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More on Civil War Jews: 3-31/4-1-12

A few weeks ago here on the blog, I reviewed When General Grant Expelled the Jews, about Ulysses S. Grant issuing an order that all Jews in the area he was in charge of in the Civil War had to leave.

WhippingManIt was a piece of history about which I knew nothing until I read that engaging account.

Whipping manAnd now, it seems, I'm running into stories about Jews and the Civil War everywhere (small exaggeration). I just saw the Kansas City Repertory Theatre's deeply moving production of "The Whipping Man," which is about -- what else? -- Jews at the end of the Civil War.

Well, to say that the play is about Jews and the Civil War is like saying that Catch-22 is a book about airplanes.

Still, the three characters -- a Confederate soldier and two now-former slaves in the Virginia family home of the soldier -- all are Jews.

The first jarring thing the audience of this play must confront is the idea that there were any Jewish slave owners, given the history of the Jews as slaves themselves in Egypt in biblical times. Well, there were a few Jewish slave owners in the American South at the time of the Civil War, but not many, as this site explains. There were, after all, only about 150,000 Jews total in the U.S. at the time.

But then we have to get our minds around African-American slaves who have converted to Judaism or at least been reared as Jews. Although this Jewish Virtual Library piece doesn't help much in understanding the scope of slaves who converted to Judaism, it does discuss some broader questions about black Jews.

"The Whipping Man" was written by Matthew Lopez, whom The New York Times calls "a self-described 'foxhole Episcopalian' from the Florida Panhandle, the son of a Puerto Rican father and a Polish-Russian mother."

And if that and his play's subject aren't enough to convince you that America is religiously and ethnically diverse, you're a sad case.

It's a wonderful play with Jewish culture and ethics woven through it but, in the end, the moral center of the play draws its strength from the universal nature of its values.

I happened at the play to sit behind a local rabbi, Mark Levin, and he told me he was impressed that the people in the play who spoke some Hebrew lines got the language right. I later figured out why: Cantor Paul Silbersher, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Kol Ami, helped the cast with that.

Well, the play runs for another week or so. If you're in the KC area, don't miss it.

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This Boston Herald editorial about Pope Benedict XVI's recent trip to Cuba makes the excellent point that it's long past time for the U.S. to restore normal diplomatic relations with the country -- especially if we hope to have any influence in what happens there after the Castro brothers are gone.

When God ticks us off: 3-30-12

It's a rare person of faith who hasn't at some point been angry at God.

Anger-at-godIn fact, it's a rare person of faith who hasn't occasionally thought that he or she could do the job better than God seems to be doing it.

But is such anger legitimate? And what should you do if friends come to you and tell you that they are angry at God?

A researcher and psychologist at Case Western Reserve University, Julie Exline, has just published a study that asks questions about protesting against God.

As the press release about the study to which I've linked you in the previous paragraph says, "The researchers discovered if a person views God as cruel, then protest toward God is seen as more acceptable. . .But when people see God as a kind and loving authority figure, then protest seems less acceptable."

And yet in my experience it's precisely people who see God as kind and loving who should be protesting against God when it seems as if God is acting in an unkind or unloving way or, worse, is indifferent.

And it's my experience that Jews are much better at this kind of protest than are Christians. In fact, we Christians could take a lesson from the brilliant French Reformed theologian Jacques Ellul, who in his book Hope in Time of Abandonment, argues that “it is not for us to sit in weary resignation by the side of the road waiting for things to change.”

“Hope,” he says, “is the opposite of resignation.” And sometimes, he writes, “it is God who needs to change, and hope is the resolute will to make God change.”

The will to make God change requires us to protest against what we believe God is doing or not doing.

All of this protesting, of course, must come in the context of our understanding that we are creatures and not the Creator, that we are fallible human beings. Still, even Job was right to protest that he had done nothing to deserve what he was getting in life. And there are proper times to join our voice with Job's.

By the way, Exline's research into this and related questions continues and you can be part of it at this website.

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What are the most and least "religious" states in the U.S.? Well, a new Gallup study lists them this way:

The most religious states:

1. Mississippi
2. Utah
3. Alabama
4. Louisiana
5. Arkansas

And the least religious states:

1. Vermont
2. New Hampshire
3. Maine
4. Massachusetts
5. Alaska

Is this useful information? And what, if anything, does it really mean? I can't say that I know the answers to either of those questions, but maybe that's just my natural skeptism about polls.

For 'instant caregivers': 3-29-12

If you haven't already received what columnist and author Karen J. Rinehart calls "The Call," you almost certainly will.

Knitting-glovesIt's the call that tells you someone close to you is terribly ill or injured and it means you've just become what she calls an instant caregiver.

Karen, whom I've met through the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, has written a great little guide that's a Smashwords e-book on how to perform your task as instant caregiver. It's called Knitting With Hospital Gloves, The How-To Guide for Becoming Instant Caregivers.

One of the things I most appreciated about this really helpful littlel book is that Karen remembers that there is a role for faith communities even if you are a single instant caregiver in a community that is not your own. She writes this bit of advice:

"Let your parents' minister/rabbi know they're hospitalized and see if they have a program to aide parishioners in crisis. Let's say your parents aren't religious but you're a die hard attendee—call the local church or synagogue of your denomination and seek support, prayers and references."

Because this is an e-book, you can download it to your laptop or iPad and have it with you after you get the call that says you need to catch a flight today to Sacramento and head for the hospital where your father is being treated for a stroke.

The book will help get you through all of that because Karen has been through it several times herself and knows what she's talking about.

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It's good to be reminded from time to time that ideas have enormous power to change lives and even the world. That's an important take-away from Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Cuba, where yesterday, before meeting with Fidel Castro, he gave what the Associated Press described as an "unusually political speech." Well, that's an understandable way to interpret it. Another way is to say that B-16 was rightly standing up for a vital idea -- the foundational human right of religious freedom -- and speaking truth to power.

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P.S.: And for the good interview my friends at have done with Bishop N.T. Wright about his new book (I reviewed it here), click here.

What community means: 3-28-12

Sometimes people who are outside of faith communities wonder what they're missing. Well, there are many possible answers to that question, including an opportunity to wrestle with life's hard questions in a theological context.

CaringBut I was reminded of another answer this past Sunday when Cory, our congregation's choir director, got up before our worship service and announced that she has accepted a music teaching position at a college in New England.

You could hear some immediate "ohs" of disappointment, followed quickly by applause of congratulations.

While she has been working on her doctorate at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance, Cory has been our choir director for most of three years. Her energy and creativity have been reflected in the boundary-breaking music our choir has offered as its part of our worship.

So we're sad to see her leave. But we're glad for this next chapter in her life.

And the combination of "ohs" and applause spoke to me again of what healthy faith communities do: They love and support their members. They cry when their members cry and they cheers when there is something to celebrate -- as we did recently when our youth director and her husband, after a long wait, adopted a baby.

I'm not suggesting that people outside of churches, synagogues, temples or mosques can't and don't find ways of creating a caring community. Some no doubt do. But in faith communities, caring for each other is high on our agenda. It's not just what we do, it's who we are.

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Does aggressive atheist Richard Dawkins help or hurt the cause of atheism? As this NPR writer suggests, he does atheism no favors by his willingness to belittle people of faith. There's a good, lively conversation to be had between atheists and people of faith. But as in any interfaith dialogue, that requires at minimum that one side respect the other. Dawkins lacks that respect of others and, thus, disqualifies himself from serious conversation with religious adherents.

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P.S.: From time to time here on the blog I've written about the Occupy Wall Street movement, especially as it relates to the question of whether people of faith are participating in it or working against it. Today I want to link you to a collection of 20 videos that feature various speakers trying to unpack the meaning of the OWS movement just as a way of helping you and me try to make better sense of this phenomenon.

Studying prison chaplains: 3-27-12

Prison is one of the more demanding places in which clergy serve. And yet it's hard to imagine a place -- besides perhaps the military -- where their services are needed more.

Prison-chaplain-1But careful studies about prison chaplains are rare, which is why I was pleased a few days ago to learn that the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has just released such a study.

The study contains some interesting and even surprising findings. One that has got some play in the media is that the state prison chaplains included in the study report that lots of proselytizing goes on among prisoners.

And partly as a result of that, they say, quite a few prisoners end up switching religions while in prison. The two faiths to pick up most converts, they say, are Protestant Christianity and Islam.

I also found it intriguing, though not surprising, that the chaplains themselves are overwhelmingly white, middle-age and come from churches that would describe themselves as conservative or evangelical. That's also certainly true among military chaplains, though my guess is they are as a rule somewhat younger than prison chaplains.

Journalist and author Jeff Sharlet has written extensively about military chaplains. Click here for an example of his work.

Well, you can read the Pew study for yourself. As for me, I'm glad there are people willing to be prison chaplains. I've met some of them and know they perform an important function.

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Score some p.r. points for Pope Benedict XVI who, reported the Associated Press, "with his first visit to Mexico. . .appeared to lay to rest the impression that he is a distant, cold pontiff who can never compare to the charisma and personal connection forged by his predecessor."

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@stickyJesus: How to Live Out Your Faith Online, by Toni Birdson and Tami Heim. Christians are called to have and use a prophetic voice. That doesn't mean they are to go around predicting the future. Rather, it means that they are to speak out in favor of eternal values such as love, mercy and justice that their faith teaches. But Christians can't do that in any thorough way today if they are not using such social networking tools as Facebook and Twitter. This books challenges Christians to do just that and then provides both a theological justification for why they should and some practical hints about how to do it. All well and good. But given the speed at which social networking tools have exploded in recent years, this book feels as if it's several years late. It was at least three years ago that I taught a weeklong seminar at Ghost Ranch about exactly this topic. I wish I'd had this book then as a resource. The authors (or their editors) also have gimmicked up the book in sometimes-cute, sometimes-annoying ways to make the book seem as if it's being read online or something. And it has something of what might be described as a conservative theological atmosphere -- one in which, for instance, the "gospel" seems to focus more on personal salvation than on what Jesus meant by "gospel," which was the in-breaking of the reign, or kingdom, of God. Still, there are helpful ideas here, especially for Christians who have been reluctant to embrace social networking tools and don't really know where to begin or why.

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P.S.: Over this past weekend here on the blog I reviewed Bishop N.T. Wright's new book, How God Became King. Yesterday, my friends over at did this entry about that same book.

Life's amazing surprise: 3-26-12

The other day I moderated a panel of speakers about prayer and health for an interfaith luncheon given by the Greater Kansas City Section of the National Council of Jewish Women.

L-KAs always, it was a lovely event in which I learned much from, in this case, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist speakers.

One of them offered a wonderful quote I'd never heard before from the great Jewish scholar and leader Abraham Joshua Heschel. It goes like this:

"Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living."

Indeed, the fact that any particular one of us is here is astonishing. Each of us has beat enormous odds. Just in biological terms, the odds were greatly against the possibility that one of my father's millions of sperms would, on one particular day, find one of my mother's eggs and begin to divide to produce a fetus who became me.

And if that had not happened, neither of my smart and beautiful daughters would be alive today. And I give special thanks for all that today because one of them is celebrating today her 40th birthday (also a miracle given that her father is only 42, or thinks he is). The photo here today shows these girls when they were just a bit younger.

In fact, as this website describes it, "If you go back 10 generations (250 years) the chance of you being born at all is at most 1 divided by 6 x 10100 or
1 in 6000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000 000000000000000000000000000000000000."

How can our response to such odds be anything but a prayer of astonishment and thanks?

The larger question, of course -- the one all religions prod adherents to answer -- is this: Now that we have been given the inconceivable (no pun intended) of life, what will we do with it that will matter?

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How people think through religious matters is often fascinating, especially when it leads to growth and change. New York Times columnist Frank Bruni tells in this column of his experience with a Catholic he knew in college and how that man discovered that real life, versus what he wanted life to be, helped to determine his one response to his faith.

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Forgiving the Unforgivable: The Power of Holistic Living, by Master Charles Cannon with Will Wilkinson. No doubt most of us remember -- with horror -- the terrorist attack in late 2008 in Mumbai, India, in which 166 people died. The author was leading a group of 24 spiritual seekers staying at that hotel at the time, and this book tells the story of how 22 of them survived and two perished. Beyond that, it's the story of how those in his group found the strength to forgive the terrorists and move on with their lives using spiritual techniques associated with both Eastern religions and New Age movements. The essential concept is that "all individuals are unique parts of the one human race." That must become deeply engrained in us, the author argues, for us to be able to move beyond the wounds the world inevitably will give us. No doubt the idea that people who forgive are "for giving" is not unique with Cannon, but it's a helpful image that gets some play in this book. Despite Cannon's profession that we are all one, I found him being divisive in his description of people who are adherents of traditional religions. He writes that they are "dominated by illusion and simply can't understand. The idea of a spiritual master helping them is completely foreign and distasteful." In such people, he says, "the ego is dominant and it is totally authority-phobic. It wants no other authority than itself and will negate all other authority." It seemed like an unnecessary attack in a book preaching wholeness, oneness and forgiving. I also found myself wanting to get on with the story of what happened in the Oberoi Hotel in Mumbai in the attack and how those who experienced it survived. But that story kept being delayed by long passages of praise of Cannon's spiritual approach. Perhaps the better way to have written this book would be to tell the attack story first and then describe how one's spiritual approach helped to handle it.


As I've indicated before, I'm cutting back on the number of books I will review but I still want to be able to alert you to the publication of what may be books you'd enjoy reading. So I will list a few more here today:

* A Heart on Fire: Catholic Witness and the Next America, by Archbishop Charles Chaput. This is a 19-page, 99-cent e-book due out Tuesday from Image Catholic Books, a division of Random House. Here's what the Philadelphia Inquirer had to say about it. (Chaput is the Catholic archbishop in Philly.)

Stolen-innocence* Stolen Innocence, by Elissa Wall, with Lisa Pulitzer. The subtitle is "My Story of Growing Up in a Polygamous Sect, Becoming a Teenage Bride, and Breaking Free of Warren Jeffs." Recently I wrote here about a book with a similar theme but from an Amish perspective. And in 2009 I wrote here about another young woman who escaped from the FLDS -- the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a renegade Mormon offshoot. This is an account in that same genre.

* Spiritual Rhythms in Community: Being Together in the Presence of God, by Keith Meyer. The author is a pastor and seminary adjunct professor who operates Becoming the Change Ministries.

* The Misleading Mind: How We Create Our Own Problems and How Buddhist Psychology Can Help Us Solve Them, by Karuna Cayton. The author, a student of Tibetan Buddhism who lived in Nepal for 12 years, is a psychotherapist and business psychologist.

* Missing: The Secrets of Crittenden County, by Shelley Shepard Gray. I usually don't review novels, but this murder story is set in a small Amish community and I thought it might interest some of you. It's the first of a projected trilogy. This one's also available for your Kindle.

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P.S.: I mentioned here on the blog recently that I'd done an Internet radio interview with Everyday KC about faith in our community. It aired Sunday morning for the first time but you can listen to it by clicking here and then clicking on the "KC's Faith Community" show. The first 10 minutes or so will be the hosts, Duane Daugherty and Rachel Ellyn, talking about various other things. Then there's a brief break and then our conversation.

Crowning God king: 3-24/25-12

It sometimes is said of N.T. Wright (pictured below), former Church of England bishop of Durham, that he's never had a thought he hasn't published.

How-God-Became-KingIt's only a slight exaggeration, but it's also true that almost everything Wright puts in print is worth reading, including especially his latest volume, How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels.

The books begins with what seems like an outrageous claim, which is that "we have all forgotten what the four gospels are about." Well, all but Tom Wright, who is about to explain that to us.

The claim at first struck me as both silly and arrogant, and although I never quite lost that initial reaction, I came to see how Wright's hyperbole speaks to an important truth, which is that in many ways people who don't place Jesus in his original Jewish context when (if ever) they read the four gospels will miss a great deal of what the writers of those gospels were trying to say.

And what was that? To put it succinctly: That Jesus of Nazareth was the God of Israel incarnate, come to proclaim the reign of God, whose kingdom would be inaugurated through his birth, life, ministry, death and, especially, his resurrection.

The gospel, thus, is not first what you often hear in churches, especially those that would identify themselves as conservative or evangelical. Which is to say, it's not first this: You're a sinner. Jesus came to die for your sins. Believe in Jesus and you'll go to heaven.

N-t-wrightYou'll find that gospel reflected in the historic creeds of the church, beginning with the Nicene and Apostles creeds, but as Wright properly notes, those creeds go from Jesus' birth to his death and resurrection with hardly a jot or tittle about his life and ministry as it's recorded in the four gospels. That omission, he contends, has "had a massive, and I believe completely unintended consquence. It is, in fact, one major part of the reason why Christians to this day find it so hard to grasp what the gospels are really trying to say."

As Wright notes, "The gospels were all about God becoming king, but the creeds are focused on Jesus being God." Ultimately, he says, the creeds triumphed over the gospels and we lost a good deal of their central message, which is that the story of Jesus is "the story of Israel's God returning at last."

Wright is at his best when he is unpacking the gospels that those creeds ignore. He carefully walks readers through the main points of the four gospels and tries to tone down what has gotten too much play in modern Christianity and to give more voice to what has been ignored or given too little attention.

As he does so he re-makes a point that he had made in a previous book, Simply Christian, which is that Christianity says the great human drama will not end with disembodied souls being snatched up into heaven but with God rescuing and redeeming the whole creation -- on Earth as it is in heaven, as the Lord's Prayer puts it.

So, he contends (correctly, in my view), that the emphasis on personal salvation one finds in many branches of Christianity is overdone at the expense of a broader and more biblically accurate view in which God sets the whole of creation to rights -- in which, in other words, God's kingdom finally comes in full flower, a kingdom over which Christ has been given all authority.

And the kingdom of heaven, he writes, "is not about people going to heaven. It is about the rule of heaven coming to earth."

If Wright is critical of Christians who overemphasize personal salvation, he's equally critical of Christians at the other end of the spectrum who want to present Jesus as simply a teacher of morality and one whose story in the gospels is all metaphor with no real history. Both approaches, he insists, are wrong.

To understand what the gospels are trying to tell us, it's vital that we place their message in the context of the history of the people of Israel. Otherwise they make no sense. When we read them in that context, however, we find Christianity asserting that Jesus is the Messiah that Israel had yearned for and expected, even though many Jews then and now reject that claim (the book to read is Why the Jews Rejected Jesus, by David Klinghoffer). "And," Wright says, "if Jesus is the Messiah, then his public career and death, and not some other way, is how Israel's God is accomplishing and establishing his kingdom on earth as in heaven."

Wright has a deep appreciation for what Christianity owes to Judaism, as he should. And he gives no stark evidence of being a supersessionist, which is to say someone who believes that Christianity has not only replaced Judaism but also made Judaism irrelevant.

But if I were to fault him, I would say that in this book he does not help Christian readers understand how to think about Judaism today, given that God has never abrogated the covenant God made with the Jewish people, a covenant that called the people of Israel to be a light to the nations.

I think Wright passed up several good opportunities in this work to say at least something substantive, however brief, about that even as he contends that "the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is in fact the climax of the story of Israel, even though nobody was expecting such a thing and many didn't like the look of it when it was presented to them. . ."

That said, a particular strength of the book is Wright's explanation of how the gospels carefully tell the story of how the kingdom of God clashes with the kingdom of Caesar. In recent years scholars have done a lot of writing about how the concept of "empire" is found in the gospels, particularly how the Roman Empire was crushing the Jewish people in Jesus's day. If you don't grasp that reality as you read the gospels you miss a lot. Wright does a good job of placing all that in context. I especially liked his idea that Rome itself was "symbolically overthrown as the Roman guards at the tomb fail to prevent Jesus's resurrection."

In the end, Wright argues that "in Jesus, the living God has become king of the whole world." It's a compelling argument even if it's obvious that the kingdom, or reign, of God is so far incomplete, as any fool can see by reading the newspaper or simply looking out the nearest window.

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Religion News Service reports that the anti-Shari'a movement in state legislatures is losing steam. Thank goodness. What a useless, counterproductive, bigoted movement that has been. For more details on why, see my post here.

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P.S.: Kansas City's annual AIDSWalk is just a month away now and lots of walkers, including me, are gathering pledges to help the AIDS Service Foundation of Kansas City. If you'd like to lend a hand and kick in a few bucks (or many bucks), click here.

Protecting religious liberty: 3-23-12

Because Americans cherish religious freedom and believe it to be a universal human right, each year the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom issues a report that describes how religious liberty is being protected or abused in countries around the world.


This week it released its 2012 annual report, and it's to no one's surprise the countries it named as the most egregious offenders are the usual suspects: Burma, China, Egypt, Eritrea, Iraq, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam.

The USCIRF press release accompanying the report quoted its chairman, Leonard Leo, this way:

“It’s no coincidence that many of the nations we recommend to be designated as CPCs (Countries of Particular Concern) are among the most dangerous and destabilizing places on earth. Nations that trample upon basic rights, including freedom of religion, provide fertile ground for poverty and insecurity, war and terror, and violent, radical movements and activities.”

Exactly right. In fact, the introduction to the report makes this stark observation:

"Over the past year, while economic woes captured world headlines, an ongoing crisis of equal breadth and scope frequently went unnoticed. Across the global landscape, the pivotal human right of religious freedom was under escalating attack. To an alarming extent, freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief was being curtailed, often threatening the safety and survival of innocent persons, including members of religious minorities."

The problem since creation of the USCIRF has been that despite its good work, various presidential administrations (Clinton, Bush, Obama) haven't done enough to work toward improving the situation around the globe in light of the annual reports. Look, for instance, at the current list of "Countries of Particular Concern," as the agency calls them, and you'll find, among others, our good friends the Saudi Arabians.

The charge has been made from time to time that we pull our punches with some countries because of our dependence on their oil. And a case can be made for that.

Still, it's also up to the American people -- not just our government -- to keep the issue of religious freedom on a front burner. If we're not raising hell about abuses everywhere -- including here in the U.S. -- we are falling down on the job.

So please read the new USCIRF report and in whatever way you can, do lend your voice to the voices decrying lack of religious liberty in many places around the world. Religious freedom, after all, is not just an American value, it's a foundational human right.

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It turns out that a guy who claimed he would arrange for atheists to rescue Christians' pets left behind in the Rapture admits now that it was all a hoax. Boy, that was a hard one to see through. As for the alleged Rapture itself, the book to read is The Rapture Exposed, by Barbara Rossing.

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P.S.: One of my very favorite New Testament scholars, Amy-Jill Levine of Vanderbilt, will give a free lecture April 24 at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City. Don't miss her if you're here. And take good notes for me because I'll be in Israel when she's here.

Helping African seminarians: 3-22-12

Because times change, seminaries do, too. They have to do that or they risk falling into irrelevance or worse.

St Paul

For instance, I cannot imagine that 100 years ago (or even 50) any Christian seminary anywhere in America would have offered a doctor of ministry degree in "Children and Poverty in a Globalized Economy" or in "Global Health and Wholeness." But St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City now offers both of them.

One result of this cross-cultural doctoral education program is that pastoral students from Africa and from the United States are working and learning together in various ways.

One of the American students in the "Children and Poverty" program is the Rev. Becky Baile Crouse, senior staff chaplain at Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City.

She believes in the American-African partnership so deeply that when she learned the seminary was faced with having to trim it back or eliminate it because of budgetary problems, she decided to do what she could to raise the approximately $150,000 required to keep current students on track through 2013 so they can finish their classes and do their research and thesis writing.

So far she and others have managed to bring in about $77,000, meaning another $73,000 still is needed. She has set up this website to inform the community and the world about the program and the financial need and to allow people to make donations. Perhaps you can help.

St. Paul's cross-cultural doctoral program has meant the world to Becky:

"I can't say enough about how it's impacted me personally because in Kansas City now as you know we have a big Somalian community and I see a lot of those families at Children's Mercy. This growing global context causes us all to be more aware of what's happening in Africa because it does affect us."

Previously Becky has spent time working both in Warsaw, Poland, teaching English as a church volunteer, and in the Dominican Republic as mission coordinators for her Church of the Brethren denomination. So working in a global context is not new to her.

At Children's Mercy, she deals a lot with Latino patients because she's fluent in Spanish.

As for the financial need to continue this ecumenical cross-cultural doctoral program at St. Paul's, Becky issues this direct plea on the Web site to which I linked you above:

"The students still have several more classes to complete the program and the seminary does not have funds to cover the costs of their study. I need your help. I am asking you to consider a donation that will enable the African students to return to Saint Paul for the remaining classes and complete their Doctor of Ministry degrees."

That page tells you how you can make a donation.

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Pope Benedict XVI's trip to Mexico this week is going to be especially difficult in light of the publication of a new book that says the Vatican knew about sexual abuse and fraud in Mexico by the founder of the Legion of Christ religious order but did nothing about it. And Benedict, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was in charge of the office that should have investigated when it received complaints about this in 1998 -- though it took eight years before the Legion of Christ founder, the Rev. Marciel Maciel, was sanctioned. Although the church has done many things to repent of this global sexual abuse scandal, the breadth and depth of what went wrong continue to astonish the world.

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P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column now is online. To read it, click here.


The plots against Hitler: 3-21-12

As new generations of people study World War II and the Holocaust, they pretty quickly begin to ask two questions:

Hitler 1

Why didn't the Germans try to stop Hitler (pictured here)? And why didn't the Jews fight back?

Well, the answers to those questions are complicated but, in essence, both can be answered this way: Some did, just not successfully.

There are many examples of Jews resisting (in various ways) the Nazi regime's eventual plans to exterminate all the Jews of Europe. But many scholars have concluded that one reason there was not more resistance is that "The Final Solution" -- meaning a plan to murder Europe's nine million Jews -- was so outrageous in scope, so stupefying, that it was simply unbelievable and, as a result, not many Jews believed it -- even after it began happening. (In the end, about six million of the nine million Jews were murdered.)

As for plots to stop or murder Hitler, there were several of them, too. And one of them involved the Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who eventually was caught and executed by the Nazis just weeks before Hitler's regime collapsed.

Today is a good day to be talking about all of this because it was on this date in 1943 that yet another plot to assassinate Hitler failed. As you can read at the page to which I've linked you, a Nazi colonel agreed to be a suicide bomber to nail Hitler, but a matter of timing caused the plot to disintegrate.

History is nuanced. Simple answers that the Germans were just happy sheep following a mad man or that Jews were weak sheep led without resistance to the slaughter fall apart under careful examination.

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Just as there are many kinds of Presbyterians, Jews and Muslims, so there are many kinds of Catholics -- a subject of this interesting column by Frank Bruni in The New York Times. He focuses on GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum, a Catholic, and why he's not getting as much Catholic support as Mormon Mitt Romney has been getting. Bruni's conclusion is that its because of "most American Catholics’ estrangement from an out-of-touch, self-consumed church hierarchy and its musty orthodoxies." As you can tell, Bruni's words aren't swiped from Vatican press releases.

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P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column now is online. To read it, click here.