19 December 2014

Russia in crisis

. . . a look back at September 1998

According to a joke circulating in Russia [in the "default" year 1998], two bankers are conversing:

“How did you sleep last night?”
“Like a baby…”
“How could that be??!!”
“Every hour I woke up and cried!”
(Interfaks-AiF, September 18, 1998)

December 2014: We have been following this week's financial developments in Russia attentively. The implications for ourselves and our friends and colleagues in Russia make this story very personal. For this blog post, I dug out the report I wrote on my visit to Elektrostal, Moscow, and Volgograd in September 1998, the month following the famous "default." Here are some excerpts, edited for the sake of privacy for some people and groups mentioned in the original report.

Translator Mira Perper in her study.
Elektrostal, September 1998: this truck was selling potatoes
for 2 rubles a kilogram.
The relentlessly cynical Exile's cover for September 24, 1998,
featured an ATM telling the customer, "Sorry, all your money
is in Switzerland." 
Current humor. (Source.)
Survey: "How much will dollars cost in the new year"? The
online version of the business newspaper Kommersant began
running this survey yesterday. Choices from top to bottom:
64 kopecks; 36.6 rubles; 100 rubles; from three to five; money
isn't everything.
See source for most recent tally. Note: 36.6
rubles was normal about two months ago; today the figure is
about 60.
When I arrived here in Elektrostal, Russia, two weeks ago ... I knew I was coming to a country in economic crisis, whose financial structures seemed to be dissolving and whose government seemed powerless to act. The US news media had been emphasizing the worst, with dramatic scenes of lines at currency exchanges and warnings of the global consequences of Russia’s economic instability. Some members of the Board of Friends House Moscow, whose meeting was one of my reasons for being here, seemed ready to postpone the meeting entirely. What would happen if hyperinflation took over? Would a military adventurist fill the power vacuum? Would the borders be closed?

Six weeks ago, when the crisis began (provoked by announcements and hints from the Russian government concerning devaluation of the ruble and rescheduling of loan repayments), the Russian media were just as apocalyptic. By the time I arrived on September 18, the newspapers had become more philosophical, often reflecting (and fueling?) the cynical attitudes of the public with their own gallows humor. The weekly Argumenti i Fakti published an article with the front page headline, “How the Bankers Stole our Money.” The following week they asked, “Is it Worth Putting Our Money in the Savings Bank?”

The biweekly Interfaks-AiF ran a headline, “We Wait for a Change,” followed by the subtitle, “If the crisis is all in our heads, it’s not necessary to beat us about the head so hard.” In the same issue, a commentator, Vladimir Razuvaev, remarked on “Our Funny Politics”: “Politics in Russia seems funny by its very nature. The head of the state promises to lie down on the train tracks if prices in the country rise, and at the same time gathers neoliberal [market-oriented] economists under his banner. He makes his experienced and devoted prime minister resign, only to call him back to this same post five months later. On Friday he announces that the ruble will not be devalued, but the opposite is happening by Monday.”

Two issues later, a front page article is suggesting that if duty in the new prime minister’s cabinet is so unattractive to Russia’s politicians, maybe Primakov ought to consider some new sources for cabinet appointments: “Look, Russia’s great friend Helmut Kohl has just been released. The German electorate, who benefited from his sixteen years of chancellorship, have decided to change their country’s top person. As a result, the most experienced politician in the world today is sitting around without any of the sorts of responsibilities appropriate to his stature….” Remarking that “… it is not in our Russian nature to do things by halves,” author Anton Trishin goes on to add former prime ministers of Japan and Great Britain to his list of potential recruits, and then points out that, according to rumors, even such figures as International Monetary Fund head Michael Camdessus and our “friend Bill” Clinton might soon be available for cabinet positions!

In the meantime, you can turn to the newspaper Segodnya (September 28) for an article on “How to Transfer your Money Across the Border” – presumably to a safe place outside of Russia. Why would you want to do that? Because, as author Olga Zaslavskaya bluntly says, “Money which falls into a [Russian] bank literally disappears into a black hole.”

Serious analytical articles abound as well, including proposals from a panel of state-control-oriented economists from the Russian Academy of Sciences, leaks from within the government’s own discussion (one leak concerned possible restrictions on dollars, leading to a brief panic yesterday), and thoughtful essays and interviews with the views of such leaders as the head of the center-left Yabloko party, the head of the Central Bank, and former prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. Several commentators focus on the country’s lack of a pervasive national identity and sense of purpose as a systemic source of governmental paralysis. Commentator Nikolai Petrakov writes in Interfaks-AiF about the economic consequence, namely that the country’s financial sector is completely disconnected from reality, and the government is doing nothing about it. The banks have become financial organizations generating money out of thin air through their financial manipulations instead of actually investing in the country’s productive capacity. It is as if “our government regards the people as a biomass on which they can perform experiments.” In an odd sort of way, maybe prime minister Primakov is confirming this suspicion, at least for the time being, by saying (as quoted by the newsweekly Itogi), “The country may be able to, so to speak, maintain self-restraint for some amount of time.” Newspapers and television stations are speculating on what will happen on October 7, the date appointed by a major association of trade unions for a general strike. Will people use the opportunity to say on a massive scale that they’ve had enough?

In an article in Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 26, Duma member Vyacheslav Zvolinksky also addresses the systemic roots of the crisis in Russia, and warns of the possibility of civil war. He believes that the state, particularly the Duma, must take responsibility for its role in saving the country, but feels that the state has been paralysed because of the contradictions and imbalances contained in the constitution. He urgently calls for constitutional reform before food and energy supplies are depleted to the point where the people lose patience entirely and rise up in elemental protest, “sweeping away everything in their path: the new government, the president, and all the legislators lost in their doubts and discussions.”

At this point, people so far are indeed showing remarkable self-restraint. While the politicians dither and the financial puppeteers pull their strings in Moscow, the people of Russia show their characteristic patience, resignation, persistence and incredible decency and somehow keep the country going. What else can they do? So, as I put down the newspapers and look around at real life here, my first impressions are that life on the streets of Moscow, Elektrostal and Volgograd seems amazingly normal. The only unusual activity is that life’s daily rounds of shopping, school, childcare and (often unpaid) work now also include frequent trips to the currency exchanges, as people draw on their hoards of dollars to pay for food and other necessities whose prices had often doubled or tripled since mid-August. (Of course, not everyone has little stashes of dollars, but many did collect at least a few for a rainy day.) Here in Elektrostal, plain bread, potatoes, milk, vodka, bus fares, apartment rents and utilities remain at roughly the same prices for now, but just about everything else has gone up. Cheese has gone up 50% to 100%, meat has doubled or tripled, rice has gone up as much as five times. Many imported products, especially manufactured goods, are now priced in a currency euphemistically labeled “conditional units” (“UE’s”) which are really dollars, even though payment must be made in rubles.

New tasks lead to new hassles: Often people find that the currency exchanges close early for lack of rubles. Here in Elektrostal, it took me six visits over four days to two different places (and one private “banker” operating out of his car) to collect enough rubles to pay for my round trip Moscow-Volgograd train ticket. That hassle was a concrete, if minor, way I could share the daily reality of millions of Russians. Even when they can get rubles, people want to get the best price for their dollars, so they compare rates between different exchanges, and try somehow to slalom their way through the frequent changes. Just before I arrived, rates were as high as 22 rubles to the dollar, but today they are 14 to the dollar (making people very cynical about the fact that they can get rubles today but not when they were at 22!) and last week the dollar ranged between 15 and 11.5 within just a few days. As one person said, “There’s just no way to beat it; the people pulling the strings will always come out on top in the end.”

Underneath all this apparent normalcy (the usual activities of working, commuting, buying and selling, gardening to the very last moment permitted by weather, and so on) there is a quiet desperation which is only dealt with by concentrating on one day at a time. “I can’t even imagine how we will get through the winter, so I just think about today,” said one of my Elektrostal friends. Another friend, in Volgograd, described how her elderly parents are coping: “They are spending the money they set aside for their burial. I go to the store for them, so I see how their money is getting used up. They try to buy things for me, too, but I tell them I have everything I need.” In saying that, she is simply lying; she can only count on some bread and one meal each weekday at the school where she teaches. Ordinarily she has to pay for her meals at the school canteen, but the director is allowing them to eat on credit until they are paid their salaries again. Not that the long-postponed salaries are much to wait for; hers is about $100 a month in newly deflated rubles. [The new rubles, with three zeros lopped off, were introduced the previous year.] For their other needs, the teachers often pool their money together and divide up the shopping tasks – each person buys one or another thing in bulk for the whole group. Together they try to scrounge up food and supplies for the children as well. The same is going on at the home for children with special needs here in Elektrostal (headed by one of the participants in the Friends group) – the food budget allocations from the government have long since disappeared, so the staff must beg and improvise to keep the kids fed.

Twice I went to my host family’s dacha to help with their garden, a heavily planted half-acre or so. The little house on the plot burned down last year, but the main point of the place is not to relax, but to provide food, so the dacha’s winter-lifeline function continues. We carried back big bags of beetroots, carrots, tomatoes, lettuce, cauliflower, and turnips – and armfuls of gladiolas! In our case, the gladiolas are for gifts and for decorating the home, but I found out that for many, the importance of growing flowers is that they can be sold on the street. I saw several elderly women selling flowers on the street in Moscow; somehow they have to carry these huge, beautiful blooms in on the suburban trains and get to their destinations without crushing them, stand and call out to potential customers all day or until they run out, then go home and cook and get ready for the next day of survival. (They might be able to get a better flow of customers by bringing their wares to an outdoor market, but then they might also have to pay a cut to the Mafia.) On Thursday it snowed in Moscow and Elektrostal: the garden season is coming to an end, whether everything has been harvested or not….

The current issue of the Economist reports the results of a survey of Russians:

“Are you being paid at your place of work” Answers: Yes, regularly: 18%. Yes, irregularly: 25%. (Most of the Russians I know are in this category.) No: 57%.

“What will enable you to live through the economic crisis?” Food from own small-holding or dacha plot: 44%. Stockpiled food from the summer: 12%. Game-shooting, fishing, picking berries, mushrooms, etc.: 12%. Food bought at cheap outdoor markets: 10%. Informal self-employment 10%. Help from relatives in the countryside: 9%. Bank savings 5%.

Interesting, but not surprising to me, are the answers to another question: “Would you like to emigrate if the situation got worse?” Yes: 18%. No: 62%. Hard to say: 20%.

Compared to these widespread hardships, it seems anticlimactic to report on my own activities during these past two weeks. I spent most of the first week helping with English classes in two schools, Natasha Fedorchenko’s Foreign Language School (Natasha is a participant in the Friends group) and Sergei and Larisa Kazantsevs’ New Humanities Institute. The Elektrostal Friends group met once while I was there, probably their only meeting since Retha McCutchen and I visited in March. I also had visitors from Moscow.... I attended a meeting of the group working on joint publication of a Russian edition of the book Lighting Candles in the Dark, a Friends General Conference collection of stories of nonviolence in daily life, primarily illustrated with art by young Russian and American artists. I made two visits to a remarkable 81-year-old scholar, Mira Perper, whose parents were Tolstoyans and who herself has translated books and articles by [and for] Bill Edgerton, a retired professor of Russian history and literature and member of Bloomington Meeting in Indiana. Finally, a young member of the Elektrostal Friends group, Dmitri ... and I made a brief trip to Volgograd by train to visit with a teacher there who is a friend of Richmond residents Paul and Marie Turner.

... In case I leave the impression that there is nothing but misery and introspection in Russia, I should point out that people haven’t forgotten how to have fun. Elektrostal has just celebrated the 60th anniversary of its founding as a new Soviet city with festivals and carnivals and cultural programs. There is still a carnival going on at the hockey stadium, with rides and booths of all kinds, and plenty of loud music. Teenagers and young adults are still pairing off and flirting in public, on the streets, in the trains and metros and buses, creating little bubbles of privacy around themselves to make up for the lack of privacy at home. President Clinton’s woes have been a source of diversion: every English class I have visited has had at least one student who wanted to know what I thought about the affair. Attitudes in Russia are almost 100% pro-Clinton. One laborer came up to me at the New Humanities Institute and, realizing that I was American but not realizing that I spoke Russian, said with a big grin, “Clinton – good! Kennedy – good!” Excerpts from Clinton’s grand jury testimony were shown on Russian television on the very day I arrived. A week later, a headline in one of the “boulevard papers” (Russian versions of National Inquirer-style tabloids) read, “Americans Tired of Lewinsky.” After reporting on Monica Lewinsky’s literary agent’s failure to get a book contract for her, the article went on to say, “We, however, publish our newspaper not in America but here, and so we promise that our next issue will have more spicy details from [independent counsel Ken] Starr’s office.”

Russia is still Russia, and signs of the Soviet era still remain here and there. During my visit to Volgograd earlier this week, Dmitri and I stayed at the Soviet-style Intourist hotel, run with the old “we know what is good for you” style. Sometimes the results of that attitude can actually be better than expected. When we registered at the hotel, we received breakfast vouchers. But when we asked about when we might be able to have dinner, we heard the familiar reply, “Sorry, but the restaurant is being renovated.” I asked, “How will we have breakfast then?” and was assured that though the kitchen was closed, there would be some cold items available in the morning. The next morning, wondering what we would actually find, we sat down in the ornate and nearly empty dining room and awaited our cold items. There was no menu, we would get what we would get. And we did! -- apple juice, coffee and tea, a delicious cheese and egg dish, rolls, bread, butter and excellent Russian jam, cheese, and a huge bowl of hot cereal. Later we went to two museums in Volgograd – the museum of the battle of Stalingrad, and a museum devoted to the city’s civil war history and the Russian emigration to France. In both cases, Dmitri asked, “May I take photographs,” and in both cases, the response was “No, it is not allowed, but … oh, go ahead!” At the civil war museum, the staffer looked around and added, “But please make it quick!” The managing editor at Astreya, Svetlana Bazovkina, which is publishing the Russian edition of the Quaker book Lighting Candles in the Dark, presented us with some proposed cover art for the book which was a throwback to the socialist-optimism style of twenty years ago … but she did understand our doubts about that style. She herself is an editor for, among other things, the new magazine, Igromania (“Games-Mania”), a magazine for fans of Nintendo, Sega and PC games.

After these two intense weeks, I’m leaving Russia with a lot of mixed feelings. This is not an easy time for the Russian people, and something in me feels a bit embarrassed to be “escaping” to the somewhat more stable West. I especially regret not being present on October 7 for the general strike. It helps to remember that my Volgograd friend, the one who was pretending to her parents that everything was okay, ended her visit to me with these words: “The most important thing is that I know Jesus Christ is with me.”  [Moscow-based Eastern Orthodox Christian and Quaker] Tatiana Pavlova said almost exactly the same words to me. In prayer and in the unity of faith, I hope we can be with them and the millions of others in Russia who are in the same situation. And may the same faith bear fruit in political life: as evidenced by the lively, creative debates in the press, the Russian people are fully capable of coming up with the policies needed for their country, but forming and applying the necessary political willpower seems to me to be a supernatural task.

[Sadly, Mira Perper died in 2001, Tatiana Pavlova in 2002, and Bill Edgerton in 2005. Eternal memory to all of them! To what extent these travel notes are still relevant to 2014, I leave to others to decide. Certainly there are many differences between 1998 and now, but the mood of uncertainty, a certain degree of resignation, and the importance of humor remain constant, along with the imperative of prayer.]

To receive a copy of Micah Bales' A Guide to Quaker Worship, the only cost is your e-mail address at this site. This may be the freshest and most accessible introduction to unprogrammed Friends worship that's ever been written.

"My Quaker Pilgrimage So Far" ... "I long for a community that is not simply centered on Christ, but is consumed by and in complete surrender to Christ." Can we be that community?

"The Sakharov Center in Moscow needs your help."

"Where Evangelicals Donate (and No Longer Donate) their Dollars."

"Majorities Believe Christmas Story is Accurate."

"Mary, can you teach us to be courageous?"

Seth Godin on "Clear language and respect." Amen.

Lil' Jimmy Reed (Leon Atkins) sings "Honest I Do," made famous by the original Jimmy Reed.

18 December 2014

Cuban short

I have a personal reason to cheer the just-announced upgrade in relationships between the USA and Cuba.

During the years 1993-2000 I served as general secretary of Friends United Meeting. FUM is an international association of Quaker yearly meetings--in fact the largest body of Friends in the world. For historical reasons its offices have been located in the USA (now also in Kenya) but the responsibilities of those offices have always been international.

When we made our first staff trip to Cuba during my tenure, there were four of us. We followed the rules of the USA and Cuba as we understood them, but after our return we  were told that we apparently missed some detail and were threatened with $10,000 fines by the USA government. A large Friends organization based in Philadelphia offered us legal help, but that help was apparently not needed, as the threats were eventually dropped.

I brought the subject up later, on my one and only trip to the White House during my FUM service. I was one of several dozen religious leaders invited to hear President Clinton on the subject of race relations in the USA but we were also invited to raise our own concerns. I pointed out the contradiction between freedom of religion, enshrined in our constitution, and our inability to conduct normal pastoral administration of the Friends United Meeting congregations in Cuba. In no other country did we face such obstacles from our own government.

We did continue to send visitors and work teams to Cuba after that first complicated occasion, finding out in practice what hoops we had naively missed the first time. The last time we were involved personally, the relevant Treasury Department forms we as the sponsoring church had to fill out amounted to something like seventy pages.

May the favorable developments continue. It's particularly satisfying to hear that another Christian communion with pastoral responsibilities in Cuba (the Roman Catholic Church) played an important role in this recent breakthrough. Notice that the Roman Catholic Church, based outside the USA, did not need the Treasury Department's permission to intervene.

* * *

I'm postponing my regularly scheduled blog post until tomorrow; I have to do some fact-checking that I can't do on this mobile phone. But in the meantime, did anyone else hear what I heard today among all the comments made about the end of Stephen Colbert's nine years of The Colbert Report? In describing Colbert and his public involvements, a commentator on National Public Radio used the adjective "Christian" as a positive quality.

That's more than just truthy.

11 December 2014

"Shocking honesty"

Vesti's report (in Russian) is here.
Actual PDF report with original cover is available on this page.
... is the way the Russian Vesti network titled its coverage of the release of the Senate report on the Central Intelligence Agency's Detention and Interrogation Program. Reporter Alexander Khristenko ends his introductory paragraph this way: "... Some have already called the publication of this report 'scandalous.' Will more good or more harm come from this shocking honesty?"

At this moment, I doubt any good would come from repeating my own outrage at having my tax dollars fund torture. I've written on this topic several times, including this summary of my responses to the usual excuses for using torture. (Scroll down to "Sunday No. 2.") If we don't already agree, it probably wouldn't be persuasive now.

I have a different question, and am hoping for a specifically Christian answer. My question is: what is so mesmerizingly attractive about violence and cruelty that we keep using violent and cruel methods repeatedly after they utterly fail to produce the desired results? What is gratified by those methods, and what can we do in the name of Christ to confront that gratification?

I confess that there are at least three assumptions in my question that are themselves arguable:
  1. Torture is simply a specific application of violence, and is an expression of belief in what Walter Wink called "the myth of redemptive violence."
  2. The power of God is sufficient to overcome any situation in which we're tempted to apply that myth.
  3. Those who torture are worth redeeming. Nothing is ultimately gained by simply demonizing the CIA and its contractors and absolving ourselves of any responsibility.
The power of the myth is vividly shown by the excuses provided by the CIA and its apologists for the use of torture in extracting information and preventing future terrorism. It's hard for me to imagine how such powerful, intelligent, and well-paid people can resort over and over to such wishful thinking. If there is any more powerful evidence of the deceptive power of the myth over its practitioners, and danger of soul-death from the practice of torture, I can't imagine it.

My fondest hope is that the Christian community will feel more than just outrage at the abuse of human beings in the supposed service of our defense. As we work out our response, I'd love to believe that there will be a new alliance of activists and evangelists. Torture is evidence of a spiritual vacuum, not just in national leaderships but maybe in all of us who don't confront the ones who torture in our name. Don't we truly believe that God can pull down the strongholds of evil that oppress us and our "enemies" alike? Are we content to let "patriotism" and "defense" and "enemies" be defined only by those who insist on violent answers, generation after bloody generation?

If we believe that the power of God is greater than our violent solutions, and the people of God can take the initiative in meeting evil with that power, let's say so publicly, winsomely, persistently, creatively, and urgently! And let's do it without smears and insults. Let's turn our evangelists loose with this wonderful implication of living with Jesus in our midst, and let's turn our activists loose to teach us about war tax resistance and every other way to say "no!" in the name of Jesus. My guess is that evangelists and activists will reinforce each other in ways we may never have seen since the anti-slavery and women's suffrage movements of the past.

Coincidentally with the release of the Senate report on the CIA and the resulting controversy, I've been reading John Kenneth Galbraith's autobiography, A Life in Our Times. At the end of World War II, Galbraith was an economist on the team that conducted the Strategic Bombing Survey to analyze the military effectiveness of the vast bombing campaigns on Germany and German-occupied Europe. His team assumed that so much bombing (of cities by night and of strategic objectives by day) must surely have caused great damage to the German war economy. However, even before the end of the war in Europe, they were seeing production figures that told a very different story:
In 1940, the first full year of war, the average monthly production of Panzer vehicles was 136; in 1941, it was 316; in 1942, 516. In 1943, after the bombing began in earnest, average monthly production was 1005, and in 1944, it was 1583. Peak monthly production was not reached until December 1944, and it was only slightly down in early 1945. For aircraft ... and other weaponry the figures were similar.

Very soon George Ball's investigations of the attacks on the cities would produce some equally disturbing conclusions. Thus, for example, on three summer nights at the end of July and the beginning of August 1943, the RAF came in from the North Sea and destroyed the center of Hamburg and adjacent Harburg. A terrible firestorm sweeping air and people into the maelstrom caused thousands of casualties. Destroyed also were restaurants, cabarets, specialty shops, department stores, banks and other civilian enterprises. The factories and shipyards away from the center escaped. Before the holocaust these had been short of labor. Now waiters, bank clerks, shopkeepers and entertainers forcibly unemployed by the bombers flocked to the war plants to find work and also to get the ration cards that the Nazis thoughtfully distributed to workers there. The bombers had eased the labor shortage.

We were beginning to see that we were encountering one of the greatest, perhaps the greatest miscalculation of the war.
Two things really impressed me in Galbraith's story. First of all, he gives a vivid account of how hard some in the Pentagon and the Congress worked to suppress the survey's conclusions. Thousands of brave pilots and crews (not to mention hundreds of thousands of innocent "enemy" civilians) perished because Allied leaders took it on faith that the bombing campaigns were effective. And even after evidence was produced to disprove this belief, that evidence was ferociously discounted. Is this anything different from the responses of Bush-era CIA apologists to the criticisms in the Senate report?

The other major surprise emerging from the survey team's research--and particularly from the questioning of prisoners of war--was how wrong the image of Nazi Germany and its economy had been. Allied leaders and people had this idea that Germany had been fully mobilized, its economy militarized and polished to a high sheen, and everything was managed with total Teutonic competence. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Mobilization had been lackadaisical, production in the early stages of the war was low (on the assumption that resources expended on Blitzkrieg offensives could be replenished between campaigns) and there was plenty of gross incompetence, laziness, and ignorance at all management levels. Promotion to higher pay and responsibility in the Nazi government frequently led to hedonistic lifestyles and corruption. It's just interesting to think that the myth of redemptive violence probably goes hand in hand with mythical enemies.

"This graphic shows that torture is a global problem," and the CIA's actions may have contributed to its persistence.

"Why it's so rare to hear an apology for torture."

"'Helping Without Hurting': The Global Missions Health Conference." "For all the less charitable stereotypes fulfilled at the GMHC, there were many more endearing impressions...."

If you're an uncritical fan of the U.S. government space program, don't read this article.

"Unseen C.S. Lewis letter defines his notion of joy."

An update on a subject we've mentioned before: "Teaching Orthodoxy in Russian schools."

"Isis: the inside story." Thanks to Jim Forest (Orthodox Peace Fellowship).

"Open the eyes of my heart, I want to see You." OSLO Gospel Choir.

04 December 2014

Christmas and Ferguson II

Komsomolskaya Pravda: "Ferguson repeats itself in New York...." Screenshot from kp.ru's story.
Last Sunday at Reedwood Friends Church, Judy and I spoke about our Western Christian Advent and its similarities and differences with the 40-day Nativity Fast of the Eastern Orthodox Church. But whether we emphasize anticipation of the coming of Christ (as in the West) or the worthy celebration of Incarnation (East), I ended by saying that neither the glitter and glamour nor the piety of our celebrations should obscure the earthy reality of Christmas--birth, vulnerability, death.

I referred to Anthony Bloom's words about the Russian Orthodox Good Friday service:
We confess faith in Christ, but we've reduced everything to symbols. So, for example, I'm always struck by our Good Friday service: instead of the cross on which a living young Man dies, we have a wonderful service that can move us but that actually stands between us and that rude and ghastly tragedy. In place of the cross we've substituted an icon of the cross. In place of the crucifixion, we've substituted an image. In place of a retelling of the actual horror of what happened, we substitute a poetic/musical reworking of the story.

Of course that reworking does reach us, but we so easily begin to get a taste for that horror, even deeply experiencing it, being shaken and then regaining our calm, whereas the vision of a living person who is murdered is something quite different. That remains as a wound in the soul, you don't forget it; having seen it, you'll never again be the same as you were. And that is what dismays me. In some sense, the beauty and depth of our worship must break it open, and must lead every believer through that opening to the terrible and majestic secret of what is actually happening.
(From a longer passage that I quoted here.)

By analogy, I asked our meeting to remember the risky reality of Christmas. In the biblical account, Jesus was celebrated first by a viscerally poignant signal from the baby who would become John the Baptist, leaping inside Elizabeth's womb when pregnant Mary walked into Elizabeth's home. Jesus's birth, in inauspicious surroundings, was followed by Herod's political repressions, and the civil disobedience of the wise foreigners bearing gifts.

Now we are celebrating Advent or the Nativity Fast in the midst of the ripples of Ferguson and Ferguson II, the incomprehensible utter failure of our vaunted "due process" to process the deaths of two unarmed men ... whose tragic stories stand for countless others who remain unknown at least to the white majority in the USA.

If we remember the actual Gospel story, the Ferguson eruptions are not a scandalous interruption in the Christmas celebrations, they are a breaking-in of human reality. Either the Gospel directly relates to this reality or it doesn't; dear Church, which is it? Have the people in shadow really seen a great Light? In that Light can we find the courage to look directly at racism and its satanic grip on people and institutions? And is there any arena other than church where people of all races, incomes, cultures, classes, and alleged sophistication could experience that Light together?

There are two specific aspects that I would us to have the freedom to examine together:

First, instead of being trapped by defensiveness, can we please compare perceptions? In my experience, white people (at least those not in the activist subculture) focus on individual cases and are perennially inclined to conclude, "It's sad, but I can understand why the police officer acted the way he did." In fact, that's exactly what one dear weighty (white) Friend said to me last Sunday. But people who don't have the systemic advantages of white skin also know the cumulative cost of racism. The tired denials of people invested in things-as-they-are don't persuade them. Why do things unfold so often in these tragic ways? Is it really all coincidence? When will we begin to trust the perceptions of people whose experiences are not like ours?

By the way, activists should not be exempt from this exercise. What deep listening will help them (us) connect with those who are now judged to be less enlightened?

Second, what's the connection between racially charged violence, anger over immigration policy, and the increased militarization of the USA? Is our state of permanent warfare (see today's TomDispatch) degrading our culture and our humanity?

This year, at this very moment, may Advent Light restore and increase our capacity to see without flinching, and to act in love rather than in fear or defensiveness.

(From last August) Pastor Brenda Salter McNeil on "Four Practical Tips for Preaching on Ferguson."

"Right-brained apologetics": David Heim interviews Francis Spufford, whose book Red Plenty I recommended last month.
There's a particular danger, just at the moment, of falling in with the atheist polemicists' endless, tedious, monopolistic concentration on whether God exists. OK, God's existence is logically prior to the possibility of our faith in him, but it isn't biographically prior, it doesn't come first in terms of the life of faith. God's love gets us there, God's mercy. His mere existence is probably God's most boring quality. [Masculine pronouns in original.]
"Jehovah's Witnesses go underground in Samara."

"Taking the Fight Against Heretic Xenophobic Christianity."

"Russia's Largest Social Network [vk.com] Now More Popular Among Young People Than Any Website or TV Channel." And it's one of the main ways I stay in touch with my students while we're away.

Two versions of "This Little Light of Mine" (why choose?!) ... Don't miss Mavis Staples' homily at the end of her version.

The Lower Lights // This Little Light of Mine from The Lower Lights on Vimeo.

27 November 2014

Thanksgiving and Ferguson, Missouri

"Ferguson quiets down in anticipation of Thanksgiving." Story on Russia's Channel 1. Screen grab. Source.
Even among predominantly white North American Friends, the story of Ferguson, Missouri, and the grand jury decision not to charge the policeman who killed unarmed Michael Brown, cause dissension.

Two of the pastoral staff at Reedwood Friends Church, Portland, Oregon, joined the Albina Ministerial Alliance to express distress at the events in Ferguson. (Even Portland protesters are significantly divided.) Quakerly reactions varied to our Reedwood pastors' participation in the Portland event. Some supported their involvement, recognizing the very different experiences of black and white citizens in relation to law enforcement. Others said they were upset that Friends seem willing to protest without determining the facts first, or without examining the evidence that was considered by the grand jury. Still others reminded us that by standing in solidarity with black brothers and sisters in ministry, they are granting that black Christians' long-term perceptions of American reality are at least as valid as white perceptions.

I think that these divisions point to the spiritual-warfare dimension of racism. After all, racism is an aspect of the primordial sin of objectification, a perfect expression of violating the commandment against false witness. In many countries and empires, fortunes and whole economic systems are built on a tacit conspiracy not to account for the generational sins of racism and slavery. Is it any wonder that racism's manifestations continue to show the fingerprints of the Author of Confusion?

This Thanksgiving Day, I'm grateful that the USA has erupted over Ferguson. It's past time to raise holy hell. But let's not forget how deviously this spiritual poison acts. When we are tempted to attack police as a class, or an individual policeman, we shouldn't let class prejudice compound the sin. (How many police officers come from the same social circles as their archest critics?) Police must accept that the license to carry lethal weapons carries huge expectations of accountability, but the rest of us ought to support adequate budgets, training, and basic fairness for the police as well. Don't let police become proxy villains, whose vilification would help to conceal the systemic racism that continues to morph and mutate under our inadequate analyses. That too would be a violation of the commandment against bearing false witness.

Russian media have made a lot of the Ferguson tragedy, despite the persistent racism evident in Russia. In fact, a lot of the Russian commentary about Ferguson is itself blatantly racist.

It also reminds me and some of my friends of the Soviet practice of highlighting American racism in contrast to the supposed internationalism and worker solidarity of the Soviet system. Some of my older acquaintances in Russia became so habitually skeptical of the Soviet line on American racism that they assumed that the opposite must be true--it must be black Americans who are on top and whites who are subordinate. In other words, if the Soviet media said something (they were in the habit of assuming), the opposite is likely closer to the truth. We've had to tell our students and their parents that whatever the reality was in the Soviet Union, their reports on the USA were not always entirely wrong.

Here are several items concerning recent Russia coverage of the Ferguson story:

"If Black lives don't matter, nobody's life matters."

Nancy Thomas: "We’re realizing that the story of William Abel is not meant only for the Quakers of Bolivia. It will be a gift to the San Pasqual Band of Kumeyaay Indians."

"Pacifism isn't sensible, but then neither is the Christian life."

"Dissident artist's Lego portraits of injustice do time on Alcatraz." Thanks to Owais Abdul-Kafi via David Finke.

Johnny Shines, 1979. Many thanks to YouTube user Gerard Herzhaft.

20 November 2014

"We were strangers once, too."

E pluribus unum. Source.  
Source: my first passport.  
I had completely different plans for today's post, but then I was driving home this evening from Eugene Friends Church when I heard the U.S. president begin his speech on immigration policy. We reached our destination long before the speech ended, but I continued sitting in the parked car to the end of the speech, and for a while afterwards.

Obama's opponents have been sharpening their knives ever since elements of the plan announced tonight have started to appear. Of all the areas where they have fought him, the anger and invective directed at this specific initiative have been among the hardest for me to fathom. The previous president turned our national treasury from surplus to deficit, started two ruinous wars, weakened constitutional protections against invasions of privacy, and supported torture, with barely a peep from the same politicians who are now denouncing Obama's effort to address the USA's dysfunctional approach to immigration. Those same politicians could have supported bipartisan congressional action but abandoned the field from fear of the latest wave of xenophobes. (See this fascinating Politico.com account with its summary of the effect of Eric Cantor's primary election defeat.)

Tonight, Obama presented a very simple message: we cannot offer unlimited mass amnesty, nor are we realistically able to deport everyone who doesn't have the right papers. Neither approach is compatible with the rule of law or the nation's values. The present situation isn't defensible, either: millions of people are simply trapped in the shadows, subject to exploitation and the constant threat of families being ripped apart. In this climate of political intransigence on the part of those who have the legislative power to make things better, and (what Obama didn't say directly) the increasingly effective advocacy of immigration reformers, he had no choice but to offer a pragmatic way forward.

Above and beyond all the policy issues is the plain command of God, paraphrased by Obama from Exodus 23:9. "Scripture tells us that we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger -- we were strangers once, too. My fellow Americans, we are and always will be a nation of immigrants. We were strangers once, too." What really moved me was Obama's paraphrase of Exodus: "we" instead of "you." This is the element that has been disastrously missing from the toxic debate over immigration reform. As an immigrant to the USA, I had always assumed that "we Americans" included me, despite my foreign birth and my quota number. As a school child, even before I actually became a naturalized citizen, every school day I put my hand on my heart and with childish naivete recited the Pledge of Allegiance to "one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

I know that the road to complete immigration reform will be long and hard. Sometimes the claims of justice and security will be hard to reconcile. But if everyone who cherishes the Bible would take Exodus seriously and look at the "stranger" as one of "us," and those complications as a challenge that "we" tackle together, refusing to give in to that old American tradition of nativist scare tactics, wouldn't we be a lot closer to the goal?

Or would we honestly prefer another five, ten, twenty years of limbo for the men, women, and children we refuse to include in that Exodus standard? Is that who we think we are?

Seems like just yesterday ... Reedwood Friends Church's minute on immigration enforcement.

"Religion in Latin America: Widespread Change in a Historically Catholic Region." I was glad that this study referenced David Stoll's fascinating book from 24 years ago, Is Latin America Turning Protestant?

KKK vs Anonymous--ZDNet's summary of the recent clash.

I must lead a sheltered life. Oxford Dictionary's word of the year is a verb I'd never run into.

I had been a U.S. citizen for all of three years when I fell in love with the blues. This musician, J.B. Hutto, was one of the reasons.