Sunday, 5 September 2010

How can we answer religious and racial bigotry? -- Johan Maurer

Johan writes his Quaker blog with jazz riffs Can you believe? from Elektrostal, Russia, where he teaches English. This Sep 2 reflection (see also his Aug 19 posting) finds echo in QEW discussions about seeking alternatives to disaster messaging and Tea Party lies. Its wider question is about whether and how to speak truth to power, when that power is the state or violent state-tolerated persecutors, to "turn the other cheek" into quietism, or to seek "that of God" in the persecutor -- a question that will always face peace churches. Note: illustrations below and their captions are ours, not his - Ed.
"A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger." (Proverbs 15:1)

Yesterday morning, schools all over Russia celebrated the day of knowledge, reassembling after the summer and opening the new school year. The New Humanities Institute did the same. Several of the teachers spoke to their assembled students and colleagues; I was one of them. Here's what I said, more or less:
We've promised you hard work, but we've also promised fun times. And maybe I add to the fun when I speak Russian.

Like some of you, when I woke up this morning and opened my eyes, I just wanted to close them and go back to sleep. But I didn't.

After opening my eyes, the second thing I usually do is read the news. From years of news-reading, it seems to me that the basic sin of our era as that we too often objectify each other. We take human beings and treat them like objects. The answer to this evil begins with knowledge and mutual understanding.

I'm convinced that, as a result of your work, the world will be a better place. So, let's get to work together.
Is it just me, or is the drumbeat of objectification, polarization, mockery, somehow increasing? And what should our response be? I'm not the only one raising similar questions--see Liz Opp's "Silence on a stick" and Eileen Flanagan's "Finding my voice." A few months ago I reflected here on the dilemmas of Quaker corporate advocacy (first post; second post), and in view of the new Israeli/Palestinian negotiations, those thoughts might still be relevant, at least for the questions, "When do we take sides, and how?" But are there times when it's less an issue of "taking sides" and more an issue of simply confronting mean or outrageous conduct? Assuming we want to stay rooted in our faith (and believe me, there are times when I want to let 'er rip without any reference to those roots!), how do we participate in the public arena?

Withdrawal is always an option, and it's one that we Quakers often choose. Today I unsubscribed from an "experts" list on Russia because I finally got fed up with the participants' cynicism about the activists who march in favor of Russia's constitutional guarantee of free assembly. My feelings about Russian politics today are very complex, and I believe as a foreigner I need to be humble--Americans don't always have all the answers. (Even when we know we don't have all the answers, our constant willingness to jump in and "solve" other people's problems makes it appear that we think we do!) But this particular forum seems to specialize in bad-mouthing other experts not in the forum, and in polarizing every issue into false dichotomies. After composing several drafts of an exquisitely nuanced response to the nasty comments about demonstrators who love getting their heads bashed by the police in front of foreign journalists, I finally exited, said "life is too short," and unsubscribed. Did I perhaps betray lurkers who might have welcomed a more balanced contribution? Maybe. I can't fight every battle.

Back when Quaker e-mail lists and online forums were just getting started, I used to be very active on those lists. I was especially zealous to defend Friends United Meeting from unfair attacks, which were frequent and often ill-informed. Although Quaker forums are often unbelievably courteous compared to what's out there in the rest of the world, I learned the hard way how easy it is for one or two people to make online life very unpleasant for the rest. Since those forums were probably reaching something under 0.1% of the Quaker public, it seemed like a better stewardship of time simply to say goodbye--although sadly, because the conversations were often very worthwhile.
Glenn Beck, Time 14 Sep 09
"social justice is a code word for Communism" 2010

Back to the wider stage. Right now Glenn Beck is taking up a lot of U.S. media space. I can barely stand even to type his name, much less take time to comment on his repulsive but apparently profitable mix of religiosity and nationalism. But ...

(1) don't I have a valid point of view on our country's need for revival, and about who gets to say when this revival has started? What can I put out there in the public square that has even the slightest chance of connecting with someone I disagree with, rather than simply raising an amen with others sharing my opinions?

(2) Don't I actually agree with at least some of his followers that the government has slipped out of our (the people's) control? My evidence is NOT the same as "theirs"--I approve of taxation to "promote the general welfare" (to quote the U.S. Constitution). And I approve of regulation to restrain private greed and guarantee the equal protection of the law. I even believe in deficit spending if the effect is an investment in future revenue. But the national security apparatus and our state of permanent warfare threatens us with both moral and financial bankruptcy. In sum, there really are reasons for alienation--shouldn't we take steps to compare our analyses with all those who have arrived at this diagnosis?

(3) What does my description of Glenn Beck, and my use of the adjective "repulsive," say about my own spiritual maturity, my own capacity to sustain a civil dialogue? To whom am I accountable, as a disciple, for the language I use? Does anger excuse intemperate language in public? But does "moderation" always serve the cause of honesty?
Anti-Islamic (Park 51 mosque)
hate-blogger Pam Geller of

Atlas Shrugs, SIOA and Fox News

Sometimes I don't even know where to start. Take the Park 51 project in Manhattan, for example. If the Cordoba House organizers have accurately described their plans and those plans meet zoning laws, that to me is the end of the discussion. Build it or don't build it--why should I care? I don't even live in the neighborhood. But can I pretend not to have noticed the flood of venom emitted by the project's opponents? And is there any doubt that this venom is specifically linked to the project's Muslim identity? So what then is my responsibility, belonging as I do to a Christian community whose evangelists were once executed for refusing to stay out of Massachusetts? But how do I express my passionate belief that this discussion shouldn't even be happening!? Does my stirring the pot serve justice, or perversely add credibility to an absurd and artificial controversy?

Back to the Proverbs 15 quotation. What might a biblical "gentle answer" consist of? Maybe "gentle" doesn't mean meek and mild, but instead meets a different standard, refusing to objectify Glenn Beck into a cardboard caricature, refusing to minimize his supporters as if their alienation had no objective basis, even while taking strenuous issue with their (alleged) civil religion. Maybe it means being persistent, delivering our own positive assertions in season and out of season, and being less obsessed with refuting others.

Many thanks to Liz Opp and Eileen Flanagan for helping me think through these questions. What do you think?
[Note: see his original post and leave a comment. More about Maurer and other Quakers in Marshall Massey's Earthwitness Journal]

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