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Lutherans and Catholics move closer together: 8-19-16

When Martin Luther inadvertently began the Protest Reformation in 1517, he, of course, had no clue that the church he helped split asunder would still be divided almost 500 years later.

Declaration-lutheranBut the Protestant-Catholic separation remains (along with the even-older Catholic-Orthodox split), as does the internal Protestant divide, which has simply atomized the faith communities that came out of the Reformation.

Still, in the last century there have been halting -- and occasionally successful -- efforts to begin to reconnect the various branches of what Christians call the body of Christ.

It's a slow, frustrating process, in part because of the tenacity with which various branches hold on to their differences and their distinct traditions.

But here and there we see progress. The most recent -- and, in terms of commemorating the start of the Reformation, perhaps the most important -- example has come with an interim agreement between the Catholic Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

At the recent ELCA Churchwide Assembly, delegates voted to approve something called the "Declaration on the Way," which outlines various areas in which the ELCA and Catholics have agreed to agree (along with listing some still-pending issues).

The Lutherans and Catholics, God bless them, have taken seriously the task of healing this 500-year-old divide. It's not fully fixed yet -- and, in fact, may never be. But the willingness to spend years and years in conversation (as opposed to a more violent approach to settling issues) is admirable. And, indeed, both sides have devoted a lot of time and energy to these matters.

Martin Luther himself was divisive and sharp-tongued and was often willing to call whoever was pope the "anti-Christ." He jackhammered his way through life and helped to create the angry divisions that only now are finding at least tentative resolution.

My guess is he either wouldn't be all that thrilled with theological compromise or he'd simply declare victory and go home. For that reason, it's probably a good thing he's not still around.

* * *


This Harper's piece asks where all the Christian intellectuals are these days. Uh, right here in the blogosphere. Where else would we be today? (Insert your own emoji here.)

The costs of defending against terrorism: 8-18-16

Starting the day that Islamist terrorist murdered nearly 3,000 people in the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, our government has been spending all kinds of money to protect us from further acts of radical violence.

Atlantic-coverThe total by now has exceeded $1 trillion, and journalist Steven Brill has spent the past year figuring out whether all this money and effort has made us safer. His answer -- a qualified yes -- is found in this cover story in the current issue of The Atlantic.

It is a detailed and important story that is worth your time to read. I hope you will.

In fact, both major presidential candidates should find time to read it, too, given that one of them will be required to make decisions in this area for the next four years, and it would be good if he or she knew this history and the policy choices ahead.

Here's Brill's summary of his findings:

Have we succeeded in toughening up what overnight became known as “homeland security”? Absolutely. But not without a series of extravagant boondoggles along the way.

Are we safer? Yes, we’re safer from the kind of orchestrated attack that shocked us on that September morning. It’s harder for terrorists to get into the country, and harder for them to pull off something spectacular if they do. But we have not plugged some of the most threatening security gaps. Worse, as the Orlando massacre reminded us, the world has become more populated by those who want to exploit those gaps, including those living among us—and who, in the United States, can easily obtain military-grade weapons. They are not deterred by the prospect of their own death, and they are happy to commit acts less ambitious than those of 9/11. That makes their attacks much harder to detect in advance. Our defenses are far stronger, but what we have to defend against has outpaced our progress.

Have we adjusted, politically and emotionally, so that we can make rational decisions as a government and as a people to deal with the ongoing threat? Not yet. In a bitterly divided democracy, where attention spans are short and civic engagement is low and the potential for oversimplification and governing-by-headlines is high, that is hardly a surprise.

But in those first hours after the planes hit their targets, we did answer the call—which required an almost complete turnaround of America’s mind-set and produced just as stunning a turnaround in our security posture.

Brill's own analysis suggests that the greatest potential danger now to the U.S. may be the possibility of terrorists hitting us with a so-called "dirty bomb." He notes that President "Obama’s ambition to give Americans a realistic understanding of terror threats is certainly more advanced than his predecessor’s 'never again' posture. But when it comes to the weapon in the terrorist arsenal that is most about perception versus reality—the dirty bomb—he has recognized the problem yet fallen short of the challenge."

(Dirty bombs are a combination of regular explosives with radiological material -- bioweapons and toxic chemicals. And their effects can be horrifying and long-lasting.)

As I say, Brill's reporting and analysis is quite helpful. What I found missing, however, was any detailed suggestion that might help us get at the roots of terrorism, which are many and complicated. How, in other words, might it be possible to demagnetize the attraction that radical Islamism has for so many young people? What specific programs and approaches, working with Muslim leaders from around the world, might help young Muslims understand that ISIS, al-Qaida, Boko Haram and other terrorist organizations operate in ways that traditional Islam finds not just unacceptable but abhorrent?

Unless we somehow launch an anti-terrorism peace offensive to dry up the factories that are turning out terrorists, all of our defensive efforts will have to continue forever with no guarantee of success.

* * *


A new movie, not very enticingly named "Sausage Party," is, this reviewer alleges, really a film about theology. Or at least about religion. I haven't seen it. And I may not unless one of you e-mails me a note convincing me of my need to. Well, make that one of you who has really seen the film.

What the murder of two imams tells us: 8-17-16

As Imam Khalid Latif (pictured here) of New York University began his remarks to the 20th annual Crescent Peace Society dinner on Saturday evening here in suburban Kansas City, he took note of the fact that he wished he were back in New York City right then to help respond to the murders just hours earlier of two imams from Queens.

Khalid-latifAfter returning to New York, Latif penned this opinion piece for CNN, acknowledging that at the time of his writing authorities don't know if it was an anti-Muslim hate crime or something else. Nonetheless, he worried that the current political atmosphere is leading to more and more attacks on Muslims.

"Many readily believe that these two men were targeted because of their faith," he wrote, "and that this was a hate crime. Are we wrong? Possibly. But in the current political climate being, why would we not feel targeted?"

He cites studies showing how anti-Islam actions in the U.S. have grown in response to some of what is being said by politicians in this election year.

"From the perspective of many Muslims," he wrote, "the unchecked rhetoric coming from too many politicians in our country and much of Europe has made it seem fully justifiable to commit acts of violence against Muslims without any consequence."

Words and attitudes have consequences. When I was growing up in a mostly white small town in northern Illinois, it was possible to hear anti-black rhetoric with some regularity. And as I wrote in my 2014 book, Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans, my church sponsored a Boy Scout troop that for three years running in the 1950s -- while the early civil rights protests were going on -- sponsored minstrel shows in which we white kids would put on black face and tell Rastus and Remus jokes.

We were learning prejudice, even hatred.

Today the target in America is just as likely to be Muslims, especially in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, carried out by men who sought to justify their actions by appeals to Islam.

And the anti-Islam atmosphere is being inflated by rhetoric from such politicians as Donald Trump, who has proposed at least a temporary ban on Muslims seeking to come to the U.S.

Latif again: "The disparaging comments that Donald Trump has made over the campaign against minorities of all kinds -- including Muslims, Latinos, African Americans, women and those with special needs -- are but symptoms of a deeper and ever-growing bigotry that our nation must confront."

It's worth asking what our faith communities are doing to stand against this bigotry. If nothing, then they're being part of the problem.

* * *


The children of the late Martin Luther King Jr. have been in a long dispute over possession and control of his Bible and his Nobel Peace Prize medal, but a judge has signed an order ending that contention. Ah, families. Who else can be so loving and, often at the same time, so embarrassing?

Responding to our new American diversity: 8-16-16

Hundreds of people -- of many descriptions -- showed up at the Marriott Hotel in suburban Overland Park, Kan., this past Saturday evening to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the founding of the Crescent Peace Society (CPS).

CPS-2016And the keynote speaker, Imam Khalid Latif, (pictured here) executive director and chaplain for the Islamic Center of New York University, looked out at the amazingly diverse crowd and declared that "from where I stand right now, this is beautiful."

And it was. As is the work the Crescent Peace Society has done since its creation after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. As you may or may not remember, when that explosion happened at the federal building there, most suspicion fell on Muslims as the perpetrators. Well, it turned out to be bad speculation. The bomber was Timothy McVeigh, a domestic terrorist utterly unattached to Islam.

But given the fear that was running through American Muslims at the time, some Kansas City Muslims decided they needed to be more public and active in peace work, so they created CPS.

So when the 9/11 terrorist attacks happened, CPS was in place and available to help area residents understand how anathema terrorism is to followers of traditional Islam and to work on educating the public about Islam.

Diversity, as interfaith leader Eboo Patel notes in his new book, Interfaith Leadership, is simply a description of reality, neither good nor bad. It should lead, he says, to pluralism, which is a celebration of the ability of people from a wide variety of backgrounds, including from different religions, to live in harmony and to respect one another.

Latif made a similar point to the CPS audience: After noting how beautiful the diversity of the CPS audience was (though I admit that's a little hard to see in my photo), he asked, "What does the outside world look like?" He said the task of the audience was to work so that we "are the reason that people have hope. . . .Our challenge today is to be able to find motivation to move forward in a way that we allow ourselves to maintain the uniqueness of our identity without compromise and still allow ourselves to be with those who are different."

It's not an easy task. We must overcome fear of "the other." We must recognize how diverse the world is and how much the population of the U.S. has changed in the last 50 or 60 years. If we let fear rule us, we will be in nothing but trouble.

(Disclosure: Although I am not a member of CPS and never have been, I received the group's 2004 Journalism Award and its 2011 Peace Award.)

* * *


Last fall a new study suggested that children from religious families were less altruistic than children from non-religious families. It seemed an interesting result, but also odd and even suspicious. Now a new analysis of that study suggests it was wrong. This is one more reason that we all would do well to take all such social-behavior studies less seriously. There are just too many variables to get easy and reliable answers.

How and why the Arab Spring failed: 8-15-16

What happened to the so-called Arab Spring that began with such promise in early 2011 in Tunisia and quickly spread to many other countries in the Middle East?

Middle-eastAnd what role did Islam, Christianity, Judaism and other religious traditions in that region play in what began in great hope and has largely ended in frustration?

The New York Times Magazine -- proving again the need for newspapers to report and analyze the news in depth -- has published this long, detailed piece raising just such questions and attempting to find answers to them. It is a remarkable work of reporting by veteran journalist Scott Anderson.

Let me share a few of his observations and perhaps some of my own as well. His reaction to the opening of the Arab Spring was similar to that of many people:

I was heartened, in the Arab Spring’s early days, by the focus of the people’s wrath. One of the Arab world’s most prominent and debilitating features, I had long felt, was a culture of grievance that was defined less by what people aspired to than by what they opposed. They were anti-Zionist, anti-West, anti-imperialist. For generations, the region’s dictators had been adroit at channeling public frustration toward these external “enemies” and away from their own misrule. But with the Arab Spring, that old playbook suddenly didn’t work anymore. Instead, and for the first time on such a mass scale, the people of the Middle East were directing their rage squarely at the regimes themselves.

But, in the end, it didn't hold together. Why? Anderson says there are many reasons: 

Yet one pattern does emerge, and it is striking. While most of the 22 nations that make up the Arab world have been buffeted to some degree by the Arab Spring, the six most profoundly affected — Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen — are all republics, rather than monarchies. And of these six, the three that have disintegrated so completely as to raise doubt that they will ever again exist as functioning states — Iraq, Syria and Libya — are all members of that small list of Arab countries created by Western imperial powers in the early 20th century.

Is there anything good that imperialism brought to the world? Well, yes. But British, French, Italian, Dutch and other imperial powers who colonized large portions of the Middle East and Africa -- bringing with them religious missionaries and bulldozing the indigenous cultures into which they went -- have a lot to answer for. And, of course, the United States now is often included among those imperial powers, though our influence was not so directly through political takeovers of countries as it was through cultural and economic domination.

What I found especially striking about Anderson's account was how pivotal the 2003 invasion of Iraq was in creating the conditions that led to the current upheaval and even to the empowerment of ISIS and other terrorists. That invasion -- though as Anderson notes, it laid the groundwork for the Arab Spring revolts -- may go down as one of the worst military decisions an American president (George W. Bush) ever made. It fed into the false narrative used by Islamist radicals that the U.S. is at war against Islam.

I will get out of the way here and let you get into the Anderson's account, but not before quoting his key point in his introduction:

But what follows, ultimately, is a dark warning. Today the tragedy and violence of the Middle East have spilled from its banks, with nearly a million Syrians and Iraqis flooding into Europe to escape the wars in their homelands, and terrorist attacks in Dhaka, Paris and beyond. With the ISIS cause being invoked by mass murderers in San Bernardino and Orlando, the issues of immigration and terrorism have now become conjoined in many Americans’ minds, forming a key political flash point in the coming presidential election. In some sense, it is fitting that the crisis of the Arab world has its roots in the First World War, for like that war, it is a regional crisis that has come quickly and widely — with little seeming reason or logic — to influence events at every corner of the globe.

Voters should ask both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump if they've read this account and what they learned from it.

(The map here today is from the Encyclopedia Britannica.)

* * *


The pastor of my congregation, Paul Rock, returned to the pulpit Sunday after a three-month sabbatical with a plea that the rest of us build Sabbath time into our busy lives. It might be good advice for Pope Francis, too, writes John L. Allen Jr. of Crux. Allen calls Francis "an Argentinian completely missing an 'off' switch." When Paul's terrific sermon gets posted on our church website (it should be there some time today), the pope (and you) can find it here.

Keeping the church-state line clear: 8-13/14-16

In my experience with Mainline Protestant churches, such as the one to which I belong, it is possible to hear a fair amount of discussion about political, social and cultural news informally in classes and at the fellowship hour after worship. But in the 38 years I've been a member of my congregation, I've never heard any preacher in our pulpit endorse a candidate or urge congregants to vote for one party or another.

Religion-and-PoliticsIf I had heard such a thing I myself probably would have reported it to the Internal Revenue Service as a violation of our church's tax-exempt status.

But an endorsement of a particular candidate or a plea on behalf of one political party is a pretty literalistic interpretation of what it means to align a congregation with the constitutionally based mandate of the separation of church and state. (You won't find those words in the Constitution, but the idea is there as well as in case law built up over a long period of time.)

The fact is that people listening to sermons usually are smart enough to connect the words about social justice issues or culture war issues with the candidates or the parties that advocate similar positions.

For instance, if you hear a sermon in which gun violence is decried and congregants are asked to get engaged in community efforts to stop it by adopting more stringent laws to control gun ownership, chances are you are going to connect that position more often with the Democratic Party and certain Democratic politicians.

Similarly, if you hear a sermon denouncing abortion and urging congregants to connect themselves with efforts to limit abortions or make them illegal again, chances are you're going to connect that position more often with the Republican Party and certain Republican politicians.

It's not terribly difficult to read between the lines of such sermons, even if the preachers strictly adhere to the rule that they should never endorse candidates from the pulpit.

A new Pew Research Center survey sought to determine how much politicking is going on from America's pulpits. This Christian Science Monitor story on that survey concluded this: "The survey found that clergy members have not often brought politics to the pulpit in the last few months. Yet, when they have, religious leaders have focused on issues including religious liberty and homosexuality, and not on endorsements of candidates."

And yet, as the story reported, "14 percent of churchgoers said they heard clergy members endorse – or speak against  – presidential nominees Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton." I hope those 14 percent complained internally and externally about that. It shouldn't happen.

This link will take you to the Pew study itself.

Religious congregations and their leaders should be using their prophetic voices to call on the country to do what is right as they see the right. And that can mean folks in the pews understand how to connect all of that to particular candidates and parties. But there's a limit beyond which preachers should not go in their sermons. I hope yours are sticking to the rules.

* * *


A for-profit Christian college says it will open a for-profit seminary this fall. Wait. Shouldn't that be "for-prophet"?

A place to regain our humanity: 8-12-16


Pittsburg, Mo. -- I was here a few days ago for the annual board meeting of the Hermitage Spiritual Retreat Center, a lovely little get-away on Lake Pomme de Terre where retreatants can experience what we call "ecumenical Christian hospitality."

HSRC-1One of the board tasks I was assigned was to create a Facebook page for the center. Consider it done. You now can find it here. I hope you will have a look, "like," the page and make plans to get away for a few days to a place in the woods by a lake that can let you catch your breath and find yourself again. 

Rustic-HermitageIn the last few years, HSRC, a non-profit that relies on donations from guests who can afford to make them, has added two overnight facilities in addition to the main lodge (one unit of which is pictured below). There's the Rustic Hermitage (pictured at right), which has electricity, heat, an environmentally friendly toilet and water containers. And there's our Log-Cabin Hermitage (pictured at left), an Amish-built one-room structure with no electricity or running water but heat from a wood-burning stove, the same kind of toilet as found in the Rustic Hermitage and a propane cooking burner. Stay there and you drop back a century or two.

An obvious question about such a place is why it exists at all.

One simple answer is that it was long the dream of our resident director, Father W. Paul Jones, a Trappist monk and Catholic priest who spent much of his career as a United Methodist clergyman teaching at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City.

But beyond that, such retreat centers, whether small like HSRC or massive, like the Ghost Ranch Education and Retreat Center in New Mexico, where I teach each summer, exist to help us relocate ourselves and our natural rhythms. Most of us live at an unsustainable pace, one for which our bodies, minds and hearts were not designed.

HSRC is one of those places we can retreat to so we can learn how to breathe again, how to resonate with the pace of the natural world. And because it's less than 2.5 hours from Kansas City, it's within reach of many Kansas Citians.

As I say, it's a non-profit and I receive no money for serving on the board. I do it because I think such centers are vital ways for us to remain human.


* * *


For three-fourths of the world's population, religious freedom is not much more than a dream and unrealistic hope, a new U.S. State Department report shows. The 2015 International Religious Freedom Report, just released, is heart-breaking. Read it and weep. Particularly odious are laws in various countries against blasphemy and apostasy. Such laws assume some religions are so fragile that they need resolute government protection. How sad.

The value of religious consistency: 8-11-16

Across America even today, if you know where to look, you will find small-town Christian churches and other houses of worship from different traditions full of local history. These congregations -- even in a time of demographic religious slippage -- continue to be an important part of the local society for many reasons.

Sharon-furlerI grew up in such a church in Woodstock, Ill. First Presbyterian Church there is in a different location from when I was a member but it continues to be an important gathering place full of families with long histories there and families who are new to the area.

I was thinking about all these congregations the other day when I ran across this nice story of an organist at a Presbyterian church in Iowa who has been doing that weekly ministry of music for 50 years.

There's nothing stunning or heart-breaking or crazy out-of-the-ordinary about Sharon Furler (the photo of her here I borrowed from her church's website), who plays the organ at First Presbyterian Church near Ely, Iowa, but there is something reassuring about her and her consistency in a time of sometimes-distressing change and social turmoil.

I am not waxing nostalgic in an effort to turn back to allegedly better days of decades ago -- those times when we white men pretty much ran everything and diversity meant a Presbyterian married a Lutheran and they had to negotiate where they went to church. No, those days are gone and to a lot of that I say good riddance.

But there's a place for stability, for consistency in ministry. And though you certainly can find that in large cities, including in the congregation I call home, it's more likely to be found in smaller communities that have somehow managed to hold together through the wild cultural changes that have buffeted the nation.

So next time you're near Ely, Iowa, on a Sunday morning, stop by and hear Sharon play the organ. I'm guessing the music will warm your heart.

* * *


David Cay Johnston, author of the just-published The Making of Donald Trump, which I'm about halfway through reading, says in this interview with Religion News Service that Trump "is aggressively antithetical to the most basic teachings of Jesus." Much of the rest of the book, focused on Trumps' business dealings and his philosophy of always getting even through revenge, pretty much proves that. Sigh.

Why the sex abuse scandal must be reported: 8-10-16

In trying to understand how the scandal of Catholic priests sexually abusing children could have happened, it may help to go back 70 or so years to the 1940s and '50s.

Abuse-ScandalThe church and the culture were markedly different then. For the church, this was before the liberalizing reforms of Vatican II. For the culture, the time was marked by a widespread refusal to talk with children honestly about sexuality.

The result was what we've just learned happened back then on Guam, which is U.S. territory.

As this Associated Press story reports, a 95-year-old Catholic priest now admits he abused as many as 20 (if he admits to 20, it probably was more) boys and that his superiors told him simply to pray about it.

"At that time, when I was that age, I got the impression that kids liked it, so I went ahead. But now of course, I know it's wrong and I'm paying for it," said Fr. Louis Brouillard.

So even in his confession now, he is both self-serving and clearly unwilling to face up to what he surely knew at the time was wrong for a man pledged to celibacy to do.

As the AP story reports, "Brouillard said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press on Saturday morning that the other priests told him to 'do better' along with regular penance, such as saying Hail Mary prayers."

I'm not suggesting that this kind of activity by priests (and by other clergy in other traditions) doesn't still happen. But the more such stories are kept in public view, the more likely it is that children will know how to react when approached by someone with sex in mind and the more religious institutions will feel obligated not to tolerate this kind of evil.

* * *


Because of the Olympic games, we've now all seen pictures and video of the giant Christ statue in Brazil. But what does it mean? Why is it there? As this Washington Post piece makes clear, it means many things to many people, and not all of its meanings are religious in nature. Whenever I see the Brazil statue I think of Oral Roberts' dream of a 900-foot Jesus. And I wonder how many children would come unto him at that height. Not many, I'm guessing.

A radical proposal to deport Muslims: 8-9-16

The political talk about Muslims in American gets stranger, crazier and scarier.

Paul-NehlenNow Rep. Paul Ryan's primary election opponent in Wisconsin has suggested that Americans consider the possibility of simply deporting all Muslims from the U.S. No, seriously. That's what he suggested. Deporting all Muslims. No doubt "all" would have to include African-American converts, some of whose families have been living in the U.S. since the beginning of slavery. Oh, and don't forget to deport the Muslims serving in the U.S. military.

The CNN story about this to which I've linked you reports this: "I'm suggesting we have a discussion about it. That's for sure," Paul Nehlen said on 560 AM's 'Morning Answer' in Chicago, when asked whether he would support deporting every Muslim from the country. "I am absolutely suggesting we figure out how do we, we -- here's what we should be doing. We should be monitoring every mosque. We should be monitoring all social media." (Nehlen is pictured at right.)

Perhaps Khizr Khan, father of an American Muslim soldier who died in Iraq, could give Nehlen an extra copy of the U.S. Constitution, which he pulled out of his suit coat pocket and offered to Donald Trump when Khan addressed the Democratic National Convention recently.

Deporting some 3.5 million or more American Muslims is, in constitutional terms, even more outrageous than Trump's appalling proposal to ban Muslim integration and his idea to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Although comparing these ideas for which is the most outrageous is a silly game. They're all bonkers.

I disagree with Paul Ryan about a lot and I have already written that he abandoned his moral center by agreeing to back Trump even though many of Trump's ideas are starkly opposed to the positions Ryan has stood for. But Nehlen's idea, which is to attack every Muslim in the country simply for being Muslim, is so abhorrent that it's hard to imagine how any voter could consider him anything close to a reasonable alternative to Ryan.

Today is primary election day in Wisconsin. So tonight or tomorrow when you have a chance to see the returns, pay attention to the Ryan-Nehlen race to see how far cheese head voters have degenerated into supporting a form of radicalism that should shock the conscience.

* * *


It is hard to know how much the contentious issue of abortion will play in this presidential race, but for some voters the issue is decisive. That is, if a candidate is rigidly against abortion or firmly in favor of keeping abortion legal in all circumstances, those positions tell some voters whether they can support a candidate. But how about considering the difficulties often faced in actual life by women who become pregnant? My own view is that in some fairly rare instances, abortion is the least evil of a series of evil choices, so it must remain a legal procedure and the abortion decision should be left in the hands of the pregnant woman and her physician, with consultation with the father if possible. It turns out, as this interesting Atlantic piece notes, that's pretty close to Hillary Clinton's position, even though she's widely considered quite pro-choice. In this case, it appears that her Methodist faith guides her. Black and white positions in a world of gray often are impossible to live with.