What A.I. robotic preaching might really sound like

Magi

Among the various publications and organizations for which I write is a service that provides model sermons for Christian pastors.

The idea of "Proclaim Sermons" is not to let preachers escape their weekly duties by simply reciting a Proclaim sermon as if they had written it themselves. Rather it's to give them another resource related to the weekly lectionary selection of Bible verses on which sermons often are based. If they need an example of how someone might approach this week's biblical texts they can find a Proclaim sermon based on those texts and then decide if that might be a path forward for them.

Preaching, after all, is serious business. Which is to say that the preacher's job is to provide the congregation with what the church considers to be the word of God as found in the biblical text and then to make it clear to listeners what the preacher thinks God is really saying to them. This work is not for the faint of heart.

At any rate, I know from experience what it takes to write and deliver a sermon based on biblical texts and I can tell you it's a very human and humbling enterprise. Which is why I am profoundly skeptical of the idea of using Artificial Intelligence to produce such sermons. The author of the article notes this: "Our tendency to conflate quick responses with correct responses when talking to humans also transfers onto the chatbot, which we can’t help but personify. A fast and confident-sounding chatbot may mimic the authoritative voice of a reference work, and it may draw from and contribute to our habits of laziness when seeking out truth and our impatience when engaging each other."

Later in the article is this: "Some clerics have voiced concerns about A.I. writ large, ranging from the pastoral – how should a priest help a parishioner following an automation layoff? – to the theological – can an LM be possessed by a demon?" (LM in that sentence means "language model," but I'll leave it to you to take it from there.)

Out of curiosity, I asked ChatGPT to write a sermon based on the journey of the Magi (often called the three Wise Men) to see the Christ child in Bethlehem. The story is told in Matthew 2:1-12, and is the subject of the latest sermon I just turned in to Proclaim Sermons (we write way ahead). I first turned in my sermon and only then asked ChatGPT for its version.

My sermon ran, according to Proclaim guidelines for its writers, about 1,600 words. The ChatGPT sermon clocked in at a tidy 550 words, including its opening two words, "Dear Beloved" and also counting the next five scintillating words: "Today, we gather to reflect. . ." By which time many of the people in the pews of my congregation would be drifting toward doing what author Kurt Vonnegut says people come to church to do: Daydream about God.

By comparison, I will give you no comparison of that A.I. sermon to what I wrote for my Matthew 2:1-12 sermon because mine is proprietary. It belongs to Proclaim Sermons now. But I sure as hell didn't start out the way the ChatGPT sermon began.

The rest of the ChatGPT sermon contained nothing outrageous or objectionable. But it was almost entirely devoid of life, of surprises, of fresh language. It was the theological equivalent of an average sixth-grader's theme on the subject of why rules of discipline in a school are important. Snore.

What I have concluded is that I should -- at least so far in the development of A.I. -- always and everywhere resist the idea that serious Christian sermons (or sermons in any faith tradition) should come from ChatGPT or any A.I. source. Perhaps some day, long into the future, the technology may have developed enough that A.I. could produce at least a model for a sermon that has an original idea.

As for how scientists can plan for that day, I turn to this reliable adage: Man plans, God laughs.

(The image here today came from here.)

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ESTES PARK, Colo. -- There won't be the usual second item here today because I'm in Colorado for a brief reunion of people with whom I went to school in India when I was a boy. Yes, I grew up in Woodstock, Ill., and, for a time, attended Woodstock School in India, but the same-name deal was simply a coincidence. Indeed, I have several other Woodstocks in my life.


A theologian's death offers a chance to think theologically

The recent death at age 98 of German Reformed theologian Jürgen Moltmann (pictured here) offers all of us -- no matter our faith commitment -- to think anew about why the work of theologians is vital, even if sometimes their thinking gets expressed in words that seem next-to-impossible to understand.

Jurgen-moltmannTheology, of course, means the study of God. And there is no subject more important to help us understand what in the world we're doing here and why we're doing it.

Moltmann, whom I once heard speak at a dinner at Nazarene Theological Seminary in Kansas City, brought with him a personal story of redemption that seemed to shape the work he did to find ways to understand and express not optimism, which can be cheap and phony, but hope, which in serious theology can help explain our purpose and give us the fuel to do the human work of co-creation and love.

As the story of Moltmann's death to which I've linked you notes, "his experiences during the Second World War deeply scarred him, and his three years as a post-war prisoner of war led him first to despair and eventually to conversion, finding God in human suffering."

Moltmann was a prisoner of war in England, Scotland and Belgium and was frankly surprised by the gentle, loving treatment he received as a fellow human being who, despite being an enemy combatant, was cared for as a beloved child who was precious to God. It transformed his life and made him want to devote his life to the study of this God of unending love.

It should have been no surprise that Moltmann found his primary love to be the idea of hope, rooted in the salvific work of God through Christ Jesus. To Moltmann, and to all serious Christian theologians, hope was and is different from mere optimism, which often collapses in the face of human evil. Hope, in Moltmann's view, was and is eternal and rooted in the astonishing and unpredictable resurrection of Christ and what that meant for humanity.

As the Rev. Richard A. Ray wrote years ago in a review of a Moltmann book called The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology, "Moltmann's program flat out stimulates strong preaching. . .And it reminds us, with this concluding phrase concerning the 'universal Easter laughter' in the cosmos, that theology must have at its heart a confession that is less like a blueprint and more like a haunting melody of transcendent song."

Years ago, when I found my way back to church after leaving as a young man convinced that church members were mostly just hypocrites (I discovered I was one of them and needed help), I began to pay more attention to the eternal questions with which theologians wrestled.

Eventually, I felt called to help others recognize the importance of those questions and to take seriously the call to explore possible answers for our own lives. So I began to teach a class in various locations that I called "Theology Even the Clergy Can Understand." Over time, I'm betting that I got much more out of that effort than did those who participated in the classes.

It turns out that it's easy to set aside the core and demanding theological questions and, instead, focus on simply trying to lead what people call "a good life." Isn't that, after all, what life is all about?

But, in the end, we seriously shortchange ourselves when we do that. The risk is that we will live an unexamined life, never taking divine matters seriously, never challenging God. As French Reformed theologian Jacques Ellul has said, we are obligated to insist that God speak when we encounter God's silence in the face of human suffering.

"Hope," Ellul wrote in Hope in Time of Abandonment, "comes alive only in the dreary silence of God, in our loneliness before a closed heaven, in our abandonment. God is silent, so it's man who is going to speak. But he is not going to speak in God's place, nor in order to decorate the silence, nor in taking his own word for a Word from God. Man is going to express his hope that God's silence is neither basic nor final, nor a cancellation of what he had laid hold of as a Word from God."

Source of lifeIn the end, Moltmann's death can -- and, I think, should -- reinvigorate us to re-explore the eternal questions, to find theologians who can speak to us, make sense for us of the puzzlements of life. At their best, theologians do extraordinarily important work. We'd do well, no matter our personal religious history or current commitments to faith, to shut off our twinkling screens and pay attention to their insights.

Look. Life can be really hard. Trying to get through it successfully without understanding some basic theology seems to me like trying to do calculus without a grasp of basic arithmetic.

(Here, by the way, is a lovely tribute to Moltmann from someone who teaches theology.)

So let me close with these words (written in the masculine style of the time) from Moltmann, found in his book The Source of Life:

"(T)he Christian vision of hope says: 'Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people.' What in history is particular to Israel will become universal in God's future: All peoples and the whole of humanity will be freed and sanctified, because the holy God will dwell with them, letting them share in his eternity and his livingness, as his fellow householders."

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ANOTHER CLERGY DEATH TO MOURN

This will be a two-death blog post. I also need to tell you about the death, at age 95, of the great American civil rights leader, the Rev. James Lawson, whose list of accomplishments and heartaches was long, as you can read in the obit story to which I've linked you. James was not the only Lawson on the front lines of the civil rights movement. His brother Phil, also a pastor, spent part of his also-long career here in Kansas City, and you will find him mentioned in the first paragraph of this Flatland column I wrote in 2017. The old civil rights leaders are mostly gone now -- sometimes via natural causes, sometimes via assassination -- but they leave a legacy that should inspire all of us to continue their work.

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THE BOOK CORNER

Mound-City

Mound City: The Place of the Indigenous Past and Present in St. Louis, by Patricia Cleary. Why am I writing about a just-published book on Indigenous history on a blog that focuses on religion, spirituality and ethics?

One answer is that the cultural and physical genocide committed by white European invaders on Indigenous people living on this land has many religious roots, including the Doctrine of Discovery, about which I've written most recently here.

The author of Mound City clearly is focused on the St. Louis region, though she teaches history at California State University-Long Beach. And there is much to learn about the people who, centuries ago, built amazing and huge mounds just east of St. Louis in Cahokia, Ill., as well as in what today is St. Louis itself on the Missouri side of that state line.

My interest in this information stems from my connection to a committee at my church that is working to improve race relations in the Kansas City area, including relations with area Indigenous residents through a relationship with the Kansas City Indian Center. My ignorance about Indigenous matters was, at the beginning of all this, enormous. Still is, but I continue to learn.

When we don't understand our own history, the present makes little sense to us and the future has no roots. That's no way to live. This book can help fill in some gaps in your own knowledge of history.

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P.S.: The other day here I mentioned the 100th anniversary of the signing of federal legislation that finally made Indigenous people in the U.S. citizens. Here is a good story from Indian Country Today with a helpful look at what has happened since the bill was signed by President Calvin Coolidge.

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P.S.: Speaking of death, as I was above here, last evening the state of Missouri once more covered itself with shame by executing another death row prisoner. The arguments against capital punishment are many and persuasive -- except, of course, to politicians with power who don't want to look weak to constituents who are all gung-ho about revenge. How sad.


In a divisive time, I celebrate resilient human goodness

No doubt you've heard of the idea of "the common good," which, as the Stanford University site to which I just linked you says, "refers to those facilities — whether material, cultural or institutional — that the members of a community provide to all members in order to fulfill a relational obligation they all have to care for certain interests that they have in common."

CPE-Lukes-2One of those common interests has to do with health. Which is why we have physicians, nurses, mental health counselors, a pharmaceutical industry and so much more, including health insurance. The core idea, of course, is that when our personal health breaks down in some way we often need the help of others to repair matters.

There are several ways people in the health field can operate: They can promise to do no harm and, beyond that, to devote themselves to treating others in the way they would want to be treated if they were the ones in need. Or they can be in it for the money or merely to survive financially, giving little or no thought to the common humanity they share with those they allegedly serve.

I want to assure you that there still are people in this serving-others health field who consistently hold to the first model of serving others while treating them with respect and care. I recently experienced that very thing and, at a time when social media is aflame with nasty voices dehumanizing others, I was reassured that we can at the very least be civil to people with whom we may disagree.

What brought me into contact with such servant hearts was a medical issue I had that affected my internal plumbing. Without variance, every person connected to St. Luke's Hospital of Kansas City who was part of the solution to my problem (and, yes, there was a solution) seemed to me to be intensely focused not simply on getting a paycheck but, rather, on caring for me as a fellow human being in need.

In theological language, they were acting out the concept that each person is of inestimable value and deserves to be treated as such. In Judaism and Christianity, this idea goes back to the first book in the Bible, where each person is declared to be created in the image of God.

This blog post is not meant to be a commercial for St. Luke's. No doubt there are other excellent health care facilities that also employ people who embody this core value. And no doubt sometimes people have had experiences either at St. Luke's or at other facilities that did not match my own recent gracious care.

But every person who cared for me -- Mary, Luke, Sarah, Sara, Sarah, Satin, Grio, Brooke, Rebecca and others -- in my pre-operation preparation, the surgery itself and the post-op time -- seemed at every moment to treat me as someone precious to them.

We are in a distressing and nasty political season full of invective, lies, damned lies and statistics. The instinct of some of our so-called leaders seems to be to reduce others to inhuman tools of Satan. Some days it's not just disappointing, it's shocking and appalling. And, in that atmosphere, we may begin to assume that this ferociousness affects everyone, especially if we pay attention to social media.

It does not. There still are people who know how to value others, even if they disagree with those others. There still are people who seem to wake up every day wanting to give themselves in service to others. Not all such people are in the medical field, but that's where I most recently experienced them.

May their numbers increase. And when you, too, experience the kind of loving care that I did, may you affirm the caregivers -- in the moment, if possible.

One reason to be so grateful for such care is that this kind of caring-for-others work can deeply affect the caregiver's own physical and mental health. As the great essayist Jill Lepore writes in her book The Deadline, "Taking care of vulnerable people and witnessing their anguish exacts an enormous toll and produces its own suffering. Naming that pain was meant to be a step toward alleviating it. But it hasn't worked out that way because the conditions of doing care work -- the emotional drain, the hours, the thanklessness -- have not gotten better."

Oh, and by the way: The surgery I had is quite common among men who have passed middle age (whatever that is). And that tempts me to think that the human body was God's science fair project -- on which he got a D.

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WHAT'S BEHIND ANTI-LGBTQ+ POLL RESULTS?

A new poll related to Pride Month shows Americans are deeply divided about the influence of LGBTQ+ people on the rest of society, this Los Angeles Times story says. "Three out of four Democrats who said LGBTQ+ people have had an impact on the U.S. see that as positive, according to" the nationwide poll. But "nearly the same share of Republicans, 77%, said the influence of LGBTQ+ people has been somewhat or very negative." I don't put a lot of faith in polls these days for many reasons, but if these figures are close to accurate, my guess is that what's influencing those opinions most is the long-taught but inaccurate idea that the Bible condemns homosexual orientation. I describe that sordid history in this essay. How people read scripture continues to shape the world even as commitment to religion declines. And when people read it literally, as opposed to seriously, it leads to trouble.


An AI 'priest' gets defrocked almost immediately. Good.

After some 11 years, the senior pastor of my congregation left almost three years ago to become the senior pastor of the American Church in Paris. Months later we hired a transitional pastor, whose excellent work will wrap up at the end of July when we install a new senior pastor.

5.3.24 Father JustinAll of this seems like a lot of human moving around, especially when we could have chosen the path that a group called Catholic Answers took, which was to create an artificial intelligence priest who would answer theological questions.

But perhaps that wouldn't have been a wise choice. After all, as this National Catholic Reporter column describes, that organization "decided to pull their 'Father Justin' (pictured here) chatbot character only two days after showcasing him. The chatbot was subjected to scathing criticisms from Catholics of diverse ideological persuasions." (And, just for the record, there really are Catholics of diverse theological persuasions.)

As Rebecca Bratten Weiss writes in the column to which I've linked you, "Of course, 'Father Justin' was not exactly a robot. Nor was he ever actually ordained, as Catholic Answers president Christopher Check hastened to note when he explained in a public statement that the app had been taken down and would be replaced with a new non-clerical character."

As Weiss also notes, congregations need a lot more than a mechanical device to answer their theological questions, especially when, as with "Father Justin," he often seemed not to know what he was talking about: "The AI priest's confusion on doctrinal matters highlights the problem with approaching catechesis as though theology and church teaching were reducible to a set of simplistic rules to be memorized and regurgitated. In this respect, poor confused 'Father Justin' could be regarded as an avatar for a whole religious subculture that fixates on legalistic formulations to the neglect of actual theologica or pastoral practice."

Congregations, of course, need much more in ordained leaders than someone who can explain complicated theology. Otherwise the French writer Denis Diderot never would have written this: "I have only a small flickering light to guide me in the darkness of a thick forest. Up comes a theologian and blows it out.”

In Weiss' analysis of the "Father Justin" issue, she also makes a point about the role of women in some faith traditions: "I don't really believe that an AI chatbot is going to lead to a sci-fi-esque android invasion of the magisterium. But I have to wonder whether some Catholics would be more likely to welcome a robot pope overlord than they would be to accept a woman in a position of ministerial leadership. At any rate, the priestly chatbot is a reminder to Catholic women that many of our co-religionists would rather turn to an AI figure in the guise of a male than treat a real, live woman as a religious authority."

Sad to say, even in such Christian branches as the Presbyterian Church (USA), of which my congregation is a member, women (who weren't allowed to be ordained as pastors until 1956) still often struggle to break through the stained-glass ceiling.

That's a bigotry that hurts the whole church, especially the non-AI flesh-and-blood people in the pews. Sigh.

(When the photo here today appeared with the NCR column I've quoted above, it had these cutlines: "This is a screenshot of 'Father Justin,' an AI chatbot simulating a priest in order to answer questions for the conservative apologetics platform Catholic Answers. Hours after the April 23 launch, Father Justin was 'laicized' after his responses to questions about the faith sparked social media furor. (OSV News screenshot/Catholic Answers)"

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QUESTIONING THE MORALITY OF IVF

The other day I wrote here about the need for moral and ethical oversight of science and technology. Here is an example of a faith group trying to do that. The top ethicist for the Southern Baptist Convention says invitro fertilization is an immoral method of having a baby. This is important evidence that not all of us will agree with what representatives of religious groups will say about how to create moral and ethical boundaries for science. But it's only by listening to all views on these difficult matters that we can come to some broad agreement about how to use and how to restrain technology and science. IVF has given many couples the opportunity and privilege of being parents. In my view that outweighs the SBC objections. But our culture as a whole -- not the SBC and certainly not me -- should have the final say on all this.

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P.S.: The United States is not the only country in the world struggling with election campaigns and questions about future and present leadership. The government of India is currently led by a man (in the midst of a re-election effort) with authoritarian tendencies and who has made a series of disastrous decisions that favor Hindu Nationalism. My friend Markandey Katju, a former justice on India's Supreme Court, has written this piece about Prime Minister Narendra Modi and why Indians should reject him for the good of the subcontinent. Markandey and I don't always agree on things, but he's right about this and, thus, I commend this article to you. By the way, the good news as of late Tuesday is that it looks as if Modi's party may barely get a majority in the government, much less the super majority he was predicting. So that's excellent news. In fact, Markandey, a committed atheist, sent me this email note about Modi's election results last evening: "God (who does not exist) has saved us."

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A FINAL SAD P.S.: I've just learned of the death Monday of the great German Reformed theologian Jürgen Moltmann at age 98. I have read several of his books and once had the privilege of hearing him speak. He had a fascinating history and contributed a lot to the world of theology -- theology that was much more than day-dreaming about God but was directed at helping people live examined and generative lives. Here is the announcement of his death from the World Council of Churches.


Why science must have consistent ethical oversight

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, I spent a fair amount of time writing articles for The Kansas City Star about moral and ethical concerns related to science.

Science-ethicsI explored such questions as this: Who owns your newly mapped human genome? And, for that matter, who owns the genetically modified seeds for growing genetically modified crops? And on and on.

It was clear to me then that these questions could not -- and should not -- be left to scientists without consideration of points of view raised by ethicists and by people representing religions. Failing to consider the moral and ethical issues raised by those fields and disciplines, I was sure, would lead to various scientific nightmares and disasters.

It's one reason, for instance, that organizations such as the Center for Practical Bioethics, based in Kansas City, exist.

All of which leads me today to link you to this article from the "Sightings" column regularly published by the Martin E. Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School. It's by David Barr, a visiting assistant professor of Religion at Berry College in Rome, Ga.

"Reservations about human genetic engineering," he writes, "generally fall into two camps: those who worry it is unnatural and those who worry it will be unfair." In response to the "unnatural" argument, Barr responds this way: "Genetic engineering is unnatural, but so is nasal spray."

And in response to the "unfair" concern, he says, "The second concern, rather than condemning too much technology, is often not about technology at all." When his students raise that concern, he says, they "tend to be afraid that new technologies will reinforce existing inequalities and systems of oppression."

Well, you can read the rest of the piece and see if you think Barr makes sense. My purpose in bringing the article to your attention is to argue that the fields of religion and ethics need to be wrestling with these difficult scientific issues (including artificial intelligence) and that we not only should encourage that but also have a clue about what answers and approaches they're offering.

If we cut those fields out of almost any human field of endeavor, we impoverish those who are tasked with making decisions about the roads forward.

This is not to suggest that we leave health care or high-tech (or any) issues to barely educated religious leaders who distrust science because it sometimes conflicts with religious dogma or scripture. Rather, it's to suggest that people of faith and their leaders need to understand more deeply than they usually do how science and technology are changing how we live and whether those changes challenge such long-held and widely held beliefs about the inestimable value of every human being.

If science and technology are challenging that core value, they should, in turn, be challenged -- and quickly -- so that the idea of the high worth of every single human life doesn't get diminished.

If the people you consider religious or ethical leaders are scientifically or technologically illiterate, you might want to look for some who are, in fact, literate in those areas. Neither the flat-Earthers nor the merely unread among religious leaders can be of much help to us in a time when failing to notice the changing approaches to these fields can lead to disaster. And, yes, as I noted above, I'm including the field of artificial intelligence in all this.

As Barr says in the piece to which I've linked you: "Religions can help us articulate visions of the human good that have positive content, rather than just negative condemnations of injustice. They can help us learn the lesson that there are realities -– sacred, natural or both -– before which we ought to hold back, that there are mysteries to be respected, not removed."

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P.S.: There's no usual second item here this weekend because I'm taking a brief medical time off. All is good. Back soon. In the meantime, you can catch up with faith news through the Religion News Service.


Oh, Sen. Marshall: The Pharisees didn't kill Jesus, either

A few weeks ago on this blog, I wrote here about some surprising and theologically ignorant remarks made by Sen. Roger Marshall of Kansas about, in essence, whether Jewish people should be blamed for the death of Jesus Christ.

Messiah-ConfrontationMarshall seemed ignorant of the fact that many branches of Christianity -- after far too long -- have come around to saying that no Jew at the time of the crucifixion or since then should be considered guilty of the death of Jesus. To blame the Jews is a sign of deep anti-Judaism, which helped to create modern antisemitism, as I explain in this essay.

To follow up on all that, today I want to share with you this article in the current issue of The Christian Century, entitled, "The Pharisees didn't kill Jesus."

(An aside: The Pharisees have long had a bad reputation among Christians, no doubt because Jesus, as a fellow Jew, sometimes criticized them for what he saw as their failure at times to remember some core Jewish values, such as welcoming the stranger and caring for widows, the poor and others in trouble. But, as the great scholar Amy-Jill Levine has pointed out many times, the Pharisees generally get bad press despite the fact that they were the Jewish equivalent of today's sincere show-up-every-Sunday Christians. She has noted that the only surviving writing by any Pharisee is from the Apostle Paul, so we don't have a broad range of explainers or defenders of them. She and Joseph Sievers are editors of a book called, simply, The Pharisees, which I recommend.)

In the Christian Century piece, Zen Hess, a doctoral student in New Testament at Baylor University who previously served in pastoral ministry, writes about the 2022 book by Israel Knohl called The Messiah Confrontation: Pharisees versus Sadducees and the Death of Jesus.

Here, in part, is what Hess writes about Knohl's conclusion: "The story concludes with Jesus standing trial before a group of religious leaders who did not believe a (semi)divine messiah was coming to restore the Davidic kingdom. These were the Sadducees. Had it been the Pharisees presiding over Jesus’ trial, Knohl suggests, 'Jesus would not have been condemned to death, convicted and crucified.'”

He then adds this: "The Pharisees may have disputed and rejected Jesus’ self-identification as the Messiah, but it would not have been considered blasphemy worthy of capital punishment."

Across Judaism's history, there have been many visions of what the Messiah would be like, what he might accomplish, the possible time of hi arrival and more. As Hess notes in his article, "Isaiah, for instance, speaks of three messianic figures. In the first 39 chapters, the messiah is a future king who restores the kingdom of Israel; in chapters 40–55, Isaiah associates the messiah with King Cyrus, and in the final chapters, the messiah appears to be all of Israel."

After centuries of a bitter anti-Judaism officially taught by the Christian church -- an anti-Judaism, as I mentioned above that helped to create modern antisemitism -- many branches of the church (especially since the Holocaust) have taken pains to repent of this hatred and have said in statement after official statement that it is wrong to blame the Jews for the crucifixion of Jesus.

And as Hess notes about Knohl's book, if you are going to blame Jews, forget about blaming the Pharisees, one of many subsets of people in the first century who made up the Jews of the Holy Land. And, by the way, we know Jesus wouldn't have blamed them either. In fact, he asked God to forgive the people who murdered him because, he said, they didn't know what they were doing.

So there's that. And with that, it's time for the old calumny about Jews being Christ killers to die.

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MORE CHURCH RELICS WITH DUBIOUS HISTORIES

Speaking of Jesus, as I was above, in some Christian traditions, relics from the history of the faith are more important than they are in other traditions. But it helps if those relics can be shown to be authentic. New carbon-dating done by Vatican authorities shows that tunics thought to be from St. Peter and from St. John the Evangelist are almost certainly not authentic. First, good for the Vatican for investigating them and reporting the findings. Second, why do such relics seem so important to some people? Well, first for a good reason: If they truly are what they seem, they help to authenticate the historical claims of the religion making those claims. So, OK. But shouldn't most of the focus be on how to live authentic faithful lives today and much less on such ancient relics? I recall Mark Twain once calling such relics into question by reporting that on a visit to the Holy Land he saw enough alleged pieces of the True Cross to build a pretty large building. Remembering what's of first importance in a faith tradition and what isn't should be a prime goal.

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P.S.: If you missed my latest Flatland column when it posted Sunday, it's still available at the low cost of $0.00 right here. (It's about cemeteries; I wrote it on deadline.)


A well-nuanced WWI Museum display explores chaplaincy

WW1-flags

Chaplains, whether in hospitals, hospices or other centers of trauma, often are thought of as the embodied hearts and hands of God.

And that's certainly been their reputation in the military, although there the danger of physical and moral injury to themselves is even greater. War, as we know, sets loose all kinds of wandering fires, all kinds of chances to be changed -- either strengthened or destroyed.

A new exhibition about military chaplains at the World War I Museum in Kansas City (the exhibit opened this past Thursday and will be open more than a year) doesn't look away from the miseries and brutalities of war. And it seems especially fitting that on the way to the front doors of the museum to see the exhibit visitors walk by 140 American flags displayed to call attention to the high rate of suicide among military veterans, as shown in the photo above.

Two voices from the World War I era particularly capture the horror of war and the shocking realization of some people at the time that humanity wasn't perfectible.

WW1-faithThe poet Ezra Pound, in his poem "Hugh Selwyn Mauberly," put it this way: "There died a myriad/And of the best, among them/For an old bitch gone in the teeth/For a botched civilization. . ."

And not long after the war, the theologian Karl Barth published his commentary on the New Testament book of Romans in which he called Christians to abandon the foolish idea -- widespread before the war -- that humanity was getting better and better and one day would be almost perfect. That notion, prominent then among people identified as progressive Christians, ignored the biblical testimony that, although created "good" and even "very good," humanity was stained by sin and unable to save itself. Barth was having none of that perfectibility nonsense after seeing the appalling evil committed by humanity in World War I.

The new World War I Museum exhibit about chaplains in the war, called "Sacred Service," captures the moral turmoil through which the world, including the military, traveled. And it makes a good-faith effort to show that even then not all military chaplains were Mainline Protestants, though, of course, the religious diversity among chaplains then was much less widespread than it is today.

"World War I," says Patricia Cecil, a museum specialist curator, "is the crucible where we get this interdenominationalism, interfaith efforts within the chaplaincy, recognizing those of all faiths and making sure they have representation."

Cecil acknowledges that the role of chaplains in World War I "hasn't been largely explored." So the World War I Museum, she says, wanted to investigate "how did they experience the war? How did the war change them?"

Every chaplain, Cecil says, had his (all males) "unique experience of the war. . .So there were those who felt that their experience of the war disheartened them. There were those who lost their faith and there were some who came out with a sense of faith renewed." That latter response surprised Cecil, who found it inspirational that many chaplains came out of the war with a renewed dedication to helping others.

Still, the exhibit doesn't shy away from having the idea of "moral injury" represented among chaplains who served, including in some of the signs that are part of the display, such as the one pictured at left here. The organization "Open Arms," which provides counseling to veterans and their families, describes moral injury this way: "Moral injury refers to the psychological, social and spiritual impact of events involving betrayal or transgression of one’s own deeply held moral beliefs and values occurring in high stakes situations. Moral injury is not a recognized mental health disorder in itself, but may be associated with PTSD or depression."

But whatever it's called and however it manifests in individual cases, this new museum exhibit is quick to acknowledge that World War I produced such injury even in chaplains.

Although almost certainly unintentional because of the length of time it takes to prepare such an exhibit, the idea of moral injury and the concept of attending to the spiritual needs of combatants and the victims of war is highly relevant today as the Hamas-Israeli and Russia-Ukraine wars rage on and as people on college campuses and elsewhere judge the morals and ethics of the combatants and the ways in which innocent people have been victimized again by war.

Although I took mandatory reserve officer training in college, I did not serve in the military for two reasons -- first, a student deferment while I was a university student and, second, a medical deferment for what was diagnosed at the time as rheumatoid arthritis. But in a second hand way, I did learn about how long-lasting the effects of moral injury can be.

The pastor of the church in which I grew up served as a chaplain in World War II. Something threw him back to that time while he was our pastor and he simply seemed stuck back in the war in his speech and actions. Eventually, he had to be institutionalized to receive mental counseling. Months later he returned to the pulpit but it was clear to church leaders that he hadn't been healed. So they worked out a way for him to retire early.

It was painful for everyone, especially the pastor's wife. Eventually it became clear to me that this pastor was one more victim of the kind of moral injury that war often produces in people. I hope you will consider such stories as you visit this new World War I exhibition and as you find ways to support military chaplains -- and all chaplains -- doing necessary work today.

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WRITING THAT DIDN'T MAKE THE NEW TESTMANT

It took several centuries for the Christian church to "canonize," or make official, the books it considered worthy of being included in the New Testament. In some ways it was a messy process, but the New Testament we have today has been with us a long time. But what was going on in early churches before that process was completed? As this article from The Conversation notes, early Christians were reading lots of things, many of which didn't make it into the canon.

An ancient manuscript now up for auction, the article says, reveals "how, before the consolidation of the Bible, early Christians read canonical and non-canonical scriptures – as well as pagan classics – side by side." The canonization process sometimes was political in nature, driven by concerns unrelated to theology -- perhaps not unlike the production of the Nicene Creed, when Emperor Constantine was much more interested in unity than he was in theological consistency.

It detracts nothing from the beauty and inclusiveness of the New Testament to acknowledge that early Christians also read other texts that didn't make the cut. Indeed, some of them are still around and are fascinating.


Marking an expansive anniversary in American history

Trails-west

Today marks the 181st anniversary of the start of what historians call the "Great Migration," when about 1,000 settlers (a key word) left from here in Western Missouri to head to the West and claim for themselves land that had been in Indigenous hands for thousands of years.

Well, in fact, the term "Great Migration" also has been given to the massive movement of Black people from the South to the North of the U.S. from 1910 to 1970. And that's a fascinating story, too, best told in Isabel Wilkerson's book, The Warmth of Other Suns.

But for today let's focus on the earlier migration and its role in the theft of Indigenous land that formed the basis of this new country of colonialists, the United States. Several sources say the first departure of what became the Great Migration started a year earlier, in 1842, from Elm Grove, Mo., the exact location of which seems to be something of a mystery, though it was clearly not far from today's Kansas City. And one of this migration's eventual main routes (along with the Santa Fe Trail) ended up being called the Oregon Trail, the primary starting point of which was right here in the KC metro.

What's important to remember about this eventually massive migration of white settlers moving west is that, after a time, it ended Indigenous control of the land on which people often called Native Americans today lived. By crooked treaty and outright theft, the American people and their government simply took control of the western half of this vast continent, not unlike the way they gained control of the eastern half.

Indig-ContBut let's turn to an expert to describe what all this was about and why it still matters all these years later. Here's what historian Pekka Hämäläinen writes in his excellent and recent book Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America:

"The United States' expansionist burst -- mightily boosted by rising capitalism -- was a dark moment for many Native Americans in the West. The western half of the continent was still overwhelmingly Indigenous, which was unacceptable to (President James K.) Polk and most Americans, who wanted unhindered access to California and its gold, its fertile land and its Pacific connections.

"The U.S. government believed that treaties and reservations had pacified the Indians and secured American dominance from ocean to ocean. That was wishful thinking. The federal bureaucracy was completely unprepared for its task of managing tens of thousands of Indians living far from American settlements. Most Native nations were assigned a single U.S. officer to oversee their government-issued amenities, their 'civilization' process and their eventual absorption into the U.S. body politic as reformed people.

"Taking advantage of the skeletal U.S. governance in Indian lands, speculators, settlers, timber thieves, whiskey traders and other opportunists pushed into reservations. In the recently acquired California, Whites focused on banishing the Indians, and then on killing them. U.S. agents deported as many Native Americans as they could to small concentration camps. The land, supremely fertile and laced with gold, was too good for the Indians. . .In 1846, there had been 150,000 California Indians; in 1860, only 35,000 remained."

Behind all of this is a quasi-religious term that, for a long, long time, gave almost divine sanction for the cultural and physical genocide of Indigenous people who occupied land in the way of expansion: "Manifest Destiny." That's a term that often hides much more than it reveals.

If Americans are going to have a serious conversation about -- and make a serious effort to offer (as we should) -- reparations to Black Americans because of slavery, Jim Crow and more, there also should be a similar conversation about reparations for Indigenous people whose ancestors suffered all of that and more at the hands of white settlers and their leaders. I'm not at all sure why that conversation didn't begin a long, long time ago.

(Speaking of anniversaries, June 2 this year will mark the 100th anniversary of when Native Americans finally became U.S. citizens. There were a few exceptions before then for various reasons, but it was on June 2, 1924, that President Calvin Coolidge signed the Indian Citizenship Act. As you might imagine, not only was there opposition to this among current American citizens, there was also some opposition among the Indians.)

(The map above came from here.)

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HOPE FOR PEOPLE IN GAZA?

A Catholic leader, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Pierbattista Pizzaballa, has paid an unannounced visit to Gaza to give people there hope, this Religion News Service story reports. In the process, the story makes this good point: "(T)he Israel-Hamas war is not a religious one and certainly not a Jewish-Muslim conflict, stressing the often ignored fact that the Palestinian people are not of a single faith or a movement." And it concludes this way: "The patriarch is the only such appearance by any public or private personality, political, artistic or religious, since the war began. Not a single foreign journalist has been allowed to visit Gaza, a stricture aimed at demoralizing Palestinians. But his visit has given the morale of the Palestinians in general and Palestinian Christians in particular an inestimable boost." It's what the best of clergy do, while the worst often are full of what the poet William Butler Yeats dismissed as empty "passionate intensity."


The most vital rule: Damn it, you have to be kind

Osm-tsu-2-2

Kirksville, Mo. -- Fifty-seven years ago, 92 miles to the south in Columbia, Mo., I received my bachelor of journalism degree from the University of Missouri School of Journalism and started my professional career of informing people with news stories and complicating their thinking with opinion writing.

I had only the vaguest idea of any details of my coming life. But I thought one day I might father children who, in turn, might give birth to their own children. And on and on. It's one of the relatively few things I got right about predicting my future. Each of my two daughters has given birth to two phenomenal human beings, the oldest of whom, Olivia, just graduated (summa cum laude) from Truman State University here with a nursing degree.

The several graduation speakers, of course, offered Olivia and the other graduates all the expected advice and cliches about what's ahead of them -- grab the future, help humankind get better, along the way have a little fun, don't forget your roots, send money to the alumni association. That sort of thing.

Most of that is important, of course, and some folks need to hear it several dozen times before any of it registers. But I'm not sure it's the most important advice for new graduates.

Instead, I think that one of my favorite authors, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., got a lot closer to what graduates need to hear when he wrote this in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater:

“Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you've got a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies --'God damn it, you've got to be kind.'”

Osm12805aRemember that, Olivia. But you also might want to ask what it means to be kind, what kindness looks like and why the global supply of it now seems so pathetically low. Here are a few of my answers. But, Olivia, you need to get your own answers, so read these lightly and fix them if they need fixing.

-- To be kind means never to dehumanize another person. In Christianity (and other religions), the idea is that each human being -- no matter what -- is created in the image of God. If you dehumanize someone you attempt to erase that image and make someone subhuman. That leads to war, to mass murder, to the Holocaust, to ignoring the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the mentally deranged, the disabled and on and on. You don't have to like everyone you meet. That's an almost-impossible goal. But never treat them as being outside the human family.

-- To be kind means not to make yourself the center of the universe so that others feel somehow diminished or even worthless by comparison. Very few people in the world (8-plus billion of them) even know you exist. That should instill a little humility in all of us -- and our world may not be the only one in a cosmos that is some 13.5 billion years old. That said, I am overjoyed that you exist and are already as kind and winsome as you are.

-- To be kind means treating our home, Mother Earth, with great tenderness. Every day we should try to do something that will heal whatever we are doing to damage our planet while we find ways to quit doing more such damage. Earth is resilient and astonishingly generous in its gifts to us. But it's not immortal. Treat it sweetly.

-- To be kind means to live with gratitude. Don't abuse the many ways in which you are already privileged. Rather, give thanks daily for your life, your talents, your resources, your friends, your family, your opportunity to help someone else heal, which, of course, will be your profession as a nurse as well as your calling as a human being. But while you do all that, don't forget to take care of yourself. A wounded healer can't be of much help to others.

-- There's more, but let me stop with this: To be kind means to honor your commitments, whether that's as an employee, a family member, a lover or simply as someone granted the gift of life on this planet. So don't make commitments you know you won't be able to keep. That helps no one.

Olivia, I used to think about all of these things when you were a baby and I'd make regular Tuesday afternoon stops by your house to hold you, carry you around and show you the world outside your windows. Now you get to think about them and decide whether I got any of this right. Onward, sweet child. The world needs you to be a generative, kind presence. Starting yesterday. I'll be off to one side proudly applauding.

(The top photo shows Olivia with her parents and brother and with my wife and me. The lower photo shows Olivia at roughly six years of age -- already a handful for her maternal grandfather.)

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UH, ABOUT THAT ODD BUTKER SPEECH

Speaking of graduation speeches, everybody with any kind of public voice has reacted to the one given recently at Benedictine College by Kansas City Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker. So much so that I hardly feel any need to, uh, kick Butker while he's down, despite deserving it for what I took to be demeaning remarks aimed at women, LGBTQ+ folks and others. Americans, after all, still are free to believe stupid ideas, hold on to attitudes that achieved their highest favorable ratings a century or two ago and that are spoken by people with no expertise in the field they're addressing. So let's not be shocked when those ideas are advocated as part of an event designed to move students into their futures. By the time of graduation from college, students should be discerning enough to tell worthy ideas from rejected rubble. And I'm confident, therefore, that the Benedictine graduates will discern for themselves if there was anything of value in what Butker said.


American Christian Nationalism has Mainline Protestant roots

The core idea behind the religious/political aberration known as American Christian Nationalism is that God has uniquely blessed the United States. (Isn't that in the Bible somewhere? Clue: No.)

Bap-amerIn Christian theology, the accurate word for that belief in a special divine blessing for America is idolatry, the subject of the first of the Ten Commandments.

A new and important book, Baptizing America: How Mainline Protestants Helped Build Christian Nationalism, by Brian Kaylor and Beau Underwood, not only makes those points but provides some guidance for how to unplug Christian Nationalism wherever we find it -- and it's easier to find these days than ever.

But here's what many readers may not expect: We find it almost everywhere in the history of Mainline Protestant churches. The widespread belief that Christian Nationalism is a relatively new idea promoted by fundamentalist, evangelical or conservative Christians doesn't match up with the detailed history Kaylor and Underwood offer to show how Mainliners have promoted this terrible idea for a long time, though often in softer, less-extreme ways than some kinds of Christian Nationalism we see today.

The authors argue persuasively that it's long past time for Mainliners to recognize this sordid history, repent of it and work to undo the damage Christian Nationalism has done historically and that it continues to do in its more recent and more virulent versions. Today you can easily find such people as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Mike Johnson, former President Donald Trump and many of his most ardent supporters advocating Christian Nationalism.

Kaylor and Underwood take us back through U.S. history but focus particularly on the ways that such more recent former presidents as Dwight D. Eisenhower and Harry S. Truman advanced Christian Nationalism because it seemed patriotic in an innocent way. When Ike was president, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that prayers in public schools led by teachers were unconstitutional, causing lots of Americans to drag out Christian Nationalism arguments in defense of such prayers. It also was in that era that the official motto of the U.S. became "In God We Trust," which was printed on all our currency and coinage.

As for Truman, he made a way for the publishers of the Revised Standard Version of the Christian Bible to present the first copy of it to him at the White House -- as though somehow it was a patriotic book reflecting the nation's values, not unlike our founding documents.

Kayler and Underwood lay out this truth about Christian Nationalism early in the book: "No matter who expresses it, Christian Nationalism does violence to our nation's pluralistic ideals and the teachings of Jesus." And yet throughout the book we find Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans and other Mainliners promoting various aspects of Christian Nationalism.

Conf-class-58Christian Nationalism, it turns out, runs in two directions. In one, churches make space for and promote such national symbols as the American flag (true of the Presbyterian church in which I grew up. In fact, if you look at this photo of my 1958 confirmation class at that church, you can see the American flag on the left, closest to the pulpit and thus in the place of first honor, and the Christian flag on the right, in the place of second honor). In the other direction, politicians contend that America is a new Israel, home to God's specially chosen people. The authors put it this way: "Christian Nationalism seeks to conflate national and religious identities in a way that inherently provides Christians with a privileged place in American society."

And all across the history of this idolatry, the authors say, you will find Mainline Protestants contributing to it: ". . .the cultural and political preeminence Mainliners possessed in this era and after inadvertently became the seedbed out of which much of today's Christian Nationalism grew." And, they add, "Christian Nationalism isn't Christian."

They write that "Christian Nationalism makes two grave errors. First, it portrays human governments and their leaders as divine agents, rendering them godlike and worthy of a devotion that properly belongs only to God. Second, it reduces the church to a servant of the nation, sapping it of the authority to help discern what does (and does not) serve the common good."

After describing the appalling ways that Mainliners have contributed to the popularity of Christian Nationalism, the authors offer a series of steps those churches can take to repair the damage they've done. If Christian Nationalism survives in the U.S. and continues to influence both our politics and our religions, the future looks deeply problematic for both America and American Christianity.

As the authors say, "We want to see Christians get their priorities straight. We believe that the future of both the church and the nation depends on it." I think they're right.

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DO YOU PRAY FOR OR AGAINST THE POPE?

It's nice to see a pope with both a sense of reality and a sense of humor. As this Crux story reports, Pope Francis seems well aware that even some people inside the Vatican are praying not for him but against him. And he's able to make jokes about it. It's further proof that no one in a position of authority ever receives universal love and approval. And things go much better if that person recognizes that reality and accepts it rather than always seeking to punish his or her critics.