Today our institute graduated fifteen newly-minted specialists. They graduated with three languages, backed by many hours of instruction in theoretical grammar, phonetics, educational psychology and methodology, journalism, literature; they wrote papers and participated in conferences; they favored their teachers and fellow students with countless outrageous skits at school events. I can't judge their French or German, but their English is wonderful. Just as important: their curiosity, kindness, and love of life is infectious!
During the teachers' speeches, I introduced myself as their very own "foreign agent," but also as one of their biggest fans. I pointed out that Judy and I set up home in Elektrostal five years ago--and they began their specialist-degree program five years ago. So their time at our school coincides exactly with ours. Maybe this explains our feelings about this particular class. I ended my speech, "I don't have the emotional strength or the inclination to say goodbye to you. I think that somehow we'll continue working together on this same little planet to our last breaths."
Later today I taught my last class of this school year. I got into a conversation with one student, and we got into a subject that sooner or later comes up with almost every thinking person here: what makes Russia special or different?
He proposed that every country has its own life cycle, making it almost impossible to make comparisons between countries, or apply one country's categories to another. In turn, I said that each country also has its own battles with demons. Borrowing from Walter Wink, I suggested that at least in part, these demons are products of the catastrophes and cruel choices made in each place. Not that demons have passports. In Stalin's Soviet Union, whole nationalities were rounded up and transported to distant wastelands. Woe to the American who forgets that these same demons were hard at work in the USA a century earlier.
(Someone in one of the internets ironically quoted a politician who asked why Edward Snowden would ever think of Cuba as a place to escape American justice! It's hard to see our own demons.)
The student said that one of those catastrophes was the wholesale attacks on monasteries. Monks, he said, have a special calling: in their prayer lives, they conduct spiritual warfare and experience hard-won victories that, in effect, take territory away from the demons. Now that the monasteries are being restored, this crucial work of spiritual warfare continues. I happened to have pictures of Buzuluk with me, and I showed him glimpses of our visit to a restored monastery there. I told him about the schemamonk Maksim, whose story felt like a confirmation of what our student was saying.
He asked: Do Americans know about this spiritual battle? I told him that it goes on there, too. My answer wasn't very hedged or nuanced; maybe it should have been. In the USA's Catholic and Orthodox cloisters, prayer-driven spiritual warfare has deep roots. Are we Protestants (particular we Lamb's-War Quakers) adequately engaged? Does the tendency of some Christians to use the loaded terminology of spiritual warfare for political purposes weaken our witness? For some of us, has affluence and militant individualism deadened us to the presence of evil? Or our cozy relationship to the powers that be? (Example: "Drones for Christ.")
One of his questions to me this evening--"What do you see as your role here besides teaching?"--came back strongly when I took a look at Brett McCracken's blog this evening and read his question, "How Are Christians Set Apart?" McCracken observes his contemporaries in the evangelical world and notes that they're apparently every bit as corrosively negative as their secular counterparts, occasionally even worse. I particularly noted his words about "the toxic cynicism lacing our speech..." since I also believe that cynicism is spiritual poison--and it's perhaps a particularly complicated poison here in Russia, serving both as a survival mechanism for the majority and a control mechanism for those at the top.
I told the questioner that one of my roles is to be a stubborn optimist. I have no cargo of wisdom to import from outside Russia; the intellectual and spiritual resources needed by this country are in major part already here. (Not that spiritual truth is any country's exclusive possession, incapable of being enriched by exchange.) But my optimistic outlook, not to mention the sheer novelty value of being a foreigner in a former closed city, crack open a few opportunities for conversation and mutual blessing that might not otherwise have happened.
Is it true that one of the ways we Christians are set apart is joy? And what is this quality of joy for someone like me, beaten as a child (and sometimes still thinking I deserved it) in an alcoholic family with a murdered sister, simmering in racism and antisemitism, but eventually preserved by Christ from what might have been a long trajectory into terminal bitterness. Fortunately, I don't really feel called to analyze joy, just to alert you to the fact that it isn't quite the same as denial.
It's been a long, emotional, heady day. Time to look for some blues dessert and then go to bed.
(But first a few righteous links.)
Did you see the item about "Drones for Christ" above? Didn't it positively invite this snarky treatment?
A Chicago story. (Presented here in honor of public school educators, including support staff.)
If you bought the book Ending Cycles of Violence (about Quaker peacemaking in the aftermath of Kenya's 2007 elections), you can get free updates covering the 2013 elections; see bottom of this page.
God willing, I'll be at the Waterfront Blues Festival in a week!!
J.B. Hutto's music helped keep me sane in my high school years. "That's the truth." I loved his rough slide guitar and his wickedly smart, declamatory singing.