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The community's challenge after Olathe: 2-28-17


It was odd that just two days before Project Equality's "2017 Diversity and Inclusion Summit" last Friday the Kansas City metro area was rocked with what appeared to be another hate crime, the murder of one man and the wounding of others at a bar and grill in suburban Olathe.

If the now-arrested suspect turns out to have gone after his victims because they were from India and/or were Muslims, the summit's message of diversity and inclusion clearly was one he had not adopted as his own.

But the summit's keynote speaker, Eboo Patel (pictured above), was right to say that what will define the KC area in the aftermath of such evil is not the evil itself but our long-term response to it. Patel's Muslim parents came from India, so he felt the Olathe story in deeply personal ways.

"This is a day of grief," said Patel, founder and leader of the Interfaith Youth Core, "and I don't want to diminish that." But, he said, it's also a time to think about how to build a community that not only stands against hate crimes but that teaches its members to live by values of inclusion, diversity and love. This, he said, requires a lot of work and a social architecture that will not build itself.

What Kansas Citians must ask when hate crimes occur, he said, is "what does the day after look like? And the day after? And the day after? What will this city look like in 2025 and 2040 and 2050?" The goal, he said, "is to create a vision of a world where everybody feels like they have a place."

This, of course, is just what Mindy Corporon has been working on since a neo-Nazi murdered her son and father at the Jewish Community Center in 2014. Her Seven Days organization will sponsor another week-long series of events in April to help teach people how to combat attitudes that lead to such violence. And her youth board is joining now with the Kansas City Interfaith Youth Alliance to educate and involve high school students in the work of teaching respect.

But there is so much more to do to build bridges between and among people of different faiths, races and ethnic backgrounds.

One reason Patel is optimistic that Kansas City and, in fact, the U.S. itself can become harmoniously diverse is that, as he said, the U.S. is "the most religiously diverse nation in human history." Beyond that, he asserted that America was designed to be diverse. Which, he said, meant that unlike European nations at the time of our nation's founding, America was envisioned by the people who designed it to have both democracy and religious freedom. That's why it was called the American Experiment. (My friend Vern Barnet, a Kansas City interfaith leader, appreciated much of what Patel said Friday but disagrees with him about how America was designed. You can find Vern's rebuttal here.)

So far, that experiment hasn't failed. But it's still an experiment and sometimes it shows frightening signs of fragility. Acts of violent hatred can shatter the confidence we want to have in the on-going success of the American Experiment.

Patel challenged Kansas Citians to build social systems that can support efforts at religious literacy and compassionate responses when disasters happen to people of any faith tradition here. This will require relationship skills that can defuse trouble before it starts and that can work for justice and mercy when trouble comes.

We can do this, Kansas City. Really. We can.

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The Christian season of Lent starts tomorrow with Ash Wednesday, and, like much else in life, the internet and related digital tools are playing a larger role, this RNS report says. Sort of makes you wonder how Christianity in its early days grew without its own Facebook page.

Arguing about the death penalty civilly: 2-27-17


As I have written here and in other venues way more than once, I oppose capital punishment. There are many reasons for my stance, including the fact that since 1973 there have been 157 people on death row who have been exonerated and released. Sometimes we get it wrong.

I'm pleased that in the U.S. (one of the few developed nations that still uses the death penalty) the number of executions has dropped in recent years (from 98 in 1999 to 20 in 2016) and the number of states outlawing the practice has increased now to 19.

But I understand that there are people of good faith who disagree with me. What we often lack is a forum in which to express our disagreements civilly.

That, however, is exactly what happened one evening last week when the American Public Square partnered with KCPT-TV and the Lyric Opera of Kansas City to host a panel discussion on capital punishment at the Plaza branch of the Kansas City Public Library.

The panelists: The Rev. Adam Hamilton, founding pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in suburban Leawood, Kan.; Tricia Bushnell, executive director of the Midwest Innocence Project; Eric G. Zahnd, prosecuting attorney of Platte County, and Terry Nelson, founding partner of FP1, a political consulting firm and national political director for the Bush-Cheney 2004 presidential campaign.

What this kind of calm discussion reveals is that the issues are many and that they are complicated.

Hamilton, for instance, said that his work requires him to take a pastoral approach with members of his congregation, some of whom have experienced the murder of their own family members. With such congregants, he said, he tries to listen to their thinking and their desires and to help them see the alternatives in how to respond to the perpetrators. Whether they decide they want to seek the death penalty for those perpetrators or would rather not, he said, his job is to support them and not use the occasion to convince them one way or another. Being pastoral means being supportive and it's a tough job.

Zahnd was the most vocal supporter of capital punishment, and said he supports it "because I believe in life."

When Bushnell and others noted that capital punishment is a much more expensive way to proceed than adopting a punishment of life in prison without parole, Zahnd said that he has never -- and never will -- consider costs in determining whether to seek the death penalty in any case.

There were questions about murder ratios in states with and without capital punishment and questions about whether public defenders have the resources to give adequate defense to those charged with capital crimes. And there were questions about the makeup of juries, given that in any death penalty case, prospective jurors who say they oppose capital punishment are routinely dismissed during jury selection, leaving only those who support capital punishment as jurors.

And none of this even touches on the question of what role bigoted racial attitudes play in our system of justice.

Well, the discussion went on for well over an hour and perhaps no one's mind was changed. But, for instance, when Zahnd asked what would prevent a prisoner already serving a life sentence from killing a guard or fellow prisoner in a state without the death penalty, even I had to acknowledge that it was an interesting question.

So thanks again to the American Public Square for providing a forum for civil discussion of issues that can be complicated almost beyond belief. It was another reminder that religions that encourage simplistic answers without rebuttals really help no one.

(In the photo here, from left to right, it's Zahnd, Hamilton, moderator Nick Haines of KCPT-TV, Bushnell and Nelson)

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The Charlotte Observer has just published this excellent column by a man who asserts that even though he's a Christian, he doesn't serve the same God that evangelist Franklin Graham describes and promotes. Me, either, I say. Me, either.

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column now is online here. It describes Kansas City's important connections to the soon-to-open Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C.

A plea for humor in honor of Bill Vaughan: 2-25/26-17

The first time I was ever in the sanctuary of Second Presbyterian Church, where I've now been a member for 38-plus years, was to attend the funeral of my colleague Bill Vaughan (pictured here), The Kansas City Star's Starbeams columnist -- a post I took over several months after Bill died. (Bill wrote the column for some 31 years and I wrote it for some 27.) 

Bill_Vaughan-1Bill's death occurred 40 years ago this weekend in 1977, and I wrote the page 1 story about the death of this comic genius. I wish I could give you a link to it, but Al Gore hadn't yet invented the internet in 1977, so I can't.

The fact that both of us, at different times, were members of Second Church was simply a fluke. I knew Bill for almost seven years but we never discussed religion when we worked in the same newsroom.

But because I believe humor is a gift from God meant to keep us from taking ourselves too seriously, I thought this weekend I'd pay tribute to Bill by passing along a bit of his wisdom and humor. No, not his famous "Tell Me a Story of Christmas" column, which The Star reruns each year. But a few other things.

What I am offering you here, by the way, is taken from two books put together by Bill's son, Kirk Vaughan, and Bill's son-in-law, Robert W. Butler, who spent much of his career at The Star reviewing movies. One of the books is simply called Starbeams, and the other is called The Best of Bill Vaughan. From the links I've given you on the books' titles, you can actually still acquire copies of them.

First, a few of his "Starbeams," which are meant to be quips about life, politics and other daily annoyances.

-- A lot of people worry about the beginning of middle age, but the end of it is even more of a shock.

-- Don't be discouraged if, as you grow older, you forget more names; remember that you now know more names worth forgetting.

-- A father of boys says it seems like the twinkling of a second between the time you pretend that the child's fastball stings your hand and the time when you pretend it doesn't.

-- Matthew Brady covered the entire Civil War with fewer photographs than an ordinary wedding calls for today.

-- There is hope for the species as long as the burning of a book calls forth more outrage than the theft of a television set.

-- A real civic booster is one who can take pride in a new record temperature.

-- March comes in like a lion, goes out like a lamb, and in between not infrequently behaves like an ass.

Now, some samples from his essays, which is what you call a column that is dressed up for a night on the town:

From one called "There's No Place Like Home":

Mostly I understand what goes on in the movie and teevy drama because both are tailed for the nominal mind. But there are two scenes I have never figured out. Or rather it's basically one scene, but it differs somewhat according to the particular role of the sexes.

It is the one where he leaves her or she leaves him. In the first case he says, "I am going to my club."

Many an impressionable husband has tried this, storming out the front door into the rain, only to remember, while he is waiting at the bus stop, that the only club he belongs to is the National Geographic Society, which is in far-off Washington and, as far as he knows, doesn't have a spare bed. Being a husband, he has a total of fifty-three cents in his pocket and he has to squiggle back into the house in a rather wet and chastened manner.

Also, in these romances, the husband may pack a bag. Where does he find the suitcase? We are never shown. We just cut to the scene where he has the suitcase on the bed and is filling it with socks and shirts out of a dresser drawer.

Come on, now. You know where the suitcases are in the average home? They are in the attic and if a husband wants to run away he has to go up there in the indescribable mess and crack his head on the rafters, which is why lots of marriages stay together. If he does find the suitcase, it is full of his children's old arithmetic papers.

Finally, another reason to honor Vaughan is that he insisted on pronouncing the name of our state correctly as Mizzoura. Over the years he argued in print about this, especially with one Martin Quigley when Quigley was editor of an automobile magazine. So here's Vaughan in a column called "Missoura-e-i-o-u?"

He (meaning Quigley) called the grand old state "Missouree," which is plain wrong, and I told him so. I did not admonish him, because I think it is rather amusing to live in a state which has difficulty pronouncing itself.

Still, right is right, and friendship is friendship, so I quietly explained that the state whose Auto Club magazine he purported to edit is Mizzoura. . . .

I take my stand with former Governor Guy B. Park when he said in 1933: "I've lived in Missouri all my life and never heard any true Missourian pronounce the name in any other way but 'Mizzourah.'" The "rah," I'll admit, is a little strong. Actually that final "i" is more like the "a" in sofa. Although people who say, "Missouree" probably say "sofee."

The pronunciation "Missouree" grates on me in exactly the same way that the mispronunciation of my home state of Illinois as "Illinoise" does. Right, as Vaughan said, is right.

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Technology -- especially as it involves social media -- is changing Christianity (and other faiths) in various ways. How? This BBC story will give you a pretty good feel for all that. It's worth a read.

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On My Way Home: A Hospice Nurse's Journey with Terminal Cancer, by Joyce Hutchinson. This short (109 pages) book (which has a March 3 publication date) describes the personal, harrowing, hopeful journey toward death of a woman who spent much of her life helping others at the end of their lives. It pulls no punches. The lung cancer (it later spreads) she has is a killer that, in the end, will not be denied. But the author is a person of deep Christian faith, which she says makes the movement toward death more hopeful but still painful in physical, emotional and spiritual ways. Her insight is that because she worked in the hospice field for a long time she thought she knew what her patients were experiencing. When she was on chemotherapy, she wrote, "I thought about all the people to whom I had given these drugs. I had no idea they felt that bad or that it affected them in such a drastic way. I really spent a lot of time reflecting on the patients I cared for and how I thought I knew what they were feeling. I assure you, until you are walking the path of cancer yourself, it is impossible to know what it is like." A friend and Catholic nun, author Joyce Rupp, does a foreword and after afterword because Hutchinson died in May 2016, having dictated the final chapter a few weeks earlier. The writing here is honest and sincere but the author is a nurse, not a writer. Still, it's a compelling story.

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column now is online here. It describes Kansas City's important connections to the soon-to-open Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C.

Some fresh faith-based books for you: 2-24-17

Another stack of new books related in some way to religion and spirituality has landed on my home office desk, and it's time I let you know about them in brief in case you want to run out to your favorite independent bookstore (or order from Amazon, say) and pick up any of them.

I won't do full reviews of them but will give you enough to whet your appetite along with a link to learn more and order a copy.

Dream-with-me-- Dream with Me: Race, Love, and the Struggle We Must Win, by John M. Perkins. The author is the co-founder of the Christian Community Development Association and a longtime civil rights leader and preacher. He's pushing toward age 90 now and this engaging book may serve as a summary of his message that people of all kinds must overcome racism and learn to love one another. "The church," he writes, "needs to be a witness to the world of what nonviolent change can look like. We should be leading the way in offering alternatives to the broken systems of this world so that cycles of poverty and hatred don't lead to violent reactions." (I hate it that we are losing some of these magnificent voices, but we should pay attention to Perkins while we still can.)

-- Psychotherapy East & West, by Alan Watts. This book was first published in 1961, and became something of a classic as it brought the insights of Eastern religions and philosophies to bear on Western psychotherapy. In that process, it introduced to Westerners such traditions as Buddhism, Vedanta, yoga and Taoism. Watts (1915-1973), as an Anglican chaplain at Northwestern University, helped to bridge the gap between East and West to the benefit of both. Here's something from the book worth remembering: "Totalitarian states, however, know the danger of the artist. Correctly, if for the wrong reasons, they know that all art is propaganda, and that art which does not support their system must be against it. They know intuitively that the artist is not a harmless eccentric but one who under the guise of irrelevance creates and reveals a new reality."

-- Piety and Plurality: Theological Education since 1960, by Glenn T. Miller. There may not be many takers for this book, but it's an important piece of work nonetheless. It's the third volume in a series that has examined theological education in the U.S. from the earliest days of the nation until now. Seminaries and other institutions of theological education have had to adapt numerous times over that history even while holding to the timeless values and stories of their faith traditions. Even today seminaries face constant challenges, including financial ones, and those challenges directly affect the quality of religious leadership available to Americans. This book will give you a good sense of all that. Recently in my monthly Flatland column I wrote about the several seminaries in Kansas City and their efforts to stay whole and relevant. You can find that column here.

Preparing-easter-- Preparing for Easter: Fifty Devotional Readings from C.S. Lewis (selected by Zachry Kincaid). The late C.S. (Jack) Lewis has become one of the best known Christian authors both for his theological nonfiction works and for his fiction. In this collection readers will get a renewed sense of what made Lewis so popular.

-- The State of Pastors: How Today's Faith Leaders Are Navigating Life and Leadership in an Age of Complexity, by the Barna Group. This research organization does a lot of religious polling and related studies, and now, in a study commissioned by Pepperdine University, offers this broad look at how Christian clergy are doing in the U.S. There's a lot of detail here, some of it reassuring, a lot of it not.

-- Crossing Myself: A Story of Spiritual Rebirth, by Greg Garrett. This book was first published 10 years ago and now is out in an anniversary edition with updates by the author. It's the stark story of the author's serious depression and suicide attempts and the way he found rescue in the Episcopal Church. Garrett teaches English now at Baylor University.

And now several books with Catholic themes:

-- All In: Why Belonging to the Catholic Church Matters, by Pat Gohn. Maybe you can't judge a book by its cover but sometimes you can judge it by its title. Like this one. If you've ever wondered why someone would find Catholicism a welcoming spiritual home, the author answers that question at least for her life and, she hopes, maybe for yours, too.

Joinedbygrace-- Joined by Grace: Preparing for the Sacramental Journey of Marriage, by John and Teri Bosio. This is something of a guide book or handbook for those Catholics getting ready to tie the knot. What does a good marriage require? How can an engaged couple get ready to take this important step in confidence? And what role do the church's other sacraments play in sustaining a marriage? Answers here.

-- Rebuilding Confirmation: Because We Need More Than Another Graduation, by Christopher Wesley. All kinds of churches, not just Catholic, are looking for ways to improve faith formation among youth. Confirmation classes have traditionally been one important way to do that, but often they aren't very effective. This book offers ways for churches to structure their confirmation programs that can have lasting results. Many of the ideas here would be useful to churches that are not Catholic, too, and even to different religious traditions beyond Christianity.

-- Be Transformed: The Healing Power of the Sacraments, by Bob Schuchts. This book takes human sinfulness seriously but finds that the Catholic sacraments are a way of healing what is broken. The author offers prayers and guidance from scripture as he explores the restorative nature of the sacraments.

-- Couriers of Grace: My Daughter, the Sacraments, and a Surprising Walk of Faith, by Nancy Jo Sullivan. When the author gave birth to a daughter with Down Syndrome, she had to learn how to understand the child as a gift, as is any child. This is the story of that spiritual journey. The message here is to slow down so that we can see what is sacred.

-- Praying the Angelus: Find Joy, Peace, and Purpose in Everyday Life, by Jared Dees. In Catholicism, the Angelus is a devotional prayer that begins with affirming that God spoke to Mary, mother of Jesus, and that the result was the incarnation. This book, due to be published March 3 (the same is true of the next three books, too), seeks to teach its readers the richness of that prayer because the author says the prayer is needed now more than ever.

Getting-past-perfect-- Getting Past Perfect: How to Find Joy and Grace in the Messiness of Motherhood, by Kate Wicker. This book seeks to help new mothers relax and recognize that perfection in being a mother is simply unattainable, but being a loving, caring parent despite inevitable mistakes is a reachable goal. As she writes, "There will be poop. But there will also be grace."

-- Prayer Seeds: A Gathering of Blessings, Reflections, and Poems for Spiritual Growth, by Joyce Rupp. The many fans of this nun in the Servite (Sisters of Mary) community will be glad to have another collection of her writing, especially her prayers written for the various workshops and retreats she leads. This is a book to be read a little at a time, with time between for meditation.

-- BeDADitudes: 8 Ways to be an Awesome Dad, by Greg Popcak. This family and marriage counselor draws on his experience and the Beatitudes preached by Jesus (found in Matthew 5) to help men become better fathers. "Every man," he writes, "wants to leave a mark on the world, to leave a legacy. Sadly, many men sacrifice their fatherly vocation pursuing generativity by means that will be forgotten within a few years, if not days or weeks, after they are gone from this earth. But a father will always be remembered for the impact he has had on his family."

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Pope Francis has just suggested that it might be better to be an atheist than a hypocritical Catholic. For one thing, you wouldn't have to listen to a pope preaching at you about hypocrisy.

Training all Christians for interfaith dialogue: 2-23-17

People (like me) who value interfaith dialogue and, in fact, think it's essential for a religiously pluralistic country like the United States, get frustrated by the fact that a lot of Christians who identify as conservative or evangelical show little interest in such interreligious understanding.

Bubble-BridgeThere are reasons for that, though I personally think those reasons don't hold much water.

But finally there's a great new resource that offers convincing arguments about why everyone -- including conservative Christians -- should be engaged in this important work of neighborliness and education. It's a book called From Bubble to Bridge: Educating Christians for a Multifaith World, by Marion H. Larson and Sara L.H. Shady, both of whom teach at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minn. And there's an excellent forward by Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core and author of Interfaith Leadership: A Primer, which I reviewed here last year.

(By the way Patel will be in Kansas City tomorrow as the keynote speaker and workshop leader for Project Equality's "Diversity and Inclusion Summit" at UMKC. I hope to see you there. I'll be speaking briefly early in the summit about the religious landscape of Kansas City.)

The authors' argument to convince Christians to become involved in interfaith conversations is persuasive because they take Christian teaching seriously.

"Christians," they write, "who seek to live and serve graciously in a religiously diverse world must also deliberately and thoughtfully engage with our religious neighbors. We firmly believe that not only is such engagement in line with God's command that we love all of our neighbors, including those who believe differently, it also helps us develop a mature, committed faith that's at the same time humble and open to learning from others."

In other words, if you believe Jesus when he said one duty of his followers is to love their neighbors, then you really have no choice but to get to know those neighbors, no matter what faith tradition, if any, they follow.

The authors note, however, that some Christians don't think they can be strongly committed to Christ while also being friendly with people of other faiths. That false barrier, however, creates fear, which can lead to all sorts of trouble, including failing to love our neighbors, as Christ commanded. But Larson and Shady insist that "loving our religious neighbors doesn't require abandoning our own faith commitments. Instead, it can flow from an incredibly strong and deep commitment to follow Jesus' teaching that the greatest commandments are to love God and neighbor. . .What better way to present our faith than to attempt to love others as Christ loves them?"

In the U.S., Christianity has long been the dominant faith, and remains so today. But the American religious landscape has been changing in recent decades and the percentage of people who identify as Christian is shrinking. Larson and Shady think this offers a helpful opening: "As Christians, we have the opportunity to change our voice form one of domination to one of love."

That language (sometimes unintentional) of domination can lead people outside of Christianity to feel unwelcome and even put upon. That must end, the authors say: "In particular, evangelical Christians need to listen carefully to ways in which mission and evangelistic efforts have been received. Some efforts have certainly been wrongheaded in every way; other efforts may grow out of good intentions but still feel offensive to would-be targets of evangelism."

Interfaith dialogue and understanding does not mean watering down or changing beliefs. Rather, it means knowing and being known, and that requires respect so that each person participating can be heard clearly.

This new book should be a great help with that task.

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Speaking of Christians and interfaith dialogue, as I was above, a new bill in the West Virginia House of Delegates would designate the Bible as the state's official book. Well, that's one of the first things not to do if you're really interested in creating an atmosphere of religious respect in the country. I just don't get why some lawmakers don't understand why they can't promote one religion over another. It's right in the Constitution. Maybe West Virginia doesn't have enough copies of the Constitution to go around.

How about a little laugh break? 2-22-17

It's way past time for a humor break here on the blog. There's been so much darn serious stuff going on that we've ignored funny stuff. But ignoring funny stuff is always a bad idea.

So here are a few alleged jokes with faith themes. They aren't original with me. I swiped them from hither and yon. If you have better ones, e-mail them to me.

Laughing-face1. A man was coming out of church one day, and the preacher was standing at the door as he always is to shake hands. He grabbed his hand and pulled him aside.

The pastor said to him, “You need to join the Army of the Lord.”

My friend replied, “I’m already in the Army of the Lord, Pastor.”

Pastor questioned, “How come I don’t see you except at Christmas and Easter?”

He whispered back, “I’m in the secret service.”

2. When Adam stayed out very late for a few nights, Eve became upset. “You’re running around with other women,” she charged.

“You’re being unreasonable,” Adam responded. “You’re the only woman on earth.” The quarrel continued until Adam fell asleep, only to be awakened by someone poking him in the chest.

It was Eve. “What do you think you’re doing?” Adam demanded.

“Counting your ribs,” said Eve.

3. A little boy wants a bike for Christmas really badly, but the kid is a bad seed, and he knows it.

He writes a letter to Jesus. “Dear Jesus, if I get a bike for Christmas, I’ll be good for a whole week.” He thinks about it, crosses out what he wrote, and says, “I can’t be good for a whole week, I’ll be good for five days.” He crosses that out and writes, “I’ll be good for four days.” Then he thinks again and says, “Can’t do that.” He gets down to one day and says, “I can’t even be good for a day.”

Then in frustration, goes in his mother’s room and get the statue of the Virgin Mary, wraps it up in a blanket, puts it in a paper bag, throws it in the closet and writes, “Dear Jesus, if I don’t get a bike for Christmas, you’ll never see your mother again!”

4. A woman confesses to a friend: "My husband and I divorced for religious reasons. He thought he was God. I didn’t."

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There's been a new wave of threats against Jewish community centers in the U.S., bringing the recent total to nearly 60. And although President Trump has declined to speak out directly against antisemitism (until, finally, yesterday in these remarks), at least his daughter, Ivanka, a convert to Judaism, is doing that. Sometimes children have to be the adult model for their parents.

Why Trump's ideas about Islam are dangerous: 2-21-17

The immigration ban that President Trump sought to put in place by executive order -- but that the courts have halted in its xenophobic tracks -- is no isolated event divorced from a world view that sees Islam as an enemy.

IslamAs this lengthy Guardian piece argues persuasively, Trump's delusions about Islam are visible and they are dangerous. But to understand why and where they came from requires Americans to do something not enough of us seem willing to do -- grasp American history in the context of world history.

First, let's look at the Guardian analysis of the present state of things: "Sixteen years after September 11, the war on Islam that Bush declined to launch has been effectively taken up by the new inhabitant of the White House. 'Anyone who cannot name our enemy,' Donald Trump stated during the campaign, referring to Obama and Hillary Clinton alike, 'is not fit to lead this country.' He immediately did so: 'radical Islam.' . . .

"If the president sends American troops into a Muslim country, he will not be expecting them to spread democracy and free markets. Trump and his closest associates are not into Muslim improvability. Instead, they heed the warnings of the conspiracy theorist Frank Gaffney, who believes Muslim citizens of the United States are working 'like termites' to hollow out civil society and prepare the way for jihad. Trump’s inner circle is convinced that America is fighting a battle to the death with Islam – not one to win over the hearts and minds of the world’s Muslims. A fear and loathing of Islam is the central plank of the nativist populism that has surged on both sides of the Atlantic.”

Fear seems to be exactly what Trump and others in his camp are offering. As the Guardian piece notes, "One of the main accusations leveled by the new populists at the treacherous global elite (a category easily big enough to include George W. Bush and Barack Obama) is that they have lied to ordinary people about the dangers of Islam and, more specifically, Muslim immigrants. In fact, it is an indication of the success of populist rhetoric that many now regard the threat of Islam and immigration as one and the same."

This leads to a fear that the Muslim neighbor who was born in this country to immigrant parents and who has worked for a local industry for several decades is, in fact, a subversive to be guarded against. The work that has gone into helping to create a religiously welcoming and pluralistic nation gets blown up when such fear takes over.

Beyond that, it blinds people to the reality that although Islam is insistently monotheistic it is far from monolithic. There are many divisions within the religion, and some branches of Islam are working hard to adapt this ancient faith to the realities and uncertainties of post-modern life. And those divisions within Islam have some interesting history behind them -- history that at times includes moves and policies by Western nations including the United States. I won't repeat all of the history the Guardian reports in its analysis authored by Christopher de Bellaigue, whose latest book, The Islamic Enlightenment: The Modern Struggle Between Faith and Reason, is to be published soon. But that history is crucial. And you can read it for yourself.

The lesson here is that if we buy into the no-gray rhetoric we hear from Trump and others, we not only distort reality, we give ammunition to the violent radicals who truly are out to do us harm. And, yes, there really are people who claim to be Muslims out there who want us all dead.

But putting in place policies and legislation that assumes Islam itself is the enemy and the only good Muslim is a dead Muslim demeans all Americans and our ideals.

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President Trump has promised to destroy the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits non-profits such as churches from engaging in partisan politics. But the bills under consideration in Congress on this matter stop well short of Trump's rhetoric, this report notes. Good. The amendment serves a useful purpose, though it needs to be enforced more rigorously.

Can Saudi Arabia change quickly enough? 2-20-17

When I spent some time in Saudi Arabia almost 15 years ago, I saw a country struggling to find its soul after finally acknowledging that most of the 9/11 hijackers were from there.

2030-logoMany religious and government officials then realized that if the nation created in the 1930s by the late King Ibn Saud was to survive, it would have to embrace some measure of modernity both socially and religiously. But given the huge number of Saudi youth without much of a future, my guess was that the House of Saud had a decade or two at most to make changes or to experience the sort of revolutionary upheaval we later saw in the Arab Spring (R.I.P.).

Well, change certainly has happened in the kingdom, though nowhere near as quickly as I concluded in 2002 that it needed to. But if this BBC analysis is anywhere near the mark, we may be much closer to important changes in Saudi life than most people outside the kingdom imagine.

Today, instead of serious change being measured in decades, the piece reports, "talk of change is measured in months."

That includes finally allowing (at least some) women to drive -- something my journalist colleagues and I pressed then-Crown Prince (later king, now gone) Abdullah about when we spoke with him in 2002. He was non-committal then, though he left open the possibility that it might happen some day. (At the time, Abdullah was considered a reformer, though the term has meant much less in Saudi Arabia than it means in many other countries.)

Social and economic change are needed there, to be sure, and the current crown prince is doing his best to get them through what he calls the "Vision 2030" plan.

If it really works, it will be helpful. But much of the world would feel better knowing there was also religious change in the wind, and that's considerably less certain. The rigid Wahhabi form of Islam that the clerics there lead and that the government protects in exchange for support from those very clerics is often seen as the source of the dogmatic, radical thinking that leads to terrorism. If the kingdom were to loosen its controls on religion and allow something closer to religious liberty, most of the world would be grateful.

The hope is that economic and social reform may lead to a lighter hand on religion. But it will take at least until 2030 to know if that's possible, assuming the country doesn't collapse into chaos before then, prodded by reformers who simply refuse to wait for change any longer.

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That recent survey that showed Mississippi is home to the most religious people in the nation also has some political consequences, religion journalist Terry Mattingly points out in this piece. Republicans win most of the most-religious states, while Democrats win those at the bottom of that list. What does that mean for the future? Hmmmm.

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P.S.: For Presidents' Day today I am wearing my Lincoln stovepipe hat that I found a few years ago at the Flint Hills Discovery Center in Manhattan, Kan. I thought the hat picture was a better choice than one showing me with Trump-like hair -- especially since no such photo exists and, if I have anything to day about it, never will.

Death penalty news worth knowing about: 2-18/19-17

I return this weekend to a topic I've written about often, the death penalty.

Anti-death-penaltyIts problems are myriad and it needs to be abolished throughout the United States (and the world, for that matter). Until it is, innocent people may continue to be executed in our name and taxpayers will spend exorbitant amounts of money because capital punishment is a much more expensive system to operate than the alternative of sentencing the worst criminals to life in prison, sometimes without the possibility of parole.

I raise the subject again for two reasons.

First, I want you to know about a new (or, new to me) problem with the death penalty. It turns out that in excess of 500 religious leaders from across the country have endorsed a statement insisting on a new trial for Texas death row inmate Christopher Young. The statement, signed by people who identify themselves as evangelical Christians, says that in Young's 2006 trial, "a potential juror was removed from the case based on her membership in a particular church and her association with one of its ministries."

That removal, the statement says, was just plain wrong: "Membership in a particular church or association with a particular ministry is not a fair basis for preventing someone from carrying out her civic duty as a juror. Indeed, eliminating a particular juror based solely on her religious affiliation offends the Free Exercise Clause of the United States Constitution."

Until now, I was unaware that any defense attorneys in death penalty cases had been accused of striking potential jurors because of religion -- one more abuse of our justice system tied to capital punishment.

The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to discuss the case in early March. Let's hope the justices do justice.

The other reason I raise the death penalty topic today is to tell you that this Tuesday, the American Public Square will sponsor a discussion of the death penalty. It's called "An Eye for an Eye: Re-evaluating the Death Penalty," and you can register to attend this free event at the link in this paragraph. The discussion will take place at the Plaza branch of the Kansas City Public Library.

My regular readers know I've opposed capital punishment for a long, long time for many reasons. And I intend to keep writing about this until our system is changed and the U.S. joins the rest of the civilized world on this matter.

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The decision by the American Girl doll company to offer a new boy doll for sale has set off a North Carolina pastor, who says the move is "nothing more than a trick of the enemy to emasculate little boys and confuse their role to become men." Oh, my. Sounds like someone could have used a little more help getting in touch with his feminine side when he was growing up.

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P.S.: I've added a "My Flatlandkc columns" page under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page that will take you to the monthly columns I write for Flatland, KCPT-TV's digital magazine. So if you missed any of them when they posted, now you can catch up. My next Flatland column is scheduled to post next Saturday.

When religion injures us, how can we heal? 2-17-17

For all the good religion does -- the healing, the guidance toward wholeness, the moral foundations it builds, the charity, the respect, the love -- sometimes it also wounds people.

Healing-spiritual-woundsAnd sometimes those wounds are difficult, if not impossible, to heal.

The Rev. Carol Howard Merritt felt wounded by the way members of her family and others misused the conservative Christian religion of her childhood to justify abuse, patriarchal dominance and other terrors. Her road to recovery has been slow and difficult, but finally she is able to share her story in her new book, Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting with a Loving God After Experiencing a Hurtful Church.

Although no one's story is the same as another person's, anyone who has felt injured by a faith community can find light, help and sustenance in this frank, insightful book.

After her own difficult childhood with a harsh father who relied on twisted readings of scripture to maintain abusive dominance in the family, Merritt, now a Presbyterian pastor, eventually began to find her way to spiritual wholeness, all the while noticing how many other people were on that same path:

"The wounds were easy to see. . .They were people with the sort of trauma that comes when your injuries are wrapped up in the condemnation of the soul, the shunning of families, or the shaming of flesh. . .It was staggering to see what people suffered in the name of God. Many sought a cure for their spiritual wounds."

Merritt's own path to recovery through re-envisioning God as loving and not obsessed by the punishment sinners deserved may not be everyone's way to find a new road, but it is enlightening and instructive, as is her own story of growing up in a spiritually pinched, harsh family and church environment.

"Religious wounding," she writes, "occurs when people and communities violate the love of God, self, and neighbor. . .For instance, when we fashion a vengeful God who demands eternal torture, we desecrate the love of God. Or when we think that we must hate our gay neighbor in order to love God, then we partake in religious wounding. Or when we imagine that we ought to allow ourselves to be abused in order to love God, then we transgress the laws of love."

Merritt's understanding about how humans grasp even the concept of God is revealing and useful: ". . .when we describe God, we are always using imperfect words and metaphors constructed by humans. We're like toddlers, trying to fit syllables around a concept so large that our mouths can hardly utter them. Every time we talk about God, we attempt to know the unknowable." (It's a point I try to make in my own new book, The Value of Doubt.)

So when we hear people speak about God in rigid, know-it-all ways, we can be pretty sure that someone is going to get hurt.

When we are spiritually wounded, Merritt writes, we often feel that "God was behind what wounded us. So the first step in spiritual healing is to learn to love God by separating God from our experience of being wounded." In other words, she argues, it wasn't God who hurt us but people with a twisted sense of who God is.

This is an intentionally Christian book, but its lessons are helpful for people from any faith tradition who have been pierced by the many available ways religion can be -- and often is -- abused.

By the way, among the things you can find about and by Merritt when you click on the link I've put on her name above is her blog. I recommend it. Well, not instead of reading mine, but as a complimentary voice.

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Good for President Trump for deciding -- against the wishes of Christian conservatives -- to keep Randy Berry as special envoy for the rights of LGBTI persons. As the story to which I've linked you reports, the Obama administration created Berry’s position in 2014 "to support efforts abroad to protect gay people from violence and death." Naturally, such folks as Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, think Trump's decision is a disaster and, to use one of Trump's favorite words, sad. But it's nice to see the president taking the right stand on this.