When science studies religion, watch out

Religion is, in so many ways, a mysterious thing, discipline, approach to life, practice.

Science-vs-ReligionI remember some years ago when a guy I know did a study about whether patients in a hospital got better when others prayed for them -- at least better than patients for whom no one was praying. I thought it was a silly study and said so in print.

But science seems insistent on figuring out whether religion is simply something humans make up in this or that section of their brains to get through what life throws at them. It's not that there may not be some interesting questions about religion that science legitimately could explore (such as whether religious people live longer or healthier lives), but most of what I read about scientific looks at religion makes it seem as if researchers are out to prove something instead of really investigate something.

I'm thinking about all of this today in reaction to this article in The Conversation, which discusses studies seeking to know whether atheists and religious people have different kinds of brains.

As you can read in the piece, over time scientists have approached such questions in different ways, rarely with results that have much satisfied anyone.

Part of the problem, I think, is that it's hard for science to measure the true sources (for the moment discounting revelation) of healthy religion, which are awe and wonder. If you distort religion in various ways (as described in my new book, Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety, you wind up about as far from awe and wonder as you can get and as close to dead, life-stealing dogma as you can get.

I'm not saying religion and science don't have things to teach each other. They surely do. And religion makes a great error when it discounts science, especially if it does so in favor of foolishness, such as the idea that Earth is about 6,000 years old. But despite all the questions that science can answer, the one question it can't answer has to do with purpose. Why are we here at all? That's for religion to answer -- or at least try to.

Still, maybe these scientific studies of religion are useful in that they keep researchers employed and keep journalists busy writing about all of this. And that's something.

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A DIVIDED AMERICAN CATHOLICISM

A recent statement from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops critical of President Joe Biden reveals a fairly significant split among American Catholics when it comes to the second Catholic president in our history. This RNS story explores that division, saying, "While the statement was not entirely negative regarding Biden — it also called for more dialogue and cooperation between his administration and Catholic bishops in the country — some members of the clergy viewed it as an unnecessary attack on the incoming president." Imagine a faith community divided over something. Shocking. Or not. By the way, this New Yorker piece deals with this subject in more depth, and I commend it to you. As it reports, ". . .outward measures suggest that a different Catholic moment is at hand. Six of the nine Supreme Court Justices are Catholics. So is Speaker Pelosi. So are at least eight of Biden’s Cabinet nominees. So is Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Yet the terms of engagement have changed dramatically. The Church to which these people all belong is nearly as divided as the country. . ."

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P.S.: The e-version of my just-published book, Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety, got a "No. 1 New Release" flag on its Amazon page earlier this week. If you've had a chance to read the book, I'd love for you to do a review on Amazon. Thanks. Also: FaithAndGrief.org this week released this podcast with me discussing the book and why I wrote it. Give a listen if you have time.

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As we welcome today's change, it's time for a reckoning

We greet a new U.S. president and vice president today, and as we do we should be looking forward to a restoration of civility, of the rule of law, of basic human decency in the White House.

Cross-flagAs many of us are.

But we can't simply walk away from the four-year dumpster fire that constituted the Trump presidency and especially not from the last few weeks that included the 1/6 terrorist attack on the nation's Capitol. It's important that we understand who was behind this national disgrace -- besides Trump himself -- and especially what role some people of faith played in getting us to this terrible spot in our history.

So let's consider several columns and articles today that attempt to explore that question, starting with this analysis in the Jesuit magazine America by Fr. James Martin.

Martin offers a fairly lengthy series of examples of what some Catholic leaders were saying that contributed to the upheaval and division in the U.S. These examples, he writes, "were part of a pattern of messages from bishops and priests casting the election not only in terms of pure good versus pure evil but in apocalyptic language."

And he asks this: "Can anyone doubt that the moral calculus proposed by some Christian leaders, including Catholic priests and bishops, framed in the language of pure good versus pure evil, contributed to the presence of so many rioters brandishing overtly Christian symbols as they carried out their violence?"

The problem is, of course, that despite overwhelming evidence of what Martin just wrote, lots of delusional Americans doubt it and continue to confuse patriotism with faith.

Next, let's look at this analysis from a professor of sociology at Biola University, Brad Christerson. He argues that "a particular segment of white evangelicalism that my colleague Richard Flory and I call Independent Network Charismatic, or INC, has played a unique role in providing a spiritual justification for the movement to overturn the election which resulted in the storming of the Capitol. INC Christianity is a group of high-profile independent leaders who are detached from any formal denomination and cooperate with one another in loose networks."

There is much that the 81 percent of white Christian evangelicals who voted for Trump in 2016 (and the huge majority that continued to support him in the 2020 election) have to explain and atone for. But there are also radical evangelicals such as a coalition known as the Jericho March that Christerson says was "formed after the 2020 presidential election with the goal of overturning its results." And that faith-based coalition clearly contributed to the insurrection of 1/6.

Next, there's this recent report on NPR quoting Ed Stetzer, head of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, as saying that it's time for a reckoning, meaning evangelicals "should look at how their own behaviors and actions may have helped fuel the insurrection." Part of this reckoning, he says, "is: How did we get here? How were we so easily fooled by conspiracy theories? We need to make clear who we are. And our allegiance is to King Jesus, not to what boasting political leader might come next."

Finally, this Washington Post report describes how QAnon conspiracy theorists helped to lead to the 1/6 insurrection, in part, I would add, because QAnon seems to be becoming a new religious movement: "QAnon’s prominence at the Capitol raid," the story says, "shows how powerful the conspiracy theory has become, and how quickly it has established a life of its own. On fringe right-wing platforms and encrypted messaging apps, believers are offering increasingly outlandish theories and sharing ideas for how they can further work to overturn the results of the Nov. 3 contest — with violence, if necessary."

The central point here is that in many cases people of faith abandoned their commitment to the truth, to say nothing of other values, to support Trump and to buy into his bogus charges of election fraud. And because people of faith make up such a large (though shrinking) percentage of the American population, what they think and do makes a huge difference.

It's way past time for confession, repentance and a recommitment to the core religious value of not spreading lies. In the meantime, some prayers for the new administration and new Congress are in order, too.

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STILL RACIALLY SPLIT IN THE U.S.

A new survey of attenders of Black churches shows many feel politically powerless but, by contrast, have some and say in what goes on in their churches. That feeling is, interestingly enough, in harmony with what my former Kansas City Star colleague Charles Coulter reports in his 2006 book, Take Up the Black Man's Burden. There he describes a 1919 Kansas City gathering to celebrate black life in mid-America and notes that "the development of parallel communities (one white and one black), with parallel institutions and organizations, created a safe haven for African Americans in the first half of the twentieth century." But, he writes, "the development of separate black churches, businesses and professional organizations was not an acquiescence to segregation; rather, these groups were essential elements in the fight to integrate African Americans into the mainstream of American society." One hundred years later, that struggle continues. Maybe having a Black (and south Asian) female vice president will help a little. We'll see.

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Cover-lle-hi-resP.S.: My new book, Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety, was published yesterday. Here's a story about it that ran in ReadTheSpirit.com this week. If you missed last night's KC Library YouTube event to introduce this book, the link is here.


What can we do about all the extremism?

I devote quite a bit of space in my new book (which will be published Tuesday and introduced that evening in a virtual event presented by the Kansas City Public Library) to various kinds of extremists, especially, but not exclusively, of the religious variety.

Cover-lle-hi-resI was well aware, of course, that the world continues to be plagued by various kinds of radicalism, but I didn't expect that the book would be published less than two weeks after a sickening mob of mostly white American extremists of various stripe tried to stop certification of the 2020 presidential election with the encouragement of the loser, Donald J. Trump.

That reality, however, gives us all another chance to be better informed about the diverse kinds of extremism currently at work in the U.S., to say nothing of across the globe.

I found this Jewish Telegraph Agency article quite informative about the range of radical organizations whose members participated in the Jan. 6 coup attempt and who continue to draw in supporters from the far edges of society.

The variety is alarming and disheartening. This Associated Press article outlines in similar detail who showed up in response to Trump's call for supporters to be in Washington on Jan. 6 to try to overturn the election results.

The JTA article begins with a description of one of the rioters who was wearing a "Camp Auschwitz" shirt that, on the back, listed the wearer as "Staff." It was, the piece says, "just one of the images of hateful symbols that have circulated from the mob, whose violence led to four (now five) deaths and wreaked havoc on Congress. Confederate flags and nooses were among the overt hate signs that the insurrection brought into the Capitol."

There were also obvious QAnon conspiracy theorist followers, white nationalist Proud Boys, the Neo-Nazi group NSC-131, the Three Percenters, also known as the III% militia, which is an anti-government militia founded in response to the election of President Barack Obama, as the JTA story reports. There also were visible symbols used "by the Boogaloo Bois, a loose affiliate of anti-government militias that comes armed to protests." Also evident in Washington that day were the "Oath Keepers, an anti-government group like the Three Percenters."

Beyond that, symbols displayed in the riot included, as JTA reports, "Kek" flags, Crusader crosses and the "Marvel comic anti-hero The Punisher," to the chagrin of the creator of that character.

Back for a minute to QAnon, which many people believe is becoming a new religious movement. If you're not familiar with this conspiracy movement, read this 2020 Atlantic article about it. Read it and weep. And here is more sobering information about QAnon.

My former Star colleague Judy Thomas has been writing about domestic terrorism since 1994, and recently wrote this piece about how the Capitol riot foreshadows what may yet come. It's a sobering read, but if you missed it last weekend, give it a read now.

Speaking of radicals, in my new book, I devote a chapter to tracing some of the sources of the curdled theology that Osama bin Laden taught to his followers, including the hijackers. Bin Laden took traditional Islam and warped it so badly that it was unrecognizable, not unlike what Ku Klux Klan leaders did -- and do -- to Christianity.

But, in the end, we are not helpless against extremism. The last chapter in my book offers eight approaches that can help to work against fanatical ideas that can and often do lead to violence. It's not an exhaustive list, but perhaps it will give you some ideas that can help prevent the next 9/11, the next 1/6.

We're in for a long struggle against irrationality, baseless conspiracy theories, diseased theology and other extremism. But we're not without tools and we're not without hope. We cannot, however, just sit by and hope someone else will do the work of undermining all this evil.

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AN IDEA FOR A 'NATIONAL HYMN'

The majority whip of the U.S. House of Representatives, James Clyburn, has a great idea: Make "Lift Every Voice and Sing" the national hymn. It wouldn't replace the current national anthem (which I think needs to be replaced), but it's a hymn that speaks of the brutal history of the struggle for racial equity in the U.S. And music often can say what mere words alone can't.

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P.S.: Country Club Christian Church in KC is hosting what promises to be an excellent conversation ("A Life Worth Living") via Zoom with New York Times columnist David Brooks and Yale theologian Miroslav Volf at 7 p.m. (CST) Thursday, Jan. 28. You can register for this free event here.


Should preachers serve in Congress? Why not?

Yes, it's unusual to have a member of the clergy elected to public office. Unusual, but not unique, as this Religion News Service story notes. But the Rev. Raphael Warnock (pictured here), newly elected Democratic senator from Georgia, is in fairly rare company.

WarnockThat company, however, includes the man who represents my district in Congress, Rep. (and Rev.) Emanuel Cleaver II, as the RNS story reports.

Warnock has led Atlanta’s famous Ebenezer Baptist Church since 2005 and will continue doing so, apparently.

This gives us an opportunity to demystify the work of people ordained as pastors, imams, rabbis, priests and other clergy positions.

In fact, folks, they're all just human beings, though many of them would say they feel a special divine calling to do the work that they do.

When we place clergy on too high a pedestal, we create a condition that has plagued the Catholic Church (and some other faith communities) for a long time and still does. It's called clericalism. That's when people think priests can do nothing wrong and no harm and also believe almost anything priests tell them.

Look where that -- and complicit bishops -- got the Catholic Church in the priest abuse scandal.

Among the healthiest models for ordained congregational leaders (well, healthiest in one sense) are clergy who do religious duties only part time and hold down other jobs to earn enough on which to live. The model of that is called "tentmakers" after the Apostle Paul. The value of the model is that it helps people in the pews understand that clergy are real people with worries and interests similar to theirs. The disadvantage is that congregations can end up with uneducated clergy who aren't well enough trained to meet the increasingly complex needs of people and who may wander into bizarre theology because they never had the discipline of a good seminary education.

Clergy who get into politics, of course, have to be careful that they don't use the pulpit to tell congregants how to vote and, thus, put in jeopardy their congregation's tax-exempt status. But the flip side of that is that they may be able to bring a sense of morality and civility to the legislative bodies in which they serve -- and, as we all know, those bodies could use more of all that.

Warnock, as you probably know, brings with him the status of leading the church where the late Martin Luther King Jr. preached for many years in Atlanta. So he understands the church-state divide. But he also understands that the Christian gospel compels people to be involved in improving the lives of people in need. In fact, when people tell me they don't want to hear politics from the pulpit, I ask them why they don't want to hear the gospel. The very first confession of faith used by the early followers of Jesus was "Jesus is Lord." That meant Caesar wasn't Lord. That, folks, is political.

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UNDERSTANDING THE SYMBOLS WE SAW IN D.C.

As you have seen the photos and watched the many videos of the Trump-led insurrectionist riot on Capitol Hill in the 1/6 terrorist attacks, you may have wondered what all the symbols worn by members of the seditious crowd meant. A scholar of antisemitism, in this article from The Conversation, explains many of them from a Jewish perspective. Which is helpful, but not, of course, the only way to view all of this. We also must see the obvious racial aspects that were on on display, such as the well-displayed noose, reflecting racist thinking that motivates some white Christian nationalists. I have seen even people I know spread the lie that Antifa supporters in disguise made up a good part of the crowd that day. This AP article debunks that falsehood. As we move forward, let's remember the people who chose lies over truth (Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, for starters) and let's find ways to use our prophetic voices to stand for truth.

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Cover-lle-hi-resP.S.: At 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 19, I'll be introducing my new book to a virtual audience through the Kansas City Public Library's YouTube account, which you can find at YouTube.com/kclibrary. An RSVP is required to attend. Here's the library calendar page on which to find the event and RSVP. The book is Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety. (The link on the book's name will take you to its Amazon page. This link will take you to its page on Rainy Day Books' website.) The book describes the trauma in my extended family because of the murder of my nephew in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, then explores how people get drawn into radical thinking that can lead to violence and what we can do about it. I hope you'll join me the 19th by going to the library's YouTube page just before the event starts. And let others know, too, by sharing this, please. Thanks.


Are all ethical standards rooted in religion? Good question.

Cole-Imperi-Quality-In-Quality-Out

The world's great religions offer adherents standards of moral behavior to use as guidelines and sometimes as direct commands. Perhaps the most famous example would be the Ten Commandments, laws God gave to the people of Israel.

But beyond that, different cultures have developed standards for ethical behavior -- standards not necessarily informed by religious thinking. And yet they are standards that often are in harmony with what religions might teach or advocate.

I was thinking about those differences the other day when I read this article by a woman I met a couple of years ago when she was a presenter at an annual conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, of which I used to be president.

Cole Imperi describes herself as a thanatologist and has worked with death and dying in all kinds of ways over the last 13-plus years. She's founder of the School of American Thanatology.

And in the article she raises the ethical question of whether people who are "deathworkers" should "consume true crime media."

Deathworkers, she says, include "anyone who works with death, dying, grief, loss and/or bereavement. You might be a deathworker if you are a death companion, grief counselor, coroner, funeral director, thanatologist, embalmer, cemetery superintendent, crematory operator, hospice nurse, oncologist, chaplain, member of the clergy or member of your local Chevra Kadisha. If part of your job involves dying, death, grief or bereavement then you are a deathworker. "

And what is "true crime media"? (It's a term that I had to guess at, one with which I was only vaguely familiar.) I immediately thought of the kinds of post-murder reports sometimes found on such TV news/documentary shows as "20-20." You know, the shows where they spend most of an hour recounting an intriguing murder and who committed it.

But Cole mostly focuses on podcasts about such crimes -- podcasts to which, I admit, I've never listened but which seem to have a pretty large audience.

Cole asks this: "As a deathworker, is it ethical for you to consume true crime media? Is it right that you help people ‘have a good death’ while you also consume — as entertainment — stories of terrible deaths? Is it OK to be entertained by a ‘bad death’ only to turn around the next day and help others attain a ‘good death’? As a deathworker, would you disclose to a family recovering from a murder that you really enjoy listening to details about how other people were murdered? And that you might even be in a Facebook group where you talk about all the gory details?"

She makes it clear that she's just asking these questions to get people to think about them and is not directly questioning the motives of anyone.

That's what good ethicists do -- they challenge us to think in some detail about the ethical challenges that inevitably come our way because we live in a world with others. And, as I say, I think good ethicists, such as those who work for the Center for Practical Bioethics in Kansas City, do work that runs in parallel with moral teachings of religions even if those ethicists are not personally connected with any religion and may well reject religion altogether.

Both good systems of ethics and well thought out religious moral standards can guide us by requiring us to develop lists of what is important and what, by contrast, is peripheral. Where, for instance, does the preservation of life fall on such a list for you? First? Then what do you do, if you have a chance to influence the decision, when someone with an obviously terminal illness is in such unmitigated pain that he or she wishes to die instead of spending one more day suffering? And what do you do about people who have committed brutal murder but who now want to live even though the state has sentenced them to be executed?

I may be wrong, but it seems to me that good religious principles almost inevitably lead to good ethical principles. Yes, you can get to good ethical principles without rooting them in religion, but I don't think you can have good religious principles without also winding up with good ethical principles -- at least not if you take those religious principles seriously. In some ways this raises the old question of whether you can be good without God. My answer is yes, but the reasons to be good if there is no god are different and have more to do with safety and self-preservation in a system that might otherwise run amok without rules. It's why, for instance, we have stoplights and traffic laws. Without them there might be dangerous chaos.

I personally prefer to root my ethical standards in religious thinking. One reason is that it requires me to think of other people as children of God and not simply collections of cells that I need to deal with.

On a national radio call-in show a few days ago, physicians were taking calls about the Covid vaccines. A man wanted to know why, if he's been vaccinated, he should care about the no-mask fools who don't believe in science and won't get vaccinated. After all, he said, at least he has protected himself.

The doctor who answered acknowledged his point but then suggested that we all should care about the welfare of our fellow humans (a religious idea) because no-vaxxers can infect others about whom we might care. Pretty soon in this discussion, ethics and religious principles were playing bumper cars. I could have listened all morning, but it was time for the news -- about a dangerous president with no ethics or morals at all trying to overturn an election so he could stay in power. Sigh.

(The artwork here today by Cole Imperi is found at the site where Cole's article is found and is used here with her permission.)

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DID THE INSURRECTION REVEAL THE TRUE AMERICA?

For this second item, I want to link to you several stories related to the Trump-encouraged insurrectionist riot in Washington, D.C., this week. This first piece is about faith organizations calling for the president's impeachment and removal from office. In a statement, they said this: “Every moment that he remains in office is a severe danger to our country.” (That's been true for almost four years and remains even more so now.) In this article, Catholic leaders are quoted as condemning the violence on Capitol Hill. They called the attack on the Capitol “sinful” and “appalling,” and declared (against a lot of evidence to the contrary) that “this is not who we are as Americans.” Finally, this article describes a prayer vigil in Tennessee led by state legislators that took place at the same time as the Trump rally in D.C. that preceded the attack on the Capitol building. In it, lawmakers are quoted as repeating the same lies about a fraudulent election that Trump has been spewing since Nov. 3 and that such demagogues as Sen. Josh Hawley (R.-Mo) have been repeating. It's sickening. As for who we are as Americans, Trump has not changed who we are so much as he has revealed who we are. It's a sobering picture, a mixture of heartwarming, generous patriotism and appalling spreaders of delusions and lies that lead to violence. I vote that we chose to be the former. You?

By the way, the Rabbinical Association of Greater Kansas City has issued this statement in response to the coup attempt in Washington:

We, the members of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Kansas City, are saddened by the events that transpired on January 6th, 2021 in our Nation’s capitol. We mourn the loss of human life and deplore the destruction of property. We are dismayed that our president incited and encouraged the seditionists who stormed the halls of Congress with the purpose of overthrowing democracy. In addition, we are alarmed at seeing the pictures of individuals openly wearing slogans desecrating the Holocaust.
 
We are united in denouncing these acts of domestic terrorism as well as those who support or abate its cause: the troublesome resurgence of Neo-Nazi and white supremacist ideology which we have witnessed in our country since January of 2017. The Neo-Nazis who stormed our US Capitol at the urging of the sitting president are a threat to us as Jews, to the Black and Brown communities, and to all who celebrate the strength of our diversity.
 
We call the Jewish community and our Nation to be vigilant in our opposition to political violence, and we must do so peacefully. Two-thousand years ago, Rabbi Hillel taught: "Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace.”
 
It is not enough to love peace in our hearts, we must do what we can to bring people together, to make peace happen, to stress our commonality above our differences; to stress our common concerns for the health and safety of our families, and the fair treatment of every human being. 
 
Let us commit once again to be rod’fei shalom, people who pursue peace daily. Loving and actively pursuing peace is how we show that we all want to make this country better. We pray that January 20th will bring about a renewed opportunity for us to move forward as a people who value the Divine image that each of us carries within. 

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Cover-lle-hi-resP.S.: At 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 19, I'll be introducing my new book to a virtual audience through the Kansas City Public Library's YouTube account, which you can find at YouTube.com/kclibrary. The book is Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety. (The link on the book's name will take you to its Amazon page. This link will take you to its page on Rainy Day Books' website.) The book describes the trauma in my extended family because of the murder of my nephew in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, then explores how people get drawn into radical thinking that can lead to violence and what we can do about it. I hope you'll join me the 19th by going to the library's YouTube page just before the event starts. And let others know, too, by sharing this, please. Thanks.


The Trump-inspired catastrophe that happened Wednesday

You know things can't be going well when you get this message from your church after sunset, as I did last night:

Divided-flag"This has been a difficult day for our country and democracy. It is times like these when we are called to come together to pray, even when we don't know what to say, and to hold each other and be held by God."

Then we were invited to join in a brief time of prayer and reflection via Zoom last night.

So members of my congregation did, remembering, in the words of my pastor, Paul Rock, that "the sadness is real, the anger and the embarrassment and the frustration are real," but "love is the thing we hold to."

Prayer is important, I believe, but as I say to a weekly Bible study group I help to lead, so is action and so is the prophetic voice that each of us has. By prophetic voice, I don't mean some weird ability to predict the future. Rather, I mean the obligation that people of faith have to speak truth to power, to describe what they see going wrong and their ideas for fixing it. A prophetic voice is a way of saying publicly that what is breaking God's heart is also breaking ours, and we won't be silent about it.

So even though we seem to have entered a post-truth period in this country, here is what I believe to be true about what happened in Washington, D.C., yesterday and what I believe we should do about it in response:

-- The president of the United States yesterday, in harmony with his behavior the last four years, encouraged a treasonous insurrection by his followers that played out at the nation's Capitol building.

-- The president was aided by some elected officials who were willing to repeat the lies he has repeatedly told about the election being stolen from him -- delusional lies that he by now may have come to believe. One of those who aided and abetted the president's coup attempt was one of my own senators, Josh Hawley of Missouri, who needlessly sought to object to Trump's loss.

-- President-elect Joe Biden, in a clear and forceful statement, called on Trump supporters to stop their rioting and insurrection and asked the president to make a clear statement that the rioting and violence needs to stop. The president ignored Biden.

-- As we work to support elected officials who understand their Constitutional duty and are willing to perform it, we must communicate our thanks to them and show our support in whatever way we can.

-- We should publicly denounce officials who failed to protect the nation yesterday.

-- We should pray for peace, calm and reason to prevail. We also should pray for the family of the woman who was shot and killed and for others who were injured. 

-- We should find ways to support public officials, especially Republicans, who condemned the president's words and actions and who now may pay a political price for their courage.

-- Finally, the hardest part: We must recognize that even every single insurrectionist, sucked in by conspiracy theories and lies, is a child of God and a fellow human being and must be treated as such.

I'm confident that our nation will survive this president-led catastrophe. But healing will take time. Let's be firm about maintaining the law but gentle with each other as we find our way from this darkness to more light.


Why does tax money go to hire congressional chaplains?

In the fall of 1990, I spent a week writing columns from Washington, D.C., just for the alleged fun of it. While I was there, I dropped in on the chaplain of the U.S. Senate, the Rev. Richard C. Halverson, whom I'd met before, just to say hello. Nice man. Lots of admirers, as you can see from the first link I gave you, which will take you to tributes paid to him at his death in 1995.

KibbenIn fact, my guess is that most members of Congress and others who come into contact with any of the people who have served as chaplain of the House or Senate would have nice things to say about them. I'm sure that also will be true about Rear Admiral Margaret Grun Kibben (pictured here), who just became the first woman to serve as chaplain to the U.S. House of Representatives, as this RNS story reports.

So my issue with the chaplaincy offices in Congress have nothing to do with the civility of the people who now serve there or who served in the past. Rather, I think the office should be filled by a series of volunteers and not funded with taxes. I'm not sure exactly what the House chaplain earns as a salary now, but as this report shows about 10 years ago the salary was $172,500. (And here is the history of the chaplaincy from its own website.)

Chaplains open sessions of the House and Senate with prayer. And they're available for individual counseling and pastoral care. If it were up to me, I'd set up a system in which one person would be appointed to be House or Senate chaplain for a month, with no salary but with his or her temporary housing and meals covered (maybe by Congress, better by a faith-based foundation of some kind). And I'd make sure that chaplains of all the world's great religions would be eligible to be appointed.

I just don't like taxpayer money being spent on paying clergy -- at least in this case. It crosses the church-state line, I think.

And yet, perhaps as an indication of my inconsistency, I think it's perfectly all right to have military chaplains and to pay  them with tax dollars. Indeed, I would argue that the services they provide to people in uniform are, in many ways, essential to the readiness of our troops and, thus, to our national security. They provide full-time help, especially in times and theaters of war -- help that would be impossible to provide on a volunteer basis.

So I'm happy that Pastor Kibben (like me, a Presbyterian) has broken the stained-glass ceiling to become the first female House chaplain. But I'd much prefer she have the job for a month on a volunteer basis and then let someone else have it. Maybe I'll write my Congressman (a male holds that job) and tell him to fix this. Anyone with me?

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THE RELIGIOUS MAKEUP OF THE NEW CONGRESS

Like U.S. Houses and U.S. Senates before, the new ones are made up mostly of people who identify as Christian, this RNS report notes. The question, of course, is whether that matters. And maybe the larger question is what sort of Christians we're talking about, given that they come in a wide variety. One interesting thing about the religious makeup of the new Congress is that despite the fact that some 25 percent of adult Americans now identify as religiously unaffiliated (known as the "nones"), Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat from Arizona, is the only member of the new Congress to identify that way. Clearly the nones aren't very well organized politically. What I'll be watching in this new term is how Congress will respond after four years of a president who had no moral center at all.

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P.S.: At 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 19, I'll be introducing my new book to a virtual audience through the Kansas City Public Library's YouTube account, which you can find at YouTube.com/kclibrary. The book is Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety. (The link on the book's name will take you to its Amazon page. This link will take you to its page on Rainy Day Books' website.) The book describes the trauma in my extended family because of the murder of my nephew in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, then explores how people get drawn into radical thinking that can lead to violence and what we can do about it. I hope you'll join me the 19th. And let others know, too, by sharing this, please.


Is religion 'preposterous'? Yes, and often on purpose

I found it intriguing that Atlantic writer McKay Coppins, in this  article about Mormonism (Coppins is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), used the term "preposterous" as a description of some Mormon beliefs.

Religions-of-the-worldCoppins dug back into the magazine's ancient archives to find an 1863 article about his faith tradition, founded in America in the early 1800s just outside Rochester, N.Y. He writes this:

"In 1863, a writer for The Atlantic named Fitz-Hugh Ludlow traveled to the Mormon settlement in Utah, and was surprised by what he found. In his 11,000-word dispatch, Ludlow presented the strange desert civilization of exiles as a study in contradictions. The Mormons were clearly theocratic, yet he found no evidence of corruption. Their open embrace of polygamy was scandalous, yet somehow appeared more practical than lascivious. Their beliefs were preposterous, but sincere."

Preposterous. It's an interesting word. The "pre" part of it refers to something coming before something else. The "post" part of it refers to something coming after something else. So in something that's preposterous, the thing that should be first by normal reasoning comes last and the thing that comes last, by normal reasoning, should be first.

If you know much about the New Testament, perhaps this is ringing a bell. Hear what Jesus is reported saying in Matthew 20:16: "So those who are last will be first. And those who are first will be last."

Preposterous.

It's what healthy religion does. It challenges conventional wisdom. It puts beggars at the banquet table.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, refers to this upside down god in the first chapter of the gospel of Luke in what's called "The Magnificat." Hear her preposterous words:

"He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations. He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed."

You can find this kind of preposterousness -- or at least some claims for it -- in all or nearly all the great world religions. For instance, many people have contended that the the angel Gabriel spoke the Qur'an to an illiterate man named Muhammad. There are questions about whether the Prophet Muhammad was really illiterate, but if he was it's an example of something preposterous, an illiterate man coming out with such a book. The Buddha preposterously walked away from family wealth to devote his life to a world full of sufferers. Moses killed a man but God chose him anyway to lead the people of Israel from slavery to freedom. Jesus was murdered on a cross on a Friday but rose from the dead on Sunday.

And on and on.

The point, of course, is not that religion should be rejected because it contains preposterous stories. The point, rather, is that adherents of one faith tradition should be instinctively reluctant to criticize the stories of another faith because it can rightly be said that all religions offer preposterous stories and thoughts -- and often do that on purpose.

That doesn't mean we toss out reason and rationality when it comes to faith so that absolutely anything goes. That's how you get to hijackers murdering people so they can spend eternity with 72 virgins each. But to call aspects of religions not our own preposterous is to fail to recognize those aspects in our own that deserve that term, too.

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A PEEK AHEAD AT THE RELIGIOUS SCENE

You are welcome to look back on 2020 all you want, given that it's sometimes hard to stop staring at a multi-car wreck. But it's 2021, and I'm focusing on what's ahead. So is Religion News Service, which, in this article, looks toward stories its reporters expect to be covering this year. And so is the National Catholic Reporter, which, in this article, quotes experts on what they see coming on the religious scene in 2021. In the meantime, let's stay well, get vaccinated and be kind to one another. (Is that so preposterous to imagine?)


Thinking about The Star's apology for racist coverage

Downtown-KC

I was happy (though, as you will see, with understandably mixed personal feelings) to learn that journalism was changing for the better in terms of the racial makeup of those hired to cover the news when, in late 1969 or early 1970, the managing editor of the now-defunct Washington Evening Star (later The Washington Star) told me he'd hire me in a minute if I were Black.

I told him I understood and agreed with his desire to bring more people of color onto his reporting team, though that meant that I would have to look elsewhere if I wanted to leave the staff of the (also-now-defunct) Rochester (N.Y.) Times-Union, where I began work as a reporter in 1967, the year I graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

I devoted a fair amount of my time in Rochester covering matters that related directly to the Black community -- from writing about the effects of the new federal Model Cities program there to covering an organization established to promote and protect the interests of Black people in housing, education, employment and other areas -- to say nothing of covering the story when Black students at what then was called the Colgate Rochester Divinity School (Now Colgate Rochester Crozer) protested the lack of Black faculty (along with other issues) by taking control of the main administration building for a week or so.

All of which is prelude to saying a few words about the recent series of articles in The Kansas City Star that explored (and apologized for) the various ways the newspaper here failed to cover Black lives fairly or justly for much of its 140-year history. You can find those articles here. If you haven't read them all, please do.

I came to The Star as a general assignment reporter in 1970 with the understanding that my experience in Rochester would be drawn on to help the staff report on urban dynamics, race relations and related topics. (Indeed, one of the first stories I worked on had to do with racial discrimination alleged by Black soldiers stationed at Fort Riley in Kansas.)

The reporting and editing staff that I joined was -- no surprise -- predominantly white, though the newspaper already had two or three Black reporters (and at least one Black photographer) on staff. By then, The Star had abandoned its long and racist practice of refusing to run obituaries of Black people or print wedding or engagement announcements of Black people. In other words, at least some light was entering the old building at 18th and Grand, though much more was needed.

(When I took formal retirement from The Star, one of the people who came to a party at my house to celebrate was my former Star reporting colleague Geri Gosa [pictured here with me], who later became a TV reporter at Channel 5 in KC. She wasn't the first Black reporter at The Star, but she helped to normalize the idea that Blacks and other people of color belonged on the reporting staff.)

Retire 022In my years as a reporter (before I became an editorial page columnist in 1977), I wrote a fair amount about subjects that the newspaper had pretty much ignored until roughly the 1960s -- housing segregation patterns, racial turnover in neighborhoods, public housing issues, redlining and similar concerns.

Perhaps my most productive year covering such matters came in 1975. I wrote (with a shared byline on one of the pieces) three long articles that year in this general subject area:

1. I demonstrated that about 50 square miles of the city -- Truman Road to 75th, Troost to I-435, where the population was predominantly Black -- had been redlined by conventional mortgage lenders. And I wrote about the damage that did to the city.

2. I then explored the question of how, without conventional mortgage lenders, property in that area changed hands and why the inherently racist and make-do system inevitably led to deteriorating neighborhoods.

3. I also focused on one square block in that area for articles that described how racial turnover -- white to Black -- swept through it and what systems were at work to cause upheaval to people's lives and to take unfair advantage of people of color.

I was proud of that work but, as I look back on it now, I acknowledge that had I been part of a racially integrated team of reporters the articles could have been much deeper and more enlightening. My experience of living for two years in India as a boy had helped to give me a sense of what it is like not to be part of a dominant culture, but that's not the same as having one or more Black partners in reporting the articles I've listed above.

As I look at this history as someone whose work now focuses primarily on matters of religion, I see that what the white leaders of The Star were doing for at least the first 80 or 90 years of the paper's existence was violating the foundational religious idea that all people -- all people -- should be treated with dignity and respect because they all are equal in God's sight.

This failure to live by basic and essential religious standards was not (and still is not) surprising when we understand how Christians in a nation where a majority of the population still identifies as Christian have routinely violated that fundamental teaching about the essential dignity of all human beings. Think of slavery. Think of the many ways women have been treated as second-class citizens. Think of how LGBTQ+ people have been crushed over and over. And on and on.

Acknowledgment of one's own failures is the first step in fixing them. That confession took too long for The Star to get to, but under editor Mike Fannin it's now been offered. Now the more difficult work must proceed to make sure that systemic racism is obliterated from internal Star systems and from its coverage of our community.

From back in the 1950s, when my church-sponsored Cub Scout troop in Woodstock, Ill., used to put on sickeningly racist minstrel shows, until the now, many good things have happened in race relations -- but at enormous cost and with great resistance. However, the sickness of white supremacy that was present at our nation's birth and incorporated into its founding documents still hasn't been obliterated from our community, our culture, our nation. Let's commit to making more progress toward uprooting that evil in 2021 (that's primarily a job for white people), when it appears we'll have national leadership that will help with that project instead of encouraging its opposite.

(If you know Kansas City and look carefully at the upper right center of the photo at the top here that I took a couple of years ago from the Liberty Memorial tower, you can see both the old Star building at 1729 Grand, where I spent most of my career, and the new Star building nearby.)

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SOUTHERN BAPTISTS STUMBLE INTO RACIAL TURMOIL

As we continue to think about race here today (and, by the way, race is a social/political construct, not a biological one), let's look at least briefly at the current race controversy within the Southern Baptist Convention. The SBC, as you may know, was created in 1845 as a church of Southern slaveholders. In more recent times it has apologized for its racist history and issued this long report on that history. But in recent weeks, the denomination kicked a hornet's nest when its six seminary presidents, including Jason K. Allen of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary here in Kansas City, issued a joint statement that denounced what is known as Critical Race Theory. (The link I've just given you will give you a pretty good sense of what CRT is about.) Now those SBC seminary presidents are being criticized in various ways and are defending their statement. It's unclear, at least to me, why they felt it necessary in the first place to issue the public statement critical of CRT instead of simply having an internal SBC debate or conversation about what aspects of CRT might be useful and what might not be for an organization so marinated in racism from its origin. Still, this gives all of us a chance to dig a little into CRT and decide whether it's a helpful way to conceive of answers that finally might help us recognize the long, sorrowful history of white supremacy in the U.S. and then work against it going forward.

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column describes my new book, which will be published Jan. 19. The column now is online here.


Is there any hope for hope in 2021?

Life

Some years ago, when I was still writing the "Starbeams" column for The Kansas City Star (they were quips, satire and often-snarky but allegedly humorous remarks about current events and our culture), I wrote one for the front page for the first day of February at a time when brutal winter weather just seemed unwilling to disappear.

All the beam said was: "Jan. 31, Jan. 32, Jan. 33, Jan. 34. . ."

I'm feeling the same way about 2020, which should be sent to reform school. Yes, Jan. 1, 2021, is coming in a few days, and there are some signs of coming improvements in health, politics and other fields. But my realistic self tells me that January, February, March, April and maybe even May are going to feel a lot like March through December of 2020, especially if lots of Americans refuse to get vaccinated and if we lose the focus on systemic racism that we had for a time in the summer of 2020.

So where do we find hope in such a time as this?

We find it, I think, right in the middle of our darkness, our hopelessness.

The French Reformed theologian Jacques Ellul helped me understand that unexpected, ironic answer some years ago when I read his 1972 book called Hope in Time of Abandonment.

He was, of course, speaking to people of faith, but in many ways his ideas are applicable to almost anyone who is nearing the end of 2020 in a state of anxiety or near-despair.

Some words from Ellul:

-- "(H)ope is indeed that which most completely expresses the will of this God."

-- "Hope comes alive only in the dreary silence of God, in our loneliness before a closed heaven, in our abandonment. Man is going to express his hope that God's silence is neither basic nor final, nor a cancellation of what we had laid hold of as a Word from God."

-- "The hope is that this Word of God might once again be spoken, might again be born and might again be decisive. But it is more than that. It is not only expectation or certitude. It is demand. When God is silent he has to be made to talk. When God turns away, he has to be made to turn back to us again. When God seems dead, he has to be made to exist."

-- "It (hope) is a challenge directed at God. Hence, in a sense, it could be said that hope is blaphemous. It actually rejects the decision of God's silence. . .It does not ratify God's will to turn away.  . .It appeals to God against God. It demands an accounting of God, who is not acting the way he had said and had shown that he acts. Hope is. . .a demand that God keep his word."

So as 2020 slips away, rightfully embarrassed and apologetic, our task in 2021 is to demand better -- of ourselves, of others and even of God. There is much we cannot control. But we can control whether we have an active hope (not unlike the small green, insistent and hopeful plant growing right out of the rock fence in my photo above). That kind of hope differs rather radically from optimism, which rarely amounts to anything more than whistling past the graveyard.

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A MODEL FOR 'REPARATIONS'?

For years now there has been talk -- and mostly just talk -- about doing something significant to acknowledge the many ways in which slavery, the failure of Reconstruction after the Civil War, Jim Crow and other racial outrages did damage to our nation and especially to its Black citizens. Sometimes suggested fixes include "reparations," which many people think of as just money but which really starts with public truth-telling. There is at least one example in the U.S. of reparations being used to good effect, and that is in Rosewood, Fla., in response to the Jan. 1, 1923, massacre of Blacks in that small town. This RNS story describes what happened and then, decades later, what finally happened in terms of reparations and how that has worked. A descendant of the slaughtered Rosewood citizens says this: “In America, as an African American, I do feel that reparations are definitely warranted. Rosewood is a great example that it can definitely be done.” Faith plays a larger part of this story. The way reparations have worked there may not be a perfect model for elsewhere or nationally, but it is nonetheless worth studying.

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Cover-lle-hi-resP.S.: You can pre-order my new book, Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety, here on Amazon in hardback, paperback or e-version. (Publication date is Jan. 19.) Or email me at wtammeus@gmail.com and we can work out getting you a signed copy.

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ANOTHER P.S.: My latest Flatland column, which describes why I wrote my new book, now is online here.