Can mediocre preaching be improved? Maybe. Here's some help.

Great Christian preaching is -- how to say this kindly? -- rare.

Word-made-freshAnd no doubt even the best preachers -- maybe even Fred Craddock or Gardner C. Taylor -- had off days. But in my experience the reality is that the average preacher in the average church offers up a lot more exegetical mediocrity than brilliance.

So when I run across preaching that seems well above average, it's a surprise and an occasion for celebration.

The good news is that you will find many examples of excellent preaching in a new collection of sermons (and commentary) by the Rev. Dr. George A. Mason, senior pastor emeritus of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas. It's called The Word Made Fresh: Preaching God's Love for Every Body. The book's official publication date is June 27, but it can be ordered now. Mason led that church for more than three decades. Today he is founder and president of Faith Commons, which, as its website says, "promotes public discourse rooted in the common values of many faiths."

In an introduction to one of the book's sections, a pastor named Allen Walworth describes Mason's preaching this way: "George carefully selects words like jewels, and then polishes and sets them in sentences designed to reflect light into the secret places of the heart. . .These sermons are a basket of flashlights, each of them pointing a beam of light at a different trajectory that might lead someone on the dark path back to their true home in relationship with God through Christ."

More than 20 years ago, under Mason's leadership, Wilshire Baptist severed its affiliation with the Southern Baptist Convention and, instead, became part of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a less theologically rigid way to be Baptist, a way often associated with former President Jimmy Carter.

Far beyond a limited emphasis on personal salvation, therefore, Mason's sermons dealt with the great moral issues of the time -- war, poverty, racism, sexism and more. As I read his words, it's clear that he's not simply giving people simplistic answers from the Bible. Rather, he's using scripture to point people toward a God who liberates them to be of service to a wounded world.

Sometimes that leads him, at least briefly, to critique the words of other Baptists. For instance, in a 1996 sermon he told his congregants that he was "disgusted this week to read statements by a Southern Baptist seminary president," Mark Coppenger, the then-leader of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City.

"He claimed," Mason said, "that Baptists are tragically losing the important idea that all people who do not know Jesus are 'bad.' I quote, 'Lost people are bad people. . .The person who is not saved is in fact the son of the devil, a rebel, hating the light. Now they can mask it and bad men do some good things, but at the core they are bad people.'"

That's a morally black-white, no-gray world that Mason has little use for because it's not just simplistic, it professes to limit the freedom of God to decide the status and fate of everyone. And Mason wasn't the only one taking issue with Coppenger's approach to Christianity. In 1999, the seminary board fired him, saying that his "expressions of anger have 'irreparably damaged his ability to lead this seminary.'”

Most of Mason's preaching, however, is devoted to providing what Walworth called "a basket of flashlights." Mason's job -- as that of any Christian preacher -- is to lead people to a deeper relationship with the divine and then to help them figure out how to bring life and goodness to a world in need.

And Mason clearly understands what it takes to do just that and what doesn't work.

As he said in a 2005 sermon, "(W)e are all more charmed into faith than reasoned into it. The heart draws us more than the head drives us to it.

"Think of it: How many of you put your trust in Christ because someone answered all your questions? I know I have never talked anyone into becoming a Christian. The most I can do is to lower the bar of objections. . .I was just like most children who grew up in the church. We are drawn to faith by the smells and bells. . .; by the stitching and color and symbols. . .; by the mystery of the waters of baptism; by the taste of Wonder Bread and wine at the Table; by the sound of voices singing and organ pipes piping and shafts of light that break in through the windows on Easter Sunday; by the gentle touch of a Sunday school teacher, and by a youth minister who was just the right blend of reverent and irreverent enough to make you want to be like him."

Perhaps most admirable, Mason understands what Orthodox Christian theologian David Bentley Hart understands, which is that Christianity is much less about the past than it is about not just the present but especially the future.

"Faith," Mason said in his 2022 farewell sermon at Wilshire, "always lives in the tension between the already and the not yet, the past and the future. It's a good thing for us to protect enduring values, but Christianity has a bias toward the future. . .Our work is ongoing to build a community of faith shaped by the Spirit of Jesus Christ."

As Hart has noted, Jesus promised the Kingdom of God but what we got instead -- at least so far -- is the church. And yet the Kingdom is coming and Christians must not lose that vision. In the meantime, our job is to love God, others and ourselves with energy and joy.

Mason's many sermons in this 400-page book can help, I hope, some of today's less-skilled preachers remember that.

(One small complaint: The title "The Word Made Fresh" is also the title of at least half a dozen other books. Can what now looks like a cliché be fresh? Hmmmm.)

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WHAT IS JERUSALEM'S FUTURE?

Will the twice-destroyed temple in Jerusalem ever be rebuilt? As this story reports, since 1987 a Jewish group there has been working to do exactly that. But, of course, it's complicated. As is all of Jerusalem and its history entwining Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

The "salem" part of the city's name derives from a word that means peace. For at least 75 years, since the founding of modern Israel, it's been hard to find much "salem" there. The story to which I've linked you offers this brief history: "The faithful have their sights set on the large, tree-dotted compound in the heart of Jerusalem's Old City. Known as Temple Mount to Jews and revered as their holiest site, the compound has for centuries housed Al-Aqsa mosque, the third most sacred place in Islam. Those seeking to rebuild the temple recall the former place of worship, destroyed around 70 AD during the Roman period. According to Jewish tradition, their first temple was demolished in 586 BC by then ruler Nebuchadnezzar II at the same location." So we'll see. 

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Finally, a national strategy to unplug antisemitism

The recent announcement that the Biden White House is starting a major new initiative to fight antisemitism is not only welcome in this time of resurgent Jew hatred, it's also evidence of what can happen when you appoint the right people to work on government initiatives.

Antisemitism strategy reportJust over a year ago, Deborah Lipstadt, a brilliant scholar and author whom I've been able to hear speak in person twice in the Kansas City area, was confirmed as President Joe Biden's Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism, with the rank of ambassador.

She has been deeply involved in the design and roll-out of this new initiative, which, as the AP story to which I linked you in the first paragraph reports, includes "more than 100 steps the administration and its partners can take to combat an alarming rise in antisemitism." At the press conference announcing all of this, as the AP story notes, "Biden said the first U.S. National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism sends a 'clear and forceful message' that 'in America, evil will not win, hate will not prevail' and 'the venom and violence of antisemitism will not be the story of our time.'"

The link in the previous paragraph takes you to the full 60-page strategy, but here's an early key paragraph:

Together, we must acknowledge and confront the reality that antisemitism is rising, both at home and abroad. Loud voices are normalizing this venom, but we must never allow it to become normal. Antisemitism threatens not only the Jewish community, but all Americans. People who peddle these antisemitic conspiracy theories and fuel racial, ethnic, and religious hatred against Jews also target other communities — including Black and brown Americans; Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders; LGBTQI+ individuals; Muslim Americans; women and girls; and so many others. Our intelligence agencies have determined that domestic terrorism rooted in white supremacy — including antisemitism — is the greatest terrorist threat to our Homeland today.

That last sentence bears rereading: "Our intelligence agencies have determined that domestic terrorism rooted in white supremacy — including antisemitism — is the greatest terrorist threat to our Homeland today."

Domestic terrorism, like antisemitism, has been on the rise for several years. To keep up with developments in that field as they affect us in the Kansas City area, I recommend to you the work of my former Kansas City Star colleague, reporter Judy L. Thomas, who does a terrific job explaining all this to readers.

The federal government, of course, can't by itself fix this ancient hatred of Jews. Its roots are deep and include nearly 2,000 years of anti-Judaism found in Christian history. To read about that history, go to this essay posted elsewhere on my blog. I also recommend reading Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, by David Nirenberg.

If you want to be part of the solution in the Kansas City area, I suggest you find ways to support the work of these three agencies: The Midwest Center for Holocaust Education, the Jewish Community Relations Bureau/American Jewish Committee and SevenDays. (Disclosure: I serve on the boards of both the first and last agency just mentioned.)

If you're not from the KC area, please find similar groups and institutions that work to rid the world of this hatred wherever you are.

Jonathan A. Greenblatt, CEO and national director of the Anti-Defamation League, has written this USA Today opinion piece about all of this. His conclusions: "The strategy may not be perfect – as with any policy strategy there are areas where we and others will disagree – and it will not alone solve the scourge of antisemitism in America or globally. But this is a great and historic moment, the first time in the history of our country where the federal government has developed a comprehensive strategy to end hatred of Jews in our times.

"We are excited to continue to collaborate in the execution of this plan."

And the American Jewish Committee added its approval with this statement.

The Jewish newspaper The Forward has published this analysis of the administration's new effort to curb antisemitism. It's a good and thoughtful read and includes this observation: "Overall, the strategy represents quite an accomplishment. It’s rare that an administration lives up to its promises, and this White House followed through. But antisemitism is insidious, and the executives’ reach is limited."

As others have said, silence in the face of such evil means taking the side of the oppressor. I'm glad the Biden administration is not choosing silence. And I hope you won't, either.

All of that said, it's also true that the new federal initiative has critics, such as the authors of this opinion piece in The Tablet, which argues this: "The most serious flaw is that the strategy lacks any real consideration of how anti-Zionism, the denial of the Jewish right to self-determination in their ancestral homeland, almost invariably manifests as a politically correct version of antisemitism, a version that is spiraling out of control in America today."

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A COMPLEX ANSWER TO A COMPLEX FAITH ISSUE

The move to religious disaffiliation among citizens of the U.S. is not a new story. But this RNS opinion piece offers some interesting thoughts about why the explanations for it can be myriad and complicated. What the author calls "the regime of choice" is, he says, "here to stay, posing distinct challenges to all American religious communities."

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P.S.: I remind you that you can get an email for free each time my blog publishes -- almost always on Wednesdays and Saturdays -- by clicking on this link and filling out a simple form.


Why preachers might avoid difficult Bible passages

In many Christian churches, preachers use what's called the lectionary to decide which Bible passages to use to construct sermons.

BiblesThe Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), for example, offers passages from both testaments for every Sunday and for special holidays. What it doesn't do, however, is cover the whole of the Bible. That is, it leaves out passages, and that sometimes stirs debates about whether it's time to create a more complete lectionary so we don't miss some of the weirdest stories in the Bible.

I was thinking about this recently after reading this interview in The Christian Century with Amy-Jill Levine, the great New Testament scholar who spent much of her career at Vanderbilt but who now is a professor of New Testament and Jewish studies at Hartford International University. She's brilliant and, in person, lots of fun, too.

At any rate, at the end of the piece, which focuses on problematic passages mentioning Jews in the gospel of John, Steve Thorngate, the magazine's managing editor, poses these two final questions to Levine about the lectionary:

The RCL isn’t a canon, but it was arrived at through extensive ecumenical discernment. Is it useful for individual churches or denominations to modify it for their own use? Or is what’s needed nothing less than a major revision at an ecumenical level?

Churches over the past two millennia have changed their readings and their practices. Discernment continues. If it did not, churches would be putting the Holy Spirit out of business. If one church or denomination changes the lectionary and another does not, I doubt this will bring Christianity to a halt.

Others have proposed changing the lectionary for a very different reason: to include more or even all of the canon. Is this expansion something that should be resisted?

I see no reason to resist discussion about the lectionary, any more than there is reason to resist discussion about polity, ethics, the hymnal or the translation, which is about to change as Roman Catholic churches use the updated New American Bible and many mainline Protestant churches will shift from the NRSV to the NRSVue. Just as we in the US have expanded our notions of the canons of the study of literature, philosophy and art, I see no reason not to expand the lectionary to include previously unheard voices — and, perhaps, to retire others.

All houses of worship do well to consider what they promote, explicitly or implicitly, with their readings, art, music, polity, creeds, saints, fundraising, guest speakers and so on. All do well to consider what they teach their children, their new members, their congregations and their clergy. In all cases, we do well to determine how best to promote messages of love and compassion rather than of hate and damnation.

So if you are a churchgoer but aren't familiar with the lectionary and its uses, this would be a good time to learn. And a good time to think about what the lectionary leaves out. (Frankly, some of what it leaves out seems almost radically unsuited for use in sermons, but I bet there are preachers who could spin gold out of some of that apparent straw.)

And I would add my voice to those who think it's time for a new look at how the lectionary gets put together and how that might be different.

For the last several years, the preachers in my congregation have almost never used the lectionary but have, rather, preached on six- or eight-week themes that drive them to find texts to exegete. The danger in that approach is that preachers may end up simply preaching from their favorite biblical passages instead of being challenged to find meaning in a passage found in the lectionary. So there's no perfect system.

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TINA TURNER'S SPIRITUAL COMMITMENTS

Singer Tina Turner, who just died, was reared in a Baptist family but spent the last 50 years of her life practicing a form of Buddhism, as this Conversation piece reports. Specifically, she practiced Soka Gakkai International Nichiren Buddhism. (Yes, there's a Nichiren Buddhist center in Kansas City, too.) The author of The Conversation article has a new book about Turner's spirituality coming out, and writes this: "As I found while doing research for my forthcoming book, Dancing in My Dreams: A Spiritual Biography of Tina Turner, Turner’s religious influences extended beyond the forms of Afro-Protestant institutional religion."

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THE BOOK CORNER

Power-gratitude

The Power of Gratitude: Charting a Path Toward a Joyous and Faith-Filled Life, by Patrick M. Garry. This is a charming small book written by a law professor about his now-deceased parents and how their Catholic faith taught them a lifelong commitment to gratitude. It's the engaging stories that make the book something other than a preachy self-help book, which is what it easily could have turned into in other hands.

Garry worries that "true gratitude may be disappearing even faster than are peace, unity and tranquility. But true gratitude might underlie everything else: the ability to love without interruption, serve without expectation, persevere without anguish and find joy in every minute of life."

The author's parents, Liz and Mike Garry, reared their houseful of eight children in the small town of Fairmont, Minn., which today has a population of about 10,000, not much different from when the author grew up there. Both of Garry's parents had grown up in families of quite modest means and for much of their married life also were required to live in modest economic circumstances as Mike ran a small grain elevator company.

The story of the author, as a high school football player, not waking up from a nap at home in time to get to the start of a game -- and his mother's insistence that he go anyway (he had to climb over a fence in his uniform to get into the football field) -- reminded me of when my mother dragged me off the baseball field on which I was pitching at about age 9 or 10. I had failed that morning to feed or water the chickens I was raising as a 4-H project. Patrick Garry and I learned difficult lessons about responsibility from our mothers and, in the end, we learned to be grateful for our mothers' lessons.

The Garry house became kind of an informal and busy community center in Fairmont, and the author says that despite all the effort required to host many events there, his parents were simply grateful to find a way to serve their neighbors.

If something in the book seems either missing or passed over too lightly, it's an acknowledgment that a lot of difficult racial, social and economic history preceded the placidity and neighborliness in a town like Fairmont, more than 90 percent of the population of which is white. There's only minimal reference to the social stirrings that swept the nation in the 1960s and '70s and no real accounting of the role Minnesota and its residents -- either Indigenous or settlers -- might have played in an American history that began with the cultural and physical genocide of Indigenous people and the enslavement of Africans.

An accounting of how all of that helped to shape a town like Fairmont and people like Mike and Liz Garry would have added depth to this otherwise engaging book, all the while giving a proper sense of nuance and complication to the gratitude people like the Garrys in Fairmont (and the Tammeus family in Woodstock, Ill.) felt and expressed.

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column was published this past weekend, and you can find it here. It's about an independent Catholic Church led by a gay priest in Kansas City.


Can humanity ultimately survive social media and Artificial Intelligence?

A year ago this month, in this blog post, I wrote about the various ways our society, our peace, our politics and our understanding of truth is being undermined by social media (Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, etc.).

Chaos-machineThat post links you to a piece in The Atlantic, and I still commend it to you. The author of that article, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, wrote this: "Social scientists have identified at least three major forces that collectively bind together successful democracies: social capital (extensive social networks with high levels of trust), strong institutions and shared stories. Social media has weakened all three. . .Social media has both magnified and weaponized the frivolous. . .It’s not just the waste of time and scarce attention that matters; it’s the continual chipping-away of trust."

I would like to tell you that things have improved. But I do my best not to do what so many posters on social media do: lie. So I can't make any claims for improvement. In fact, I just finished a 2022 book that leads me to believe that the relentless hunt for profits has so warped the bright early promise of social media that we might, as a society, be better off if they all just shut down.

I say that reluctantly because I myself use social media a little, but mostly to let readers know of something new I've written or to keep in better touch with far-flung family members.

But journalist Max Fisher's book, The Chaos Machine: The Inside Story of How Social Media Rewired Our Minds and Our World, has pretty much deprived me of any hope that social media can be trusted to tell us the truth and uplift humanity on the theory, as expressed in the New Testament, that the truth will set us free.

A primary problem with social media is that its creators want those who use it to stay online as long as possible so that the various platforms can make more money from advertising on their sites. To keep people engaged, thus, they use algorithms that have been shown to drive people from what originally interested them to increasingly extremist posts and sites. The social media sites have been warned about the violence and chaos this creates, but they rarely take any steps to fix things.

As Fisher reports, this aspect of social media has led to people engaging in hateful behavior including violence not just in the U.S. (the Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington, D.C., is a good example of violence driven, though not exclusively, by social media) but in such countries as Myanmar, Sri Lanka and elsewhere.

The profit-driven habit of social media platforms to encourage users to drift further and further away from reliable information continues, and Fisher isn't sure there's any answer beyond abandoning those platforms.

"The social media giants, as currently constituted," he writes, "may be simply unable to roll back their systems' worst tendencies. Technically, it would be easy. But the cultural, ideological and economic forces that led executives to create and supercharge those systems in the first place still apply."

Maybe we need a "Turn Off the Algorithms" campaign, but social media companies have no financial incentive to turn them off. Those algorithms serve as a highly paid Pied Piper and the platforms don't want to fire him.

Part of the problem, of course, is that our educational systems don't do a particularly good job in teaching people how to consume media in a discerning way. Several decades ago, I was part of a group in Kansas City called Ecumedia. A primary idea was that people of various faith traditions, who were committed to trustworthy and reliable reporting and analysis as a vital building block of what the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. used to call the "Beloved Community," would help teach people how to be wise consumers of media.

I think we did a little good, but as the internet changed everything, our efforts got overwhelmed by the many ways in which mis- and disinformation could be spread so easily. And that's still the case today, as Fisher's book makes clear.

Even more distressing, something that has great promise but may become even more destructive than social media platforms' use of algorithms is Artificial Intelligence. We seem to be rushing forward into an A.I. future that none of us truly understands and that carries with it dire possibilities for making our political, social, economic and religious divisions even worse.

I wish I had answers for all this. I don't. But I do know that unless we take time to understand what's happening to our brains and our habits because of social media, its algorithms and the coming uncertainty of A.I., we'll have no hope of redeeming our future.

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WHEN RELIGION TURNS TO HATE

Speaking of social media, word has spread there recently of a pastor from Spokane, Wash., who said in an alleged sermon that parents who allow their children to have gender reassignment surgery should be "shot in the back of the head.” It shouldn't continue to astonish me when I run across hate masquerading as religion, but it does. And I hope it appalls you, too.


The human costs of war are so vast as to be nearly incalculable

In the Hebrew Bible book of Isaiah (2:4), there's this wildly aspirational vision of a world without the scourge of war:

Death-Outlives-War"(God) shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more." (New Revised Standard Version)

We know, of course, that swords haven't been beaten into plowshares. Rather, they've been melted into the raw material for bullets for weapons that didn't exist in Isaiah's time. And we know that there's been hardly a single day between the time of Isaiah (roughly 760-673 or 740-683 BCE, depending on which source you check) when one nation hasn't lifted up sword against another. And not only have people not quit learning war, they have, instead, developed specific colleges designed to teach war.

But what many of us fail to realize is the long-term cost of war, especially in terms of human life.

A new report from the "Costs of War" project at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International & Public Affairs, for instance, describes the carnage that the post-9/11 wars have cost humanity -- what the report calls "indirect deaths." From the link I've given you it's possible to click on separate links to get you to the full report or just to the executive summary.

But to give you a sense of the bleakness of what humans have done to other humans since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 (attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people, including my own nephew), here are the opening two paragraphs of the summary of the report, called "How Death Outlives War":

The total death toll in the post-9/11 war zones of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen could be at least 4.5-4.6 million and counting, though the precise mortality figure remains unknown. Some of these people were killed in the fighting, but far more, especially children, have been killed by the reverberating effects of war, such as the spread of disease. These latter indirect deaths – estimated at 3.6-3.7 million – and related health problems have resulted from the post-9/11 wars’ destruction of economies, public services, and the environment. Indirect deaths grow in scale over time. Though in 2021 the United States withdrew military forces from Afghanistan, officially ending a war that began with its invasion 20 years prior, today Afghans are suffering and dying from war-related causes at higher rates than ever.

In laying out how the post-9/11 wars have led to illness and indirect deaths, the report’s goal is to build greater awareness of the fuller human costs of these wars and support calls for the United States and other governments to alleviate the ongoing losses and suffering of millions in current and former war zones. The report highlights many long- term and underacknowledged consequences of war for human health, emphasizing that some groups, particularly women and children, suffer the brunt of these ongoing impacts.

Not every war or violent response to some development is rooted in some aspect of religion. We know, however, that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were perpetrated by people claiming to be Muslims and claiming to be acting out of Islamic teachings. Those claims were, of course, nonsense -- indeed, a deep slander aimed at traditional Islam. But often one can find some aspect of religion in play when the causes of war are considered.

Clearly, the prophet Isaiah was a visionary who saw a future that still doesn't exist and, this side of paradise, may never exist. But reports like this one from Brown University can give us more -- and maybe new -- reasons to work against the human proclivity to go to war. Until then, the one whom Christians call the Prince of Peace must be heartbroken when he looks at earthly territory. Sigh.

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THE WORLD'S MOST BEAUTIFUL CHURCHES?

2nd-spring-23aFor a bit of a change today, I am linking you to this Architectural Digest article about what the author says are the 10 most beautiful churches in the world. I have been in many beautiful churches in quite a few countries, but I confess I've not seen any of those on this list. I'm wondering what churches (or other houses of worship) you would put on a top 10 list. For strictly personal reasons, the sanctuary of my own church will always be on my list. Here's a photo of our building I took recently as the spring blossoms decorated it.

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P.S.: Equal Justice USA, an organization that works against the death penalty and for justice system reform, is offering a free webinar at 1 p.m. (CDT) tomorrow during which the group's executive director will discuss how she's working to create opportunities for healing and restoration over punishment. You can register for this online event here.


Remembering Harry Truman's role in modern Israel's 75-year history

Last weekend, Israel marked the 75th anniversary of its 1948 declaration that it's an independent nation. Just 11 minutes after that declaration, President Harry S. Truman became the first head of state to formally recognize Israel's existence.

HST-I-2That move was crucial to the new state's ability to become part of the community of nations. Indeed, the very next year, 1949, Israel was admitted as a member of the United Nations.

Officials at the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence used this 75th anniversary as an opportunity to retell the story of Truman's recognition of Israel and to hear from Israel's ambassador to the U.S., Michael Herzog (pictured here). Among those also speaking that day was Truman's grandson, Clifton Truman Daniel, who retold the story of how Truman's longtime Jewish friend and former business partner, Eddie Jacobson, was instrumental in getting Truman to move toward recognizing Israel as both an independent and a Jewish state once its leaders created it.

Here is a link to Jacobson's own account of how that happened. And here is a recent Washington Post story about all of this.

HST-I-3Since its founding, Israel has time and again had to explain that it wasn't created solely as a response to world guilt about the Holocaust. Indeed, the idea of Zionism, which called for an independent state for Jewish people, goes back at least to the late 1800s -- and, in memory, to biblical Israel.

This article from The Conversation discusses what it calls "the core tension behind the country’s establishment – whether a Jewish state could be a democratic state, whether Zionism could accommodate pluralism," concluding that this tension "is more obvious than ever." The author of the article is Eran Kaplan, the Rhoda and Richard Goldman Chair in Jewish Studies at San Francisco State University.

Here's part of what Kaplan wrote about this tension: "Theodor Herzl, an Austro-Hungarian Jew acknowledged as the father of modern Zionism, considered this tension in his 1902 utopian novel 'Altneuland,' or 'The Old New Land.' Herzl tried to envision what a future Jewish society in Palestine would look like.

"One of the novel’s key plot lines involves a political campaign pitting a xenophobic rabbi who preaches the Jewish character of the community against a secular candidate who advocates inclusivity and cooperation between Jews and Arabs in this imagined Jewish society. Herzl’s choice: the pluralist candidate prevailed. But throughout the history of the Zionist movement and the state of Israel, what Herzl described has been a core source of tension."

In his remarks to the Truman-Israel gathering on May 11, Ambassador Herzog took note of Truman's knowledge, through his reading, of the story of ancient Israel, especially, as Herzog said, of "King Cyrus' decision in the year 538 B.C. to allow the Jewish people to return (from exile) to their homeland. . .Truman was also well aware of the horrors of the Holocaust just a few years earlier. It was not lost on him that the Jewish people, having just emerged from a systematic effort to exterminate them were. . .willing to fight for their defense."

Herzog was right to note that "less than a century after the Holocaust, antisemitism is once again raising its ugly head in new and dangerous ways here in the United States and around the world."

But one problem with defining antisemitism today, in the context of Israel, is that some people suggest it's antisemitic to criticize decisions by the government of Israel when, in fact, there are things about those policies that deserve criticism, particularly its failure -- from an enviable position of military and economic strength -- to find a satisfactory answer to the question of a homeland for the Palestinian people. Palestinian leaders, of course, also deserve criticism for their failure to come to terms with -- and accept the existence of -- modern Israel. They have so far helped to make it impossible for Palestinians to have the kind of political, economic, religious and social freedom all people deserve.

I sometimes wonder whether we'd be closer to unraveling that Gordian knot if Truman still were in the White House (assuming he had discovered how to serve multiple terms without aging).

Caesarea-8I have been to Jerusalem twice, but to Israel only once. How is that possible? Well, when I first was in Jerusalem with my family of origin in December 1957, we were required for various reasons to stay on the Jordanian side of that then-divided city. But when I returned to Jerusalem in 2012, the entire city was within Israel's borders.

(I took this picture of Israel's flag at Caesarea.)

Israel and Jerusalem today are astonishing places, full of history, full of the future, full of a troubled present. My hope and prayer is that the people of Israel and the Palestinian people can find a future in which their cultures enrich each other and they discover the many benefits of a peaceful existence together. If that happens, let's remember the role the Man from Independence played in modern Israel's birth.

P.S.: Here is a fascinating column about Israel today by an American rabbi. His conclusion: "Let that be a new definition of Zionism, in our time – the work of making the earthly Jerusalem look more like the heavenly Jerusalem."

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DESTROYING CHRISTIAN CHURCHES IN INDIA

In this recent blog post, I wrote about how religious liberty was being crushed in many places around the globe. Sometimes that happens by the government of this or that country. And sometimes it happens in response to something the government has or hasn't done. The latter seems to be the case in the horrific recent violence in India. In a northeastern state there, this report says, "as many as 121 (Christian) churches and buildings belonging to 15 denominations were torched or destroyed in the ethnic violence that began on May 3 across Manipur." This Reuters article attempts to explain what's behind the violence. Across history, when religious people have been persecuted and/or subjected to violence, it often results in stronger commitments to that faith by those persecuted. That, of course, is no reason to support this kind of viciousness. But maybe the perpetrators should think about that before they act.

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THE 2023 TEMPLETON PRIZE WINNER ANNOUNCED

It's fascinating to me each year to read about winners of the Templeton Prize, which, as this RNS story describes, "comes with an award of 1.1 million British pounds [more than $1.3 million], (and) was established by the late investor and philanthropist Sir John Templeton to honor individuals who use scientific advancements to answer the deepest questions related to humanity’s existence and purpose." In other words, it encourages a conversation between religion and science. As the story notes, the winner this year is "Edna Adan Ismail, (who) began working as a nurse and midwife in 1960s Somalia. (S)he was horrified by the pain and medical complications she saw in patients who’d experienced female genital mutilation. Her indignation simmered until 1976, when as director of Somalia’s Ministry of Health, she attended a health conference in Sudan where, for the first time, she heard Muslim believers openly condemn FGM." Since then she has worked against this barbaric practice and, as the story reports, "condemns FGM because of, not despite, her Muslim faith." Sounds like someone the world needs more of.


Rediscovering America through Native American history

Over the last couple of years, I've been reading more books about Indigenous Americans and the early history of what eventually became the United States.

Rediscovery-AmericaAs I mentioned in this Flatland column last fall, I learned precious little about Indigenous history as a child. In fact, because I lived in India for two years of my boyhood, I wound up knowing more about India Indians than American Indians.

The most recent books about Native American history I've read are Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America, by Pekka Hämäläinen, and Covered with Night: A Story of Murder and Indigenous Justice in Early America, by Nicole Eustace.

And now I have put my name on a waiting list at the Kansas City Public Library for another new book on this subject, The Rediscovery of America: Native Peoples and the Unmaking of U.S. History, by Ned Blackhawk.

This story from The Guardian describes the book and what's different about it: “'Scholars have recently come to view African American slavery as central to the making of America, but few have seen Native Americans in a similar light,' writes Ned Blackhawk, a historian at Yale University and member of the Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone. 'Binary, rather than multiracial, visions dominate studies of the past where slavery represents America’s original sin or the antithesis of the American idea.

"'But can we imagine an American Eden that is not cultivated by its original caretakers? Exiled from the American origin story, Indigenous peoples await the telling of a continental history that includes them. It was their garden homelands, after all, that birthed America.'”

Many people have called slavery America's "original sin." And there's no doubt that the evil nature of slavery has stained America right up to the present day. But before the first African slave set foot on this land, European invaders brought death, disease and white supremacy with them to confront Indigenous people who had lived here for thousands of years.

As The Guardian piece notes, "Blackhawk attempts to tell that continental history over five centuries, from Spanish colonial exploration to the rise of Indian self-determination. Native Americans played a foundational role in shaping America’s constitutional democracy, he contends, even as they were murdered and dispossessed of their land."

All of this is not just about history, as important as that is. It's also about present-day America, where roughly 575 federally recognized Native American tribes still live. And, on a personal note, it's about the effort my congregation has been making in recent years to create a working partnership with the Kansas City Indian Center.

So if, like me, you've mostly been uninformed or, worse, ill-informed about Indigenous Americans, let me suggest some of the books I've mentioned here today and let me suggest that you visit the K.C. Indian Center's website and see what you can learn there and how you might help.

The sooner we know this history and recognize we're all part of the same human family the better.

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ANOTHER RELIGIOUS FINANCIAL SCANDAL

One of the things that causes people to turn away from institutional religion is evidence of misuse of money and the hypocrisy of leaders who either lie about it or fail to confront financial shenanigans. The most recent case raising such questions has to do with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and you can read about it in this article from The Guardian. The story says that a former investment manager for the church told the CBS show "Sixty Minutes" that "the organization stockpiled more than $100bn in funding intended for charity work but never spent it on such projects." The story quotes a church spokesperson as saying that that former investment manager's allegations are “flat-out wrong.” We don't know yet, of course, how all of this will resolve itself, but people tend to use these cases as confirmation that religion is a hoax to make money.

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P.S.: My childhood friend from India, Markandey Katju, whose writings I sometimes share with you, has written this piece about how India one day will rise and become a pre-eminent leader in the world. Maybe. But I feel certain it won't happen under India's current prime minister, Narendra Modi, who has been a terrible leader in many ways by pushing Hindu Nationalism.

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ANOTHER P.S.: The evidence that religion is less and less important to Americans continues to pile up. A new study finds that only 16 percent of Americans surveyed said religion is the most important thing in their lives. You can read the NPR story about that here and you can read the study itself here.


The reparations question is 158 years late and too narrow

If you live in the Kansas City area and pay attention to local news, you probably know that KC Mayor Quinton Lucas recently appointed people to a commission to study the question of reparations for what this KCTV-5 story calls "past harms and discriminatory practices against Kansas City’s Black community."

ReparationsThe question of reparations (it doesn't mean just money) has been around since the end of the Civil War and the emancipation of the slaves, who numbered about four million then.

One of the catastrophes that happened as the war ended, of course, was the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and the fact that Andrew Johnson, a southern sympathizer, became president. So such reparative ideas as William Tecumseh Sherman's notion of giving freed slaves "40 acres and a mule," though it started to be implemented, died on the vine.

Instead, we got the death of Reconstruction and the beginning of decade after decade of Jim Crow laws, legalized racial bigotry, Ku Klux Klan terrorism and other byproducts of the white supremacy written into the nation's founding documents and experience.

As Clint Smith writes in his 2021 book, How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America, "As Republicans (Tammeus insert: Remember these were Lincoln-type Republicans) abandoned the Black community, Reconstruction was dismantled. Black American second-class citizenship was recodified through Jim Crow laws and enforced through the omnipresent threat of violence."

So 158 years later we're still toying around with reparations, an idea that should have happened a century and a half ago. Imagine how much more robust American society and the economy would be today if the residual effects of a racist system hadn't kept millions of Americans from reaching their human and social potential. It was -- and remains -- a self-inflicted wound that costs everyone daily.

Had a fair reparative system been implemented right after the Civil War, we could have begun the broader conversation about reparations for the African nations from whom the slaves were stolen. But that conversation got waylaid and only now in certain quarters is it beginning to gain any traction at all. If reparations for the slaves and their descendants has been 158 years coming (and who knows how many more years before it results in anything tangible?), reparations for such African nations as Gambia and Senegal have been equally delayed, thanks in part to colonialism.

So today I'm going to give you links to a series of articles to help you explore what reparative work in African nations might look like.

First is this story from last summer about various African nations joining together to push for colonial-era reparations.

Next, this 2020 story raises the question of what reparations are owed to Africa, given what the continent lost in people because of slavery and colonial suppression. "Calculating the value of a life," it says, "is complex, but as slavery has taught us, it’s been done before."

Next, this article asks whether the U.S. should pay reparations for its involvement in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. "Calls for reparations to Africans and people of African descent have been accelerating in the twenty-first century," it says. "This article discusses only one aspect of that call, whether the USA should pay reparations to Africa for its participation in the transatlantic slave trade."

This next article from PBS and notes that a U.N. panel says the U.S. really does owe African nations reparations for slavery. The piece, by the way, talks about the old 40 acres and a mule concept.

Next, this NBC News piece notes that calls for reparation have been heard for a long time and asks whether global powers finally will respond.

In this piece, the folks at Pew Research report what we all know, which is that Black and white Americans differ a lot in their views about reparations for slavery. Maybe it's time, finally, to listen to Black Americans on this issue.

This next article, from The Conversation, talks about what the U.S. can learn from Africa as Americans think about reparations. "In the U.S. and globally," it says, "arguments for reparations mostly revolve around financial restitution. But a closer examination of the actual reparations efforts illustrates the limits of programs solely focused on financial restitution."

Finally, this article from the Cato Institute, argues that this issue is so complex that there's no way to figure out the right answers. Apparently we should drop the subject unless we can find a perfect solution to which everyone agrees. Yeah, right.

Again, think how not just Black people but all of us would be far better off today -- economically, educationally, socially and spiritually -- if reparations, even if just 40 acres and a mule, had been the rule right after the Civil War. But, no. White America decided instead to injure former slaves and, in the process, injure white America, too.

And if that's true of America, think how true it also is about our failure to repay Africa, a failure that has led, among other catastrophes, to deep poverty in countries whose citizens were stolen and enslaved.

We might be better people if our national model were "Repent, Repair, Restore, Rejoice."

(A quick P.S. to this post: As this Kansas City Beacon story reports, "A commission created to study William Jewell College’s historical ties to slavery recommends renaming Jewell Hall, its oldest building, to honor the enslaved people who built it." This is just one more effort to respond to this evil at the root of American history, but each such effort is worth considering.) 

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WDT-1945A REMINDER THAT YOUR MOM WON'T BE HERE FOREVER

On this Mother's Day weekend, I'm thinking about my own Mom (shown here holding me, next to two of my eventual three sisters), who died not long after Mother's Day in 1996 at age 83. My faith tells me she's safely in God's arms, but that doesn't mean I don't still grieve -- which is precisely the point of this interesting column written by a Hindu. Perhaps the lesson here is to remind ourselves each day that our lives on Earth are limited and that we should spend our time here finding ways to love one another, including moms and dads who, like their children, sometimes you may want to chastise. The days are short, friends.

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P.S.: The news about how Southern Baptist churches are doing in terms of membership numbers these days is mostly bad, but not completely. As this Good Faith Media story reports, between 2021 and 2022 such congregations lost more than 457,000 members. That means that since 2016 they've lost more than 3 million members. But baptisms and in-person worship attendance figures are both up. Ten or 20 years ago the conventional wisdom (which often is wrong) suggested that theologically conservative churches such as those part of the Southern Baptist Convention were growing and would continue to do so, often at the expense of more theologically progressive Mainline Protestant churches. Now both groups are experiencing the diminishment of American Christianity that has been a story for decades. Here's the chart from Lifeway Research:

Sbc-membership-chart


Religious liberty is being crushed around the globe

A few weeks ago here on the blog, I wrote about why our American government keeps track of religious liberty in other countries and puts pressure on violators of religious freedom.

Uscirf-2023With that as background, today I link you to the just-released annual report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and to this press release describing what's in it.

What the report describes is sickening and appalling. But this is information we must know if we are to stand with the oppressed and work through our government and other organizations to assure violations of this foundational human right cease.

In releasing this year's report, USCIRF Chair Nury Turkel said this:

“USCIRF is disheartened by the deteriorating conditions for freedom of religion or belief in some countries — especially in Iran, where authorities harassed, arrested, tortured and sexually assaulted people peacefully protesting against mandatory hijab laws, alongside their brutal continuing repression of religious minority communities.

“We strongly urge the Biden administration to implement USCIRF’s recommendations — in particular, to designate the countries recommended as CPCs (Countries of Particular Concern), and for the Special Watch List, or SWL, and to review U.S. policy toward the four CPC-designated countries for which waivers were issued on taking any action. We also stress the importance of Congress acting to prohibit any person from receiving compensation for lobbying on behalf of foreign adversaries, including those engaging in particularly severe violations of the right to freedom of religion of belief.”

Early in the new report, USCIRF focuses directly on what's been happening in Iran:

"In September 2022, Iran’s morality police arrested, beat and mortally wounded Mahsa Zhina Amini because her visible hair violated the government’s religiously grounded headscarf law. Outraged by this flagrant denial of life, young women and girls led hundreds of thousands of fellow Iranians in peaceful protests asserting their right to freedom of religion or belief, risking severe punishment, permanent injury and even death. Rather than respect this call to abide by its obligations under international law, the Iranian government ramped up a campaign of violent repression against its own people. Security forces shot children like Kian Pirfalak (age nine), beat and killed girls like Nika Shakarami (age 16), and repeatedly sexually harassed, sexually assaulted and raped scores of peaceful protesters like Armita Abbasi (age 21). Iran’s government then used intimidation and threats to prevent victims’ families from speaking publicly and truthfully about this repression."

Then, moving beyond the horrific example of Iran, the USCIRF makes these recommendations to the State Department (EPC stands for "Entities of Particular Concern"):

■Redesignate as CPCs the following 12 countries: Burma, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan

■Designate as additional CPCs the following five countries: Afghanistan, India, Nigeria, Syria, and Vietnam

■Maintain on the SWL the following two countries: Algeria and the Central African Republic (CAR)

■Include on the SWL the following nine countries: Azerbaijan, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Turkey, and Uzbekistan

■Redesignate as EPCs the following seven nonstate actors: al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the Houthis, Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP also referred to as ISIS-West Africa), and Jamaat Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM).

Please let your elected officials know you care about religious freedom by finding their email addresses online (easy to do) and asking them what they intend to do in response to this new, heartbreaking report. In fact, here are links to the email pages of Missouri senators Josh Hawley and Eric Schmitt and Kansas senators Jerry Moran and Roger Marshall.

I told you it was easy.

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NEXT MOVE NEEDED ON THE 'DOCTRINE OF DISCOVERY'

A month ago here on the blog, I wrote about the Vatican's recent repudiation of the 15th Century "Doctrine of Discovery." This RNS opinion piece makes clear that though the move was welcome, it's far from enough. Among other things, the piece says, the repudiation "failed to submit the Roman Catholic Church to any accountability for the extensive harm the doctrine caused over the centuries — colonization itself, as well as the motivating values and beliefs inherent in the Doctrine of Discovery that continued well after the first several centuries of active colonialism and conquest declined." And the Catholic Church shares this awful history with many others. I think Voltaire (1694-1778) may have been right when he wrote this: "The history of the great events of this world is hardly more than the history of crimes."


A Jewish look at crisis, response and death

Several years ago I introduced my blog readers here to a lovely little book by a surgeon in Indiana who found inspiration in faith traditions beyond his Judaism. That inspiration, in fact, deepened his commitment to Judaism. (That's what interfaith involvement often does.)

Matilda-triumphIt turns out that the author of that book had written a previous book that helps to fill out that picture, though its focus is on his mother and on the severe stroke she suffered when visiting him and his family from New York. I just wasn't aware of the book until just recently.

I was surprised to be both so moved by the story and educated about the human body as I read Matilda's Triumph: A Memoir, by Richard Moss.

Perhaps my reaction is because the author shares with readers his struggles to understand his faith in a benevolent God who allows evil and illness to exist. It's what theologians call the old theodicy question, which asks why there is suffering and evil in a world if God is both good and all-powerful. So far there's no answer to that question that satisfies everyone. And maybe it's even the wrong question.

Moss also confesses that in some ways, until his mother's ultimately fatal stroke, he had lived something of an unexamined life: "I have never seriously considered my mother's death," he writes. "But when I watched her pulse drop, I suddenly found myself staring into the abyss. I became untethered, as if the various pieces of my mind had fragmented, and the center of my being had become lost."

Part of what's so engaging about this book is that Moss moves back and forth between the story of the stroke -- including his mother's final submission to its fatality, and his almost manic efforts to study medical books to understand it in detail -- and the raucous story of growing up in the Bronx with a large, if often dysfunctional, family. Eventually his mother cut ties with Moss's father, forcing Moss to figure out what made his sometimes-violent father tick and whether he had inherited some of his character.

One reason Moss became so narrowly focused on learning about what happens when someone has a stroke, he writes, is that "Jewish tradition had always encouraged study, emphasized its sacred nature -- of the scriptures and law, yes, but of secular subjects as well, particularly the healing arts."

But Moss was reluctant simply to turn to God to ask for a miracle of healing for his mother: "I could not ask God for help. I had to arrange myself in more tidy fashion before petitioning Him, the Lord of the Universe. It was a sordid thing now, more a question of survival, for I felt myself threatened."

Part of his angst about all of this stemmed from the fact that he blamed himself for not responding quickly enough when he saw his mother behaving a bit oddly as the stroke occurred about the time both he and his mother were outside in his yard, though separated from each other by some distance. He later learned that if she had been given a particular medical treatment within three hours of the onset of the stroke she might have recovered from it without serious damage. At least that's what he understood, though it turned out there were many variables at play that meant there was no guarantee of that result. But the guilt ate him up, and he compensated by trying to figure out a new path ahead for his mother through his study. His focus, he writes, was on "the moral verdict" of how he had reacted to his mother's stroke.

As he thought about all this, his religious background came into play. Though reared Jewish, he also once spent time in a Buddhist monastery in Thailand. But "I had decided years ago that enlightenment was unattainable and switched paths, becoming, once more, a Jew, a born-again Jew."

So Moss seeks counseling with a rabbi, and in his description of that, the reader gets a pretty good sense of Jewish ethics and its approach to life's most difficult questions.

In the end, this is a lovely story of love, devotion, forgiveness and healing -- as well as a story of the untimely death of the author's beloved mother. She's someone you will grow to admire and care about, too. And, when you finish the book, even miss.

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A 'RELIGIOUS' CORONATION OF A NEW KING

The coronation on Saturday of King Charles III of England will be (or already has been, depending on when you read this) mostly a religious service, this Christianity Today article notes, but a service that not many residents of the U.K. will understand very thoroughly. After all, it "will take place in a country in which, as a recent census revealed, fewer than half the population describe themselves as Christian. The Church of England’s own statistics suggest that just 1.5 percent of the population attend a weekly service, while a 2018 British Social Attitudes survey found that 43 percent of us 'never or practically never' attend a religious service.

"For many of the millions who watch the coronation on television, it will likely be the first church service they’ve observed in years, or possibly ever. Even those who do attend church will probably need to rely on the BBC’s commentary to comprehend exactly what is underway; for most of us, it will be the first coronation of our lifetimes."

But in a welcome move, King Charles has invited clergy from other faith traditions to participate on Saturday.

What would you think if the church-nature of this were found in our presidential inaugurations? At best, it would give Americans one more thing about which to fight.

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P.S.: A group called the "Presbyterian Peace Fellowship" is sponsoring what it calls "A public service of grieving" this Monday evening. Details are in the image here. The group notes that "this community is still tending the grief of the shooting of a young person, Ralph Yarl, who was simply trying to pick up his siblings. He went to the wrong house and was almost shot to death. It's time we take action with our grief and with our vision for a world that no longer believes the lie that "guns keep us safe."

Pres-vespers-23