20 April 2017

April fool

Reuters via The Independent.  
Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia, as a church, are one big step closer to liquidation. Earlier this evening, after 30 hours of hearings, Russian Supreme Court judge Yuri Ivanenko announced his decision in favor of the Ministry of Justice's petition that the central office and all local units of this church would be closed, their activities banned as extremist, and all property confiscated by the state.

There is a slim thread of hope that the JW defense's appeal to a three-judge Supreme Court panel will reverse the decision, and, in the longer term, the European Court of Human Rights will have its own say. And of course church leaders are calling on believers to pray for justice. 

Coverage of today's decision:

Russian Baptists, who have little in common doctrinally with Jehovah's Witnesses, have been fierce in their defense of JWs' rights. The current president of the Baptist union in Russia, Aleksei Smirnov, wrote to Vladimir Putin, "We ask you, as the guarantor of the constitution of the Russian federation, to protect the right of freedom of conscience of citizens of the Russian federation and do not permit the closing of religious organizations of the Jehovah's Witnesses."

(I don't know how significant it is, but I've been struck by how often such appeals have been addressed directly and personally to the president. In the post-Stalin Soviet Union, such appeals were routinely addressed to the councils of state and party, as Zoya Svetova points out. Now, it's different: "Today in Russia there’s only one addressee for such letters and appeals....")

Smirnov's predecessor in Baptist leadership, Yuri Sipko, has been blunt in assessing the larger threat:
It is bitter to realize that the people of the government, who are called to observe and defend justice and law, create lawlessness, denying the most vital rights of citizens of Russia. Deputies and judges, mayors and ministers, as I have frequently heard with my own ears, lie publicly, without even blushing, and sell their honor for nothing. Depravity and permissiveness, in the absence of restraining forces, spill out the lowest passions. Such trends give evidence of the profound moral disintegration of the ruling elite.
Why did I title this post "April fool"? Simple. I actually thought for a couple of weeks that, in this case, justice would prevail.

I take comfort that I was not alone: The Portal-Credo site quoted Ivan Belinko, a Jehovah's Witnesses press representative, who said, "In the course of the judicial proceedings, no stone was left on stone in all of the arguments of the justice ministry, and therefore I was surprised when the court announced the decision." He obviously heard the same thing going on session after session that I read about in the daily coverage: Judge Ivanenko's questions directed to the Ministry of Justice lawyers ranged from mildly skeptical to scathing. Time and time again he seemed to hint that he was aware of the utter absurdity of the case, which made his ultimate ruling an unexpected shock.

There is a larger context for this outcome, of course. Some people will conclude that "telephone justice" (that is, the idea that the judge isn't independent and, instead, is conforming to a political imperative) explains everything. It's a hard explanation to swallow: what political gain could come from suppressing believers who are both apolitical and notoriously stubborn? Neither Nazi concentration camps nor Stalinist repressions could wipe them out, and their current trials have provoked international attention and support. But even if the "telephone justice" theory were true, that alone wouldn't explain my surprise. Maybe I'm the problem.

In an April article four years ago, "Linguistic Look at Russia's Human Rights Record," Olesya Zakharova explained why Russians and Westerners often speak right past each other. Westerners tend to rely on legal guarantees, due process, and so on, considering that these concepts (as Zakharova says) are self-evident. Russians tend to make judgments based on more abstract moral considerations and feelings and traditions. I remember her words when I hear Russians commenting off-handedly that those Jehovah's Witnesses had it coming, because they are irritatingly persistent in their evangelization activities. What does their being irritating and persistent have to do with their rights under the Russian constitution? Arguably nothing, but written legal guarantees are not definitive here.

In making comparisons between Russia and (say) the USA, glib conclusions of "we're polar opposites" would not be fair. There is plenty of evidence that many Americans believe in human rights in the abstract, but in concrete situations might be equally willing to sell their irritating sectarian neighbors down the river. (I cited Prothro and Grigg in this post.)  Many Americans seemed to approve of Donald Trump's praise of waterboarding and unjustified accusations of immigrant criminality, for example. It may be flagrantly unfair to block Middle East refugees despite our contributions in making them refugees, but to millions of American voters, it somehow comes across as obvious common sense.

However, years of hard-fought litigation around equal protection, habeas corpus, and due process, have given Americans some investment in the rule of law. Russians often give greater weight to communal values, and I sympathize with some of their arguments that rigid Western concepts of human rights can marginalize such values. On the other hand, those communal values, and their flexible application, have been exploited for generations by the people at the very top as a cover for their own interests. In the absence of a truly independent justice system, even granting the validity of folk wisdom as an important factor for judges to weigh, all vagueness and flexibility and undefined "common sense" seem ultimately to favor tyranny.

At least that's how it looks on this bleak evening.

Remembering Christine Greenland.

Christine was the contact person for the Tract Association of Friends. Here's one of the gems published by the Tract Association: Eva Hermann's "In Prison, Yet Free."

Danny Sjursen tells us how to lose the next war in the Middle East: fight it!

Russia's not-so-scary Institute of Strategic Studies, where old spooks are sent to retire.

eTown webisode #836 - Eric Bibb - New Home from eTown on Vimeo.

13 April 2017

"Evil cannot overcome evil"

(Emmanuel Charles McCarthy, The Stations of the Cross of Nonviolent Love, PDF file)

So, apparently, "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). God wasn't content to leave the world in this lamentable state, but, as Eugene Peterson puts it in his version of Romans 3:23-24, "Out of sheer generosity [God] put us in right standing with himself. A pure gift. He got us out of the mess we’re in and restored us to where he always wanted us to be. And he did it by means of Jesus Christ."

This wasn't good enough for the power structure of the time, who decided that there was nothing for it but to arrest, torture, and execute this dangerous bearer of Good News.

Tomorrow we commemorate this execution.

That is, we commemorate this one particular execution, pausing for a moment before we continue to permit, finance, and even defend our desire to continue our messy, sinful, deadly ways.

Charles McCarthy: "The use of evil means to conquer evil is wholesale fraud in the economy of salvation." Let's take the impetuous dispatch of 59 cruise missiles to a target in Syria, each missile bearing 1000 lb of high explosive. Under the U.S. Constitution, only Congress has the power to authorize acts of war, but these representatives of the people seem uninclined to discipline their president's use of deadly force. In effect, we seem unable to stand in the way of this sort of lethal tantrum.

Christians! Let's resolve to commemorate our Lord's execution by, once and for all, actually believing that he came to free us from this vain cycle of violence and retribution. Let's withhold our approval, and pray for opportunities to stand in the way. We won't all act in the same way, we won't all act simultaneously, and we certainly won't agree on every detail of such a resolution. But each of us can ask God to show us how to overcome our functional atheism, our cynicism and lethargy, and finally reject sin.

Let the whole world see that we are a people who have set our faces against cruelty, against revenge, against the pretensions of power. Think of the fresh credibility for our evangelism!

Maybe this is a call that is utterly unrealistic. But I wonder why. Who can explain to me why, after experiencing conversion and communion, we should obey the principalities and powers that have tried from time immemorial to persuade us to hate and kill? Why should we be content with anything less than at least a modest, experimental, tentative, incremental attempt to reflect the glory of God?

James Tower explains why he is a conscientious objector. (Russian translation.)

Dorcas Cheng-Tozun: Why corruption is an urgent justice issue.

Lynn Gazis-Sax on war, trust, and becoming president.

Moscow Friends Meeting's clerk, Misha Roshchin, among others, is quoted in this article on the Jehovah's Witnesses trial in the Russian Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, Russia's independent truckers battle for their livelihood.

Holy Week dessert from Grace Laxson:

Grace Laxson :: Pass Me Not from Antioch Church on Vimeo.

06 April 2017

A smart-aleck Siberian Francois Villon

"What do you know about Yevgeny Yevtushenko?", I asked our students.

"I heard my grandmother talking to someone about him on the phone," answered one of them.

There's nothing like the death of a famous person to collapse time. When I heard about Yevtushenko's death last Saturday, my thoughts immediately went back 45 years to a lecture hall at Carleton University, where he gave a poetry recital, with actor Barry Boys reading the translations. "Recital" and "reading" may not be the right words; the style in both languages was full-bore declamatory.

With our ears still ringing, we students and faculty members retreated to the Russian department for a reception, where I introduced myself to the poet as one of the American students at this Canadian school. He paraphrased Voltaire, probably not for the first time: "If you Americans didn't exist, we would have to invent you." As we said goodbye, he signed my diary.

Four years later, I received a copy of his love poems in English, From Desire to Desire, along with a request to review the book for one of Ottawa's daily newspapers. The resulting review earned me my very first payment as an author, 25 Canadian dollars. I vaguely remember one line from my review, something like this, concerning the poem "Masha": "Lawrence Ferlinghetti takes this full-bodied poem and transmutes it into his own wispy style."

Anyway, Yevtushenko is not especially known for his love poetry.

(Maybe "Stolen Apples" is an exception:
The odor of love is the scent
Not of bought but of stolen apples.
... although here maybe "love" is not exactly the right word, either.)

He made his mark with his civic voice, what he himself called his human-rights voice, defending conscience and the right to know what is actually going on, against the forces of dead conformism. He did not threaten the post-Stalin system itself, but played its factions against each other, always knowing how far he could push. He sprayed words, not like bullets that threatened revolution, but more like powerful jets that could, within the system, clear a space for civic argument.

Note the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty assessment of his poem, "The Heirs of Stalin," published in Pravda near the first anniversary of Stalin's removal from the Lenin Mausoleum, and at the near-peak of the Cuban Missile Crisis, October 21, 1962:
The latest poem by Yevtushenko, which appeared in the 21 October issue of Pravda, supports the Khrushchev line on destalinization by condemning Stalinists who have been forcibly retired, but who "secretly believe this retirement is temporary", and Stalinists who are still in power. Concerning the latter, Yevtushenko refers specifically only to Enver Hoxha, but implicitly also condemns the Chinese communists by asking "where else is that (telephone) wire leading to from that (Stalin's) coffin?" Whether Yevtushenko means to depart from the official line to include East European Stalinists such as Ulbricht and Novotny among the "many Stalinist heirs on the globe" is open to interpretation by the poem's readers. In any case, Yevtushenko takes a strong position in favor of further action against Stalinists and Stalinism.
So, now please interpret for yourself:

The marble kept silent.
Silently the glass flickered.
Silently stood the guard,
becoming bronzed in the wind.
And the coffin slightly gave off smoke,
Breathing was flowing through cracks,
as it was being taken out through the doors of the Mausoleum.
The coffin slowly glided,
brushing bayonets with its edges.
He also used to be silent -
but menacingly silent.
Clenching sadly his embalmed fists,
in it a man pressed himself against its crack,
pretending to be dead.
He wanted to remember all those,
who were taking him out:
Young recruits from Ryazan and Kursk,
so that somehow later
he might gather strength to get out,
and rise from the earth,
and reach them, the foolish ones.
He has planned something.
He has taken a nap just to hare some rest.
And I appeal to our government with the request:
to double,
to treble
the guard at this tombstone,
So that Stalin may not rise,
and together with Stalin -
the past.
I am not making a speech about that valiant and heroic past,
where Turksib was,
and Magnitka,
and the flag over Berlin.
I mean by the past in this present case,
the ignoring of the good of the people,
the slander,
the arrests of the innocent.
We sowed honestly,
We honestly smelted the metal
and we honestly marched,
Forming ourselves in soldiers' lines.
But he was afraid of us.
He, believing in the great aim, did not consider,
that the means
should be worthy
of the greatness of the cause.

He was farsighted.
In the laws of struggle wise,
He left many an heir on the globe.
It seems to me,
as though a telephone has been installed in
his coffin:
To Enver Hoxha
Stalin gives his instructions.
Where else is that wire leading to from that coffin!
No, - Stalin has not given up.
Does he think that death -
can be corrected.
We moved him
out of the Mausoleum.
But how to remove Stalin
from Stalin's heirs!!
Some heirs cut roses in retirement,
but secretly believe,
that this retirement is temporary.
even criticize Stalin from the rostrum,
and at night
yearn for the old times.
It is apparently not without cause that
Stalin's heirs get heart attacks today.
They, who were previously pillars of support,
do not like the time,
when camps are empty,
and the halls, where people listen to verses -
are overcrowded.
The Party
has ordered me
not to be reassured.
Let someone repeat over and over again:
"Compose yourself!" - I shall never find rest.
As long as there are Stalin's heirs on earth,
it will always seem to me,
that Stalin is still in the Mausoleum.
Translated by: Katherine von Imhof
For me, two lines still ring out with appropriate contemporary urgency: "... how to remove Stalin / from Stalin's heirs!!"

And some Yevtushenko choreography: "The Party / has ordered me / not to be reassured."

For our mass-media class, our students read and summarized this obituary from the Associated Press, and talked about the poet's reflections on his home in Tulsa, Oklahoma. We also read "Five reasons why Yevtushenko deserved a Nobel prize," which was a springboard to discuss Yevtushenko's contemporaries and 20th-century predecessors, and their various conceptions of the role of the poet in Russian society. "None of our leaders liked the poets," said one student. "Tsars and dictators, they all thought poetry was dangerous." (Compare her words with Yevtushenko's own self-assessment here.) Earlier this year we had discussed whether Dylan deserved the same prize.

Finally, we saw a few minutes of this reading at the University of Chicago, including the 1972 poem "I Would Like." That's the poem from which I drew the title of this blog post. When I played this video later at another setting, someone asked me to turn the volume down.

Two more of the many obituaries that appeared in the days immediately following Yevtushenko's death:

The New York Times.
The Guardian.

Speaking of Stalin's heirs, I'm continuing to follow the Jehovah's Witnesses liquidation case in the Russian Supreme Court. English-language updates are available on Paul Steeves' site.

Christians had the most births and deaths of any group in recent years -- according to the Pew Research Center's demographic models -- with a natural increase of 116 million. But among Europeans the reverse is true.

U.N. human rights investigators killed (and an appreciation of MJ Sharp on the Christian Peacemaker Teams site).

Why Scarlett Thomas was wrong about children's fiction.

In place of my usual blues dessert ... a blues for the season:

Ben Larson | Love Loses It All from Antioch Church on Vimeo.

30 March 2017

Russia's YouTube generation

Screenshots from Navalny's video.
At the beginning of this month, Alexei Navalny -- lawyer, nationalist politician, and anti-corruption activist -- released a video summarizing his organization's research into the alleged corruption of his country's prime minister. He also announced a Web site devoted to the documentation behind the video.

(In this NYT article, Ivan Nechepurenko summarizes the case made by the video, which itself has professionally translated English subtitles.)

The mainstream media greeted these developments with collective indifference, and government responses dismissed them as publicity ploys from a discredited politician, not worth looking into.

The story might have ended there, but for the fact that the video was published on YouTube and soon became viral. On Navalny's own channel, its view count is over 15.7 million, and it has been crossposted by other YouTube users as well -- and by users on Dailymotion and Vkontakte and no doubt other sites. Young Russians tell us frequently that they no longer watch television; they prefer YouTube and similar sites, as well as streaming and torrent-based services for entertainment, and Internet-based news sites.

In response to the apparent lack of any interest in investigating his charges, Navalny called for a day of protest against corruption in 100 cities. He and his colleagues attempted to obtain permission from those cities' authorities for legal demonstrations, often to no avail. But as events unfolded on that day -- last Sunday, March 26 -- it became clear that, in most of those cities, with or without permission, people responded. In some places, just a few dozen, or a few hundred; in Moscow and St. Petersburg, thousands. Police in Moscow estimated 7-8,000, while activists claimed higher numbers. Demonstrations took place even in places with no prior history of this kind of opposition activism.

As evidence of how unexpected the scale of these demonstrations were, I can cite communications from our own U.S. embassy. Normally, we citizens are warned well in advance when demonstrations of any kind (pro- or anti-government or simply patriotic gatherings) are scheduled for Moscow, and we are advised to make a wide detour. On Sunday, we got two very skimpy bulletins at the end of the afternoon, the first at 4:31 p.m., when the demonstrations were already winding down. By then, hundreds of participants had already been arrested.

A couple of days later, I talked with some of our students about Sunday. They were well aware of what had happened, but they were, as a group, mostly skeptical about Navalny's campaign. They were aware of the charge made by the president's press secretary that young people who were arrested had been assured that they would be paid compensation, which students equated with being paid to protest (a popular charge back in the anti-Kremlin demonstrations of 2011-12). In reality, the president's spokesperson was referring to Navalny's pledge to seek compensation from the European Court of Human Rights for unjust detentions, but our students agreed that probably money had changed hands to increase attendance. ("Sure, I would have gone to a demonstration for money," said one. I asked, "How would your parents have reacted?" She replied, "They'd say 'Good for you, you're earning money.'")

Another group of students reacted negatively to the news videos (mostly from independent network Dozhd, "the optimistic channel"), showing the party-like atmosphere in some of the meetings and even in the back of one of the paddy wagons, as just-arrested high school students were on their way to the police station. "These kids aren't serious. They don't realize the consequences."

The general reaction of our students, according to my tiny and very informal survey, was that these kinds of protests are pretty much useless. As for me, I was walking a very fine line: In view of the unexpectedly lively events of just a day or two earlier, I didn't mind asking for opinions and trying to learn more about the context of the opinions they held, but it was certainly not my job to argue on behalf of Navalny or anyone else. Should I try to cross that line, my interventions could feel gratifying to me, but I'm relatively secure from the awkward consequences that students or colleagues might face.

I'm acutely aware that, for most Russians, stability has a far higher priority than imported ideals about good government. The resulting passivity in the face of corruption and repression can be incredibly frustrating, but humility also has its place: First, all the intellectual resources for reform, as well as incredible capacity for debate, are already present in Russia -- nobody needs my modest input! Second, Russian history shows that the people's patience, while enormous, does have its limits. Honestly, I'm not sure I want to be around when those limits are reached.

I'm also aware that the instigator of all this excitement, Alexei Navalny, is often popular in the West, where there's a market for heroes who can embarrass the Kremlin -- still considered a worthwhile goal by many Westerners for whom Russian politics is only a spectator sport. Some Russians I know are worried by nationalist and authoritarian tendencies they claim to detect in Navalny. Others lose patience with this thinking ("If we wait for a perfect politician, we will never make progress") but, by and large, most people I know continue to conclude, "politics is a dirty business; it's not for me."

So: I observe but I don't provoke or agitate. Even so -- despite all my caution and commitment to even-handedness -- I confess a kind of admiration for the young people, cheering and being cheered through the grilled windows of the paddy wagons. Yes, their choice was risky and their assumptions might have been naive, but passivity has long-term risks of its own, and cynicism is spiritual poison.

Additional information and background from The Moscow Times:

Selected videos. (And hear no evil, see no evil, report no evil.)

Are Russian teens really about to storm the Kremlin?

Liberalism is freedom for subhumans.

Vladimir Putin's take.

From the Levada Center, a survey on corruption (Russian) whose results include an interesting statistic: 2/3 of respondents consider Putin responsible completely (25%) or to a significant degree (42%) for Russia's level of corruption. At the same time, his approval rating remains around 80%. If all this seems puzzling, then in the words of our friends, "Welcome to Russia."

Friday PS: This video has been widely circulated here -- a fifth-grader at the anti-corruption meeting in Tomsk.

And, finally, from the Guardian, Russians' attitudes toward Putin. This sampling by and large matches my own experiences.

Sarah Ruden explores beauty in the Bible.

A critical look at the term "religious left."

Chuck Berry didn't just invent rock and roll....

Another good version of this song. (We include this song in our Institute lesson on "how spirituals became civil rights songs.")

23 March 2017

Evangelism and enemies (repost and update)

Sunday update:

(Link to article.)

More Marines might be heading for active combat in Syria, while the new U.S. administration discusses looser criteria for lethal drone strikes in the Middle East, and at the same time, State Department leadership and resources seem to have low priority. Meanwhile, apparently, innocent civilians continue to die.

Dear Christian taxpayer: Are you and I content with this state of affairs?

I wrote the following post eight years ago, shortly after Obama took office as president of the U.S. Some of the context has obviously changed, but I stand by my original point: who are these enemies in our target zones, and "how do I know that they deserve to die at the hands of officials answerable to me and my neighbors, with bombs our taxes have purchased?"

AND: is there a direct line we can draw between our answers to these questions and our behavior as evangelical Christians?

[07 May 2009, edited]

The New York Times reported today that "United States officials acknowledged Thursday for the first time that at least some of what might be 100 civilian deaths in western Afghanistan had been caused by American bombs. In Afghanistan, residents angrily protested the deaths and demanded that American forces leave the country."

A little later in the story, "The United States defense secretary, Robert M. Gates, questioned by journalists as he visited the capital, Kabul, apologized for any loss of innocent life. But he said that 'exploiting civilian casualties and often causing civilian casualties are a fundamental part' of the insurgents’ strategy."

I grieve these deaths and losses. I don't want to think about how my country's equipment rained death down on people I never knew. Among the victims, those who did not wish us harm died for the glorious reason that they inhabited our margin of error, or because their deaths were seen as a reasonable price to pay to accomplish the deaths of the "real" enemy. Our officials knew that this real enemy apparently likes to cause or provoke us to kill innocents, and by the criminally stunted morality of low-intensity warfare, we oblige.

Well, I can't help going a step further. What about that real enemy, the Taliban, or El-Qaeda -- how do I know that they deserve to die at the hands of officials answerable to me and my neighbors, with bombs our taxes have purchased?

I've been following this story for the last couple of days, and at the same time I am continuing to make my plodding way through Bryan Stone's Evangelism after Christendom: The Theology and Practice of Christian Witness. (The book is an inspiring/frustrating mix of excellent content presented in jargon-laden, underedited prose--but more about that another time [here -- see point 3].) I came across these thoughts (pages 179-80):
Much of the confusion regarding Christianity and politics swirls around whether (and if so, how) the church should be involved in politics, or which options a Christian should choose within a particular society or nation. But this typically cedes far too much to a secular politics, construing it as the only game in town and failing to recognize that living together as the people of God is itself already a politics. It presumes politics as an autonomous sphere of the social order having a fixed boundary that separates it from the realm of faith, so that faith can only ever be related to politics as a subsequent application or engagement. By contrast, to speak of the politics of evangelism in the way I intend it here is to begin with the church as itself a politics and to point to the visible, bodily, and corporate way that persons are invited to be formed into that alternative polis. The church then is not called merely to be political but to be a new and unprecedented politics; not merely in public but as a new and alternative public; not merely in society but as a new and distinct society, a new and extraordinary social existence where enemies are loved, sins are forgiven, the poor are valued, and violence is rejected. Yet if evangelism is political or if, for that matter, this politics is no utopian ideal, nor is it a lofty set of "causes" that we are merely summoned to stand in favor of. Evangelism is a summons to take the reign of God seriously, and it is an invitation to allow our lives, commitments, and relations to be ordered within that deviant politics called the church.
Skipping to pages 193-4,
We do not start with "world" in order to understand what we mean by "church." However subversive this politics may be, it is so precisely because it embodies the good news of God's reign in a situation where hostility to that reign passes for normalcy. Nor may we absolutize the difference between church and world. For one thing, there is a good deal of "world" in all of us, including the church. But more than that, while it is true that the church's story is not the world's story, Christian evangelism operates out of an unyielding trust that it can be, the audacious confidence that it should be, and the outrageous hope that it will be.
In my sorrow about the Afghanistan slaughter, I'm trying to make a concrete application of this theology. The world's story (at least the Pentagon's story) is that (a) the Taliban are our enemies; (b) we have justifiably deployed forces within range of Taliban bullets; (c) their violence against our forces and allies is illegitimate; (d) our lethal response, including risk to civilians, is legitimate and normal.

Jesus severely complicates this neat arrangement. As Paul says, "God has given us the task of telling everyone what [God] is doing. We're Christ's representatives. God uses us to persuade men and women to drop their differences and enter into God's work of making things right between them." (The Messagecontext.) But in the "real world," hostility to that starting point, that urgent ministry of persuasion and reconciliation, passes for normalcy.

Our first step, if Bryan Stone is right, is to declare independence from both the Pentagon story and the Taliban story -- not to depart from the world in which these combatants are killing each other, but to place the legitimacy of their stories under question. I don't mean a glib or sentimental claim of equivalence, declaring both sides equally lovable and blameless. On the other hand, I do mean putting sacrificial effort into finding out what each side actually knows about the other, and whether they're telling their audiences the whole truth about what they know. What in fact are U.S. forces doing that far away from home; what do they know about their opponents' grievances and motivations, and what has "our side" done to break out of this lethal embrace with the enemy?

The other side faces equally awkward questions concerning their ultimate goals -- is their quarrel primarily with foreign intervention and occupation, or do they actually seek to set up a totalitarian theocracy? Have they in fact declared war against anyone who disagrees with them?

And we evangelists -- what will we do to communicate the hope of reconciliation, the necessity of mercy and forgiveness, in parts of the world where the hostility is not just normal, it's deadly? We can and should assert that no government is entitled to command Christians to kill anyone. When our governments tell us who should be our enemies, we should be persistently skeptical. Even when the government has correctly identified a group that truly wants to harm me and my neighbors, we should never accept blindly the government's limited list of options for meeting the danger.

(Don't deny danger that truly exists! Raising an alarm is a legitimate purpose of government -- but let's refuse to be manipulated into immoral responses that reinforce the powers that be, and that blind us to the humanity of the "enemy," rather than meeting the danger. Remember that the world we live in -- and therefore our politics -- has changed decisively since we've put Jesus at the center!)

And, in the meantime, we should be organizing our prophets, evangelists, apostles, pray-ers, teachers, administrators, pastors, and everyone else to be sure that eventually the ministry of reconciliation is in every place in this "real world" where guns and missiles are aimed at each other. The stakes are high -- there are children living right now in those margins of error, and our taxpayer-financed fingers are again tightening on the trigger.

For almost the whole Bush II presidency, I yearned for a respectful and assertive dialogue between our leaders and those who seem to hate us the most, particularly among Muslims -- not a pandering apology but a straightforward engagement with our enemies' assertions, both right and wrong. Obama has made a new and hopeful start, but the agonies of innocent victims, shredded in full public view by our forces, is drowning him out.

The Bible on enemies; 100 Bible verses on enemies; does God have enemies?

Jan Wood: God is a realist.

Perpetual War Watch department: "Prepare, Pursue, Prevail!"

Jim Forest on the spiritual development of Thomas Merton.
It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which mad writermakes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race. A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake…. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun…. (Merton to Erich Fromm.)
This is how a Russian principal talked to her students about patriotism.

"When I'm 64": today!

James Cotton died a week ago. It was nearly 45 years ago that I first heard him perform, as part of a blues concert series at Carleton University. That was my very first experience of live Chicago-style blues. I didn't hear him again in concert until 35 years later, in a memorable set that included Hubert Sumlin and Pinetop Perkins. This week I tried to explain to our students how the traditions represented by James Cotton led to the music that most of them now listen to every day. This video of Keith Richards and James Cotton represents part of that story (and is a testimony to the endurance of the music and their careers!) ...

16 March 2017

It's my privilege (analysis, confession, accusation)

Thaw: I took this photo just over two weeks ago, but the enormous sledding hill is now almost gone. Soon even Lenin (at right) won't be able to help you find it.

I enjoyed the discussion of "privilege" on this week's Culture Gabfest podcast more than I expected to, since I'd mostly been inclined to dismiss the theme as just another way for over-privileged people-pleasers to self-flagellate.

The discussion on the podcast was prompted by an excerpt in the New Republic from Phoebe Maltz Bovy's book The Perils of "Privilege". I recommend both the podcast and the book excerpt, and won't overgraze their territory. Instead I'll just add a few comments.

First, definition. In summarizing the recent history of references to privilege in political discourse, Bovy uses a simple definition, "unearned advantage," particularly the advantages of race, social status, wealth. I'd add the word "structural," in a sort of parallel with "structural violence."

On the podcast, Stephen Metcalf touches on the paradox of identifying and naming privilege: in diagnosing the injustices caused by privilege in blocking potential participants from the supposedly free market, you're nevertheless exalting free-market thinking and its inherent injustices. His comments demonstrate one of the uses of the idea of privilege -- its usefulness for analysis. Despite my dislike of the term's overuse, I'm happy to agree that it's important to show how structural injustices affect human beings who all are endowed by our Creator with the same inalienable rights.

Once we see how privilege operates systemically -- in extreme situations resulting in impunity for some, and a total lack of security for others -- we might take another step: understanding and confessing how we fit into the systemic picture.

This step does not require any sort of progressive exhibitionism. We don't need to become codependent to the approval of less privileged people or groups in order to exercise due diligence in learning about oppressive structures and how to extricate ourselves from them, then subvert them, then sabotage their legitimacy. The better analogy is Christian repentance, or the Alcoholics Anonymous fourth step: identifying our baseline reality and then reorienting ourselves with this new information, a process that has nothing to do with self-abasement.

Analysis and confession are positive uses for the concepts of privilege. Accusation of individuals (otherwise known as shaming or one-upping) is useless or worse. As Philip Yancey wrote, "No one ever converted to Christianity because they lost the argument." The adversarial attribution of privilege probably wipes out any chance of inviting our conversation partner into a mutual effort to analyze and confess.

Of course, if our priority is to gratify some vindictive little corner of our own selves, accusation and shaming work just fine.

Thanks to a BBC World Service documentary I heard a couple of weeks ago, I became reacquainted with the work of storyteller John Henry Faulk. In the 1960's, he traveled among the Knife and Fork Clubs and similar groups in the South and Midwest with his message of how the civil rights and peace movements were actually a rebirth of the USA's founding spirit. In territory that should have been utterly hostile to his message, he often won over his audiences by respecting their decency and intelligence, and by telling stories that slipped past their defenses through humor and familiar cultural references.

Example: His fictional cousin Ed Snodgrass on the Viet Nam war and its critics....
Johnny, we go over there to Viet Nam in a Christian civilized way, trying to fight a Christian up-to-date war with flame throwers and half-tanks and bombers and napalm like God intended folks to fight wars in this day and time, and our boys are dressed up in pretty uniforms so that everybody can tell who they are, and what does old Ho Chi Minh and those Viet Congs do, come out after dark and on bicycles. You can't negotiate with people who act hateful like that. They're just tricky and they're so hard-headed. Johnny, just ask yourself this: If Jesus Christ was over there in Viet Nam today, walking the earth, honey, would he be down in them bamboo thickets and them rice paddies with a bunch of half-naked heathens, people who don't even go to church or wouldn't come to services if you personally invited them, people that don't even speak the English language, mind, you, the language that the Holy Bible was wrote in? Or would Jesus be up in those B-52's with them fine Christian boys that's been to church and know what to do with those bombs when they get over that territory?
... from this Studs Terkel broadcast on WFMT Chicago in November 1969.

Before I called you, I saw you.

Fateful days! (In Russian: the events of the revolutionary year 1917 presented in a constant stream of daily updates, social-media style. In English: the February revolution and contemporary reactions.) Will Russia celebrate?

Speaking of celebrations, Right Sharing of World Resources prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary.

Blues from Moscow ... Andrei Makarevich and Levan Lomidze: