Previous month:
February 2015
Next month:
April 2015

We're all in lingering shock: 3-31-15

Last week I attended the funerals of two 60-something friends who died suddenly and unexpectedly. It was a terrible week.

ShockOne had a massive stroke. One committed suicide. One service was in a big suburban church with high-tech systems to splash hymn lyrics on the wall. One was in a high-toned, glorious stone sanctuary 109 years old in Midtown.

And if life is a gift -- as I believe it is -- the sudden removal of that gift leaves us with what the pastor who performed one of the services called "lingering shock."

In some ways, that's not a bad description of the way we go through much of life, starting with the rude astonishment of birth itself, when we leave the warm comfort of the womb and are thrust into a strange land where we are expected to breathe on our own.

Later, our first experience of injustice or disappointment leaves us with more lingering shock. How can this be the way the world work?

It's the same kind of lingering shock the first time we are disappointed in love, the first time a friend or family member dies, the first time the world goes nuts with mass murder or natural disaster or rank corruption, the first time we learn of pilots smashing planes into mountains, the first time a flawed economic system throws us out of a job we thought we'd have for almost ever.

When I left those funeral services I thought I would write again about the preciousness of life and about how we must not waste it with mindless frivolity but, instead, must seek to live a life of service to others. All that's true, but instead of saying that again, I want to remind each of us to be gentle with one another because there's a strong likelihood that the people with whom we'll have contact this week are suffering some kind of lingering shock.

It's the way of the world. And one of the tasks of faith is to guide us to be a healing presence for the one in shock. For lingering shock is the human condition.

(The image above came from here.)

* * *


If you're gay or divorced or a murderer -- it's pretty much all the same to Archbishop Raymond Burke, formerly of St. Louis. Perhaps this is one more reason Pope Francis moved him into a do-nothing job. Yikes.

* * *

P.S.: The annual KC AIDSWalk is coming soon -- April 25, and I'll be walking again. If you can pledge any amount, I'd really appreciate it, and so would the AIDS Service Foundation, which benefits from the walk. To make a pledge, just click here. And thanks.

A great Bible resource site: 3-30-15

Do I read the Bible every day? No, but I do read it and study it with some regularity. For instance, I'm often part of a Sunday morning class at my congregation that studies the scriptural passages used in last week's and this week's sermons.

Bible-stackThen each Wednesday morning, a small group of men from my church -- a group that I've been part of for more than 30 years -- does fellowship, breakfast, Bible reading and prayer.

On Thursdays I help to lead a Bible study group in Downtown Kansas City. The group was started by my church more than 30 years ago but now is mostly made up of people (Catholics, Methodists, Episcopalians) who are not members of my congregation.

In between all of that I may be reading this or that passage of the Bible as I prepare a blog entry, a column, a book or a sermon.

Over all my adult years of reading and studying the Bible, however, I wish I had had access to an online source I just discovered by reading the print edition of The National Catholic Reporter. It was about an online Bible study reference site founded by the Society of Biblical Literature. It's called Bible Odyssey, and it is the phenomenal mother lode of useful, accessible, readable scholarly information about the Bible.

And when I say mother lode, I'm not exaggerating. At the bottom of the home page, there's a "browse by subject" line that's done alphabetically. Oh, my. Just under "A" there are nearly 70 main topics and dozens and dozens more subtopics.

Never heard of the Society of Biblical Literature? Here's its own description of itself: "Founded in 1880, the Society of Biblical Literature is the oldest and largest learned society devoted to the critical investigation of the Bible based on the Humanities’ core disciplines. With over 8,000 members worldwide, it represents and convenes scholars whose life work is in biblical and ancient Near Eastern studies. The SBL promotes the academic study of the Bible and of sacred texts generally."

I particularly liked this quote in the NCR story from John Kutsko, SBL executive director: "The Bible is particularly susceptible to misinformation, bad information or even hurtful interpretation. We can't understand Shakespeare and Elizabeth English without notes. The same goes for the Bible."

At any rate, if you have any interest in the Bible at all, this is a site you don't want to miss. Along with texts, there are videos of scholars explaining things in pretty easy-to-understand language.

So if any of the groups with which I read the Bible suddenly finds me sounding a lot smarter, I'll be happy to give credit to the Bible Odyssey site.

* * *


Quite a few states, moving against the tide of history, are working on bills that would allow discrimination against gays and lesbians, the Associated Press reports. When the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was adopted at the federal level under the Clinton presidency, it was meant to (and did) restore the freedom of such groups as Native Americans to use otherwise-illegal drugs in religious ceremonies. But now that concept is being used to allow rank prejudice to have the status of legal protection. And yet, as religious scholar Stephen Prothero pointed out in a recent Facebook posting, even rank prejudice can be sincerely held religious belief and, as such, should be protected (not just religious belief we agree with). Here's Prothero's post: Distressing to see so many of my FB friends lining up to take down the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act on the grounds that it is a "license to discriminate" against the LGBT community. The original RFRA was passed unanimously by the US House (and with 3 dissenters only in the Senate) in an effort to restore religious liberty to Native Americans using peyote stripped from them in Employment Division v. Smith (1990). Recently, the federal RFRA was used to protect the rights of a Muslim prisoner to keep a beard. I support gay rights. I support gay marriage. I also support religious liberty. There are sometimes conflicts between these commitments--I recognize that. But it is a sad, sad day when there is so little regard for the rights of religious conscience for fellow citizens, especially among my liberal friends who should be their defenders. Religious liberty (and freedom of speech) are not just for people who agree with your religion (or secularity) or your speech. It is for people with whom you disagree, even evangelicals. [PS--I disagree with one key feature in the law, which extends this religious liberty protection to "entities" including corporations. But I support state RFRAs in general for protecting religious minorities.] Smart letter here by legal scholars for those who want to learn more about this law (versions of which have been passed in 31 states, for reasons having nothing to do with homosexuality)--rather than just venting about it without understanding the history of religious liberty in the US or the specific provisions of this law. (Here's a link to the letter Prothero mentioned.)

A kind act that can't be repaid: 3-28/29-15

In Jewish tradition an act of loving kindness that cannot be repaid is called gemilut hasadim. As the Jewish Virtual Library to which I've just linked you notes, it "is a fundamental social value in the everyday lives of Jews."

JC-GarWhat are some examples? They include "clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, burying the dead and visiting the sick."

It's a beautiful concept and something like it is to be found in most, if not all, of the major religions. Today I will tell you about an act of gemilut hasadim performed last month by a rabbi and an Episcopal priest.

One day Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn of Temple Israel of Greater Kansas City got a call from Rabbi Steven Ballaban, an old friend from seminary days who now works as a military chaplain in Japan.

It turned out that the Japanese-born widow of a former Navy pilot, who grew up in Kansas City and who died in Vietnam, had died in Japan. John Jerdo “Jack” Oyer's wife Kiomi had expressed a desire to have her ashes scattered on the grave of her husband.

The problem was that her husband's grave was in a family plot in Cairo in northern Missouri. Ballaban thought that although Cukierkorn lived on the Kansas side of the KC metro area, it wouldn't be too much to ask him to drive to Cairo, locate an old rural cemetery and scatter Kiomi's ashes there.

Jacques agreed to help, but the trip to Cairo, which is due north of Moberly, took "a good three hours" one way, he said. In cold, snowy weather on Feb. 20. Jacques had asked if I wanted to accompany him that day but I wasn't able to. However, our mutual friend, Fr. Gar Demo, rector of St. Thomas the Apostle Episcopal Church in Overland Park, Kan., did ride up with him and assisted in the brief ceremony at the plot where Jack Oyer's parents are also buried.

To find the cemetery, Jacques had called the Moberly Monitor-Index newspaper, so a reporter went along to the cemetery and wrote this story about the event. That reporter, Connie Duvall, took the photo that you see here today.

An act of gemilut hasadim, he said, is "doing something without expecting anything back." More than that, he said, it's doing something for people who simply cannot do anything back for you, such as Kiomi: "They can never thank you. They can never do anything for you."

This idea of gemilut hasadim, however, is not considered part of Jewish law, or Halacha, those normative codes established by rabbinical jurists, as Jacques describes Halacha in his book, Accessible Judaism: A Concise Guide. Rather, this kind of act, while not included in Halacha, "is just a good idea," he said. It's not unlike etiquette, which, in an American social context, "is not a legal thing." It's simply "rules for living that make life a little more pleasant." It's "ethical concepts for better living."

But performing such an act can mean driving six or seven hours on what Jacques called a "miserably cold" day, standing outside in a frozen cemetery just beyond a hamlet oddly named Cairo in northern Missouri and scattering the ashes of a Japanese widow of an American pilot, neither of whom Jacques or Gar had ever met.

Gar explained this act through Christian eyes by saying that it was "similar. . .to the concept of 'love thy neighbor as thyself.' Jesus adds this second commandment to the Shema (Tammeus note: The central prayer of Judaism found in Deuteronomy 6) as an expansion and redefinition that our focus is not only to be on God but is to also be an extension of loving God in which we love that which God has created, particularly our neighbor.

"Loving our neighbor, at least as I understand this commandment, is not done for reward, but because we love God. The simple act of honoring the wishes of a woman neither of us met or knew for me was an extension of loving a neighbor, even half the globe away. It was a simple honor and a good use of a cold, but sunny day."

It's the kind of act to which healthy religion calls its adherents -- whether directly by examples in sacred writ or indirectly by inference from scripture and tradition. And it's the kind of act that adds to the goodness in the world.

* * *


To counteract the images of Islam arising from Islamist terrorists, the British Museum is about to open a display of historical Islamic art in two new galleries. Such moves can actually help reshape thinking. For instance, I remember being simply stunned by the beauty of the architecture the Islamic world was producing hundreds of years ago in such places as Uzbekistan when I visited that country in 2002. It opened my eyes to the artistic gifts Islam has given the world.

Christians respond in Pakistan: 3-27-15

Something akin to what happened last year in Ferguson, Mo., also happened recently in Pakistan: An oppressed minority fought back.

PakistanIn the case of Pakistan, it was the Christian community, long not just a minority but an often-despised minority. This New York Times op-ed piece tells what happened and offers some thoughts about what it means.

That piece reports that in the last two years alone there have been three dozen targeted attacks on Christians in Pakistan, along with suicide bombings and other atrocities aimed at them.

All of this has special meaning for my congregation, which for several years has supported schools for Muslim and Christian boys and girls in the country, working through the Presbyterian Education Board of Pakistan. Some of our members have even been to Pakistan to assess the needs and assist in building relationships needed to meet those needs.

And the New York Times story is datelined out of Lahore, where Forman Christian College (sort of the Harvard of that part of the world) is located.

With all that Pakistan has been through and with all the dangers it has spread to the rest of the world since its creation in 1947, I'm beginning to wonder whether my friend Markandey Katju, a former justice on India's Supreme Court, is right when he says  that Pakistan is a bogus country that should be reabsorbed into India. I don't think that's a viable alternative now, but at the moment Pakistan seems safe for no people of any faith.

* * *


Pope Francis plans to visit Turin, Italy, in June to see the Shroud of Turin and hold some other meetings. I've long been intrigued by the shroud (I last wrote about it here). I just wish the question of its authenticity would get settled in my lifetime.

* * *



Francis Shoots Pool at Chubb's Bar, poems by Al Ortolani. Spartan Press of Kansas City offers this raucous, anachronistic little book of poetry that is marinated in religious imagery and thought, from St. Francis of Assisi to Lazarus (who can't find his car keys) to Jesus (who tells his mother he's just friends with Mary Magdalene and plans to hang out with Lazarus tonight), Mary and Joseph (who drive a Pontiac). Need to loosen up a little theologically, historically, emotionally? Ortolani's work may get you there. You can get the book through Prospero's Books in Westport in Kansas City. Or maybe at Chubb's Bar, wherever that is.

No, God didn't kill Jesus: 3-26-15

The most widely held explanation of what it meant that Jesus died on a cross is under increasing attack from Christian theologians who are deconstructing various theories of atonement and finding them not just wanting but alarmingly misleading.

Did-God-Kill-JesusTwo-plus years ago it was Derek Flood's book, Healing the Gospel, which I reviewed here. Flood's target was what's called the penal substitutionary theory of atonement, which, in short, says that Jesus had to die as a sacrifice to placate God's wrath over humanity's sinful nature. (If you ask of that theory, "Where's the love?", you've asked exactly the right question.)

Now comes a renewed assault on that same atonement theory, this time in Tony Jones' excellent new book, Did God Kill Jesus?: Searching for Love in History's Most Famous Execution.

These are the kind of books I love. They're serious. They unpack profoundly important theological questions. And they're not written in obscure academese but, rather, in clear language accessible to most readers.

Jones is one of the founders of what's called the Emergent Church Movement, which has roots in the evangelical branch of Christianity but which has called into question a lot of the theology of that branch.

His new book will not please biblical literalists and others who would identify themselves as theologically conservative because it challenges one of their foundational understandings of the meaning of the central event of Christianity, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ (and, then, his resurrection).

The substitionary theory of atonement, he writes, has led religious leaders into engaging in "emotional manipulation," meaning efforts to scare people into heaven with visions of hell. He calls that "inexcusable."

Jones' important insight in this book is that the crucifixion "forever changed both us and God." But wait. Aren't we told that God is unchangeable? Well, we may be told that, but that's not what the biblical witness shows. Indeed, we find many Bible stories in which God's mind or path of action is changed, though for sure not God's nature.

When, as Christian theology maintains, God became incarnate in and as Jesus of Nazareth, God began to experience first hand what it means to be human.

"Only when God felt abandoned, alone in the universe," Jones writes of Jesus' life, "did God gain total empathy with the human condition."

It's an insight I would love to hear theologians, pastors and other well-read Christians discuss in a forum. I think Jones is on the right track here but I bet there may be implications stemming from his conclusion that neither he nor anyone else has yet imagined.

A similarly useful insight -- though not unique to Jones -- is, as Jones puts it, "For there to even be anything other than God, God had to withdraw, to retreat. That is to say, God had to make room for something that was other-than-God. . .And that act set the course for God's activity up to the present day." In other words, God is self-limiting and gives humanity and nature freedom to act, meaning God's love is never coercive. Instead, God steps aside and permits fallible human beings to find their way to God in their own way. As Jones notes, part of God's freedom "is the freedom to give up that freedom."

Some interpreters of the crucifixion have suggested that it was child abuse, in which God demanded punishment of God's own son. And when you are marinated in the penal substitutionary theory of atonement, that's perhaps a logical conclusion. But Jones argues that ". . .the death of Jesus cannot be a repudiation of God's love. It cannot pit God against Jesus. Nor can it be anything but good news." Exactly.

The problem, as Jones notes so succinctly, is that "bad theology begets ugly Christianity. Good theology begets beautiful Christianity." The widely held substitutionary atonement theory is, Jones argues persuasively, bad theology.

There is much more to like about this book. More details. More insights. More fascinating theology. More exploration of other theories of atonement. And, in the end, more ways to think through what is absolutely crucial (pun intended) to Christianity. If only it could find an open-hearted set of readers who currently are stuck with the off-key substitutionary atonement theory. I won't hold my breath for that.

(Oh, and given a choice between this new Jones book and Killing Jesus, by Bill O'Reilly, which I reviewed here, go with Jones every time.)

* * *


In case you are imagining that the sweeping movement to give LGBTQ people equal civil rights has convinced all Americans, take a look at this story about an attorney in California trying to get signatures on a ballot initiative that would allow gays and lesbians to be killed "by bullets to the head or any other convenient method." Yes, I know that an attorney proposing murder sounds preposterous, but so does a lot of anti-gay garbage in this country, most of which has roots in a misreading of scripture. For my own essay on what the Bible says about homosexuality, look under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page.

* * *

P.S.: You have a chance this Saturday to witness an interesting ordination of an Egyptian ministerial candidate in a Presbyterian setting in the Kansas City area. Amgad Megally will be ordained by the Delta Presbytery and the Synod of the Nile in Egypt at 3 p.m. Saturday at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church, 11100 College Blvd., Overland Park, Kan. All are welcome. A press release from Grace Covenant says that Megally will lead the Arabic Presbyterian Fellowship, a spiritual and social ministry designed for Arabic-speaking people in Kansas City supervised by Heartland Presbytery (PCUSA). The APF meets for worship at 5 p.m. Sundays at Rolling Hills Presbyterian Church, 9300 Nall Ave., Overland Park.

Abe Lincoln and the Jews: 3-25-15

I wish I were going to be in New York City soon. I would love to see a just-opened exhibition at the New York Historical Society called "Lincoln and the Jews." It runs through June 7.

Lincoln-JewsAt the moment, the best I can do is surf around on the society's website page about the exhibit and to read The New York Times piece to which I've linked you in the first paragraph here today.

I was struck by this fact reported in that story: When Lincoln was born in 1809, there were only about 3,000 Jews in the U.S. By the time he was elected president in 1860, that number had grown to about 150,000.

Lincoln had Jewish friends and seems to have had excellent relations with Jews his whole life. Or at least after he first met some.

Lincoln and the Jews is also the title of a new book, published three days before the opening of the new exhibit.

It's intriguing to me that scholars seem to be devoting increasing attention to the status of American Jews around the time of the Civil War. Just three years ago, for instance, I did this blog posting about a new book called When General Grant Expelled the Jews.

I like this quote in The Times' story from a Lincoln scholar named Harold Holzer: "When it came to personal interactions with Jews or issues that had an impact on Jews, Lincoln did the right thing on every occasion."

Too bad that hasn't been true of all of our presidents.

* * *


Is Sunday school a dead institution among Christian churches? Well, no. But here and there, this report says, it's on life support. Does it have a future? Maybe. But nothing about its potential future is guaranteed.

* * *

P.S.: I'll be participating again this year in AIDSWalk Kansas City to benefit the AIDS Service Foundation of KC. The walk is April 25. I hope you can help by making at pledge here. Any amount will be deeply appreciated. Thanks.

A godless humanity, a short future: 3-24-15

I have said this before but I say it again today to make a point about a new book: In matters of religion, the opposite of faith is not doubt. Rather, the opposite of faith is false certitude.

SapiensIt's easy to find such certitude among people of faith who are convinced they know God's will for all of humanity, who are certain that holy writ must be read as literally true and historically accurate and who already know not only that a real heaven and a real hell exist but also know who ultimately will end up in each one.

Such people of faith are bad enough. Equally distasteful, however, are people of no faith whatsoever who also are absolutely certain of their conclusions about matters of religion.

Which brings me to a hot-selling new book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari, who lectures in the Department of History at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. It's a fascinating read in many ways, and Harari has the ability to cover complex and difficult subjects in accessible language.

However, the book reeks of false certitude about matters of religion.

Harari refers to religion generally as "fiction." He concludes that "not even one" single organism on the planet "was designed by an intelligent creator." He says that "priests and sorcerers have created gods and demons throughout history. . .It all revolved around telling stories, and convincing people to believe them." Among what he calls "fictional entities" is God. And, he insists, humanity has experienced 2,000 years of "monotheistic brainwashing," though it's unclear why he picked 2,000 and didn't take it back another 1,000 or so years to the beginnings of Judaism, which often is given credit for turning monotheism into a dominant religious view in the world.

For Harari, there is no room for debate about these conclusions. They are simply stated as fact in much the same way that a literalist Christian would state as fact that Adam and Eve were real people or that Earth was created in a single day a few thousand years ago.

There is no discussion in Harari about religious belief in revelation as a way of knowing things. The only possible explanation for religious doctrine for him is the fertile imagination of the human brain.

He does call religion "the third great unifier of humankind, alongside money and empires." But in case you think that's something like a compliment, he immediately follows those words with these: "Since all social orders and hierarchies are imagined, they are all fragile, and the larger the society, the more fragile it is. The crucial historical role of religion has been to give superhuman legitimacy to these fragile structures."

The author also seems to buy into the false idea that Christians believe in the idea of the immortal soul. He writes, for instance, of what he calls "the traditional Christian belief in free and eternal individual souls." But the idea of an immortal soul is not a Christian idea. Rather, it's an old Greek idea, which sometimes has slipped into sloppy Christian theology. The contrasting Christian idea to the immortal soul is the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, which affirms that only God is immortal and that if we are to spend eternity in the divine company it will happen not because we possess an immortal soul but because God will give us the gift of eternal life. But I suppose I shouldn't be too hard on Harari for this error, given that many Christians don't understand it either.

Harari does make an interesting point about polytheism, which he says is "inherently open-minded, and rarely persecutes 'heretics' and 'infidels.'" But soon after that good observation, he issues this unwarranted half-truth broadside against monotheists: "Since monotheists have usually believed that they are in possession of the entire message of the one and only God, they have been compelled to discredit all other religions."

I'm not saying that hasn't happened. Indeed, it has happened -- and continues to happen -- much too often. But his "usually" isn't enough in that sentence to account for the many people of monotheistic faiths who advocate living in religious harmony with people of traditions different from their own, including atheists. Such people have no interest in discrediting all other religions.

Well, none of this may matter at all in the long run if Harari is right that the Homo Sapiens species has no more than 1,000 or so years left on the planet. His discussion of genetic engineering and similar developments and what all that means for the future of humanity is worth the price of the book. (We humans, he says, invented gods and now are on our way to becoming gods.) Just don't expect to pick up much useful insight in the book into what faith means today to people of faith and what it has meant to them across the history of humankind.

* * *


It's intriguing that the future of Islam is being debated and pondered in many places around the world, including in the Indian paper called The Hindu in this piece. The money paragraph: "Any discussion on the future of Islam must factor in two things: one is that more Muslims today live in multicultural, open and democratic societies — mostly in the West — with very different notions of individual freedoms and human rights than the tribal cultural values that shaped early Islam and to which the Establishment Islam continues to cling on to. Secondly, the concept of a monolithic global umma, undifferentiated by factors such as race, culture, gender and personal lifestyle choices, is a myth. It is a stereotype that, ironically, has been promoted both by Islam’s critics and its advocates to suit their own different interests."

A seder meal on Good Friday: 3-23-15

Within my own lifetime, the Good Friday liturgy of the Catholic Church spoke of "perfidious Jews." This was in harmony with Christianity's long, sad history of anti-Judaism, which I've detailed in this essay.

Seder-2Pope John XXIII finally removed the phrase in 1959 and it was officially left out of the 1962 missal and has been missing ever since.

In the years since then, Catholic-Jewish relations have improved, beginning with the Vatican II document called "Nostra Aetate," in which for the first time the Catholic Church absolved Jews of being guilty of the death of Jesus Christ -- a crime the church had charged them with for century after century. There is still much reparation work to do between Christians and Jews, but at least we no longer have popes creating ghettos in Rome.

This repugnant history came to mind the other day when I received an invitation to attend a seder dinner at a Christian church on Good Friday, April 3.

My friend Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn will be gathering for this seder meal with members of his synagogue, Temple Israel of Greater Kansas City, at St. Thomas the Apostle Episcopal Church in Overland Park, Kan., where our mutual friend Gar Demo is the priest. 

When Temple Israel was being created, it first met at St. Thomas. And this will be the second or third year in a row that T.I. will hold its seder meal there. One year the temple's seder meal was at my congregation, Second Presbyterian Church of Kansas City. (That's the seder you see in the photo here today, with Rabbi Jacques holding the microphone.)

As I say, there's still plenty of work left to do to root out antisemitism from the American culture and especially from many places around the world, where this ancient hatred seems resurgent. But here and there you can find examples of Christians and Jews cooperating and living in such harmony that a synagogue could hold its seder meal on Good Friday inside the walls of a Christian Church. Cheers for that.

* * *


Lots of work already is under way to prepare for the visit of Pope Francis to the U.S. in September. My new book, co-authored with my pastor, Paul Rock, is due out just before the pope arrives. It's called Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk Into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church. If you plan to see the pontiff while he's in this country, we'll give you a copy to present to him. But he has to promise to read it and give us a good Amazon rating.

Too slow on same-sex policy: 3-21/22-15

When it became official a few days ago that my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), had voted to change the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples, I was disappointed.

HomosexualityNot in the vote. I favored the change. Rather, I was disappointed that it took so long to achieve something close to marriage equality in the church. (Here, by the way, is the official PCUSA release about the matter, which pays careful attention to governance details.)

The church universal -- not just us Presbyterians -- should have been the leaders in the matter of removing prejudice against the LGBTQ community. Instead, we've been slow followers of the culture, which has been moving toward getting it right much more quickly than the church. (Sometimes the culture is wrong and faith communities need to use their prophetic voices to say so, but in this case the culture has been right.)

Pcusa-crossReligion should be in the business of liberating people from prejudice and hatred. It took way too long for the church to get this right when it came to slavery and to women's liberation. And now it has taken too long to start to get it right in the matter of how how gay brothers and sisters are treated.

And so far, unlike the Episcopal Church, we Presbyterians don't have a liturgy specifically designed for same-sex unions. Eventually we no doubt will get to that, but that also has been too slow. (For the Episcopal liturgy, click on this link:  Download IWillBlessYouandYouWillBeaBlessingApproved)

Religion that isn't at the forefront of change designed to remove oppression from people is part of the problem, not the solution. I'm glad my fellow Presbyterians now are moving to be part of the solution in this area, but cheering loudly because we finally finished this race long after other faith communities and long after much of the culture seems inappropriate. We are far from pioneers in this matter.

And, by the way, if you want to know what the Bible really says about homosexuality, I invite you to look under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page for my essay on that subject.

* * *


Oklahoma's foolish plan to take responsibility for marriage licenses from government officials and turn it over to clergy is backfiring. Good. And I liked the new name Jon Stewart came up with recently for the state -- Oklahomophobia.

Missouri's shameful death penalty: 3-20-15

It is hard to imagine how we came to this sickening place of crazily expensive, state-sponsored retribution and violence. But Missouri's continued use of the death penalty again has earned us worldwide attention and shame, so I return to this topic today that I briefly addressed on Thursday.

ExecutionFor instance, before Tuesday's scheduled execution of a man with obvious intellectual disabilities, Britain's Guardian newspaper published this story about Cecil Clayton's trip to the edge of death.

Here's part of what the story said about the impending execution:

Under the constitution of the United States it is forbidden to execute anyone who is insane and incapable of understanding the fact of his impending death and the reason for it. Under separate but equally clear rulings, it is also prohibited to execute an intellectually disabled prisoner.

Yet at 6 p.m. on Tuesday Missouri time, barring last-minute intervention, Clayton – a man who as a result of losing part of his brain has been deemed by a succession of medical experts to be insane and intellectually disabled – will be put to death by lethal injection. 

Clayton was, in fact, executed Tuesday night. I had posted a Facebook note about this case earlier in the day and I called the office of Gov. Jay Nixon to register my desire that he grant clemency in this case. That obviously didn't help.

Time after time Missouri's reliance on capital punishment has placed the state in the national and international spotlight in unwanted ways. It has made the state seem vengeful and defiant of essential standards of civility and justice. The death penalty system is broken, costly, immoral and nothing short of outrageous. Its continued use not only does no good, it does the opposite, creating more havoc and evil.

I am not arguing that people convicted of serious crimes be treated as if they were guiltless and set free. Not at all. I think that for the worst crimes a punishment of life without the possibility of parole is perhaps the best solution. But to continue killing killers as a way to deter killing is stupid and we must find a way to stop it.

* * *


The United States now has its first accredited Muslim college -- Zaytuna, in Berkeley, Calif. This may be another cultural test: Can a fully accredited college exist without beer?