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What we must do after Pittsburgh: 10-31-18


Fifteen or so years ago, I attended a conference in the Washington, D.C., area for the benefit of journalists who cover religion.

One of the speakers was a rabbi who helped to lead a national Jewish group. His opinion was that at the time most American Jews had little personal experience of antisemitism. Things have improved, he contended, and he made a persuasive case for his point of view.

KI-2-2018I am certain he would say no such thing today. And if the U.S. actually had then found a kind of non-antisemitic sweet spot for a time, it didn't last long.

The massacre Saturday at a synagogue in Pittsburgh is just the latest evidence of resurgent antisemitism, both here and around the world. The global picture of this distressing phenomenon was painted in a 2013 book called Resurgent Antisemitism, by Alvin H. Rosenfeld, which I reviewed at the time here for the National Catholic Reporter.

The growth in antisemitic acts that Rosenfeld describes across the globe has found its way back to the U.S. In fact, the Anti-Defamation League reports that in 2017 antisemitic incidents in the U.S. surged nearly 60 percent.

The proper response to this is, of course, WTF. But it cannot be our only response.

Kansas Citians certainly know this violent antisemitic extremism first hand because of a neo-Nazi's attack on two Jewish facilities here in 2014 that resulted in the murder of three persons, though none of them was Jewish. After that, we've seen the terrific response to this hatred led by the Corporon and LaManno families whose loved ones were murdered that day. They've created the annual Give Seven Days events, along with much else.

Modern antisemitism, which first appeared in the 1800s and which can issue in this kind of violence, can trace many of its roots to theological anti-Judaism, which the Christian church preached officially and unofficially for most of its 2,000 years. I describe that long, sad history in this essay found elsewhere here on the blog.

Anti-Judaism is theological in nature. That is, its foundations are built on the idea that Jews killed Jesus Christ and that they rejected the will of God that Christ represented. The result of such thinking is the belief that Judaism today is irrelevant and has been superseded by Christianity.

Modern antisemitism, by contrast, is more racial, economic and political in nature. It views Jews as greedy conspirators who want to control the world, starting with the institutions of finance and communications.

It's not hard to see how gullible people with real or imagined complaints about how the world is working can be easily led into antisemitic thinking and, ultimately, behavior, especially when our national leaders use rhetoric that seems to give people permission to hold extremist views. Antisemitism provides a simplistic answer to terrifically complicated questions.

The reality is that none of this is new. Antisemitism is, perhaps, the world's oldest hatred. David Nirenberg tells that story in his book, Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, which traces anti-Jewish sentiment all the way back to Egypt in pre-Christian days.

What we know today, especially after Pittsburgh, is that antisemitism is a phenomenon of evil. It may affect only a small group of people in ways that cause them to act violently, but its subtler forms are visible in many places and it demeans both Jews and the people who hold antisemitic views.

What can be done to counteract antisemitism and similar hatreds, including racism? Each of us has a responsibility to speak up whenever we see such phenomena. That's a start. But education remains a key, too. Which is why on Sunday evening I was glad to attend the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education, at which actor Henry Winkler spoke. (He is pictured below.)

"Everyone of you," Winkler told the almost 500 people at the event, "is here for a very important reason. Because we cannot forget." And it's a goal of the center to make sure society doesn't forget the Holocaust and, by extension, other examples of anti-Jewish thinking and action.

Indeed, the importance of memory has been a core Jewish value from the beginning. And memory is vital now as we go through this period of renewed antisemitic violence so that we remember that the world has been through this before and that Judaism always survives.

"You will tell the story to one person, just one other person," Winkler said. "And they will tell the story. And we will just continue to remember."

It seems like a small thing, a mild thing. Maybe even an ineffective thing. But it's not.

Further proof that coming together and remembering was found on Monday evening at the Kehilath Israel Synagogue in suburban Overland Park, Kan. For a vigil service to honor the Pittsburgh victims, several thousand people crowded into the sanctuary.

Several speakers sought to offer comfort and a way forward. For instance, the Rev. Adam Hamilton, pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kan., said to the Jewish community, "We love you simple for who you are."

Akhtar (Art) Chaudry of the Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council told the crowd that "tonight, we are all Jews."

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., referencing the book of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew scriptures, said that "there's a time to keep silent, but, my friends, this ain't it. . .Silence right now sounds. . .like complicity." (The photo above shows Cleaver speaking to the crowd at K.I.)

I can't be positive that these kinds of gatherings help, but I do know that doing nothing is not an option in the face of any kind of hatred.

Nor do I know if antisemitism ever can be destroyed for good. But I do know that it will continue to burrow its way into the minds of people if we don't stand against it in public repeatedly. Sometimes bad ideas can perish of their own weight, but not without help from people who recognize the evil in those ideas. So that's our renewed task now as we seek to respond to Pittsburgh and to other examples of people being dehumanized simply because of who they are.

(At the Monday night gathering at Kehilath Israel, various rabbis lit candles in memory of the 11 people murdered in Pittsburgh. You see those candles in the photo above left.)


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This Times of Israel piece describes the many security precautions that synagogues in Europe take and asks whether synagogues in the U.S. are headed in that same direction. And this Kansas City Star article describes how synagogues here already make security part of their routine. In fact, given attacks on houses of worship of various faith traditions, churches, mosques and other worship centers, not just synagogues, are going to have to figure out how much armed security they need. How sad. But worshipers must be protected.

The awful stench of some college athletics: 10-30-18


I admit that I did not follow the recent NCAA payment scandal and subsequent convictions at a trial very closely. It's not that I don't care about whether college athletics is on solid ethical ground. It's just that I had far too many other things on my plate and radar screen.

And some of those things -- a bomber sending explosive devices to prominent Democrats, an antisemitic loose cannon murdering 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue, the needs of my own grandchildren -- were, frankly, more important.

But that doesn't lesson the putrid smell of greed and illegality coming from college athletics.

As Inside Higher Ed reports in the story to which I linked you in the first paragraph, "Federal prosecutors successfully argued that universities, namely the University of Louisville and University of Kansas, were victimized. On the surface, that rationale may strike some observers as odd, given that the institutions' teams (and their finances) clearly benefited from these top players. But these universities gave scholarships to ineligible players and now face possible NCAA sanctions, which was enough to persuade jurors that they had been harmed."

And as that report also notes, "Observers said the proceedings laid bare an open secret: the influence of apparel companies in the high-profile sports of football and men's basketball, and how common these payments have been (at least among elite players)."

Somehow people with the morals of a vacuum cleaner are -- and long have been -- corrupting college sports. And those of us who are fans at almost any level of competition are partly to blame for supporting teams by buying tickets and merchandise when we know that our money bolsters a rigged system.

The world's great religions all teach the necessity of honesty and integrity. Those lessons are being dishonored almost every week in parts of college athletics when it's those very games that should be tools for reinforcing those lessons.

Perhaps when the fan base of major college athletic programs leaves because of the stench, those corrupting the system will discover that there's no market for what they're offering. Are you willing to forego a few slam dunks this upcoming college basketball season if it will help clean up this disgusting mess?

(By the way, I found the image used here today at this site.)

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The murderous attack Saturday on a synagogue in Pittsburgh was part of a terrifying trend of houses of worship becoming targets of violence, this Vox report notes: ". . .the attack on Tree of Life is part of another, wider, and no less worrying trend: the degree to which places of worship have become targets for acts that could be classified as domestic terrorism. In the past decade, houses of worship — from synagogues to Christian churches to Sikh temples — have increasingly become targets for extremist violence. Many of these attacks have been explicitly white supremacist or right-wing in nature, targeting perceived liberals, ethnic minorities, or women." By attacking houses of worship, the perpetrators aren't going after individuals but, rather, the whole community and even the broader social fabric. What each such worship center must answer for itself now is how to respond in ways that keep members safe but don't violate a commitment to being a welcoming community.

The impending failure of Halloween: 10-29-18

Halloween, as you know, shows up later this week. For reasons perhaps only God and Sarah Huckabee Sanders could explain, it is becoming an increasingly popular and increasingly secular holiday.

Cem-1Once upon a time, people of faith, especially Catholics, knew the day as All Hallow's Eve, given that it preceded All Saints Day, which occurs Nov. 1 and has done so since Pope Gregory III moved it to that date back in the 700s. You can read about that and other connections that Halloween has to religion in this ThoughtCo. piece.

I find Halloween intriguing in the U.S. because for most of the year we are reluctant to talk about or think about death and its mysteries. But on Halloween, death, of a sort, is front and center. I say "of a sort" because Halloween doesn't give us a chance to talk about how to prepare for the end of life or about what happens to us after we die. Rather, Halloween garishly dances through our lives in costumes that mock death.

And, trust me, death deserves to be mocked.

But it also deserves to be understood, confronted, woven into our lives. Here on the blog and elsewhere I've said more than once that if we don't understand our own death we'll never understand our own life.

Sad to say, Halloween doesn't really give us a chance to make progress in that quest. Rather, it behaves like a run-amok two-year-old having an emotional meltdown. In a fun way. Halloween, which, as All Hallow's Eve, focused people's minds on the reality and inevitability of death, now is simply an excuse to party and not think about death in any serious way.

Which would be fine if only Americans had other, better opportunities to absorb the realities of death, to ponder eternity in a way that could help us integrate death into a healthy life. In some ways that's what Mexico's "Day of the Dead" provides. So good for Mexico.

As for Halloween in America, well, it at least gives us a chance to introduce our children to one of the most pervasive values found in our politics -- extortion. And when they get to be grownups, the kids are going to need to know how and why that works.

(The photo here today is one I took a few years ago at a cemetery near my home.)

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There once was a time when hate traveled slowly. Person to person. Or through the printed word. Or in speeches given live. Today hate travels with the speed of light via the internet. So we find that the man charged in the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre Saturday had used an alt-right social media platform called "Gab." Free speech concerns may prevent shutting down such sewage-spewing sites, but at least we can and should be aware that they exist and denounce them when they are nothing but tools of hatred.

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Every Step an Arrival: A 90-Day Devotional for Exploring God's Word, by Eugene H. Peterson. I mentioned here the other day that this author, whose paraphrase of the Bible, called The Message, has been so popular, just died. It's a terrible loss. But just before his death, this lovely little devotional book came out. It draws from Peterson's many writings to offer readers daily insight not just into theological questions but, more to the point, into a deeper relationship with God. One of Peterson's insights found in this book is, in some ways, reason enough for the whole book itself: "So many times in the biblical narratives, we learn more of ourselves in reading them than we do of ancient history."

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P.S.: My latest column for Flatland now is online here. It's about an innocent man imprisoned for 24 years and how he's now using his hard-fought freedom.

When it's time to change religious rules: 10-27/28-18

Every religious tradition carries with it various customs, practices and rules. The rules are both written and unwritten.

Star-DavidFor instance, in the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Mainline Protestant denomination to which my congregation belongs, one of the written rules is that if you are elected to be an officer of a local congregation -- either an elder or a deacon -- you must take the vows printed in the denomination's Book of Order. Those vows are taken in a public ceremony.

One of our unwritten rules is that our coffee offered in fellowship halls usually sucks. But I can't attest to that because I don't drink coffee.

Now and then there are challenges to both sets of rules. A really interesting one recently challenged in the Conservative branch of Judaism has to do with whether its rabbis may even attend -- much less officiate at -- an interfaith marriage ceremony.

The Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly, which is the movement’s "central authority on Jewish law, has announced that rabbis can attend weddings between Jews and non-Jews," according to this story in The Forward.

In the report, there's a funny, if sort of painful, quote about all this:

"The decision overturns over four decades of assumptions that the movement’s rabbis could be kicked out simply for being a guest at an interfaith wedding. Over the years, rabbis skipped out on countless weddings of close friends and family members lest they get found out, and end up sacrificing their careers.

“'If it was found out that we even attended an intermarriage, meaning standing in the back of the venue, wearing a Groucho Marx disguise, we would be kicked out of the Rabbinical Assembly,' Rabbi Jason Miller told the Forward."

I suspect any rabbi attending a wedding in a Groucho Marx disguise might be vulnerable to being kicked out of the Rabbinical Assembly for reasons beyond attendance, but that's just a suspicion.

Many of the rules adopted by faith communities are for theological consistency and for emphasizing certain points about how the faith developed over the years. The latter is especially true of things like dietary laws or social customs such as not drinking alcohol or dancing or playing cards or wearing makeup. In the former category are such practices as who, in Christian churches, is eligible to receive the sacrament of Holy Communion or how the Bible can be interpreted.

But from time to time it's useful for faith communities to do an inventory of both written and unwritten rules and customs to see if they are serving any useful purpose. Sometimes those rules and customs turn out to be useless barnacles on the ship of faith.

If it were up to you, what customs or rules in your faith community would you abandon and why? If you haven't had a conversation about that with others in your group, maybe it's past time to do that, as Conservative Judaism just did about letting rabbis attend (not yet officiate at) interfaith marriages.

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Working alone for years, a now-deceased German artist, we now learn, created a picture Bible that, when stretched out from its accordion folds, would be almost a mile in length. It's now on display at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. Wait. Won't this play into the hands of skeptics who think of the stories in the Bible as stretchers?

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P.S.: Application forms for the 2018/2019 Margolis Scholarship offered by Kansas City Lodge 184 of B'nai Brith now are available. It's an essay contest for graduating seniors from high schools in the KC metro area and there's a $2,000 prize for the best essay on "The importance of Interfaith Dialogue Between Christians and Jews." For an application, download this pdf:  Download B-brith-form

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ANOTHER P.S.: Since Saturday's massacre at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, people on social media and in person have asked where this antisemitic trash comes from. One sad answer is from Christian history. My essay describing that stain is here.

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ALSO: My latest column for Flatland now is online here. It's about an innocent man imprisoned for 24 years and how he's now using his hard-fought freedom.

Why are Americans biased against atheists? 10-26-18

Do you know any true atheists? Not agnostics, not religiously unaffiliated people, but true atheists?

No-GodIn the U.S., they're pretty rare, though some among them, often referred to as the New Atheists, have been fairly aggressive in promoting their disbelief.

Despite -- or maybe because of -- their relative rarity, atheists tend to be viewed with considerable skepticism in the U.S., if not downright distaste, as this intriguing New Yorker article reports.

"Americans, in large numbers," the story says, "still do not want atheists teaching their children, or marrying them. They would, according to surveys, prefer a female, gay, Mormon, or Muslim President to having an atheist in the White House, and some of them do not object to attempts to keep nonbelievers from holding other offices, even when the office is that of notary public. Atheists are not welcome in the Masonic Lodge, and while the Boy Scouts of America has opened its organization to gays and to girls, it continues to bar any participant who will not pledge 'to do my duty to God.'”

What do you call such an attitude? Simple prejudice.

In the U.S., citizens are not -- and should never be -- required to hold any particular religious beliefs. The fact that the early founders of this country were mostly Christians or deists and the fact that you can find references to God in some of our founding documents does not change that reality.

But some of our political leaders seem to be at the forefront of promoting prejudice against atheists. As the New Yorker story notes, President Trump at last year’s Values Voter Summit said this: “In America, we don’t worship government — we worship God.” The New Yorker then added: "As that remark suggests, the one wall the current Administration does not want to build is the one between church and state."

The story also notes that Americans' widespread prejudice against atheists "has its roots both in the intellectual history of the country and in a persistent anti-intellectual impulse: the widespread failure to consider what it is that unbelievers actually believe."

If you get to know some atheists in some depth, you often discover they have cherished moral values, many of which match or even exceed in enthusiasm, the moral values of people of faith. My own belief, however, is that these values are rooted in convenience and safety rather than in divinely inspired spiritual truths. That is, their commitments to treating each other kindly, to not committing crimes, to honesty are founded on a practical understanding that for society to function there must be in place certain standards of behavior to prevent chaos and anarchy. By contrast, those same values in people of faith have other sources beyond human thinking.

In any case, there is no cause for Americans to demonstrate prejudice against atheists. They have the same civil rights and duties as the rest of us and are entitled to respect and dignity as fellow human beings.

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Have you, too, noticed that clergy are performing fewer weddings these days because the couple being married ask a friend or family member to do the ceremony? The rabbi who wrote this blog post has noticed and has some interesting thoughts about that trend. I'm not clergy but I have performed several weddings as a deputy civil marriage commissioner. I've also conducted several  funerals. And my record so far is perfect. Everyone I've married is still married and everyone I've buried is still dead.

Voices Methodists need to hear in LGBTQ struggle: 10-25-18

The United Methodist Church -- a 12-million-member denomination that includes about seven million Americans -- is considering three plans for how to answer the questions regarding possible ordination of LGBTQ pastors and of same-sex marriage.

Surrendering-ordAt the moment, the church's rules forbid such ordination and forbid pastors from officiating at such weddings.

I already have weighed in here on the three plans, describing them as inadequate and flawed. And earlier I wrote this column about the efforts of the Rev. Adam Hamilton, founding pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in suburban Leawood, Kan., to prevent a schism in the denomination.

The decision about all of this won't come until next year, but I find it intriguing that the internal Methodist debate is resulting in publication of books that the authors, no doubt, hope influence the outcome. What's also interesting, though I'm not sure what to make of it, is that the two books I have in mind have been published by Westminster John Knox Press, the publishing house of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the denomination to which my congregation belongs.

One is Surrendering My Ordination: Standing Up for Gay and Lesbian Inclusivity in the United Methodist Church, by J. Philip Wogaman.

Wogaman, now a professor emeritus of Christian ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary, had been ordained as a United Methodist pastor for some 60 years. But in May 2017 he gave up his ordination. He didn't leave the church or ask others to give up their ordinations. But he felt it was a personal act he could do to support changes in church rules to allow ordination of otherwise-qualified gays and lesbians.

Wogaman describes a case of a woman in a same-sex marriage whose ordination was being stalled or prevented. He knew the woman and was deeply troubled by the denomination's actions: "How could I remain in the clergy circle when such a fine person was excluded?" he writes. "I had to act."

So he gave up his ordination, but asked others not to: "If you think as I do, let me be your representative, carrying with me your affirmation of those who have been excluded and your resolve to seek healing of church law and practice."

Together-tableWogaman's short book (113 pages) fills in the story. He's not exactly a voice crying in the wilderness, but his is an important voice that the church would do well to hear.

Another book on this subject is Together at the Table: Diversity without Division in the United Methodist Church, by Karen P. Oliveto, described as "the first openly LGBTQ bishop in the United Methodist Church."

Oliveto's election as a bishop in 2016 was then -- and remains now -- controversial, though the denomination has not overturned that election or refused to let her serve.

This book, focused on the sacrament of Holy Communion, or the Eucharist, is a plea for finding what connects people and rejecting what divides them.

"We need to understand and embrace our connectedness now more than ever before," she writes. "We need to restore our relationship with the earth, with all living creatures, with one another. We cannot erect walls to keep us separate."

Her argument is that at the Communion Table, "enemies become friends, strangers become companions and community is established and affirmed. Differences are not diminished but are welcomed."

Whether such thinking can prevent schism in the United Methodist Church is unclear. What is clear is that unless voices like Oliveto's and Wogaman's are listened to carefully, schism may be inevitable. And what a terrible witness to the world that would be.

(To read my own essay on what the Bible really says about homosexuality, click here.)

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It looks as if the question of whether there should be married priests in the Catholic Church is working its way toward some kind of official discussion, this Associated Press story reports. It certainly would help with the growing priest shortage around the world. And the Protestant experience with married clergy has been mostly good, though there can be problems with both models.

What Romero's canonization means for the church: 10-24-18

I was on a road trip to Texas a week and a half ago when the late Archbishop Óscar Romero (pictured here) of El Salvador was canonized, and until now I haven't had a chance to pass along some thoughts about what this means for Pope Francis and for the Catholic Church generally.

Oscar-romeroThis is one of those internal Catholic matters that I am obliged to approach as a Protestant outsider. The whole idea of naming certain people saints is beyond my pay grade. I'm not sure I get it or have ever gotten it in all its technicalities.

But it's clear that Romero represents what Francis wants the church to be -- a movement more than an institution, and one that is by, with and for the poor, needy and oppressed.

I also want to note that along with Romero, Pope Paul VI was canonized at the same time. He's the one who took over after the widely admired Pope John XXIII had started the Second Vatican Council and then, too soon, died. Vatican II wrapped up under Paul VI. Since then what some people call pre-Vatican II Catholics have been doing what they can to kill or reverse the council's many reforms (often Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI are included among the resisters to Vatican II), while Pope Francis seems to have dedicated his papacy to breathing life back into those and other reforms.

I've never thought of Paul VI as much of a reformer, but I may well have underestimated him in that regard, perhaps partly because when he is remembered now it's often just for his 1968 document that reaffirmed Catholic teaching against birth control, which caused many to leave the church and many others simply to ignore the teaching. Paul went against many of his closest advisers in making that choice.

One view on Paul VI and Romero together is found in this National Catholic Reporter editorial, which begins this way:

"The significance of the canonization of Archbishop Óscar Romero cannot be underestimated as the bridge Pope Francis needs to convey a universal church trapped in the past toward a future that will purify it and align it with the global poor. And the joining of Romero and Pope Paul VI is no mistake or public relations ploy to balance a radical with a traditionalist. Remarkably, these two saints shared a martyrdom that built the bridge that supports a single trajectory, inspired by the Holy Spirit, that will renew the church and reveal again the mystery of Jesus as the engine of history. It is a thrilling story, and some key figures helped it happen."

The editorial speaks a bit about Paul's "martyrdom," though that term is not to be taken literally. But the piece doesn't convey enough about his work to educate people who aren't well-informed about Catholic history and, thus, know why we should speak about Paul in the same breath that we speak about the heroic martyr Romero.

So we can turn for help with that to this NCR piece about Paul VI, which begins by calling that pope "wavering, indecisive and ambiguous."

But it also notes that "Paul VI notched up considerable achievements. He built lasting bridges with the other Christian churches and faiths, he traveled widely to promote social justice and highlight the lack of equity that characterized the world. He visited the United Nations in October 1965, passionately calling for peace: 'One cannot love with offensive weapons in his hands.'

"He also abandoned the detritus of papal pomp and circumstance, such as the coronation triple tiara. He expanded and internationalized the College of Cardinals, and stopped cardinals over 80 voting in papal elections."

So Paul VI may have been better than I remember him being. But let's turn again now to Romero.

One of the most helpful pieces on him is this one in the current issue of The Atlantic.

As Paul Elie notes in the piece, "Romero’s path to canonization — at an October ceremony at Saint Peter’s Basilica, in Rome — has been tortuous. More than 100,000 people thronged the cathedral plaza in San Salvador for Romero’s funeral, and yet the papal representative to El Salvador and all but one of the country’s remaining bishops stayed away, cowed by the regime and the Vatican alike. As the murdered man became the face of a 'people’s Catholicism' in Latin America — a saint by acclamation — Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI slow-walked the official canonization process, precisely because of what the archbishop represented."

And what he represented was a challenge to the institutional church, which in many ways is what Pope Francis has come to represent.

The Atlantic piece has some useful background about the time Francis spent in Argentina and some of the mistakes he acknowledges making there. But he learned from those and is also learning from some of his missteps in the current scandal of priests abusing children and bishops covering up for those priests. And thank goodness for that because this scandal seems to have grown into the largest crisis the church has faced since the start of the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago.

(By the way, if you missed Judy Thomas' terrific story in Sunday's Kansas City Star about the priest abuse scandal, here is a link to it. She writes about a bishop who is doing the right things in this scandal.)

So we don't know whether the church Pope Francis is hoping will emerge from his papacy will, in fact, emerge. But the world needs it, so let's hope he succeeds. And maybe some day he will be named a saint, too.

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I reported here on the blog recently that the Rev. Eugene Peterson, most famous for his paraphrase of the Bible called The Message, was now in hospice care. Sadder news: He died Monday morning. He was a terrific and insightful writer. If Protestants had saints, he'd be on the list of those being considered for canonization.

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 Am Mary: Advent Devotional, by Carol Howard Merritt. This is the perfect advent devotional for our time. Why? It's written by a woman and the entries are told in the voice of Mary, mother of Jesus. In a time when we need to hear -- and listen to -- female voices, this small book fills an important void. The author, a pastor, writes in a note to readers that she recognized she always had been told Mary's story through the voices of men "who had never felt the nausea and weakness of pregnancy, the pain and labor of childbirth." This refreshing devotional draws heavily on passages from the Gospel of Luke. Advent on the Christian calendar, which anticipates the birth of Jesus, begins this year on Dec. 2. So you have time to get copies of this for you and possibly for your whole congregation.

Will the 'Nones' determine the coming elections? 10-23-18

No doubt you've heard or read about how some 80 percent of white Christian evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential race. And no doubt you've read that many of them are hanging with him, even though his life has been a model of rejecting evangelical values.

NonesBut they're not the only religiously defined group that may have a lot to say about the upcoming midterm elections or about the 2020 presidential election. In fact, as this Tribune News Service piece notes, the "Nones," meaning the religiously unaffiliated, may determine many of the midterm races and perhaps even the next presidential vote.

After all, the Nones now make up about 25 percent of the adult American population, and that percentage continues to grow.

As the piece notes, "The Nones have been traditionally underrepresented at the ballot box, but that’s changing. The religiously unaffiliated accounted for 15 percent of voters in the 2016 presidential elections, a 3 percentage point increase since 2012. The coming election will quite possibly see a further uptick in this number."

Beyond that, "A just-released Freedom From Religion Foundation online survey of 8,500 secular voters reveals a bloc of highly educated, frequent voters determined to counter the Religious Right’s clout and who would strongly support nonreligious candidates. Politicians can tap into this potent force with the right message -- and leave the religious pandering behind."

What we really don't yet know, of course, is how many of the Nones will bother to vote, whether they will lean toward the Republicans or the Democrat or, as seems at least intuitively likely, support independent or third-party candidates.

But it's clear that the party that recognizes the potential voting power of the Nones and works to identify them and attract them will benefit -- perhaps enough to win elections that it otherwise might have lost.

But those parties should understand this: Just because someone is religiously unaffiliated does not mean he or she rejects all religion or spiritual paths. Indeed, true atheists are rather rare in the U.S., even among the Nones.

So it will be important for parties to pay attention to core moral values that the Nones almost certainly hold, though expressing those values in strictly religious terms probably won't sell.

I'll be on the lookout after the midterms to see if anyone does an analysis of how and whether the Nones voted and what difference it made.

(The graph displayed here today came from this 2016 RNS story.)

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Andrew Brunson, the American pastor recently released from prison in Turkey after some two years, says he had a nervous breakdown while in jail. Hard to imagine being in that situation and not having some kind of emotional collapse. Hope he gets the help now he needs before leaping back into work.

Can moral courage be taught or learned? 10-22-18

Because I have co-authored a Holocaust-related book, I stay alert for stories of the kind we tell in They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust.

SugiharaWhich is why this recent New York Times story attracted my attention.

It's about a Japanese diplomat, Chiune Sugihara (pictured here), who, almost alone, saved some 6,000 Jewish lives in World War II by going against the wishes of his own government and issuing visas to people desperate to flee the Nazis.

What I especially appreciate about the story is that it raises the difficult question of how to account for moral courage. That attribute can be rare, but perhaps we can encourage its presence in people if we know what leads to its formation.

One of those attributes seems to be an ability and desire to go things alone. As The Times story reports, "Research on those who rescued Jews during the Holocaust shows that many exhibited a streak of independence from an early age. Sugihara was unconventional in a society known for prizing conformity."

But there's another characteristic of people who display moral courage, the story notes: "A second characteristic of such heroes and heroines, as the psychologist Philip Zimbardo writes, is 'that the very same situations that inflame the hostile imagination in some people, making them villains, can also instill the heroic imagination in other people, prompting them to perform heroic deeds.' While the world around him disregarded the plight of the Jews, Sugihara was unable to ignore their desperation."

So in 1939, Sugihara was assigned by his government to run the Japanese consulate in Lithuania, where he soon discovered many Jews fleeing Poland after the Germans attacked and occupied it on Sept. 1 of that year.

What to do? Ask his government for permission to grant those Jews visas to go to Japan. The government firmly denied the request. Sugihara issued some 6,000 visas anyway.

The reality is that we really don't know how we would behave in Sugihara's situation or if we had been among the Jews fleeing Poland and the rest of the Third Reich. But perhaps it can help to try to have within ourselves a stubborn streak of independence and a heroic imagination.

Rabbi David Wolpe, author of The Times piece, describes what he said to students in Japan to whom he spoke about the heroic work of Sugihara, who had attended the same school as those students:

"I told the students that one day in each of their lives there would be a moment when they would have to decide whether to close the door or open their hearts. When that moment arrives, I implored them, remember that they came from the same school as a great man who when the birds flew to him for refuge, did not turn them away."

Can moral courage be taught? Can it be learned? I don't know. But trying is worth the effort even if it succeeds only once.

(For a Japanese account of Sugihara's heroism, click here.)

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Here's a timely reminder found in this Religion News Service column: ". . .politics — political outcomes, in particular — are not a good place for human beings to invest our ultimate hopes and dreams. They inevitably let us down." As closely as politics and religion might be tied together at times, they are different. To put politics first is, in some ways, to make it an idol. And that's the first thing religion teaches -- all sin, in the end, is idolatry.

In Saudi Arabia, history bleeds into today: 10-20/21-18

In his 1951 novel, Requiem for a Nun, William Faulkner wrote something that's useful today for understanding a little more deeply the Jamal Khashoggi Saudi-Turkey story: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

Saudi-arabia-flagAs this Foreign Policy piece suggests, Khashoggi, who wrote columns for The Washington Post, was in some ways the victim of a conflict that goes back some 300 years: "The apparent abduction, and probable murder, of the prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 unmasked the ugly despotism behind the reformist image of the kingdom’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. Less noticed, however, is the way this scandal revealed a long-running rivalry between the two countries that directly butted heads at the outset: Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

"The foundation of the rift lies in the countries’ distinct versions of Sunni Islam — versions that have evolved within very different historical trajectories and that have produced contrasting visions about the contemporary Middle East."

Which means that Khashoggi's disappearance and death was in some ways connected to a deep religious dispute that continues to shape both Islam and the Middle East today. Again, the Foreign Policy piece:

"This is a story that goes back to the 18th century. Then, much of what we call 'the Middle East' today, including the more habitable part of the Arabian Peninsula, was part of the Ottoman Empire, ruled from Istanbul, then called Constantinople, by a cosmopolitan elite of mainly Turks and Balkan Muslims, including Bosnians and Albanians. The Hejaz, the western region of the Arabian Peninsula that included the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, was revered for religious reasons, but it was a backwater with no political or cultural significance."

Given that background, there is, at the moment, no telling where this disturbing Khashoggi story will wind up -- if it ever does wind up, a cautionary "if" offered in the spirit of Faulkner. What we do know is that both Saudi Arabia and Turkey are run by rigid autocrats who know how to hold on to power. Still, as of Friday evening we know that the Saudi government now acknowledges that Khashoggi died at the Saudi consulate in Turkey, but that it was a result of an argument that led to a fist fight that led to his death, as this ABC News report describes. (I'm waiting for the related news that a new investigation shows that Abraham Lincoln died at the Ford Theater as the result of a fist fight with John Wilkes Booth, but so far I'm still waiting.)

But it's clear that, as The New Yorker reports, President Donald Trump and others in his administration seem hopeful -- perhaps unrealistically so -- that they won't have to condemn the Saudi regime: "President Trump seems ready, even eager, to embrace the Saudi version of events — or at least the kingdom’s pledge to investigate the saga, after it abruptly abandoned its claim that Khashoggi had exited the consulate alive. He condemned criticism of the monarchy."

In fact, this Boston Globe column says Trump is failing at handling this crisis, but that failure is "appalling but not surprising."

The media in Saudi Arabia, over which the government exercises considerable control, also seem to be looking for ways that the U.S. and the Saudis can remain pragmatic allies. An example is this piece published the other day by Arab News, an English-language newspaper in Saudi Arabia. Over the years, Arab News occasionally has demonstrated surprising independence, but it operates with nothing like the freedom of press enjoyed by journalists and their media outlets in the U.S. 

Although Arab culture on the Arabian Peninsula is ancient, Saudi Arabia, as a nation, is quite young. It was founded in the 1930s. And the House of Saud has ruled it ever since, having struck a political-religious bargain with the leaders of a strict form of Islam called Wahhabism. The deal says the Wahhabi leaders get to set the country's religious agenda while supporting the government to the House of Saud. When I spent time in Saudi Arabia in 2002 with other North American journalists, interviewing government and religious leaders, it was clear that the Saudis understood that they were in the middle of a battle for the soul of Islam after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, given that most of the hijackers were Saudis.

That battle continues today in different forms and different places. But given that Saudi Arabia -- and particularly Mecca -- is ground zero for Islam, what happens there can and often does play a major role in how that struggle proceeds.

The recent hope that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman would turn out to be a welcome reformer in Saudi Arabia seems now dashed on the rocks of murderous reality, though we may not know that for sure for some time. What we do know is that the history being made today in the aftermath of Khashoggi's disappearance will never be dead -- or even relegated to the past.

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A new survey shows that female members of the clergy in the U.S. are increasingly numerous. That's a good thing, in my view, though it doesn't mean that the stained-glass ceiling is fully shattered. And it doesn't mean that female clergy are immune from being among those who've also had to say #MeToo. One of the best sermons I've heard on that subject came last week from the associate pastor of my congregation, Second Presbyterian Church of Kansas City. You can watch the Rev. Kristin Riegel's sermon here.