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November 2006
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January 2007

Dec. 30-31, 2006, weekend


Instead of taking up space here today with reflections on the execution of Saddam Hussein (I've dealt with that once in the past week and may again later), I thought you might enjoy a lighter story from the Islamic world -- this one about busy Muslims who now can arrange for what Arab News calls a drive-through Haj. Hmmm. In the Christian tradition we sometimes say sermonettes make Christianettes. I wonder if some Muslims feel something like that about this new practive.

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The Religion Newswriters Association has chosen its version of the top 10 religion stories of 2006. Is this how you'd rank them? I'd have been tempted to move Darfur into the top 10.

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As we look toward the new year, inevitably we think of the forces at work shaping our world. And we begin to imagine how those forces will change things.

CatholicismJohn L. Allen Jr., the wonderfully astute observer of the Vatican and all things Catholic, recently put together his list of 10 megatrends that he believes will affect the Catholic Church in the year and years ahead.

As you might expect from John, it's an interesting and quite wide-ranging list, but it raises for me several questions.

One of them is why he didn't include the struggles of many women in the church to achieve what they would view as a more equal footing with men. The church's refusal to ordain women priests continues to be a point of contention for many American Catholics, though the late Pope John Paul II tried to stop that conversation a few years ago, suggesting that the issue has been decided forever.

After I wrote the previous paragraph, but before I could get this entry posted here on the blog (I pushed it back a few days so I could comment on the Ethiopia-Somalia war and the death of Gerald Ford), John Allen sent out another commentary listing people's reactions to his list of 10 megatrends. It turns out I was far from the only one to note his failure to include the issue of women in the church. It was No. 1 on the list of things readers thought he left out. You can use the link in this paragraph to see what else folks thought he omitted.

Another question Allen's list makes me ask is what trends I as a Protestant my identify not just for my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), but also for the rest of the Protestant world. One obvious one is when we will get serious about unity and begin to reverse the atomization of Protestantism that is such an atrocious model for the rest of the religious world. (And by unity, I don't mean uniformity.) Another obvious one is the long battle over how to treat homosexuals in the church. Will we ever resolve that -- and, more to the point, get the solution right?

I also wonder what 10 megatrends followers of Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhimt and other faith traditions might identify.

Tell me what trends you think John Allen may have missed and what trends you'd identify for your faith community.

Then let's get all of these resolved before 2007. Heck, we still have three days left.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My Saturday column this weekend is about my interview with the pope. I just called him up and he answered right away.)

Today's religious holiday: Watch Night (Christian); Feast of the Holy Family (Catholic Christian); Eid al Adha (Islam).

Dec. 29, 2006


Muslims begin their Haj, or pilgrimage, in Mecca today, and this man says he's not deterred by previous incidents there that killed people, including his aunt and uncle. Saudi officials say a newly built bridge and other changes should make things safer for pilgrims.

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Counting religious adherents is a tricky business. At least it can be. (For two interesting sites that try to do that, click here and here.)

JudaismIt's not so hard to count us Presbyterians. Because individual churches have to pay a per-member amount to the denomination, churches tend to keep reasonably good track of members so they don't overpay.

But counting Muslims is especially difficult because Muslims don't actually become members of a mosque in the way that Presbyterians become members of a church. In fact, to become a Muslim requires simply the sincere declaration that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is his prophet and the desire and pledge to live by the five pillars of Islam. That's why the estimates of the number of Muslims in American range from 3 million to 10 million (or more) and why the number of Muslims in the world ranges from just over 1 billion to about 1.5 billion.

It's also gotten harder to count Jews in America. Many Jews -- now perhaps a majority -- are non-observant and do not belong to a synagogue. Do they keep the traditions? Many do, but figuring out whether they are religious Jews or secular Jews or some combination gets murky.

But new studies suggest there are more Jews in America than previously thought. Instead of about 5.2 million, these studies indicate the number is over 6 million. The 5.2 million estimate, released in 2001, created anxiety about the declining Jewish presence in America and raised hard questions about Jews who marry outside the faith.

As I've been working with a Kansas City rabbi on a Holocaust-related book, I've learned more thoroughly how diverse the Jewish community is in terms of practice. (If you want more information on our book project, e-mail me.) Some Jews have completely left any attachment to a synagogue but consider themselves more Jewish than ever as they rediscover traditions that they left behind after childhood. Others have become more active members of synagogues as they've aged. Others are proud of their Jewish heritage and background but do not practice any religious traditions at all -- in some cases because they've married Christians and are rearing their children as Christians.

I suppose that in the best of all possible worlds, we wouldn't worry about how many adherents of religions A, B, C and D there are. We'd all just live out our faiths in social harmony. (Hey, I can dream, can't I?)

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.

Dec. 28, 2006


Reports from India suggest Buddhist adherents are rushing to be married in what's left of 2006 because 2007 will be the "Year of the Pig," deemed an unfortunate time to start new ventures. Maybe, but it just seems to me the press is giving Buddhism some bad oink.

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As we say farewell to former President Gerald R. Ford, let's fill in some of his religious context.

FordHe was an Episcopalian, which means he belonged to a denomination currently in considerable turmoil over such matters as the role and status of gays and lesbians in the church, particularly in the clergy. When he was president, he regularly attended services at St. John's Episcopal Church, quite near the White House.

Ford was one of about a dozen presidents who were members of the Episcopal Church, starting with George Washington.

But Ford was never known much for any public display of religiosity. Thus it was just a little bit surprising that Betty Ford, in her first statement at the time of his death, said, "His life was filled with love of God, his family and his country."

It wasn't that Ford never mentioned God. In fact, in perhaps his most controversial move -- the pardon of Richard M. Nixon, whom he replaced as president -- Ford said it was his duty "to do what is right as God gives me to see the right."

And twice in his first speech upon becoming America's first un-elected president, Ford invoked God's help.

But when you think of presidents famous for their religious prominence, Ford is not one who comes first to mind. Or even second or eighth. At least in modern times.

I think Ford's religious views are best captured in the National Prayer Breakfast speech he gave in 1976. It was mainstream stuff, right down the middle. Christian in tone, to be sure, but leaning heavily toward civic religion and more generic spiritual values that help shape the nation.

A similar approach can be seen in his 1974 National Day of Prayer proclamation. What you find here is what I always saw in Ford -- a man of uncomplicated faith who understood that the nation is full of people of faith with many ideas about religion. So he tried not to insist that his way was the only way.

I was one of the few people I knew at the time Ford pardoned Nixon who thought it was the right thing to do. Nearly everyone I knew wanted a pound of flesh from Nixon. But Ford understood -- and for this I will always admire him -- that revenge feeds on itself and consumes the one inflicting the revenge. Ford knew that letting the Nixon situation go unresolved would tie him down for the rest of his presidency and keep the nation wallowing in Watergate.

Gerald Ford may not have been the sharpest knife in the drawer, but he was a good and decent man who understood his own values and the values of his country. I felt fortunate to have met him several times and covered some of his speeches.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.

Today's religious holiday: Holy Innocents (Christian).

Dec. 27, 2006


Muslims in Spain have made an intriguing request of Pope Benedict XVI. How he responds may well say a lot about whether he really can find a way to have better relations with Islam. We'll see.

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No doubt you now are aware of the fighting going on in Somalia (map on the right here). The battle pits the militant Islamists who have taken effective control of much of Somalia against a weak interim, or transitional, government of Somalia, which has a five-year mandate dating to late 2004. That government is backed by Ethiopia, which has now sent troops into Somalia.

SomaliaThis story will change by the hour, of course, as these kinds of things are wont to do, but I thought it might be helpful to give you some resources to help you understand one more battle with religious undertones. At its core, however, this conflict seems less about religion than it does about regional politics and stability.

First, here is a story about developments in Ethiopia's invasion. (But because the story changes rapidly, you might do better by checking your favorite on-line news source.) Late on Tuesday, reports said the U.S. said it supported Ethiopia's move into Somalia but it urged restraint.

Next, here is some basic information about Somalia, currently a mess of a country. And click here for the Library of Congress' entry on Somalia from its country studies series.

Next, here is some basic information about Ethiopia (map on the left). Note that in terms of religion, Muslims make up a plurality, but members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church make up a close second. (More about that branch of Christianity in a minute.) And click here for the Library of Congress' entry on Ethiopia in its country studies series.

EthiopiaIn terms of religion, the Ethiopian-Somalian battle involves a country, Somalia, in which radical Islam has taken root in recent years. Some of the country's rebels have aligned themselves with al-Qaida and other militant elements of what many people refer to as the jihadist element of Islam. However, some American experts say it's wrong to equate the Council of Islamic Courts with al-Qaida and that the United States should have been in diplomatic conversation with the group. Similarly, some experts say Ethiopia has moved militarily now partly as a way to deflect internal criticism of its domestic situation, which is a mess, too.

Ethiopia, as I mentioned, has a long history as a home for a branch of Christianity that adheres to a view known as monophysitism. This has to do with the ancient question of whether Jesus Christ has one or two natures -- human and divine. Officially the church, at the Council of Nicea in 325 and in later councils, primarily Chalcedon in 451, affirmed that Christ has two natures, which means he is both fully human and fully divine. Monophysitism was the subject of church ecumenical councils in Constantinople in 553 and 681. Monophysitism held that Christ had one nature, which was overwhelmingly divine. But even today the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (along with the Coptic Church in Egypt and a few other churches) is an advocate of monophysitism.

The church in Ethiopia dates back to at least the middle of the Fourth Century. There is some evidence that the religion was introduced there by two Christian disciples who were taken as slaves to the court of the Ethiopian king. The king's son came under the influence of the Christian faith in that way. (There is, also, a long history of Judaism in Ethiopia, though many of the Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel in the 1985 famine. And there's a strong tradition that the Ethiopian Church owns and preserves the Ark of the Covenant in a city in northern Ethiopia.) A 1974 revolution in effect overthrew the Christian kingdom in Ethiopia, making it a secular country.

As for Somalia, most citizens are Sunni Muslims. Less than one percent of the population is Christian. For a discussion of Islam in Somalia in the colonial period and after, click here.

Nearly the entire continent of Africa has suffered from terrible leadership in the wake of the devastating colonial period, when European powers sucked the life out of country after country and left chaos behind. So it's not surprising to find the kind of struggle seen today between Somalia and Ethiopia. What we don't yet know is whether the leaders of both countries can draw on their religious heritage and teachings to find a way to peace.

My advice while you're waiting to find out: Don't hold your breath.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.

Dec. 26, 2006


When people read reports of the pope's Christmas Eve Midnight Mass address or even read his Christmas Day homily, who pays attention? I don't know, but I do know that even if almost no one does listen, it's right to continue to speak out for the values of faith. Even if one is simply a voice crying in the wilderness, the voice must continue to cry out, as Benedict XVI did in his Christmas message on behalf of vulnerable children.

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As you do your un-shopping today, returning that lovely sweater with the picture of the cast of "Lost" singing bawdy, off-key Christmas carols in Urdu, it's time to cheer y'all up a little.

So we take a humor break today with some faith-based jokes, some of which came from and none of which are original with me.

Laughingface_21. "Hello, is this Father O'Malley?"

"It is."

"This is the IRS. Can you help us?"

"I can."

"Do you know a Ted Houlihan?"

"I do."

"Is he a member of your congregation?"

"He is."

"Did he donate $10,000 to the church?"

"He will."

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2. A young lady came home from a date looking sad.

"Arthur proposed to me an hour ago," she told her mother.

"Then why the sad face?"

"He told me he's an atheist. He doesn't even believe in hell."

The mother replied: "Marry him anyway and together we'll show him how wrong he is."

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3. A little boy came home eating a big candy bar. His mother remembered that he had spent all of his allowance, so she asked him where he got it.

"I bought it with the dollar you gave me."

Mom replied: "But that dollar was for Sunday school."

"Well, when I went, the preacher met me at the door and I got in for free."

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4. A heavy snowstorm closed schools in one town. When the kids returned to school a few days later, their teacher asked whether they'd spent their time constructively."

"I did," replied one girl. "I prayed for more snow."

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.

Today's religious holidays: Zarathosht Diso (death of Prophet Zarathushtra, Zoroastrianism); St. Stephen's Day (Christian).

Dec. 23-24, 2006, weekend


Here's a cheery Christmas thought: A new poll shows most folks in Britain think religion causes more harm than good. What should be people of faith do to reverse this?

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Just in time for Christmas, a new survey shows that many Americans don't know squat about Bethlehem today. Apparently they aren't singing the carol the way I rewrote the beginning of it a few years ago: "O, little town of Bethlem, on the Occupied West Bank. . ."

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When the publication Vital Theology asked 10 ethicists recently whether Saddam Hussein should be executed if his appeal fails, nearly all of them said no. (To read the publication you have to subscribe to the print edition, though the Web site offers some things worth reading.)

Saddam_husseinI agree. Do you?

I have long been an opponent of the death penalty, for many reasons. I used to be against it because I thought it violated one of the Ten Commandments: Thou shalt not kill.

But I realized that was simplistic thinking. I was doing what I sometimes find so annoying in others -- prooftexting. That is, finding one isolated verse in the Bible and making it support an entire ethical position. That's usually bad scholarship.

I still think that commandment holds water, though it may not speak directly to the question of whether capital punishment is a good idea.

For criminal cases, I oppose the death penalty for other reasons, including the fact that sometimes we have executed innocent people. This sentence is final, and we simply can't afford to be wrong about it. There are many other arguments against the death penalty -- including the cost -- but the most persuasive argument to me is that sometimes we get it wrong. That said, for those judged guilty of a capital crime, I have no objection to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

I think any religion worthy of the name allows people to protect themselves from evil.

My opposition to the death penalty in Hussein's case is not soft-heartedness. It seems to me that he would get off easy if he were executed. He should be isolated in prison for the rest of his life and given no chance for additional public voice. What he most craves is power and attention. Depriving him of both is one way to punish him for his unspeakable crimes.

Among the comments from ethicists in Vital Theology:

* John Carlson of Arizona State's religious studies department: ". . .the Iraqi people and institutions must determine Saddam's fate on their own."

* James J. Megivern, an emeritus professor at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington: "I do not believe that any human authority has the right to destroy life deliberately and directly."

* Judith Kay of the University of Puget Sound: "A retributive execution is failed justice."

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My Saturday column this weekend is about the religious task of waiting.)

P.S.: As for starting my third year of blogging yesterday, if consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds, I qualify. I haven't missed a day.

P.P.S.S.: In this season when we think about peace and even the Prince of Peace, click here for a recent address about peace from the Rev. Sun Myung Moon on his Fourth World Peace Tour. Tell me what you agree with and what you disagree with. I'd be especially interested to hear from Unification Church members.

Today's religious holiday: Christmas Eve (Christian, 24th).

Dec. 22, 2006


ABC television tonight plans to re-run a broadcast Barbara Walters did a year ago about God and heaven, the Washington Post faith blog reports. Someone tell me if it's any good. We're having a family pre-Christmas gathering tonight. And if it weren't that, I'd find some other reason not to watch Walters, whom I can handle for up to 30 seconds at a time -- but not in a row. (Now, Bill, that's not the Christmas spirit.)

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I know many of you have to be out shopping today (my shirt size is 15 1/2 by 35) and don't have much blog reading time, so I'll be brief.

CollegeThe other day I mentioned here Harvard University's decision to back away from a requirement that all students take a class about religion.

It turns out there's a new guide to colleges to help people find schools that take religion more seriously than Harvard seems to. Taking religion seriously, of course, doesn't mean schools need to be preaching any particular gospel, but it does mean they need to understand how vital a force religion is in the world these days and they need to be helping their students make sense of religious dynamics.

The more I've thought about Harvard's decision, the less I've thought of it. I think that just as it's important for young people to grasp political, social, historical, scientific and ecnomic realities, so it's crucial for them to know the role religion is playing in shaping the world. And I think Harvard's decision shortchanged its students.

As the press release about this new guide suggests, Harvard looked at religion and flinched.

I took a comparative religion class when I was in college, and though I didn't think it was a marvelous course, at least it introduced me to ways of seeing things that I might not have been familiar with. My question for you today is how you would structure or frame a course about religion today on a college campus.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My column tomorrow will be about the religious task of waiting.)

P.S.: I've already added this line to my resume: "Time Magazine 'Person of the Year,' 2006. Have you?

P.P.S.S.: Today marks the start of my third year doing this blog. There will be a quiz on the first two years later. Study up in the archives.

Dec. 21, 2006


In my Oct. 14 column, I criticized the Presbyterian Publshing Corp.'s Westminster John Knox Press for publishing a book that claims the 9/11 terrorist attacks were an inside job by the Bush administration. I called it "spurious scholarship" and said my denomination's publishing house never should have touched this book. Although Westminster John Knox continues to offer the book for sale, I'm glad to see that an official of the Publishing Corp. says his board of directors now agrees with me: "The board believes the conspiracy theory is spurious and based on questionable research."

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I'll be brief today because I have just one point to make.

Gsp4My church the other day served as the site (as it often does) of the Good Samaritan Project's annual holiday party for children in families with AIDS (or who have AIDS themselves).

This is exactly what faith communities should be doing. It is exactly, I believe, the way God wants people of faith to behave. Which is to say, they should be comforting the afflicted, meeting the needs of people who are in trouble, bringing moments of joy into the lives of people who simply don't have enough joy.

The Good Samaritan Project is Kansas City's primary AIDS service organization, and our AIDS Ministry works with it as part of its sponsorship of Interfaith Care Teams. It offers many services to people with HIV/AIDS on a limited budget. And it depends on churches and other groups to be able to extend the reach of its dollars.

I know reaching out to others is not all faith communities do. But surely this kind of ministry is at their core. And surely you know of other great examples.

Gsp2The kids at the party made gingerbread houses, ornaments for a small tree that was given to one of the families, Christmas cards and other crafts. They got presents from Santa, free books and food. They danced to a video game and, all in all, had a great time.

And the volunteers helping received the gift of the children's presence and of knowing they were helping people in need.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.

Dec. 20, 2006


Should the European Union be a Christian club? A new poll suggests most Europeans don't think so. In fact, it's increasingly difficult to think of Europe today as a bulwark of Christianity. The religion's growth is taking place in the Southern Hemisphere, so Christians in Europe and North America already make up a minority voice in the global faith.

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My guess is that if you asked almost anyone in the world what one thing would help bring more peace and stability to the globe, most folks would say a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israeli_palestinian_1That's why I was heartened to see this information recently from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. It describes the release of this statement from 29 different Christian, Jewish and Muslim organizations urging the Bush administration to focus on new efforts to find a just settlement in the Middle East.

I hope your faith community, if any, was represented among those drafting this statement. My Presbyterian Church (USA) was.

These statements can easily get lost in the shuffle and do little more than make the folks who issue them feel good for 24 hours. But I think it's crucial, nonetheless, that the voices of people of faith be heard on this and other matters.

My reading is that the Bush administration has failed to devote the time and resources necessary to move along the peace process in the Middle East. There appeared to be the possibility of a settlement near the end of the Clinton administration, but the Bush folks, in my view, have done very little to salvage what could be salvaged from that effort and move toward a resolution.

A just settlement of the Middle East dispute would go a long way toward undermining the violent element of Islam that sponsors terrorism. No, a settlement wouldn't solve it completely, but if Muslims worldwide believe that Palestinians finally are getting a just deal, it really would help.

So cheers for these faith communities seeking to reinvigorate the Middle East peace process, even in the face of enormous odds. Sometimes people of faith have to be a voice crying in the wilderness.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.