Previous month:
June 2017
Next month:
August 2017

Brownback and the cause of religious liberty: 7-31-17

Although Americans cherish religious liberty -- and have from the beginning -- it helps to be clear what is meant by the term when different Americans use it.

Sam-brownbackFor instance, many early settlers in what eventually became the United States wanted religious liberty for themselves but not for people with whom they disagreed about theology. Thus, on arrival in the New World to escape what they considered to be a religiously oppressive Europe they set about creating something approaching theocracies in areas that later became states.

It took people like Roger Williams to insist on the freedom to worship in ways other than those approved by the people who ran the early governments in cities and states. And eventually, after various states had created established religions, the wise people who wrote the U.S. Constitution realized that this experiment in political liberty wasn't going to work if the government set up an established religion. (The book to read is So Help Me God: The Founding Fathers and the First Great Battle over Church and State, by the late Forrest Church.)

Thus, you find in our Constitution restraints on ways in which the government can control religion.

In recent years, however, the term "religious liberty" has been co-opted by some people as a way of getting the government to allow them to behave in ways that might otherwise be deemed unconstitutional.

For instance, some bakers of wedding cakes have refused to make them for gay couples even though gay marriage now is legal in all 50 states. That refusal is in harmony with the refusal of restaurant owners 60 and more years ago to serve African-American customers. But public accommodations laws now require everyone to be served.

My point in raising all this is that I think Sam Brownback, whom President Trump nominated last week as ambassador at large for religious liberty, will seek to enforce a religious liberty agenda that would appeal to people in sympathy with those those bakers. He'll almost certainly also place an out-sized emphasis on the real and traumatic persecutions of Christians around the world. When I say out-sized emphasis I mean he probably will do that at the expense of people of other faith traditions who also are being crushed in various countries.

Veteran religion scholar Mark Silk has an even more deeply pessimistic view of how Brownback might do in this new job:

"Making headway requires exquisite political skills, for dealing with an entrenched State Department bureaucracy, both sides of the congressional aisle and foreign governments that do not hear criticism of their treatment of religious minorities and dissidents gladly. And that’s in a presidential administration where foreign policy is functioning normally.

"When it comes to political skills, Brownback is, as Winston Churchill said of John Foster Dulles, 'a bull who carries a china shop with him.'"

Brownback's religious background is interesting, having moved from evangelical Christianity to conservative Catholicism and having been part of what this New York Magazine piece calls "the shadowy conservative Christian power-elite group the Fellowship" (or The Family).

Journalist Jeff Sharlet has written about the Fellowship, a group of politicians with whom Brownback became associated when he was in Congress. The books to read by Sharlet are The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power and C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy. (I've argued with Sharlet that the terms "Fundamentalism" and "Fundamentalist" are misused, and he's almost agreed with me.)

The position to which Trump has nominated Brownback requires Senate confirmation. My hope is that at least some senators have read Sharlet's books and other source material, have followed Brownback's disastrous performance as governor of Kansas and will have some sharp questions to ask him about his understanding of religious liberty.

A few times in his public career Brownback has surprised me on the upside. I don't expect him to in this matter, but the eternal optimist in me is open to the possibility that he has some good answers to the kinds of probing questions he should get. And yet, in the end, we have to remember that he has agreed to work in the Trump administration, something that it's increasingly clear no one thinking clearly would agree to do.

* * *


The recent death of terminally ill Charlie Gard, the infant son of a British couple, has attracted worldwide attention, as did his situation when he was still alive. One question inevitably asked in these cases is why God allowed him to die. It almost certainly isn't the right question, but people ask it anyway. Here is one answer from a Catholic perspective. Do you have an answer that works for you?

* * *

P.S.: My latest Flatland column now is online here. It recalls how area clergy reacted to the Vietnam War.

A stealth effort to politicize pulpits: 7-29/30-17

Back in February, when President Trump started making serious noises about repealing the Johnson Amendment (which prevents churches and other non-profits from endorsing political candidates), I wrote this blog post suggesting that Trump, once again, was wrong.

Church-politics"Not only should it not be dumped," I wrote then, "it should be more forcefully enforced. But first, what is it? Congress adopted it in 1954 (it's named after the man who would become President Lyndon B. Johnson) to prevent charitable organizations, including faith communities, from engaging in partisan politics. The idea is that if such groups do endorse political candidates, they should lose their tax-exempt status."

Well, Trump, I'm sorry to say, hasn't given up on the idea of repealing it. And neither have some members of Congress.

As this Los Angeles Times editorial notes, "In May, the president issued a largely symbolic executive order that purported to fulfill that campaign promise. Now Republicans in Congress are engaging in stealth tactics to give it real force."

In fact, The Times says, "the House Appropriations Committee recently added language to a Treasury Department spending bill that would make it harder for the Internal Revenue Service to enforce the Johnson Amendment’s prohibition of political endorsements by nonprofits — but only in connection with political activity by 'a church, or a convention or association of churches.'

"Under that provision, no determination that a church has engaged in improper politicking could take effect without the consent of the head of the IRS, notification of two congressional committees and the expiration of a 90-day waiting period."

So the effort among some GOP members of Congress is to repeal the Johnson Amendment little by little, sort of the way legislatures over the years have worked to repeal the constitutional right to abortion.

In this already highly partisan time, the last thing we need is to have clergy endorsing candidates from the pulpit. And the truth is that something close to that already is happening on behalf of both Republican and Democratic candidates. As a taxpayer, I don't want to subsidize this nonsense by giving tax breaks to non-profits that do this. If you agree, let your member of Congress know. Today.

(By the way, the image here today is from this Christianity Today site.)

* * *


I will deal in more depth on Monday with the nomination of Sam Brownback to be ambassador at large for religious liberty, but in the meantime I thought you might gain by reading this Religion News Service piece about Brownback's religious background. He's had an interesting, and a bit unusual, journey.

Distorting the story of religion's spread: 7-28-17

Someone from Business Insider has created this series of maps to show the ways in which various religions spread around the globe across history.

Religion-spreadAt first glance it appears to be a helpful, quick summary that generally sticks to accurate history. At second glance, it's far too simplistic to be of much help.

One of the problems with trying to put together such maps is the same problem with labeling this or that American state "red" or "blue" politically. The reality is that even the reddest state contains blue voters and even the bluest state includes red voters. Beyond that, red and blue do not exhaust the types of voters we have.

So when map makers mark off whole sections of Earth as Christian or Islamic or Hindu, the truth is that things are much more complicated on the ground.

For instance, look at the opening map at the site (I've borrowed it from there and reproduced it here) to which I've linked you and you'll see India colored solid red for Hinduism. Well, India is predominantly Hindu, no doubt, but the minority Muslim population there now has grown so large that it either already has or soon will surpass Indonesia as the country with the most Muslims living in it.

And to show Africa as essentially evenly split between Islam and Christianity is terribly misleading. Not only does it paper over the different branches within each religion but it ignores lots of smaller, sometimes indigenous, faith traditions.

I'm all for educating people about how religions formed and grew, but this sort of simplistic map-making hides as much as it reveals. The stories of the start, growth and spread of religions are fascinating and should not be hazed over with one-dimensional maps.

* * *


I may well have more to say later about the new announcement that President Trump has nominated Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas to be ambassador at large for international religious freedom. If he's confirmed he would become head of the U.S. State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom, which is different from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The latter is an important monitoring agency that Congress and the executive branch have tended to ignore over the years. One way USCIRF gets ignored is that the OIRF of the State Department doesn't follow the recommendations of USCIRF on what to do about some countries that are particularly horrible in protecting religious freedom. Will having Brownback leading the OIRF make a difference? My guess is that it won't, but it's just a guess. Surely he can't do worse as ambassador than he has done as governor of Kansas, so that's one good thing. Well, unless he begins by seeing the maps I've written about above and takes them as gospel.

When cities exploded 50 years ago: 7-27-17

In 1967 I had just graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism and, that summer, began work as a reporter for the now-defunct Rochester (N.Y.) Times-Union, a Gannett flagship paper, along with the morning Democrat & Chronicle.

Time-Detroit-1967It was a tumultuous, sometimes scary, always exciting time. The Vietnam War was raging and opposition to that war was building in many places around the nation. The Civil Rights Movement was entering a period in which, against the will of many of its leaders, violence would explode in city after city, including Kansas City in 1968.

Part of my job in Rochester (I didn't come to Kansas City until the summer of 1970) was to cover urban dynamics, which meant I wrote about issues of poverty, subsidized housing, race relations and similar matters. Rochester itself did not degenerate into widespread violence at the time, but in August 1967, parts of nearby Syracuse went up in flames and violence.

I wasn't assigned to cover that Syracuse story directly, but another reporter who was covering the story asked me to accompany him to Syracuse to spend a night riding in police cars to monitor the damage. We saw some fires and evidence of looting that night but most of the fury had been spent by the time my colleague and I got there.

Another city that experienced terrible violence that year was Detroit. The Detroit Free Press has just published this interesting story about how all of that affected religious communities there at the time and how things have changed now.

The violence there and elsewhere forced people of faith to examine their own practices and experiences to see whether they lined up with the messages of peace and equality they often heard from their pulpits.

In many cases, the answer was that there was a fairly wide gap between the teachings of the great religions and the ways in which members of minority groups were being treated. It's not shocking to learn that in some places a similar gap continues to exist today.

Religious people often were the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. I worry today that many young people don't know that history and, worse, don't care. I also worry that some faith communities have drifted back to their segregationist ways that ignore foundational inequities in our society.

Much has changed since 1967 in terms of race relations, and much of that change has been for the better. But no one should imagine that we've created what Martin Luther King Jr. used to call the Beloved Community. And in the last year or two, especially, racial, ethnic and religious hostility seems to be spreading in the U.S.

Let's revisit what happened 50 years ago in the U.S. and use that history to prod us to recommit ourselves to the values of equality, love and justice that the great religions teach.

(Notice, by the way, in the image of the cover of Time magazine here today that the law enforcement officer and officials before the microphones are white and the people who appear to be looters are black. That was mostly an accurate depiction of what was happening but it also was a representation of part of the problem of racial and economic division.)

* * *


A 103-year-old Jewish woman who was barred from participating as a high-jumper in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin just died. The long life of Margaret Bergmann Lambert was an ongoing witness to the antisemitic evil of Nazi Germany. As that generation departs, those left behind must continue the work of witnessing about what happened.

Eclipsing the God of the gaps: 7-26-17

The public fascination with the total eclipse of the sun coming Aug. 21 is a reminder that the initial impulse of religion is wonder and awe.

Total-solar-eclipseOf course, wonder and awe can lead in several directions -- toward gratitude and worship, toward education and enlightenment but also toward superstition and religious explanations that are unnecessary. This latter destination moves us to the old idea of the "God of the gaps."

When ancient peoples could not explain things they were seeing or experiencing in the cosmos, they often would attribute those things to God or to one of several gods. Thus, thunder was evidence of something stirring in heaven. And babies born deformed might be an indication that the gods were angry about something.

But as people learned more about nature and came up with more scientific explanations of things, God was used less and less as an explanation. God was good only to explain things in the gaps of our knowledge and understanding. Soon, this God of the gaps got painted into a smaller and smaller corner.

But German Lutheran martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer was right: We should look for God not so much in what we don't know but, rather, in what we do know. We should look for God's influence in our relations of love and in examples of justice, mercy, compassion, trust.

If we imagine an interventionist God who for reasons unknown blocks out the sun for part of a day, we don't learn much about how to live, whom to worship or, for that matter, how the world really works.

As I mentioned this past weekend here in my review of the terrific book God of Sense and Traditions of Non-Sense, we are more likely to grasp something of the reality of God if we understand the Christian contention that God comes to us in weakness and refuses to get drawn into power games that we humans seem to prefer.

God is not out creating tornadoes or hurricanes, not purposefully blotting out the sun for a time to reveal God's power and glory. Rather, God is seeking to find a place in our hearts so that the rule of love may be operative in one more precinct.

* * *


I mentioned here this week the recent tensions and turmoil having to do with the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. I thought you might fight this Religion News Service piece helpful. It explains why the mount is so central to the three Abrahamic faiths, but particularly to Islam and Judaism.

When religious rules limit freedom: 7-25-17

Today is an odd anniversary in the history of religion.

Humanae-vitaeOn this date in 1968 Pope Paul VI published an encyclical called Humanae Vitae (On Human Life) that condemned artificial methods of birth control. Against the wishes of even a pontifical commission appointed in 1963 to study this matter, it sought control in all circumstances over how Catholics went about preventing unwanted births.

It's hard to imagine a religious document with less chance of receiving a warm welcome and with less chance of being followed by adherents.

But it was, from the papal perspective, a determined stand on principle.

Because I am not Catholic, this encyclical has had no effect on how my own family got planned (I was married the year it was published). And, in turn, my inclination to think of the document as misguided means nothing to the Catholic Church, nor should it.

Nonetheless, there are lessons here for religious leaders about human freedom and about efforts to limit that freedom for doctrinal purposes.

In his 1995 book, Sexuality and Catholicism, my friend Tom Fox of The National Catholic Reporter wrote that Humanae Vitae was "a sensitively written expression about the sanctity of marital love and the need to nurture life in marriage. Some said the encyclical was almost poetic and came as a much-needed statement concerning human dignity. Maybe so, but whatever else it stated, it has been remembered for only one thing: upholding of the Catholic Church's ban on artificial birth control."

Fox also notes that "many in the church were deeply disappointed by the encyclical. Among them were Catholic theologians whose only consolation was the fact that the pope, in promulgating the encyclical, had not designated it to be an infallible teaching."

At its core, religion should be about liberating people to live into the freedom (I would call it, paradoxically, "obedient freedom") that God wills for everyone. Yes, people often reject that very freedom because they find it frightening and unpredictable. They find it asks too much of them, gives them too much responsibility. So they opt for rules devised by others. And, yes, religions of all stripe have essential tenets and codes of conduct -- and must.

But when religion seeks to control human behavior primarily as a means of retaining power over people, it has forgotten why it exists. And I think that's part of the reason so few Catholics, especially in the U.S., paid any attention in 1968 or pay any attention now to the ban on artificial birth control promulgated in this encyclical published 49 years ago today.

They saw it as the church seeking to regulate what they did in the bedroom, a very private matter, indeed, even if the church thought it had good doctrinal reasons for doing that.

* * *


What's behind the recent violence and turmoil over the Temple Mount in Jerusalem? This Haaretz analysis suggests that this time it has much more to do with religion than with politics.

'Crazy cults' or 'New Religious Movements'? 7-24-17

The word cult used to mean just about any religious gathering. But eventually it came to refer to small, strange religious groups that held unhealthy sway over followers and that sometimes degenerated into violence -- including the violence of self-annihilation.

NrmsScholars who want to understand why such groups form and who gets attracted to them felt the word cult was unfairly pejorative. So they began to use the term "new religious movement," or NRM.

That's a bit of background to what seems to be happening today, as this lengthy Pacific Standard article describes it. NRMs increasingly have become the focus of well-researched books as well as TV shows and films. Interest in NRMs, in short, is booming.

"Over the past three years," the story reports, "there has been a resurgence in stories about NRMs that empathetically examine why societal outsiders might be motivated to organize alternative societies."

There can be danger in simply labeling NRMs crazy cults. A good example of that: the Branch Davidians, who for decades had lived in the Waco, Texas, area before a disastrous run-in with local and federal agencies led to 51-day standoff that ended with the fiery deaths of nearly 80 people.

I went to Waco a year later and did a series of analytical articles for The Kansas City Star (the series can be found in my book, A Gift of Meaning) in which I concluded that the disaster could have been avoided if law enforcement authorities had bothered to spend as little as half an hour learning about the Davidians from religious studies experts from nearby Baylor University.

Instead, government authorities simply thought of the Davidians as religious nuts, and the result of that misguided, straight-line thinking was catastrophic.

So if, as the Pacific Standard piece reports, there's a broader effort nowadays to understand NRMs and their followers in more nuanced detail, that should be seen as a good improvement over previous approaches. Each NRM is different and each NRM's adherents have different reasons for joining. To lump all NRMs and their followers into a single pile is to court not just misunderstanding but also possible disaster.

* * *


Over this past weekend here on the blog, I reviewed a book that asked whether God was, in the end, incomprehensible and inscrutable. Here is a different question but one that's equally intriguing: Is God finite? That's what this piece asks. I like strange questions like that. It opens up new avenues of thinking, and that's rarely a bad idea.

Is God ultimately incomprehensible? (No): 7-22/23-17

In matters of faith, there is much to be said for being comfortable with mystery, with paradox, with ambiguity. After all, we humans are finite while what religion calls God is infinite. Any god we could comprehend exhaustively would not be god but a projection of ourselves.

God-senseSo maybe we should just stop trying to understand why bad things happen to good people, how God could have allowed the Holocaust to happen, why Jesus felt obliged to surrender meekly to death on a cross, why evil seems to triumph so often.

In God of Sense and Traditions of Non-Sense, one of the best books on theology I've read in years, Sigve K. Tonstad (pictured below) argues that if we read the Bible carefully, thoughtfully and with discernment we will reject the widespread idea that God is utterly inscrutable and that humanity is incapable of grasping any essential truth about the divine.

"The Bible," concludes Tonstad, who teaches biblical interpretation at Loma Linda University, "presents a God of sense, even a God who succeeds in revealing the divine sense persuasively to beings in heaven and on earth."

But, he argues, God's priority of granting almost limitless freedom to humanity is "a hard sell" because of "the prioritizing of conformity over freedom in the history of Christianity and of security over freedom in the modern state. . ." Humans, in other words, seem loathe to accept the freedom God grants them. They'd rather have the security of rules, rules, rules.

In many ways, this is a book about theodicy, that ancient question of why, if God is good and all-powerful, there is suffering and evil in the world. Doesn't God care? As I've said more than once, the question of theodicy is the open wound of religion. There simply is no exhaustive answer that will satisfy everyone, though the guesses -- from human free will to satanic activities to crazy chance -- are numerous.

But before Tonstad would try to answer that question -- and he would always answer in light of the Holocaust -- he would want to challenge at least one of its assumptions. He would ask what you mean by "all-powerful." If you mean power in the sense of coercion, military force, smiting from the heavens, then that's not how God exercises power.

How, in fact, does God show divine power? Surprisingly -- and at times, perhaps, frustratingly -- enough, God's power is displayed in weakness, Christianity says. The Christian idea of incarnation, for instance, proposes that God became flesh as a baby, in weakness. The Christian account of Jesus' death on the cross shows that this weak baby grew to be a man and submitted willingly to death in weakness, despite calls from the crowd at Calvary to come down from the cross and save himself if he really is God's son.

It's a startling -- seemingly preposterous -- idea, this notion of God exercising power through weakness, and it makes Christianity different from other faith traditions merely by proposing a perhaps self-handicapped God whose cosmic power is revealed in that very weakness.

TonstadAnd yet Tonstad asserts this: "Seeing Jesus on the cross is not to see a loser or a victim. . .The dying Jesus is a winner in the war against 'the ruler of this world,' (which is what the Bible often calls Satan) and his cry at the very end is the cry of a winner, 'It is finished.'"

One of the things that makes this book so engaging and useful for people who want to have a better understanding of the foundations of Christianity is that Tonstad digs right into the most difficult stories in the Bible, often with the reality of the Holocaust in the background. One reason for this is that many of Tonstad's students are on their way to being physicians, and, as he told me in an e-mail exchange, "It is part of their professional ethos to relieve suffering." But to alleviate suffering and to understand both it and evil in a world that God created and called good can be two different things.

Right from the start of the book, Tonstad seeks to unpack the profound mysteries of the biblical stories of Adam and Eve and their encounter with the demonic serpent who tempted them. Then it's on to the sometimes-baffling story of how one of their sons, Cain, murdered his brother, Abel. On nearly every page I found ah-ha moments -- and these stories are far from new to me or to most Christians and Jews.

Before long readers are confronted with the shattering story of God asking Abraham to offer his son Isaac (or, as the Qur'an tells the story, Ishmael) as a sacrifice. In the traditional (shallow) telling of the story, Tonstad notes, "Divine inscrutability has. . .found a perfect match in human incomprehension." Even in this shocking story, however, there is sense to find, and Tonstad shows us the way, eventually concluding this: "Instead of conceding that the notion of understanding has been abandoned, we are nudged toward the opposite conclusion: God's revealing purpose is brought to completion in the story of the binding of Isaac." Really. And Tonstad is persuasive on this point, too.

Not to be missed is Tonstad's treatment of the famous story of Job, who suffered mightily and yet maintained even before God that there was no good reason for it. (Job's patience? A myth.)

Well, there is much more packed into these 404 pages, but this is not sixth-grade Sunday school material, though neither is it couched in impenetrable academic language. In fact, the deeper you've already delved into scripture the more you will get out of what's here.

The thing that raised questions for me as I read this, however -- and the reason I contacted Tonstad before writing this -- is that he comes out of the Adventist tradition. I'm only somewhat familiar with this branch of Christianity, not deeply so. Thus, as I was reading, I found I could not discern much that somehow looked obviously Adventist. I wondered what I might be missing.

He replied, first, that "my project does not have a denominational agenda." But he added this: "I can think of two things that have motivated me and one thing that may have something to do my faith background. For the first two, I am in earnest about the post-Holocaust perspective. I see the Holocaust (evil on that scale) as a theological obligation. The second item (of the first two) has to do with the setting in which I am teaching. Most of my students are preparing to become physicians. It is part of their professional ethos to relieve suffering. Many, if not all, come from backgrounds that do not promise an end to suffering. This is where the theological tradition comes in -- no end to suffering, and no explanation. But these are hardly exclusive Adventist concerns. For the item that may have something to do with my faith background, the cosmic perspective might be it ('cosmic conflict'). As my book shows, however, this perspective was a key element in the theological narrative of the early Church. . .In that sense, even the 'Adventist' tendency in my project is rooted in the tradition."

When Tonstad speaks of the "cosmic conflict," he references the battle between good and evil in the world, which in the Adventist tradition, as in much of the Bible, is cast as a struggle between Satan and God. For more on that from the Adventist perspective, click here. By contrast, in many Protestant churches today -- especially Mainline churches -- the emphasis is much less on Satan as evil personified and more on the pervasive presence of evil itself, whatever its cause, and of the call to humans to stand against it in various ways.

My point about this Adventist matter is that even if you know little about the Seventh Day Adventist Church or its theology, you need not worry that in this book you will be wandering into a sly effort to convince you of its particular view. This is just excellent biblical examination work, period.

* * *


A new survey shows that lots of people have no idea about many of the helpful programs that churches run. Part of the reason is that churches have been among the poorest communicators. Some are doing better at that these days. In fact, my own congregation added a communications director several years ago, and he does a terrific job. But others are terrible at telling their own story -- not to brag but to let people know of various services they provide.

Connections to connections to nonviolence work: 7-21-17

I am often intrigued by the various connections I find among people I know who, it turns out, know people I know even though I didn't know it. Follow that?

ButtrysAn example that has to do with the subjects I try to write about on this blog:

David Crumm, former religion reporter for the Detroit Free Press, now oversees an excellent site called, which also covers religious news and trends. David's company also publishes faith-related books. He and I have known each other for several years. As I was reading his site the other day I came across an item on his opening page about Dan and Sharon Buttry (pictured here) and a new partnership with Central Baptist Theological Seminary in the Kansas City area. The Buttrys and Crumm have been partners in various projects over several years.

I knew Dan's late brother Steve years ago when Steve, like me, was on the staff of The Kansas City Star and Times. Steve died earlier this year at age 62 of pancreatic cancer, a subject he spent the last part of his life writing about.

At Central, an American Baptist seminary where I once audited a two-semester Christian history class, the energetic president Molly T. Marshall is someone I've known since she arrived at the seminary 20 years ago. 

So this Crumm-Buttry-Buttry-Marshall path leads me today to point you to the early information about the Central-Buttry partnership related to the Buttrys' work in the area of peace and non-violence. As Central's note about this reports, "The details and exact scope of this new phase of the Buttrys’ work have not been finalized. Central intends to announce the full plans for this collaboration in Spring 2018. Dan launched a website ( focused on peace and non-violence in the fall of 2016. This website was created to expand the reach of the resources he and Sharon have been developing."

Lots of details have yet to be worked out, but given the global need for fresh avenues to pursue peace in the midst of violence, I'm glad some of that thinking and action will have a Kansas City connection. If that work interests you, have a look at the Central information about it to which I've linked you above on the words "a new partnership."

(Today's photo of the Buttrys is borrowed from

* * *


The world of theological seminaries is in transition in many ways these days, and one sign of that is Fuller Seminary's decision to close some of its regional campus sites. As the religious landscape shifts in the U.S., it inevitably affects those institutions that train clergy and other leaders.

Searching for the last Nazis: 7-20-17

More than 72 years have passed since the end of World War II and the Holocaust.

Birkenau-16Can't we finally just quit thinking about any old Nazis who might still be alive?

No. We can't. We shouldn't. We have a profound moral obligation to the six million Jewish victims and millions of other victims to continue to pursue justice.

Which is why I'm glad 88-year-old Holocaust survivor Judith Meisel of suburban Minneapolis hasn't forgotten the face of a guard at a Polish concentration camp at which she once was a prisoner. Her story is told in this Minneapolis Star-Tribune piece.

This quote is included in the story: "'I think it's important to send the message that no matter how long ago these crimes were committed that humanity will seek justice until it can no longer do so,' said Gregory Gordon, a former federal prosecutor who worked on cases involving Nazi war criminals."

The passage of time does nothing to mitigate the evil committed in the name of Germany's National Socialist German Workers' Party and its leader, Adolf Hitler. But the danger of the passage of time is that we may forget the lessons of that malevolent era and somehow acquiesce in new horrors unplugged from redemptive memory.

Judith Meisel's story is heartbreaking, like almost all stories of Holocaust survivors. It is redeemed only by the knowledge that she didn't become one of the six million and that she retains her memory.

That's the way I felt about the survivors whom Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and I wrote about in our book They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust. That they survived at all often seemed like a miracle, but being in awe of that miracle did nothing to remove any of the guilt from the Germans trying to kill them.

So may we not lose focus until the very last Nazi -- and the last vestiges of Nazism -- are gone. (The latter will, of course, outlast the former.)

(The photo here today is one I took in 2007 at Auschwitz-Birkenau of the tracks that brought Jews into that double death camp that the Germans used in Poland.)

* * *


The issue of intermarriage -- Jews marrying non-Jews -- is deeply dividing American Jewry, this Atlantic piece notes. ". . .the chasm between liberal American Judaism and Orthodox Judaism in the U.S. and Israel is growing; wider affirmation of intermarriage would expand that chasm even further." Judaism usually has found a way to bridge its internal differences, and I suspect that will happen in this matter, though not without some pain and disruption.