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April 30, 2007


PBS is under pressure to air a documentary about radical Islam. No matter what your view of Islam, terrorism and related subjects, I say the more voices heard on this the better. Broadcasters must avoid being irresponsible and airing propagandistic garbage, but there are lots of legitimate views about the state of Islam today, and better to hear them than to ignore them.

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When someone who belongs to a group to which we're connected does something awful, what responsibility do we have? And what guilt should we feel?

ChoThis is a little different from the question of whether we are "our brother's keeper," in the biblical words. Rather, it goes to the issue of whether we somehow are morally or ethically connected to people who embarrass us by their behavior.

This matter was the subject of an interesting story recently in the Jewish newspaper, The Forward. It noted that the sister of the Virginia Tech gunman, Seung-Hui Cho (pictured here), almost immediately issued a statement describing the family's sorrow at what Cho had done.

And after that the South Korean ambassador to the U.S. urged people of Korean ethnicity to examine their hearts.

I know from Muslim friends that they hold their breath when there's word of a terrorist attack anywhere because they fear someone identified as Islamic will be involved and that this will put them in a defensive position as people think of them as guilty by association.

When people in groups to which I am connected (journalists, Christians, German-Swedish-Americans, tall, incredibly handsome guys, etc.) make the news for bad things they've done, I rarely feel any personal responsibility, though I do worry that people will think all journalists, all Christians, etc., are somehow the same and equally guilty.

But where do you draw the line on taking responsibility or feeling guilt. What does your faith tradition, if any, tell you about that? If Cho had been part of some group connected to you, how would you have reacted? (And, yes, in some sense Cho was part of a group connected to all of us -- a human being. And maybe that's as much categorizing as we should do.)

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

Today's religious holiday: St. James the Great Day (Orthodox Christianity)

April 28-29, 2007, weekend


P.S.: Yes, I know, a P.S. should go at the bottom, but I'm afraid some of you will miss it there. I'm being interviewed on a University of Illinois radio station from 5 to 6 p.m. (central time) today, Sunday, about the book I'm writing with a rabbi on Jews in Poland who survived the Holocaust with Christian help. I think you can hear it online by going to this site. If not, it eventually will be in the show's archives there.

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Pope Benedict XVI has accepted an invitation to visit New York City (and the U.N. there). Well, darn. I was just in New York a week or two ago. Wonder why the pope didn't coordinate with my schedule better. No date for the pope's visit is set yet, so maybe I still can run into him on a subway the next time I'm back there.

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A few years ago I visited a large mosque outside Washington, D.C., and wrote a piece about the way Islam is finding its sea legs in the United States by adapting to local conditions. Something similar seems to be happening in Australia, this report says. Both Islam and Christianity are finding new homes around the world, and they are having to react to local situations in various ways. It's a fascinating process to watch.

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In columns and, as I recall, blog entries, I have written in the past about the need to have a bliblically literate society.

BiblesBy that, I don't mean a country in which everyone reads and interprets and believes in the Bible in the same way. Rather, I mean a society in which people are familiar with biblical references ("my brother's keeper," "go the extra mile," and so forth) so we can speak intelligently to each other and understand the history and background of what we're saying.

The best book to help with this project, in my opinion, is The Bible and Its Influence, though no book is without its critics when it comes to educating people about the Bible.

A paper recently presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association suggests that biblical literacy can improve student achievement and scores.

The paper was presented by Professor William Jeynes, a non-resident scholar at Baylor University and a professor at California State University at Long Beach. Jeynes reported that students with high levels of biblical literacy tended to have considerably higher grade point averages overall than students with low biblical literacy rates.

". . .biblical literacy is associated with positive student outcomes," Jeynes concluded. Courses on the Bible as literature in public school likely will improve academic achievement, he concluded.

What do you think? Do you agree? Can classes about the Bible be taught in public schools without crossing constitutional boundaries? (I think so.) And why are biblically literate students likely to do better academically? I think part of it is that biblical literacy is a reflection of an even wider literacy.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My Saturday column this weekend is about the condition of the Episcopal church 400 years after its founding in the United States.)

April 27, 2007


A cardinal says Pope Benedict XVI should press President Bush on the risks of climate change when they meet in June. Wonder where global warming would be on the pope's list of most important issues to talk about with Bush. Fairly high, I'm guessing, but below the war in Iraq, Darfur and perhaps some other matters. Where would you put it?

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I'm often skeptical of polls and surveys, even though I find them interesting.

MoralToo often, it seems, they find pretty much what the people who pay for them want found, just as the search for the historical Jesus quite often yields the historian's Jesus.

So I'm both skeptical of but intrigued by a new survey from the Culture and Media Institute. One reason I'm skeptical is the sweeping language the institute uses in its mission statement. It wants to "preserve and help restore America's culture, character, traditional values and morals against the assault of the liberal media elite. . ."

Yes, well, just what are America's culture, character, traditional values and morals? Ask a million people, get a million answers. And who are the liberal media elite? As I've said here time and time again, such labels hide much more than they reveal. Labels like "liberal media elite" are used not to convey information but, rather, a certain tone in a certain code.

That said, I am not arguing that our culture isn't more coarse today, more crude, less pristine than it ever has been. Just watch a little prime time TV, go to the movies, listen to music on the radio. A lot of it is simply disheartening. We all know junk flies through the cultural air that would have knocked my sweet grandparents dead on the spot.

At any rate, this new survey says that 74 percent of adult Americas agree that moral values in the U.S. are weaker than they were two decades ago. There are lots of other findings that you can ponder at the site to which I've linked you (and pay attention to the odd "Orthodox," "Progressive" and "Independent" divisions the survey makes among respondents).

But here's the study's conslusion: "America no longer enjoys cultural consensus on God, religion and what constitutes right and wrong." And Americans "have clearly identified the media as primary culprits in the nation's moral decline." (Media, of course, means way, way more than just newspapers or TV.)

So what do you make of all this? Are we a less moral nation than when Americans could and did legally could own slaves? Are we a less moral nation than we were when women couldn't even vote? Or when our schools were legally segregated? Does the sludge that passes for pop culture desensitize us to the values religion calls us to?

Finally, should I have ignored this survey and, instead, read People magazine or some similarly vacuous publication?

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My column tomorrow is about the 400-year history of the Episcopal church in the U.S.)

P.S.: For a Baptist Press story about a chaplain who ministers to the Blue Angels, grieving the loss of one of their pilots in a recent accident, click here.

April 26, 2007


My religion writer friend Eric Gorski has done an intriguing piece about a new study that gives us a glimpse into the future shape of religious trends in the U.S. as Hispanics become a larger part of our culture. Are you seeing these trends in your own faith community?

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I've been slowly reading Vincent A. Smith's classic, The Oxford History of India, which has been added to by Percival Spear.

IndiaI'd have been a much smarter kid had I read more about religion in India before I lived there for two years of my boyhood, but it's too late to worry about that now. (The map here today, by the way, shows India in its current form, not the way it was divided under the British.)

At any rate, in a section Spear wrote, I ran across a really intriguing notion having to do with religion in India and the reason the British were able to conquer the land and colonialize it in ways other nations, especially Portugal, had failed to do. It has to do with the way the Brits treated religion in India:

"A final factor in the British success was the nature of their objectives. There was no head-on collision between British imperialism and Indian society. . . Indian society, whether in its Hindu or Muslim forms, was centered round religio-social systems which showed little trace of political nationalism in its modern sense. The affections of the peopel were fastened upon social and religious ideals rather than upon political freedom.

"Freedom for the Hindu was a matter of inner release, for the Muslim of freedom to worship the true God in the right way. No doubt both Hindu and Muslim preferred their own rulers to others but what both would die for was their religious ideals and social patterns.

"The Mughul empire was accepted by Hindus as long as it was both tolerant and strong. The Portuguese made no headway in India because they attacked both parties where they felt most deeply, in the religious sphere. The British came for trade and went into politics to preserve their trade. They eschewed religion.

"So to the Hindu they were preferable to the Muslims and to the Muslim more acceptable than the Hindu. And this was the case in spite of general dislike of most British customs and many British individuals. The British attack was a glancing blow which left the vital centers of Indian life untouched. Religious toleration and social non-interference were more powerful weapons than the rupees of the (East India) Company or the guns of its troops."

I'm sort of divided about all of that. First, colonialism was a disaster almost everywhere, perhaps less so in India than in many countries, but even there. Britain and other colonial-era powers did the world no favors by ruling (misruling, really) the lands they conquered. And yet the British left behind some useful political systems and ideals that still play a part of Indian life today.

At the same time, what does it say about a people who "eschewed religion," in Spear's words? Was money more important to them than God? And, thus, did the Indians have their priorities straighter than the English? And yet can a modern nation survive on a shrunken globe if it does not also develop geopolitical skills while at the same time preserving its people's central focus on religious and social institutions?

And what is there about this history that might apply today to the U.S. and its international misadventures?

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

April 25, 2007


A new study suggests kids who are the best behaved come from parents who are religious. I can think of some exceptions, and probably you can, too. But does this square with your experience?

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This past Sunday I was privileged to preach at Valley View United Methodist Church in Overland Park, Kan., on the day the congregation was celebrating its Evening Care program.

ValleyviewIt seems to be sort of a theme this week here on the blog, but this is one more example of a faith community doing exactly what it should be doing -- caring for vulnerable people.

Evening Care started in 1979. Today its 150 volunteers provide an evening of care and recreation and education for more than 70 persons with developmental disabilities.

My stepson Chris, who lives in a group home and works at a sheltered workshop, has attended some Evening Care sessions. Chris was in attendance on Sunday and managed to hug pretty much the whole congregation, I think.

The one night a week that people with special needs come to Evening Care provides a time of respite for their family and other care givers. And it teaches everyone that even people with severe disabilities have much to offer the world. (Take note, Peter Singer.)

Religious communities, it seems to me, should be offering models that show that all human life is precious and deserving of dignity and respect. That's precisely what Evening Care does.

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

April 24, 2007


In Indiana, you can get a special license plate that says, "In God We Trust." But the ACLU is suing over it because the state apparently treats this plate differently than other special plates. Wonder what it would cost to get an "In the ACLU We Trust" plate.

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When I was at a fund-raising dinner the other night for a wonderful organization, it occurred to me again how much good people of faith do.

OpbreakConsider Operation Breakthrough of Kansas City, led by two nuns.

First, it focuses on children, among the most vulnerable people in our society. At the moment, it serves nearly 700 such kids.

The idea is to provide what O.B. calls a "safe, loving and educational environment." O.B. seeks to rescue children from the deleterious effects of poverty. Its success stories are simply awesome, though, of course, there is no guarantee that every kid who enters an O.B. program will flourish.

O.B. began in 1971 to provide safe day care for children in the inner city. Today is operates an early childhood education program, before- and after-school programs, a summer enrichment program and much more.

The nuns who have given their lives to this effort are Sister Corita Bussanmas and Sister Berta Sailer. They are simply astonishing women.

When the sisters and volunteers put on their first fund-raising dinner in 1998, there were so few people in attendance that "everybody had a front-row seat," Sister Berta says. The fund-raiser at a big downtown hotel the other night was jammed. People filled a huge ballroom. And they donated tens of thousands of dollars.

Why? Because these Christian women believe it's crucial to help children reach their God-given potential. Yes, religious adherents also cause many problems in the world, sometimes setting the globe aflame with hatred and violence. But let's not forget the marvelous work done by such people of faith as Sisters Corita and Berta.

You can go to the O.B. Web site and find out how you can help. I recommend you do that.

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

P.S.: The annual AIDS Walk to raise funds for Kansas City area AIDS service organizations happens this Saturday, and I'll be participating. Thanks to those of you who already have donated. If you want to but haven't yet donated, just click here. And thanks for any help you can give.

April 23, 2007


Don't imagine that the United States is the only country struggling with a shifting boundary between religion and politics. The same struggle is going on in India, as this report notes. I tend to keep track of such things in India more than in other countries because I spent two years of my boyhood there. It was a time that showed me that people of many different faiths could live together in relative harmony.

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If you've never heard of a group called Religions for Peace -- USA, have a careful look at the Web site today.

DoveRFP-USA will be sponsoring one of its interfaith academies for emerging religious leaders in Kansas City from June 13 to 27. The deadline for submitting an application to participate (it's open just to leaders of faith communities) officially was April 20, but officials tell me there still are a few slots open and applications will be accepted until early May. To download an application, click here. But even if you aren't going to attend this academy, it's still the sort of program I think the world needs more of and that is worth knowing about.

As you can see by reading about the history of this organization, it grew out of an international body more than 30 years ago, and today is quite active in many ways. RFP-USA's list of member religious bodies does not include everybody and his grandmother (my Presbyterian denomination is not listed, for instance), but it's quite broad.

Sometimes I feel like a broken record talking about the importance of such interfaith groups, but in a world often set aflame by religiously motivated violence, I think it's crucial that we all understand each other better. As I've said before, the goal is to respect one another at least enough not to kill one another. That seems like a simple goal, but we're not even that far yet.

So have a look at RFP-USA today and be aware that it's one more effort to bring some sane discussion to matters of religion.

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

PS: And speaking of peace, there will be a Kansas City event about Darfur at noon this coming Sunday, April 29, at the Plaza Library. It's sponsored by the group called Save Darfur. Have a look.

April 21-22, 2007, weekend


This issue has been under discussion and in the news for quite some time, but now Pope Benedict XVI in effect has put "Limbo" out of business. What's your view (or the view of your faith tradition) of the eternal destiny of babies who die?

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You may recall that last month I did a blog entry about a new documentary film on the Rev. Fred Phelps and his hateful anti-gay and anti-lots-of-folks ministry in Topeka, Kan. I had a chance to see it and I recommend it to anyone who gets a similar opportunity. You have such a chance at 5 p.m. on Sunday, April 29, at Holmeswood Baptist Church, located at 97th and Holmes in Kansas City, Mo. The pastor of that excellent congregation, the Rev. Keith Herron, has arranged the showing.

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As regular blog readers know, I'm a proponent of studying -- or at least being aware of -- our history.

MarylandSo this weekend is a good time to recall a bit of American religious history that sometimes gets neglected: The passage on April 21, 1649, of the Toleration Act. The Maryland Assembly, with vigorous support from Lord Baltimore, a Catholic who was proprietor of Maryland, passed the measure to protect Catholics within Maryland from Protestant harrassment. (The picture here today is the Maryland flag.)

Such antagonism toward Catholics was growing then due the rise to power in England of the Protestant leader Oliver Cromwell.

That was certainly not the end of prejudice against and other trouble for Catholics in this country, of course -- or what was to become this country. It's true that today five of the nine U.S. Supreme Court justices are Catholics and that Catholics have in many other ways been merged into the mainstream of American religious and social culture.

But I certainly recall hatred against Catholics being spewed from the preacher of the Protestant church (Presbyterian) in which I grew up in 1960 when John F. Kennedy was running for office. Our pastor warned us that the pope, in effect, would rule America if JFK were elected.

Perhaps you, too, recall instances of anti-Catholic prejudice in your life. If so, are you aware of such feelings today among people you know? If you have no experience of anti-Catholic prejudices, how do you think we got past all that?

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My Saturday column this weekend will point you to some help for understanding the religious aspects of the 2008 presidential race.)

Today's religious holiday: Ridvan begins (Baha'i, 21st)

April 20, 2007


Like NBC's Middle East correspondent, I acknowledge being mystified by the religious connections to the Virginia Tech mass murderer. I think this is one of those profoundly complex stories that we won't be able to sort out for a long time, if ever. To leap in with theories based on fragments of information might be what we expect of talk radio, but I think the rest of us should have higher standards.

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NEW YORK -- One of the stops I made here while doing research on the Holocaust book a rabbi and I are writing is the Jewish Federation for the Righteous, which has its headquarters in Manhattan.

Jfr1It's a wonderful agency that does profoundly important work. And if you don't know about it, you should. Take a look at the organization's intriguing Web site through the link above.

Essentially, the agency raises money to help give financial support to "righteous gentiles" who saved Jews from death in the Holocaust. Currently it helps support 1,330 righteous gentiles in 27 countries.

Many of these "rescuers" (a problematic term that makes it sound as if the Jews did nothing to help themselves) are poor people from rural areas in Poland and other countries, and the money they get from the JFR ($100 a month is a typical grant) helps a great deal to provide necessary food and medicines for them in their old age.

It's likely that the number of "righteous" receiving help will dwindle to close to zero in the next 10 to 15 years as that generation dies off. As that happens, the Stanlee Joyce Stahl, the JFR's energetic leader, says the agency will move increasingly into putting its efforts toward educating people about this often under-reported aspect of the Holocaust. (We hope our book, focused on Poland, will help with that.)

The photo here today shows Stanlee with my book-writing partner, Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn of the New Reform Temple of Kansas City. (E-mail me if you want to know how to help with our book work.)

There are so many aspects of this horrific event called the Holocaust that it's hard to know where to begin educating one's self. But as the larger story is told, it's important also to describe the few non-Jews who had the moral courage to do the right thing.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My column tomorrow will focus on religious aspects of the 2008 presidential race.)

April 19, 2007


Religion has returned to Albania, this report says. Well, my guess is that it never left the hearts and souls of some residents. One of the most difficult operations to perform is a religionectomy.

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NEW YORK -- While I was here this week working on my Holocaust book project, my book-writing colleague, Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, also was here, though his first duty was to help lead a group of youngsters from his temple's confirmation class on a trip.

Chabad1I joined them the day they went to Brooklyn to visit the world center of Chabad Lubavitch Judaism, the Hassidic approach to the Jewish tradition.

We visited the famous building at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn that was the office (pictured here) of the movement's late and most famous leader, Rebbe (it's similar to rabbi, but means leader) Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Indeed, we had the rare privilege of being allowed to see his office, which remains much as it did when he died in 1994.

A few of his followers revere Schneerson so much that they believe he was and is the Jewish Messiah and lives forever. No successor Lubavitcher rebbe has been named and it seems unlikely that any ever will be. Schneerson was the seventh in a line that stretches back to the 1700s.

Rabbi Cukierkorn and I visited Schneerson's grave and, as you can see, found followers praying there. The white papers you see lying there (in this photo) are prayer requests left by believers.

Chabad3We also had a chance to visit the Chabad Library, which houses some 250,000 volumes, many of them rare books dating from the 1470s and later. It's essentially a research establishment.

And we visited a business that repairs Torah scrolls and writes new ones. (The photo here shows a Torah currently being worked on.) The latter, by the way, cost anywhere from $20,000 to $60,000. It's an astonishingly painstaking process that requires no errors. And many checks are done to make sure it's error free.

All of which is to say that it's simply fascinating to come to the home of other religious traditions and to learn about them. It removes misunderstandings and, one hopes, reduces prejudices.

Chabad2I've seen some of what I would call the anti-Semitic variety of prejudice in some recent comments left on this blog. I've not removed those comments because I think it's important that others, including me, challenge them openly without censorship, though I always reserve the right to expunge comments that I consider out of bounds (that's happened only once or twice in more than two years).

We enter into conversation with other faiths to know and to be known, not to denigrate or convert. If conversion happens as a long-term result of those conversations, fine, but that's not the goal.

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