Laughter as a spiritual tool: 8-17-12
Some help with your death: 8-20-12

Lessons from witchcraft: 8-18/19-12

It is one of history's cruel ironies that Salem, Mass., site of the famous 1692 witch trials, derives its name (as does Jerusalem) from a word that means peace.

There was nothing peaceful about them, save for some post-event apologies.

But why mention all this now? Well, several reasons. The first is that this weekend (well, Aug. 19) marks the anniversary of the hanging of five people (in all, 19 were hanged, not burned, and one other was executed) convicted of witchcraft. The five in this case included four men.

As the site (created by the law school at the University of Missouri-Kansas City) to which I've linked you in the first paragraph here reports, the causes of this outbreak of violence were many. But clearly religion played a part, given that Salem was "a village where everyone believed that the devil was real, close at hand, and acted in the real world. . ."

I'm certainly not suggesting that anyone who believes in a personified devil is going to degenerate into violent persecution of witches. But I am suggesting that when adherents of a religion place a lot of emphasis on the dark side of belief rather than on the uplifting side, trouble may well lie ahead.

A sharp focus on demonology or on ways in which this person or that might be deviating slightly from a rigid position of doctrine inevitably sucks the joy out of faith.

Certainly that happened in the Salem witch trials, described as "one unfortunate blot on the Pilgrim Fathers' just fame" by Jacques Barzun in his book From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present.

Barzun notes that "belief in witchcraft did not prevail among Puritans alone, much less the New England contingent alone. It gripped the whole West, Catholic and Protestant."

Religion often must stand against the culture and use religion's prophetic voice to call people to a more constructive path, but whenever religion has people shouting angrily with the voice of a mob, you can be pretty sure that something has gone wrong with religion.

(The image here today is the painting "Examination of a Witch" by Thompkins H. Matteson, and borrowed from the UMKC website to which I linked you.)

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Being a committed adherent of a religion can be dangerous, this piece points out. The author of the piece, a Wake Forest professor, says the recent murders at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin may have been a case of mistaken identity. Then he incorrently identifies the city in which Dr. George Tiller was murdered as Kansas City. Actually it happened in suburban Wichita. But his point is the same -- houses of worship can be (and sometimes have been) the location of violence.

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Body Broken

Body Broken: Can Republicans and Democrats Sit in the Same Pew?, by Charles D. Drew. This worthy book is an update of one that came out more than 10 years ago. The author is pastor of Emmanuel Presbyterian Church in New York. It's not a congregation that's part of my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), but the smaller (and, by most accounts, more theologically conservative) Presbyterian Church in America. Drew bemoans our harsh political divisions, as he should, and then calls Christians to work to fix that by focusing first on God, not on the idols of this or that favorite political position. One of his primary questions is, as he says, "How. . .can serious-minded Republicans, Democrats and Independents worship together under the same roof? It's a good question (and, I might add, one that's lived out pretty well in my own diverse congregation). What I like about this book is that even though I disagree with Drew on one or more more issues (such as whether homosexuality is a sin and whether otherwise-qualified gays and lesbians should be ordained -- I say no and yes) he advocates listening carefully to opposite arguments. And he's an advocate of living in love with people who take opposite positions from you. Easy to call for. Hard to do. But this book can get us all a bit closer. A small complaint: I wish he'd simply rewritten the whole thing instead of here and there keeping parts that seem out of date, such as the part of the introduction that says, "As I write in the summer of 1999. . ."


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