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August 2014
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Is Finn now more vulnerable? 9-30-14

Pope Francis last week fired a bishop who has been accused of protecting a priest suspected of child abuse.

Finn-1That was the good news. The bad news for people in the Kansas City area is that the bishop in question wasn't Robert W. Finn of the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. (Finn in this photo is seen greeting visitors to the newly refurbished downtown diocesan headquarters when it opened in 2011.)

Finn, as surely most of you know, was convicted two years ago of a misdemeanor for failing to report suspected child abuse by an area priest.

The pontiff's action removing Bishop Rogelio Ricardo Livieres Plano from his position as head of the diocese of Ciudad del Este in Paraguay was an indication of what seems to be the pope's growing commitment to cleaning up the priest sexual abuse scandal. He's moving too slowly, if you ask me, and I'm not at all sure that he's recognized all of the causes of the scandal and moved to undo them. But he's moving in the right direction.

Indeed, The National Catholic Reporter published this story yesterday indicating that Bishop Finn finally is under investigation by the Vatican.

As the story to which I've linked you in the first paragraph above notes, the pope's action against the bishop in Paraguay came shortly after his approval of the arrest in the Vatican of a former archbishop who was accused of paying for sex with children while he was a papal ambassador in the Dominican Republic.

So perhaps we're beginning to see the pope giving more attention to this abuse matter. Perhaps the damage that Bishop Finn has done to the diocese here and to the idea that the church must always protect vulnerable children will come to the pontiff's attention in a way that will cause him to remove Finn from office as he did Bishop Rogelio Ricardo Livieres Plano.

As I wrote almost a year ago in this National Catholic Reporter column about this subject, "Compassion, love and justice require Finn's removal from office." I think that's still true. My hope is that we're moving toward a time when the pope also thinks it's true, though we're not there yet. And as disheartening as it sounds to say so, we may never get there. And yet yesterday's NCR news story gives me hope.

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The under-fire police chief of Ferguson, Mo., has been in almost daily contact with a group in that St. Louis suburb called "Clergy United," this RNS piece reports. Like most controversial news stories, what happened in Ferguson is much more complicated than it may first have appeared. And if we don't pay attention to the nuances and the personalities involved, we'll get it wrong.

Hawking's atheism confirmed: 9-29-14

Some years ago I recall reading scientist Stephen Hawking's book, A Brief History of Time, and stopping in my tracks at something he said there.

2nd-sunsetOnce we have a grand unified theory of everything, he wrote, then "we would know the mind of God." Without further explanation to say what he meant if he didn't really mean to say that, it was astonishingly arrogant. And I said so in one or more columns, noting the finite nature of human knowledge.

Now, as part of Hawking finally acknowledging that he's an atheist, he also offers this sort of lame explanation of what he meant by proposing that we could know the mind of God: "What I meant by 'we would know the mind of God' is, we would know everything that God would know, if there were a God. Which there isn't. I'm an atheist."

Let's play along with Hawking, universally acknowledged as a brilliant mind, and imagine that one day we will have discovered and articulated a grand unified theory of everything -- something some scientists imagine might be possible. Just think of everything we would know then.

But also think of what we'd still not know. What wouldn't we know? We would know what and how but we wouldn't know why. Why is the question humans ultimately long to know and it's a question science can never answer. Only religion or philosophy can offer some theories.

Hawking seems to suggest that religion and science are incompatible. Not at all. All we have to do is remember that each tries to answer questions the other can't. When each forgets that (as in people of faith imagining the Bible describes real science in its creation stories), there's trouble. Needless trouble.

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The former religion editor of The Wichita Eagle yesterday did this review of what appears to be a fascinating new book that I haven't had a chance to read yet. It's Infidel Kings and Unholy Warriors by Brian A. Catlos. The author makes the interesting claim that religion was not what triggered the Crusades and other Middle Ages conflicts between Christians and Muslims. I'm thinking this book will be worth reading.

Antisemitism's ugly resurgence: 9-27/28-14

Last year, when I read and reviewed Alvin H. Rosenfeld's compelling book, Resurgent Antisemitism: Global Perspectives, part of me kept hoping he and other contributors to the book were overstating the case that anti-Jewish thinking and actions were on the rise all around the world.

AntisemitismBut it turns out that Rosenfeld, founding director of Indiana University's Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism, was quite on the mark when he wrote that “A post-Holocaust antisemitism is today a fact of public life, increasingly so on a global scale.”

This recent article in The New York Times focuses on how this increase in antisemitism is being experienced in Europe today.

It gives Jews, currently in the midst of their High Holy Days, something more to worry about but it also gives us non-Jews a challenge to look into why this ancient hatred seems to be growing in strength these days and what we can do about that.

Modern antisemitism, as we know, has roots in historic anti-Judaism, traditionally preached by Christianity until quite recent times. For my essay on that subject, look under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page.

My essay begins with the start of the Jesus Movement, which eventually became Christianity. But for a longer view of anti-Judaism, I recommend a relatively new book by David Nirenberg called Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, which traces this bigotry all the way back to ancient Egypt.

The recent Times piece raises the question of whether antisemitism is gaining so much momentum in Europe today that it's increasingly acceptable to hold and spew anti-Jewish views. The answer clearly seems to be yes.

We certainly know that such thinking and actions are visible in this country, too, as evidenced right here in the Heartland by the Palm Sunday shootings at two Jewish-based institutions in suburban Kansas City. So the question is what we're doing to stop this and to educate our children so they can be part of the solution, not a continuation of the problem.

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As antisemitism continues to be a problem, some of the victims of it continue to work toward healing and restoration for Jews who survived the Holocaust. Among them is Rose Gelbart of suburban Cleveland, about whom Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and I wrote in our book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust. As this story reveals, her work and the work of others has resulted in Germany adding funds to support Holocaust survivors who were children in World War II.

Stop the bullets, please, God: 9-26-14

Divine intervention.

BulletsIt's what people of faith sometimes pray for. Heal my brother. Don't let cancer strike me. Let the Royals beat the Tigers. Let me drive safely from here to there and back. Help me find a parking spot. And on and on.

One of the questions of faith is why God can seem so silent. When is it God's turn to act and when is it ours?

Anastasia Basil, a Huffington Post contributor, has figured out (I hope I don't have to explain to you what satire is) that it's completely up to God to stop bullets fired from American-owned guns so they don't kill children and other innocents.

She's convinced that divine intervention will soon rule the day in this regard and that we're about to see headlines like these:

School Shooter's AR-15 Temporarily Disabled by God

Shooter Unable to Fire at Mall Shoppers, Claims "Gun Worked Fine Yesterday"

Toddler Opens Father's Gun Cabinet, Finds Lollipops Instead of Glocks

Responsible Gun Owner Attempts to Kill Wife: God Intervenes, Reminds Him of Responsibilities

Hunter Mistakenly Fires at Son, God Embodies Rare Albino Moose, Takes Bullet

Well, folks, it's about time God started paying some attention here. So let's stay on our knees. (For one thing, that way the bullets might zip over our heads and miss us.)

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On a much more serious note, the author and theological scholar Karen Armstrong writes here that it's helpful when thinking about violence coming from ISIS and other faith-based terrorist groups to remember that the idea of separating church and state (or religion and politics) is quite new and is unique to the West: "We now take the secular state so much for granted that it is hard for us to appreciate its novelty, since before the modern period, there were no 'secular' institutions and no 'secular' states in our sense of the word. Their creation required the development of an entirely different understanding of religion, one that was unique to the modern west. No other culture has had anything remotely like it, and before the 18th century, it would have been incomprehensible even to European Catholics." Armstrong's piece is not a one-minute read, but it's worth a look.

Does religion make us moral? 9-25-14

A new study suggests that religious people are no more moral or immoral than people who are not adherents of any particular religion.

World-religIt's an interesting look at what people consider moral and immoral behavior and that old question of whether we can be good without God.

And without discounting the research, I think it's wise to remember several things as we hear about such studies.

First, what does it mean to be a religious person? The now-familiar catch phrase is that many people describe themselves as spiritual but not religious. So how do you categorize such folks for a study of this kind?

Then it's important to remember that religion does not have as its sole (or even soul) purpose making people act in moral ways. Surely that's one of its goals, but religion is so much more than that. It has to do with community, with hope, peace, justice, mercy, awe, wonder, compassion, love and on and on. To limit its portfolio to moral actions is to misunderstand religion profoundly.

I'm not suggesting that the people who led this study were trying to restrict what religion is all about, but it's easy for people reading about the results to forget the broad sweep of faith and to conclude that religion is useless if it doesn't make its adherents behave in ways that are more moral than those who are not followers.

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The authorities in Texas who mandate what must go into public school history textbooks have opted for right wing "political and cultural indoctrination, a dash of mindless inclusivity and brute memorization," this analysis suggests. I suppose their hope is that the students who get this kind of faith-based indoctrination won't ever discover they've been misled. How sad. 

The end of Christianity in Iraq: 9-24-14

When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 on what eventually proved to be false pretenses, some of the voices warning against going to war there used a phrase that now comes back to haunt us: If you break it you own it and have to fix it.

Iraq-mapOne of the things that got terribly broken was the life of the Christian community in the north of the country.

It now looks as if Christianity simply will not survive in Iraq. As the author of this piece in The Washington Post notes, Christians there have come to the end of a terrible time, and "the past three months have been the climax of 11 years of hell." (The rise of ISIS can only make things worse.)

It's a sad and disheartening story -- and one more piece of evidence that the decision by the Bush-Cheney administration to invade Iraq has had brutal consequences that have not been eased by the policies of the Obama administration, which at least has withdrawn American soldiers from fighting in the war zones.

This situation with Christians fleeing Iraq is also a time to remind ourselves -- especially those of us who live in the U.S., where most of the population identifies as Christian -- that Christianity finds its roots not in the West but in the Middle East.

Everyone knows that but it's easy for Amerians to forget. Christianity today is having a hard time in the Middle East. Indeed, one of the few Middle Eastern countries -- perhaps the only one -- in which Christians can and do live securely today is Israel, though even there Christians sometimes find themselves unwelcome or put upon.

The persecution of Christians elsewhere -- often at the hands of radical Islamists -- is a story that needs more attention from everyone, including leaders of Western nations, especially those nations that participated in breaking Iraq in the first place.

(For the opinion of a professor who thinks Christianity will survive in Iraq, click here. But I remind you that the Washington Post piece was based on on-the-ground reporting, while the professor's piece is not.)

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A new survey says most Americans think religion is losing ground, even though they want it to have a larger public role. It would be wise to be careful what you wish for. Religion, indeed, should have a voice in the public square, but when just one or two expressions of the faith set the public agenda there is a chilling effect.

A view from within early Nazi era: 9-23-14

When I was working on the book I co-authored with Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, I spent four and a half years reading very little but Holocaust-related books and other material.

Garden-BeastsMany of the books were enlightening, even brilliant. But until I recently read Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin, I never got a very good sense of what it must have been like in Hitler's early days to puzzle over the future and guess whether Hitler would settle down and be a reasonable leader or whether, by contrast, he would do what he wound up doing -- imploding Europe and murdering six million Jews.

Larson's 2011 book takes us inside the first few years of Hitler's rise to power as seen through the eyes of the newly appointed American ambassador to Germany, William E. Dodd, his wife, and their two grown children, who moved to Berlin with their parents when Dodd took office.

Drawing on an extensive record of official and private correspondence, Larson lets us see the early days of Nazi Germany when it was unclear just how horrific the future would be. Even Dodd's racy daughter Martha had Nazi friends (and even lovers) and for the first couple of years in Berlin was convinced that Hitler was good for the country, despite the pain he was causing to Jews and others.

Dodd himself also had early hopes for a better outcome than we know happened, but it didn't take him too long to recognize that Germany's fuhrer was disastrous. He had considerable trouble, however, selling his legitimate worries to others above him in the State Department. One wonders what might have changed had his superiors listened to him and suggested ways to oppose Hitler earlier.

From our vantage point in 2014, it seems impossible that anyone could imagine Hitler's regime would be either benign or constructive. But that is all hindsight. The view from within the context of 1933 and the next few years was quite blurred to many of the people living through it -- Jews, non-Jewish Germans, other Europeans and Americans.

It's that blurry uncertainty that this book helps readers understand. Those who figured out that catastrophe was impending were the ones who paid attention to what the major players had said and done before they took power and the ones who kept eternal values in mind so that they didn't get completely swept up in the excitements of the moment.

As the Nazi era recedes, it becomes too easy to imagine the time in stark blacks and whites. Larson's book gives us a range of colors as seen by people living through the developments of the time.

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The Church of England's bishop of London says religion can be "dangerous" and even "lethal." The Brits must have church potlucks not unlike ours.

The dinosaurs on Noah's ark: 9-22-14

Return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear -- you know, a few thousand years ago when God flooded the whole Earth to punish bad people and when Noah built an ark and filled it with, among other animals, dinosaurs.

Dinosaurs-creationNo, really. Dinosaurs . At least that's what the Creation Museum in Kentucky says happened, and its founder says you can believe it because the Bible is a historical, literally true document, even if it doesn't exactly mention dinosaurs. (The photo here today is from the museum's website.)

I love this story in The Atlantic, despite its obviously snide tone. The writer lets Ken Ham, who heads the museum, paint himself into a corner simply by speaking. For instance:

“If you say that the history in Genesis is not true, then you can just take man’s ideas as true. When you go outside of Scripture, why shouldn’t you just reinterpret what marriage means? So our emphasis is on the slippery slope regarding authority.”

Perhaps Ken Ham is unaware that Mosaic law protected marriage between a man and more than one woman. Polygamy under Mosaic law was a valid form of marriage. Perhaps he skipped over the part in the Bible about wise King Solomon's 700 wives and 300 concubines. And on and on.

But it's too easy just to make fun of the kind of biblical literalism that Ham promotes (for fun and profit). As the author of the Atlantic piece notes, the question is "why did 42 percent of adults surveyed this spring by Gallup say they believe that God created humans in their present form less than 10,000 years ago?"

That kind of widespread scientific know-nothingism shows how easy it can be to delude people, especially on the basis of religion, but not only there. You can find people who still think the Earth is flat. You can find people who believe Barack Obama is a Muslim. You can find people who think human beings never made it to the moon and that 9/11 was an inside job by the Bush administration and that the Holocaust never happened. (You can even find people who believe the Cubs haven't won a World Series since 1908. Oh, wait. That one is true.)

The fragility of human reason is frightening at times. And when we find it leading people to adopt such foolish positions we are called to point it out and call it what it is.

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Pope Francis, speaking this weekend in Albania, says we live in times when "an authentic religious spirit is being perverted" into acts of terrorism. Exactly right. And it's a good thing to name this reality for what it is.

Saudi leaders speaking out: 9-20/21-14

As I have several times in recent weeks, this weekend I return to the question of Islamist terrorism and the ways in which the world must stand against this distortion of religion.

SaudiarabiaThe other day, Saudi Arabia's highest council of clerics, spoke out in clear and determined words about why terrorism is unacceptable in the Islamic tradition.

This comes after similar statements from the kingdom's grand mufti. In addition, the Saudi foreign minister the other day said the fight against the Islamic State, or ISIS, should go on for 10 years.

There is no centralized religious hierarchy in Sunni Islam, but as spiritual centers of the faith, Saudi Arabia and its religious leaders have an important role in setting the tone and the rules. So it's important that they speak clearly and without equivocation.

The problem comes when other Saudis with considerable resources ignore the words of their religious leaders and continue to help fund such groups as al-Qaida and ISIS.

Terrorism and Saudi Arabia's relationship to it are complicated subjects. As you may recall, the vast majority of the 9/11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia. And Saudi Arabia is the home and promoter of the strict Wahabbi form of Sunni Islam, which even many Muslims think of as so rigid as to give space to the kinds of interpretations of the Qur'an and the hadith (the sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad) that can lead to violent extremism.

Indeed, columnist Tom Friedman this week addressed that very topic in this piece. His money line: "Saudi Arabia cannot continue fighting ISIS and feeding the ideology that nurtures ISIS. It will hurt more and more Muslims."

So anything people outside the kingdom can do to encourage moderation and the kinds of statements recently being heard from Saudi religious and political leaders would be helpful. A good example of what's needed has come from Muslims in Germany.

But, as I've said, this is a battle for the soul of Islam, and it must be won by Muslims.

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The head of the World Jewish Congress, after meeting with Pope Francis, says the pontiff compared today's persecution of Christians in various countries with previous persecution of Jews. All such persecution is wrong, of course, and needs to be condemned. But I think everyone needs to be careful about comparing catastrophes. Each one has different elements and different dynamics, and it's simply misleading to say that oppression of Christians today equals oppression of Jews in the Holocaust (and I'm not suggesting that the pope made that comparison directly).

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P.S.: A Jesuit priest, Fr. Francis X.Clooney, director of Harvard's Center for the Study of World Religions, will speak Oct. 17 and 18 in Kansas City, sponsored by the Vedanta Society. The details you need to attend are here.

Is ISIS about religion? Yes: 9-19-14

How would you describe ISIS, or the Islamic State, as it calls itself? Just a terrorist group? A faith-based initiative? Islamists gone crazy? Chickens come home to roost?

Isis-fightersInterestingly enough, the brother of the British aid worker whom ISIS recently beheaded says that ISIS is "not about religion, they're about terror."

That's a myopic and ultimately misleading conclusion.

I agree with Mike Haines, brother of the murdered David Haines, that "The Muslim faith is not to blame for (ISIS), nor is it the fault or people of Middle Eastern descent."

But to suggest that ISIS, some of whose fighters are pictured here, isn't rooted in religion is silly. ISIS represents what happens when radical religious fundamentalism falls off the edge of the sane world.

Its leaders have adopted something close to the fanatical view of Islam promoted by the late Osama bin Laden and his brutal disciples, a view that suggests there is no space in the world for anything except their violently misguided vision of this ancient faith.

I understand that Mike Haines may have been trying to avoid saying thing to which traditional Muslims would take offense. But traditional Islam itself rejects the extremist views of the Islamists like ISIS, though it would help if more Muslims would issue public denouncements of ISIS and its theology and it would help if the media paid attention (as they often do not) when Muslims do issue such statements.

Tell me that the Christmas season in America is no longer much about religion and I'd be inclined to agree with you. But tell me that ISIS is not somehow a product of religion and I think you're simply wrong. It's a product of deviant, unhealthy religion, but religion nonetheless.

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Have you, like me, been wondering what role religion might be playing in the vote this week on whether Scotland should be independent? If so, here's an answer. But maybe this is a subject about which only Presbyterians worry.