14 September 2017

Labels, part two: conservative

This bus-stop display near City Hall commemorates Ivan Tevosyan, whose career began in Elektrostal. The city is
just starting to celebrate its 80th year -- the actual 80th birthday party happens next September.

John Alexander's book, Your Money or Your Life: A New Look at Jesus' View of Wealth and Power (Harper & Row, 1986) begins with my favorite book dedication ever:
To my father, Fred Alexander

His sermons on discipleship (Luke 14:25-33), preached when I was a kid, are the basis of this book. He is an unusual fundamentalist; for he believes that inerrancy extends to the teachings of Jesus.
A few weeks ago, I mounted a defense of the word "evangelical." (Or maybe I was just being defensive.) Now I'm wondering about the usefulness of the word "conservative." Has the word been sabotaged for many of us by association with the mean-spiritedness and class warfare of the far right?

The word "evangelical" has huge theological content for me, but the word "conservative" does not add anything to that theological content. Conservatism is a philosophy of stewardship and governance, not a theology, and the two shouldn't be confused.

Here I'm not dealing with the special Quaker usage of the word "conservative" – associated with the divisions in Quaker history. The conservative/orthodox division separated those who preferred classic Quaker worship and devotional practices (the conservatives) from those who organized Sunday schools, participated in interchurch organizations, and eventually added sermons and music to the meeting for worship (now in the Friends United Meeting and evangelical associations among Friends).

What do I mean by conservatism? We conserve what we value, and I value my faith community and its heritage. Therefore, I respect conservatism's three important and interrelated emphases, and try to apply them to my understanding of church:
  • knowing and respecting tradition, being reluctant to set it aside lightly;
  • teaching personal and community responsibility and self-reliance;
  • resolutely guarding against the temptation to arrange others' lives for them.
Nothing in classic conservatism seems to me to require me to accept only narrow and relatively recent traditions of biblical interpretation. Nothing says we should raise guilt and shame over grace in our attitudes to each other. NOTHING requires us to grade and sort people by any social categories whatever!

Recently I was enthusiastically describing a Friends church as "conservative and evangelical," using the words as I understand them. I should have known better, because I got jumped immediately. "Johan, stop using that word. They're not conservative!" was the objection from a third person in our group. "They're progressive!"

* Concerning the actual word "inerrancy," I have great doubts about its coherence and usefulness. But that's another discussion I've touched on before and probably will again ... just not now. This relatively new doctrine of inerrancy is not required by actual conservatism; and aggressively insisting on it, and organizing gossip campaigns and enemy lists around it, often leads to bickering, fragmentation, and disenchantment with the church.

Well, I think they're actually both! And actually that's what I love about that church. They're a little like John Alexander's father -- they believe inerrancy* extends to the teachings of Jesus, and that makes all the difference. There's something I love about a church that can be seen as holding up values that the world now sees as polar opposites -- conservative and progressive; it's like a rare high-wire act.

The key in any high-wire act is balance. So, in church life, where is that balance? In his spiritual autobiography, A Song of Ascents, E. Stanley Jones puts it in his own impish way as he describes the development of Christian ashrams:
Outside the Ashram, the lines were drawn -- tightly drawn; you were for or against the struggle for [India's] independence. Inside the Ashram the spirit was different; we discussed everything, openly and frankly in a fellowship. One of the first lessons we learned was that the human mind breaks up between conservative and radical. Never once through those years did the discussion break up between the Westerners and Easterners. It was always between radical and conservative -- the radical Indian and the radical Westerner on one side and the conservative Indian and the conservative Westerner on the other. That is a good division: if we were all conservative, we would dry up; and if we were all radical, we would bust up! But between the pull back of the conservatives and the pull ahead of the radical we make progress in a middle direction. Jesus said: "The scribe who is a disciple to the Kingdom of God is like a householder who brings forth from his treasures things new and old." "New" -- radical; "old" -- conservative -- both are needed. The conservative conserves the values of the past, and the radical wants to apply them to wider and wider areas of life. But note the "new" was first in the order. The Christian faith leans toward the radical because it belongs to the great change -- the Kingdom of God on earth.
So the perennial challenge from the radicals or progressives is not necessarily that the conservatives' ideals or theology are wrong; it is that they are not applied thoroughly enough. The progressives should keep challenging the conservatives' resistance to change, helping the community to discern when that resistance stops being prudent and becomes subverted by clan or class interests. The conservatives may guard resources for the sake of stability and accountability, and rightly so; the progressives constantly want to widen the boundaries of that care, and to increase transparency and access. Both groups might be equally alive spiritually, but both groups can also forget to keep God at the center, relying on political maneuvers instead of corporate prayer, and eventually falling into functional atheism.

Without conservatives, we may lose the capacity to see and challenge proposals for social rearrangement that suit passing ideologies or persuasive would-be messiahs. Without progressives, we fall in love with our own myths and lose our urgent concern for the world beyond. What church would want to cut off this messy but vital debate? (I'm looking at you, dear Northwest Yearly Meeting.)

Related posts:

We are just hours away from the dramatic conclusion of Cassini's voyage.

Violent opposition to Uchitel's new film: Is this a case of Christian terrorism? And Russia's culture minister is fed up.

Sergey Damberg: Serebrennikov and the attack of the Russian state-security chimera.

Russia Without BS sums it up.

Russia is God's last hope on earth.

Friends United Meeting seeks a new general secretary to begin next spring.

Wess Daniels prepares for the Friends Committee on National Legislation annual meeting.

Buddy Guy's walkabout at the North Sea Jazz Festival, Rotterdam:

06 September 2017

Papers, please

My first passport.
U.S. attorney general Jeff Sessions: "To have a lawful system of immigration that serves the national interest, we cannot admit everyone who would like to come here. It’s just that simple."

It's just that simple. Is it really?

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, whose end was announced on Tuesday, does not involve "everyone who would like to come here." It involves a specific category of people who actually did not choose to come to the USA, but were brought there. What case could possibly be made that letting the DACA "dreamers" stay would bring more harm to the USA than the harm this terrible decision does to those dreamers? It's quite the reverse: ending the program and threatening these people with uncertainty and possible deportation does harm to the whole country, dreamers included. Their fate seems at least as important as that of a renegade Arizona ex-sheriff.

I'm writing these words on my way from the USA to Russia. The very first time I crossed the Atlantic Ocean, I was on my way to the USA as a brand new immigrant, entering as no. 385 of the USA's quota for Norwegians for that year. I was joining my parents, who were already in the USA as students.

Both of my parents entered the USA as exchange students from their universities. My father was coming from the University of Oslo, my mother from Heidelberg. I can't ask them now whether they came with the full intention of staying in the USA beyond their student years. I can't say whether they took jobs from Americans whose family immigration histories were earlier than theirs. Nor can I define precisely the advantages they and I got from race, education, and class. One thing I can say for sure: they didn't consult with me.

Last spring, during the tea after our Moscow Friends meeting for worship, an attender told of her panic a day or two before, when she could not find her documents. Her passports (internal and external) and bank cards had vanished. She had found them again by the time we met, but she said she would never forget the zone of non-existence she entered during their absence. She felt that she had lost the right to exist.

It reminded me of an incident that happened earlier in our Russian life. We were in the USA at that moment, but we had to send several hundred dollars to a recipient in Russia. This sort of transaction was not as convenient then as it is now. After weighing the options, we decided to use Western Union for the transfer. After a few days, we got this message from our friend:
Good evening! With pride I can inform you that today I associated myself with the achievements of global civilization -- for the first time, I received money through Western Union. It turned out to be very simple and relatively quick. True, as with everything here in Russia, it was done in the unique Russian way: there were a few additional forms to fill out and a waiting period in line while the computer "processed" something. This was all in strict conformity to our principle: "Without papers, you're just a little bug, but with papers you're a human being."
That is, with the right kind of papers.

What are these papers for, anyway? -- passports, visas, and the like. They keep people separated, grouped, in their place. Politicians justify them by scaring us about the consequences of people mixing too freely -- "they" might take "our" jobs, food, land; they might give us new ideas, new hopes. (Sad example: Evangelists in Russia now need to be authorized.) Once we adopt the discipline of seeing ("regarding") all people from a Godly point of view, we demote "papers" to their rightful place -- bureaucratic conveniences that must never outweigh the plain demands of fairness.

Yes, the nation and the world are served when the rule of law prevails. The nation and the world are not served when politicians exalt theory over naked reality. When politicians betray plain justice on behalf of a political agenda, it's our job as citizens to demand accountability. The church, organized around a Kingdom whose boundaries are always illuminated by the spotlight of mercy and are never more than one step away from anyone, should be leading the way.

Friends Committee on National Legislation makes recommendations to defend DACA dreamers.

Russian Foreign Ministry researches the possibility of suing the USA.

Samuel Wells: Love and Liverpool.

Henri Cartier-Bresson photographs Moscow in 1954.

Quiz: What kind of Kremlinologist are you?

From the Roadhouse in Moscow: Albert Albertine...

31 August 2017

August shorts

For most of the last month, Judy and I have been on vacation -- first in Ottawa, Ontario, then in Raymond, Maine. We have spent many hours with relatives and friends who have shared our time here, and with books (and Judy has been painting and repairing windows, too).

We have spent hours walking to Raymond village and along nearby roads, and visiting the cemetery. But I confess that one of my favorite pursuits has been simply to stare at the lake, watching the ducks and loons play.

Elsewhere in the world, we are aware of the winds and rains -- and the political storms as well -- but we have been faithful to our friends' and supporters' strong advice to rest. Thank you!

Next week I might be checking in here a day or two late. We expect to arrive back in Elektrostal late on Thursday evening.

Reedwood Friends Church, Portland, Oregon -- our church -- has been a strong supporter of Northwest Yearly Meeting of Friends Church, contributing money and countless volunteers over the years. In a few hours, Reedwood will no longer be part of the yearly meeting.

The only public announcement I'm aware of is the following terse memo, which church members received nearly two weeks ago:
NWYM Board of Elders action.

On August 19, 2017 the NWYM Board of Elders approved a minute discontinuing Reedwood Friend Church's association with NWYM effective September 1, 2017, as authorized by NWYM Faith and Practice page 33: "In situations in which a ministry point or local church continues to deteriorate, remains ineffective or out of unity with NWYM Faith and Practice, the BoE, acting for the Yearly Meeting, may discontinue the church or the association of the church with Northwest Yearly Meeting." With this decision, the supervisory work of the Care Committee has ended.

Pastoral Changes

Effective September 1, 2017, Jade Souza and Martha Wood will complete their ministry at RFC. They both will receive severance packages covering the last four months of 2017. We commend them both for their care and concern for those attending RFC.

Phil McLain, Clerk
NWYM Board of Elders Local church Care Committee for Reedwood Friends Church
We have heard numerous (and clashing) private interpretations of the rifts within Reedwood and between the church and the yearly meeting, but no public explanation. As far as I can tell, this action involving Reedwood Friends has little or nothing to do with the upcoming departures of other Friends churches from the yearly meeting and the formation of Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends.

My Reedwood office (2001)
The Newberg Graphic, in a Web story dated today, counts Reedwood Friends as a part of the new yearly meeting, but I have not heard any word from Reedwood itself that this decision to join Sierra-Cascades has been made or even discussed.

After many years as a denominational bureaucrat, I suppose that nothing surprises me anymore when it comes to church fights, but I can't help wonder how anyone believes these fights and splits are consistent with the central question that every church governing body should be asking: "What does GOD want to say and do in the world through us?"

Friday update: We received a Reedwood community e-mail about an hour ago. I'm including the relevant text, without comment, below, just before the blues dessert.

Young E. Stanley Jones in local dress.
One of the books I've been reading on my vacation has been A Song of Ascents: A Spiritual Autobiography by E. Stanley Jones. I've mentioned reading his book The Christ of the Indian Road, early in my time among Friends, and re-reading it more recently, but this is my first time with A Song of Ascents. I am glad Jerry Baker (recently retired pastor of Netarts Friends Church) recommended it to me, and I would like to pass along this recommendation.

As Jones describes his ministry among India's intellectuals, and the things he learned about revolution, nonviolence, racial and class prejudices, so much in this book remains relevant and useful fifty years after it was completed. His love of Christ is infectious, firmly setting secondary controversies in their place.

Just to remind me that the debates between "conservatives" and "liberals" among Christians are nothing new, E. Stanley Jones at age 83 seems to delight in reporting how, all through his lifetime, his fans and critics could not find the correct categories to classify him. Was he a "modernist" or was he "fundamental"? One conservative journal decided to have it both ways: Jones had a "fundamental heart" and a "modern mind."

He got into one particular controversy at the time of Gandhi's assassination:
When Mahatma Gandhi was martyred, some Christians of South India asked me whether he had gone to heaven. My reply: "I am glad I don't have to decide the destiny of men. I am not the judge of all the earth. It is my business to preach the gospel and leave judgment to God. He is wise enough and good enough for that responsibility -- I'm not. All I can say is that if Mahatma Gandhi didn't go to heaven, then heaven would be poorer without him, is it will be poorer without you." The newspapers came out the next day saying, "Stanley Jones said that heaven would be a poor place without Gandhi." Next version I heard: "Heaven would be a miserable place without Gandhi." Next: "Heaven would be hell without Gandhi." And last: "Heaven would be no heaven without Gandhi." I have heard no further versions. It had reached bottom -- no heaven!
Isn't it fascinating how people can twist a quotation to create, in effect, a false witness. Gandhi's example might be a great occasion to decide, once and for all, to verify quotations and contexts when people come to us with gleeful reports about someone else's heresies.

Christopher Douglas responds to Kurt Anderson: "Conservative white Christians, in other words, had had one foot in a parallel information ecosystem for a long time." (Kurt Anderson's original article in The Atlantic.)

The battle for the Catholic past in Nazi Germany.

Related: The newest addition to the Russian Quaker online library is a translation of Brenda Bailey's lecture, "The Integrity of German Friends During the Twelve Years of Nazi Rule."

From the 24/7 Prayer blog: Transforming the story of forgotten Germany in Neubrandenberg.

Ten reasons our good intentions to fight poverty backfire.

A reasonable and non-hysterical call for the U.S. Congress to open a formal impeachment inquiry.

Reedwood update received today:

Reedwood Friends (Quaker) Independent Church
A red letter day for RFC.

September 1, 2017 Reedwood’s Independence Day

Today begins a new chapter in the Reedwood Friends Church history. We begin a journey of faith and faithfulness to God as we seek to follow the direction we are called to take.

As the Northwest Yearly Meeting (NWYM) began the process of dividing, there were three options offered to all NWYM churches; continue with NWYM, join the new yearly meeting or become independent. On August 13, 2017, at a meeting open to all, a decision was made to go independent. *The letter below is what was sent to NWYM announcing our decision.

Having chosen independence we acknowledge that we will have much work to do to meet the expectations of our new independence. At another meeting on August 27, 2013 there was a start. Officers, Elders, Stewards and Nominating committee were approved with September 1, 2017 being the startup date. Additional decisions were made to update account management.

As we continue the transition to being our own meeting independent from any yearly meeting connection I welcome all who are willing to serve. I am hoping we can be a better presence in the community surrounding our church. As we reach out to those around the church building may we better understand our commission to share the good news in very tangible ways. Are there those in our neighborhood that need our help? How? Are there those in our own community that could use our help? How? Are there those that can make our building and property more welcoming? Please make yourselves known.

I appreciate everyone that considers RFC their church home whether attending every service or somewhere around the world. I covet your prayers and ideas as we move into new territory.
There will be many things to consider as we move forward.

My God bless you as we work together in this new venture.
Lloyd Pruitt, Presiding Clerk

*Reedwood Friends Church (letter cited above)
2901 SE Steele St.
Portland, OR 97202

August 15, 2017
Retha McCutchen, Interim Superintendent, Northwest Yearly Meeting
Phil McLain, Interim Clerk of Elders and LCCC Clerk, Northwest Yearly Meeting

Dear Retha and Phil,
As I informed you at the LCCC meeting on August 8, the Reedwood Friends Church, an Oregon nonprofit corporation (“Reedwood”) held a membership meeting at Reedwood on Sunday, August 13, 2017 at 1:00pm. Forty members of Reedwood were present, and the attached agenda was followed. After prayer, the members of Reedwood were invited to discuss the three options that have been presented to the churches of the NWYM by the NWYM Transition Committee: (1) remain a part of the NMYM, (2) join the new yearly meeting, or (3) elect to become independent. All Members and guests were invited to participate in the discussion, and all views were respected and heard.

In the discussion, many members spoke to having concern about the human sexuality language in the current NWYM Faith and Practice. Some felt the new yearly meeting, Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting, is still too new to consider joining. After much discussion, the issue was presented to the members for a decision. The members determined that there was overwhelming desire to become independent from any yearly meeting. The final count was thirty (30) favoring independence, four (4) favoring staying with NWYM and four (4) members not indicating a preference. (Two individuals left before the vote was taken).

Reedwood Friends Church will now begin the process of independence, and we respectfully request the NYYM’s assistance and cooperation in this endeavor. Reedwood members will be meeting again August 27, 2017 at 1:00pm. Between now and then my prayer is that we can work with you to begin the transition in a way that is honoring to Christ and the members of Reedwood.

If you would like to make a report at the August 27 meeting we are open to this, provided you are respectful of the wishes expressed by the members of Reedwood. We know the LCCC has put a lot of work in trying to help us and we appreciate the attempts. Our hope is that both you and we have learned something as participants in this attempt. It is our desire that we go in the knowledge that you have given us much to consider and we further hope that your experience with us has helped you and the NWYM Elders as you work with other churches.

This is our official notice that Reedwood is withdrawing from the Northwest Yearly Meeting. Reedwood predates the NWYM and has always been an independent Oregon nonprofit corporation with an independent 501(c)(3) tax-exempt designation. We look forward to working with you as we transition into our new independence and exit from the NWYM. We ask for your prayers in this process.

Very truly yours,
Lloyd Pruitt, President, Reedwood Friends Church

Blues dessert: More from James Harman in Denmark.

24 August 2017

That "evangelical" label

Labels are only useful if they convey their intended meanings to intended audiences. So why do I continue to cling to the label "evangelical"?

Maybe I'm just stubborn. I left my atheist family and joined Quakers because I came to believe that Jesus is who he says he is, the Bible has authority, and evangelism is the church's highest priority. Those three features (the divinity of Christ, the authority of the Bible, and the urgency of evangelism) seem to me to be the central characteristics of the evangelical faith I thought I was joining.

Maybe there was another factor in my stubbornness: I became a believer as an adult. I had neither the advantages nor the baggage of lifelong church involvement.

In any case, I don't have the luxury of hiding in my sweet private definitions. On the one hand, theologians and religious authorities have been publicly slicing and dicing us evangelicals practically from year one. On the other hand, secular journalists on deadline adopt labels without special regard for subtleties and distinctions within those labels. (See "Associated Press repeats mantra: Gosh those 'evangelicals' are standing by their man Trump.")

Speaking of "their man Trump," the issue gets even cloudier when politicians try to gain advantage by using these labels, and their religious counterparts return the favor by basking in the warm glow of supposed influence. As Cal Thomas and Ed Dodson pointed out nearly two decades ago in their book Blinded by Might: Can the Religious Right Save America?, this sort of mutual backscratching can do more harm than good in terms of the desired goals.

Frank Schaeffer's Crazy for God (which I wrote about here) also revealed the tangled motivations behind evangelicals' pimping themselves for political advantage. On the perennial struggle to define the political dimension of evangelicals (particularly those who care about social justice), the best history I've seen is David R. Swartz's Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism.

Writers such as Brian Zahnd and Rachel Held Evans reveal the personal struggles many white evangelicals have faced, resulting from this gap between the heart of evangelicalism, understood theologically, and white American evangelicalism's public face. For some, the best solution is to abandon the label; for others, the best coping tactic is to expose the scandalous gap between the liberating faith of Jesus and the Bible, and the bondage involved in the Evangelical Religion Industry.

Probably that second tactic is the recurring theme of the thirteen years I've been writing this blog. I hope I've made it clear that the evangelical celebrities and their slashing judgments do not speak for me and my friends!

However, as for the first tactic (abandoning the label), I can feel my stubbornness asserting itself even as I write these words. "Evangelical" is a link to my own conversion to a personal faith in Jesus, my resistance to cerebral and relativistic substitutes. But that personal dimension might not be obvious to anyone else, especially those burned by authoritarian counterfeits. The irony is that genuine evangelicalism exalts evangelism, but the authoritarian counterfeits are generally repulsive to a skeptical world ... except when they hook those who are vulnerable to promises of total confidence.

Maybe the key point is not to invest myself emotionally in the label as a flag to be flaunted, or as the proud badge of a righteous gadfly. Instead, it's up to me to build a relationship with you or any other audience, a relationship that's able to carry -- in both directions -- the substance of what we want to say about faith.

I'm grateful that I came to the Christian community through the Quaker door, because, for us, even these crucial doctrines -- about Jesus, the Bible, evangelism -- are to be engaged with discernment and in community rather than understood or imposed mechanically. I don't panic if someone else rejects a label that I accept. No doubt they've learned something on their path that I have yet to encounter. And maybe I have something precious for them as well.

When I first came to Northwest Yearly Meeting of Friends at the start of this century, Friends were considering two controversial proposals: joining the Friends World Committee for Consultation, and adding the word "Evangelical" to the name of the Yearly Meeting. I was in favor of both proposals -- after all, I'd worked for FWCC for ten years and loved its mission, and I had no problem with the word "evangelical." After all, wasn't Northwest Yearly Meeting already a part of Evangelical Friends Church International?

I soon realized that the FWCC supporters and the "Evangelical" name supporters were usually not the same Friends. In fact, I heard that an idea for a swap was circulating: if the "liberals" would allow the name change, several influential "evangelicals" would not block joining FWCC. (Not sure now how widely this proposal was circulated.)

The Yearly Meeting ultimately agreed to a trial membership in the World Committee, but, to my surprise, the name change went nowhere. A pastor in the yearly meeting soon sat me down and explained why she was uncomfortable with any such proposal. It wasn't that she disagreed theologically with the term, but for her it called up all the associations with right wing politics and church authoritarianism that have more recently become so prominent.


I still hate to give in to those who let a perfectly good word go to waste on account of the religion industry. But maybe I need your help with a reality check: Is the word really worth saving? It reminds me of the time a Russian Orthodox journalist visited our Moscow Friends Meeting and told us that even the word "Christian" was held with suspicion among the far right in the Orthodox Church. He said something like this: "The politically correct term among patriotic conservatives is 'Orthodox'; the word 'Christian' makes them suspect you're a Protestant."

A more typical monument to the Civil War: 
these two cousins from Maine died 
at a prisoner of war camp in North Carolina 
only months before the end of the war. 
(Raymond Village Cemetery.)
How do we pick evangelical celebrities? (I loved this line: "It's as if evangelicalism wants to include anyone who might make them look cool, but exclude anyone who might make them think.")

Jonathan Merritt interviews Zach Hoag on Hoag's new book, The Light Is Winning: Why Religion Might Just Bring Us Back to Life. Teaser:
These are apocalyptic times for American Christianity, in the literal sense that they are revealing times. The decline of Christian faith in the U.S. is, I believe in part, a result of this revelation. There is a deep compromise with the wealth, power and violence of the empire at work in the church in our time.

In another sense, though, I remain hopeful and resolute. Despite the percentage of evangelicals who voted for and support Trump, I believe we are witnessing the last angry gasps of a perspective that is coming to a necessary end as a dominant force in American society.
Evangelical silence and Trump: A Reformation irony. (However, note announcement from A.R. Bernard.)

Jerry Jones (A Life Overseas): When hard things happen back home.

What if your child becomes an atheist? (Thanks to meetinghouse.xyz for the link.)

I was very sorry to hear the news that Dick Gregory died. He was such a part of my personal history. I remember devouring his books, after his visit to Carleton University, where he spoke on the Kennedy assassination, healthy foods ("Don't eat what you can't pronounce"), being monitored by the FBI, and outwitting the Ku Klux Klan, among many other topics. The obituaries don't mention his book of Bible stories, which we sold at Quaker Hill Bookstore. Among the obituaries: Los Angeles Times. New York Times. A fascinating video sample from the CBC.

The U.S. Embassy in Moscow announced a drastic reduction in visa services for Russian citizens. Ambassador Tefft says it's not a vindictive reaction. "Casual annoyance": RFE/RL reports on Russian citizens' reactions. Sergei Lavrov says that the Russian side will not retaliate.

Maybe my favorite links of the week -- celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Voyager interplanetary (interstellar) space program, and its record of amazing photos made and transmitted with the technology of four decades ago.

Blues dessert: This week it's a repeat, recorded in Denmark:

17 August 2017

Hidden screens and heresy

In his new book, Dream with Me: Race, Love, and the Struggle We Must Win, John Perkins talks about the contradiction between Jesus's prayer for unity in John 17 and the actual behavior of much of the church. For example:
Reporters Alex Alston and James Dickerson tell a sad story about a church that sought to integrate its ranks:

The Mississippi Delta was in a tizzy over rumors that blacks might show up at white churches to worship. Some white churches hired armed guards to keep them out. Other white churches considered allowing them to attend services. One Delta congregation, a Presbyterian church with deep cultural roots, was split right down the middle. Half of the deacons voted no; the other half voted yes. After a contentious meeting to resolve the stalemate, one of the church elders hurriedly left the meeting to deliver the news to his mother, a firm believer in old-time segregation.

"Well, what did you decide?" she demanded.

"We decided to let them attend services."

"You know I'm very much opposed to that!"

"I know, Mother -- but think about it this way. What would Jesus do?"

"I know good and well what He'd do," she huffed. "He'd say, let 'em in!"

She paused a moment, pondering the implications, then added, "But He'd be wrong!"

Even though most Christians wouldn't make a statement as bold as the elder's mother, I don't think many Christians believe reconciliation and integrated worship are central to the gospel and to our lives as Christians. But it is. We need God's Word to help purge us of these sins that keep us apart. And it grieves and frightens me to the core to hear a Christian declare that maintaining racial separation is a higher value than imitating Christ.
White people writing about racism often tend to cycle unhelpfully between defensiveness and self-flagellation, and I've written plenty about my own birth family's struggle with master-race mentality (example), so I only want to make one point here:

Racism is heresy. It is a lie in the face of the gospel.

No presentation of the Christian invitation, and no community claiming to embody that invitation, can proclaim "Come to me, all who who are weary and burdened," all the while prepared to impose a hidden screen on anyone who might respond to the invitation. Exclusion = fraud.

Once you've arrived, you may find that the community may not match your needs. You may not agree with their doctrines or their understanding of discipleship; you might find that you or they aren't ready to be mutually accountable according to their own public definitions -- or yours. But your path into the family of faith cannot be blocked by any implication that God's full invitation doesn't apply to you.

So far so good, but can we put these nice theories into practice?

In the American South described by John Perkins -- the place I first got to know in 1975, when I spent a summer with his colleagues at Voice of Calvary in Mendenhall, Mississippi -- the implications were clear and dramatic, as (no doubt) countless church fights along the lines described above by Alston and Dickerson took place.

But exposing racism and all false barriers affects all churches -- even the little village church here in Maine where we prayed for Charlottesville last Sunday. False barriers affect the reputation of the whole Christian community and the universality of its invitation. And, when torch-bearing racists are on the march, some claiming Christian motives, that reputation is understandably under worldwide scrutiny.

Speaking as a white believer ... our own well-meaning desires to be individual heroes of our racial reconciliation dreams are somewhat beside the point. Sometimes we'll succeed, sometimes we'll screw up. Sometimes we'll diagnose the factors influencing us, sometimes the territorial demons of racial injustice will continue to fog our vision and tie our tongues. We do what we can, in alliance with prophets of all races. But it's crucial for all of us to resist publicly the luscious lie that, in God's eyes, we're special.

Hacker's Hill (also known as Quaker Hill), Casco, Maine.
How Satan wins in Charlottesville and elsewhere.

Before you punch a Nazi ... (read comments, too).

How can Micah Bales follow Jesus in this time of hate?

An interview with Propaganda.

Russian activist fined over GULag memorial plaque.

Daniel Judt on his father Tony's love of trains. (Thanks to 3quarksdaily.)

Moscow: Maja Zavedia sings her version of "Stand By Me." (Judy and I had the pleasure of getting acquainted with Maja Zavedia last April.)

09 August 2017


Hartwells Locks, Rideau Canal
Photo by Tom Heyerdahl

What the president is doing is sending a strong message to North Korea in language that Kim Jong Un would understand....

These words from U.S. Secretary of State Tillerson remind me of this ancient and totally misplaced trust in "messages," invoked whenever a leader can't explain the actual content or logic of a statement at face value.

A few years ago I examined the related use or misuse of the terms "mixed messages" and "mixed signals." At the time, we opponents of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were told that our opposition gave our "enemies" mixed messages rather than the united message that would presumably shock and awe them into submission. Every major theme in this ephemeral cyber-world of blogging eventually cycles back, and so once again I'm looking at the wishful thinking about the messages our leaders are supposedly sending.

Of course the North Koreans are aware of the cluster of messages and subtexts represented by the U.S. president's "fire and fury" message and the commentaries of his associates in the U.S. government:
  • The threat itself: be afraid of our weapons
  • The possibility that it is all bluff and bluster, given the evident limited range of Trump's strategic imagination
  • The insult contained in Tillerson's commentary, that North Korea's leadership would not be able to decipher a calmer, more straightforward message
  • The possible challenge to call the U.S. bluff
  • The functional assumption that North Korea will respond with more wisdom and maturity than the U.S. side is exhibiting.
North Korea is a difficult case, no doubt. It's not easy to communicate with a leadership that seems so paranoid and defensive (however we understand the background to that stance). But the standard advice for communicating with "difficult people" is to say the same reasonable and true and sustainable thing over and over, patiently and clearly, no matter how provocative the other side's rhetoric might be. They're already perfectly aware of the resources available at your disposal -- diplomatic, economic, military, and, most importantly, time. There is absolutely no need to goad them and thereby destabilize the situation and possibly lose the support of the rest of the world. And there is no need to fall back on "signals" and "messages" that are actually just transparent poses.

All you need to say is simply 'Yes' or 'No', said Jesus. Anything beyond this comes from the evil one. (Matthew 5:37.)

Yesterday was Judy's and my 37th wedding anniversary. Instead of worrying about North Korea, we enjoyed time with our Ottawa relatives, including a wonderful walk around the campus of Carleton University, where I studied Russian back in the '70's. We also walked along the Rideau River and the Rideau Canal, whose ancient mechanical locks seem to work as well as ever.

Today we travel to Maine, retreating for some weeks to the village of Raymond (and its Internet-equipped library) before returning to Elektrostal.

A language we'll soon be learning (I hope): the language of transition.

Hiroshima: an anti-transfiguration.

An interview on a new Christian movement characterized by multi-level marketing, Pentecostal signs and wonders, and post-millennial optimism.

Is Canada dealing with a new wave of refugees?

Controversial (?) Palestinian professor breaks his silence.

Meanwhile in Moscow ...