29 September 2005

ANSWER: guilt by association?

Johan Fredrik Maurer, 1817-1887... but before I get to that, I did scan the original Johan Fredrik Maurer, whose oil-on-wood painting hangs over our family computer. (See last week's insomniac notes for an explanation of sorts.)

What do I have in common with him? For starters, he too was an immigrant, and his father Johannes was an immigrant as well. Johannes Maurer (b. 1779 in Ulm) moved from Germany to Denmark; his son Johan Fredrik (b. 1817 in Copenhagen) moved from Denmark to Norway. In my case, the father-son duo had to cheat a bit for both of us to count as immigrants; my father emigrated from Oslo, Norway, to the USA, then returned to Oslo where I was born, and I then also emigrated to the USA!)

OK, what else do we have in common? Judging by the painting, we certainly don't have similar wardrobes. My résumé is also quite different, but like the first Johan Fredrik's, it has variety. I've worked in a factory, a restaurant, a hotel, three bookstores, a variety of religious settings (including economic development, denominational administration, and a pastorate) on the way to my present status as a self-employed writer. He went through the ranks to become a master carpenter, then joined the Christiania (now Oslo) fire department, rising to the rank of captain. (He must have been in that service at the time of the big downtown fire of 1853.) In the 1860's he returned to his role as a builder but on a larger scale, as an architect and developer. Along the way he also became a local politician.

The first Johan Fredrik lived in an era of large families. He married his first wife, Annette Marie Nordberg, in 1843, at age 25. She was 26. They had eight children. She died at age 38; two years later he married her sister, Lilly Johanne Nordberg, who was 32 at the time. She died in 1907 at age 83. Together they had another four children, one of whom was my great grandfather Axel, who became a playwright, novelist, and topical songwriter.



This past weekend's antiwar demonstration in Washington, DC, had a huge turnout. Commentary in the press, both print and online, has included some familiar tunes. On the one hand, "Why so little coverage in the mainstream press?" On the other hand, "why are you giving comfort to the enemy?"

I can't comment much on the mainstream press, since here in Portland it seemed to me that the coverage wasn't bad; plus I'd like to hope that the main audience for the demonstration was the nation's decisionmakers, assessing whether or not we had all put our country's fate meekly into their hands. (Also I want to believe that the antiwar movement isn't made up of terminal narcissists who need the press to assure them that they exist.)

The guilt-by-association charges from the right have come back as well. Many of the charges revolve around the unsavory (to some) affiliations of the ANSWER coalition. The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz summarizes the conventional wisdom about ANSWER in this column. Within the antiwar movement, there have been recriminations about the last-minute agreement of the other demo-sponsoring coalition, United for Peace and Justice. The latter apparently agreed to a pragmatic partnership with ANSWER to spare the confusion of two competing antiwar demonstrations. Some of the concerns about this partnership revolved around the anti-Israel bias of ANSWER. (Sample here.)

I am not going to be able to unravel the ancient threads of this controversy over coalitions and the venomous glee with which conservative commentators trace these coalitions' fringes. But when someone like Andrew Sullivan (quoted by Kurtz) says, "Anyone who attends rallies organized by International ANSWER deserves no quarter and no hearing," I feel bound to speak out on behalf of people who are not full-time activists or professional one-uppers.

If I go to a rally where a socialist, even a neo-Stalinist speaks, or (more likely) a Noam Chomsky is spreading predictable rhetorical foam, it does NOT mean that I have associated myself with everything they stand for. I am not adequately represented by ANY public figure, ANY commentator, ANY intellectual. But I recognize that when enough people with enough of a sense of crisis seize a moment to make their anger visible, and to encourage each other, those public figures will be involved. They may be helpful catalysts by precipitating the public action; they may also be exploiters, trying to hijack popular sentiment for their own agendas. I appreciate the logistical help, and I reject any assertion on their part, or on glib observers' part, that these people speak for me. I speak for myself, but sometimes the only way I can speak is by being part of a mass action.

Of course I bear responsibility for gauging whether the critical mass of the other participants share a clear overlap with my beliefs, or nothing of value (to me) is communicated by my participation. But I am not responsible for checking whether everyone in the crowd with me is identical to me: Christian, pacifist, sympathetic to Palestinian aspirations but skeptical of their leadership, theologically conservative, politically progressive, vanilla heterosexual. Nor can I prevent fringe groups from piggybacking on the larger event. If the piggybackers threaten to take over, then I should leave. Otherwise, it is the mass message that counts.

The recent antiwar demonstrations I've personally attended have not in fact been dominated by outrageous radical-chic rhetoric, although the usual parade of constituencies have had their share of the microphones. When speakers do turn to tired left-wing clichés, the crowds chat among themselves or vote with their feet. As an evangelist, my biggest frustration not who is there, it is that so few evangelical Christians are visible among the demonstrators, witnessing enthusiastically for the Prince of Peace. I want to say to so many of the demonstrators, "Well, you're right, but do you know why?" Why don't more evangelists work this rich mission field?

Back at a large demonstration in Portland, Oregon, in the fall of 2002, Reedwood Friends Church's peace banner waved among the many others in the huge crowd. As we turned one corner, I overheard one of the onlookers say, "Oh, good, the Quakers are here." Later, our banner-carrying group came on a scene where an evangelical Christian heckler was lambasting the demonstrators from his post on the sidewalk. I was very glad at that moment that we were showing a different side of the Gospel: good news, not bad news.

That sidewalk heckler was a Christian, as I am, but no commentator would have the right to associate me with everything he stood for, including an apparently uncritical and idolatrous patriotism. Equally, no commentators have the right to equate my antiwar sentiments with whatever flamboyant Maoist or pseudo-peacenik might have recently gotten under their skin.

6 comments:

Robin M. said...

Eight children in 12 years. Oh my. I give thanks to live in my generation.

As an evangelist, my biggest frustration not who is there, it is that so few evangelical Christians are visible among the demonstrators, witnessing enthusiastically for the Prince of Peace. I want to say to so many of the demonstrators, "Well, you're right, but do you know why?" Why don't more evangelists work this rich mission field?

So why don't they? Why do people get away with their idolatrous patriotism and call themselves Christians?

Johan Maurer said...

Funny you should ask! Yesterday I just finished writing a review for Quaker Life of Ron Sider's new book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience: Why Are Christians Living Just Like the Rest of the World?. Although in this particular book he doesn't deal with nationalism, his thoughts are very pertinent. Among other things, Sider says that the North American evangelical community (Sider approvingly quotes John Stackhouse) lives in “perpetual adolescence.” Seriously inadequate concepts of salvation, conversion, and sin, and a consequent idolatry of individualism, have corrupted the evangelical witness.

It's much shorter than most of Sider's books, and is more like a provocative tract than a sober rehashing of all his previous theological work and Bible studies. Here's a sample: "“To say there is a crisis of disobedience in the evangelical world today is to dangerously understate the problem. Born-again Christians divorce at about the same rate as everyone else. Self-centered materialism is seducing evangelicals and rapidly destroying our earlier, slightly more generous giving. Only 6 percent of born-again Christians tithe. Born-again Christians justify and engage in sexual promiscuity (both premarital sex and adultery) at astonishing rates. Racism and perhaps physical abuse of wives seem to be worse in evangelical circles than elsewhere. This is scandalous behavior for people who claim to be born-again by the Holy Spirit and to enjoy the very presence of the Risen Lord in their lives.”

I get the feeling that this little book vents frustrations that have been building up for a while. There's a Christianity Today interview with Sider here: www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2005/004/32.70.html.

Johan Maurer said...

More on Christianity and patriotism: I've just started reading a book by David Dark entitled The Gospel according to America: A Meditation on a God-blessed, Christ-haunted Idea.

I knew this book was going to draw me in when I got to these paragraph before the book really even got started:

p. xii "Like many Americans, I find myself frightened by my own anger level and the fear that there isn't anything much anyone can do about it; that I'll keep being mad at so many people (some of whom I'll never actually meet) so much of the time. I worry that future generations might be even less capable of listening kindly to people with whom they disagree or of paying attention to a story of photographic image that invites them to view their world differently. I don't want them to inherit a militant ignorance that confuses anger for strength of character or the momentary silencing of somebody else with victory."

P. xiii "There is a call to embody a more comprehensive patriotism. Like discipleship, the practice of democracy is a widening of our capacities for moral awareness and an expnsion of our sphere of respect. If we have a steadily narrowing vision of people whom we're willing to accord respect or if the company we keep is slowly diminishing to include only the folks who've learned to pretend to agree with us, we can be assured that we're in danger of developing around ourselves a kind of death cult, a frightened, trigger-happy defensiveness that is neither godly nor, in the best sense, American."

Paul L said...

Re participation in the demonstration, I often go to demonstrations out of duty, but usually come home embarassed at the shoddiness of the event, its lack of focus, discipline and coherent message. For rallying the convinced they may be OK, but for convincing the broader public, or even the political decisionmakers, I think they're usually impotent at best and counterproductive at worst.

I posted a story about another kind of mass demonstration that does exhibit the kind of Christian witness that we could make if only we took the time and effort to do so. http://showerofblessings.blogspot.com/

Johan Maurer said...

Paul -- thank you for the referral to your story of that earlier demonstration. I'd meant earlier to add your site to my list; this kicked me over the edge.

I don't think the shoddiness of a demonstration negates its cautionary effect on the powers that be. Maybe they're just as afraid of elemental crowd chaos and general loss of legitimacy, as evidenced in inarticulate mass gatherings, as they are of tightly organized events where they know exactly who is in charge and have photos and dossiers on each one.

However, there is something to be said for the dignity and discipline of a genuine, pure expression of one heartfelt message. I loved being part of the Good Friday peace vigil on the Boston Common during the years I lived at Beacon Hill Friends House; that very visible event did have some of what you're speaking of.

In one of the big Portland demonstrations a couple of years ago, the informal ecumenical social-exorcism team that I was part of held a worship service on the sidewalk immediately in front of the Federal Building, as the other events took place in the park across the street, and the demonstrators paraded by us. Two of the ministers served communion, with some of Christ's blood spilled on the white tablecloth in remembrance of lives lost in Afghanistan and Iraq. I was moved by the sight of marchers breaking away from the very miscellaneous main events and coming to take spiritual nourishment from our table. (This despite the lack of a liturgical bone in my body.)
(Photo here.)

Bill Samuel said...

Personally, I stayed away from the 9/24 march. Early in the war I attended one of these mass ANSWER-organized demonstrations and I was embarassed by it and decided not to go to such events anymore.

But I will admit that the numbers did impress the Washington media, which are mostly stanchly pro-war.

We in the faith community need to be better at expressing our faith as it relates to things such as wars.