Preaching must be political -- just not partisan

In some ways the jobs of opinion columnists and preachers are quite similar: Both must try to find what is -- or at least seems -- true and share it with readers, listeners or viewers.

Faith-politicsColumnists, however, are rarely obligated to test what they find to be true and worth sharing against sacred scripture. Preachers, however, fail themselves, their religious tradition and those who listen to them if they don't do that.

But preachers who simply recite scripture without using it as a light to expose what is going wrong in the world are simply wasting everyone's time. Which means preachers in all traditions must be in some sense political. Not partisan, but political.

In Christianity, the history of being political in proclamations goes back to Jesus and to the very first creed of the infant church: "Jesus is Lord." What that said to the Roman rulers of the Holy Land at the time was that Caesar was not lord. There could be nothing more political at the time than concluding that and announcing exactly that.

Today Christian preachers also must find ways to expose idolatries using both the Bible and their own God-given eyes and brains.

But as this excellent piece about preaching by a preacher who teaches homiletics shows, that's no easy task.

"Some evils and injustices," writes Casey Barton, "are so embedded into our stories of our society, our relationships or our churches that we rarely even think to hold them up to critical examination. Tragedy and trauma, however, have a way of rooting these out and forcing us to face them. The pulpit is one place for the church to face them. . .Preaching occurs at the intersection of Scripture and this moment of God’s story. The act (of preaching) itself takes courage and discernment."

One of the task of preachers from any tradition is to use what are called their prophetic voices. This doesn't mean prophecy in the sense of predicting the future. Rather, it means taking a role similar to that of the old Hebrew prophets who told the world what God wanted and who pointed out when people were failing to live up to that.

As Barton writes, "To speak prophetically is to tell hard truths to those God has placed in our care. This calling is easy to forget because confrontation is hard."

As an old joke has it, people in the pews are all in favor of preachers who denounce the sins of others, but when it comes to denouncing our own sins, the response tends to be: "Now you're just meddling."

Barton correctly declares this: "Political power is not, has never been and will never be the means to achieving the kingdom of God (Mark 10:41-44). No political party or politician will save us — we place our faith only in God (Exodus 20:2-3). The use of, or incitement to, violence in the service of achieving any aim is sin (Proverbs 10:6-7, 11).

"Especially in this moment in history, our congregations need to hear that white nationalism, Christian nationalism and the preservation of oppressive racist systems is sin, anti-gospel, anti-Christ and oppressive and hurtful to our brothers and sisters of color (I’m speaking centrally to my white brothers and sisters who speak in predominantly white churches, for whom it may be most important to say this)."

The major world religions teach that every human being is of ultimate, infinite value, no matter color, sex, nationality or any other category. If preachers don't point out examples of thoughts and actions that violate that basic teaching, they fail -- as some of them failed when they said scripture justifies slavery or that scripture requires LGBTQ+ community members always and everywhere to be thought of as sinners and kept as second-class citizens.

Preachers who equate voting for this or that particular party with God's desires are violating their trust. But Christian preachers who understand that preaching inevitably is political now must figure out how to preach in that way without degenerating into partisanship.

Barton's piece should be a good guide for them -- and us.

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Cover-lle-hi-resIn this year of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorism attacks, the world continues to struggle with the religious roots of terrorism and with ideas about how to prevent such extremism. This column, for instance, raises questions about whether terrorists really, truly, deeply believe that they will go to paradise if they die in the radical cause they've chosen. The author suggests they may not. And yet, in the moment, they may need such a conviction to allow them to go through with suicide and the murder of others. Ideas, it turns out, have consequences. As for how to unplug extremism, the last chapter in my new book offers several suggestions, and I commend it to you. The book is Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety, just published in mid-January.

Is religion slowly disappearing in the U.S.?

The American religious landscape, once a landslide for Christianity, especially Protestant versions of it, continues to change, and only God knows what it will look like in 50 or 100 years.

Shrinking-churchWhat we do know is that the number of Americans who now claims a membership in a Christian church has slipped below 50 percent, as recent Gallup data shows.

At the same time, we know that the number of people who identify as religiously unaffiliated -- the so-called "nones" -- continues to grow, and there's a new book out that looks at all that, The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are and Where They're Going, by Ryan Burge.

Burge says that "churches are a leaky vessel by nature. They lose people through death, and an aging population is so acute for several traditions in the U.S. — mostly mainline Protestantism, but evangelicals are also aging rapidly now. And defections are up. You’ve got to add people into the cup to see the water at the same level."

And not enough of that is happening to keep churches growing or even stable in many cases.

The story about church membership reports that "Forty-seven percent of Americans now say they belong to a house of worship, down from 70% in the mid-1990s and 50% in 2019. The decline is part of a continued drop in membership over the past 20 years, according to Gallup data."

It was pretty obvious 20-plus years ago that this was beginning to happen, and I asked my Kansas City Star editors for permission to travel around the country to document both that and the spread of other religious traditions. But it didn't happen, so I can't pull out old clips today and claim to have told you so.

What faith communities from various traditions face today -- especially after a year of Covid -- is whether they can offer anything to stem the tide of decline. The old answer from 50 or 75 years ago was just to keep the doors open, keep preaching the same message in the old style and expect people to show up.

It's now clear that doesn't work. So should churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship throw in the towel and become social clubs, charities that focus on some of society's needs or tennis clubs? Uh, no.

Instead, of course, they must reinvent themselves to be true to their traditions even while finding new ways to share their core convictions and the actions that flow from those convictions with others.

Which is much more difficult than many people imagine because within settled religious traditions there is a tendency to resist change, especially among those people who imagine that any change compromises their faith. So they can remain on their sinking boat or find ways to sail on in new ways.

I have no plans to be around in 50 or 100  years, so one of you may have to bring me news then of what the American landscape looks like by then -- wherever I am. I'll keep the light on for you. And, if some of you get your wish for me, maybe the heat, too.

(By the way, Religion News Service has done this interesting analysis of what the Gallup figures really mean.)

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To add to the subject started above here today, here is a piece in The Guardian suggesting that an "allergic reaction" to the so-called Christian right and to Christian nationalism has turned many people off, and that accounts for at least some of the decline in church membership. The article quotes David Campbell, professor and chair of the University of Notre Dame’s political science department, as saying this: “Many Americans – especially young people – see religion as bound up with political conservatism, and the Republican party specifically. Since that is not their party or their politics, they do not want to identify as being religious. Young people are especially allergic to the perception that many – but by no means all – American religions are hostile to LGBTQ rights.” Whenever religion oppresses people or treats them in other degrading ways, it should be rejected.

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Cover-lle-hi-resP.S.: I spoke via Zoom yesterday to a church-based book club about my new book, Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety, and it occurs to me that you may be part of such a book club either through a congregation or just with friends. I'd be happy to consider an invitation from you to address your group about this book, which describes that many traumas that my extended family went through because of the murder of my nephew in the 9/11 terrorist attacks and that also raises the question of how people get attracted to extremist ideas and what we can do to unplug extremism. Just email me at whether you want me to speak or just want an autographed copy of the book. Thanks.

Can the Abrahamic faiths lead to Middle East peace?

Easter/Passover weekend -- which this year come just a week after Muslims celebrated Shab-e-Barat and about a week before Ramadan -- is a good time to think about what it will take, finally, to reach something like a peace agreement between Israel and its Arab neighbors, including the Palestinian people.

Abrahamic-faiths.jpgOne thing it will take, says the rabbi who wrote this RNS column, is to not be so foolish as to imagine that peace will be possible if the diplomats and other negotiators trying to make it happen simply ignore the reality that three major world religions must be considered in any solution.

"(I)t will be important not only to advance normalization as a strategic objective," says Rabbi David Rosen, the American Jewish Committee’s Jerusalem-based international director of interreligious affairs, "but to bolster interreligious bonds in the specific and deeply significant name of Abraham. Such ties are an essential feature of sustainable peace."

In other words, diplomats must pay special attention to the reality that Judaism, Christianity and Islam all trace their roots back to Abram, who later became Abraham.

To ignore that aspect of this volatile situation will be to invite what we've seen now in so many ways for the past 70-plus years, a failure to find a peaceful solution acceptable to the major parties in the Middle East.

Religion, in other words, matters. And it matters a lot.

Rosen again: "Excluding faith from diplomatic processes marginalizes peace-loving religionists and their leadership, who represent the overwhelming majority, and cedes the public square to extremists, allowing them to be seen as the authentic voice of religion. Concealing the presence of moderate religious communities intensifies the impression that peace initiatives are inimical to the interests of the devoutly religious. If we do not want religion to be part of the problem, it must be part of the solution: the more visible faith is, the better."

This is certainly not to say that Jews, Christians and Muslims must give up or even water down their religious traditions and beliefs. Rather, it is to say that they must respect the differences between and among the Abrahamic faiths and to insist that everyone participating in the peace process also respects those differences -- and the considerable common ground.

There are, of course, extremist voices coming from all three traditions, but they can be, if not silenced, at least marginalized so that they don't drive the negotiating process.

The Abrahamic Accords that the Trump Administration helped to produce (credit where credit is due) can, in fact, be a good starting point for the sort of remember-religion process that Rosen advocates. And perhaps that might lead to a more bipartisan approach to Middle Eastern foreign policy in the U.S. government. I know that sounds like wishful thinking, but how about if we try it before we discard it?

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What keeps many people who identify as Christian nationalists from getting vaccinated for Covid-19? This RNS opinion piece offers some answers. Including: ". . . skepticism among evangelicals has a background. Suspicion from religious conservatives regarding the COVID-19 vaccine is built on the back of their growing distrust of science, medicine and the global elite." The author also adds this: "Vaccine hesitancy is not restricted to immunization over COVID-19. In 2017, the Pew Research Center found that more than 20% of white evangelicals – more than any other group – believed that 'parents should be able to decide not to vaccinate their children, even if that may create health risks for other children and adults.'” It's weird. Christians (and others) wear masks, practice social distancing and get vaccinated not only to protect themselves but also to protect others because they're called to love those others. How is it that so many "white evangelicals" don't get the latter reason, when it is at the core of Christian faith?

The end of QAnon extremism isn't yet in sight

As much as we would like to imagine that the 1/6 domestic terrorist attack on the Capitol in Washington, D.C., marked a high point for such extremism and that it's now slowly going away, the evidence suggests that would be foolish.

QAnon-theoriesAs this Foreign Policy piece notes, that kind of radicalism has been growing, especially among people who could be described (and often are, even by themselves) as fundamentalist Christians.

Indeed, fundamentalism found in any religious tradition often has its roots in fear. And many white Christian nationalists have demonstrated that they fear Black people, Muslims, Jews and much else that gets enumerated in countless conspiracy theories, especially those of the QAnon variety, such as the notions, as the FP piece says, "that mask ordinances are a part of a long conspiracy by Muslims to install Sharia law within the United States and that underground cabals of child sex slaves are funded by Jewish investor George Soros." And those aren't even the craziest conspiracy theories.

To quote the FP piece again: "One year ago, as COVID-19 raged, churches across the nation restricted or canceled live meetings. This absence of human interaction only propelled churchgoers’ thirst for online connection and provided ample time for them to read about QAnon theories on social media. Echo chambers of online QAnon networks offered a safe haven for Christians trying desperately to make sense of the world in tumultuous times. QAnon theories in many cases incorporated excerpts from the Bible, and, in fact, reading the online prophecies was easier than trying to make sense of the world alone."

It's intriguing to think about why Christians who identify as either fundamentalists or conservative evangelicals seemed to be most susceptible to such bunk. Perhaps one reason is that in such communities (not in all but in some) there is a strong preference for doctrinal rigidity. There are matters the church (or, sometimes, the Bible, when read in literalistic ways) declares to be true and of God and any deviation from that amounts to sin or heresy.

The QAnon folks seem to offer up such certitudes, though they usually are based on wild imagination rather than on facts.

As the FP article notes, "QAnon conspiracies are just the latest iteration of a long tradition of right-wing extremism, rooted in white supremacy and anti-Semitism. Christians have denigrated Jews since medieval times, depicting them as the 'eternal conspiratorial enemy of Christian faith.'” In fact, my essay on the subject of anti-Judaism in Christian history can be found here.

But what also must be faced is that religious traditions sometimes ask people to believe things that can't be proven in modern scientific ways -- that once the sun stood still for a time to benefit the people of Israel, that Jesus of Nazareth went from door-nail dead to resurrected in three days, that the Prophet Muhammad once took a night journey to Jerusalem on a strange animal. Perhaps the difference between those beliefs and the junk QAnon feeds people is that the primary purposes of religious beliefs is to get people to contribute to the welfare of others, to benefit the common good and to get right with God for eternity, whereas the main purpose of today's conspiracy theories is to encourage division, acquire power and create a world of winners vs. losers, the latter being a term former President Donald Trump liked to apply to people with the gall to disagree with him.

So we are far from done with white nationalist conspiracy people. And we would do well not to let our guard down.

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People of faith in recent weeks have been hitting the streets to show support for Asian-Americans in response to the brutal murders in Atlanta. This RNS story describes some of that. But it doesn't mention recent gatherings for exactly this purpose in the Kansas City area. For instance, a March 28 Kansas City event was organized by Chi Nguyễn, who is on the leadership team at The Open Table, a new worshipping community that gathers via my congregation, Second Presbyterian Church. Chi organized this vigil with Café Cà Phê and others. And the day before that there was a "Stop Asian Hate" rally in Overland Park, Kan. You'll find a story about that here. No one should be silent in the face of such racial hatred.

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P.S.: If you missed my latest Flatland column about Mindy Corporon's new book, you'll find it here.

Again the ancient question: Who do you say Jesus is?

It should be no surprise to you that just as there are thousands of divisions within Christianity, so are there thousands of images of and ideas about who Jesus is.

Freeing-jesusOne oversimplified way to think about that is to imagine people -- and there are lots of them -- who think of Jesus primarily as the key who will unlock heaven for them. And then to imagine other people who, while not denying the salvific work of Jesus, see him much more as a model for how to live a life of love, generosity, compassion, mercy, justice and, again, love. The latter people focus much less on individual salvation and much more on communal responsibilities to care for those most in need and to fix systems that oppress people.

In her engaging new book, Diana Butler Bass describes her sometimes-painful journey between those two broad images of the Christ. Freeing Jesus: Rediscovering Jesus as Friend, Teacher, Savior, Lord, Way and Presence is what she calls "memoir theology," which she describes as "the making of theology -- understanding the nature of God -- through the text of our own lives and taking seriously how we have encountered Jesus."

In that process, Jesus becomes multidimensional, meaning he's much more than the slaughtered lamb of God whose blood keeps followers out of eternal punishment in hell by a wrathful God. The Jesus whom Bass wants readers to know is no less fully human and fully divine than that one-dimensional Jesus but is, far beyond that, the one who loves everyone and wants to liberate people from their sins and shortcomings so that they will live flourishing lives of service.

Bass, in this deeply personal book, puts it this way: "Jesus is no interstate to glory, as I had thought in high school, college and seminary. I had been so certain. Then I was not certain anymore. Everything fell to pieces. And then new life began, and love. The Jesus way is full of switchbacks, spirals and unexpected turns; mystery, paradox, unknowing, unsaying. Whenever you think you are near the center, the path suddenly veers in a different direction and you find yourself again at the edge of the way. No wonder Jesus says, 'Follow me' and 'I am the way.' But for a guide, you might never find a path, even if sometimes you are only following bread crumbs he left behind."

Bass notes that historical scholarship and church doctrine both try to describe something about Jesus of Nazareth, but, for her, neither is enough. Rather, she writes, the Jesus she knows is the "Jesus of experience." Then she describes how she has experienced Jesus in the roles of all the descriptions of him used in the book's subtitle, even while acknowledging that the list is not exhaustive and that no single description of Jesus fully captures the sacred mystery of his being.

She understandably bemoans those Sunday school teachers who failed to take seriously the theological questions she and others her age were asking. Indeed, that's an experience many of us have had. Such inadequately prepared teachers often throw children into confusion by avoiding the hard questions and by not understanding the value of doubt.

In many ways, this book is a description of how Bass moved through life embracing and then rejecting one approach to faith after another until she finally became more comfortable with mystery, with ambiguity, with uncertainty, though knowing all along how important Jesus was to her.

The chapter on Jesus as savior is particularly useful in that it should help readers understand that no single understanding of the idea of atonement fully explains what happened on the cross -- and some of those atonement theories are badly flawed. The problem she correctly identifies is that few Protestant Christians (Bass is one), and even a good number of Catholics "are not aware of the multiplicity of images for atonement and are, instead, stuck in a single story of sacrifice." Worse, she notes, under that single story lies "a strange vision of God," which is "that God is angry with humankind and must have that rage assuaged."

Bass's conclusion about Jesus certainly won't go down well with many people who identify as conservative, evangelical (a term Bass still applies to herself) or fundamentalist: "He was not killed so his death would save people; he was killed because his life had already saved them. He threatened a world based in fear, one held in the grip of Roman imperialism, by proving that a community could gather in love, set a table of plenty and live in peace with a compassionate God."

Bass has been on a long and conflicted journey as a teacher, seminary student, doctoral student and more, and her story should give hope to people who have wanted to connect with the mystery that is God but who have been thrown off the track by strict doctrinal rules and theological tunnel vision. Her self description: "The little girl in the woods, who had known Jesus as friend, had been domesticated by rules and dogma imposed from outside, reinforced by her own fears."

In the end, she declares that "what I 'know' (about God and theology) is also ultimately unknowable. We live the mystery, in ordinary days and extraordinary ones. . .And for many of us, that mystery bears the name Jesus."

There is something true, dear and life-giving at the heart of this book. As we come slowly out of this time of pandemic, if you could use exactly something like that, here it is.

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What is Passover, which begins Saturday night, really about? Here's a lovely answer from former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who wasn't reared Jewish, despite having a Jewish father, but has chosen that ancient tradition. Passover, she writes, is "a story of meeting desperation with ingenuity — leaving so quickly the bread could not rise, leaving us to eat the crunchy, unleavened matzoh. It’s a generational story of saving the first born, which we tell every year, making sure to include the voices of children in our narrative." And after this last year -- and this recent violence in Atlanta and Boulder -- we badly need what Passover offers.

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P.S.: Jesus (subject of the book review above) taught his followers to be servants on behalf of people in need. But recently some of those servants -- nuns working in India -- have suffered various kinds of harassments. My friend Markandey Katju, a former justice on India's Supreme Court (and an atheist), has written this good piece about how valuable such nuns are to India and making a plea to protect them. "If India is to progress," he writes, "our people must develop the spirit of service and sacrifice that the nuns have. Far from harassing them, we must give them the highest respect and learn from them." Good for Markandey.

As the pandemic recedes, will faith communities adjust?

For several Sundays now, a few worshippers have been present in person in the sanctuary of my congregation, and it looks as if the switch from the all-virtual service of the past pandemic year to a hybrid may be able to start to accommodate more people in person as time moves along. (The photo here today is one I took of the second worship service available to a small number of worshippers in person at my church two Sundays ago.)

Sanctuary-3I hope we'll slowly build back to regular attendance, but our church has added necessary extra technical equipment to allow us to continue to offer worship via Zoom, Facebook Live and a live-streaming option through our website.

So, will we ever be back to completely in person? I doubt it.

But as this Religion News Service story reports, "A study of 1,000 U.S. Protestant churchgoers found 91% said they planned on returning to in-person worship when it is safe to do so. The study from Lifeway Research, a nonprofit affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, suggests churchgoers are eager to return to pre-pandemic worship practices."

Well, they may be eager, but it's already pretty clear that post-pandemic life for congregations of almost every religious tradition will be different going forward. And maybe that's not such a bad thing.

One matter to take into consideration is that people stuck at home with health or transportation issues can continue to participate in worship, in educational classes and in other programming that should -- and probably will -- continue to be offered virtually. Beyond that, my congregation has found that former members who moved out of the city sometimes have joined us for various virtual events, including worship. And they'd like to continue to do so.

Still, there's no question that one of the re-learned lessons from the pandemic is that we are built for relationship and that relationship happens in a more natural and more nuanced way when people are together in person. For instance, it turns out in that in person you can't simply shut off your video feed so the people you're with can't see you and read your body language.

Beyond the matter of attendance at worship, classes and meetings, of course, there are the spontaneous relationship-building things that happen when people are together in person -- the spur-of-the-moment invitation to lunch, the hug of comfort for someone in grief, the recognition that a girl you taught in second-grade Sunday school now is in her first year of high school and is on the edge of womanhood. More than all of that, choral and instrumental music central to worship in many traditions simply loses a fair amount when it's not heard in person.

The question is whether congregations are prepared for new beginnings. And, trust me, new beginnings are considerably more complicated than we imagine. But they can bring joy and hope. And if we need anything after this past year, it's joy and hope. And a few in-person hugs.

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Cover-lle-hi-resMark Silk, a wise observer of all things religious in the U.S., writes this thoughtful column about the so-called "purity culture" taught by the church of which the confessed Atlanta shooter was a member. There is much troubling about what this congregation and similar ones teach their members, and it's long past time to explore the ways in which diseased theology can contribute to violence -- and what we can do about it. In fact, the last two chapter of my new book, are about exactly that. So I invite you to read Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety. Email me at if you want to arrange to get an autographed copy. (P.S.: Here is a piece worth reading by someone who grew up in a church that told him pornography would lead to violence -- the excuse the Atlanta shooter has trotted out. The author of the piece debunks that theory.)

Are religion and secularism in a U.S. battle to the death?

In terms of participation in religion, the United States is not Europe -- at least not yet. Americans are much more likely than people on that continent, especially in western Europe, to be adherents of some form of religion, especially Christianity.

Cross-flagBut as this piece in the April issue of The Atlantic notes, "Over the past two decades, that number (Christian church membership) has dropped to less than 50 percent, the sharpest recorded decline in American history. Meanwhile, the 'nones' — atheists, agnostics, and those claiming no religion — have grown rapidly and today represent a quarter of the population."

None of that is news. But the author of the piece, Shadi Hamid, a contributing writer at The Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, uses the data about declining religious participation to ask whether we're now seeking secular redemption in politics and, if so, whether that might that spell the doom of the American experiment.

Fair question. Hamid writes:

"As Christianity’s hold, in particular, has weakened, ideological intensity and fragmentation have risen. American faith, it turns out, is as fervent as ever; it’s just that what was once religious belief has now been channeled into political belief. Political debates over what America is supposed to mean have taken on the character of theological disputations. This is what religion without religion looks like."

Perhaps you, too, have noticed that the number of people that Eric Hoffer once called "The True Believer" has increased among people who take politics seriously, whether from the far left, the far right or even the committed middle. We saw one group on that continuum storm the nation's Capitol in the 1/6 insurrectionist attacks. And we have seen another group at the other end of the spectrum in Antifa-inspired violence in our cities this past year (though it's inaccurate to equate those two examples of violence).

Hamid quotes Abraham Kuyper, whom he describes as "a theologian who served as the prime minister of the Netherlands at the dawn of the 20th century, when the nation was in the early throes of secularization." Kuyper maintained, says Hamid, that "all strongly held ideologies were effectively faith-based, and that no human being could survive long without some ultimate loyalty. If that loyalty didn’t derive from traditional religion, it would find expression through secular commitments, such as nationalism, socialism or liberalism."

I think Hamid is on to something. I'm just not sure how this finally plays out. Will it result in a state in which religion and secular political thinking both are respected and both have something like equal weight? Or will one inevitably dominate and maybe even destroy the other?

I don't know. What I do know is that it's time for the rational and creative voices representing all sides in this to speak clearly and to listen carefully. There are ways to manage this respectfully, but not if one side insists on it being a winner-take-all game.

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Did you notice that the man arrested for the murder of eight women in Atlanta recently said he saw them as a "temptation" and that he was a sex addict? This excellent essay unpacks all of that in light of the teachings about women in some American Christian churches. Katelyn Beaty, a former managing editor of Christianity Today, writes that "in many Christian circles today, (the) New Testament gets twisted so that others — specifically women — are responsible for managing young men’s sexual desires — by not being an object of temptation, in what they wear or how they carry themselves." In other words, it's the woman's fault if the man behaves inappropriately. Isn't it way past time to change that destructive way of thinking? Isn't it time that men take responsibility for any sexually improper actions they commit?

Uncovering a German town's hidden Nazi story

About a year and a half ago, I reviewed here a Holocaust-related book by journalist D.Z. Stone, which I found both intriguing and, in its style, surprising.

Fairy-taleNow Stone is back with another Holocaust book, and she continues to offer the unexpected. It's called A Fairy Tale Unmasked: The Teacher and the Nazi Slaves. Dieter Vaupel, the teacher, is listed as co-author.

The story begins when Vaupel is a high school teacher in a central German town, Hessich Lichtenau. Each year one week is set aside for class projects of various sorts, and in the early 1980s, Vaupel's class decided it wanted to explore the question of what the Nazis did in their town.

The teacher and the students almost immediately ran into roadblocks from local officials and silence from residents. There were some secrets that no one wanted to share. But persistent digging finally turned up the reality that there was a major munitions manufacturing plant for the German military at the edge of town in World War II. Beyond that the young researchers discovered that 1,000 Hungarian Jewish women had been sent directly from the Auschwitz death camp in Poland in 1944 to be slave laborers in that factory.

Piece by piece, over several years, Vaupel and his students uncovered the sorrowful and brutal truth of what happened in their town. Beyond that, they eventually made contact with some of the women who survived their extraordinary ordeal. They arranged for their town to honor the women with a plaque and they invited them to return to the town to be celebrated and to tell their stories.

The depth of the trauma the women went through is reflected in quotes from two of them: "Even today I startle from the nightmares screaming because the stress on the soul was too great." And: "I feel that the humiliations suffered there affect a whole life, that the last animal was treated better than we had been for a whole year. But in general, the circumstances, the anxiety, the fear of death and the subsequent depression have left indelible traces."

That's what results from human hatred.

The second part of the book (which readers may find a little repetitive of the first part) focuses primarily on the story of one of the survivors, Blanka Pudler, who tells the astonishing story to Vaupel of how she and her sister Aranka made it through.

"We are slave laborers," she says, "no more, no less. . .Those who die are simply replaced." And yet, on rare occasions, Blanka finds a German worker at the factory who treats her as a fellow human being, causing Blanka to comment, "So there are humans among the wolves after all."

Close to death after a series of death marches at the end of the war, Blanka and Aranka are liberated by American troops on April 24, 1945:

"Aranka and I sit down on the sidewalk exhausted and tired, falling into each other's arms like so many others.

"We're alive! We made it! We have the feeling that we couldn't take any further step. But we are alive! From now on we are free, but we have no clue what it actually means for us to be free. Human wrecks, skeletons, emaciated, hungry, tired, penniless, no roof above our heads, what shall become of us? What are we supposed to do with our freedom anyway? It's a wonderful feeling to be free. Tears run down my face, tears of joy. Tears of relief. But also tears of sorrow. I feel joy but at the same time everything suddenly seems so hopeless. Totally overwhelmed by the emotional chaos."

Cover-lle-hi-resWhat the whole of European Jewry experienced -- the Holocaust that resulted in the death of some six million of them -- was a direct result of the murderous bigotry of antisemitism, which so deeply affected not just Adolf Hitler but much of the German population and beyond.

Antisemitism and other forms of bigotry, of course, still exist, as I note in some detail in my own new book, Love, Loss and Endurance, a 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety.

But it and other hatreds cannot be uprooted if we don't know about their history. That's what makes books like the one Stone and Vaupel have written so valuable.

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When the Vatican this week said that Catholic priests could not perform marriages for same-sex couples, even Pope Francis went along. No doubt that disappoints many, many people. Each religion, of course, is free to make its own rules, but my guess is that some day this new blocking of gay marriage will be seen by many as the equivalent of the terrible Dred Scott U.S. Supreme Court decision before the U.S. Civil War. Catholic Church teaching still calls homosexuality "objectively disordered." If I were gay and Catholic, would I stay in the church? I doubt it. But I'm neither, so that's not my call. (Here, by the way, is The National Catholic Reporter's explanation of this latest move.)

How wealth is dividing American Catholicism

It has been clear for several decades that American Catholics do not vote as a bloc in national elections. Indeed, they have been pretty well evenly divided in presidential races.

Collection-plate-moneyBut that division seems to be hardening, and as this New Republic article makes clear, money is playing a major role in how right-leaning Catholics are able to advance their agendas.

"Although American Catholics are culturally and theologically diverse," writes Katherine Stewart, "they are increasingly split along political lines. They are the 'jump ball' of American politics, in the words of right-wing political operative Ralph Reed. They are divided over some teachings of Pope Francis, over America’s culture wars and over the right way to bear witness to their faith in public life. . .

"The hardening schism in American Catholicism is shaping up to be a test of the influence of liberal Catholicism and the liberal left more broadly. It pits a loosely organized cultural and theological movement against a well-oiled and well-funded political movement on the right — the latter a testament to conservative Catholicism’s commitment to a politics of money and power."

In some ways, similar splits can be seen in other faith communities. But among Protestants, for instance, when there's a big divide over direction, denominations tend to fracture into smaller groups. That's generally not the pattern in Catholicism. Rather, they tend to stay and fight amongst themselves. Indeed, in the same diocese you often can find Catholic congregations that identify as progressive ("Francis Catholics" is a name now employed to describe them, in honor of Pope Francis) just as you can find congregations that would identify as more conservative -- in some cases willing to take on the description of being "pre-Vatican II Catholics." That simply means that they reject many of the reforms that came out of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.

But as The New Republic piece reports, in American Catholicism the conservative side has access to pretty much all the wealth it needs to advance its causes: "The extreme financial imbalance is something more than merely another factor in the culture war within Catholicism. It is in an important sense the cause of the war itself."

In many ways, it's sad that faith communities, including American Catholicism, can't model what it looks like to live in peace with one another even while disagreeing about things. That's what religion, at its best, is supposed to demonstrate by example. But history shows us that it rarely works that way in any faith tradition. Sigh.

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A disturbing new report from the United Nations says Islamophobia, or hatred of Muslims, has been rising in recent years. As the RNS story to which I've just linked you reports, "Opinion polling shows Muslims are increasingly seen in an unfavorable light. Citing data from other sources, the report notes that almost 4 in 10 Europeans held unfavorable views of Muslims in surveys conducted between 2018 and 2019. A survey of Americans conducted in 2017 found 30% held Muslims 'in a negative light.'” (And that was before former President Donald Trump's visceral dislike of Muslims could do much to affect public opinion.) This kind of hatred often is rooted in ignorance and fear. Beyond that, some people assume that extremists from one particular faith tradition represent all adherents of that tradition. Which, of course, is bunk. Religious life is much more complex than that.

How do we explain 'moral' atheists?

An old question that seems to have as many or more lives than a cat goes like this: Can you be good without God?

MoralityWhat the question aims to reveal is whether atheists are less moral than believers. It's an interesting question in some ways but it strikes me as one of those queries one is likely to hear in a late-night conversation in a dorm room among college sophomores.

Still, it turns out that a college researcher has taken the question seriously and done some research to try to answer it. As this press release from the University of Illinois-Chicago explains, "Tomas Ståhl, UIC assistant professor of psychology, examined the matter in two large-scale cross-national surveys comparing Americans and Swedes, in addition to two smaller U.S. surveys."

He was trying to answer these questions: "Is there any truth to the cross-cultural stereotype that suggests that atheists are untrustworthy and lack a moral compass? Do atheists care less, or at least think differently about, morality than religious people do?"

What he found, the UIC release says, was this, quoting Ståhl: “Disbelievers do have a moral compass. However, it is calibrated somewhat differently than that of religious believers in some respects, but not in others.”

Ståhl found that "religious disbelievers’ views about morality were comparable in the U.S., a highly religious country by western standards, and Sweden, one of the most secular countries in the world. Religious believers’ views about morality also were alike across the two countries," according to the press release.

Ståhl: "In both the U.S. and Sweden, people who do not believe in God have similarly strong moral concerns as religious believers about not harming vulnerable individuals and about fairness. However, religious disbelievers were less inclined to view values that promote group cohesion — such as ingroup loyalty, respect for authority and sanctity — to be relevant for morality.”

Fine, but it seems to me that the question about morality for believers versus atheists comes down to a question of motive. That is, why should one behave in moral ways?

For religious people, at least part of the answer is connected to their understanding of God and the rules by which God expects people to live -- rules like the Ten Commandments.

For atheists, there is no such overarching rule giver, so the motive for moral behavior must be different. My guess is that what makes atheists make moral choices has a lot to do with personal safety and social expedience. It's sort of like why people obey stop signs when they suspect no police are around to monitor the intersection: To keep from getting smashed into by others. In some ways all of us make such choices to be able to live in a society that is dependable and not susceptible to random violence and unreliable rules.

So atheists often end up being just as moral (in some cases more so) than believers, but for different reasons. On the other hand, we also know that atheistic governments, such as the Soviet one run by Joseph Stalin, had no hesitancy to murder millions of people to stay in power.

Life, as they say, is complicated. Which, no doubt, will make any afterlife that way, too.

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The scenes in Iraq in recent days were focused not on atheism but, rather, on ways that different faith traditions can live in peace and harmony, as Pope Francis visited with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Together, Catholicism and Shiite Islam account for roughly 2 billion of the world's 7-plus billion population. The New Yorker report to which I've just linked you contains some interesting detail about the pope's trip to Iraq, but concludes this way: "The joyous reaction among the thousands of Iraqis who turned out during the Pope’s visit, despite the physical dangers and the pandemic, provided symbolic hope in a war-ravaged land. But, almost two decades after Saddam’s ouster, the Iraqi government has still not addressed the core grievances and injustices that have riven the country, its faiths, and its political factions. The Pontiff’s historic visit provided four days of wonderment, but perhaps not much more." The world needs wonderment, for sure, but it needs much more than that.