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Missouri's racist death penalty: 7-31-15

Now there is another reason to oppose capital punishment, especially in my home state of Missouri, which last year tied Texas as the state executing the most people.

Death-penaltyA new study by Frank. R. Baumgartner, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina, has found that "Missouri’s death penalty system is plagued by vast racial and geographic disparities," as he explained here.

You can read his whole study for yourself, but he summarizes his findings this way: "To put it in its starkest terms, the odds of execution for a killer of a black male are 0.22 percent, but they are 1.74 for killers of white males and 3.01 for killers of White females (they are 0.67 where the victim is a black female). In other words, the odds of execution for killers of white females are 14 times greater than those whose victims are black males. 

"With black males constituting the majority of all homicide victims, it is clear that the Missouri death penalty is certainly not designed to protect those lives. Apparently, those particular lives just don’t matter as much as other ones do."

Yes, yes, I know that statistics can be manipulated to prove damn near anything. But these death penalty statistics are disturbing and add to the already overwhelming case against continuing to use the death penalty.

The nation is moving toward less use of capital punishment, which is good. But my state is going in the opposite direction. And that's a huge moral failure, which is why the Missouri State Public Defender's office issued this statement after release of Baumgartner's study.

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The Milwaukee Art Museum has put on display a portrait of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI made out of 17,000 colored condoms. Does the world really need a popephylatic?

Maybe the problem is Netanyahu: 7-30-15

A bit over three years ago, when I returned from helping to lead a Jewish-Christian study tour to Israel, I wrote this piece about Israel and why it seemed to me it was in a position of strength to bring peace to the Middle East.

Caesarea-8Because Israel then (as now) was strong economically and militarily -- to say nothing of its social and religious strengths -- I concluded then that the nation had an opportunity to lead from the position of that strength and to find a way forward so Israel could live in peace with the Palestinians and with all (or at least most) of its Arab neighbors.

Well, things move slowly in the Middle East. As a strong supporter of Israel, I have been pretty consistently disappointed in the sharp-edged leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who earlier this year was elected to a fourth term, though by a narrow margin.

What has struck me as his unnecessary stridency (such as his anti-Iran deal speech to the U.S. Congress earlier this year) is a barrier to coming to some kind of peaceful resolution -- as, of course, is the violence aimed against Israel by rigid parties and groups that continue to demand Israel's obliteration.

I found myself gaining a clearer understanding of my uneasiness with Netanyahu as I read this Harper's piece by Bernard Avishai, who teaches at the Hebrew University and at Dartmouth College.

Avishai urges stronger pressure on the Israeli government by the U.S. and other pro-Israel allies and concludes that "Netanyahu's government will not negotiate in good faith, and he will not stop the settlement project while negotiations are under way. Nor, paradoxically, is diplomatic caution likely to mitigate violence. The opposite is true. A fuzzy vision for the future will be filled in by ordinary Israelis and Palestinians with apocalyptic imaginings culled from past atrocities."

The author expresses doubts about whether the traditional two-state solution can be achieved and suggests instead something like a confederation.

The Holy Land is terrifically complicated and mired in a history that seems to keep the present entangled and unable to move toward a future that would be fair and just to all. Religion, of course, is at the heart of all of this, as Jews, Muslims, Christians and others struggle amongst themselves and with each other over sacred ground.

So I don't know what should be done to get to peace there, but my guess is that Avishai is closer to being right than is Netanyahu. And maybe by a bunch.

(By the way, even some folks in the Israeli security establishment are saying Netanyahu is wrong about the Iran deal.)

(I took the photo of the Israeli flag here today at Caesarea.)

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Oklahoma's top court has made the right decision in ruling that a Ten Commandments display at the state capitol building must go. Again I ask: Why do some people of faith want to turn over the most powerful symbols of their religion to the government? It's destructive of faith. Cut it out.

Stopping a funeral to enforce rules: 7-29-15

Back in the 1980s, I was serving on a regional Presbyterian committee charged with overseeing seminary students from our area.

FuneralOne of those students once was questioned about whether there were any circumstances under which he might agree to baptize a still-born infant. In our theological tradition, baptism is not considered necessary for salvation and still-born babies are not baptized. There's no theological need for it.

The student said he wouldn't ever do such a baptism. But a member of our committee, a pastor who taught clinical pastoral education to seminary students at a hospital, chided him and told the seminarian that under certain circumstances, especially when the parents were in deep grief and wanted the baptism ritual done, he should bend the rules because it was the pastoral thing to do.

At the time, I thought this old pastor was just being a doctrinal softy, and I privately challenged him on it. But I was wrong. He was right. Sometimes theological rules must fall by the wayside as we minister to real needs to hurting people. (Jesus taught us that, but I apparently didn't learn it very well.)

I thought about all of that history the other day when I read this column about a priest in a Rochester, N.Y., suburb acting as if he also had not learned that lesson very well. This occurred at a Catholic funeral. As the column reports, "the priest abruptly canceled the service after bereaved relatives of the deceased wanted to deviate from the order of worship by having (a particular Bible) passage read."

First, of course, it's the priest's and family's responsibility to work these things out ahead of time. But even if this was a surprise sprung on the priest in the middle of the service, canceling the service and adding to the grief of those assembled clearly was not the right approach.

Following rules often is a good and right thing to do. The rules are there for good reasons, often. But if it means hurting people and not ministering to them in a pastoral way, the rules need to bend a bit.

I wish the priest in this case had learned what I eventually learned.

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The New York Times, through "The Stone," a forum to discuss various issues, has been looking at racism. This latest piece is an interview with Joe Feagin, who has studied racism for decades, and includes his conclusion that simple prejudice is way less than half the problem. Rather, the more important part of the problem has to do with systemic racism within American structures, he says. I will be moderating a panel on racism at 6:30 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 11, at Second Presbyterian Church in Kansas City (55th and Brookside) and hope to explore that idea with the four panelists. Hope you can join us.

Did Mark and Luke fictionalize Jesus? 7-28-15

As regular readers of this blog know, I am not a biblical literalist. In fact, as I've said more than once, you can take the Bible literally or you can take it seriously, but you can't do both.

Mythologizing-JesusIt's not that you can't find real history in the Bible -- both in the Hebrew scriptures and in the New Testament. Indeed, you can. But you must be discerning about what is history and what is metaphor, myth and allegory, to say nothing of poetry.

A new book would seem to back up my point, but I have some hesitation about accepting it, well, very literally. It's Mythologizing Jesus: From Jewish Teacher to Epic Hero, by Dennis R. MacDonald, a professor of New Testament and Christian origins at the Claremont School of Theology.

MacDonald has spent much of his career finding ways in which the writers of the Gospels have drawn from the heroic Greek stories by Homer, Vergil and others to create accounts that would make Jesus look more superhuman. It's an interesting approach, and MacDonald makes a pretty persuasive case for his claimed connections between the gospels of Mark and Luke and Homer's Odyssey and Iliad and Vergil's Aeneid.

But MacDonald strikes me has being too sure of himself. He seems to dismiss -- or at least be deeply suspicious of -- the possibility that at least some of the stories told in the gospels are based on actual deeds and sayings by Jesus without needing to be pumped up with heroic overtones.

"A Jewish teacher named Jesus actually existed," he writes, "but within a short period of time, his followers wrote fictions about him, claiming that his father was none other than the god of the Jews, that he possessed incredible powers to heal and raise the dead, that he was more powerful than 'bad guys' like the devil and his demons, and that after he was killed, he ascended, alive, into the sky."

At least MacDonald doesn't do what some marginal New Testament "scholars" do, which is to deny that Jesus ever lived. Rather, he writes this:

"The indebtedness of Mark and Luke to the Homeric epics does not call into question Jesus' existence; the Evangelists simply injected him with narrative steroids to let him compete with the mythological heroes of Greeks and Romans."

So MacDonald claims that "most of the stories discussed here are fictions -- they never happened -- but they are fictions advocating a higher ethical standards than superheroes in Homer -- or Hollywood."

As I say, I detect in such confident claims a false certitude, and I wonder whether in reaching for parallels between the Greek stories and the gospels MacDonald stretches too far, finding more than is really there.

It seems not just possible but likely that Mark and Luke "imitated and transformed several Greek mythological poems," as MacDonald claims they did. But once he found evidence of such a pattern of adaptation and adoption, it appears as if he was willing to find it everywhere he looked -- not unlike a boy with a hammer to whom everything looks like a nail.

I will leave it to other real New Testament scholars to decide whether MacDonald has proposed something useful and insightful or whether his conclusions are overdrawn in the way that those of various proponents of "Bible codes" have been.

In any case, this book is an intriguing read and worth the time to dig through it -- even if, like me, readers wind up not quite convinced of everything the author proposes.

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The Americans with Disabilities Act just turned 25, and although houses of worship were not required to follow its mandates, many of them have, as this RNS piece reports. In my own congregation's sanctuary, several years ago we created "cut out" spaces for wheelchairs. Now my stepson can sit next to us and not crowd an aisle. As theologian Jurgen Moltmann once said, a congregation without disabled people is itself disabled.

Breaking the K.C. dullness curse: 7-27-15

I first met the Rev. Roger Coleman in the 1970s, when I was working on several series of articles for The Kansas City Star about racial turnover and how that was affecting neighborhoods in Kansas City. Roger lived in Midtown and was a force at helping to stabilize neighborhoods and to encourage thoughtful and constructive relations between and among the races.

OF+STONES+AND+FEATHERSHe and his wife, the Rev. Liz Coleman, oversaw the Pilgrim Chapel on Gillham Road for many years, and though Roger has retired as director of the Pilgrim Center, he's still the chapel's chaplain, though now he lives in North Carolina.

Over the years, I've been impressed by the creative ways that Roger has used music and literature to create insight and dialogue among people, and his new book, Of Stones and Feathers: An Odyssey, fits that pattern marvelously well.

This is a fun, warm book that is wonderfully illustrated by Neil Nakahodo, an illustrator/designer at The Kansas City Star.

What's especially fun for Kansas City readers is that anyone familiar with Midtown will know exactly where this fantasy story takes place, as it moves from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (in the book it's called the Rockhill Museum of Art), the Kansas City Art Institute, through Gillham Park, across Armour Boulevard, down Broadway and into Penn Valley Park. Sometimes those locations also take on slightly different names in Roger's busy imagination.

The story is rooted in a curse, one that turns Kansas City into a city plagued by dullness and a destructive love of the past. The only way to break that old curse is for 100 years to pass or for a feather from a golden swan to fall to the cursed ground.

A boy named Jason creates a paperclip swan from a statue on the grounds of the Kemper Art Institute, as it's called in the book, and the adventure begins as they search for happiness and, without quite knowing it, an end to the curse.

What does any of this have to do with faith, besides the fact that a member of the clergy wrote it?

Well, for one thing, it contains an important lesson that many faith traditions try to teach. As the "Angel Voice" says in the book, "Happiness is more than a place, Jason. Happiness is a relationship." Indeed, we are built for relationship -- both horizontal (meaning with other people) and vertical (meaning with God).

We're also built to ask questions, to wonder, to challenge.

"Once you begin to ask 'Why?'" Coleman writes, "the whole world can change."

Is this a children's book? Yes, but not just that. It's also a call to develop courage and to use our imaginations. And if ever there was a divine gift, it is the gift of imagination.

* * *


When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled recently in favor of same-sex marriage being legal in all 50 states, I wrote here about the reality that no community of faith, by this ruling, could be forced to conduct weddings for same-sex couples. There's still some willful confusion about that, and this editorial from the Ledger-Enquirer in Columbus, Ga., takes pains to clear up that confusion by making the same point I made. Good for the editors of that paper.

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P.S.: Speaking of books by Kansas City writers, as I was above,, my own latest book is Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans, which is almost free from Amazon in the e-version. If you want an autographed print version copy, e-mail me at And you can pre-order my next book, co-authored with my pastor, Paul Rock, from Amazon. It's Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church and is due out in early September, just before the pope arrives in the U.S. I've read them both and can recommend them highly. Really.

Faith in a 100-year-old family diary: 7-25/26-15


ECHO LAKE, Vt. -- On a table under our park shelter here at the Bibens (my wife's maiden name) family reunion, cousin Diane had set out all the photographs, diaries and other documents that her now-97-year-old mother had saved through several generations.

I picked up a diary that Gladys, my wife's paternal grandmother, had kept in 1915, a mere century ago, and found that she recorded her impression of the weather each day ("Pleasant," "Snowy, Blowy") at the top of each day's entry. Then came the more interesting stuff.

One day she recorded that she had made a contribution to the Anti-Saloon League. Another day she gave 50 cents to "missions" at her church and, on that same day, 1 cent to Sunday School.

On most Sundays, there was a note about her having attended church (she was -- or at least became -- a Baptist, but not a Southern Baptist) and, at times she listed the preacher's sermon title, such as "The Unchangeable Christ." In her 1916 diary, she notes this on Sunday, April 23: "Did not go to church. Felt rather wicked about it, for it was just plain laziness that kept me home."

Gladys, as a young single woman, was a teacher, and on week days she would record the name of the horse she either rode or that pulled the buggy that got her to school. Then she'd list how many kids showed up -- varying between three and 17 in what I read.

It was a pregnant time socially, religiously, internationally and politically. The conflict that would get named World War I already had begun in far off Europe and the Ottoman Empire was collapsing, though in the pages I read I found no mention of such matters. And though the first stirrings of the Fundamentalist Movement in Christianity were well under way, along with the Pentecostal Movement that in many ways started in Los Angeles at the Azuza Street Revival, I could detect no awareness of that from this young woman up here in the northeast corner of the U.S.

News traveled more slowly then. And the concerns in the diary had more to do with who came over for dinner last night, with going sledding with this or that person, with the people who played a game called "Flinch" with her, with giving quizzes to the children who managed to get to school that day.

On Saturday, June 24, 1916, Gladys C. Merrill married Burnham Bibens. It was a day that she recorded in her diary as "Partially pleasant. Warmer. Just a few drops of rain in P.M." And I wonder if Burnham ever knew she thought of her wedding day as "Partially pleasant."

The sacred ceremony was, to her, the way sacred ceremonies sometimes are for the participants: "I don't know how many came," she wrote, "or much about it but the ceremony was just right and so is my ring and best of all so is he."

And thus began -- or, more accurately, continued -- the Bibens family story that eventually led to my wife Marcia and to this gathering of some 75 folks 100 years later here at Echo Lake.

Unlike what Gladys wrote about her own wedding in 1916, I know how many came to this reunion and I know a fair amount about the gathering, which was just right. And so is my ring and best of all so is she.

(In the photo here today, I'm the tall guy way to the left in the KC Royals baseball hat. Marcia is two people to my right in a greenish top.)

* * *


NASA's discovery of an Earth-sized planet near a star similar to our own raises the old theological question of whether we're alone in the universe. I hope religious leaders are preparing followers to discuss this intelligently. But I am reminded of how, in answer to that question, I once quoted the alleged "man at the next desk" in my old Starbeams column in The Kansas City Star: "Heck, in my family I'm rarely alone even in the bathroom."

Abe Lincoln's theological modesty: 7-24-15


MANCHESTER, Vt. -- On the second floor of Hildene, the huge family home of Abraham Lincoln's son Robert, a small space is devoted to some documents and artifacts related to the 16th president's time in office and his life. (The photo here shows the back of the mansion and some of the formal gardens there.)

In that collection is the draft of an 1862 document known as Abe Lincoln's "Meditation on the Divine Will." It reflects some of his theological thinking about the Civil War, which consumed his presidency. And I share with you a brief excerpt from it today as an example of the kind of gentle, contingent, thoughtful theological thinking our leaders should offer -- if they offer any at all.

"In great contests," Lincoln wrote, "each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be and one must be wrong. God can not be for, and against the same thing at the same time."

It's a call for theological modesty, a plea, in effect, not to draft God into one army or another as the silent commander-in-chief.

And it is prototypical Lincoln, who in his early years was quite the skeptic about matters of theology, though in his later years he moved from what might be called a Deist (or close to that) to something closer to traditional Protestant Christianity.

Time and again we find Lincoln struggling to understand how what he calls the "Divine Will" might be determined and followed, and time and again we find him baffled and willing to acknowledge that he simply cannot figure out that will in this or that situation.

I find such modesty refreshing, compared with the false certitude about many matters of faith offered today by various politicians, particularly the current stadium-full of presidential candidates. For an example, see this recent blog post about Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin.

It's interesting that Lincoln's lineage died here at Hildene. Robert Todd Lincoln, who built this mansion in 1905, was the only child of Mary Todd Lincoln and Abraham Lincoln to survive to adulthood. And by 1975, the last of his line was gone with no direct descendants of Abe and Mary.

That last descendant, a granddaughter, left the property (today the original 500 acres is down to 412) to the Christian Science Church. That didn't work out well for the church, so in 1978, a non-profit group called Friends of Hildene bought the estate and preserves it today as a museum, farm, wedding site, formal garden and community center.

It's also the location of Sunbeam, a beautifully restored 1903 Pullman Palace railroad passenger car that was built when Robert Todd Lincoln was president of the Pullman Company.

It was a simpler time in many ways. My regret is not that we don't live in a time of Pullman cars tended to by underpaid, overworked black porters but, rather, that we have so few leaders like Abe Lincoln, who was willing to acknowledge what he didn't understand about the divine will.

* * *


As I mentioned above, Scott Walker thinks God wants him to run for president. And he's not alone. As this Salon piece notes, five other GOP candidates say the same thing. I'm thinking God is just having some fun.

Faith news while I'm gone: 7-23-15

NORTH SPRINGFIELD, Vt. -- After some family time, I expect to get back to regular blogging here on Friday, but while I work my way back to a normal routine, here are a couple of places where you can find up-to-date news about matters of religion:

NewspapersReligion News Service.

Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life.

And if you haven't read the various essays I offer readers under the "Check this out" headline you'll find on the right side of this page, have a look.

Thanks for being a reader here.

Come back Friday and see what astonishing surprises and brilliance, if any, I have in store for you. Oh, and if you're relatively new to my blog, you have more than 10 years worth of material to catch up on in the archives, a link to which you'll find on the right hand side of this page. Dig in.

* * *

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

Finding faith news while I'm gone: 7-22-15

NORTH SPRINGFIELD, Vt. -- After some family time, I expect to get back to regular blogging here on Friday, but while I work my way back to a normal routine, here are a couple of places where you can find up-to-date news about matters of religion:

Newspapers* Religion News Service.

* Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life.

And if you haven't read the various essays I offer readers under the "Check this out" headline you'll find on the right side of this page, have a look.

Thanks for being a reader here.

Come back Friday and see what astonishing surprises and brilliance, if any, I have in store for you. Oh, and if you're relatively new to my blog, you have more than 10 years worth of material to catch up on in the archives, a link to which you'll find on the right hand side of this page. Dig in.

* * *

P.S.: When my National Catholic Reporter column posts this morning you can find it at this link:


Faith news while I'm gone: 7-21-15

NORTH SPRINGFIELD, Vt. -- After some family time, I expect to get back to regular blogging here on Friday, but while I work my way back to a normal routine, here are a couple of places where you can find up-to-date news about matters of religion:

NewspapersReligion News Service.

Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life.

And if you haven't read the various essays I offer readers under the "Check this out" headline you'll find on the right side of this page, have a look.

Thanks for being a reader here.

Come back Friday and see what astonishing surprises and brilliance, if any, I have in store for you. Oh, and if you're relatively new to my blog, you have more than 10 years worth of material to catch up on in the archives, a link to which you'll find on the right hand side of this page. Dig in.