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The Doctrine of Discovery's religious roots: 8-31-15

Until I read Vinnie Rotondaro's special report, "Lives carved by the trail of history," in the current issue of The National Catholic Reporter, I was only vaguely aware of something called the "Doctrine of Discovery" and its religious roots.

Discovery-doctrine(I wish I could give you a link to Vinnie's piece -- and especially to his sidebar, "Disastrous doctrine had papal roots" -- but it hasn't yet been posted at the NCR site. It is, however, available in the print version of NCR.)

It turns out that the Doctrine of Discovery has a lot to do not only with the global history of imperialism, including our own, but also the disastrous history of how Native Americans were (and are) treated by the Europeans who landed in the New World.

As the site to which I've linked you in the first paragraph above explains, "Papal Bulls of the 15th century gave Christian explorers the right to claim lands they 'discovered' and lay claim to those lands for their Christian Monarchs. Any land that was not inhabited by Christians was available to be 'discovered', claimed, and exploited. If the 'pagan' inhabitants could be converted, they might be spared. If not, they could be enslaved or killed."

There was plenty of religious hubris involved in all of this, of course. Pious Christians (think of Christopher Columbus) were heading into non-Christian lands to enlighten the savages. At least that's how many of those Christians thought of their jobs.

As Rotondaro reports, "Scholars say the Doctrine of Discovery holds immense importance in world history. They say it resulted in disasters and genocide for native peoples, but that its legacy remains largely overlooked."

Papal bulls dating back to 1436 established the pattern for the subjugation of native peoples. For instance, a 1452 papal bull called Dum Diversas, Rotondaro notes, "instructed the Portuguese crown 'to invade, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens, pagans, and other enemies of Christ, to put them into perpetual slavery, and to take away all their possessions and property."

(Who were the Saracens? The same people called Muslims today.)

Over the years there have been many efforts to get the Vatican and secular governments to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery. Quakers are behind one current such effort.

Rotondaro reports that Vatican officials say that "subsequent papal bulls had 'abrogated'" the offending previous bulls "and that there was no need to take further action."

And yet we still see vestiges of this doctrine at play in the lives of Native Americans today and we see its thinking reflected in some aspects of American and European foreign policy, though today the goal of control of native peoples often is much less religious than it is economic.

The reason I raise the issue at all is that history -- even history 500 or more years old -- can shape our thinking and actions today, even if we don't know or have forgotten that history. Better to understand the ways in which today's reality is shaped by history so we can decide more clearly and more intentionally whether we like and want to keep that shape.

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Sometimes people have more influence after their death than during their life. The obvious example is Jesus. But sometimes you get examples you'd rather not have. One is the late Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical American Islamist who was killed in a drone strike in Yemen in 2011. As this New York Times Magazine story suggests, his influence continues -- to the point that it's got people wondering if there might have been a better way to deal with him than have him killed. Violence often simply begets more violence. It's been a hard lesson to learn.

Can pope get Iran nuclear deal enacted? 8-29/30-15

People of faith often debate how deeply they should get involved with politics as individuals and how much their faith communities should get involved.

Iran-nukesIn some ways it's a bit of a silly debate given that nearly everything that happens in the world has to do with politics. Even our best charitable impulses -- feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, healing the sick -- get tangled up with public policy in countless ways, and we often must sort out how to interface with the governmental agencies involved.

And yet there are issues that people of faith can and may choose to ignore.

For instance, Pope Francis, when he comes to the U.S. in a few weeks, could say not a word in his Sept. 24 address to a joint session of Congress about the nuclear deal the U.S. and other nations have struck with Iran.

But the guessing is that not only will he deal with that subject directly but that the opponents of the imperfect but necessary agreement will be flying in the face of what Politico, in this piece, calls the "Francis Factor" when it comes to that Iran deal.

As Politico reports: 

"No one knows for sure what Francis will say, but he’s not shy about his opinions, and odds are that he will discuss his support for the Iran deal. If so, his remarks could prove the antithesis of the speech Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made to Congress in March, which was aimed at galvanizing opposition to the deal. As a result, the White House sees the pope’s visit as a blessing."

Pope Francis, in his relatively short time in office, has proven himself to be a remarkable change agent and quite dearly beloved to boot.

If he can make a serious difference in whether this Iran deal becomes reality, I hope he will try. The now-long record of no nation using nuclear weapons since World War II may hang in the balance.

(Speaking of the pope, my next book, co-authored with my pastor, Paul Rock, will be out in a couple of weeks. It's called Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church. You can pre-order it now here.)

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From time to time, we learn about small religious movements and sects that run amok, go astray, even turn evil. And all the while it's hard not to wonder why it happened and what need was such a group filling in people. Those and more questions are raised by this BuzzFeed piece about the Jesus People USA movement based in Chicago. It's a story of abuse, of manipulation, of authoritarianism -- many of the very things Jesus came to stand against in an effort to redeem the victims. It's a long, sad story, but well worth a read.

Religion complicated our Civil War: 8-28-15

If history can teach us anything, it can teach us humility. The sorrowful fact, however, is that it rarely seems to.

Cem-1That appears to be especially true of the history of religion and how religious thought has influenced the events of history. Religion got much of it wrong. Just in U.S. history, for example, branches of religion have stood squarely against the liberation of slaves, the liberation of women, the liberation of gays and lesbians, the liberation of those crushed by an unjust economic system.

It's a sad record that has a lot to do with the ways in which moral absolutes sometimes can lead people astray.

This Atlantic piece, for instance, looks at the ways in which religion made our Civil War, which finally ended 150 years ago this year, worse.

As Alan Guelzo writes there, ". . .the prolonged blood-letting of the Civil War had much less to do with a collision of two causes, convinced in typical American fashion of their own purity, and more with pitilessly exposing the fissures in the absolutes of both sides. Eventually, the Civil War would render moral absolutism less, rather than more, believable, and with long and unhappy consequences for American religion."

He continues: "For every Northern divine claiming God’s favor for the Union, and every Southern one claiming God’s favor for the Confederacy, there were far more who could not make up their minds what to say about slavery. And taken together, they created a popular perception that religion had nothing reliable or coherent to say about the greatest American issue of the 19th century."

There were, in other words, Americans on both sides of the war who were convinced they were fighting a holy war and that God was on their side. But, as Abraham Lincoln himself once noted, they both can't be right.

It was that realization that either turned people who wanted simple answers against religion or that made them even more fanatic in their beliefs. The result was a nation in which many people failed to grasp and appreciate mystery, ambiguity, uncertainty. A shaft of sunlight through the trees of a cemetery, for instance, is not always a sign of God's presence. It may just be a shaft of sunlight through the trees (as in the photo here that I took at a cemetery near our house).

If religion cannot provide certitude, what can it provide? The answer, it turns out, is a sense of comfort about being in the middle of an enigma. That may seem like a ridiculous answer to someone who wants certainty, but it is not given to us to be certain about much, except that the impulse that created this world was love. And love is hard to sculpt into an unmovable object.

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Columnist Nicholas Kristof is, of course, right about the need for saner gun legislation in this country, as he wrote here after the TV crew was murdered on the air this week in Virginia. But the sad reality is that unless religious leaders get behind that effort and make the moral, pro-life case against our gun culture, it isn't going to happen. And may not even then. We are gun-addicted and it's killing us, literally.

Stephen Colbert's model of gratitude: 8-27-15

The great religions of the world teach gratitude.

ColbertWhich seems an understandable-enough lesson. But in some teachings it gets considerably more complicated than simple gratitude for good things.

In the New Testament, for instance, you will find in I Thessalonians 5:18 this disconcerting admonition: "Give thanks in every situation because this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus."

In every situation? I'm supposed to be thankful if I get robbed? If a family member dies? If I get cancer?

Well, in a word, yes. And it's damned difficult. One of the people who seems to understand this best in our culture may surprise you. It's the comedian Stephen Colbert (pictured here).

The magazine GQ has done this excellent profile of Colbert, who is moving from his own show on the Comedy Channel to take the "Late Show" spot recently vacated by David Letterman, who retired.

It's a long piece, but well worth the read. Especially toward the end, when Joel Lovell, author of the GQ piece, writes this about Colbert, who has suffered major losses in his life. It begins with a quote from Colbert:

"'I'm very grateful to be alive, even though I know a lot of dead people.' The urge to be grateful, he said, is not a function of his faith. It's not 'the Gospel tells us' and therefore we give thanks. It is what he has always felt: grateful to be alive. 'And so that act, that impulse to be grateful, wants an object. That object I call God. Now, that could be many things. I was raised in a Catholic tradition. I'll start there. That's my context for my existence, is that I am here to know God, love God, serve God, that we might be happy with each other in this world and with Him in the next—the catechism. That makes a lot of sense to me. I got that from my mom. And my dad. And my siblings.'"

Colbert then adds this: “I was left alone a lot after Dad and the boys died (when Stephen was 10). . .And it was just me and Mom for a long time. And by her example am I not bitter. By her example. She was not. Broken, yes. Bitter, no. . .It was a very healthy reciprocal acceptance of suffering. Which does not mean being defeated by suffering. Acceptance is not defeat. Acceptance is just awareness. . .So it would be ungrateful not to take everything with gratitude. It doesn't mean you want it. I can hold both of those ideas in my head.”

That's truly the mark of a mature person -- someone who can live with ambiguity, with paradox, with mystery. It's also the mark of a mature person of faith.

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A Muslim college student has been elected president of a pro-Israel college organization and says she loves both Israel and the Palestinian people. Amna Farooqi, 21, a Pakistani-American and a senior at the University of Maryland, now is head of J Street U, and will have a fascinating balancing act. But her work may be exactly the interfaith model needed to help settle things in the Middle East.

Convert or be damned? 8-26-15

What, the Jewish woman wanted to know, was she supposed to say to evangelically aggressive Christians who told her that she'd go to hell if she didn't accept Jesus as her lord and savior.

DamnationIt was the very first question that Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and I got this past Sunday as we talked at a "Day of Discovery" event at the Jewish Community Center Campus in suburban Kansas City about interfaith understanding.

Clearly this woman had encountered such Christians. And I could tell by some head-nodding in the room that others had, too.

In my response, I tried to relieve the woman of any need to respond at all. But, I said, if you do choose to respond, you might be the one to show some manners and civility by simply saying, "Thanks for caring. Have a good day." And then walk away.

I also tried to explain how divided Christianity is. There are, of course, Christians who would confront people on the street with this convert-or-perish message. What they fail to understand is that they need to earn the right to share their faith insights with others. That means learning about the person to whom you're speaking. And not just surface stuff, but enough to know whether the person would be open to such a faith-based conversation at all.

In my experience, the most obnoxious of the convert-or-go-to-hell Christians are not much worried about others but about themselves. Which is to say they sometimes feel -- and will acknowledge if pressed -- that they will have the blood of others on their hands if they don't try to get them to convert. It's arrogant nonsense, of course, but there you have it.

Christians, I said to the woman, no matter where they fall on the theological spectrum, feel some obligation to "tell the story," as I put it. Which means describing why they are Christian, what it means for their lives and, in the end, it can mean inviting others to consider joining that religious tradition. Instead of accosting strangers on the street, however, I try to meet that obligation through some of my writing and through my life. My hope is that some people might notice the sense of peace and joy that my faith brings to me and ask about it.

A quote often wrongly attributed to St. Francis of Assisi says Christians should preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary use words. It's a bit problematic as advice goes, but its spirit is to demonstrate what being a Christian looks like instead of just talking about it.

At any rate, I sought to liberate the woman from feeling as if she needed to give a response to such an impolite and stark confrontation. There are lots of better ways for people of faith to converse in a way that respects all participants. Besides, I told her, it's not up to us to decide who gets to spend eternity with God. That's always God's choice.

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Under pressure, public school officials in Chanute, Kan., have removed a picture of Jesus from the wall of a middle school there. And now they are being criticized for that. Apparently it's OK with those doing the criticizing for public authorities in Chanute to promote one religion over another. Perhaps one legal way to keep the picture of Jesus (in it, he looks like the only white guy in Jerusalem) might be to create a multi-faith gallery of such religious leaders as Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, Joseph Smith and others. How about that idea, Chanute?

Keeping thing$ in per$pective: 8-25-15

One thing an active faith life can provide to people is a sense of balance, of perspective.

Down-chartI thought about that yesterday when the Dow Jones Industrial Average immediately dropped more than 1,000 points at the opening of the stock market.

If money were my god, I would have been in panic mode. Money isn't my god, although some of what supports me in retirement is invested in the market, so I paid attention.

But as I did so I remembered several much more important matters from the weekend, each of them connected with my faith life. As a result, I didn't panic. Instead, I tried to remember what is really important in life and what isn't.

What weekend experiences?

1. On Saturday I attended a day-long workshop on racism with 35 others, more than half of whom were from my congregation. The event, sponsored by the Cherith Brook Catholic Worker house, was designed to help us understand the systems and institutions that perpetuate racism and what we might do to work against that.

2. On Saturday evening I attended a special dinner that was a fund-raiser for the Hospice House of Kansas City Hospice and Palliative Care, on the board of which I serve. KC Hospice aims to help make the end of life as smooth and pain-free as possible for the person dying so that the family and friends of that person can devote full-time attention to that person and not be worrying about the thousand other things such a relationship requires near the end of someone's life. When you're sitting with a dying family member or friend, the ups and downs of Wall Street aren't uppermost in your mind.

3. Sunday morning I attended a Bible study class at my church before worship. We discussed the Saturday racism workshop as it related to our congregation and we prayed for the husband of one of the leaders of the class because he's out of the country and in the midst of a health emergency. A 1,000-point rise or drop in the Dow won't fix what's wrong with him, and we knew that.

4. Then I attended worship and heard a fabulous report from our members who spent part of the summer on a mission trip to Thailand. None of the school children the team met and worked with wakes up wondering what the Dow is doing today.

5. On Sunday afternoon my friend and co-author, Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, and I led a "Day of Discovery" session on interfaith dialogue at the Jewish Community Center Campus. There was not a single question from the 35 or so people there about the stock market.

6. Later Sunday I attended a party to celebrate my wife's recent birthday. Not one of our seven grandchildren asked me whether I'd be buying or selling equities on Monday. When the party was over I took my special-needs stepson back to the group home in which he lives. Neither he nor any of the other residents of the home mentioned the stock market to me.

Nearly the whole weekend was connected in some way either with faith matters or family doings. And both aspects of my life help me to remember what life is supposed to be about. What I know it's finally not about is the Dow (but a year-end rally would be just fine with me).

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Despite initial reports, there were no "Ashley Madison" adultery website clients from the Vatican discovered in the recent disclosures about the site's customers. Here's an explanation of how the first reports got it wrong.

Verses omitted from the Bible? 8-24-15

A few years before he died in 1998, Fr. Raymond E. Brown, one of the best New Testament scholars of the 20th Century, spoke to a gathering at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, and I was privileged to attend.

Bible-stackBrown spoke about why it took a long time for the Catholic Church to allow scholars like him to use modern historical-critical analysis techniques in studying the Bible to determine such things as the approximate dates of its various sections, the meaning of words in the original Hebrew and Greek and how the original hearers or readers would have understood it.

One problem with being allowed to do that, Brown said, is that the number of whole or partial biblical manuscripts has ballooned in recent decades as older and older manuscripts are found. So a translation of this or that phrase that has become familiar to readers may turn out to have been based on a misunderstanding or an inaccurate transcription that the older manuscripts now reveal.

This is just one of the many aspects of biblical scholarship that makes it so difficult to imagine that any one English translation of the Bible gets it exactly right. Even fundamentalists who are biblical literalists say that the Bible is inerrant only in its original manuscripts, which, of course, no one has and no one is likely ever to have.

I thought about all these Bible translation difficulties twice the other day. Once was when a Bible study group I help to lead discovered that some versions of the 40th chapter of Job end with the 24th verse, while others carry on for several more verses (verses that form the beginning of chapter 41 in the translations that end with verse 24). These are the kinds of decisions that translators make all the time and sometimes there is inconsistency in the choices from version to version.

Later that day, I ran across this site in which Richard Ostling, an Associated Press religion writer who for Patheos takes on the role of "The Religion Guy," answers questions about the Bible. Someone wrote in to ask why some verses of the New Testament had been omitted from the New International Version translation.

Ostling offers a fascinating discussion about the intricacies of Bible translation, the implication being that "God's word" comes in quite a few shapes and sizes. Ostling wrote about the person who raised the issue:

"Inevitably, translators will make different word choices and most of these variations are unimportant. But she’s correct that the N.I.V. and most other recent Bible editions omit certain verses that are familiar from the revered 'King James Version' authorized by the British monarchy 404 years ago."

He then went on to explain how the King James translation team was working with a limited number of manuscripts available in the early 1600s and how today translators have older and better sources to use as they seek to render the words into English.

I urge you to give Ostling's piece a read and then think about the amazing range and complexity of the Bible (in all its forms) and its many authors. The miracle, perhaps, is that it's as consistent as it is and has been over the centuries.

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Pope Francis says difficult words from Jesus found in the Bible require Christians to have faith and not shy away from them. Yes, but such words also require us to recognize metaphor, allegory and myth when we see it. And that's really hard for some people.

Waiting in the darkness: 8-22/23-15

In a dark time last year after a neo-Nazi murdered three people at Jewish facilities in Kansas City, I wrote about such darkness in part by introducing readers to Barbara Brown Taylor excellent book, Learning to Walk in the Dark.

Seeing-darkIt turns out that there seems to be a growing fascination among Christian writers with exploring what it means to encounter darkness and to learn from it in ways that don't spin us into a black hole.

The latest example is the book, Seeing in the Dark: Finding God’s Light in the Most Unexpected Places, by Nancy Ortberg.

Jonathan Merritt of Religion News Service has done this interview with Ortberg that I commend to you today.

When Merritt asks Ortberg to define darkness, this is her initial response:

"Well a technical definition might be something like an absence of visible light. In our lives, it is our experiences of the absence of hope, connection, meaning and guidance. It is the feeling of being adrift and unmoored, unable to be tethered to God. It is a hollow and alone feeling, not knowing what to do or where to step next. Times when the pain or grief swallows you."

But she adds this:

"There can be a component to it of evil certainly, and those are the times in the Bible that talk about avoiding the darkness.  There is however, another kind of darkness…a darkness that cannot, and often should not, be avoided. Think about Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane or on the cross. Two of the most critical times in his life, and there he was, in the darkness, doing what most of us do, questioning and pleading. Many of the desperate people who came to Jesus were in that same place, and he meets them there."

Anyone who has spent significant time in such darkness knows it can be painful. But what these authors are asking us to imagine is that there can be healing light after a time of darkness and that if we wait patiently in the darkness, such gifts may well come. As Psalm 30 puts it, ". . .weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning."

It's just that you can't get to the morning without enduring the night.

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Religion scholar and observer Mark Silk, in light of a recent court decision saying that a Colorado baker was wrong to refuse to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, asks a good question: Would the baker's religious objection be valid if, instead of a same-sex couple, it was an interracial couple? See what you think. I usually agree with Mark, and do in this case, too.

Talking race, police, prison: 8-21-15

We now are a year-plus out from Ferguson, and the very name of the small St. Louis suburb has become something of a nickname for civil unrest with racially divisive roots. We've experienced Fergusons in several places around the U.S. in the last year.

Race-panelSo what are to make of the reality of various forms of racism in the U.S. and of our response to it decades after the peak of the Civil Rights Movement and 150 years after the war that ended slavery?

It's that very topic that we'll be talking about the evening of Friday, Sept. 11, in a panel discussion I'll be moderating. It's free and open to the public. The event will be called "Black, Brown and Blue: A Conversation about Race, Policing and Incarceration." 

It's sponsored by my congregation, Second Presbyterian Church, and CCO (Communities Creating Opportunity) and will run from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at the church, located at 55th and Brookside in Kansas City.

The panelists will be: Alvin Brooks, former mayor pro tem and president of the Ad Hoc Group Against Crime; the Rev. Brenda J. Hayes, pastor of Ebenezer A.M.E. Church in Kansas City; Airick Leonard West, immediate past board chairman of the Kansas City Public Schools; Ken Novak, professor of criminal justice and criminology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and Robert Kuehl, deputy police chief of Kansas City.

My hope as moderator is that we will not simply rehash all the disturbing news stories but instead will seek to understand how we got to this place and, perhaps even more important, what we can do, individually and collectively, to help our country move toward racial harmony.

All of the great religions teach respect for all people no matter their background. Clearly there is a long way to go to reach that goal in the U.S. But we'll never get there if we don't talk honestly about it in public.

So come join us. To register for the event, visit

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Back in 1976, I once stood in a peanut field in Plains, Ga., and watched as Jimmy Carter shot a campaign video. As I covered some of his run for the presidency, I came to think of him as an extraordinarily decent man but later, despite his sincerity, a fairly mediocre president. And yet he's been our best ex-president ever, I think. Yesterday he revealed that the cancer he's fighting -- which he spoke of first several days ago -- now has gone to his brain. It's sad. But I wish him a smooth path ahead toward the inevitable destination of us all, and hope you will join me in that thought.

Poking fun at the 'Prosperity Gospel': 8-20-15

We return today to a subject I've mentioned more than once -- the Prosperity Gospel, which preaches the alleged availability of wealth and health on demand.

OliverIt has almost nothing to do with the Christian gospel, even though some preachers who call themselves Christian preach it (I'm looking at you, Kenneth Copeland, Creflo Dollar and others).

I say "Christian gospel," though the truth is that there are several ways of defining and understanding that, but that's a subject for another day.

John Oliver, one of today's great satirists, recently decided to take on the Prosperity Gospel hawkers again -- this time by alleging that he has created his own church, Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption.

As the Washington Post story about this to which I've linked you reports, "Like the ministries Oliver is satirizing, Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption follows the theological contours of the prosperity gospel, the subject of a lengthy segment on the comedian’s show. That segment began with Oliver noting that while many churches do good, charitable work in the world, he was going to focus for the next several minutes on 'churches who exploit people’s faith for monetary gain.'

"Oliver’s new church encourages its worshipers — defined as the studio audience for his show, which tapes on Sundays — to 'silently meditate on the nature of fraudulent churches' and promises miracles in exchange for donations sent to an address the host gave out on screen and on his new church Web site."

The problem with the Prosperity Gospel, as Oliver rightly senses, is that it gets the real gospel backwards. The real gospel has to do with God showering gifts of grace and love and mercy on people who have done nothing -- and can do nothing -- to deserve it. The Prosperity Gospel requires regular and stiff payments to be eligible to receive not grace or love or mercy but economic well-being and perhaps physical healing.

It's the gospel for the greedy, the insecure, the people who think of God as a cosmic errand boy ready to deliver prizes if you prime the divine pump.

Good work, John Oliver.

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It turns out that religion is an important factor in how people think about police using force against citizens. This new analysis suggests that support for occasional use of force is pretty widespread among people of faith.