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KC's Israel connections: 7-31-13

A brief quiz: Who can name the Kansas City rabbi whose work was pivotal to accomplishing the goals of the Zionist movement to create a homeland for the world's Jews?

Azous-Book-Cover-American-Balfour_001No, Eddie Jacobson, the influential friend who helped to convince President Harry S. Truman to recognize Israel's creation as a state in 1948, was not a rabbi. For the right answer you'll have to back up to the early 1920s.

Give up?

I'd never heard of Rabbi Simon Glazer, either, until I just read Paul Azous' intriguing new book, The American Balfour Declaration: The Origins of U.S. Support for Zionism, 1917-1922.

Glazer, as this piece (accessed through the website of Beth Israel Abraham & Voliner congregation) lets us know, was an Orthodox rabbi in Kansas City in 1920-23. He helped to join several Orthodox congregations here together to become what was called the United Synagogues of Kansas City.

But Glazer, a native of Lithuania, as Azous writes in this fill-in-the-gaps history book, became a leader in the Zionist movement in the U.S. and helped to convince members of Congress to adopt a resolution supporting the idea of a Jewish homeland.

As World War I was ending, British authorities, prodded by the World Zionist Organization, produced the so-called "Balfour Declaration," which said that "His Majesty's government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people. . ."

But Jews around the world knew that was just a first step if Zionism was to reach its goal. They knew they needed the backing of the American government in some way. But most history books ignore the effort to achieve that backing. There tends to be a historical gap between the Balfour Declaration and the creation of Israel after World War II.

The Azous book describes all that it took -- and the pivotal role Rabbi Glazer played -- in achieving the 1922 "Palestine Lodge-Fish Resolution" in Congress, which declared that "the United States of America favors the establishment in Palestine of a national homeland for the Jewish people. .."

So I find it fascinating that Israel's history is so deeply tied to Kansas City through both Harry Truman and Rabbi Glazer. I wish I'd known about Glazer before I helped to lead a Jewish-Christian study tour to Israel last year. I think that information would have added to the trip.

Azous, by the way, is a Seattle businessman and writer who also wrote In the Plains of the Wilderness: Anthologies of Modern Jewish History. His Balfour book is a rework of research he did for a Ph.D. thesis.

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Pope Francis, in remarks on board his plane from Brazil to Italy, did not, of course, change official church teaching on homosexuality. The church still declares it "objectively disordered." But by saying this -- "If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge that person?” -- he has set a welcome new tone. The question now will be how the church undoes its traditional anti-gay stance in official ways. My guess is that will take a lot longer.

Trusting God on paper: 7-30-13

Evidence that we live with the sometimes-odd and inappropriate decisions of our ancestors can be found on the American paper money you may carry around every day.

InGodWeTrustThere you will see a phrase that tends to breach the constitutionally based wall of separation between church and state, "In God We Trust." (Church-state separation language is not specifically in the Constitution but its spirit is there and case law has established it.)

On this date in 1956, this phrase became our national motto when President Dwight D. Eisenhower, no religious fanatic, signed legislation making it so. (Pay attention to Ike's words at the site to which I've linked you.)

A couple of years earlier the phrase "under God" had been added to the Pledge of Allegiance.

Let's think about the mid-1950s. It was an era of deep engagement in the Cold War. Sen. Joseph McCarthy had been running around accusing everyone and his grandmother of being a communist, and, in fact, there were some pro-communist spies inside our government, though nothing on the scale that the demagogue McCarthy wanted people to believe.

The Iron Curtain, as Winston Churchill named it in a speech in Fulton, Mo., was in place, separating the Soviet Union and its satellites from what we overzealously called The Free World. And Americans were frightened of nuclear war, among other things.

So how did we confront "godless communism"? With God.

In the 1950s, America was a landslide for Protestantism, with perhaps three-quarters of Americans identifying themselves as some kind of Protestant. Today Protestants have slipped below the 50 percent mark. And the American religious landscape contains many more Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Zoroastrians, atheists and others.

But we've kept "under God" in the Pledge and "In God We Trust" on our money, despite court challenges. We've done this even though religious pollster George Barna says that Americans have so many different ideas about God that, in effect, we worship about 300 million different gods. So there's really no telling which god is meant in the Pledge on our our money.

Is it worth the inevitable fight it would take to remove that language to better respect the wall of church-state separation? Oh, I don't know. I think it would be better if we ditched that old language, but I also think there are lots of other more important matters worth our efforts, including economic justice, education, race relations, gun violence and on and on.

So solve all of those matters and then get back to me about "In God We Trust" and "under God." And once in awhile, you can start a pretty good conversation by getting out your money, pointing to the god wording and asking someone which god he or she thinks is meant there.

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Peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians have started again. And although optimism about the outcome seems in short supply, perhaps it would help diplomats on both sides to know that Americans and others from many faith traditions are praying for success and watching them closely so neither side gets away with obstructionism. If you want to let Secretary of State John F. Kerry know you are behind these talks, you can find an e-mail contact form here.

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Truth, Grace, and Security, by Bruno Corduan. When I read in promotional material that this book was by a Christian who, as a youngster, wound up in the mandatory Hitler Youth organization and later even served for a time in the German navy in the Nazi era, I looked forward to seeing what insights such a person might bring to that dark, murderous time in human history. But the reader will get almost no sense in this book that any Holocaust ever happened. Instead, this is an oddly self-focused book in two parts. The first 68 pages are autobiographical. The rest of the book is the author's theology. Except for a brief mention or two of Nazi evil, there is essentially no acknowledgement from the author that while he was having this or that minor difficulty, his government was overseeing the murder of six million Jews and many others. Reading this must be what it would feel like to read a review of the play at Ford's Theater attended by Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln that essentially ignored the assassination of the president. I was stunned. And although I'm sure the author is sincere about his Christian faith, much of the first part of the book comes across as self-congratulation for many, many things. There's also a pervasive claim here that God saved the author from one bad situation after another, though that claim will make readers wonder why God did not at the same time save six million Jews. You won't find any answer to that question here.

Why a one-sex view fails: 7-29-13

Last week was the 45th anniversary of he issuance of Pope Paul VI's (pictured here) encyclical called Humanae Vitae, in which he declared any birth control systems beyond the so-called rhythm method are out of bounds for Catholics.

Paul-6I thought about doing a post here about that anniversary to remind folks that in this case the pontiff issued a ruling starkly opposed to the advice he was given by a special commission set up to study the issue. But in the past I've written about that sad time in Catholic history and I wasn't sure I had anything new to say about it.

Then just as the July 25 anniversary date was passing I came across this remarkable column by a man who felt he failed in his attempts to get the Vatican then to understand the issue in a new way, a way that could have and should have changed the pope's ruling.

Even many Catholics say that this 1968 encyclical did more to drive people from the church than almost anything else in recent decades. And most of those who stayed simply pay no attention now to the contraception ban the encyclical requires. We all know that an unenforced and unenforcable law is worse than no law because it undermines respect for the law.

What especially struck me about the piece to which I've linked you is that nearly half a century ago someone was trying to tell church officials and the rest of humanity that a pregnancy is not simply the result of the sperm from a male. Reproduction is a complicated process that must be looked at from the perspective of both the male and the female if any rules about engaging in sexual intercourse are to make any sense.

That's exactly what the pope's encyclical missed, even though that wisdom was available then and could have been considered.

And, by the way, the church's more recent failure to protect children from sexual abuse also came about partly because the leadership of the church, being all male, seems not to have approached the problem with the wisdom and insight that women might have brought to the problem. The all-male approach failed in the 1968 encyclical and it failed in the abuse scandal. Isn't that enough for the lesson now to be learned?

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Here's one more reason to admire Pope Francis: He looks at the church and calls its problems as he sees them. On his Rio trip, for instance, he spoke to bishops there about why people have been leaving the church and he suggested some ways to stem the tide. You can't fix problems if you don't acknowledge they exist.

More dumb anti-Shari'a laws: 7-27/28-13

I find it frustrating to have to do this again and again, but as long as states keep passing ridiculous anti-Shari'a laws, I guess I'll keep talking about how silly this kind of legislation is.

ShariaDo you think you know what the Islamic Shari'a system means and how it works? Even some Muslims get confused about what it covers and what it doesn't.

For a good rundown and explanation, read this Religious News Service piece. It's as good a brief description of Shari'a and where it's used as I've seen recently.

But if you want an exhaustive look at Shari'a, along with a thorough explanation about why Americans need not fear it, read a book by a University of Kansas professor, Raj Bhala, that I wrote about here and here. I really urge you to go back and read those entries.

In those two 2011 posts I talked at some length about why laws banning Shari'a in U.S. and state courts is self-destructive (to say nothing of xenophobic).

And yet just a few days ago North Carolina became the latest state to forbid courts to consider "foreign law" (read Shari'a) in cases.

This is a solution in search of a problem.

For a 4-plus-minute video clip in which Raj Bhala talks about Shari'a, click here and scroll down to the second video. And by the way, Bhala will be speaking about Shari'a at 9 a.m. on Sunday, Nov. 17, at the Witherspoon Class of my congregation, Second Presbyterian Church. Come get your quetions answered.

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The current trip of Pope Francis to Brazil was the occasion for The Washington Post to do this good analysis of why he seems to have struck a chord with so many people and why Catholics who identify themselves as traditionalists aren't all that happy with the new pope so far.

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

About another royal kid: 7-26-13

Like many people around the world in recent days, lots of Americans have been all ga-ga over the birth of a royal baby in England.

King_JamesThis is a boy who, I suggested on Facebook, should be named Prince so that one day, if things go well, he can change it to King, The Ruler Formerly Known as Prince.

But, of course, Will and Kate ignored my good idea and went with George Alexander Louis Partridge Pear Tree. Or close to that.

I bring all of this up today because this is the anniversary of a royal happening in England about which at least some people of faith might care. It was on this date in 1603 that King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England (depicted here).

Yes, this is the same King James after whom the 1611 authorized version of the Bible is named, the King James Version.

I don't know why, but it tickles me to think that for more than 400 years now we might, under other circumstances, have been reading the King Ralph or King Bob version. But let it go.

What I had forgotten about until I did a bit of reading for this post is that young King Jim VI of Scotland was born in 1566 but became Scotland's king in 1567. You think you have attitude problems with your kids? How would you like to have to call your toddler "Your Majesty"?

Conf-class-68I own several King James Version Bibles, including the one I received when I was confirmed as a member of a Presbyterian congregation in 1958. (Can you find me in this photo on confirmation Sunday? Far left, middle row.) And, of course, it's hard to beat the soaring and poetic language of the KJV, though that Elizabethan-era language also means that some of the KJV is nearly incomprehensible to modern ears. Well, so is good and proper contemporary English, but that's another story.

* * *


The head of the Russian Orthodox Church says same-sex marriage is leading humanity to doomsday. Which is just what some American white political leaders said 150-plus years ago would happen if slavery ended and blacks were considered equal to whites. Imagine that.

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

The Holocaust for Iranians: 7-25-13

When Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and I were writing our 2009 book about the Holocaust, we gave only passing thought to that strange group of people known as Holocaust deniers.

AhmaThe stories we told in They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust would, of course, make Holocaust denial even more unbelievable than it already was, but our primary goal was not to educate deniers.

However, the author of new Farsi language books on the Holocaust must have had those deniers more in mind, given that the out-going president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (pictured here), has been prominently among the deniers.

This story from The Tablet describes the long, hard work that Ari Babaknia, an Iranian Jewish physician who lives in California, did to produce his four-volume work on the Holocaust and other genocides, writing in Farsi, the language of Iran.

In the end, it is truth that will defeat lies. And the bigger the lie, the more efforts to spread truth are needed.

Dr. Babaknia obviously has done the Iranian people a great service through writing these books. May Ahmadinejad and his hateful kind, in turn, slink away shamed.

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The Associated Press found a 16-year-old who waited all night in a cold rain to see Pope Francis in Brazil. With that kind of rock star appeal, the wonder is the pontiff isn't followed by even more poperazzi.

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

Biblically justifying war: 7-24-13

As something of a follow-up to Monday's posting here about a book that describes how religion and terrorism are connected, today I want you to know about a new Vanderbilt University study of the ways in which the Bible has influenced America's decisions to go to war over the years.

Bible-stackJames P. Byrd, who teaches religious history at Vandy, says Scripture has been a crucial resource in helping leaders make the war decision from the nation's earliest days.

Byrd has a new book out on the subject (which I haven't yet read) called Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution, published by Oxford University Press.

Byrd learned something about our founders that by now is pretty much lost among our political leaders: "I was intrigued by how important the Bible was to our founding generation and how biblically literate they were — even those who did not regularly attend church.”

Today biblical illiteracy runs amok among many public officials, to say nothing of lots of people in the pews of churches and synagogues.

One of Byrd's interesting conclusions is that “the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt was huge for the American colonists." In fact, the book to read on that matter is America's Prophet: Moses and the American Story, by Bruce Feiler. Bruce finds Moses and the Exodus story repeated throughout American history. Quite fascinating.

Today, of course, civic religion rules in the public square among our elected officials, so they make bland references to God without saying which of the many possible gods they mean. But to get specific is to make enemies, and that's the last thing politicians want more of.

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Just because I like it, here is a Muslim's Ramadan reflection on the connection between religion and sadness.

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

Churches helping public schools: 7-23-13

Usually I write columns, not paint them. But as you can see in the photo here today, on Saturday I was part of a team from my congregation that repainted parts of the girls locker room at Southwest Early College Campus (SWECC) in the Brookside area of Kansas City.

SWECC-meWhy would folks from a church show up to help put a public school in better physical shape? Not a bad question. It's one that Joe Robertson of The Kansas City Star got at a bit in his Sunday story about our work.

But first let's be clear that my congregation is only one of eight that make up the SWECC Faith-based Coalition, which works closely with the administration and faculty of SWECC to help in various ways, including assisting students with special projects and supporting teachers in various ways.

And on Saturday the SWECC coalition was joined by students and others in the community.

Again, why?

Well, our faith calls us to be good neighbors. For more on that, you might want to reread the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10. Part of what being a good neighbor means is being concerned about the institutions that help to make up the social fabric of our community.

Southwest High once was one of the great high schools not just in the city but in the country. Then, along with much of the Kansas City School District, it ran into various kinds of trouble until, finally, a few years ago, it became the scene of chaos and disruption. It's hard to learn in such an atmosphere, so students were suffering.

Area churches began to come together to see how they might help. They began working with the new, effective principal, Dr. Ed Richardson, and others at the school. And students are beginning to notice that people of faith seem to care about what happens to them and to their school.

I'm not a great painter. As I say, I'm more used to dealing with written columns than painted ones. But that really doesn't matter. What matters is that when students return to class in a few weeks they'll see a school with new paint in various places -- paint including the orange and black that are the school's own spirit colors.

And maybe they'll feel good about being there and about the fact that someone cared enough to make things look better. And maybe they'll dedicate themselves to learn. The whole community will be better off as a result.

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Missouri continues to amaze us. It turns out that a new look at the question of which is the most sinful city in the U.S. finds it's not Las Vegas but St. Louis. We Kansas Citians think that seems like just the right finding for an Arch enemy.

How religion and terrorism mix: 7-22-13

Late last week here on the blog I mentioned a number of new books with faith-related themes, and promised I'd get back to you with more commentary about one of them, Shaking Hands With the Devil: The Intersection of Terrorism and Theology, by William J. Abraham.

Shaking-handsThis is a serious, engaging, enlightening and sometimes annoying book. But being annoyed here and there is well worth the price of admission.

Let me get my annoyances out of the way first:

* The father of dispensationalist theology is John Nelson Darby, not Derby. This along with several grammatical errors makes me wonder who was editing this work by a professor at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University.

* Having carefully chosen to use the term "Islamist" and not "Islamic" to describe terrorists who draw on a radical version of their Muslim faith to justify the killing of innocents -- a clear violation of traditional Islam -- Abraham several times forgets himself and uses the term "Islamic terrorists," implying that those committing these outrageous acts are not part of a fringe (or "minority report," as he calls it) of Islam but, rather part of the mainstream.

* ". . .Muslims and Christians do not worship the same God, for the Muslim vision of the unity of God rules out the Christian vision of God as also triune." This is more than annoying. It's just wrong and makes me wonder why he doesn't understand the Christian position that there is no conflict between the unity of God and the triune nature of God. The author would do well to figure out why he's wrong by reading Miroslav Volf's brilliant book Allah: A Christian Response. Volf, as usual, gets it right.

AbrahamThe author (pictured here) grew up in Ireland and draws on his personal experience of terrorism at the bloody hands of the Irish Republican Army in his own hometown. There's a lot of rich and disturbing history here, and Abraham uses it well to explore the ways in which religion sometimes moves people to terrorism, though he is careful to point out that religion does not automatically imply terrorism, nor does terrorism imply that religion was its cause.

That said, sometimes terrorists draw on religion "when it suits them for their own nefarious ends." In turn, he says, "we can genuinely deploy the resources of the Christian faith in order to tackle the challenge of terrorism."

Abraham's argument about 9/11 is that "religion and terrorism are intimately connected in the case of al-Qaida. . ." That's true even if the version of religion on which the followers of the late Osama bin Laden relied is rejected by a majority of Muslims in the world; it nonetheless is defended by those followers as the true faith. In other words, no matter how wrong they are, al-Qaida members are sincere in their belief that their religion justifies their actions.

He writes: "We are not dealing with nationalists or with radical activists who were using the faith and practice of Islam as a mechanism of rhetoric or self-deception; we are dealing with terrorists embedded in a form of Islam that is widespread, deep, informed, articulate, and fully conscious of its own piety and legitimacy. This is a startling and uncomfortable truth."

Abraham does not make this analogy, but I will. In some ways it is like saying that the Nazi followers of Adolf Hitler were not insane; rather, they were fully convinced that Hitler was right and that they would be doing the world a favor by ridding it of Jews. As revolting as that idea seems to us now -- and seemed to many in the world then -- our distate for the idea does not change the reality that many Germans sincerely adopted Hitler's twisted visions.

But Abraham asks how representative of the whole religion the bin Laden version of Islam is, and concludes: ". . .it is not representative of Islam as a whole; it is a minority report. The evidence for this crucial judgment is decisive."

Still, Abraham admires the robust nature of faith held by many mainstream Muslims, compared with what he calls the ways in which many Christians are "intellectually sloppy and uninformed; they barely know the first principles and practices of their religion."

He has found what I've found: Rampant theological and biblical illiteracy in the pews of Christian churches.

Abraham is more pessimistic than I am about whether Islam can find a true and permanent home in the democratic West. I think it is doing exactly that in the U.S. even now, though it's a slow process that goes by fits and starts.

Abraham writes on this point that "the jury is out. . .on how far mainstream Islam will adjust in its entry into the West and on how the West will adjust to its new visitors." (Just for the record, Muslims have been in the U.S. since the slave days, though of course the vast majority of them have come in the last 50 or 60 years and many are citizens, not "visitors.") To continue quoting Abraham: "It is not at all clear to me how Islam can find the theological and political resources to accept the distinction between religion and politics without which the West simply collapses into a theocracy or into a covert form of confessional atheism." (In many ways the same challenge faced the early Christians in the New World. They came seeking to establish a theocracy, though by the time the U.S. Constitution was written they had recognized that religious liberty required protection of all religions.)

Abraham offers good insight into the term "War on Terror" vs the term "Cold War," and suggests that "there cannot literally be a war on terror, for terror is simply one tactic in a network of tactics deployed to gain political ends."

And his section on forgiveness is well worth a read. In fact, I may draw on that when a colleague and I offer adult classes on forgiveness once a week for four weeks at our church, Second Presbyterian, beginning Oct. 2. E-mail me if you would like to attend.

I didn't agree with everything Abraham wrote, but in this small volume (180 pages) he offers plenty in the way of fresh insights to ponder.

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New figures show deaths by lightning have fallen significantly in the last four or five decades. And that has led the author of this piece to suggest that God is smiting fewer people. I'm not sure I'd write that -- for fear of getting hit by lightning.

When labels just confuse: 7-20/21-13

By now, I'm sure, my regular readers are tired of me saying that labels hide more than they reveal so we should take great care in labeling people this or that religiously, politically or any other -ly.

Labels2And yet scholars, researchers and others continue to plop sloppy labels on people and pretend tthat people thus labeled pretty much all think or act alike -- fundamentalists, conservatives, moderates, evangelicals, liberals, progressives and on and on.

A recent example -- while not without its insights -- comes from a new survey from the Public Religion Research Institute. It divides Americans into these religious categories -- conservative, moderate, progressive and nonreligious. The first link in this paragraph will give you the whole report. For a summary, click here.

To come up with these categories, researchers created a whole new "composite theological orientation scale based on three measures: holding a personal vs. impersonal view of God, holding a literal vs. non-literal view of the Bible or sacred texts, and holding a preservationist vs. adaptive view of religious tradition."

Well, that may be one way of doing it, but look closely at each of those measures. Within each I see lots of wiggle room, meaning lots of uncertainty as to meaning. Do I have a more personal view of God in certain circumstances than others? Almost certainly. And what level of literalness qualifies as literal? And can I not want to preserve what I think is best about my religious tradition while wanting to adapt what I think needs change?

This is why polling often drives me crazy. And why radio talk show hosts who blame everything on "liberals" or "conservatives" confuse the issue almost always.

The survey's finding is interesting that religious progressives seem on the rise, but, in the end, I really have very little idea what that means. And probably the researchers don't either.


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When Pope Francis visits Brazil (it's the country of the future -- and always will be) in a few days, he'll find that the Catholic percentage of the population in recent decades has dropped from the 90s to the 60s. And yet I bet he'll be able to nudge it up a bit by mere force of his winning personality, though who knows how long such an upward trend will last?