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.

09 February 2017

Benefit of the doubt, part two

"Our future Lomonosovs might be
right in this hall."
-- Khudainazar Yunusov
Welcome to Lyceum 7 for the Lomonosov conference
(a regional academic competition for all school grades
and subjects, in honor of Mikhail Lomonosov)
Greetings from our city's superintendent of schools,
Elena Mitkina
... and from the president of the regional biology/
chemistry/ecology teachers' association, 
Khudainazar Yunusov
Participants and jurors came from all over
Moscow Region
Holmes and Watson explain the origins of Britain's
image as "Foggy Albion"
Receiving a science certificate
A certificate of recognition for her national costume
Our rector congratulates foreign-language
My thank-you certificate as a juror. The event took
place last Tuesday here in Elektrostal.

Last week I set myself the task of honestly applying the "benefit of the doubt" test to the administration of the USA's new president. The practical point of this exercise is to distinguish my urgent doubts about his leadership from both the blind fury and the undifferentiated ridicule directed at him.

If we doubters can earn trust through our fairness, is it naive to expect that Trump supporters will also give us the benefit of the doubt? Will they be able to see that we are motivated by love of country and democracy, rather than obsessing on the need to ridicule their hero?

Drawing on the benefit-of-the-doubt challenges I listed last week:

Are my complaints about Trump simply a matter of interpretation?

A fair question. I interpret the words and behavior of political actors based on a few assumptions, and fairness requires me to reveal those assumptions:
  • top public officials (and their families) should not benefit financially from their service, beyond statutory pay and benefits,
  • they should be scrupulous about the Bill of Rights, equal rights for all, the equal protection of the laws, due process, separation of powers, and the continuity of international agreements,
  • they should staff their administrations with the most competent people available,
  • they should not lie or be casual about the truth,
  • they should conduct themselves, and their advocacy and disputes, with dignity befitting their high office.
Are these reasonable expectations? And am I being ungenerous in judging that the president has failed to meet any of them? Is there or is there not a risk to our national institutions and civic norms if we simply allow more benefit-of-the-doubt time to see if things straighten out?

One more note: I believe I have applied these same expectations to previous presidents, including those I voted for.

Am I biased out of resentment because I voted against the winner? Am I a sore loser?

I am not exactly sore, but I'm admittedly very unhappy. My list of reasons for not wanting Trump to be president was based on his behavior before the election -- his bombast, defensiveness, assertions made out of thin air, aggressiveness, unwillingness to be transparent about his financial obligations, association with alt-right nationalists and racists, and frequent statements that he preferred to make decisions based on his own instincts and intelligence rather than study and advice.

If his behavior since assuming office had shown me that I'd misjudged him, I hope I would have had the fairness to admit so. Instead, his behavior in office to date confirms the doubts that I had.

Again: what am I missing? Is there evidence that my election impressions were either wrong or are severely disconnected from what we've seen since January 20?

Isn't the president simply doing what he promised?

OK, fair enough. On a verbal level, he made some explicit promises ...
  • shut down illegal immigration,
  • reject trade agreements unfavorable to the USA,
  • question collective security arrangements where the USA pays an unfair share of the cost,
  • fight crime, restore law and order,
  • eliminate over-regulation,
  • restore our deteriorating national infrastructure,
  • replace the Affordable Care Act,
  • nominate a worthy successor to Justice Scalia,
  • prioritize the fight against Islamic terrorism.
Each of these promises has positives and negatives, and there are ways that I could argue in favor of any of them. But they all involve incredibly complex trade-offs. I don't see Trump doing his own homework or appointing colleagues who are committed to the necessary study, consultation, and public discussion. Worse than that, he doesn't even seem committed to establishing accurate baseline data on which to measure future results. The murder rate and net illegal immigration, for example, are already at or near historic lows for recent decades.

The Gorsuch nomination may be an exception. And the Republican party in Congress (interpreted generously) does seem to realize that replacing ACA will require a lot of hard work. But so far I see no presidential leadership encouraging similar hard work in the other areas I summarized. Without that hard work, it's hard to trust that new initiatives are actually going to lead to improvements rather than external trade wars, cruel consequences for refugees and their families, collapse of international collective security, and repressive police and civil rights policies at home.

On a more tacit level, he seemed to be promising that the era of caring about political correctness is over. Is this a worthy promise? Since political correctness is just a jaundiced tag for sensitivity to vulnerable and historically marginalized people, do we really believe that those who voted for Trump can only gain by reducing or reversing the gains made by others? This seems like a sour, mean, even tribal approach to the dilemmas of our economic, class, and social diversity. Tell me if there's another, more positive, way to interpret Trump's antipathy to political correctness.

I believe that the disastrous initiative of temporary immigration bans is a good example of fulfilling this tacit promise. On the face of it, the ban was totally unfit for its stated purpose. The disconnection from reality was illustrated by Trump's public reasoning for the stealth implementation: if the ban had been rolled out over a week, bad dudes would have boarded those airplanes. Since nobody at all would have boarded those planes who hadn't already been carefully examined, there was no danger that miscellaneous terrorists would somehow jump the queue and crowd on board to take advantage of that week's notice. To prevent an entirely symbolic and fictitious danger in the service of this tacit promise, real-life risks, agonies, and humiliations were unnecessarily imposed on hundreds, potentially thousands, of families. What is untrue or biased about this summary of the situation?

Isn't Trump simply being a businessman instead of a politician?

The "businessman" pose is disingenuous for at least two reasons. First of all, for years he has engaged with politicians on behalf of his businesses, to the point of publicly explaining that his financial contributions to politicians are for the purpose of purchasing influence. He has done whatever it takes to make politics work for him. This isn't necessarily always wrong and certainly it's not unprecedented among businesspeople, but it means to me that he can't pretend to be an innocent newcomer in the world of politicians.

Secondly, not all businesspeople are created equal. Some are known for their ability to cast visions, to empower their colleagues and employees, to add value for society as a whole, and to lead very complex organizations through periods of market shifts and social change. If these are valid markers for a respected business leader, which of them applies to Trump and his branding activities, his marketing of conspicuous consumption, his beauty contests, and the racket known as Trump University? His appeal is not in the same league as the inspirational leaders of today's best businesses; it's more like the "Magic Rich Man" who appears to give a finger to the liberal establishment as he bestows his bounty on those less fortunate.

How am I not being fair? Is there a nicer way to describe this circus?

Why haven't I included a single positive development in my sour lists?

I hereby promise to do so when it happens. I'm not joking -- it's possible that a bipartisan plan for infrastructure restoration will emerge with Trump's encouragement; he may after all keep his promise that the future health care financing plan will be both better and cheaper than the ACA; and in each of the disasters he appears to be igniting, he might change his mind (or have it changed for him). He might even discover a sweet middle place in between the American imperial interpretation of global collective security and the complete collapse of the post-WWII world order that has so far prevented WWIII. Sessions may neutralize all our misgivings with a full-throated defense of voting rights. I promise to cheer.

In the meantime, he and his administration may also make dozens, even hundreds of correct decisions each day, as did every administration before him. Why should I praise him for that? It's his job.

I said that I wanted to distinguish my dissent from blind fury and undifferentiated ridicule. One of the enormous dangers of having a divisive and combative president is the degradation of our political culture. We need to stay sober and prayerful and retain perspective. There are leaders in this world who are much worse than Donald Trump, but even they should be prayed for every day. Fury and ridicule may gratify something in us during distressing times, but these times demand something very different: prayer, vigilance, and focused resistance, coupled with the humility that allows us to confess error and cheer when things go well.

We cannot praise diversity and at the same time ridicule Trump's supporters and refuse to engage with them. To refuse this engagement in favor of ridiculing them and their hero is to participate in the degradation that we fear Trump is causing.

Friday PS: I advocate this engagement to resist degradation in political culture, and because it is the way of love, but I am under no illusions concerning the possibility of convincing masses of people to question their selection of a hero.

Some Trump supporters will no doubt review and revise their decision, but many will not. Loyal members of his base are not evaluating him by criteria we share, such as those I've mentioned above. In fact, his violation of those criteria enhances his stature in their eyes. He perfectly expresses their disdain for the norms of political behavior. The America they want to restore never actually existed and cannot be recreated, and their new isolationist America is unsustainable, but I can't detect much capacity or desire to think critically about these incongruities instead of putting their hopes in a dynamic superhero who will do their thinking, or at least their disrupting, for them.

If this seems unfair, please explain why.

You'll be glad to know Trump isn't an evil genius.

A wonderful resource for maintaining perspective: The Planetary Society and its weekly podcast (which I never miss), Planetary Radio.

Another podcast: Sean Guillory has outdone himself, providing a fascinating interview with Jeremy Morris, author of Everyday Post-socialism: Working-class Communities in the Russian Margins. At $80 for the e-book, I am successfully resisting the temptation to buy it immediately, but I highly recommend the interview. Morris provides insights that ring true from my own experience of Elektrostal; but, more than that ... unlike so many so-called experts on Russia, he radiates affection for his informants and their community.

How many times can the USA lose its innocence?

Walking with refugees on the Resurrection Road.

Law and religious freedom in Russia: an overview of where things stand today.

Recent article on Quaker discipleship now available in Russian: English, Why I Give, and Russian, Почему я отдаю.

The circle will not be broken.

02 February 2017

Benefit of the doubt, part one (partly a repost)

A two-cat winter night in Elektrostal.

The USA's new president has not put to rest any of the concerns I mentioned two weeks ago. I'm not the only one who is alarmed by policies that don't conform to American ideals, a management style that I labeled "chaotic improvisation," a constant focus on his own image as a winner, a continuing refusal to be transparent about his personal financial interests, and his promotion of Steve Bannon into the very center of U.S. political power.

But aren't all of these complaints simply a matter of interpretation? Don't they in fact reveal my biases and my unhappiness with the election's outcome? Isn't the president simply doing what he promised? Isn't he simply being a businessman instead of a politician? Why haven't I included a single positive development in this sour list? What about the new Supreme Court nominee, for example? In short, why can't I give this brand-new president the benefit of the doubt?

It's this formula, "the benefit of the doubt," that I'd like to take a look at this week and the next week. How do we implement the same sort of fairness to Donald Trump that we would like to claim for ourselves if we (and our awesome policies) found ourselves at the top? How do we balance this benefit with that other national security rule of thumb beloved of the post-9/11 neocons, the "one percent doctrine"?

(The essence of the one percent doctrine, as summarized by Tom Engelhardt, "... was this: if there was even a 1% chance of an attack on the United States, especially involving weapons of mass destruction, it must be dealt with as if it were a 95%-100% certainty." More about the wider applicability of the doctrine in this post. Question: does today's alleged danger of creeping authoritarianism in the USA qualify as an equivalent occasion of alarm and response?)

I see the principle of responding to doubt with grace as an important antidote to one very real danger, the abiding occupational hazard of political scientists and the spiritual poison of our time: cynicism. I've written before about my struggles with cynicism, both here in Russia and in the American context. For example, here's an entry I wrote back in 2010, slightly adapted:
The service in the stores is terrible, not like in America. Our government should decree that better service be provided in the stores. And they should also control the ads on TV; they all try to manipulate, deceive people. That should not be. In America, that's never the case. I never saw such lies when I was in America.

--Misha, a computer programmer (Moscow, 1994), quoted in Russian Talk: Culture and Conversation during Perestroika, Nancy Ries.
A week ago [now six years ago] I reported on the aftermath of a beautiful choral concert. Among the comments from students who had attended the concert and were still glowing the next day, one sentiment really struck me: "I had given up on Russia" -- until somehow the concert restored at least a little hope.

A few days later, the glow was much reduced. Several of our friends were insisting that there was no future for them in Russia. Too little creative freedom; too much corruption; in short, where's the exit? I have had countless conversations on this theme ever since my first visit to post-Soviet Russia in 1994.

Who are we to argue? If we claim to be here -- at least in part -- to listen, we must then listen, even if we're told things we don't want to hear. But the problem with such unrelieved negativity is that (1) negativity can always find a way to prove itself right, and (2) in the long run, it helps create the conditions for things to remain negative. As Nancy Ries says in the book cited above, "It is the irony of all societies, not just Russia, that strategies for coping with trouble, including the discursive mythification of trouble, may also cause or allow the toleration of more trouble."

When I came to Russia in 1994, large numbers of people were not getting their salaries on a regular basis. Four year later, I witnessed first-hand a few of the devastating ripple effects of the August "default." The situation for millions of Russians today is dramatically better. I can cite many examples of improved housing, improved infrastructure, even improved service by bureaucrats.

For every improvement, someone could undoubtedly cite something that remains neglected, or worse, that exhibits the legendary indifference of some Russian elites to those at the bottom. For every advantage gained by people in this new century, some would cite an advantage lost when the Soviet Union's ritualized idealism and centralized planning came to an end. Paradoxes abound -- the people who have no trust for government ("They lie to us; why shouldn't we lie to them?" says a friend of ours) and who find ways around any inconvenient rule are the same ones who urge the government to tighten regulations and apply a bigger stick -- citing their own functional anarchism as evidence!

Thus: causes of cynicism are not hard to find. What's an incorrigible optimist, who nevertheless acknowledges the need to take people's testimonies seriously, bound to do?

First, I think there's a difference between realism (particularly what we might call Christian realism) and cynicism. Biblically-rooted realism is not particularly shocked when people turn out to behave deviously, have hidden agendas, are motivated by greed or fear or lust, or are just plain ignorant. Luke's rich man, dressed in purple, is separated from Lazarus by much more than the gate in between.

But when we're faced with such evidence of cruelty or hypocrisy, it's the next step that is crucial in the fight against cynicism and its trusty ally, passivity. We can check it off as yet another example of the corruption we've already accepted (though we claim to be against corruption), whether that checking-off serves our ideology or simply our laziness. OR we can analyze the situation: what are the powers at work, who benefits, what does this reveal about structures and stresses, where is prayer needed and for whom, who else needs to know what is going on--and is there an alternate explanation? Is there a case to be made for "the benefit of the doubt"?

Whenever we see some policy or transaction that smells fishy, it's natural for us to ask, "Who benefits?" (Or in Deep Throat's variation, "Follow the money.") But it is important to ask the question analytically, not tendentiously! Every time we surrender to the temptation to say "After all, what else did we expect?" we actually fudge that analysis. Worse, we marginalize every person in that supposedly corrupt system who is trying to do a good job.... Yes, some of them are compromised (and some of us criticizing them are far from 100% pure, too!), but let's make our skepticism work for us rather than for the Author of Confusion.

Two thousand years ago, in a time of rampant tyranny and corruption, God intervened in the form of a tiny Baby -- a Baby who quickly became a political hot potato and a refugee. Three decades later, his earthly fate was supposedly in the hands of a minor potentate, Pontius Pilate, himself caught in that imperial tyranny. There is no power or principality so entrenched that Jesus and his disciples cannot look directly at it and tell the truth -- about the system, and about the souls trapped in it. That included Rome (note past tense!); it includes Russia; it certainly includes the USA. Thank you, Jesus.

(Original post.)

(Part two.)

Next week, I'm going to try to see how far "benefit of the doubt" might be applied to our attempts to deal fairly with our new president.

Meanwhile, here in Russia, there are lots of stories about the latest sensational spy case. Here are two recent summaries: The Moscow Times; Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

What does the Trump-Putin partnership really mean? Jim Kovpak's interpretation (and as usual, he doesn't mince words). And ... for what it's worth ... this just in: U.S. Treasury reportedly eases sanctions on the FSB.

How churches can benefit from a lesson in urban geography.

Nancy Thomas on the importance and irrelevance of safety.

After three weeks in the USA, Judy comes back tomorrow. :-)

26 January 2017

Hacksaw Ridge

I had a chance to see Hacksaw Ridge last night. The film tells the story of the first conscientious objector to receive the USA's highest military honor, the Medal of Honor.

Desmond Doss was born in Lynchburg, Virginia. From his Seventh Day Adventist mother, young Desmond absorbs Christian training and compassion. His father, an alcoholic veteran of World War I, wants neither of his sons to give in to the post-Pearl Harbor fever of military enlistment, but they both go. Desmond's twist, however, is his categorical refusal to pick up a gun and take human life.

Somehow the Army doesn't follow Desmond's logic of combat service without a weapon, and the new private is greeted with ridicule, hazing, a psychiatric evaluation, and, eventually, the brig. In one scene, Army captain Glover visits the conscientious objector before Doss's court-martial for refusing an order to pick up a rifle. Glover reaches over and picks up Doss's Bible.
Glover: I believe in this book as much as any man. And just like any man, I wrestle with my conscience. But what do you do when everything you value in this world is under attack?
Doss: I don't know, sir. I ain't got answers to questions that big. But I also feel that my values are under attack.
The court martial ends by confirming Doss's right to serve as a combat medic without bearing arms. A few brief scenes later, we are at Hacksaw Ridge in Okinawa, at the foot of Desmond Doss's own bloody Calvary Road. And the big questions keep coming -- especially, how does Doss understand his own situation, presumably shielded from Japanese bullets by the constant firing of his own buddies all around him, even as he himself concentrates on saving lives within his personal vow of purity?

The battle scenes stayed with me in my mind's eye long after the last frame on the screen -- extraordinarily detailed, grossly bloody, fiery, sudden, confusing, loud, systematically and relentlessly cruel. In tiny little hollows of improvised shelter, Doss whipped tourniquets around limbs, jabbed morphine, slapped bandages, and dragged wounded soldiers to the edge of the ridge before returning for more -- but the scale of the battle dwarfed the small episodes of his personal service. After a couple of very long cycles of this grinding, unsentimental violence, we see the full stature of Doss's achievements begin to dawn on the rest of his company.

Although I'm recommending this film, I'm not writing a review here -- for that, you can go here (positive) and here (less positive). Here's some background information on how the film came to be made. Here are just a couple more thoughts.

First, take a look at this site: Hacksaw Ridge Resource Website. At first the site looks like standard-issue evangelical machismo, and probably 95% of it is. (Look at the fulsome blurbs on this page, for example.) This site is probably not calibrated to reach the average young Quaker! Nevertheless, it's not hard to find references to the fact that Doss did not let patriots or the military do his thinking for him. His heroism is lauded, and part of that courage is resisting conformity. That resistance remains in (relatively) plain sight. I hope that those who use this material for propaganda purposes remain true to Doss's own priorities: God and country, but God first. It will not be easy: some of the blurbs seem to confuse or even contradict that order.

My second thought comes from that exchange between Glover and Doss, when the detainee confesses, "I ain't got answers to questions that big." No one young person alone, at the very knife-edge of any existential national crisis, would be likely to have big answers. And Glover, older and equally Bible-centered, didn't have them either. When I turned eighteen, a newly-convinced pacifist in an atheist family, neither did I. And I didn't know anyone who could help me. This reinforces my conviction in the vital relationship between evangelism and the peace testimony. They serve and reinforce each other! This relationship may not be a priority for the evangelical-machismo crowd, but I hope that somehow Hacksaw Ridge can be a new resource for uniting evangelism and peace.

In our Quaker yearly meeting, January has been Peace Month. Here are the resources that have been circulated among our churches; and here is our conscientious objection page.

Video on conscientious objection in Russia (with available English subtitles).

How Russia's conservative movement broke through online.

New interpretive center at the Levi Coffin House, Fountain City, Indiana.

Five in final stretch for Google Lunar X-Prize.

How Mark Shuttleworth became the first African in space and launched a software revolution.

I probably had this audio for 30 years before I realized that this also had been recorded as a video. It was my first Champion Jack Dupree album, and my only King Curtis album, period. I probably played the oxide off this cassette over the years. What a joy it was to find that the video of this whole concert could be found online. Note Aretha Franklin in the audience.

19 January 2017

First principles

"Russian Army" store across the street from USA embassy in Moscow offers embassy personnel and American
citizens "an additional 10% discount on the occasion of the USA president's inauguration." Photo: Max Seddon.

I'm writing on the eve of the inauguration of the most unqualified, most thin-skinned, bullying American president in living memory, or perhaps ever. Many people I know in the evangelical community are consulting with each other on shaping our discipleship in light of this reality.

In designing a campaign, I learned from my marketing apprenticeship at Crane MetaMarketing Ltd. (who are not responsible for my politics!!) how important it is to create first principles. Here are some possible first principles: please suggest additions, deletions, improvements! (I'm slightly scared that I'm taking it all too seriously, too!)

1. Don't hide from the truth. It would be wonderful to imagine a presidential outsider finally disrupting the establishment and its conventional wisdom in favor of wildly creative ideas that could truly address the dangerous levels of income inequality in the USA, the stark challenges of global climate change, the replacement of democratic institutions by the ever-growing apparatus of the National Security State, and our imperial habits on the world stage.

In each of these areas, our actual new president shows no evidence of any such capacity -- indeed, in sector after sector of presidential stewardship, he seems to signal retreat (more moneyed people at the top), denial (who needs energy R&D and climate science?), and dangerous levels of chaotic improvisation (national security and international relations).

I see two enormous and more or less opposite dangers (please tell me how I'm wrong!!) ...
  • the era of Trump will totally enthrone the interests of those who see themselves benefiting from the marginalization of vulnerable people and elimination of the social advances associated with the sneering term "political correctness"; or
  • the era of Trump will come to an abrupt end as the top operatives of the National Security State decide that this incredibly loose cannon is too big a risk for the Empire to tolerate. 
As institutions adjust to new leadership, as different levels of government maintain their boundaries, as legislators and lawyers tug at their various ropes, and as our international allies impose their own reality checks on us, we may have better outcomes than this pessimistic summary suggests. Miracles can and do happen. But as a first principle, I want us to remain sober, clear-eyed and vigilant, drawing intelligent conclusions from the evidence.

2. Do not divide the country into pro- and anti-Trump populations. This is crucial! First of all, given the millions of potential voters who stayed home, only 27% of the eligible voting population chose him. And of that 27%, whatever their reasons for choosing Trump or rejecting his opponents, few if any were actually voting in favor of chaos, self-dealing, bankruptcy, or wholesale incompetence in high places. Part of his constituency does support an unprecedentedly authoritarian leader, but even they expect competent performance.

In any case, regardless of our various choices at (or not at) the polls, the whole country is in the same boat -- even, arguably, the super-rich, whose golden eggs might or might not survive a meltdown among the rest of us. The new president has the same job description and the same responsibilities as his predecessors, and it's up to us to hold him to these expectations on behalf of everyone. If he cannot make good on his fabulous campaign promises, it would be a terrible mistake to mock his voters and wait gloatingly for their disenchantment. Seek the good of all!

Friday PS: Part of me honestly hopes that Trump's most fanatical followers do become disenchanted. But massive disenchantment with him doesn't guarantee reconciliation with the rest of the nation. It's up to us to demand and build trustworthy institutions, recognizing that, sadly, some extremists will probably reject reconciliation on any reasonable basis.

3. Resist the degradation of civil discourse. Meryl Streep's thoughtful Golden Globe speech gave one vivid example of what that degradation looked like to her. Trump's reaction to her speech (hurling insults at Streep and her community) just proved her point. Trump's opponents, in turn, often give as good as they get, and we're off to the races ... to the bottom.

Resisting degradation of discourse requires honesty and self-examination. During the presidential campaign, Trump came in for some well-deserved criticism for his arrogant sexual vulgarity, and many of us probably assumed that socially conservative people, perhaps especially evangelical Christians, would be alienated by this behavior. But then I heard a BBC interview with a woman in the American Midwest who totally shrugged it off. Interviews like that one reminded me of an interesting conversation I had with a blue-collar worker in Richmond, Indiana, maybe twenty years ago. When he found out that I was a Quaker, he smilingly informed me that he and his circles took it for granted that Quakers (who had founded the city and who were still generally pillars of Richmond respectability) were the people in charge of making sure nobody in Richmond had any fun. He invited me to hear his favorite local band at a hotel bar. I came a bit early and heard a stand-up comedian telling a sexually explicit story that was beyond raunchy. People laughed! I didn't recognize any Quakers or Earlham College people in the audience. I was shaken by the social distance that was represented for me by that comedian's casual vulgarity and his audience's equally casual indifference.

Here's where the honesty comes in: intellectuals and self-identified sophisticated people can be equally vulgar, just not usually in the same settings. (Recent example: the chortles and puns I heard from liberal commentators discussing the raw intelligence apparently gathered by a retired British spy reporting on rumors of Trump's activities in and with Russia. Don't know what I'm referring to? Give thanks!)

Vulgarity is, among other things, a stress reliever. Different people experience different kinds of stress and have different kinds of training and upbringing to draw on in coping with it. In any case, if we are going to conduct a principled campaign of discipleship in the Trump era, we have to stay civil, whatever the provocation, refusing either to blast back in kind or to retreat into smug elitism.

4. Count the cost of protracted resistance, and organize accordingly. Some of us are Quakers in part precisely because we dislike this kind of combativeness. We will probably need to help each other learn some new skills and disciplines in the area of a dignified ferocity and persistence in engaging in needful conflict for the sake of our social values and priorities. In the division of labor that's inherent in the New Testament concept of spiritual gifts, I hope some of our pastorally-gifted Friends will stay mindful of the psychic cost of being in nearly constant conflict. How will it affect those of us who are naturally inclined to rage, or are even addicted to rage? How will it affect those of us who are totally conflict-avoidant?

If we succeed in muddling through these next years, avoiding those two worst case scenarios or other catastrophic outcomes, it might be because, in seeking to stay grounded in truth and reality, we overestimated the dangers and underestimated the nation's resilience. But it might also just be because we have been practicing love and resistance and truth-telling and prophecy and ethical evangelism and creative confrontation in season and out of season. I see no rest for the Christian community and our allies except as we care for each other and spell each other and heal each other, and extend the same care and vigilance to those who might come unexpectedly into our spheres of influence.

Another source of potential exhaustion will probably be internal conflicts in the resistance. There's no reason to panic about this; learning to conduct conflict ethically is always a useful thing, and we might as well practice among people whose concerns we share. We will probably learn that no one approach or philosophy will ever command unanimity, but that our own vigilance must include the values we see absent from the regime and which we cannot abide seeing absent from our response: not just avoiding vulgar discourse, but being stubbornly unwilling to lie, to use violence, to objectify and bear false witness, and so on. Or to put it another way, our vigilance will be fueled by our modesty and joy in our own creatureliness, as we try not to stray from the Living Water constantly offered by our Creator.

(Thank you to David Finke who read an early draft of this post and encouraged me to publish it. He bears no responsibility for its deficiencies, especially since its length has more than doubled since he read it!)

January 26 update: Our Northwest Yearly Meeting superintendent Retha McCutchen has been circulating this reminder:
Timothy instructs followers of Jesus that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone -- kings (presidents) and all those in authority... . I am reminded of our responsibility as NWYM to pray regularly for those in leadership as this new Administration begins. Let's join in prayer that God will surround the president with Godly advisors and for wisdom and humility in leadership on all levels of the US Government.
This might be even more important to emphasize in the context of resistance.

The late lamented Richmond Skeptic provided this wonderful story: "Earlham launches off-campus study program in Richmond." The original formatting wasn't preserved, so you may have to scroll down quite a bit to reach the text.

Are you afraid of your plumber? (And does this commentator exaggerate the problem?)

While we're at it, Kristin Du Mez looks at Donald Trump and militant evangelical masculinity.
This brand of militant masculinity also helps explain the lack of outrage on the part of many evangelicals when it comes to Trump’s character issues. Dobson himself, one of Trump’s most influential evangelical supporters, urged fellow Christians “to cut him some slack.” More tellingly, the Rev. Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas and stalwart Trump supporter, explained his endorsement of the unconventional candidate in this way: “I want the meanest, toughest, son-of-a-you-know-what I can find in that role, and I think that’s where many evangelicals are.”

Three more recommended commentaries on the occasion of tomorrow's inauguration: Stephen Metcalf on Richard Rorty's philosophical argument for national pride. Josh Marshall makes the case for not being crybabies. And the neglected lessons on framing: an interview with George Lakoff.

Are articles about Russian propaganda now more widely read than Russian propaganda itself?

Amnesty International's Sergei Nikitin on the role of the Beatles in the Soviet Union.

The late Robin Rogers: "Color-Blind Angel" ...