Previous month:
December 2014
Next month:
February 2015

Misrepresenting another's faith: 1-30-15

BERKELEY, Calif. -- One of the crucial lessons about interfaith relations is to speak accurately about a faith tradition that is not your own.

InterfaithThis, of course, requires knowledge on the one hand and caution on the other. You must truthfully represent what you say about another's faith or, if you don't know, you must acknowledge your ignorance and be silent.

The other evening I attended a meditation group's gathering here. The group was reading together a book called Realizing God, by Swami Prabhavananda. It's quite an interesting book that looks at various ways of understanding and connecting such religious leaders or gods as Krishna, Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad.

However, as we read the book aloud together, I found three statements I wanted to challenge.

The first was a description of what Christians believe about salvation. The wording could well have come from a branch of the Christian church that would identify itself as conservative, fundamentalist or evangelical. Prabhavananda's book indicated that Christianity emphasizes "personal" salvation. It's certainly possible in Christianity to find such an emphasis, but the whole of Christianity does not employ that emphasis. Rather, other branches of the faith emphasize the role of the covenant community, not just the individual, and other branches also emphasize transformation in this life. In other words, the concern is not so much getting us into heaven as it is getting heaven into us. None of that, however, was to be found in Prabhavananda's description.

In another place, Prabhavananda talked about the Pharisees in a dismissive way. To him they represented sticklers for the rules. That often is the picture painted of them in the New Testament. As Amy-Jill Levine notes in her book, The Misunderstood Jew, "Christian readers usually presume Pharisaic evil, and the Gospel is complicit in setting up this conclusion."

When we try to understand a group of people, it helps to read or hear what they have to say about themselves. But the only writing we have by a Pharisee is by the Apostle Paul, not a disinterested party. So it's easy to think of the Pharisees as joyless rule followers and, as history shows, it's even easier for those Pharisees to become a stand-in for all Jews and for Judaism itself. That results in serious misrepresentation that, at its worst, degenerates into vile anti-Judaism.

Finally, Prabhavananda wrote that churches (or maybe all religions) do not encourage mysticism. This is sort of a half-truth. There are, after all, honored mystical paths in many faiths, including especially Catholicism in Christianity. In Islam, the mystic path is Sufism and in Judaism it's Kabbalah. It is true that mysticism doesn't have much place in Mainline Protestant churches, but to suggest that it's frowned upon by all churches is simply inaccurate.

All of that said, what did I do about this as we were reading the other evening? Nothing except to keep it to myself. The session was not set up for discussion or debate. And when one is a guest in the spiritual home of another, one should abide by that home's traditions.

But I feel free to tell you that this experience reinforced for me the need we all have to speak with care and accuracy about another's faith tradition -- or, if we're not educated enough about it to say anything intelligent, to keep silent and then go learn.

* * *


Speaking of representing other religions accurately, the far end of the spectrum finds people who continue to advocate the elimination of all religion. One such person is the famous sociobiologist, E.O. Wilson. It's such a foolish project that I wonder why anyone would waste breath proposing it. Might as well advocate the elimination of air or water.

Why we ignore Boko Haram: 1-29-15

I have puzzled over why Western victims of Islamist terrorism have focused so intently on al-Qaida and its many related organizations and pretty much ignored the vicious group Boko Haram based in Nigeria.

BokoHaramNo doubt I've also been guilty of turning most of my attention to the terrorists of 9/11 and to those who attacked the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine in Paris while not giving enough coverage to Boko Haram, which has pulled off one horror after another. I've wondered, in fact, whether at least part of this habit of ignoring the trouble in Nigeria is related to racism. The notion that things that happen over there in Africa aren't as important, for racial reasons, as things that happen in Europe and North America is, in fact, much more common than we'd all like to believe.

So I was pleased the other night to see "The Daily Show" make some of these points in a presentation about Boko Haram.

The world, in fact, seems crowded with outrageous people doing outrageous things out of rigid and misguided religious convictions. As the BBC piece to which I've linked you above notes about the name Boko Haram, "Loosely translated from the region's Hausa language, this means 'Western education is forbidden'." Sigh.

In Boko Haram's stultifying, uncompromising and indefensible version of Islam, girls are to be captured, imprisoned and raped, not educated. I have the feeling that the Prophet Muhammad would vomit at such a perversion of Islam.

In any event, the international community cannot ignore Boko Haram any longer and must find ways to stand against it. How that will happen remains to be seen, but it won't happen if our political leaders think the rest of us don't care.

(The photo here today, found here, shows protests after Boko Haram kidnapped dozens of girls last year.)

* * *

P.S.: BERKELEY, Calif. -- While I'm on the West Coast visiting friends and family, I won't be adding the usual second item to the blog each day. I think we'll get back to normal tomorrow.

A time for some laughter: 1-28-15

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls and all the ships on C Street:

LaughWe've been far too serious here for far too long, so today we're going to take a bit of a break and have a laugh (maybe) or two at some faith-based humor. I remind you that I don't write these jokes. I simply pilfer them and pass them along. (If I wrote them no doubt they'd be funnier.)

1. There once was a young woman who went to confession. Upon entering the confessional, she said, "Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned."

The priest said, "Confess your sins and be forgiven."

The young woman said, "Last night my boyfriend made mad passionate love to me seven times."

The priest thought then said, "Squeeze seven lemons into a glass and then drink the juice."

The young woman asked, "Will this cleanse me of my sins?"

The priest said, "No, but it will wipe that smile off of your face."

2. Muldoon lived alone in the Irish countryside with only a pet dog for company. One day the dog died, and Muldoon went to the parish priest and asked, "Father, my dog is dead. Could ya' be sayin’ a mass for the poor creature?"

Father Patrick replied, "I'm afraid not. We cannot have services for an animal in the church. But there are some Baptists down the lane, and there's no tellin' what they believe. Maybe they'll do something for the creature."

Muldoon said, "I'll go right away Father. Do ya' think $5,000 is enough to donate to them for the service?"

Father Patrick exclaimed, "Sweet Mary, Mother of Jesus! Why didn't ya’ tell me the dog was Catholic?"

3. A guy was getting ready to tee off on the first hole when a second golfer approached and asked if he could join him. The first said that he usually played alone, but agreed to the twosome.

They were even after the first few holes. The second guy said, "We're about evenly matched, how about playing for five bucks a hole?" The first guy said that he wasn't much for betting, but agreed to the terms.

The second guy won the remaining sixteen holes with ease.

As they were walking off number eighteen, the second guy was busy counting his $80.

He confessed that he was the pro at a neighboring course and liked to pick on suckers.

The first fellow revealed that he was the pastor at a nearby church.

The pro was flustered and apologetic, offering to return the money.

The pastor said, "You won fair and square and I was foolish to bet with you. You keep your winnings."

The pro said, "Is there anything I can do to make it up to you?"

The preacher said, "Well, you could come to services on Sunday and make a donation. And, if you want to bring your mother and father along, I'll marry them."

* * *

P.S.: BERKELEY, Calif. -- While I'm here on the West Coast for a few days visiting some family I won't be adding the usual second item to the blog. We'll get back to normal in a day or two. (By the way, that laughing face up top here today? That's my niece's son when he was quite a bit younger. I saw him yesterday in Castro Valley, Calif., and he's still capable of a great laugh.)

Kansas' public-religious school issue: 1-27-15

It's always intriguing to me when local news becomes national news and even international news. It may not happen every day, but when it does you can be sure there's something fascinating that has caught the attention of journalists.

Pub-priv-edThe budget smash-up in Kansas is a good example -- one, it turns out, with interesting religious implications.

A journalist for the British newspaper The Guardian has done this long piece about that subject and how Gov. Sam Brownback's destructive tax-reduction program is helping to fuel a battle between public school advocates and those who prefer Christian schools. As Sarah Smarsh reports, "In recent years, attempts in Kansas to erode both the funding of public schools and the separation of church and state within them have reached fever pitch."

On one side are huge numbers of often-poor families who rely on the public schools to educate their children. On the other are pro-Brownback folks who distrust the public schools and want dollars to flow to parochial education. In some ways it has seemed an unfair fight between moneyed people and those without money. But the courts have stepped in, as they should, to stop the worst of the abuses.

With ideologues like Brownback leading the government of Kansas, it's impossible to say how deep in the hole the state's finances will go or how the struggle to degrade the role of public education in favor of religious education will go. What is clear is that it's going to take Kansas a long time to recover from Brownbackism and that the worse the state's public schools are the worse off Kansas will be in the long run.

* * *

P.S.: SUNNYVALE, Calif. -- While I'm on the West Coast for a few days visiting friends and family, I won't be adding the usual second item to the daily blog. We'll return to normal near the end of this week.

Religions in a storm of change: 1-26-15

To say that this is a period of religious upheaval across the globe is to state the obvious. But this period of change takes many forms in many different traditions.

GPS-doors-6In Israel, for instance, Jews are debating whether just the Orthodox should be setting the rules. In the U.S., issues for Jews have more to do with ways in which people who identify as Jewish are less and less likely to be active in a synagogue or even marry other Jews.

Islam, of course, is in a struggle for its very heart and soul, with the mainstream doing battle with violent extremists intent on using the religion to justify violence and doctrinal rigidity.

Catholics are trying to figure out where the church is moving under this exciting new pope, while Protestants in the U.S. are trying to get used to being now only a plurality of the population, no longer a majority.

American Christians are struggling to figure out how to be the church in the 21st Century, when our context has changed fairly dramatically. This is happening at the level of individual congregations, with such reports and recommendations as the one that came out of a task force I chaired at my church, Second Presbyterian of Kansas City.

But it's also happening at the denominational level, such as the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church (TREC) and its recent final report.

Indeed, I am struck by how often the TREC report and my congregation's GPS report come to similar conclusions.

Here's the way the TREC report worded a conclusion also found in the GPS report:

"In contemporary society, people are hungry for spiritual encounters; a sense of awe; genuine community; authentic witness; and practices to live loving, faithful and just lives. They are also less and less inclined to approach the church or any organized religion to find these things."

This is an exciting time to be around to witness and participate in religious change. My hope is that we get more right than wrong, though surely we'll do both.

(The photo here today is one we used in our GPS report. It's taken from inside the church looking out toward what we understand to be our mission field, our neighborhood.)

* * *

P.S.: FREMONT, Calif. -- While I'm on the West Coast for a few days visiting family and friends, I won't be adding the usual second item to the blog here. We'll get back to normal near the end of the week.

When religion gets the blame: 1-24/25-15

Like many of you, I get weary of people who want to blame "religion" (or, using a more dismissive term, "organized religion") for violence, terrorism, wars and other troubles in the world.

No-religionIf only life were that simple. It would be nice to have a single answer to suffering and evil in the world. But blaming religion or even blaming a specific religion, Islam, for the current flood of terrorism and other appalling behavior by people who claim Islam as an identity is way too simple and even simplistic.

Patton Dodd, the editor in chief of OnFaith, recently addressed this question in this essay in a thoughtful and careful way. He wrote:

Blaming “religion” for violence is like blaming “water” for thunderstorms. It’s not that there’s no relationship between the two; it’s just that you aren’t getting any closer to understanding the situation.

When critics of religion blame it for the world's troubles, they are offering a one-sided view of a small segment of religion. Yes, there are adherents of some religious traditions who use their religions to justify extremist actions. But they make up a tiny percentage of all people of faith. Beyond that, by simply blaming religion, no attention is paid to all the good that religion and religious people do in the world.

As my own pastor asked in a recent sermon, given what we know about human nature and our propensity for doing bad things, how do we explain all the goodness in the world? It's a good question.

The point is that we must take great care in describing the role, if any, religion plays in motivating people toward either evil or good. Sweeping statements generally mislead and make any assessment of cause and effect more difficult.

* * *


I made a brief comment here Friday about the death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and I realize now that such brevity cannot capture the complicated nature of the man. So here are two pieces that try, on the one hand, to explain ways in which he was a reformer and, by contrast, the ways in which his human rights record left a great deal to be desired. In many ways, the questions to be raised must go to generations of U.S. leaders who, because of oil, have kept such reforming despots as friends and allies -- friendship that has been in tension with our foundational moral values.

A faithful response to ebola crisis: 1-23-15

As a society, Americans have an astonishingly short attention span, mirrored by the tendency of the news media to focus intently on a story for several news cycles and then forget about it.

Ebola-virusEbola is a good example. Did you forget there was an ebola problem in the world, especially in western Africa? Remember a few months back when that was just about the only thing in the news?

Well, there's still an ebola problem. Here's a recent update on where we stand with it.

The good news is that various representatives of faith communities around the world haven't forgotten about this deadly virus and the people it has been killing.

Here, for instance, is an article by Dr. E. Anne Peterson, vice president of the board of Christian Connections for International Health and a research professor at George Washington University.

Here's a brief excerpt of her report:

The local church, as in past epidemics like AIDS, has been mixed in its response. I witnessed examples of churches being helpful, and others that need improvement if they are going to help control the spread of infection and discourage the related stigma. Most churches have stopped the practice of “laying on of hands” and many churches now have chlorine and hand-washing stations set up before people enter the church, and people are spaced apart in the pews to avoid transmission. Some churches were beginning to go out from their church buildings, conducting services right outside the doors of Ebola treatment units so patients can hear that others are praying for them.

Updates like this give us a chance to remember that these terrible problems don't solve themselves but need the active involvement of health care workers, governments, non-governmental organizations and faith communities. Have you figured out where you fit in?

* * *


I'm sad to note the death of religion scholar Marcus Borg, whom I considered the very best of the members of the Jesus Seminar, with which I've had some issues. Borg's writing was challenging but also insightful and always worth the effort. One of the first Borg books I read (and still recommend) was Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time.

* * *


P.S.: I take note of the death, announced yesterday, of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, a fascinating man I met in 2002 in Riyadh when he was crown prince. He was viewed as something of a reformer, though reform in this religiously mono-religious land often means very little. What happens now that his half brother, Salman, now is king is simply unknown. But don't count on major changes in a land that is ground zero for Islam.

Showing up to stand against racism: 1-22-15

Clearly the work to be done in light of Ferguson, Mo., and other events that raise disturbing questions about racism and how our society polices itself is far from over.

Cherith-BrookAnd it's encouraging to see faith communities playing an important role in keeping the topic on everyone's radar screen.

A little over a month ago, I wrote here about a community gathering at a Kansas City church for the purpose of unpacking our feelings about racism. It's the sort of effort that needs to happen more often and among many faith communities.

So I was pleased this past Friday evening to attend a roundtable discussion about racism, white privilege and similar issues sponsored by the Cherith Brook Catholic Worker House in Kansas City. Although it's a Catholic Worker House, a Presbyterian pastor, the Rev. Eric Garbison, and his family help to oversee Cherith Brook.

Two members of St. Louis Catholic Worker Communities came to discuss their experience in responding to Ferguson, where a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teen-ager in August, leading to massive protests and violence and the eventual decision by a grand jury not to indict the officer.

A group of several dozen people -- mostly whites -- gathered to listen and ask questions. The details of what was said and asked seems to me less important than the fact that people had enough interest and concern to show up and learn. In fact, as one of the St. Louis representatives said, one of the most important things whites can do is simply to show up and show support for those battling racist systems.

These are complex issues. No one holds all the truth. But we won't begin to create a more just and beloved community unless we speak from our hearts and listen the same way. The kind of uncivil discourse modeled for us on radio and TV talk shows is going to make matters worse. It's up to faith communities to be leaders in this. What's yours doing?

(In the photo here today, you see Eric Garbison at front on the right speaking to the two St. Louis Catholic Worker Communities representatives as people gathered Friday evening for a roundtable on racial issues at Cherith Brook Catholic Worker House of Kansas City.)

* * *


Columnist Tom Friedman says it's time to start calling violent extremism that emerges from a radical interpretation of Islam what it is. I agree, but it must be done with accuracy and care so as not to encourage the hateful bigots who want to blame the whole of Islam itself for the terror committed in its name.

* * *

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

History's long ripple effects: 1-21-15

Lots of folks are unaware of the fact that so far Germany has paid at least $87 billion as compensation for crimes committed by the country's Nazi rulers. Much of the money has gone to Jewish survivors of the Holocaust -- the evil plan to wipe out European Jewry that resulted in the murder of some six million Jews.

Graber-1It is, of course, ridiculous to think that any amount of money could repair the damage done by Hitler's program of Jewish annihilation. But the payments over the last decades since World War II have been a consistent reminder to both Germany and the world of what happened in the hope that it would not be repeated. And they have helped survivors live in more health and dignity than would have been possible without the payments.

These reparations payments, as I think of them, have gone through an organization called the Claims Conference, more fully known as the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which was created in the early 1950s.

Some new work of the conference came to my attention recently in this story, which involves Felicia Graber (pictured here), one of the Holocaust survivors whose story is told in the book I wrote with Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust.

When Jacques and I interviewed Felicia for our book, she and her rabbi husband were living in the St. Louis area, but they now have moved to near Baltimore.

As she correctly notes in the piece to which I've linked you, most Holocaust survivors now are nearing the end of life and many are finding it difficult to make ends meet. So new contributions through the Claims Conference should ease that situation for some.

The ripple effects of human history can be both astonishingly long and in many ways unknowable. What Nazi Germany did to the Jews in World War II will affect the lives of people and nations long into the future. Nothing is ever really isolated in this dynamic world.

(By the way, Felicia has written a couple of books about her experiences in the Holocaust and is the subject in other books, including ours. You can find all of those here.)

* * *


After the recent terrorism in Paris, anti-Muslim retaliation incidents there have soared. In standing against violent extremism, what good does it do to launch more violent extremism? This helps not at all.

* * *

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

A beautiful garden for final rest: 1-20-15


Since the 1980s, one of the beautiful Kansas City area gems has been Powell Gardens, less than an hour east of the city on Highway 50. It has become a world class botanical garden as well as the location of a magnificent chapel designed by famed architect E. Fay Jones.

The Marjorie Powell Allen Chapel (seen in the photo on the left) is used for weddings, funerals and other events.

Powell-2So Powell Gardens is a place that celebrates both the cycles of nature as well as the cyles of life. And now, near the chapel, it has added a Memorial Garden (seen in top photo) as a place for the scattering or placement of cremated remains of people. It's a lovely spot that I visited recently at the request of my friend Wendy Powell, a member of my church and a member of the family that donated the land for the center.

The Memorial Garden is a semi-secluded spot that allows for the installation of memorial plaques on a stone wall, which in turn helps to define the space. (You can see the chapel from the Memorial Garden but when you're in the chapel it's almost impossible to notice the Memorial Garden off to one side. So they're close but nicely separated.)

Indeed, one of the plaques (photo at right) in place there now commemorates the lives of twin brothers, Bob and Dick Firestone, who grew up just down the street from me in Woodstock, Ill. Their sister, Sally Firestone, lives in Kansas City and has been a great supporter of Powell Gardens.

One of the things I especially like about the new Memorial Garden is that President and CEO Eric Tschantz and his Powell Gardens staff are trying to make sure it is appropriately welcoming to people of all faiths as well as people of no faith tradition.

Powell-3This fits with the chapel itself, which can be used by people of any religious tradition and, thus, welcomes the entire spectrum of the American religious landscape, which is increasingly diverse.

The seasonality of Powell Gardens (if you haven't seen it in the dead of winter, go; it's a wonderfully different experience from the peak of summer) speaks metaphorically of the seasonality of life itself, and now the botanical center has closed the circle by offering a place where people can arrange to have cremains scattered or placed.

My guess is that some day the Memorial Garden will hold the cremains of more than one couple who began their married life in the adjacent chapel. There will be something profoundly satisfying about that.

(In the top photo, what look like two square stones in the top center of the wall is a small fountain through which water bubbles when the season is warmer.)

* * *


On his trip to the Philippines, Pope Francis was asked by a young girl why God permits children and others to suffer. It's the old theodicy question of evil, and the pontiff gave exactly the right answer: "She is the only one who has put a question for which there is no answer and she wasn't even able to express it in words but in tears." Well, there are answers, but none of them ultimately satisfies.