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Preaching hate from Christian pulpits: 6-30-16

As if we needed further proof that bad theology can be not just corrosive but murderous, we now learn that after the Orlando massacre earlier this month, pastors of several allegedly Christian churches praised the killing of LGBT people in that Florida nightclub.

Preacher-angryYes, gave thanks for their deaths.

This is the kind of toxic anti-gay garbage we've come to expect from the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka and its late leader Fred Phelps. But Westboro has no monopoly on hate rooted in a degenerative reading of what the Bible says or doesn't say about homosexuality.

The New York Times story to which I've linked you quotes a Sacramento preacher this way: "The tragedy is that more of them didn't die. The tragedy is -- I'm kind of upset that he didn't finish the job! Because these people are predators! They are abusers!"

The story also mentions a visiting sociology professor at Arkansas State University saying she has tracked similar sentiments from a handful of other preachers.

The U.S. has come a long way toward respect and equal rights for LGBT people. But clearly there remain pockets of disgusting resistance, people who traffic in hate, in loathsome rhetoric, all the old free-range bigotries that once stained much of our public discourse.

Our response to such outrageous talk must never be silence.

Rather, we must make sure that the purveyors of such filth understand that they are unacceptable outliers who don't represent the rest of us, don't speak for us, don't mirror our visions. Our responses must honor the victims of this vile prejudice.

(By the way, by radical contrast to the preachers referred to in this post, my own denomination, the national governing body of the Presbyterian Church (USA) just adopted this statement of regret for how it previously treated LGBT people and said it "Encourages congregations to reach out actively to those who have experienced marginalization due to decisions of the church, across the spectrum of theological understanding.")

(The image you see here today came from this blog.)

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A Washington Post investigation has found that Donald Trump, an alleged billionaire, seems to have given less than $10,000 to charity over the last seven years. What's he running for? Commander in Cheap?

When we deny terrorists' humanity: 6-29-16

LOS ANGELES -- The language we use to describe the people we call enemies can say more about us than it does about them.
Michael-RamirezIn wars, enemies inevitably get labeled in ways that attempt to diminish their humanity, that make them out to be monsters, sub-human species, vermin -- the way the Germans sought to drain the humanity out of the Jews before and during the Holocaust so they could exterminate them like so many pestilent insects because, after all, they were different, the other.
The war on terror is no different.
A few days ago here at the National Society of Newspaper Columnists' annual conference, double Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Michael Ramirez (pictured here) was talking about world affairs and showing us some of his powerful cartoons.
When he got to talking about last year's horrific terrorist attacks in Paris, he described the perpetrators as "these animals." There it was again. Somehow he wanted to separate certain people -- terrible, despicable people, to be sure, but people nonetheless -- from humanity because of what they had done and the preposterous ideas they held.
When Ramirez took questions, I challenged him about that. I told him that I thought it does no one any good to use labels that seek to dehumanize others, no matter how awful they've behaved. I told him I was the last person ever to defend terrorists, given that some of them had murdered my own nephew on 9/11.
But, I said, when we use language like "animals" to describe other human beings (yes, yes, I know that all humans are technically, biologically animals, but that's not the sense in which Ramirez was using the term), it blinds us to the reality that each one of us human beings is capable of evil.
The great religions all teach us that. The Apostle Paul, for instance, tells us in Romans 3:23 that all -- all -- have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
Do many of us fall into the worst of the worst kinds of behaviors, all the murdering and terrorizing and torturing that al-Qaida and ISIS and Boko Haram and on and on engage in? Of course not, though it's wise to remember that each of us is capable of such malevolence. Human history is in many ways a record of this reality.
Ramirez told me he disagreed with me about his use of "these animals" because he said he just couldn't get his head around the reality that human beings could, in fact, act the murderous way that the Paris attackers had acted.
But, of course, they really did act that way. Human beings -- not less-than-human animals -- pulled off those murders, committed the massacre in Orlando, gunned down theater goers in Colorado, blew away elementary school children -- kids, for God's sake, just kids -- in Connecticut, smashed airplanes into to skyscrapers in New York and the Pentagon on 9/11 and on and on and on all the way back to Cain's murder of Abel, however metaphorical that was.
Human beings did those things and more. If we deny that reality we have no hope of understanding the possibility of darkness in our own divided, confused, willful hearts -- hearts that the old prophet Jeremiah said were desperately wicked and beyond understanding.
Jeanne Phillips, who writes the internationally popular "Dear Abby" column, had it right when she spoke to our group Saturday evening and referred to "the basic humanity within us all." I wish Ramirez could buy that concept.
Once we decide that the brutally destructive actions committed by terrorists, murderers, torturers and the like are, in fact, the actions of sub-humans, we have compromised our own humanity because we have given ourselves permission to treat such people as if they were not children of God, too, were not created in the image of God, were not part of the broad, mysterious, marvelous, dangerous human family, no matter how deep their flaws and how heinous their crimes against humanity. It's what happens when we explain Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Osama bin Laden by saying they were just crazy.
Taking that road is how we get terrorists in the first place, how we get murderers, sociopaths. It's the path of denial, the smooth and easy highway to more evil.
(The photo here today was taken by Lisa Smith Molinari, NSNC president.)
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Fifty major Pakistani clerics have declared in a ruling that transgender people have full marriage, funeral and inheritance rights under Islamic law. Good for them. Maybe this will encourage more American clergy to adopt a similar attitude. Maybe.

Seeing that the problem is us: 6-28-16

LOS ANGELES -- To get here -- here being a city that lunches, that has its people call your people, that entertains itself to death -- our plane flew over land that grows amber fields of wheat, land sketched with crop circles, those huge pie charts perfectly visible from 38,000 feet, all those irrigated farms that suck the water out of the disappearing Ogallala Aquifer so we can have our morning toast, our cereal, our wheat germ to keep us healthy, all the gluten that now we learn makes some people sick.
After that, we looked down on pocked land, acned, rutted earth, stretches so ruined and gutted, so eaten away that a huge patch of it has become a tourist attraction with a bloated name -- the Grand Canyon.
And once again it's clear what a pasted-together, rambling, ad hoc, impossible country this is from Pacific to Atlantic, Canada to Mexico, Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon, Florida to, well, unrelated, disparate parts of Florida -- all the alligator swamps, the private beaches, the Deep South car racing country -- the California of the sunny beaches to some wildly other California of Sequoia trees and grapes being grown for Sauvignon Blancs and Pinot Noirs.
From my fifth-floor hotel window here I can see Interstate 405. Just now, in the late afternoon, it's rush hour (When is it not rush hour in Southern California?) and the 405 northbound is packed hood to trunk, hood to trunk, hood to trunk. If any car is doing 10 miles per hour I would be surprised.
It's impossible for me to look at such a scene -- all the one-per-car commuters crawling away from something and to something else -- and not think about Pope Francis' voice crying in the ecological wilderness in his encyclical, Laudato Si, about the way we human beings have been foolishly irresponsible in our treatment of Mother Earth.
Quoting St. Francis of Assisi, after whom he took his name, Pope Francis says that "our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life." But, the pope says, "this sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her."
Goods like rivers and mountains, which makes me think again of the Grand Canyon, which is, of course, simply nature's art work -- especially stunning from high above it. Humankind had nothing much to do with the fact that a river gnawed through rocky land, though it might be a reminder that nature has her ways and we would do well to pay attention to those ways and not work so consistently against them in our sprawl, our mechanized means of filling the clean air with the residue of the fuel that lets us fly from Kansas City to Los Angeles in 2 hours and 59 minutes nonstop.
"The earth, our home," Pope Francis says in Laudato Si, "is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth."
The words seem intentionally harsh, given how much beauty remains in our hills, our valleys, plains, river beds, sea shores. And yet it's hard to look anywhere and not notice what the pope is talking about, hard to ignore the packed land fills, the junk yards, the brackish water in rivers that used to run bluer and sweeter. The glaciers are melting, the clouds sometimes rain poison on us, the earth heats up, and we frogs sit in the increasing steam not much noticing.
And like Holocaust deniers, climate change deniers look at the evidence and call it a hoax. And some of our politicians imagine that if they, too, ignore the evidence they will be rewarded with public office and a chance to build a bigger house for their family, drive a bigger car, own more energy-sucking gadgets.
"Climate change is a global problem," Francis writes in this encyclical, "with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods."
Yes, and what we need to learn to say is this: "And I am part of the problem." Only by acknowledging that I live wastefully can I free myself to think about how to change. But how odd that one way to see that anew is by getting in a noisy, expensive, fuel-eating airplane and polluting the very air that sustains us all.
(The photo here today I took from the Getty Museum, looking through the smog toward the circular Hotel Angelino, where I stayed.)
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Pope Francis says it's time for Christians to apologize for their treatment of gays and lesbians. Once again the man is right. But once again a church leader follows and does not lead. This should have happened long ago.

Finding faith news while I'm gone: 6-27-16

LOS ANGELES -- I've been here to attend the annual conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, a terrific group of scribes that once had me as its president.

NewspapersWhile I'm gone, I'm going to give you a couple of sources from which to get updates about religious news.

The first is Religion News Service. This excellent group of journalists provides coverage of lots of religious matters. It's a good place to keep up. You can even support RNS with a donation.

Another good source of news and analysis in the world of faith is the Pew Research Center. Lots of studies worth reading can be found there, too.

If I have time at the NSNC conference to write something for the blog I will, but don't count on finding anything new here until tomorrow. You can find out some of what we're up to at the conference by clicking on the link in the first paragraph above.

While I'm gone I also invite you to explore the various essays I have here on the blog under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page.

Miss me. See you back here tomorrow. Bill.

Faith news while I'm gone: 6-25/26-16

LOS ANGELES -- I'm here to attend the annual conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, a terrific group of scribes that once had me as its president.

NewspapersWhile I'm gone, I'm going to give you a couple of sources from which to get updates about religious news.

The first is Religion News Service. This excellent group of journalists provides coverage of lots of religious matters. It's a good place to keep up. You can even support RNS with a donation.

Another good source of news and analysis in the world of faith is the Pew Research Center. Lots of studies worth reading can be found there, too.

If I have time at the NSNC conference to write something for the blog I will, but don't count on finding anything new here until Tuesday. You can find out some of what we're up to at the conference by clicking on the link in the first paragraph above.

While I'm gone I also invite you to explore the various essays I have here on the blog under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page.

Miss me. See you back here Tuesday. Bill.

The probable "Jesus' wife" forgery: 6-24-16

Several years ago, I wrote this article about the highly charged controversy involving a snippet of what appeared to be ancient papyrus in which this partial line was found: "Jesus said to them, 'My wife. . .'"

Jesus-wifeThe item in question (pictured here) had been revealed to the world in 2012 by a Harvard historian, Karin King. And there has been a lot of commentary -- pro and con -- about its authenticity since then.

That's what you would expect about a document that raised the possibility that Jesus of Nazareth was, in fact, married. In fact, something like that theory shows up in a book about Mary Magdalene that I recently reviewed here on the blog. And, of course, the idea of Jesus being married to Mary Magdalene is at the center of author Dan Brown's popular novel (a novel means it's fiction, folks), The Da Vinci Code.

Well, today I want to be brief here so you will have time to read and ponder journalist Ariel Sabar's fascinating Atlantic piece about all of this.

Sabar has done lots of leg work, traveling hither and yon to find the story and the people behind the papyrus piece that King put in public play four years ago.

If nothing else, it will give you an excellent sense of what a good reporter does.

On the basis of Sabar's piece, King now says she believes the papyrus piece about Jesus' wife probably is a forgery.

We're still awaiting comments from Jesus' wife.

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LOS ANGELES -- While I'm here this weekend for the annual conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists I won't be adding the usual second item to the blog. But you can check in on the NSNC site to see something else good journalists do -- try to get better.

Confronting domestic violence among Muslims: 6-23-16

One of the many side stories from the Orlando massacre had to do with the fact that the shooter had a history of committing domestic violence.

Domestic-ViolenceAnd one of the hard realities, as the female Muslim writer of this piece notes, is that domestic violence is not uncommon among Muslims.

"I’m not suggesting that this problem is unique to the Muslim community," writes Ismat Mangla, "or that all Muslim men are abusers, or that all abusers will go on to commit crimes of mass violence. But the fact is, one in three women will be victims of intimate partner violence during their lives, and Muslim women are no exception."

In both Islam and Christianity, some adherents have relied on scripture to justify a domineering attitude toward women.

In the Qur'an, for instance, 4:34 says, in part, this: "If you fear high-handedness from your wives, remind them (of the teachings of God), then ignore them when you go to bed, then hit them." (From the translation by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem.) By contrast, the translation by Laleh Bakhtiar renders the original Arabic this way in that section: "But those whose resistance you fear, then admonish them and abandon them in their sleeping place then go away from them. . ."

"Go way" clearly is different from "hit them," but it is, at this point, still a minority-view translation.

In Christianity, the Apostle Paul's New Testament writings often are cited in defense of male domination (which can lead to domestic violence). Colossians 3:18, for instance, says, in part, "Wives, submit to your husbands. . ." And Ephesians 5:24 essentially repeats the admonition: "So wives submit to their husbands in everything like the church submits to Christ." In another place, Paul tells women not to speak in worship.

As you can imagine, it's not much of a stretch to build a theory of marriage and marital dominance by taking words written in a different context 2,000 years ago and making them apply as inerrant truth today.

But Ismat Mangla, who wrote about domestic violence in Islam in the Patheos piece to which I linked you, is exactly right to "call on our religious leaders to explicitly discuss why domestic violence has no place in Islam. If Ramadan is about reforming ourselves, then this epidemic is something worthy of attention and reform in this holy month. If our goal is to please Allah, then let’s start by making the weakest among us safe."

It is not clear yet whether the Orlando shooter justified his domestic violence by referring to the Qur'an, but we do know that others have done exactly that, just as some Christians have used the Bible as their excuse for treating women like chattel. Religion that crushes, that oppresses, that excuses terrible behavior is unhealthy religion and needs to be healed.

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The Smithsonian this fall is going to offer an exhibit of highly decorated versions of the Qur'an as a way of showing ways in which Muslims have used art to honor their sacred book. Various types of calligraphy and illustration will be displayed. It's fascinating how religion in general and sacred writ in particular always seems to inspire art. It's a sign of the health of a faith tradition.

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P.S.: LOS ANGELES -- I'm here this weekend attending the annual conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. If you want to follow the good times (and, of course, highly educational times), click on the NSNC link I've just given you.

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ANOTHER P.S.: I hope you'll be able to tune in to the KCPT-TV "Beyond Belief" special report on religion in Kansas City at 7:30 tonight. Necessary details are at the link I've given you here.

Pope questions some marriages' validity: 6-22-16

One fascinating thing about Pope Francis (pictured here) is that he is willing to speak his mind even when what he says disturbs many in the church, including some of its leaders.

Pope-FrancisThe latest incident happened a few days ago, and I want to return to it today because I think it may have been more important and revealing than many at first thought.

The pontiff -- in response to a question or comment about what a man called "the crisis of marriage" -- said he believed the “great majority” of Catholic marriages being celebrated today are invalid because couples do not recognize that marriage requires a lifetime commitment.

The Reuters story reporting this then noted that when the Vatican later issued a transcript of the pope's remarks, the words "great majority" were changed to "some."

Well, sometimes even popes say more than they mean to, though I'm guessing he really meant "great majority" and went along with softening that to "some" in the transcript.

But let's consider the substance of what he said -- words that upset quite a few Catholics, including some who would identify themselves as conservatives.

One big problem, Francis said, was that "We are living in a provisional culture.” I assume by that he meant that we live at a time when many people are reluctant to make lasting commitments not just to marriage but also to much of anything. He's right about that. We're no longer a nation of joiners or of stayers if we do join. We often bowl alone.

This provisionalism clearly is evident in the religious world, where growing numbers of Americans are walking away from the faith traditions in which they were raised and becoming unaffiliated. It's also clearly evident in politics, where a top Republican like House Speaker Paul Ryan can betray his moral center by agreeing to back Donald Trump, a presidential candidate who opposes much of what Ryan has spent his career supporting.

I'm in no position to judge which Catholic marriages are valid. Not my job. But I do think Pope Francis correctly targets a problem of commitment and consistency in our culture -- one that the church (and all faith traditions) should be speaking to.

I don't think Francis is arguing for foolish consistency, the tendency never to change one's mind even when confronted by facts that would seem to require such a change. Rather, he's promoting the idea that some matters (marriage, parenthood) require lifetime commitments and cannot be thrown out just because Thursday is the day we set out our trash for pickup.

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Donald Trump says American Muslims know about radicals in their midst, but they don't notify authorities about them. Here is a piece by a Muslim proving that wrong. The author, in fact, told the FBI about the Orlando shooter well before the massacre.

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P.S.: I hope you'll be able to tune in to the KCPT-TV "Beyond Belief" special report on religion in Kansas City at 7:30 p.m. Thursday. Necessary details are at the link I've given you here. 

The Islam-homosexuality picture: 6-21-16

Since at least 1978 I have been engaged in a wide-ranging conversation with many people about what the Bible says about homosexuality. (Here's an essay with my conclusions.) That was the year I joined Second Presbyterian Church in Kansas City. At the time -- and until quite recently -- our denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), taught that homosexuality was sinful.

Homosexuality-islamThank goodness that has changed. We've finally come to understand that we'd been misreading the Bible in many ways, to say nothing of ignoring our faith's call to show love to the oppressed and marginalized.

In all that time, I've not delved deeply into the question of what Islam teaches about homosexuality. The recent Orlando massacre at a gay night club, however, has raised that very question. One simplistic answer is that Islam teaches that homosexuality is sinful. But, in fact, it's more complicated than that. So today I want to give you a few resources to use to begin to answer this question for yourself.

This Christian Science Monitor piece outlines some of the difficulties with a simple answer. It focuses on the views of followers who can accurately be identified as radical Islamists, but it also identifies some sources within traditional Islam.

The Islamic State, the piece notes, "has killed homosexuals with particularly brutal zeal, and in some Middle East countries homosexual relations are considered crimes punishable by death. While IS cites the Qur'an as its authority, Muslim clerics are far from agreement on how homosexuals should be treated."

That's an important point. Just as there are deep divisions within Christianity (and, in fact, other faith traditions, too) over homosexuality, so are there divides within Islam. And one imam's interpretation of this or that Qur'anic verse or saying from the Hadith may not be another's view. Islam, after all, is insistently monotheistic but it is far from monolithic.

And yet as this Wikipedia entry notes, "Extreme prejudice remains, both socially and legally, in much of the Islamic world against people who engage in homosexual acts." And that prejudice seems difficult to overcome.

One of the stories Muslims have relied on to justify their anti-gay stance is the tale of Sodom and Gomorrah. But as Christian scholars have finally come to figure out, the sin in that story is not any possible homosexual acts but, rather, the failure to provide hospitality.

This site, operated by Muslims, offers additional information about how Islam views homosexuality. And this site from does the same, though from a non-Muslim point of view. In case you missed this Atlanta Journal-Constitution story that ran in The Kansas City Star on Saturday, it describes hopes and dreams of gay Muslims. Finally, here is a Washington Post story about a gay Muslim activist group.

What we really don't know yet -- and maybe we never will -- is how much, if any, the Orlando shooter was influenced by Islam's opposition to homosexuality. But it's worth understanding that even though much Islamic opinion falls in line as opposing homosexuality, there is a continuum of opinion within the faith.

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And just to stay on the subject of Islam and homosexuality, here's a Religion News Service story that delves into the issue in some detail. It quotes an openly gay imam as saying that traditional Islamic teaching on gays must change: “It has to or it will die from its harshness or rigidity. The way it is presently understood, it rots the heart and decays the brain.”

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Keep Your Kids Catholic: Sharing Your Faith and Making It Stick, by Marc Cardaronella. The author is director of the Bishop Helmsing Institute for Faith Formation of the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. From age 13 to 33, he was a Catholic dropout. Now he wants to make sure his children don't follow his path and he wants to help teach other parents how to give their children the spiritual foundation necessary to avoid the failure of faith that he himself experienced. His concern is well-founded. As he notes, "Until the middle of the twentieth century, faith development occurred within the family. Devout parents passed down their religious beliefs, practices, and devotions within the context of a family life centered in the home. Today, that parental privilege and responsibility has largely been handed over to the parish or school. . .We have to take that back, and the family is still the place to do it." Although written for Catholics, there are faith-formation ideas here that can be adapted to nearly any faith.

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P.S.: I hope you'll be able to tune in to the KCPT-TV "Beyond Belief" special report on religion in Kansas City at 7:30 p.m. Thursday. Necessary details are at the link I've given you here.

A Christian case against the death penalty: 6-20-16

The death penalty in the U.S. slowly is giving way to sanity -- but far, far too slowly. The use of capital punishment -- state vengeance -- has declined in recent years, but as a public policy its continued existence shames all of us.

Executing-graceIt is much more expensive than life in prison. It is used sloppily and inconsistently, meaning innocent people have been executed. It lowers the state to the level of the criminal. It burdens the families of victims by making them live through the horror of murder repeatedly as the courts process the case for an average of 10 years.

There is more, and Shane Claiborne, coming at the matter from a definitively Christian perspective, describes that "more" in his new book, Executing Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why It's Killing Us.

Claiborne is puzzled (as am I) about why so many Christians in the U.S. continue to support the death penalty -- a tool used against, among others, Jesus Christ himself.

He argues persuasively that the Bible does not support the death penalty and then asks "how do we explain how so many of us got this so wrong? Here's how. When it comes to the death penalty, we've put Jesus on the back burner, buried him in the closet, mistaking the things he said for good advice relevant to certain individuals but not applicable to the real world of politics. We've somehow separated his execution by the state from our contemporary context of executions. We've divorced heaven from earth, something that Jesus consistently challenged his own disciples on. That's how we ended up with the current crisis."

One of the strengths of this book is that Claiborne remembers the victims of capital crimes and is not interested just in preventing the criminals from being executed. And yet he argues that "victims and their families often provide some of the most compelling arguments for abolishing the death penalty."

So far 19 states and the District of Columbia have abolished the death penalty (a few in recent years), and even in some states with capital punishment still on the books there hasn't been an execution in years. So the trend is heading in the right direction. But the U.S. still finds itself in the company of such human rights abusers as China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq as the countries with the most executions.

It's appalling, costly, barbaric and stupid. To which Claiborne adds this: "Here is a stunning fact: Over 85 percent of state executions in the last thirty-eight years occurred in the so-called Bible Belt. . .The Bible -- or, more accurately, a certain interpretation of the Bible -- has laid the foundation of the death penalty in America and the moral justification for it."

What's going on here? I agree with Claiborne that much of this is the result of bad theology -- or at least unexamined theology.

"Some of the most horrifying things in history," he writes, "have happened at the hands of Christians with poisonous theology, divorced from grace. . .And I think it's bad theology that we're using to justify execution today."

If you're looking for religious, biblical (and especially Christian) reasons on which to decide whether to support the death penalty, this is the book to read. It's way past time to change our system of retributive justice to one of restorative justice. Abolishing capital punishment would go a long way toward achieving that.

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England's poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, has written a post-Orlando poem in which she says "God is gay." And a Church of England bishop likens it to the Apostle Paul writing in his letter to the Galatians that "there is neither Jew nor Greek" and "neither male nor female." And it's intriguing to imagine what people 100 years ago would have said about any of this, assuming they could talk after their heart attacks.