It's past time to scrap the term 'Judeo-Christian'

Over the course of my life, I've often heard that the U.S. has an important "Judeo-Christian heritage." And that this heritage continues in many ways to define who we Americans are and what we stand for.

JudeochristianThe only problem with that assertion is that it's never been true, as this Atlantic article notes. And it's way past time to quit using this phrase, which inaccurately defines our origins and now increasingly excludes large segments of our religiously pluralistic society.

As , professor of Jewish history at the University of Virginia, writes in the Atlantic piece, "(T)he 'Judeo-Christian tradition' excluded not only Muslims, Native Americans and other non-Western religious communities, but also atheists and secularists of all persuasions. American Jews themselves were reluctant adopters. After centuries of Christian antisemitic persecution and philosemitic fantasies of Jewish conversion, many eyed the award of an honorary hyphen with suspicion. Even some anti-communist politicians themselves recognized the concept as ill-suited to America’s postwar quest for global primacy in a decolonizing world.

"The mythical 'Judeo-Christian tradition,' then, proved an unstable foundation on which to build a common American identity. Today, as American democracy once again grasps for root metaphors with which to confront our country’s diversity and its place in the world, the term’s recuperation should rightfully alarm us: It has always divided Americans far more than it has united them."

As Loeffler also points out, the hyphenated term only seemed to connect Judaism, the tradition at the root of Christianity, with Christianity itself, even though throughout most of its history Christianity has preached a virulent anti-Judaism, as I describe in this essay.

One of the problems, however, with trying to describe why the Judeo-Christian phrase doesn't work now and never did is that people -- Loeffler included -- are likely to fall into the old trap of misunderstanding the Apostle Paul, who over and over again in history has been used by Christians as a warrant for anti-Judaism because they have falsely painted him as someone who rejected Judaism and its First Century culture and became a Christian.

Here is where Loeffler messed up on that point. He notes that a Protestant pastor, George Docherty, "persuaded President Dwight Eisenhower to officially add the words under God to the Pledge of Allegiance and 'In God we trust' to American currency as part of a 'theological war'.”

Thus, Loeffler writes, Docherty argued that "American society must promote its own identity as a 'God-fearing nation' defined by the 'Christian revelation' and the 'Christian ethic.' To do so would proclaim to the world that 'in this land, there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither bond nor free, neither male nor female, for we are one nation indivisible under God.'”

Docherty there is adapting verse 3 of chapter 28 of Paul's letter to the Galatians. But Loeffler refers to what Paul writes there as "Saint Paul’s famous vision of Christian universalism — 'neither Jew nor Greek' — (which) cast Jews as a people destined to disappear in a future all-Christian world."

The problem is that Paul never was a Christian. Rather, he was always a Jew who was speaking mostly to Gentiles but also at times to other Jews. So he never could have had a "vision of Christian universalism," there being no such thing as Christianity in his lifetime. Getting Paul wrong by making him a Christian has been quite costly over the centuries. It has led to deep animosity between Christians who think Paul abandoned Judaism with good cause and Jews who have come to think of Paul as a traitor because they, too, have bought the traditional Christian view and think Paul rejected his own Jewish tradition.

The person to read to start to grasp this subject in depth is Pauline scholar Mark D. Nanos, who in recent books has been pushing for an understanding of what he calls "Paul within Judaism."

Despite all that, Loeffler's primary point is on target: "The incredible religious diversity that has blossomed in the United States since the 1960s has changed our country for good, and for the better. We cannot turn back the clock to a mythical 'Judeo-Christian America' in order to chart a new course for America’s moral imagination."

As we Americans have shown over and over again in our response to the George Floyd murder and the subsequent civil unrest and protests, if we don't understand our white supremacist history -- including the way our civic ancestors savaged this land's Indigenous people from the beginning -- we'll never know how to fix what is still wrong today, despite the progress in civil rights we've made in the last half century.

Nothing blocks progress more than willful ignorance, of which many of us, including me, have been guilty.

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Speaking of interfaith matters, as I was above, there's great and unexpected news about interfaith leader Eboo Patel and his Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), based in Chicago. As this RNS story reports, the IFYC is receiving a "$6 million gift from author and philanthropist MacKenzie Scott." And it comes just as Patel and his staff have completed a new strategic plan outlining the various ways the organization hopes to expand its work of helping young people become interfaith leaders. As Patel explained, "We're going to be dramatically expanding our online programs. Our first major effort in this is a campaign called 'We Are Each Other's' — with an awesome opening video. We’re going to be supporting our alums, particularly in work around racial justice. And we’re going to be launching a major new initiative about racial justice and interfaith leadership." I've gotten to know Patel and his work over the last several years, and he's exactly the kind of moral leader our country needs many of right now.

Shining a light on Jesus' most famous sermon

Chapters five, six and seven of the gospel of Matthew in the New Testament contain what has been called Jesus' "Sermon on the Mount." And even though scholars think the contents of that so-called sermon were delivered in smaller bites over time and not all at once, it still remains one of the most memorable and influential sections of any of the four gospels. It contains not only the Beatitudes but also a version of what Christians today call the "Lord's Prayer," or the "Our Father."

Sermon-mountMy guess, however, is that not many Christians ever have focused intently just on those three chapters and, through that study, unpacked all that is there. Now there's a new book that does just that. It's Sermon on the Mount: A Beginner's Guide to the Kingdom of Heaven, by Amy-Jill Levine, the well-known and highly regarded New Testament scholar at the Vanderbilt Divinity School. The book is both revealing and insightful, and not only for "beginners."

Levine's approach to the New Testament is shaped not just by her rigorous scholarship but also by the fact that she grew up Jewish (though as a girl she went to a Catholic school for a time) and she still attends an Orthodox synagogue. Which helps to make her (and, through her, readers) more sensitive to the reality that Jesus was a Jew speaking mostly to other Jews and drawing on what Levine regularly refers to as the Scriptures of Israel, which now have become known as the Hebrew Bible and which Christians often call the Old Testament. (Levine says it's OK for Christians to do that, but I dislike that terminology because I think it's both dismissive and supersessionist.)

Levine also brings to this study of Jesus' most famous sermon a lovely sense of humor, which should not surprise anyone who ever has heard her speak. In what other book on this subject by a serious scholar are you apt to run into Popeye, grits, liquid eyeliner, Girl Scout cookies and your local 7-11? Those golden nuggets are nicely buried in the text.

In this Jesus sermon, Levine writes, "Jesus is not a Christian talking to other Christians; he is a Jew talking to other Jews. He's not telling his fellow Jews to do away with Torah. That would be ridiculous. Rather, he's telling them that he has insight into the heart of Torah, and they would do well to listen to him."

At the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus proclaimed that the "Kingdom of God," or the "Kingdom of heaven," has come near and that people can live in that reign today by living lives of compassion, mercy, justice and love. As Levine rightly notes, "the kingdom of heaven is not some abstract place with pearly gates and golden slippers, harp music and a bunch of angels flapping their wings. The kingdom of heaven occurs when people take the words of Jesus in these chapters to heart and live into them. . .(T)his kingdom is already available to us, already manifested when we enact God's will on earth as it is done in heaven."

One of the ways to do that is to recognize the image of God in others. As Levine points out, "we have to see the image of the divine in those it would be so easy to hate: the Nazis who are among us to this day, the terrorists who seek to die a martyr's death by blowing up themselves and all around them, the child molester. They, too, are human beings." Which is part of what makes the religions that preach this approach so difficult to follow.

So the Sermon on the Mount is the call of Jesus to set up "a new family or a new community," Levine writes. And the good news is that "anyone can be part of this community."

Levine's personal grounding in Judaism helps her recognize what anyone reading the Sermon on the Mount should recognize, which is that "knowledge of the Scriptures of Israel is essential for understanding" Matthew, to say nothing of the other three canonical gospels.

Thus, Levine's explanations of the Beatitudes, the Lord's Prayer and other parts of the sermon should be especially helpful for Christians who have a tendency to forget -- or, worse, a prejudice against -- their Jewish roots.

Indeed, she calls the Lord's Prayer "a magnificent Jewish prayer, echoed in a number of other Jewish prayers still used to this day. . ." (italics hers).

She also emphasizes a point that Kansas City Pauline scholar Mark D. Nanos has noted in some detail in his work, which has to do with why the Apostle Paul argued that Gentile people of his time who decide to become followers of Jesus need not first convert to Judaism.  As she writes, "For Paul, the messianic age -- which he saw as beginning with the Christ's resurrection -- had begun, and in that messianic age, Jews and Gentiles both worshiped the God of Israel. Were the pagans to convert to Judaism, then only Jews would be part of that grand chorus."

There is much more here in these 128 pages, but what also strikes me about this work is that it's not simply a terrific scholar shining light on an important part of the New Testament. It's also that very scholar urging readers to live by the lessons Jesus was teaching. Time and again Levine pushes readers to internalize Jesus' words and make them come alive.

"Any faith that does not manifest itself in works is not faith," she contends, "it is complacency and self-satisfaction. It is not salt, because it contributes nothing to the earth. It is not light, since its shining is only for self-reflection." Precisely.

It won't surprise me if this small book quickly gets adopted by study groups that are serious about grasping the deep meaning found in the Bible. If they listen to Jesus as Levine understands him they will become more deeply committed people of faith who are changing the world for the better.

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Here's what I and some others will count as good news in the Catholic Church: Pope Francis has appointed six women to top Vatican financial positions. The jump from there to female priests is a long, long, long one -- and may never happen. But it puts the Vatican in position to draw now on the wisdom and experience of women, most of whom have been excluded from top Vatican jobs maybe since the days of St. Peter.

What did we do to deserve the pandemic?

I will start today by asking what I think is a really foolish question and then link you to this Tablet Magazine article that will provide a long, fascinating and complicated answer.

God-sinHere's the question: Is humanity being plagued by this coronavirus pandemic because we deserved it for our, well, sins?

The quick, science-based answer, of course, is no. Rather, we're stuck with COVID-19 because viruses exist and can spread pretty easily in the world. (Whether that means God designed things badly is another question altogether, one we'll not get into here today.)

The psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and author who wrote the Tablet piece, Norman Doidge, says this: "Examining one’s actions after a political catastrophe, in which there is often a human hand in the matter, makes sense. But blaming ourselves for plagues, famine and drought does, for someone living in the shadow of science, seem to take human responsibility rather far.

"It seems to partake of that egocentric frame of mind that characterizes the psyche in its earliest stages of evolution, or at its most primitive: The world revolves around us; the physical forces of the universe are woven into our lives, and if lightning strikes us, it is not random, it’s personal. If rain comes after long absence, it is because we are blessed; if a plague comes, it is because we are cursed. That seems so archaic.

"So, why do we still do it?"

Good question.

Although Doidge writes from a Jewish perspective, I think part of the answer of why "we still do it" lies in a Christian idea drawn from Jewish theological history, which is that we have a personal relationship with God. You see that time and again in the Hebrew Bible stories about Adam, Noah, Joshua, the prophets. God is reported speaking directly to such people.

Christianity has extended that idea to include the way some branches of the church tell people to refer to Jesus: As "my personal Lord and Savior."

So, as Rabbi Harold Kushner phrased it, when bad things happen to good people, those who are people of faith may imagine that they are being punished for not measuring up to what can seem like God's impossibly high standards.

Doidge says this: "Guilty fear exists in a human being who is aware that he or she has developed a conscience, and has crossed it (hence the guilt) and is now awaiting the consequences like a criminal awaiting sentence by a judge. Guilty fear, unlike fear, which triggers the wish to escape, knows there is no escape from the all-seeing parent or God. It is filled with dreadful anticipation. In this, it is forward looking."

One of the many problems with imagining that plagues, hurricanes, tsunamis or plane crashes are God's punishment for our misdeeds is that it allows us to define what is and isn't a misdeed. Thus, you get televangelists saying outrageous things like a hurricane hit this or that city (New Orleans, I'm looking at you) because of that city's lax attitude toward the sin of homosexuality. (For my essay on why there is not "sin of homosexuality," click here.)

The technical name for such trumpery and twaddle is "theological B.S." But it grows out of the common practice of blaming ourselves when disaster strikes.

And yet there is a sense in certain disasters in which we may be, corporately if not individually, to blame. Think of the ecological disaster we are creating on Earth. Don't many of us, especially those of us who live in and support the industrialized world, have a role in pollution, climate change, melting icebergs? Of course we do. But because we bring this on ourselves in defiance of the laws of nature, we should take responsibility for this without thinking directly that God is punishing us by forcing us to breathe polluted air.

So I submit that COVID-19 is not an example of God punishing us for anything. But I do think God is expecting us to respond to this crisis in a sane and humane way. The sooner more of us do that instead of blaming the spread of the virus on sexual relations with demons and on other nonsense, the sooner we'll get to the other side of this (which won't look like what it looked like on the pre-COVID side).

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The statue of a former governor of North Carolina, Charles Aycock (1859-1912), is being removed from Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol and will be replaced by one of the late evangelist Billy Graham. As the RNS story to which I've linked you explains, "Aycock was one of the masterminds of the 1898 Wilmington, North Carolina, race riot and coup, in which a local government made up of Black Americans was overthrown and replaced by white officials." One more reason Reconstruction after the Civil War failed. By contrast, as I wrote in this obit analysis of Graham published by The Kansas City Star when he died in 2018, "Graham devoted a good portion of his ministry to breaking down barriers between and among groups of people, including Jews and Christians as well as blacks and whites." Was he perfect at that? Of course not. But at least he was no Charles Aycock. If you waited for human perfection before raising someone's statue, Statuary Hall would be empty.

Are black churches still leading in civil rights?

Any Americans familiar with the Civil Rights Movement know that the historically black church provided much of the leadership for it.

Blm-dcThe best and most famous example is the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

And when King was assassinated, it was, in many ways, mostly black clergy in Kansas City who spoke with prophetic voices but who also sought to calm a city that had deteriorated into rioting. My Flatland column about that is here.

So let's move ahead several decades to the current Black Lives Matter movement and ask what role communities of faith, especially black churches, are playing.

One answer -- not as much as before -- is found in this account by reporter Kelsey Dallas of the Deseret News in Salt Lake City.

For instance, she quotes the Rev. Watson Jones III, pastor of Compassion Baptist Church in Chicago, as saying that religious leaders are generally welcome to be part of the Black Lives Matter movement, but they don’t call the shots: “We’re in there, but we’re not at the forefront of it,” he said. “The church has lost some of its prophetic voice. It’s lost some of its fervor.”

In some ways this is a reflection of the slippage of religion generally in the U.S. As Kelsey Dallas writes of religion:

"It’s also lost some of its cultural status, said Aldon Morris, a professor of sociology and African American studies at Northwestern University. Activists no longer feel like they need the power of religious institutions behind them in order to change the world.

“'The role that religion played in the civil rights movement cannot be replicated in the movements of today,' he said."

In some ways, that's a sign that the black church has succeeded in getting people to internalize and act on its message of racial equality. Many non-church folks now get it and don't feel they need to church to organize activities and other responses to the situation on the ground today.

Beyond that, at least in my experience here in Kansas City, it's worth noting that some predominantly white congregations have become much more active in trying to understand and then unplug systemic racism. There's still a long way to go with all that, but it's been happening even though most congregations have been unable to worship in person together or to hold classes and other activities except via the internet.

What role will people of faith play in the long run as the Black Lives Matter movement evolves from street protests to other activities? Good question. But so far I don't think anyone knows. What we do know is that people of faith have prophetic voices that they should be using to call attention to what's wrong in our culture and to how it might be fixed.

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Speaking of people with prophetic voices, in many ways the late Rep. John Lewis lived out his Christian faith in quite public ways. So it was fitting that at his funeral service the other day there were many indications of how seriously he took his faith. This RNS story itemizes some of them. But we still don't have a good answer to this ancient question: Why do the best people seem to leave us too soon? By the way, here's a link to the op-ed piece Lewis wrote for The New York Times just before he died. It's vintage Lewis.

What's behind the surge in anti-Catholicism?

Anti-Catholic prejudice in the U.S. -- and around the world, for that matter -- is an old problem.

BigotryHere is a description of that history from a Catholic point of view. And here is a description of it from a Wikipedia point of view.

This kind of bigotry should be condemned whenever it's seen. It is not, however, anti-Catholicism to acknowledge that you are an adherent of Christian beliefs and practices that may differ from Catholic beliefs. That's simply acknowledging the reality that the church universal is divided -- and has been in some ways almost from the start, though especially since the Great Schism of 1054 and the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s.

But true bigotry, no-doubt real anti-Catholicism, has reared its despicable head in recent times across the U.S., as this report from The Week reveals. As the publication's national correspondent Matthew Walther writes, "Catholic buildings are being burned and our sacred images destroyed for the not very complicated reason that we are increasingly the objects of suspicion and loathing in the United States and Western Europe, just as we have long been in the Middle East and parts of East and Southeast Asia.

"This has nothing to do with any protest movement, worthy or otherwise. It is about one thing: hatred of the Church, Her sacraments, Her immutable teachings, Her glorious saints, Her bishops and priests and religious brothers and sisters, and the faithful themselves."

Walther begins his article with a disheartening list of recent examples of anti-Catholic vandalism and other hateful acts. Read it and weep.

In some ways, I suppose, any hate of this sort is simply one more example of the tribalism that has afflicted humankind almost since the beginning. It's the old attitude that if you're not one of us you're against us and you need to be put down in some way. Which is just a sign of weakness and insecurity on the part of people holding such an attitude.

But what's especially disappointing about this kind of bigotry is that all the great world religions teach against it. In Christianity, for instance, followers of Jesus are obligated to see each person as a child of God who bears the image of God. The last thing anyone should want to do is to hate the person bearing that image. That doesn't mean you have to like someone or agree about everything.

But it does mean that there's no place for anti-Catholicism, Islamophobia, antisemitism or any other hatred with ties to religion. And it's up to each one of us to recognize whether we're furthering such hatred individually or in systemic ways. The time to check on that is today.

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The Barbecue Baptist Church in Texas, described in this RNS story, sounds like a great idea. And it looks as if that church is serving something close to the fabulous kind of barbecue we get in Kansas City, not that awful Carolina BBQ. Start such a church here and I'll participate at least once.

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P.S.: In this time of pandemic and civil unrest, a fair amount of attention has been paid to supporting Black-owned businesses. As we do that, let's also remember businesses owned and operated by people in the LGBTQ+ community. Many of them are struggling to survive financially, too. How to help? Here is a helpful national guide. If you have a similar guide or list of LGBTQ+ businesses in the Kansas City area, let me know and I'll put that link in a later post. Thanks.

Can multiracial religious congregations work?

I don't know who first said it long ago in the U.S., but it's become a cliche that Sunday morning worship time in Christian churches is the most racially segregated hour of the week.

Multi-racial_churchThat is slightly less true today than it was 50 or 75 years ago, but the reality is that there's still not much racial diversity in many congregations.

The most racially diverse congregation that I know about in the Kansas City area is Sheffield Family Life Center, an Assemblies of God church in the city's northeast. I wrote about that church last year here.

That's not to say that there haven't been efforts to create more integrated churches. But as this NPR story notes, even those efforts, when they are successful, may not do a lot to solve America's deep-rooted racial divide.

The story reports that a "recently completed survey of congregations by Michael Emerson, now at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Kevin Dougherty of Baylor University found that the share of churches defined as 'multiracial,' with at least one out of five members from a minority background, grew from 6% in 1998 to 16% in 2019."

But here's the sad, though perhaps not unexpected, news: "'All the growth [in multiracial churches] has been people of color moving into white churches,' Emerson says. 'We have seen zero change in the percentage of whites moving into churches of color.' Once a multiracial church becomes less than 50% white, Emerson says, the white members leave. Such findings have left Emerson discouraged.

"'For the leaders of color who were trying to create the multiracial church movement,' Emerson says, 'they're basically saying, "It doesn't work. The white brothers and sisters just won't give up their privilege. And so we've been defeated, in a sense."'"

In the fields of home sales and classroom integration, a term called a "tipping point" sometimes is used. It means that when a neighborhood or a school reaches a certain percentage of Black people, whites will begin to leave. That bigotry appears to be what Emerson is describing in multiracial churches.

The challenge for people who would like a multiracial congregation is to focus less on race and more on core purpose of the congregation and to coalesce around that. But so far there's not much evidence that such an approach -- or any other approach -- is working to make such gatherings commonplace. It's further proof that we Americans -- particularly white Americans -- have a lot to learn about how to live in racial harmony by creating a culture in which whiteness does not automatically mean privilege or power.

(The image here today came from this United Methodist Church site.)

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In coordination with the main topic above today, here's an RNS story about a new book that explores "white Christianity’s role in creating and upholding whiteness." The book is White Christian Privilege, by religion scholar Khyati Joshi. Looks like a book I'll need to add to my reading list. See if you need to add it to yours.

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A Very BIG Problem, by Amy-Jill Levine and Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, illustrated by Annie Bowler. This charming book is another in a series by Levine and Sasso aimed at introducing children to scripture and to the lessons about life that scripture contains. Previous books are: Who Is My Neighbor?, The Marvelous Mustard Seed and Who Counts?: 100 Sheep, 10 Coins and 2 Sons. This new book, which has an Aug. 4 publication date but can be pre-ordered now, focuses on creation and how there's enough of God's love to go around for all of creation, including all creatures. It's a book that should be in the hands of teachers whose task is to start the theological education of young children who are old enough to listen to a good brief story and, through words and art, grasp its meaning. Levine teaches New Testament at Vanderbilt Divinity School. Sasso is director of religion, spirituality and the arts initiative at Indiana University-Purdue and Bowler is an award-winning artist.

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about medicine, spirituality and art -- now is online here.

Why knowing U.S. Protestant history is so vital now

In the 15th chapter of the book of Acts in the New Testament, there's an account of a dispute among early followers of Jesus.

Protestant-minorityOne side said that gentiles should be required to convert fully to Judaism (meaning, for men, circumcision, and, for all, certain dietary restrictions) before they could join the new Jesus Movement, which was still within Judaism. The other side said that wasn't necessary because Jesus came for all, Jews and gentiles alike.

After hearing the arguments, the leader of the mother church in Jerusalem, James, brother of Jesus, did what all of us need to do today. He looked at -- and drew from -- history. In the James case, he quoted something from the prophet Amos, found in the Hebrew Bible, to declare that the second group was right: gentiles didn't first need to become fully converted Jews to be part of the Jesus Movement that eventually would split off from Judaism and become Christianity.

And, as the Apostle Paul made clear elsewhere, if such conversions had been required it would have meant that God was the god only of the Jews, but the arrival of the new age with the resurrection of Jesus meant that God was the god of everyone.

For our fraught time, one lesson is that we must know our own history and be instructed by it as we seek to make changes in social and religious systems in response to the civic turmoil in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis.

This is especially true for Protestant Christians, who from the start of our country until quite recently have dominated the American religious landscape, though the latest estimates show that Protestants now constitute not quite 50 percent of the population.

Which is why it's important to read articles like this one from The Conversation

"As the dominant religion in the U.S.," writes Tiffany Puett, who teaches religious and theological studies at St. Edward's University, "Protestant Christianity’s dominance has long been enmeshed with the racial dominance of whiteness – white supremacy."

The actions and thinking of many of our nation's founders, she writes,  are "part of an old, defining narrative of America as chosen by God, rooted in a white Anglo-Saxon heritage and exceptional in its devotion to values of liberty and individual rights – a narrative of American exceptionalism. This narrative has also supported the notion that the ideal or 'true' American citizen is essentially white and Protestant. . ."

So if those of us who are both white and Protestant today want to be engaged in the anti-racism work that is beginning to happen more broadly in our culture, we must acknowledge that history. That doesn't mean we personally take the blame for what our ancestors did and thought. But it does mean we need to figure out whether and how that old racist thinking might still be present somehow in our congregations and other religious organizations today.

After all, we can't effectively change course if we don't know how we got here and, thus, where we are.

If you need another resource to help you with all this, let me recommend The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church's Complicity in Racism, by Jemar Tisby. I reviewed this book here for The National Catholic Reporter.

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In this difficult time in our American culture, there are lessons about disagreement to be learned from the Talmud, a rabbi writes here. "We could transform our society if we were willing to recognize how complicated the story really is — if we learned to listen deeply and left room for dissenting voices or different approaches around the table," write Will Berkovitz. True. Another rabbi once told me that the Talmud amounts to 3,000 pages of unresolved debate, and the lesson is never to imagine that your understanding of the problem is the final one. Now's a good time to remember that.

What has support of Trump cost and lost?

As Americans move closer to the November presidential election, this is a good time to review the benefits and costs of the overwhelming support that Donald J. Trump received in 2016 from people who identify as white evangelical Christians.

Politics-ReligionOne way to do that is by reading this Atlantic piece.

Many of those Trump voters wanted him to appoint U.S. Supreme Court justices who might overturn the Roe vs. Wade 1973 decision legalizing abortion. That overturning hasn't happened yet, despite Trump appointing two justices. And the two he appointed -- especially Neil Gorsuch -- haven't always ruled in ways that many of those Trump voters wanted them to rule.

That was especially true in the ruling that, as the Atlantic piece reported, "protected gay and transgender individuals from workplace discrimination, handing the LGBTQ movement a historic victory. . .

"It was a crushing blow for the religious right," Peter Wehner writes in that article. But wait. There's more. As Wehner notes, that "was not the only major legal setback for social conservatives and evangelical Christians. By a 5–4 margin, the Court — in June Medical Services v. Russo — delivered a significant defeat to the pro-life movement, striking down as unconstitutional a Louisiana law that could have left the state with only a single abortion clinic. . .Social conservatives can point to some important religious-liberty victories. But overall, this term was a judicial gut punch for the president’s evangelical supporters."

So will evangelicals who supported Trump to get the judges they wanted stick with him? Probably many of them will, given that they almost certainly would not like anyone Joe Biden might nominate to the high court or even to lower courts.

But there's more to all this than judges. There's also the reality that Trump's life shows contempt for the very values (family, honesty, compassion, generosity, etc.) for which evangelicals say they stand. And this became even more clear when Trump's niece, Mary L. Trump, released her new book.

As Wehner writes, "Elsewhere, Trump has engaged in a bromance with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, the worst persecutor of Christians in the world, and established more intimate and admiring relationships with many of the world’s despots than with leaders of America’s traditional allies. And on issues that have traditionally concerned conservative evangelicals, such as fiscal responsibility and limited government, Trump has been awful: The deficit and the debt exploded under his watch, even pre-pandemic."

Beyond that, of course, Trump's views on race should be an embarrassment to any person of faith who believes God loves everyone, no matter what color a person's skin. As Wehner notes, Trump has recently "tweeted a video of a supporter shouting 'white power' (he later deleted it but has yet to denounce it); attacked NASCAR’s only Black driver, Bubba Wallace, while also criticizing the decision by NASCAR to ban Confederate flags from its races; threatened to veto this year’s annual defense bill if an amendment is included that would require the Pentagon to change the names of bases honoring Confederate military leaders; referred to COVID-19 as “kung flu” during a speech at a church in Phoenix; and blasted two sports teams, the Washington Redskins and the Cleveland Indians, for considering name changes because of concerns by supporters of those franchises that those team names give undue offense."

What supporting such a man does is to bring great shame and disrepute not only on evangelical Christianity but also on Christianity more broadly and, in fact, on religion itself.

The reassuring news is that there are some efforts afoot to convince evangelicals to dump Trump in 2020, as this RNS story reports.

But none of this is to say that we've ever had a perfect president or a perfect presidential candidate. There's even strong evidence that Abraham Lincoln, the "Great Emancipator," was what today would be called a racist bigot and white supremacist. Some of that evidence is found in his remarks at the fourth of the Lincoln-Douglas debates when both Lincoln and Stephen Douglas were running for the U.S. Senate from Illinois in 1858.

If you were unaware of this, you can read Lincoln's words for yourself at the link I just gave you, but here's a highlight:

"I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, [applause]-that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race."

So, yes, Abraham Lincoln demonstrated clearly then that he was a white supremacist, as were most of our early presidents, at least in part because they were living in a system designed from the beginning to recognize whites as superior.

But in this post-George-Floyd-death time, it's time for evangelical Christians -- and all people of faith and people of no faith at all -- to reject the kind of bigotry that Trump spews because it is against everything the great world religions teach. Perhaps some chastened evangelicals will recognize that by the time of the vote in November.

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Here's one more thing that people of faith should find appalling about the direction the Trump administration is moving: The resumption of using the death penalty on federal prisoners. Three people have been executed in just the last few days, the most recent on Friday in Indiana. Thank goodness that, as the RNS piece to which I just linked you reports, faith leaders around the country are speaking out against this outrage: “So much for the ‘pro-life’ administration,” the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author, wrote in a Facebook post. “The taking (of) a life is always immoral. So is the taking (of) a life to punish the taking of another life." Capital punishment is a barbaric holdover from a time that should be long gone.

This guy says he died but God sent him back

Because of all the coronavirus deaths in the U.S. and around the world in recent months, lots of us have been thinking about death more than usual.

Crystal-1(For lots of Americans, usual is never. For some reason many Americans seem to think death is optional. They'll have a rude un-awakening some day.)

When people think about death, they almost automatically think about the possibility of an afterlife, given that most of the great world religions propose some version of that.

So maybe it should be no surprise to read occasional stories about people who have had near-death-experiences and who say they saw God before they returned to life.

That's exactly what a man who is the subject of this strange story says happened to him.

After a car crash in which he almost (and maybe really) died, he says, this happened: "Before I could come to a stop, I found my self standing before this brilliant and awesome light. There was no tunnel. I was standing there in a dark spot in front of this light. All I felt was pure Love. I could not move at all and could not hear or speak.

"There were three figures in front of this light. Two of the figures looked like they were talking to each other. The third one saw me and then approached. He had this glow around him. He had a beard and mustache. He was talking to me, but I couldn't hear him. All of a sudden a figure appeared within the light. All I could make out was a shadow because of how bright the light was. He lifted up his right hand and the only words I heard was, 'Now is not your time.'"

Let's unpack that a little.

Light has often been a synonym for -- or symbol of -- the divine. Indeed, that's been true ever since God said "Let there be light" in one of the Genesis creation stories. Jesus himself described himself as the "light of the world." So in these near-death-experience stories we should not be surprised to find experiences of light.

But did you notice broad hints of Christian Trinitarian theology in the man's story? Three figures showed up there -- suggesting, in the conventional Christian description of God -- Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And perhaps because nearly all depictions of Jesus show him with a beard and mustache, that's what appears to this man.

You and I have no way of knowing what this man really experienced, if anything. We have only his word for what happened. And, therefore, we cannot make any judgment -- and shouldn't -- about whether this really happened to him or about whether this is how God appears to people as they die (or darn near die).

If, in fact, we can and do buy into this story -- or any of countless other stories of faith -- it's simply evidence that we have made the conscious leap from scientifically proven phenomenon to convictions of the heart. We have made a leap of faith. And faith always requires such a leap -- or it is not faith. As the book of Hebrews in the New Testament says, faith "is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."

It's also interesting that something Jesus himself said seems to come into play in this man's story. After Doubting Thomas came to faith and called the risen Christ "My Lord and my God," Jesus replied, "Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don't see and yet believe." There's hardly a better definition of faith than that.

If something like what happened to this man happens to you, let me know. Better yet, keep a camera with you and bring back some photos. All of our 21st Century scientifically bent minds would be grateful for such evidence.

(The photograph here today of the heavens is one that I took a few years ago at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark.)

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The author of this column makes a good point: "(J)ust because I’m aware of the destruction caused by racism, that doesn’t mean I’m automatically sensitive to other forms of racism." He writes as a Black man who once made antisemitic remarks without thinking much about it. It cost him, but he learned through the experience. So here's a good question all of us should ask ourselves: Are there injustices about which we still make jokes?

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P.S.: When the dictatorial president of Turkey recently mandated that the Hagia Sophia, once a Christian Orthodox cathedral, be turned back into a mosque from a museum, it was the wrong and divisive decision for many reasons. My friend Markandey Katju, former justice on India's Supreme Court, writes about some of those reasons in this article. "President Erdogan," he writes, "is trying to set the clock back by trying to convert a secular country into an Islamic one."

When the idea of individual sin isn't enough

It's oversimplifying things to put it this way, but within Christianity there are, broadly, two sometimes-competing ideas about sinfulness.

SystemsOne suggests that sin is always individual in nature. The other, while acknowledging individual sin, suggests that sin often is systemic or more communal in origin.

Generally speaking, people who identify as conservative, evangelical or fundamentalist associate with the first idea about sin, while people who would describe themselves as Mainline or progressive associate with the second.

So it becomes news when someone identified with the first -- in this case a Southern Baptist pastor -- makes the case that Christians worried mostly about individual sin and individual salvation need to broaden their scope and recognize systemic sin -- racism -- where it exists.

As this Religion News Service story reports, Rick Armstrong, the pastor of a start-up church in Arlington, Texas, told fellow Baptists that they “must understand that racism is much more than an individual sin. . .Southern Baptists must embrace the reality of structural, systemic and institutional areas of racism.”

In some ways it's surprising that it has taken this long for some evangelicals to move from a fairly rigid view of sin as individual to a broader view that entire social systems can be unjust. Surely the system of slavery, which the Southern Baptist denomination at the time supported, should have been seen as a systemic plague in hindsight once the Civil War ended -- and slavery with it.

In any case, it's refreshing to see Armstrong and others now making the case that an individual view of sin is inadequate to explain the many ways in which Blacks and others in the U.S. continue to be oppressed and held back from reaching their full human potential.

In what my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), calls the "Confession of 1967," the focus is systemic, not individualistic. The confession, or statement of faith, deals with reconciliation between humans and God and among humans.

It says that those joined to Jesus Christ "by faith are set right with God and commissioned to serve as his reconciling community." In other words, as the confession says later, "To be reconciled to God is to be sent into the world as his reconciling community."

Notice that it doesn't say "his reconciling individual."

As I was writing this blog post, I ran across something from and about President Woodrow Wilson in the 2009 biography of him by John Milton Cooper Jr. that I'm reading. Cooper reports that in an October 1914 speech that Wilson gave to the Pittsburgh chapter of the YMCA, he "applauded faith like theirs, which expressed itself in good works and social reform but he also said that he did not like to think of Christianity 'as a means of saving individual souls.' He was being true to his Presbyterian upbringing, which stressed the workings of God in the world in large ways, not as solace to individuals for life's agonies."

Well, Wilson, I think, went too far in dismissing Christianity as a "means of saving individuals souls." I would say it is about individual salvation but it's also about much more than that. It's about living lives of gratitude in response to God's love of us. To miss that because we're so focused on individual salvation is to miss the point not just of Jesus' life, it seems to me, but also of his death and resurrection.

So how one understands theology can make a difference in how one sees the anti-racism work that many in the U.S. have begun to take more seriously since the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer (to say nothing of other outrages).

The reality is that the U.S. currently has in place unjust systems in the areas of policing, incarceration, health care, education, the environment and more. And these systems cannot be fixed simply by individuals agreeing to treat people who don't look like them nicely.

Systemic problems require systemic solutions. We cannot, for instance, reverse the environmental degradation of the Earth simply by individuals using more efficient light bulbs. System approaches don't remove one's individual relationship with God, but they do serve as reminders that along with that a vertical relationship there must be a horizontal relationship with the rest of humankind, and that relationship inevitably involves various systems that can be -- and often are -- corrupted and in need of repair.

(By the way, The Atlantic just published this interesting story about Black pastors who have taken on the role of helping their white evangelical colleagues say the right things when it comes to racism. It's worth a read.)

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If you're still confused about why Native Americans and others took offense at President Trump holding a Fourth of July celebration at Mount Rushmore, perhaps this backgrounder from RNS will help. The author of the piece notes this: "What we are also failing to see, though, is that there is nothing exceptional about what Trump did: It fits right in with the long history of racist abuse that arrived with European colonists." Indeed.

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P.S.: This year's annual conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists got nixed by the virus, but I just learned my blog won an award. A YouTube roll-out of all the winners is here.