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Religious ripples from Saudi Arabia: 8-30/31-14

Saudi Arabia, though officially a Sunni Muslim country, is deeply conflicted when it comes to religion and what flows from religion.

Saudi-arabia-flagIt is, first, committed to the strict Wahabbi form of Islam. But even when you say that you have to recognize that there are Wahabbis and then there are Wahabbis. Some are considerably more reasonable and moderate than others. And some, indeed, are committed to the Wahabbi path in name only, as I learned when I visited the country in 2002 and spent time speaking with religious and government leaders, including the man who now is king.

But Saudi Arabia spends considerable money exporting its austere Wahabbism -- or, anyway, a rigid vision of Islam -- to other countries. And some of the people who buy into that vision turn even further from the center of Wahabbism and become violent extremists.

So the religious leaders are wont to promote Wahabbism even while urging people not to become "deviant" in their Islamic theology and practice. That was the term used just the other day by the top religious leader in the country when he urged young people to ignore calls for violent jihad. "Deviant" means al-Qaida type terrorists.

Who are these extremists, the ones we now call Islamists? Well, one of them is a cleric in the United Kingdom, Anjem Choudary, who recently said he endorsed the beheading of American journalist James Foley. This is the kind of outrageous language, belief and behavior that gives Islam a terrible name. This is what the fight for the heart of soul of Islam is all about.

And it's why you find pieces such as this one, which urges the elimination of ISIS, one of the current names for the brutal fanatics who are churning up Syria and Iraq and murdering people like Foley.

There are reformers in Saudi Arabia, but theirs is a difficult lot -- sort of like being a liberal in these days in Kansas, where, as some people like to say, the earth has barely cooled.

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What is radicalizing some American youth to the point that they want to join ISIS and fight in Syria and elsewhere? Authorities are working hard to find out. It might help them to read this piece in The Economist, which offers some answers, and this Associated Press article, which talks about two Minnesota high school classmates who wound up dying as Islamist fighters. And the sooner they do the sooner they can adopt ways to stop this. But it would help to have everyone's cooperation, including the big majority of American Muslims who are appalled by this misuse of Islam.

The mind behind the art: 8-29-14


HEBER SPRINGS, Ark. -- Our friends who live here part of the year and in Kansas City the other part say they had never seen Greers Ferry Lake so smooth, polished, burnished to look like a mirror.

Greers-3That lustrousness did not spread itself over the whole of the lake, but was evident for significant parts of it, providing a mirror in which the swollen clouds seemed to be primping (as these photos I took earlier this week show).

John Calvin, the Protestant reformer whose work and thinking formed the basis for the Reformed Tradition of Christianity, in which the Presbyterian Church (USA) locates itself, used to write about how the world was the theater of God's glory.

If you have eyes to see and ears to hear, he said, you could witness the divine presence all around you.

The concept appeals to me. Yes, I could attribute all the beauty in nature simply to natural processes.

But when you look at a glass-top lake and see the reflection of puffy clouds or watch out your back window to see green leaves beginning to change colors and melt into fall, it's hard for me not to imagine that somehow the mind of an artist is at work.

I have seen the snows of Tibet. I have watched the Niagara River tumble over a cliff into a rumbling shout of power. I have seen the green hills of Vermont ignite into golds and vermillions and crystal yellows.

Is this all an accident? Is it for no purpose at all? Is it the luck of the random draw? Maybe.

But even if that is true, what harm does it do for me to imagine the loving eye, heart and mind of an artist who had all this -- as well as you and me -- in mind from the beginning?


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Here's another example of how Islam is having to negotiate its place in American society: A Minneapolis suburb denied a Muslim group there the right to open a center in the community, so now the U.S. government is suing that local government. The question now is whether the no-build decision was based on prejudice and fear or on some legitimate reason. We'll see.

Clergy as first responders: 8-28-14

As the whole mess in Ferguson, Mo., has played itself out, I've been thinking about what role members of the clergy have been playing there -- in part because I know of one Kansas City pastor who was called to help out there, though at the moment I don't know much about his experience.

Soscan_logo_v6Here's a story that ran last week after a relatively calm night in Ferguson. It suggests that the clergy succeeded where law enforcement and others failed to bring peace.

That may be a bit oversimplified, but I have learned to ask about the role of clergy and other people of faith when there's a natural disaster or some human-made catastrophe.

How have they helped? How have they collected human, physical and spiritual resources to bring to bear on the situation? What training have they had in dealing with such crises and was it enough to sustain them in confronting what faced them?

Whether the disaster is the scale of 9/11 or the Oklahoma City bombing or a massive tornado or a mass murder or just a single house fire, inevitably the clergy and other people of faith are called into the center of whatever it is. And not just for the hot moment of crisis but also for the sometimes-long aftermath. Indeed, sometimes what they do in the months and years after the initial catastrophe has ended is more important than what they do in the heat of the moment.

So it's time to appreciate their work and, when it doesn't get done at all or doesn't get done right, find out what went wrong.

In some sense clergy are first responders, too. To say nothing of also at times being last responders.

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So when Pope Benedict XVI retired early and unexpectedly, you, I and much of the world thought he was in terrible health and wouldn't last long. Well, guess what. He's very much alive and kicking. But I don't think he wants his old job back.

When 'white privilege' rules: 8-27-14

One of the most difficult concepts for white people (I'm one) to understand is what's called "white privilege."

PrivilegeIt's a reference to advantages that white people have, often without realizing that non-whites don't have the same advantages.

The concept has been a topic of discussion again in the wake of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo.

A pastor who also is an adjunct journalism professor at my alma mater, the University of Missouri, has written this intriguing piece about how black people can help white people understand white privilege and other aspects of race relations.

We white folks keep thinking we've made a lot of progress with all this. And, indeed, things are much different and better than they were when I was a boy, as I describe in a chapter in my new book, Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans. But then we get smacked by something like Ferguson and we realize anew how much is left to do.

I was blessed (though I didn't know it at the time) as a child to experience the flip side of white privilege when my family moved to India for two years and I was the only American in a school full of Indians or Anglo-Indians. I caught plenty of heat for being different. So at least I knew what that felt like and I resolved not to be part of the problem, though surely I have been.

I hope to create some kind of opportunity for my mostly white congregation to become more sensitive to all this. I suggest you do the same.

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HEBER SPRINGS, Ark. -- I'm on the road for a few days visiting friends, so until at least Thursday you won't find the traditional second item here. But you're welcome to check out pieces I've posted under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page.

A bit of kindness, please: 8-26-14

All right. Today I'm going to toss a bit of welcome light into a world often full of the darkness of human indifference and hurt.

GregoryraWhich means I'm going to point you toward a Tumblr blog that celebrates not aggressive assertiveness or material possessions but, rather, kindness.

Kindness. What a concept. I used to have a pastor who would end each benedict with this reminder: ". . .and be kind to one another."

Rabia Gregory (pictured here), assistant professor of religious studies at my alma mater, the University of Missouri, has created the Academic Kindness Tumblr.

There you can read about people going out of their way to be sweet, kind and generous, not mean, angry and greedy. Nothing fancy about the stories. But the cumulative effect of them is to give us hope that the milk of human kindess hasn't run dry. And if religion isn't in some sense about encouraging production of the milk of human kindness, it's off base.

Here's a brief example of what you'll find on the Academic Kindness Tumblr:

My supervisor is a busy and important leader in his field.  Despite this he always makes time for his PhD students. In one moment of particularly kind thoughtfulness, after I sent around the rejection letter for a paper that I’d had high hopes for,  he found me at my desk and gave me a fancy boxed piece of chocolate cake, just saying that he thought I might need it.

Now go and do likewise. (Or I might have to chide you in public and box you about the ears.)

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HEBER SPRINGS, Ark. -- I'm on the road for a few days visiting friends, so until at least Thursday you won't find the traditional second item here. But you're welcome to check out pieces I've posted under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page.

Farewell to a tough survivor: 8-25-14

It was nearly time for Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and me to start our presentation at the Holocaust Memorial Center in suburban Detroit a few weeks ago when I saw Zygie Allweiss arrive in a wheelchair.

Zygie-JC-WDT-EstherHis daughter, Esther (pictured here with Zygie, Jacques and me), with whom we'd just had dinner, wasn't positive her father was feeling good enough to show up, but here he came with other family members, and both Jacques and I were delighted to see him again.

His story of surviving the Holocaust is the first one we tell in our book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, and the more we got to know Zygie the more we liked him. He was a tough hombre with a heart of gold. I encourage you to go back to your copy of our book (surely you have several) and re-read Zygie's remarkable story of survival with his brother Sol.

I first met Zygie in 2006 in Detroit, where I did the first interview with him on a trip that Jacques couldn't make.

Zygie then came to our September 2009 launch events for our book in Kansas City and won the hearts of the audiences to whom he spoke. In 2011 I was in Detroit for another conference and managed to get out to the home of Zygie and Irma Allweiss to visit them with their daughter Esther.

And then we saw him again the evening of Aug. 5 when we spoke in honor of him.

The survivors in our book are slowly disappearing. Sheila Bernard, Maria Devinki, Anna Schiff, Felix Zandman, Andre Nowacki, Felix Karpman (words of whose death we just received) and now Zygie Allweiss all have died. Had we waited much longer than we did to write this book we'd have lost many of the stories.

So farewell to our friend Zygie, whose funeral service this past Friday I was able to watch from the funeral home's website. A video of that service now is posted here. It's fascinating, revealing once again how the Holocaust touched almost every part of the lives of survivors and their families.  May Zygie's memory be a blessing.

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Why is it a mistake to generalize about religion? Turns out it isn't "a" mistake, it's a whole bunch of mistakes, the author of this piece contends. And he's right. Indeed, even when we try to talk about certain religious traditions -- Catholics, say, or Jews or Muslims -- the fact is there are many varieties of each. And there's often even a pretty broad spectrum within any single congregation. So watch your language.

Where religious freedom dies: 8-23/24-14

One of the most dangerous countries in the world -- but one with great potential -- is Pakistan.

PakistanIt's where Osama bin Laden found refuge -- though, ultimately, not from the Navy Seals.

It's where "honor killings" still happen -- fathers murdering their own daughters because those daughters married someone without the family's approval.

And it's where, through the Presbyterian Education Board (PEB), my congregation, Second Presbyterian Church, is helping to support good schools for both boys and girls. In fact, our relationship with the PEB goes back years, and we've just recently approved a substantial grant to continue that work.

The lack of religious freedom in Pakistan is appalling. As the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom says in its current annual report (scroll down to page 75), "Pakistan represents the worst situation in the world for countries not currently designated by the U.S. government as 'countries of particular concern' (read: worst offenders)."

People in Pakistan regularly are jailed and killed for "blasphemy," which means not adhering to a strict Islamist point of view -- one that is wildly out of sync with traditional Islam.

One of the bloggers on, Suzy Shuraym, who writes about Islam in America, says here that the many Pakistanis in the U.S., whether still citizens of Pakistan or now U.S. citizens, must find ways to hold their country of origin responsible for this egregious behavior:

Many (if not most) Muslims in the U.S. have relatives in Pakistan and other countries where freedom of belief is nonexistent. Many of us moved to America specifically to escape this atmosphere of persecution. Even though we, ourselves, were not the objects of persecution, we had friends and colleagues who were.

How can we, as Muslim Americans, fight this kind of intolerance in our ancestral lands? What can we do to increase tolerance of “the other”?

It's a continuing disaster for Pakistan and, indeed, for Islam. It feeds hatred of Islam by people who can't draw a distinction between the radicals and the rest of the faith. Mostly, of course, it's a disaster for the Pakistanis suffering under the weight of such religious bigotry.

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Speaking of faith-based terrorism, here's the New York Times editorial on the beheading of journalist James Foley by Islamist extremists. The murder was, of course, an outrage that cannot be undone. But beyond that it gives people with anti-Islam bias another excuse for their bigotry.

The problem with pacifism: 8-22-14

As much as I despise war and violence, I am not a pacifist and I am glad to learn that neither is Pope Francis.

PacifismDid you catch it the other day when, on a plane trip back from his journey to South Korea, he spoke about the people under attack by the Islamic State terrorists in Iraq?

"In these cases, where there is an unjust aggression, I can only say that it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor," Francis told reporters as he returned from South Korea, according to the Associated Press. "I underscore the verb 'stop.' I'm not saying 'bomb' or 'make war,' just 'stop.' And the means that can be used to stop them must be evaluated."

The problem, of course, is that use of force tends to create more use of force in response. It's hard simply to "stop" an aggressor threatening innocent people. One thing leads to another and soon violence is everywhere. Still, I would not want it on my conscience that I had an opportunity to save the lives of people threatened in this brutish way and failed to try.

If there's a problem with trying to limit one's response to violence, there's a bigger problem with doing nothing. As I've written before, evil appeased is evil empowered.

That's why I thought the United States had good reasons after 9/11 to go into Afghanistan and destroy the training camps where people were being taught how to be terrorists to kill yet more Americans -- beyond my own nephew and nearly 3,000 others who perished that day.

But, of course, the Bush administration got willfully sidetracked by order an invasion of Iraq instead of finishing the job quickly in Afghanistan. So now, years and lives later, we're still dealing with the explosion of violence in both places.

There are Christians and others whom I respect who are, in fact, pacifists. I think, for instance, of Stanley Hauerwas, a wonderful theologian who teaches at Duke Divinity School. But, in the end, I don't think strict pacifism is a sustainable position.

Still, I'd like to be so close to a pacifist position that many people couldn't tell the difference. Sort of like Pope Francis.

(By the way, for a full transcript of the pope's remarks, look below among the "Related articles.")

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Local and state police in troubled Ferguson, Mo., are being criticized for their use of prayer. The complaint is that it seeks to justify oppressive police action. What? Prayer can be political or manipulative? I'm shocked. Simply shocked.

Learning from the vineyard: 8-21-14

A year or more ago, my older daughter and her husband, who live south of Kansas City on 80 acres of rural farmland, contracted with a local winery to plant and grow grapes. Later they added another big bunch of vines.

VinedresserHaving just read Sister Judith Sutera's delightful new book, The Vinedresser's Notebook: Spiritual Lessons in Pruning, Waiting, Harvesting and Abundance, I hope they know what they're doing. Being a vinedresser is no easy task.

Sister Judith has been caring for the vineyards at the monastery of Mount St. Scholastica in Atchison, Kan., for decades. She's also a magazine editor and author of several books. We share a mutual friend, author Kathleen Norris.

Years ago, Judith writes, she was on a retreat and began writing and sketching in a small notebook what she knows about being a vinedresser -- much of it learned working with an older nun.

Those sketches and writings for the trellis for the reflections she offers here about what it means in a spiritual sense to be mindful, to be a good pruner, to be a nurturer.

Take, for instance, what she writes about pruning:

"All the cutting that seems to go on in life is hard enough when it happens because of external circumstances. It's even harder to decide that I should cut some more because of the ultimate benefit, as when I prune good branches so the energy of the vine can be concentrated. That's the same idea that is behind spiritual disciplines. We practice sacrifice so that our spiritual lives can be more fruitful."

This is a book marinated in Christianity, but there's lots of wisdom for people of all faiths and none. And if nothing else, you'll learn a lot about being a vinedresser. Which is why I'm going to make sure my daughter and her husband see this book.

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Do you know about the Moral Monday movement? Well, it's expanding to a whole week of social justice action in various states. Good. It's hard to be moral just on back-to-work day.

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P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column now is online here.

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ANOTHER P.S.: I have received the sad news that Zygie Allweiss, whose story of survival in the Holocaust is the first one Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and I tell in our book, They Were Just People: Story of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, died yesterday. Jacques and I were with Zygie on Aug. 5 when we spoke at the Holocaust Memorial Center in surburban Detroit. I plan to have more to say about Zygie in a later blog posting.

Facing her death too soon: 8-20-14

The first time I met Lindor Reynolds she stood out. She was, I think, the very first member of the National Society of Newspaper Columnist to come from somewhere other than the United States. She was a columnist with the Winnipeg Free-Press.

Gv13And a fabulous, prize-winning writer, too. (In this 2005 photo from our NSNC conference near Dallas, Lindor is in the middle. On the left is Diane Ketcham, now retired from The New York Times. On the right is my wife, Marcia, to whom I say happy birthday today.)

Over the years we saw Lindor almost annually for quite awhile -- watching her get an NSNC humanitarian award one year, seeing her bring along her new love Neil one year, meeting her daughter one year.

Then a year ago she was diagnosed with brain cancer. It was devastating news, which she shared with her readers while announcing that she'd be gone awhile to fight the disease. We kept up on her battle via e-mail and Facebook. And my wife and I had dreams of getting up to Winnipeg. But we simply had too much stuff on our plate to arrange that trip.

Over this past weekend, Lindor wrote was will surely be her last column. If you cannot bear the pain of honest, searing words near the end of life, don't read it. But if you want to know how a terrific woman with deep (and deepening) Christian faith has stood against the enemy of vicious cancer, have a look.

Over the weekend here on the blog I wrote about a new book of funeral sermons and essays by my friend Russell E. Saltzman, a Lutheran pastor. I want to quote again something he wrote in Speaking of the Dead: When We All Fall Down:

". . .how does death serve God's purpose? The answer -- biblically and theologically -- is it does not. This is why God must promise to restore all that death claims. The promise of God is to destroy death, the final enemy of God's creation. There is the Good News. But it must be said so we can hear it in our lowest moments. It must be spoken at a funeral."

Am I angry about Lindor's cancer and the fact that she's facing the end of her life? Of course. Can I explain why it happened or make sense of why there is evil and suffering in the world? No. All theodicies ultimately fail.

What I can do is to tell you what a fabulous human being Lindor is and to urge you to honor and stay in touch with the fabulous human beings in your own life. And I can wish Lindor a smooth ride, one I wish to God she wasn't on.

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Get this. One of the people arrested while protesting in Ferguson, Mo., is a 90-year-old Holocaust survivor. One more voice still speaks today because Hitler's death machine failed to murder her. Imagine that.

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P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column now is online here.