Previous month:
July 2013
Next month:
September 2013

One big right, one big wrong: 8-31/9-1-13

So now, having heard testimony about brutal murders and injuries committed in the name of religion, a U.S. military panel has properly found Maj. Nidal Hasan guilty of 13 charges of premeditated murder and 32 charges of attempted premeditated murder.

HasanBut having done the right thing with the verdict itself, the 13-member panel turned around and did exactly the wrong thing by recommending that Hasan be sentenced to death.

How long will it take before America joins most other developed nations and abandons capital punishment? Not soon enough.

Each time the death penalty is imposed we suffer another dimunition of our moral authority. The death penalty, besides being ridiculously expensive to maintain, devalues us as a people and reduces the state to the level of the criminal.

Besides that, the capital punishment system sometimes results in the execution of innocent people.

That certainly is not the case here. Hasan boasted that he had done the killing in the name of Islam to protect Muslims -- a claim that may have resonance with radical extremists who follow the twisted version of Islam proposed by the late Osama bin Laden and other terrorists but that must necessarily be rejected by other Muslims as a gross slander on their religion.

The continued existence of capital punishment in the U.S. is embarrassing and so unnecessary. If people who consider themselves fiscal conservatives really took that position seriously, they'd demand an end to the death penalty tomorrow. It is crazily wasteful financially. But the best reasons to oppose it have to do with the immorality of taking lives, especially when the person executed is not guilty.

I'd lock up Hasan for the rest of his life and insist that he spend part of each day reading biographical information about the people he murdered.

* * *


To think further about the death penalty in the Hasan case, here's an intriguing analysis from The New Yorker. It says that should President Obama go along with the death penalty in this case, it will have global repercussions. And they would not be good for the U.S. One more reason to abandon capital punishment, not just in this case but altogether.

A documentary of hope: 8-30-13

A few years ago I was privileged to see an early cut of a documentary called "Rise and Dream" about a group of poverty-stricken teens in the Philippines and how music helped to give them hope and a future.

Ryan_SumicadThe Christian Foundation for Children and Aging, based in Kansas City, Kansas, produced the film and now has put Kansas City on a national tour of places to see the documentary and hear about the lives of the teens since the film was shot.

There will be a showing at the Truman Forum of the Plaza Branch of the Kansas City Public Library at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 18. For tickets and additional information, click here.

Ryan Sumicad (pictured here), one of the teens featured in “Rise and Dream,” will attend the Kansas City event and talk about his life after the film.

In addition, CFCA founder Bob Hentzen will be at the event.

Teens, music, hope, inspiration. Sounds like a faith-based winner to me. Hope some of you can make it that evening. You won't be disappointed.

* * *


Is there no end to the stupid, shameful, hateful malarkey that comes out of Pat Robertson's mouth? Apparently not. Now he says people with AIDS in San Francisco deliberately try to infect others by wearing special rings that cut the hands of people whose hands they shake. Any broadcast outfit that carries this garbage should be off your list of what you'll watch. Every time I think he's hit bottom he surprises me with some new outrage.

* * *

P.S.: And speaking of hope, as I was in the lead piece here today, 11 area ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations plan to give some hope Sept. 8 to some Kansas City neighborhoods through a day of community service. For details and how to lend a hand, click here.

An exhibit of Islamic art: 8-29-13

Back in 2002, I was given the opportunity to visit Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Uzbekistan on a post-9/11 trip to Islamic countries with other journalists.

Our primary task was to help our readers understand the Islamic world both today and at its cultural and artistic peak 500 or so years ago.

Toward that end, we visited such places as Bukhara, Tashkent, Cairo and Samarkand, where gorgeous Islamic architecture from centuries ago remains. (The photo here today is from Samarkand.)

All of which is one reason I'm really glad the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is opening an exhibit on Saturday called "Echoes: Islamic Art and Contemporary Artists."

There will be exhibits, programs and events that will help us understand the ways in which Islam is portrayed in art. Which in turn will help us understand Islam better.

One of the most insightful ways to study any religion is through the music and art it inspires, though of course there is always a wide range of expressions, so it's hard to generalize. In Christianity, for instance, you have everything from Handel's stunning and classical "Messiah" to contemporary praise music, some of which I love and some of which I call 7-11 music -- seven words repeated 11 times. And I haven't even mentioned Christian rock.

So have a look at what the Nelson will be offering and plan to see it. In fact, if you're not Muslim, go see it with a Muslim. If you are a Muslim, go see it with someone of a different faith.

* * *


As we continue to think about things Islamic, let's hope that the author of this good piece is listened to. If it he, it would mean that neither Muslim nor Christian folks who hope Damascus, Syria, is destroyed and the world essentially ends so the Second Coming can happen will have any influence over events there. Folks with end-of-the-world scenarios are a bit frightening when they seem certain they're right.

Understanding religious violence: 8-28-13

In discussions of violence by religious groups, one current debate is whether, over the course of history, Christians have been more violent than Muslims or vice versa.

Relig-violenceA group that almost never gets mentioned in such debates? The Buddhists. And with good reason. They've generally been among the most peace-loving people on the planet.

But there are exceptions even to that rule of thumb.

Just now in Myanmar (Burma), for instance, we are reading stories about Buddhists engaging in violence against Muslims.

Just the other day, for instance, the Associated Press reported that a Buddhist mob of 1,000 or so people "torched dozens of homes and shops in northwestern Myanmar."

The roots of the conflict seem not to be directly religious, but nonetheless the reporting is identifying the groups in conflict by their religion.

And, as a result, Buddhism's reputation for peaceful coexistence is taking a hard hit.

Here's a pretty good rule of thumb: When you read or hear about violence with religious overtones (undertones?) learn first about what that religion teaches about when violence is permitted and learn what history shows about how well that religion's adherents have stuck to those teachings.

Then see if you can figure out whether religion itself is the issue that has ignited the violence or whether religion is simply a side matter in something that has more to do with political or other kinds of disagreements.

Finally, avoid assuming that all adherents of the religion involved in this or that incident are inherently violent. Otherwise you wind up blaming silent monks for KKK cross burnings. And how stupid is that?

* * *


There's an outbreak of measles in Texas that includes several members of a church whose pastor has been critical of measles vaccinations. This is the kind of nonsense that gives religion a bad name. It's about as goofy as flat-Earthers.

God's mysterious universe: 8-27-13

In the long view of things, humans don't know much about the universe.

M31-imageReligious traditions say God created it all and that the cosmos continues to exist at God's forbearance and because of God's love.

But the universe is so large and so complex that our understanding of it is necessarily limited. This becomes even more apparent when we acknowledge what science in recent times has begun to understand, which is that a great deal of the universe is made up of dark energy and dark matter.

Scientists at the Kavli Foundation recently described images just taken of the Andromeda Galaxy (also known as M 31) by the Suburu Telescope's Hyper-Suprime (not Supreme) Cam (including the image you see here today). They said what the telescope has shown them so far and will show them in the future should help them understand the nature of dark energy and dark matter better.

Which in turn will help them understand why the universe, instead of being in a steady state or collapsing altogether, continues to expand. It's a fascinating mystery.

The cosmos is an enigmatic, beautiful, strange, complex, semi-Rube Goldberg entity that should begin to tell us something about the one the great religions acknowledge as its creator. It's just that the more we learn the more ignorant we feel.

Which you would think might produce some humility, though it rarely seems to.

* * *


When you celebrate the "I Have a Dream" speech tomorrow of Martin Luther King Jr., scholars want you to be aware of its sharp critique of American values of the time. Good point.

Ripples from papal informality: 8-26-13

How do you address your pastor, imam, priest, rabbi, bishop or deacon?

Pope-Francis-1Is it always "Father O'Brien" or "Rabbi Koenig"?

Or it is simply "Bob" or "Catherine"?

I ask this because of what happened a few days ago in Italy. The continually surprising Pope Francis phoned an Italian student after the young man had written the pope a note about his hopes and dreams.

The pontiff just called up the kid, who was shocked and overjoyed.

In the course of the conversation, Francis asked the student to refer to him by using the informal "tu" in Italian rather than the much more formal "lei," the story says. Again, the kid was shocked. As far as we know, the pope didn't ask the young man to call him Uncle Frank, which is often what the aggregator of the daily Religion News Service e-mailed news update calls him in passing.

I think the choice of how to address a member of the clergy depends on several things, including the wishes of the one being addressed. Other factors include whether you are in a public or private setting and how well you know the person.

I have a close friend whose official title is Archdeacon. In private, just for fun, I sometimes refer to him as Your Archdeaconness, just as I often call a close rabbi friend Your Rabbiness. In some ways it's a subtle reminder that not only do I recognize the work it took for them to obtain those titles but also that they are still just male friends who can take a joke.

And now that I'm older than many of the members of the clergy I know, I tend to get to a first-name relationship fairly quickly.

The clergy to be a bit wary of are the ones who always insist on being addressed by their titles -- Pastor Brown, Father Harrison, Imam Khan, Bishop Stuffy, etc. -- even when the person to whom they are speaking is a friend and is speaking in private. Anyone who needs that kind of adulation isn't simply trying to hold up the dignity of his office. Almost the same goes for whoever is president of the U.S., though in that case I'd expect most people in most situations to use "Mr. President."

As for how you address me, I ask you to follow what I ask of my grandchildren -- which is that they simply call me either "Your Grace" or "Your Insuperableness." Their choice -- and yours.

* * *


Ever heard of Yoruba? It's an ancient African religion that is finding followers now in the U.S. Wonder how long it will take for some Americans to develop a syndrome that would come to be called Yorubaphobia?

Where MLK might focus today: 8-24/25-13

In a few days -- on Wednesday, in fact -- we will mark the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I Have a Dream Speech."

MLK-jailNot surprisingly, it's sparked plenty of commentary and analysis. A small for instance: The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued this statement saying it's time to recommit ourselves to meeting unmet goals articulated by King.

A good idea, of course.

But I'm given to wonder what today would most break King's heart, what would he focus on, where would he put his energy and, more to the point, try to put the nation's.

It can be silly, of course, to go through exercises in which we wonder what Abe Lincoln or Jesus or Babe Ruth might think about this or that today. We don't know.

But we do know something about what they thought when they walked the planet, and it's kind of interesting to imagine how they might view current developments.

Here's my guess about how King today would use his prophetic voice today: He'd be raking us over the coals for the terrible shape of our prison and criminal justice systems and especially for being one of the few developed nations left with the death penalty.

I'm thinking King would be talking every day about what my former Kansas City Star colleague Mary Sanchez calls "our grossly unfair criminal justice system." In a recent column, Mary noted this: "The U.S. holds the distinction of the world's highest incarcertation rate. One in every 100 adults -- 2.3 million people -- was behind bars in 2010, according to the Pew Center on the States."

Just willy-nilly jailing people for minor offenses is bad enough, but executing innocent people is far, far worse, and that's what's happening with our system of capital punishment. As The Innocence Project reports, "Eighteen people have been proven innocent and exonerated by DNA testing in the United States after serving time on death row. They were convicted in 11 states and served a combined 229 years in prison – including 202 years on death row – for crimes they didn’t commit."

What we may never know is how many innocent people were put to death because of our expensive and inefficient capital punishment system.

Well, no doubt there would be much to occupy King's mind today were he still here, and perhaps he would not be just a one-issue man. But I'm guessing the issue he'd care a lot about is prison reform and abolition of the death penalty.

In fact, if we really wanted to honor his memory and achieve his dream, we might start by working in those areas.

(As the photo here today shows, King knew about jails from the inside. In fact, in April 1963 he wrote a famous letter from the Birmingham, Ala., jail.)

* * *


Former Kansas City Rabbi Jim Rudin, now known nationally for many good reasons, has written this piece bemoaning the continued existence of a stained-glass ceiling for women clergy members. In my experience faith communities shortchange themselves by not either hiring or promoting female members of the clergy. Which is self-defeating.

Improving religious literacy: 8-23-13

Much of what most Americans know about Islam and the Prophet Muhammad you could put in a thimble. But it would not be worth doing that because a lot of what they think they know is wrong or distorted.

WorldReligions-1It's one reason I'm glad that PBS is airing a series called "Life of Muhammad." The first part aired this past Tuesday, though I was unable to see it. The Religion News Service story about the series is here. And the Los Angeles Times' review of the show is here.

At the same time, PBS also has been airing a series on Buddha.

These series are efforts to improve something that badly needs improvement -- Americans' religious literacy.

That also was the purpose of a book by Boston University scholar Stephen Prothero, Religous Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know -- and Doesn't.

This excellent book will be the focus on the next gathering of Vital Conversations, a program of the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council. The link in this paragraph will tell you where and when.

In my experience, theological and biblical illiteracy is rampant among Christians. And people of other faiths tell me they run into something similar in their traditions.

So there are two areas that need work -- understanding and accurately articulating our own faith and then understanding something about other faiths.

There are many opportunities to fill in the gaps in your own knowledge, the PBS and Vital Conversations examples being just two. But more are needed. And more people should be taking advantage of what's already available.

Want to know where you are in terms of religious literacy? You might start with this brief quiz. It's really, really, really basic stuff you should know. Even I got 15 out of 15 right.

* * *


Yesterday here on the blog I wrote about the many ways the Coptic churches in Egypt have been under attack. A new Human Rights Watch report now details attacks on 42 different such churches. For the report itself, click here.

* * *

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

Attacks on the Coptic Church: 8-22-13

It is hard to disagree with the conclusion drawn by National Review editor Rich Lowry in this piece that extremists in Egypt called Islamists are conducting a pogrom against the Coptic Orthodox Church there.

Coptic-churchIndeed, the Copts, who have been around Egypt since several centuries before the Prophet Muhammad even introduced the world to Islam -- and who make up roughly six percent of the Egyptian population -- have been oppressed there for a long time. But rarely has it been this bad. And "this bad" is terrible and an outrage.

In fact, the 2013 annual report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, issued even before the recent fall of the Morsi/Muslim Brotherhood government, said this: ". . .during a February 2013 visit to Egypt, USCIRF found that the Egyptian government continued to engage in and tolerate systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief. . . .Coptic Orthodox Christians, and their property, continued to experience sustained attacks. In many cases, the government failed or was slow to protect religious minorities from violence."

All of that is true and all of it is disastrous and now it's even worse.

At the same time, I'm intrigued by the way many American Christians who would identify themselves as evangelical or conservative are defending the Coptic Christian Church despite their differences in theology -- differences that almost certainly would make those American Christians harsh critics of the Copts if the Copts were located in the U.S.

That's because Coptic Christians are monophysites, meaning they believe that Jesus Christ has a single nature. Traditional Christianity, by contrast, holds that Christ has two natures in that he is both fully human and fully divine. This two-natures idea of a "hypostatic union," as it's called, goes back at least to the Council of Chalcedon in 451 C.E. Nonetheless, the Copts have held to their monophysite theology.

In some ways I suppose this is a bit like someone attacking a brother or sister with whom you have all kinds of internal family arguments. Those arguments may not be settled and they may be real and painful, but if someone attacks your family member you set all that aside and come to his or her defense.

Which is much better than telling the Copts they are heretics and deserve their fate.

Speaking of American Christians who would call themselves conservative, Baptist Press managed to do this lengthy story about Christians in Egypt's current turmoil without once mentioning the Coptic Church. That's some delicate dancing.

* * *


Want a little help understanding the nations and religions of the Middle East and, more broadly, the old Ottoman Empire. This essay should help. It also explains why the future for Christians in the geographic birthplace of Christianity isn't too bright.

* * *

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

* * *

ANOTHER P.S.: Earlier this week here on the blog I wrote about plans for reuse of the Saint Paul School of Theology campus on Truman Road in Kansas City. Yesterday that seminary's president, Myron McCoy, announced that he would be leaving the school in the summer of 2014.

* * *

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

The costs of helping others: 8-21-13

Now and then I hear the argument that faith communities should be using their limited money in their tight budgets directly for helping the needy and not for building and maintaining buildings and hiring staff.

BudgetsIn many ways I sympathize with that argument. I find it an especially compelling one when the buildings are opulent beyond imagining and when staff members are paid extraordinarily high salaries. But those two things are not the norm. Far from it, in fact.

Beyond that, most congregations should consider their buildings and their staff as integral parts of their outreach and mission efforts.

That very point was made this past Sunday in an excellent sermon jointly delivered to my congregation by our pastor, Dr. Paul T. Rock, and by one of our members, Warren K. Erdman.

Without a central location and a staff, faith communities located in churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and other houses of worship would find it difficult, if not impossible, to maintain cohesive momentum in their efforts to minister to those in need. It would be like trying to manufacture and sell widgets without a corporate headquarters.

That said, I agree that you can find terrible examples of money poorly spent on buildings and staff. But when faith communities sit down to figure out how much they are donating to mission and outreach work, it's bad accounting not to include at least some of the costs of operating a building and employing a staff.

* * *


The recent violence in Egypt, it turns out, is helping to put what's called political Islam on the defensive in all kinds of places, this report says. Nothing -- especially violence tinged with religious overtones -- is without consequences, often times unintended and unanticipated.

* * *

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