20 November 2014

"We were strangers once, too."

E pluribus unum. Source.  
Source: my first passport.  
I had completely different plans for today's post, but then I was driving home this evening from Eugene Friends Church when I heard the U.S. president begin his speech on immigration policy. We reached our destination long before the speech ended, but I continued sitting in the parked car to the end of the speech, and for a while afterwards.

Obama's opponents have been sharpening their knives ever since elements of the plan announced tonight have started to appear. Of all the areas where they have fought him, the anger and invective directed at this specific initiative have been among the hardest for me to fathom. The previous president turned our national treasury from surplus to deficit, started two ruinous wars, weakened constitutional protections against invasions of privacy, and supported torture, with barely a peep from the same politicians who are now denouncing Obama's effort to address the USA's dysfunctional approach to immigration. Those same politicians could have supported bipartisan congressional action but abandoned the field from fear of the latest wave of xenophobes. (See this fascinating Politico.com account with its summary of the effect of Eric Cantor's primary election defeat.)

Tonight, Obama presented a very simple message: we cannot offer unlimited mass amnesty, nor are we realistically able to deport everyone who doesn't have the right papers. Neither approach is compatible with the rule of law or the nation's values. The present situation isn't defensible, either: millions of people are simply trapped in the shadows, subject to exploitation and the constant threat of families being ripped apart. In this climate of political intransigence on the part of those who have the legislative power to make things better, and (what Obama didn't say directly) the increasingly effective advocacy of immigration reformers, he had no choice but to offer a pragmatic way forward.

Above and beyond all the policy issues is the plain command of God, paraphrased by Obama from Exodus 23:9. "Scripture tells us that we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger -- we were strangers once, too. My fellow Americans, we are and always will be a nation of immigrants. We were strangers once, too." What really moved me was Obama's paraphrase of Exodus: "we" instead of "you." This is the element that has been disastrously missing from the toxic debate over immigration reform. As an immigrant to the USA, I had always assumed that "we Americans" included me, despite my foreign birth and my quota number. As a school child, even before I actually became a naturalized citizen, every school day I put my hand on my heart and with childish naivete recited the Pledge of Allegiance to "one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

I know that the road to complete immigration reform will be long and hard. Sometimes the claims of justice and security will be hard to reconcile. But if everyone who cherishes the Bible would take Exodus seriously and look at the "stranger" as one of "us," and those complications as a challenge that "we" tackle together, refusing to give in to that old American tradition of nativist scare tactics, wouldn't we be a lot closer to the goal?

Or would we honestly prefer another five, ten, twenty years of limbo for the men, women, and children we refuse to include in that Exodus standard? Is that who we think we are?

Seems like just yesterday ... Reedwood Friends Church's minute on immigration enforcement.

"Religion in Latin America: Widespread Change in a Historically Catholic Region." I was glad that this study referenced David Stoll's fascinating book from 24 years ago, Is Latin America Turning Protestant?

KKK vs Anonymous--ZDNet's summary of the recent clash.

I must lead a sheltered life. Oxford Dictionary's word of the year is a verb I'd never run into.

I had been a U.S. citizen for all of three years when I fell in love with the blues. This musician, J.B. Hutto, was one of the reasons.

13 November 2014

Kind cats

Our kind cats.
"Your cats are so kind!"

The photo above prompted this comment from one of our students in Elektrostal. It reminded me that I've always loved the way English-learners in Russia tend to use the adjective "kind."

It's rare that a single word in one language is a perfect translation for a single word in another language. Words carry clusters of nuances that often are either wider or narrower than the most obvious equivalent in the other language. The Russian language provides lots of examples, as I've noted before.

Today's example is the word "kind," one of the translations of the Russian word "dobry" (and several other Russian words, for that matter). When those of us who speak English as more or less a first language use the adjective "kind," we're usually referring to people, referring to their warm, generous, tender spirits. We also use the word to describe acts associated with those sorts of people: "That was a kind thing to do."

The Russian use of this English word often goes wider. When our student described our cats as "kind," based on the photo, I think she was referring to qualities for which we might use the words "sweet" and "cute" and "appealing." (Our cats really do have these qualities, by the way--and I say this as a dog person.)

Another way that Russians frequently use the English word "kind" is in describing works of art, especially films. I can't count how many times I've heard the classic Soviet films described by Russians as "kind" in referring to those films' gentle promotion of positive values and attitudes. And it's true; many Soviet-era films, and especially children's cartoons, had a moral core of kindness that might be hard for Americans to square with our image of the Soviet system's systematic cruelty and duplicity.

Given the reality of this Russian paradox--kindness and cruelty in such a tight binary orbit--could it be that the sensitivity to kindness among some Russians is a sort of compensatory mechanism? It's not for me to say. I don't like generalizing about actual human beings. But this conversation about our cats took place only a couple of days after I was talking with another Russian friend about a bit of organizational politics I'd witnessed a couple of years ago, when a treasurer was replaced rather brusquely (to my mind) by another member of the organization. The new treasurer seemed to me to have acted quite aggressively in laying claim to the job, and I couldn't help wondering whether I could have done something at the time to insert more grace into the situation. My conversation partner confirmed that the earlier treasurer had indeed felt bruised by the whole episode. "It's our Russian mentality," she said. "In this country, people are disposable."

Without robbing her of the right to make an observation about her own country's shadow side, treating people as disposable is a constant danger in any country where God's universal love is denied either in theory or (what's worse, when believers are involved) in practice. I'm glad that, in Russia, there are antidotes, such as this intriguing fascination with kindness.

For a somewhat related Russian case study, see this article: "For God's sake, Putin was not 'hitting on' Peng Liyuan. Also, there's nothing wrong with Russian chivalry." (Kind regards to Lynn Gazis-Sax for this timely reference!)

A heritage of kindness, justice, and cultural integrity in song: Annie Patterson and Peter Blood's new song collection, Rise Again, has a home on the Web. "Rise Up and Sing."

In China, "Cracks in the Atheist Edifice."

"The problems between our countries are between politicians, not Christians"--an interview with two Russian Protestant leaders visiting the USA as part of an ecumenical delegation. I would have asked some other questions--including some follow-ups--but the interview is interesting at face value.

"What is Self-Righteousness and Why Is It Annoying?"

This is not the first time I've featured Eric Bibb's version of this song, but this is a different performance, and in any case, this continues to be my prayer....

06 November 2014

Russian shorts

Yes, there are bears under the Moscow streets!
On our first weekend back in Russia, I attended the board meeting of Friends House Moscow. Here's just a sample of the highlights:
  • Conscription counseling and alternatives to military service: We continue to support these ministries that help people understand and assert their rights under the law. We agreed that providing these services to conscripts does not contradict our peace testimony.
  • Alternatives to Violence Project: We empowered staff to ensure that programs in Russia operate within the generally accepted AVP norms. We appreciated the work of AVP in Ukraine in establishing itself in three new cities.
  • Families and children: From the city of Dzherzhinsk, we received encouraging reports of programs that have been helping families in crisis, and increasing interagency coordination for families.
  • Ukraine: Two Friends visited our board meeting with fresh information and impressions of the conflict in Ukraine. One Friend made this hopeful point: the real news is the quiet growth of grassroots-level aid to displaced people and victims of violence, though this news is hardly ever reported. The other Friend referred to direct contacts between officers of opposing forces who seek ways to avoid violence even when politicians seem unable to do likewise.
  • Link to download page.
  • Friends' publications in Russian: Valiant Friend, Margaret Hope Bacon's biography of Lucretia Mott, has been published in Russian in the form of a high-quality e-book. Many thanks to Steve Ushioda and Mark Parker Miller at Scribe Inc. for contributing e-book creation and design services!
  • ... and online access: The redesigned quakers.ru Web site has taken off in a big way: on this constantly refreshed site, pageviews have gone from an average of nine visitors a day (reading 13 pages) before the relaunch to a current average of 44 visitors a day (reading 116 pages).
Are you in England this month? Places are still available for the Woodbrooke course "Russian Adventures: Russians, Quakers and Civil Society." Several staff and board members are organizers and presenters for this program.

As promised last week, here are a few words about the panel program on Islamophobia in which I participated last week. I'm still not sure why I was invited to participate, but maybe it was my years with Friends United Meeting. During those years, I helped oversee the Ramallah Friends Schools, who have a 145-year history of educational collaboration among Christians and Muslims.

My personal priority was to emphasize at least these three things:
    Amazon.com link
  • Islamophobia is, at least in the USA context, just another form of xenophobia. As with all of xenophobia's other manifestations over the years, it depends on people not seeing the whole picture (how many countries have so-called Islamic states bombed and invaded, in comparison with states traditionally associated with Christianity?), and it is often a tool for politicians who find it expedient to scare the electorate.
  • Islam, in my experience of long conversations with Muslim people over many years, is actually centered upon the very same God, Creator of the universe, whom Christians revere. For thinking this through systematically, I was grateful to be able to draw on Miroslav Volf's fascinating book Allah: A Christian Response. Volf's exercise in "political theology" leads the reader systematically through the issues involved with a "sufficiently close" identification of God in the two religions, as well as the place of the Trinity, of love and the character of God, and of discipleship, in forming our approach to Islam. In any case, praying with Islamic people is neither a betrayal of Christianity nor an evasion of our evangelistic obligations.
  • It is not Christians' responsibility to tell Muslims what is or is not normative Islam. Nor should we base our response to Islam as a whole on the actions of specific people bearing that label (just as we hope the world does not condemn Christians based on the Ku Klux Klan or, for that matter, the foreign policy of countries often associated with Christendom). We cannot control anyone but ourselves, and our self-control is based on discipleship, not fear.

Whether I succeeded in conveying any of this to our Russian-speaking audience is for others to judge.

"And this is where Catholic chutzpah comes in": "The Vatican synod was about the meaning of church." (Plus Anglican reflections from Rome.)

Obama: "If America is to recognize
the referendum results, it must
be conducted throughout Ukraine."
Putin, with a cryptic smile:
"If you insist."

"Cycles of Renewal": "We need a new kind of 'Quaker renaissance' today."

Now you can watch the classic film Stalker online. About ten years ago, a Russian Orthodox priest told me that he became a Christian as a result of watching this film.

Jim Forest observes the fiftieth anniversary of a peace retreat with Thomas Merton: "Lord, that I might see."

Chas W. Freeman, "The Collapse of Order in the Middle East." "... Core issue in U.S. policies in the Middle East: the moral hazard inherent in U.S. unilateralism."

"In a [U.S./Russian] 'political divorce' education exchanges are hurt."

Finally, is this article about "Vladimir Putin's black hole of fear" insightful or incendiary? (See photo at right, found on a refrigerator here in Elektrostal.)

Reaching back to 1970, shortly after I became aware of the great Albert King...

30 October 2014

Doing my homework

Yesterday Judy and I visited the New Humanities Institute for the first time since last spring. We were soon invited to the pumpkin carving workshops taking place all over the building. I was seriously impressed by the interesting results!

Our brief visits these next two weeks won't only deal with pumpkin-carving! We plan to spend much of next week in classrooms with our students ... and in the teachers' lounge with our colleagues. But first we join them all in celebrating National Unity Day on November 4.

"Poll Finds Russia Needs to Celebrate National Unity Day."

"Non-Russians Warned to Be Wary on National Unity Day." (I don't plan to be "wary.")

I'm not posting at length today because tomorrow afternoon I'm participating in a panel show on the subject of "Islamophobia." If you know me, you can guess my biases, but I'm woefully behind in learning some of the necessary vocabulary in Russian. So after I post these words and pictures, I'm off to continue immersing myself in Russian-language texts on Islam, interfaith conversations, reconciliation, and A Common Word. Maybe I'll have more to say about all this next week.

Also next week, I'd like to report on the Friends House Moscow meetings this past weekend.

Russian blues dessert: "Born Under a Bad Sign."

23 October 2014

Cheating, part two

Posted on a lamppost near our local McDonalds restaurant:
ad for "a team of experienced teachers" who are ready to write
theses, term papers and homework assignments to order.
"Rush orders! All subjects!"
"Cheating" is not always a bad thing. When students resort to "cheating," they are looking for ways to solve a given problem, which in turn gives them an invaluable problem-solving experience that can be useful in the future in any sphere of life. It depends on the degree of "cheating."

If a student copies brazenly without thinking, this should be stopped. "Light" deception may benefit the student. Moreover, it is impossible to keep all the details in one's head. To some extent, teachers also have their own shortcuts: they have immediate access to the textbooks, a dictionary, other books, and other teachers. If they're blanking out on something, they can always use one or another kind of prompt.
These words were written by one of the Russian respondents to my survey on homework, tests, and cheating. The survey question invited respondents to comment on this statement: "Some skills that are considered 'cheating' in an academic environment, such as sharing answers, are useful skills in research and business."

As I've researched the subject of academic cheating and looked at the responses to my survey, I've noticed several themes emerging: in order to reduce cheating, we should
  • avoid evaluations based on just a few high-stakes devices such as final exams; 
  • distinguish between "raising achievement" and "promoting learning"--and favor the latter (thanks, Alfie Kohn); 
  • teach with enthusiasm.
(from Soviet humor magazine Krokodil) "Judging by your son's
copybooks, you need to catch up on your math and physics,
but most importantly, you need to straighten up your conduct:
don't do your son's homework!"
Some comments in the literature I've read, and in the comments from teachers, are more systemic. These comments come in two broad and related groups.

First, does the educational system itself cheat? This includes and goes beyond the comment I quoted, about teachers having an advantage over students since they already have the expected answers and don't have to cope with the stress of remembering information and composing responses. What about the school that depends on good ratings for its funding? What are the forces that promote bare-minimum instruction, large classes, and mechanized procedures? In general, what interests are served by overemphasizing testing and homework transactions?

The second area relates to the Russian teacher's comment in the quote at the top: "When students resort to 'cheating,' they are looking for ways to solve a given problem, which in turn gives them an invaluable problem-solving experience that can be useful in the future in any sphere of life." I very much appreciated the honesty behind this expression of raw pragmatism, and it points to the social dimension of all our cheating. In his Chronicle of Higher Education series on cheating (starting here), James M. Lang refers to Dan Ariely's book The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone--Especially Ourselves. Our search for acceptable balance between self-respect (or in group terms, sufficient adherence to stated ideals) and pragmatic self-advancement runs through all our lives, not just our educational choices. What roles do schools have in helping us set our own boundaries and balance, even before we are presented with our first temptations to cheat?

Just today I was reading about the gas trade between Russia and Poland. Some are arguing that Poland is inflating its orders for natural gas from Russia, in order to cause shortfalls in Russia's fulfillment of those orders. If Russia can't keep up with those orders, presumably Poland gains an advantage in future contract negotiations. "You're not a reliable supplier; give us a lower rate."

That's not the school I went to....

"... Friends have denied that Jesus’ baptism by John set a precedent that all Christians should submit to water baptism." Here is a link to Howard Macy's very helpful article on Friends and baptism.

"When a pastor resigns abruptly..." Thanks to Becky Ankeny for the link.

Pope Francis calls for abolishing the death penalty and life sentences.

Interview: "Indian Peace Prize Laureate [Kailash Satyarthi] Looks to Join Forces with Malala."

In Israel, "The saddest--and most optimistic--peace organization turns 20."

Two wonderful solos....

16 October 2014

Boots and books

In our life in Russia, walking isn't just optional recreation (although it's one of my favorite ways of relaxing), it's a major part of our daily life. I've always loved walking long distances, keeping a vigorous pace. The distance between the Institute on Radio Street and our home on Yalagin Street is ideal for working up a light sweat while keeping tabs on the life of our city.

Unknown to me, a bone spur on my left heel had been conspiring against me by irritating my Achilles tendon. Increasing pain and an involuntary limp finally drove me to report my symptoms to a doctor, leading to an X-ray, a consultation with a specialist, and a boot.

Only two days after starting to wear the boot, I was already starting to feel relief. At first I was pretty wobbly. The boot's rounded heel made me feel as if I was about to fall backwards, especially on stairs or uneven ground, or if I was getting up from a chair. To keep balance on stairs and uneven surfaces, I also use a cane.

It turns out that the boot and cane have an unexpected benefit: I've had to slow down. I've had to take notice of my restlessness, and tame it. I've had to ask for help sometimes, which is a spiritually instructive thing.

During the weeks of pain and the more recent weeks of wearing that boot, I began reading voraciously. My own pedestrian adventures are being partly replaced by other people's real or fictional adventures. Here are a few of my favorite books from the last few months, in no particular order:

Camilla Läckberg's detective stories, featuring policeman Patrik Hedström and a diverse cast of small-town characters in Fjällbacka, Sweden. A lot of them come across as stock characters, especially those in comic-relief roles. (The police chief is a perfect example.) There are arrogant rich playboys, abusive husbands, insensitive in-laws, and other recurring figures who are easy not to like. But there are also warm friendships and marriages, ministers who are genuine pastors, and detectives who get believable solutions through hard work and intuition. And Läckberg's plots usually revolve around intricate family secrets. Since I come from a Scandinavian background in which respectability is the highest priority, family secrets in fact and fiction are sources of endless fascination to me.

Francis Spufford, Red Plenty. This is the most unusual book I've ever read about the Soviet Union. It's as if Alistaire Cooke and the Coen brothers had somehow collaborated on a docudrama-in-print covering the years of Khrushchev's rise and fall. In little gemlike vignettes interspersed with wry explanatory asides and united by several recurring fictional and real-life characters, including Khrushchev himself, Spufford portrays the earnest inventors, the cynical fixers, the naive intellectuals, and the grim realists who led the country to the edge of the New Soviet Society, in which all the promised advantages of the Planned Economy seemed within reach. As unlikely as such a mashup might seem for either instruction or entertainment, Spufford totally pulls it off.

Lydia Millet, Ghost Lights. I've long been a fan of this writer, who observes human beings with a delightful combination of whimsy and sympathy that reveals every hidden thought and motive in her characters. In Ghost Lights, we reconnect with T., one of the main characters from How the Dead Dream (which I wrote about here). At the end of the earlier novel, T. disappears, and now we learn that his real estate development firm is in danger of collapsing in his absence. Millet introduces us to Hal, who works for the Internal Revenue Service. Hal's wife works at T.'s wobbly firm, and is apparently having an affair with another employee. In an alcohol-fueled burst of heroism, Hal decides to go to Central America to locate T. In the ensuing tragicomedy, Millet lets us eavesdrop on Hal's very believable conversations with himself as he tries to make sense of T., Central America, his family, his own fate. Millet's unusual plots sometimes lead people to label her as a surrealist, but in this respect at least--these inner conversations--I think she's utterly realistic.

David Downing, Sealing Their Fate: The Twenty-two Days That Decided World War II. It would have been an unusual reading season for me if it hadn't had any books about World War II. Recently I read two--this one and Richard Overy's The Battle of Britain, which argues that the British and German air forces were more evenly matched during that battle than legend leads us to believe. In Sealing Their Fate, we cycle several times through three war theatres--North Africa, the Moscow region, and the Pacific Ocean, during the period of November 17 to December 8. The military outcomes are uncertain in each case: In Russia, Moscow is not conquered but neither is Germany defeated; the fascist cause is far from lost in North Africa at the end of this period; and Japan scores a stunning short-term victory at Pearl Harbor. Downing doesn't show that these specific actions made defeat inevitable for the Axis, but in these weeks, the war's ultimate unsustainability becomes clear on a micro level (Rommel can't pursue tactical advantages when his tanks run out of fuel) as well as the global level (bringing U.S. resources fully into the Allied column).

Anna Quindlen, Blessings
. More family secrets! The story begins with an abandoned baby, discovered and protected and loved by the ex-con caretaker of Lydia Blessing's old estate. Quindlen is a master at leading her readers to invest their sympathies in a rich narrative that then takes sudden turns, and this novel is no exception. Along the way, the author leads us to think deeply about criminality, social class, and the power of kindness.

Marilynne Robinson's Lila has arrived on my Kindle. I've not yet plunged in--still one more Swedish crime novel holds me in its grip. But I've been intrigued by Martin E. Marty's survey of reviews.

OpenDemocracy Russia: "For the Russian elite, loyalty is all." ("...'Mission' is the buzzword of the moment.")

Once again, the Perpetual War Watch department features Tom Engelhardt: "Inside the American Terrordome."
This sort of soundtrack has been the background noise in our lives for the last 13 years. And like familiar music (or Muzak), it evokes a response that’s almost beyond our control. The terror about terror, sometimes quite professionally managed (as in the case of the Khorasan Group), has flooded through our world year after year after year. ISIS is just a recent example of the way the interests of a group of extremists in making themselves larger than life and the interests of groups in this country in building up or maintaining their institutional power have meshed. Terror as the preeminent danger to our American world now courses through the societal bloodstream, helped along by regular infusions of fear from the usual panic-meisters.
Lynn Gazis-Sax on Ebola, border controls, and containment. As usual, she's a welcome voice of sanity.

"Commanded," Julie Rudd's sermon on biblical law, from an Exodus series at Wilmington Friends, Ohio.
Here’s the problem, though: the Ten Commandments have nothing at all to do with draconian religious rules. In fact, they have nothing much to do with religious rules at all. Which is why a courthouse is just about the worst place imaginable to display them.

Kim Wilson with Kid Andersen and Bob Welsh (guitars), June Core (drums), Randy Bermudes (bass). Wish the lighting were better, but what a groove....