28 August 2014

Calling all World Quakers...

What was your first reaction to this header (above) ... Positive? Confused? Worried?

Positive? Great. We have a special day of our own!! I hope you and your church or meeting use the day (October 5, 2014) to build community around our shared identity and heritage. Maybe you're in the same position I'm in--Friends were my first faith community, my first encounter with organized (?) religion, my first clue that the religion industry could actually care about linking faith and practice. Maybe you understand, with Hugh Doncaster, that the world "is dying, literally dying, for lack of Quakerism in action," and a special day might focus our urgency for evangelism and peace advocacy at this very time that they're so sorely needed.

The date is no accident: as the World Quaker Day site notes, "Both 2014 and 2015 dates coincide with World Communion Sunday, celebrating an even wider array of worship around the world."

Confused? At least in English, it's hard to know whether the first word "world" refers to the next word or the third one. Are we celebrating "World Quakers" or suggesting an international holiday? I'd like to suggest simply "Quaker Day" for next time. What do you think?

As for the device on the left, it looks vaguely like a biological symbol. Maybe someone will guide us to a discussion of how this design was arrived at, and why better-known symbols such as the Quaker star weren't adopted. There's no historical background for this event on the Web site, except that the Kabarak Call for Peace and Ecojustice is being highlighted and that Friends World Committee would like financial support.

Worried? Has anyone else noticed that much of the evangelical Friends world has begun shying away from the use of the word "Quaker" (preferring "Friend") while Friends who are more theologically liberal still embrace the "Quaker" brand with enthusiasm? I like both words, as long as neither word tempts us to think that we've invented a whole new religion--and that's my concern with too much quakerishness. Friends are no more and no less than a specific understanding of Christian discipleship, and a community formed by that understanding. Too much focus on how special we are without reference to that discipleship just smells cultish to me.

I worked for Friends World Committee for ten years, during which I felt more and more ambivalent about our organization's constant calls to "celebrate diversity." Diversity is a complicated and complicating quality, not something to be mindlessly boosted at the expense of clarity and honest boundaries.

May these reflections not dampen any initial enthusiasm that you may have felt when you first saw the graphic at the top. If there's one thing that we Friends can use more of, it's enthusiasm!

(See also "Diffident no more.")

Orthodox archbishop of Gorlovka and Slavyansk, Ukraine, says that "the intensity [of the conflict] is already such that we can only pray that this intensity be lessened and the bloodshed stopped. I do not see any human forces that would be able to stop it."

David Marples: The rhetoric of hatred describing the situation in Ukraine misses the point – Ukraine has problems that are not derived from Russia or the Putin presidency."

"Real Ministry, Real Friendship": "The more I get in touch with the reality of my own condition, the less I stop judging other people’s worthiness."

A friend of Friends, Jeff Halper, writes, "The Palestinian message to Israel: Deal with us justly. Or disappear."

From the Chicago Reader, a fascinating story of "How a mysterious box of photos sent an Evanston couple halfway around the world."

I just saw a review of J.P. Soars' new album, so I thought I'd dig out this old recording of Terry Hanck and JP Soars that I made back in 2009:

21 August 2014


The Unified State Exam season for Russian high school students is over, and once again educators are discussing the results. In a survey on the State Exam's official Web site, about 12% of survey respondents admitted to cheating, and another nearly 9% said that, in effect, they would probably have cheated if they hadn't been prevented by cameras or proctors.

Here's the survey along with another recent survey on the official Unified State Exam site:

"Did you take the exam honestly?" Responses, top to bottom:
  • "Yes, I completed and turned in an honest exam." (79.04% as of today)
  • "As it turns out, yes, because there were no opportunities to cheat on account of video cameras / proctors in the exam hall." (8.94%)
  • "No, I used crib notes." (5.74%)
  • No, I used my mobile phone." (6.27%)

"How do you feel about video surveillance at the Unified State Exam?"
  • "It doesn't bother me." (39.3% as of today)
  • "At long last my fellow test-takers won't cheat." (14.29%)
  • "Not happy at all; I won't be able to cheat." (30.71%)
  • "You're kidding--there will really be video cameras?" (15.7%)

In my own classes in Elektrostal, I've tried not to let the cheating issue spoil the classroom atmosphere. I usually encourage students to help each other ("but please do it in English") and consult dictionaries. After all, teamwork and research are adult skills, not crimes.

Homework assignments consisting of letters and essays are a bit of a different problem. If I thought students were helping each other and consulting reference materials, I would not be displeased. I'm a lot less happy when a student turns in an assignment that has been copied word for word from an online repository of such texts. We use a popular curriculum for our Unified State Exam preparation class, and texts (of wildly varying quality) have been uploaded for every conceivable topic found in all such curricula.

One method of reducing such online plagiarism is to take the time to compose original assignments not found in texts, or to ask the students themselves to create assignments. That doesn't eliminate mutual assistance among students, but it does reduce reliance on online banks of prepared texts. My other approach has been to teach students how to find and cite other authors properly. Want to use someone else's words? Fine--just make sure you tell your readers who said it and where you found it--and don't forget to tell us how this other author contributes to your own argument. Over and over, my students tell me that this skill isn't taught at the high school level.

As I try to weigh the importance of controlling cheating and introducing a higher level of ethical sensitivity, while still creating a creative and collaborative relationship with students, I've decided to write an article on this subject for our Institute's next conference, coming up in October. I'm going to conduct a brief survey (in Russian) for teachers of humanities subjects, along the following lines. If you'd like to respond to the English version below, please feel free! There are places for you to recommend your own questions.

Alissa Wilkinson: "Is Religious Journalism Haunted?"

Foreign Affairs: What role might the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe have played in today's troubles among Russia, Ukraine, and the West? John J. Mearsheimer. Mary Elise Sarotte.

"Russia Shutters 4 McDonald's for Poor Sanitation..." and the Runet responds. (Guardian story here.)

"Global warming slowdown 'could last another decade'."

Here's what Ruthie Foster does with a Johnny Cash classic:

14 August 2014

Uncertainty (again)

"Uncertainty," sings Isaac Slade, "is killing me." (The Fray, "Uncertainty.") And, not for the first time, uncertainty rates a mention in this blog simply because of the times we're living in. Will the Gaza truce hold and some semblance of recovery begin? What will happen with the Russian aid caravan to eastern Ukraine? (And what about the apparent Russian military convoy also spotted entering Ukraine?) Will truth prevail in Ferguson, Missouri? What will happen to Iraq's minorities? Can local quarantines finally stop the ravages of the Ebola virus?

All this goes on while Judy and I are in a retreat center in Fresno, California, where neither the floods to the west nor the forest fires to the north are a threat. (However, a long-standing drought makes water supplies uncertain.) To be honest, I'm very grateful for this respite from the tensions and information wars of our recent past. But I also feel frustratingly far from being able to keep company with our more directly affected friends and neighbors.

For now, I've decided not to search for an artificial certainty to proclaim, in the midst of all this global instability. If I feel any certainty at all, this doesn't feel like a time for a glib display of it. It feels like a time to hold this uncertainty in the light, to walk with uncertain people, to pray through the uncertainty, to honor the anxious questions we see in people's faces, and to remember the power of silence. Maybe for now that's as good a way as I have of sharing the Cross.

Are you by any chance in Sacramento, California, this weekend? Judy and I will be visiting Friends Community Church Sacramento on Sunday. A week later we'll be visiting Berkeley Friends Church.

Colin Chapman tries "to make sense of Gaza."

A letter from Jean Zaru of Ramallah Friends Meeting.

What Michael Brown's death and the ensuing protests look like in Russia.

"When Black Victims Become Trending Hashtags."

"Taking a break from work is a powerful time of refraining from power."

Alabama Shakes with Steve Cropper, "Born Under a Bad Sign."

07 August 2014


Nine years ago I posted about "Bush's legs" (American chicken imported into Russia). Now they're in the news again--thanks to the latest Russian pushback against Western sanctions, they may be replaced by imports from Brazil, Chile, or Israel.

Commentators vary in assessing the possible effects of the Russian ban on imported agricultural products. A few minutes ago I scanned the Web sites of the supermarkets we use in Russia, and didn't see any evidence of alarm of massive changes in their offerings. I know it will take some time before the full effect of the food ban will be obvious. In the meantime, it is very frustrating to experience all this sparring from just one side of the sanctions divide.

Perekrestok is still advertising Spanish olive oil and Nescafe Gold instant coffee today. On the other hand, Dixie's site is emphasizing Russian products in its picnic theme. (And a good price on milk!) Of course it's impossible to make any generalizations from Web sites--we'll have to wait to hear from actual consumers.

Whatever the effect on Russian markets and consumers, there will be an impact on Western economies trying to absorb the production and the loss of income. With Italy's problems in the mix, the European Union is facing a shaky time.

And for what? The USA's government is trying to weaken an already weak Russian economy. Apparently, that's what passes for statesmanship these days. President Obama said, according to the Associated Press,
Sanctions are working as intended in putting enormous pressure and strain on the Russian economy....

That's not my estimation. If you look at the markets and you look at estimates in terms of capital flight, if you look at projections for Russian growth, what you're seeing is that the economy has ground to a halt.

It has presented the choice to President Putin as to whether he is going to try to resolve the issues in eastern Ukraine through diplomacy and peaceful means ... or alternatively continue on the course he's on, in which case he's going to be hurting his economy, and hurting his own people over the long term.
We have supposedly "presented a choice." Does anyone really believe that the president of Russia, or any president of any country, would respond along the lines of the fantasy implied in Obama's words? "Oh my goodness, thanks to these sanctions I've seen the light! We have no choice but to bow before the USA's superior wisdom and shining idealism, and confirm our utter dependence on the good graces of the West by reversing any actions they find objectionable."

This is not an unconditional endorsement of Russia. If Russia continues to treat the world as if everything is someone else's fault, and to govern domestically through mythology and crude populism (a tactic not unknown in the USA!), its most important export will continue to be a significant percentage of its most talented people--an outcome that's no good for anyone. Sanctions don't help counter that scenario, but probably boost it.

Is passivity our only alternative in the current crisis? No! Along with a certain humility and recognition that there are never any clean quick fixes, we can recommit to a far more energetic and creative engagement with Russia (and with Ukraine, for that matter). Why are academic exchanges and Russian studies programs being scaled back just when we need to build bridges of mutual understanding? Money that is now spent on growling and threatening could be used far more creatively to invest in each other's future leaders, diplomats, businesspeople, academics, journalists, farmers, and artists. Tourism paperwork has recently been simplified on both sides--let's flood each other's countries with ordinary curious people! The desire of the space exploration communities of Russia and the West to continue collaborating despite all strains should be a vivid lesson to the rest of us.

All of this is so obvious it seems ridiculous to say, and the structures (however undersupported) already exist for these activities, but politicians seem trapped by the need to pander to those sectors of their voting publics who have the least interest in long-term international peace. It's going to be up to us to keep pushing for people-to-people ties, to challenge enemy language, to support more creative approaches, and, most important of all, to visit each other's lands and see for ourselves.

I wrote to Moscow Friends earlier today, noting in passing that there are some things that can never be blocked by sanctions: love, prayer, friendship....

Friday update: The USA has just delivered a near-perfect justification for any Russian intervention in eastern Ukraine with today's American air attacks in Iraq. If the USA is entitled to bomb targets half a planet away for allegedly humanitarian goals, why should Russia not intervene to stop the bloodshed a few kilometers from its own border? Yes, the USA has a lot of recent history in Iraq--and so does Russia in Ukraine. The habits of imperialism have deep roots in both countries and we should be suspicious of glib comparisons, but it's interesting to see how quickly we Americans conclude that we have a special license to intervene wherever we choose, while other countries must follow the rules we prescribe.

As a Christian, I absolutely reject the logic of imperialism wherever it claims to apply. In the present cases, neither country should be aiming guns and bombs at anyone, period. But for those who subscribe to the conventional wisdom of empires, I wish they'd at least be consistent.

Want to practice your peacemaking skills? How about a game that emphasizes ending conflicts rather than winning them?

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned the Unified Front board game. Today Bennett Hutchinson, originator and co-designer of the game, told me that it's now commercially available through the Game Crafter Web site. See the site for more information.

"Is this the end for Christianity in Iraq?"

"Nine things pastors can do besides pray for Gaza."

"Death, Resurrection, and Carlton Fisk's World Series Home Run."

"The Rise to Power of the National Security State." "As every schoolchild knows, there are three check-and-balance branches of the U.S. government: the executive, Congress, and the judiciary. That’s bedrock Americanism and the most basic high school civics material. Only one problem: it’s just not so."

More on Americans' views on the U.S. Supreme Court's "Hobby Lobby" ruling. Kaiser's study included implications for other health-care related concerns, but apparently did not extend to implications of the Supreme Court ruling for non-health-care issues, such as conscientious objection and war taxes, and churches' defense of immigrants.

For blues dessert, a real time-capsule gem: Johnny Otis, "Willie and the Hand Jive." (Enjoy the car dealer ad, too!) See more about the fascinating Johnny Otis on Wikipedia.

31 July 2014



About fifteen years ago, Retha McCutchen and I were visiting Kenya as Friends United Meeting staff. We stopped in Nakuru, near the famous Lake Nakuru National Park. We had some free time, so Retha suggested visiting the park. Half-joking, I said, "I'd just as soon visit it on the Discovery Channel."

(However, I did end up going to the park.)

As someone who had already lived in three countries by the age of five, I have strangely mixed feelings about being a tourist. I feel shy about taking up someone else's space simply by virtue of having purchased transportation there. I feel sheepish about reinforcing stereotypes of wide-eyed photo-snapping consumers whose most positive function is to enrich souvenir vendors. When work takes me onto less traveled paths and into places of extreme poverty or civil war, I feel ashamed of violating the privacy of those who have to endure our questions, our cameras, our awkward sympathy.

I don't doubt that someone from my own country should visit these places, but that doesn't mean we all should or that I should. We could experience wartime El Salvador through Joan Didion's essay, enjoy the kitchens and restaurants of France through the letters of Julia Child, and maybe we'd get just as much truth at much less cost to ourselves and others.

But my mixed feelings don't stop there. Here's the counter-argument: so what if I look like an ignorant tourist, so what if my camera, my smile, and my ignorance of local customs scream "I'm not from here!" What if the ignorance of those who design and guard the world's borders equals the ignorance of those who naively cross them? I'm a human being, and it is completely normal for us human beings to scrabble ceaselessly about the globe, subverting all the arrangements designed to keep us separated from each other. When we commit the inevitable cross-cultural blunders, is it the end of the world, or just an occasion to laugh and move on?

Today on the radio I heard a reference to "dark tourism" and at first I felt repelled by the voyeurism it seemed to represent. Never mind that I'd experienced something of the sort myself in Central America nearly 30 years ago; I'm now far too enlightened for such vulgar (not to mention expensive) sensation-seeking. But on the other hand, no war should occur without witnesses. Let some of those witnesses be professional journalists and human rights workers, but those "old hands" can't and shouldn't monopolize access to the world's agonies. Certainly, when tourists begin streaming to conflict zones, somebody will figure out how to exploit those agonies for profit, but greed is a danger wherever people gather. I'd like to believe that journalists and tourists alike will expose and document that greed.

To feel superior to the ordinary tourist might just be another form of that primordial social poison, elitism. The tourist's untutored joy is like the fun of dancing like an idiot at a blues concert. Both might look foolish to the cynic, but even with all their imperfections, both add more to the sum total of joy in the universe than the cynic can subtract.

Is there a Christian way of being a tourist? I think of Abraham Kuyper's famous words, "... there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: 'Mine!'" To me, these words support our authority over all borders and walls, but it also gives us a special obligation to stay sensitive to the presence and sovereignty of the God who is always already there.

An example of what a thoughtful journalist can do for us in a war zone: Anna Nemtsova, "This Is What a War in Europe Really Looks Like."

Unintentional witnesses (maybe): "Vanity Military Selfies Are Spoiling Russia's Attack in Ukraine."

U.N. envoy says, "Israel may be required to help displaced Gaza Palestinians."

BBC: "Conflicted UN struggles in global peace efforts."

Just a quick final note to acknowledge the tragic period we're living in right now. I'm not writing about it here because I can't imagine what to say that wouldn't simply be either repetitious or self-indulgent. It is becoming normal to watch children die, while the high and mighty of the world don't seem to want to take the risk of intervening bodily, if necessary, to restore sanity to Gaza, or to East Ukraine. The Pope has maybe come closest, but I wish he would actually travel to these places himself. (Is he perhaps tempted?) (Thanks to David Finke for the link.)

I'll close with Mavis Staples singing "Only the Lord Knows." What can you do, what can you do when you can't trust anybody to tell you the truth?

24 July 2014

Yearly Meeting 2014 shorts

Eve of yearly meeting sessions.
Northwest Yearly Meeting's 2014 sessions, our annual church conference for Evangelical Friends in the Pacific Northwest USA, concluded this evening with a salute to Hal and Nancy Thomas, who retired after four decades of international service. The evening program also included the commissioning of our three new recorded ministers. This celebration brought our sessions to a close on a high and joyful note.

Nancy's blog post from the beginning of yearly meeting summarizes the controversies and anxieties that burdened some of us at the opening of the sessions last Sunday. It didn't help that George Fox University, our affiliated Quaker college, was in the media spotlight over a controversy regarding a transgender student and the school's housing policy.

Our yearly meeting sessions were probably not as dramatic as reporters might have hoped, but in a spiritual sense they were very dramatic indeed. Controversies over sexual minorities have cut a swath through many Christian denominations. Maybe our little Quaker body has not yet felt the full force of this storm, but my interim report is that we are firmly resisting the polarizing forces, even as the underlying divisions quite clearly continue to exist.

The basic divisions remained more or less the same as last year, and once again we were considering a revision to our book of discipline. The mandate of the revision drafters was to preserve the substance of our yearly meeting's teaching on "Christian Witness to Human Sexuality" while seasoning it with grace. Rather than grouping homosexuality with other forms of "sexual perversion," the new text referred to "same-sex sexual acts" as one of several "distortions of sexual intimacy" that "contribute to brokenness of the individual and the community." Again there was no unity on adopting the new text. Many appreciated the effort to restate traditional teachings more gracefully, but some felt that the original text was clearer and more faithful to Scripture while others rejected the revision because they fundamentally did not agree that same-sex acts necessarily contributed to brokenness.

Everyone spoke tenderly and respectfully. Nobody charged that the differences in the yearly meeting rose to the level of being unequally yoked. I felt once again that the center held, and that its voice was very strong. We minuted, without sugarcoating, our inability to find unity on a new wording for Faith and Practice. I believe that, although we may not have succeeded in putting a more gracious formulation into the book, our minutes will bear evidence that there is widespread discontent with the present wording.

Our guest speaker for three evening sessions was Noah Baker Merrill, New England Yearly Meeting's secretary. He addressed the yearly meeting's theme "Hope and a Future" (Jeremiah 29:11; context) with a constant challenge to believe God's promise that "things can be different." On the first night, Noah gave a vivid image of hope he gained from an interview he made with an Iraqi refugee. The refugee was a Christian man who (in the upheavals resulting from the American invasion) was captured, tortured, and literally crucified--hung on a wall. In his agony he had an image of Jesus coming into the room. Before he lost consciousness, he realized that Jesus was not taking him off the wall; instead, Jesus climbed up and hung on the wall beside him. Having heard this account, Noah was distracted by rage and confusion over the cause of this ordeal. The refugee had to point out what was, for him, the amazing central point: "But did you hear that he came and that I am alive!" Noah went on: "And I saw the joy and the light in his eyes and I saw the hope in his heart. And that hope, which was the presence of Christ in him awakened the hope in me, and I knew that, yes, this was the hope that the world needs."

Our yearly meeting's epistle ("slightly rough draft") summarizes Noah's second and third evenings:
In his second talk, Noah spoke of the tension of living in the "and" in our theme by sharing how Jeremiah prepared the people of God for exile and all the tumult, chaos, and confusion that was about to destroy their way of being. Noah gave us much needed encouragement to endure our time of exile while we live the gospel without easy answers in our quick-fix world. On his final night of speaking, Noah created for us an image of our future. Reminding us the exile ends, we will find the quiet center again even while we now feel the heat of the potter's kiln. As the heat fades, the lovingly crafted, shaped, and fired vessel is brought out to display NWYM's beauty and we will be used for God's wonderful purpose. Even now, there are countless seeds of hope for our future Noah witnessed among us. Through it all, we were reminded of the Iraqi Christian's extraordinary words and the truth they hold for us as we live in the tension of our conflicted present and yearning towards our future.
Whether we feel trapped between Jerusalem and Babylon, or between internal uncertainty and external culture wars, we can believe that there is hope and a future. "When the people of God pray, things happen--marvelous things." Evidently, a lot of prayer was going on during our yearly meeting sessions.

Walking past the food service building, I noticed some familiar young Friends playing a board game--one that I hadn't ever seen before. I found out that Reedwood Friends Church's own Bennett Hutchinson, helped by Merrick and Karl Hutchinson and Mason Downs, had designed a peace game, Unified Front. From the instructions:
Unified Front is a game of cooperation in a world at war. The nations of the world have fractured--treaties are being broken, nations formerly united have become hostile, and the world is on the brink of the greatest war it has ever seen. You--a team of diplomats, activists, and peacekeepers--are one of its last hopes. Travel the world, unite its people, and spread peace.
With the help of a grant from the Yearly Meeting, the game has been published, and every cluster of local churches has its own copy to circulate. (Update: you can get your own game set here.)

Jim Wallis: "The horrible human costs and increasing danger the world is now facing in Gaza, Ukraine, and Iraq show the consequences of not telling the truth."

Christianity and politics in Russia and Ukraine: Martin E. Marty. A Ukrainian/Catholic view. Bill Yoder cautions against convenient correlations.

BBC: "Voices from the Tennessee Death Penalty Debate." From a conservative death penalty opponent: "I think you have to give any policy what I call the conservative litmus test: you have to ask whether it is constitutional, pro-life, whether it is fiscally responsible and whether it is limited government. And the death penalty is inconsistent with at least three of those."

Eric Bibb, "The Needed Time."