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Was Adolf Hitler simply nuts? 5-31-16

One of the descriptions of Adolf Hitler (pictured at right) that I hate to hear people use is that he was crazy, a maniac, insane, mentally ill, demented, a lunatic, mad.

Adolf_HitlerThat language lets him off the hook, effectively relieving him of responsibility for the evil of the Holocaust and the rest of World War II that he began by ordering German troops to invade Poland on Sept. 1, 1939.

But what do we call and how do we explain fanatics like Hitler, who have opened their brains and hearts so that terrible ideas can drill down deeply into them and turn them into monsters, into demonic lords, into mass murderers?

It's an old question, but now University of Missouri School of Medicine researchers are proposing use of a new term as a way to classify non-psychotic behavior that leads people to commit criminal acts of violence.

Those scholars are suggesting that when psychotic behavior can be ruled out, a helpful term to explain such acts of violence is "extreme overvalued belief.” They came up with this term after studying the case of mass murderer Anders Breivik of Norway, who in 2011 killed 77 people in a car bombing in Oslo and a mass shooting at a camp for youth.

As the press release to which I've linked you notes, Dr. Tahir Rahman, assistant professor of psychiatry at the Missouri School of Medicine and lead author of the study, said, “Sometimes people think that violent actions must be the byproduct of psychotic mental illness, but this is not always the case. Our study of the Breivik case was meant to explain how extreme beliefs can be mistaken for psychosis, and to suggest a new legal term that clearly defines this behavior.”

It strikes me that the term "extreme overvalued belief" might be a useful way to describe Islamist terrorists but also such people as adherents of the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka. As a rule they don't commit physical violence but their commitment to bizarre ideas leads them to do hateful, repulsive things. So perhaps the term could be stretched to include nonviolent offenders.

In any event, one of the inevitable and sad tasks of human beings throughout history has been to explain how and why people make terrible, often violent choices and how to find ways to stop all of that. Sigh.

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Another sign of the apocalypse: The "Emoji Bible" is here. If you think I'm now going to use an emoji to describe my feelings about that, you're wrong, IMHO.

The brutal human cost of war: 5-30-16

Memorial Day, which is today, differs, as you no doubt know, from Veterans Day, which comes in November and which used to be called Armistice Day to mark the end of World War I.

Memorial-DayThe latter honors all veterans. Today, by contrast, is set aside to remember men and women who died while serving in the American military.

In either case, however, we are called to remember the cost of moral and political failure, which is what war represents. As I've said before, I'm not a pacifist. I understand that there are times when military force is required as a last resort to protect our citizens.

But I do think it is worth putting the failures that all wars are into some kind of perspective. And perhaps the best way to do that is to count the cost in human lives. And it's also worth remembering that the great religions of the world teach, in various ways, that each human life is precious and worthy of ultimate dignity and respect -- in large part because that life was one of God's creations.

There are several ways that the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs and others count those who died in military service. You can see that in this chart, which draws on figures from those two departments. But if we start with the American Revolution and add up battle deaths, other in-theater and out-of-theater deaths through the current "War on Terror," as it's often called, we come up to about 1.2 million Americans.

Each of those numbered had and has a name. Each had and has a history. Each had, but no longer has, a future.

The human propensity for war shames us. But in the midst of our remorse, we do well to give thanks for those who served their country, even if, at times, they had to fight in conflicts that our nation's leaders should have avoided by waging peace.

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Pope Francis says he has no intention of resigning, as his predecessor, Benedict XVI, did. Good. But, personally, I wish he were pushing 60 instead of pushing 80.

A risky move in Saudi Arabia: 5-28/29-16

Whatever happens with the 28 classified pages in a 9-11 congressional report on Saudi Arabia, the kingdom has decided to reinvent itself by ending what Saudi deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman has called the kingdom's "dangerous" addiction to oil.

SaudiarabiamapAnd industrial giant General Electric is all in. It has announced $1.4 billion worth of investments in Saudi Arabia, which it says will create 2,000 jobs there. This plays into what the House of Saud leadership is calling "Vision 2030," its somewhat fuzzy plan to diversify its economy.

As I wrote here a month or so ago, this effort at change could have significant consequences in terms of religious freedom. Saudi Arabia allows only Sunni Islam public worship now, and it promotes a harsh strain of Islam called Wahhabism that often gets blamed as the incubator for terrorism and other extremism. As you no doubt know, nearly all of the 9-11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia.

One question to ask about the G.E. decision is whether it makes sense morally and politically. The company itself will worry about whether it makes economic sense, so that question should worry mostly GE stockholders, not average Americans.

Although as a rule I favor engagement with countries that represent various kinds of threats, I also don't want individual corporations dictating foreign policy because of their investments. That's clearly a danger with the GE decision. Imagine the pressure that Congress and the executive branch of our government could experience from GE if our political relations with Saudi Arabia sour and we have to think about such measures as economic embargoes to respond.

General_Electric_logoThe moral question is whether it's right to prop up a dictatorial monarchy that has precious little regard for many of the freedoms Americans take for granted, such as freedom of religion. So far -- partly because of our dependence on Saudi Arabia for oil -- every presidential administration from the time Saudi Arabia became a nation in the 1930s has said it does make sense to do that.

GE's huge investment will almost certainly make it even more difficult to hold the House of Saud's feet to the fire on improving human rights in the kingdom. At least at first.

But the more Saudi Arabia and the West have intertwined economic and political interests, the more likely it is that foundational human rights will be seen by the House of Saud as worthy of respect.

But if that turns out not to be the Saudi response, GE should stand ready to see its investment fail and the U.S. government should be ready to treat the Saudi government as a source of trouble in the world -- a source that works against our national interests, including religious freedom.

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In his speech in Hiroshima, Japan, the other day, President Obama said the world should think of Aug. 6, 1945, "not as the dawn of atomic warfare, but as the start of our moral awakening." It's a lovely idea, and I'm glad no nuclear weapons have been exploded since then, but if humans started awakening morally almost 71 years ago, we've got a lot of explaining to do about what's happened between then and now.

Getting to know immigrants and their religions: 5-27-16

As I've noted before, the religious landscape in the United States began to change noticeably after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed immigration reform into law in 1965.

WorldReligions-1The law opened the borders more extensively to people from Asia, Africa and, generally, the global south. And they brought their religions with them -- Islam, Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Shintoism, Sikhism and more, including different versions of Christianity.

Fifty-plus years later America looks rather different from the country with a population that has been (and remains) predominantly Christian. But followers of the religions of all those immigrants continue to look for ways to negotiate their place in American society. Sometimes resistance from the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of previous immigrants makes things more difficult for the newly arrived.

But sometimes followers of some of the religions that most Americans don't know much about take the initiative to introduce themselves to their communities.

That just happened in Denver, where a growing community of Sikhs held a parade to say, essentially, "Hello. We're here. And we're happy to be part of the scene."

As the Denver Post article to which I've just linked you reports, "The event was geared toward bringing awareness of Sikhism to the Denver area and celebrating the customs of the growing community.

“'This whole event is to make sure more people know about our community,' said Serene Singh, the youth president of the Colorado Springs Sikh Temple and the president and founder of the Sikh Student Association of Boulder."

These are the kinds of outreach events that will be required to reduce ignorance and cut down on the sometimes-willful prejudice that raises its ugly head at times. In fact, the more assertive (in a friendly, inviting way) adherents of various religions can be about introducing themselves and their traditions to others, the less likely it will be that they will run into xenophobic reactions, although I'd also note that with the xenophobia Donald Trump has been stirring up, it may take a lot more effort than it would if he were not about to be nominated by the GOP for president -- and if he knew what he was talking about.

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Japan's prime minister took G-7 leaders to a Shinto shrine the other day. Good idea. You can't understand a nation without understanding the spirituality of its people. Don't know much about Shinto? Here's a pretty good summary from the BBC.

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P.S.: Cheers for the Rev. Adam Hamilton, founding pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kan., who has just been named Johnson Countian of the Year.

John Calvin said what? 5-26-16

From time to time it is useful for those of us who are people of faith to have a look at the life and writings of the people who helped form our tradition.

CalvinFor someone like me in the Reformed Tradition (read Presbyterian) branch of Christianity, that means returning now and then to the voluminous words of the man credited with being our theological forefather, John Calvin.

I do this by occasionally pulling off my home office bookshelf the huge volume by Calvin called Institutes of the Christian Religion, which he revised several times in his life. My copy is a translation by Henry Beveridge, a 1994 reprint of a 1989 edition.

Calvin was, in many ways, brilliant. He got a lot right. But for a 16th Century man, he also found himself bound by his literalistic time. For instance, it's clear from his writing that he believed Earth had been created in six literal days about 6,000 years ago.

He believed Moses had actually written the Torah, which, as you may know, includes a description of the death of Moses. Hmmm.

And he assumed that Jonah was a real historical character who survived three days in the belly of a large fish and that when God "desired that Jonah should be thrown into the sea, he sent forth a whirlwind." The fact is, Calvin writes, "no wind ever rises or rages without his special command."

All of that is understandable, given Calvin's context, which was long before such Bible interpretive tools as historical and form criticism came along for scholars.

But what I have found most challenging in this re-reading of his words is that Calvin's vision of God is rather different from my vision of God. Calvin sees a God who is intimately engaged in absolutely everything that happens on Earth. Or, as he puts it, "it is certain that not a drop of rain falls without the express command of God." (TV meteorologists, take note.)

Unless I'm badly misreading Calvin, what we wind up with is a God who rewards and punishes individuals on a minute-by-minute basis according to God's own inscrutable will and plan.

Calvin asks: "What seems more attributable to chance than the branch which falls from a tree, and kills the passing traveler? But the Lord sees very differently, and declares that He delivered him into the hand of the slayer (Exodus 21:13). In like manner, who does not attribute the lot to the blindness of Fortune? Not so the Lord, who claims the decision for himself (Proverbs 16:33)."

Calvin also declares "that Fortune and Chance are heathen terms; the meaning of which ought not to occupy pious minds. For if all success is blessing from God, and calamity and adversity are his curse, there is no place left in human affairs for Fortune and Chance." Nothing about existence, in other words, is random. In Calvin's view, God micromanages every stub of the toe, every spin of the roulette wheel, every baseball put in play, every wind that blows. If this is the case, God clearly is determined that I will be a fairly awful golfer, though I don't understand why.

What we seem to end up with in Calvin's view is a planet filled with people who have absolutely no control over even their smallest, most insignificant decisions -- decisions that turn out to be foreordained (predestined, would be the Calvinist word) by God, including the decision to walk under a tree that is about to dispatch a branch toward the traveler's head in a fatal way.

From time to time I hear such theology today from people who have escaped some kind of terrible accident, like a plane crash. They will say that the Lord pulled them through. And that makes me wonder about a God who elects to have an old man in seat 21-A of a jumbo jet survive while choosing to have a toddler in seat 21-B die.

I would say that such a God varies dramatically from the God of love, compassion, mercy and justice whom we Christians say is revealed to us most fully in Jesus Christ. I think it's possible to affirm the sovereignty (or glorious freedom) of God without buying Calvin's narrow vision of a God who spends all her time deciding which branch of which tree to drop on the head of someone walking by.

But this is why it's helpful to return to our theological ancestors. And it's why it's both helpful and humbling to acknowledge that maybe Calvin is right in a way that I simply don't understand.

But if he could be brought back to life for a discussion about all of this today, I think I'd arrange for our talk to be somewhere other than under a tree.

* * *


Leaders of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, which considers itself quite a bit more theologically conservative than the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, is having an internal dispute over who should be allowed to preach in its pulpits. Like so many other inside-baseball arguments in religion, it's the sort that makes outsiders wonder why so much energy is being spent on this matter rather than on finding ways to love and help heal the wounded world.

Religion woven into a classical music concert: 5-25-16


I continue to be intrigued by the ways that religion seems to weave itself through nearly every aspect of life.

An example: My bride and I attended the performance of the Kansas City Symphony on Saturday evening, at which the orchestra played both a piece inspired by the "Dreyfus Affair," which had to do with antisemitism in France in the late 1800s, and a special piece commissioned by the symphony. It also had ties to a Jewish theme.

The latter was Symphony No. 3 by Jonathan Leshnoff. The program notes told us that "the second movement is associated with the sixth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, 'vav,' which refers to the attribute of Gevurah in Jewish mystical thought. Gevurah, loosely translated as 'strength,' denotes a giver's withholding of expansive kindness in exchange for perceived difficulties." (I'm still puzzling over precisely what that means.)

But when symphony conductor Michael Stern took a few minutes to introduce the piece to the audience, he said that Gevurah has to do with judgment. At which point the man sitting in front of me began shaking his head to mean no.

So after the piece, I tapped the man on the shoulder and asked if I was reading his head-shaking correctly and, if so, what did Stern get wrong?

It turned out I had met this man and his wife some years ago when I spoke at their synagogue, and all of this led to an interesting conversation about the Jewish mystical path, Kabbalah. The man thought the program notes got it right when it said Gevurah had to do with strength, not the judgment that Stern had mentioned.

But when I looked up Gevurah online, I found that this Wikipedia entry said "Gevurah is 'the essence of judgment (DIN) and limitation, and corresponds to awe and the element of fire.'"

Well, the upshot is that if I really want to know more about all of this, I will have to devote some time with experts. But this whole matter of religion arose in a concert hall where people like me had gone simply to enjoy some classical music -- music, it unexpectedly turned out, that had deep threads of religion running through it.

It's my contention that you can find similar threads of religion running through almost any activity or news story these days. Which is why we need more -- not fewer -- journalists and other commentators to help us understand all these threads and connections.

(By the way, I took the photo here as the orchestra warmed up and not when the concert was going on. The latter kind of photography is against the rules.)

* * *


Pope Francis, continuing his efforts to improve interfaith relations, met this week with Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar in Cairo. El-Tayeb is considered the highest authority in Sunni Islam, which is a non-hierarchical faith. In 2002 I was at Al-Azhar (a mosque and ancient university) and, with other journalists, met with the man who then was grand imam, the now-deceased Mouhamed Said Tantawy. He was an impressive and interesting man but I found that over time he tended to say things that contradicted or at least challenged other things he said about issues of terrorism and self-defense. My impression is that the current grand imam, el-Tayeb, is considerably more consistent in his public comments.

Pope Francis attacks a distorted gospel: 5-24-16

It was really reassuring the other day to read about Pope Francis slamming "Prosperity Gospel" preachers, which I last wrote about here.

Prosperity-gospelAs the Religion News Service piece to which I've just linked you noted, "The problem, Francis said in his homily on Thursday, is that 'you cannot serve both God and riches' because the love of money becomes 'a chain' that makes it impossible to follow Jesus."

And yet Prosperity Gospel preachers tell people that God wants them to be rich and they insinuate that a sign of God's favor is the size of your bank account and your other material possessions.

It's roughly 180 degrees away from the gospel that Jesus preached, but it finds a willing audience. I also wrote about this plague on Christianity here in 2009.

Pope Francis is not, of course, the only leader speaking out against Prosperity Gospel preaching.

In this piece, for instance, Corrie Mitchell, editor of OnFaith, lists 10 Bible verses she wishes Prosperity Gospel preachers would quit misusing.

But, of course, not grasping at a verse here or there requires people to read the Bible with some understanding of context, and it's so much easier simply to pick out a verse written 2,000 or more years ago and imagine it speaks directly to today's situation.

So thanks today to Pope Francis for raising up this matter again. (And for other things he said in the same remarks a few days ago.)

I suppose if there were a Prosperity Blogger's Gospel, my only conclusion would have to be that God doesn't want me to get rich writing here every day. If that's the case, God's will is being done.

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The archbishop of Canterbury says antisemitism and racism are "deeply embedded" in British culture. The first step toward fixing such a problem, of course, is to name the evil. Done. Now what?

Good interfaith work, but not unique: 5-23-16

One of the early lessons taught to journalists (well, at least by great J-schools like Mizzou) is to be careful about declaring anything to be the first of its kind anywhere or to be the only one of its kind anywhere.

Abrahamic-faithsIt might be hard to imagine that there ever before had been a Holstein cow with five legs, two tails and with one of the black patches on its side looking for all the world like a map of Vermont. But without proof that it hasn't happened before, a reporter would do better to describe it as unusual and not as unique. (Has there ever been such an animal? I have no idea. Some stuff here I just make up.)

The same rule applies in reporting about religion.

For instance, this Haaretz story in the Jewish newspaper The Forward carries a headline that says "Germany to Build World’s First All-in-One Synagogue, Church and Mosque." And without further qualification, the story says of the planned structure, "This will be the first structure of its kind combining separate prayer halls for the three religions."

Sounds cool. But it's not quite so.

As this NPR story notes, such a tri-religious cooperation project already is being built in Omaha, Neb., now, though each faith community will have its own building on the same plot of land. But even though the claim to uniqueness in the NPR story is slightly nuanced, it says that the church-mosque-synagogue being constructed there "may be the first place in history where these three monotheistic faiths have built together, on purpose, with the intention of working together."

But then the NPR story, to its credit, acknowledges that another three-religion building project is being put together in Germany.

At any rate, I'm grateful that two communities in two different parts of the world are willing to try this kind of interfaith cooperation. There are risks involved, as the NPR story makes clear. But I see no reason why the three Abrahamic faiths can't work together and live together in this way, respecting each other's differences. It's what happens in Kansas City through Habitat for Humanity. As I reported here recently, representatives of those three communities recently began work on their fifth house together.

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We in the U.S. don't often hear a lot about Christianity in Australia, but folks (well, columnists, anyway) there are saying some snappish words to one another about what's wrong and right with the faith. Here is the latest example, just to give you a bit of an international view today.

Waiting for the United Methodists to divide? 5-21/22-16

For those of us who believe the Bible has no essential word of guidance to speak about how to understand homosexuality, the decision on Wednesday of this past week by the General Conference of the United Methodist Church to delay any change in the church's position that condemns homosexuality was sad and disappointing.

UmcBut let's think about this more deeply.

More than 40 percent of the delegates attending the conference were from countries outside the U.S., including many from African nations. In such places, there has been precious little understanding of LGBTQ people. Indeed, in some countries it is illegal to be gay. The hostility to gays and lesbians in a few places can be literally murderous.

The kind of Christianity that in recent decades has been sweeping across Africa, in fact, is quite evangelical and conservative in nature. Those are terms that the leaders of churches there would use to describe themselves. Faith there is mostly not about discussing complex questions of why there is evil in the world or various theories of the atonement of Christ. Instead, faith there is about trusting God for the next meal, the next rain for the crops, the next bit of money to feed one's family, the next health care worker to show up to heal a desperately ill family member.

This is one of the huge challenges of trying to be a global church, which is what the United Methodists are. About seven million of the denomination's 12 million members are from the U.S., but when church leaders gather for the General Conference, as it just did in Portland, Ore., it is literally an international meeting with widely diverse views and, thus, not a mirror of the American Methodist scene, which itself is divided.

So even if most of American Methodists want to undo the church's current, unenlightened position that homosexuality is "incompatible with Christian teaching," they may either have to separate themselves from the global structure of the current church or wait 50 or 100 years for the rest of the world to catch up with the liberation of LGBTQ folks that has been happening in the U.S. and much of the rest of the West.

The decision by the General Conference to let the church's bishops appoint a commission to suggest a new way forward seemed like the only way to avoid an immediate schism. I was glad to see the Rev. Adam Hamilton, founding pastor of the Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, helping to lead the forces of compromise as an interim move. But in the long run Adam wants his church to affirm the liberation of LGBTQ people even while seeking to live in harmony with people who disagree with him on that matter. Which is why he supported the idea of giving a commission appointed by the bishops time to come up with some kind of solution.

It's not clear to me whether people who interpret the Bible so differently can, in the end, live under the same roof. Our experience in the Presbyterian Church (USA) is that many congregations that read the Bible as condemning homosexuality left our denomination once we declared that otherwise-qualified gays and lesbians could be ordained and that our pastors were free to perform same-sex weddings if they wanted to (no one would be forced to).

I'm sorry some PCUSA congregations made the choice to leave as I'm also sorry they choose to interpret the Bible that just-say-no way. But there are many other productive ways to spend time, resources and energy than continuing to fight about issues of human sexuality. So I say farewell to those who leave and hope they continue to find useful ministry to do just as those of us who stay seek to do useful ministry, too.

AdamHamiltonIn the end, it won't surprise me to see some kind of reordering (a purposeful schism) of the United Methodist Church -- perhaps into three bodies that agree to partner in certain ministries but that have different rules about homosexuality. In fact, when Adam Hamilton (pictured at right) spoke to Methodist seminarians early in General Conference week, he acknowledged that one of the options being kicked around is this three-part subdivision idea.

In one branch would be those who refuse to be in a denomination that won't ordain gay people to ministry and that has pastors who won't do same-sex marriages. In another would be those who refuse to ordain LGBTQ people or do same-sex weddings. And in the broad middle would be those who agree to let individual pastors and congregations be guided by their consciences on these matters without setting hard and fast rules.

Will that work? Maybe, but the way the worldwide Anglican Communion has sought to censure the Episcopal Church in the U.S. for ordaining gay bishops and supporting gay marriage doesn't give me much hope for peaceful coexistence among such a newly divided United Methodist Church.

What seems clear is that the current United Methodist Church cannot long continue without some kind of resolution to this matter. If the bishops' commission can keep everyone under the same roof, I'll be surprised. But let's wait and see.

(By the way, here is Saturday's Kansas City Star editorial about this subject, which notes that "instead of being advocates for liberation, the Methodists, at least for now, have chosen the road of caution." As, indeed, they have.)

* * *


Speaking of the Methodists, two of the delegates to the General Conference have written this interesting Washington Post column praising the denomination for its efforts at unity. I like their optimism, but wish I shared more of it with them.

How ISIS uses the Internet to win: 5-20-16

It has been clear for years, if not decades, that religious fanatics who are moved to commit violence to further their cause cannot be defeated simply by military means.

Cyber-terrorismIn this high-tech world, such a singular answer, even if needed in some instances, is simply not enough. The struggle against violent extremism must be waged at multiple levels, including recognizing that the Internet has become a prime recruiting tool as well as a means by which such terrorist groups as ISIS (also known as Daesh) attack their perceived enemies.

But in what ways does ISIS do that? How sophisticated have its tech leaders become?

This BuzzFeed News piece provides some answers that are at once illuminating and distressing.

As the piece notes, "U.S. intelligence believe a small unit within ISIS is leading the group’s cyber ambitions, which range from working with hackers to launch cyberattacks against their enemies, to publishing manuals that help their supporters mask their online communications and defend themselves from those hunting them."

ISIS may be in trouble in various places, having lost some of the territory it controls in Iraq and Syria. But it's far from dead, and it is using complex technical means to further its hideous goals.

This is one reason we need U.S. leaders who understand such complexity and aren't simply mouthing inanities about how easy it will be to defeat ISIS or about how we should bomb ISIS territory until the sand glows.

That is how we will lose. The way to win is to understand how the enemy works, how it thinks, how it plans and why it becomes attractive to disenchanted youth throughout the world.

That requires hard work, resources and commitment. Let's find leaders who understand that.

* * *


I may have more to say later about this week's compromise decision about homosexuality by the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, but for now let's just note that the denomination has narrowly avoided schism. The long-term question is whether the Rev. Adam Hamilton, founding pastor of the Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, and others can lead the church to a new and more open stance on this matter.