20 July 2017

Adopt a politician

Reichstag fire, 1933; source.
"Adopt a politician." This idea isn't original with me; the Friends Committee on National Legislation has urged us for years to build relationships with our legislators. But I have a slightly different meaning in mind.

The occasion for this exhortation is the extraordinary interview with U.S. president Donald Trump published yesterday by the New York Times. Aside from noticing the president's lapses into incoherence, almost every commentator I have read concerning this interview has pointed at his constant orientation of all topics around himself. As Benjamin Wittes says, listing all the Justice Department people who Trump claims have let him down, "They’re all, in different ways, not serving him. And serving him, he makes clear, is their real job."

Over the past year and a half, Donald Trump and his movement have been compared to fascists. Although there are some interesting behavioral links, there is no evidence that Trump adheres to fascism or any other systematic ideology. His fixation is with himself, his own sense of efficacy, and his desire to lead a country worthy of himself.

While the Trump phenomenon may not be classic fascism, it still has the seeds of authoritarianism. His vision seems to involve his own direct personal, heroic intervention on behalf of the millions of voters whose hero he claims to be, backed by his unprecedented understanding and unique public acceptance. (Not only did he win the popular vote if you don't count the cheats, he has even won over Poland and France.) In the service of this vision, he seems to want to build a top-down corporate state whose ministries and legislature ought to do his bidding, or he will know the reason why.

He wants credit for populist sensibilities -- finally exalting the people who resent the elites, who resent political correctness -- but he also believes millionaires are the best people to put in charge of making the national economy great, because they have a passion for wealth. "That's the kind of thinking we want." But the important point is, don't get in his way.

Timothy Snyder has warned us of the catalytic danger of a Reichstag fire in the slide toward authoritarianism. An equivalent event may indeed happen, thanks to North Korea or any number of other wild cards. I sincerely believe a different sort of fire has already started, a stealth fire that is stealing oxygen from the American democracy. The president does not plan to wait for an external crisis; he is already taking the steps needed to undermine the rule of law. The Times interview signals the distinct possibility of authoritarian moves to come -- for example, yet more firings at the Department of Justice to follow Preet Bharara, Sally Yates, and James Comey.

Yesterday, as we followed the progress of the health financing fraud unfolding before our very eyes, we also witnessed the president's lunchtime hints that "my friends, they might not be my friends much longer..." and specifically addressing Senator Heller ("He wants to remain a senator, doesn't he?"). We already know that well-financed pressure groups are ready to translate these hints into serious political attacks. The people there at that lunch laughed. Threats and public humiliation have become normal operating procedure. As Heller himself said, it was "just President Trump being President Trump." Exactly.

To be sure the elections of 2016 will not turn out to be a fluke, Trump has to make sure that his popular-vote "victory" is never again in doubt. Therefore (I am theorizing, true!), he has arranged for his favorite voting-fraud conspiracy expert, Kris Kobach, to convene a voting-fraud commission. Ironically, the commission's first meeting was not open to public attendance. With the U.S. Congress and a majority of state legislatures in Republican hands, the potential for mischief is obvious.

Wittes' article prescribes the antidote for this kind of creeping authoritarianism: "... the principle protection is having people with backbone who are willing to do their jobs and stand up for one another in the elevation of their oaths of office over political survival."

This is where we come in. I take the prayer factor seriously. I hope that every politician at that lunch, Heller and Trump included, has been or will be adopted by praying people -- people who will pray for their backbones, for their wisdom and protection, for their growing awareness of God's perspective. Let's not limit ourselves to our district's legislators; what about judges, governors, bureaucrats, journalists? Whom do we know in these lines of work? Are you and I praying for them? Their day-in, day-out competence and knowledge of God's grace and sovereignty can restore balance.

Prayer-based resistance doesn't mock. It doesn't rejoice when those we oppose are embarrassed, doesn't hope for our opponents to fall into scandals. We simply want to chase down persistently any evidence of corruption, self-dealing, betrayal, or incompetence, for the sake of the well-being of all of us, whatever our party. We hate elitism and triumphalism when it hurts those we love; we should hate it equally when it begins to infect us. We need to hold the politicians accountable for lapses in values and norms, but we need to hold ourselves and the so-called "resistance" accountable as well. Fear-mongering is no more acceptable among Trump's opponents than it is among his supporters. Prayer is our answer to fear as well as self-deception and false heroism, rooting ourselves in the Comforter who personifies Jesus's promise never to abandon or forsake us.

To pray against fear is not to choose the opposite extreme, passivity. It is to anchor ourselves in a reality far deeper than any desire to please one side or another. It's a spiritual preparation for a new kind of vigilance: one that is prepared for any kind of Reichstag fire, determined to reverse the harms already done, but not invested in being proven right if (thank God!) the threat of democracy's collapse turns out to be a false alarm.

On Sunday, our Northwest Yearly Meeting annual sessions begin at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon, under the theme "When Grace Happens."

If the chronology of separation plays out as planned, these sessions are our last ones as a united yearly meeting. Part of me expects that our true theme will be "When Grief Happens." I have to make myself address a more fertile question, "What does grace look like in this situation?"

If I'm truly grace-oriented, I have to confront my anger. The churches who forced the separation seem to me (but I might be wrong!) to have placed a lower value on unity than the churches who are being required to leave. However, the path of grace doesn't require these kinds of calculations. Instead, I want to envision a separation that is so kind and conciliatory that (in the nineteenth-century footsteps of Indiana Yearly Meeting of Friends and Indiana Yearly Meeting of Anti-Slavery Friends), some day a reunion might be possible.

In any case, I hope the resulting bodies are not poisoned by resentment but instead enjoy an ongoing relationship of mutual blessing. Both groups possess the spiritual DNA of one of the most generous and well-rounded communities of Friends I've ever experienced. Division could in fact lead to new fertility, new modes of evangelism and prophetic action, new doors of access for people who've never heard of us but who'd thrive among us.

However, conflict also has its place. Our separation is rooted, I'm convinced, in harmful forms of biblical interpretation which have already led to deep personal wounds. But when we are separate bodies, how will we confront this harm; how will we hold each other accountable? To oversimplify for the sake of discussion, will the liberals be held hostage by wounded people? Will the conservatives be held hostage by people who feel betrayed and defensive? Without the loving challenge of the "other," could both groups become spiritually and intellectually lazy?

Maybe the best we can do, for now, is encourage the individuals of each group who are not content to let the estrangement solidify and become permanent. I hope that there will be some individuals and families who simply refuse to divide. Otherwise, the tendency to bear false witness against each other's faith and discipleship -- behaviors which have already undermined us for the last few yearly meetings -- will, among other grave costs, continue to disillusion our young people.

Baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson's faith is finally getting the attention it deserves.

Speaking of increasing access to our community: addressing our frequent use of Quaker terminology without context.

A fresh look at evangelicals and the evolution dispute.

The difficulties of rehabilitation for Russia's ex-prisoners.

Memphis in Moscow....

13 July 2017

A good Quaker is hard to find

Gordon Browne used to tell this story on himself:

One day Gordon and another teacher took a high school group to see an amateur production of a Shakespeare play. It wasn't exactly the highest-quality production Gordon had seen, and as he and his colleague were leaving the theater together, he pointed out some of the defects. But his colleague saw it differently. Pointing to their happy students, he said, "Yes, you're probably right -- but look at their faces!"

When I hear overused and misused quotations from early Friends being advanced to describe us (number 1 being "that of God in everyone"), and my inner curmudgeon kicks in, I remember Gordon's story, and reflect back on when I first learned about Friends -- that is, when, for me, those same quotations were fresh and powerful.

Nowadays, among some Friends, "that of God in everyone" is sometimes used as a self-contained summary and explanation of what we Friends believe. For that purpose, it's cultish and inadequate. It avoids saying anything about the Friends movement that is awkward in today's skeptical culture: the Bible, Jesus, the cross.

But as the heart of Friends evangelism and missiology, "that of God" is crucial. Rather than presenting seekers with a set of propositions, we encourage them to turn to that witness of God's love and truth already within them. It's a message that is made credible by how our own community lives in light of that witness.

Two things got me going on this train of thought.

First: Micah Bales has written one of those "I wish I'd said that" blog posts, "Are Quakers Guilty of the Sin of Pride?" This uncalled-for pride has been an irritant to me for years, and I've vented about it more than once (here's an example where I also reference Micah!), but never as effectively and persuasively as he does here. The heart of his provocation:
To repeat for clarity: A sense of our own sinful unworthiness is native to the Quaker tradition. But we seem to have lost it. We’ve traded it in for a self-congratulatory sense of Quaker-led historical progress.
... and this important warning: The skeptical world is unimpressed with people who think they’re wonderful.

Second: Earlier today we heard a completely straightforward and sincere question from a new Friend: "Where do I find out how to be a good Quaker? I'd like to be one." It reminded me of a new attender at Moscow Friends Meeting about five years ago, who couldn't contain his joy at finding our little group: "I love you all and want to be more like you."

Whatever we do to diagnose and address our identity issues, I hope we cherish the idealism of people like these. Maybe they're detecting the very heart of our discipleship when we've become weary of the ways that discipleship has sometimes become routinized and stylized and trivialized into a private subculture.

What about this as a functional definition of a good Quaker? ... Someone who is wholeheartedly involved with their Friends meeting or church. Period.

The advantage of this simple definition: putting the accent on mutual accountability and discernment rather than promotion of a set of behaviors and legalisms. However, do we trust our churches to be "good Quaker meetings"?

For me, the heart of Friends discipleship is learning to live with Jesus at the center of our community, and helping each other to live this way, including its ethical consequences. But for our churches to live this way, we have to learn to cope with our distractions. We have to practice the spiritual equivalent of zero-based budgeting -- paying the rent, changing the lightbulbs, painting the sign, but ultimately and constantly returning to the central interrelated questions,
  • What does it mean to live with Jesus at the center?
  • What does God want to say and do in this world through us?
If we stick with it, no matter how imperfect our amateur performance might be, someone (maybe even God!) might say, "but look at their faces!"


Compassion for one's oppressor: moral absurdity or genius?

Masha Gessen on why the con worked.
The cast of characters is also part of what makes the correspondence so shocking. A washed-up British tabloid journalist, a tasteless Russian singer with a filthy rich father bankrolling his career, a corrupt Russian lawyer, an American reality TV star running for president, his son, and a tacky international beauty pageant that binds them all together. This list reads like an insult to American democracy. It also provides some clues about what really happened.
Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia brace for court decision.

Jim Kovpak offers #TheResistance a little help when it comes to Russia....

American civil religion is dead, long live American civil religion.

Eugene Peterson's second thoughts on same-sex marriage. Was he put on the spot?

"The sun rise in the east, goes down in the west. I do believe one day every living creature would get some rest." J.B. Lenoir with Freddy Below.

06 July 2017

Blue shorts

Sunset on Panther Pond.
It's now been three weeks since we left Russia. I'm starting to get recalibrated again to life in the USA. It helped a lot that we were able to spend a few days in near-seclusion and mostly offline in Maine, where the best Internet connection was off at the village library, open three days a week. My life was far more in tune with real time, not schedules.

To get back to the west coast, we found that a one-way train ticket, senior fare, was reasonably priced ... as long as we were willing to travel in coach seats rather than sleeping cars. The three-day trip, watching the geography change and enjoying three beautiful sunrises, was part of my recalibration. From Boston to Chicago, we had Wi-fi connections to the Internet, but for the rest of the trip we were mostly offline, for which I was again (mostly) grateful.

Thanks to Judy's careful selection of train food, and to our friend Susan meeting us at the St. Paul station with a wonderful bag of goodies, we were able to avoid buying the expensive food offered on the train. The travel experience was very good, but it was obvious that Amtrak suffers from neglect. The equipment, while sturdy, was old and threadbare. Russians depend on their rail system far more than we Americans do on ours, and the difference in priority shows.

In addition, long-distance east-west services such as those we used (Lakeshore Limited and the Empire Builder) may be cut entirely in the next year or two. It's hard to imagine the strain of working for a system whose existence depends on the year-to-year goodwill of politicians, especially in a season when goodwill seems in short supply!

To sum up: We can still recommend Amtrak, but if you've been spoiled by trains in Europe and elsewhere, be prepared for somewhat different standards. Even so, if you love train travel, take that trip while the services still exist. And be sure to check whether there is track work going on along your route. We had to choose our dates carefully because track work between Boston and Albany meant that, most of the time, that portion of the Lakeshore Limited is served by buses. After our last experience with an Amtrak bus substitution, we were determined to avoid a repeat.

Here in Oregon, after a few days with family in Eugene, I got on an Amtrak bus for the trip to the Portland Waterfront Blues Festival. This year I ignored the large stages entirely. I spent four days at the Oregonian Front Porch Stage, where there is a larger proportion of authentic blues (yes, I know, who am I to say!?) than the big-stage acts who bring in the audiences and make the festival viable. So I didn't hear Elvin Bishop or Sonny Landreth, or even the Stax Revue with Booker T.

The very best performer I did hear was (once again, returning after six years) Brother Yusef. How one musician can produce so much wonderful sound is a delightful mystery. For a compact presentation of my four days of blues, I present this slide show and a video from Brother Yusef....

Just a few recommended links this week:

Roll away the stone of approval-seeking.

Karl Vaters is not going to look for reasons to doubt the sincerity of your faith. (Attention Northwest Yearly Meeting Friends!)

Scot McKnight believes these five things about gender differences. Is his list helpful? What has he left out?

29 June 2017

Process discipleship

For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.
(Romans 7:19, New International Version; see also Romans 7:14-20 in The Message.)

Last week I was wondering why the Christian church, whose founder decisively declared independence from the powers and principalities of this world, too often continues to give its approval to the violent decrees of those same powers.

But that's just one aspect of a larger puzzle. Why is there such a disconnect between our faith and our practice? Of course, I can point to the behavior of Christian celebrities and their abundance of adages and cliches and inspiring book titles. Many of them speak and write beautifully about sacrificial discipleship but their lifestyles are often models of affluence. Some of them are what my friend Retha once called "comfortaholics." But, really, if I'm looking for examples of inconsistency, I don't have to go beyond myself and my own choices.

Brian Zahnd's book points out that many conservative Christians of previous generations did not see a contradiction between piety and theology, on the one hand, and colonialism or slavery or Nazism on the other. It makes me wonder what connections we (I) fail to make between our faith and our daily practice.

Jesus promises abundant life but explicitly warns us not to pile up riches. Thus he sets up a fertile conversation about the meaning of "enough." He advises the rich young ruler to sell all he has and give the proceeds to the poor (Matthew 19:21; Luke 18:22). This advice gives us more than a hint that he's talking about practice, not theory. But the Bible contains no list of rules for determining the meaning of "enough" in every situation we encounter.

Instead, we are promised the Spirit of truth, who will guide us into all truth (John 16:13). And there's the challenge: how do we discern that guidance?

I'm fascinated, although not entirely persuaded, by the process philosophers and theologians who say, among other things, that (1) God influences and persuades, but doesn't coerce, and (2) the reality we experience is a chain of indivisible events, each of which influences the next but the outcomes are not preordained. If we include personal decisions as events, and understand that God doesn't coerce these decisions, then my task at each decision point is to ask myself, Which way is God persuading me? What has God told me through the Bible, the church community, and my own rational thought, conscience, and intuition? How should I respond to this difficult person? How will I make amends for the hurt I have caused? How should I spend my money and time -- and who will benefit from and be hurt by the decisions I make? What impact will I have on our beautiful planet?

It's not that I need to plod legalistically through this checklist at each and every transaction, but I just need to take the time to see these occasions, and my participation, through God's loving eyes. I believe that if I deliberately consider how God is drawing me toward Gospel order at each of these moments of decision, I'm much more likely to "do the good I want to do."

If it's just a matter of resisting temptation with rules, I don't always do well. But if I stop and consider God's constant and loving persuasion, that helps put temptation back in its place.

A few years ago I wrote about "evangelical machismo." In contrast to celebrity heroism, I tried to define a more likely model of discipleship and its impact. I still think it's a decent description, but even this modest portrayal doesn't really deal with dilemmas of temptation: For most of us, the greater conformity to Christ will happen between the lines: we forgive more rapidly, confess and resist addictions more consistently, speak out against injustice more openly, reveal our faith more creatively, consume more judiciously, interact in our meetings and churches more transparently, assess and critique more generously, live more prayerfully. We will love more passionately, treat ourselves and others more tenderly. We will laugh and cry more often. And the upwardly reinforcing spiral will transform our world.

The testimony of simplicity, according to West Hills Friends.

Wesley the process theologian: a sample of John B. Cobb, Jr.

Why Roger Olson is not a process theologian. And why he should be.

Where do pro-life feminists belong?

A presumption of guilt.

Hiding the Palestinians no longer fools young American Jews.

Blues from Denmark:

21 June 2017

It's hard to believe in Jesus

As a once-naive adult convert to Christianity, I'm in a state of permanent frustration concerning functional atheism's hold on our family of faith. Brian Zahnd's A Farewell to Mars is the most effective tract against this state of affairs that I've encountered in decades.

The book has been around a couple of years, so you can find lots of reviews, and assessments of its importance to the future of evangelicalism. I won't duplicate all that good work. I just want to comment on his intersection with my own story.

My crucial encounter with Jesus in the pages of the Bible, 43 years ago, led to my decision that I could trust the One who said, "Love your enemies." As I sat on my bed reading the Sermon on the Mount, trying to process the effect that those few words were having on my whole mind and body at that moment, I realized that it really must be God. Only God could speak this command into my life with such heart-stopping authority. After seeing violence destroy my family and poison my nation, I had thought that my capacity to trust had been robbed from me, but that day it was restored.

What was strange to my 21-year-old self was how few others seemed to understand my excitement. As a student at the Institute of Soviet and East European Studies at Carleton University, I was immersed in the world of the Cold War, and I was aware of the empires and neocolonial structures on either side of that big divide. I was also aware of how my own family had been formed in the postwar chaos following World War II. On the one hand, war seemed like the ultimate absurdity; on the other hand, the world seemed to consider the ideals of nonviolence equally absurd, and its advocates (at their best) sweet but marginal eccentrics.

Given the way the world was set up, this conventional wisdom didn't seem surprising. But shouldn't Christians have an entirely and decisively different take? After all, Jesus was executed by the power brokers of his time and place, and then God turned everything upside down through the resurrection and Jesus's New Commandment.

As it turned out, Jesus truly is "the answer to all of God's promises" (2 Corinthians 1:20) and we are his Body active in the world to this very day. Is there systemic violence? Bondage? Slavery? Elitism? Corruption? Hopelessness? Through generations of prophets, recorded in the book we acknowledge as authoritative and trustworthy for salvation, God has promised to confront all of this, and has provided the world with the Body of Christ, us, to do the necessary confronting and reconciling. Us! Together, we have the necessary gifts and authority. Why are we so collectively passive, so ready to let those old assumptions of righteous violence go unchallenged?

In Brian Zahnd's book I find a healing reassurance that my discontent is not peculiar to me. It truly is incongruous that Christians are too often found either passively or actively supporting the old ways of empire and violence. "Love your enemies" is at the center of his book, but he also draws on Dostoevsky, Bulgakov, and other familiar voices in support of his brilliant and heartfelt polemic against Christian captivity. He gives us close readings of Old and New Testament passages that illustrate the complete disconnect between the new thing God has done in Christ and the old ways of tribe and empire.

If you too have found it impossible, as a believer, to reconcile your faith with the conventional wisdom that tells you to stop dreaming and get with the program, Brian Zahnd may well give you a wonderful shot of encouragement to keep the faith.

Portland, Oregon, is the headquarters of the Luis Palau evangelistic organization. I remember that, in the midst of the USA's military responses to the September 11 terror attacks, Luis Palau gave his approval of those responses. I was so disillusioned that someone of his stature in the world of Christian celebrities -- furthermore, someone who generally avoided politics -- did not distinguish between Christ and empire at that historic moment. Brian Zahnd is very candid in telling how he too, as a pastor, gave full-throated approval of military action in that early post-9/11 period. I found his book all the more powerful because of his candid retelling of how his heart changed.

A Farewell to Mars: teasers...
Isn't it time we abandoned our de facto agreement with Pontius Pilate, Caiaphas, and their worn-out, death-dealing ideas? Isn't it time we took seriously the revolutionary, life-giving ideas of Jesus -- the one whom God raised from the dead and declared to be Lord by the power of an indestructible life? Isn't it time we were converted and became as children, having the capacity to imagine the radical otherness of the kingdom of God? ... At the very least, we ought to take a fresh look and evaluate with new eyes what Jesus of Nazareth actually taught about the dark foundations of human civilization and the alternative he offers in the kingdom of God. (from Chapter 1, "That Preacher of Peace.")

Far too many American Christians embrace a faulty, half-baked, doom-oriented, hyperviolent eschatology, popularized in Christian fiction (of all things!), that envisions God as saving parts of people for a nonspatial, nontemporal existence in a Platonic "heaven" while kicking his own good creation into the garbage can! Framed by this kind of world-despairing eschatology, evangelism comes to resemble something like trying to push people onto the last chopper out of Saigon. But this is an evangelism that bears no resemblance to the apostolic gospel proclaimed the book of Acts. Christianity's first apostles evangelized, not by trying to sign people up for an apocalyptic evacuation, but by announcing the arrival of a new word order. The apostles understood the kingdom of God as a new arrangement of human society where Jesus is the world's true King. (from Chapter 2, Repairing the World.)

We believe in Jesus theologically, religiously, spiritually, sentimentally ... but not politically. We believe Jesus is the Second Person of the Trinity, but we don't really believe he was a competent political theologian. If we were tasked with framing a political theology drawn only from Jesus's words, what would it look like? Why? Because when it comes to political models for running the world, we find it hard to believe in Jesus. (Chapter 4, It's Hard to Believe in Jesus.)

The road of nonviolent peacemaking is not an easy road, it's not a popular road, and it's certainly not a road for cowards. The road of "God is on our side, and he shall surely smite our enemies" is a wide road. A lot of parades have gone down that road. It doesn't take much courage to travel that road; just fall in step and follow the crowd. A marching band is usually playing. But it's also the road that leads to burned villages, bombed cities, and solemn processions of flag-draped coffins. Until the self-professed followers of Jesus are willing to forsake the wide road for the narrow way, the popular sentiment for the unpopular conviction, the easy assumptions for the hard alternatives -- Jesus will continue to weep while his disciples shout hosanna. (Chapter 6, The Things that Make for Peace.)

Before we appeal to Hitler as the ultimate argument against Christian nonviolence, we first have to ask how Hitler was able to amass a following of Christians in the first place. (Chapter 7, Clouds, Christ, and Kingdom Come.)

What lessons and priorities might Friends take from Brian Zahnd's message? There's theoretically great congruity between what he says and what we Quakers believe.

We do know what it's like to be treated as admirable eccentrics, nice but marginal. We also have our own ways to avoid implementing the implications of our faith:
  • drawing on the vast resources of Friends piety to satisfy our emotional and intellectual needs while avoiding the surrender and self-abandonment of full conversion
  • making it hard for seekers and newcomers to access our community (folkways, in-group language) so we can keep feeling both modest and special
  • marginalizing Jesus by making him a figurehead or metaphor (some liberals) or a tribal chieftain in charge of our camp (some evangelicals) instead of seeing him at the very center of our meetings
  • trivializing our peace testimony by leaching out its cross-shaped spiritual power in favor of "the cult of middle-class pacifism"
  • weakening our fellowship with doctrinal controversies and bibliolatry (often with the stern language of pseudo-heroism), undermining each other rather than conducting our conflicts based on a prior commitment to each other's well-being.
Happily, none of these flaws are fatal; they can all be addressed. Let's do it, let's be a laboratory of love for the whole Christian world and beyond.

How Katherine Tanner's theology bridges doctrine and social action.

The saga of North Seattle Friends Church.

The ascendancy of the phony Russian propaganda expert. And It's the Russians wot done it!

Svetlana Alexievich and the "collective Putin." (May be behind paywall.)

Britain and the U.S. once ran the world. Now they're all at sea.

Finally! Back to some blues dessert...

14 June 2017

St Petersburg shorts

Crossing St Petersburg's Fontanka River (Lomonosov Bridge)
Soul Kitchen Hostel (recommended!), on the Moika River embankment

Study in Dostoevsky's final home
The high point of this visit to St Petersburg was, for me, a return to Dostoevsky's final home, his apartment on Kuznechny pereulok.

Looking in on the room where he slept and worked -- the room where The Brothers Karamazov was written -- brought back vivid memories of my only previous peek into this same room. It was 42 years ago. At the time, this study and the attached living room were practically all there was of Leningrad's new Dostoevsky Museum, which had been established in 1971, four years earlier. The museum as it exists now has been carefully developed into a first-rate cultural landmark, with lots of explanatory resources in many languages.

Dostoevsky is not necessarily Russians' favorite novelist. I remember our doctor in Noginsk expressing surprise at my admiration for him; she said, "We consider him rather morbid." I can see her point.  He's a total bundle of contradictions, often rambling and disorganized, prejudiced, cranky. His voices argue with his characters, with each other, with the reader. Maybe it was these somewhat shambolic qualities that attracted me as a reader in my teens; he wasn't just telling stories, he seemed to reach through the printed page and demand my response. I enjoyed reading these comments by Himadri Chatterjee, who expresses some of the same wonderment I feel at liking a writer who's not a predictably perfect fit for our own views.

Being on the road has not stopped me from following events in the USA. Yesterday was Jeff Sessions's turn to be questioned by the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee. This particular bit caught my attention:
[Sen. Tom] COTTON: Do you like spy fiction: John le Carre, Daniel Silva, Jason Matthews?

SESSIONS: Yeah, Alan Furst, David Ignatius’ books.

COTTON: Do you like Jason Bourne or James Bond movies?

SESSIONS: No, yes, I do.

COTTON: Have you ever ever in any of these fantastical situations heard of a plot line so ridiculous that a sitting United States senator and an ambassador of a foreign government colluded at an open setting with hundreds of other people to pull off the greatest caper in the history of espionage?

SESSIONS: Thank you for saying that, Senator Cotton. It's just like Through the Looking Glass. I mean, what is this? I explained how in good faith I said I had not met with Russians, because they were suggesting I as a surrogate had been meeting continuously with Russians. I said I didn't meet with them and now, the next thing you know I'm accused of some reception plotting some sort of influence campaign for the American election. It's just beyond my capability to understand, and I really appreciate, Mr. Chairman, the opportunity to at least to be able to say publicly I didn't participate in that and know nothing about it.

COTTON: And I gather that's one reason why you wanted to testify today in public.
(From this transcript, with my unlicensed italicization.)

As much as I suspect that a lot of the Red Threat of Russian mischief is a Red Herring, I understand the need to get a full picture of the situation -- the actual Russian interference (as distinct from sloppy attributions connected with various hackers who also bear tracking down but who might have nothing to do with Russia), and the breakdowns in cyber-discipline and vigilance on the U.S. side.

I also understand how some might look at this whole five-ring circus of Russia-related investigations with incredulity. The Cotton-Sessions exchange is a bit theatrical, given how Cotton presents such a cartoonish summary ("the greatest caper in the history of espionage"). Even so, it seems bizarre that this theme dominates U.S. political news day after day, week after week.

Why all this attention? The answer is relatively simple, and it doesn't primarily involve the supposed danger from Russia. The country is confronted by a challenge that is in itself not provided for by the Constitution or any federal statute: dangerous incompetence at the top of the executive branch, complicated by cowardice in the legislative branch. Neither incompetence nor cowardice are themselves indictable. At the policy level, cruel legislation (health care financing legislation) and devious legislative processes (secret health care financing legislation) are also not statutory crimes. Efforts to change the regime legally and peacefully must necessarily find handles for effective response -- so it is no wonder that those who are alarmed for American democracy have latched onto the Russian scandals.

Thankfully, another track has also developed: lawsuits alleging that the U.S. president has violated his oath of office by not staying clear of foreign emoluments that haven't been approved by Congress. On this track, there is no need to resort to villainous Russian operatives. The villains are mainly domestic. Here, too, however, efforts at changing the regime (either its practices or, failing that, its personnel) may be defeated by venality and cowardice among the Republicans. (Inaccurate scare tactics by Democrats and others don't help.)

The stakes are high; we risk (1) wholesale degradation of ethical standards in government; (2) major damage to social safety nets, environmental regulation, voting rights, and other areas of concern to progressive evangelicals; and (3) disconnection from the global community, including those many millions of actual Russians who have no desire to hack our elections!

D.L. Mayfield asks whether we are seeking "the welfare of the city," or just our own?
Writer Nate J. Lee, responding to a video put out by Hillsong church to announce their intention to plant a church in San Francisco (including the phrases “God has great plans for this city” and “San Fran, the best is yet to come!”), wrote this: “Any kind of language that implies that God’s work or God’s plan starts when we arrive … is indicative not only of terrible theology, but of white Christian exceptionalism, the oppressive belief that the correct kind salvation and healing can only be facilitated through us, on our terms with our methods—and us always happens to be white missionaries, white pastors, and white churches.”

The same critiques can be said of gentrification in general. The problem is not an influx of resources or more diversity (both of which can be very beneficial to everyone, including long-term residents). The problem is the belief that dominant culture is best—so that people move in and change a neighborhood to look just like the last one they left.
What would you ask the Russian president? And does he now lack a compelling story?

Who benefits from transborder corruption -- and who pays for it?

J.R.R. Tolkien's love story.

We've often admired the quality of music education in Russia. And here's a bit of the output! ... performers on Nevsky Prospekt we encountered totally randomly earlier today. (If anyone knows the name of this group or its members, I would really like to give credit.)