Previous month:
June 2016
Next month:
August 2016

The American Christian struggle against loss: 7-30/31-16

There is no doubt that most Christian denominations in the U.S. are experiencing various kinds of slippage, especially membership and attendance decline.

GallupAttendanceSome are getting hurt more than others, but in general leaders of the various Christian branches are busily trying to figure out how to stay alive and relevant.

As I say, this is a common story across America -- and has been since at least the 1960s. It's happening for lots of reasons.

But what does it look like from within a single congregation? That's what this Crain's Chicago Business story seeks to show. It focuses in remarkable depth on St. John of the Cross Catholic Church in suburban Western Springs. It describes the parish as "one of the largest and most prosperous parishes in the Archdiocese of Chicago, situated in a quiet suburb of $1 million homes, and families with kids who go on to Ivy League and Big Ten universities."

But the archdiocese is undergoing significant change as it tries to consolidate so as to cut financial losses (including millions paid out in the priest sexual abuse scandal) while still serving its Catholic population.

What that means is that a big, relatively rich church like St. John will be affected, too.

As the story reports: "Spurred by a shortage of priests, falling Mass attendance, white flight and financial struggles, the archdiocese plans to close or combine a significant number of parishes in coming years.

"The reorganization is part of a larger multiyear plan, announced by Archbishop Blase Cupich in February, called Renew My Church. It seeks to reinvigorate Catholicism in Chicago by shedding crumbling buildings and reallocating resources in the archdiocese, which covers Cook and Lake counties, 2.2 million Catholics and 347 parishes. The archdiocese's parishes as a whole have long operated at a deficit and finished fiscal 2015 almost $59 million in the red."

It would be nice if all the parishes in that archdiocese were doing well. But they aren't. And that reality can be seen as an insurmountable problem or an opportunity. I hope the folks at St. John view it as the latter and become more deeply engaged with Catholics in parishes across the diocese that are struggling more than St. John is.

There's an opportunity in such situations for ministry, for working with those hurting the most, for responding to others who are hurting a lot more than St. John is hurting.

What about your congregation, if you are a member of one? Is it relatively well off and doing reasonably well? If so, how is it being supportive of other congregations in your religious community that are struggling? Sometimes the mission and ministry field is another Catholic, Methodist or Lutheran church in your same area.

(The graphic here today is from Religion News Service and is based on Gallup information.)

* * *


The visit of Pope Francis to Auschwitz has raised again the question of why the Vatican hasn't released all its World War II era documents related to the Holocaust. As Gerald Posner of The New York Times writes in the article to which I've just linked you, "On the very grounds where the Nazis murdered more than a million victims, most of them Jews, Pope Francis can do much more than have a photo opportunity and offer a generic condemnation of the depths of human depravity. By freeing the Vatican’s Holocaust-era files he will pay a singular and lasting tribute to the dead." It's time. Indeed, past time.

The theology in the 2016 Democratic platform: 7-29-16

Earlier this week, here on the blog, I reviewed the 2016 Republican Party's platform, concluding that although it certainly is a political document, it's also a theological statement that voters should think about as they decide between the Trump-Pence and the Clinton-Kaine tickets.

2016-dem-platformToday I want to share some thoughts after having read the 2016 Democratic Party's platform through my theological lenses. (This Religion News Service piece and this blog post by religion scholar Mark Silk offer something similar if you find you don't like my conclusions -- or even if you do and want to see what others are saying.)

Even the Preambles of both platforms give a sense of how the two parties now differ in their approach. The GOP begins by declaring a belief in "American exceptionalism," a term that carries with it at times the idea that God has anointed the U.S. to be a special nation in the world. By contrast, the Democrats begin by saying that they are in harmony with "the same basic belief that animated the Continental Congress when they gathered here 240 years ago: Out of many, we are one." It's an approach that seems to emphasize the inclusive nature of the party, with the implication that people of different faiths -- and none -- are welcome under its umbrella. The GOP platform, by contrast, seems much more Christian-centric.

If you simply look for faith-based words in each platform, the Republican platform is considerably more marinated in such language. The Democrats' document mentions God three times, compared to 15 for the GOP. The Democrats use the word "religious" 11 times, compared to 50 uses by the Republicans. And Democrats use the word "faith" 10 times, not always in a religious context, while the GOP use it 26 times, also not always with a religious meaning.

But as I said in writing about the GOP platform, merely counting words doesn't tell you much.

So let's dig a bit deeper.

The differences between the two parties on one hot-button issue could not be more stark -- same-sex marriage.

Election-2016The GOP declared that "Traditional marriage and family, based on marriage between one man and one woman, is the foundation for a free society and has for millennia been entrusted with rearing children and instilling cultural values. We condemn the Supreme Court" for its ruling making same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states.

The Democrats, by contrast, said this: "Democrats applaud last year’s decision by the Supreme Court that recognized that LGBT people—like other Americans—have the right to marry the person they love. But there is still much work to be done."

You may have to dig a bit to discover that both positions have their roots in theology, and particularly in how one reads and interprets the Bible. The fading belief that the Bible views homosexuality as a sin underpins the GOP position. The growing view that the Bible says almost nothing about homosexuality and should not be used as a weapon in this debate, seems to be at the root of the Democrats' position. For my own essay on what the Bible says about homosexuality, click here.

Another issue on which the parties differ -- an issue with plenty of ties to religion -- is the environment. As Mark Silk notes about the GOP platform in the piece to which I've linked you above, "Without actually denying climate change, they have set forth a blueprint for doing nothing about it." By contrast, the Democrats, he notes, are very much in harmony with Pope Francis and his 2015 Laudato Si encyclical on the environment when they put this in their platform: "Climate change is an urgent threat and a defining challenge of our time." The silent assumption in the Democratic document and the quite obvious conclusion in the pope's encyclical is that the Earth is God's creation and humans have a responsibility to be good stewards of it.

On the relationship of religion to immigration, Donald Trump, infamously, has suggested at least a temporary ban on Muslims entering the U.S. The Democratic platform dismisses that idea: "We reject attempts to impose a religious test to bar immigrants or refugees from entering the United States. It is un-American and runs counter to the founding principles of this country." The Democrats say something similar when describing their commitment to fighting terrorism: "As we prosecute the fight against terrorism, Democrats will repudiate vile tactics that would do us harm. We reject Donald Trump’s vilification of Muslims. It violates the religious freedom that is the bedrock of our country and feeds into ISIS’ nefarious narrative."

Republicanlogo Dem-donkeyFor the last four or five decades, Republicans have been much more closely identified with a religious base -- Christians who would call themselves conservative or evangelical -- than have the Democrats. In fact, in many ways Democrats have struggled to figure out how to appeal to people of faith and have been pretty awkward at it. Which is why you find this kind of broad language of faith support in the 2016 Democratic platform: "Democrats know that our nation, our communities, and our lives are made vastly stronger and richer by faith in many forms and the countless acts of justice, mercy, and tolerance it inspires. We believe in lifting up and valuing the good work of people of faith and religious organizations and finding ways to support that work where possible." The "where possible" language makes room for Democrats who (wrongly) find any connection or cooperation between government and religion a violation of constitutional principles. Democrats would do well to remember that the church-state separation concept was intended to keep government out of religion, not to keep religion out of the public square.

Democrats also have recognized that a lot of Americans (by last count, almost 25 percent of adults) are religiously unaffiliated. And many of those folks vote, too. So the trick is how to appeal to them while also appealing to people of faith. One way is to speak about essentially secular matters but use faith language that most unaffiliated people would not find objectionable.

For instance, this: "Democrats know that Americans’ right to vote is sacred and fundamental." Both "sacred" and "fundamental" are terms of art drawn from the world of religion. But here they are used as synonyms for "really, really important." It's an interesting rhetorical technique, but the continued use of such faith-based terms in secular contexts tends to hollow out any remaining religious meaning they might have. (If everything is "awesome," pretty soon nothing is.)

Naturally, you'd expect to find substantial differences between Republicans and Democrats on the issue of abortion, given that the position many voters take on it is often reflective of their religious views.

So the GOP platform says this, among its 35 different references to abortion (compared to six in the Democratic platform): "The Democratic Party is extreme on abortion. Democrats’ almost limitless support for abortion, and their strident opposition to even the most basic restrictions on abortion, put them dramatically out of step with the American people." By contrast, the Democrats promise this: "We will appoint judges who defend the constitutional principles of liberty and equality for all, and will protect a woman’s right to safe and legal abortion. . ." And this: "We believe unequivocally, like the majority of Americans, that every woman should have access to quality reproductive health care services, including safe and legal abortion. . ."

To support the concept of legal abortion, some Catholic Democratic politicians (Joe Biden, Tim Kaine, among others) adopt positions that reject church social teaching.

There are many other differences between the two platforms, perhaps a prime example being what they have to say about gun safety and control.

But in general, the language used in the Democratic platform is considerably less reliant on religious imagery and concepts than the words the Republicans chose to use in their document.

As I said when I reviewed the GOP platform a few days ago, the task for voters is to read and digest these platforms but, while they're at it, to pay attention to the theology woven through the documents. It's there. Don't miss it.

(Finally, while we're on this topic, here is a Religion News Service story that describes how many of the delegates to the Democratic convention are people of faith and happy to be identified that way.)

* * *


Pope Francis just celebrated a Mass in Poland that commemorated the 1,050th anniversary of Catholicism's coming to that country. Does that make the Poles the true Millennials?

The political meaning of religious labels: 7-28-16

Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia (pictured at left), the Democratic candidate for vice president, is a Catholic. Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana (at right), the Republican candidate for vice president, was born into an Irish Catholic family but has left Catholicism and these days simply calls himself Christian.

PenceBut just applying a label to Kaine or Pence doesn't tell us much. For sure it won't tell you much to know that Donald Trump calls himself a Presbyterian or that Hillary Clinton is a United Methodist, though there is considerably more evidence for the latter designation than the former.

And, besides, given the fact that there can be no constitutional religious test for public office in the U.S., what difference does it make, say, that Kaine is Catholic?

Well, the reality is that a faith commitment can influence one's positions on public policies. But as blogger Jacob Lupfer notes in this piece, "There are no Catholics in national politics who believe the entire body of their Church’s social teaching. Or at least none who act(s) in accordance with that belief."

So we have in Kaine (and, for that matter, in current Vice President Joe Biden), a Catholic who, though personally against abortion, believes it should remain legal. Which puts both Kaine and Biden at odds with their church.

The point, of course, is that you have to drill down past religious labels to find out what a politician believes and how those beliefs might affect public policy.

What we also know is that it's completely wrong-headed and immoral for someone like the now-resigned chair of the Democratic National Committee, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, to try to use a candidate's religious heritage -- in this case Bernie Sanders' Jewishness -- as a weapon against that candidate.

Religion still matters a lot in the U.S., even though nearly 25 percent of adult Americans now identify as religious unaffiliated. But even that doesn't mean that those so-called "nones" don't have religious beliefs and aren't interested in the religious beliefs of politicians.

It does, however, mean that voters have to do their homework about politics and religion. Labels alone won't be helpful and may even be misleading.

* * *


On his way to Poland yesterday for the world gathering of youth, Pope Francis declared that the world is at war -- "a war of interests, for money, resources." Poland's history is evidence that such a state of war has been the norm over much of human history. Sigh.

The call to create community: 7-27-16

In some ways, every religion encourages the formation of supportive communities.

Called-communityThe concept is so deeply woven into Christianity that the community of believers has a special name -- the body of Christ. The idea is that in this post-resurrection period of time, the followers of Jesus are to be the hands and feet and heart of Christ on Earth. Indeed, it is said that Christ has no other hands but ours, so we must do the works of mercy, reconciliation, love and service that Christ taught his followers how to do.

But, in fact, forming and maintaining community is hard work. And in this digital age of social media (I have more than 2,700 Facebook friends, only a few hundred of whom I've ever met in person) true community is even harder to create and sustain. As Charles E. Moore, editor of the new book Called to Community: The Life Jesus Wants for His People, notes, we live in a time of fragmented family life, mobility so high that people rarely live in the neighborhoods in which they grew up, a demand for big houses with big yards and work places that are separate from where the workers live.

The result is "a post-familial, disconnected culture where self is king, relationships are thin and individuals fend for themselves," he writes.

Moore has gathered together dozens of writers from today and earlier generations to help us think anew about community and what communal life might look like.

The book is deep, challenging and important. Indeed, many of its lessons would apply to people of any faith and of none, though it's clearly written for Christians.

I paid special attention to a chapter on how an intentional community of people in Kansas City -- at Cherith Brook Catholic Worker house -- has decided to share money in a common purse because the author of the chapter, Jodi Garbison, regularly attends my church, along with her husband, the Rev. Eric Garbison, a Presbyterian pastor, and their two children.

Each of the half a dozen or so people who live at Cherith Brook with the Garbisons has agreed to work no more than 20 hours a week outside the home (which provides showers, meals, clothing and other support for the homeless) and to pool their earnings, even though what each one brings to the common purse may be quite different.

"Is it working?" Jodi asks in the book. "It certainly isn't easy. We have struggled through many difficult conversations and we have all learned and grown from each one of them." But, she adds, "we have realigned our hearts to be sharers and not hoarders and to live in truth of God instead of fear."

Certainly not all the 52 essays in this collection have to do with living in a community like Cherith Brook. Most, in fact, are more broadly focused on what it means to be responsible to one another in any kind of community. And the essays come from many authors, some quite well known, including Benedict of Nursia, founder of the Benedictine monastic movement; Leonardo Boff, one of the most famous of South America's liberation theologians; German Lutheran martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer; Sister Joan Chittister, a Catholic nun and author who writes a column (as do I) for the National Catholic Reporter; the late American Trappist monk Thomas Merton, and British novelist and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis.

In our deeply divided, fragmented world, we say we long for community, for belonging. What we must be careful about, however, is finding a community that is healthy and constructive, not one like ISIS or the KKK that feeds our fears and encourages the building of walls instead of bridges.

This book can help with that. A lot.

* * *


Fethullah Gulen, head of the so-called Gulen Movement in Turkey (and now around the world), has written this essay for The New York Times in which he denies he was behind the recent military coup attempt in his native land (Gulen is self-exiled in Pennsylvania). The authoritarian instincts of Turkey's president are worrisome, especially in a nation that is predominantly Muslim but that in some ways has shown how such a nation can be democratic, religiously pluralistic and an active member of NATO.

The theological nature of the GOP platform: 7-26-16

The Republican Party's national platform is a not simply a political document, though for sure it is that. It also is very much a theological document.

Repub-platformConsider this: The word "religious" appears in it 50 times; "religion" six times; "faith" 26 times, though not always meaning religious faith; the word Christian 8 times; "Islam" or "Islamic" seven times, each time connected to terrorism and never once referring to, say, American Muslims; the word "Bible" appears three times, while the word "Qur'an" never appears; the word "Jewish" appears once and the term "Judeo," connected to "Christian" appears once; "God" appears 15 times, and "prayer" once.

Now, of course, merely counting the number of times certain faith-based words appear doesn't tell you much, though it does reveal that this document seems to have a fairly deep interest in matters of religion.

But let's look at some of the details of the GOP document (I later plan to read the Democratic Party's 2016 platform to see if there's anything to say about its theological nature, if any, but I haven't had the time to get that done yet) and see what those details tell us about the party's approach to matters of faith.

Perhaps a tone-setter is found in the first words of the Preamble: "We believe in American exceptionalism." Over the years, those words have had several meanings, including concepts that nearly all Americans can support, such as the notion that the United States has as one of its tasks the advocacy of foundational human rights and freedom here and elsewhere.

But, beyond that, American exceptionalism has acquired a more faith-based meaning having to do with the idea that God somehow has ordained or anointed the U.S. to be special among nations -- indeed, superior to others -- and to spread word of that divinely mandated superiority around the globe in various ways.

XianflagWhoever wrote that first sentence in the platform's preamble had to know that the words would be seen by at least some people as making a theological statement about America's unique position in the world. As individuals, many Americans feel called to defend, protect and advocate for religious freedom, and I'm glad about that. What I find more troubling is when politicians seek to claim that our government is of divine origin.

The GOP platform seems almost unable to speak of such matters as America's natural resources and other attributes without declaring them to be "God-given." Several times, for instance, we read of Americans' "God-given, natural, inalienable rights" and in a section on the Second Amendment's protection of the right to bear arms, there's a reference to the "God-given right of self-defense." Some of this is language in harmony with some of our founding documents, which in many ways also can be read as theological statements.

The platform properly acknowledges that evil exists: "We seek friendship with all peoples and all nations, but we recognize and are prepared to deal with evil in the world." What you won't find, however, is any acknowledgement that even Americans -- including America's elected leaders -- are quite capable for evil. So it's easy to come away from the platform with an us-them sense of the globe -- "us" being the good guys and "them" being what George W. Bush regularly called the "evil-doers." That's a binary system that leads to a distorted view of the world, one that makes us seem arrogant to much of the world and, in fact, makes us a target.

In a time when roughly 25 percent of American adults declare themselves to be religiously unaffiliated, and when religious diversity has never been greater in the U.S., it seems somehow odd to read sentences like these in the GOP platform: "Every time we sing, 'God Bless America,' we are asking for help. We ask for divine help that our country can fulfill its promise. We earn that help by recommitting ourselves to the ideas and ideals that are the true greatness of America."

Several strange things going on there: One, we really don't know which "God" is being referenced. Perhaps it's the bland, non-particular God of what's called "civil religion," a harmless, warm being who hangs around with Uncle Sam. Two, it looks for all the world as though what theologians call "works righteousness" is at play here, which means that God doesn't give you grace -- free unmerited favor -- but, rather, you get only what you earn by your own efforts. Thus, in the platform, we "earn" "divine help" by our commitment to "the ideas and ideals that are the true greatness of America," whatever those might be.

Also: Getting back to the growing religious pluralism of the nation, this kind of wording reflects thinking that seems unaware of that diversity: "We value the right of America’s churches, pastors, and religious leaders to preach and speak freely according to their faith. Republicans believe the federal government, specifically the IRS, is constitutionally prohibited from policing or censoring the speech of America’s churches, pastors, and religious leaders." Perhaps the authors of such sentences don't realize that the U.S. now also contains many synagogues, mosques and gurdwaras and other houses of worship, not just "churches."

Well, there's much more, but let me mention just one or two other things. The platform says this: "We support the public display of the Ten Commandments as a reflection of our history and our country’s Judeo-Christian heritage and further affirm the rights of religious students to engage in voluntary prayer at public school events and to have equal access to school facilities."

10-commandmentsOver and over our courts have ruled that it's unconstitutional to have a display of the Ten Commandments on public property, such as courthouse lawns, if the display doesn't include much broader elements that speak to the ethical underpinnings of our government. The platform's wording is vague enough here that perhaps it's referring to, say, a church or synagogue putting up a display of the Ten Commandments on its lawn that the public regularly passes by. But I suspect that, instead, it means advocating specifically Christian and/or Jewish symbols on or in government buildings.

As a Christian, my view is that putting up a display of specifically Christian symbols on courthouse lawns or similar public property cheapens those symbols and gives control of them to the government. I say let the government worry about such symbols as the flag and the eagle and let the church worry about how and where to display Nativity Scenes, Ten Commandments and other such items infused with religious meanings. I don't want a Nativity Scene to be seen as somehow morally equivalent to Santa's reindeer and Frosty the Snowman. (And if Christians want to display words from the Bible, why do so many of them seem to prefer the Ten Commandments to, say, the Beatitudes?)

Oh, and you could not imagine the Republican platform this year without the words "radical Islamic terrorism." Those words certainly are there. Worded in that way, however, the presumption is that somehow terrorism finds its source in traditional Islam. That's not true. Which is why I use the term "radical Islamist terrorism." The radicals have turned Islam from a religion into an "ism." They have distorted the faith and justified their unjust, deadly and reprehensible actions on a wild misreading of Islam and its teachings and traditions. Islamism is not Islam but, rather, a gross distortion of it.

I hope you'll give the GOP platform a read -- and the Democratic platform -- and see if they somehow speak to your values. As you do, I hope you will read them with your theological lenses on. In fact, the whole world will make a lot more sense if you think theologically as you watch what happens before your wondering eyes.

* * *


An Alabama county jail guard has been charged with trying to smuggle drugs into the facility by hiding them in a Bible. In which book? Judges?

An illegal Muslim charity casts a shadow: 7-25-16

Across the years in the U.S., various minority groups have understood the unwritten rule that to compete against members of the majority, you have to show yourself to be faster, taller, smarter, funnier and put an "-er" at the end of whatever other measure you wish to consider.

ZakatOf course it's unfair. And in some ways that injustice is slowly disappearing. But it still exists and various minority groups should understand the reality that the broader society often will judge them unfairly.

That holds true of minority faith communities, too. For instance, by now we've all heard stories of American Muslims who, when they hear about another terrorist attack or similar catastrophe, immediately pray that the perpetrator is not a Muslim. Many American Muslims know that they are being judged as if they somehow are related to or approve of terrorists.

So one of the last things most American Muslims want is to discover that an Islamic charity (such charity is called "zakat") has been breaking laws by funneling money to terrorists or terrorist organizations or countries that fund and support terrorism. They know that if that were to occur it would be seen by many non-Muslim Americans as one more black mark against Islam.

And yet that's exactly what happened a few days ago. As this Associated Press story reported, "A Missouri-based Islamic charity that was shut down after being identified by the federal government as a global terrorist organization admitted in federal court Wednesday that it illegally funneled $1.4 million to Iraq in violation of U.S. sanctions."

You could almost hear the moaning and "oh-no"-ing among American Muslims, who know that such illegal activity by the Islamic American Relief Agency plays right into the false view that all or most Muslims are terrorists or support terrorism.

As the AP reported: "The original indictment alleged the charity sent about $130,000 to help Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whom the United States has designated as a global terrorist. The money, sent to bank accounts in Peshawar, Pakistan, in 2003 and 2004, was masked as donations to an orphanage located in buildings that Hekmatyar owned.

"Authorities described Hekmatyar as an Afghan mujahedeen leader who has participated in and supported terrorist acts by al-Qaida and the Taliban."

It's certainly true that Muslims aren't the only American religious group in history accused of supporting terrorism here and/or abroad. Many of us recall that Irish Catholic groups in the U.S. were accused a few decades back of helping to finance terrorists acts done by the Irish Republic Army in the so-called "Troubles" of Northern Ireland. Here and here are links to two sites that offer some details about that.

I'm glad our law enforcement authorities and judicial system have shut down the Islamic American Relief Agency, and no doubt most American Muslims are glad of that, too. But there's no doubt that every time something like this happens it makes life more difficult for all Muslims living in this country.

* * *


Pope Francis heads to Poland soon, and we'll see if he can convince the government there to adopt his welcoming views on immigrants and refugees. The Poles might do well to remember that 500 or so years ago, their leaders purposefully welcomed Jewish immigrants to the country and Jewish life in Poland was vibrant for many years as they also helped create modern Poland. Jews themselves, of course, have been instructed by God from almost the beginning of Judaism to welcome the stranger. It's the right way to live.

A break from politics with 'wretch' John Newton: 7-23/24-16

If, like me, you've had your fill this week of politics -- with more to come when the Democrats gather soon -- perhaps this weekend you'd like a bit of a break.

John NewtonHow about if this weekend we celebrate the birth (July 24, 1725) of John Newton, a rebellious lad who was deeply engaged in the slave trade before he finally recognized the evil in which he was participating and quit. Eventually he wrote a whole pile of Christian hymns, including perhaps the most popular one ever, "Amazing Grace."

At my brother-in-law's recent funeral in Vermont, I had suggested that one of the hymns we sing be "For All the Saints," which I love. But others in the family voted for "Amazing Grace," and it was the right choice. Here is a YouTube version of it.

Some years ago, a friend who is a Catholic nun was in charge of creating memorial services for several people both of us had worked with as volunteers in a facility that treated AIDS patients. She loved Newton's old hymn but objected to the line that says grace "saved a wretch like me." She thought it was too harsh, too self-deprecating, too disrespectful of essential human goodness.

I tried to convince her that the "wretch" wording properly reflected how miserable Newton felt about his own complicity in the slave trade and how each of us in various ways also is complicit in evil.

She wasn't buying it and so we ended up singing her ad-libbed words, "that saved a soul like me." (Well, that's what she sang. Under my breath, I continued to sing "wretch." Sorry, Sr. Judy.)

I urge you to read the bio of Newton to which I've linked you on his name above. There you will discover that, among many other hymns he penned, he can be credited with "Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken" and "How Sweet the Names of Jesus Sounds," both of which still are sung today.

If John Newton still were around today, I might support him for president over the current choices. But that's just me.

* * *


Some 70,000 Muslim clerics in India have signed a fatwa, or ruling, against terrorism. This internal battle for the soul of Islam can be won only through such measures and not through outside imposition of values. The violent radicals eventually will lose because their cause is so wrong, so anti-human, so anti-Islam and anti-religion-in-general. But in the meantime, more such actions by Islamic leaders are needed to continue to limit and finally defeat ISIS, al-Qaida and other terrorist groups that claim justification via Islam.

Surprising Islamic centers in the U.S.: 7-22-16

Although for many Americans, Islam barely existed before the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, the reality is that Muslims have been part of the American story since (and even before) the first slaves arrived here.

Dar-al-IslamToday, Muslims are much more prominent, though the population of them in the U.S. is not much more than 1 percent of the total population. But if you know where to look, you can find evidence of Muslim communities that go back a long way and are located in places that seem quite odd and out of the way.

This story, for instance, describes an old Muslim community in northwest North Dakota. Followers of Islam there have been around for a long time, though most of them now are gone, having intermarried with Christians and converted, the story to which I've linked you reports. But there's still a little mosque on the prairie there.

Last week, I was in Abiquiu, N.M., teaching a class at Ghost Ranch, a national Presbyterian education and retreat center. Abiquiu, where artist Georgia O'Keeffe lived and painted, has a population under 600, but there is a mosque and a small Islamic community there.

The mosque (also an education center) is called Dar Al Islam. (The photo you see here today is borrowed from Dar Al Islam's website because I couldn't locate photos I've taken of it in the past.) I didn't get there last week, but I've been before. One thing Dar Al Islam does is to bring in public school teachers from around the country and teach them how to educate their students fairly and accurately about Islam.

Where else can you find an American Muslim presence that might be a surprising location? Well, there's been a Muslim community in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, for most of a century. Here's a link to the Islamic Center of Cedar Rapids.

And here in Kansas City, the best estimates are that there are around 25,000 Muslims in the area, with 18 mosques, including a couple in communities within half an hour of the city. Perhaps the largest single concentration of Muslims in the U.S. can be found in the Detroit area, especially Dearborn.

American Muslims still are negotiating their way into the country's culture, and we still find fools like actor Antonio Sabàto Jr., who spoke at the Republican National Convention this week, insisting that President Barack Obama is a Muslim. But for the most part American Muslims are finding the U.S. one of the best -- if not the best -- places in the world to practice their religion. Do some young American Muslims get radicalized these days and turn toward ISIS and al-Qaida? Yes, and much of that is self-radicalization via the Internet.

But those few individuals are quite far outside the bounds of traditional Islam and way, way outside the bounds of Islam as it generally is practiced in America -- in such places as North Dakota, New Mexico and Iowa.

* * *


Even this far into the 21st Century, we find some people of faith arguing that God may be against the idea of a woman becoming president of the United States, the Washington Post reports. The most enlightened response to such fusty thinking is one word: "Aaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrggggggggggghhhhhhhhhh!"

Pondering a theology of place: 7-21-16


ABIQUIU, N.M. -- In her book, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, what my friend Kathleen Norris says of the Dakotas can be said also of northern New Mexico: "The region requires that you wrestle with it before it bestows a blessing."

GR-2016-4In stark land like this -- land that's often brown for lack of moisture, that supports brush and tumble weeds much more than trees or grass -- it is easier to think about a theology of place. In these red rock hills, which artist Georgia O'Keeffe painted so often and so enticingly, one imagines the early moments of creation, one senses the presence of a creative spirit, a playful, provisional spirit willing to experiment.

GR-2016-3It should be possible, of course, to think such thoughts in Illinois corn fields or in Kansas wheat fields or Georgia peanut fields. And maybe it is.

But for some reason that's hard to explain, the land here -- where I come each summer to teach at Ghost Ranch, a national Presbyterian education and retreat center -- envelopes people, provides an insistent context. Yes, you can pass through this land but not without it also passing through you.

So just for a change today, I want to share with you a few photos I took here last week. And if you've not been here, consider this an invitation to come and see a land that matches Kathleen's description of Dakota: lands "that now seem bountiful in their emptiness, offering solitude and room to grow."

(In the top photo, you see the Chama River running through the land between Ghost Ranch and the nearby village of Abiquiu. The photo on the left shows some of the hills on the Ghost Ranch campus. At right you see some of the colorful plants that this thirsty land somehow nourishes. And the bottom photo offers a hint of the changing and amazing skies of northern New Mexico.)


* * *


New research suggests that Americans are less and less likely to believe that religious institutions are effective in working against social ills. As the article to which I've linked you notes, "America’s nascent pessimism about religious institutions is troubling. Eight years ago, three-quarters of the country believed churches, synagogues, and mosques had important roles to play in the broader society. Now, little more than a majority holds that view." It would help, of course, if fewer religious institutions weren't contributing to the social problems of racism, homophobia, sexism and others that need fixing.

How the Qur'an can liberate women: 7-20-16

When the Prophet Muhammad introduced Islam to the world -- or at least to the Arabian peninsula -- back in the Seventh Century, it was enormously liberating for women in that patriarchal, heavily Bedouin culture.
Women-quranThe Qur'an, after all, is said to be the only sacred text to give women rights to inheritance, to own property, to keep their own wages, to create marriage contracts that were beneficial to themselves and to receive material and other kinds of support from their husbands.
At the time, this was women's liberation on steroids, even though it is possible to read the Qur'an and parts of the Hadith (the collections of sayings by and about the prophet) and, with 21st Century eyes, find language that appears hostile to women and even misogynistic.
But if all that is true about the liberating nature of Islam for women at first, what happened between then and now? That question gets explored in depth in a fascinating new book by Asma Lamrabet, Women in the Qur'an: An Emancipatory Reading, translated from the French (sometimes oddly and for sure choppily without, apparently, a final proofreading) by Myriam Francois-Cerrah.
Lamrabet's primary argument is that the Qur'an should not be used as a weapon to keep women down, as it so often is in many Muslim cultures today. Rather, it should be seen as a tool of female emancipation, for that is how its original readers would have understood it and how the Prophet Muhammad meant it, she writes.
But the fact that so many Muslims have adopted a stance that demeans women -- led that way by many classical Islamic scholars -- has given Western critics of Islam all the ammunition they need to "discredit an entire system of thought," as Lamrabet writes. In other words, Muslims who have misread the Qur'an on women's issues have armed Islam's critics, who have not hesitated to fire on the religion. (Though, in fact, it can be considerably more challenging to read much of the Bible in a liberating way for women than it can be to read the Qur'an that way.)
Lamrabet looks for a way between those positions -- the Muslims who think the Qur'an allows them to demean women and the critics of Islam who think it's a repressive, misogynistic faith -- so that Muslim women can claim the freedom Islam originally intended for them.
"Nothing in the Qur'anic text," she writes, "can justify or support any sort of discrimination against women."
To be sure, Lamrabet, a pathologist at a hospital in Morocco and an award-winning author of many articles and books about women in Islam, is not the first scholar of Islam to argue that the Qur'an must not be seen as the source of current anti-feminist thinking in Islam. One helpful earlier book was "Believing Women" in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur'an, by Asma Barlas. And Asra Nomani's book, Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam, focuses on these issues as they affect Muslim women in America.
This feminist movement toward analyzing Islam's sacred texts is growing, and today, Lamrabet writes, "Muslim women are trying to reclaim their voice, in order to re-appropriate what has persistently remained in the hands of men, namely their own destiny!" (Italics hers.)
One especially interesting thing about this book is that it was published by Square View and distributed through Kube Publishing in England. Square View, as its representative writes in the preface, "is not a commercial imprint in the traditional market. Its aim is to make available to the readers, Muslim and non-Muslim, male and female, young and old, literature that may enable them to appreciate Islam and Muslim life, history and culture, as Muslims understand them." (Italics the author's.)
So the publisher writes in the preface that Lamrabet may be introducing ideas that not all Muslims -- especially some Muslims scholars -- will agree with. And then the publisher adds a separate set of footnotes to point out where Lamrabet may be off base in her thinking or may at least need to have her analysis checked. It's a strange but intriguing publishing system.
What happened in Islam in its early years was that as it moved into new territory it found that the patriarchal cultures already in place there tended to overwhelm the new religion's message that women were valuable and should be treated with respect and equitably. The limiting -- even crushing -- of that emancipatory vision eventually got adopted by some Muslim leaders themselves, with the result that today much of Islam has what Lamrabet calls "an entire patriarchal model of reading which relegates women to a corner of Islamic history." In effect, Lamrabet has turned state's evidence on Islam on this issue.
The author divides her book into a section about what the Qur'an says about women and one about what it says to women.
It takes her until page 153 of 166 to deal with what may be the most problematic verse in the Qur'an having to do with women: 4:34, which, in most translations from the Arabic, says that husbands seeking to control rebellious or "high-handed" wives are, after other methods have failed, allowed to "hit" or "beat" their wives.
Focusing solely on this single verse is the wrong approach, she argues, correctly. It would be sort of like a Christian quoting Jesus as saying that if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out, and suggesting on that basis that Jesus was advocating self-mutilation as a spiritual discipline.
Sublime-QuranSuch literalistic reading of single verses of scripture inevitably lead to misunderstandings of the entire message of the text -- either the Qur'an or the Bible. And Lamrabet persuasively makes the case that the verse should not be used as a warrant today to commit domestic violence against wives. Indeed, in a relatively new translation of the Qur'an by Laleh Bakhtiar, called The Sublime Qur'an, the last words in that verse are not translated as "beat" or "hit" but as "go away from them," and Lamrabet argues that such a translation can be supported etymologically.
The Qur'an, as you may know, has much more to say about Mary, the mother of Jesus, than does the New Testament. And Lamrabet notes that the Qur'an elevates her "to a level unparalleled by any other women in history." That alone might give Christian and Muslims who desire better relations between the two faith traditions a place to start talking.
"The Qur'anic vision," she writes, "is an indisputably egalitarian vision. Nonetheless, it is distressing to see how certain classical exegeses are in total opposition with the Qur'anic conception of harmony, union and equality between women and men.
"A certain number of scholars, prisoners of their respective cultural contexts, will be incapable of interpreting these sorts of verses other than according to a traditional and archaic outlook, and this despite the fact that they may have more or less accepted a certain spiritual equality, constantly reiterated by the sacred text.
"They avoid this egalitarian image of the Qur'an, despite clear verses, and end up constraining the text by attributing discriminatory and derogatory connotations to it.
"This misogynistic interpretation, transmitted to generations of Muslims, themselves locked into a conformist reading, ends up substituting itself (for) the Qur'anic message and becoming an immutable Islamic principle."
What Lamrabet wants, in other words, is a new way of reading the Qur'an, which was, in fact, the original way before it was distorted to become an excuse for mistreating women. It's a necessary and bold call. Whether it will succeed in liberating Muslim women -- not from the veil, which simply has to do with modesty and choice, but from practices that keep them from becoming their whole and true selves -- is highly uncertain at this point.
But Muslims and non-Muslims alike should support Lamrabet's essential agenda, especially if they want an Islam in harmony with the one the Prophet Muhammad revealed to the world so long ago.
* * *
Even though the United Methodist Church has not yet decided to allow ordination of LGBTQ folks as pastors (I wrote about that recently here), one branch of the church has elected the church's first gay bishop, the Rev. Karen Oliveto, senior pastor of Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco. (A terrific church, by the way.) Seems as if the Spirit is moving a lot faster than the church's governance structure. But that's no surprise.