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The 'Christian nation' debate (again): 2-29-16

Every time there's a presidential election -- and lots of times in between -- the question comes up about whether the United States is a Christian nation.

XianflagIf, by that term, one means that a majority of Americans identify as Christian, then yes, it is.

But labeling it that is misleading in many ways, including because it hides the country's increasingly diverse religious landscape and because it makes it sound as if Christianity is in some way the established religion.

As this this Washington Post column contends, there's another reason not to use the term any more -- it no longer (if it ever did) fits our behavior. (I hope you will forgive the bad editing in the lead of the Post piece that left "it is" in when "they are" was meant.) The author of the piece, Norman Wirzba, who teaches at Duke Divinity School, writes this:

"Though voters may speak piously and rather vaguely about Christian values and ideals, polls and election results communicate clearly that this is a nation consumed by fear, anger and suspicion, none of which are Christian virtues. If voters were serious about presenting to the world a picture of a Christian America, they would need to be painting with the colors of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, fidelity, gentleness and self-control, because these are the colors that, as the Apostle Paul said (in Galatians 5), witness to Jesus Christ and the power of God at work in their lives."

Wirzba is far from the only person noticing the glaring lack of Christian-inspired behavior among both our presidential candidates and our electorate, as Pope Francis' recent comments about Donald Trump indicate. And in her 2015 book The Givenness of Things, Marilynne Robinson writes, ". . .contemporary America is full of fear. And. . .fear is not a Christian habit of mind."

Our political system, from the beginning, has allowed and at times encouraged anger, fear and vitriol, though it's hard to remember a campaign that's been quite as outrageously full of all that as the current one. So perhaps even back when a majority of Christians in the U.S. would have called this a Christian nation, they would have to confess that our politics often didn't reflect Christian ways of living.

But what should appall all of us -- Christian or not -- this year are all the candidates who are claiming to be Christian even while their rhetoric and actions say something very different. And Trump clearly is at the top of that list of frauds.

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At the request of a book publisher, children from around the world wrote letters to Pope Francis asking him questions, and a new book contains 30 of his responses. A 7-year-old boy from Chicago asked him: “If you could do 1 miracle what would it be?” The pope said he'd heal sick children. Notice that you don't have to teach children about love. You just have to show them.

New books for Lent and beyond: 2-27/28-16

The new faith-based books continue to land on my home office desk with almost alarming regularity, meaning there is no way to keep up with them all.

BookstacksAnd yet many of them look like volumes that many of you might like to know about. So without offering full reviews of these books I want to introduce you to the ones in my current pile. I will be giving you links to more information about them and a place (often from which you can purchase them if they interest you. (I give you the Amazon link because that's the easiest way for me to do this, but I continue to encourage you to purchase books from your local independent bookstore.)

As regular readers of this blog know, I frequently write about new books and sometimes devote an entire blog posting to a single book. The last such book, reviewed here, was Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy, by John Shelby Spong.

But today you get relatively brief mentions of several books, and if this list seems to lean toward Catholic subjects more than usual, call it the luck of the draw.

-- Redeeming Conflict: 12 Habits for Christian Leaders, by Ann M. Garrido. In every faith community, there inevitably is conflict. The author, who teaches homiletics at Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis, suggests here that conflict not only need not be destructive but can actually be helpful in guiding the community forward. Each chapter ends with questions for reflection and prayer. It's official publication date is in a couple of weeks but can be preordered now.

-- One Ordinary Sunday: A Meditation on the Mystery of the Mass, by Paula Huston. This is an ode or a love song to the Mass of the Catholic Church. It's a deep dive into the mysteries of the Mass and why it has come to form the author. Non-Catholics can get an insider's view here of what is happening in the Mass and how it is affecting not just individuals but the entire community. It's also due out in a couple of weeks.

Jesus-before-- Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed and Invented Their Stories of the Savior, by Bart D. Ehrman. The author, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, seems to relish writing controversial books about Christianity, as several of his previous books indicate. In this one he raises questions about the connection between historical memory and what we know of Jesus. He pays special attention to the reality that for several decades after the death of Jesus the stories told about him were passed along by word of mouth, rarely in writing. The first gospels did not appear until at least the middle of the First Century. So Ehrman explores the connection between memory and recoverable history.

-- An Other Kingdom: Departing the Consumer Culture, by Peter Block, Walter Brueggemann and John McKnight. This book is a passionate, well-stated argument against what it calls our "consumer kingdom." This ethic of conspicuous consumption orders our social relationships and defines us in many ways, including whether we are successful. But the authors do not simply argue against this virulent, mindless kingdom. Rather, they propose an alternative kingdom in which neighborly people serve the common good. This way of defining the communal identity, they argue, is long overdue but, more than that, is possible if these core spiritual values are adopted and lived out. Like religion scholar Martin E. Marty, author and theologian Walter Brueggemann seems never to have had a thought that hasn't been published. This book is more evidence of why that's a good thing.

-- The Christian Wallet: Spending, Giving, and Living with a Conscience, by Mike Slaughter. This book would be a good companion for An Other Kingdom, just mentioned above, in that it focuses on the call not to be simply consumers but to be producers in harmony with eternal values. The author, a pastor in Ohio, wants Christians to understand how their use of money forms them and informs others about their core values. In a culture that wastes huge amounts of money on luxuries that do nothing for the spirit, this consumerism is an idol that is misshaping our souls. This and the previous book not only identify the problem but offer some ways toward a solution. 

Sparrow-- Sparrow: A Journey of Grace and Miracles While Battling ALS, by Jennifer R. Durant, with Matthew P. Durant. Anyone who has known someone suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease) knows it is a cruel illness that slowly destroys life. This lovely little book, published a year after her death in 2015, recounts Jennifer's path through ALS. She was seeking ordination as an Episcopal priest when she was struck by the disease. The old question of theodicy -- Why is there suffering and evil in the world if God is good and loving? -- is the canvas on which this book is painted. 

-- Remembering God's Mercy: Redeem the Past and Free Yourself from Painful Memories, by Dawn Eden. This small book is published to coincide with the declaration by Pope Francis of a Holy Year of Mercy. It's about healing memory and coming to terms with the pain in one's past. In the author's case, it had to do with childhood sexual abuse and the post-traumatic stress syndrome that resulted. For help, she draws on the thinking of both Pope Francis and St. Ignatius.

-- Divine Mercy for Moms: Sharing the Lessons of St. Faustina, by Michele Faehnle and Emily Jaminet. This book, too, is tuned to the pope's Year of Mercy. The authors, leaders of the Columbus Catholic Women's Conference, use the life and writings of St. Faustina to talk about mercy, motherhood and "service and love toward others," which, they write, is what motherhood is all about. If you don't read this book, I invite you at least to click on the link I've given you to St. Faustina, a nun from Poland.

Transformed-god-- Transformed by God's Word: Discovering the Power of Lectio and Visio Divina, by Stephen J. Binz. Many Catholic and Protestant Christians are familiar with the practice of lectio divina, a deep way of reading the sacred text that brings the reader into the passage. They are almost certainly much less familiar with visio divina, a deep way of seeing the sacred through the kinds of icons common in Orthodox Christian churches. This new book provides six steps that wind up combining those two approaches to scripture. That author calls this "formational reading of the gospels and other sacred texts" and says it "shapes us to be like Christ."

-- The Four Purposes of Life: Finding Meaning and Direction in a Changing World, by Dan Millman. The question of life's purpose has been posed since the first human beings realized they had both brains and souls. The author distills -- or perhaps expands -- the answer not to just one purpose but to four areas in which to find meaning. He says that the world is a school designed to teach you how to live in it in an authentically spiritual way, and this book can help guide you. You can learn more about the author and his many books at this website.

-- Seven Last Words: An Invitation to a Deeper Friendship with Jesus, by Fr. James Martin. Several times over recent years I have been one of the speakers at a Good Friday service in Kansas City at which speakers tried to unpack the so-called Seven Last Words of Christ spoken from the cross between musical settings of Joseph Haydn's amazing "Seven Last Words of Christ." It's always a humbling and moving evening. In this book, the prolific Father Martin offers his own homilies about what each of the words means.

-- Bringing Lent Home with Pope Francis: Prayers, Reflections, and Activities for Families, by Donna-Marie Cooper O'Boyle. This -- which I'm alerting you to several weeks too late (sorry) -- is a Lenten daily devotional booklet that draws inspiration from Pope Francis, both his life and his teachings. But it'll still be good for next year's season of Lent. 

-- Stations of the Cross, with the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus, by Fr. William Prospero, edited by Fr. James Kubicki. The tradition of doing the 14 stations of the cross is deeply embedded in Catholicism and only slightly less so among Anglicans. But it is spreading to other Protestant churches. In fact, my own Presbyterian congregation offers Stations of the Cross now each Good Friday. The meditations in this book were written by a Jesuit priest who died in 2014 and are intended for private, not group, devotions. 

Justice-calling-- The Justice Calling: Where Passion Meets Perseverance, by Bethany Hanke Hoang and Kristen Deede Johnson. There is considerable interest in the U.S. and elsewhere these days in what might be called issues of social justice -- from environmental degradation to economic oppression and mass incarceration. This book is a call to ground the passion for repairing the world in God as revealed in Jesus Christ. They authors argue that authentic, effective ministries of justice need this religious footing, deeply grounded in scripture, to stay on the right path.

-- To Heal, Proclaim, and Teach: The Essential Guide to Ministry in Today's Catholic Church, by Jared Dees. This book seeks to draw lessons from the life and ministry of Jesus to shape what Catholic ministry should look like. He says that as a rule Jesus first healed, then proclaimed the gospel and finally taught, in that order. That, Dees argues, is how churches should do it. He offers lots of guidance and cautions each step along the way, including, when doing proclamation, to avoid seeming to be "simply too religious to be believable."

Mala-love-- Mala of Love: 108 Luminous Poems, edited by Ravi Nathwani and Kate Vogt. If this book were dessert, it would be a rich, dark chocolate covered by more rich, dark chocolate. The small poems from mystics, poets and others (from Rumi to Shelley to Dickinson and more) should be absorbed slowly -- maybe one a day -- to avoid overdosing on their tightly packed words full of richly layered meaning. Really. Take 108 days to read this.

-- Room 24: Adventures of a New Evangelist, by Katie Prejean. This is a book by a teacher in a Catholic high school about how she learned to communicate the gospel to anxious and distracted students who often wound up teaching her. As she writes, "If my students memorize the Ten Commandments and recite the Beatitudes then they will pass my tests and have a great party trick for college. If they were not following those Commandments and living out those Beatitudes then I have failed them as a classroom evangelist."

Finally and briefly, two novels:

-- A Son's Vow, by Shelley Shepard Gray. This is another in the author's growing list of novels set in Amish life and culture. It's part of her new "Charmed Amish Life" series.

-- Lord of the World, by Robert Hugh Benson. This is Ave Maria Press's republication of a 1907 futuristic novel in which Catholic life is falling apart and a mysterious, charismatic man with the telling name of Julian Falsenburg becomes the world's leader. The book gained traction last year when Pope Francis mentioned it and advised people to read it.

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The new Facebook emoji icons are fine, this Forward writer says, but where are the icons that Jews need most? You know, one that lets someone kvetch, for instance. Or declare, "Oy." It's a fun piece.

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P.S.: If you're in the Kansas City area, I hope you'll join me March 7 at the American Public Square event called "Muslim in the Metro." More information, including how to register, is at the link I've given you here.

More bigoted legislation in Missouri: 2-26-16

Another bad idea is working its way through the legislative process in my home state of Missouri, which seems to attract bad legislative ideas.

Wedding-cakeThis one would let people refuse to provide goods and services to gay couples getting married.

The proposal law is being couched as offering "greater religious protections to some business owners and individuals who object to same-sex marriage."

Let's back up to the days of Jim Crow laws and the start of the Civil Rights Movement in this country. What did some businesses want then to be able to support their prejudices? They wanted the continued ability to legally refuse service to anyone they didn't want to serve. Which usually meant black people.

Eventually public accommodations laws changed all that bigoted nonsense, though nowadays some retailers still find ways to discourage minority customers from shopping there -- such as by having security guards trail around black shoppers.

I frankly find essentially no difference between lunch counters refusing to serve black patrons in the 1950s and bakers or florists refusing to serve gay couples today. By selling a cake or flowers to a couple, a retailer isn't conducting a marriage ceremony or signing a document in favor of gay marriage. All that's happening is the sale of a cake or flowers, and if you run a business selling such things your products should be available to anyone who wants them and can pay for them.

Missouri has tons more problems to fix than this non-problem. How about our legislators pay attention to those, starting with education, economic distress, environmental degradation, reforms in policing, racial harmony and more?

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The book publisher Simon & Schuster is creating an imprint that will offer books with Muslim characters and stories for children and young adult readers. It's one more in a series of signs that Muslims are integrating themselves into the broad mainstream of American culture as both producers and consumers of ideas and goods. Which is exactly what should be happening. 

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Three new books having to do with racism and faith have come my way recently, and I want to introduce them to you and give you links where you can read more about them and buy them in you're interested.

A-Body-Broken-A-Body-BetrayedThey are: America's Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America, by Jim Wallis; Trouble I've seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism, by Drew G. I. Hart, and A Body Broken, a Body Betrayed: Race Memory, and Eucharist in White-Dominant Churches, by Mary McClintock Fulkerson and Marcia W. Mount Shoop.

Wallis, founder of Sojourners, has long been a voice for racial reconciliation. This book sums up that work through personal stories (including when three young teens mugged him) and ideas for fixing the nation's original sin, which I consider slavery but which Wallis names as racism. The book rings with Wallis's evangelical social liberalism (if you can hold those two concepts together) and is a hopeful call for a new future for all Americans.

Trouble-seenHart's book comes from a black perspective and opens eyes about ways in which whites have long misunderstood not just blacks and black culture but also the ways in which the thinking of many whites has been shaped by a position of dominance and privilege. When blacks seek "to find acceptance by conforming to the norms of the oppressive and dominant group," he writes, it doesn't work. Jesus, he argues, can help lead us toward racial justice.

Among the many places where whites have overwhelming power, the third book argues, is within the church, especially Mainline Protestant churches. The authors are both Presbyterian pastors, and they turn to the sacrament of Holy Communion, or the Eucharist, to guide the church toward the goals of racial harmony. The Eucharist, after all, they write, is supposed to be a foretaste of the kingdom of God, though for many it may "seem a lot like a staid hors d'oeuvres reception at the local country club." But, they argue, it can point the way toward wholeness.

(By the way, come back to the blog this weekend for information about a stack of new faith-based books.)

Who is 'faking' being a Christian? 2-25-16

In recent days, Pope Francis (pictured here) has aimed his words in a James-like way at people who simply talk about faith but don't show that faith by their actions.

Pope_FrancisThe New Testament book of James, you may recall, says that faith without works is dead. The Bible, as Francis correctly notes, says we are to be doers of the word and not hearers only. (And, by the way, the word is love.)

In a recent sermon, Francis talked about how just talking about faith and not doing it is "faking being a Christian."

I don't disagree with the pope at all. And although I thought his words could have been less personal when, before that sermon, he declared that Donald Trump does not act in a Christian way, I didn't disagree with him about that, either.

But there is a caution to toss out here. Francis is the pope. We are not. Part of his job is to promote the faith and declare with some clarity what constitutes behavior and belief in line with at least the Catholic version of Christianity.

The job of Christians who are not pope or even ordained to the gospel ministry is different. We are to share the good news of Jesus Christ and we are to try to live in such a way that, as the old hymn goes, "they will know we are Christians by our love."

My job is not to draw lines that say you're in and you're out based on my reading of how you live and what you believe. Oh, I can engage you in conversation about all of that and tell you what I think authentic Christianity looks like in practice, but when I set myself up as the judge of whether you're a Christian or not, I quickly slide into the kind of judgmental pronouncements against which Jesus himself warned.

I'm not arguing against standards or against discernment. Rather, I'm arguing against arrogance, presumption and false certitude. And I'm arguing for a sense of humility in these matters, given that living a Christian life fully and openly is perhaps the hardest thing I can imagine doing. All Christians get some of it wrong every day. And on some days we get all of it wrong.

So I'm content to leave the pronouncements about who is faking Christianity up to the pope, though even he might do well to show rather than tell.

(For more about what I think the pope gets right and where I might have some disagreements, see my latest book, co-authored with the Rev. Dr. Paul Rock, Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church.)

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The many differences within Christianity are mirrored to some extent in Islam, which has many varieties. MercatorNet has republished this interesting piece about why Islam looks so different in different locations around the world. It's yet another reminder of the complexity of religious life. A Christian is not a Christian is not a Christian, and the same is true for Muslims, Jews, Hindus and others.

Religion's task to bear the light: 2-24-16

When it finally comes down to it, what exactly are religions?

Cem-1It's a question many of us have asked. Eventually any answer I've come up with has been provisional and it's been marinated in the paradox of religion's affirming voice being spoken against the harsh realities of the world.

I've (slowly) been reading Marilynne Robinson's book, The Givenness of Things, and in it she gets at this definition problem in this way: "The world is cruel and God is merciful. The sword draws blood on every side and God is righteous altogether. The great religions are counterstatements made against a reality that does not affirm them with much consistency at all."

Put another way, religions are a pure, squealing shout at evil. They are arguments that what we see in the world often is not what the world was meant to be. While at once affirming the stunning beauty of the world and the examples of self-sacrificing love we sometimes find there, religions also speak out against all the examples of what is far from beauty, from love, from compassion.

In some ways, religious faith may be seen as naive. It recognizes the sickness all around but it nonetheless wants to say a word on behalf of health, of wellness, of creativity in the face of destruction.

This is true even when, as so often is the case, religion itself harbors sickness, destruction and evil within its own house. In fact, that is when the authentic voice of faith must be heard the most clearly.

"The temptation," writes Robinson, "has always been to hold (religious) affirmations of this kind up to given reality and then declare the two of them irreconcilable, the faith statements therefore unsustainable, weighed and wanting."

But faith refuses to give in to that temptation. It knows that even in the face of inexplicable evil and suffering in a world God called "good" at its creation, it must continue to hold to what is good even when all around there are people losing their faith, their vision, their heads.

May it always be so.

(The photo here today is one I took at a cemetery near which I live and through which I often walk.)

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I want to introduce you to a rabbi who thinks Jews need to know more about Christianity and that Christians need to know more about Judaism. He's Rabbi Evan Moffic, author of What Every Christian Needs to Know About the Jewishness of Jesus, and here's an RNS story about his thinking and his new book. And, by the way, he absolutely right about who needs to know more about what. 

When religious shrines become idols: 2-23-16

If you've ever been to the Holy Land, as it's long been called, you know that there are lots and lots of shrines, churches and monuments built on sites said to have been the location of this or that biblical happening.

IMG_0917For Christians, one of the most famous is the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. I first was there on Christmas Eve of 1957, when it was located in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. I returned there in 2012, though this time Bethlehem was on the Occupied West Bank and under the control of the Palestinian Authority.

That church is undergoing some major renovation work, and this Associated Press story describes what's happening there.

Here's a key paragraph from the story: "The project, partially funded by the Palestinians and conducted by a team of Palestinian and international experts, is the biggest restoration at the iconic church in some 600 years. The removal of centuries of dust has left Crusader-era mosaics sparkling in sunlight filtering through brand new windows. Structural repairs on the fragile rooftop and windows have been completed and art treasures have been returned to their delicate elegance."

All of which is a good thing.

But I want to offer two words of caution about not just this shrine but about similar shrines around the world.

  • What historical evidence do we have that this truly was the place of Jesus' birth -- and what difference does it really make where he was born?
  • Creating such buildings to memorialize history can, under certain circumstances, lead to the worship not of the God to whom they're dedicated but of the shrine itself.

There has been a long debate in Christianity about the place of Jesus' birth. The birth narratives in the gospels of Matthew and Luke make up only evidence we have, and it's far from clear exactly what is history and what is midrash, or commentary, in those books. The French scholar Ernest Renan, in fact, concluded that Jesus was born not in Bethlehem but in Nazareth. The Bethlehem story was important as a way to connect Jesus with the ancestral line of King David, so some scholars think that's why it's in the birth narratives, not because it really happened there.

The other concern, of course, is about idolatry, which is why the First Commandment -- no other gods before God -- is first. Eventually all sin comes down to idolatry. And it's easy to focus on a huge, ornate, expensive building that you can see instead of on God, whom you can't see.

And when all these religious sites -- temples, shrines, monuments, even cemeteries -- become little more than an economic engine for tourism, their purpose gets distorted. They should be thought of not as valuable in themselves but as icons, meaning a window or gateway into the divine heart.

I hope that's what the Church of the Nativity will be in its refurbishment for visitors, no matter where Jesus was really born.

(In the photo here today, which I shot in April 2012, you see a tourism bending down to kiss the grotto star in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem said to mark the exact spot where Jesus was born. Was she worshiping that star or Jesus? I should have asked her.)

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Pope Francis has begun a new drive to abolish the death penalty everywhere. Good. It's hard to understand how anyone can be called "pro life" who supports capital punishment, a costly, error-ridden, revengeful system that shames every government that uses it.

Religious varieties are everywhere: 2-22-16


So a nun, a lama and a Quaker walk into a church.

This actually happened one morning last week and it not only wasn't a joke, it was a chance for each of them to learn something about the religious tradition of the other, while the rest of us listened in.

That's what dozens of us did at Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, Kan., in a program called "Varieties of Spiritual Experience: East and West," under the sponsorship the American Public Square as part of the APS faith series.

My job was to be ready to ring the "civility bell" if the discussion turned uncivil. It never did. Not even close as Sister Cele Breen of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, Lama Matthew Rice, spiritual director of the Rime Buddhist Center in Kansas City, and Shirley Scritchfield, clerk of the Penn Valley Religious Society of Friends, spoke about their experiences. The Rev. Brian Ellison, executive director of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, was the moderator. (In the photo above, you see, left to right, Ellison, Breen, Rice and Scritchfield.)

Some of the differences in approaches to spiritual practices were profound, as described by the panelists.

For instance, Breen described how her community is deeply liturgical, praying aloud and together six mornings a week and attending Mass on Sundays. By contrast, Scritchfield described how sometimes at a Quaker service those attending sit in complete silence for a full hour.

"We as a community," she said, "are sitting in silence, trying to connect to that piece of God or divinity within each of us." Scritchfield over the years has had experience with both Presbyterian and Catholic worship, too, but said she found her home in the Quaker tradition once she decided that "I could not allow someone else to speak for me."

What was clear from the hour-long conversation is that it is terribly difficult for any single person to speak on behalf of a whole faith tradition. As Ellison noted, "there is a variety of spiritual experience within every tradition," and different approaches within not just each tradition but even within a single congregation.

Rice, for instance, noted that generally someone new to Buddhism learns at first about its basic approaches to spirituality, almost as if there were a homogeneous approach for all Buddhists -- "and then you discover all these different traditions." Although the Rime Buddhist Center is rooted in the Tibetan tradition, he said, it attempts to bring in speakers who can introduce members to other approaches.

The APS faith series is an effort to educate the community in religious literacy. That kind of literacy is crucial if we are to learn to live in religious harmony with people of lots of different traditions -- and of none. I hope you'll watch for other upcoming APS events that have to do with this subject, including the next one on March 7 called "Muslim in the Metro." You can find all the APS events listed here.

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Lots of commentators from the U.S. have been talking about the role of religion in the presidential race. But here's a look at it through Canadian eyes. It's almost always helpful to see ourselves as others see us. Speaking of Canada, did you know it's running for president of the U.S.? Yep, the whole country. Well, at least that's what a guy in this video says.

The central role of the black church: 2-20/21-16

One subject that sometimes gets overlooked in Black History Month is the role of historically black churches in the on-going story of liberation of African-Americans, beginning with the time of slavery.

Black-churchTo help you fill in some of those gaps this weekend, I will give you several online resources. They are not exhaustive in what they say about black churches and their historic central role in African-American history, but they at least will give you some important highlights and guide you to additional resources if this subject interests you.

First, here is a brief history of the black church from the African American Registry. The piece isn't especially well edited, but, as it notes, "During the decades of slavery in America, slave associations were a constant source of concern to slave owners. For many members of white society, Black religious meetings symbolized the ultimate threat to white existence. Nevertheless, African slaves established and relied heavily on their churches."

Next, here is the Wikipedia entry on the subject. Although one still must be cautious about the accuracy of Wikipedia accounts, that service's early problems in that regard have in many ways been resolved. As this entry notes, "Most of the first black congregations and churches formed before 1800 were founded by free blacks -- for example, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Petersburg, Virginia; and Savannah, Georgia. The oldest black Baptist church in Kentucky, and third oldest in the United States, was founded about 1790 by the slave Peter Durrett."

The Public Broadcasting System offers this essay on the black church, mentioning high up in that piece the controversy of a few years ago centering on President Barack Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. This article talks about the origin of the phrase "black church" this way: "The term 'the black church' evolved from the phrase 'the Negro church,' the title of a pioneering sociological study of African American Protestant churches at the turn of the century by W.E.B. Du Bois. In its origins, the phrase was largely an academic category. Many African Americans did not think of themselves as belonging to 'the Negro church,' but rather described themselves according to denominational affiliations such as Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, and even 'Saint' of the Sanctified tradition. African American Christians were never monolithic; they have always been diverse and their churches highly decentralized." Good point.

Finally, here are various resources from, including links to the major predominantly black denominations.

It's almost impossible to imagine what America's African-American communities might look like today without the centrality and strength of the black church. But it's also true that, like the rest of the U.S. population, African-Americans are becoming more diverse in their religious affiliations as more convert to Islam and more claim no religious affiliation at all. Still, the black church remains a pillar of America's black communities today and no doubt will for long into the future.

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Pope Francis got lots of press the other day when, in remarks he made on an airplane returning him to Rome from Mexico, he seemed to open up the possibility that contraception might be allowable to prevent the spread of the Zika virus. But as Charles C. Camosy, associate professor of theological and social Ethics at Fordham University, writes in this RNS piece, that wasn't the real surprise in his remarks. Rather, Camosy writes, the real surprise was his harsh, unyielding description of abortion in which he used smack-down words he's usually avoided. His words didn't seem at all pastoral, and maybe weren't meant to be.

Sex abuse in a Protestant church: 2-19-16

Over the years, as I've written about the priest sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church, people have asked why the media don't pay more attention to similar abuses happening in other faith communities.

Church-abuseWell, they do, but the Catholic scandal has been so widespread and astonishing -- including, as it does, the complicity of bishops who tried to hide what was going on -- that it pretty much drew nearly all of the attention.

The reality, however, is that sexual abuse has been happening in Protestant churches, Jewish congregations and other faith groups, and it has not always been handled well.

For instance, The Washingtonian recently did this disturbing story about sexual abuse and related troubles in a megachurch based in the Washington, D.C., area. Give yourself some time. It's not a short read and it will break your heart.

The story focuses on Sovereign Grace Ministries, which it calls "the religious conglomerate that Covenant Life (Church) had grown into." And it focuses on its founder, C.J. Mahaney.

What the story details is a resistant, secretive culture in SGM churches in which abuse occurred. Families whose members experienced that abuse were encouraged to deal with it inside the church and not in court.

There was lots of mediocre to terrible theology driving some of the incidents in those churches, and the whole tale should serve as a warning to people who are spiritually needy and willing to become part of a distorted system to satisfy those needs.

Faith communities simply must have internal systems of accountability and transparency that can help keep this kind of abuse and theological manipulation from happening. If you are experiencing anything like those troubles in your congregation and you can't fix it from the inside, get out. There are healthy faith communities able to minister to your needs.

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With the heavy subject above, here's a change of pace -- this column about a woman who baptized her dog. Take it as seriously as you wish to. Just remember what dog spells backwards.

A pope's revealing letters to a female friend: 2-18-16

Letters written by the late Pope John Paul II to a female friend over several decades reveal what The New York Times calls "a startling degree of affection."

JP2Before we let our minds go where our minds often seem willing to go, let's acknowledge that it is quite possible for men and women to be deep friends without there being anything of a sexual nature involved.

JP II was pledged to celibacy, and -- barring specific evidence to the contrary -- I think we need to assume that his friendship with Polish-American philosopher Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka was platonic, supportive and beautiful (though it does appear that she had fallen in love with him).

He called the married woman (who was a mother) "a gift from God."

All that said, I do think the newly revealed letters raise again for the Catholic Church the issue of priestly celibacy, as this BBC piece suggests. It wasn't until the Middle Ages that the church really mandated clerical celibacy, so we know that over the centuries there have been lots of married Catholic priests. Indeed, there are married Catholic priests today, some of them former Episcopal priests who, already married, converted to Catholicism and were brought into the priesthood. I even did a story about one of them from Kansas some years ago.

Celibacy is understood by the church to be a spiritual discipline and even a gift from God. The Apostle Paul even suggested that celibacy would be preferable if one can manage it.

And yet in many branches of Christianity clergy not only are allowed to marry but even encouraged to do so. One reason is that churches want clergy who, through personal experience, can relate to the issues parishioners have related to marriage, rearing children and so forth.

Religion in general and Christianity in particular teaches that we are built for relationship -- both vertical (with God) and horizontal (with other humans). Mandated celibacy strikes me as a way in which at least part of those relationships can get stunted. Plus, in the case of the Catholic Church it has contributed to a severe shortage of priests.

My job is never to tell any religion what to believe or how to set policies for its leaders. But I think these newly revealed letters from John Paul II to his friend, who lived in Vermont, offer another opportunity for the church to reconsider the issue of celibacy for priests.

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On his current trip to Mexico, Pope Francis this week told youth there, “Jesus would never ask us to be hit men.” Well, true. But it raises the question of who might imagine it wouldn't be true. If he has to preach such obvious truths, things must be worse in Mexico than anyone imagined.

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

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ANOTHER P.S.: Recently here on the blog, I wrote about a ridiculous anti-blasphemy bill in the eastern European country of Georgia. The good news is that Georgia has scrapped that bad idea. (And I had no idea my blog was so powerful over there.)