Marking an expansive anniversary in American history

Trails-west

Today marks the 181st anniversary of the start of what historians call the "Great Migration," when about 1,000 settlers (a key word) left from here in Western Missouri to head to the West and claim for themselves land that had been in Indigenous hands for thousands of years.

Well, in fact, the term "Great Migration" also has been given to the massive movement of Black people from the South to the North of the U.S. from 1910 to 1970. And that's a fascinating story, too, best told in Isabel Wilkerson's book, The Warmth of Other Suns.

But for today let's focus on the earlier migration and its role in the theft of Indigenous land that formed the basis of this new country of colonialists, the United States. Several sources say the first departure of what became the Great Migration started a year earlier, in 1842, from Elm Grove, Mo., the exact location of which seems to be something of a mystery, though it was clearly not far from today's Kansas City. And one of this migration's eventual main routes (along with the Santa Fe Trail) ended up being called the Oregon Trail, the primary starting point of which was right here in the KC metro.

What's important to remember about this eventually massive migration of white settlers moving west is that, after a time, it ended Indigenous control of the land on which people often called Native Americans today lived. By crooked treaty and outright theft, the American people and their government simply took control of the western half of this vast continent, not unlike the way they gained control of the eastern half.

Indig-ContBut let's turn to an expert to describe what all this was about and why it still matters all these years later. Here's what historian Pekka Hämäläinen writes in his excellent and recent book Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America:

"The United States' expansionist burst -- mightily boosted by rising capitalism -- was a dark moment for many Native Americans in the West. The western half of the continent was still overwhelmingly Indigenous, which was unacceptable to (President James K.) Polk and most Americans, who wanted unhindered access to California and its gold, its fertile land and its Pacific connections.

"The U.S. government believed that treaties and reservations had pacified the Indians and secured American dominance from ocean to ocean. That was wishful thinking. The federal bureaucracy was completely unprepared for its task of managing tens of thousands of Indians living far from American settlements. Most Native nations were assigned a single U.S. officer to oversee their government-issued amenities, their 'civilization' process and their eventual absorption into the U.S. body politic as reformed people.

"Taking advantage of the skeletal U.S. governance in Indian lands, speculators, settlers, timber thieves, whiskey traders and other opportunists pushed into reservations. In the recently acquired California, Whites focused on banishing the Indians, and then on killing them. U.S. agents deported as many Native Americans as they could to small concentration camps. The land, supremely fertile and laced with gold, was too good for the Indians. . .In 1846, there had been 150,000 California Indians; in 1860, only 35,000 remained."

Behind all of this is a quasi-religious term that, for a long, long time, gave almost divine sanction for the cultural and physical genocide of Indigenous people who occupied land in the way of expansion: "Manifest Destiny." That's a term that often hides much more than it reveals.

If Americans are going to have a serious conversation about -- and make a serious effort to offer (as we should) -- reparations to Black Americans because of slavery, Jim Crow and more, there also should be a similar conversation about reparations for Indigenous people whose ancestors suffered all of that and more at the hands of white settlers and their leaders. I'm not at all sure why that conversation didn't begin a long, long time ago.

(Speaking of anniversaries, June 2 this year will mark the 100th anniversary of when Native Americans finally became U.S. citizens. There were a few exceptions before then for various reasons, but it was on June 2, 1924, that President Calvin Coolidge signed the Indian Citizenship Act. As you might imagine, not only was there opposition to this among current American citizens, there was also some opposition among the Indians.)

(The map above came from here.)

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HOPE FOR PEOPLE IN GAZA?

A Catholic leader, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Pierbattista Pizzaballa, has paid an unannounced visit to Gaza to give people there hope, this Religion News Service story reports. In the process, the story makes this good point: "(T)he Israel-Hamas war is not a religious one and certainly not a Jewish-Muslim conflict, stressing the often ignored fact that the Palestinian people are not of a single faith or a movement." And it concludes this way: "The patriarch is the only such appearance by any public or private personality, political, artistic or religious, since the war began. Not a single foreign journalist has been allowed to visit Gaza, a stricture aimed at demoralizing Palestinians. But his visit has given the morale of the Palestinians in general and Palestinian Christians in particular an inestimable boost." It's what the best of clergy do, while the worst often are full of what the poet William Butler Yeats dismissed as empty "passionate intensity."


The most vital rule: Damn it, you have to be kind

Osm-tsu-2-2

Kirksville, Mo. -- Fifty-seven years ago, 92 miles to the south in Columbia, Mo., I received my bachelor of journalism degree from the University of Missouri School of Journalism and started my professional career of informing people with news stories and complicating their thinking with opinion writing.

I had only the vaguest idea of any details of my coming life. But I thought one day I might father children who, in turn, might give birth to their own children. And on and on. It's one of the relatively few things I got right about predicting my future. Each of my two daughters has given birth to two phenomenal human beings, the oldest of whom, Olivia, just graduated (summa cum laude) from Truman State University here with a nursing degree.

The several graduation speakers, of course, offered Olivia and the other graduates all the expected advice and cliches about what's ahead of them -- grab the future, help humankind get better, along the way have a little fun, don't forget your roots, send money to the alumni association. That sort of thing.

Most of that is important, of course, and some folks need to hear it several dozen times before any of it registers. But I'm not sure it's the most important advice for new graduates.

Instead, I think that one of my favorite authors, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., got a lot closer to what graduates need to hear when he wrote this in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater:

“Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you've got a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies --'God damn it, you've got to be kind.'”

Osm12805aRemember that, Olivia. But you also might want to ask what it means to be kind, what kindness looks like and why the global supply of it now seems so pathetically low. Here are a few of my answers. But, Olivia, you need to get your own answers, so read these lightly and fix them if they need fixing.

-- To be kind means never to dehumanize another person. In Christianity (and other religions), the idea is that each human being -- no matter what -- is created in the image of God. If you dehumanize someone you attempt to erase that image and make someone subhuman. That leads to war, to mass murder, to the Holocaust, to ignoring the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the mentally deranged, the disabled and on and on. You don't have to like everyone you meet. That's an almost-impossible goal. But never treat them as being outside the human family.

-- To be kind means not to make yourself the center of the universe so that others feel somehow diminished or even worthless by comparison. Very few people in the world (8-plus billion of them) even know you exist. That should instill a little humility in all of us -- and our world may not be the only one in a cosmos that is some 13.5 billion years old. That said, I am overjoyed that you exist and are already as kind and winsome as you are.

-- To be kind means treating our home, Mother Earth, with great tenderness. Every day we should try to do something that will heal whatever we are doing to damage our planet while we find ways to quit doing more such damage. Earth is resilient and astonishingly generous in its gifts to us. But it's not immortal. Treat it sweetly.

-- To be kind means to live with gratitude. Don't abuse the many ways in which you are already privileged. Rather, give thanks daily for your life, your talents, your resources, your friends, your family, your opportunity to help someone else heal, which, of course, will be your profession as a nurse as well as your calling as a human being. But while you do all that, don't forget to take care of yourself. A wounded healer can't be of much help to others.

-- There's more, but let me stop with this: To be kind means to honor your commitments, whether that's as an employee, a family member, a lover or simply as someone granted the gift of life on this planet. So don't make commitments you know you won't be able to keep. That helps no one.

Olivia, I used to think about all of these things when you were a baby and I'd make regular Tuesday afternoon stops by your house to hold you, carry you around and show you the world outside your windows. Now you get to think about them and decide whether I got any of this right. Onward, sweet child. The world needs you to be a generative, kind presence. Starting yesterday. I'll be off to one side proudly applauding.

(The top photo shows Olivia with her parents and brother and with my wife and me. The lower photo shows Olivia at roughly six years of age -- already a handful for her maternal grandfather.)

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UH, ABOUT THAT ODD BUTKER SPEECH

Speaking of graduation speeches, everybody with any kind of public voice has reacted to the one given recently at Benedictine College by Kansas City Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker. So much so that I hardly feel any need to, uh, kick Butker while he's down, despite deserving it for what I took to be demeaning remarks aimed at women, LGBTQ+ folks and others. Americans, after all, still are free to believe stupid ideas, hold on to attitudes that achieved their highest favorable ratings a century or two ago and that are spoken by people with no expertise in the field they're addressing. So let's not be shocked when those ideas are advocated as part of an event designed to move students into their futures. By the time of graduation from college, students should be discerning enough to tell worthy ideas from rejected rubble. And I'm confident, therefore, that the Benedictine graduates will discern for themselves if there was anything of value in what Butker said.


American Christian Nationalism has Mainline Protestant roots

The core idea behind the religious/political aberration known as American Christian Nationalism is that God has uniquely blessed the United States. (Isn't that in the Bible somewhere? Clue: No.)

Bap-amerIn Christian theology, the accurate word for that belief in a special divine blessing for America is idolatry, the subject of the first of the Ten Commandments.

A new and important book, Baptizing America: How Mainline Protestants Helped Build Christian Nationalism, by Brian Kaylor and Beau Underwood, not only makes those points but provides some guidance for how to unplug Christian Nationalism wherever we find it -- and it's easier to find these days than ever.

But here's what many readers may not expect: We find it almost everywhere in the history of Mainline Protestant churches. The widespread belief that Christian Nationalism is a relatively new idea promoted by fundamentalist, evangelical or conservative Christians doesn't match up with the detailed history Kaylor and Underwood offer to show how Mainliners have promoted this terrible idea for a long time, though often in softer, less-extreme ways than some kinds of Christian Nationalism we see today.

The authors argue persuasively that it's long past time for Mainliners to recognize this sordid history, repent of it and work to undo the damage Christian Nationalism has done historically and that it continues to do in its more recent and more virulent versions. Today you can easily find such people as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Mike Johnson, former President Donald Trump and many of his most ardent supporters advocating Christian Nationalism.

Kaylor and Underwood take us back through U.S. history but focus particularly on the ways that such more recent former presidents as Dwight D. Eisenhower and Harry S. Truman advanced Christian Nationalism because it seemed patriotic in an innocent way. When Ike was president, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that prayers in public schools led by teachers were unconstitutional, causing lots of Americans to drag out Christian Nationalism arguments in defense of such prayers. It also was in that era that the official motto of the U.S. became "In God We Trust," which was printed on all our currency and coinage.

As for Truman, he made a way for the publishers of the Revised Standard Version of the Christian Bible to present the first copy of it to him at the White House -- as though somehow it was a patriotic book reflecting the nation's values, not unlike our founding documents.

Kayler and Underwood lay out this truth about Christian Nationalism early in the book: "No matter who expresses it, Christian Nationalism does violence to our nation's pluralistic ideals and the teachings of Jesus." And yet throughout the book we find Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans and other Mainliners promoting various aspects of Christian Nationalism.

Conf-class-58Christian Nationalism, it turns out, runs in two directions. In one, churches make space for and promote such national symbols as the American flag (true of the Presbyterian church in which I grew up. In fact, if you look at this photo of my 1958 confirmation class at that church, you can see the American flag on the left, closest to the pulpit and thus in the place of first honor, and the Christian flag on the right, in the place of second honor). In the other direction, politicians contend that America is a new Israel, home to God's specially chosen people. The authors put it this way: "Christian Nationalism seeks to conflate national and religious identities in a way that inherently provides Christians with a privileged place in American society."

And all across the history of this idolatry, the authors say, you will find Mainline Protestants contributing to it: ". . .the cultural and political preeminence Mainliners possessed in this era and after inadvertently became the seedbed out of which much of today's Christian Nationalism grew." And, they add, "Christian Nationalism isn't Christian."

They write that "Christian Nationalism makes two grave errors. First, it portrays human governments and their leaders as divine agents, rendering them godlike and worthy of a devotion that properly belongs only to God. Second, it reduces the church to a servant of the nation, sapping it of the authority to help discern what does (and does not) serve the common good."

After describing the appalling ways that Mainliners have contributed to the popularity of Christian Nationalism, the authors offer a series of steps those churches can take to repair the damage they've done. If Christian Nationalism survives in the U.S. and continues to influence both our politics and our religions, the future looks deeply problematic for both America and American Christianity.

As the authors say, "We want to see Christians get their priorities straight. We believe that the future of both the church and the nation depends on it." I think they're right.

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DO YOU PRAY FOR OR AGAINST THE POPE?

It's nice to see a pope with both a sense of reality and a sense of humor. As this Crux story reports, Pope Francis seems well aware that even some people inside the Vatican are praying not for him but against him. And he's able to make jokes about it. It's further proof that no one in a position of authority ever receives universal love and approval. And things go much better if that person recognizes that reality and accepts it rather than always seeking to punish his or her critics.


Sen. Roger Marshall of Kansas can't be serious, can he?

Although I'm often disappointed in the religious literacy of many Americans, I'm only occasionally shocked, gob-smacked, startled by evidence of religious ignorance and bigotry coming from elected officials with high offices who should know better. Much better.

AntisemitismBut that was my reaction when I read this story about a Republican U.S. senator from Kansas that begins this way: "Sen. Roger Marshall on Thursday claimed a Congressional push to combat antisemitism violates Christian scripture."

That intrigued me, so I kept reading to find out what Marshall might have been talking about. The story continued: "A bill that overwhelmingly passed the House by a 320-91 vote Wednesday evening would require the Department of Education’s division of civil rights to consider the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism when investigating discrimination claims on campuses that receive federal funding. That definition cites 'claims of Jews killing Jesus' as an example of 'classic antisemitism,' which sparked opposition from some conservative Republicans."

Let's be clear about this: Charging Jews with deicide by killing Jesus Christ has, across 2,000 years of history, been right at the root of Christianity's long-taught anti-Judaism and at the base of modern antisemitism, as I explain in this essay.

It's stunning to me that Marshall seems not to know that. Here's what he said: “Religious leaders back home are very concerned about some of the language in that bill, that it pushes against what the scripture said. Obviously as a born-again Christian I believe that the Holy Bible is the word of God. I think that we’re not supposed to alter the word. So I’m just guessing the House overlooked something.”

I acknowledge that I'm making some assumptions here about what Marshall meant. But I can find no other way to read his words than to say he believes the Bible makes clear that Jews murdered Jesus and should always be held accountable for that heinous act. And, beyond that, such a belief should not be considered antisemitic.

Roger-MarshallMost Christian leaders and denominations have backed away from that calumny, particularly after the Holocaust. And Christians who take the Bible seriously (and not literally) know that there are passages -- especially in the Gospel of John -- that have been used to justify antisemitism today and anti-Judaism in the early years of Christian history. Does Marshall (pictured here) now want to protect and reaffirm those passages and renew the charge that the Jews killed Christ? That's how I read his words. Which is why I was so appalled.

There are several things wrong with Marshall's apparent approach. First is the fact that it was the Romans, not the Jews, who killed Jesus, who was, of course, also a Jew. Yes, some Jewish leaders at the time wanted him dead and asked the Romans who ruled the Holy Land then to accomplish the deed. But literally no Jewish person murdered Jesus.

In fact, some Christian leaders today add to that story by saying that their theology teaches them that Jesus died to save all humanity from their sins, so the sort-of-anachronistic conclusion for each Christian is that it was our sins that put Jesus on the cross. Thus Christians today can be considered guilty of deicide.

I mentioned that various branches of Christianity have dug deeply into their bloody history of persecuting Jewish people and have repented and apologized (as if that fixes things). Perhaps the most famous example is the 1965 (I know, why not until then?) document from the Roman Catholic Church called Nostra Aetate, which says that no Jew today and no Jew throughout history should be thought of as having killed Christ. Here's how that document words the thought:

"True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ.

"Furthermore, in her rejection of every persecution against any man, the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel's spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone."

The document is not a perfect confession of Christianity's miserable history of anti-Judaism, but many Jewish people welcomed that 1965 statement. And, for sure, it was a pretty good beginning. Perhaps Roger Marshall and others have never heard of the document or of the many other statements from many other branches of Christianity decrying anti-Judaism and modern antisemitism. (The former is more theological in nature; the latter more racial, ethnic and economic.)

What I'm writing about here today is, of course, happening in the context of the Hamas-Israel war and of the many protests roiling college campuses across the U.S. and elsewhere today. Like the protests in the 1960s against the damnable Vietnam War, these protests also take a complicated subject and oversimplify it. That just encourages more protests -- which students have a perfect right to do up until they cross a line and break laws. But that's what the concept of civil disobedience is designed to cover -- people who protest and who know (and accept) that it may lead to their arrest and punishment.

In any case, Roger Marshall has dragged out of the closet an ancient distortion of truth that much of the world rejected long ago -- that Jewish people killed Jesus. And if that's what he's really saying he needs to apologize and engage in some deep study about why that idea is so abhorrent.

(And, still on this same subject, here is a Christian Post column in which the author argues that everyone -- Jews, Romans, you, me, all of us -- killed Jesus. I agree with almost nothing in the piece but thought I'd let you see how some others come at this matter. The theology expressed in the piece is the author's own and has almost nothing to do with mine.)

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PLURALISM ADVOCATE DIANA ECK RETIRES

Diana Eck, who has taught at the Harvard Divinity School for decades and has been in inspiration for interfaith dialogue and understanding in many places, including Kansas City, is retiring, this RNS story reports. When she was asked about the hardest things she's faced in life, she said, "I think the hardest thing has been the realization that though we have — I have and my students have — been very involved in trying to lift up the ways in which people in our society are coming together — in interfaith initiatives, interfaith councils, interfaith projects, literally all across America, but to realize that despite our vision of how important this is, there are many people today who are still very surprised that all of these strangers are here with us, and, basically, would like them all to go home.” RNS also did this interview with Eck. I'm not sure where we find new Diana Ecks, but we need them.


Things may be getting a bit better for Catholic women

In the Catholic Church, the "women religious" (you may know them as the nuns) have always occupied what many consider an awkward (or maybe liminal) place. They aren't -- and so far can't be -- priests, but neither are they lay people.

Pope-womenAnd even though people inside the church have been working for centuries to elevate the role of women in the church, it's an excruciatingly slow process.

But as this National Catholic Reporter story reports, since Pope Francis took office, things have become decidedly different and better for the women religious.

"It's a different time," said Sr. Marlene Weisenbeck, a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration. She is president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

The NCR story further quotes her this way: "There are new people in the dicasteries, we have a new pope who has led the church on the basis of being close to one another and being transparent. . .It's a different time and the agenda has changed."

It must be gratifying to many Catholic women to know that some progress has been made. But even in other religious traditions in which women are allowed to be ordained as clergy, there still are practices and prejudices that those women continue to struggle to overcome.

To add to this picture, this NCR story describes in more detail how "calls for fuller participation of women in church leadership have been heard throughout the multiyear synod process, beginning with the global consultation process in 2022-23, followed by continental assemblies, then a monthlong summit last October at the Vatican."

Did efforts to keep women subdued and away from the tools of power begin with the metaphorical story of Adam and Eve? Maybe. If so, how foolish to structure our world not on reality but on a story that never happened, at least in the way it's told.

I grew up with three sisters and no brothers. I fathered two daughters and no sons. And in my blended family, only two of our eight grandchildren are male. So I've long had a stake in how females are treated. And in many places today I still see an unlevel playing field.

It would help if all of us could see the world through female eyes. Every time we subject women to pay differentials, to being seen as merely sex objects, to blocking how high they can rise in this or that field (including religion), we denigrate God's creation. So let's give the Catholic Church a small cheer for what its women religious see as progress. But let's not stop there.

(The photo above came from this site, a Global Sisters Report of the National Catholic Reporter. It was published with this caption: "Pope Francis greets Claretian Missionary Sr. Jolanta Kafka, president of the International Union of Superiors General, during a May 5 (2023) audience with participants in the plenary assembly of the union at the Vatican. (CNS/Vatican Media)"

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WHAT'S THE UNITED METHODIST FUTURE NOW?

Yes, the United Methodist Church, as I wrote here recently, has done the right thing by removing its ban on ordaining LGBTQ+ people to be pastors, but as this RNS story notes, there's lots of work ahead for the denomination to accommodate itself to this new, better, more inclusive reality. The story reports this: “Just because you remove language from the Book of Discipline doesn’t mean that your work is over,” said the Rev. James Howell, pastor of Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, N.C., one of the state’s largest United Methodist churches. “There’s a huge amount of work to do.”

That work includes educating members about the long-running practice of misreading the Bible in a way that the Bible seems to condemn homosexuality. It includes helping both straight and gay pastors know how to relate to each other in ways that diminish no one from any sexual orientation or gender expression. It means explaining what the church got wrong -- and how -- when its Book of Discipline insisted that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” It means making sure that individual churches don't begin to divide up into "straight" or "gay" congregations. And it means seeking forgiveness in a way that doesn't lead to what German Lutheran martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer called "cheap grace." My own denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), has been at this kind of work since 2011. We've made mistakes and we've done some beautiful work. So let's learn from each other.


The United Methodists get this issue right -- finally

Yes, of course I'm glad that a few days ago the United Methodist Church decided to change its rules to allow the ordination of otherwise-qualified LGBTQ+ people to be clergy.

Umc-logoIt should have happened years ago, just as -- after a long and often-bitter fight -- it finally happened in 2011 in the denomination of my congregation, the Presbyterian Church (USA).

But this UMC internal dispute went on and on, partly because the Covid-19 pandemic prevented an earlier vote and partly because the UMC was so terribly divided. That division happens because the UMC has been (and still is) an international church, and there are UMC churches in such places as Africa that remain committed to misreading the Bible on the question of homosexuality.

In some ways, that's why the UMC General Conference recently chose to divide its denomination into four geographic regions that will allow more local autonomy about church rules. As I suggested before, this division came too late to prevent about 25 percent of congregations from abandoning the UMC and either going independent or joining a more theologically conservative new denomination known as the Global Methodist Church.

There was concern from some quarters that the UMC, in throwing out opposition to ordaining LGBTQ+ people, might also abandon its rule forbidding “immorality including but not limited to, not being celibate in singleness or not faithful in a heterosexual marriage.” But the adopted wording should set aside that concern.

As this United Methodist News report says, "delegates affirmed 'marriage as a sacred, lifelong covenant that brings two people of faith (adult man and adult woman of consenting age or two adult persons of consenting age) into a union of one another and into deeper relationship with God and the religious community.'”

So slowly Christian churches are abandoning the bogus idea that the Bible condemns homosexual orientation. 

As I've said before -- and if you're one of my regular readers you may be tired of me saying it -- any time you find a religion teaching that certain people aren't fully human and, thus, not made in the image of God, you can bet something is badly amiss. To dehumanize a person is to assault the divine creator who made all of us -- not just some of us -- in God's image.

The Methodist Church added "United" to its name in 1968 when it merged with the Evangelical United Brethren Church. Maybe it's time now to consider setting the term "United" aside, given how ununited Methodists have become. But like all of these decisions, that's up to the Methodists and not up to this Presbyterian.

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MAYBE ONLY ONE EASTER NEXT YEAR?

Did you know that there's a chance that this Sunday, May 5, could be the last time that the Orthodox church in Christianity celebrates Easter on a day different from the Easter celebrated by the rest of Christianity? This RNS story explains the division and why it may soon end. "There is once again renewed hope," the story says, "that ongoing ecumenical dialogue between the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Roman Catholic Church will resolve an ancient rift between the two halves of Christianity over when Easter is celebrated." The two churches split up back in 1054 in the Great Schism, as it's called. Imagine a church having internal disagreements. (Oh, see above.)


When Taylor Swift sings of faith, people listen

My taste in music is reasonably broad but my interest in hard rock and in whatever hot pop music is called these days is minimal.

Tswift-religionSo it may not surprise you to learn that, despite Taylor Swift's enormous popularity for some years now, the first time I ever heard (and read the lyrics to) a Swift song was a couple of months ago when teenagers were invited to take over the pulpit in my congregation for youth Sunday. They used some of Swift’s music to talk to us about the pressures teens are under these days because of social media and other factors.

I can’t tell you the name of the song I especially liked, but I told myself I should find time to hear more.

So far that hasn’t happened, though I did read this intriguing Religion News Service story that describes the way recent Swift offerings use lots of religious symbolism in various ways.

As the story notes, Swift in the past has described herself as a Christian, though now "Swift’s faith appears more fluid. Her religious references are as eclectic as a Brooklyn thrift shop — well-worn Christian metaphors sit alongside a more bohemian mishmash of witchcraft, divination and paganism. Her newest release, 'The Tortured Poets Department,' is a patchwork of religious allusions, from good Samaritans and Jehovah’s Witnesses to altar sacrifices and prophecies."

All of which can be good and instructive but also what theologians call syncretistic, which means not a tossed salad of interesting religious ideas but a mushy soup of them that results in religion that doesn't stand for much and that accepts everything from divinely inspired insights to destructive garbage.

I'm not in a good position to tell whether Swift's use of religious imagery is one or the other or something in between. But the story about this can serve as a caution to us as we decide whether this or that religious idea is worthy of study or even adoption.

Religious ideas can lead to destructive, dehumanizing behavior, a point I have made in various ways in my latest book, Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Hope and Resilience in an Age of Anxiety. The terrorists who murdered nearly 3,000 people on Sept. 11, 2001, including my own nephew, were driven by incoherent and execrable religious ideas that resulted in death and destruction.

Not all worthless religious thinking is that evil. Some of it is just silly. Nonetheless, all of us are called to be discerning about how the faith-based ideas to which we pledge allegiance work themselves out in real life. For instance, as I point out in this essay, the bogus notion that homosexuality is a sin has caused enormous damage to countless people. And any time a religious idea causes that kind of pain and dehumanization you can bet the idea needs to be trashed and replaced.

As the RNS story to which I've linked you above notes, Swift's use of a wide variety of religious symbolism reflects where a growing proportion of the American population is these days:

"Whatever her personal beliefs, the syncretism displayed in the sprawling 31-song double album — which racked up 300 million listens in 24 hours, making it Spotify’s most streamed album in one day — is emblematic of the religious mishmash of millennial and Generation Z religion writ large. These days, roughly 28% of U.S. adults identify as atheist, agnostic or 'nothing in particular,' and a 2021 survey from Springtide Research Institute showed that 51% of its sample population of 13- to 25-year-olds use tarot cards or engage in fortunetelling."

So Swift simply may be adopting the broad spiritual language her fans speak -- and I want to be clear that not all of that language reflects syncretistic nonsense. Some religious ideas found outside the mainstream of religion are not only useful but could help reinvigorate traditional religions. Still, theological and scriptural ignorance -- even within houses of worship -- is widespread these days. And it's up to each of us to test the spirits to see whether they are moving us in generative or destructive directions.

(The image of Swift here today came from this site.)

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THE THREAT OF CHRISTIAN NATIONALISM

A new documentary called "Bad Faith" about Christian Nationalism warns that its advocates are working hard to undercut American democracy and, in effect, create a theocracy, this Guardian article reports. The Guardian describes the documentary this way: "The film juxtaposes the decades-long roots of the movement with its evolving principles: that America was founded as a Christian nation, for and by Christians; that maintaining such a state is a divinely sanctioned, righteous fight; that anti-democratic or violent tactics should be employed in the name of God. And in recent years, that Donald Trump – a thrice-married, profligate cheater with too many character scandals to name – is, if not a true 'Christian', a divinely sanctioned 'King Cyrus' figure sent to disrupt the secular order." If you believe any of that nonsense, maybe you need better sources of information.

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P.S.: If you missed my latest Flatland column when it posted this past Sunday morning, you can find it here. It's about the wide variety of sacred structures in the KC area and the seemingly endless way they affect and change our landscape.

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ANOTHER P.S.: Last weekend, this post on my blog was about Mike Bickle, the founder and former head of the International House of Prayer (IHOP), a Kansas City area ministry that has been in turmoil for some time. I wrote about my encounter with Bickle at his ministry in Rosebud, Mo., as he cared for his brother Pat, who had become a quadriplegic via a high school football injury. But when I wrote the piece I could not locate the 1977 story that I had written about it. My former Kansas City Star colleague, Judy L. Thomas, who has been writing a lot about IHOP recently, did find that story and sent it to me. It started on the front page of the Sunday Star on April 10, 1977. I'm attaching a pdf of it here in two files in case you want to read it. It took some time for me to get a printout with big enough and dark enough type to make it all out, but it's there if you want to make the effort. Thanks again to Judy. Download The_Kansas_City_Star_Sun__Apr_10__1977_ and Download The_Kansas_City_Star_Sun__Apr_10__1977_ (1)


A pre-IHOP Mike Bickle story from the 1970s

Over the last several months, I have been fascinated to follow the story about charges of sexual misconduct by the founder of the International House of Prayer (IHOP), Mike Bickle.

IhopkcA week-plus ago, IHOP officials announced they were closing the old IHOP, based in metro Kansas City, and that they had plans to reopen as a much smaller center.

As for who Mike Bickle is, here's a recent answer from this Kansas City Star report:

"Mike Bickle, 68, founded IHOPKC in 1999. Allegations of 'clergy sexual abuse' against Bickle were presented to IHOPKC leadership in late October 2023.

"On Dec. 12, 2023, Bickle publicly addressed the accusations for the first time, saying in a statement on X, formerly Twitter, 'I sadly admit that 20+ years ago, I sinned by engaging in inappropriate behavior — my moral failures were real. (I am not admitting to the more intense sexual activities that some are suggesting).'

"About 10 days after Bickle’s statement, IHOPKC announced that it was 'immediately, formally and permanently' separating from Bickle, saying it had confirmed 'a level of inappropriate behavior' on his part."

I have been wary of Mike Bickle and his approach to theology for more than 50 years. In the fall of 1973, Mike's brother, Pat Bickle, then a Kansas City area high school football player, suffered a devastating injury in a game at North Kansas City High School. It left him a quadriplegic, unable to move except for the ability to turn his head a bit this way or that.

Within that next year or so, I traveled to Rosebud, Mo., to interview Mike and Pat. Mike then was running some kind of ministry in that small town an hour or so east of Jefferson City. Pat was lying in a bed in the home that was Mike's ministry headquarters.

I have tried -- but so far haven't found -- the story I wrote about that for The Kansas City Star then. But I remember vividly hearing Pat -- encouraged (egged on, really) by Mike -- say that he had deep faith that God would heal him physically.

I remember asking Mike whether he was giving Pat false hope that one day he would not just walk again but maybe even run and play football. Mike denied that it was false hope. And Pat really seemed to imagine that such a thing would happen to him. He said that he dreamed regularly that he could walk and run.

Mike used a kind of evangelical language that he became famous for using at IHOP. In fact, this link will give you a YouTube video in which Mike talks -- in a rambling, disjointed way -- about the divine miracle that would cure his brother, a vision of which, he says, came from two people who were active in the early days of IHOP.

But Pat died at age 50 without ever experiencing a miraculous physical healing.

And now Mike no longer is part of IHOP. None of that surprises me. I didn't have a vision (like Mike seemed to have regularly about various things) of the disastrous way in which Mike's ministry would end back when I spent some time with him and Pat in the mid-1970s. I just knew that I was put off by the way Mike filled Pat with the wildly unrealistic idea that he would walk and run and dance again.

But when you sell the idea of miracles -- and sell is the right word here -- you make them seem really miraculous and you never let on that the likelihood of them coming true is zero, or close to it. Why? Because you probably read Matthew 19:26 literally -- "for God all things are possible."

I'm not suggesting that miracles never happen or never could happen. I'm just saying that when you cherry-pick scripture passages to bend reality so that what you want to happen seems like an inevitable answer, you are abusing scripture.

In fact, it's one more example of the notion that you can take the Bible literally or you can take it seriously, but you can't do both.

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IS THIS ANOTHER METHODIST ERROR?

Several years after lots of churches have left the United Methodist Church in a major schism, what's remaining of the denomination has, in effect, voted to try to close the barn door. Which is to say that the UMC, as this Religion News Service story reports, "passed a series of measures Thursday to restructure the worldwide denomination to give each region greater equity in tailoring church life to its own customs and traditions."

Umc-schismOne reason the UMC divided in the first place was that large segments of its churches that are located overseas, especially in Africa, did not want anything to do with the idea of approving the ordination of LGBTQ+ people as pastors. Whether this latest four-part division could have avoided the split by letting churches that felt that way remain in a larger body that allowed such ordination is just guesswork. But at first glance it looks as if this new four-part division will encourage a local option on such matters, resulting in a denomination that speaks with several voices on how to interpret scripture not just on LGBTQ+ issues but on any issue. In which case it may be unclear what the "United" in the denomination's name really means. We'll see.


Here's something you can do locally to counter antisemitism

Gavi-JCRB-24-RU

Because modern antisemitism has deep roots in Christianity's long history of anti-Judaism, the hatred of Jews is an ancient problem.

But it's a calumny that is experiencing an alarming resurgence, especially since the Oct. 7, 2023, Hamas terrorist attack on Israel. Here, for instance, is a CNN piece on the subject that was published several weeks after that attack.

What lots of people ignore, however, is that the growth of these anti-Jewish acts and words affects Jews everywhere, including our Jewish friends and neighbors right here in Kansas City, So earlier this month the JCRB/AJC (Jewish Community Relations Bureau/American Jewish Committee) held a symposium called "Driving Out Darkness in the Heartland: 2024 Regional Summit on Combating Antisemitism."

It was held at Rockhurst University just as the annual commemorations sponsored by the SevenDays organization were marking the 10th anniversary of the 2014 murders of three individuals at local Jewish institutions. Those individuals were killed by a neo-Nazi who was trying to slay Jews but who wound up killing three Christians, instead. On the SevenDays website to which I've linked you, there is information about the founding of the organization and the work it does -- especially with teenagers -- to overcome hatred by teaching kindness through education and dialogue. (I serve on the SevenDays board.) One of the speakers at the JCRB/AJC symposium was SevenDays founder Mindy Corporon, author of Healing a Shattered Soul. Mindy's father and son were among those killed 10 years ago.

In opening the seminar, Gavriela Geller (pictured above), executive director of JCRB/AJC, offered a distressing picture of how Kansas City area Jews are feeling about this new round of antisemitism.

“Since Oct. 7," she said, referencing the Hamas attack date, "the Jewish community has experienced what I can only describe as an explosion of antisemitism, the likes of which have not been seen for years. . .We have experienced a 500 percent increase in these events right here in our community." Then she offered a litany of examples:

“There is in our own community a Jewish woman who has been harassed and threatened so badly that she had to move.

"I want you to know that we have had our youngest incident report yet, a second-grader, bullied on the school bus for being Jewish.

"I want you to know that Jewish college students are being harassed, targeted and isolated. . .simply for walking across campus wearing a Jewish star or kippah.

"We hear stories like this every single day. And in Jewish communities right here in Kansas City, it’s scary. Your neighbors are scared.

"Jews know enough of our history to always have a valid passport. But the question that I’ve heard people ask in the last six months is, ‘When will we know it’s time to leave?. . . Should we buy property abroad?’

“I do not know how else to say -- how to explain -- how serious this is. . .how deeply this is impacting our community right here."

Then she pointed toward action to be taken in light of these appalling circumstances.

“Over the course of this year," she said, "JCRB will work to craft and implement our region’s first-ever plan to combat antisemitism. This plan will inform our proactive action, legislation and the partnerships necessary to tackle this evil. We are the heart of America, and what we’re creating will act as a model for the rest of the country.”

Discussions about that process filled the rest of the daylong seminar.

This is a project that needs all people of goodwill to help. If you have ideas, contact the JCRB/AJC. I've given you the group's primary website link above, and here is a link to its "Contact Us" page. Share your ideas. Ask how you can help. At a minimum, please wish those who will work on this plan well.

From time to time, I hope to report back to you about how this work is going and to share with you a final product when it's ready.

Kansas City is known around the country not just as the site of the gruesome murders at Jewish facilities 10 years ago but also as a center for generative interfaith dialogue and cooperation. This is another time for that latter reputation to come to the fore. So let's all do what we can to help.

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INDIA'S VERSION OF NATIONALISTIC HATE SPEECH

American politicians aren't the only ones in the world who sometimes engage in outrageous speech that dehumanizes others. India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi proved that a few days ago when, at a campaign rally, he essentially called for India's Hindus to hate India's Muslims. It was, says my Indian friend Markandey Katju, an example of Modi crossing all limits of decency and propriety. The link I gave you to Markandey's brief remarks includes a video of Modi spewing disgusting words, but he's not speaking in English. The first link is to an AP story that focuses on the bitter reaction to Modi's words on the part of Muslims. Modi and his Hindu Nationalism have been a disaster for India, just as American politicians promoting Christian Nationalism for the U.S. are doing us no favors.


A new story of Jewish resistance to the Holocaust

Resistance-doc

In the last week or so, as I've been judging some of the entries in this year's White Rose Student Research Contest sponsored by the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education (on the board of which I serve), I've also been thinking about the focus of the contest theme several years ago.

It was resistance. Students (middle and high schoolers) were asked to research and write about the many ways in which the Jews of Europe in the 1930s and '40s fought against their own annihilation, which was the goal of Hitler's Nazi regime.

One reason to look at that aspect of the Holocaust is because one of the widespread mischaracterizations of Europe's Jews is that they went like quiet lambs to the slaughter. That idea is wrong on many counts. And this article from Commentary describes a new documentary ("Resistance: They Fought Back") about the many forms of Jewish resistance in World War II.

Seth Mandel writes this: "(T)he lesson of the film is that spiritual and intellectual resistance are prerequisites to effective armed rebellion — and that the Jews of Europe excelled across all three."

TWJP-coverSeveral years ago I co-authored (with Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn) a book about such resistance by Jews in Poland. In They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, we told various stories about how non-Jews participated in the Jewish resistance by hiding those Jews from the Nazis. We both were overwhelmed by what Mandel calls the "spiritual and intellectual resistance" of both Jews and the non-Jews (mostly Catholics in Poland) who helped them.

As Mandel writes about this new documentary, "Many Jewish ghettos revolted against the Nazis, but they were mostly cut off from the world, and certainly each other. Couriers, then, were the only way to communicate. The job required courage: They were spies, Jewish women living as Christians and moving weapons and contraband into Jewish towns under Nazi occupation and sometimes smuggling people out of the ghettos."

My guess is that similar -- if so far largely unreported -- acts are happening today in the Hamas-Israeli war. And on both sides, too. If and when this war somehow ends, it will be well worth the effort to collect the stories of resistance and rescue that today are mostly hidden from view. When the evil of Nazism or the evil of terrorism unleashes chaos and destruction, we should assume that some people are acting with heart and courage to resist.

And then, like this new documentary, we should tell those stories to remind ourselves and others what humanity, at its best, is capable of achieving when people do what they can to resist evil.

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WHERE HAVE ALL THE CATHOLICS GONE?

Because of shrinkage in the number of Catholics there, the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore plans to "consolidate the number of parishes from 61 to 21 and reduce the number of 'worship sites' from 59 to 26, affecting many of the city’s landmark churches," this RNS piece reports. Something like that is happening to many branches of Christianity in the U.S., requiring some difficult decisions about church infrastructure and organization. But those decisions need to be made not just by top denominational leaders but also by the people affected by those decisions. Will that happen? Doubtful, but stay tuned.