23 June 2016

"I didn't have the heart..."

Joshua Kaufman, with his daughter, Rachel Kaufman.
Photo by Andy Eckardt; source.
"Why I didn't talk: I didn't have the heart to raise children, to tell them what I became -- an animal, to survive."

The speaker was Joshua Kaufman, Auschwitz and Dachau survivor, explaining why it has only been in recent years that he has talked about his death camp experiences.

Kaufman was interviewed by Owen Bennett-Jones on BBC Newshour last Friday. (Podcast available here, episode title "Russia Olympics ban remains," but it may cycle off the site after today. I kept my copy.)

Among several other riveting exchanges, Bennett-Jones wanted to know what Kaufman felt about the five-year sentence given to Auschwitz guard Reinhold Hanning for his complicity in the murder of 170,000 people. Kaufman thought the sentence was nothing -- a "picnic" -- but he had no hate, no desire for revenge. All he wanted was, for the sake of future generations, for Hanning to go with him to Auschwitz and bear witness to what had happened.

Kaufman's words about becoming an animal to survive really hit me. What does that mean, exactly? I suppose it means being backed into a corner where being human was no longer an option. Kaufman worked at the gas chambers; if I had been in his place and they ordered me to empty the bodies from the gas chambers, as ghastly as the task was, as tangled up as the corpses' limbs might be, I'd surely shut down my brain to do it.

And not just my brain, my soul, too. I remembered Varlam Shalamov's Kolyma Tales, whose GULag characters descend to a state of bare existence that's so numb that even killing oneself seems like too much trouble, never mind troubling about the fate of others.

So Kaufman didn't want all this to  affect his children's upbringing. But now his adult daughter is in the know. Rachel understands and admires her father's ideals and helps him express them to the news media. Judging by press accounts of the witnesses at Hanning's trial, those ex-prisoners who still remain alive want the world to know about an evil so massive, so thoroughly organized, so intent on genocide, so heartless that those who fell into its grasp sometimes had to become animals to survive. It's pretty clear that, whatever state of subhuman existence was required for survival, the Nazi system's uniforms, power, perverted technology, and a cult of racial superiority had already formed a master tribe of beasts.

I understand the survivors' sense of urgency. The beasts of ruthless objectification still roam our planet. As Ilya Grits says, "even now significant numbers of people regret that the 'great' European cannibals were not able to bring their 'cause' to a successful conclusion." What do we tell our children -- and when -- to ensure that they don't fall under that deadly spell?

Christians, whose faith is sometimes labeled as a religion for the oppressed, have an additional responsibility ... never to let the beastly infection of elitism and objectification compromise our witness. How well are we doing?

Great Britain votes today in the EU referendum. One of the most balanced defenses I've seen for Britain's remaining in the European Union comes from an Anglican bishop, Nick Baines. A sample:
...The language of pure, selfish, tribal self-interest – economic, cultural, social and political – is not one that translates into my understanding of Christian identity or justice. When Paul the Apostle wrote to the Christians in Philippi that they should “have the mind of Christ” and “look not to their own interests, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves”, I don't think he was indulging in other-worldly piety. A confident people is strong enough to face this, not to close it down.
David Williams is not preaching about Trump.

Micael Grenholm quotes Christy Wimber on taking the Vineyard back to its roots. Micael's post includes a video of Jack Hayford speaking to a Vineyard congregation -- it wasn't hard to imagine him saying more or less the same thing to us Quakers.

From Poland: a tribute to Little Walter.

16 June 2016

"Keep your lamp trimmed and burning"

Early Sunday morning, Moscow time: I said goodbye to Judy as she got into the shuttle van to the airport terminal, then I walked through the light rain back into the hotel, and fell back onto the bed.

I awoke again close to checkout time, descended seven floors to the reception desk and handed in our keys. A half hour later I was on the train to Belorusskii station, still groggy from sleepiness. I couldn't quite grasp what my smartphone was trying to tell me: something about a nightclub being shot up in Orlando, Florida. Isn't Walt Disney in charge there? I transferred to the metro and then the train to Elektrostal, and kept looking for more details on this story. Time was going by ... Judy must be in Amsterdam by now. Twenty people dead in Orlando, but nobody would commit to that number. A gay nightclub. I dreaded seeing updates but couldn't stop refreshing the feed.

Elektrostal. I get in the door and sit down at my desk. The cats cling to me. They don't ask where Judy is; they've been on to us for days, as suitcases appear and get filled under the cats' watchful gaze. They probably even know that I'll be disappearing, too, in a couple of weeks. Online, I get more details from Orlando. But what's worse are the details they can't give -- the reporters describe the anxious questions of families and friends of nightclub patrons who haven't been accounted for. By the end of the day, we have some numbers -- fifty lives lost, even more wounded -- but many people still don't know what happened to their loved ones. It's an ancient agony haunting us yet again: what have you done with my beloved?

The next days bring no relief, as uncertainty about the dead and injured is replaced by uncertainty about the killer and his frequently-mentioned "inner demons," and dread and disgust over the rapid political exploitation of this tragedy. There's something else about the responses to this atrocity that I can't quite put my finger on, and it has to do with the oddly-shaped response of the churches. I was glad for Orlando's Baptists' generous expressions, and -- interestingly -- I heard that a Chick-Fil-A had opened their normally closed-on-Sunday doors to serve food to the blood donors and other helpers. I was grateful for our own Northwest Yearly Meeting superintendent, Becky Ankeny, and her tender expression of care, but the larger church as a whole came across to me as somehow strangely half-inarticulate. It could just be me; maybe it's just hard to discern from this far away.

A few of my friends went online to express more than sadness. There was anger, too. In one case, it was anger over the fastidiousness with which the sexual identities of those targeted in Orlando were not acknowledged, and in another, the constant unwillingness of our country to reform gun laws. Maybe I'll eventually get angry, too, or maybe, in the church's division of labor, righteous anger will not be my portion this time.

Instead, I was given this song, "Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning." On Tuesday evening the regular e-mail bulletin from John Wilson of Books & Culture arrived, and he mentioned this new album, God Don't Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson. One of the eleven tracks is this song, along with other old favorites such as "John the Revelator," "Bye and Bye I'm Going to See the King," and "Motherless Children Have a Hard Time."

I downloaded the album, and let it do its healing work on me. Well, not healing, exactly, but keeping me company with its songs' gracious sanctified realism. "Keep Your Lamp" appeals to me especially -- it's not a message of passivity, but of patience, waiting, remembering that God doesn't change, and God's promises remain true. How I will be an instrument for God's promises in this present time isn't clear to me yet, but it's not my job to figure that out under my own steam. I need to keep my own lamp trimmed and burning. I need to do what it takes for me to stay facing the Light.

In bleak periods, I tend to fantasize about revival. And Mike Farley's post on Quaker renewal seems to fit with the song I'm listening to. Friday PS: Hye Sung Francis on Quaker revival. You rarely see the words "cheese, crackers, wine, and spiritual warfare" all in a row.

Prepare for some rough language as you read about what it's like to be a lesbian in Russia, the day after the Orlando massacre. (More here about the two men with the "Love Wins" sign.) I habitually wonder how the Good News becomes part of these situations.

Why we should not call Donald Trump a fascist. (Podcast.)

Eloise Hockett, president of Marafiki, describes what happens when your airplane becomes your neighborhood.

Last week I mentioned Russia Religion News as a way to keep up with developments on the Pan-Orthodox Council. For theological background, here's another resource: the Orthodox Theological Society in America's Special Project on the Holy and Great Council.

"Keep your lamp..." Here's a live performance by the musicians who recorded this track on the album.

09 June 2016

More true shorts

Sognefjord (outbound)



Sunset at 11 p.m.

farm near Skjolden

Back in Elektrostal from our Norwegian vacation. Despite the digital evidence in this post, I spent far more time simply gazing at these scenes in wonderment than taking photos of them. Having waited a whole lifetime to see these regions, I wanted to store up the experience in my heart. Despite my pretensions of being a global citizen, I confess that, more than once, I caught myself thinking, "Wow, so this is the amazing country where I was born!"

(In less romantic moments, I wondered what it would be like to live here in the middle of the winter.)

The themes of truth and certainty have always fascinated me, which is why I enjoyed reading these two articles:

Gerard Mannion, "Infallibility: Time to Find Another Term for This Doctrine?"

Craig Barnett, "Friends and Truth."

It seems like a lifetime ago that I read Hans Küng's book on the doctrine of infallibility and began following the controversy it engendered. But it was only when I read Mannion's recent update (on Pope Francis's apparent willingness to re-engage with Küng's concerns) that I sensed a connection between Catholic infallibility and Friends' Gospel order. The understanding of infallibility as connected with the church as "the entire people of God" links up in my mind with the "sense of the meeting" that underlies Friends' communal discernment.

On a slightly more ironic level, it's amusing when Friends look skeptically at the Catholic doctrine of infallibility but argue for their own personal infallibility as they pursue their own leadings or argue for a particular biblical interpretation.

Turning to Craig Barnett, I loved his generous appreciation of attempts to balance "objective truth" and "narrative consistency" -- adding his utterly appropriate reminder that the Quaker martyrs did not give their lives for narrative consistency! He continues,
To claim that there is something called 'truth' does not imply that the Quaker way is the only true story about the world, or that it includes the whole truth about reality. But the possibility of truthfulness does imply that our statements and actions can, to a greater or lesser extent, be in a right relationship to the world as it is.
In this season of corrosive denominational controversies over the Bible and sexuality, I'm grateful for any attempts to correlate truth, interpretation, and church authority in ways that prioritize grace and holiness over legalism on the one hand, and fashionable skepticism on the other.

Speaking of holiness and truth, I also appreciated Patricia Dallmann's recent essay on discernment. Her perspective:
The Religious Society of Friends has its origin in the discovery that the power of God can be felt and known among us in our gatherings for worship. Friends claim that our deepest thoughts and noblest feelings are manifestations of the divine. If, however, we fail to discern the difference between the guiding spirit of God and the products of our own human spirit (that is, our thoughts and feelings), we will be misled into an abbreviated and groundless understanding of who we are and what we can be as human beings. More importantly, we will be unavailable to carry forward the power and wisdom God provides to us for the stabilization and survival of our world.
She goes on to teach that we can our gifts of discernment cannot just be claimed, they must be used, exercised, and nurtured. If we are ready to discern God's will, we are what George Fox called "tender," prepared to harness our natural reason and conscience with a heavenly intent. I'd just add two things, which I'd guess Patricia might also add, and perhaps also Craig: first, the encouragement of this intent is a prime task of good eldership. Secondly, in the church community these gifts ebb and flow -- those who are strong in their gifts at any given time are able to help the rest of us who are weaker or under burdens or simply less mature. The truth of Patricia's teachings don't depend on us all being simultaneously at that same place of tenderness.

Having spent more years in Richmond, Indiana, than in any other place on this globe, I was delighted to see this warm appreciation of Richmond. (Thanks to Margaret Fraser for the link.)

Three deaths in one week: Philip Seddon writes very helpfully on a "juddering and jagged" reality.

The Eastern Orthodox world is struggling to arrive at acceptable arrangements for a pan-Orthodox council that has been decades in the making, and has been (had been?) scheduled for this month in Crete. To keep up with developments from Russian viewpoints, I recommend this English-language site, which always provides links to original sources. I've previously recommended this same site as a way to follow developments on the unfolding story of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia.

Terry Mattingly challenges you to discern which Steph-Curry-and-family story comes from the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and which from the sports network ESPN.

The high and holy calling of being a wife: Frederica Mathewes-Green writes one of the most moving articles on Christian marriage I've ever read. I wonder what will leap out at you from this article (whether in agreement or in disagreement) -- for me, I rejoiced at the insight of this paragraph:
As an early-seventies feminist, my image of what a marriage was, or what a husband was, was pretty dour. It was a surprise to find out that real marriage was something else entirely. It turned out that I didn’t have to be married to "a husband;" instead, I would be married to G.—my love, my hero, my fun and funny best friend. I felt like I had cheated the "oppressive" expectations of society; I had married G. instead of a husband.
For the lucky inhabitants of my U.S. hometown of Chicago, it's Blues Festival time. This year the festival will include a tribute to Otis Rush. As for me, will I see you in three weeks' time here?

Just mentioning Chicago gave me a non-negotiable hankering to hear Otis Spann:

02 June 2016

Calm vigilance?

Capt. Knut Maurer
Briefest entry ever ... we're on vacation.

Four years ago we went on a train to Mongolia -- four nights in a compartment with nothing to do but read and drink tea. In other words, bliss! This time we're going on a ship to Norway. We're visiting the region where my father was born, and the city (Bergen) where he grew up, and I'm reconnecting with my maritime heritage. Our ship will be about five times larger than my grandfather Knut's last ship, but on the other hand, it may also be something like five times cheaper!

(And here's a robust -- to say the least! -- defense of vacation!)

Andrew Sullivan wrote a much-commented-on essay about the danger to American democracy (what's left of it) from Donald Trump's apparent candidacy. Is he overstating it? How do you feel about his diagnosis -- an excess of democracy? How are you balancing calm and vigilance? (Assuming that's a desirable state and that you're not here in cozy Bergen with us.)
There is no place I would rather live. But it is not immortal, nor should we assume it is immune to the forces that have endangered democracy so many times in human history.


These working-class communities, already alienated, hear — how can they not? — the glib and easy dismissals of "white straight men" as the ultimate source of all our woes. They smell the condescension and the broad generalizations about them — all of which would be repellent if directed at racial minorities — and see themselves, in Hoffer's words, "disinherited and injured by an unjust order of things."
Sullivan's conservatism is of a classical kind that rarely seems to be heard above the counterclaims of today's opportunistic, negotiable, and mean-spirited counterfeit conservatives.

It's a mean old world to try to live in by yourself...

26 May 2016

Kelly and Grits in conversation...

About a year ago, we Moscow Friends agreed that each week we would try to arrange some kind of spiritual conversation after meeting for worship. In recent months we've used the joint declaration of the Pope and Patriarch for this purpose, as well as the epistle from the Friends World Committee's world plenary gathering in Peru.

Several of us enjoy looking for interesting texts in Russian to propose as good starters for these conversations. For example, I wondered how our meeting might react to the essay by biblical scholar Ilya Grits that I translated recently for this blog, "What does the 'people of God' mean in the context of the 21st century?" (Russian here as PDF file.) A few weekends ago I printed up some copies of the essay and handed them out during tea time. The first comment was positive: "This essay is the very essence of Quakerism!" The second commenter expressed less enthusiasm: "I much prefer Thomas Kelly's 'The Blessed Community'." (This talk was originally published in September 1939 in The Friend, then included in the book A Testament of Devotion.)

A third person asked, "Why do you prefer Kelly? What do you think Kelly would say to Grits?" We decided to schedule a discussion at a future meeting: we would read both essays and comment on how they spoke to each other. The Kelly fan, Misha, promised to lead the discussion. Along with the Ilya Grits handout, we had plenty of copies of Thomas Kelly's book, A Testament of Devotion, in the late Olga Dolgina's beautiful Russian translation.

We had some time to prepare -- our meeting place wasn't available on Victory Day weekend, so we gathered again in mid-May for our conversation. Only seven of us participated in the discussion, but it was lively and went on longer than I'd dared hope.

Among the points we made about the two essays, or about how they related:
  • "Can we really include terrorists and sociopaths in Ilya's definition of the 'people of God'?"
  • "There's really no conflict between these authors. They both evoke images of concentric circles around the central trunk, God. But Kelly's concentric rings are in order of spiritual intimacy, while the 'People of God' circles are defined by the various covenants between God and God's people."
  • "Kelly is strongest in describing how we recognize the people who become our deepest spiritual friends. Sometimes those people come from social ranks different from our own. His circles don't conform to the circles defined by habits of elitism. In this he's not far from Ilya Grits."
I'd love to know: what food for spiritual conversation in your church have you found recently? Have you tried bringing two different authors together for comparison?

One of the recent entries on Micah Bales' blog, "Even I Have My Limits," reminded me of words we read from Thomas Kelly's "The Blessed Community" during our Moscow meeting's conversation:
Not only do our daily friendships become realigned; our religious friends are also seen anew. Many impressions of worth are confirmed, others are reversed. Some of the most active church leaders well-known for their efficiency, people we have always admired, are shown, in the X-ray light of Eternity, to be agitated, half-committed, wistful, self-placating seekers, to whom the poise and serenity of the Everlasting have never come. The inexhaustible self-giving of others of our religious acquaintances we now understand, for the Eternal Love kindles an ardent and persistent readiness to do all things for, as well as through, Christ who strengthens us. In some we regret a well-intentioned, but feverish over-busyness, not completely grounded in the depths of peace, and we wish they would not blur the beauty of their souls by fast motion. Others, who may not have been effective speakers or weighty financiers or charming conversationalists or members of prominent families are found to be men and women on whom the dews of heaven have fallen indeed, who live continuously in the Center and who, in mature appreciation, understand our leaping heart and unbounded enthusiasm for God. And although they are not commissioned to any earthly office, yet they welcome us authoritatively into the Fellowship of Love.

More about scholar and translator Olga Dolgina. We miss her!

As a followup to Alexei Yurchak's Everything Was Forever, Until it Was No More (reviewed here), I've just started reading Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich's Secondhand Time. Excerpt here. (Caution: it was this excerpt that caused me to buy the book.)

Cherice Bock looks toward an ecotheology of critical hope. She summarizes her article as published in Cross Currents and provides the original text as submitted to the journal.

Central Asia, the Panama Papers and the myth of the periphery:
Whereas oligarchs from outside the west operate from a logic of "demand-side" corruption seeking discreet locations to launder money, the west operates from a logic of "supply-side" corruption.
Is there a health benefit to church attendance? Cautiously interpreted, maybe so!

Here's a song we'll probably never use for a classroom gap-fill exercise! "Clothes Line," lyrics by Kent Harris. (Historical background on this song here, but it's become a Nightcats crowd-pleaser; I've never seen them not perform this song.)

19 May 2016

The hammer

Patriarchal Choir of the Danilov Monastery in performance today at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations

"Bomb-blessing has no place..."

Gifts included hammer for damaging nuclear warheads

Gift of a Plowshares banner (quoting from Isaiah 2:4)
I had a glimpse today of what the future of the church could be, but I'm not exactly hopeful that it's coming soon. I can't deny that it is really, really hard to wait.

Here's what happened. I was fascinated by Jeremy Varon's account of Dan Berrigan's funeral mass, "The Death Stops Here: The Death and Resurrection of Daniel Berrigan," so I found the video coverage provided by the Jesuit periodical America.

[You can watch the funeral here: Part One, Part Two.]

I put the videos on my tablet and took them with me to Moscow today. On the bus to Moscow I watched most of the funeral; on the way home on the train, I watched the rest.

In between -- that is, while we were in Moscow -- we attended a benefit concert for Big Change, whose programs for orphanage-leavers we support enthusiastically. The concert took place in the auditorium of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations ("MGIMO") and featured the Patriarchal Choir of the Danilov Monastery, performing a mixed program of sacred and folk music centered around the Easter troparion. The central text of this short verse (which the choir sang in Greek, Russian, English, German, Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese, French, and Old Church Slavonic) consists of the most important assertion of our faith:

Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs
Bestowing life!

Of course I couldn't help making connections between this song and the funeral mass I was in the midst of watching on my tablet on bus and train. Christ has trampled down death, and is bestowing life. The works of death have no claim on us, his followers, because he has made a way for us. It seems to me that the church still has much more to do to proclaim and implement this astounding truth, this astonishing freedom.

The church we actually have, of course, is full of mixed messages. The beautiful choral songs we heard today, proclaiming Christ is risen from the dead, were followed by Cossack songs romanticizing killing and death on the battlefield. In one particularly famous and lovely song, a brave soldier dies "from the second bullet," the church deacon sings him off to eternal life, and I sat there taking it all in, including the reality that the dead soldier's comrades are surely about to cause the same scenes of grief among the so-called enemy.

Well, is there someone who should always mourn even the enemy's dead?

Who else but the church?

Back on the train, I rewound the funeral recording a bit and confirmed that, for those of us who believe in the resurrection, the Easter troparion and Dan Berrigan's funeral really meshed so beautifully. Christ is risen from the dead. He tramples down death by death. Or, as Stephen Kelly put it in the funeral homily, "Bomb-blessing has no place in Jesus' self-giving."

An extraordinary moment in the funeral mass: the people present their gifts. Children come to the altar with gifts for the table that all have a connection to Dan Berrigan. A young girl brings a hammer, which is added to the other gifts at the table; you catch glimpses of the tool lying there on the tablecloth throughout the remainder of the service. A hammer! Christ is trampling down death by death, and his people dare to attack nuclear warheads with a simple carpenter's hammer! (Specifically, Dan and his brother Phil and six others did this, at a General Electric armaments factory in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, September 8, 1980.)

We often hear the stern voices of Christian celebrities defending family values and warning us against liberal decay. I am so hungry to see the day when that sort of passion for truth wakes up and notices our heretical complicity with the death-worship that is commanded by the powers that be. The Christian church, reclaiming our resurrection freedom, can finally rise up in unity to defy those unclean powers, and as a united Body, set about trampling down death by death, beating swords into plowshares, and refusing to learn war any more.

We are free! What's stopping us?

About five years ago we heard this same Danilov Monastery choir when it visited Elektrostal. I wrote about that visit and its effect on our students here.

Ok, journalists, who actually checked the weeping icon?

Bonhoeffer's answer to political turmoil: Preach!

Nicholas Terpstra writes a revisionist account of the Reformation.

Why B.B. King sings the blues. (See article, "A theology of popular music, arts and culture.")