimate and normal.

Jesus severely complicates this neat arrangement. As Paul says, "God has given us the task of telling everyone what [God] is doing. We're Christ's representatives. God uses us to persuade men and women to drop their differences and enter into God's work of making things right between them." (The Messagecontext.) But in the "real world," hostility to that starting point, that urgent ministry of persuasion and reconciliation, passes for normalcy.

Our first step, if Bryan Stone is right, is to declare independence from both the Pentagon story and the Taliban story -- not to depart from the world in which these combatants are killing each other, but to place the legitimacy of their stories under question. I don't mean a glib or sentimental claim of equivalence, declaring both sides equally lovable and blameless. On the other hand, I do mean putting sacrificial effort into finding out what each side actually knows about the other, and whether they're telling their audiences the whole truth about what they know. What in fact are U.S. forces doing that far away from home; what do they know about their opponents' grievances and motivations, and what has "our side" done to break out of this lethal embrace with the enemy?

The other side faces equally awkward questions concerning their ultimate goals -- is their quarrel primarily with foreign intervention and occupation, or do they actually seek to set up a totalitarian theocracy? Have they in fact declared war against anyone who disagrees with them?

And we evangelists -- what will we do to communicate the hope of reconciliation, the necessity of mercy and forgiveness, in parts of the world where the hostility is not just normal, it's deadly? We can and should assert that no government is entitled to command Christians to kill anyone. When our governments tell us who should be our enemies, we should be persistently skeptical. Even when the government has correctly identified a group that truly wants to harm me and my neighbors, we should never accept blindly the government's limited list of options for meeting the danger.

(Don't deny danger that truly exists! Raising an alarm is a legitimate purpose of government -- but let's refuse to be manipulated into immoral responses that reinforce the powers that be, and that blind us to the humanity of the "enemy," rather than meeting the danger. Remember that the world we live in -- and therefore our politics -- has changed decisively since we've put Jesus at the center!)

And, in the meantime, we should be organizing our prophets, evangelists, apostles, pray-ers, teachers, administrators, pastors, and everyone else to be sure that eventually the ministry of reconciliation is in every place in this "real world" where guns and missiles are aimed at each other. The stakes are high -- there are children living right now in those margins of error, and our taxpayer-financed fingers are again tightening on the trigger.

For almost the whole Bush II presidency, I yearned for a respectful and assertive dialogue between our leaders and those who seem to hate us the most, particularly among Muslims -- not a pandering apology but a straightforward engagement with our enemies' assertions, both right and wrong. Obama has made a new and hopeful start, but the agonies of innocent victims, shredded in full public view by our forces, is drowning him out.

The Bible on enemies; 100 Bible verses on enemies; does God have enemies?

Jan Wood: God is a realist.

Perpetual War Watch department: "Prepare, Pursue, Prevail!"

Jim Forest on the spiritual development of Thomas Merton.
It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which mad writermakes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race. A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake…. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun…. (Merton to Erich Fromm.)
This is how a Russian principal talked to her students about patriotism.

"When I'm 64": today!

James Cotton died a week ago. It was nearly 45 years ago that I first heard him perform, as part of a blues concert series at Carleton University. That was my very first experience of live Chicago-style blues. I didn't hear him again in concert until 35 years later, in a memorable set that included Hubert Sumlin and Pinetop Perkins. This week I tried to explain to our students how the traditions represented by James Cotton led to the music that most of them now listen to every day. This video of Keith Richards and James Cotton represents part of that story (and is a testimony to the endurance of the music and their careers!) ...

16 March 2017

It's my privilege (analysis, confession, accusation)

Thaw: I took this photo just over two weeks ago, but the enormous sledding hill is now almost gone. Soon even Lenin (at right) won't be able to help you find it.

I enjoyed the discussion of "privilege" on this week's Culture Gabfest podcast more than I expected to, since I'd mostly been inclined to dismiss the theme as just another way for over-privileged people-pleasers to self-flagellate.

The discussion on the podcast was prompted by an excerpt in the New Republic from Phoebe Maltz Bovy's book The Perils of "Privilege". I recommend both the podcast and the book excerpt, and won't overgraze their territory. Instead I'll just add a few comments.

First, definition. In summarizing the recent history of references to privilege in political discourse, Bovy uses a simple definition, "unearned advantage," particularly the advantages of race, social status, wealth. I'd add the word "structural," in a sort of parallel with "structural violence."

On the podcast, Stephen Metcalf touches on the paradox of identifying and naming privilege: in diagnosing the injustices caused by privilege in blocking potential participants from the supposedly free market, you're nevertheless exalting free-market thinking and its inherent injustices. His comments demonstrate one of the uses of the idea of privilege -- its usefulness for analysis. Despite my dislike of the term's overuse, I'm happy to agree that it's important to show how structural injustices affect human beings who all are endowed by our Creator with the same inalienable rights.

Once we see how privilege operates systemically -- in extreme situations resulting in impunity for some, and a total lack of security for others -- we might take another step: understanding and confessing how we fit into the systemic picture.

This step does not require any sort of progressive exhibitionism. We don't need to become codependent to the approval of less privileged people or groups in order to exercise due diligence in learning about oppressive structures and how to extricate ourselves from them, then subvert them, then sabotage their legitimacy. The better analogy is Christian repentance, or the Alcoholics Anonymous fourth step: identifying our baseline reality and then reorienting ourselves with this new information, a process that has nothing to do with self-abasement.

Analysis and confession are positive uses for the concepts of privilege. Accusation of individuals (otherwise known as shaming or one-upping) is useless or worse. As Philip Yancey wrote, "No one ever converted to Christianity because they lost the argument." The adversarial attribution of privilege probably wipes out any chance of inviting our conversation partner into a mutual effort to analyze and confess.

Of course, if our priority is to gratify some vindictive little corner of our own selves, accusation and shaming work just fine.

Thanks to a BBC World Service documentary I heard a couple of weeks ago, I became reacquainted with the work of storyteller John Henry Faulk. In the 1960's, he traveled among the Knife and Fork Clubs and similar groups in the South and Midwest with his message of how the civil rights and peace movements were actually a rebirth of the USA's founding spirit. In territory that should have been utterly hostile to his message, he often won over his audiences by respecting their decency and intelligence, and by telling stories that slipped past their defenses through humor and familiar cultural references.

Example: His fictional cousin Ed Snodgrass on the Viet Nam war and its critics....
Johnny, we go over there to Viet Nam in a Christian civilized way, trying to fight a Christian up-to-date war with flame throwers and half-tanks and bombers and napalm like God intended folks to fight wars in this day and time, and our boys are dressed up in pretty uniforms so that everybody can tell who they are, and what does old Ho Chi Minh and those Viet Congs do, come out after dark and on bicycles. You can't negotiate with people who act hateful like that. They're just tricky and they're so hard-headed. Johnny, just ask yourself this: If Jesus Christ was over there in Viet Nam today, walking the earth, honey, would he be down in them bamboo thickets and them rice paddies with a bunch of half-naked heathens, people who don't even go to church or wouldn't come to services if you personally invited them, people that don't even speak the English language, mind, you, the language that the Holy Bible was wrote in? Or would Jesus be up in those B-52's with them fine Christian boys that's been to church and know what to do with those bombs when they get over that territory?
... from this Studs Terkel broadcast on WFMT Chicago in November 1969.

Before I called you, I saw you.

Fateful days! (In Russian: the events of the revolutionary year 1917 presented in a constant stream of daily updates, social-media style. In English: the February revolution and contemporary reactions.) Will Russia celebrate?

Speaking of celebrations, Right Sharing of World Resources prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary.

Blues from Moscow ... Andrei Makarevich and Levan Lomidze:

09 March 2017

The Russian crowbar

Screenshot; source.  
"If it turns out to be true that some of our guys actually hacked American politicians, I have to say that I'm a bit proud of them!"

The speaker was one of our colleagues. She has no particular animosity toward the USA, but is enjoying this moment of compensation for a US-Russian relationship in which the USA usually assumes its own superiority.

"Russia, Russia, Russia." These days, chaotic, contradictory swirls of that American superiority mixed with anxiety and opportunistic political mudslinging, and genuine anger over apparent Trump-team misbehavior bordering on treason, have not only dominated the news in the USA and its allies. They've also been covered by Russian television news and Web sites. It's hard for me to sit down for a conversation with our colleagues and students without the subject coming up. What will it take for things to settle down?

I'm sure that genuine investigations would be helpful -- although I'm not sure how likely that is to happen. My own personal plea is for caution and sensitivity about puffing up a big, bad Russian threat as a crowbar to use with secret glee for the purpose of regime change in the USA. It's ironic that some liberals, perhaps the very people that told us for decades to unmask and avoid enemy-images, may be intentionally or unintentionally constructing an enemy-image around Russia for short-term political gain in the USA.

The Russian agents my colleague was referring to, "our guys" who "hacked American politicians," as well as those who may have tried to trick, cajole, or pressure Trump team members to compromise, were doing their jobs. Like any competent intelligence agencies anywhere, they're bound to score sometimes. The USA spends countless tax dollars trying to do the same things all over the world, intercepting signals and buying influence. During the US presidential campaign and transition, it was the Americans' job to run clean and sober (and hack-proof) political operations. Don't blame Russia for taking advantage of the clueless guys now in charge in the USA; focus the investigations on the possible American collaborators.

I have no deep insights into the motivations of Russia's leadership, but I have seen a lot of evidence that the Russian state apparatus is anything but monolithic. In any case, in advocating a far more temperate tone to Russia as a country, I'm not saying that the people at the top are angels. Mr. P. is clever but has not demonstrated deep wisdom or long-term strategic ability. He's trapped by a system that he must control or it will turn on him. His short-term tactics (apparently aimed at preserving his power beyond all else) are often destructive and disruptive rather than serving as an inspiration outside Russia's borders. After he no doubt did crucial work to stabilize Russia after the turbulent 90's, we might have hoped that he would turn his attention to building management structures and encouraging new leadership. Instead, he has allowed himself to become "indispensable."

His country is arguably the richest country in the world in natural resources, but corruption consumes large amounts of those resources and ensures that true reform of economy and administration cannot happen, because the system cannot risk allowing too many independent and innovative spirits asking too many questions. The Russia we have now (the Russia I love and respect, whose people have shown us almost nothing but kindness and hospitality) seems doomed to stagnation until some kind of breakthrough happens; and I worry about what that will look like. In the meantime, the only real threat that Russia poses on the world stage is psychological.

George F. Kennan said it best: for the USA and its allies to stay on an even keel, all we need to do is live our ideals. For me, these ideals include collective security, intellectual free trade, hospitality to the world's asylum-seekers, and, above all, the second most revolutionary idea of all time (after grace), namely due process. Among other things, this means resisting paranoia and cynicism, strengthening our global relationships, encouraging the European Union to remember its founding values and vision, flooding Russia with scholars and businesspeople, while getting as many Russians to the USA as possible, to promote mutual intellectual and spiritual exchange. Isolationism is a perfect match for the Kremlin's apparent short-term tactics.

[Friday PS: Both Russians and Americans need to avoid the cheap rhetoric of "whataboutism" (defending one's sins by pointing to sins of the other, rather than acknowledging the incongruities between one's own sins and one's claimed ideals -- for example, Russia's claim to be a bastion of Christian values, and America's "city on a hill"). I just want to point out that whenever we Americans mistreat refugee families, peaceful demonstrators, people in jail and prison, people driving or running while black, whistleblowers, ... we sabotage ourselves on the world stage. Victims can be forgiven for not understanding what the functional differences are between cruelties inflicted by one system and those inflicted by the "other." And there is no such thing as an innocent bystander.]

Quakers and likeminded other Christians may have never faced a more urgent season for evangelism and prophecy. Gospel order transforms the old imperial version of collective security into a nonviolent vision of citizenship in God's commonwealth, serving the Lamb of God rather than national idolatries, and subverting all the tired old excuses for objectifying each other. I hope that's where we direct today's sense of urgency, rather than putting our weight on some dubious Russian crowbar.

So you think Russia isn't a basket case? Actually, I don't, but maybe I'm one of those antihysterians, if not an outright useful idiot....

Fair or unfair? Mark Galeotti: Corruption is Russia's greatest ally.

On the other hand, Stephen F. Cohen wants more proof: Is Russia really the cause of Europe's multiple crises?

The unhappy ghost of American identity: Hauerwas, Bannon, and the emptiness of 'national promise' (from the Armchair Theologian).

California meetings reach out to NW Quakers.

Ruthie Foster!

02 March 2017

Do we realize how we sound?

. . . and do we care?

Derek Penwell writes on The Huffington Post's site: "Dear Evangelicals, I Don’t Think You Realize How You Sound To Everybody Else." Most of the column gives examples of this main point:
... I’m not sure you realize that your moral (and often, political) tone comes off as censorious and unsympathetic to people who are suffering, people who are currently living in fear of what might become of them in this brave new world we all inhabit. I know not all of you, but certainly enough of you that it feels to almost everybody else like all of you.
The examples remind me of Dan Merchant's film Lord, Save Us from Your Followers, which highlights the incongruities between Jesus and the religion industry claiming to represent him in the USA. Penwell's article, written nearly ten years after Merchant's film was made, refers specifically to the way white evangelicals often deal with undocumented immigrants, refugees, Muslims, sexual minorities, and racism -- and contrasting those messages with what he believes Jesus would be "cool" with.

Penwell's indictment, at first reading, is ridiculously blunderbuss. For example,
They [LGBTQ people] hear you complain in high dudgeon about the invasion of privacy of underage girls when transgender people want to use the bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity, but then they see the white folks among you vote overwhelmingly for a man who is on record multiple times bragging about his ability to invade the privacy of underage girls.
One of the opening frames of Lord, Save Us from Your Followers.
Of course, addressing "you" with this "high dudgeon" charge may have absolutely nothing to do with you, dear reader; it's rhetorical overkill. But he is really saying that those who are accurately described in his indictment are in effect casting a shadow on the credibility of all evangelicals, including "you." Furthermore, he's pointing out (accurately) that our heroic righteousness can have devastating impacts for people in crisis.

I'd like to reframe these challenges in three ways:

Audience. When we Christians are at our most obnoxious in public, could we stop a minute and think honestly about what audience we're addressing? Are we actually speaking to the people we want to bless? Are we actually in direct contact with those who need the Good News, and can we make it our first priority to provide access to the community formed by that Good News?

What a privilege to have a chance to influence lives for eternity, and possibly subvert bondages! What will we do with this precious opportunity? Will we create relationships that can convey God's love and grace, before all else? If that bridge of relationship is weak or nonexistent, we can't cross over with the heavy freight of the claims of discipleship, especially if those claims involve sweeping changes in behavior.

Maybe, if we're honest, our audience really isn't "unreached" people at all. Maybe we're actually trying to impress our own communities. Maybe we're afraid of crossing our group's own thought police, a feature of far too many evangelical subcultures. Maybe we're actually addressing our individual selves, using conspicuous righteousness to compensate for our own unresolved addictions. These sorts of proxy audiences would explain a lot of the anti-evangelistic public messages that come from supposed evangelicals.

Territory. Abraham Kuyper said, "There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: 'Mine!'" This does not give Christians license to create territories where the rules of courtesy and the priority of evangelism do not apply -- that is, territories where we are allowed to treat others rudely under the guise of Christian witness. If a homosexual couple want to buy a wedding cake from you (assuming that you are the "you" being addressed by Penwell!), why would you want to associate the word "Christian" in the public mind with your refusal to serve them?

There was a time when Christendom sat high in the saddle in North America, and seemed to demand special deference. Now that this cultural dominance is all but gone, we have no alternative but to win hearts with the actual merits of the Gospel. Given this reality, what is winsome about defending "our" little bits of Christian turf by refusing opportunities to engage lovingly with people not like us?

There is no place that doesn't belong to God. There is no place where God's children are encouraged to be ungracious.

Trustworthiness. I have a theory that I'd like to check out with you: it is more important to create a trustworthy church or meeting than it is to have all our evangelistic ducks in a row and all our incongruous behaviors resolved.

A trustworthy church does not need to pretend that we all agree on controversies such as sexual ethics or immigration. I would like to think that newcomers are at least as smart as we are, if not smarter, and they will forgive disagreements if they are conveyed with love, honesty, and grace, and without hidden screens that sabotage our radical Gospel hospitality.

A trustworthy church doesn't have a hierarchy of sins -- that is, a hierarchy with the most prevalent sins unremarked and unconfessed. It practices a mutual accountability that seeks the good of all, and that helps us find our places of service according to our spiritual gifts, not our social status.

A trustworthy church does not panic when people grieve or doubt.

A trustworthy church practices truth in advertising: when someone claims the biblical promise that "If you declare with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved," a trustworthy church doesn't slap asterisks on that promise.

Jesus didn't get crucified for writing a strongly worded letter to the Sanhedrin.
Because 21st century white Protestantism has turned Jesus' cross into an ahistorical mathematical formula, we don't think very often about what he did to provoke his crucifixion and whether or not we’re supposed to emulate his disruptive behavior.
Entertaining refugees, immigrants, Quakers from Bhutan, and suchlike angels.

When I was in high school, one of my heroes was the Chicago radio personality and oral historian Studs Terkel. Imagine my delight when I found that the BBC World Service series, The Documentary, is presenting a two-part program on Studs Terkel, featuring many voices from his decades of interviews. Part one is here.

One of the first programs I remember from all those years ago was this interview (in two parts) with John Henry Faulk. I must have heard a recording of it, because it was definitely this interview, but I'm sure I hadn't already discovered Terkel at the age of 11.

It's been a while since I've posted a Hans Theessink video. Enjoy!

23 February 2017

Faultlines, part two

A scene from Northwest Yearly Meeting's 2013 sessions; Paul Bock (left) and Steve Fawver, and an exit sign.

If you are not an Quaker, this post may not make any sense at all. It's my personal, partial, imperfect attempt to comprehend how the scourge of disunity kicked up all over the Christian world by issues relating to same sex relationships, finally disrupted even the mellowest, most affectionate body of evangelical believers I've ever known, Northwest Yearly Meeting of Friends. I didn't want to believe this day would come. If anyone could demonstrate the power of love to overcome today's worldwide trends toward division, I thought we might just pull it off. And, in the long run, we still might be able to do it, but now it will be much harder....

Looking back at the 2012 annual sessions of Northwest Yearly Meeting, I wrote,
"Grace to you," we sang, "God's great grace to you." Nate Macy was playing and leading his song as we opened the last business meeting of Northwest Yearly Meeting's 2012 sessions. We would not have been able to sing, "Perfect closure to you, perfect closure to you," because the thorny issues (specifically, same-sex relationships) were not resolved. But we had opened and faced the conversations graciously. We had absorbed the pain of some and the impatience of others -- and a variety of other strong emotions -- without buckling as a community.
I reviewed 2013 in similar terms:
Once again, we were unable to find closure on this subject, but, once again, love and courtesy prevailed. We have much work to do, because our courteous community continues to include people for whom any weakening of the yearly meeting's traditional stance represents a breaking of biblical covenant, while others find any formulation, whether addressing "sexual perversion" or "distortions of sexual intimacy," painful beyond words.

As I listened to these dear Friends today, in my head I could fill in the "other side's" response to each one of the arguments or testimonies that were expressed. However, given our yearly meeting's deep bonds of love, our increasing experience with the use of "listening groups" ahead of difficult questions, our trustworthy clerks and elders, and the discipline suggested by the Youth Yearly Meeting, I believe we can expect the Holy Spirit to break through where today we don't yet see a way.
In 2014 I still kept my positive tone.
Everyone spoke tenderly and respectfully. Nobody charged that the differences in the yearly meeting rose to the level of being unequally yoked. I felt once again that the center held, and that its voice was very strong.
The 2015 sessions passed relatively uneventfully (and I was too sick to write much, anyway!). But just after the close of the sessions, the yearly meeting elders announced their decision (PDF format) to release West Hills Friends Church from membership over that church's dissent from the Yearly Meeting's book of Faith and Practice on same sex relationships. Nancy Thomas provided wonderful insight into the elders' deliberations and some of the related pain.

In 2016, I gave up my compulsive optimism:
West Hills' non-compliance is symptomatic of a faultline that runs through many churches and even families, a faultline that itself threatens the future of Northwest Yearly Meeting but hasn't been given adequate attention or even definition. Is sexual identity and behavior the main issue, or is it our understanding of biblical authority and the authority of Yearly Meeting structures and documents? All of the above? And, most importantly to me, why didn't our process seem trustworthy enough to earn the patience required to tackle these underlying strains?
... And at the January 2017 meeting of the Yearly Meeting's representative body, the center stopped holding, and we buckled as a community. Representatives were given no choice but to acknowledge the decision reached by the Yearly Meeting's Administrative Council earlier that month -- that, in effect, it was better to require an orderly withdrawal from the Yearly Meeting by dissenting churches than to endure a disorderly disintegration "... one, two, or four churches at a time...."

Mixed feelings:

On the one hand, I persist in my diagnosis that this whole abrupt resolution was a colossal failure, resulting from a lack of the trust that would be needed to tackle the "underlying strains" I talked about last year.

I specifically mean that we were unwilling as a yearly meeting to examine what biblical authority means to us, and why it means different things to different Friends. In my more jaundiced moments, I felt that it was more important to some influential Friends to maintain a stance as heroes of biblical authority than to grant grace to those who cherish the Bible equally but come to different conclusions on controversial issues. I cannot find any other reason to rush the process along other than the threats of such Friends to pull their churches out of the Yearly Meeting if the day of reckoning were to be postponed any longer. So: to avoid losing those angry churches, dissenters were seen as expendable.

(Friday PS: In my less jaundiced moments, I admit that I can see myself doing much the same thing -- maintaining a heroic stance over concerns I personally prioritize, such as evangelism, peace, equality.)

Credit where credit is due: I do not fault our Yearly Meeting's leaders for recognizing the crisis and making a decision that seemed, after prayer and wide consultation, to represent the best stewardship of the Yearly Meeting's identity and energy. If an immediate decision had to be made (and this was, I believe, the tacit understanding behind last summer's end-of-session deferral of the ultimate decision to the most recent midyear gatherings), then to require churches to declare their attitude to Faith and Practice was as reasonable a basis as any. Each church is free to make that declaration, whatever (as the restructure decision says) their internal disagreements might be.

OK, all that is on the one hand. Is there, on the other hand, a silver lining in all this? Yes. Local churches can now do, or continue doing, the work of deeper discernment of the "underlying strains" that the Yearly Meeting gave up on. In fact, local churches can follow one of a number of paths:
  • Churches that have substantial unity over the current Yearly Meeting definitions of sexual ethics can simply minute that they will continue to "align their practices with current NWYM Faith and Practice." Presumably, this state of affairs can continue for them as long as their internal understanding and the Yearly Meeting's understanding remain in alignment. I hope those churches will continue to pray and study, and continue to grow in their discernment. Nothing guarantees that their alignment with NWYM will last forever, or that dissidents within those congregations won't simply leave (either finding another fellowship or joining the growing ranks of disillusioned ex-evangelicals), but, for now it's all good.
  • Churches that have a wider range of views on sexual ethics, or on biblical authority and interpretation, can pragmatically decide to keep their practices in alignment with Northwest Yearly Meeting while their internal conversations continue. In a sense, they can take the internal contradictions that NWYM finally decided were intolerable for the larger body, and continue to endure those contradictions within the local body for the sake of the bonds of Northwest Yearly Meeting unity. There is a huge cost to this pragmatic approach: Friends who are members of sexual minorities would probably bear the painful brunt of the incongruity.
  • Churches that are already clear that their local practices cannot remain in alignment with the Yearly Meeting's Faith and Practice have now been invited to form their own new yearly meeting with help from a NWYM transition team (listed here) and compile their own Faith and Practice. I dearly hope that, first, the churches that are unable to align with current NWYM Faith and Practice will in fact have the dedication and energy to form this new body in collaboration with that NWYM transition team. Second, I hope this new body is as committed to biblical authority and Quaker discipleship as NWYM wishes to be. The task of compiling a new Faith and Practice is a wonderful chance to restate core Friends insights for a jaded world. Third, I hope that this new yearly meeting will lavish love and care on its mother yearly meeting, rejecting resentment and cynicism in favor of an enduring hope for reconciliation.

Marge Abbott's thoughts on humility from Africa.

On using the word "calling" as a spiritual trump card ... and other refreshing reminders.

Enjoy these three great reads from the Godbeat.

Perpetual war watch: Mission Unaccomplished, fifteen years later.

Myths about Vladimir Putin that might be distracting Americans from vital internal challenges.

Today is Defenders of the Fatherland Day ... umm, more like Men's Day: an interesting article on how Russia's military has more symbolic power than actual political power. Same article in Russian.

NBC News considers why some say that Norway is the world's best democracy.

Only international protests will save these Bedouin villagers from being evicted. (Is Israel the world's best selective democracy?)

Seems like the right blues for this post.

16 February 2017

My grievances and your resentments (post no. 700)

Dueling resentments take up a lot of space in political debates and online comment sections these days. For eight years the U.S. president, Barack Obama, tried to be the voice of reason in times of racial crisis, falling tragically short according to some -- and, on the other hand, recently charged with being the most "racially divisive" president in the speaker's memory.

That speaker, Alabama's congressman Mo Brooks, wasn't finished. His generalizations reached a point of incandescence:
"It’s a part of the Democratic party’s campaign strategy to divide Americans based on skin pigmentation, and to try to collect the votes of everybody who is a non-white on the basis that whites are discriminatory and the reason you are where you are in the economic ladder is because of racism," Brooks said. "That’s been their campaign strategy for decades, but Barack Obama has honed it to a level of perfection not heretofore seen." (Source.)
Now the question begins to make sense: "Is it racist to call someone 'racist'?"

This practice -- one-upping others' resentments by asserting one's own -- is given as (at least) a partial explanation of the recent U.S. election outcome. Nearly 63 million voters cast ballots for Trump. As I survey Facebook comments and online commentaries, some of those millions cited positive reasons for their choice: a businessman who makes deals, someone unlikely to get into war with Russia, someone who will nominate conservative Supreme Court justices. But time and again, certain resentments also pop up over and over again: those awful Clintons, self-serving politicians in general, bureaucrats who don't understand small businesses, a country flooded with dangerous immigrants.

These voters contacted by The Guardian expressed an interesting balance of hope and resentment. Many of them may have voted differently had a more palatable range of choices been available. Here's my question for both you and me: what do we now say to each of these voters and the millions who feel as they do? And how do we say it?

Among the people I know and (usually) agree with, many have responded to Trump's first weeks in office with anger and ridicule. If you have had the endurance to read my posts for the last few weeks, you know that I worry about this limited menu -- it contributes to the degradation of political culture that Trump himself is accelerating.

Now for the "However...":

    Russian political humor exists, especially online!
    Here's an evil villains' support group:
    Panel 1: "I'm Darth Vader, and I love blowing up planets."
    "What are you worried about?" "It's what's expected."
    "It happens."
    Panel 2: "I'm Voldemort and I wiped out a bunch of people 
    for the sake of the scar-faced boy." "Nonsense, Voldy!"
    "Everyone does stuff like that."
    Panel 3: "And I'm Doctor Evil. I voted for United Russia."
    Panel 4: "What a douchebag!" "Disgusting!"
I still had this skepticism in mind as I listened to the Culture Gabfest podcast this week. In their conversation about the recent revival of the variety TV show Saturday Night Live's ratings, panelist Julia Turner referred to David Plotz expressing concern on his podcast (Political Gabfest) the previous week about the gleefulness of SNL's anti-Trump satire. Plotz worried that such liberal delight in chortling about the "craven stupidity of Trump and those around him" (Turner's restatement of Plotz's concern) was politically counterproductive. The group raised the question of whether the overall effect of this glee somehow links to the near-monopoly held by liberals over mass media entertainment and, therefore, just makes the nation's divisions that much worse.

Other panelists defended SNL-type satire, referring to its stress-relief function. Somewhat to my surprise, I also found myself, in my own thoughts, defending this satire.

Here's my reasoning: Liberal domination is beside the point. Satirical commentary is a defined arena; you can enter it as participant or audience, or avoid it altogether. For example, I probably watch SNL maybe once a decade, if that often, and I have not watched it since moving to Russia, with one exception: I watched Melissa McCarthy's recent Sean Spicer performance. Satire is an occupational hazard for every prominent politician, and rightly so. It forms part of the feedback loop that gives wise leaders valuable information about their intelligibility and their weaknesses, while, we hope, exposing the unwise. I choose not to fill my days with abrasive satire, but I also don't advocate shielding any powerful figure from the satirist's spear.

One of my Facebook friends reported that his wife's niece, a university student, was treated mercilessly by her dorm mates when they found out that she voted for Donald Trump. Students! People who should be, above all, curious!! Even if 100% of these dorm residents opposed Trump, why would they not thank their lucky stars that someone who supported him is right there in their midst, giving them a convenient opportunity to satisfy their curiosity about her motivations and reasoning for drawing a different conclusion than they did? Of course I don't know the details about this specific situation, but it sadly has the ring of truth.

This is my 700th post. For the time being, I've written enough about the current U.S. president. Starting next week, I hope to return to normal programming!

I think I've been doing all I can to avoid commenting on this development in my beloved yearly meeting. Maybe next week, if I can't stall again.

In the ever-popular (?) "loving your enemies" department, Taking Jesus Seriously AND Literally. Thanks to Bill Samuel for the link.

"... God is never disappointed in us," says Frederica Mathewes-Green.

Which faith group do Americans not feel warmer about, according to a recent Pew survey? You probably guessed it. GetReligion goes on ...
The Times team focused on the survey's larger trend, which was the rise in positive numbers. That's a valid approach to this news story.

Christianity Today dug deeper and, as a key voice among evangelical Protestants, probed the implications of this survey for its readers. That's a valid approach, too, especially if you are looking for an edgier headline that fits these tense times in the public square of American life.
Do Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia face liquidation? (Four years ago, I quoted a friend on why they experience such relentless repression in Russia. Meanwhile, another JW conscientious objector tries to navigate the alternative service labyrinth.)

Recalculating Russia's economic performance.

The "Beyond Carravagio" exhibition moves to the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin. (More images and background information about Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio on Artsy's site.)

I'm departing from my usual blues dessert to bring you a video from Lakocha, a wonderful "ethno-fusion" group in Moscow. They performed a benefit concert recently for the organization that houses our Moscow Friends Meeting. They sometimes call their music "Balkan cafe music," drawing from Serbian, Macedonian, Bulgarian, Armenian, Jewish, Greek, and Russian sources.