Something to celebrate in American history

There are many reasons to be proud of the United States, just as there also are many reasons to feel a sense of shame at some of the country's history.

Lgbtq-flagThis Fourth of July weekend I want to focus not on the deep strands of racism in our history -- racism still woven into so many of our social and governmental structures -- but, rather, on the progress we've made in beginning to weave LGBTQ+ people into our social fabric in a healthy way.

We're far from where we need to be, but the distance we've come from my childhood is in some ways rather breathtaking. When I was a boy in the 1950s in a small almost-all-white town in northern Illinois, youth and adults often could be heard using the word "queer" as a slanderous term that dehumanized gays and lesbians (about whom most of us kids knew next to nothing).

Today, the LGBTQ+ community has reclaimed that term of derision and turned it into a label of pride. (As evidence, here is last week's sermon from one of our associate pastors at Second Presbyterian Church in Kansas City, Mo.) In some ways the same thing happened to the first followers of Jesus. When they first were called "Christians" it was mostly a pejorative term. But eventually they owned it, gladly marking themselves with the title of their Messiah.

One of the first times I wrote about LGBTQ+ issues for The Kansas City Star was in a rather lengthy piece that ran on the editorial pages in February 1993 in response to President Bill Clinton's ill-advised don't ask-don't tell military policy. That piece is reproduced as part of this essay on the Bible and homosexuality. The reaction to the 1993 piece -- in which I argued that the Bible offers no real guidance on the matter except for urging unconditional love for all -- was heavy and mixed. I was praised and I was denounced. Some readers were clear that the essay alone would be enough to guarantee me a place in hell.

What struck me then -- and what strikes me even more today -- is the strength and resiliency of the LGBTQ+ community as it seeks to negotiate its rightful place in our culture. Gay people have put up with an enormous amount of derision and grief, as, of course, have people of color in our country. And both have shown remarkable fortitude in continuing to seek equal civil rights and respect.

A good example of that is found in this RNS story about how LGBTQ+ people on the campus of Liberty University in Virginia have managed to live through an atmosphere of contempt for them at the school founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, who, as the story notes, once "labeled AIDS as divine punishment for gay people and for 'the society that tolerates homosexuals.'"

Despite that -- and additional condemnation from Falwell's son, Jerry Falwell Jr., now Liberty president -- LGBTQ+ students and others on campus are surviving and seeking to take advantage of the freedoms guaranteed to them as Americans -- freedoms that now, of course, include the right to same-sex marriage in all 50 states.

Pride Month 2020 just ended, but it brought to the attention of the nation once more not just the progress made since the Stonewall Riots in 1969 but also the remaining bigotry, at least some of which finds its roots in the misreading of scripture that I mentioned above.

So in this age of anxiety and protest, let's continue to work toward changing the unjust systems that keep people down in America, but let's also remember and cheer the fact that in a relatively short period of time, LGBTQ+ people have come closer to being considered part of America's mainstream. None of this would have happened without loud and insistent voices of protest, voices that need to continue speaking. Let's make it a habit to listen carefully to the voices of all American citizens before deciding whether to join or oppose them.

(The flag image above came from here.)

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HOW TO GET RELIGION WRONG

Here is an essay I happened upon that I hope you'll read. It's by a woman who, at age 18, had an abortion. And it's about her rigid religious upbringing and why she rejected that. To me, her story is an example of what can happen when religion without love and forgiveness is injected into the brains of children. Sigh.


No, he was Jesus of Nazareth, not Natchez

When the rallies, protests and other reactions to the George Floyd murder (well, that and similar outrages) began, I figured it was only a matter of time before someone would -- again -- raise the question of why so many American Christians think of Jesus as a white man.

HEAD-OF-CHRIST-SallmanWell, it's happening. And I'm glad.

This Religion News Service story describes some of how the strange idea of Jesus' whiteness gained such currency in the U.S. And this story from The Week explores the matter from another angle. Beyond that, this editorial from The National Catholic Reporter explains why a white Jesus is a problem.

The RNS story describes how the "Head of Christ" painting by Warner Sallman (pictured here) "came to define what the central figure of Christianity looked like for generations of Christians in the United States — and beyond."

Indeed, that painting was ubiquitous in my childhood. In almost every church (and in many homes) you could find a copy or two of it hanging on some wall.

And if you look carefully, you can see that Sallman gave Jesus blue eyes. Yep, a First Century Middle Eastern Jew with blue eyes. He must have been quite an attraction.

"The backlash to Sallman’s work," RNS reported, "began during the civil rights movement, when his depiction of a Scandinavian savior was criticized for enshrining the image of a white Jesus for generations of Americans.

"That criticism has been renewed recently amid the current national reckoning over racism sparked by the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed in an encounter with police."

Indeed, as the story in The Week notes, "After the Confederate statues come down, activist Shaun King tweeted Monday, 'the statues of the white European they claim is Jesus should also come down.'

"'They are a form of white supremacy,' he said. 'Tear them down.' And tear down all the 'murals and stained-glass windows of white Jesus, and his European mother, and their white friends,' too, King added."

Well, as I said here on the blog the other day about statues of Confederates and slave owners, I'd prefer that we not tear them down but, rather, move them to some kind of museum-like context where people can learn from them about the evils of slavery and, in the case of white Jesus portraits, the issues of white supremacy. Let's use this as a time of learning and not waste it by destroying evidence.

And one of the things to learn is how Sallman's Evangelical Covenant Church has changed over the years. This piece describes those good changes.

Emotions are running high after the Floyd murder -- as  they should. But let's not make decisions about destruction that we'll later regret.

And while those who are Christian are figuring out how to react to all of this, it would be helpful to remember, as this piece from Ethics Daily notes, that the church's struggle with racism started way back at the beginning. As the author points out, "although the primitive church 'continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and in fellowship with one another,' they still confronted ethnic tensions within the newly formed community." And so the story continues today, though in different circumstances.

(The photo of the Sallman painting seen here today came from the RNS story to which I linked you. The caption read: "Painting by Warner Sallman, “Head of Christ,” © 1941 Warner Press Inc., Anderson, Indiana. Used with permission.")

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THE SCIENCE-RELIGION RELATIONSHIP (AGAIN)

Although there are traces of the "God of the gaps" approach in this interesting Forbes article about science, religion and philosophy, it does give us a pretty good sense of where we are in the changing relationships among those three disciplines. What's important to remember is what science can't answer -- ever -- and what religion shouldn't try to answer -- ever. Keep such things in mind and the world will make better sense.


Who, really, was King David of the Bible?

Last week here on the blog I discussed whether it ever will be possible to have a historically accurate biography of Jesus of Nazareth. (Spoiler alert: Probably not.)

King-davidSo what if we back up about 1,000 years and ask something like the same question of King David (seen here in his high school graduation photo), said to be the creator of the House of David, from which eventually Jesus came, according to Christian tradition?

Well, the answer seems even more difficult to find, even as archaeologists continue to dig all around modern Israel looking for clues and comparing what they're finding with the stories of David told in the Bible.

This long but fascinating New Yorker article gives us a look at that process. 

"In the long war over how to reconcile the Bible with historical fact," writes Ruth Margarlit, a writer based in Tel Aviv, "the story of David stands at ground zero. There is no archaeological record of Abraham, or Isaac, or Jacob. There is no Noah’s Ark, nothing from Moses. Joshua did not bring down the walls of Jericho: they collapsed centuries earlier, perhaps in an earthquake. But, in 1993, an Israeli archaeologist working near the Syrian border found a fragment of basalt from the ninth century B.C., with an Aramaic inscription that mentioned the 'House of David' — the first known reference to one of the Bible’s foundational figures. So David is not just a central ancestor in the Old Testament. He may also be the only one that we can prove existed."

The battle among and between archaeologists that Margarlit describes is in some ways a battle of human egos. And yet sometimes the science is clear and old guesses must be set aside as almost certainly wrong. There's plenty of that in Margarlet's piece.

What all of this says to me is that people of faith need to understand how scripture was written, when and by whom. And for what purpose. The Hebrew Bible, the New Testament and the Qur'an, among other texts called sacred, were not written as history, at least as 21st Century Americans understand history. They were written for theological purposes. And although they may well contain actual, verifiable accounts of historical events, that isn't their primary purpose.

Margarlit quotes an eminent archaeologist, Israel Finkelstein, this way about the Bible: “For me, the literal reading isn’t only wrongheaded but it actually detracts from the Biblical authors. Only when you read them critically do you understand their genius.” Margarlit says Finkelstein "is especially disdainful of scholars who claim to have found archaeological proof of the Bible’s veracity."

None of this, of course, means that the Bible isn't in some way what Christians often call it -- the word of God. But that word is conveyed by the words of humans. If you need help understanding all of that, my own pastor, Paul Rock of Second Presbyterian Church, is doing a podcast and video series right now he calls "The Bible for Beginners." Paul explains in some detail what it means that the Bible is God's authoritative word to us but why we are fools to imagine it is historically inerrant. Reading it as inerrant turns out to be a quite robotic, low view of scripture. I hope you'll check out Paul's series.

Much blood has been shed over how scripture of various faith traditions should be read. That should end. But probably it will end only if people understand who wrote scripture and what tools are necessary to interpret it. Literalistic readings of it almost inevitably lead to trouble.

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EVEN STATUES IN ENGLAND ARE VULNERABLE

As you no doubt know, England abolished slavery before the U.S. did. But English churches -- especially those affiliated with the Church of England -- contain lots of statues of people who are connected to that slave trade. The archbishop of Canterbury, however, says the process has begun to move some of the statues or to place them in a context where they can be better explained. Good. But this process -- both in the U.K. and in the U.S. -- should be done carefully and thoughtfully. Instead of destroying all Confederate statues or statues of such people as Andrew Jackson, I'd rather that they be put in a museum-like context where people can learn how white supremacy was an evil motivating factor that led to their positions of leadership. If the statues are destroyed without putting them in that kind of context, we eventually may forget the evil they did and repeat it.

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about how KC's seminaries have adapted to the pandemic -- now is online here.


Pope Francis can show us how to make systemic change

Since George Floyd's murder -- to say nothing of the nation's and world's response to the coronavirus pandemic -- there's been a lot of talk about the need for systemic change.

Pope-francisIn fact, I recently dealt with that matter here on the blog.

There's debate, of course, about which systems are broken and in need of repair. And there's debate about how to fix them. That's as it should be.

But fixing systemic problems -- as opposed to changing the minds of individual bigots -- clearly must be on our social, religious, economic and political agenda. Otherwise we've wasted this crisis.

So where do we go to see some models of how others have attempted systemic change?

This RNS article says we can learn from the way Pope Francis (pictured here) has been trying to accomplish such changes in the Catholic Church. And, in fact, there is much we can learn from this pope. Early in his papacy this was apparent even to non-Catholics, which is one reason my pastor, Paul Rock, and I wrote our 2015 book Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church.

The RNS piece correctly notes that "for Francis, the root of the church’s problems was clericalism: the belief that religious people belong to a superior caste, insulated by favoritisms, which has helped promote an air of moral superiority among clergy.

“'Clericalism is our ugliest pervasion,' the pope told seminarians last year. 'The Lord wants you to be shepherds; shepherds of the people, not clerics of the state.'

"The mentality behind clericalism, according to Francis, has helped spread corruption within the Catholic Church. Victims of sexual abuse were not taken seriously, and predator priests were moved instead of removed in order to save face. The belief that only those who are ordained have authority has helped marginalize laypeople in the Catholic Church, especially women."

So he began to work on ways to change both the reality of the church's organizational structure and that structure's image among the faithful, perhaps starting with his personal decision not to live in the traditional papal palaces. That, the RNS piece says, "sent a message of simplicity and humility. The Argentine pope opted for simple clothing, avoiding the colorful flourishes of his predecessors and helping to promote a public image that portrays the church and its clergy as closer to the people."

So Francis was not doing this just because he personally didn't like fancy living. Rather, he was trying to change a clerical system that he viewed as the cause of much trouble in the church.

That's the kind of systemic thinking we need now as we re-imagine policing, education, health care, employment, our criminal justice system as well as access to public transportation, affordable housing and other systems that now benefit one group over another for racist reasons. Everywhere we see either white supremacy itself or its vestiges, we must act in fair and communal ways to reconstruct our systems without that.

(By the way, a black friend pointed out to me the other day that most of these systems aren't actually broken. Rather, they're working in exactly the racist way they were designed to work. So we need new non-racist systems.)

Pope Francis, of course, has his many critics. And even his strong supporters acknowledge that he's made errors along the way. But if we're looking for a current model of what systemic change looks like and how it can happen, the pontiff can serve well in that capacity.

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WHAT'S ISLAM GOT TO DO WITH IT?

It turns out that there is Islamic history behind today's protests about racism in America, and Michael Wolfe, an author and documentary producer, describes it in this RNS article. "Islam," he writes, "has a deep backstory in this drama. The first New World revolt against slavery was led by West African Muslims in the Dominican Republic in 1522. The prolific 19th-century scholar Omar bin Said in the Carolinas and the pre-Abolitionist hero Prince Abdul Rahman Ibrahim in Natchez, Mississippi, were the forefathers of the Black Pride we see today." I was aware that many -- perhaps one-fifth -- of the slaves dragged here from Africa were Muslim, but I didn't know some of what Wolfe talks about in his article. Maybe you didn't, either. So give it a read.


A chance for anti-LGBTQ+ Christians to repent

The recent U.S. Supreme Court's 6-3 decision that federal civil rights laws protects LGBTQ+ employees from being fired for their sexual orientation was, of course, welcome.

But why would anyone still want to discriminate against gays and lesbians? And why did it take until now for this ruling to happen? (Spoiler alert: Religion has something to do with answers to both questions.)

LgbtqAfter all, starting with (if not before) the Stonewall riots in 1969, American society slowly has moved in the direction of full inclusion of people no matter their sexual orientation or gender identity. Yes, it has taken 50-plus years to get here, and lots of people have paid a high personal price on the journey. But in the long course of history, 50 years is a fairly brief period over which to make rather this sweeping change in conventional wisdom.

Society's turnaround on this matter from my childhood to now has been a remarkable thing to watch. In some ways it feels like an overnight success 50-plus years in the making. But, then, because I'm not gay, I haven't been among those personally oppressed by society's broadly hateful views about homosexuality -- though frequently when I write in support of equal treatment of LGBTQ+ folks I get called lots of filthy names. So I know that for my LGBTQ+ friends, this latest court ruling was a long, long, painful time coming.

But let's remember that this has been a fight against not just bigotry by individuals but also a wrongheaded biblical view of homosexuality, one that even today in certain faith communities refuses to die. Overcoming ideas that some people believe are ordered by God is hard work. But even that change is happening a bit here and there.

The Bible, as I argue in this essay, should not be used as a weapon against LGBTQ+ people. If you're using the Bible to oppress people, you're getting it all wrong. The Bible, after all, has essentially nothing to say about what today we are beginning to understand about sexual orientation. Well, nothing except for the command to love others, no matter who, where or when.

But throughout much of its history, the Christian church universal has behaved shamefully in this matter by relying on misinterpretations of scripture to justify bigotry and exclusion. That has to stop. Now.

One of the things I found so fascinating about the recent court ruling was that Chief Justice John Roberts seems to have changed his mind from when he wrote his dissent in the 2015 decision that legalized same-sex marriage in all U.S. states. In that case, he wrote a biting dissenting opinion.

"Supporters of same-sex marriage," he wrote then, "have achieved considerable success persuading their fellow citizens — through the democratic process — to adopt their view. That ends today. Five lawyers have closed the debate and enacted their own vision of marriage as a matter of constitutional law. Stealing this issue from the people will for many cast a cloud over same-sex marriage, making a dramatic social change that much more difficult to accept."

The three dissenting justices in this most recent case made something like that argument. But not Roberts. Rather, he joined Justice Neil Gorsuch, to the surprise of some, in the majority opinion, which seemed like a clear call for an end to unjustified legal discrimination: "An employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex. Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids."

(What will it mean politically that Chief Justice Roberts assigned Gorsuch to write the majority opinion? This analysis in The Week concludes that "there's no way this won't do further damage to Trump's already foundering re-election prospects." And Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., appears to be using his reaction to the LGBTQ+ court decision to solidify his populist determination to run for president as a clone of Trump.)

Clearly something has changed Roberts' mind. In this case, he was willing to rule on the constitutionality of a law when it was clearly constitutional instead of -- as the three dissenters would have it -- saying that if the law is flawed, Congress should fix it. So good for Roberts.

Perhaps the sea change in religious thinking about this matter has come to Roberts' attention and he's no longer willing to use the courts to protect religious bigotry toward the LGBTQ+ community.

In any case, if you are part of a faith community that continues to insist that homosexuality is a sin against God, maybe you've been given another opportunity now to recognize that idea as the simple bigotry and misinterpretation of the Bible that it is. Seize this opportunity to change your mind and follow a Bible meant to liberate people, not enslave them.

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THE ROLE OF BLACK CLERGY NOW

What role are clergy playing in the post-George Floyd protests and redemptive work to undo racist and unjust systems? Black clergy are, as usual, in the forefront of the effort, as this piece from The Conversation makes clear. The author, Laurence Burnley of the University of Dayton, writes this: "From the earliest times of the United States’ history, religious leaders have led the struggle for liberation and racial justice for black Americans. As an ordained minister and a historian, I see it as a common thread running through the history of the United States, from black resistance in the earliest periods of slavery in the antebellum South, through the civil rights movement of the 1960s and up to the Black Lives Matter movement today." Let's find ways to support and encourage their efforts.


Will we ever know reliable history about Jesus?

Is religion mostly about what we think, feel, believe and search for today or is it more about how what happened years -- indeed, centuries -- ago continues to shape and affect us today?

Jesus-asiaThat question is too broad for any one answer to be satisfactory. But when it comes to Christianity specifically, the answer is both, largely because Jesus of Nazareth was a real human being and because Christians promote the idea that the spirit of the resurrected Jesus is alive and at work in the world today.

As for Jesus being a real human, there have been at least three major "quests for the historical Jesus" since the 1700s. Two of them have their roots in the 20th Century. No reputable religious scholar today would deny that Jesus actually existed. But our sources for information about his life beyond the four gospels in the New Testament are extraordinarily limited. And many scholars say that the gospels were not written as biography but as theology.

I raise all this today as a way of sharing with you some interesting conclusions about this subject from a 2018 book I've just read, Jesus in Asia, by R. S. Sugirtharajah, an emeritus professor of biblical hermeneutics (interpretation) at the University of Birmingham in the U.K.

The book describes the way various Asian -- particularly Indian, Chinese and Japanese -- scholars and writers have presented Jesus to readers and students. Oh, my. What a wide variety of interpretations, often shaped by the cultural background of the scholars. As has been said of theologians who search for the historical Jesus, the person they often find is not the historical Jesus but the historian's Jesus -- someone who looks or acts or thinks very much like they do.

Sugirtharajah puts it this way: No matter what drives the scholar's effort to find the historical Jesus, "it ends up projecting a Jesus of the interpreter's own imagination and ideals. Under the pretense of objectivity, Western scholars have produced a variety of Jesuses to suit their vested interests."

He then adds this: "The whole enterprise is immersed in an author's strong personal faith, complicated ideological interests and internecine institutional interventions and control. Although it is seen as an intellectual exercise, it is basically an emotional activity. As a topic of research it is enticing, and has deep roots in Christian commitment, but the quest for the historical Jesus is eminently a personal affair. . .

"What the Western searchers self-importantly call the historical Jesus, then, is not historical but a series of imaginative constructs."

None of this is to say that we can't know anything about the man Jesus, his life, his context. But it is to say that, given the historical records we have available now, it is impossible to write anything like a full biography of Jesus. In some ways, to greater and lesser extents, something similar also could be said about the Buddha, Abraham, the Prophet Muhammad and other individuals associated with one of the great world religions.

With some of those religions, there's less theological need to uncover reliable biographical information than there is with Jesus because of the Christian assertion that he was executed but then was resurrected -- events, the church says, that happened about the year 30 C.E. in a real city, Jerusalem. And that without the resurrection, as the Apostle Paul has asserted, the religious movement that began with the resurrection would have no leg on which to stand.

In the 20th Century it became common to hear theologians distinguish between the "Jesus of history" and the "Christ of faith." That not-very-helpful binary description seems to have fallen by the wayside now. But that hasn't relieved the curiosity that followers of Jesus have long had about just what kind of man he was.

You'll have to answer that for yourself. But Sugirtharajah's book offers some surprising (to me, anyway) insights into the many and various ways Asians have pictured Jesus, portraits that many Western Christians simply will not ever have imagined or find credible.

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WHERE PEOPLE OF FAITH FAILED AGAIN

I will write much more here this weekend about this week's U.S. Supreme Court decision that LGBTQ+ folks are protected by federal civil rights laws. But for now, just know that this decision is one more welcome undoing of bigotry, a lot of which finds its roots in a misreading of scripture. People of faith, particularly Christians, should have been in the leadership of the movement to liberate gays and lesbians from this oppression, but, instead, often have been the leaders in promoting anti-gay attitudes. There's something wrong when people of faith have to be shown how to live moral, loving (and constitutional) lives by secular courts instead of by their own faith traditions.


What we need to fix are systems

If we hope that meaningful societal change can come out of the civil unrest displaying righteous anger after the murder of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer, we're going to have to do several things. At the top of the list: Listen to each other more attentively and focus not on individual prejudice but, rather, on systemic racism.

In fact, I think the term racism should be reserved for systems that wield power. Systems can be racist, while individuals acting as individuals are best described as prejudiced or bigoted. Racism requires actionable power.

SystemsIt's no longer enough (and, in fact, never was enough) for individual white Americans to treat individual Americans of color with respect. Yes, that's necessary, but that doesn't fix broken systems (policing, education, employment, transportation, housing, on and on) that keep society's knee on the necks of black and brown people.

In this RNS interview, two black leaders make that point well. Jemar Tisby, author of The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism, which I wrote about here last year, says this:

"We also need relationships. It’s hard to love somebody you don't know. The problem, especially with white evangelical Christians, is that they tend to stop there because they think the problem of racism is primarily how I feel and act individually towards someone else. That's things like using a racial slur, excluding someone from your business. So if that's the problem, then the solution is, well, then I'm going to treat people nicely, and some of my best friends are black. What they fail to realize is that racism operates on a systemic level, too."

And the Rev. Tyler Burns, pastor of New Dimensions Christian Center in Pensacola, Florida, says one of the necessary answers is "putting in place systems that directly address the racism that is evident and flourishing within so many white churches and white Christian spaces. And that takes root, as Jemar was mentioning, in so many of our places of power, in the way that we spend our money."

It's important for people of faith to be angry about the right things -- not trivialities -- and to seek systemic solutions. Christians can use Jesus as a model for that.

If, for instance, you read the story in John 2 and Mark 11 of when Jesus overturned the money-changing tables in the Jerusalem temple, you discover that he was angry not at individual money changers or dove sellers but, rather, at a system that oppressed poor people.

Jesus wanted people treated fairly, which wasn’t happening, and it made him angry enough to take action because God’s house was being desecrated.

In Mark’s version of the story, after Jesus turned over the tables used for currency exchange, he quoted the Prophet Isaiah (56:7), who, in turn, was quoting God: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations.”

Almost any time you see the word “nations” in the New Testament, it refers to non-Jews, or Gentiles. So in this case, Jesus seems to be addressing the fact that all this buying and selling of animals for temple sacrifice was going on in what was called the Court of the Gentiles, which was the outer space in the temple. From the outside to the inside, there was the Court of the Gentiles, then the Court of the Women, then the Court of the Israelites, then the Court of the Priests.

If Gentiles were there to pray — which happened often enough that such Gentiles were given the name God Fearers — they were restricted to the Court of the Gentiles. In that court the noisy marketing of animals made it almost impossible to think, much less pray. In other words, the system wasn’t set up to be a good neighbor to non-Jews, despite the repetitive teaching that Jews were always and everywhere to welcome the stranger.

So the goal of Jesus was to call attention to broken systems.

That should be society's goal now, too. It's not enough for individual police officers to treat individual people of color kindly. Instead, our whole system of policing needs to be overhauled, including not assigning police to be first responders in cases of domestic violence, mental illness and similar matters.

At any rate, the interview with Tisby and Burns offers more insights into how people of faith can begin responding sensibly and effectively to current conditions in the U.S. I hope you'll give it a read -- and give Tisby's book a read, too.

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LOOK FOR NON-PROFIT PROPHETS

The Catholic writer Fr. Thomas Reese has some good ideas in this column for how to tell real prophets from fake ones these days. He writes: "Religion can be a political prop or a prophetic voice. History should teach religious leaders not to get in bed with political leaders. Religious and political leaders can work together for the common good, but they should be enriching the community, not each other. A prophet can speak courageously about issues, but when he starts endorsing political parties and candidates, he is no longer speaking for God."

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P.S.: Would it help to hear someone who lives overseas cheering on the American people as we struggle with not just the pandemic but the hopeful and widespread reactions to the murder of George Floyd? Then give this piece a read. It's by my friend Markandey Katju, a former justice on India's Supreme Court. We were schoolmates for a time in India when we were boys. Note: In the seventh paragraph, the words "swimming schools" should be "swimming pools."


Does the religious affiliation of voters mean much?

One of the big political trend stories in the last 40 years or so has been the way Christians -- particularly those who identify as white and evangelical -- have become pretty reliable Republican voters.

Politics-ReligionMany reasons for this have been proposed by people who study such things. They include, of course, the desire to have a president who will appoint justices to the U.S. Supreme Court who might vote to overturn the 1973 Roe vs Wade decision that legalized abortion across the country.

And in 2016, when some 81 percent of white Christian evangelical voters cast ballots for Donald Trump for president, another (obvious by now) reason was that they were willing to support someone whose life has been a repudiation of evangelical values so they could have -- and influence -- power. A Faustian bargain to be sure.

The Pew Research Center, which pays attention to the religious makeup of voters, just reported that as the share of registered voters who are religiously unaffiliated (the so-called "nones") has increased, the share who identify as Christian has declined. Today, Christians make up about half of Democratic voters (52 percent); in 2008, about three-quarters of Democrats (73 percent) were Christians. Over that same period, religious “nones” have doubled as a share of Democratic voters, from 18 percent to 38 percent. The changes among Republicans have been more modest: Christians constitute 79 percent of Republican voters, down from 87 percent in 2008, Pew reports.

The report to which I linked you also says that "while religiously unaffiliated voters do not make up as large a share of Republicans as Democrats, they do make up a growing share of GOP voters. Today 15 percent of Republican voters do not identify with a religion, up from 9 percent in 2008."

Well, all this may be fascinating for pollsters and numbers crunchers, but the broader question is whether people really make voting decisions based on their religious beliefs. No doubt some -- maybe many -- do, but that's a much harder question to answer than simply identifying what percentage of Democrats, say, are Christian. The other thing that such numbers don't take much into account is people who split their ticket -- voting, say, for a Democrat for president but a Republican for governor or senator. And, yes, there still are such people, though surely their number had dwindled in recent years as more and more people live in one-party political silos.

The point is that life is complicated and that we shouldn't put too much emphasis on the religious affiliation of voters, except in such cases when there's an overwhelming reason to do so, such as trying to figure out why in the world 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump.

I bet that 81 number will decline for Trump in the 2020 election, especially if such evangelicals pay attention to some of their  leaders, whose essays are collected in a new book called The Spiritual Danger of Donald Trump, edited by Ronald J. Sider. The 30 essayists there plead with other evangelicals not to make the same Trump mistake they made in 2016. It's an interesting read.

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PRESERVING ANCIENT SACRED TEXTS

There's good news (for a change) in the world of ancient religious manuscripts. This Guardian story reports that "more than 2,500 rare manuscripts and books from the Islamic world covering a period of more than a thousand years are to be made freely available online." It's important to know the history of how sacred writ was created and preserved and what role it played in the promulgation of the faith. These old manuscripts are too fragile to be handled by the public, but now they'll be available to all. Thanks to everyone who is making this happen.


Why we'll need a period of national grieving

If and when we get on the other side of this pandemic and this civil unrest triggered by the murder of a black man by a white police officer in Minneapolis, we will need to stop and create both space and time for grief, not just for the Americans who died of COVID-19 but for victims of the virus around the world and for the victims of white supremacy, an evil ideology at the root of America's founding.

Beyond that, we will need to grieve for the many, many people who died of other causes but who, because of the pandemic, were not given traditional funerals or memorial services.

Hospital-chaplainsObituary after obituary in recent months has ended with something like this: "A service will be held at a later date."

Grief is a natural and even vital process. It is both a pure, squealing shout at the evil of death and a plea for comfort in the face of unspeakable loss.

It is both a necessary questioning of God's sometimes-inscrutable ways and, for people of faith, an affirmation that, in the end, we are in God's loving hands no matter what.

If we try to skip past ways to express our grief, we simply put off a day of reckoning, a day when the pent-up anger and frustration will explode, perhaps in a way analogous to the way black America's pent-up anger over 400 years of oppression and another police officer killing a defenseless black man exploded recently in the streets of Minneapolis -- and then around the nation and the world.

As we think about how to grieve after this pandemic and after George Floyd, there is much we can learn from chaplains who work in hospitals, nursing homes and hospices.

This excellent story will teach you much about that if you don't already know about it.

The author focuses on several different chaplains, including one in Seattle, and describes her job -- and the job of chaplains generally -- this way: It's "to guide the dying toward peace, the families of the dead into grief. To witness and honor the great pain of staggering loss."

As the author writes, "Our country’s grief is so vast that it can sometimes turn invisible. You cannot see the mountain when you’re trapped beneath its weight. At many hospitals, chaplains work to help those closest to death grapple with its reality. Doctors and nurses care for bodies; chaplains for minds and spirits."

So see what you can learn in this piece about how chaplains approach death and, thus, how we can as we continue to prepare for a national period of grieving yet to come.

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A WORD ABOUT RACISM FROM INDIA

As we Americans think about how to change systemic racism in our country, we should recognize that other nations, too, deal with oppressive systems that prevent people from reaching their full potential.

So today I'm going to share with you a piece written by Markandey Katju, a former justice on India's Supreme Court. He and I have been friends since childhood, when I lived in India for two years.

Indians are hypocrites if they condemn racism in USA

Recently a white Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, pressed his knee into the neck of a black man, George Floyd, as the latter begged that he could not breathe. The black man ultimately died, and the video of the incident has gone viral on the internet, leading to widespread protests.

There is universal condemnation of this outrageous incident, but the question is with what face can we Indians condemn it? Does it lie in our mouths to do so when caste discrimination and atrocities against dalits (formerly called the "untouchables") continue unabated in India even today?

This spark of hate and discrimination on a caste and racial basis is embedded deep in the Indian psyche, and still felt today. For a dalit daring to fall in love with a non-dalit is inviting a death sentence, and often in a horrendous manner. 

Can we stop this infamy in our own country? Can we eat, play and live equally with every human we come across in India? The answer is an obvious no.

In America if a black man marries or has an affair with a white woman today it may be frowned upon by some racists, but it is unlikely that the couple will be physically attacked. In India if a dalit boy marries or has an affair with a non-dalit girl, the likelihood is that both will be killed by the girl’s relatives or her caste members who feel they have been "dishonored." Articles 15, 16, 17, 23 and 29 of the Constitution, all of which serve as measures against both caste and racial discrimination, remain only on paper. Even after seven decades of independence we still are not able to abide by our Constitution, which "guarantees" equality irrespective of caste, creed, color and sex.

These racial prejudices that Indians have also take the form of colorism, which the number of “fairness” products available in the market testifies to -- for example, creams which dark colored women use to make their skin appear fairer. In India fair skin is regarded as superior to dark skin. Social stigma created in the society to victimize a dalit has never seen a full stop. The problem assumes an altogether different dimension when the institutions of law-governed societies themselves become a site of racism.

A few years ago it was unimaginable that an un-elected all-male village council in India had ordered that a 23-year-old SC (meaning "Scheduled Caste," or dalit) girl, Meenakshi Kumari, and her 15-year-old sister be raped. The "sentence" was handed down as punishment after their brother eloped with a married non-SC woman. They had also ordered that the sisters be paraded naked with blackened faces. Nothing could justify this abhorrent punishment.

Last year we have seen a brutal death of 25-year-old Haresh Kumar Solanki, an SC who dared to fall in love with and marry a woman from the "upper caste." Eight family members of his wife Urmila, who was two-months pregnant, killed this boy while a women’s helpline team was trying to negotiate with the father, Dasrath Singh Jhala, to send his daughter back to her husband’s home.

The brutal killing in Varmor village in Gujarat’s Ahmedabad district comes six months after Haresh and Urmila got married against her family’s wishes. Even authorities like the police, which are supposed to be neutral and fair to everyone, can no longer be trusted to enforce the law in a fair and just manner. Because of this special nature of racism, which is experienced at every stage from the initial prejudices and attacks to the police and hospital authorities, there is often no choice for the victims and their supporters but to mobilize and pressure the authorities at every stage to come to a semblance of justice.

People have to come and agitate in front of police stations, hospitals and courts. Rohit Vemula’s death had once again exposed the deep-seated caste discrimination in higher education institutions – both among students and teachers. Discrimination and atrocities against dalits are destroying our nation.

If we cannot change the feudal mindsets of our own people who commit such barbaric deeds against a section of our own countrymen we surely have no face to protest over and comment on incidents of racism that happened in Minneapolis and are happening globally.

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ST. DON'S CHURCH?

If you're still wondering what in the world President Trump was doing recently by clearing the street of protesters in front of the White House so he could walk across the street and pose with a Bible in front of a church, perhaps this Slate column will help you figure it out. Over the years there have been some pretty good and some pretty bad novels involving fictional presidents of the United States. But I don't think any of the authors of those works could have come up with something as strange and morally befuddling as that photo op. Trump truly is in a classless by himself. This opinion piece by a pastor describes some of what's behind Trump's photo op. Among other points he makes is this: "The American church sold itself long ago to perpetuate the myth of America’s divine destiny for the paltry price of access to power and respectability."


Missouri's astonishing promotion of death

My state, Missouri, seems to have a weird fascination with death. Over the Memorial Day holiday, for instance, all kinds of reckless people gathered at the Lake of the Ozarks to party in such a risky way in the midst of this deadly coronavirus pandemic that even Gov. Mike Parson felt called upon to chastise the partygoers.

(And in the wake of the George Floyd murder, lots of protesters seem to be putting themselves and others at risk by taking to the streets in large, close-together numbers.)

Walter-BartonThis is the same Mike Parson who just a couple of weeks earlier refused to intervene and stop the execution of Walter Barton (pictured here), a man whose murder conviction was so tainted that even several of the jurors who convicted him said they were wrong to do that. (The only good thing to say about Barton's execution is that it came after a long legal process and that he wasn't summarily executed the way Floyd was by a police officer in Minneapolis.)

Over the years I've written in several venues about why capital punishment is wrong and deeply immoral. This RNS column by Shane Claiborne, author of Executing Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why It’s Killing Us, says many of the things I've said about the death penalty, but it speaks directly to Christians who support it.

"(T)he death penalty," he writes, "wouldn’t stand a chance in America if it were not for Christians. On Missouri Gov. Michael Parson’s website, the last line of his bio reads: 'Governor Parson has a passion for sports, agriculture, Christ, and people.'

"Eighty-five percent of executions happen in the Bible Belt, and nearly all the states that are actively executing have Christian governors, like Parson. It is a stark reminder that the death penalty has survived not in spite of Christians, but because of us.

"If those of us who follow Jesus were to heed his words, 'Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy,' we could end the death penalty overnight. But, as it is, on May 19, Parson not only killed a man who was likely innocent. He also killed a brother in Christ. Barton was Catholic."

The reasons to oppose capital punishment are myriad, and need not even include religious ones. For instance, there's the economic argument that it costs far more to operate a death penalty system than it does to have a system in which convicted people are given incarceration punishments, not death. It's one reason that people who identify as politically conservative have increasingly moved to try to abolish the death penalty in various states. That, and the fact that juries sometimes convict innocent people, like Darryl Burton, for instance, about whom I wrote here.

The Barton execution was shocking and appalling. It will forever be a black mark on Parson's record and on the state in which I have worked for 50-plus years. Many people have spent much of this pandemic risking their own lives to save other lives. How sad that while that has been happening Missouri purposefully has killed a man who probably wasn't guilty. I'm embarrassed for my state.

(The photo here today came from the RNS column to which I linked you above and bore this caption: "In this Feb. 18, 2014, booking photo released by Missouri Department of Corrections, death row inmate Walter Barton is seen. (Missouri Department of Corrections via AP)"

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WHAT FLOYD AND BARTON HAD IN COMMON

Quick quiz: Do you know what the religious consensus is about Walter Barton and George Floyd? That they were both of inestimable value in the eyes of God. That would be true of both of them even if Floyd hadn't turned his life around in recent years and become a person of faith. In any discussion or debate about the death penalty or racism or protesting or rioting, that's the place to start. They were children of God.

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P.S.: If you missed my latest Flatland column when it posted this past Sunday, you can find it here. It's about KC area clergy who, to their surprise, are finding at least a little joy in this dark pandemic time.