29 July 2009

No such thing

I got into a discussion with my father this morning about economy, and about how a Christian is supposed to approach the subject. Dad, being influenced heavily by process theology, argued from the view that human economy should be a reflection of nature and the ecology that surrounds and sustains that economy - that it should encompass and embrace opportunity and risk. He argued that as we were now, we were not doing a very good job of being capitalists - that the prices of our consumer durables do not currently reflect supply and ecological impact, and that our system has been operating under poor assumptions about the resources it can draw on.

There is a definite merit to his argument, but when the discussion turned to the topic of social elites, he kind of lost me on it. The implied premises were that human nature is defined by its origins in nature and in ecology, that it is fundamentally hierarchical and that human societies will inevitably form structures that benefit and privilege a few over the many. Of course, Dad is no Spencerite - by no means does he adhere to an idea that 'survival of the fittest' applies to society in the same way it applies to the natural world. He understands that human beings are capable of behaving ethically and are able to train the anti-social aspects of their nature through education, and that governments are obligated to place boundary conditions on the market and on our social and personal behaviour such that the economic elites don't cheat and exploit the rest of us.

Theologically speaking, I think he's standing on shakier ground when he makes assumptions about human nature. I hold that there is no such thing as 'human nature'. There is only the human, the natural and social conditions endemic to her existence, and what she does within them.

-- Hold on then, Matt. What do you mean, 'there is no such thing'? As a Christian, don't you have to believe that human beings have eternal souls, some spark of the divine within them?

Well, Matt, as a Christian I have to say I have to deal always with Jesus' question, 'who do you say that I am?' - and the answer is never as easy as many of us like to pretend it is. You reach back, further and further back, and any attempt to find some essence to humanity, some meaningful external reality that is binding on each and every one of us, and you will find that it crumbles into dust and slips straight through your fingers. (We are dust - to paraphrase Genesis - and to dust we shall return, right?) Perversely enough, humanity is its own best exception to every rule it makes for itself...

-- To those who glibly answer that we are 'made in the image of God', I ask - what does that mean to you? What is the 'divinity' which you ascribe to yourself? We're talking about the question of your existence; have you given it any thought at all? 'Reason', you say? That is the most popular answer, but it also has the distinction of being entirely wrong. We humans eat our seed corn, invest in nothingness, trade meaningless chatter, destroy the ecosystems that sustain us and squash those less fortunate than ourselves underfoot all the while. How 'reasonable' can we possibly be?

(To me, who Jesus is, is among the most important questions Scripture poses to a Christian. Sadly, this question is trivialised by too many in Christendom, who turn it into rhetoric - a meaningless Pavlovian response of 'my Lord and Saviour!' for a few seconds every week, while they continue on in their one-dimensional present-age existence for the rest. What kind of 'Lord' must this Jesus be to you, if you think when he told you to 'love your enemies' he would be cool with you waterboarding them, slamming their heads into walls, stripping them naked, electrocuting them, shooting them, bombing them? What kind of Messiah can Jesus be to you, when you hear of these wrongdoings done in your name - and say and do nothing? For all the outrage and the 'how-dare-yous' that were spent in the public square on Reverend Jeremiah Wright, at least he had the courage to get up in his Church and talk seriously about these existential disconnects that distort and shatter the American understanding of who Christ is.)

-- The big problem with being a socialist is that I have to deal with both the responsibility of the human subject and with the conditions which shape that subject. If I am taking the existentialist road that there is no human nature per se, I have to be very careful how I articulate myself as a socialist. The thinkers in the Marxist tradition who speak the most truth to me have been Marcuse, Honneth and Habermas - having articulated theories of the self rooted in language, communication and the intersubjective, they place responsibility for defining humanity back in our hands (or rather, on our tongues) rather than within historical and economic forces hopelessly beyond our control or understanding. In that, they allow for greater existential freedom than orthodox Marxism does.

-- But getting back to the problem of 'human nature', though, I have to reject the fiction of a 'human nature', to the effect that our essence is somehow pre-determined by our conditions such that human beings are inherently violent or inherently hierarchical. Because we have no such thing given to us, we are responsible for constantly creating human nature.

This creativity is at once the essence and the burden of our 'divinity', such as it is. I am constantly breathing life into this clay vessel even as I live out of that vessel - and I can choose within my constraints to employ these creative energies toward following Christ, toward shaping the conditions of our material existence to accommodate ever-greater sustainability and social justice, toward the revolutionary goal of the 'kingdom of heaven'.

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28 July 2009

Last project for the Swearer Centre + 3 more weeks + Russell Arben Fox on health care reform

I just got done with the second draft of my last big project for the Swearer Centre for Public Service - altering and writing prefaces for the readings in the supplemental reading packet for next year's College Guides. Basically, my job was to (a) read the readings, (b) organise them in a user-friendly way and (c) explain and analyse briefly the major issues they cover. Most of the writings were intended for an academic audience, which doesn't present a problem in itself given that I'm a recent college graduate, but making the readings relevant to what we College Guides do is another task altogether. Advising high-school students on college access is a surprisingly complex topic, and the big picture isn't always easy to see - something which tended to paralyse me when I was actually doing it during the school year.

I ended up using the scheme my predecessors had laid out, with the categories: barriers to college access, family engagement, counselling, college-going culture and student perspectives. There was a lot of interesting material on all of these topics, though the best material came from Kathleen Cushman's book Fires in the Bathroom. I highly recommend it for anyone going into education - though at this point it may be cliche to say so, it really ought to be a truism that the perspective on education that matters most is that of the students themselves, and it's good to have a resource that takes that truth as its MO by adopting students as co-authors!

It was instructive for me to try to take writings in an academic jargon in which I'm fairly well-versed and attempt to distil from them something thought-provoking and practical, with a low barrier to access but without dumbing it down. And it deserved to be done - we are talking about a project with humanitarian goals and human consequences (we are trying to equip young people who've had rough breaks with the educational tools and social capital they need to have a greater range of options in the economy and in the society). The language that we use in our training and in our service should be more humane as well. Office work doesn't compare with being at the school working with students, but I definitely felt as though I was accomplishing something here.


In other news, three weeks to Kazakhstan, and I'm completely psyched! I've got most of my Peace Corps paperwork squared away, I'll get my suitcase back soon from repairs (again), and then I can begin packing in earnest. I'm going to need to print off all the photos I've taken, as well - I'll see if I can't start doing that this week. Also, Russian practice is proceeding slowly, sad to say... I can only take so much of Rosetta Stone's lamentable voice-recognition plug-in on any given day. The family's heading back up to the farm in Vermont this weekend to visit the extended family one last time before I leave for Kazakhstan and my sister leaves for college, so I may be incommunicado Saturday and Sunday.


Also, what Dr Fox said. We need a plan which provides us with meaningful improvement over what we have now, because the fact that we have a system which leaves 47 million poor Americans without insurance, such that they have to go to emergency rooms for last-ditch care, is simply not acceptable. (He also makes the much-needed point that public policy is only half the picture here: as a society we will ultimately have the reciprocal responsibility to cultivate healthier and more sustainable living habits.)

I ask my readers: please donate to Health Care for America Now or call your Representatives and Senators (HCAN has set up a toll-free line for advocacy calls) to voice your support of legislation that will guarantee a humane basic minimum of health insurance coverage for all Americans.

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27 July 2009

This is somewhat interesting...

This story is of some interest to me, since I will shortly be blogging from inside Kazakhstan. As of two and a half weeks ago, NAN signed into law a bill designating blogs, Internet fora and social networks like Facebook and MySpace as media outlets, subjecting them to the same regulatory standards as Kazakhstan's traditional media (television, newspapers, et cetera). The rationale for this move was that it would help combat extremism, terrorist activity and pornography.

My first reaction to the new law was roughly along the lines of: 'riiiight; good luck with that'. As the PRC's forays into censoring expression on the Internet have borne witness, it isn't an easy task (they have plenty of people and infrastructure devoted to it), and the resistance to such a move will undoubtedly be heavy and stubborn - witness the resilient 草泥马 (Cao Ni Ma; Grass Mud Horse - pun on 'screw your mother') internet meme in the PRC, a song which makes liberal use of subversive anti-government puns (e.g., comparing the official slogan 'Harmonious Society' 和谐社会 [he2 xie2 she4 hui4] to an infestation of river-crabs 河蟹 [he2 xie4]). I'm not sure how internet-savvy Astana and Almaty are in comparison to Beijing, but I can't imagine this new law going down too well in Kazakhstan's blogging community, for example.

It is an understandable goal for the government to want to monitor for extremism and potential violence, but even with the best of intentions, alienating the online public doesn't seem to be the way of going about it. To be honest, it is true that bloggers could stand to be more accountable for what they write and publish (I write, probably busily digging my own early grave). If that accountability is to the government, however, the government should have a reciprocal accountability to the public which uses and publishes on the Internet. This kind of oversight power is all-too-easily abused for personal and ideological reasons when the watchers are not in turn watched by a responsible body politic.

20 July 2009

The soul of Protestantism, part 3

In the previous two segments of this essay series, I explored the roots of Germanic Christianity’s individualistic values, arriving at an image of Christ as a barbarian warrior-king. To some, this might seem to call into question whether I believe in the divinity or the historical reality of Christ, but this was never my intent. We are communicative beings, shaped by the values and shared knowledge of our culture and language; in a real sense, the Holy Spirit has made us heirs of this image – we must take care that we do not turn that image into a golden calf, to worship in place of the living God. And there is a living God behind that image. In Scripture, there are authors – true literary giants – writing to us, albeit through the dimming polarised lenses of time and language, of the good news of the Messiah.

But what are we to look for? If we are so influenced by our culture and by our time, how are we to understand this man, this Messiah we claim to follow? I am eternally indebted to Ched Myers, whose amazing book Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus gave me, perhaps for awhile, ‘eyes to see’. Through a literary-historical analysis born of the great Liberal Protestant tradition of historical criticism, Myers turns the polarised lenses of culture and language back so that Mark shines through with all the force of broad daylight. The Christ he allows us to see, the Jesus of Nazareth in the Gospel of Mark, is neither an ascetic bringing a Manichaean message of salvation and damnation, nor the castrated (but popular) liberal ‘nice guy’ who comes preaching a message of love, peace and world understanding – but an ordinary tradesman from the most backward part of Palestine gifted with an extraordinary political vision of radical economic and social equality, under an oppressive and brutal Empire which considers his vision a threat.

I will not go in-depth into Myers’ exhaustive (though eye-opening) reading of Mark, suffice it to say that Myers treats Mark as a work of literature, aimed at a Greek-speaking, largely poor and semi-literate Palestinian audience, but nonetheless artfully structured and deeply subversive. Jesus is the primary player in this narrative, and no sooner does he appear but he begins challenging the exploitative norms and practices of the Second Temple state and the Roman Empire. He heals the lepers and the physically-disfigured (people with ‘pre-existing conditions’, we might say today), and so demolishes the debt and purity codes with which the religious authorities have kept them exploited and outcast. He also challenges Imperial rule through the political theatre of exorcism, but keeps his table fellowship open to both Jews and Gentiles. His message is utterly radical and transformative: the ‘kingdom of heaven’ is not meant to be a spiritual goal of the afterlife, but a reality of social and economic equality through a commonwealth of goods to be brought about on earth, through non-violent struggle. For this message of radical equality, he was declared an enemy of the Roman state and crucified – yet we are confronted at the end of Mark with the empty tomb. Like the women who came there and saw it, we are challenged to speak this ‘good news’, this promise of a new political order.

But how are we to respond to this, we who have before us this image of Christ shaped by the tribal-military values of our barbarian forebears? What has Mark to say to us?

There seem to be some places where we are not too far off (Mark 12:34) in how we typically conceive of the Gospel message. We Protestants influenced by the Teutonic cultures have in our history and our consciousness these peasant rebellions and protests which were the material analogues of the religious Protests (like the Bauernkrieg of 1524-5) – we have the values of sociopolitical equality and kinship writ large in our material and spiritual culture, and (as a rule) we do not struggle in the same way with issues of purity or imperial order, tending to reject both out-of-hand. The Protest also gives us this precedent of resistance to the forces of Empire, whether material or spiritual. The original Protest destroyed the debt and purity codes of Catholicism with the same zeal that Jesus took to demolishing the debt and purity codes of the Temple state. We Protestants are open to radical social equality and the leadership of women in ways that both Catholic and Orthodox leadership are not. This is something that Mark seems to value; Jesus is often shown in solidarity with the poor struggling with Empire, even those who in desperation resort to violence and banditry (though Jesus himself never supported such an option) – as Myers points out, two bandits take the right and left hand of Jesus upon the Cross.

But there are points where our endemic idolatry of the barbarian warrior-king Christ cripples us in our spiritual understanding, blinds us to the Gospel message in ways that lead us terribly astray. Most obviously is the point of the use of violence. The non-violence that features so prominently in the Gospels is not a practice or an ethic that sits easily with our heathen values; sadly, most Protestants cannot even conceive of a world in which violence will not be necessary, and are blind to the practical implications of Jesus’ message (e.g., Reinhold Niebuhr). Not many of us are so willing to put our dignity on the line the same way Jesus was – it is something we struggle with, even those of us in the peace-church tradition: we Mennonites and Brethren, we Amish and Quakers. But it is ultimately a surface objection. A Gandhian ethic of revolutionary non-violence is easy for us to read from Scripture, and by no means outside the scope of our imagination as Protestants. As I pointed out in my last essay, this style of non-violence is even compatible with a barbarian warrior’s concept of personal honour.

Likewise, many Protestants in their rampant individualism simply don’t care about community, or (one of my pet peeves) see themselves as ‘spiritual’ rather than ‘religious’. Many Protestants want for discipline and want for knowledge, having no familiarity with their history and a cursory familiarity with Scripture (at best). Others, having drunk too deeply from Locke and Smith and taken capitalist-consumerism as their religion of choice, bridle at the very idea that we have any communal responsibility to care for the poor and socially outcast or claim that human nature is simply too sinful to be rectified by any effort we might collectively make (and Nikolay Aleksandrovich Berdyaev might have a few choice words for them!). These are deep problems, but they are problems avoided to a large degree by most of the peace churches, which discipline themselves to community and practice the pursuit of social justice and economic equality.

But there are deeper ways in which the Protestant culture misses the mark by a significant margin. The barbarian warrior-king Christ shown in Dream of the Rood is a triumphant figure, a man who boldly leads the charge up to Golgotha, who strips himself and climbs up onto the Cross bravely and under his own power. This is not the Christ Mark shows us. Mark is continually trying to subvert our triumphalist expectations throughout the Gospel right up to the end – the Christ we see is beaten, crowed over, emasculated, humiliated by the Romans, abandoned and betrayed by his disciples. Everything he has worked for seems to be gone. Myers spares our egos nothing in his account of the Gospel’s ending – Mark strips us bare, just as the young man was stripped bare as he fled from the soldiers at Jesus’ arrest (Mark 14:51-52). This is not a tale of triumphal victory – the Gospel is much more ambiguous than that. Though we have the promise of the empty tomb at the end of the Gospel, we are cautioned against the kind of Romanticism of which the author of Dream of the Rood is guilty by everything that comes before and by what comes after (the women at the tomb being afraid to speak).

When it comes to Romantic triumphalism, we Anabaptists are as guilty as anyone; maybe guiltier than most. We romanticise our past horribly: always we are the true Church, the righteous victims fleeing the unjust and wicked persecution of the Roman Catholics or the magisterial Protest, the Orthodox authorities of Tsarist Russia or the Continental Army in this country’s fledgling days. We have our heroic epic in the Martyrs’ Mirror, singing paeans to our bold and fearless champions of faith, Michael Sattler and Dirk Willems (though I have to say Willems’ story is really freaking awesome). This Romanticism gives us Manichaean blinders which dim for us the story of Jesus: we have a tendency to see ourselves as islands of righteousness in a world-spanning ocean of sin. We strive after martyrdom in much the same way – in a way, we fall prey to the trap of seeking that glorious right hand of Jesus on the Cross. These tendencies come to us straight from the values writ large in Dream of the Rood, and Jesus’ reproof when we vie for his right hand (Mark 9:33-36) should not be lost on us. The discipline of humility does not come to us easily – those of us in the German and Anglo-American traditions have a tendency to be notoriously, sinfully stiff-necked, and we Anabaptists are certainly no exception.

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16 July 2009

PC update + EurasiaNet story on Kazakhstan

I just called Sato Travel and got my 18 August flights booked for Washington DC! I've also started packing, picking out a couple of bags that fit the Peace Corps size requirements (limit of 107" l + w + h). I have gifts for my host family and I think I've got enough warm clothes, but sadly, I don't have enough formal attire yet - and I haven't even gotten around to considering what books I want to bring. This Peace Corps thing is really happening - and it's starting to really sink in.

There's an interesting article that was posted yesterday on EurasiaNet about Kazakhstan's active and spirited anti-nuclear movement. In Soviet times, Kazakhstan played host to the Semipalatinsk-21 nuclear testing site, and that has caused some major ecological and public-health problems which, as President Nazarbaev says, 'centuries will be required to restore'. Speaking at Semey last month, NAN called for a renewal of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. It seems Obama may have an enthusiastic regional ally on this particular foreign-policy front; I pray something can be made of it.

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12 July 2009

The soul of Protestantism, part 2

In the first part of this essay, I traced the genealogy of the values underlying Protestant social thinking and Christology back to the heathen Teutonic ideal of the warrior-king at the head of a band of free equals, bound together by kinship. This would seem to present some problems for some branches of the Protest (not least of which being my own, Anabaptism) and perhaps to the validity of the Protestant project as a whole.

First, a question. Why did I bother positing this barbarian warrior-king image of Christ at the fountainhead of Protestant thinking in the first place? What is the use? What does it show us? For one thing, it serves as a theoretical highlight to some of the a priori assumptions of our spiritual forebears. The barbarian warrior-king Christ still influences our creativity as Protestants, and to some extent it should. If we are to grow in faith, we need to be aware of where that faith comes from, and whether our a prioris ennoble or cripple us. And what could be more healthy, creative and ennobling than a theology which touts the nearness of God to his creation and which values personal honour and strength of spirit?

But it’s not enough simply to have this fountainhead. We have this deep, rich creative well to draw from, tapping into the tables of Scripture with our heathen buckets, but now the question is: what do we do with all of the water? Or, rather, what have we done with it? We in the American Protestant tradition have carried a portion of that water faithfully into the field, where it has yielded much by way of good fruit. The pursuit of personal understanding of the nature of God opened up the vast intellectual plains of historical criticism; value placed on equality and kinship of believers was the driving force behind the social gospel, which played a key role in ending slavery and establishing women’s and workers’ rights in the United States; basic trust in the nearness of God was the working assumption of the Boston personalist, neo-orthodox, and Black liberation theologies which influenced Dr Martin Luther King, Jr in his non-violent struggle for civil rights.

… And then there is the radical Reformation, which I would like to explore a little more in-depth. The radical Reformation was originally a collection of loosely-related radical religious and intellectual movements, most of which congealed into a common movement pejoratively called ‘Anabaptism’. From the beginning, it was German through-and-through; even when the Anabaptists were slaughtered and forced into other lands – into the Ukraine and Russia, into Kazakhstan, into North America – they kept their beliefs, their language (whether Alemannic or Plattdeutsch or Deitsch) and their way of life alive with steadfast zeal. The Anabaptists had in common a radical rejection of the violent, imperial order of the contemporary Roman Catholic Church and a rejection of what they saw as the same tendencies in magisterial Protestantism, and they varied on the particulars of their beliefs, but they developed a few common tendencies.

In common with magisterial Protestants (Evangelical, Reformed and Episcopalian), the radical reformers took Scripture as their sole source of authority (though some later Anabaptist movements, such as the Church of the Brethren, rejected the Hebrew Scriptures as authoritative and kept only the Greek) and affirmed das Priestertum aller Gläubigen. However, we differentiate ourselves from other Protestant groups in that we practice believer’s baptism, non-violence, consensus-based decision making and abstention from oaths as per the agreements of the 1527 Brotherly Union at Schleitheim.

But wait! In light of my previous blog article, this tradition must seem like a truly bizarre aberration! Indeed, the believer’s baptism makes perfect sense if we are comparing faith with a Teutonic barbarian’s personal honour, but wouldn’t it be difficult in the extreme to imagine non-violence arising from the a prioris of a heathen warrior culture?

Indeed, this is the objection of C S Lewis, who evokes the same Teutonic myths in his famous (if somewhat facile) indictment of pacifism in The Weight of Glory:

If I am a Pacifist, I have Arthur and Ælfred, Elizabeth and Cromwell, Walpole and Burke, against me. I have my university, my school, and my parents against me. I have the literature of my country against me, and cannot even open my Beowulf, my Shakespeare, my Johnson, or my Wordsworth without being reproved…

My first impulse is, naturally, to argue that the entire purpose of the Protest – indeed, of Christianity as a whole – is to subvert the political institutions, culture, thought and habits of empire (even if that empire happens to be British), but that point may be left aside for now. It is true that, even within Protestantism and German theology, the practice of non-violence is an extreme minority opinion, historically counter-cultural even within the counter-culture. Luther, Zwingli, Chauvin and the other magisterial reformers had no objections to the use of the sword (as the Thirty Years’ War gave ample and bloody proof). But, obviously, it cannot be completely incompatible with the thinking of the age – that is to say, it cannot have been so against ‘the universal opinion of mankind’ as Lewis seems to think – otherwise it would have been so far outside the realm of imagination for radical reformers such as Sattler and Simons that they would never have bothered considering it in the first place.

Here it may be wise to offer clear definitions for terms. I am slightly uncomfortable using the language of ‘pacifism’, as in the general parlance the word is often identified with ‘passivity’, or worse, with ‘apathy’ and indifference or aversion to struggle. Non-violence, on the other hand, is clear terminology: it is a practice rather than an ideology; it is neither passive nor apathetic. We see a Jesus in Dream of the Rood who does not submit to his fate in apathetic weariness or bitterness; rather he faces his death with stoic resolve and with bravery. And, as the Saxons had Dream of the Rood, we Anabaptists have our Martyrs’ Mirror, and we have the Gospel. We have by no means forgotten or discarded the ideals of the barbarian warrior-hero, and it is simply failure of imagination on Lewis’ part that he cannot see how we might find meaning in Beowulf or in the legend of Ælfred of Wessex. Indeed, we identify non-violent resistance to a sinful and exploitative culture as our chosen means of achieving an honour analogous to that of the heathen heroes. The Anabaptist way of thinking is that non-violence is the furthest state from weakness: it takes strength of will and character in the believer, following the virtues and practices of his Lord and King, to place his own life on the line in witness against the powers of death, with the resolve not to strike back.

(So, good news for my fellow Anabaptists – you may enjoy Lord of the Rings with a clear conscience.)

There is also the other matter, of greater interest to me, of the dialectical, paradoxical tension between our inclination to the individual as the locus of faith in believer’s baptism on the one hand, and our thoroughly communitarian praxis of consensus-based decision making on the other. The paradox beats not just in the heathen heart of the Protest, balancing personal honour against the demands of kinship, but also in Scripture: Paul lays out this paradoxical Christian understanding of freedom in no uncertain terms in his letter to the Galatians:

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery… You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself’. (Galatians 5:1, 13-14)

Though Anabaptism places the responsibility for one’s faith squarely on the shoulders of the individual believer by practicing believer’s baptism and das Priestertum aller Gläubigen, that faith arises from and comes back to rest in the holiness of the community. Ideally, we practice obedience – not to an imperial dominance hierarchy and not to a philosophical formula, but to each other in the living body of Christ. (If this looks familiar to anyone familiar with my philosophical background, it should – it is the way in which G W F Hegel’s ‘dialectics of lordship and bondage’ are transcended.) True to the kinship of belief which is our moral inheritance, we find freedom, creativity and spiritual nourishment in obedience to one another, expressed in the mystery of the Holy Supper – or, as the Mennonite hymn ‘What is this place’ (1, Hymnal: a worship book) puts it:

And we accept bread at his table, broken and shared, a living sign.
Here in this world, dying and living, we are each other’s bread and wine.

This approach has some interesting ramifications theologically. While the Catholic and Orthodox traditions claim original authority through a patriarchal ‘pedigree’ of apostolic succession (appointments of spiritual ‘overseers’ going back to the original twelve Apostles), the Protestant* (and more specifically, Anabaptist) emphasis on the nearness of God to the people gives a far different flavour to the nature of the apostolic commission. The body of Christ is present in our community – is our community, as we return constantly to the authority of Scripture – and the apostolic commission is constantly rejuvenated personally in each member of the community through the Holy Supper.

Protestantism is not perfect – the a priori value of the individual in Protestant thinking has led to some disastrous excesses, of which the solipsistic, totalitarian neurosis of fundamentalism remains but the most obvious manifestation. Also troubling (though not as obvious) is the anemic silence of the liberal Protestant Christianity of our day: though a handful of brave churches took a strong stand against the moral monstrosity which was the Iraq War, many, to their dishonour, did not speak out – leaving the field largely open to the apologists for empire. But in Protestantism lie the seeds of freedom – not ‘the isolation of the soul’, as Berdyaev argued, but the freedom of a commonwealth of equals.

Also: Anabaptist parody added. The Lord of Webhosts commandeth.

* Some Protestant churches – like the Anglican Communion and some European Lutheran churches – do have pedigrees of apostolic succession, though in the case of the Anglican Communion the retention of apostolic succession has been a High Church argument rather than a Low Church one, and the argument favouring apostolic succession in Lutheran church polity does not seem to be a majority one.

10 July 2009

The soul of Protestantism, part 1

In preparing for Peace Corps service, I have tried to undertake the study of the intellectual and religious traditions of the cultures of Kazakhstan – I have already posted a brief ‘response paper’ to one of the essays of Nikolay Berdyaev. This course of study, however, ended up leading me to a deeper examination of my own culture.

Nikolay Berdyaev notes in his essays that in Western Christianity there has been a consistent tension between Teutonic and Latinate sensibilities. Berdyaev’s analysis in Uniting Christians East and West is emphasises primarily the differences between Latinate and Greco-Russian Christianity, however, painting a vivid portrait of the Church in Rome and its impulse for crafting and reinforcing a formal, external order. The mission and structure of the Western Roman Empire became the model for the Church; strict dominance hierarchies were established with the Pope taking on the authority of the Caesar. Thought was to be regimented, armed and equipped for battle through the Augustinian (and later Thomist) scholastic disciplines; the younger generation of legionnaires were to be trained, drilled and disciplined to the service of the Church Militant through study and through catechism. All energies were bent upon the unity and uniformity of thought within the framework of the external order of which the Bishopric of Rome was the keystone. Dissent was to be trodden underfoot or driven out on the lances and swords of the legions of Western Christendom’s faithful.

Berdyaev does not make as keen an effort of characterising the counterculture in the West (which later became a culture in its own right), the Teutonic strain of Christianity, but he does give us several clues. The impulse to external and formal order within Latinate Christianity is resisted in Teutonic Christianity in ‘processes of religious individuation’, what Berdyaev otherwise characterises as ‘a pathological protest against the constraint of the Latin universalism’. Pathological or not, there is more than just a kernel of truth to Berdyaev’s claims – one need look no further than to Berdyaev’s fellow existentialist and wholly Teutonic counterpart in (surprise, surprise) Søren Kierkegaard. Key to Kierkegaard’s thought is his assertion of the ultimate worth of the individual existence as an individual, overriding any kind of universal claim (even something as broad as ‘humanity’ or ‘reason’). Kierkegaard emerges as the Protestant’s Protestant, the worthy individual soul braving the scorn of the Danish evangelical state church against which he stood as prophet, facing his martyrdom with the unflinching resolve given him by his own faith in an intensely personal Christ.

But where does this protest come from? How are we to interpret or understand it? I cannot pretend my skill in this area compares with that of a practiced genealogist-of-morals like Nietzsche, but I can, perhaps, attempt to lay out some of the history. If I were to attempt to define the Protestant Reformation in 25 words or less, it would probably look something like this:

A 16th-Century reform movement within Christendom rejecting mediation and embracing the nearness of God, individual accountability for faith and the equality and kinship of believers.

Theologically, one can see in the basic tenets of both magisterial and radical Protestantism the basic elements, even in the earliest formulations of (what would later become) Protestant grievances with the Catholic Church. Luther, Zwingli, Chauvin and Sattler all objected to the sale of indulgences (which made a mockery of an individual’s accountability before God by turning it into a commodity to be bought), to the privileges and symbolism of the clergy placing them in positions of power over the laity and between the laity and Christ, to Papal authority in particular and to the mediation of specially-appointed priests in general (hence, the doctrine of das Priestertum aller Gläubigen).

But the definition above does not address the deeper reality that these convictions did not appear in a vacuum. The first Protestants, themselves a deeply scholarly movement, were influenced not only by other, earlier dissidents like John Wyclif or Jan Hus, but also by the ideologies of earlier peasant rebellions, by Renaissance humanists and by the late mediaeval tradition of mysticism in the Teutonic world. The individual pietism of Meister Eckhart earns Berdyaev’s particular notice, and he also mentions Johann Tauler and Heinrich Seuse… but I would go further and expand the list to include Julian of Norwich and Amalric of Bena.

We can see threads in Teutonic mysticism which would later become the warp and the woof of the fabric of the Protestant Reformation. In contrast to the impersonal God of Augustinian and Thomist scholasticism, the God of the Teutonic mystics is always intensely personal, even familial. Julian of Norwich has become famous in feminist theology for her view of God as a caring mother, as the Maker, the Keeper and the Lover of All Things. Eckhart, Tauler, Seuse and Ruysbroeck all emphatically proclaimed personal union with God – Ruysbroeck even went as far as espousing a form of Christian universalism. The very name which Amalric of Bena’s followers gave themselves speaks volumes – the ‘Brothers and Sisters of the Free Spirit’ – and their foremost doctrine was a panentheistic one, of the nearness of God to the individual believer!

So there seems to be something to the notion that there are certain tendencies endemic to the northern European, Teutonic cultures that they promote these kinds of individualistic, egalitarian and fraternal faith. We must descend deeper into the cave. Where did these tendencies come from? How did it come about that these mystics, these Germans, Swiss, Anglo-Saxons, Scandinavians and Frenchmen understood Christianity in this way, when it had come to them in a Latinate artery whose guardians stood in constant, sometimes violent and censorious disapproval of their creative efforts to grasp what the religion meant?

To do this, we must follow the artery back through the mists of Late Antiquity, when Christianity was a completely new paradigm to these same Germans – Franks, Danes, Frisians, Saxons both continental and insular, Alamans, Swabians and Thuringians. These were barbarian tribes, ruled by their own barbarian laws, worshipping the Æsir and the Vanir, gods of war and nature. But what did they make of this Christ Jesus, this god who was also man? For that, we must examine how they treated their own kings. Before the Latinate, imperial concept of ‘divine right’ took root, the Teutonic concept of kingship was far more limited. The king had sacred duties, yes – in barbarian warrior societies the line between military and sacred duties was a fuzzy one indeed. But the king required the consent of his free followers to rule, being elected from among his kin. Christ, when described to the Germans, to be the kind of warrior-king that they would understand, had to be a brother – far nearer to them than the Roman Emperor was to his subjects, far nearer to them than the disembodied concept of God was to the Greek philosophers and scholastics! Upon Christ, the Germans read their values of freedom, of brotherhood, of honour, of strength of will. Read how this Old English poet comprehends our Saviour (narrating as the Cross) in Dream of the Rood!

Geseah ic þā frean mancynnes
efstan elne micle, þæt hē mē wolde on gestīgan.
Þær ic þā ne dorste ofer dryhtnes word
būgan oððe berstan, þā ic bifian geseah
eorðan scēatas. Ealle ic mihte
fēondas gefyllan, hwæðre ic fæste stōd.
Ongyrede hine þā geong hæleð, (þæt wæs god ælmihtig),
strang ond stīðmōd. Gestāh hē on gealgan hēanne,
mōdig on manigra gesyhðe, þā hē wolde mancyn lysan.

Then saw I mankind's Lord
come with great courage when he would mount on me.
Then dared I not against the Lord's word
bend or break, when I saw earth's
fields shake. All fiends
I could have felled, but I stood fast.
The young hero stripped himself--he, God Almighty--
strong and stout-minded. He mounted high gallows,
bold before many, when he would loose mankind.

At the very heart of the Teutonic grasp on Christianity, we have this image of a very human, very personal God, who holds all humankind as family and tribe, who earned his warrior-kingship in the bravery with which he faced his suffering and death. At the heart of Protestant social theology is this heathen warrior ethic of personal honour and inward strength of will. It is with this image and with this moral genealogy we, the theological descendants of these barbarian tribes, must contend.

In subsequent essays, I hope to explore the relationship this barbarian warrior-king Christology has with the Radical Reformation (the theological tradition I consider home), and what it can mean for those espousing (as the Anabaptists do) a theology of community and of non-violence.

08 July 2009

On guilt, resignation and resistance

So I left off yesterday beginning a rambling and disjointed discourse on 'guilt', specifically the variant 'liberal guilt'. Now I wish to go further - in light of one's 'stand[ing] before God blood-guilty' of the inherited sins of one's society, how do we go about reforming as Mr Darcy did (if I may return to the literary analog of my last post)? Good FitzWilliam, too, was the product of his time, of his class, of his parents and his upbringing - after all, Jane Austen meant him (along with her other characters) to be a biting satire of the morals and attitudes of his time. Mr Darcy reformed himself in the spirit of love - now, before my gentle readers begin groaning and scoffing at my supposed newfound Romanticism, I shall beg them to allow me to defend myself on this score. I do not use 'love' in some vapid, frivolous, adolescent sense, rather in a wholly Hegelian one:

[T]he life of God and divine knowledge may indeed be spoken of as love's playing with itself; yet this idea descends to the level of edification, and even insipidity when seriousness, pain, and the patience and work of the negative have no place in it.

For Mr Darcy, love truly was pain. It broke him down completely, took him straight to zero - after professing his love to Elizabeth the first time, Elizabeth spurned him with a scathing indictment of his character: arrogant, conceited, disdainful, devoid of all proper feeling or gentlemanly behaviour... and his goodness and status as a gentleman were what he most valued in himself, and yet shown to be lies. Mr Kierkegaard might say of Mr Darcy, in being shown what a shambles his ethical existence lay in after Elizabeth's rampage through it, that he had a choice. He could throw off Elizabeth's hold upon him in spite and in betrayal of his own feelings, plunging straight into the putrid swamp of daemonic despair, or... he could become a Knight of Infinite Resignation (which he then proceeded to do). Her words 'tortured' him, but he undertook the patience and work of the negative. Standing blood-guilty before Elizabeth, rather than casting away Elizabeth in shame, he cast away his pride.

Instead of spurning friends beneath his station and consequence, he opened himself up to Mr and Mrs Gardiner, welcoming them to his home at Pemberley. Instead of avoiding Mr Wickham and cutting his losses, he confronted Mr Wickham when he compromised the honour of the Bennet family's youngest daughter by eloping with her. Instead of merely sending his condolences to the Bennet family, he took upon himself all the expenses of covering up the scandal. He resisted his usual habits and the expectations of his relatives (represented in Lady Catherine de Bourgh), all in the hope of making himself the gentleman Elizabeth had wanted him to be - though in Infinite Resignation. He asked nothing of her in return for his efforts at reforming himself - he had no need! *

So, all's well and good for Mr Darcy, but what does this have to do with guilty liberals? Only this - the guilty liberal is faced with the same contradiction as Mr Darcy. Assuming the Christian terms of Professor Neville for a moment, as products of our society we stand indicted and blood-guilty before God. And, like Mr Darcy, we have before us a choice: either we can spurn in shame the example of Christ, or we can take up the way of the Cross - in nonviolent, radical resistance to the culture of Empire that divides, that exploits, that despoils, that goes to war in our names.

Resistance to the culture, undertaken in the spirit of love in which Christ went to his execution for us, is painful. It requires breaking out of our habits and making new ones for ourselves, in opposition to the imperial culture we inhabit. And the standard 'guilty liberal' New Year's resolutions are probably very good ones for Christians to adopt not as directionless resolutions but as our forms of witness: drive less; consume less; eat and buy locally; donate to and participate in a charitable organisation in our community - but these habits should affect the way we live our lives. These habits should cause us some level of discomfort and pain, being as they are the serious, patient work of the negative in society and in our lives.

* In the end, I suppose we should call Mr Darcy a Knight of Faith - in the end he dares to hope enough after resigning any chance of gaining Elizabeth's love to ask for it again, and receive it - which shows trust in the Absurd on his part... though Mr Kierkegaard might disagree with me in this respect.

Post locked.

07 July 2009

A few assorted, ill-organised thoughts on the virtue of guilt

Left to right: Professor Robert Cummings Neville, Mr Fitzwilliam George Alexander Darcy (as played by Colin Firth) and Mr Søren Aabye Kierkegaard

Recently I’ve been giving some thought to the nature of guilt, specifically the variant common among those in the American political centre-left. Sadly, the ‘guilty liberal’ has become a figure widely pilloried and scorned, even in circles friendly to the poor blighter’s own views. He is a caricature, this ‘guilty liberal’: this bourgeois, college-educated, bespectacled white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (or Unitarian) male with his late-generation Toyota Prius hatchback sporting a rainbow plethora of pithy bumperstickers deployed to the service of every good cause he can think of, who fastidiously recycles and eats local meat and greens (arugula, natch) from his local farmers’ market, who perhaps owns DVD copies of Princess Mononoke, An Inconvenient Truth and WALL·E (complete with environment-friendly packaging), who reads Borg, Zinn and perhaps Hobsbawm for fun, who gives to New York Times-approved charities and maybe wears L.L. Bean, Northern Sun-brand apparel (reading ‘Feminist Chicks Dig Me’ or something similar) and knockoff sneakers on his daily walk / jog (better than driving). But what has he done to be so mocked, this wretch at whom no one laughs harder than he himself when Jon Stewart (perhaps the only television the poor cretin watches) mocks him to his face from the screen of his green MacBook? It is a riddle. And perhaps he is worth a few good laughs. But guilt, itself – this is an interesting phenomenon, and not a new one. As my training is in religion and philosophy, perhaps that is the perspective from which I should best examine it.

The Christian understanding of sin is not too far away from the crux of this matter – that we all inherit a nature or at least an environment through which we are capable of doing terrible evil to each other and to the world around us, that humanity is created from clay, imperfect, short-sighted, rebellious and... guilty, and yet often of the wrong things. Humanity covers up its nakedness and its disobedience not just with fig leaves but with excuses. It has been confronted with prophets and a Saviour who dragged out into the light the worst in it, loved it anyway and tried to heal it – and it returned the favour by abandoning, betraying, persecuting, humiliating and killing them. Our own Gospel speaks to us, the scribes, the rich young men and the Pharisees, collaborators with the dominant Empire of our time, and (to use the delightfully censorious language of evangelical Christianity) convicts us of our sin. As Robert Neville, former dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University put it:

I am not a lawbreaker, violent, systematically deceitful or intentionally wicked (at least in big things); the personal sins I enumerate and confess that harm family, friends and institutions come from ordinary selfishness, self-deception, weakness, cowardice and perversity. All in all, not too good but also not too bad, because I was born into a loving and competent family, was well-educated, lucked into a miraculous marriage, have found a few deep friends, have held good jobs, have been either too young or too old to go to the wars of my time and have lived in a relatively stable and wealthy society with high culture to whose wealth and culture my family has had access. Precisely because of this modest but genuine goodness, I stand before God blood-guilty.

Neville goes on, marvellous process theologian that he is, to explain that his very physical being, socially-embedded, is built upon a predatory economic system which has been sustained by an environment which is still being despoiled and labour which is still being exploited, and perpetuated through wars waged in the national interest. When he says ‘blood-guilty’, he means it in the fullest of literal and allegorical senses – though one may not be guilty on a personal level, in terms of how one votes or the choices one makes in life, his ability to make those choices, the very foundations of his physical and mental existence were forged in this sin. It captures the imagination, in a sense that is perhaps narcissistic, and it can lead one easily to despair – deepening and thickening that sin as one wades into a veritable demonic quagmire of recrimination and self-reproach. Yet this is precisely where one doesn’t want to be and precisely where one cannot linger: the Gospel we receive as Christians is there to inspire rather than send one wailing and gnashing his teeth into the outer darkness at these realisations.

Perhaps the truly comical thing about the guilty liberal is how he bemoans his own uselessness and his own wastefulness as he begins to scratch the surface of these realisations, how, perhaps, he hides behind the quotes plastered on his Facebook page in order to divest himself of any real kind of accountability for what is done daily on his account. And yet, it is precisely his awareness of his own sin (paradoxically, thanks once again to his old Danish friend Søren – as he continues to refer to himself in the third-person, annoying all of his friends and gentle readers) that empowers him to ask the questions of how he can begin to choose to make himself accountable, before God and before his community, through the saving example of Christ.

Perhaps, dialectically, the distinction ought to be made between these related movements: the one which brings one to despair and the one which, breaking one down, brings one to question, to transform in a new understanding. The former, that which led Adam and Eve to cover themselves and to lie to themselves, to lose paradise in their despair, must by rights be called ‘shame’. But if ‘shame’ is the former, then the latter must be styled ‘guilt’. If I may be allowed one more 19th-century European conceit, though he declared himself ‘ashamed’ of his own feelings after being rejected by Elizabeth Bennet, it was not shame that led Mr Darcy to his reform, to his transformation into the gentleman Lizzy believed him incapable of being. It was guilt that broke down his pride, guilt that led him to set straight his past with Wickham before it destroyed the Bennet honour, guilt that led him to atone for interfering with his friend Bingley’s love-life by nudging him back into Jane Bennet’s arms. But all this without expectation of Lizzy’s returning his affections, only with the expectation of choosing to be the kind of man of whom Lizzy would approve.

But, this is enough existential musing for one night. I’d best quit before I start to lose real sleep over it.

Post locked.

06 July 2009

Bad news from East Turkestan

Photo courtesy Xinhua News Agency

Xinhua News Agency reports that over 150 people have been killed in East Turkestan's capital, Urumchi, after a massive ethnic riot between Uyghurs and Han Chinese, precipitated ostensibly by a smaller brawl in a factory in Guangdong 广东 Province in southern China. The Chinese government has blocked most internet access and Twitter, according to the International Herald Tribune's report. Predictably, both the Chinese government and Uyghur human-rights advocacy groups are now blaming each other for the violence, which was put down with police force.

This is depressing news indeed. The humanitarian plight of the Uyghurs of East Turkestan (or Xinjiang 新疆) might not be of as much concern as the plight of the reformers in Iran at present in the eyes of our own news media, but their struggle for recognition is a long-standing one. The Chinese government has made massive leaps and bounds of progress over the past couple of decades in terms of economic development in these areas, but the legacy of imperial domination and exploitation (whether it acknowledges that legacy in such language or not) still rests upon it, and it shows. The primary beneficiaries of this economic development have, by far and away, tended to be Han Chinese - while the Uyghurs who were supposed to have benefitted from it have been largely pushed to the side in cities like Urumchi. According to the Uyghur-American Association, many Uyghurs have not been seeing the benefits of the Great Western Development Strategy (西部大开发战略) even in the form of basic employment. As a result, crime is rampant, and over 90% of East Turkestan's Muslims live below the poverty threshold (while Han settlers continue to claim the good-paying jobs and control the region's wealth). Thus, it stands to reason that ethnic relations might get a little strained, and it paves the way for more dangerous forms of extremism and nationalism.

Violence like this is always regrettable. I pray for the people of East Turkestan, I pray for a swift and just end to the violence and I pray that the Chinese government comes to realise that the systemic injustice they have been perpetrating on the Uyghurs (and on other economically-marginalised minority groups) is not sustainable.

02 July 2009

Белое солнце пустыни — a review

So, one bit of good news this week was that the public library system came through again on Белое солнце пустыни (White Sun of the Desert - ‘Beloe solntse pustyni’), a 1969 ‘Eastern’ (basically the Soviet Union’s answer to the American Western). It was with some trepidation that I watched it: I didn’t expect it to be too kind to Central Asian culture, given the prevailing attitudes of the time. But while there were a couple of wince-moments, it was a surprisingly enjoyable movie.

It must be said that the character of Said (Spartak Mishulin) makes the entire movie. Forget Jayne Cobb, Han Solo or the Man with No Name, they try too hard! Said is true Western bad-arsery incarnate: he’s always nonchalantly humming the same few bars from horseback, he always shows up when he’s needed, he always shoots (or throws) first, he never sees the need to explain himself in more than four or five words at a time, and no one ever gets the jump on him (except Abdulla, but he had his entire bandit gang with him, so it doesn’t count). The one thing I can’t figure in the writing is how that guy Javdet on whom Said had sworn vengeance was able to bury him up to his neck in the sand at the beginning of the movie without getting his behind whupped / shot / knifed / strangled a dozen times over by the nexus of sheer awesomeness that is Said.

The other protagonists are likeable and sympathetic, if a bit cliché: Fyodor Ivanovich Suhov (Anatoliy Kuznetsov), the weary war veteran / Soviet patriot who composes mental letters to his beloved gal-back-home (Raisa Kurkina); Pasha Vereshchagin (Pavel Luspekaev), the washed-up old customs officer who wants to go down in a blaze of glory; Petruhov (Nikolay Godovikov), the dutiful but green and lovestruck youngster; and Gyulchatay (Tatyana Fedotova), the spirited girl in the unfortunate position of being one of the bandit Abdulla’s wives. And of course, there are the three old aqsaqals sitting against the wall, who give Suhov the dynamite they’re sitting on and just watch the action unfold in bemused silence throughout the entire movie. Even Abdulla is not without some redeeming features (being as capable of wit and ironic understatement as the rest of the dramatis personae), even though he is undeniably ruthless and evil.

But the film, rather than being heavy-handed, feels sparse, and by turns melancholy and witty. Even the propaganda lines are delivered well, often with a sarcastic raised brow and a slight swagger by Suhov. Speaking of lines, the movie is incredibly quotable: ‘The East — a delicate matter’; ‘His grenades are the wrong type!’ ;‘Abdulla, save your bullets; you won’t have any to shoot yourself with’; and ‘Customs gives the OK!’. (This is bad for me, by the way; I’m an infamous movie-quoter.)

The action sometimes looks a bit corny from a modern viewpoint – there are points where you can tell they’ve spliced different shots together (sometimes not too neatly) to try to achieve the effect of an explosion or a gunshot. Also, the view of Central Asian society and culture is stereotypical and wince-worthy from time to time (but then, this is a Soviet film). But this movie has so many good points (Said!) that it is easy to overlook the wince moments. I enjoyed it; it’s very easy to see how it could become a cult classic.

Too much going down all at once

This past weekend, my mother and I went up to Vermont for a family reunion, to see her side of the family: Grandpa Holden, Aunt Linda, Uncle Tenny and Aunt Joy and their children, Cameron and Caelyn. They all seem to be doing well – I was particularly glad to see Grandpa well and happy. Cae’s shot up like a weed, and Cameron has a new girlfriend – I haven’t met her yet, but I’m already predisposed to like her, since she has Aunt Joy’s approval.

The reunion itself was for the family on Grandpa Holden’s mother’s side, who are scattered seemingly all over New England (and perhaps a few places further-flung). I introduced myself to relatives I hadn’t seen since I was half my present height and whose names I couldn’t remember, but I mostly hung out with Cae and Cam, and some of my other closer relatives. Still, I got a lot of good photographs to show my future host family in Kazakhstan (lots of good scenery in northern Vermont)! Now the more formidable task is to memorise the names, faces and relations of my unknown and sundry relatives in them.

But on the way back, the trip went south (literally and figuratively) in the worst way. It was nighttime, it had been raining, there was stop-and-go traffic, and my mother was getting tired at the wheel – and we rear-ended the Bimmer in front of us going 10 at 45. Our car was completely totalled such that it would never drive again, and the bumper had fallen off theirs, but thank God no one was that badly hurt – just very shaken-up. An off-duty police officer named Jeff called 911 for us and let us sit in the back of his car to calm down for a little while, but when the Staties showed up and we got out to talk to them, he drove off – with my backpack and everything in it (computer, cellphone, pay stubs) still, unbeknownst to him, in the back seat. Thank Jeff and God, though, he returned the backpack to the Brown police after figuring out through one of my pay stubs that I was working there, and my computer is still working fine. Dad came to get us after the accident in our Dodge pickup, and we got home without further incident, though we were all badly shaken up.

In better news, the Peace Corps has sent me some ‘actionable’ documents, which means I get more forms to fill out! It’s all coming together now – and that makes me happier. I did learn that I had been sent free account info for Russian lessons on Rosetta Stone, but I had to go digging through the spam folder in my Brown e-mail to find it; however, I’ve gotten started on those, though I haven’t really gotten any farther than <Я ем яблоко> and <Он пют вода>. Also, my sister Catherine has gotten back from her internship at the University of Arizona, if only (as her usual overachieving / masochistic self) to start taking an advanced calculus summer class at RIC to keep up with her double anthro / chem major at Beloit.

Well, no one can say it hasn’t been an eventful week, for better and for worse.