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!)

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" ...

12 January 2017

Pugilistic women

Winter scene on one of Moscow's suburban rail lines. (Photo by Judy.) Posted in response to the flood of snowy
photos on social networks from our friends in western Oregon. We will not be out-snowed!
I don't plan to post regularly on the subject of women competing in mixed martial arts, but I was fascinated by last week's "Quick to Listen" podcast from Christianity Today, "Do Women Fighters Undermine the Bible's Understanding of Gender?" Co-hosts Robin Lee and Mark Galli spoke with Alastair J. Roberts, who recently wrote a guest post on this subject, on the Gospel Coalition's blog. If you read his article there, read the comments as well.

Alastair Roberts said that his Gospel Coalition post was descriptive rather than prescriptive, but it's interesting to read the title embedded in the permalink for the post (as opposed to the titles used in the actual page): "Why Christians should refuse to celebrate women fighting." Sounds prescriptive to me! -- and it triggers the usual response I have when men tell women what they should or shouldn't do.

On the podcast, Roberts explains some of his misgivings, starting with the recent phenomenon of pornography that emphasizes strong and aggressive women engaging in
... violent and rough activities, and they can engage in it just like men. And there's something about that that I do not believe is healthy, and I think there is a relationship between that sort of phenomenon and what we see in UFC [Ultimate Fighting Championship], where women being beaten up is a spectacle for a primarily male audience. What do men see in this? I think one of the things that's interesting is seeing the sort of continuity between the phenomenon of the ringside girls and women in the ring. This is something that may be more obvious in something like WWE but also within UFC there is that continuity between the two phenomena that women who formerly would just be by the ringside, there for visual appearance, when women fight in the ring there's still that sexual element to it, where they're there -- they're watched for their appearance, whatever they may be thinking of. I think they're in the ring because of their skill, they're in the ring because of their ability to practice this particular sport. But for the male audience, and it is an overwhelmingly male audience in UFC, there is a very different thing going on, I believe. And I think that is the concern.
Lead host Robin Lee responds:
Towards the latter part of the conversation, when you were talking about how these female athletes may perceive themselves, I actually think that's kind of like where the crux of the conversation gets a little bit hard because who gets to own the image, so to speak. Is the image owned by the athletes themselves, who are going in there and have trained really hard for what they have done, or -- and do they get to kind of pick the terms on which their sport is appreciated and how they as athletes are appreciated? Or is it something where the audience gets to, you know, foist whatever they want and see what they want to see on there? If these women are trying to be taken seriously as athletes -- like, that's there intent -- perhaps it matters less, maybe what you would say, the impact, which is that they end up being consumed in a crass way, ultimately, a way that dehumanizes them.
Roberts says that he doesn't want to prohibit anyone from doing things that are usually associated with the traditionally-defined opposite sex, but he worries that if society promotes the exceptions as superior to the more natural correlation of values and gifts ...
... In particular, the celebration of gender-atypical and gender-nonconforming women and women who are very much not just extremes of women's tendencies but very much exceptions to the norm; when they're held forth as the great example of female strength, what does that mean for women more generally?
-- and here he goes beyond the martial arts to refer to the relatively new phenomenon of "kick-*ss" female movie heroes, who are generally gorgeous in a stereotypical way. And co-host Mark Galli, editor of Christianity Today, reinforces Roberts's audience-shaped worries:
... Most women completely underestimate the power of the sexual drive in males, and I think just the notion that men find watching women fight not only athletically pleasing (that is to say, like anyone we would enjoy watching someone excel at a sport), there is that sexual dimension always.
Both men acknowledge Lee's point that women should define the "image" and exercise the power that was objectively denied them throughout history -- and in the absence of that power, Lee noted, women were not in fact protected and cherished in the stereotypical way that men, the natural pugilists, were supposed to act so that women could fulfill their own special virtues. But Roberts persists in claiming that society has gone way beyond promoting equivalence in power, instead exalting the nonconformists and eclipsing those whose choices line up with biblical patterns, which he traces back to the Creation account in Genesis 1.

I just don't see evidence for any kind of massive overcompensation. At the gym where I work out, the video screens above the treadmills deliver a steady diet of Hollywood action films (with no sound, so I only get to see the visual messages) -- and, for what it's worth, the violent heroines are still way outnumbered by their male counterparts. Most people seem to make choices not all that different from what might predict from traditional patterns, but the crucial difference that represents progress is that, at least sometimes, atypical and nonconformist choices are less likely to be blocked. I honestly don't see any danger that women are only defining strength by drawing on male "virtues" or traditional gender roles, but thank God, women and men together are breaking old bondages.

A few other observations:

First, women in mixed martial arts don't seem to be decorative in the ways implied by Roberts's article. First of all, they are few, and they had a hard time getting into the ring in the first place, if histories like this one are to be believed. Secondly, I watched some MMA videos earlier this evening, and although I can't claim to be a typical viewer (and my viewing has probably now ended!), there seemed to be a lot more genuine athleticism and less emphasis on physical hotness than I was led to expect by Galli and Roberts.

And, secondly, I was puzzled by the implication that, if women are to fight in the ring at all, they should be sort of monastic about their participation. Is it possible that some women have found a healthy and balanced way to be sexual beings as well as athletes in public, and that this sort of confidence can even be a Christian virtue? And is men's sexuality and the "sexual dimension" of their (our) interaction with women or with sporting events to be treated as a total time bomb? Yes, male sexuality combined with unaddressed addictions and monopolies of power are too often a deadly mixture, but we will not come to grips with that reality without learning and teaching what it means to enjoy life as responsible sexual creatures, created in the incredibly fertile image and likeness of God.

Thirdly, it's interesting that some gender roles (such as the "manly" role of protector, by violence if necessary) seem to me to apply to pre-Christian peoples and societies. Quakers have traditionally taught that when we put our lives into Christ's hands, we are going back through the flaming sword into the paradise of God, that place where man and woman were companions and helpmeets to each other. Whatever compromises we make or don't make in life as we know it, let's not pretend that the roles we find ourselves adopting to get from one day to the next are necessarily permanent and Godly.

Finally, on a related note, I was intrigued by the patterns of gender virtue and giftedness that Roberts found in Genesis. (Go to 27:25 in the podcast.) These sorts of interpretations can be incredibly illuminating, but they are NOT to be used to impose bondages on believers! Some Christian leaders still believe that they can exercise coercive power by sternly calling this thing biblical and this other thing unbiblical. "Biblical" leadership is exercised only within contexts of humility and mutual accountability.

Yelena Tower: ... I want so much to be good, and God is calling me to drop that and just be.

Nine steps to more ethical fundraising.

openDemocracy Russia: You're better than you think.
The debate on the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor, which arose under Queen Victoria, could be continued for decades. But that time could be better spent: by familiarising oneself with other people’s woes and embracing them, the better to make an impact.
Joshua Brown says that Quakers don't seem to learn. Is he right?

05 January 2017

Grace and mercy

The Last Judgment (Rublev); Jesus' second coming, and the scroll is partly unrolled... Dormition Cathedral at Vladimir.
The Last Judgment, view of left and right sides. Sources--top; bottom.
St. Demetrius Cathedral
Detail from St. Demetrius Cathedral
St. Demetrius Cathedral
Dormition Cathedral
I bought two Anthony Bloom books in Dormition Cathedral:
Awakening to New Life: Conversations on Mark's Gospel
(left) and Spiritual Life.
On the first full day of our New Year's retreat in Vladimir, we went to the St. Demetrius Cathedral; on the second day we went to the other cathedral about a hundred meters away, the Dormition Cathedral, which had been built about three decades earlier.

The Demetrius Cathedral is, aside from a few major holiday events, maintained as a museum. The external surfaces are decorated with a fantastic riot of carvings of saints and animals; while there's been a lot of preservation and restoration of the building, most of the reliefs are still original. The inside, however, is starkly simple and is gloriously devoid of state-church grandiosity. It is simply and wonderfully a place to pray. I think we could have stayed there for hours. I slipped into a zone of timelessness very similar to the sense I had visiting the Old Aker Church in Oslo, whose interior (even older, though thoroughly restored after several disasters) is almost equally stark.

The Dormition Cathedral is very different, having served for several centuries as one of the central churches of medieval Russian Christianity, and one of the repositories of graves and relics of rulers and saints. The Russian Orthodox Church shares this building with the government; during the day, the state museum aspect is paramount (and you pay to get in), but in the evening, the building's liturgical function takes over.

After the deep impression made by the St. Demetrius church the previous day, I thought that the elaborate, cavernous Dormition Cathedral might be a letdown. That was not to be. It all started when I began browsing through the books at the cathedral's sales tables near the entrance. I chose books by Anthony Bloom; they are wonderful devotional reading and make good gifts, too. A woman about our age, and similarly wrapped in winter garb, noticed me choosing the books. We fell into a conversation about the differences between Russian Orthodox and Protestant believers, and what we have in common. She told me about her American Pentecostal acquaintance and their promise to pray for each other.

I asked her whether she was familiar with this cathedral -- or was this, as with us, her first visit? "Am I familiar? I work here!" she smiled. "Let me put my coat away, and I will show you something." For the next hour, she gave us a wonderful exclusive tour of the cathedral from one end to the other, literally -- from the grave of Gleb Bogoliubsky to the wall dedicated to the wife and family of Yuri II of Vladimir, all victims of the invasion of Batu Khan's forces in 1237-38. Every step of our tour took us past the signs and scars of a bloody epoch.

My favorite part of the tour was the vault and archway with Andrei Rublev's fresco of the Last Judgment. Our new friend pointed out details that I would never have noticed on my own. The running theme of her descriptions and interpretations were grace and mercy.

"Look at Christ descending toward his throne," she said. "Look how his arms are open to receive us. He doesn't push anyone away. It's our decision to accept his invitation or not." Furthermore, "See how the scroll is being opened by the angels at the top of the fresco. It's not open all the way. History doesn't trap us without hope -- it doesn't close without us. Even at the end we can respond." She contrasted this Last Judgment with Michelangelo's: "There you see an apocalyptic finality that isn't in Rublev."

"Look at the bishops, saints, and evangelists," she continued, pointing at the lower panels on either side of the arch. "They're almost at our level. They are people, just like us, and their faces show different levels of faith and uncertainty. There's Paul, urging them forward. Here we stand among them, experiencing the coming of Christ along with them. That's what we mean by 'church'."

There was more. "See those women to the left of the left-hand panel? We call them the 'righteous wives.' Some of them are in fancy dress, others in ordinary clothes." (In the photo above, you see a bit of that section in the bottom left corner.) "See how confidently they look at Christ. They live in certainty that they will be welcomed."

In the warmth of our guide's spontaneous offer to show us her beloved cathedral, I felt a confirmation of her gracious interpretation of the frescoes. Thanks to her lively spirit, the six centuries separating Rublev's work from our visit simply collapsed, and his art ministered directly to us.

"There's NO happiness in life!" "There IS!" "There IS!"
"There IS, there IS!" Aleksei Merinov, Moskovskii
Komsomolets, via vk.com.
In those moments ("That's what we mean by 'church'") and in that specific part of the cathedral, I felt I was experiencing the warm heart of the Orthodox heritage. It was a complex joy, because I felt surrounded by evidence of the spiritual paradox that is Russia: an ancient Christian faith that preaches mercy and grace, simplicity and avoidance of judgment, contrasting with centuries of relentless violence, conspiracy, invasion, aggression, suspicion, and mass-scale cruelty. Furthermore, that impulse to cruelty sometimes even tries to cover itself with the terms and symbols of Christian faith.

To practice a spiritual discipline of grace and mercy while remaining aware of the violence and lies that the principalities and powers practice (in league with our own inner fears and addictions) is not just a peculiarly Russian imperative. I'm sure it applies equally to my own country, and as we enter the strange year 2017, I'm sure its importance is only growing. I'm sure I'll be returning to this theme in future blog posts, if only for my own sake.

Source: LinkedIn  
Khalil Mahshi was appointed director of the Ramallah Friends Schools in 1986, shortly after my first period of work for Friends United Meeting. About a year after I became general secretary of FUM in 1993, he left his position at the Friends Schools, to my regret. Even so, he was very willing to help me understand the mission and context of the schools when I made my first visit there in 1994. He and his wife Suheir gave freely of their time and hospitality as I tried to make sense of the very complex situation we faced in our stewardship of the schools.

After leaving the schools, he went on to play an important role in the development of Palestine's ministry of education, and later worked for UNESCO in Paris, directing their International Institute for Educational Planning. I was very sad to hear that he died of cancer on January 1, in Amman. I'm very grateful for his leadership of our Friends schools in those years, and for his encouragement to me and my colleagues at FUM.

The memorial page at the IIEP Web site includes an e-mail address for sending condolences.

The Ramallah Friends Schools site also has a memorial page and a link to an invitation to post your photos and memories of Khalil on Facebook.

Terry Mattingly on Hollywood's rediscovery of God as reported by the New York Times.

Tom Engelhardt, someone I consider an ally in resisting the principalities and powers, on the real face of Washington (and America).

Remembering Junior Wells as I listen to this song.

29 December 2016

What was I thinking!? (2016 edition)

Judy and I are enjoying a very special Christmas gift. Having taught our last classes of the year, we have taken a train to the Golden Ring city of Vladimir, spending two days and three nights in the small, cozy Rus' Hotel. In all our years in Russia, we've never had an opportunity to get to know this city and its history. Tomorrow morning, after breakfast, we intend to put on boots and warm coats, step through the hotel doors, head down Gagarin Street, and begin correcting this deficiency.

In the meantime, thanks for reading! Best wishes for a fruitful New Year 2017.

In accordance with my tradition of recent years, and for the unlikely situation that you have nothing better to do, I present a digest of the sense and nonsense I've posted here over these past twelve months, one selection from each month:

January: Why are you still here?

Mikhail Nesterov's painting "The Philosophers" (1917)
Pavel Florensky (left) and Sergei Bulgakov (source)
On the train back to Elektrostal, my mind was still in a whirl of thoughts from the evening. For one thing, it was amazing that, on a cold winter's evening, a lecture on a dead philosopher could fill an auditorium. In how many places around the world would that be true? I spent a few minutes thinking about what [Pavel] Florensky and David Bowie (who died the day before) might have in common. I don't think it is an absurd comparison: both men were stubborn defenders of the right to define one's self and one's boundaries. In Florensky's case, his mannered modesty and alleged priestly affectations irritated his famous contemporary Nikolai Berdyaev, who made catty comments about Florensky's "artificial voice," according to Alexander Men'.

The other comparison that came to me was early Friends' doctrine of Gospel order. Florensky gave a very high value to Church as the community of believers who sought God together -- but Church is more than a community of contemporaries. It's a coherent phenomenon that participates in the mysteries of Heaven. Florensky the mathematician, scientist, and Symbolist/Christian Platonist worked out the implications of Gospel order further and in a more metaphysical direction than early Friends went, even anticipating process theology with his explanations of how earthly paradoxes relate to the unity of heaven.

(Full post.)

February: I don't have a bucket list

Astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson had this amazing
view -- on my behalf as well as her own.... Source.  
Many years later, I find myself teaching English in a gritty industrial town east of Moscow, Russia, but even here I see beauty and drama all around. Some of that beauty is the natural surroundings -- for example, the forest just a few blocks west of where I'm sitting -- but every day I observe the beauty of our intelligent, inquisitive, and kind students, colleagues, and neighbors.

Shortly after I saw that gallery of photos from Peru, I went to an Orthodox-Protestant discussion group, where the conversation flowed for over three hours, until I felt almost faint from joy at the freedom we had to discuss the most important topics I could imagine. Not that we only talked about sweetness and light; the topic of the evening was repentance, and I reflected that in my own life on this planet, I'll probably never see either Hiroshima or Auschwitz. But neither have I tried to avoid knowing about them, or what they reveal about each of us.

(Full post.)

March: Trust, the first testimony (now it gets personal) 
This is the most frequently read post of the past year.

Are there things we can teach sexually energetic people that respect their personalities and give them honest guidance about how to manage the task of being trustworthy sexual beings? When I joined the staff of Friends World Committee back in 1983, my colleague Gordon Browne told me that, when I traveled in the ministry, opportunities for recreational sex would pop up, often as a side-consequence of being seen as a safe mediator in local congregations' difficult situations. If I hadn't been alerted in advance to the seductiveness of the visiting-hero role, I would likely have found out about it the wrong way.

Working a twelve-step program in light of my family's legacy of alcoholism also proved very helpful in managing sexual yearnings. Just as my father hid stashes of alcohol around the house, I learned that we can develop human "stashes" ... people who serve in our minds as fantasy candidates for future sexual adventures, should the opportunities present themselves. These insights don't at all guarantee sainthood or prevent temptation, they're simply tools to reinforce the deliberate work of being trustworthy.

(Full post.)

Pastor Pavel Begichev outlines the history of attempts to
define Christian boundaries.
Ilya Grits: The 20th century is remembered as a century of enormous, horrible tragedies for many, many peoples: the Jews, Gypsies (Roma), Crimean Tatars, Chechens, Kalmyks.... Many of them came to the very edge of total destruction. In any case, that was the intention of those who made the decision and worked out the technical details to accomplish this destruction.

I'm absolutely certain that, for the organizers and perpetrators of the policy of genocide, this whole horror was directly connected to the question behind the theme of this paper: If these specific people don’t belong to the People of God, are we obliged to consider them as human? Wouldn’t it make sense to classify them as “subhuman”, with all the consequences of that classification? Wouldn’t it be correct and even humane to wipe them from the face of the earth?

Of course this isn’t what those 20th-century people – such figures as Beria and Eichmann – actually said. They talked about the master race, about enemies of the people, and so on. But they undoubtedly thought this way. After all, the people who decided, planned, and organized the destruction of millions of people, were not themselves aliens from another planet; they were people who had been raised in, and were well acquainted with, Christian tradition, the language of the Bible, and the Church.

(Full post.)

May: The hammer

Gifts included hammer for damaging nuclear warheads.
The beautiful choral songs we heard today, proclaiming Christ is risen from the dead, were followed by Cossack songs romanticizing killing and death on the battlefield. In one particularly famous and lovely song, a brave soldier dies "from the second bullet," the church deacon sings him off to eternal life, and I sat there taking it all in, including the reality that the dead soldier's comrades are surely about to cause the same scenes of grief among the so-called enemy.

Well, is there someone who should always mourn even the enemy's dead?

Who else but the church?

Back on the train, I rewound the funeral recording a bit and confirmed that, for those of us who believe in the resurrection, the Easter troparion and Dan Berrigan's funeral really meshed so beautifully. Christ is risen from the dead. He tramples down death by death. Or, as Stephen Kelly put it in the funeral homily, "Bomb-blessing has no place in Jesus' self-giving."

(Full post.)

June: Heaven

"Love ... is a heavy cross."
No, I'm not referring to Oregon, although right now it feels heavenly to be here! I'm referring to the place I glimpse in this cartoon.

I originally found this picture on the Russian Facebook-like social network Vkontakte a couple of years ago. I then used it in a post cautioning us not to engage in glib labels and assumptions.

This year, on Forgiveness Sunday, for some reason I felt led to post it again on my own Vkontakte timeline. One of our students (perhaps worried that I was condoning the blasphemy allegedly conducted by the Pussy Riot musicians) came up to me privately after class and asked why I had posted it. That's when it popped into my head: "This picture reminds me of heaven."

(Full post.)

July: Regarding

Ottawa Friends Meetinghouse (July 2016), where I became a
Friend in 1974
But we're not in Russia as political scientists -- we serve as educators and believers. We want to see the country and its people in a way that is somehow connected with the way God sees God's beloved creations. Furthermore, we want to do this not just when we're listening to incomparable choral music, or walking through the State Tretyakov Gallery, but even in our most routine and tedious daily interactions.

To develop this capacity, the first step is to learn how to regard Christ himself. The early Quakers (among others) understood and asserted that Jesus, God with us, is NOT a figurehead, trademark, brand, or symbol wholly owned by the religion industry. Christ does not represent a technique or metaphor or model to reach up the mountain to God, alongside any number of other metaphors or models. We are not dependent on ceremonies or priests or subtle adepts of any kind to accept his offer of reconciliation with God. He is already at our door, knocking, waiting for us to hear his voice, so that he can dwell in us and we in him. He actually wants to use us, the reconciled, to continue his reconciling work among those who might not yet have heard his voice.

(Full post.)

August: Russian avos' and American politics

Donald Trump, the other candidate in our de facto binary process, is another story altogether. He doesn't present us with a predictable set of likely policies, nor does he fit the behavioral profile for the role of our country's national representative to the world. He is the very definition of a loose cannon -- and that is his appeal to many of his supporters, because the tight cannons in charge up to now have not delivered for them.

In her article, "Trumputin: What Russia can teach us about the US election," Natalia Antonova writes,
Perhaps one of the most telling lines about Trump supporters was recently published by conservative writer David Frum, who quoted this line from his discussions with fellow Republicans who are set to vote for Trump: "You believe in institutions because they work for you… But our people don’t believe in institutions any more."

People who have lost faith in institutions have lost faith in institutional change. This makes them especially vulnerable to promises made by firebrand demagogues. And it places them further beyond the reach of facts or logic.

. . . 
(Full post.)

September: Barriers

Found on vk.com (original scene is from late-era Soviet film Heart of a Dog)
"How can I explain things to you if you don't even watch TV?"
When I was around eight years old, the subject of God came up one day in my grade school classroom. (There weren't the same restrictions on God-talk in public school then that there are now; that's another discussion.) Our teacher said, "Why should we be afraid to talk about God?" I was startled and panicky -- in fact I was afraid to talk about God, and couldn't even imagine making my mouth emit the word.

I made a mental note of this reaction, but didn't analyze it at the time. Later, I connected it with the fact that, in my family, any mention of religion was absolutely forbidden, along with any mention of disease or death. Whatever the roots of this barrier, it blocked me from communicating with anyone about a huge part of what it means to be human.

Obviously, something happened between grade school and my decades of working for the church! But I'm glad that I remember that block. These memories came back to me the other day when I was talking with some colleagues about expanding our students' access to informal English-speaking opportunities. "Some of my students do a great job with grammar and vocabulary," said one colleague. "But when it comes to speaking in a group, they just can't open their mouths. There's that old psychological barrier."

(Full post.)

October: Return to Sergiev Posad

Ottawa, February 1975.
There was actually a logical link between the two parts of my 1975 adventures. I went to Voice of Calvary in Mississippi as the result of a cancellation. My short-term service there was arranged through the American Friends Service Committee, who in those years offered a program of workcamps and service opportunities. When I first learned of these opportunities, I was a Soviet area studies major at Carleton, and a newly minted Quaker.

The AFSC menu included the so-called Tripartite Dialogues. These events combined seminars and travel; participants included young adults from the U.K., the USA, and a Soviet youth committee, and the Dialogues took place alternately among the three countries. 1975 was to be Russia's turn. I got in touch with Laurama Pixton of the AFSC office in Philadelphia, and signed up eagerly to participate -- only to find out that, because the Soviets had decided to dedicate their resources and energy to the upcoming 60th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, the Tripartite series was not going to continue after all.

Laurama Pixton did not want me to give up on the AFSC's service opportunities, so she put me in touch with Nancy Duryea, who worked with the AFSC's youth programs. Thanks to Nancy, I found out about Voice of Calvary, whose summer internship program was one of AFSC's partners. When the Soviet door closed, the Mississippi door opened -- but I just couldn't quite give up on seeing the Soviet Union for myself. Into the brief period between the end of the Mendenhall period and the start of the new academic year I squeezed two weeks of Moscow and St. Petersburg.

(Full post.)

November: The invitation

The door to our meeting room.
One reality we share with other fellowships: small Protestant groups generally have a hard time establishing themselves in Russia, in the face of Russian Orthodox opposition to all such imports, on the one hand, and popular indifference to overt religiosity of any kind on the other.

Within Moscow, groups with adequate funds can rent facilities to meet and then advertise their events. Our group, dependent on meeting in low-cost alternatives hosted by sympathetic organizations, is essentially prevented from doing such advertising. Outside Moscow, Protestants and other religious minorities sometimes face far greater challenges.

Small groups anywhere in the world often run into another obstacle to growth: the character of the fellowship takes on the internal pecularities and tensions of its participants, no matter how individually sweet and wonderful they might be -- and consequently newcomers may find it hard to feel at home. There's no possibility of an anonymous trial visit for newcomers.

Without a commitment to attracting and empowering newcomers, a church can soon become a chaplaincy for the care and comfort of its existing participants. There might not have been any actual decision to take this path; it simply becomes harder to hear or even imagine a call from God to risk anything else.

(Full post.)

December: Good News and identity politics, part two

(Part one, written four weeks earlier, is here.)

John Perkins (Mendenhall, Mississippi, 1975)
The distinction between persuasive and expressive is useful. It links with my perennial theme of the division of labor within the Christian community. Some of us are gifted pastors, elders, teachers and organizers. They are, in a way, stewards of identity. They cannot do their work without referring to specific identities, honoring them, helping them heal from bondage, if necessary. The concept of being made in the image and likeness of God is a beautiful abstraction, but it must also be activated in specific human beings -- individuals and groups -- who find and encourage each other through free expression. That expression may well be full of anguish and anger. The discomfort of others, including would-be allies, should not muzzle that expression.

Those who serve in this ministry of identity affirmation will inevitably develop tools and approaches that will irritate others, especially as their analysis begins to identify systemic patterns that we ourselves might be participating in. Organizers and activists have a vocabulary that is easy for conservatives to mock, but conservatives have their own in-group references as well. Within the church there is no excuse for dismissing each other because we get irritated with each other's cliches! Yes, push back if you think that my operating assumptions are degenerating into intellectual laziness or tribalism -- and I'll do the same -- but let's make an effort to understand!

(Full post.)

I watch almost no television, and had barely heard of Craig Ferguson before watching this series of interviews he did with Carrie Fisher. But these videos are a wonderful way of experiencing Fisher's fantastic energy and her animating interests and concerns. Be prepared for more vulgarity than I usually link to, but I think you'll see why I took the risk!

From Brian Drayton's Quaker toolbox: Making a testimony happen.

Hey, someone else is recognizing one of my favorite films of the last ten years -- a film whose lack of recognition has been a standing puzzle to me: Children of Men.

The shortest item I've ever linked to: The two pillars of Putinism.

Expulsion of 35 Russian diplomatic staffers from the USA (the news that met us on our arrival here in Vladimir) ... an American view and a Russian news site. Given the near-certainty of reciprocal responses this doesn't sound like a very helpful response to the situation.

I was a bit frustrated by the lack of context in the stories -- for example, how many Russian diplomats are there in the USA? The relevant page is missing from the embassy's Web site, at the moment anyway, but a cached copy lists 121 Russians (not counting family members) on the diplomatic list as of this month. To order more than a quarter of them out, and in effect conceding a similar expulsion in response, seems problematic. 

Two of my favorite blues desserts from the past year, both from James Harman:

22 December 2016

The gift of words

Elektrostal: Lenin Square and the Park Plaza shopping center dressed for the New Year holiday.

I can remember just a few of the Christmas gifts I was given in my childhood -- but nearly all of them were somehow linked with words. Usually -- but not always -- that meant books.

In my early grade school years, I drove teachers to despair with my apparent indifference to the classroom -- I was usually looking out the windows or daydreaming. After educational TV came to our grade school (courtesy of a strange experiment known as the Midwest Program on Airborne Television Instruction -- MPATI), I liked to fantasize that my eyes were educational TV cameras, so it was important to watch the teacher and the blackboard, but not necessarily learn! My teachers were so upset with my inattentiveness that I was sent to counselors, who held anxious consultations with my parents. In turn my parents were so angry about my poor school performance that one year they took away my favorite non-print gift, a huge shiny red toy tow truck.

However, school librarians knew my secret -- I loved to read! I always had the maximum number of books on loan, and would soon be bringing them back for a new load. Christmas always meant that I would get new books -- and those were even better than library books for a special reason. In the blank pages at the front and back, I would draw television-screen shapes into which I could write the "credits" for the books I was reading. My eyes had the special property of turning print into video, and in preparation for each reading session, my viewers would need to know who the director and actors and crew were. Then I could go on to the book itself, whose text would become vivid television, not just for me, but for my fantasy audience who depended on my camera-eyes to see the world.

Christmas with my sister Ellen.
Some of my earliest book memories involved the Happy Hollisters series -- a big happy family who loved solving mysteries. I remember one volume's cast of characters included a woman who did something I'd never heard of before -- she didn't change her last name after her marriage. Thanks to other Christmases' gift books, Robin Hood's forest and King Arthur's Camelot also came to life for me and my invisible audience in those grade school years. King Arthur's and Robin Hood's deaths gave me my first glimpses of human mortality.

The very first gift that I can remember actually asking for was a bulletin board. Yes, a real cork bulletin board, complete with thumbtacks! I can't remember why the idea of owning my own bulletin board took on such urgency, but my parents humored me, and I joyfully hung it up in a corner of our apartment's front room. Letters and postcards from my grandparents in Norway and Germany were among the things on which I bestowed the honor of being pinned up on the board. Later, I pinned up lists of my favorite Top-40 AM radio hits, whose order in the current week and previous week, carefully noted in two columns, were totally based on my choices, not on any statistics or other lists. I stubbornly included Bob Dylan's "Rainy Day Women #12 and 35" on my bulletin board honor roll long after it had disappeared from Billboard.

I guess the bulletin board was somehow a form of publishing and was therefore linked to the next gift I'm reminiscing about this Christmas season, a gift that ranks at the very top for all of my childhood. I think I was ten years old when I had the ecstatic experience of unwrapping the gift I didn't dare hope I would get: a printing press.

It was an utterly simple toy press that used rubber type mounted on a cylinder, pressed against a smaller cylinder wrapped with inky cloth, and then applied to a small piece of paper that slid through the press and came out the back with WORDS ON IT. And the next piece of paper had the SAME WORDS! You could change the cloth for another soaked with a different color of ink and pass the same papers through to print IN TWO COLORS!! You could write to the Superior Marking Equipment Company in Chicago and order different fonts and even rubber clipart and print ILLUSTRATIONS. I don't think I was any more concerned with who would read my output than I was with the audiences for my TV-camera eyes; the important thing was that I was publishing!

And now maybe you know why this blog has been going for twelve years. May the gifts you give and receive this Christmas bring you something like the joy that the Cub printing press gave me.

The wonderful Letterology blog tells more about the Superior Marking Equipment printing presses of my childhood and provides some samples of what the press could do. More background here. Did you by any chance have one of these?

Our Northwest Yearly Meeting of Friends is grieving the loss of Arthur O. Roberts, who gave Friends many decades of intellectual and spiritual leadership. He was a pastor, educator, dramatist, poet, philosopher, politician, and mentor to several generations of Quakers now spread throughout the world. I'm so grateful that Nancy Thomas has written a tender appreciation. This bibliography gives an idea of his scope and energy.

Micah Bales says that Christmas is about hitting rock bottom. Are you there yet?
Our nation is entering into a time of great testing, and it remains to be seen whether which path we will choose. Will we embrace the baby Jesus, with all the disruption and trouble he brings? Will we carry this pregnancy to term? Or will we tell God, “No. I won’t have this child. No, I won’t claim him as my own. Find someone else, God. I don’t need that kind of disturbance in my life.”
A story from Kingston, Jamaica: I see you.
When someone calls us by name they remind us who we are, our essential self. By locating us, they help us locate ourselves; the anchoring core of our own existence. Ah! I am here. The real me breaks out like light streaming from window shutters flung wide. I am here!

We children opened our presents on Christmas eve (following our parents' Old-World customs). The ritual went like this: we children were banished to our bedroom, while the Christmas tree was retrieved from the back porch, mounted on its stand and decorated, and the gifts placed underneath. So the whole thing had the quality of a dramatic reveal, but no Santa delivery was involved. Before the gifts were pounced upon and opened, our atheist parents led us in this one Christmas carol: