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18 contemporary photos of alleged Jesuses: 9-30/10-1-17

Ever since I was a child and used to look at a stained glass image of Jesus in the church of my boyhood, I've wondered what Jesus' face really looked like.

Last-TestamentThe options seem endless, as evidenced by the "Faces of Jesus" gallery filling several hallways at the Broadway Church in Midtown Kansas City. I wrote about that several years ago here.

Well, there were no cameras when Jesus of Nazareth walked the Earth, but today we have 18 pictures of seven people from around the world who actually claim to be Jesus. No, really.

Buzzfeed has published photos of these people taken, it reports, by Jonas Bendiksen, "a Norwegian photographer based in Oslo whose work examines the fringes of culture to capture a wider perspective of the world we live in."

"Fringes of the culture" is a pretty good term to describe people who go around claiming today to be Jesus Christ. In fact, it seems like too polite a description.

For the last several years, Bendiksen has been wandering the globe collecting photos of these folks, and he has a new book out about his journey. It's called The Last Testament.

As Bendiksen explains, "when the opportunity appeared to actually go and meet Jesus himself, to be able to ask some questions and get answers, and to feel what it is like to be in the room with something divine — well, that was pretty much irresistible for someone like me."

Well, I haven't read the book, but the photos via Buzzfeed are pretty engaging. My only question about these seven guys is this: Does their mother know what they're doing?

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The Guardian reports that there's now a nonprofit religious organization with this goal: “To develop and promote the realization of a Godhead based on artificial intelligence and through understanding and worship of the Godhead contribute to the betterment of society.” Ah, but can a binary system produce a Holy Trinity?

Does letting Saudi women drive change Islam? 9-29-17

When I was on a reporting trip to Saudi Arabia (and elsewhere) in 2002 with other journalists from the editorial pages of other newspapers, we had a chance to interview Crown Prince Abdullah, who later went on to be king and who now is dead. In the context of a strict monarchy, Abdullah was seen as something of a reformer, meaning at a minimum that he believed in life after birth.

Saudi-woman-drivingSome of the women in our group asked him when, if ever, the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia would end. He did a bit of dancing around the issue in his response but he left us with the impression that it could happen eventually.

And now, more than 15 years later, it has happened, under the direction of King Salman. And Saudi women are rejoicing, having won what they consider a great victory, though as this BBC report notes, there still are things Saudi women can't do.

Letting women drive may well qualify as a victory, though many people hope more substantial victories for gender equality in Muslim countries (and elsewhere) are yet to come.

So I think it's important to put this development in some historical context.

The reality is that Islamic scholars have been arguing about women’s rights based on the Qur’an for centuries. And part of the reason is that when the Prophet Muhammad introduced Islam to the world it was enormously liberating for women. The Qur’an, for instance, is the only sacred text to give women rights to inheritance, to own property, to keep their own wages, to create marriage contracts beneficial to themselves, to receive material and physical support from husbands and so forth. (The book of Numbers -- chapter 27 -- in the Hebrew scriptures, however, does tell the story of the five daughters of Zelophehad, who had died in the desert without sons. The daughters asked Moses to approve their inheriting property from their father's brothers, saying it was wrong that "our father's name be taken away from his clan because he didn't have a son." Moses brought the matter before God, who said that the daughters are right. So they got an inheritance.)

What happened eventually, however, was that as Islam expanded into new territories, the heavily patriarchal systems already in place in those cultures finally crushed the requirements of the Qur'an and won the day. It's been only in recent decades that the liberation of Muslim women has begun to happen in earnest in various ways and in various places. And even that trend has been slowed here and there by the counter-trend of keeping women down. (I'm looking at you, Taliban.)

A particularly troublesome Qur'anic verse that critics (and Islamic patriarchal supporters) point to is 4:34. There are various translations of it, but a traditional one, such as the one by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, starts it out this way: "Husbands should take good care of their wives, with (the bounties) God has given to some more than others and with what they spend out of their own money." Later in the verse, however, husbands are given advice about how to treat wives guilty of "high-handedness." Husbands are to "remind them (of the teachings of God), then ignore them when you go to bed, then hit them."

In other words, that translation of the Qur'an seems to approve of at least some level of domestic violence.

But, as you might imagine, there has been considerable debate about what that verse really means, whether it should be lived out today and whether that's even a good translation. In fact, a female Qur'an translator, Laleh Bakhtiar, in The Sublime Qur'an, insists that a much better translation of the Arabic would yield the offending part of that verse this way: "But those whose resistance you fear, then admonish them and abandon them in their sleeping place then go away from them. . ."

So don't hit them at all, just move away from them. Quite a difference.

I made some of these points in this blog post last year when I reviewed a new book called Women in the Qur'an, which describes many ways in which the Qur'an really can be read as liberating for women.

What many more progressive Muslim scholars now argue is that the oppression of Muslim women, which is widespread and real, is based on culturally laden misinterpretations of the Qur’an.

For Christians, a similar problem has been those New Testament verses that seem to suggest that women always and everywhere are to be living in quiet obedience to their husbands. But that's a blog topic for a different time.

For now, those of us who believe in equal rights for men and women should be glad that Saudi Arabia has taken the step of allowing women to drive. But we also should recognize that it's just one relatively minor development in the story of the worldwide liberation of women. There's so much in that realm left to accomplish, including equal pay for equal work in the U.S.

(I found the photo seen here today at this site.)

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Tell your inner Hindu that the annual festival of lights called Diwali is just around the corner -- and, as this RNS report makes clear, it may be a corner near you. Sharing religious festivals is one way to increase religious literacy in this country, and God knows we need more of that.

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I wrote here this week about the disgusting game of beer pong that some students from St. Teresa's Academy in Kansas City played using cups in the shape of a swastika. I thought you'd be interested in some of what the school leaders are doing to expose STA students to a better way of life than that. You can read about it on STA's Facebook page here. Looks like a good start. Hope offending students pay attention and learn.

A pastoral pope who makes enemies: 9-28-17

As each week passes, it's increasingly clear that Pope Francis is acquiring not just dissenters but possibly actual enemies who oppose his vision of the church, which most careful observers would call more open and flexible than that of either of his two most recent predecessors, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II.

Pope-selfieThese anti-Francis folks mostly would call themselves conservatives or even proudly pre-Vatican II Catholics. Some of them still consider themselves Catholic, though they've been moved outside the bounds of the official church.

If it's true that people are known by the friends they make, it's equally true that they can be known -- perhaps even more deeply -- by the enemies they make.

And that certainly is true in this case. The people complaining most about Francis are the ones who felt most comfortable with B-16 and JP-II, who tended to be much more like doctrinal police than is Francis.

The most recent evidence of the people opposing Francis came when, as the Associated Press reported here, "Several dozen tradition-minded Roman Catholic theologians, priests and academics have formally accused Pope Francis of spreading heresy with his 2016 opening to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics."

That "opening" was contained in a document called "Amoris Laetitia," or "The Joy of Love." I wrote this Flatland column about that in April of last year.

In theological circles, there is a continuum to describe how clergy approach their work. Among traditional pastors, it runs from being "pastoral" to being "doctrinal." Being pastoral does not mean abandoning doctrine. Rather, it means finding ways to minister to the needs of people without using doctrine as unnecessary punishment.

A New Testament example of being "pastoral" and not "doctrinal" is found in the second chapter of Mark, where we find some religious leaders charging Jesus and his disciples with breaking Jewish law by harvesting grain on the Sabbath. But Jesus says that centuries ago King David did much the same thing. And besides, Jesus says, "The Sabbath was made to meet the needs of the people, and not people to meet the requirements of the Sabbath."

This is how I see Francis approaching his work. It's in large part this pastoral approach that led my pastor, Paul Rock, and me to write our book, Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church.

Right now not just the Catholic Church but every religion needs leaders who are much more pastoral than they are doctrinal. But those who fit that bill should know that they will make enemies.

Here is a CNN commentary by a female journalist who makes some of the same points I make in this post, but who does it from a different and more personal perspective.

(The photo here today of the pope and some young admirers who took this selfie is one you'll find in our book and is used there by permission of the photographer.)

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Human sacrifices (often of children) to appease the gods continue to happen in Uganda, it's reported. Sometimes it seems that the distance humans have come from the days when our ancestors lived in caves can be measured in nano-meters. And some days I'm not sure which direction from the start those nano-meters have gone.

How the Vietnam war damaged America's soul: 9-27-16

The current PBS 10-part documentary on the Vietnam War has made me go back to re-read my chapter on that war in my 2014 book, Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans.

The book is rooted in my hometown of Woodstock, Ill., but tries to explain what those of us who followed the so-called Greatest Generation brought to this country and how we both accommodated and instituted change.

Woodstock-book-coverIn the chapter on Vietnam, I tried to give readers a sense of the spiritual damage the war did to the country. I think that chapter holds up pretty well several years later, and I want to share it with you today, though you can find it fully illustrated starting on page 106 of my book. (If you don't own the book and want a copy, e-mail me at [email protected]. I can sell it to you more cheaply than Amazon can. Well, except for the e-version, which Amazon can sell you for darn little.)

I think what I wrote about Vietnam and my connection to the war is in harmony with what Ken Burns and his documentary team are trying to tell us on PBS. See if you agree. Here's the chapter:

No doubt the great American divide that we now find in our pungent politics and in our churlish, fatuous culture wars can trace some of its causes to the Vietnam War, which wounded our nation’s soul, perhaps irreparably.

Some of us Middle Americans fought in that war. Some of us fought against it. Some did both. Like many of my contemporaries, I favored it at first, believing that the Domino Theory held water — the theory that if we let the communists have this or that land eventually they’d take over the world. How foolish of us. The North Vietnamese were not fighting to spread communism around the world. They were fighting a civil war for control of their homeland. Indeed, ultimately communism could not even defend communism, which has fallen moribund because it almost always and almost everywhere betrayed its own best ideals (which were none too good to begin with) — and perhaps had no choice but to do so, given the rapacious greed embedded in the bone and marrow of human nature.

My sophomoric (I was literally a college sophomore then) enthusiasm for the war quickly waned as it became clear that we were killing innocent people in a fight to keep corrupt South Vietnam leaders in power. When I lost my passion for the war, however, I found myself standing against the very war that my contemporaries — some of whom were my friends — were being drafted to fight. Should I have told them not to go? Should I have said they were moral cowards for not resisting? Should I have written to Norma Scott, the head of our Woodstock draft board and a member of the church in which I grew up, to tell her to take me off her mailing list or to drop my draft folder behind a filing cabinet, not to be found until I was way past draft age?


Still in my wallet today you will find my draft card registration and my notice that I have been classified I-Y, meaning a temporary medical deferment.

I had been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis as a senior in college, so I was ruled medically ineligible for the draft. I was classified 1-Y, a temporary ineligibility, not the more permanent 4-F designation — and I carry my draft card with me even to this day because, well, the card says I must have it with me at all times and we Middle Americans are nothing if not law abiding. So after I was graduated from college, when my four-year student deferment expired, I still was in no danger of being sent to fight. Besides, my weak eyesight made me non-combat qualified. So I had precious little moral ground on which to stand and tell my Woodstock classmates and other contemporaries to do whatever they could to avoid fighting in Vietnam.

As a result — and perhaps for the first time — I understood that sometimes we are part of a system that forecloses the possibility of controlling our own life. I felt like a farmer in the Great Depression who discovers that through no fault of his own his markets have dried up and he no longer can forestall a bank foreclosing on his land. I had read about that in books and heard about that from my parents, though the farms on which they grew up were not lost to foreclosure in that dark time.

But Vietnam was personal. I knew guys who had been drafted to fight in this ugly, loathsome war, guys who had been classmates at Woodstock Community High School. In fact, two of those classmates died in the war, Sidney J. Elyea and Donald Eugene (Geno) Dermont Jr. I have touched their names on the memory wall of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. I honor their service, however wrongheaded the leaders were who sent them into death’s hungry maw.

Neither Sid nor Geno was a close friend. Indeed, Geno was nearly a year older than me and wound up in our 1963 graduating class only because earlier he had been held back a year. But both were Middle Americans who became fodder for a war gone bad. Under somewhat different circumstances it could have been me having the candle of my life blown out in some disinterested rice paddy or on some inhospitable hill in Southeast Asia.

48-Don-Dermont 49-Sid-ElyeaI think of Geno Dermont (pictured at right) every April 11, that being the date of his death in 1966. And I think of Sid Elyea (left) every Groundhog Day, for that was the date of his death in that same bloody year — a year in which I was safely deferred as a student in the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Sid was only about three weeks older than me, having been born the day after Christmas 1944. So both Geno and Sid died in their early twenties. And something in me died then, too — a sense of trust in the wisdom of our leaders. In fact, I think something died in the hearts of almost all Middle Americans because of Vietnam, even in the hearts of people who continued to support the war effort until the last helicopter lifted people from the U.S. Embassy roof in Saigon.

At some fundamental level, we all eventually knew that we had been betrayed by the very people to whom we had given power. It was a discovery we shared with many of our parents, whom we began to suspect didn’t know as much as they pretended to. It was a shocking betrayal that we were loathe to admit had skewered us, flayed us open like some lifeless trout ready for the frying pan. We blamed ourselves. How could we have fallen for the rhetoric of patriotism, the high-toned speeches thanking us for standing up for freedom, the false body counts delivered like salvation sermons to sinners convinced of their own guilt? Later, even Defense Secretary Robert McNamara could not believe the lies he told and let stand in the face of countervailing evidence.

What we Middle Americans came away swearing to ourselves was this: You bastards will not fool us like that again. And then we (well, some of us, though not me) elected Richard M. Nixon, whose secret plan for getting us out of Vietnam was, apparently, to desecrate the office of president and let Gerald Ford order the final helicopters to take the final American believers and fighters out of Vietnam. Somebody owes us an apology. Or maybe we voters owe the nation an apology.

As everything was coming untethered in the 1960s, as our friends were dying in a war that was morally unjustifiable, as some among our number were dropping both acid and out, most of us Middle Americans were telling ourselves to hold on, to find our core values, to question authority, yes, but not to assassinate that authority, not to overthrow it violently, not to give into the very kind of mob rule that nearly shook our young nation to its marrow in the 1830s when a young Middle American named Abraham Lincoln was finding his way in Illinois politics and standing against anarchistic gangs who were then threatening the rule of law there and around the country.

And we did hang on. We did search for the values that would sustain us. We did not give into mob psychology, though for sure many of us participated in all kinds of protests against the war.

But if ever we had innocence — a dubious proposition — we lost it in the Vietnam War. We woke up one day aware that our very souls, our very spirits had been raped. Innocence and virginity are fragile conditions, it turns out. We always knew that and mostly we were perfectly willing — despite the preaching we heard against abandoning our virginity — to cave into sexual temptation when the moment was right. But our innocence about governance, about the foundational morality, the intentions of our leaders was something else. Oh, of course we knew that some people in office were venal, autocratic, corrupt. We knew that Will Rogers was, at core, serious about all of that even as he made people laugh about it. What we did not know was that some of those people would jeopardize our very lives for a morally unwarranted cause, for a vision that lacked a foundation built on the inestimable value of human life. That’s what took away our breath. That’s what covered us with dung. That’s what we could not imagine. That’s what Vietnam turned in to.

Earth’s soil today is full of the ashes and bones of Sid Elyeas, Geno Dermonts and you can fill in the blanks with one or more of the nearly 60,000 names on the Vietnam Memorial wall or the more than 300,000 American wounded (to say nothing of all the Vietnamese who died or were wounded) or those of us who simply had our souls, our spirits pounded into squash by this contemptible war. In some odd and embarrassing ways, I’m glad that Sid and Geno aren’t still around to know how despicable was the war that sucked them in, chewed them up and spat out their corpses. And I’m glad we learned a little something from their deaths. We learned that some things are not worth dying for. Some things are stupid and wrong even if a huge majority of our leaders and our citizens — at least at first — think otherwise.

The Vietnam War, in other words, armed Middle Americans with the weapon of discernment and even a little wisdom — painfully gained, to be sure, but gained nonetheless. That, of course, has not prevented our leaders from sending another generation off to die in Afghanistan and Iraq. But it has helped us see that attacking Afghanistan’s Taliban leaders for harboring terrorist training camps was justifiable self-defense in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks that killed, among others, my own nephew, my sister Barbara’s son, while attacking Iraq for having weapons of mass destruction it never had was just ideological excrement. For that discernment, I give thanks to all the Sid Elyeas and Geno Dermonts who perished in Vietnam, graveyard of our national naïveté.

(P.S.: My two recent Flatland columns about Vietnam can be found here and here. The first describes how Kansas City area clergy dealt with the war and the second tells how Vietnamese refugees in KC have fared.)

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One of the things that fearful religious people do is to describe people not part of their tradition in derogatory ways. It's much more a reflection on the name-callers than on the ones being hated on. Something like that continues to happen in Saudi Arabia, where a new Human Rights Watch study says religious leaders appointed by the Saudi government continue to use hate speech to describe people outside the rigid Wahhabi Muslim tradition. This is what insecure people do to defend a religious tradition that may contain indefensible elements. A little religious freedom in the kingdom there would do a lot of good.

What the St. Teresa's swastika story tells us: 9-26-17

Since last week I've been following the appalling story of students from St. Teresa's Academy in Kansas City caught playing beer pong with cups arranged to look like a swastika (though it was backwards).

SwastikaI thought The Kansas City Star's editorial this past Saturday struck the right note in response.

One conclusion to be drawn from this is that lots of school children aren't getting enough history, particularly enough history about religion -- both its highlights and its many dark episodes and eras. St. Teresa's is not alone in this failing. By the time students are in a Catholic high school, as the St. Teresa's students are, they should know at least the basics of the long history of anti-Judaism in Christianity and of Christianity's role in supporting the evils of colonialism. I have an essay about the anti-Judaism subject on my blog here.
In fact, no matter what religion (even if none) students follow, knowledge of the history of religion is essential to be able to begin to understand where we are today and how we got here.
Did these St. Teresa's girls not know that in 1543 Martin Luther published a despicable pamphlet called "On the Jews and Their Lies" and that eventually Adolf Hitler's Nazi regime drew support from Luther's views to justify the goal of the Holocaust, which was to wipe out European Jewry? Did they not know that anti-Judaism has been a baked-in trademark of Christianity until quite recently? It's one of the major shames of the religion, along with such matters as the Crusades and the Doctrine of Discovery.
In fact, the whole St. Teresa's matter raises deeper questions than why there was underage drinking apparently going on and why the school's administration opted for a punishment so light that many alumnae were outraged.
Among those deeper questions: What responsibility do Christian churches and Christian families have to make sure their members understand Christian history, including the many dark eras? (The same question applies to adherents of other religions about their own histories, too.) What responsibility do public or parochial schools have to teach the Holocaust, for example? There are lots of aids available for this task, including from the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education.
In fact, it would be a good idea for every student at St. Teresa's, whether a participant in this disgraceful swastika matter or not, to attend some MCHE programs, including participating in the annual White Rose essay competition.
Religious literacy is severely lacking in America. One result of this willful ignorance is that teen-age girls privileged to be attending a high-quality faith-based school play beer pong with cups shaped like a swastika.

It should make everyone sick, but it should do more than that. It should make all of us aware of how miserably we've failed when it comes to teaching young people what they need to know to be civilized, decent human beings well aware of the history of their own religious tradition.

I was glad yesterday to learn of the letter from the student participants in which they asked for forgiveness. They seemed properly penitent. But all the repentance in the world won't make them less ignorant about religious history. That must be dealt with separately -- and soon.

(When The Kansas City Star published the photo here today it was identified as a "submitted photo.")

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Did you know that people the Catholic Church calls "women religious," meaning sisters and nuns, also sometimes struggle with addiction issues? As this National Catholic Reporter story reports, many of them finally are getting the treatment they need for recovery. About time.

Should we make death optional? 9-25-17

A dozen or more years ago I wrote a longish page 1 piece for The Kansas City Star about the efforts various people and organizations around the country were putting into the idea of living much longer lives, if not forever.

EternityI began the piece by focusing on a healthy 100-year-old woman in Kansas City, Kansas, who was a little surprised still to be alive and living alone in her own house but who was ready to go any time and who didn't covet living on forever. (She didn't.)

Between then and now the efforts to extend life and move toward biological immortality not only have not ceased but seem to have increased in number and intensity, defying all logic, if you ask me. Yes, death is an enemy to be battled but it's also, ironically, at least partly responsible for making life meaningful and worth living.

I was thinking about all this the other day when I ran across this piece, which I didn't remember seeing before, published earlier this year by The Atlantic, called "Should We Die?: Radical longevity may change the way we live — and not necessarily for the better."

It says that "pushing the human lifespan far beyond the record 122 years and possibly into eternity is (a goal) shared by many futurists in Silicon Valley and beyond."

The Atlantic piece asks some good questions and observations, including this: "If we really are on the doorstep of radical longevity, it’s worth considering how it will change human society. With no deadline, will we still be motivated to finish things? (As a writer, I assure you this is difficult.) Or will we while away our endless days, amusing ourselves to — well, the Process Formerly Known as Death — while we overpopulate the planet? Will Earth become a paradise of eternally youthful artists, or a hellish, depleted nursing home? The answers depend on, well, one’s opinion about the meaning of life."

I don't take the Bible literally when Psalm 90 says, "The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away."

But that does seem to point to a life of reasonable length and to acknowledge that despite all the mystery about life, somehow death is a part of life and we'd better get used to the idea that we'll never escape death. That, of course, says nothing about a belief in an afterlife, but it does move us toward using well the time we have here and not wasting it. Well, it should do that, but the evidence isn't especially persuasive that we value our time, given all of it that we devote to mindless entertainment and acquiring material goods that will be useless to us after death, if not long before.

So: Should we die? I say yes, with some reluctance, and I plan not to go gentle into that good night (though I hope I go expressing gratitude for the time I had, which some of you readers already think has been too long).

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Lots of NFL players protested yesterday in defiance of President Trump, including in London, where some Baltimore Ravens kneeled for the national anthem but stood for "God Save the Queen." But does that sung prayer still need to be prayed? Hasn't Queen Elizabeth been on the throne almost as long as God?

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about the next Reformation in Christianity -- now is online here.

The unknowable future of Jerusalem: 9-23/24-17

Friday here on the blog I wrote a bit about chances for peace in the Middle East, especially focusing on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Jerusalem-market-5That issue has been unsettled since Israel declared itself an independent state in 1948 and immediately was attacked (unsuccessfully) by surrounding Arab states.

At the geographical center of all this, in some ways, is Jerusalem, whose very name (at least the second part of it) means peace. It is sacred space for all three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, to list them chronologically. (The book to read, by the way, is Jerusalem: The Biography, by Simon Sebag Montefiori.)

Bernard Avishai, who teaches political economy at Dartmouth and Hebrew University, has just written this piece for The New Yorker about Jerusalem.

It's a sobering look during these Jewish High Holy Days at the various ways the Gordian Knot that is the situation in Jerusalem gets even Gordianer. (Gordianer? Seems like the right made-up word.)

"What no one seems willing to question," he writes, "is whether Jerusalem is 'the holiest place in Judaism,' or, more to the point, whether traditional Judaism entertains the idea of a holy place at all."

Well, you can read Avishai's piece for yourself and argue with it, praise it, dismiss it or share it. One of the problems Jerusalem has is that every idea about its future attracts at least all four of those reactions. Which, I suppose, is another sign of its importance to so many.

(The photo here today is one I took in an old Jerusalem market a few years ago.)

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By now, anyone who follows international news even a little has heard of the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar (formerly Burma). It turns out this is nothing new for this group of people. This history by Religion News Service will give you that history, which, like so much of history since the 1700s is tied up in the sin of colonialism.

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P.S.: An application for the annual Margolis Memorial Scholarship Essay Contest now is available for high school students who will be graduating in the spring of 2018. A $2,000 scholarship will be awarded to the best essay on "The Importance of Interfaith Dialogue Between Christians and Jews." To download a pdf version of the application, click here:  Download Margolis Scholarship

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ANOTHER P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about the next Reformation in Christianity -- now is online here.

Is there a new hope for Middle East peace? 9-22-17

In the midst of hurricanes, nuclear threats from North Korea, terrorist attacks in Europe, chaos in Yemen and Syria and the daily shock and awe of the Trump presidency, it's easy to forget that one of the longest-standing international disputes remains unsettled. That, of course, is the Arab-Israeli conflict, of which the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a subset.

Jerusalem-dome-doveBut developments there are not dead in the water. Things are happening. What nobody knows yet is whether any of the news out of that region will means that some kind of long-term settlement is closer.

The development reported earlier this week has to do with some concessions Hamas has made to the rival Fatah movement and to Fatah's leader, President Mahmoud Abbas.

As the Associated Press reports in the story to which I've just linked you, "Hamas, in financial and political distress after years of an Israeli-Egyptian blockade, this week announced it was disbanding a contentious committee that has governed Gaza in recent months. It also said it was ready to hand over all government functions to Abbas and to hold elections in Gaza and the West Bank. The announcement addressed key demands by Abbas, and the Palestinian president cautiously welcomed Hamas’ gesture."

What we do know is that other parties in the Middle East are paying attention and assessing what any of this might mean.

For instance, at the United Nations the other day, Egypt's leader told Israel's leader that Egypt would like to help broker a peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

As the Jerusalem Post reports in the story to which I've just linked you, "Egypt has become increasingly involved in efforts to stabilize the situation in Gaza and bring about a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation, which would lead to a reassertion of the Palestinian Authority in the Gaza Strip."

What remains true is that representatives of the three Abrahamic religions should be following all of this closely and seeking ways to say a word on behalf of peace. So much about this long-simmering mess seems out of the control of any individual, but it's important to let the subject drop as long as people are suffering because of a state of war or near-war.

(The photo here today is one I took in Jerusalem a few years ago. That's the dove of peace looking for a safe place to land.)

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And speaking of matters related to Jewish people, here is a story that complicated my thinking. On the surface, it seems foolish to keep rebuilding homes in flood zones, which is why buy-out programs make sense to me. But as the story to which I've linked you reports, a Jewish community in Houston worries that a successful buy-out program will destroy it. "About 200 of the 320 families at UOS (United Orthodox Synagogues) live within walking distance of the temple,” UOS member Steven Mitzner told Sen. (Ted) Cruz. “For those of us here, we need to live here.” Hmmmm. Hadn't thought about that possibility.

Why we should monitor artificial intelligence: 9-21-17

A little over a month ago here on the blog, I wrote about where artificial intelligence (A.I.) might lead us and what issues it raises for people of faith.

Artificial-IntelligenceI return to A.I. today to share with you this piece, which urges all of us to understand what is at stake and to prepare for what's almost inevitably coming.

The author of the article writes this: "In this revolution, machines will be able to duplicate the tasks they previously could not: those that require intellectual reasoning and fine grained motor skills. Because of this, it is possible that emotional labor will remain the last bastion of skills that machines cannot replicate at a human level and is one of the reasons I have argued that medical schools should transition to emphasizing and teaching interpersonal and emotional skills instead of Hippocratic reasoning."

Each of us is unique. Religion teaches us that each of us is of inestimable value. Different religions explain why that is so in different ways. Christianity, for instance, says the reason is that we are created by a God who loves us individually and that we have a destiny set by divine purpose.

A.I. may turn out to be useful in all kinds of ways, in effect freeing humans to concentrate more on interpersonal relations and what religion calls pastoral care.

But if A.I. somehow winds up undermining the idea of human uniqueness and human value, we must resist at least that aspect of it. This, of course, will require that A.I. development be closely monitored, especially by people with good moral centers who understand what threatens and what strengthens humanity and the common good.

Is such monitoring being done today on a broad enough scale? If so, I don't know about it. Do you? Let's find out and make sure that five, 10 or 30 years from how we don't wind up with a technology that will dehumanize all of us.

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Speaking of artificial intelligence, if David Meade is right, the world will end Saturday, so if your mortgage is due that day, just keep the money. Of course, every previous date-setter has been wrong, which suggests you might not want to put too much stock in this prediction. But the planet would be a less-interesting place without misguided doomsday predictors -- and the rest of us who get to laugh at them.

The moving wisdom of a funeral director: 9-20-17

Americans, as I've said more than once, live in a death-denying culture, despite all the fake deaths we see on TV and in the movies.

Confessions-funeralWe do whatever we can to stay young, including paying plastic surgeons to make us look younger than we are. We don't talk about death if we don't have to. We have farmed out death to professionals, including funeral directors. Christians, particularly, have moved from real funerals with the body present to disembodied memorial services. (The book to read is Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral, by Thomas G. Long.)

And we tell grieving people that they should get over it.

Yes, I know what I have just written is overgeneralized, but there's a lot of truth in it.

Today I want to introduce you to a funeral director, Caleb Wilde, who thinks we've gotten all this wrong. You may have met him before when I wrote here a few years back about his blog, "Confessions of a Funeral Director." But now he has a book out by that title, and it's well worth your time.

Wilde shares my view of our culture as death-denying: "We fear death," he writes, "because we don't know it, we don't see it, and we don't touch it. And what we don't know we've painted in broad strokes of darkness and negativity."

Wilde is, somewhat reluctantly, a sixth-generation funeral director from a small town in Pennsylvania. In the book he describes not only some interesting and unusual deaths he's handled but he also shares a lot about himself and how he began life fearful of a God of vengeance who is ready to send millions of people to eternal suffering in hell but wound up in love with a God of love and compassion. It's frankly a journey I wish lots of people would take.

To change his view of God, of course, Wilde did what all of us must do at some point: Confront the old theodicy question, which asks why there is suffering and evil in the world if God is good and all-powerful. Wilde confronted that question when he had to work on a dead baby on his embalming table. He came to understand that by creating human beings with free will, God voluntarily "has chosen to limit God's power. . .Evil and misery were never intended. The world isn't the way God intended it to be. . .By this thinking, if God is limited, then it is up to us, God's people to help the world become a better place by helping people embrace life and turn to this loving God."

God's core, Wilde decided, is "vulnerability, an interdependence that allows God to feel our pains, to know our sorrows and our joys."

In a culture in which doctors have authority over dying and funeral directors have authority over what happens when death occurs, society has "created a culture of death virgins, people who have little experience and know-how when it comes to the end stage of life." Wilde tries to change that by encouraging family members of the deceased to grieve openly, to help him as he removes the body from the place of death and transports it to the funeral home, to dress the embalmed person to prepare for the funeral and to be engaged in the process in other ways.

"The more we practice death care," he writes, "the less we fear death itself."

And the less we fear death, the more we can be willing to grieve and let others grieve in whatever way is most healing and for however long it takes: "We want to take all the mystery out of grief, all the messy dirtiness, and all the uncontrolled tears so that it can be neatly wrapped in a hardcover with a beginning and an end. We want to feel like we have power over death. Closure is this perfect sense of how we suppose we should deal with death." But "closure," he says, not only isn't possible, it's the wrong goal. We have to learn how to live with our dead and continue to honor them by how we live.

This is not the most eloquent, well-edited book you will ever read. People, like me, who tend to be sticklers for proper grammar and who love fresh language occasionally will stumble over a few passages.

But much more important than that is this: This is honest, hard-earned wisdom. And it's wisdom from which all of us can benefit.

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As Judaism's High Holy Days begin tonight with Rosh Hashanah, give a read to this lovely piece about the late Elie Wiesel by his son, Elisha Wiesel. Elie Wiesel in many ways became the voice and face of the Holocaust as he took it upon himself to tell not just his own story of survival but the brutal story of this genocide. The world always will need voices like Wiesel's as long as the world continues to hate.