This theme has come up again and again this past week. My first example came to me as I thought more about the topic of sexuality and carnality in the context of holiness. (See the related item toward the end of last week's post.) Close to ten years ago, Earlham College's health office presented a safe sex education assembly for students, attracting them with a speaker who was billed as an educator in eroticism. If my memory of the articles in Earlham's student newspaper serves me right, his educational goals, teaching how to avoid STDs, were sweetened with suggestions concerning, for example, erotic ways to undress one's partner (as if unwrapping a present, I think). I'm sure there was more along those lines, but you get the idea.
The announcements for this assembly were distributed in student mailboxes. More general announcements were not made—again, according to the student paper and my imperfect memory—in order not to alert the wider constituency, particularly the Earlham trustees, who were sure to disapprove.
Some context: A few years earlier, Earlham's switchboard operator, a member of Indiana Yearly Meeting, had assured the yearly meeting during a controversy about co-ed dorms, that if any hanky-panky were going on at Earlham, she would know about it. The late Ray Stewart commented on the floor of Yearly Meeting that Indiana Quakers must believe in the Immaculate Conception, since clearly they were all born that way.
Earlham College was a perennial source of controversy at Indiana Yearly Meeting, who (along with Western Yearly Meeting) appointed most of the trustees of this school that they had founded. Trustee appointments were sometimes a flash-point for these controversies, many of which really sprang from a rarely-acknowledged reality: Earlham had drifted far from an earlier identity as a guarded education for orthodox Quaker children, and for the most part its quakerism was cultural rather than transformatively spiritual. The college's trustee-appointment arrangement was out of sync with its reality. The college you'd expect a highly Christ-centered yearly meeting such as Indiana to govern would be more like George Fox in Oregon, where you could reasonably expect any faculty member to be able to lead a student to Christ, or at least to know why that would be important. Earlham was nowhere near the same zone.
So much dialogue could have happened, but, in my experience in and near Indiana Yearly Meeting (1982-2000), rarely did. Why did Indiana Yearly Meeting's conservatives (not in the Wilburite sense!) rarely if ever project a winsome Christian presence at Earlham instead of specializing so completely in carping about the things they didn't like? (One year it was Playboy in the college bookstore.) Why didn't the liberals put forth more effort to understand and deal with the agony of parents who got up in the Yearly Meeting sessions and said sorrowfully, "How can I send my saved child to this school?" There were a few Friends who were persistent reconcilers—perhaps most notably Stephanie Crumley-Effinger—but there seemed to be many more who remained in a more or less permanent face-off.
In the case of the erotic-training-as-health-education incident, the whole thing naturally became public, despite the precaution of paper announcements in mailboxes. By then I was general secretary of Friends United Meeting, meaning that my perspective was, "Oh, ****, another great chance for our fragile constituency to polarize." (And so soon after the controversy over Earlham's designation in some college-student list as "queer-friendly" had died down.) But beyond that, I had another stream of reflections:
For one thing, why don't the conservatives at Yearly Meeting ever say what's good about heterosexuality rather than only saying what they think is bad about homosexuality? We're talking about sex, for goodness' sake—why do tempers get so short so fast? Why take the cynical shortcut to biblical one-upmanship (cynical because it makes mean, self-serving assumptions about the opponents) instead of zooming back to examine the larger landscape of desire and hurt and alienation and the false promises of liberal individualism, and then meeting those realities with a healing tenderness?
The stealth publicity tactic for the health education assembly was also a cynical shortcut, to my mind, and it backfired. For that matter, even the idea that you had to lure the audience with eroticism might be questionable. Again, there seemed to be self-serving, negative assumptions about the various audiences involved. On the other hand, who in the evangelical Christian world is dealing honestly and openly with sexuality as unmarried people of college age and younger experience it?!? I'm sure that, here and there, wonderful counselors are doing an inspired job, but there is no public, accessible, sustained dialogue that I've found. If I'm wrong, please let me know, but I don't see it, for example, in Campus Life magazine (now known as Ignite Your Faith). Their letters column has many examples of young people begging for input, but answers specialize in what not to do (and why) rather than how to understand and enjoy sexuality, and incorporate it into a more mature discipleship. Should I blame Campus Life, given the reality that any relaxation on formula answers will bring down the wrath of the shortcutters?
Tony Campolo says that, in his youth, his Baptist church didn't permit dancing—because dancing excites the lusts of the flesh. (Instead, he chuckles, they piled those young, temptable boys and girls into wagons for hayrides!!) How did we get from an evangelical culture that didn't permit dancing and short sleeves to one that, for the most part, lets secular society set all standards for dress and entertainment, without developing a conversation about the tradeoffs? To put it more positively, is such a conversation now starting, at least among Friends?
More shortcutting: Those fatal cartoons. A significant minority of the Muslim world, egged on by opportunistic leaders, is leaping to outrageous conclusions about various newspapers, leaders, countries, as a reaction to the publishing of cartoon images of Mohammed, whose own attitude toward both humor and criticism seems to have been far more humane. That angry segment of Muslims, expressing a viewpoint that is by no means unanimous among Muslims worldwide, asks the rest of us to respect the absoluteness of a taboo, but demonstrates no concept of reciprocity or openness to dialogue concerning our taboos or the context within which theirs were allegedly violated.
Here in the USA, among the few taboos that seem to evoke much widespread anger is the burning of the American flag. (I remember how nervous I was about our public flagwashing service across the street from the Federal Building a couple of years ago.) Overseas crowds seem to show no compunction about burning our flag. Not that they should, necessarily; nor can I prove that any of the anti-cartoonists ever burned an American flag. I'm just not willing to tolerate an asymmetrical awe of taboos.
A friend of mine points out that mobs cannot make distinctions that individuals can make, which puts the burden of encouraging dialogue rather than urging cynical shortcuts squarely on those leaders who have the rioter's ear. As for "our" leaders, such as President Bush, it is a cheap shortcut to criticize the cartoonists rather than acknowledging that Muslim demagogues can easily trade on our criminally stupid war in Iraq, our anti-Palestinian bias, post-9/11 xenophobia, comments by Franklin Graham and other Christian celebrities, abuse of the Koran at Guantánamo, and other examples of ignorance and worse on the part of Western crusaders. We might correctly assert that the Danish cartoons were not gratuitous insults, but we cannot say that insults, serious ones, have not happened. How can we ask angry Muslims to forego the shortcuts and engage in the hard, worthwhile work of investigation and dialogue, when shortcuts are so rampant in our own countries? (We should in fact still make that request to Muslims, and assertively; a relationship based on a pathetic desire to be liked by those who attack us is no relationship at all. Let's just also get to work on the ignorance and shortcuts in our own sphere of influence with a high sense of urgency.)
I loved what Os Guinness said a few years ago at a World Vision conference: There is a confrontation between the "Christian world" and the "Islamic world"—and at our best, we compete on the field of compassion, each seeking to outdo the other, not on the fields of violence or manipulation or slander.
Political shortcuts: Bush and Cheney reserve the right to cut right through the Constitution and laws with the rhetorical swords of war and unitary executive authority. I'm grateful that the eavesdropping scandal has, at long last, provoked a response from the advisory gallery once known as the United States Congress. But the other day I was shocked to learn what you, dear reader, might have known all along: U.S. Customs reserves the right to open all private mail coming into the USA from overseas. In a CNN story on the subject, a retired professor expressed a similar shock, having corresponded for fifty years with a friend in the Philippines and finding a recent letter opened and reclosed by our government.
During all those years I corresponded with friends in the old USSR, I was cautious in what I wrote because I thought my letters to them might be opened by the KGB, as might their replies. I never for an instant thought my own government might take my friends' replies to me into a black chamber and steam them open. I've never felt terribly secure about e-mail, which is the way nearly 100% of my international correspondence now goes, except for birthday and Christmas cards, but I feel sad that there is also no security for that most intimate form of correspondence, the hand-written letter, if it crosses our sacred border. I know that the chances of an individual letter being opened are very small, but ... I remember a letter reporting corruption in a Right Sharing project ... I remember my love letters to Judy, written from Norway.... Well, I guess I should resist paranoia; our government has enough of that for all of us.
Friday PS: Dan Froomkin of the Washington Post has asked readers to submit questions concerning the U.S. president's credibility—questions they'd like reporters to ask George Bush. I resisted quoting this classic piece of one-upmanship disguised as a question, but I feel myself ... giving ... in ... yes, I'm a shortcutting hypocrite, but only because I'm quoting this question in full knowledge that George Bush is not going to read and answer this weblog entry, though I honestly wish he would. Read the whole thing here ... but the question that drew my attention is this:
What Would Jesus Do?
From Mary Beth Hastings:
"Mr. President, you have spoken often and with conviction of your Christianity and how you bring Christian principles to bear on your conduct of foreign and domestic policy. The 2007 budget you have just proposed extends tax cuts that mostly benefit upper income Americans, while drastically cutting programs that help the poor, including sick children. As news sources have pointed out, the cost of these tax cuts is far greater than the cost savings coming from entitlement program cuts. Given the number of times the Bible, and Jesus himself, references lifting up the poor and tending to the sick, how do you reconcile this proposed budget with your Christianity?"
Shortcuts not taken:Here's an excellent item on the Christianity Today Web site: "Habits of Highly Effective Justice Workers." I love the subtitle: "Should we protest the system or invest in a life? Yes." And the government might have tried to take a shortcut to bypass NASA's global warming messenger, but an important segment of the evangelical Christian leadership is going public with their own wake-up call on climate change. Finally, here's a fascinating video clip: preach it, Bono! (Transcript; thanks, Christianity Today.)