I based today's American studies class on the film Good Night, and Good Luck, about Edward R. Murrow, his See It Now program on CBS in 1953 and 1954, and McCarthyism. And, not least, about what that era has to tell us now about the never-ending search for balance between community interests and individual rights--and how individuals can participate in defining community interests. (The Bible made a cameo appearance as Murrow quoted, "The iniquities of the father shall not be visited on the son." Ezekiel 18:20.)
I felt humbled talking about Murrow's Radulovich story about persecutions and denunciations in the McCarthy-era context, considering that in Russia, denunciations played a huge role in the purges of the past. But I was also proud of the students, who spent two periods--three hours--watching this film, working through the vocabulary sheet, and then participating in the discussion. And the discussion was fascinating. Among the students' conclusions: the communist experiment had idealistic roots and terrible, cruel consequences. Every leader has his or her pluses and minuses. Stalin's rule was dreadful, most agreed, but one student asked, would Russia have survived Hitler without him? Students felt that there is no pure democracy in the world, and no country can serve as a perfect model for others. All this in fair to good English--by third-year students.
The students humored me in watching and intelligently discussing a film based on events that happened around the time I was born. Next time, they want to see a film based on the current experiences of Americans their own age. As always, I'm open to suggestions.
During the past week, a new comment came in on my post, "What is really wrong with FUM, part two: the Baltimore Yearly Meeting report." Linda Wilk also placed this new comment, somewhat expanded, as a post on her own weblog.
Reflecting on Linda's words, I have two comments. My first one may seem to disagree with Linda, but I don't think it necessarily does: Sometimes even those who labor to pay attention together to the Holy Spirit may continue to disagree, and, more than that, may establish boundaries based on their differing leadings and understandings. An individual claim to deep spiritual devotion doesn't trump the organizational stewardship of the larger group. However, mutual accountability always requires that we are open to questions about how that stewardship is being carried out. So: FUM leaders disallowed Baltimore YM's Lamar Mathews from leading a group in Nairobi in 2002, for reasons that had more to do with FUM's boundaries than with Lamar's qualities. (For those who do not know the full story: Retha McCutchen has apologized for this decision and the pain it caused.) Nobody can say that those who maintained those FUM boundaries are less spiritual than those who criticized them--but neither are those boundaries (and their guardians) somehow above criticism and review.
My second comment follows from the first, and here's where I want to affirm Linda Wilk: How can we assess these boundaries if we aren't free to worship together, if the only way we can interact is by throwing manifestos and rhetorical grenades over high walls of separation? If a boundary (sexual ethics, for example) is truly an important part of our discipleship, shouldn't it be part of the dialogues that help us shape and communicate our deepest beliefs? Shouldn't we be required to explain how that boundary relates to the faith we proclaim to the world, and shouldn't we become vulnerable to listen to how that boundary affects others? Perhaps in prayer and humility we will decide to keep the boundary, maybe even with tears of contrition as we confess its imperfect nature. At least, in worship, we will have acknowledged our common creatureliness before the Creator, a perspective that always challenges all boundaries.
Faithfulness and boycotts are not the same thing. Refusing to communicate across lines of conviction too often turns out to be cheap heroism.
Romance of war, part two. I just gave eleven hours of my free time to a fascinating Russian television miniseries, Shtrafbat ("Penal Battalion") on DVD. In WWII Russia, penal battalions were the most expendable of soldiers, made up of criminals and "enemies of the people" who were offered this service as a way to get out of the GULags and redeem themselves by blood from the crimes they'd allegedly committed. The series has some battle scenes, but it's far more devoted to the human relationships among the characters--between regular Red Army and the shtrafniki, between the criminals and the politicals, between the Red Army's military officers and the political officers, between atheists and believers, between wounded soldiers and nurses, and occasionally between Russians and Germans.
In these eleven episodes, there were so many memorable characters and moments of drama. And complete frankness about the NKVD (predecessor to the KGB) and its horrible methods. The battalion commander Tverdokhlebov mentions to his assistant that, when they go into action, the NKVD will station troops behind them to shoot anyone who turns back, even if they're wounded. (It happened.) And the assistant, Glymov, smiles and says, "Ah, how our Soviet leaders so lovingly look after their citizens." Later, after their beloved commander has been arrested by the NKVD on trumped-up charges, the soldiers are standing in formation and the NKVD colonel introduces them to the new commander. One of the soldiers asks, "And what about Tverdokhlebov?" In the confrontation that ensues, the colonel says, "You are enemies of the people. Nothing! Useless!" Glymov waves at the ragged penal battalion troops behind him and says, "These boys still have a bit of usefulness left in them. As for you, your loss wouldn't make a bit of difference."
This could have been a concept ready-made for exploitative violence and sensational gore, or for mindless patriotism and militarism. Instead, the series believably brings to life an almost-forgotten dimension of Russia's wartime experience. At one point, Glymov says that the secret of his survival to that point was not courage, but rather sheer cunning. Nevertheless, we see genuine kindness in his character. I can't help wondering whether, in similar circumstances, I would have been able to preserve as much humanity.
Here's a church growth idea--put brochures for other local churches and meetings in your church's or meeting's information center. (Thanks to Monday Morning Insight.)
"All plumbing; theology is all plumbing. On Sunday morning the water has to flow." This line from Paul Tillich is from the beginning of a brief and helpful talk (pdf talk here; context and other downloads here) by Franklin Gamwell on "Advocacy in the pulpit and in the classroom." When is forthright advocacy compatible with Christian communication in church and academia, and toward what end? (Thanks to the Martin Marty Center's "Sightings.")
Is religion reporting hazardous to the reporter's faith? Mollie Ziegler considers the evidence in an interesting article, "Troubles on the Godbeat."
Tom Engelhardt: "The Bush administration ... had its dreams of a controllable Pax Americana to go along with a Washington-based Pax Republicana; but, as former diplomat John Brown makes clear below, these were the most provincial of global dreams, hatched at think-tanks inside the Washington Bubblesphere." (Here's the "below.") I have major misgivings about Brown's comparatively positive remarks about Kissinger, as if being a much-published "global strategist" always results in more good outcomes for actual people, but I share his concern about neocon politicians and pundits slipping into a fantasy that removes Iraq (for example) from the true context for their policy and tactical initiatives, and reduces that context to the DC-based struggle for personal political advantage.
A legendary duet: John Lee Hooker and Bonnie Raitt!