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Covering the abuse scandal: 6-30-10

Today I will share with you this recent story from the Lawrence Journal-World in Kansas -- for two reasons.

Priest scandal

First, to point out that Catholic bishops are not going to solve the long-running abuse scandal by refusing to talk about it.

Second, to take note of the importance of journalists to uncover such stories. Remember that it was journalists from the National Catholic Reporter and, later, the Boston Globe, who brought this abuse scandal to light.

I'm not saying that reporters from broadcast outlets or from blogs, magazines or other Internet sites aren't doing some useful work. But most of the real digging historically has come from reporters on newspapers. And I think the whole culture -- to say nothing of the institutions reporters cover, such as faith communities -- are suffering as newspapers shrink or disappear.

In the article to which I've linked you, that newspaper reports on its two-year investigation into the way various Catholic dioceses in Kansas are handling and have handled abuse reports.

Time after time church officials declined to talk about these cases. I understand legal restrictions when suits have been filed, but there is an overriding need for honesty and openness -- the lack of which led to some of these abuse cases in the first place.

At any rate, my point today is that church officials must be more open if they hope to heal what's wounded and the public should be thankful that there still are news organizations willing to devote two years to uncovering what never should have been covered up in the first place.

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Pope Benedict XVI has begun a new effort to "re-evangelize" the West, especially Europe. How about this for an idea: Have the church in Europe -- and all over the world -- handle the priest abuse scandal openly, honestly, humbly and with an eye toward protecting children first and the church second? I'm guessing that approach might do more to attract people to the church than almost anything else. I know this much: It couldn't hurt. And if that doesn't happen, this new effort is likely to be viewed as just one more effort to resist modernity, to say nothing of post-modernity, and such efforts have gotten the church almost nowhere.

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P.S.: I've created a blog page describing my "Lessons from the Holocaust" seminar I'll teach this fall. For details, click here. Please consider joining me for what should be a remarkable early November weekend at the beautiful Kirkridge Retreat Center in Pennsylvania.

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ANOTHER P.S.: My latest Presbyterian Outlook column now is online. To read it, click here. And my latest National Catholic Reporter just went online this morning, too. To read it, click here.

Dying is an art: 6-29-10

I have written a great deal about death over the years on the theory that we'll never understand our life if we don't understand our death.


In fact, I'm going to spend a week starting July 12 at Ghost Ranch teaching a seminar I call "Death and Its Mysteries: Writing About the Journey." One of the books I'll be using is Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral, by Thomas G. Long, who teaches at Candler Seminary in Atlanta. I wrote about that book earlier here on the blog. To read that, click here.

I've just found another book I'll be using in the upcoming class, a new one from InterVarsity Press called The Art of Dying: Living Fully Into the Life to Come, by Rob Moll.

Although rooted more in the evangelical tradition of Christianity than is Long's book, Moll's book is insightful, thoughtful and helpful to people who have grown up in our death-denying culture. Moll even quotes Long approvingly in Moll's chapter on the Christian funeral.

For countless reasons (many of them bad), Christians have changed the way they deal with death over the last 100-plus years. It used to be integrated into the life of people so they knew how to care for the dying, what to do when someone died, how to help people grieve, how to celebrate a life now gone, what to say to people on their deathbed.

But we've lost much of that. Now so much of our dying process is institutionalized and impersonal. We no longer know what to say, how to act. I know I'm being overbroad in these statements but for many of us they describe reality.

As Moll writes, "We have forgotten how to behave as caregivers or simply family and friends. We act clumsily and awkwardly around the grieving, often complicating their mourning. We're clueless about what to say to a person on his deathbed. We ourselves are left feeling confused and uncertain about death's meaning and its effect on our faith and our lives."

The book is an attempt to walk us through possible solutions to these problems. And it's a helpful combination of reporting, analysis and personal stories from the life of the author, editor-at-large of Christianity Today.

Anyone who wants (or needs) a good course on death and its mysteries can (besides joining my seminar in a couple of weeks) read both Moll's and Long's book. Together they will go a long way toward changing our views of death and toward knowing what to do when death walks into the lives of those we love or even into the edges of our own life.

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I thought this obituary of Sen. Robert Byrd in the Wall Street Journal did pretty well in capturing a profoundly complex man who once was a Baptist lay preacher and once a member of the Ku Klux Klan and later became one of the most powerful senators in American history. I certainly didn't always agree with Byrd but I found him a remarkable example of humanity being capable of growth.

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P.S.: My latest Presbyterian Outlook column now is online. To read it, click here.

More sensible disaster relief: 6-28-10

Disaster relief 
Natural -- and human-caused -- disasters seem to come one atop the other, from hurricanes to floods to wild fires to the oil catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico.

And faith communities often are among the early people on the scene offering help. That help, however, could be a lot more effective if it were coordinated with the official disaster response teamwork organized by various levels of government. That's the conclusion of a new study that seems to make some sense to me.

The Institute for Homeland Security Solutions, a research consortium led by RTI International, conducted the study, which was sponsored by the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and the Human Factors and Behavioral Science Division at the Department of Homeland Security.

It recommended that faith-based and other community groups be more closely integrated with traditional emergency response teams.

I think the primary idea here is to coordinate the effort. Congregations and other faith-based groups naturally will want to be careful about becoming lost as part of a government team -- especially if being part of that effort means they can't identify themselves as faith-driven.

But the reality is that many congregations and larger faith-based groups already are providing considerable disaster relief. I think, for example, of the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance in my own denomination and of the worldwide Mennonite Central Committee.

No doubt it would help secular and government-led disaster relief people to know what such groups are doing so they don't needlessly waste resources duplicating their efforts. I hope that if your congregation or faith group has a disaster relief component you'll let its leaders know about this new study.

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It's impossible to tell definitively from the outside, but it looks for all the world as if Pope Benedict XVI has good grounds to complain about the way Belgian authorities handled a recent sex abuse allegation case against church officials there. It will be intriguing to see if the initial reports of bizarre investigative tactics prove to be accurate. Clearly the now-worldwide abuse scandal needs to be investigated and cleaned up -- both by civil authorities and by the church -- but some tactics seem just plain weird.

Asking questions of ethics: 6-26/27-10

I have written here before about the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, mostly making the point that communities of faith should be using their prophetic voices to remind us of why the heck oil companies are anxious to drill so deep in the ocean in the first place -- to fill our sometimes-selfish hunger for energy to live scandalously luxurious lives.


But there are many other aspects to the explosion, deaths, spill and clean-up that deserve the attention of anyone who is a person of faith or who cares even a little about ethics, especially corporate ethics.

This good essay by a business ethicist will, I hope, start all of us thinking not just about what went wrong in the gulf but also what may be going wrong in the businesses and other institutions with which we are in some way connected -- and then what our responsibilities might be to help set things right.

Among the points the author makes: "We should always remember that reducing risk factors with new advanced technologies does not mean neutralizing them. If the remote event associated with an activity is literally a disaster, maybe we should consider stopping that activity."

Each of us must learn to be the voice that raises objections when the proposed activity in our organizations can result in catastrophe. At the very least, we must insist on a good assessment of risk and of what might happen if the worst occurs. Asking the "What if?" questions may slow down s0called progress but if they prevent horror, they are worth it

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No doubt this was expected by people who follow violent extremists who claim to be operating in the interests of Islam, but it turns out that such people are saying that Gen. Stanley McChrystal was relieved of his duties in Afghanistant because America has lost the war. This will come as news to the new U.S. military leader there, Gen. David Petraeus.

A problematic church report: 6-25-10

As those of you who are regular readers of this blog know, I have been troubled in various ways by a report to be considered starting next week at the General Assembly of my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA). I last wrote about it here in April.


The report, from the Middle East Study Committee of the church, deals with how Presbyterians should think about and act on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Clearly things in the Middle East continue to be a mess. Palestinians are suffering. Israelis are suffering. (And I don't mean to say they are suffering equally, nor to assign specific blame for their sufferings.) Some of Israel's neighbors continue to want to wipe it off the map. Some of the Israeli government's actions have been at best unwise. And on and on, back through decade after decade of turmoil.

And clearly we Presbyterians care about what's happening there as both Christians and as Americans and want to be helpful in finding a solution.

But the situation is so complex, so loaded with history's twists and turns, so Gordian-knot-like that almost anything we say or anything we propose can -- and likely will -- be criticized. That, of course, is no reason not to speak -- and speak with a prophetic voice. But it is good reason to be cautious about making claims, about drawing hard conclusions, about arrogantly assuming we know what's best for all people in the region.

All of those thoughts have been in my head as I've been thinking about the upcoming General Assembly and how it will handle this. My sympathies have mostly been with people who think the new report is flawed. For some of their thinking, read this pdf file from Presbyterians for Middle East Peace: Download PFMEP_Packet_-_Final[1].

Within that report is a link to this piece by a Presbyterian, Ted A. Smith, and a Jew, Amy-Jill Levine, both of whom teach at Vanderbilt Divinity School. I've heard Levine speak several times, have read some of her work and consider her a brilliant scholar and worth listening to.

In this case, she and Smith were able to describe in some detail for me why the new report has bothered me -- its tendency to rely on old anti-Jewish habits that have stained Christianity for centuries. (For my essay on that subject, look under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page.) I hope you'll take some time to read Smith's and Levine's words, as well as the Middle East Study Committee report itself and draw your own conclusions.

And I hope you'll join me in praying and hoping that whatever we Presbyterians do about this at the upcoming General Assembly it will lead not toward even more conflict and misunderstanding but toward peace for all people in that region.

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I've made the point here before that I think the media generally don't do a good job covering religion. This piece talks about some of the details of reporting on religion in a way I think is helpful and enlightening, so I point you to it without further comment from me.

Variegated Christianity: 6-24-10

Do all Catholics oppose abortion? And do all people who would call themselves evangelical Christians oppose equal rights for gays and lesbians?

CrossesWell, a yes to those questions would constitute the conventional wisdom but, as is often the case, the conventional wisdom should not be trusted -- especially when it uses "all" to describe the position of any group.

A new report fleshes out some of the differences within such Christian groups as Catholics, Mainline Protestants, African-Americans and white evangelicals. And the study helps us remember that labels hide a lot more than they reveal.

The report, from Public Religion Research Institute and Third Way, is called "Beyond the God Gap," and was released yesterday. To read it in pdf form, click on this link: Download Beyond-the-God-Gap.

As the report says, "Nowhere do stereotypes predominate more than in the realm of how religion informs politics. . . Too often, false assumptions, caricatures and tired paradigms rule the day."

With that in mind, the report goes on to examine the internal divides within "White Evangelical Protestants," "White Mainline Protestants," "African American Protestants" and "Roman Catholics."

As a member of that second grouping, I found it interesting that the report called "White Mainline Protestants" this: "arguably the most ignored and least understood of  the major religious groups in the American religious landscape."

Again, the lesson here is not to think labels tell all about everyone to whom those labels are attached, especially when it comes to people of faith the the political positions they hold.

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Want to engage in Bible study? Then get out your smart phone. As this piece points out, tech companies are producing lots of religious apps for hand-held devices. Think, in fact, of what a mess this economy would be in without the religion sector.

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God Goes to Work: New Thought Paths to Prosperity and Profits, by Tom Zender. These days when you combine the word God with "prosperity," alarm bells should go off because it usually means we're about to hear the "Gospel of Prosperity and Health and Healing on Demand" preached. Well, that is not what the author, president emeritus of Unity, has in mind here. Rather, he is simply noticing the many ways in which businesses have changed their approach and is suggesting that they are on to something. That is, many businesses today are much more open to sharing knowledge and even former secrets with people so that all may benefit. An example he gives is Goldcorp and its willingness to let outsiders look at where it should mine for gold deposits it was having trouble finding. This book draws some of the usual distinctions between religion and spirituality and proposes that a spiritual approach to business is good for all, no matter one's religion. There is something about this I find a little distasteful. And I think it's the idea of exploiting spirituality, however one defines it, for the purpose of profit. That's probably a bit unfair to Zender, and indeed there are plenty of good ideas in this book, so I leave it to you to make that call for yourself. But he leaves himself open to that critique when he writes such sentences as these: "Contemporary business culture has entirely overlooked the important spiritual assets it has within its grasp, causing the entire economy to suffer, especially considering that this critical asset lies just beneath the surface of the people who work within the halls of its building. But these spiritual assets have not been tapped. . ."

The end of Christendom: 6-23-10

The other day I spoke to the staff of St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church and suggested that this is a fabulous time to be in ministry because we are entering a post-Christian age in this post-modern period.


I quoted someone who had spoken at St. Michael's just a few weeks ago, Duke theologian Stanley Hauerwas, to the effect that Constantinian Christianity, meaning what often is called Christendom, has lost -- especially in Europe but increasingly in the U.S., too. This Christianity involved a close, almost incestuous, connection between the church and the governing powers. So now we Christians are liberated from the burden of that and can focus more freely on following Jesus, which means using our prophetic voices to point out what is unjust and unmerciful in our culture and then work to fix it.

So I was intrigued to run across this ABC News report suggesting much the same thing. It says that many Christians -- especially those who would identify themselves as evangelical -- are tired of being identified primarily by what they're against (such as abortion and equal rights for gays). They'd rather be know for what they are for -- namely a willingness to tackle global issues without regard to who happens to hold political power.

A lot of what the ABC report is about seems related to the Emergent Church Movement, which has come out of the evangelical wing of the church. So I think it's important to point out that many of us in the so-called Mainline churches have been busy for decades with exactly the sort of issues-oriented ministry that now seems increasingly important to the Emergent folks.

And we're glad to have the Emergents along now to help.

I find it enormously liberating that we no longer can assume that the culture around us is somehow "Christian." It frees the church to focus on ministry to those in need and to quit worrying about being in defacto charge of the culture. I'm not suggesting that the more secular culture that is replacing Christendom in America is a good and unblemished thing. Not by a long shot. But now we're freer to critique it and to offer better alternatives.

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The baseball slugger Manny Ramirez -- you know the Manny-Being-Manny guy -- tells an interviewer he's found God and reads the Bible every day. Apparently before this, RBI for Manny meant Reads Bible Irregularly.

Who can join congregations? 6-22-10

What should requirements be to join a community of faith?


Must you agree with every single officially stated bit of doctrine? Must you pledge financial support? Must you promise to follow the group's leaders?

Or can you simply express a serious interest in knowing more as you walk through the membership door, on the theory that no one can know it all at the start and that faith is always a journey?

This is a good day to ask such questions because it was on this date in 1750 that the Congregational Church in Northampton, Mass., dismissed its pastor, the now-famous Jonathan Edwards (pictured here), because of a dispute over the requirements for membership (and over who could take communion). Edwards, who had served the congregation for 23 years, took a quite rigid and restrictive view about the rules for joining and receiving the sacrament of Holy Communion. Most of the church, by contrast, wanted less-restrictive rules.

These kinds of debates continue to occur in Christian churches, to greater and lesser extents. And my guess is that something like these debates occur in other faiths as well.

Over the years in my own church, we often have pretty much just let people join without many requirements except to express their commitment to core Christian theology. At other times, we have run rather extensive classes that prepare people for the responsibilities of membership. I tend to lean toward the latter approach on the theory that if you don't have both a good understanding of our theology and a commitment to be part of our community, you may simply disappear out the back door before long.

Membership, in other words, should mean something and new members should have a good grasp of just what that meaning is. I'd probably not be as strict as Jonathan Edwards no doubt was, but being a serious follower of a religion is hard, life-changing, transformative work. And not much of that is going to happen if new members think of it as similar to joining the book-of-the-month club.

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Is the Dalai Lama a pacifist? Uh, not so fast. This interesting piece discusses Buddhism's varied approaches to the question of violence and, in particular, the Dalai Lama's own thoughts. This is one more example of why it's important to remember that the world is almost always more complex than we imagine it to be.

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Forged in Faith: How Faith Shaped the Birth of the Nation, 1607-1776, by Rod Gragg. Even today this question often gets bandied about in public: Is America a Christian nation? I would argue the answer is no, but that doesn't mean that faith -- specifically Christianity -- didn't play a crucial role in the formation of the United States. Indeed, it did. It was the spiritual atmosphere in which America was born. Rod Gragg, a journalist, author and historian, describes that reality in considerable detail as he describes America's 170-year pre-history starting with the Jamestown settlement. It's a fascinating story and one that too often nowadays gets either forgotten or misrepresented by people who don't want it to be true or twisted in pursuit of a religious America that doesn't exist now and never quite did -- a purely Christian America. But the values that helped shape the country are described here, and it's important that we not lose the story of those values.

Improving passion plays: 6-21-10

No doubt many of you have heard about the "Oberammergau Passion Play," presented in Bavaria every 10 years -- a tradition that started in the 1600s. It tells the story of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the actors are all local villagers. Performances of the play this began last month and run into October.


In recent decades, passion plays generally and this one in particular have come under closer scrutiny because they historically have tended to perpetuate the sort of shameful anti-Judaism that I write about in this essay.

As sensitivity to this anti-Judaism has increased, those performing passion plays have made adjustments to avoid that, even while seeking to have the plays remain as historically accurate and as reflective of the gospel narratives as possible.

The Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations has done a new review of the script of the Oberammergau play this year, and it makes for intriguing reading.

The script gets applauded for several things but also received criticism for aspects that the council thinks should be changed. To read a pdf online version of the review, click here.

As you read the report, note that reviewing the script is not new. Rabbi A. James Rudin, whom I've met several times and interviewed, has been commenting on the script for 40 years. But it's heartening to see cooperation from the play's producers and their willingness to make needed changes.

This is how interfaith understanding gets deepened.

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As we celebrated Father's Day yesterday in various ways in our family, I thought some about some of the fathers in the Bible. And, it turns out, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield was thinking about the same thing. In fact, in this piece he focuses on the dead beat fathers in Scripture and what they can teach us. So a day late, here's a Father's Day piece for you.

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P.S.: Speaking of plays, as I was above, have you ever read The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis? Fascinating letters from a demon on Earth to Satan. Now the book is a play, and a new block of tickets to it has been made available. All it takes to use these tickets is to be in New York City before the last show on Sept. 5. If you get to the play, let me know how it was.

Honoring hunger workers: 6-19/20-10

Is there a more basic moral obligation that religions impose on their followers than to care for those in need -- especially those who hunger, who need shelter, who need clothing, who need love?


Indeed, unless such basic needs are met, people cannot even pay attention to any other messages that religion might want to offer to them.

So I was glad to learn the other day that the World Food Prize has gone to leaders of two excellent agencies that do their best to combat hunger around the world -- Bread for the World, a Christian organization, and Heiffer International, the roots of which go back to a Church of the Brethren relief worker.

These are certainly not the only non-profit agencies engaged in anti-hunger work, but they are among the best, and my hope is that this honor will help attract new supporters of their work (maybe you?) and encourage people who have been supportive for a long time.

The U.S. State Department gave the World Food Prize to David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, and Jo Luck, president of Heifer International. For the State Department's press release about the prize, click here. Beckmann, by the way, has a new book coming out this fall. It's Exodus from Hunger: We Are Called to Change the Politics of Hunger.

The prize was created in 1986 by Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug, who won the Nobel in 1970 for his role in the "Green Revolution," which helped increase food supplies in developing countries. Because Borlaug came from Iowa, that state has a special relationship to the World Food Prize. For the Radio Iowa report on the prize, click here.

Clearly there is hunger in America as well as in many much-poorer countries, though the more prominent food issue in the U.S. has to do with obesity. Sounds like a distribution problem and a problem of the will and of the consumption messages we get from the culture. (For my recent National Catholic Reporter column about eating ethically, click here.) It's telling that while Americans worry about eating ethically, much of the world worries about eating at all.

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I like author Bruce Feiler, who has written several books about common ground to be found in the Abrahamic faiths. A few years ago I even was part of a panel discussion with him. Anyway, for Father's Day, he's written this good essay about what dads can contribute to their children's religious education. It's worth a read -- especially by fathers who tend to be out of the religion teaching loop with their kids.