18 May 2017
It makes me angry that a red herring like Russian interference in American politics continues to obscure the issues in the USA's current political crisis.
I have no doubt, as I've said before, that Russian political operatives have tried to influence American and Western European elections. But their methods are often laughably clunky. Russian operatives have made no persuasive case that Russia represents a vision for the future. Their opportunistic alliances with left wing and right wing groups in the West seem to have no loftier goal than simply to sow discord and confusion.
Discord and confusion are certainly features of the current political scene in the USA, but, in my mind, this situation can not be credited to Russian cleverness. In November 2016, for a variety of social and economic reasons that had almost nothing to do with Russia, the U.S. Electoral College awarded the presidency to a deeply flawed, self-obsessed entrepreneur for whom facts and expertise are entirely secondary to spectacle and power.
If Russian agents were indeed behind the e-mail hacks that supposedly weakened the Clinton campaign -- which remains to be proven but might well be true -- this was marginally effective only because it seemed to reinforce existing skepticism about the Clintons and about the political establishment generally. That skepticism and cynicism was distributed around the electoral map in just the right quantities to overcome Clinton's popular vote advantage of three million, and swing the results in Trump's favor.
We Americans need to ask ourselves (and each other!!) why Trump's voters were so deeply skeptical about the political elites but willing to suspend all that skepticism and place the top political post in the land in the hands of one Donald Trump: a boastful advocate for sexual harassment and public bullying, serial liar, libeler and slanderer, relentless self-promoter, and demonstrated con artist (Trump University!). All of this behavior was well-known and well-documented long before election day.
And: all of these disqualifying features of the Trump circus have absolutely nothing to do with Russia. Russia's e-mail hacking did little -- if anything -- to enhance Trump's chances of winning, just as his own alleged involvements with Russian business and entertainment seemed to have cost him very little in the election.
However, the Russia links are relevant in one specific way: they add to the evidence of sloppy incompetence on the part of the president and his motley team. For example, that team knew, or should have known, that their first choice as national security adviser, Mike Flynn, had problematic contacts with Russia. They were absurdly defensive about attempts to investigate Russian linkages. They were tone-deaf concerning the contrasts between Trump's reception of Sergei Lavrov vs his reception of Angela Merkel. In short, they took no competent steps at all to put the Russian issue in perspective. And, as a result, Russia gets credited, or blamed, for the chaos that some here in Russia might enjoy watching but nobody could have generated.
The actual reactions here in Russia range from honest bewilderment to open mocking, all thanks NOT to Russian scheming but to American ineptitude. And in the meantime, while we're diverted by that totally unnecessary coverup, the Trump team's dislike of expertise, experience, and humane policy is demonstrated daily in choices of Cabinet appointees and subordinates, and in policy choices. (See this alarming story, if true, about the USDA.) Education policy, Department of Justice prosecution guidelines, deportations and refugee restrictions, and the ongoing scandal around the attempted sabotage of health care financing ... all seem to point to an unprecedented level of extremist influence in D.C. policymaking. Again, none of this is attributable to Russia.
And all this is taking place under the supposed oversight of a man with a devastating combination of presidential flaws: he's disinterested, angry, sulky, intemperate, and inconsistent. Furthermore, he's assembled a team of staffers and allied legislators who knowingly kneeled down and accepted these attributes for purposes of their own. I pray daily for peaceful regime change, but there is no mechanism under the U.S. constitution for reversing an election and throwing out an entire administration, other than somehow managing the chaos and waiting for the next election. Short of that, there's impeachment, but impeachment is a blunt and messy instrument that would no doubt make Trump even more self-pitying and chaotic in the meantime. Even so, it might be the only instrument available to us.
There's another way out, of course -- for Trump to decide that the job just isn't what he expected it to be, that he's tired of being the object of unprecedented unfair treatment, and resign.
Please! Resign. End this carnage today.
Resign, and claim a wonderful prize: a lifetime supply of self-serving anecdotes about desserts, cruise missiles, witch-hunts, and fake news.
And the rest of us can begin to rebuild a more or less normal relationship between the USA and Russia. It probably won't be a perfect relationship, but at least it might be based on something approaching reality.
Related post: The Russian crowbar.
David A. Graham provides a good compact summary of the situation faced by the Trump administration at the moment.
Lawrence Douglas: Impeachment seemed impossible a few days ago.
The Durov brothers' legacy to Russian political conversation online. And Russian media outlets explain how to preserve access!
From the Pew Research Center: Religious belief and national belonging in Central and Eastern Europe.
Carol Kulluvilla: Bono has a message for young Christian artists.
There's a possibility that Newberg Friends Church could become two congregations.
Praying globally for evangelism.
Samantha Fish, "Either Way I Lose" (as far as I know it's not a political song)
11 May 2017
|"... but the real question is, what is going to happen to this country?"|
James Baldwin to Dick Cavett, 1968.
Documentary film: I Am Not Your Negro (2016), recommended.
For some reason, I've lost my appetite for television programs and movies -- except those I watch when we have company over to our home. I can't believe I have four new episodes of Doctor Who that I've left unwatched!
Instead, every spare moment finds me reading. Recently, I've been in Dublin with the heroes of Tana French's detective novels. I've devoured In the Woods and The Likeness, and have a couple more to look forward to.
The trouble with French's nuanced and atmospheric novels is that they set a high bar that only a few other writers in that genre can meet. Luckily, I have new novels by Robert Bryndza and Jo Nesbø on my to-read pile.
Before Tana French's Ireland, I was in Norway, thanks to author Neal Bascomb (The Winter Fortress: The Epic Mission to Sabotage Hitler's Atomic Bomb). And now I'm in Pasadena, California, learning about the history of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and its women computers, thanks to author Nathalia Holt (Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars).
At the same time, I'm refreshing my acquaintance with Mark Twain, just in time to lead a dinner/discussion about him with an international group in Moscow next week. And as the bittersweet moment gets nearer, when we will finally end our decade in Russia, I hope to draw on Amy Peterson's Dangerous Territory: My Misguided Quest to Save the World for wisdom and perspective.
One exception to the loss of appetite for video: the film I Am Not Your Negro. In my late teens, as racism and violence overwhelmed my family life and my wider world at the exact same time, I read everything I could find by James Baldwin, and now I'm grateful for this opportunity to get re-acquainted with him. It's not exactly nostalgia; his words continue to indict and burn.
A month on Twitter
Ten years ago, in my first months here in Russia, I opened a Twitter account. At the time, I had a very narrow purpose: to post status updates on Facebook from my dumbphone. Twitter was the only way to do that. Eventually I let the account fall into disuse and Twitter apparently gave my ID to someone else.
I returned about a month ago, fully aware of Twitter's reputation as an outrage generator and amplifier. So far incendiary content seems manageable and spam hasn't yet been a problem at all. There's more humor than I'd expected, especially in the Russian-language sources I follow. The difference between Twitter and Facebook is interesting -- Facebook is far more social, and Twitter far more journalistic and political. Maybe that social dimension is why I find it a lot easier to ignore Twitter for days at a time, while still trying to stay in touch with friends and family via Facebook.
Friday PS: An unexpected bonus from Twitter is discovering that some of my acquaintances among Friends are not just nice people but discerning readers and sharp political thinkers. In just a few days they've added three books to my must-read list.
The Russian crowbar, part two
Recently I cautioned my readers who are Trump opponents against falling into the habit of using vague and undifferentiated references to Russia as a way to beat their favorite political villain. First of all, Russia is a huge country full of decent and interesting and creative people, not a gang of Bullwinkle-style stereotypes. Secondly, Americans' priority should be to ensure that their own government is competent and deal directly with the failures and betrayals, rather than just to blame foreigners who take advantage of incompetence. Of course there is nothing wrong with also advocating higher ethics among all players in international relations, but don't be oversanctimonious in that cause when your own country is not always playing on the side of the angels.
Yesterday's visit of Lavrov and Kislyak and their photographer to the White House, and the resulting outrage that only Russian photos emerged from the meeting, show how stupid it is to be so pathetically eager to bash Russians. American journalists were understandably miffed that they were not allowed to photograph these White House meetings, and were therefore scooped by photographer Aleksandr Scherbak. What strikes me as plain idiocy is for White House staffers to act surprised that Scherbak's pictures were published. What did they think he had cameras for? It was the White House who chose to let him in and keep the American press out. CNN reported:
"They tricked us," an angry White House official said.To me this sounds like trying to blame domestic incompetence on those lying foreigners. While I have no romantic illusions about the games played by politicians of any country, the words of the Russian photographer himself sound a lot closer to the truth than that angry White House official. Saying "they lie" just makes the U.S. side look whiny and stupid.
"That's the problem with the Russians -- they lie," the official added.
Of course, having a president who dismisses an FBI head practically with a wave of his hand -- an incredible display of casual, vulgar authoritarianism -- doesn't help.
Victory Day in Elektrostal
Victory Day gives us an annual opportunity to mix with our neighbors and fellow residents of our hospitable town. This video by YouTube user Andrei Alyasov shows the crowds at Elektrostal's Lenin Square rally and the procession to the Eternal Flame. Judy and I, and our guest Karen from Hungary, are somewhere in this crowd, not far behind the "26,298 days of peace" banner:
Peter Laarman: what does Elizabeth Warren have in common with classical evangelists?
Three Russian schoolteachers share their experiences of politics and propaganda. While I don't know any teachers who would agree 100% with these three, I often see this level of thoughtfulness and balance among my own acquaintances.
Friday PS: Russian Pokémon Go player gets suspended sentence.
In analyzing and comparing Russia ... the importance of being ideological.
Sean Guillory interviews John Burgess, professor of systematic theology and author of Holy Rus': The Rebirth of Orthodoxy in the New Russia.
Perpetual War Watch: Danny Sjursen on America's wars and the "more" strategy.
Three kinds of selfies you should never take.
Blues dessert from Russia:
04 May 2017
For me, this latest eruption of pious alarmism began as I noticed several far-right Web sites claiming that "disturbing video footage has surfaced showing Oprah Winfrey openly mocking Jesus Christ and the Bible," and that we need to see this video evidence quickly "before she takes it down." Not content to charge her with apostasy and blasphemy, one site referred to her as "the legendary race-baiter" as well -- the use of the definite article "the" (as we tell our language students here) implying that Oprah's aggressive racism is common knowledge. News to me!
And the scandalous video that has "surfaced" is nothing more than some glimpses of Oprah, about nine years ago, pitching her usual blend of Christianity, self-help, and New Age ideas, as millions of other Americans also seem to do -- and why would good, solid, orthodox Christians be surprised by this phenomenon? After all, we have become known, far too often, as people who simply turn nasty in the face of opposition. And this mean-spiritedness, and lack of curiosity and empathy, sadly confirms the skeptics' suspicions.
Is it fair to say that Oprah Winfrey is mocking Jesus?
There is nothing wrong with us inviting her to discuss the ideas we think are wrong, and to raise those issues in public. But charging her with mocking? Thanks to the Bible, we know what mocking Jesus looks like. After his arrest and arraignment, the temple police made fun of him. They blindfolded him and then struck him, saying "Prophesy! Who hit you?" (Luke 22:63-64.) In a passage of heartbreaking cruelty and stunning irony, Matthew (27:28-31) describes how Herod's soldiers held a pretend coronation before bundling the Prince of Peace off for execution. Even during the execution itself, the religious leaders mocked him, saying, "he saved others, but he can't save himself." (Mark 15:29-31). How could anyone dare to compare Oprah's well-meaning spiritual synthesis (no matter how much we think it goes off on tangents) to this deliberate cruelty to the One who only offered his tormentors grace?
Over and over I marvel at how so-called Christians are ready to bear false witness against those they/we disagree with. Apparently, this is what passes for evangelism now. Not to be outdone by the corrupt West, Russia's champions of "traditional-value" Christianity display equally jaw-dropping insensitivity, with a prosecutor actually asking for three and a half years in prison for an atheist who looked for Pokémon in a church.
I feel like Isaiah spoke for many of us when, at his commissioning as a prophet, he said these words:
"Woe to me!" I cried. "I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty."Isaiah confesses having unclean lips, but doesn't stop there: he lives among a people of unclean lips. Have we Christians, who dare to claim fellowship with the Lord Almighty, advanced all that far from the condition of those people? James, the brother of Jesus, switches metaphor from lips to tongue, but is equally blunt: (... drawing on Eugene Peterson's The Message, for James 3:7-10...)
This is scary: You can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame a tongue -- it’s never been done. The tongue runs wild, a wanton killer. With our tongues we bless God our Father; with the same tongues we curse the very men and women he made in his image. Curses and blessings out of the same mouth!Let's not play fast and loose with what it means to mock Jesus. When we present a compromised Gospel that actually mocks our enemies and trashes those who disagree with us, while conveniently propping up Caesar, it is damnably self-serving to charge that their response is somehow mocking Jesus. Maybe they're mocking us, and maybe it's not always fair, but chances are good that they might actually yearn for some evidence of a true Savior. We should at least be ready for the costly work of testing that possibility, and then doing what we can to respond. And in the meantime, bite our tongues!!
Friday PS: A few years ago, I wrote a blog post challenging Christianity's critics to apply the same fairness to the topic of Christian faith that they routinely apply elsewhere in their lives.
Terry Mattingly on journalistic standards, the U.S. president, and today's executive order on religious liberties. Does the Washington Post's coverage measure up?
The King comes riding into Jerusalem, on the back of a borrowed donkey.
How Micah's faith blew up....
How did Nancy Thomas first become aware of the light?
Deportation: meet the "worst of the worst".
We recently enjoyed the Lunar Brothers live at Moscow's B.B. King Blues Club.... Here's a sample of their energy and range.
27 April 2017
|I'm speaking with my Ottawa Quaker mentor Deborah|
Haight around the time of this story.
For me, it was the closest thing to a baptism I'd ever experienced among Quakers, and it happened about forty years ago. It wasn't even in my home meeting (Ottawa, Ontario); it happened while I was visiting the meeting in Downingtown, Pennsylvania. During the worship, a local Friend stood up and gave ministry that included a reference to the oil crisis that had started a year or so earlier. I was suddenly overwhelmed by the power of God -- and was given a phrase or two that I knew I had to say out loud. Nothing more than a dozen or so words came to me, and I was given no time to rehearse or elaborate in the safety of silence. Up I stood, as if pulled up by my armpits. One corner of my consciousness was observing myself with surprise as I began speaking about a Power that wasn't subject to shortages, that could not be embargoed or rationed, unless we ourselves blocked or rationed it.
I can't remember all that I said, and I'm sure that the world is none the poorer! But if you've been holding back from speaking in worship, fearful that the fragments you've been given are somehow not good or polished enough, my experience is that it's enough. The necessary words will come. If they stop coming to you, then just stop and sit down again, and the continuation will come through someone else, or through the Holy Spirit's action in silence.
In the years since that first experience of vocal ministry, I've spoken many times among all sorts of Quakers. I've also heard many others speak ... some who needed reassurance that their unrehearsed fragment was truly prophetic, and others who might have needed a gentle hint to wait a little longer before assuming that their message was God-given. (I'm sure now that I've sometimes been in that second group.)
All of these thoughts and memories came back to me today upon re-reading Ruth Pitman's essay "On the Vocal Ministry," which was one of the very first Quaker pamphlets I picked up at Ottawa Meeting. Whether I read it before or after my oil-crisis sermon I can't now remember (my diaries back in the USA might have that answer), but it gave me a wonderfully balanced and sensible introduction to the place of speaking among this quiet fellowship that I'd so recently joined. Her calm and unaffected treatment of spiritual reality reminds me of a mostly-bygone Quaker culture that, at its best, reflected an extraordinary lifestyle of everyday discipleship. Its weakness may have been its sheltered quality, its inability to figure out how to provide access into this culture for a wider range of people and conditions, but I suspect that's now our job.
Maybe this is where people like Jonathan Martin come in. He's the reason I went looking for Ruth Pitman's essay. I remembered her as I was reading his blog post "on the art of preaching (or on Russell Westbrook, stand-up comedy and getting to the inner yes)." You might assume that Ruth Pitman's advice is most suitable for unprogrammed Friends and Jonathan Martin is for Friends who have programmed meetings, but I think they supplement each other beautifully. I'd love to think about what the two of them would say to each other. (I'm also aware that they might well rub each other the wrong way -- neither one of them strikes me as a shrinking violet!)
The assumption Martin probably makes is that his advice is for those who preach regularly, probably because it's their job. But his attentiveness, intuitiveness, avoidance of pose, Scripture-saturation ... all of these things are equally applicable to regular participants in Quaker community, who might just live this way as a matter of course, and then one day find themselves hauled to their feet with just a phrase or two already on their lips.
Russia's Jehovah's Witnesses in the immediate aftermath of the ban.
Why Eastern Orthodoxy appeals to Hank Hanegraaff and other evangelicals. (Comments welcome!) The summary and accompanying podcast studiously avoid questions of enmeshment of church and state, and power issues generally, but still touch on many interesting questions.
Arkansas executions bring Sister Helen Prejean's death penalty fight to the fore.
Beethoven rolls over in our Elektrostal classroom. (In the class sessions, we listened to Chess recordings of Little Walter as well as Chuck Berry and the Beatles, as we discussed the article.)
20 April 2017
|Reuters via The Independent.|
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
(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.