26 November 2015

If Jesus only knew

Christ and the Sinful Woman,
by Elena Cherkasova
Recently we went to the Cosmas and Damian Church near the Kremlin to buy some books. In the church bookstore, Judy was struck by this icon of the scene in Luke where the sinful woman kisses and anoints the feet of Jesus. This fascinating picture now hangs near the door to our kitchen.

Here's the story from Luke, chapter 7, verses 36 through 50.
When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.

When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner."

Jesus answered him, "Simon, I have something to tell you."

"Tell me, teacher," he said.

"Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?"

Simon replied, "I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven."

 "You have judged correctly," Jesus said.

Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little."

Then Jesus said to her, "Your sins are forgiven." The other guests began to say among themselves, "Who is this who even forgives sins?" Jesus said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace."
I love this story for a lot of reasons. For one thing, it manages to convey both grace and realism at the same time. The grace is unconditional: "Your faith has saved you; go in peace." Period.

But at the same time Jesus presents Simon with a very unsentimental comparison between the two debtors. It's another reminder of Jesus' upside-down kingdom where the first will be last, and the last first.

Two other points struck me on this Thanksgiving Day.

First, I tried (and will continue trying) to put myself in the woman's place in this scene. I've been forgiven, and I would like to wash Jesus' feet with my tears and wipe them with my hair. No, not literally, but I can work on this question: what prayer and what action would be an equally worthy thanksgiving for the grace that turned my life around and gave it meaning? How can I thank God sufficiently for my new family? ... by which I mean all the people in the world who are also figuring out how to live with God at the center. And, if "sufficiently" is not possible, can I at least abandon all pretenses and all worries about the rest of the audience as I pour out my honest tears?

The second point is more or less the reverse: I put myself in Simon's place. Whom have I examined and found wanting? I don't think I have been so arrogant that I questioned Jesus' ability to see people for who they really are, but how often have I taken one small aspect of a person and used that small aspect to minimize them? Maybe this person is on his or her way to a fateful meeting with God, and my attitude should, at the very least, not get in the way! When Jesus points at the sinful woman and resets my perspective, am I ready to repent and experience the same uninhibited joy that she shows? Or will I keep grumbling with the crowd, just as I used to do? ... "Who is this who even forgives sins?"

The central paradox of this amazing scene for me is that salvation is free but it isn't cheap. Look what that woman did! In a society that set a huge store on social position and reputation, this woman must have realized that as soon as she set foot in that company, people would be thinking about "what kind of a woman" she was. Sustained by her faith, she crashed through barriers too numerous to list, all in order to express her love. That sounds very costly to me. However, Jesus not only tells her that her sins are forgiven, but that her own faith (not his magic, nor his decree) has saved her. That's it! No doctrinal tests, no bait-and-switch, just immediate and radical affirmation.

I like to think of her as my sister.

Finishing the pumpkin puree.
How Americans in Europe are celebrating Thanksgiving. As for us, we continued the tradition we first began in 2008: preparing a Thanksgiving feast for our colleagues at the New Humanities Institute here in Elektrostal. The turkey was represented by Judy's amazing turkey cardamom braid. Judy made cranberry sauce, pumpkin bread with a layer of tvorog, wild rice, pomegranate jello salad, and an apple-cranberry-raisin crumble. All in the service of love and wonderful conversation.

Elizabeth Bruenig says that, in Texas if not everywhere, the refugee issue is a religious liberty issue.

After hearing all sorts of happy Thanksgiving talk, maybe you need an antidote. Try this short piece by Nobel winner Svetlana Alexievich, "The Man Who Flew Like a Bird." Translated by Jamey Gambrell, who (among many other works) compiled and translated Marina Tsvetaeva's marvelous Earthly Signs: Moscow Diaries, 1917-1922.

This Open Culture entry places Jimi Hendrix firmly in the blues pantheon.

Big Daddy Wilson turns romantic. Enjoy...

19 November 2015

"When death comes it is always a shock" part two

Last week I tried to shock you with the prospect of death for our empires, even our species. That very day, death by terrorism was an actual and sudden shock for Beirut, the next day for Paris. Since then, politicians, pundits, and security experts have been working overtime to convince us of their ability to analyze and confront terrorism on our behalf. Some propose increased intelligence coordination, some want to reduce refugee immigration, and some (ominously) resort again to the language of war.

In today's Washington Post, Ellen Nakashima and Greg Miller consider whether Edward Snowden's revelations about the USA's surveillance of citizens' private communications might have damaged our ability to head off terrorism. Their article, especially James Brennan's and John Woolsey's assertions, gave me an uneasy sense of déjà vu. Instead of exploring this territory all over again, I hereby take the easy way out and reprint a post I wrote nine years ago.

Safety and "the nature of the world in which we live" 
(24 August 2006; originally here)

For many years my Lenten season reading has included Emmanuel Charles McCarthy's booklet, The Stations of the Cross of Nonviolent Love, now available as a PDF file here. [Link updated.] When George Bush responded to the court decision declaring his war-on-terrorism wiretapping unconstitutional by saying, "Those who herald this decision simply do not understand the nature of the world in which we live," I thought about the spiritual implications of Bush's words, and that reminded me of McCarthy's booklet.

On a political level, it's easy to see the weakness in Bush's logic. If our courts begin making decisions based on trying to interpret "the nature of the world in which we live," rather than trying to interpret the Constitution, we're heading for anarchy, or more likely, a dictatorship of the politically cleverest. But Bush's warning may be much more effective at a deeper level. Over and over again in history, we've seen people being persuaded that safety requires compromising our ostensible values.

Many years ago (I'm reaching back into my distant memories of studying political science at Carleton University!), James Prothro and Charles Grigg found a distinct difference between people's support of political tolerance in the abstract and their considerably lower tolerance in concrete situations. Every once in a while, political scientists tweak the rest of us by showing that Americans claim to cherish the Declaration of Independence, but when shown actual unlabeled text from that declaration, they declare it dangerous, communist, and the like. So it's not surprising that today's politicians try out yet again that old argument that, during a "war," we cannot afford the luxury of our values. Or, rather, they propose another value, safety, that supposedly trumps civil liberties and due process.

However, to remain politically useful, "safety" as a value must remain abstract as well! When we begin studying safety in concrete terms, problems arise:
  • Somehow, the politicians must convince us, their audiences, that we will remain safe, while hoping that we don't think too much about the safety of others. For example, many innocent people have been severely inconvenienced or worse by being put on terrorist watch lists, arrested as material witnesses, or in a few (how many?) cases, kidnapped by U.S. or allied forces for interrogation and even torture. But we must believe that this won't happen to us, even though our protections are being compromised in the service of the war on terrorism, and the government argues that judicial due process would reveal too many secrets. Above all, we must not question the proposition that humans who are not U.S. citizens are to be completely disregarded in any offer of safety.
  • We must believe that the threat of terrorism is of a completely different order than the threat of natural disaster, crime, or any other danger whose probability increases as government resources are sucked away into this mislabeled "war." The government's unbelievably screwed-up response to Hurricane Katrina shows what the all-encompassing we-know-best claims of this war's leaders did for the actual safety of Gulf states' citizens.
  • We must believe in several lies at once: terrorism is a monolithic phenomenon, a new phenomenon, a manifestation of very clever subhumans who cannot be communicated with, an intractable and implacable reality that only our leaders can understand and manage, despite their disastrous record to date. We must want safety so badly that we overlook our leaders' actual performance in favor of their stern claims of authority and expertise.
The power of government to claim a monopoly on defining safety is ultimately a spiritual issue, and requires a spiritual confrontation, because in one sense, the politicians are right: we are not safe. Safety is not guaranteed, neither in terms of protection from physical harm, nor in terms of quality and scope of life.

Each of us, at this moment, faces multiple dangers, ranging at varying degrees of probability or absurdity from disease and accident, to violent crime, to a direct impact from a meteor. In an interesting paradox given George Bush's rhetoric of freedom, perhaps the more we actually claim and use freedom publicly and effectively in this world, the more we expose ourselves to danger. (Effective dissidents must count on the possibility that their activities will draw the attention of our "security" agencies.) This brings me to Charles McCarthy's main points on safety in The Stations of the Cross of Nonviolent Love. Addressing the pro-family claims of the Powers that Be in Station IV, he asks, "Can Christian family love and relationship find any lasting security in any source other than unconditional obedience to God’s will as revealed by Jesus Christ?" Addressing the hypnotic pseudo-security of our culture, he says, in Station VI,
It is easy to find hope, security and a future in the G.N.P., a national anthem, a football team, military technology, Disneyland, drugs, fashion and alcohol. It is nearly impossible in a capitalist society to find hope in the patient, secret commitment to the omnipotence of Christic love. Such a use of life is incontestable folly by all standards except one—Jesus’ teaching that the cross of nonviolent love is the power and the wisdom and the will of The Source of all Reality.
At a Friends World Committee regional conference shortly after the first Gulf War, T. Canby Jones warned us bluntly: We cannot understand Christian pacifism until we have confronted our own mortality. My corollary, in light of Bush's warning about the "world in which we live": The way we live in this world must not be dictated by fear. Otherwise, whatever safety we think we have, our death will come much too soon. If Jesus is our partner in shaping the way we live, and we have good friends listening and shaping and sharing our doubts and discoveries alongside us, fear and death will recede to their proper places—they're certainly not out of the picture, but whatever life we have, we don't live in their shadow.

One more excerpt from Charles McCarthy:
To those who do not believe in Christ’s cross of nonviolent love, its truth is folly, a scandal, an unrealistic waste of life’s time. To those who believe, it is nails, thorns, spears and suffering for others until the blind can see, until the lame can walk, until the imprisoned are freed, until the hungry are fed, until the oppressed are liberated, until the naked are clothed, until the sick are healed, until the rich are saved, until the homeless are at home, until the unlovable are loved, until all sins are forgiven. The believer in Christ’s nonviolent cross breathes in deeply the sufferings of humanity and breathes out freely his or her happiness in order to spread the healing power of nonviolent love as Divine Yeast in the dough of humanity.
If we advocate focusing on quality of life as a crucial dimension of safety, "nails, thorns, spears, and suffering for others" may seem to be unpromising lifestyle components. How can we breathe in "the sufferings of humanity" and breathe out "happiness"? For me, the crucial factor is the desire to have my eyes open, to be exposed to reality. I don't want happiness at the expense of ignorance, and it's too late to pretend not to know what I know. My mother survived Hiroshima, one of my sisters was murdered ... the Beast has come too close to my home.

My own experience is that, before my conversion, I never thought I'd be happy again, or able to trust. Jesus restored both joy and trust to me, but did not promise to keep me "safe" from reality. From my vantage point, reality includes both love and evil. My moment-by-moment task is to breathe love, and devote whatever power I have to its service, and let my God-given mind (and my faithful friends) help me stay alert to evil's attempts to divert my energy. That's why I want to deny politicians the right to put evil at the center of their definition of "the nature of the world in which we live." I can't live that way anymore.

Amidst the outpouring of sympathy and support for Paris came this meditation from Joey Ayoub (Hummus for Thought) in Beirut on the world's estimation of Middle Eastern people's worth. (I heard about it on a BBC podcast.) Ayoub and many others are inviting us to consider disparities in reactions to terrorism in France, Lebanon, and Nigeria. As I was planning to write a response entitled something like "you can't compare griefs," or maybe "good grief! -- yet another way for us to one-up each other," I came across this post by Ellen Painter Dollar that made similar points much better than I could have.

In typical blunt style, Russia Without BS warns us of the consequences of knee-jerk reactions to IS terrorism. And The Very Worst Missionary reminds us that "fear will always lead us to the other side of the road...." Meanwhile, Christians debate (U.S.) state bans, and this link helps USA voters support refugee resettlement.

Kenneth Sheppard, reviewing War and the American Difference by Stanley Hauerwas:
The Pentecostal lesson, as Hauerwas sees it, is that Christians should be the ones who seek 'to transform the media of domination into the media of communication, in which people are free to love one another without fear."
These are the real victims of Boko Haram.

Russian Muslims tell their stories.

Power of Goodness: a new publisher and new Web site.

"Love don't see colors; it's color-blind. Don't stop at borders; no borderlines."

12 November 2015

"When death comes it is always a shock..."

The ordinary attitude of people toward death is a very curious one. Death is the one absolutely certain thing in life after birth, yet most of us live our lives without much regard to it, and whenever it comes and under whatever circumstances, at whatever age, it is always a shock to us. No matter how old people are it always comes a little before it is expected. When death comes it is always a shock.... 

James J. Walsh, Psychotherapy (1912), page 730.

Sometime this past week I heard someone quoting these words, written a century ago by a doctor and medical educator, James Walsh.

Walsh was referring to individual death and the grief of loved ones. But what hit me was this question: Doesn't his observation apply equally to societies, empires, civilizations?

In his article "Splinterlands: The View from 2050," Tomgram contributor John Feffer helps us apply these words to the nation-states around us today. If death is certain for individuals, isn't it equally certain for our political systems, no matter how badly they want us to believe in their immortality?

In Feffer's projection of the future, the USA hasn't exactly died, but is on a declining path. Do you think his account of the American decline is reasonable? If not, why not? If so, what is the role of intelligent patriots, either in terms of preparing for this shift, or warding it off?

At that moment early in World War II when the Battle of France had ended and the Battle of Britain was about to begin, Winston Churchill urged, "Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, 'This was their finest hour'." Even his inspiring rhetoric here had an important moment of realism -- "a thousand years" after all is not eternity. But the danger that Britain faced was not a gradual decline over (or after) a millennium, it was immediate. How immediate must danger be for us to begin bracing ourselves to our duties and determining what we want to sustain, and how to do it?

A related case study: responding to global climate change. (A BBC reporter just a day or two ago challenged the head of the World Meteorological Organization, Michel Jarraud, concerning whether the term "climate change" was too calm, too neutral. Jarraud agreed.) With the recent news that "climate change is set to pass the milestone of 1C of warming since pre-industrial times by the end of 2015..." we have yet another challenge to "brace ourselves to our duties" -- if we could only persuade our distinctly non-Churchillian elites to help us define those duties!

Of course we also need to come clean about the motivations behind our inaction. You might think that even a 5% chance that the dire predictions of most climate scientists are correct would mobilize the world's resources. After all, we Americans seemed willing to devote a trillion U.S. dollars to a war in Iraq based on an unrelated terrorist act (9/11) and fabricated evidence, and all in the face of concerted opposition from experts and ordinary citizens alike. In the case of halting global warming, the evidence is far more solid, and the opposition is tainted by self-interest and dubious science. (Examples here.) But even if the evidence for global warming were not as certain and urgent as most scientists agree, isn't the risk sufficiently high for the future of our species that we should unite on a campaign to reverse the trends?

Right now it doesn't appear that "this is our finest hour." I hope that COP 21 will prove me wrong.

Fr. Yakov Krotov presents a lecture on "Pacifism's Past and Future" at the Sakharov Center in Moscow on Monday.

Scientist incorporates Christian values in discussing climate change to evangelicals.

Why would you cross the Pacific on a wooden raft? Again?

Our nephew Chris Bicknell, a volunteer at Portland, Maine's The Telling Room writing center, reports that their Young Writers and Leaders program has won a national award. Congratulations!

Not far from Elektrostal is Star City, an "oasis in an uncertain world."

At their Yearly Meeting sessions last month, German Quakers approve an open letter to Angela Merkel concerning refugees. Links to the Yearly Meeting's epistle and open letter (including English versions) are on the annual sessions Web page.

"God is big enough to stomach us both": Bill Yoder's reflections on Franklin Graham's visit to Moscow.

Pyotr Pavlensky and the art of weakness.

Andrew Brown reviews a Church of England report: non-Christians don’t like evangelism.

Not for the first time, the mention of Stalin stirs a row.

"If I don't read, well, my soul is lost, nobody's fault but mine."

05 November 2015

Short prayers

My relationship with prayer began before I became a Christian. A few years ago I told the story (towards the end of this post) of how, in my mid-teen years, I used to listen to the radio broadcasts of the First Church of Deliverance in Chicago. Growing up in an atheist family, I had no exposure of any kind to church culture before listening to these Sunday evening broadcasts, which happened to be on the radio station that played my Top 40 hits the rest of the week.

My mother was especially allergic to any mention of religion, so I kept my mouth shut about my Sunday evening habit. I certainly could not have explained to her or anyone else how my heart was warmed by these broadcasts and specifically by pastor Clarence H. Cobbs' weekly prayer for the sick, the shut-ins, and "all those who love the Lord."

Source: Brother Sun, Sister Moon
Source: Brother Sun, Sister Moon
This sheet was what I posted on my factory workspace. Source.
A scene from my daily walk to work.
Shortly after I arrived at Carleton University, Franco Zeffirelli's semi-fictional biography of St. Francis of Assisi, Brother Sun, Sister Moon was released, and a college friend invited me to see the film with him. I was extraordinarily shaken by that experience, which confirmed my desire to live a simple and contemplative life.

After my first year of college, I went back to the USA, to the Western Electric telephone factory assembly line in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, where I'd worked during the year between high school and university to earn my tuition money. At my work station, where I spent all day taking apart old touch-tone phones to be refurbished further down the line, I pasted a copy of the prayer attributed to St. Francis, "Make me an instrument of your peace." I know that this added to my reputation as a somewhat strange factory worker, but I often found comfort in repeating those seven words.

I had to walk eight miles a day, through beautiful rolling Pennsylvania countryside, to and from the point where I had a ride between East Brandywine Township, where I was living, and King of Prussia, so I had plenty of time to repeat those words, "make me an instrument of your peace." Though I had not yet made a Christian commitment, I think those seven words qualify as my first prayer.

Not long afterwards, at age 21, I did make that explicit commitment, as a result of an encounter with Jesus in the gospel of Matthew. (Details here.) Not long after that, I came upon the place in Paul's second letter to the Corinthians, where he basically says "Jesus is the Yes to all of God's promises." (That's my paraphrase of 2 Corinthians 1:20; context.) From that comment of Paul's I drew the one-word prayer, "Yes." For years, that one word was the prayer I used to center myself whenever I felt distracted or uncertain.

(That "yes" prayer perhaps inevitably led me to think about what we needed to say "no" to. Those thoughts, along with the example and support of a dear colleague, Gordon Browne, started me on the path to war tax resistance -- the refusal to pay taxes for the military part of the national budget.)

For years, I had heard about the so-called Jesus Prayer, but hadn't paid much attention. Then, on one of my earliest trips to Russia, I found copies of Anthony Bloom's amazing collections of radio talks on prayer, entitled О встрече (On Meeting) and Беседы о молитве (Conversations on Prayer). I've quoted from these books several times over the years. Bloom was one of the first writers to open up the Jesus prayer and help me apply it to my life. The shortest version of that prayer ("Lord Jesus, have mercy") became my next short prayer, and I cherish it to this day. I've found that the classic writers on this prayer are right; after you've been using this prayer for a while, it begins to pray itself, and you can actually imagine coming closer to that place where you begin to "pray without ceasing" (1 Thessalonians 5:17; context.)

One of Bloom's discussions of the Jesus Prayer is here.

Finally, just a couple of weeks ago I was revisiting a post I wrote some time ago about introducing Quaker open worship to newcomers. A quotation from Psalm 90 leaped out at me with fresh power: "Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations." I'd just been thinking about what it meant for us to claim God's constant care and provision for us. I don't think an honest believer can pretend that the "dwelling place" mentioned in the Psalm is some kind of bunker or lifeboat in any normal sense, protecting believers from the hazards of life. As Emmanuel Charles McCarthy says, history is a butcher's bench, and believers are no safer than anyone else from natural disasters, ruthless tyrants, or bombs on airplanes. I've converted the first verse of this psalm into a prayer of honest desire: "I want to dwell in you." Just in the last week or so, I find myself constantly resorting to this simple prayer when confronting despair or distraction.

As always, when I write about prayer, I don't want you to be fooled: I'm absolutely no more pious or spiritually accomplished than anyone else you're likely to run into in the Christian life. I write not to show off but because I find it helpful to learn how others pray, and would like to return the favor. Today I wanted specifically to focus on short prayers we can resort to at any conscious moment when we might need a Godward reorientation, which for me happens more often than I'd like to admit.

Make me an instrument of your peace.


Lord Jesus, have mercy.

I want to dwell in you.

Here's a Guardian article that links directly in with last week's point about "disaster evangelism": Giles Fraser writes about the fact that not all asylum seekers may be describing themselves totally honestly ... but should this awkward fact change our response to asylum seekers?
I sought out a friend, himself a refugee from Iran. And what he told me I really didn’t want to hear. Claiming Christianity, he said, is the No 1 justification for dodgy asylum applications from Iran. It’s the best way of getting into Britain.
U.S. political candidate Ben Carson and the Bible: Pete Enns thinks that maybe Dr. Carson should get a second opinion.

The U.S. public seems to be becoming less religious, according to the Pew Research Center.

The Archbishop of Canterbury congratulates and thanks the Elim Pentecostal Church on the occasion of their centenary. (I remember the Elim Christian Life center about half a block from Selly Oak Quaker Meeting in Birmingham, UK. I loved attending worship at the Quaker meeting during my Woodbrooke year, and also loved visiting the Elim church, whose actual social and ethnic diversity seemed to embody the ideals of inclusivity that Friends theorize about so well.)

Katie Comfort of our church talks with Yazan Meqbil on the documentary Detaining Dreams.

Confession of a Russian Internet provider.

Here's a blues to make me truly homesick!

29 October 2015

Evangelism or proselytism -- a PS

A practical way for you to participate in the New Humanities Institute's program...

The Dialogue of Languages and Cultures in Today's World

... a call for papers.

Are you a teacher of a second language or a facilitator of cross-cultural communication? What have you learned about the relationship between language and culture? How have you made language instruction or cross-cultural learning more fun, interesting, effective? What about art and design as a "language" for cross-cultural communication?

Write about three or four pages for our New Humanities Institute's annual Dialogue of Languages and Cultures conference book. 

The conference description is in Russian here, but your paper doesn't need to be in Russian. You can write in English, French, or German, too. You can send your paper directly to the conference address, or if you like, send it to me in any popular word-processing format and I'll help reformat it, if necessary, for the conference.

The New Humanities Institute celebrates its 20th anniversary as a higher education institution next month. Before 1995, it had already existed for several years as a language school -- the first private school of its kind in the Moscow region. I've been an annual guest lecturer since 1994, and I've been a full member of the faculty since 2008. I've written several papers for these conferences over the years. You can sample them here.

Thank you for helping make our conference book truly international. Deadline for submissions: November 30. 

"We would like to know more about the people who are helping us."

These words were part of a letter I received from a grassroots-level development group in Honduras, back when I was the coordinator of the Right Sharing of World Resources program. I replied with a simple, low-key description of the worldwide Quaker family and mentioned that there were Friends in Honduras. I hoped that I was correctly navigating the line between unnecessary diffidence (not to mention respect for a legitimate question!) on the one hand, and a sales approach that could be interpreted as exploitive, on the other. In other words, I was trying to be transparent about our identity and motives without crossing the line into proselytism.

For convenience, last week's post about evangelism and proselytism made a clean distinction between the two. In the real world, as several people have reminded me, things aren't that clean. So here are some thoughts about the grey zone in between.

Ethical evangelists take into account any sort of power differential between evangelist and audience. No matter how careful you are in theory about not trying to lure people out of a satisfactory spiritual home (from the audience's point of view) to sample the goodies on offer in your own affiliation, if people are hungry or vulnerable and perceive practical value in a conversion, you're in danger of crossing the line into proselytism.

This is the reason that Christian relief and development agencies often have a no-proselytism policy. World Vision's policy can be read here (also see here). However, the issue is not as simple as it sounds, as Martin Marty's summary of approaches to "disaster evangelism" indicates. My first encounter with the Right Sharing program, years before I became its staffer, took place at a Friends World Committee triennial meeting in Hamilton, Ontario. As part of a panel on Right Sharing, Everett Cattell of Evangelical Friends Church Eastern Region (and a former missionary in India) raised the concern of the "right sharing of the riches we have in Jesus Christ." Clearly, as Martin Marty points out, if you believe that people face eternal doom without these riches, you are going to assume that no other religious affiliation is truly "satisfactory" and that any inhibitions over proselytism are therefore inappropriate.

Maybe the best we can do is to frame the issue in terms of relationship and honesty.

First of all, when we engage in service, we should try not to monetize or bureaucratize relationships. In my time, Right Sharing had no money for field staff, but we always required some personal link between our committee and the community we were hoping to help. Sometimes the link was a local Friend, sometimes a Quaker member of a larger development agency, or a Quaker in the U.S. Peace Corps. It wasn't a perfect setup, but it was a start. The point is, before anything else, we're human beings simply trying to form worthy relationships.

Second, we should never require any knowledge of our doctrines before, during, or after our partnership, and we should take care that we don't make it seem like such knowledge would be an advantage. Nor should we hint that the other partners' affiliations could become a block for us.

However, we shouldn't pretend that values don't matter. We don't want to fund violence, addiction, elitism, racism ... but how would we know that our partners share these convictions (on some more durable basis than the time it takes to hook the funder) without honest exchanges on identity and motivation? Furthermore, many cultures don't privatize religion the way Western societies tend to do, so the subject of our faith is bound to come up.

And it should! We don't want to be so over-careful about proselytism that we give off an equally unfortunate message in the other direction ... that the partner community members are just "beneficiaries," the objects of our enlightened service, and not people we would want to sit next to while worshipping God! It was Bob Dockhorn of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting who, speaking at a conference maybe twenty years ago, stated this principle vividly when he contrasted the ministry of Chicago Fellowship of Friends, where worship and service were fully integrated, with the arms-length attitude of some well-meaning "outreach" programs.

We should try to build channels of communication that are sufficient to give a full accounting of our faith, when required, as an important element of our identity and motivation -- while also explaining that this same faith requires us not to proselytize. Evangelism with integrity requires avoiding unethical incentives, but it should not prevent "right sharing of the riches we have in Jesus Christ."

[Note: after thirty years of evangelism, service, and prophetic ministry rooted in Chicago's Cabrini-Green neighborhood, the Chicago Fellowship of Friends recognized that its ministry had been completed and the meeting was laid down in 2005.]

Vista ("communicating research and innovation on mission in Europe") dedicates its latest issue to the timely theme of nationalist extremism in Europe.

The perils and powers of charity, and the counterintuitive insights of China Scherz in Uganda.
It is on the basis of this dual critique of both politically oriented action and of regnant ideas about sustainable development that Scherz seeks to redeem the status of "small present-oriented acts of care."
College apologizes to [Quaker] professor labeled a communist and fired in 1962.

A case study in documenting the history of women in higher education: the "Seven Sisters" and the role of religion.

Reclusive Russian family's last survivor: the amazing story of Old Believer Agafia Lykova.

Imelda May, "Proud and Humble" ... "You know I'm only human, you created me...."

22 October 2015

Evangelism or proselytism?

"Russia's biggest circus" comes to Elektrostal.
A Friends educator I hadn't seen in years was visiting our Northwest Yearly Meeting sessions a couple of summers ago. He told me there that he sometimes quotes me as saying "Quakers don't proselytize."

Did I really say that? To my best recollection, when I first said "Quakers don't proselytize," I was probably quoting Jack Kirk, a Friends United Meeting leader who was one of my first encouragers just as I was beginning to realize that I was being called into a public role among Friends. Jack in turn was quoting the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting conventional wisdom of his own youth -- quoting, but not necessarily agreeing.

I had mixed feelings about hearing that I was being quoted this way. By my own definition of proselytism, I actually believe the statement is correct but incomplete. I interpret proselytism to mean any attempt to change someone else's religious affiliation (however satisfactory it might be to them) in favor of one's own affiliation. In other words, "stealing sheep."

By any objective statistical account, we Friends in fact either don't believe in proselytism, or we are highly ineffective in practicing it. Philadelphia is one of the historic centers of Friends, but there are three times as many Catholics in the Philadelphia archdiocese as Quakers in the whole world. Rather than admitting to sheer communal incompetence, I prefer to believe that we actually resist trying to lure people away from their settled spiritual home into ours.

However, Quakers do evangelize.  Or, that is, we ought to. Anywhere there is spiritual seeking, spiritual questioning, or spiritual oppression, people ought to have access to the Friends message: "Christ is here to teach his people himself." Evangelism is not an attempt to hook people who already have a good relationship with their Creator in their present spiritual home. It is simply a winsome expression of our Christian testimony, coupled with an invitation to experience the community formed by that testimony. It utterly depends on honesty, accessibility, and hospitality.

My definition of "testimony" is pretty wide. The word encompasses what we have learned about God's power in our personal lives and our life together as a centuries-old community of believers. Together we have learned that God's power pulls down strongholds of violence, greed, social distinctions, and all the various ways that we mistreat and minimize each other. Those old bondages are replaced by the voluntary bonds of commitment to each other, and our willingness to open our arms to others who judge that we are a trustworthy place to find a spiritual home. Together we learn to live with God at the center of our lives, with Jesus as our all-sufficient prophet, priest, and king, and with the Holy Spirit as the foundation of our worship and church government.

Not that we always agree on what these things mean! We have never entrusted the preservation of our Quaker identity to any single list of doctrines or any central office. As much as we cherish the Bible, we don't have a standard school of biblical interpretation. (We in Northwest Yearly Meeting are right now learning the hard way about how important it is to open up to each other more tenderly and honestly about our conflicts in this area.)

We also don't always agree on what it means to see God's power pulling down strongholds. Some of us refuse to pay taxes for military spending and counsel our children to be conscientious objectors. Others avoid contact with political controversies of any kind in favor of cultivating lives of devotion and prayer. Women serve in pastoral ministry and denominational leadership, but not every local Friends church is in unity with our teaching on equality. A minority of Friends congregations have no pastor at all while others have full-time pastors with large staffs, and there is every possible variation in between. Our worship is equally varied, ranging from an hour or more of waiting on God (with no planned programming or sermon at all), to an order of worship that often resembles other Protestants to some degree.

Although in a weak moment I might prefer to have everyone see things exactly my way, I'm not actually embarrassed by all this variety. If we are going to be honest, the person who is getting to know Friends might as well see the whole messy picture. Friends will never win the commitment of new people through slick and uniform presentation (although can't we be a bit more creative?!). Nor will we ever claim that we are the only believers who have a clue about God. Instead, I would love to see new Friends attracted by one form or another of this important connection: their own hope finds a resonance, a partnership with our experience.

For this to happen, we must make our experience of life in God -- and its ethical consequences -- known, accessible, verifiable. That's what I mean by evangelism.

October 29: PS.

Some earlier reflections on evangelism:

Meditations on sectarianism
The Golden Age of evangelism
"We will never see another non-Christian"
Who owns the Quaker brand?
Evangelism and the Quaker Testimonies Google Group/archive

Netanyahu's "fairy tale about Hitler" and why it's damaging.

"That letter again" ... namely the letter from British Anglican bishops concerning refugees. (Thanks to Fulcrum Anglican for the link.)

American evangelicals are "officially divided" on the death penalty.

Economist: Some Middle Eastern Christians are speaking up against "holy war" in Syria. (And is there a "just war" doctrine in Orthodox Christianity? Stanley Harakas says no. And for Russian readers, Quaker Tatiana Pavlova's book The Long Path of Russian Pacifism, with summary of contents in English.)

Depression: the struggle none of us want to talk about.

Terry Evans and Hans Theessink: