When Earth is seen not as owned property but as a gift


ALMA, Kan. -- In the serendipitous way the world often seems to work, I'm here in the Flint Hills for a few days and reading a book that contains an essay by a man who should have spent a few days in the Flint Hills before writing what he did.

Alma-14Lewis Thomas (1913-1993), a biologist and physician, says this in a 1974 essay called "The Lives of a Cell": "(I)t is an illusion to think that there is anything fragile about the life of the earth; surely this is the toughest membrane imaginable in the universe, opaque to probability, impermeable to death." (You can find his essay on page 701 of The Glorious American Essay, edited by Phillip Lopate.)

Even though Thomas goes on to make some valid points about the vulnerability of humans, that sentence alone today would be enough to affix on him the label of climate change denier.

We know now, after all, that not only is life on Earth fragile, so is the earth itself, despite its remarkable ability to withstand and recover from abuse.

I don't want to be too hard on Thomas, for, after all, it's quite possible that had he spent some time here in the subtly and disarmingly beautiful Flint Hills, he might have used this area as proof of his idea that Earth is "impermeable to death."

After all, it's possible to drive for miles and miles on gravel roads and to see land that today looks virtually untouched by human hands. Some years ago, in fact, I remember standing on a hill outside Salina with Wes Jackson, the genius behind the Land Institute, while Wes pointed out to me a patch of land that hadn't been plowed or disturbed by humanity since time began. He was using that land to make the point that, as he said, humankind "has been farming wrong for 10,000 years."

One of the best places to get a sense of the fragility of our planet in the hands of humanity is to visit the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve here in the Flint Hills. As the National Parks Service folks who run the place like to point out, "Tallgrass prairie once covered 170 million acres of North America, but within a generation most of it had been transformed into farmland. Today less than 4 percent remains intact, mostly in the Kansas Flint Hills."

Alma-18The world's great religions advocate the idea -- in various ways and with varying success -- that humanity should be a wise and careful steward of our planet. But sometimes certain verses of scripture are taken as license for an authoritarian attitude toward the environment. In one of the creation stories in the book of Genesis, for instance, we read this in the King James Version of the Bible: "God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth."

Subdue it. Have dominion.

That's pretty far from the idea among Native Americans that they belong to the land and that the land and the plants it sustains have much to teach people because they've been around much longer than people.

Alma-3What it takes to look out at the gentle slopes and falls of the Flint Hills and see something other than land to conquer is the observational skills of author Annie Dillard, whose first book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, showed what a keen eye and mind she had.

In a 1974 essay (also in the book I mentioned above), Dillard describes not just Tinker Creek but also Carvin Creek in Virginia's Roanoke Valley this way: "The creeks. . .are an active mystery, fresh every minute. Theirs is the mystery of the continuous creation and all that providence implies: the uncertainty of vision, the horror of the fixed, the dissolution of the present, the intricacy of beauty, the pressure of fecundity, the elusiveness of the free, and the flawed nature of perfection."

The plains, the Flint Hills, the prairie -- these, too, are active mystery, fresh every minute. But to see that you can't look at the land as a resource, as a servant to be restrained by dozens of kinds of barbed wire, such as the examples seen in the photo on the left, taken in a museum in Cottonwood Falls, Kan. Instead, you must look at it as a gift to be cherished, cared for, even loved.


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A new study indicates that "church attendance reduces the prevalence of substance-related crimes and white-collar crimes” and that when it rains on Sunday, fewer people go to church so crime increases. The study is called "Sinning in the Rain," and I think the title of it is considerably more clever than its findings. But at least the people who are doing these kinds of studies aren't, instead, out committing crimes. Well, unless they're doing that, too.

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Giving-machinesP.S.: Kansas City is one of 10 cities nationwide hosting Light the World Giving Machines through December. The KC machines, located near the ice rink at Crown Center, are sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and allow people to make charitable contributions to a variety of agencies. The credit card fees and all other expenses are covered by the church so 100 percent of what donors give will go to the charity chosen. Even KC Wolf thinks this is a cool idea.

We can see through this glass not darkly but spectacularly

Sometimes a worthy cause finds you -- and won't let you go.

Poems-in-glassIn some ways, that's what happened to architect and glass artist Hasna Sal when she met a victim of human trafficking. Hasna knew she couldn't be silent about this evil practice. So she used her words and her lovely art to tell both Kansas City and the world what was happening to women and to honor their struggle to emerge from this slavery as whole people.

One result is her new book, Poems in Glass, full of poetry and prose and photos of her art.

It's a lovely, inspiring little volume that will touch your heart if you give it a chance.

I wrote a bit about Hasna and her artwork just a year ago here. You can see there not only her "Nativity Triptych," a stunning and creative look at the Holy Family (crafted by a woman who grew up in a Muslim home in India), but also a photo of one of the panels in a multi-panel work she did in conjunction with Habitat for Humanity of Kansas City and the Lykins Neighborhood Association.

That installation is described as the first exterior memorial in the nation for victims of human trafficking. To see a short video about it, click here. A much longer video in which the artist explains the work can be viewed here.

But the new book shows off this artist's skills as both a weaver of glass and color but also a weaver of words in prose and poetry forms. Her primary medium is, of course, the art. But the words give depth of meaning to what viewers see in what she does to shape glass into messages about the spiritual nature of humanity.

As she said of the book in a recent KKFI radio interview:

“This work is a compilation of two years of work that emerged from my experiences with the world of human trafficking and my interactions with victims of trafficking. It’s a journey I fell into about a year and a half ago when I met the first survivor. . .at Lykins Square Park. I learned so much from them. I was inspired to create a memorial for them.”

So she worked a year and a half pro bono to create the outdoor memorial. Indeed, in the book she writes that "glass is a metaphor for survivor."

And she writes that "glass creates a place of healing. When sunlight pours through the glass and bathes the viewer in colorful light, it becomes a spiritual cleansing. One attains nirvana."

“This book," she said, "is a result of all these feelings that I could not resolve. The result of my work was really the sculptures. The writing was an afterthought.”

Which just proves that sometimes afterthoughts can be both deep and moving.

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The long history of the U.S. Supreme Court making rulings about religious freedom will add another chapter in December in a case from Maine, Carson v. Makin. This article from The Conversation provides some helpful background to grasp the evolving way the court has considered such cases. As the article notes, "Carson is unlikely to end disagreements over the limits of using taxpayer funds to assist students who attend religious schools. However, it will likely provide an indication of the Supreme Court’s position on the future of the child benefit test, as it seems to be softening on its attitude of maintaining a wall of separation between church and state when it comes to education and aid to students who attend religious schools."

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Cover-lle-hi-res TWJP-coverP.S.: If you're interested in giving any of my books as holiday gifts, they're all listed on my Amazon author's page here. I have a few autographed copies available, too. If you e-mail me at wtammeus@gmail.com I'll tell you how we can arrange to get you one (or more) of those.

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ANOTHER P.S.: If you missed my most recent Flatland column -- about a KC pastor who refuses to be a bystander in the face of need -- you'll find it here.

How should we commemorate the anniversary of Jan. 6?

A rabbi has an intriguing idea worth considering as we think about ways we could remember and commemorate the upcoming first anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection at our nation's Capitol.

1-6-insurrectionRabbi , writing for Religion News Service, proposes that Americans engage in a fast that day. He writes:

"Congress or the White House should echo the prophet Joel, who proclaimed:

Solemnize a fast,
Proclaim an assembly;
Gather the elders — all the inhabitants of the land —
In the House of the LORD your God,
And cry out to the LORD

". . .Ritual observances need to be established immediately, before purveyors of falsehoods seize the storyline, distorting what really happened. There is not a minute to spare."

As this New World Encyclopedia entry notes, "Fasting for religious and spiritual reasons has been a part of human custom since pre-history. . .Since fasting involves exercising control of the physical body, many religions consider fasting a way to cultivate mental discipline, and use it in connection with prayer or meditation to make it a more powerful experience."

I have almost never fasted. It's simply not been one of my spiritual disciplines, though I'm aware of Jewish and Muslim friends who participate in fasts according to their religious calendars. And, years ago, one of the senior pastors and an associate pastor at my congregation elected to fast during Lent, sticking to a liquid-only diet. But I'm not sure they exactly kept the rules. By the end of the season, I know, they were taking peanut butter and other solids and running them through a blender to make them as close to liquid as they could.

And I'm not sure they fooled anyone.

Still, fasting -- whether for religious or secular reasons -- is a time-honored way to focus the mind and the heart on something that needs attention or needs to be remembered. And, for sure, the brutal Jan. 6 insurrection, whose leaders bought Donald Trump's Big Lie that he won the 2020 presidential election, must be both remembered and understood. Despite considerable investigation into what happened, how and who was behind it, there still is much we don't know.

So as we wait for an accurate, full, clear history of what happened and why, we need to mark Jan. 6 each year in some appropriate way -- and then continue to do so annually so that we don't lose sight of how close America came to blowing up its democratic system.

Rabbi Hammerman notes that "there is no (American) fast day tied to a cataclysmic event; not for Pearl Harbor, 9/11 or the Civil War. Jan. 6 deserves one. As happened in ancient Jerusalem, America’s sacred precinct was desecrated, this time not by Romans bearing pigs, but by cretins bearing Confederate flags and feces. The Capitol was quickly washed and fixed up for the inauguration, but it was never ritually cleansed and rededicated like the ancient Temple in Jerusalem after some of its desecrations (that’s how Hanukkah came to be). And neither have we been cleansed of the stain inflicted upon our democracy. Our blemished Capitol and our sullied democracy still need that moment of cleansing and rededication."

Hammerman is not arguing for a religious ceremony but, rather, for a civil observance. If you have other ideas for how to commemorate Jan. 6, I'd like to hear them.

(The Associated Press photo shown here today came from this site.) 

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Another dangerous new variant of the Coronavirus seems to have spooked the world overnight. And, no doubt, we should follow closely this development to see how much we're all in increased danger. But let's not forget that we have learned a great deal about what to do -- and not do -- when faced with such a killer. We don't need to reinvent the pandemic wheel. Humans are resourceful and inventive, and are -- the Abrahamic faiths tell us -- made in the image of God. Let's be that now at our best.

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Cover-lle-hi-res Cover-Value of Doubt
: If you're interested in giving any of the books I've written as holiday gifts, they're all listed on my Amazon author's page here. I have a few autographed copies available, too. If you e-mail me at wtammeus@gmail.com I'll tell you how we can arrange to get you one (or more) of those.

Forty years later, a hard lesson in ethical behavior

The warm Friday night the skywalks collapsed in the Hyatt Regency Hotel at Crown Center in Kansas City, July 17, 1981, I, as was then my habit on Friday evenings, played in a softball game with colleagues from The Kansas City Star.

Buried-TruthsWhen the game ended, most of us stopped at a nearby bar to grab a beer and relive the game. Before long, however, we noticed some news breaking on a TV in a corner of the room. Once we figured out that something awful had happened at the hotel, our managing editor, who happened to be playing with us that evening, gathered folks around and gave out assignments.

Because I was a member of the editorial page -- not the news -- staff, that editor didn't have the authority to assign me to anything. But he did ask me if I would come to the office early the next morning and write the lead commentary piece for the Sunday newspaper. Which I did.

My piece on the front page of the Sunday Star began this way: "This decent, civilized city, pummeled by a disaster of unthinkable proportions, honored its dead even as it sought to find them -- honored them by its behavior." And it ended this way:

"Surely it is not too much to ask that our public architecture, construction and building maintenance be competent enough to avoid killing people willy-nilly. An honest, trustworthy people -- whose compassion, calm and caring nature shown brightly in this abominable mess -- surely can demand no less from its public officials. And unless I badly misread my outraged, grieving city, this demand -- unlike more than 100 of our family, friends and neighbors -- will not die."

Forty-plus years later, I've just relived all of that -- and more -- by reading my former Star colleague Rick Serrano's new book, Buried Truths and the Hyatt Skywalks: The Legacy of America's Epic Structural Failure. It's a terrific piece of work, detailed, carefully documented, sensitive and powerful.

What strikes me all these years later about that catastrophe -- in which 114 people died and 200 more were injured -- is that ethical questions are at the heart of the story. Such moral questions were at the core of the failure of those who designed and built the skywalks to make sure that what they were constructing was safe and not fatally flawed.

Time and again, people who should have noticed that the skywalks inevitably would come crashing down let things go by.

As Serrano describes what happened after the collapse, lots of people investigated the disaster. And each time it was clear that somehow those responsible for making sure that what they built didn't put people at risk didn't do their jobs. Their lapses -- their "complacency," as Serrano writes -- led to the catastrophe.

No matter what our jobs are -- whether professional or volunteer in nature -- our responsibility is to do them in a way that won't hurt others. Yes, we are human, meaning we will make errors. But errors that arise from complacency, from slovenliness, from inattention are, in the end, ethical errors, moral failures. Those errors no one can afford.

And Serrano's agonizing account of lives lost and lives changed forever makes that painfully clear. It's something all of need to remember. As David Gushee writes in his forthcoming book, Introducing Christian Ethics, "Morally responsible people consider the potential consequences of their choices." Because that didn't always happen in the Hyatt construction, the result was catastrophic.

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Earlier this month I wrote here about the upcoming decision to split apart the United Methodist Church, primarily over LGBTQ+ issues. It now looks as if church leaders have agreed to schedule a twice-postponed meeting to accomplish that, as this RNS story reports, but they've left themselves plenty of room for another postponement. Covid has played a role in this, for sure, but church leaders seem unnecessarily skittish about doing what needs to be done.

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P.S.: If you are looking for resources to understand Thanksgiving and the history behind it, my friend David Crumm, former religion writer for the Detroit Free Press and head of Front Edge Publishing, which published my latest book, Love, Loss and Endurance, has compiled this terrific list of exactly such resources. There's a lot there about how the holiday relates to Native Americans. I hope you'll give it a read.

Flynn's one-religion America: an unpatriotic idea that's DOA

As we move into Thanksgiving week in the U.S., I'd like to drop back a week in the news. I'm returning to the story about how Michael Flynn, briefly Donald Trump's national security advisor, is advocating that the U.S. be a country of just one religion.

Flag-crossAs this story from The Hill notes, Flynn said this while speaking on the "ReAwaken America" tour Saturday night: "If we are going to have one nation under God, which we must, we have to have one religion. One nation under God and one religion under God."

So high on our list of things for which we're thankful this Thanksgiving is that Michael Flynn has no power to create a one-religion nation. Give thanks to whatever god you worship.

When I first read about this strange Flynn speech, I thought that this land has never been a one-religion territory, even before European invaders began crushing Indigenous people and shoving them out of the way. As this Britannica article makes clear, the many different tribes that made up the pre-invasion population of what is now the U.S. had somewhat different approaches to spirituality.

Yes, there were commonalities, but even the concept of religion itself seemed foreign to the Indigenous tribes, who simply thought about their moral responsibilities as part of the overall fabric of life.

When Europeans started showing up here, many of them were driven by religion and many hoped to convert Native Americans (who weren't called that then) to Christianity. But not all of the first arrivals were Christian. There were, in fact, quite a few Muslims among the first slaves dragged here in chains.

Plus, of course, Christians, as usual, were quite divided in early (or, should I say, pre-?) U.S. history.

And by the time the Constitution was written and approved, religious freedom -- meaning 1,000 faith flowers could (and did) bloom -- was woven into who we are as a people. As the First Amendment to the Constitution plainly states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. . .” Flynn perhaps missed that lesson in school. He missed the various ways different faith traditions have strengthened, not weakened, this country. He missed the opportunity to learn from other traditions and, in the process, strengthen one's commitment to one's own religious path.

In some ways, he missed the whole point of America. Or he got it and despises that point and, thus, despises our nation. America's strength lies in its diversity, in its wild mix of immigrants, in its commitment to the idea that we are free people who should be free to worship in any way we see fit (that doesn't involve doing away with others who don't follow our path). What is at risk today is that whole point about America. Flynn (and many others) would destroy it to turn the U.S. into a one-note band that it's never been.

Flynn's idea of a one-religion nation would move us toward a theocracy, which you can find in Saudi Arabia. Does that sound like fun? The only way to get to Flynn's America would be through a brutal internal war in which there would be no winners. So, in the end, there really is no way (at the moment) to get to Flynn's America.

And for that, especially in this season of thanksgiving, we can be thankful, indeed.

(By the way, here's a good commentary on Flynn's idiocy by a Jewish writer.)

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For at least several decades now, theologians and others have been debating how to refer to God without using male-only nouns and pronouns. This RNS story explores where all of that is today in light of recent efforts to get people to describe themselves via pronouns. So there continues to be what the story calls a "sometimes divisive debate on the matter of God’s gender." No doubt that's at least a more enlightening discussion than the one about how many angels (male, female, non-binary) can dance on the head of a pin.

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P.S.: The U.S. State Department has added Russia to its list of countries that most egregiously violate foundational religious freedoms. The department is required to keep such a list and report it publicly as a way of reminding Americans and the rest of the world's population that religious liberty is at the core of U.S. values. I'm glad that's the case. I'd be even more glad if we could come to some kind of common understanding about what constitutes religious freedom.

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ANOTHER P.S.: The Kyle Rittenhouse verdict yesterday was, to me, both surprising and disappointing. That said, I want to agree with President Joe Biden that he accepts the jury's verdict and that, on the whole, the jury system works. Years ago I served as the foreman of a jury in a murder trial (I know: They let a journalist on the jury? Well, they did). And the conclusion I drew from the case was that anyone who wants to criticize a jury's decision should be really, really careful because it's impossible to know what the jury knew and how it deliberated. So although I think Rittenhouse never should have been on the streets of Kenosha that night and although I grieve what he did in firing his damn gun, I am not in a position to second-guess the jury. And neither are you, frankly. I feel much better about the judge's decision in the trial about the murder of Cameron Lamb in Kansas City, in which a white police officer was convicted in Lamb's death Friday. That result would have been almost impossible 10, 20, 30 or more years ago. Maybe that's what passes for progress today.

From the birth of Jesus, was Christianity inevitable?

Over the last several hundred years, there have been various quests for the historical Jesus.

After-Jesus-Before-CWith decidedly mixed results. But it's been an intriguing enterprise that has provided considerable employment for scholars, theologians, authors and others.

A new book -- enlightening, frustrating and at-times repetitive -- is about a search not so much for the historical Jesus but, rather, for the historical Christianity. It's called After Jesus Before Christianity, and is written by scholars associated with the Westar Christianity Seminar, successor to the Jesus Seminar, which spent a lot of time trying to figure out which of the words attributed to Jesus in the New Testament he might actually have said (not many, the Seminar concluded).

The book's subtitle is: "A Historical Exploration of the First Two Centuries of Jesus Movements." That helps readers know where the several authors are going to focus.

It's an intriguing work, and almost a must-read for anyone interested in Christian history and, beyond that, how religions form and grow. The authors (Erin Vearncombe, Brandon Scott and Hal Taussig) say they've tried to write not a book for other scholars but one for everyone. Well, in that they have been only partly successful. There's still a lot of inside-baseball theology and history going on here, so this isn't the book you want a Christian church's confirmation class full of teenagers to dig into.

A primary goal of the book is to show "that Christianity was not the inevitable future," and the authors claim that "has been proved." Well, maybe not proved in the way we think of proof in scientific experiments, say, but it's been at least firmly asserted and that assertion has been backed with some interesting evidence.

The authors, despite that claim of proof, have been wise to assert this: "Most of our evidence is fragmentary or missing from the historical record. Much of the evidence we do have may be misleading, promoting only the voices of history's most powerful, those in a position to say whose voices are heard and whose should be silenced."

The interesting picture that emerges here is of two centuries of figuring out what the life, death and resurrection of Jesus meant, especially in an era dominated by the overwhelming violence embedded in the governing structures of the Roman Empire, which ruled the Holy Land.

How were people who were attracted to this Jewish carpenter from Nazareth supposed to understand his teachings of peace, love and compassion in the aftermath of his brutal death on a Roman cross? And what were those followers supposed to make of the voices of those Jesus followers who proclaimed that he had experienced resurrection and that somehow death had been conquered?

As the book rightly notes, there wasn't just one response to all of that. There were many and sometimes they were in conflict with one another.

The book was written by a committee, in effect. And the reader winds up crisscrossing some of the same information several times because one writer feels the need to cite it as much as the next writer who is making a somewhat different point. So both do.

Beyond that, the authors set up something of a straw man when they assert that the widely accepted story of the origin of Christianity starts this way: "Jesus came down from heaven to establish the Christian church."

No doubt there still are Christians who would put it that way, but that's a simplistic assertion that much of the Christian world has long since abandoned. Christians who don't read the Bible in a literalistic way recognize the various ways that assertion fails to reflect a much more complicated reality.

Well, look. The whole story of Christianity's roots in Judaism and in the cultural practices of the Middle East is complex. And as the authors correctly maintain, what Christianity -- the most populous religion in the world -- looks like today around the globe today was not foreseeable from the developments of the first two centuries.

This book will be far from the last word said about the quest for the historical Christianity, but it's a worthy addition especially because it may invite responses that would challenge it. Indeed, the authors invite just that. For that, good for them.

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The Catholic Church in the U.S. is struggling to keep its Black members, as this RNS story reports. Which is why some Black Catholics are participating in a four-part webinar series titled, “Black Catholics and the Millennial Gap.” One of the participants in that project is quoted as saying that for younger Black Americans, “racism is the root cause” of why they’re leaving the church. That should be a surprise to no one.

Will United Methodists ever decide whether to split?

For the last few years, many of us have been keeping tabs on the United Methodist Church and what has looked like its inevitable move toward schism. The primary issue -- no surprise -- has been how the church should handle LGBTQ+ issues, including ordination of gay pastors.

Umc-logoThings in the denomination seemed to come to a head in early 2019 (pre-Covid), when the church's governing body elected in a close vote to keep United Methodist rules forbidding the ordination of LGBTQ+ pastors. Those in favor and those opposed then worked out a way to split the denomination into two separate bodies. But the official vote to do that has never happened because Covid intervened and prevented any gathering at which such action could have taken place.

As this RNS analysis piece suggests, it's now unclear what's going to happen.

As writer Jacob Lupfer says, "few in America’s second-largest Protestant denomination, outside a relatively small circle of elites, appear to have an appetite for splitting. . .(T)he muddling Methodist middle that has historically tempered the impulses of extremists is indifferent to the impending schism. Most laity and many clergy are not nearly so invested in moving the Methodist divorce along as those at the extremes."

I think Lupfer's use of the terms "elites" and "extremes" doesn't do much to clarify the situation. Terms like those usually are best left to describing political situations and not Mainline Protestants.

That said, it's important to see what's really at stake here. And that's the question of how to interpret the Bible. If it's interpreted in a literalistic way that ignores or glosses over the context in which certain passages were written, it's possible to come to the conclusion that LGBTQ+ folks should be, at best, second-class citizens in the church, forbidden from being ordained.

But, as I argue in this essay found elsewhere on my blog, that's not a good, accurate, fair way to interpret scripture, and the Bible should not be used as a weapon in this debate because the Bible has precious little to say about this whole matter.

So the question for Methodists becomes: Do they want a church that, like Jesus, embraces and welcomes everyone or do they want an exclusivist church in which only certain people are privileged?

The longer United Methodists wait to answer that question, the more long-term damage they will do not just to their denomination but also to Christianity as a whole and to what the faith can and should stand for -- love and respect for all.

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DENVER -- I'm taking a few days off to visit friends here at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. So you won't find the usual second item on the blog here today.

The sad history of religious division in Jerusalem continues


The news of today in any area is always and inevitably connected to something or some things that happened before. Which is why it's so important to read and -- as much as possible -- understand history.

It's hard to imagine any city in the world where history touches the present more than Jerusalem. (One of the books to read is Jerusalem: The Biography, by Simon Sebag Monefiore.)

Time Magazine has just published this intriguing column by Andrew Lawler, an American journalist and author whose latest book is Under Jerusalem: The Buried History of the World’s Most Contested City.

He makes the point that the history of Jerusalem -- and especially of the acropolis often called the Temple Mount -- is really complicated, but understanding that history is vital to grasping what's happening not only in Jerusalem today but throughout the Middle East.

Much of the trouble and continuing controversy there is connected to early Christian efforts to dig for archeological treasures in the area -- particularly to find remains of the Jewish temple that was destroyed when the Romans razed the city in the year 70 CE.

"Ultimately," the Time piece says, "it was the dispute over who owns the acropolis, and what lies beneath and around it, that led to the ultimate collapse of peace talks and the start of the last Palestinian Intifada, or uprising, in the early 2000s. In the two decades since, fundamentalist Christians and Jews, and even some Israeli government officials, have been increasingly outspoken in calling for a Jewish temple to be built on the acropolis, even as police have taken a softer line with Jews who enter the Muslim compound as tourists but then proceed to pray."

And this: "Today, talk of religious freedom ignores the facts on the ground. Western Christians primed Muslims to feel that their sanctuary was under siege, and that feeling is stronger than ever. Short of using blunt force, sharing is not an option."

It's both ironic and sad that representatives of the three Abrahamic religions -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- can't find a way to live up to what their traditions teach about peace and love and cooperation. No wonder lots of people write off religion as hypocritical. Sigh.

(The photo above showing the Temple Mount is one I took a few years ago. That flying bird? That's the dove of peace bravely looking for a place to land. My guess is that it's still up in the air today.)

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As the global climate change conference in Glasgow wraps up later this week, it's a useful time to ask what role religious faith might play in helping to fix the problems. Part of an answer comes in this interview of a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who is also a professor at Brigham Young University. It's worth a read. As Prof. George Handley says in the interview, "I have a grandson who was born this year. He'll be 80 years old in 2100. So now it feels pretty real to me that my posterity is on the planet now, expecting me to do something to make sure that in 2100, the world is not unlivable."

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P.S.: An online event called “Why the Death Penalty is Dying” will take place from Ohio this evening. If you'd like to participate via Zoom, here's the link. Capital punishment can't die quickly enough for me.

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ANOTHER P.S.: If you missed my ReadTheSpirit.com column earlier this week about the outrage of American officials torturing prisoners, you'll find it here.

How far Americans have traveled (and haven't) on race

In the conversations (a polite word for it) Americans have been having about race in recent years, especially since the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, it's not been unusual to hear some version of this: It's time to get past this. The Civil War, which ended slavery, happened well over a century and a half ago. The Civil Rights Movement fixed much of this, so let's move forward.

JW-JohnsonWell, of course, despite the Civil War (the results of which Reconstruction nearly eviscerated) and despite all the good the Civil Rights Movement did, not everything got close to being fixed. Had America been fixed then, there would be no need today for the news media to be covering redlining, discriminatory employment practices, mass incarceration, police misconduct in communities of color, segregated housing patterns, huge health, educational and environmental disparities and on and on.

But let's acknowledge that America, as a whole, has made progress in improving relations between and among the races (all the while remembering that race is a political or social -- not a biological -- construct).

One way to measure that progress (and to see how far we have left to go) is to pick up a 1928 essay, "The Dilemma of the Negro Author," by James Weldon Johnson, (his portrait is shown here) a pivotal figure in the Harlem Renaissance Movement and the man who wrote the words to what's often called the Black National Anthem, "Lift Every Voice and Sing."

So a bit more than 90 years ago, Johnson notes that "White America has some firm opinions as to what the Negro is, and consequently some pretty well fixed ideas as to what should be written about him, and how.

"What is the Negro in the artistic conception of white America? In the brighter light, he is a simple, indolent, docile, improvident peasant; a singing, dancing, laughing, weeping child; picturesque beside his log cabin and in the snowy fields of cotton; naively charming with his banjo and his songs in the moonlight and along the lazy Southern rivers; a faithful, ever-smiling and genuflecting old servitor to the white folks of quality; a pathetic and pitiable figure.

"In a darker light, he is an impulsive, irrational, passionate savage, reluctantly wearing a thin coat of culture, sullenly hating the white man, but holding an innate and unescapable belief in the white man's superiority; an everlastingly alien and irredeemable element in the nation; a menace to Southern civilization; a threat to Nordic race purity; a figure casting a sinister shadow across the future of the country.

"Ninety-nine one-hundredths of all that has been written about the Negro in the United States in three centuries and read with any degree of interest or pleasure by white America has been written in conformity to one or more of these ideas."

Religion, of course, was one source of much of this appalling racist rubbish. Many churches, especially in the South, found twisted ways of reading the Bible that they used to justify slavery and, after the Civil War, to justify Jim Crow and segregation. The task of American Christians today is not to feel guilty about what our ancestors did or failed to do but, rather, to do what we can to put things right today so that the systemic racism they created and that has continued to benefit many white Christians even today gets ended forever.

But the fact that Johnson's description of what white America (I know; it's too broad a category) thought about people of color, especially Blacks, was published within the lifetime of people still alive in my own family means that we really haven't been working terribly long to end the white supremacy that was incorporated in our nation's founding documents. And it means the issue still is alive for all of us today, particularly for people of faith who regularly swear they believe that all people, regardless of color or creed, are children of God and, thus, sisters and brothers.

Let's give Johnson the last word on this today, from "Lift Every Voice and Sing": "Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us/Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us/Facing the rising sun of our new day begun/Let us march on till victory is won."

(The portrait of Johnson seen here today came from this site.)

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As global representatives gather to consider how to turn back the climate change crisis (clue: it's already close to being too late), some people are make a wise suggestion: Pay attention to the wisdom -- spiritual and otherwise -- of Indigenous people around the world, this RNS story reports. As the story notes, "The climate crisis cannot be solved without recognizing the rights and spiritualities of Indigenous peoples, according to religious leaders who gathered Wednesday (Nov. 3) for an official COP26 side event streamed online." I know from recent reading I've done and from conversations with Indigenous people in the Kansas City area that there is much to be learned from Indigenous wisdom. For instance, in ecological terms it helps to know that the European invaders who conquered the so-called New World thought (and think) that they can own the land. By contrast, the Indigenous people whose land they took believe that they belong to the land. And that plant life, which has been around much longer than human life, has much to teach them. One book to read on this subject is Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants, by Robin Wall Kimmerer. I also mention some other helpful books in this column about "land acknowledgements." In any case, I'm glad to see some climate-change activists turning for help to Indigenous wisdom. (Speaking of land acknowledgements, here's the newly installed land acknowledgement sign -- along with plantings of some native grasses -- on the south side of the building that houses my congregation, Second Presbyterian Church.)


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P.S.: And if you missed my last post how about how the Christian evangelical world is ripping itself apart, you'll find it here.

The Christian evangelical world seems to be tearing itself apart

Given the toxic, post-truth nature of our national politics, it should be no surprise to find rancorous divisions within our faith communities, too.

Cross-flagAnd as this Atlantic story confirms, such divisiveness seems to be "everywhere" in the Christian evangelical world these days. (In fact, it's from that world that quite a few of the believers in Donald Trump's Big Lie come.)

The story begins by describing a bitter conflict "at an influential megachurch in Northern Virginia," McLean Bible Church. After some details about that, the picture broadens with these words:

"What happened at McLean Bible Church is happening all over the evangelical world. Influential figures such as the theologian Russell Moore and the Bible teacher Beth Moore felt compelled to leave the Southern Baptist Convention; both were targeted by right-wing elements within the SBC. The Christian Post, an online evangelical newspaper, published an op-ed by one of its contributors criticizing religious conservatives like (David) Platt (the McLean pastor), Russell Moore, Beth Moore, and Ed Stetzer, the executive director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center, as 'progressive Christian figures' who 'commonly champion leftist ideology.' In a matter of months, four pastors resigned from Bethlehem Baptist Church, a flagship church in Minneapolis. One of those pastors, Bryan Pickering, cited mistreatment by elders, domineering leadership, bullying, and “spiritual abuse and a toxic culture.” Political conflicts are hardly the whole reason for the turmoil, but according to news accounts, they played a significant role, particularly on matters having to do with race."

What I find especially distressing about this and related stories about "exvangelicals" who are abandoning churches that identify as evangelical is that hard-nosed political stances and tactics seem to be replacing foundational Christian teachings about love and respect. Beyond that, conspiratorial thinking at times seems to have slipped into churches and produced as much mis- and disinformation there as can be found in the political world these days.

As Peter Wehner, author of the Atlantic piece, writes, “'Nearly everyone tells me there is at the very least a small group in nearly every evangelical church complaining and agitating against teaching or policies that aren’t sufficiently conservative or anti-woke,' a pastor and prominent figure within the evangelical world told me. (Like others with whom I spoke about this topic, he requested anonymity in order to speak candidly.) 'It’s everywhere.'”

Indeed, it looks as if there's a big need for some training I would call Remedial Christianity. In fact, if you study Christian history very long, you find that the need for Remedial Christianity comes around at least every couple of generations -- and has for nearly 2,000 years. Sigh.

The novelist Edith Wharton seemed to be talking about this just over 100 years ago (1918) in a speech called "America at War" that she gave (in French) in Paris: She spoke of what she called "the moral condition of our great-grandparents. Most of them, at least those who influenced the American character most deeply, were weary of well-trodden paths, of old institutions, and most of all, of old abuses. They left Europe to give their ideas a free rein -- ideas that were not very interesting in themselves, since they remained within the narrow scope of theological quarrels. These people were, to put it bluntly, fanatics, the kind of boring, nasty, insufferable people that nature seems to produce from time to time in order to set in motion a widespread popular movement or to clear the land of a whole continent -- because, of course, likable, reasonable people never change anything in the order of the universe."

As for her last contention, I would add: It's the likeable, reasonable people who, in the end, are charged with cleaning up the mess that the fanatics leave. Again: sigh.

Later in that same speech, Wharton describes some of those "fanatics" even more bluntly as "hard, cruel, and jealous people, eager to escape the persecution of the English national church, and perhaps in turn to persecute others. Those who have been persecuted are, alas, all too often the persecutors of tomorrow." Alas, indeed.

(You can find that speech in the book The Glorious American Essay, edited by Phillip Lopate.)

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To follow up what I've written above, let's look at a new survey from the Public Religion Research Institute. Its findings may not be surprising but they are, nonetheless, deeply disconcerting. PRRI finds this: "Thirty-one percent of Americans think the presidential election was stolen from former president Donald Trump, but a full 60% of white evangelicals believe this." Lies sell. Big Lies sell more. And this: "Almost a quarter of white evangelicals (23%) believe in the QAnon conspiracy theory — more than any other religious group." There are many ways to describe QAnon conspiracies, but perhaps the most accurate is bat-blank crazy. And as for religious pluralism in the U.S.: "57% (of white evangelicals) indicate they’d prefer the U.S. be a nation primarily made up of people who follow the Christian faith. Only 13% of white evangelicals say they prefer the U.S. to be made up of people belonging to a wide variety of religions." No wonder Donald Trump had so much success calling for a ban on Muslim immigration. There are many issues on which there can be good and legitimate debate when it comes to politics and the future of our democracy. But such debate gets to be almost impossible when people can't discern truth from propaganda.