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Methodists and Catholics: Sexually confused churches: 2-28-19

It's clear now that neither the Catholic Church nor the United Methodist Church knows how to handle questions of human sexuality in a coherent, redemptive, healing way.

Their failings are not shocking but they are both disappointing and, for many, many people -- and ultimately for the churches themselves -- disastrous.

Catholic-church UMC-logoBoth churches just completed important meetings -- one at the Vatican, one in St. Louis -- to determine the road ahead. For the Catholics, the focus naturally was on the long-running sexual abuse scandal in which some priests molested children and some bishops protected those priests but not the children.

For the Methodists, it was finally, in the 21st Century, trying to answer the 20th Century question of whether LGBTQ folks can be ordained to ministry and whether Methodist clergy can participate in same-sex weddings.

Catholic leaders left their Vatican gathering without any serious new plan for handling future abuse cases or for bringing some kind of healing and resolution to previous cases.

Pope Francis said some of the right words about all this, and the meeting did put the issues into an important international spotlight. But it's pretty clear that the institutional changes that will be required to get at the roots of the problem are not even officially on the table, including bringing women into much more prominent positions of leadership, perhaps even as deacons and priests.

So, for now, the Catholic Church seems just to be running (or maybe just walking) in place -- not quite backwards but certainly not forward much, either.

As this Atlantic magazine online analysis noted, "The conference might have finally made some prelates, especially from the Global South (and the Vatican), aware of the depth and scope of the crisis, but it marked an even greater chasm between the Vatican and the United States. 'He absolutely doesn’t get it. This is a catastrophic misreading of the faithful,' Anne Barrett-Doyle, a co-founder of, a Boston-based advocacy organization that keeps detailed records of abuse cases and their outcomes in civil courts and Church tribunals, told me. She meant the faithful in the United States. 'He spent the bulk of his speech rationalizing that abuse happens in all sectors of society. This is one of his favorite diversionary tactics.'”

As for the Methodists, they wound up at their St. Louis meeting divided between a misplaced allegiance to traditional anti-gay policies that are rooted in a misreading of scripture and a misplaced allegiance to the idol of church unity at the expense of doing what is right by LGBTQ members. In the end, the Methodist traditionalists won the day, though not without a spirited debate. The debate was all kept within the bounds of strict, heart-dead parliamentary procedure, but that did nothing to undo the suffering of people who have been oppressed for a long time.

It's true that a large minority of United Methodists come from outside the United States, especially Africa, where it's going to take much longer for church members to abandon misguided traditions that denounce homosexuality as sin. But that shouldn't mean that it's necessary for the whole church to compromise with evil for the sake of unity, which is what the "One Church Plan" backed by leading Methodist bishops would have done. That plan was defeated by a vote of 449-374. Then, the so-called Traditional Church plan was adopted by a vote of 438-384. This is especially disappointing because, as this Pew Research Center information shows, in recent years Methodists have been moving toward more acceptance of homosexuality as a natural condition and away from the idea that it's a sin.

The Rev. Adam Hamilton, founding pastor of the huge United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kan., worked hard for the One Church Plan, which he saw as a reasonable compromise that would have let the church hold together and live together in open disagreement. When the Traditional Plan (that kept the anti-LGBTQ policies in place and even strengthened them) passed, he tweeted this: "Very painful for many people. Lots of conversation will ensue and judicial reviews." At the end of the conference, Adam tweeted this: "We’re looking at holding a meeting with key leaders in the UMC -- bishops and other key leaders -- at Resurrection after Easter to discuss where Methodism goes from here."

I have known Adam a long time and have great respect for him. But I strongly disagree with him on what I think of as his unity-above-everything approach. I believe the desire to have church unity should not trump the desire to treat all people -- regardless of sexual orientation -- equally and with love. The historic and historical failure to treat people in that way has damaged the church universal. Perhaps support of slavery is the most obnoxious example of this kind of church failure.

In fact, I view this Methodist decision as that church's 1857 Dred Scott decision, in which the U.S. Supreme Court set back the anti-slavery cause so much that, in effect, only a Civil War could undo the horrific judicial damage that ruling did. I'm not predicting the equivalent of a Methodist civil war, but it's now clear that only something dramatic and traumatic can fix the damage that the church has done to itself and to LGBTQ people.

If you want to know more about Adam's position, here is a link to a sermon he gave about all of this the Sunday before the St. Louis gathering.

And here is a blog entry by Adam about this same matter, written before the conference. And here is a column I did in 2017 explaining how Adam was trying to prevent his denomination from splitting apart.

At the St. Louis meeting itself, Adam spoke on the final day against the Traditional Plan, making the correct case that the Bible says almost nothing about homosexuality but concentrates on many other matters deserving of attention.

"Centrists and progressives" among Methodists, he told the assembly, "never wanted a divorce." In the Bible, he noted, "(the apostle) Paul says more about the role of women -- keeping silent in the church, praying with their heads covered, women not teaching men, women submitting to men, women not wearing jewelry -- than he says about same-sex acts in the New Testament." And yet Methodists have made many accommodations to Paul's time-bound teachings, including allowing women to be pastors and to hold other offices of church leadership. Adam was pointing out what from the outside looks like hypocrisy among those who want to focus on the few passages in scripture that seem to (but don't really) condemn homosexuality.

Another speaker on the last day of the Methodist conference was the Rev. Emanuel Cleaver III, pastor of St. James United Methodist Church in Kansas City. He complained that the Traditional Plan focuses on LGBTQ questions but ignores many other matters, including the church's failure to have fair processes that would allow women and African-Americans to hold positions of clerical leadership in the church.

And Mark Holland, a Methodist pastor who is former mayor of the Unified Government of Kansas City, Kansas, also spoke against the Traditional Plan, saying he and others would propose amendment after amendment to fix it until the end of the gathering. But, in the end, the conference ended without the outcome Holland wanted.

Will the decision made Tuesday lead to actual schism? Will Methodists who want to do the right thing and allow ordination of otherwise-qualified gays and lesbians and allow pastors to lead same-sex weddings leave? My guess is some will, just as some churches in my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), left when we chose in 2011 (way later than it should have taken us) to allow openly gay pastors and to allow those pastors who wanted to perform same-sex weddings to do so.

Schism is hard. Schism is an acknowledgement of some kind of failure. Schism, however, seems to be in the Protestant bloodstream. But as difficult as schism can be, a false unity that allows the church to treat certain people as second- or third-class citizens is a dire failure of the church and all that it should stand for. And it must break the sacred heart of Jesus.

How Catholics and Methodists proceed from here is unknown, though the divisiveness is far from over. And when speaking of LGBTQ issues, let's not let the Catholic Church off the hook. No matter what Pope Francis might say about not judging when he speaks off the cuff on the papal jet, the church itself still officially describes homosexuality as "objectively disordered." (See item 2358 in the document to which I just linked you.) 

What is clear is that both churches are setting a terrible example for how religious traditions rooted in love, justice, mercy and compassion should act. And it breaks my heart.

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To continue this theme today, here is an interview with retired United Methodist bishop Will Willimon, a really smart guy who now teaches at Duke University. He thinks the future of the United Methodist Church was destined for schism even before the St. Louis meeting started. "We need to remind ourselves," he told Yonat Shimron of Religion News Service, "that what’s passed for church unity for the last 40 years in the Methodist Church is a kind of bureaucratic, rule-driven, top-down, corporate-America type unity. If that unity is disrupted, that puts us back to where we’ve always been: That’s a gathering by Christ of all kinds of people that make up the church." Well, that unity has been disrupted. So we'll see what's next.

Some good arguments in favor of rituals: 2-27-19

All of us have repetitive ways of doing things. Some are just habits, but some are infused with deeper meanings and become rituals.

Human-ritesOne of my habits is to have cranberry juice on ice to accompany my breakfast almost every morning. It's a tasty, healthful way to start the day. But it doesn't have much, if any, spiritual weight or content. It's just a good habit.

At the end of almost each day, however, my wife and I say a short prayer made up of a few lines from an end-of-day Episcopal and Catholic service called compline. We started this by phone even before we were married more than 22 years ago. It grounds us and connects us with eternal meaning.

That's the kind of ritual that Dru Johnson, a pastor and theology teacher at The King's College, writes about in Human Rites: The Power of Rituals, Habits and Sacraments.

Johnson's new book is a call to pay attention to our rituals, understand why we do them, who authorizes them and whether they are moving us in the right or the wrong direction. Some repetitive actions, after all, can become false or destructive rituals, and they're easy to fall into unless we're being mindful and discerning. And, he insists, "our world breathes with rituals."

The first thing he does is to note that often people think of rituals as empty actions without meaning. But, he argues, "rituals are so foundational to our lives and society that it's ironic how negative we have become towards them. Even learning rote rituals can help us think more clearly or save our lives."

Rituals, in fact, can and often do form us. Which is why it's so vital to pay attention to the ones we're using, even using mindlessly. And that includes religious rituals: "We can listlessly float along in a sea of inherited rituals," he writes, "or we can become discerning practitioners of the rites that shape our vision of reality, of God and of self."

Because of Johnson's background, he focuses on Christian rituals, but much of what he says about them can be applied to the rituals of many faith traditions and even to secular rituals.

"After all," he writes, "intentionally embracing valid rituals can shape us for good, but uncritically embodying rituals handed down from dubious voices cannot end well."

Johnson, however, suggests that there may be times when we may not need to grasp a ritual in depth for it to do us good: ". . .maybe we don't need to understand how rituals work on us in order for them to work in us." Ideally, however, he says, rituals should let us "see more truly." That's because "rites always have an invisible arrow through them, pointing toward something else."

This is a helpful book but I think it should be read in partnership with Caring Liturgies: The Pastoral Power of Christian Ritual, by Susan Marie Smith. That 2012 book will help you understand when and why you should actually create new rituals and how they can be healing. Together, these two books, ingested together, may change your thinking about rituals in useful ways.

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The most senior Catholic cleric ever accused of sexual misconduct with children, Cardinal George Pell, has been convicted in Australia. If and when this scandal finally ends, the church is going to look like it was the site of a major battle in a world war. How sad.

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P.S.: Both the Catholic and the United Methodist churches have just wrapped up major meetings to discuss matters of human sexuality. Come back to the blog tomorrow and I'll try to explain why I found the results of both gatherings to be severely disappointing.

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ANOTHER P.S.: The Greater Kansas City chapter of Hadassah is offering a session on human trafficking from 2 to 4 p.m. on Sunday, March 10, at the Jewish Community Center. The link I've given you (and the flier below) will tell you what you need to know to attend.


Judging the religious aspects of candidates: 2-26-19

Most American voters are -- or at least should be -- aware that the Constitution forbids any kind of religious test for people seeking federal elective or appointive office.

Religion_politicsYou can read about that in Article VI, clause 3: ". . .no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."

Pretty simple.

But as this commentary in the Washington Examiner by the president, CEO, and chief counsel for First Liberty Institute asserts, sometimes that hasn't kept some officials from asking about the religious beliefs of people nominated for various positions in the federal government.

The author of the piece suggests that people in Senate confirmation hearings who are asked questions about their religion (as sometimes they are, unreasonably) respond this way: “Senator, I am unable to answer that question because its premise violates Article VI, clause 3, of the Constitution.”

Fair enough. But it seems to me that there is at least some room here for discussion.

For instance, I think voters analyzing candidates can ask this (and maybe only this) question of candidates about their faith commitments: "Can you tell us whether and how any religious commitment you have might directly or indirectly affect public policy?"

That strikes me as different from saying something like this: "Because you are a Methodist, I'd like to know what you believe and why."

Candidates for elective office or a nominee for appointive office may decide to bring up the question of their religion on their own, in which case reasonable questions about what they reveal strike me as fair.

But in no case should senators evaluating someone nominated for an office that requires Senate approval directly ask questions that violate the letter or spirit of Article VI, clause 3. If they're in doubt, better not to ask the question at all. That part of the Constitution, after all, is in there for a good reason -- ultimately to avoid a theocracy.

(I found the image you see here today here.)

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This interesting Atlantic article describes a new American religion. For "the college-educated elite," especially men, it says, work has morphed "into a kind of religion, promising identity, transcendence and community. Call it workism." The problem with it -- as with any false religion -- is that in the end it doesn't satisfy. Of course it doesn't. It's not rooted in awe or wonder or any eternal values, like love.

Why do women take the Bible more literally than men? 2-25-19

Did you know (I didn't until recently) that women are more likely than men to read the Bible literally? Which is to say that a larger percentage of women than men agree with this statement:

Translation-Bibles“The Bible means exactly what it says. It should be taken literally, word-for-word, on all subjects.”

I find that gender gap surprising. But a new study from researchers at Baylor University suggests some reasons why it seems to be true. I've just linked you to the study itself, but you probably won't be allowed access to the whole thing unless you've already set up an account with the site. So for the rest of us, here is the press release from Baylor about all of this.

Another reason to read the release instead of the study is that the language in just the abstract of the study is at times almost impenetrable, towit:

"We assess the gender gap in U.S. Christianity by examining in a national sample (Baylor Religion Survey 2010) a particularly robust measure of religiosity: biblical literalism. Women are more likely to report biblical literalism than men in bivariate comparisons, but we argue that intimate attachment to God is a related intervening mechanism. The results of this study indicate: (1) intimate attachment to God is associated with more literal views of the Bible, (2) after accounting for attachment to God women are no longer associated with increased literalism, (3) divine proximity‐seeking behaviors are associated with more literal views of the Bible, (4) proximity‐seeking moderates the relationship between attachment to God and Bible views, and (5) gender moderates the relationship between both attachment to God and proximity‐seeking behaviors and Bible views. The evidence presented here provides a plausible mechanism by which gender differences in biblical literalism may be accounted for."

(Have you been busy with any bivariate comparisons today or studying any divine proximity-seeking behaviors in related intervening mechanisms? Yeah. Me, either.)

As I read this, however, the authors of the study believe that because woman are socialized to have deeper and warmer relationships in general, including their relationship with God, they are naturally led to read the Bible more literally and, thus, are less likely to argue with or challenge the voice of God they find there. Reading the Bible literally, the researchers say, leads to thinking that "God is more like a person, someone you can talk to and who also talks back.”

I don't know how, exactly, to evaluate such studies. But my gut instinct tells me that this conclusion is a reach. My instinct -- which may well be wrong -- would be that when one reads the Bible literally the result is a more distant relationship with God because God, especially in a literal reading, is so mysterious, so strange, so other.

And literalism strikes me as representative of a low view of scripture, requiring little from readers in the way of interpretive work. Indeed, I don't know how you can take the Bible seriously if you take it literally. They seem mutually exclusive enterprises.

At any rate, at least these kinds of studies keep theologians and other scholars employed. And that's a good thing, right?

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The Vatican conference on sexual abuse in the church wrapped up Sunday. I'm not sure it accomplished much specific, but time will tell. Pope Francis repeated some things he's said in the past about this horror. What matters is what, if anything, happens next to protect children, hold abusers accountable and change the church's institutional structure to prevent future abuse. I think that latter task will be the most difficult, though perhaps the most necessary. Ask me in 10 years how things are going.

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about a Kansas City church making a difference in a tough neighborhood -- now is online here.

Those wild and crazy 1500s: 2-23/24-19

A few days ago, here on the blog, I wrote about a new book, Hot Protestants, that traces the history of the Puritans from England, starting about 1540, to the New World, ending with the Salem Witchcraft Trials of 1692.

1500sIt got me to thinking again about what a lively, fascinating, scary, brutal, crazy time the 16th Century was when it came to religious history, especially Christian history in Europe and in what would become the U.S.

I won't take the space to run through everything that happened in those 100 years, but I'll just hit a few highlights of what transpired in the various Februaries of the 1500s. And I'll go chronologically by dates in February, not year by year. Which means starting with:

-- Feb. 3, 1518. Pope Leo X imposed silence on Augustinian monks in the Catholic Church. Were they ever heard from again? Well, in 1517, the year before this action, one of them, Martin Luther, published his 95 points of debate with the church, thus inadvertently starting the Protestant Reformation. And Luther was never silent after that.

-- Feb. 7, 1528. Bern, the strong canton (state) in southern Switzerland, officially embraced Protestantism, as defined by the great reformer Ulrich Zwingli.

-- Feb. 8, 1587. Mary Queen of Scots, raised a Catholic in France, was beheaded in England. This is a long, complicated, even vile and brutal story that you can read at the link I've given you. Just know it took more than one whack to off her head.

-- Feb. 18, 1546. Martin Luther, whom I mentioned in the Feb. 3 entry above, died. So it's not true, exactly, what I wrote above that "Luther was never silent after that." He was quiet after Feb. 18, 1546.

-- Feb. 19, 1568. Miles Coverdale, translator and publisher of the first complete Bible printed in English, died. Lots of Bible history died with him.

-- Feb. 24, 1500. The man who would become Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was born at Ghent in Flanders. He reigned from 1519 to 1556 and officially pronounced Luther an outlaw and heretic. Luther didn't seem to mind.

-- Feb. 25, 1570. Pope Pius V excommunicated Protestant Queen Elizabeth I of England. Pius also allegedly deposed the queen, but she didn't seem to notice and reigned until March of 1603.

-- Feb. 29, 1528. The first martyr of the Scottish reformation, Patrick Hamilton, was burned at the stake. In the end, the reformation in Scotland succeeded and led to Presbyterians, including me. Thanks, Pat.

Well, lots of other stuff happened in the 1500s, including Henry VIII creating the Church of England in 1534, but it didn't happen in February, so I'm ignoring it.

(I found the image shown today here.)

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The current Vatican summit on sex abuse at least is making sure that the subject doesn't get ignored. It's the church's previous inattention to the matter -- or its active avoidance -- that has led to so many problems. If you want to follow the meeting on a timely basis this weekend, I suggest you visit the National Catholic Reporter's website regularly.

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P.S.: The United Methodists are also talking about sexuality matters in a special session this weekend in St. Louis. You can watch the proceedings live here.

Can the U.S. bargain with Afghanistan's theological thugs? 2-22-19

Given at least a small glimmer of hope for peace in Afghanistan now, it's instructive to go back to 2001 when the country was host to Osama bin Laden, whose al-Qaida terrorists carried out the deadly 9/11 attacks on the U.S.

AfghanistanAt the time, the Taliban, a fiercely hard-line organization that bent Islam to serve its geopolitical ideology, essentially ran the country and allowed Afghanistan to be host to al-Qaida training camps.

In short, the Taliban represented what was wrong with Afghanistan and made itself an enemy of the U.S. by its refusal to separate itself from the radical extremists who murdered nearly 3,000 people on 9/11. When the U.S. attacked Afghanistan after its leaders refused to hand over bin Laden, it marked the beginning of a war that is pushing toward being two decades old.

As the Council on Foreign Relations piece to which I linked you in the second paragraph here notes, "Though the Taliban appears unlikely to dismantle the Afghan government and revive its emirate, it poses the most serious challenge to Kabul’s authority even as the United States winds down the longest war in its history and NATO scales back its largest-ever deployment outside of Europe. The insurgents’ resilience calls into question a state-building project that has cost its international backers hundreds of billions of dollars.

"The U.S.-led military coalition has suffered nearly 3,500 dead and more than ten thousand wounded. Since 2001, at least twenty-one thousand Afghan civilians have been killed in conflict, and three million people have been displaced, according to the UN refugee agency. Afghan troops and police are dying at their highest rates ever."

So given all of that blood and darkness, rooted in a simplistic, monochromatic interpretation of Islam, what are we to make of peace talks that now involve the Taliban and that could lead the U.S. to withdraw its 14,000 troops still there?

This Christian Science Monitor piece does a pretty good job of giving us a picture of the difficulties of trying to negotiate with the Taliban. As the piece by staff writer Scott Peterson notes, ". . .a fledgling peace process in Afghanistan involving direct talks between the US and Taliban insurgents has created the most optimism in years.

"But serious concerns abound, not least due to reports the Taliban are preparing for a new fighting season even as they negotiate."

As we're thinking about this, let's remember what kind of theological gangsters we're dealing with in the Taliban. As Peterson reports, "During Taliban rule, Afghan women were not allowed to work. Nor were they allowed to leave their home without wearing an all-enveloping burqa. Girls were forbidden from going to school."

And there was much more to Taliban rule that was injurious to the Afghan people, even if some of its oppressive (to western eyes) views about women could be seen as tied into an ancient patriarchal culture that approved of such views in ways that western minds cannot conceive.

We don't yet know where these negotiations with the Taliban will lead or when. But we're fools if we think there's any quick answer here. Afghanistan is broken. Americans are far from the first ones to help break it, but in many ways we're now responsible for what happens there. For the sake of the Afghan people, Americans can't simply close up shop and go home. Rather, our diplomats must do something Americans aren't good at -- be patient and meticulous about a path forward.

If that seems like an impossible task for people in the untethered Trump administration, I agree. But we must tell our elected officials that they must insist on it and not simply trust the terrorist-encouraging Taliban to do the right thing.

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Do faith communities know what to do with people who are grieving? Sometimes, yes. But sometimes they drive people to grieve alone in church restrooms, as described in this interesting commentary. What about your congregation?

Is modern 'Anti-Zionism' really just 'antisemitism'? 2-21-19

Opposition to Zionism -- Zionism is the idea of establishing (or re-establishing) a Jewish presence or state in and around Jerusalem -- is not new. You can find evidence of it even among Jews not long after the term was coined in the late 19th Century.

Anti-z-anti-sBut what is relatively new is the widespread belief that opposition to Zionism today has, in some ways, become an expression of antisemitism, which is perhaps the world's oldest hatred.

A new book edited by Alvin H. Rosenfeld, founding director of the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism at Indiana University, explores whether, where and how that disturbing transition has happened. It makes for disheartening but important reading. And if there's one thing certain about the publication of Anti-Zionism and Antisemitism: The Dynamics of Delegitimization, it is that reaction to it is bound to range from great praise to outright rejection.

The book is a result of a conference held at Indiana University in which scholars presented papers on this subject. Those papers have been revised for this book and edited into chapters that seek to shed light on how and why modern anti-Zionism often is seen as merely a disguise for antisemitism.

As Rosenfeld notes in his introduction, "In both its older and newer forms, a resurgent antisemitism has come powerfully to the fore and is now widespread. That is especially so with regard to hostility to Israel, which, in its most extreme forms, impels its adherents to denounce the Jewish state as a criminal entity and to vilify and attack those identified with it."

This subject is not new for Rosenfeld. A few years ago, in fact, he edited an excellent book called Resurgent Antisemitism, which I reviewed here for The National Catholic Reporter.

For starters, however, it helps to know that Zionism has deep roots, even as far back as the Hebrew Bible. Its more modern forms, however, can be traced back to the founding of the Alliance Israelite Universelle in Paris in 1860 and the founding of the Anglo Jewish Association in London in 1871. The term Zionism was coined in 1886 and its goal of a Jewish homeland was defined in 1897 at the First Zionist Congress. And Zionist immigration to what became the modern state of Israel in 1948 began in the early 1880s.

So Zionism didn't simply appear out of thin air after the Holocaust. And, as I've mentioned, there was a debate even among Jews about whether Zionism was a worthwhile goal. For instance, the Bund, the first Jewish socialist party in eastern Europe, opposed Zionism because members thought it would be a diversion from the interests of Jews in Russia.

One of the first points covered in this new book is the false assertion that Jews sought a state of their own just because of the Holocaust. As James Wald, a professor of modern European history at Hampshire College, notes, that idea seems innocuous, yet it is "insidious because it is untrue. . .By fixing the starting point as the Holocaust, this view conflates immediate circumstances with ultimate causes. It telescopes Jewish attachment to the land of Israel by both modernizing and secularizing it, thereby rendering invisible the entire history of political and religious Zionism, not to mention the centrality of the land in the Hebrew bible, liturgy, Talmud and Jewish tradition."

Nowadays, Wald and other authors in the book note, it's become commonplace for the most severe critics of Israel to liken the country and its leaders to Nazi Germany.

None of this is to deny that reasonable people can and do sometimes have thoughtful and legitimate criticism of some Israeli government policies and actions. But it is to point out that when criticism becomes polemic and denies Israel's right to exist because it is a Jewish state, critics have moved from rational comment and debate to antisemitism. And when it is rooted (as sometimes it is now) in such outrageous ideas as that the first temple in Jerusalem never existed, it becomes like Holocaust denial, or what Wald calls "an intellectual embarrassment possessing no more merit than the belief that alien astronauts built the pyramids." It amounts, he says, to an assault on and denial of Jewish history.

Today the term anti-Zionism, writes Thorsten Fuchshuber, a scholar in Brussels who does research on religion, "serves as a socially accepted form  for the expression of antisemitic attitudes, and for their rationalization and legitimization as political arguments." He argues that "both anti-Zionism and antisemitism must be understood as a means to rationalize hatred against Jews."

And Balazs Berkovits, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Haifa, suggests that in "this new anti-Jewish discourse and action, Jews are no longer taken to be an inferior race; rather, the Jews are seen as treating other peoples as inferiors. Now it is the Jews who are racists -- some even liken them to the Nazis -- and the notion that they intend to rule the world, which originated in traditional antisemitic discourse, persists."

Gil Ribak, who teaches Judaic studies at the University of Arizona, simply puts it this way: ". . .the new antisemites have replaced the word Jew with Zionist. This semantic change has enabled them freely to use antisemitic tropes such as the Zionist control of the media and politics, Zionist violence and cowardliness and Zionist greed for money, land and power while arguing that they are not antisemitic but rather anti-Zionist."

Well, there is much more here in these almost 500 pages and, as I say, the book no doubt will stir up some heated debate. My hope is that it will cause everyone engaged in the conversation/dispute about Israel and its neighbors to take a step back and make sure that what's being said is not just civil but also accurately reflective of both history and reality. That would be a big step forward for everyone.

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Love this story: When Alexa overheard a sermon, she ordered toilet paper for the family -- $28 worth. I've heard (and even preached) sermons to which that would have been an appropriate response.

How to destroy a church's moral authority: 2-20-19

In his homily at Mass on Monday morning in the chapel of the Casa Santa Marta in the Vatican, Pope Francis reflected on the story of Cain and Abel in the book of Genesis. Cain had murdered Abel and God asked him, "Where is your brother?"

Priest scandalCain, of course, responds by asking defiantly if he's his brother's keeper.

God, Francis noted, often asks all of us difficult, at-time embarrassing questions.

"We are accustomed,” the pope said, “to giving compromising answers in order to escape from the problem, not to see the problem, not to touch the problem."

I'm supposing that the pope was -- as preachers sometimes do -- preaching to himself and his fellow priests. For has it not been the church hierarchy that has given compromising answers, if any at all, when confronted now for decades with the scandal of priests abusing children and bishops who covered up for them?

My friend Melinda Henneberger of The Kansas City Star's editorial page staff wrote this column earlier this week about the way the church handled recently defrocked Cardinal Theodore McCarrick after the Vatican concluded that he had engaged in sexual abuse.

"Given McCarrick’s age and health — he has a pacemaker and has suffered several strokes — the risk that he’ll do further physical harm may be relatively low," she wrote. "But after all the damage already done, both to individual victims and to an institution that’s in many ways still as much in denial as he is, where he and his church go from here shouldn’t be this unclear."

Starting tomorrow, there will be a Vatican summit on the sex abuse scandal. Which may turn out to be a good thing. But it's an oh-so-late thing, and countless victims of abuse have been permanently scarred because of the church's failure to deal with this matter effectively and quickly when it first surfaced.

So when the pope asks fellow priests, "Where is your brother?" some of them must know that part of a true answer is that my brother priest is in another room abusing children and even though I know it I'm not going to say anything about it.

That's an answer that not only breaks the sacred heart of Jesus, it also destroys whatever moral authority the church still has remaining.

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One reason the United Methodist Church seems on the edge of schism is that millions of its members are overseas, particularly in Africa, where there seems to be strong opposition to changing the denomination's ban on ordaining LGBTQ clergy or letting clergy perform same-sex marriages. A special denominational meeting is scheduled to deal with all this later this month in St. Louis, and now African leaders are speaking out against any changes to the LGBTQ ban. The Methodists are a hardy lot and may find their way through this to remain unified, but I have my doubts.

How 'extreme partisans' think, if at all: 2-19-19

Several times since the 2016 presidential election I have written about the mystery of why people who identify as white Christian evangelicals would have abandoned their moral principles (as some 81 percent of them did) and vote for Donald Trump, a man whose life flies in the face of most of what those evangelicals believe.

Ex-partisanThere have been lots of proposed answers to that question, including the idolatrous focus on the abortion issue, but so far no fully satisfying answer.

And I'm not offering such an answer today, but I did run across something that helps me understand not only the Trump-evangelical mystery but also the mystery of why some people become extreme partisans, whether far left or far right, including people whose religious beliefs are so rigid and uncompromising that they are willing to commit violence to defend them and people who fall for bizarre conspiracy theories for which there is simply zero evidence.

At the request of a friend, I've been reading Jonathan Haidt's 2012 book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Read it. I'm not done with it yet, but read it.

Haidt describes a study designed to see how partisan brains work. It turns out that when they find some even tiny bit of information that seems to back up what they already think, they get a small hit of pleasure-producing dopamine. As Haidt notes, "Rats who can press a button to deliver electrical stimulation to their reward centers will continue pressing until they collapse from starvation."

Reason, in other words, has checked out, gone on vacation or at least to lunch.

Something similar happens when deeply committed partisan people get even a small smack of dopamine. That, Haidt writes, "would explain why extreme partisans are so stubborn, closed-minded and committed to beliefs that often seem bizarre or paranoid. Like rats that cannot stop pressing a button, partisans may be simply unable to stop believing weird things. The partisan brain has been reinforced so many times for performing mental contortions that free it from unwanted beliefs. Extreme partisanship may be literally addictive."

As I say, this explanation would apply to all extremes, whether political, religious or economic. And it means that it's mostly a waste of breath to try to bring reason and evidence to the debate. It is impossible to argue with irrationality, after all. That doesn't release us from the responsibility of thinking rationally, of being reasonable, of listening carefully to arguments with which we may not at first agree.

But it may help explain why quite a few people actually believe that God has chosen Donald Trump as a divine instrument to change America. Argue against that all you want, you're likely not going to change any of those stuck minds.

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A new study suggests that kids brought up in religious households gain certain social benefits but may be hindered some academically. Apparently all those prayers over math quizzes don't help much.

The radical religious roots of the U.S.: 2-18-19

Most Americans over the age of 10 or so are aware that the world is full of people with religious differences. And that sometimes those people think those differences are so serious and so important that they're willing to commit violence over them.

Hot-protestantsWhat I think a lot of Americans miss about our nation's own history is that some of our earliest settlers were among those people who held such strong religious beliefs that to call them intolerant would be way too generous a compliment. Many of them were argumentative, full of certitude, willing to pay a high price for their beliefs and utterly convinced that people who held different religious views were either tools of the devil or simply dreadfully misinformed.

The story of our early religious ancestors is told in enlightening but disheartening detail in a new book by Michael P. Winship, who teaches history at the University of Georgia. It carries this engaging title: Hot Protestants: A History of Puritanism in England and America. It's official publication date is a week from Tuesday, but it can be pre-ordered now.

Winship does us the favor of starting this history in England in the mid-1500s, a time of enormous religious upheaval across Europe. Martin Luther had, inadvertently, begun the Protestant Reformation in Germany in 1517, and in 1534 King Henry VIII had separated the Church of England from the Catholic Church, leading to all kinds of fractious developments as England first tried to figure out whether it was somehow still Catholic and then tried to figure out whether the separate Church of England was really Protestant.

Into the middle of all of this came the so-called Puritans, who were trying to purify the Church of England by removing any remaining Catholic traces but who, eventually, couldn't create a truly purified (in their eyes) church in England, a failure that led them to set up shop in the New World.

The colonists on this side of the ocean found themselves all entangled with puritanism as they created what Winship calls a "novel church establishment. . .Congregationalism."

Winship's title comes from a quote from a minister purged from the Church of England for his Puritan leanings, Perceval Wiburn. As Winship writes, "Wiburn once described puritans as 'the hotter sort of Protestants,' as well he might. He himself started out hot, as a member of (John) Knox's Geneva church in the 1550s."

The term "puritan," he writes, emerged "as an insult used against the London nonconformist ministers. . .Soon after, it was being thrown at anyone who wanted the English reformation brought more closely in line with Swiss ideas of New Testament church practice, or who displayed the kind of zealous Protestant piety fostered by the nonconformists. Those at the receiving end of the insult preferred to describe themselves with words like the godly, the brethren, the saints or the church. Their preferences reflected their sense of holy community and common purpose. To their opponents, those preferences exemplified the prideful, holier-than-thou attitude of a self-selected, would-be spiritual elite."

This detailed, full-of-stories book takes readers up through the Salem Witchcraft Trials of 1692, speaking of people full of false religious certitude. Decade by decade, between 1540 and then, Winship traces the path of the puritans and, by extension, the first residents of what would become the U.S. and let's us see what today can only be described as radical religious thinking and action at the roots of our nation. That kind of religious life was possible because there was the promise here of religious freedom, though often the more zealous people of faith wanted to limit that freedom to people who believed just what they did.

The early Calvinist influence in the colonies dominated New England for a long time, and with it came what Winship calls it's "cultural baggage: anti-Catholicism, high intellectual endeavor, communitarianism, visionary zeal, coercive, moralistic evangelism and a participatory culture in church and state." As for puritanism itself, one still can find vestiges of it today, but, as Winship concludes, it belongs to "an older world."

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As various uses of Artificial Intelligence continue to develop, this article from a British paper suggests robots may well have roles to play in religion. I'm guessing some of them would look more alive than some of the people in the pews.

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P.S.: I serve on the board of Kansas City Hospice & Palliative Care, and February for us is Mustache Month. So some of us are growing mustaches to help raise funds to help support the pediatric hospice care we offer. My new mustache is hideous and will come off the moment I reach my fundraising goal or at the end of the month. You can help beautify the world by making a donation on my Mustache Month page, which is here. I will thank you, KC Hospice will thank you and so will my bride.