Should we watch the Olympics while China egregiously violates religious liberty?


With the coming of the Winter Olympics in China, let's take a few minutes to remember what's a lot more important than who skates the most beautifully or who wins the gold in, say, Downhill Chess.

The reality is that these games will be hosted by a country that has been brutalizing some of its citizens -- the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. It's horrifying, and it's one reason President Joe Biden has declared a diplomatic boycott of the games. (Good on him.) For some background, I invite you to read this article from the Deseret News.

How bad is it for the Uyghurs? This piece from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (which knows genocide and its roots when it sees them) begins this way:

"The Chinese government’s campaign against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang is multi-faceted and systematic. Core strategies of the campaign include identity-based persecution, mass detention, surveillance, enforced sterilizations, forced labor and forced assimilation.

"Uyghurs are barred from freely practicing their religion, speaking their language and expressing other fundamental elements of their identity. Restrictions apply to many aspects of life, including dress, language, diet and education. The Chinese government closely monitors Uyghur religious institutions. Even ordinary acts such as praying or going to a mosque may be a basis for arrest or detention.

"China has created a large system of arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance. Approximately one million Uyghurs are currently imprisoned in detention centers, for reasons as simple as practicing their religion, having international contacts or communications or attending a western university."

For more economic reasons, even former President Donald Trump knew the ruling Chinese regime had to be confronted. At least he got that right.

But China's treatment of these beleaguered Muslim people is a scandal of major proportions. Which forces Olympic athletes to decide whether they want to participate and, thus, give some sense of legitimacy to China's rulers and their policies. The bleak alternative is to boycott the games and lose, for some of them, their only chance to compete on this global stage.

If they do participate, perhaps there are ways that they can register their disgust of the Chinese government's evil policies toward the Uyghurs. I hope so. In any case, however the athletes decide their Hobson's choice, I won't hold it against them and hope you won't either.

But what about the rest of us who are merely long-distance spectators? We can choose to stand against this religious persecution by not watching the games on TV. We can watch something else. We can read a book or three. We can volunteer that time for charity work. We can take a long walk every day the Olympics are on TV.

If you want to know more about China's punishing of the Uyghurs, you can read this report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Look at page 16 (as numbered on the page itself) and then just search on "China" for much more information. 

What else can we do? Have you written to your members of Congress asking, "What have you done lately to help protect and save the Uyghurs?" Start there.

(The photo here today came from this site.)

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This interesting and satisfying side story came out of the hostage story at a Texas synagogue over last weekend. It's about how connected the rabbi there was to the broader faith community in his town. As the story notes, "The rabbi, who has led the Reform synagogue of about 125 families since 2006, is also an interfaith champion with deep-rooted friendships not only among Christians but Muslims, too." So pastors, imams and others gathered to help the FBI as it sought a peaceful end to the situation. Such a conclusion turned out fine for the hostages but the hostage taker died.

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Cover-lle-hi-resP.S.: Today is the one-year anniversary of the publication of my latest book, Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety. I hope you have a copy and have read it. In addition to describing the many traumas my extended family experienced because of the murder of my nephew, a passenger on the first plane to strike the World Trade Center on 9/11, the book also explores the roots of extremism, how people get sucked into it and what we can do about it. And, for sure, we're far from done with radicalism. Thanks to all of you who have told me how much this book has meant to you. I'm grateful to all of you.

Are people who chose pets over children just selfish? The pope thinks so.

From the time of his surprising election in 2013, I have admired much of what Pope Francis has done and said.

Kids-petsIndeed, the man who then was my pastor and I wrote an admiring book about what we Protestants could learn from this wise man: Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church.

But something the pope said recently was, frankly, ridiculous. He said people who choose not to have children (or to have just one) but choose instead to have pets are guilty of "selfishness."

Francis has taken considerable flak for his words, and mostly they are deserved, even if some of what he said was a reflection of his essential compassion and made sense.

For instance, he spoke about Joseph, husband of the mother of Jesus, Mary, saying that "a man does not become a father simply by bringing a child into the world, but by taking up the responsibility to care for that child." Right.

And he put in a good word for adoption, saying: "How many children in the world are waiting for someone to take care of them! And how many spouses wish to be fathers and mothers but are unable to do so for biological reasons; or, although they already have children, they want to share their family's affection with those who have been left without."

But there can be many good reasons not to have children as well as good reasons to adopt a pet. The pontiff seemed to miss that point.

As the author of this CNN opinion piece put it: "The pope's suggestion that failing to have children is selfish is far from the truth. Especially for those of us living in countries with a large environmental footprint, the choice to have a small family or no human family at all is one that helps everyone -- particularly children, whose future depends on a more sustainable planet.

"Additionally, a person's value, moral standing and character is not defined by parenthood. And showing love for animals is surely something that enhances and demonstrates our humanity -- rather than diminishing it."
And the author of this column in The National Catholic Reporter said it this way:


"The pope's mentality is not entirely foreign to me. My parents, born in China at a time when few people had sufficient resources to feed their children, let alone pets, have also often balked at American families' spoiled pets, recognizing that many Chinese families today cannot afford to spend nearly as much on their children. 'This dog has more toys than my siblings and I did growing up,' they would comment. Owning pets, especially expensive pets from breeders, is a privilege that demands examination in light of the world's ever rising inequality.

"For most, however, it was not just about the pets. Rather, in a seemingly anti-pet statement, the Catholic Church's narrow view on reproduction and marriage is again reinforced by a pope who himself is outspoken about gender equality and LGBT inclusion. While church teaching on marriage theoretically leaves room for couples who are unable to conceive children, childbirth (and sometimes as an afterthought, adoption) is still upheld on a pedestal as the highest way for a Catholic marriage to be 'fruitful.'"

Similarly, the writer of this Bloomberg opinion piece says: "I’d argue that doting on a fur baby rather than an infant is far from selfish. Humanity and morals aside, the pope would do better than to rhetorically kick puppies. There are solid economic reasons for the decline of birthrates across the world, and they need addressing."

Having a wanted child is a beautiful thing. I fathered two of them and will never regret it, even if and when we disagree about things.

But the key word there is "wanted." To have children simply because you feel some obligation to populate the world or to replace yourself is immoral at best and almost certainly a disaster for the child, who almost inevitably will recognize that he or she lives out of a sense of parental obligation and not a sense of love.

Pope Francis seemed to be speaking off-the-cuff in unprepared remarks. On such sensitive issues, maybe he should think twice before speaking once.

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It is pretty easy to forget the details of an important person's life and remember only an achievement or two and a few words he or she said. In some ways, that's what has happened to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whom the nation and the world will celebrate this weekend and Monday. (His actual birthday is Saturday. He was born Jan. 15, 1929.) So to give a fuller picture of King -- focusing on the last year of his life before he was assassinated -- Religion News Service has searched its archives and come up with several King stories from that time that you can read here. And if you've never read King's 1967 speech in which he described why he opposed the war in Vietnam, you can read it here. It's remarkable and courageous.

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P.S.: I've mentioned here before the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism, located at Indiana University. The center has announced a series of programs coming up this year. You can read about them here and register for them (watch for the "Register" link within the document) so that you can attend virtually. Not that the document to which I've linked you is horizontal in shape and requires clicking an arrow on the right to move forward.

The continuing threat of Christian nationalism

Even on Jan. 6, 2021, I knew that in some strange way religion was part of the story of the bloody insurrection at the nation's Capitol building.

Jan-6Anyone watching the rioting mobs on TV could see lots of signs mentioning Jesus plus various Christian banners, flags and crosses.

But it has taken time to piece together the central role that white Christian nationalism played in the effort to overturn the election of Joe Biden and steal it for Donald Trump.

I'm linking you today to two articles that can help all of us see more clearly what happened a year-plus ago and why we're far from done with the religious impulse that nearly broke our democratic system.

This first article, from Yahoo News, laments that "We are forgetting that January 6th was very much a religious event — white Christian nationalism on display. We must remember that fact. Because evidence is mounting that white Christian nationalism could provide the theological cover for more events like it."

And this piece from Religion News Service helps us understand that what happened on Jan. 6  was horrifying, but it "is not the only way Christian nationalism jeopardizes our democracy."

As Samuel L. Perry, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Oklahoma, writes in that commentary, "Christian nationalist ideology — particularly when it is held by white Americans — is fundamentally anti-democratic because its goal isn’t 'government of the people, by the people, and for the people.' Its goal is power. Specifically, power for 'true Americans like us,' Christians in an almost ethnic sense, those who belong — the worthy. Stemming from this, the most salient threat white Christian nationalism poses to democracy is that it seeks to undermine the very foundation of democracy itself: voting."

Perry (who, by the way, wrote both of the commentaries to which I've linked you today) has taken us back to a 1980 conference at which "Paul Weyrich, co-founder of the Moral Majority, spoke about electoral strategy to Christian right leaders including Tim LaHaye, Phyllis Schlafly, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell Sr. and then-presidential candidate Ronald Reagan."

Here's what Weyrich had to say then: “Many of our Christians have what I call the goo-goo syndrome. Good government. They want everybody to vote. I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people. They never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”

We should have been paying better attention to those chilling words.

The question is why Christian nationalists get sucked into Trump's Big Lie. Perry notes this: "In several studies we and other scholars have shown that Christian nationalism seems to incline white Americans toward baseless conspiracy theories."

So are all people of faith susceptible to such nonsense? No. But my guess is that Christians who prefer monochromatic answers to questions and issues -- either black or white, never gray -- tend to simplify this complex world so dramatically that they open themselves up to knaves offering simple answers -- answers like "Stop the Steal," a slogan that makes much more sense coming out of the mouths of Biden supporters and aimed at Trumpers than the other way around.

The Christian nationalist movement is a stain on Christianity. But it also injures religion in general because it tends to leave the impression that all or most people of faith are like the nationalists in their simplistic and often erroneous conclusions about faith, politics and life in general.

Another voice speaking out about Christian nationalism is Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary. In this piece, she writes: "The idea that insurrectionists terrorizing the Capitol would claim the moral force of God is horrifying. The actions of those rioters were the furthest thing from the values of compassion and love that I’ve taken from the teachings of Jesus."

An aspect of Christian nationalism that often gets overlooked is how Native Americans have experienced it. This RNS piece goes into some interesting detail about that, especially as it relates to the Doctrine of Discovery.

And this article from The Forward describes how a social media operation called Gab weaves Christianity "into the conspiracy theories that populate" such sites.

All of which makes me wonder where we, as a nation, will be next Jan. 6. I'd like to tell you I'm optimistic that we'll fix things. But ask me then.

(The photo here today accompanied the Yahoo News article to which I've linked you.)

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Here is a story about a Milwaukee church that sounds like the kind of faith community the nation could use more of. It goes out of its way to welcome international students, refugees and others. As the story notes, the church is "a bit of an outlier these days, a place where refugees, immigrants and international students are welcome at a time when American evangelicals are increasingly suspicious of newcomers to the United States." I wonder where that suspicion comes from. Hmmmm.

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Prayers-blessings-bookP.S.: Healthcare workers, as you surely know, have been on the front lines of the wars against Covid-19, with all its miserable variants. In response, some thoughtful faith leaders have produced a lovely book called Prayers and Blessings for Healthcare Workers, edited by Mandy Mizelle. It's an interfaith collection of prayers, blessings and poems. If you've never said thank you to hospital or hospice chaplains -- and other workers in the healthcare field -- a copy of this book would be a great way to do that.

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ANOTHER P.S.: As an added bonus today, because it's at least somewhat related to the main topic above, I'm linking you here to a long, long and really helpful piece about how to avoid online racism. It's full of good ideas and interesting statistics. And it's written in an engaging and believable way, even if you find yourself disagreeing with some of what the author has to say. I hope you'll take a look.

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A FINAL P.S.: If you missed my column yesterday in The Kansas City Star about the need to close the prison at Guantanamo, you will find it here.

Is Christianity at the foundations of racism?

After a couple of years of hot public debate about racism -- years that followed several decades of many Americans trying to acknowledge and fix racism -- maybe it's time to drop back a bit and think about how the concept of race came about in the first place.

Willie-jenningsHow would you react if you read that a theologian and seminary professor at Yale offers this idea on that subject: "Race is a distorted way of seeing the world within Christian thought"?

Well, that's exactly what Prof. Willie Jennings (pictured here) says in this interview with The Christian Century magazine.

Clearly, that simple -- and perhaps surprising -- sentence needs some clarification, some expansion. And that's what happens in that interview.

Jennings says what we all know but seldom express or even think about: Race "is not part of the created order. It is a particular historical emergence of a way of perceiving oneself and the world."

Indeed, others have argued that the idea of whiteness and white supremacy grew out of bogus ideas about race. After all, race is a political and social construct, not a biological construct, as the Human Genome Project reminded us. And all human beings are, genetically, more than 99 percent alike, no matter what race they may call themselves.

But what about Jennings' idea that the distortion of race can be traced to "within Christian thought"?

Well, you can read the whole of the interview for yourself, but I'm going to quote a fairly lengthy section about just this connection between race and Christian thought so you can see what Jennings is getting at:

"The modern vision of race would not be possible without Christianity. This is a complicated statement, but I want people to think about this.

"Inside the modern racial consciousness there is a Christian architecture, and also there is a racial architecture inside of modern Christian existence. There are three things we have to put on the table in order to understand how deeply race is tied to Chris­tianity. The first brings us back to the very heart of Christianity, the very heart of the story that makes Christian life intelligible.

"That story is simply this: through a particular people called Israel, God brought the redemption of the world. That people’s story becomes the means through which we understand who God is and what God has done. Christianity is inside Israel’s story. At a certain point in time, the people who began to believe that story were more than just the people of Israel, more than just Jews. And at some point in time, those new believers, the gentiles, got tired of being told that they were strangers brought into someone else’s story — that this was not their story. They began — very early and very clearly — to push Israel out from its own story. They narrated their Christian existence as if Israel were not crucial to it.

"The fact that Christians came to identify themselves as the chosen people is already a profound distortion of the story. But this is where they are when we come to the colonial moment. They believe that they are at the very center of what God wants to do in the world. This belief is in everything they do and say: the way they read the Bible, the way they form their theology, the way they teach, the way they carry out their Christian lives.

"As they begin to realize their power, they also realize the power to shape the perceptions of themselves and others. That is, they begin to understand that not only do they have the power to transform the landscape and the built environment, but they also have the power to force people into a different perception of the world and of themselves.

"This is what we came to call European: the power to transform the land and the perception of the people. A racial vision started to emerge. It floated around in many places with many differences in body type, skin color, and so forth. It didn’t come out of nowhere. But now, inside this matrix, it starts to harden. It starts to become a way of perception, not simply of a conjecture. This is where Whiteness begins.

"So unless you know that this is a Christian operation, you cannot grasp the absolute power of race to define existence right now, even when people move beyond that Christian matrix and say they don’t confess it or agree with it. They are still inside it. That’s my definition of Whiteness: it is a way of perceiving the world and organizing and ordering the world by the perception of one’s distorted place within it. But it is also more than a perception: Whiteness includes the power to place that perception on other people and to sustain it."

A couple of thoughts: In my experience, many Christians today have little or no appreciation for the roots of the faith in Judaism. Because of that, they miss much of the richness of both traditions. A scholar whose work can help with that is Amy-Jill Levine. Look her up on Amazon. Read all of her books. She'll help you with this.

Doctrine of discoveryThe history that Jennings talks about includes what is called the clearly racist, Vatican-rooted "Doctrine of Discovery." Let me give you several sources to check out to read about that disaster -- here, here and here. That doctrine gave religious permission to European invaders crush the Indigenous people who occupied what would become the United States.

When I am asked on a survey or some other document to reveal my race, I always look for a way not just to check a box but, rather, to say something like this: "I was brought up to believe I'm white." It's something I learned from the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. And it's a way of reminding the people who want to classify me that such racial categories hide much more than they reveal and that they are much more destructive than they are generative.

If there is any good news in all of this it is that from within Christianity -- and from within other faith traditions, too -- have come people who are trying to educate others about the distortions of racism and to find a useful path forward. But so far just not enough such people.

As Jennings notes in the interview, "Christianity itself continues to face the unfinished work of pulling itself out from inside the reality of White intimacy and out of a spiritual life that remains so caught up in what is true, what is good, what is beautiful, what is noble, what is honorable and therefore what is desirable — from a White point of view. All of us have to go through the fiery brook of the redefinition of our desires away from Whiteness, and for so many people that fiery brook is too deep and too long to traverse. They are still caught in the midst of it."

For me, as a Christian, the point is to be honest about racism and its connection to my faith tradition and then to try to move toward an approach that acknowledges and celebrates the wide range of human beings, each one of whom must be seen as a child of God. No exceptions.

(The photo of Willie Jennings seen here today is by Mara Lavitt for Yale Divinity School.)

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Poor God. Imagine having the job of listening to competing prayers not just every day but especially on Jan. 6, 2021, in the midst of the insurrection. Well, now you don't have to imagine those wildly different prayers. Religion News Services has collected a bunch of them and now offers them to readers here. Come back here to the blog this coming Wednesday and we'll explore the role Christian nationalism played in the Jan. 6 riot and the danger it poses in the days and years ahead.

Can a resurgent, ugly antisemitism be reversed?

Antisemitism has been called -- with much justification -- the oldest hatred. A book to read about the history of this systemic bigotry is Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, by David Nirenberg.

AntisemitismI tend to draw a distinction between antisemitism and anti-Judaism. I see the first as racial and ethnic in nature and the second as theological in nature. My essay on the long, long history of anti-Judaism in Christianity can be found here.

Still, this hatred, by whatever name or names, continues into this new year, as it has continued into every new year for thousands of years.

So to help all of us with understanding its nature and what to do about it, I want to share with you today this online page from the Institute of National Security Studies. It contains a collection of articles about various aspects of hatred of Jews.

One of those essays -- this one, in fact -- is by a man I've gotten to know in recent years, Alvin Rosenfeld, who teaches at Indiana University and directs the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism there.

He points out, correctly, that until fairly recently antisemitism in the U.S. had dwindled to the point that many American Jews had little personal encounter with it.

Now, however, he writes, "Anti-Jewish animus. . .has become strident in recent years and shows no signs of diminishing. It is no wonder, then, that a new sense of unease is palpable in Jewish communities throughout the country."

In fact, when you think of how well Jewish citizens have become part of the American social fabric, this recent resurgence of antisemitism is especially disheartening. Rosenfeld writes:

"Most American Jews of the post-WWII generations are fully integrated in American life, regard America as their home, and have prospered here. Within the long history of the Jewish diaspora, in fact, America stands out as a country that, for the most part, has been open and encouraging to its Jewish citizens. Due to a resurgence of antisemitism that has moved from the fringes to mainstream areas of American life, however, Jews are confronting challenges that most have never faced before. Like European Jews, they feel far more vulnerable than they have in the past and can no longer take their safety for granted."

Some of this is simply that antisemitism never died in the U.S. But some of it no doubt due to the rise of white Christian nationalism that sees Jews as "the other," with no place in America.

You can read the rest of what Rosenfeld writes about this and you can sample several other of the pieces available at the link I gave you above in the fourth paragraph. May we all seek the roots of such public hatred of any groups of people and find ways to uproot it.

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Perhaps you saw reports this week that the last living parent of any of the four Black girls murdered in a 1963 Birmingham, Ala., church bombing died. Maxine McNair, mother of 11-year-old Denise McNair, died Sunday at age 93. Sometimes I hear people asking why we Americans can't just move on when it comes to racial inequities and discrimination. Their implied message is that slavery, Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement are done and gone. Well, not exactly. When I think of racially related news events that have happened in my own lifetime, I'm sometimes overwhelmed by two things -- how much different things are today than when I was a child and how much still remains to be fixed. For example: From the time I was born, three and a half years passed before President Harry S Truman issued an order integrating the armed forces. Restrictive housing covenants were in effect across the nation for most of the first half of the 20th Century. I was three years old when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled them unenforceable but it wasn't until I was 23 that Congress outlawed them. (Which, of course, immediately resulted in integrated neighborhoods and equal housing access across the U.S. Not.) Those covenants were promoted by Kansas City developer J.C. Nichols, and it was only recently that his disgraced name came off the big fountain on the Country Club Plaza. The point is that we are far from solving racial divisions in our country. People who want us to quit talking about it and doing anything about it are mostly the ones who benefit from racial inequality.

There will be time, there will be time. . .but for what?

I have a desk calendar that I replace each year. It comes from a company called At-a-Glance. For reasons I don't fully get, each day of the week has a separate page -- except for Saturdays and Sundays. They share a page, as they do this weekend and as you can see in this photo, taken before I crammed it full of appointments and reminders.

Jan-1-2Apparently someone at At-a-Glance determined years ago that for almost everybody things slow down enough on weekends that it would be possible to compress two days into one. Maybe it had something to do with a weekly sabbath. Maybe it had something to do with the standard Monday-Friday workweek. Maybe some executive wanted to save paper. I don't know.

But it seems a little unfair.

The first days of a new year offer a good time to think about time itself and how we use it, how we abuse it, how we murder it or sanctify it.

In T.S. Eliot's remarkable poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," there is much rumination about time. Eliot, for instance, has Prufrock say this:

There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

Yes, there is time, there is time. But, in the end, not much. Even for people who live what seems like a long time. My late father's brother, for instance, is scheduled to turn 100 years old at the end of March. I hope to be in Illinois then to celebrate that good and funny man.

But what is 100 years in a universe now believed to be 13.7 billion years old? Well, that information is believed by people who believe science. There still, of course, are biblical literalists who think Earth itself is only a few thousand years old. No wonder QAnon conspiracy theories and political Big Lies find easy audiences.

What 100 years amounts to, really, is a long lifetime of opportunities to help make the world more delicious for others, to help others see the beauty all around us, the gifts of nature that sustain us. Those are hard to see when we focus on individual freedom to the exclusion of the common good. But when our focus is on the well-being of others and of society as a whole -- as healthy religions teaches us it should be -- then we can discover that time is a gift to be used imaginatively, lovingly, prodigally.

Starting today.

Happy New Year.

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One final thought about 2021: As the author of this RNS opinion piece correctly notes, in the just-ended year, "across the religious left, right and center, the dominant narratives suggested that as religion recedes as a force in American public life, it is becoming easier for political movements to co-opt faith for their own purposes. Perhaps this has long been so, but it’s astonishing to watch as the guardians of religious institutions — denominational leaders, prominent clergy and laypeople with oversight authority and responsibility — appear not only powerless to stop it, but often eager to go along." How else to explain the attraction people who call themselves conservative Christians continue to have for a disgraced man whose life has violated nearly all the values such Christians say they hold dear? Will faith leaders and followers do better in 2022? I hope so. But I'm taking no bets.

Do Christian ethics have a place in a post-Christian world?

Christmas, as many of you know, doesn't end at the tick of the last second of Dec. 25 each year. In fact, Dec. 25 marks the first day of what's called the 12 days of Christmas. And in some Christian traditions, the Christmas season continues until Epiphany, which celebrates the arrival of the magi, or three wise men, as described in the second chapter of the gospel of Matthew.

Gushee-coverSo because it's still Christmas, I'm going to introduce you today to a forthcoming book (it will be available for ordering on Jan. 11 and will be published in February) that speaks about how followers of the child born on Christmas are to be living today in light of his birth, life, death and resurrection.

It's called Introducing Christian Ethics: Core Convictions for Christians Today, by David P. Gushee, one of the best-known Christian ethicists. Here is a short YouTube introduction to it.

It's a challenging book because it takes Jesus seriously and it takes seriously what it means to be a Christ follower. But it also raises questions that even non-Christians would do well to ponder as together we face a wounded world in need of relief and redemption.

I had a recent phone conversation with the author. Here's a transcript of that, edited for length and clarity.

Bill Tammeus: If, as many say, we are living in a post-Christian world, is there a need any longer for a book on Christian ethics? And if there is a need, what is it?

David Gushee: I think we are living in a post-Christian-dominated world. And I think the polling is very clear that Christianity is fading in the people of the United States and other places. But there’s still more than two billion people who profess to be followers of Jesus, so this book is guidance for them. So as long as there are Christian people anywhere, there will always be a need for thinking about how we are to live.

BT: You write that "The One Big Question" in the moral arena is “How should I/we live?” What does a Christian ethics approach to that question offer people that it can’t find in other faith traditions?

DG: The centrality of Jesus is at the heart of answering the question of how we should live. Other faith traditions either do not have Jesus or do not center Jesus in the way that Christian ethics does. One of the blessings of the Christian moral tradition is that we have this compelling person with a lot of information about him — how he lived and what he said — at the center of our tradition. So ethics for Christians has never been about only principles or rules or goals. It’s about looking at and imitating the person Jesus Christ.

BT: You mention in the book caring for your 90-year-old father (who died about a year ago). How does that personal involvement in the care of another shape your understanding of Christian ethics?

DG: I began writing this book before he died and finished it after he died. It definitely affects the chapter on end-of-life decision making. But this whole book has a unique feature that I’ve never seen in an ethics book before. It has a life-cycle approach. I think about how moral issues present themselves across the life cycle beginning with children. So I arrange the presentation of the other moral issues around the theme of when kids begin to encounter these issues and what value could Christian moral tradition offer. So it begins with creation care. And the book ends with the end-of-life issues we face. I believe that Christian ethics are enriched by very serious reflection on our personal experience, and, in fact, that reflection is indispensable to good Christian ethics.

BT: Sort of on the other end of that, if Christian ethics were widely used in the way that you wish they were, what difference would that make in our economy, in our approach to the environment and in our attitudes about race?

DG: I have in the book a chapter on economics ethics in which I exegete the parable of the unjust manager (Luke 16). I’m trying to get at the structure and crookedness and injustice of most economic systems whether in Jesus’ time or our own. Jesus appears to be looking at the economy from the perspective of the dispossessed. It means an awareness of the corruption in all economic systems and a desire to live differently to resist that corruption and not make an idol out of money.

As for creation care, we need as many people on this planet as possible who love God’s creation and who are committed to caring for it. We do not have enough right now. The Christian tradition needs to join with other traditions in encouraging a critical mass of people who understand the value of creation, its eco-systems and other creatures.

On race, there is no place in the Christian faith for viewing one group of people as better than or less than other people. That should be ruled out by the example of Jesus. But racism has been woven into the Christian culture for a lot of complicated historical reasons. It’s time for us to repent of that and treat everyone with dignity, justice and love. Part of what Christian ethics has to do is to tease out what is of Christ and what is of culture and be ready to challenge anything that is of culture.

Remnant-Christianity-1BT: You write that “I once hoped for a world transformed. Chastened, today I mainly hope for the formation of communities of Christ-followers who will live in the way of Jesus regardless of the direction of world history.” I’m struck by how similar is the hope of Fr. W. Paul Jones, as he expresses it in his new book Remnant Christianity in a Post-Christian World. Paul thinks the only hope now is for small remnant Christian communities to gather and live out authentic Christianity so they’ll be ready to teach it to the world again if and when the world ever abandons its current idols because they have proven to be empty. Is that also what you’re suggesting?

DG: We are falling apart. It feels like we built up this civilization here but are falling apart under the impact of social decay and Covid and so on. What must be discovered now is how the kingdom of God should be understood in Christian ethics. I have a chapter that’s about that. In an earlier book I had a more optimistic, social-gospel type hope that Christians working with other people of goodwill could bring about constructive social transformation in every area of life which in some way or other would bring major advances in the kingdom of God. But I’ve learned over a 30-year career that such major victories are very hard to find. And overall the mood here at the end of 2021 is more sober than that.

So what I really want to see is Christians who have their moral wits about them because they are deeply studying and attempting to follow Jesus and this is going to make them different from people who are fundamentally disoriented morally because they don’t know what to believe about anything right now — as well as Christians who are so swept up in a certain kind of ideological current that they are thinking more like politicos and less like followers of Jesus. I don’t think only Christians, even remnant Christians that I’m talking about, are going to be part of the solution to a better world but I do think that is our responsibility to the world.

BT: Your summary of the Christian story is brief but clear. Can the idea of Christian ethics be meaningful to people who either don’t believe that story or who now have replaced it with other stories?

DG: Christian ethics is not just rooted in the example of Jesus, but Jesus tells a certain kind of story and that story has gotten imbedded into the way Christians look at the world. It’s a story of a good world made by a good God damaged by human sin, redeemed in successive waves of covenants by God, culminating in Christ, ultimately to be consummated when he returns. So that’s a particular story. It’s a narrative. A lot of people don’t buy that narrative anymore. Even for some Christians, that narrative is not at the center of how they look at the world. But I do think that the ethical teachings of the Christian faith have a quality and significance to them worth considering regardless of whether people buy that story. So I would commend my book to anyone interested in the question of how they should live.

BT: Near the end of your book, you write that “following Jesus is about far more than the knowledge of ethics or any other discipline. It is about keeping our hearts free of any idol that would displace Jesus Christ as Lord.” My reading of the world is that it’s full of exactly such idols. Can Christian ethics help to show them for what they are and make them powerless?

DG: I think this is the human condition. If you want to talk about somewhat of a pessimistic vision, my wife said I should end the book with something more positive than why following Jesus is so hard. It is a hard word, but it’s a truthful word. Bracket off the people who don’t want to follow Jesus, who don’t care. Now you go to the people who say they want to follow Jesus. And there he is, available in worship and tradition and scripture and church, but our eyes get bedazzled by other gods. We could make a list of them: Ideology, money, power, self-interest whatever it might be.

My vision is that there are lots of people who say they want to follow Jesus who can be weaned off these idols if they know what they’re dealing with and if they’re properly instructed in community. This involves the strengthening of the church as a community, not just a place where people go but a community of formation that helps us keep our eyes on the real Jesus we meet in the gospel. It’s hard work. That’s why I believe it’s always going to be a minority experience. I hope my book will be one little help that people can turn to so they can learn how to follow Jesus and not idols instead.

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The death a few days ago of Archbishop Desmond Tutu gives all of us an opportunity to learn about Ubuntu Theology, which this great man promoted. As the article from "The Conversation," to which I just linked you, says, Ubuntu is "the southern African (specifically, Nguni) word for humanness that is often used to encapsulate sub-Saharan moral ideals." One way I've heard it put is this: "I am because you are." Or, as the Conversation piece has it, "A person is a person through other persons." Ubuntu suggests that when one member of our family or our group is sick, we're all unwell. In other words, it's the difference between a commitment to rugged individualism and a commitment to the common good. There is, of course, some room for both, but a radically individual-focused society eventually eats its own seed corn and people starve. Tutu was a remarkable shining light at a time of bleak darkness. We need more like him today.

An old Nativity Scene's Christmas story

For Christmas this year, I'm going to reproduce for you a Christmas tale I told years ago in the now-defunct Star Magazine, which used to appear each Sunday in The Kansas City Star.

In it, I try to get at the heart of Christmas by describing an old Nativity Scene that was present each year in the home in which I grew up in Woodstock, Ill.

The only form in which I have this story now is in scanned pieces. So let's see if I can get them to you here in the right order.







Merry Christmas.

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In Christmas remarks to the cardinals at the Vatican, Pope Francis offered this perfect definition of the difference between people who are humble and those who are proud: “The humble are those who are concerned not simply with the past but also with the future, since they know how to look ahead, to spread their branches, remembering the past with gratitude. The proud, on the other hand, simply repeat, grow rigid and enclose themselves in that repetition, feeling certain about what they know and fearful of anything new because they cannot control it.” Bingo.

Will American Christianity just disappear or can it be saved?

From soon after the time both he and his mother almost died in the process of his birth, my friend Fr. W. Paul Jones -- once a United Methodist pastor and theology professor and now, at age 91, a Catholic priest and Trappist monk -- has urged the world to take life seriously (but in good humor) and to see reality with great clarity.

Remnant-Christianity-1Never has that been more evident than in his new book, his 15th, Remnant Christianity in a Post-Christian World: Plight of the Modern Church.

His critique of the status of American Christianity is sharp. And his suggestions for how it can have any sort of future are fascinating even if they almost certainly will seem radical to some readers.

Jones, now resident director of the Hermitage Spiritual Retreat Center in Pittsburg, Mo., sees clearly that Christianity (and religion in general) in the U.S. is in sharp decline -- and that the future for it is bleak.

Indeed, the most recent polling from the Pew Research Center says that the number of Americans who now declare themselves to be religiously unaffiliated has grown to 29 percent, while the percentage of the population that identifies as Christian has fallen from 75 percent 10 years ago to 63 percent today. (The photo of Jones at a table below was taken last year at the retreat center, on the board of which I served for a few years. The other photo of Jones painting eves at the center is from a few years earlier.)

We've known for decades that Mainline Protestantism in the U.S. has been in consistent decline, but it's now clear that almost all branches of Christianity are in a membership and financial crisis.

Perhaps the only hope, Jones says, is for small groups of committed Christians to become remnants of the faith and to live out the tradition on a fully committed wager that Christianity speaks truth. And even if those self-chosen people are wrong about the truth of Christianity, Jones hopes that, like him, they would not want to live in any other way or be committed to any other spiritual path.

He then outlines what this remnant of Christians would be required to do to rescue the faith so that when others in the population (and in the church) finally give up on secular options and want to seek something authentic, healing, life-giving and redemptive, they will have an answer.

Jones' prophetic voice is insistent (as it has been throughout his career), confident and clear, even as he acknowledges that wagering on the Christian story means a true wager, not something scientifically verifiable.

Churches, he says, need clarity now about their diminished reality: "Mainline church leadership is unable to remain in denial, being forced into realism by the failure of their previously ambitious reversal strategies, acknowledging with growing alarm this pattern of rapid membership erosion."

Not even megachurches can hold together forever, he writes: "As demography inevitably shifts the centers of growth, desirability and affluence, megachurches, unlike commercial ventures, will be financially unable to liquidate their crystal cathedrals and move along with the dynamics, dotting landscapes with boarded-up religious versions of Toys R Us."

A big part of the problem, Jones writes, is that "the churches are increasingly unclear about what the sine qua non of the gospel really is. . .(T)he result is most often a Christianity that falls in upon itself. . .What if that which is gospel no longer sells, and that which sells is no longer gospel?"

Part of the problem, of course, is the reality of postmodernism, when everything is up for debate and all the meta-narratives no longer are convincing or reliable guides: "Ours is a world in which things seem out of control, rudderless in an ethos bereft of certainty about anything, its values shattered into the subjectivity of rival ideologies, society splintered into bewildered selves isolated by competitive individualism, and its institutions invasively controlled by the greed of transnational corporate capitalism."

Jones is not arguing for a return to the unquestioned old religious answers of rigid dogma. Rather, he wants a Christian faith tradition that will stand up against the dehumanizing practices and policies that lead to entrenched poverty in the midst of plenty, to racism in the face of God's insistence that we're all children of the divine and to military answers to almost all questions of conflict -- a faith, in other words, reflective of the divine, redemptive love incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth.

Without that kind of religion, he writes, "we are passing over a threshold into a post-Christian era that is irreversible. . .So erosively inconceivable for the postmodern mind is Christianity. . .that not only is diminishment of the churches relentless, but even the survival of Christianity itself is in question. I draw this conclusion as a practicing Christian, deeply committed to the Christian faith, but who is being forced to conclude that survival of any authentic vestiges of our faith depends upon our honest recognition of the crisis we are facing."

Having acknowledged that crisis, Jones seeks its causes and finds many -- from the church's failure to accommodate itself to scientific reality to its inability to extract itself from a bewildering economic system that rewards the rich and punishes the poor (the latter being the very people about whom Jesus cared most), to an economic battering of the middle class that historically has been the core of the church to a world in which even verifiable facts are in conspiratorial dispute.

W-Paul-JonesThe result, he says, is that "the empty pews are mostly reflecting the incredulous younger generations, but how much longer can the older adult church members continue to believe the literal physical imagery rehearsed in Scripture, liturgy and hymnology? Thus, the major diminishment of church attendance is still to come, because a goodly number of present church attenders are still holding on to this growingly unstable literal Christianity."

The options to respond to all of this are few, and most are doomed to failure, he asserts: "What is needed is a retranslation of the orthodox heart of Christianity into a way of living that has honest integrity in the face of the multiple limitations closing in upon the Christianity and the church that we once knew."

Some of that retranslation will require a recovery of wonder and awe at the gift that the wounded world is and a re-engagement with the ancient god questions that humanity has asked from the beginning: Is there a god? What can we say about that god that's helpful? Why are we here? Without mystery and an accommodation to ambiguity and uncertainty, we're lost. As I've said in other venues, and as Jones would agree, the opposite of faith is not doubt. Rather, the opposite of faith is false certitude.

Beyond that, Jones correctly asserts that everyone -- including atheists and agnostics -- lives by faith because of eternal realities that they cannot scientifically or in any other way verify.

There is much, much more in this book for serious Christians to absorb and to which they should react. But one of Jones' major points is that "Christianity can be true to itself only if it serves as a counterweight to the dynamics of modern society -- resisting external efforts to brush it off as fanaticism and internal ones encouraging domestication. The real diminishment the church needs to fear is that of losing its faithfulness to the God whose authority transcends that of the state."

Paul-painting-evesIn the end, Jones proposes various steps he thinks need to be taken and various options that can be used to create pockets of remnant Christianity, willing to hold to the core of the faith and ready to share it with people who finally find life now empty of eternal meaning. There are things in his proposal to debate, for sure, but the future for both Christianity and all of faith in the U.S. seems dire, and thank heavens there are thinkers like Jones out there suggesting ways to move forward authentically.

"Whichever option is chosen," he writes, "there will continue to be church closings, mergers of congregations, selling of church buildings, diminishing denominational translocal agencies, minimization of ecumenical ventures, online clergy training, part-time local pastors and an increasing reliance on lay leadership. This irreversible diminishment of the churches will be demoralizing unless a remnant alternative plan is put into place now."

Unless, of course, it's already too late.

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It took way too long, but the U.S. finally has a new U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. By a vote of 85-5, with 10 senator not voting, Rashad Hussain, the first Muslim to hold the post, has been confirmed. The last person to hold the job was Sam Brownback, former Kansas governor, who, the story to which I've linked you says, cheered Hussain's appointment. I found it a bit surprising that even Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), famous for promoting Donald Trump's Big Lie that he won the 2020 presidential election, voted to confirm Hussain, who has been director for partnerships and global engagement at the National Security Council. This ambassadorship is charged with promoting foundational religious liberty around the world.

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about an artist who grew up Muslim in India, fell in love with Jesus, makes Christ-centered art but who today is a member of no institutional religion -- now is online here.

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ANOTHER P.S.: I'd like to think it's the power of journalism that made the Pentagon the other day issue rules for stopping extremism by members of the armed forces. After all, I wrote about that very issue recently here. But, of course, the Pentagon has had rules about this in place for some time, though the new ones are considerably more detailed and have been in the works for awhile. Still, I'm glad to see them.

How women are overcoming religion's bigotry against them

Next weekend, as Christians around the world celebrate Christmas, considerable attention will be paid to a woman who, in effect, made Christmas possible -- Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Mother-MaryIn the birth narrative in the gospel of Luke, the angel Gabriel appears to young Mary, engaged but not yet married to a man named Joseph, and tells her that she is to have a baby who "will be called God's Son."

Mary, questioning how in the world such a thing could happen "since I haven't had sexual relations with a man," nonetheless eventually says this to the angel: "I am the Lord's servant. Let it be with me just as you have said."

So she had a choice and she chose to give birth.

Since then the church has honored Mary in various ways, though perhaps the Catholic Church has led the way in this regard. But all parts of the church have at least paid lip service to the idea of women having choices about their lives. And yet even today vast stretches of world religions are patriarchal. In some cases women are not allowed to be ordained as clergy. In other cases, it's even worse. They are told to shut up in church and listen to the men -- even as some of those men hypocritically say words of praise for Mary.

But over the last 75 or 100 years, women increasingly have gained stature in institutional religion. My Presbyterian denomination, for instance, ordained its first woman pastor, the Rev. Margaret Towner, in 1956. (Marg, by the way, is still active in church affairs in Florida.) Twenty years later the Episcopal Church began to ordain women to the priesthood.

But it's been a slow process, and women have had to battle for every inch of progress to try to crack the stained-glass ceiling.

Recently, the Associated Press, Religion News Service and The Conversation have produced a series of stories describing some of that history and some recent developments. You can find all of them at this RNS home page.

Here, for instance, is a story about how Muslim women have been working hard to find leadership positions in modern Islam. (By the way, when the Prophet Muhammad introduced Islam to the world, his vision of it was quite liberating for women. But as the religion moved from the Arabian peninsula into areas even more dominated by patriarchal cultures, those cultures bent Islam's original vision of women to their subservient vision of women. Only recently have many Muslim women begun to overcome that sad history. But there still is a long way to go, as we know from the Taliban's recent takeover of Afghanistan.)

And here is a story about the most powerful woman at the Vatican and why she's optimistic about women achieving gender equality in the Catholic Church.

Next is this story about the various ways women in historically Black churches are finding their way into leadership positions.

And here is a story about how women in the Southern Baptist Convention are struggling to find ways to be heard and to lead.

Finally, here is a story about other women in the Catholic Church who, barred from becoming priests, are finding other positions of leadership in the church.

One of the creation stories in Genesis makes clear what God's intentions were about the role and status of women and men: "God created humanity in God's own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them."

So both were created in the image of God. And nowhere in scripture do you find this addition to that story: "but men were thus created a little more in God's image than women."

So as Christians and others mark Christmas this year and praise Mother Mary (by the way, the Qur'an contains more about her than does the New Testament), it's a good time to measure how close religion is to treating males and females with equality and equity. And to fix those many instances in which religion continues to fail at that.

(The art displayed here today came from this site.)

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Maybe the silliness of reading Bible stories as if they're literal history is part of what leads to the additional silliness of having live camels in Nativity Scenes each year at Christmas. That silliness often amounts to mistreatment of animals, to say nothing of what can happen when one escapes, as a camel did the other day in suburban Bonner Springs, Kan., west of Kansas City. In fact, that camel traveled around on its own for a few days before being recaptured. If you're going to use live animals in Manger Scenes, know what you're doing and treat them well. Better yet, use stuffed animals and allow people to use their imaginations, which often produce more interesting scenes than does reality.

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about an artist who grew up Muslim, fell in love with Jesus, makes Christ-centered art but who today is a member of no institutional religion -- now is online here.