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Religious reasons to aid public schools: 11-30-16

For the last several years I've been part of a coalition of members from eight or nine churches who have been providing volunteer help at the now-closed Southwest High School in Kansas City.

Our-kidsNow some of us have made ourselves available to another public high school here, Southeast.

As I've been doing that work, I've also been reading a challenging book by Robert D. Putnam called Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.

I was pleased to find Putnam providing a religious motivation for people of faith to be involved in helping disadvantaged children get a better public school education:

"Virtually all religions," he writes, "share a profound commitment to caring for the have-nots." (He then quotes several passages of scripture bearing that out.) And continues:

"The most important service that Pope Francis has rendered to men and women of all faiths and of no faith at all is to remind us of our deep moral obligation to care for our neighbors and especially for poor kids." (He then quotes the pope about the danger of failing to have compassion for the poor.) And continues:

"The foundational documents of our national history, from the Declaration of Independence to the Gettysburg Address, have espouse the fundamental precept that all humans are of equal moral worth. For much of our national history we have made silent, shameful exceptions to that principle for nonwhites and women. Virtually any moral theory of fairness and justice leads to that principle, however, and it is the anvil on which the hammers of the liberation movements of the last 100 years have wrought the expansion of equal rights."

All of which says to me that if we are satisfied with a public school system that fails the children of families in poverty, we dehumanize them and we fail to live up to our highest moral standards, taught to us by our religions.

(A recent American Public Square panel discussion got into faith community support for public schools, and I wrote about that here.)

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The state Lutheran Church of Norway has issued a statement denouncing Martin Luther's virulent anti-Judaism. About time. As the world approaches next year's 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation, it will look at history, and not all of it will be lovely. Luther, in fact, wound up being quite ugly about Jews, and much later some of the Nazis picked up on his vile thinking and used it to justify their own violent bigotry.

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Cover-Value of DoubtP.S.: Looking for a terrific, inexpensive holiday gift for friends who actually read books? Let me modestly suggest this: Order my new book, The Value of Doubt: Why Unanswered Questions, Not Unquestioned Answers, Build Faith. I've just given you a link to the page for it. But if you want an autographed copy of either the paperback or the hardback, send me an e-mail ([email protected]) and I'll tell you how we can arrange that. (Just don't wait until Christmas Eve.) Or if you're in the Kansas City area, our great local independent bookstore, Rainy Day Books, has been carrying it. One excellent thing about the book is that it doesn't require batteries. Well, unless you get the e-version for your phone or iPad, say.

What can be done for stateless people? 11-29-16

Despite the fact that the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights insists that all people have a right to nationality, the United National High Commission for Refugees estimates that there are about 10 million stateless individuals in the world now.

Invisible-among-usAs Semegnish Asfaw writes in her new World Council of Churches book The Invisible Among Us, "Statelessness is an anomaly of the modern state system and of the international legal framework developed over the last seven decades. It is about being vulnerable, defenseless. . .Statelessness is a silent, hidden and neglected tragedy of our modern times, disrupting the existence of millions of people and impacting on the lives of these individuals, their families and their communities."

And, Asfaw adds, it's something Christian churches should be working to alleviate in harmony with the religion's teachings to care for the poor and needy:

"The time is ripe for churches and the ecumenical family, in collaboration with other religious groups and all partners, to stand up and affirm the right of the voiceless, the marginalized, the forgotten, the stateless."

This is one of those nagging problems that gets precious little attention from the media or the public. And yet, at its core, statelessness severely limits what it means to be human. That is why faith communities should be leading the way in solving this dehumanizing problem. And Asfaw's book offers a series of steps that such groups can begin to take to make a difference.

The estimate of 10 million stateless people is, of course, just a guess: "It is difficult," Asfaw writes, "to accurately estimate the number of stateless people worldwide either because stateless people are hiding due to fear that the state will identify and persecute them, or because states are unable. . .or reluctant to include them in the national census."

High population centers for the stateless are in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and Europe, she reports.

One solvable problem has to do with gender discrimination: "Twenty-seven countries in the world today do not allow women to confer nationality to their children on a equal basis with men," she writes.

One problem it may be too late to solve is that, as Asfaw writes, because of climate change "several low-lying islands, such as the Maldives, Kiribati and Tuvalu, risk completely disappearing in a few decades or even sooner. What will be the fate of entire populations who will be uprooted from their native land because their island has disappeared?"

This small book sets out the problem clearly and proposes some solutions that faith communities can help to implement. The option of doing nothing means saying to fellow humans that they don't matter.

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Lots of Christian ministries are asking for your donations this time of year. But how transparent are they about the way they spend their money? Religion News Service took this look at that question. The findings are a reminder to donate carefully.

The scapegoating idea is universal: 11-28-16

A few months ago I wrote here about the late French philosopher and theologian René Girard and his "mimetic theory." I also did this National Catholic Reporter column about Girard.

ScapegoatingOne of the primary points about Girardian thinking is that people find scapegoats on which to blame their problems. This can seem to solve matters temporarily but eventually this solution doesn't work and more trouble appears.

Once you grasp this way of thinking about violence and other disruption, you begin to find evidence of it all over the place.

For instance, I've just finished reading Candice Millard's terrific book The River of Doubt, which chronicles Theodore Roosevelt's astonishing 1914 exploration of an unmapped river that runs into the Amazon in Brazil.

The Cinta Larga was one of the native tribes that Roosevelt and his fellow explorers came into some contact with. Indeed, Millard finally concludes that the entire exploration would have ended disastrously and fatally quite early if the Cinta Larga had not allowed Roosevelt's party to travel the wild River of Doubt unmolested by tribe members.

Here's some of what Millard says about this tribe: "The Cinta Larga believed that death was brought about by witchcraft. If a man became ill and died, the others in his village never blamed their healer, a man who used plants and religion to cure the sick. Instead, they looked around their own village, and if they did not find anyone suspicious, they assumed that someone from another village must have performed the dark magic. The only response was to avenge the death by attacking the offending village."

There you have it: A perfect example of Girard's scapegoating. Of course, when the Cinta Larga attacked a different village, that simply led to a new round of violence and war -- and did nothing to bring back the person who had died.

Girard eventually became a Christian and said that the Bible was the only example he ever found where love, compassion and mercy replaced scapegoating.

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The late Fidel Castro's relationship with the Catholic Church, into which he was born, was complex. As this Religion News Service story notes, he was influenced by the Jesuits but became an oppressor of the church. He made some valid points about the ways in which the church in Cuba and in Central and South America became warp and woof with the repressive governmental structures, but he also crushed some of the very people that the church, at its best, taught him to love and support.

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P.S.: My latest column for Flatland, KCPT-TV's digital magazine, now is online. It's about Jews, Christians and Muslims building or renovating Habitat for Humanity houses together in Kansas City. To read it, click here.

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Cover-Value of DoubtANOTHER P.S.: Looking for a terrific, inexpensive holiday gift for friends who actually read books? Let me modestly suggest this: Order my new book, The Value of Doubt: Why Unanswered Questions, Not Unquestioned Answers, Build Faith. I've just given you a link to the page for it. But if you want an autographed copy of either the paperback or the hardback, send me an e-mail ([email protected]) and I'll tell you how we can arrange that. (Just don't wait until Christmas Eve.) Or if you're in the Kansas City area, our great local independent bookstore, Rainy Day Books, has been carrying it. One excellent thing about the book is that it doesn't require batteries. Well, unless you get the e-version for your phone or iPad, say.

Cogent arguments against fundamentalism: 11-26/27-16

I am going to do something here this weekend that I've never done: Review seven books, all by the same author, even though I haven't finished reading every word of all seven.

GodcoverI do it because from the books I have read and the parts I've skimmed, I have concluded that this is an important series and that many of you might have an interest in owning the series or giving it (or some parts of it) as a holiday gift. I have every intention of reading all seven volumes, but I didn't want to wait until I finished that task to let you know about the series.

The series is called "Confronting Fundamentalism," and it's written by Catherine M. Wallace, a cultural historian who is on the faculty of the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University. If it would help you to watch a video of her talking about this series, which she spent a decade writing, click here.

Here are the books in the series:

Confronting a Controlling God
Confronting Religious Denial of Gay Marriage
Confronting Religious Violence
Confronting Religious Denial of Science
Confronting Religious Judgmentalism
Confronting Religious Absolutism
The Confrontational Wit of Jesus
The link I've given you on Wallace's name above will get to you a site from which you also can order the books.
Wallace's primary point is that Christian fundamentalism, with its literalistic way of reading the Bible and its harsh rules about what's right and what's wrong, is a distortion of the faith. As she writes in the "Controlling God" book:
Gay-Marriage-page-cover"Christian fundamentalism speaks for God with breathtaking arrogance and sweeping authority, laying out in no uncertain terms what God demands and whom God condemns." And: "Christian fundamentalism does not seek the just, humane, inclusive society preached by Jesus of Nazareth. It offers 'religious' cover to a political agenda that is sharply opposed to democratic government of the people, by the people, and for the people."
One reason this series resonated with me is that it is quite in harmony with my own latest book, The Value of Doubt: Why Unanswered Questions, Not Unquestioned Answers, Build Faith. In that book I argue that unless you are part of a faith community that allows you to express your doubts and ask the hard questions of faith -- unless your faith community understands that we live by metaphor, by myth, by allegory -- it's unlikely that you'll ever acquire a faith that will sustain and inspire you in the midst of life's troubles.
Starting with the "Controlling God" book, which I've read thoroughly, let me give you some key points. Then let me give you a highlight or two from the other six books (most of which are only 100 or a few more pages long).

Violence-cover-- "Christianity has completely lost control of its brand. Pope Francis may be trying to reclaim it, but the odds are against him. . ."

-- "The theology of an ultimately controlling God legitimates -- indeed, requires -- human political tyranny at the hands of 'believers.' When these same believers are biblical literalists immune to arguments based on rigorously established facts, we are in trouble."

-- "Christian spirituality confronts Christian fundamentalism with a simple but profound insight: all God-talk is necessarily and inescapably symbolic."

-- ". . .it is hazardous to attempt to speak about God while remembering that God is not a topic about which we can speak. Anything anyone might say about God, no matter how persuasive, is ultimately contingent."

-- "The whole point of Jesus, theologically speaking, is demonstrating that God is also present to us in and as other people."

-- "Our knowledge of God is never complete nor final nor absolute, because we have no way to know what God in God's creative fecundity will either come to be or come to reveal to us."

Science-cover-- As an aside, her description of the Exodus 3 scene of Moses at the burning bush is wonderfully illuminating, especially her section in which she argues that the traditional English translations that have God saying God's name is "I Am Who I Am" is misleading and should be rendered "I Will Be Who I Will Be."

-- Her affirmation that "I believe in God," is, she writes, "a statement about me. It's not a statement about God. But it's the single most authentic, most reliable theological claim anyone can make." 

-- "Theological literalism is ultimately just as serious a mistake as biblical literalism. Churches that insist upon literalism are committing intellectual suicide. Irrationality is not a prerequisite for faith in God."

Now for a quick taste of what you'll find in the other six volumes in this series:

Confronting Religious Denial of Gay Marriage

Judgmentalism-cover-- "The sanctity of gay marriage will never be widely acknowledged unless Christianity takes the lead. . .But Christian fundamentalism is frankly homophobic just as, in the 1950s, it was frankly racist and then vehemently opposed to equal rights for women."

Confronting Religious Violence

-- "Christianity as I understand it centers itself in a God of love and compassion, not a God of command and control. The Lord of command and control is the God of empire, the God of violence, vengeance, condemnation, and deliberately inflicted pain. The God of Jesus is someone else."

Confronting Religious Denial of Science

-- For scientists and nonscientists alike, and for thoughtful religious people in any faith tradition, the conflict between science and Christian fundamentalism is an appalling state of affairs. But the solution here is not to denounce Christianity across the board, hoping that if it were sufficiently denounced and widely enough ridiculed then it would simply disappear. That's magical thinking too."

Religous-absolutismConfronting Religious Judgmentalism

-- "It seems to me that the moral nihilism of the hard Left is just as incoherent as the judgmental moralism of the hard Right."

Confronting Religious Absolutism

-- "The problem with religious absolutism, then, is not simply that it worships its own unquestionable interpretations. That's bad enough, heaven knows. It's a setup for the situation we face today: the Christian 'brand' has been co-opted. Its symbolic resources and its commitment to common good have been rendered invisible to most people. All of that should worry any thoughtful person, regardless of religious allegiance."

The Confrontational Wit of Jesus

Jesus-cover-- "I hope to convince you that the Gospels are not the story of a God whose outrage can only be mollified by brutal human sacrifice."

If I have a complaint about this series it has to do with the failure of the publisher, Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock, to proofread carefully. Far too often annoying typographical errors creep in, and that takes away from interesting and helpful scholarship.

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The case against Dylann Roof, accused of murdering nine black church members in Charleston, S.C., last year, moved forward this week with a court finding that he is mentally competent to stand trial. This crime was terrible and traumatic, but I'm glad the trial will go forward, though I'm not at all glad that he faces the death penalty, which should be abolished in all states and for all crimes.

The problem with Michael Flynn: 11-25-16

Let's think about the various concerns raised because President-elect Donald Trump has selected retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn as his national security adviser.

FlynnOne of the issues has to do with what Flynn thinks about Islam. This CNN story, for instance, raises some of those issues, but in the lead it focuses on the wrong question.

The story notes that in an August speech, Flynn "called Islamism a 'vicious cancer inside the body of 1.7 billion people' that has to be 'excised.'"

Well, if you define Islamism the way I do, Flynn is right about that. I use that term quite specifically to refer to the radical extremism advocated by such terrorist groups as al-Qaida and ISIS. Such a violent approach is a misuse of traditional Islam and if traditional Islam is going to survive and prosper, it must rid itself of those who would turn it into a guidebook for terrorism.

It may seem like a distinction without a difference, but using the term Islamism is more accurate and helpful than the term lots of Republicans, including Trump, have been using, "radical Islamic terrorism." That terminology leaves the impression that traditional Islam itself somehow approves of the beastly acts sometimes committed in its name.

What's worrisome about Flynn is not his identification of Islamism as a problem, but his willingness to base opinions on fake news. For instance, in that same August speech, as the CNN story notes, "Flynn falsely claimed that Florida Democrats voted to impose Islamic shariah law at the state and local level. The claim, peddled by far-right blogs in 2014, was rated 'pants on fire' by the independent fact-checking organization PolitiFact."

Clearly Flynn is hostile to Islam, a religion followed by 3 million or more Americans and by 1.7 billion people around the world. Given that, it's hard to imagine what kind of national security advice he's going to give that will lead to more peace in the world, not less. As Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Trudy Rubin noted recently about Flynn, he's "a fiery retired lieutenant general who was pushed out as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency in the Obama administration. Since then Flynn has unleashed a stream of incendiary rhetoric against Muslims." 

Every religion has its radicals, its outliers, its heretics, its extremists. To judge a religious tradition by those people is not simply to smear adherents of the religion itself but it is to create a false enemy that will suck up your resources and energy uselessly.

Islamism is a terrible problem for both Islam and the world. Islam itself is not. Can someone please tell Flynn that?

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And speaking of problematic times under Trump, this blog from The Hill describes why some people are worried that religious freedom under the new president will be imperiled. Some of the anti-Trump rhetoric I'm hearing sounds alarmist, but it's still a good reminder of our need to be vigilant about lots of issues over the next four years.

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Cover-Value of DoubtP.S.: OK, it's black Friday, which means knocking heads with shoppers if you leave your home to load up on holiday gifts. Here's a better idea: Order my new book, The Value of Doubt: Why Unanswered Questions, Not Unquestioned Answers, Build Faith. I've just given you a link to the page for it. But if you want an autographed copy of either the paperback or the hardback, send me an e-mail ([email protected]) and I'll tell you how we can arrange that. (Just don't wait until Christmas Eve.) Or if you're in the Kansas City area, our great local independent bookstore, Rainy Day Books, has been carrying it. One excellent thing about the book is that it doesn't require batteries. Well, unless you get the e-version for your phone or iPad, say.

Say it (in whatever language) with me: 11-24-16

In this season of adjustment after the vile presidential campaign, there still is much for which to give thanks. For instance, the reality that the United States is a nation of immigrants who are adherents of many faiths and of none. It's one of our many strengths, though recent rhetoric about deportations and registry lists for Muslims has threatened even that deeply held truth.

ThanksSo today I thought I would remind myself (and you) of our pluralistic society by saying thanks in several languages, though far from all spoken by U.S. residents and citizens, starting with my native language, English:

-- Thanks.

-- Merci. French.

-- Dankie. Afrikaans.

-- Dzięki. Polish.

-- شکریہ. Urdu.

-- Tack. Swedish.

-- Vielen Dank. German.

-- ありがとう。Japanese

-- شكر. Arabic.

-- Gracias. Spanish.

-- Obrigado. Portuguese

-- תודה. Hebrew.

-- Grazie. Italian.

If some of those spellings didn't come out exactly as you think they should have, I invite you to complain to

In the meantime, I'm thankful that you're reading my blog today. But you can stop now and go back to your family, even if that family is just you.

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A man has sued Kentucky after state officials there denied his request to have a vanity license plate that says "IM GOD." If the guy really is God, couldn't he settle this by just sending the bureaucrats to hell? 

A church reopens after ISIS: 11-23-16

Despite verified reports of persecution of religion around the world, here and there one can find evidence of some good news when it comes to how various religions are faring.

Iraq-mapFor instance, a Christian church in Iraq has reopened after being closed for two years because the area in which it was located had been taken over by the so-called Islamic State, which doesn't represent Islam and isn't a state.

The Mar Korkeis church in the town of Bashiqa has been turned back over to Christians in an area of Iraq where Kurdish fighters have driven ISIS out and re-established control.

As the Reuters story to which I've linked you above reports, "After seizing the Nineveh plains in 2014, Islamic State issued an ultimatum to Christians: pay a tax, convert to Islam, or die by the sword. Most abandoned their homes and fled to the nearby autonomous Kurdish region."

The recapture of Bashiqa is, of course, good news, but in an area suffering from all kinds of political and religious turmoil, there is no guarantee that the Mar Korkeis church faces nothing but smooth sailing ahead.

Struggles like this provide some perspective to American churches (and other houses of worship) that sometimes are split by controversy over such matters as what music, if any, to use in worship and whether to spend money refurbishing an organ or, instead, on putting new carpet in the sanctuary.

When a church's very existence is threatened, such disagreements seem remarkably trivial -- perhaps because they are.

(The map of Iraq here today shows Mosul in the north. Bashiqa is about 10 miles north of Mosul.)

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One reason to prevent the spread of ISIS is that when this terrorist group takes control, it demolishes history. Here, for instance, is a Reuters story about the ways in which ISIS ransacked a Christian monastery, which is now back in Christian hands. History and tradition mean nothing to violent Islamists. History to them, rather, is a propaganda tool to manipulate and exploit.

Give 7 days to stand against bigotry: 11-22-16

After the Palm Sunday 2014 shootings by a neo-Nazi that killed three people at Jewish sites in the Kansas City area, Mindy Corporon (pictured here), whose son and father were murdered, joined with the LaManno family, who lost Terri LaManno that day, to say no to hatred.

Mindy-2016They created a week-long event that lets people focus on compassion, love, mercy and other needed approaches to counter the evil of what happened that day and continues to happen in other ways in other venues.

The organization created to sponsor the week has just announced that "SevenDays™: Make a Ripple, Change the World" will take place for the third year from Tuesday, April 18, through Monday, April 24, 2017.

The annual week of attention to kindness, love and connections has captured the imagination of many Kansas Citians. And Mindy has emerged from the catastrophe as a remarkable model of how to respond to malevolence. A year after the shootings, I spoke with Mindy about her understanding of evil and wrote about that conversation here.

SevenDays_2017_Button art collageAnd earlier this year I participated in the annual SevenDays™ walk, and wrote about it here.

For next year the week's daily themes will be "Love, Discover, Others, Connect, Go, You and Onward" (represented by the buttons you see pictured at left). You can read about all that at the link above I have you on the words "just announced."

In W. H. Auden's famous poem, "September 1, 1939," about the beginning of World War II,  he concludes that despite the darkness and impending disasters, we are required to "show an affirming flame."

In essence, that's what Seven Days gives Kansas Citians a chance to do as we remember Mindy's son, Reat Underwood, her father, William Corporon, and Terri LaManno. (The shooter was trying to kill Jews but wound up murdering three Christians.)

Whatever motivated his hatred, the rest of us have a chance to reject it and any other signs of hatred publicly and together in unison through these coming seven days.

(P.S.: If you're reading this via Facebook, please share it. Thanks, Bill.)

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Around the country, churches are declaring that they will provide "sanctuary" space for undocumented immigrants in light of threats by the incoming Trump administration to deport millions of them. Civil disobedience always requires an acceptance of the consequences and, in this case, a careful understanding of the individual circumstances of those being protected so that churches don't wind up protecting people who really should be considered for deportation. But there's a long history of faith communities challenging government rules and processes, and it's encouraging to see that continuing.

A German church stops trying to convert Jews: 11-21-16

As I write in this essay about anti-Judaism in Christian history, Christianity has a long, sad history of treating Jews as scum and vermin. It started early as the Jesus Movement eventually broke away from Judaism to establish itself as a separate religion.

Jewish-Ch-cupAnd in the 19th century it provided the seeds for modern antisemitism, which is racial and ethnic in nature, compared to anti-Judaism, which is theological in nature.

Beginning after the Holocaust, various Christian groups began reexamining their relationship to Judaism and their treatment of Jews. In 1965, for instance, as part of the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church issued a document called Nostra Aetate (In Our Time), which for the first time in Catholic history absolved Jews of deicide, or being killers of Christ.

More recently there have been various efforts by different branches of Christianity to create more hospitable working relationships with Judaism and its various branches, even while antisemitism has been resurgent, especially across Europe in recent years.

But now, on the cusp of the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation, the main Protestant church in Germany, where the Holocaust was hatched by Adolf Hitler's Nazi regime, has backed away from any further effort to convert Jews to Christianity.

"In practice," the story to which I've just linked you reports, "the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), made up of 20 regional Lutheran, Reformed and United churches, mostly gave up efforts to convert Jews in the decades after the Holocaust, and closing that chapter should have been a formality." But things were more complicated than that, and there was -- and continues to be -- opposition to the move to leave Jews alone.

Supporters of efforts to convert Jews point especially to a passage in the final chapter of the gospel of Matthew known as the "Great Commission." In the New Revised Standard Version, it reports that Jesus told his disciples this: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."

The Greek term, panta ta ethne, which usually gets translated "nations," generally refers to non-Jewish peoples, or Gentiles. In fact, a footnote in the Jewish Annotated New Testament, edited by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, notes that those Greek words "also can be translated as 'all the Gentiles,' though the note adds that "the mission to Israel is never abrogated."

Still, I liked the way the EKD resolution worded it: “All efforts to convert Jews contradict our commitment to the faithfulness of God and the election of Israel.” The story to which I've linked you then reports this: "That Christians see Jesus as their savior and Jews don’t is 'a fact we leave up to God,' it said."

What a concept -- leaving the destiny of others up to God and not presuming to know who will be "saved" and who won't be.

In any case, the German church finally and formally has done the right thing. Jews, of course, are welcome to convert to Christianity (and fairly often in Christian history have been forced to do so). But the most hospitable and modest, non-arrogant thing for Christians to do is to leave it up to God, as the German resolution suggests.

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Pope Francis, in a ceremony, has closed the Catholic Church's "Year of Mercy." It's been a worthy effort. And the good news is that to balance it out what comes next is not the "Year of Harsh Justice and Revenge."

How faith communities can support public education: 11-19/20-16


Over the last several years, members of several churches, including my own, have provided volunteers to do various tasks at the now-closed Southwest High School in Kansas City. Some of us, in turn, are making ourselves available as volunteers at Southeast High.

Which raises the question of what role faith communities can or should play in public education.

That was one of the many issues discussed one recent evening by a panel at an event at the University of Missouri-Kansas City sponsored by the American Public Square.

Early in the discussion, one of the panelists quoted a study that suggested that 60 percent of educational outcome is determined by factors outside the school itself, while just 20 percent of that outcome can be directly attributed to what happens in the school. The other 20 percent is simply unknown.

So if a large percentage of educational outcome depends on outside factors, what role can faith communities, civic clubs, sports organizations, businesses, neighborhood organizations, libraries and other such groups play in helping to make sure young people are getting a good education?

There was widespread agreement that such organizations -- plus families -- have an important role to play in sustaining America's public education system.

"All of them can make a difference," said David A. Smith, chief of communications and governmental relations for the Kansas City, Kansas, Public Schools. Students, he said, "need quality out-of-school experiences. They need relationships with caring adults."

Tony Kline, superintendent and executive director of University Academy, a charter school, said his school has 26 different community partners that provide this kind of outside help to students. But he noted that transporting students to off-site out-of-school events is a major hurdle to overcome to allow them to participate in these enrichment activities.

Concurring that such community partners can help, Angela Rachiti, research fellow in poverty studies for the American Enterprise Institute, nonetheless said it's important "to focus on family units and particularly on the parents and the extended family as well." Strong families, she said, can help prevent students entering kindergarten or preschool "so far behind."

And, of course, faith communities can help support and encourage family strength and unity, which in turns helps assure a good education for children. Such churches, synagogues, mosques and other congregations also can help provide what theorists call "social capital," which means networks of people who can support, instruct and love children through the educational process.

The question is whether your congregation, if you have one, is engaged in this kind of educational support. If not, why not?

(In the photo above you see, from left to right, David Smith; Angela Rachiti; moderator Allan Katz, founder of the American Public Square; Dennis L. Carpenter, superintendent of the Hickman Mills School District, and Tony Kline.) 

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A friend passed along this terrific Wall Street Journal article about a mobile synagogue in New York -- called the Mitzvah Tank. Jews are said not to do much in the way of evangelism, but in some sense this might be considered evangelism to religiously inactive Jews. Maybe there's an idea here for other faith traditions.