A congregational history set in a helpful and wider context

As the United States ages, so do faith communities located here.

A-city-churchMy own Presbyterian congregation, for instance, passed the 150-year mark six years ago, making it one of the oldest continuously worshiping congregations in the Kansas City area.

Such anniversaries are a time to look back as well as forward, which is what we did in 2015. But it's also a chance to place an individual congregation within the context of U.S. and world history.

And that is exactly what a new book about Country Club Christian Church of Kansas City (6101 Ward Parkway) does -- and does really well. It's A City Church: The First Century of Service, by Linna Place, a social and American historian from the University of Missouri-Kansas City and director of International Academic Programs there. She's also a long-time member of the church.

What this book is not is a sweet toast to a congregation that has never had internal battles. Oh, Place has many good things to say about Country Club Christian -- and deservedly so -- but she also doesn't just skip by various times of trouble and disputes. I know of no congregation from any faith tradition that has never experienced those kinds of battles. To ignore them is to paint an unrealistic picture of congregational life.

The author doesn't dwell on them to distraction, but she tries to show how the congregation and its leaders handled them and what they learned from, among others, struggles over the place of women in leadership, over how to handle such cultural issues as race and economic troubles, over the role of youth, over issues of church governance, over music, over interfaith relations and more.

She even quotes some of the comments by one of the pastors on staff at an internally challenging time: "(O)ur membership has been involved in differences which might have been the sign of healthy concern. The time has come, however, when these differences have led to the kind of controversy in which motives and integrity have been questioned. . .We have opened doors looking for skeletons and if there were none there, we created them."

So in addition to noting the many great leaders the church has had and the many terrific acts of ministry its members have accomplished over the last century, readers get a realistic picture of congregational life, which, in the end, is a reflection of life itself.

It's impossible to tell the story of a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) congregation without getting into some of its roots in the Stone-Campbell Movement and those in that movement who shaped this denomination's and this congregation's theology and growth. It's all here in the book, along with good footnotes and other references for people who want to dig deeper.

As Country Club Christian grew (and, yes, there's almost always been some debate about the church's paradoxical -- almost oxymoronic -- name), it was led by a series of talented pastors, each of whom brought different gifts to the job and each of whom helped to move the congregation in new directions -- even as the Disciples denomination itself was finding its own footing and place within Mainline Protestantism. I've been privileged to know several of Country Club Christian's pastors in my 50-plus years in Kansas City and have admired their skills and commitment to core Christian values.

This new book devotes a fair amount of space to the place of women in churches generally and in this particular congregation. It's a sign of the slow but progressive road the congregation has taken to move away from patriarchal systems that it took until 1971 for the church to elect its first women elders and until 1988 for it to hire its first female on its pastoral staff and that that person, the Rev. Carla Aday, became the senior minister in 2017, a post she continues to hold.

Over the years, the congregation has been the spiritual home of many area leaders, including the late Mayor Ilus W. Davis and the late Kanas City Police Chief (and FBI director), Clarence M. Kelley.

Today nearly all Christian denominations are facing a widely reported decline in religious participation, and Country Club, now a leading congregation in its denomination, has not been immune to that struggle. But it has remained a strong, vibrant voice in the community and this new book explains how and why that has happened even as it sets a single congregation's story within a much wider story of American and Kansas City history.

I wish all church centennial books were this useful and readable.

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TIME TO RE-LOOK AT AFGHANISTAN

I recently read Jonathan L. Lee's extensive history of Afghanistan that covers the years 1260 until today (or, well, until 2018). It's excellent, though, of course, it doesn't cover the period after U.S. troops withdrew from the country late this summer. But this piece from The Conversation looks at the ethnic and religious divisions that are causing internal strife and violence in Afghanistan today. Of particular concern is the reality, as the article notes, that "the Islamic State group is conducting massive terrorist attacks on Shiite mosques, a tactic that originated with the Iraqi branch of the organization." All the blood and treasure the U.S. spent in Afghanistan seems to have changed things there only a little. A further commitment there would likely have resulted simply in more death -- of both Americans and Afghans.

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P.S.: If you missed my latest Flatland column, which posted this past Sunday morning, it's here. And it's about a Jesuit priest who soon will be honored by a Jewish institution. And if you missed my column on the cover of ReadTheSpirit.com magazine about land acknowledgements and their use, if any, in relation to Indigenous tribes in the U.S., you'll find it here.


Here's how congregations can work against white supremacy

Just over a year ago, I wrote here about Robert P. Jones' book, White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity.

White-too-longI found it a helpful read full of well-researched history.

Recently Jones wrote this column for Religion News Service, following up some ideas from that book. The column offers seven ideas for predominantly white Christian churches to understand their own racial history and to make changes where and when lingering ideas of white supremacy still can be found.

It's a good list and begins in the right place: Simply start somewhere. And start somewhere local.

That process can begin just by walking around the outside and inside of the building that houses the congregation. As Jones writes, "In what ways does the physical embodiment of your church communicate whiteness? If you have stained-glass windows, do they depict a white Jesus or other biblical characters who are presented as white? During Advent and Christmas celebrations that include a nativity scene, are Mary, Joseph and Jesus white? What about the paintings and bulletin boards that adorn the walls — are the images of people all white? And who uses the church facilities during the week? If only predominately white groups meet there, why is that?"

What Jones is suggesting might be called an internal audit. The goal is for predominantly white churches to see themselves as others no doubt already see them. This is not to suggest that the congregation is full of dedicated bigots who would abandon ship if people of color tried to join the congregation. Rather, it's to suggest that it's often hard to see ourselves as others see us and that we may need some help with that.

Cover-lle-hi-resI've tried to do something similar in the last chapter of my own new book, Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety. I offer there some ideas for how individuals and congregations of any faith tradition can work to unplug extremism, especially the kind that leads to violence and especially the kind rooted in religion.

The white supremacy about which Jones writes is, of course, just one more kind of radicalism that infects not just our culture but also some of our faith communities. His suggested steps toward unplugging it and my suggested steps toward deactivating extremism generally can be used together in congregations.

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LOOK IN THE STREETS TO FIND FAITHFUL YOUNG PEOPLE

Here's a follow-up to what I wrote above here: New studies suggest that if religious leaders today want to appeal to young people, they'd do well to look for them in street protests, such as in "BlackLivesMatter events, this RNS story says. The story says that an upcoming survey will report that "acts of protest are most popular among those who say they’re 'very religious' and 'very spiritual' as opposed to moderately, slightly or nonreligious/spiritual. About half (51%) of 'very religious' young people say they engage in acts of protest at least monthly, compared with 24% of those who are nonreligious." Now you know where to find spiritually engaged young people.

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P.S.: A documentary called "Procession," about six Kansas City men who were abused by Catholic clergy, will open in limited theaters on Nov. 12 and start streaming on Netflix on Nov. 19, the date on which it's scheduled to open at the Screenland Armour theater in North Kansas City. You can read reviews about it here (scroll down to find it) and here. It looks fascinating and I plan to see it when I can.


How to extend religious freedom to Native Americans

Den-bot-12

Different cultures and people have different ideas about what a white Protestant Christian like me thinks of when I use the word religion.

Historically such Protestants have primarily emphasized belief as the definitive -- though not exclusive -- idea of what constitutes religion. Belief for most gets combined with good works, but belief usually comes first.

But as this RNS piece notes, that's not always true for others.

One of the results of that myopic way of thinking about religion is that the U.S. has tended to devalue the way Indigenous, or Native American, people think about religion. The upshot is that their religious freedom often is trampled upon.

The three authors of the RNS article say that "Europeans came to what is now the United States specifically for religious freedom, yet they failed to extend that freedom to Indigenous communities who had called this land home for millennia. Individuals and tribes were subjected to systematic erasure of their culture and faith through genocide and Indian residential schools."

Part of the problem 400-plus years ago was that the white European invaders had a different idea about land than did the Indigenous people they found here. In simple terms, whites thought they could own the land. Native Americans, by contrast, believed they belonged to the land.

The authors write this: "For Natives, the land is the connection to spirituality and a critical part of rituals and practices, and, today, there is a long list of failed attempts to protect Indigenous sacred land through policy and litigation. Rather than seek protection under religious freedom laws, Indigenous communities have switched course. It is now the norm that they go through the Environmental Protection Agency and focus on environmental arguments to protect their religious freedom rights."

Yes, they certainly want to protect the environment in that way, but more than that they want to protect their own ideas of religious freedom. But non-Indians can't see that if they are ignorant about how American Indians think about the land and their deep connection to it.

Or, as the authors put it, "It’s time to reimagine religious freedom and begin advocating for the rights of the diverse religious communities who call the United States home."

That seems like little enough to ask.

(The photo here today is one I took at the Denver Botanical Gardens a few years ago and is evidence of the beauty the land can produce.)

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KABUL'S LAST JEW HEADS FOR ISRAEL

One more result of the Taliban's disastrous takeover of Afghanistan is, as this AP story reports, that the last Jew in Kabul has left and is about to wind up in Israel. It's just another example of how religious extremism causes one problem after another. In this case, a life gets turned upside down. Thank goodness Israel exists so the man can have a new home.


When clergy abandon clear standards of morality

Over the years, I have known some amazing members of the clergy -- honest, dedicated, wise, committed and pastoral. In fact, I've formed the belief that people who fit that description make up by far the majority of pastors, priests, imams, rabbis and other religious leaders.

Woman-could-notBut not all. (In that way, the profession of clergy isn't so dissimilar from other professions, including journalism.)

When I've run across clergy who have been dishonest or more interested in their own honors than in honoring God, I've found it enormously disappointing, though that's perhaps because many of us tend to think that anyone ordained to ministry should (and probably does) hold to a higher moral standard than your average human being.

I thought about all of this the other day as I was reading a marvelous 2021 book, The Woman They Could Not Silence, by Kate Moore.

It's about a remarkable 19th Century woman named Elizabeth Packard, who was married to a Presbyterian pastor, Theophilus Packard of Manteno, Ill., south of Chicago. When Elizabeth began to challenge her husband's change of theology -- from New School to Old School Presbyterian thought -- he eventually declared her insane and had her committed to an insane asylum in Jacksonville, Ill. The book is about how she fought through that trauma and emerged as a great reformer on the behalf of the mentally ill and of women generally.

But the question of why Theophilus adjusted his theology (essentially from anti-slavery Presbyterians to pro-slavery or silent-on-the-subject Presbyterians) intrigued me, as it did the author of the book.

It turns out, Moore writes, that Theophilus "was trying to save himself." Meaning not his soul but his job.

"There was a reason," she writes," his church had recently flipped from New School to Old School doctrines. Openly, the switch had coincided with the church securing funding for its first permanent home. . .The money had come with strings attached: the church had to switch its creed." That demanded switch had come from one of America's richest people, Cyrus H. McCormick, who had donated $800 (today about $25,000), nearly half the cost of the church.

Beyond that, "Theophilus had a secret he'd been keeping from his wife. . .He was deeply in debt -- to the tune of $3,800 (about $118,000 today). It meant the threat of losing his job hung over him like a guillotine's blade. No matter Theophilus's true beliefs, he had to toe the line -- as meekly obedient as his wife was not. . .And it was essential to McCormick and his political plan (about avoiding a Civil War) that Theophilus did just that."

Quite a bit later in the book we learn this: "So Theophilus had lost his job. Despite his desperate efforts in 1860 to retain his position -- to the extent of abandoning his principles and silencing the wife who would not -- it had all been for nothing."

That was bad enough for Theophilus. But imagine that he'd kept his job and managed to pay off his debt. He'd still know in his heart that he was a fake and had caved into a profoundly immoral position on slavery to be able to do that.

There are, of course, such clergy people around today -- willing to sell out for bad reasons. And those of us active in faith communities would do well to remember that and to keep our eyes and ears open, especially when what's at stake is not money but the welfare of our children and grandchildren.

But let's also remember that the clergy includes many people with highly active moral compasses who are ready to call other clergy on their moral failings, given that such failings can, fair or not, reflect on all of them.

The wife of Theophilus, by contrast, was a moral giant. Read the book and you will celebrate her.

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AN ALL-FEMALE SLATE IS ELECTED

I wonder what Elizabeth Packard, a champion of protecting rights for women, would think of the news that the National Council of Churches just elected an all-female slate of leaders. And all but one of those leaders is a person of color. I'm not sure it's a good idea for such organizations to be run by people all of one sex, but history shows us the catastrophes that can happen (I'm thinking of the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church) when only males are in charge.

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P.S.: KCUR.org has published my remembrance of a member of the clergy who never abandoned clear standards of morality, Lama Chuck Stanford, founder of the Rime Buddhist Center.


Taking the long view on environmental degradation

When Pope Francis issued his encyclical letter "Laudato Si" on the environment in 2015, it seemed to lots of people that the Catholic Church finally had awakened to the ecological catastrophe humanity faces.

Cloud12-hBut as this piece from The Conversation describes things, deep concern for the material world, including planet Earth, goes back a long time in Catholicism.

Perhaps the difference is that unlike previous Catholic leaders, Francis is addressing an existential crisis today because of climate change that threatens humanity's future in many ways. There always have been ecological concerns in previous generations but nothing like what confronts us today.

And yet as the article to which I've linked you suggests, if only we'd listened to previous Catholic voices, we might not be on the edge of a precipice today.

As the piece notes, "every pope for the past half-century – except John Paul I, who died after just one month in office – has addressed environmental issues in their official publications."

One of the early challenges to Christian thinking about the goodness and beauty of creation came from a spiritual movement called Gnosticism, drawn from the Greek word for "knowledge."

Among the teachings of the Gnostics, the article to which I've linked you notes, was "that the physical world was created not directly by God, but by a lesser spiritual being, out of malice or ignorance. At best, the material world was a worthless distraction; at worst, an evil snare for human souls. Gnostic teachers offered to teach their followers how to free their spirits from attachment to their physical bodies and the material world. In this way, after death they could return to the realm of spiritual reality and reunite with the divine."

The idea that somehow it was possible and wise to separate body or material from spirit was decisively rejected by Judaism and, later, by traditional Christianity. One reason was that it led to a dismissal of worry about the environment.

As The Conversation piece notes, the Benedictine and Franciscan Catholic orders have been especially strong in their environmental teachings. And, as a Jesuit, Pope Francis represents that order among Catholics with strong environmental teachings.

All of this should remind us that it's often useful to discover the historical roots of today's issues. That can help us understand how we got here and, maybe more important than that, what we should do next to confront whatever we're facing. If you don't know much about history, you're pretty much flying into the future with your eyes and mind shut.

(And by the way, Pope Francis didn't just release his environmental encyclical in 2015 and then drop the issue. As late as this past Saturday he was addressing lawmakers on the issue ahead of the upcoming annual U.N. meeting on climate matters.)

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CAN ABORTION BE A GOOD MORAL CHOICE?

I don't write a lot about abortion, though I believe it should remain legal because there are times when it's the least bad of a series of bad choices. Also: As a male, I never have and never will face the question of whether I should get an abortion. You certainly can find female voices are out there denouncing abortion as immoral. So just to balance that a bit today, here is a story by a female Presbyterian minister, Christian ethicist, professor of religious studies, wife and a mother of two. In it she argues that sometimes abortion can be the right moral choice. See if you agree.

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P.S.: If you missed my latest Flatland column -- about the outrageous execution in my state of Missouri of an intellectually disabled man -- it is online here.


When moral and ethical values come under attack

World religions always have something to say about what constitutes good ethics and, related to that, about what moral authority looks like.

Surviving-autocracyIn both areas, one of the requirements is that people respect the essential humanity of others. Beyond that, one is required to work for the common good.

Such ideas apply not just to individual relations but also to the products of government and industry. Which is why you sometimes hear people say that a governmental budget is, in the end, a moral document if it reflects the solid moral values of the electorate.

I've been thinking about this because I just finished reading Masha Gessen's 2020 book Surviving Autocracy. In it, she writes this: "Autocratic power requires the degradation of moral authority -- not the capture of moral high ground, not the asserting of the right to judge good and evil, but the defeat of moral principles as such."

Gessen argues that a war on moral principles was unleashed by leaders of the former Soviet Union. And she adds this: "In the Russian language today, the entire vocabulary of principles and ideals has, after decades of abuse, been relegated to disuse."

In her book, written while Donald Trump was still president, she also makes the obvious point that in an autocratic way, he also fought against foundational moral principles, though even before Trump took office, she notes, "the language of ideals and principles had been fading from American political discourse too, giving way to the language of realism and action."

It's a small example, but Gessen notes that one way Trump tried to undercut moral values was to undercut some of the people who obviously held them. For instance: "In January 2017, he unleashed a Twitter fury against Congressman John Lewis, who vowed to boycott the inauguration. 'All talk, talk, talk -- no action or results. Sad!' tweeted the president-elect. He continued going after the civil rights icon long after Trump's usual Twitter attention span would have run out. Trump came across as clueless, as though he did not know who Lewis was, which district had elected him and, more important, what history he represented. But his instincts were guiding him into a confrontation that was hardly new."

She then notes this: "When Trump dismissed Lewis as 'all talk, talk, talk,' he was dismissing the value of moral politics in general, and in particular the basic conversation about right and wrong in which Lewis was engaging. In attacking Lewis, Trump lashed out not only against the legacy of the civil rights movement that Lewis represented but also the rhetorical history of moral protest."

For me, all of this is a reminder to listen to our elected leaders and other powerful people in our culture with our moral hearing aids plugged in. What are they saying or doing that contradicts good ethical and moral values? Are they working for the common good or merely for their own? Are there other voices calling out what's going wrong and, if so, how can I support them or add my voice to them?

And for people of faith: How can my faith community do a better job of raising moral questions about what is happening in the world? And how can that community better train members to use their prophetic voice to defend moral and ethical behavior?

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AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT

I don't get a lot of chances to write about Sikhs and Sikhism, though in 2019 I wrote this Flatland column about a new Sikh temple being built in Johnson County, Kansas. But today I want you to know about a Sikh man who now lives in Canada and whose traditional Punjabi folk dancing, called Bhangra, is making people around the world happy on social media. This RNS story about him is more proof that even though social media often is used for destructive purposes, it also can draw on religious traditions to make people feel good. You're welcome.

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P.S.: "Israel Story," a podcast that bills itself as the Israeli version of "This American Life" on NPR, recently began its sixth season. If you're interested, you can find out more about it here.

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ANOTHER P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about the outrageous execution of an intellectually disabled man -- now is online here.


Why there needs to be room for doubt in religion

Even before I wrote the book The Value of Doubt, published in 2016, I had been writing about the dangers of false certitude in religion. It's exactly what the 9/11 hijackers demonstrated.

If-God-Is-LoveSo I was especially pleased to read this RNS story about a new book that seems to be in harmony with the idea that black-and-white religious thinking can be dangerous.

The RNS piece includes an interview with John Pavlovitz, author of If God Is Love, Don't Be a Jerk: Finding a Faith that Makes Us Better Humans. It was published just a week ago.

I haven't had a chance to read the book yet, but I do like this quote from Pavlovitz in the RNS interview: "When certainty becomes kind of a moral virtue, that’s a really dangerous thing, because we all live in this space where there’s a tension between the things we’re sure of and the things we’re not quite sure of. It’s been my journey that it’s a beautiful thing when you can actually verbalize all of that. The heart of the book is if God is really God-sized, as we say God is, then God is OK with our vacillation and our doubt and our inconsistencies. So we should be, too."

Doubt, I argued in my book, can be -- and often is -- a road to a sustainable faith. But if you're not part of a faith community that allows and even encourages its members to ask the hard questions of faith and talk about doubts, you're probably never going to build a faith that can uphold you in good times and bad.

In fact, the last book I wrote, Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety, is in some ways a continuation of that idea in that it explores how people get sucked into faith that doesn't allow doubts and that can, in the end, lead to violent extremism.

Pavlovitz also identifies the problem with faith communities that are certain about everything and want no argument about anything: "The worst parts of organized religion leverage those places of fear and leverage our need for belonging. So many times people don’t move into their most authentic spirituality because they’re afraid of being rejected from the community they love so dearly. The love of a spiritual community is fierce and it’s profound — until you do or say something that places you on the periphery of that community."

Healthy faith communities have lots of peripheries as well as a rooted center that is sure enough of itself to allow questions, dissent, disagreement.

Pavlovitz puts it this way: ". . .we really should take the time to sit with the doubts and the questions and let them just do the work that only they can do. Because on the other side of that is the realization there is nothing to fear. There is a God who is always going to out-love us and out-forgive us and out-welcome us."

Exactly.

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THE SORROWFUL SHAME OF MISSOURI

Speaking of doubt, the fact that Missouri Gov. Mike Parson had none when it came to whether to execute intellectually disabled death row inmate Ernest Johnson, despite pleas from Pope Francis and others, means that my state, acting on my behalf and the behalf of all its citizens, killed Johnson last night at the state prison in Bonne Terre. It's a dishonor that the state and the governor can never live down. It's simply appalling. It's proof again that it matters whom you elect.


Are Jews in the U.S. in increasing danger? Or not?

In my last post here on the blog, I wrote about the theological issue of whether "supersessionism" (the idea that Christianity replaced Judaism, leaving no place in the world for the latter) is returning.

Star-davidThis weekend I turn to a broader issue involving American Jews. In this article from Commentary.org, Joseph Joffe, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, writes about whether what he calls the "Jewish-American love affair" is over.

There are good reasons to think that antagonism and violence toward Jews in the U.S. in recent years means exactly that, but Joffe rejects the idea and insists Jews still can live as proud Americans who also are committed to their tradition.

America, he argues, is different from Europe and especially from Nazi Germany.

The Holocaust, or Shoah, almost destroyed European Jewry, but Jews in the U.S., he argues, not only survived but thrived. And that, he writes, "is no fluke of history; it is integral to the American experience."

Joffe describes what he calls three pillars that have supported good relations between Jews and other Americans in the U.S. for centuries. And he thinks those pillars still are reliably strong.

He contends that "we should not expect the three pillars of the American creed to crumble, as fearsome as the news from the culture war may be. We are talking 400 years as against 20. Culture and history do not change as quickly as cellphone generations. . .The three pillars of Jew-friendly American exceptionalism were not built on sand, and they hold up the larger American creed across all faiths."

Well, you can read Joffe for yourself. I think he may well be right, but I think he's not taking seriously enough the putrid antisemitism that has shown itself in various subtle as well as violently public ways in recent years. And I'm not sure he's reading the politics of all this correctly, especially his contention that American Jewish voters seem destined to quit voting Democratic as often as they have since FDR.

The problem as I see it is that if people become so convinced that the danger signs popping up in Jewish life don't amount to much of anything, they won't work to stop events and thinking leading to those signs. Until it might be too late.

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Kcic-kids-1

REMEMBERING INDIGENOUS CHILDREN WHO DIED

This past Thursday evening, I joined a gathering sponsored by the Kansas City Indian Center to stand in solidarity with descendants of Indigenous people in the U.S. and Canada whose children were sent to boarding schools so they could be turned into people who resembled white, Christian citizens. Many of those children were treated terribly and died, and only now are their bodies being retrieved from mass graves. Religious communities sometimes ran those boarding schools. And as this RNS story reports, "churches of all denominations are reckoning with the role they played in the country’s boarding school system for Indigenous children." For instance, as this Kansas City Star story reports, Native leaders are working with elected officials to uncover information about what happened to children sent to the Shawnee Indian Mission in Johnson County, which is named after it founder, the Rev. Thomas Johnson, a Methodist missionary. Both the U.S. and Canada really need truth and reconciliation commissions to uncover and tell this dreadful story -- as well as the whole appalling story of the way Indigenous people in North America were brutalized starting with the first European invaders.

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P.S.: My most recent Flatland column is about the creation by local faith communities of the Kansas City Mental Health Collaborative. As a follow up to that, this article from "The Conversation" explores how congregations around the country are dealing with that issue.


An old 'replacement theology' battle is stirred back to life

One of the regular complaints about some branches of Christianity is that they tend to be supersessionist. Do you know that term?

SupersessionismIt means a triumphal and dismissive attitude and belief that Christianity has superseded Judaism, meaning that Judaism has become irrelevant and might as well fold its tent and go home -- wherever that is.

There certainly are passages in the New Testament that supersessionists can and do point to as evidence of their claim. But it's also true that Christians who oppose supersessionist attitudes can find biblical passages to support the argument that God's covenant with the Jewish people is to last forever.

I bring all of this up because in recent weeks supersessionism has been back in the news.

This RNS opinion piece delves into that trouble. And given the centuries-long history of anti-Judaism in Christianity (my essay on that subject is here), it's not surprising, though it is disappointing, considering the progress Christians and Jews have made in bi-faith dialogue and understanding in the last 60 years.

As the RNS piece notes, the current dispute started when Pope Francis gave a talk recently and spoke about the Torah, saying, “The Law, however, does not give life, it does not offer the fulfillment of the promise because it is not capable of being able to fulfill it.” He added, “Those who seek life need to look to the promise and to its fulfillment in Christ.”

Almost any Jew in the world would tell you that's supersessionist language.

The RNS piece then notes this: "In response, Rabbi Rasson Arousi, chair of the Commission of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel for Dialogue with the Holy See, wrote sternly to the Vatican.

"He said Francis’ reading of Paul is 'in effect part and parcel of the "teaching of contempt" towards Jews and Judaism that we had thought had been fully repudiated by the Church.'”

A Vatican spokesman responded, but not in a very satisfactory way, as you can read in the RNS piece.

The kind of wording that Francis used should have been flagged as an obvious problem before he said those words. But there seemed to be a kind of blind spot about that in the Vatican. Which just means that Jewish-Christian relations have, as a result, taken a couple of steps backward. It's time to get this turned around. Now.

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THE REFUGEE JOB AHEAD

Afghan refugees soon will begin coming to cities across the U.S. Religion scholar Mark Silk writes here that religious congregations will be a vital part of the answer to how to handle them with care and compassion. He's right. The question for you and your faith community, if any, is what plans are being made now to be part of the answer. Welcoming the stranger, after all, is a primary value in many religious traditions.

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P.S.: A new film about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church that follows six men from Kansas City has been premiered at the Telluride Film Festival, this Hollywood Reporter story notes. The piece calls Robert Greene’s Procession "a stirring film." It adds this: "Greene’s probing, observational enterprise began serendipitously. He came across the survivors and their stories while watching a press conference that Rebecca Randles, an attorney who has investigated nearly 400 allegations against these particular religious ministers, held with three of the six men who would participate in his documentary."

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ANOTHER P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about an effort to provide mental health counseling through KC area religious congregations -- now is online here.


Religions learned long ago what science is learning now

Given how long humankind has held some kind of religious beliefs and tried to live out those beliefs, it should not be surprising that religious people and their leaders have developed lots of ways to help people live better, more productive and happy lives.

How-God-WorksWhich, in some ways, is also the goal of some branches of science, such as psychology.

As this Wired piece reports, "much of what psychologists and neuroscientists are finding about how to change people’s beliefs, feelings and behaviors — how to support them when they grieve, how to help them be more ethical, how to let them find connection and happiness — echoes ideas and techniques that religions have been using for thousands of years."

In other words, as the headline on the article notes, "psychologists are learning what religion has known for years." (The article is drawn from a new book, How God Works: The Science Behind the Benefits of Religion, by David DeSteno. I've read about the book but haven't yet read it.)

Science and religion, as the article notes, often have been -- or at least seemed to be -- at odds. That happens when people forget that those two disciplines try to answer different questions. Science tries to answer what, where, when, how and even who, while religion deals with the why question, the question of purpose.

When they cross into each other's territory, one of two things happens -- they learn from each other or they clash needlessly.

The Wired piece then makes this useful observation: ". . . if we remove the theology — views about the nature of God, the creation of the universe, and the like — from the day-to-day practice of religious faith, the animosity in the debate evaporates. What we’re left with is a series of rituals, customs and sentiments that are themselves the results of experiments of sorts. Over thousands of years, these experiments, carried out in the messy thick of life as opposed to sterile labs, have led to the design of what we might call spiritual technologies — tools and processes meant to sooth, move, convince, or otherwise tweak the mind. And studying these technologies has revealed that certain parts of religious practices, even when removed from a spiritual context, are able to influence people’s minds in the measurable ways psychologists often seek."

It's a fair question to ask why religion should have to "remove theology." Well, in fact, it doesn't have to. For its view of things it can ground its "series of rituals, customs and sentiments" in theology and understand itself in that way.

All the Wired piece is saying is that those rituals, customs and sentiments can be helpful to people even detached from theological ideas.

No doubt that's true. But I think it would be useful for psychologists and other scientists to recognize how religion created those rituals, customs and sentiments. They grew out of theological beliefs. They had to make sense of -- and not conflict with -- that religion's answers to the eternal questions. So while it's just fine for psychology to be learning from and even borrowing from religion, maybe psychologists would do well to give credit where credit is due.

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THE IMPORTANT VARIETIES OF ISLAM

Are you aware of Nahdlatul Ulama? It's a reformist Islamic group in Indonesia. In fact, as this article from "The Conversation" notes, it's "the world’s biggest Islamic organization with about 90 million members and followers. In terms of membership, the organization hugely outstrips that of the Taliban – yet this face of Islam has not been sufficiently recognized on the international stage." It's more proof that every religion in the world is divided in some way and none is monolithic, even if, like Islam, Judaism and Christianity, they may be monotheistic. The point is that there is no single Islam and that as bad as the Taliban is -- and it's reprehensible in many ways -- it doesn't represent the whole of Islam.

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about an effort to provide mental health counseling through KC area religious congregations -- now is online here.