22 September 2016

Be realistic

Our entryway's notice board on election day.
Cynicism is cheap wisdom; unfortunately too many of us love a bargain! Here in Russia, we have a post-election season full of glib commentaries along the predictable lines of "what, you expected a genuine election?" Despite a recent report stating that our environment cannot endure even one more fossil-fuel source coming online, Exxon tells us that banning such fuel is "unrealistic." We are urged to be realistic about the number of refugees wealthy countries can afford to admit. Realism, as it turns out, is a handy wet blanket to smother goo-goos and their wacky ideas of social justice and environmental concern.

But is realism itself realistic? Ten years ago I wrote about Gordon Hirabayashi's experience when confronted with the U.S. government's decision to put Americans of Japanese descent into forcible internment. He testified that, for him, idealism was realism, giving him the strength to endure his own legal ordeals and imprisonments.

If by asking me to "be realistic," you're simply asking to survey the horizon and count the cost, I've got no objection. But too often, this advice has additional tacit assumptions:
  • Why do you think you're right when everyone else seems to have made peace with the way things are?
  • You might be right, but the system is rigged against you
  • You might be right, but the market has spoken and finds your position without measurable merit
  • You might be right in the long run, but decisions are made on a short-term basis.
In the face of all this so-called realism, what's a Quaker to do? Let's start by seeing if the Bible has anything to say....

First of all, we might actually be right despite being in the minority. We are not required to compromise:
This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in God there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with God and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as God is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, God's Son, purifies us from all sin. [1John 1:5-7, NIV, adapted.]
It's not surprising that some people nevertheless urge us to compromise:
In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evildoers and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. [2 Timothy 3:12-15, NIV.]
Likewise, the Bible isn't shy about describing rigged systems:
If you see the poor oppressed in a district, and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised at such things; for one official is eyed by a higher one, and over them both are others higher still. [Ecclesiastes 5:8, NIV.]
The Bible's imperatives in the face of these realities are very clear:
God has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God. [Micah 6:8, NIV, adapted.]

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
    and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
    and break every yoke? [Isaiah 58:6, NIV.]
Biblically-centered resistance to conventional realism doesn't necessarily come naturally to us. Even those who are born into the church are reminded (through Paul's second letter to Timothy) to avoid those who "have a form of godliness, but deny its power." (2 Timothy 3:5.) Somehow, as we learn to trust God and to trust the cumulative wisdom of our church community, we learn a different definition of realism: the most real thing we can do is to be in God's will. There will still be risks -- in this world there are always risks -- but the risks we take in God's service are uniquely worthwhile.

If we envision the world of policies and options as a marketplace of ideas, then it may well seem that conventional wisdom too often has a near-monopoly. But look how many conventional ideals lost their previously unchallenged dominance as persuasive new ideas -- perhaps ruthlessly marginalized at first -- began displacing them. The divine right of kings, child labor, slavery, forced segregation, and other forms of once-respectable bondage, no longer have the power they once had. These demons are still roaming the world, but millions have been mobilized into the Lamb's War against them. Ethical values, persuasively presented and represented, do have weight in the marketplace.

One of the jobs of prophets and evangelists is to help in this marketing of ethical values by telling stories that connect the dots. For me, as I've mentioned before, it was the Christmas 1969 issue of Reader's Digest that connected dots for me, in a way probably unintended by the editors: the magazine's cover art celebrated the birth of the Prince of Peace, while the contents urged us to continue killing and wounding Vietnamese communists faster than they could be replaced. I couldn't square Jesus and killing, and suddenly my own internal marketplace of values was turned upside down. Apparently I was just one of millions experiencing the collapse of conventional wisdom about Viet Nam -- popular support for the war was already evaporating.

Maybe the short-term vs long-term argument is just a specific case of this imperative to tell stories and make connections. Somehow we need to convey the unwelcome lesson of history -- that, ultimately, all empires succumb to some combination of internal degradation and external assault. In the cast of the environment, we ourselves may be triggering an assault of rising oceans and destabilized weather patterns. For some, it seems politically convenient right now (despite near-universal scientific consensus) to deny that climate change is an alarming reality, but does anyone seriously believe that today's nation-states are immortal? Can such a fantasy be labeled realism?

In the face of these challenges, I'd hate to see us becoming elitist proclaimers of environmental sensitivity at little personal cost to ourselves, utterly ignoring those whose livelihoods today apparently depend on old-fashioned extraction and burning of fuel. What would it be like for our churches and meetings to be come laboratories of an alternative future? Could we imagine a different division of labor -- some of us reaching out to workers in unsustainable industries, some helping the corporate world face reality (it's already starting), while others focus on the politics of environmental sanity, and still others form the evangelistic message that links the Gospel invitation with ecological stewardship? I'm especially eager to see activists and evangelists work together to create a more accessible, engaging language that goes beyond the in-group references beloved of both groups.

Of course I may be nuts, but this sounds realistic to me.



A Life Overseas: The truth is somewhere in the middle, in the space between victory and defeat...

Peace pipes, not oil pipes.

Two New Republic articles on surveillance of our communications: The CIA road show; the Feds can read your e-mail. (Here's my own take on this subject.)

Sign of the times? Anti-evangelism law used against foreigners who speak in church.

An article we're discussing in class: Women ask for raises as often as men .... (Russian version.)



The blues time machine goes to Poland, 40 years ago, when Muddy Waters and Pinetop Perkins took the audience to Kansas City:

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