19 October 2017

My heart is breaking. So what?

We left Russia on Tuesday evening. Now we're traveling on Amtrak from New York City to Portland, Oregon. Our train stopped for nine minutes in Charlottesville, where we spent the first two years of our marriage. A lot has happened since then, with us and with Charlottesville.

My heart is breaking with the flood of #MeToo stories from people who've experienced sexual violence and objectification of all degrees. CNN reports a Facebook statistic: "...More than 45% of people in the United States are friends with someone who's posted a message with the words 'Me too'." Seems entirely possible. Just based on people I know, that proportion might actually be low.

But my breaking heart is completely beside the point. The problem is people whose hearts aren't breaking and will not soon be breaking. Many of them don't consider themselves predators, and their behavior is often supported and protected by their surrounding culture, as noted in Teri Carter's article, "Saying 'me too' isn't enough. Women have to stop excusing men." Some no doubt plunge into cycles of offense and remorse, hoping that their remorse counts for something....

Last year, a similar online phenomenon took off in Russian and Ukrainian social networks. Natalia Antonova described the origins of this movement and some of the assumptions it unearthed. She did not express wild optimism about outcomes, but there is a path toward progress:
We are seeing an example of real collective action — not sponsored by any government, not popularised by marketing or television. The very fact that there is such a big controversy, an outcry, criticism, and counter-criticism tells us that quite a lot of people are emotionally invested both in the problem of violence and trauma — and are also invested in public life and public discourse.
Before we protest that the USA (for example) is more progressive on this score than the post-Soviet world, can we honestly say that we never see examples of  the "hypocritical blending of patriarchal and liberal norms" mentioned by Antonova?

One thing that seemed possible in July 2016, the time of Antonova's article, was a woman serving as president in the USA, something that no Russian I spoke with thought would happen in Russia in their lifetime. Most Russians told me that it shouldn't happen, in Russia or in the USA. Of course, for the USA, that moment didn't come to pass.

(But yesterday came the announcement that Ksenia Sobchak plans to run in the Russian presidential election next year! The conventional wisdom so far seems to agree that this is just a way that the Kremlin wants to make the highly stage-managed Putin re-election process more interesting and entertaining. My question: Can Sobchak's candidacy nevertheless have subversive benefits in widening the forums for discussing sexual violence and related topics?)

Back to #MeToo and the chorus of male grief. The sad truth is that the existence of men (and women) who have no desire at all to offend, or are supposedly too nice to offend, or who repent, or who simply have learned how to manage their "needs," hasn't been enough to prevent that "more than 45%" statistic. Our goals should go way beyond expressing sympathy; they should include ending cultures of impunity. This isn't an easy thing to advocate -- my conscience is stabbed by the question, How often have I been given the benefit of the doubt?

Ending cultures of impunity ... what might this imply? How do we get there? For one thing, it would help to have offenders' peers confronting offenders, and for these stories to circulate. I'm reminded of a case I know personally: an alcoholic wife-abuser being confronted by his older brother, himself a recovering alcoholic: "Hey, take it from me, you straighten up or you're going to lose the best thing you have, and I'll want to know the reason why."

Victims' and survivors' dearest ones also have a role to play, especially in cultures where the "boys will be boys" attitude prevails. In theory, we know that love trumps shame, but we need to make that true in every concrete situation where shame smothers the truth. This is especially important where victims end up entering into alliances with their attackers and therefore feel complicit. Again, for cultures that don't value lofty theories, we need stories of families and sweethearts taking shame out of the equation. Let's tell our stories of shame being healed, whether we were the channels of healing or the ones experiencing healing.

What about men? (After all, the majority of offenders, and also the apparent beneficiaries of the prevailing power systems, are men.) Sometimes my inner cynic worries that this arena is just another channel for men to entertain fantasies of heroism, or (given the persistence of sin and addiction) to use a veneer of sensitivity for seductive purposes. But there are concrete steps we can take:
  • Listen, don't rush to fix. Be rooted in grace. Listen, listen some more. Be human! 
  • When women exert leadership, respond positively. That may simply mean getting out of the way without waiting for recognition or credit.
  • Replace the old "men have needs" excuse with active encouragement for any decent efforts to teach young people about sexuality and boundaries. Maybe it's an opportunity for liberals and conservatives to work together -- for liberals to assert the importance of equality, for conservatives to remind us of sin's devious persistence.
  • Other ideas?
One of my biggest frustrations is the lack of attention to sexual discipleship in the church. The resulting harm includes not just violence and harassment, but endless shame, anxiety, hypocrisy, homophobia, and ultimately cynicism, alienation, atheism, ... in total, a lot less joy, intimacy, and long-term pleasure than God intended for us.

I think I understand the reluctance to tackle sexual issues; I don't know about you, but I really don't go to church to talk about sex! That means finding creative ways to confront the old boundaries and allergies that ultimately served oppression, and create new boundaries that put sexual discipleship in proper perspective with other topics of life as believers -- such as financial discipleship, to name another awkward theme.

Think of the rewards of expanding our discipleship education: building a far more rewarding model of whole-life Christianity that doesn't keep two sets of emotional books (one for display at meeting, and the other reflecting our private anxieties and agonies). Think of the evangelistic advantages as well -- inviting skeptical people into a community that behaves as if it actually believes in the abundant life Jesus promises.

A related post from last year: Trust and its erotic dimension. ("Now it gets personal.")

How badly have traditional Christian sexual ethics failed?
In the absence of any concept of consent, patriarchy might have been the best humanity could do to provide a stable social order that somewhat protects vulnerable people from the kind of mayhem we see in Sodom in Genesis 19 and Gibeah in Judges 19. Unfortunately it fails to provide full protection; it just keeps the violence behind closed doors.
Postliberalism for Quakers. (Thanks to @MeetinghouseBP for the link.)

Another view of Ksenia Sobchak's candidacy, from a pro-Kremlin outlet.

"Johnny B. Goode" Russian style.

12 October 2017

Signs and Weinstein

Our corner, Yalagin Street and Fryazevo Highway, two nights ago. Our time in Russia is nearing an end; I'm storing up all these impressions, sensations, and amazing memories.

It's a sign of today's toxic political environment that the revelations of Hollywood sexual harassment connected with the Harvey Weinstein scandal are exploited by some Trump supporters as evidence of a liberal double standard.

That might be, but you can't convince me that only liberals "pester" women in the entertainment industry! I draw the word "pester" from this BBC interview with Emma Thompson. Locating Weinstein in a larger context, she says,
What I find sort of extraordinary is that this man is at the top of a very particular iceberg, you know he’s — I don’t think you can describe him as a ‘sex addict,’ he’s a predator. But what he’s, as it were, at the top of the ladder of is a system of harassment, and belittling, and bullying, and interference, and what my mother would have referred to in the old days as ‘pestering.’ ‘Is he pestering you?’ That’s the word we used to use in the olden days, if you recall. This has been part of our world, women’s world, since time immemorial. So what we need to start talking about is the crisis in masculinity, the crisis of extreme masculinity, which is this sort of behaviour, and the fact that it is not only OK, but it also is represented by the most powerful man in the world at the moment....
Not all public conservatives are reacting to the scandal with glee. Samuel James takes a much more measured look at men and women relating in the workplace, referring back to the brief swirl of controversy around Mike Pence's use of the "Billy Graham rule." The dilemmas of managing human lust (a problem not confined to liberals, considering how often Republicans get caught in sex scandals!) while also confronting systemic imbalances of power, will not be solved by confusing the issue with left/right labels. "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" [context] and all of us need to confront that impulse to exploit -- when we see others being targeted, and when we ourselves are tempted to target others. The last thing we Christians need to do is feel superior!!

One more point. Many evangelicals who do not themselves pester anyone nevertheless do not allow women to exercise leadership in their churches and religious organizations. Their stained glass ceilings are reinforced with scriptural arguments and the weight of centuries of tradition. The evangelical publishing and conference industry (specifically, the "biblical womanhood" industry -- see this post) harvests billions of dollars peddling this message to this day. I dare not mock this community, because I know many dear people who are under its sway, but I'm totally opposed to its message and influence.

The Christians in this corner of Christendom claim to be conservative and Bible-believing. Here's my question: why do they not make a direct connection between sex-based oppression and the Fall? Why is sexual equality not linked with the redemption and reconciliation offered by Jesus?

When we try to understand pervasive sexual discrimination and patriarchy (not just in Hollywood, but as Thompson says, "this has been part of our world, women's world, since time immemorial"), we have two choices:
  1. This is how things should be ... Christ did not come to lift this oppression, and we will accordingly continue to let men lord it over women -- in the church just as in the world. God chased us out of Eden, and we're content to stay out.
  2. This sorry situation is part of the Fall; but the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, and the coming of the Holy Spirit, offers reconciliation to men and women -- all humans -- and makes them unashamedly equal, able to accept or challenge traditional roles according to their own prayerful seeking and the gifts they have been given, but in any case resuming the innocence and intimacy they had in the Garden of Eden.
Which of these alternatives fits our own understanding of the transforming power of the Good News?

Equality of men and women is one of the Quaker signs and wonders.

Tebow and Kaepernick: two Christians on their knees. Is there a false dichotomy here? ("One is concerned with private sins like abortion. The other is concerned with public sins like racial discrimination.") Gene Veith has some additional thoughts.

Dreams, prophecy, and ministry: Patricia Dallmann. Marge Abbott.

Andrei Kolesnikov on Alexei Navalny's permanent revolution.

"When things go wrong, so wrong with you, it hurts me, too."

05 October 2017

Labels, part three: radical

These days, references to "radical" often come up in connection with the anxious question, "Where was [suspected terrorist's name] radicalized?" For better or for worse, the word has overtones of "extreme."

In the early 1970's, when I was a new Christian, left-wing evangelicals liked to remind each other that "radical" was associated not with extremism, but with the Latin word radix (= root). To be radical was to be firmly rooted in the faith. The magazine Radix (Web site; core sample) sought to demonstrate the full breadth of cultural and social awareness that such rootedness made possible. In my own case, this understanding of "radical" got me involved with Christian-Marxist dialogues, among other things.
London, UK, November 20, 2003

Portland, Oregon, USA, March 19, 2006

Another nuance: a "radical" identity sometimes has an allure for those who are discontented or disillusioned with mainstream politics. Nearly fifty years ago Tom Wolfe documented liberal celebrities' "radical chic," but, more generally, the activist subculture (in my experience) doesn't like being associated with the truncated political spectrum of the white American middle class or of speculative academia. Radicals are skeptical about gradualism; they yearn to disrupt and transform. At many of the large demonstrations I've attended over the years (most dramatically at an Aboriginal people's demonstration on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on September 30, 1974), there have been disruptive participants in the mix, working to provoke violence. It can be a frightening experience.

It's easy for me to dismiss some of these self-proclaimed radicals as self-indulgent practioners of (in Vladimir Lenin's words) left-wing infantilism, but I don't criticize their discontent. From a Christian viewpoint, we're waiting in hope that "the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God." (Context.) It's hard to wait! Some of us tend to the waiting flock, some envision the coming liberation, and some can't help demanding, with Jeremiah, that we stop saying "peace, peace" when there is no peace! (Context.)

Radical religion can be a creative synthesis, but it can also be attached to a sort of timid marketing conceit, to which liberal Quakers can sometimes be vulnerable. (Yes, I'm aware that we evangelical Quakers have our own conceits!) How often have I heard variations on the line, "We Quakers are so radical that we don't even insist on biblical foundations, Jesus, or even God." Talk about cutting one's roots! With this attempt at attraction by non-offensiveness, Friends ironically use the word "radical" to cover the fact that they've been reshaped and thoroughly domesticated by the relentless skepticism of the larger society, rather than asserting a courageous and genuinely radical commitment to the Lamb's War.

Maybe the most genuine radicals among us are not especially concerned about how they're labeled. Example: was Daniel Berrigan a radical? His most persistent self-description was as powerful as it was non-chic: he was a priest, a minister of Christ. But he lived out Greg Kandra's assertion that "being a Christian, in fact, is radical."

What do you think? What is it about being a Christian that can usefully be described as radical? Have you and I been radicalized?

Earlier labels: evangelical, conservative.
My previous post on Daniel Berrigan.

Ted Grimsrud is reading the Bible in light of the Lamb's War.

Two important "Religion Dispatches": On Trump and the football players' protests: race and religious violence ... and why partisanship trumps morality in gun control debates.

Is this just snarky or does Don Burrows have an important challenge? ... On conservative Christians' sudden devotion to the imperial cult.

The latest edition of Friends Journal's Quaker Works. An impressive list with a glaring gap: no group primarily involved with evangelism is listed. Did nobody even try to get listed? (Well, to be fair, the Tract Association of Friends is included ... under "Consultation, Support, and Resources.")

At the Elektrostal Exhibition Hall through October 15: Woodpainting by the husband-and-wife team Bronislav and Antonina Kanushin. (First picture: Elektrostal Museum staffer and our former student Maria Bragina shows our group around the exhibition.)

"No hatred will be tolerated."

28 September 2017

Your obedient servant

Mark Antokolsky, Ivan the Terrible (State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)
Mark Antokolsky, Christian Martyr 
Not of This World 
(State Tretyakov Gallery)
If worship does not propel us into greater obedience, it has not been worship. -- Richard Foster.

You are my friends if you do what I command you. -- Jesus

Trust and obey,
  For there’s no other way
To be happy in Jesus,
  But to trust and obey.
-- hymn by John Henry Sammis and Daniel Brink Towner

I admit that I have a terrible relationship with obedience.

At the Tretyakov Gallery I saw the striking contrast between Mark Antokolsky's sculptures of Ivan the Terrible and a Christian martyr. Ivan obeys nobody, but people obey him if they know what's good for them. The martyr is perfect in obedience, but it is to God. Nobody is forced to obey her, but the birds love her company.

Sometimes I feel as if I have both Ivan and Martyr fighting inside me. Not that I particularly want people to obey me, but I sure don't want to obey them.

I was brought up in a cult of obedience. We children were to do as we were told, or the consequences could be violent. As I grew into my teenage years, I realized that my atheist mother had been formed by more than traditional German respect for authority. Hitler ruled the German people during most of her growing-up years. The German community in which she grew up was not actually in Germany but in Japan, where there was of course yet another layer of authority and obedience -- the head of the Japanese state was supposedly divine.

The violence within my family, the violence of the Viet Nam and civil rights era, and finally the violence of my sister's murder on the streets of Chicago, all combined to rob me of any faith in the value of obedience.

As a teenager I was a voracious reader, and that didn't help! I remember a quote that I've not been able to track down since, but I think it was Kant who asked a question along these lines: why should people go off and kill others just because someone comes through town in a uniform, beating a stick on a drum?

My skepticism about obedience only increased when I read the collection of articles in War: The Anthropology of Armed Conflict and Aggression, (see brief excerpt here). This book revealed the zoological realities behind our behaviors and our pretensions. All of the elaborate social and political mechanisms we've build up to organize, conduct, and pay for warfare, recruit soldiers, and justify their actions and outcomes, are just extensions of animal behavior.

It seemed to me, a brand new Christian at age 21, that the obvious response was to demolish all this pretension by directing people's attention to the Biblical vision of peace and the Savior who mobilizes us into the Lamb's war. No longer do we need to fear and mobilize against each other. Instead of obeying, we should be evangelizing.

As idealistic as I was, I hadn't taken total leave of common sense. It made sense to obey leaders, traditions, and established patterns that we trust to make our lives better and to reduce unnecessary conflict. When the police department threatened to take away my surviving sister from my parents, I realized that the family-disrupting power they were asserting was in the defense of her own interests. I trusted them -- and when I offered to take my sister to a healthier situation in Canada, they trusted me and dropped the legal processes.

But how do we know when to trust? It helps when we judge that rules and commands make sense to us, and conflicts are dealt with transparently. Trustworthy governments derive "their just powers from the consent of the governed" (U.S. Declaration of Independence) and not from "divine right" or coercion.

As I started studying political science in college, I thought about how to balance a healthy skepticism toward obedience on the one hand, and a respect for society and order on the other. For me, the Church was a wonderful laboratory for these investigations. Here was an organization dedicated to doing what Jesus commanded, and helping each other to learn what that meant. I loved the ideal, but I also saw the reality -- churches that demanded obedience and even reverence toward church authorities that were all too human, where transparency and mutual accountability were absent. Some of my relatives were deeply caught in such structures. Obedience to Jesus was preached in the abstract, but interpretation was in the hands of licensed intermediaries whose pronouncements were final.

Looking back on my history of obedience and rebellion, I can see that joining Friends was a pretty natural choice. Our church was born in rebellion against authoritarian pretensions. Individual Friends churches and yearly meetings have sometimes forgotten this heritage, but by and large we've kept the faith.

One time an inquirer came to Moscow Friends Meeting and questioned us closely: Who is the real boss of the congregation? What organizational structures control us? Where does our funding come from? He found it hard to believe how foreign these hierarchies, scripts, and patterns are for us.

I want to believe that resistance to authoritarianism in church is growing. In the USA, I'm watching the reaction to the Nashville Statement. I read articles such as Grayson Gilbert's "Why We Name False Teachers By Name," and I wonder, don't these (mostly) men realize that the era of pronouncements from on high is coming to an end? The audience for these pronouncements is still big enough to make this style of rhetoric rewarding, both politically and financially, but who believes that they determine our relationship with God?

It's as important as ever to debate truth and error, but your voice, and mine, will have to be taken into account as well. False teachers may in fact be those who marginalize dissidents, who conceal the diversity of opinion in the early church, who feign certainty in the face of biblical silence or biblical minority reports (Ezra vs Ruth) -- or who insist that their own certainty must be ours as well.

In any given church or theological conflict, it isn't guaranteed that you and I are right. We might be way off beam! The very person who seems so wrong to us may have the argument that reveals the unintended consequences of our desired policy or doctrine. How do we know whether our correctors are trustworthy?
  • their love for us is evident; we can see that they want us to thrive
  • they are actually willing to listen to us explain why we think the established line is defective
  • they are known to be able to receive correction as well as dispense it
  • their power or prestige is not invoked to one-up us; instead, they engage with us on the actual merits of their arguments
  • if we say a loving "no" to them, they will not bear false witness against us.

Can you be happily married even as you live apart from your spouse?

Deep Space Gateway -- the latest expression of the will of USA and Russian space programs to continue working together.

Daria Litvinova on the Russian government and Internet censorship.

Another version of "Crow Jane" -- Samantha Fish:

21 September 2017

Pierre Lacout and silence (repost)

One of our old friends at the Tretyakov gallery: Nikolai Yaroshenko's "There's Life Everywhere."
Hello from an apartment on Bolshaya Dmitrovka in Moscow. We're having a wonderful time serving as hosts and tour guides to a group of our friends from Northwest Yearly Meeting. Today was the start of our Moscow adventures as we visited the Cosmas and Damian Church just off Tverskaya Street, then Red Square, the State Tretyakov Gallery, and the Friends House Moscow office. We had plenty to discuss this evening before starting to rest up for tomorrow's new adventures.

During our discussion in the FHM office, the subject of silence came up, which reminded me of this post, which I decided to rerun here. Just one correction: The "Thursday group" now meets on Wednesdays.

Fritz Eichenberg, "Christ of the Breadlines"
The "Thursday group," a circle of Friends who meet on two Thursdays a month, invited me to speak on Friends' understanding of silence, which I did this evening. I was so delighted by the invitation, since for me silence is like spiritual oxygen.

I started by telling about an incident that happened to me at the age of 19, when I was living in rural Pennsylvania and had to walk an hour every workday in the early morning, sometimes starting in darkness, to meet my ride the rest of the way to the Western Electric factory at King of Prussia. I spent the day on the assembly line. At the end of the day, I had the same four-mile walk in reverse, back home. One day, walking in silence as always, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the certainty that I was not an observer, separate from the landscape around me, but that I was the observed one, with the whole visible reality around me was doing the observing.

I fast-forwarded a few years to Ottawa Friends Meeting, within whose community I lived for three years, 1974-77, from the time I became a Christian until the moment I left Canada. I talked about my spiritual mentor, Deborah Haight, and the sense of centeredness I felt in her presence. Deborah was born into a Conservative Friends family in Norwich, Ontario. There were some in our Friends meeting who seemed to aim for an ideal of perfect silence in the meetingroom--street noises and even the sound of children could be a problem. But I had this feeling that Deborah held silence within her.

Discussion handout; read online
The rest of my comments this evening were based on Swiss Friend Pierre Lacout's booklet God Is Silence, which is available online in Russian, translated by Natasha Zhuravenkova. I organized my thoughts around some quotations from that booklet, which I had put in a handout along with discussion questions. Since I don't have an English-language copy, the italicized excerpts that follow are from the Russian text. I also drew from J. Brent Bill's Holy Silence and Anthony Bloom's conversations on prayer entitled "Let's Try Praying in Truth." (PDF, Russian.)

Lacout, after extolling the advantage of silence:
And if, even so, I speak, it's just to communicate with those whose silence resonates with mine and who hear the Silence of God in my words. And if I speak again after that, it's to encourage silence among those ready to receive it. And a bit further on, It's important to practice silence regularly. The Spirit blows where the Spirit wishes, but fills only those sails which are already raised.
Here I emphasized the inner discipline implicit in Lacout's words, and asked if this was any different from what Katherine Evans was talking about among early Friends when she said, "...we had thousands at our meetings, but none (of us) dare speak a word, but as they are eternally moved of the Lord...."

And when Northwest Yearly Meeting Friend Jan Wood encourages us to "tell the stories of God's power among us," as we might experience it in worship, is this the same kind of talking that Pierre Lacout advocates among those who would otherwise prefer silence? As we discussed how to bring the gift of silence to those for whom deliberate silence is a wholly new idea, Friends mentioned how important it is to demystify it for newcomers to our worship, and not to let Quaker "culture" repel the tender visitor.

More from Lacout on the discipline of silence:
The life of silence is always a deliberate attentiveness [as contrasted with spontaneous attentiveness to an external distraction]. ... The fully-developed religious life becomes the life of a mystic. For some, "mystical" is synonymous with "not normal," bringing to mind visions, trances, levitation... This kind of approach focuses on secondary aspects instead of the main point. For Paul, the mystic is an individual who has come into the fullness of Christ, whose life is filled by the Holy Spirit: "I no longer live, but Christ lives in me." [Galatians 2:20; context.] And "For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God." [Romans 8:14; context.]
We spent some time on the question of whether devotional literature, as some have suggested, tends to be written by introverts for introverts, and to what extent Lacout's insights apply equally to those of other temperaments. (Several Friends laughingly took issue with my self-description as an introvert, but I assured them it was a valid label!)

"Return of the Prodigal Son."
Lacout asserts that
contemplative silence is visioning that doesn't require an objective, a target. It can only be designated as a direction. It involves looking in the direction of something, rather than looking right at something. Conceptions of God are fine as long as I quickly move beyond them. 
But those conceptions, or representations, have a use:
As a starting point [for the practice of silence] we choose an object that can gather together our spiritual strengths, rather than letting them dissipate. This kind of preparation can be endlessly varied according to individual inclinations, character, vocation, and religious experience. 
Here I mentioned the role of pictures (Eichenberg, for example, or Rembrandt's Return of the Prodigal Son) in my own life, as well as music, books, and so on. I wish we had spent longer on gathering ideas from the other participants this evening.

I mentioned that  lot of spiritual literature, including that written by and about Friends, reminds me of socialist realism--it's so upbeat and aspirational that we can wonder whether we'll ever have such wonderfully angelic and serene inner lives. Lacout writes honestly about two main obstacles to growth in silence--firstly, distractions and dissipation, and, secondly, the inner demons of the subconscious.
The one who doesn't stop along the way, but goes on past the joys of reflection, and arrives at genuine silence--in other words, the one who seeks the deepest Center, the very heart of existence--cannot avoid encounters with the subconscious and its phantoms. 
Unfortunately, we barely had time to touch on this important aspect, and the related topic of inner healing, during this evening's session.

One of the topics of our lively discussion afterwards was this question: was there a difference between what we know as Christian prayer and the sort of objectless, contemplative silence that Lacout seems to describe? In the material I distributed, I mentioned Brent Bill's comparison of the Eucharist and Quaker worship, particularly his insight that "We become the liturgist, priest, penitent, and communicant." None of these roles are the end point of silence, but to me they are crucial movements on the path. I talked about the villages in my head (now there are four!) in trying to describe why, for me, intercession is one of the central "objects" of silent prayer. I may cherish the experience of absolute self-abandonment to the Holy Spirit, but first I have to stay rooted enough to keep my promises!

It's also vitally important to remember that Pierre Lacout's definition of a mystic implies that the practitioner of contemplative silence may be "objectless" but is far from empty. I remembered the biblically resonant comments of my Dagestani conversation partner last week--"If God isn't there, something else will fill that space."

I'm so grateful to the Thursday group for giving me the chance to put these thoughts together and to hear their experiences. Including our own time of silent worship, three hours flew by too quickly.

Today's links:

There's a lot of online comment on Morgan Freeman's participation in the Committee to Investigate Russia and its "War" video. Two responses caught my attention: one calm and balanced, and one that not so calm but still balanced.... Judge for yourself!

Do Russian studies have an alt-right problem?

Do you actually want to be our pastor?

Rory Block, "If I had possession over judgment day." (Part of my series in memory of Jeremy Mott.)

14 September 2017

Labels, part two: conservative

This bus-stop display near City Hall commemorates Ivan Tevosyan, whose career began in Elektrostal. The city is
just starting to celebrate its 80th year -- the actual 80th birthday party happens next September.

John Alexander's book, Your Money or Your Life: A New Look at Jesus' View of Wealth and Power (Harper & Row, 1986) begins with my favorite book dedication ever:
To my father, Fred Alexander

His sermons on discipleship (Luke 14:25-33), preached when I was a kid, are the basis of this book. He is an unusual fundamentalist; for he believes that inerrancy extends to the teachings of Jesus.
A few weeks ago, I mounted a defense of the word "evangelical." (Or maybe I was just being defensive.) Now I'm wondering about the usefulness of the word "conservative." Has the word been sabotaged for many of us by association with the mean-spiritedness and class warfare of the far right?

The word "evangelical" has huge theological content for me, but the word "conservative" does not add anything to that theological content. Conservatism is a philosophy of stewardship and governance, not a theology, and the two shouldn't be confused.

Here I'm not dealing with the special Quaker usage of the word "conservative" – associated with the divisions in Quaker history. The conservative/orthodox division separated those who preferred classic Quaker worship and devotional practices (the conservatives) from those who organized Sunday schools, participated in interchurch organizations, and eventually added sermons and music to the meeting for worship (now in the Friends United Meeting and evangelical associations among Friends).

What do I mean by conservatism? We conserve what we value, and I value my faith community and its heritage. Therefore, I respect conservatism's three important and interrelated emphases, and try to apply them to my understanding of church:
  • knowing and respecting tradition, being reluctant to set it aside lightly;
  • teaching personal and community responsibility and self-reliance;
  • resolutely guarding against the temptation to arrange others' lives for them.
Nothing in classic conservatism seems to me to require me to accept only narrow and relatively recent traditions of biblical interpretation. Nothing says we should raise guilt and shame over grace in our attitudes to each other. NOTHING requires us to grade and sort people by any social categories whatever!

Recently I was enthusiastically describing a Friends church as "conservative and evangelical," using the words as I understand them. I should have known better, because I got jumped immediately. "Johan, stop using that word. They're not conservative!" was the objection from a third person in our group. "They're progressive!"

* Concerning the actual word "inerrancy," I have great doubts about its coherence and usefulness. But that's another discussion I've touched on before and probably will again ... just not now. This relatively new doctrine of inerrancy is not required by actual conservatism; and aggressively insisting on it, and organizing gossip campaigns and enemy lists around it, often leads to bickering, fragmentation, and disenchantment with the church.

Well, I think they're actually both! And actually that's what I love about that church. They're a little like John Alexander's father -- they believe inerrancy* extends to the teachings of Jesus, and that makes all the difference. There's something I love about a church that can be seen as holding up values that the world now sees as polar opposites -- conservative and progressive; it's like a rare high-wire act.

The key in any high-wire act is balance. So, in church life, where is that balance? In his spiritual autobiography, A Song of Ascents, E. Stanley Jones puts it in his own impish way as he describes the development of Christian ashrams:
Outside the Ashram, the lines were drawn -- tightly drawn; you were for or against the struggle for [India's] independence. Inside the Ashram the spirit was different; we discussed everything, openly and frankly in a fellowship. One of the first lessons we learned was that the human mind breaks up between conservative and radical. Never once through those years did the discussion break up between the Westerners and Easterners. It was always between radical and conservative -- the radical Indian and the radical Westerner on one side and the conservative Indian and the conservative Westerner on the other. That is a good division: if we were all conservative, we would dry up; and if we were all radical, we would bust up! But between the pull back of the conservatives and the pull ahead of the radical we make progress in a middle direction. Jesus said: "The scribe who is a disciple to the Kingdom of God is like a householder who brings forth from his treasures things new and old." "New" -- radical; "old" -- conservative -- both are needed. The conservative conserves the values of the past, and the radical wants to apply them to wider and wider areas of life. But note the "new" was first in the order. The Christian faith leans toward the radical because it belongs to the great change -- the Kingdom of God on earth.
So the perennial challenge from the radicals or progressives is not necessarily that the conservatives' ideals or theology are wrong; it is that they are not applied thoroughly enough. The progressives should keep challenging the conservatives' resistance to change, helping the community to discern when that resistance stops being prudent and becomes subverted by clan or class interests. The conservatives may guard resources for the sake of stability and accountability, and rightly so; the progressives constantly want to widen the boundaries of that care, and to increase transparency and access. Both groups might be equally alive spiritually, but both groups can also forget to keep God at the center, relying on political maneuvers instead of corporate prayer, and eventually falling into functional atheism.

Without conservatives, we may lose the capacity to see and challenge proposals for social rearrangement that suit passing ideologies or persuasive would-be messiahs. Without progressives, we fall in love with our own myths and lose our urgent concern for the world beyond. What church would want to cut off this messy but vital debate? (I'm looking at you, dear Northwest Yearly Meeting.)

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