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How the world changed 500 years ago today: 10-31-17

On this date 500 years ago, the regrettable, not inevitable, Protestant Reformation began. Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk in the backwater German town of Wittenberg, nailed to the cathedral door there 95 issues he thought should be debated in the Catholic Church.

Luther-timeI call the Reformation regrettable, not inevitable. Those two descriptions are tied together. It was regrettable because the Catholic Church should have recognized its internal problems at the time and made its own reforms. It wasn't inevitable because had the church made those reforms, Martin Luther and other reformers at the time would have been defanged.

Once Rome decided that Luther not only didn't have a point but was a heretic, the Reformation blasted across Germany and quickly into Switzerland and elsewhere as word spread that the church not only could be challenged but was being challenged successfully.

I've been writing off and on about this 500th anniversary for quite some time, and I don't want to spend time rehashing all that or giving you a lengthy history of the way the Reformation sprang from Europe. You can Google all that or you can simply read this pretty good summary from a German publication. The summary is even better now than when I first read it a few days ago. I noticed it said then that Luther died in 1946. I suggested to editors they might want to rethink that one. It's now correct at 1546.

If you Google what I've written about the Reformation in various venues in recent years, you'll find this.

But what I want to say about the Reformation today is that not only is it continuing but that it must. In the Reformed Tradition of Protestantism (think Presbyterians), our motto says the church is reformed but always reforming. If it gets stuck in one place without an ability to adapt, it dies. That's part of the reason Mainline Protestant churches have experienced such decline in the last 50 years. They've too often been focused internally and have ignored the needs of the people outside their walls -- and those needs are a large reason the church exists at all.

Catholic-Protestant relations today are much better than they were at the break 500 years ago and even better than they were 50 or 60 years ago when, for instance, the Presbyterian pastor of the church in which I grew up felt free to say from the pulpit that if Americans elected John F. Kennedy president, the pope would rule our nation. It was Catholic bigotry of a terrible kind, and it hasn't completely died today, though in many places it's on life support.

What Luther loosed upon the world was the idea that each of us could read and understand the Bible on our own, without help from an authoritative church. What that meant, in the end, is that in some ways each of us has become our own denomination. In politics that's called damn-near-anarchy. We haven't quite degenerated into that in Protestantism, but the seeds are there.

Luther gave the world many gifts. He also burdened the world with some terrible thinking, especially his profound and influential anti-Judaism, which the Nazis used to help justify their deadly version of modern antisemitism.

So although in many ways the Christian world today is a reflection of Luther, it still needs a spirit of reformation combined with a spirit of cooperation and humility.

Ask me if and how that worked out. In another 500 years.

(For an illustration today, I've used the cover of Time from 1967 and the photo of Luther that a Time photographer convinced him to sit for. Or however Time got the picture. I did a little campus correspondence for Time that year, so I can testify that if the photo was shot on the University of Missouri campus, I wasn't informed about it.)

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It turns out that Ethiopian Christianity probably was formative in shaping Martin Luther's theological thinking that resulted in the Protestant Reformation, this RNS article reports. So much for the idea that the Reformation was simply a product of Western Europe.

What's stirred up hatred against Pope Francis? 10-30-17

One of the reasons my pastor, Paul Rock, and I wrote our 2015 book about Pope Francis was that much of the world, including those of us who are Protestants, seemed to have fallen in love with him. We wondered how that happened and why. And we wondered what we non-Catholics might learn from him.

Pope-FrancisThe result was Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church.

Even by the time of its publication, however, it was becoming clear that this pontiff also was attracting people who didn't like his approach. Some of those people have become increasingly strident about their opposition to Francis. Indeed, some of them think he is a heretic.

The British newspaper, The Guardian, which has done some phenomenal reporting on various subjects recently, has just published this assessment by Andrew Brown of how the opposition to Pope Francis is stacking up these days.

If, like me, you think this pope has been a refreshing change for the church after John Paul II and Benedict XVI, you will find this article at least somewhat disheartening.

"Francis," Brown writes, "has provoked a ferocious backlash from conservatives who fear that this spirit will divide the church, and could even shatter it. This summer, one prominent English priest said to me: 'We can’t wait for him to die. It’s unprintable what we say in private. Whenever two priests meet, they talk about how awful Bergoglio is … he’s like Caligula: if he had a horse, he’d make him cardinal.' Of course, after 10 minutes of fluent complaint, he added: 'You mustn’t print any of this, or I’ll be sacked.'”

Pope-coverMuch of the opposition to Francis centers on his willingness to consider a more pastoral approach to divorced Catholics and whether they should be allowed to receive Holy Communion, or the Eucharist.

"In practice," Brown writes, "in most of the world, divorced and remarried couples are routinely offered communion. Pope Francis is not proposing a revolution, but the bureaucratic recognition of a system that already exists, and might even be essential to the survival of the church. If the rules were literally applied, no one whose marriage had failed could ever have sex again. This is not a practical way to ensure there are future generations of Catholics."

Well, there is much more in The Guardian's analysis, and it's far from clear how long this 80-year-old pope is going to last or whether, once he's gone, his reforms and pastoral approach will survive.

But what is clear is that the divisions in the Catholic Church (sometimes unhelpfully labeled liberal-vs-conservative) reflect similar divisions in the rest of Christianity -- and, for that matter, within other faith traditions as well. There is much worth conserving in each tradition, but the danger is that the people who want to do the conserving will make an idol out of what they insist on keeping. (Progressives can make an idol of progress, too, of course.)

Perhaps they all need a reminder that idolatry is a sin. In fact, I sometimes argue that all sin comes down to idolatry, which is why the First Commandment -- no other gods before God -- is first.

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Speaking of the Catholic Church, the astute religion scholar and observer Mark Silk writes here that the church in the U.S. seems to be in the midst of an ecclesial civil war. This, too, is largely because of the positions and actions that Pope Francis has taken and the responses to them. The anti-Francis forces, he writes, have been trying "to turn the Church into a spiritual doppelgänger of the Republican Party. And it was well on its way to succeeding."

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about Turkish citizens here in KC whose lives have been in turmoil because of the political purge back home -- now is online here.

A conservative effort to abolish capital punishment: 10-28/29-17

A few days ago in Washington, D.C., some folks gathered for a press conference. Nothing unusual about that. But the subject was unusual for the people who were promoting it.

CCADP-logoThe press conference was called by Republicans who are part of a group called "Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty" to describe how growing numbers of state GOP lawmakers are sponsoring bills to abolish the death penalty.

You can read the report the group released that day here.

As a longtime opponent of capital punishment, I'm delighted that more of these GOP officials are coming to the conclusion that the death penalty is morally abhorrent and in conflict with their core beliefs about the value of life, about a fair justice system and about economic sense.

The new report puts it this way: "Plagued by wrongful convictions, high costs, and delays, the death penalty has proven to be ineffective and incompatible with a number of core conservative principles. It runs afoul of conservative commitments to limited government, fiscal responsibility, and a culture of life. Such concerns are increasingly impacting policy debates in state legislatures, among grassroots conservatives, and between conservative faith and party leaders. For many of us, our conservative principles inevitably lead to the conclusion that the death penalty is a failed government program that must end."

Some highlights from the report:

  • The number of Republican state lawmakers to sponsor death penalty repeal bills increased sharply since 2012.
  • From 2000 to 2012, it was rare for Republican state lawmakers to sponsor death penalty repeal bills. In 2013, the annual number of Republican sponsors more than doubled.
  • By 2016 ten times as many Republicans sponsored repeal bills than in 2000.
  • More than 67 percent of the Republicans sponsoring death penalty repeal bills did so in red states.

Now, it's true that more Democratic officials than Republicans historically have opposed capital punishment. And Democrats still sponsor more abolition legislation. But it's heartening to see increased GOP interest in this subject, especially because the Republican Party now holds the U.S. House, the U.S. Senate and the White House (well, OK, sort of holds all three, if you ignore all the GOP infighting, which is hard to do).

If you want a good up-to-date status of which states still have the death penalty (31) and which don't, click here.

Capital punishment should be abolished in every state as well as at the federal level. It lowers the state to the level of the criminal by using fatal force to punish someone for using fatal force.

So good for these Republicans. May they (and Democratic sponsors of abolition laws) succeed.

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As we prepare to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation on Tuesday, here's an intriguing column by a Jewish blogger, Jeffrey Salkin. He says that without the Reformation there would be no Reform Judaism today. And yet he's properly still angry at Martin Luther for Luther's vicious anti-Jewish views. The one thing I'd challenge Salkin on is his description of Luther's views as antisemitism. I'd, instead, call them anti-Judaism. Anti-Judaism is a theological category, which was the point Luther sought to make. By contrast, modern antisemitism, which grew out of anti-Judaism, is a racial and ethnic category, largely divorced from religious beliefs. In either case, Luther was horribly wrong about this, and we know that the Nazis later relied on Luther's thinking to justify their deadly plan to murder all the Jews of Europe.

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about Turkish citizens here in KC whose lives have been in turmoil because of the political purge back home -- now is online here.

Shedding new light on an old dispute: 10-27-17

I am often intrigued when researchers at universities in my area produce newsworthy findings. I'll be writing about one piece of that research today, but I note that it was produced by Michael W. Bruening, an associate professor of history at Missouri University of Science and Technology.

ReformationYes, even people planning to spend their lives as scientists and tech folks should know some history.

A news release from the school says that Bruening, doing research related to Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation (which began 500 years ago this month), "discovered what he believes to be early versions of another set of theological theses written some three decades after Luther’s famous pronouncement but presumed lost forever."

(What the release calls "Luther's famous pronouncement" is a reference to his so-called "95 theses," or list of issues he wanted church leaders to discuss and debate. Luther is said to have nailed his theses to the door of the cathedral in Wittenberg, Germany on Oct. 31, 1517.)

Bruening's discoveries have to do with the Lausanne Theses. Back in the era of the Reformation, when theologians wanted to stir up a debate about church matters, they would write out a list of topics to be discussed, a list of "theses." Which, as I've said, is what Luther did.

The Missouri S&T news release reports that "The Lausanne Theses are named after the city located in the French-speaking region of Switzerland. Bruening discovered early drafts of the text while conducting research for his forthcoming book about the opponents of Reformation leader John Calvin."

The theses have to do with "debates among Reformation ministers over the interpretation of the Eucharist – also known as Holy Communion."

And therein lies a great story: In 1529, as the early reformers were having some success, they also realized that they were not speaking with one voice. So more than a dozen Reformation leaders gathered in Marburg for a colloquy.

There are differences in details when the history of that gathering is described, but here's the way I like to tell it in brief:

Luther and another reformer, Ulrich Zwingli, disagreed about what happens in the Eucharist. Luther insisted that participants were receiving the true body and blood of Christ in some mysterious way. Zwingli said the ritual was merely a memorial, to remember Jesus and what he said at the Last Supper, meaning participants were eating mere bread and drinking mere wine.

Luther, frustrated by Zwingli's inability to agree with him, took a piece of chalk and wrote the words "Hoc Est Corpus Meum" (This Is My Body) on the table to emphasize what Jesus said. Zwingli dismissed Luther by noting that in the original language of Jesus, Aramaic, there was no verb used in that phrase. It would simply have been "This, My Body." And thus it would have meant that the bread represented his body, not that it actually was his body.

Luther announced that Zwingli was wrong and declared that he'd rather drink "blood with the papists than mere wine with the Zwinglians."

And, thus, the atomization of Protestantism began, and continues to this day with split after split after split.

It will be interesting to see what light now might be shed on all this by Bruening's discovery of early drafts that led to the Lausanne Theses. Stay tuned.

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It's the Halloween season of ghosts and goblins, but this article says that our religious background can play a role in whether we believe in ghosts and in what kind of ghosts we might see. Does that mean Booptists see the same sort of ghosts as Boodhists?

Church leaders and their sexual sins: 10-26-17

In this time of #MeToo hashtags -- those wounded, indignant and understandable cries of countless women who have been sexually assaulted in some way by piggish men -- you might think that the field of religion would provide a place of safety and respite.

Yoder BarthNot so much. A prime example that turned up a few years ago was the important Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder (pictured at left) and his appalling sexual abuse of women. You can read about that here. Prepare to be disgusted, however.

And now we learn details of the reality that one of the greatest Christian theologians of the 20th Century, Karl Barth (pictured at right), was in a long-term adulterous relationship and even found theological ways to justify his betrayal of marital vows. Details are in this Christianity Today story.

The quarterly Theology Today has just published “Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum,” by Christiane Tietz. The author of the Christianity Today piece describes her reaction to reading the Theology Today piece: "I was stunned. It wasn’t merely that Barth had committed adultery or that a great theologian was shown to be not so great in his personal life. As church history shows time and again, sin is no respecter of persons, no matter how great. No, it was the details."

Yoder and Barth contributed a lot to modern theology, as the biographies to which I've linked you on their names report. The question is whether we now should discard or ignore their work because they lived lives that were the very model of hypocrisy. They spoke for a religion that taught the sacred nature of marriage and of sex within marriage. But they clearly either didn't believe what the church said about that or they simply ignored it.

It's a hard question. Such Yoder followers as Stanley Hauerwas of Duke Divinity School have decried his actions but maintained that Yoder still has much to teach us about pacifism. And Mark Galli, author of the Christianity Today piece to which I've linked you above finally concludes that "I still recommend Barth’s theology."

But Galli adds this: "Barth is probably most helpful not because of the answers he gives, but because he — more than most theologians — prods one to think theologically and, especially, biblically. He never sought to raise up a school of Barthians but instead a school of thoughtful Christians grounded in the Word of God.

"That being said, I admit to remaining saddened to hear the details of Barth’s affair. One may forgive, but one never forgets the occasion of being let down by someone you admire. Like many, I’ve long hoped to find a heroic human figure whom I can admire unflinchingly. But time and again, I’ve had to discover there is no such person.

"Well, except the one known as the True Man, who dialectically enough has been known to use ignoble things to shine forth his glory."

The New Testament says all people -- all -- sin and fall short of the glory of God. So we should not be surprised that religious leaders sometimes fall into the damaging sin of sexual abuse and/or marital infidelity. Heck, it even happened in my family when my first wife had an affair with our pastor, ending our marriage. But even if such religious leaders retain some measure of honor and acceptance within their co-religionists, their sins should not be forgotten. Rather, their failures should serve as a cautionary tale to all of us.

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Here's a good exercise to listen in to today (well, listen in to in print, anyway): This debate between a Catholic and a Protestant theologian over whether the Protestant Reformation, kicked off in October 1517, was a mistake. It is what so much we find on the internet today is not: Civil, respectful, thoughtful and well researched.

A chance to fathom lynching's history: 10-25-17


When you think of Montgomery, Ala., what comes to mind?

Maybe the bus boycott in the 1950s that, in many ways, kick-started the Civil Rights Movement. Or maybe the fact that, for a time, Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America, had his headquarters there. Or that it was the destination of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights protest marches.

Or maybe you just think of it as the capitol of Alabama.

One thing that probably doesn't come to mind is the possibility that Montgomery is soon to be the site of a national monument to the victims of lynchings. But it's true, and it's hard to imagine a better place in which to tell the brutal story of the more than 4,000 lynchings that happened in the U.S. between 1877 and 1950.

As the Atlantic story to which I've linked you notes, these were "black Americans hanged, burned alive, shot, drowned, beaten, or otherwise murdered by white mobs."

Often with no legal ramifications.

The story notes that the new memorial's design comprises 816 suspended columns, each representing one of the counties in the U.S. where at least one documented lynching took place.

If you're a regular reader of my blog, you may recall that this is not the first time I've dealt with the subject of lynching. In this 2011 post, for instance, I wrote about the work on lynching being done by Angela D. Sims, a St. Paul School of Theology teacher.

That work has turned into a book called Lynched: The Power of Memory in a Culture of Terror. It's well worth your time to get a copy and read it.

In the midst of fights over whether to remove or destroy monuments honoring the Confederacy and its soldiers, I'm really glad that lynching, a disastrous aftermath of the Civil War, finally is getting the historical attention necessary to understand how people of faith could countenance and even commit such murderous revenge.

If we are to understand ourselves as fully as possible, we must understand what leads us to the kind of white supremacist thinking that fueled America's sorrowful history of lynching.

(The artist's illustration above of the new memorial is from here on the website of the sponsor, the Equal Justice Institute.)

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What can be done to undo the bigotry at the heart of President Trump's several attempts to institute a ban on Muslims entering the U.S.? The author of this piece suggests religious literacy is one answer. And she's right. When we don't operate from a position of ignorance and fear we let truth speak for itself.

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P.S.: I rarely get a chance to write much about the Baha'i faith, but this week adherents have been celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Baha'is founder, Bahá’u’lláh, born in Tehran in 1817. You can read about some of that here. Just FYI, one of the more beautiful Baha'i temples is just outside Chicago in Wilmette, Ill. See a photo of it and read about it here.

The world's most deadly killer? Pollution: 10-24-17

Pollution kills more people each year than war, murder, AIDS or malaria -- about 9 million in 2015 alone, a new and disturbing report says.

PollutionThe Guardian report to which I've just linked you puts it this way: "Toxic air, water, soils and workplaces are responsible for the diseases that kill one in every six people around the world, the landmark report found, and the true total could be millions higher because the impact of many pollutants are poorly understood."

That report, called "the most comprehensive global analysis to date," came from the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health and was published by The Lancet medical journal.

It should come as no surprise that residents of poor nations are suffering from pollution to a far greater extent than citizens in more developed nations. As The Guardian piece notes, in such countries as India, Chad and Madagascar, "pollution causes a quarter of all deaths."

Some pollution is simply an inevitable result of the fact that humans live on Earth. And we can live healthy lives with some pollution.

But as the environmental movement has taught us over the past 50 years or so, our economic rapaciousness coupled with a carelessness that often is criminal is resulting in an increasingly dangerous planet on which to live. The report said that outdoor air pollution, mostly from vehicles and industry, caused about half of the 9 million deaths a year.

This is an issue that should be -- and sometimes is -- close to the heart of people of faith. The world's great religions teach people to be good stewards of the gift of the Earth and its atmosphere. They teach that all life is sacred, that every individual is of inestimable value.

But if those lessons really resulted in action that honored them, we wouldn't have the problems that this new report details.

The scale of pollution described in the report shows that although even small efforts by individuals help, this is really a broad, systemic problem that requires systemic answers. Turning out electric lights in empty rooms simply won't be enough.

Even so, one question it's important to ask is what your faith community, if you're part of one, is doing to address this problem that is, quite literally, killing us. I hope you'll ask that question this week if you haven't already. And don't take "nothing" for an answer.

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A new issue before us is whether a publicly traded corporation can engage in religion. This Christian Century piece explains the matter and how it came about. Thinking of corporations as persons has led to several unwise court decisions, including the Citizens United case. Maybe it's time to quit using that legal corporations-as-persons construct.

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P.S.: The evening of Saturday, Nov. 4, you have a chance to attend a free Bach Aria Soloists concert in Kansas City and, from a guest speaker, hear about J.S. Bach's ideas of theological (and other kinds of) love. All the details you need to know are here. If you go, take good notes. I have a family celebration event to attend that evening. 

Religious extremism comes in many forms: 10-23-17

Over the weekend here on the blog, I wrote about a trip I took last week to New York to visit the 9/11 memorial sites. And I spoke about the darkness of misguided religion that led to the terrorist attacks on that day in 2001.

ExtremismBut Islam is not the only faith that people can twist -- and have twisted -- into something ugly and dark. It's what the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., has done to Christianity, too.

One reason I know about this personally is that before Fred Phelps, the church's leader, died a few years ago, he arranged for his church to pick me personally five different times. One almost-picket situation was actually related to 9/11 when he blamed me for my nephew's death that day (he said it was because I favor equal rights for LGBTQ people) and threatened to picket his funeral, though he never showed up.

At any rate, just as now and then a former follower of al-Qaida or ISIS or Boko Haram or other Islamist terrorist groups breaks away and sees the light, the same thing can happen and has happened for some Westboro Baptist members, including members of Phelps' own family.

The British newspaper, The Mirror, has just published this story about one such person who broke away from the church and found a new life as a nurse and then a fitness coach.

Like any good British tabloid, The Mirror has jazzed up its report with semi-racy photos of Lauren Drain, the woman who, at age 21, got booted out of the church before she could leave it on her own, which she says she would have done.

Before Lauren, her parents and siblings joined Westboro Baptist, "We were taught that the only thing waiting for us was hell, death, disease and destruction if we chose not to join the church."

If you have to be frightened into a faith community, run. That's theological manipulation based on the idea that God is deep into retributive justice, not restorative mercy.

Lauren is married now, and says her husband has "been extremely supportive and understanding of my past, and has helped me through all the tough moments in my life."

That's exactly the kind of understanding and love you won't get from an Islamist terrorist group or from the Westboro Baptist Church or any other extremist religious group.

Teach that reality to your kids and grandkids.

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Newt Gingrich's wife, Callista Gingrich, has been confirmed as the next U.S. ambassador to the Vatican. One nice thing about the job is that she'll probably never have to help negotiate an agreement that would disarm the Vatican of its nuclear weapons.

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P.S.: In commemoration of the upcoming 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation, a KC area Catholic church and an area Lutheran church are going to hold a joint prayer meeting at 7 p.m. this Sunday. Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Overland Park and Ascension Catholic Church will host the service at Holy Cross. Details are here.

A visit to the 9/11 memorial: 10-21/22-17

9-11 Memorial 1
NEW YORK -- There is something in the American psyche that wants everything to be OK, that seeks to make lemonade when life provides lemons, that wants to move right past Good Friday's disillusion, desolation and loss and on to the joy of Easter, that finds a silver lining in everything even if it's not real sterling but some cheap alloy.

9-11-family-KDBFI understand that approach to life. Often it is my approach. I like happy endings, heroes who win, demons who get incinerated in the purity of goodness and light. But there's something wrong with this way of handling disaster, something dishonest, something choking and fake. 

On the whole, the National September 11 Memorial and Museum here at Ground Zero does an excellent job of honoring the dead, telling the story of that shattering day more than 16 years ago. My wife Marcia and I agreed on that. Despite that, almost everywhere I turn here I find evidence of our preference for getting past disaster without first comprehending and even embracing the scope and meaning of that disaster. Examples:

-- There's all the fast-forward time-lapse footage of the rebuilding of the site after the Twin Towers had collapsed. Zip, zip, all fixed.

-- There's a female voice on one of the films shown to visitors declaring: "If it weren't for the pain, we wouldn't know what joy was." Really? No, really? I've known lots of joy that did not first require pain. Why in the world does she want to move immediately from pain to joy? Why does she want to rocket through the gloom to the light without recognizing that there are important lessons in that darkness? 

-- There's a male voice on one of those films saying: "As the years go by that day becomes less painful, not less important." I know what he's trying to say, and there's even some truth in it, but I wonder how many parents, wives, husbands or children of the dead would say that even today? I know I would not say that about the murder of my nephew on that day. He was a passenger on American Flight No. 11, the first hijacked airliner to smash into the Twin Towers. What I would say, instead, is that as the years go by those of us who loved Karleton become more accommodated to the bitter reality that he is gone. But the large hole his absence has put in our lives is no less painful. 

-- Finally there's a video with the voice of an American astronaut who, on 9/11, was flying high over the East Coast and seeing the smoke rising from New York and Washington and maybe even Pennsylvania. He acknowledged how terrible the day was and how painful. But then he couldn't help but telling New Yorkers that their city still looked beautiful to him from way up there. That's what he said. Your city still is lovely. It was one of those astonishingly awkward moments captured in the punchline, "Well, other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?" But it was said on the day of the catastrophe, not a century later on some late night TV joke show.

9-11-museum-kdbfWhat is it about us Americans that needs the roses without the thorns, the rainbow without the rain, the resurrection without the crucifixion?

At the nearby privately financed 9/11 Tribute Museum, there's a quote on the wall from Michael Arad, architect of the 9/11 memorial, that I think says well what I'm trying to say here. It says, in part: "At the heart of the site, there's always a sense of loss and absence and a void that cannot be filled." Absence itself, you see, often is a real presence that we must face in some way. And absence never goes away.

The last thing I want us to do is to stay stuck in some dark, malodorous grief. To live fully, we must somehow face our catastrophes and get on with life after them. We must have hope. We must aim for the light at the end of each metaphorical tunnel. All of that is true.

But let's not dismiss what the dark can teach us, what pain and grief have to share. And let's not assume that every family smashed by these terrorist attacks or any of the dozens and dozens and dozens of others since 9/11 has found the sweet spot, achieved that most meaningless of all the meaningless words in our therapeutic culture -- closure. 

Closure is a lie, a figment of some pseudo-psychiatrist's one-directional imagination. If I never hear the word closure again either for my family or for any other family, it will be too soon.

When Karleton's plane plowed into the north tower at 8:46 a.m. Eastern time that morning (I watched that moment on video several times here at the museum, watched Karleton perish; same result each time), part of what was left of his 6-foot, 5-inch tall body wound up at the Fresh Kills ("kills" is a Dutch term meaning fresh water) Landfill on Staten Island, where recovery operations sorted through more than 2,300 human remains that eventually were matched to about 700 victims.

9-11-tribute-k-h-jMy sister and her husband, Karleton's parents, received a small thigh bone from that recovery and identification work, a bone they buried near their North Carolina church after a memorial service.

That interment wasn't closure. Nor did it provide the magic answer to finding light in all this darkness. What it did was to tell us to pay attention to the darkness, both that which enveloped us in our grief and that which led religious zealots to imagine that murdering nearly 3,000 people on 9/11 and thousands more later somehow would usher in the reign of God on earth or make the murderers fit for paradise.

That latter darkness still prowls the Earth, seeking converts. We will be ineffective at stopping all those conversions if we fail to recognize how deep that religious darkness is that we call Islamism (because it's an "ism," not the religion Islam itself) and how hard it is to speak a word of hope into that theological and political bleakness.

But it's what we must do. As the poet W. H. Auden wrote in "September 1, 1939," as the world crashed into World War II, we must "show an affirming flame." But we must do it knowing that its chances against the darkness are, at least for now, dishearteningly small, indeed. What gives us hope is just the idea of "at least for now." Given the long history of human violence, may we not be fooling ourselves with that caveat.

(The top photo here shows one of the 9/11 Memorial fountains. There are two. Each one covers the space that was the original footprint of each of the Twin Towers. Names of those who died are on panels around the edge of the water display.

(The photo at top left shows pictures in the family reflection room of some of the 9/11 victims. Karleton's black-and-white photo in the center shows him at college age. He was 31 when he died.

(The photo at the right shows Karleton's name on the memorial where the Twin Towers once stood.

(The photo at bottom left shows several 9/11 victims in a display at the 9/11 Tribute Museum. That's Karleton in the center photo holding his son Jackson and with his wife Haven. Right before 9/11, Karleton e-mailed me a few photos from that time on the beach for the three of them, and in my last e-mail to him I told him my favorite picture was of Jackson sitting with his butt in a bucket. It's the last he heard from me or I from him.

(The photo at the bottom shows a wall in the 9/11 museum on which artists were asked to create a square the color of the New York sky that Tuesday morning in 2001.)


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As the world gets ready to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation on Oct. 31, it should be no surprise to anyone (but often is) to learn that the Nazis drew heavily on Martin Luther's eventually bitter anti-Judaism to justify their deadly antisemitism. But an exhibit in Berlin is helping to educate folks who didn't know this.

Come back to the blog Saturday: 10-20-17

I'm not sure what just happened here, folks, but a post I've had up here all day has disappeared.

It was a note that said I'm in New York and it gave you some alternative sites to get updated religious news. But pffffftt. And I can't find it now.

So come back tomorrow when I'll tell you about my visit to the 9-11 Memorial and Museum and the 9-11 Tribute Museum in New York.

And if you're the one who made today's post disappear, confess. Thanks, Bill.