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Now it's a Southern Baptist sex abuse scandal: 2-16/17-19

Pretty much the entire world is aware of the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church -- in this country and around the globe. It's why there's an international meeting of bishops coming soon at the Vatican, though it's not clear that we should expect a lot of results from it. (And, by the way, the Vatican on Saturday announced it had defrocked former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick because he committed sex abuse.)

Southern-Baptist-LogoMuch less well-known are sexual abuse scandals in other faith communities, though they've certainly happened.

But perhaps that is changing now thanks to the excellent work of Texas newspapers that have been reporting on the ways in which churches in the Southern Baptist Convention -- and the whole denomination itself -- have badly mishandled decades of reports of sexual abuse.

Now even top Baptist officials are speaking up and demanding change and correction. For example, this column by Keith Whitfield, a Baptist theology teacher and denominational leader, is a plea for Baptists to clean house and make amends.

"The past twelve months," he writes, "have been a heart-rending season, with a handful of dismissals surrounding sexual misconduct and one for the mishandling of cases of sexual misconduct. Now another shoe has dropped: The Houston Chronicle published three articles — 'Abuse of Faith,' 'Offend, Then Repeat' and 'Preying on Teens' — on more than 700 abuse cases that occurred in Southern Baptist churches over the past 20 years."

Worse, he writes, "It is devastating to realize that many of these accounts have been known for years. These survivors and many others have attempted to tell their stories, but their voices have been silenced. At times, their pleas have been ignored. In other instances, the accusations have been handled 'in house' to protect the reputations of churches and leaders. Some survivors were even encouraged to 'forgive and forget' those who victimized them. These responses are unacceptable, reflect complicity in the abuse of the vulnerable and provide a place for predators."

Any faith community facing this issue must ask the difficult question not just of whether it has procedures in place to detect and prevent such abuse but, more to the point, whether there is something about that community's culture and theology that contributes to people committing abuse and getting away with it.

For instance, what role, if any, does a clergy dominated by males play? Or a governance structure dominated by males? Has the community traditionally taught that women are and should be subservient to males? Do such teachings lead to tolerance of sexual abuse?

All such issues must be on the table if any religious group intends to dig out the roots of abuse. It's not an easy conversation to have, but without it nothing will change.

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To stay on the same subject today: Until Religion News Service noticed and asked Southern Baptist Convention officials about it a few days ago, an online list of Southern Baptist pastors included five convicted sex offenders. Clearly the SBC has to do better at keeping track of its pastors. And the SBC response to the RNS inquiry suggests that will happen now. Good.

* * *

P.S.: Don't miss New Testament scholar Warren Carter, who used to teach at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, when he speaks March 1 and 2 at Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village. The link I've just given you will take you to a site that will tell you what you need to know to get tickets. Warren is a really smart guy who now teaches New Testament at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth. At Village he intends to focus on God's elusive presence in the gospel of Matthew, God's elusive purposes in the gospel of Luke and God's elusive revelation in the gospel of John.

Lessons from the Omar tweet controversy: 2-15-19

If you have paid even modest attention to the Arab-Israeli conflict (and the subset of that, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict), you know that absolutely nothing about it is simple.

OmarBeginning with the roots of modern Zionism in the 1800s and then with the creation of the modern state of Israel in 1948, it has been difficult for even the most attentive people to draw hard conclusions about what is happening there, why it's happening and who is to get the blame or the credit.

With that as background, I'm getting into the recent controversy today over a tweet from Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., (pictured here) considered by many to be antisemitic. Among many other questions, her words raised the issue of whether criticism of Israeli government policy and action is ever or even always antisemitic. (My answer is no.) And it raised the question of whether support for the cause of the Palestinians is ever or even always antisemitic. (Again, my answer is no.)

But as this Vox piece notes, there is plenty of antisemitic history and there are antisemitic dog-whistles that aren't all that difficult to recognize -- words, phrases and ideas that refer back to the core ideas behind modern antisemitism, which falsely postulates that greedy Jews try to control the world. Modern antisemitism, by the way, differs from historic anti-Judaism, which is the bigoted theology that traditional Christianity has preached and taught for most of its existence. My essay about that matter is here. Read it and weep.

What triggered widespread criticism of Omar was that she accused a pro-Israeli lobbying group essentially of paying members of Congress to support the Jewish state. As she wrote, "It's all about the Benjamins," a reference to $100 bills.

The antisemitic stereotype in that remark is clear and offensive to anyone who knows anything about modern antisemitism. There were much better ways of raising the question of whether lobbyists in general have too much influence and power on Capitol Hill, as surely they do.

As the Vox piece notes, Omar's comments allowed Republicans to draw parallels between her and such GOP embarrassments as Rep. Steve King, who has said indefensible things about white nationalism.

And Vox also noted this about the GOP response to Omar: "Lest you think any of this is happening in good faith, recall that (Rep. Kevin) McCarthy (a Republican) himself in October was accusing three Jewish Democrats of trying to 'buy' the 2018 midterms. . .Nonetheless, the issue of Israel remains deeply — indeed, almost uniquely — divisive in the Democratic Party."

Well, charges of racism, sexism and antisemitism fly about pretty loosely today, which is certainly not to say that those odious "isms" don't exist. They surely do and must be condemned.

But in all cases, let's remember the context, including the relevant history, before we throw accusations around. Omar clearly messed up, and I hope she's right that she's learning from this experience. But by condemning her words, let's not condemn opposition to any lobbying group for any cause that seeks to take control of our legislative process and thereby subvert our democracy.

* * *


A big United Methodist Church in South Carolina indicates that if the denomination changes its policies on LGBTQ folks to become more open and inclusive, it will leave. It's inevitable. It happened in my Presbyterian denomination, too, when we finally changed our rules in 2011. But like pro-slavery churches before the Civil War, eventually such churches will discover they've been misreading scripture and return to the mainstream of the faith. But only after lots of people are hurt. Sigh.

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Who Is My Neighbor, by Amy-Jill Levine and Sandy Eisenburg Sasso, illustrated by Denise Turu. This is another in a series of terrific books that retell the parables of Jesus in new ways for children. Previous books in the series include The Marvelous Mustard Seed and Who Counts? In this new one, the lesson about being a neighbor even to the most needy and even the scariest of people is told through the story of the Blues and the Yellows, two groups of beings deeply distrustful of each other. Until, that is, a young Yellow overcomes fear and helps a young Blue in trouble. They both learn that they actually like each other, and the generative word spreads to their separate communities to good effect. Levine, who teaches New Testament at Vanderbilt, has written some marvelous big-people theology books, including The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. Sasso, a rabbi, teaches at Indiana University-Purdue University. The Turu illustrations in this volume should draw children in immediately. They're wonderful.

Working across faith lines to build community: 2-14-19


Several times in recent years I have written about the terrific interfaith work being done through Habitat for Humanity in Kansas City, including in this Flatland column. A project called the House of Abraham, which involves Christian, Islamic and Jewish congregations, has built or rehabilitated six houses.

Hab-bales-3And this past Sunday, project leaders marked the start of the seventh home, this one in the 7100 block of Bales.

This is exactly what interfaith cooperation should look like.

"We bring people together," Pat Turner, president and CEO of Habitat KC, told the group. In fact, 28 different congregations around the metro are supporting this rebuild in some way, including providing volunteers to work alongside the new owner, a mother with four children.

Jude Huntz, faith outreach coordinator for Habitat KC, calls this "a great collaboration."

This particular house has been vacant for some time and it wound up in the hands of Wells Fargo Bank, which donated it to Habitat. It needs lots of work, but Huntz said he hopes it will be ready for the family to occupy it by this summer. If you or your congregation want to help with this or other Habitat projects, click on this Habitat contact page.

One of the important things that happens in this kind of interfaith work is that people of one religious tradition get to know people of another tradition in an up-close way as they work together toward a common goal. And that goes a long way toward alleviating fear and inaccurate perceptions about others.

(The woman in the light coat in the top photo is Pat Turner. The man in the green jacket is Jude Huntz, Habitat's faith outreach coordinator. The man in the dark jacket facing away from the camera is mayoral candidate Phil Glynn, who came to show support for this kind of community betterment work.)

(In the photo at left, that's the Rev. Larry Ehren of St. Mary Magdalene Episcopal Church in Belton, Mo., on the right. The home's eventual owner is behind Pat Turner.)

* * *


If some Catholic priests in the U.S. have been in all kinds of trouble in the sexual abuse scandal, one question to ask is who educated and spiritually formed them. One primary answer is the seminaries. Father Thomas Reese, a well-known Jesuit priest, says many seminaries are failing in their duties and need to be reformed. No doubt. But it's also true that Protestant seminaries are struggling to find their sea legs in a time of decline and upheaval in the Protestant world. How are seminaries in your tradition, if any, doing? If you don't know, it's time to find out.

Commemorating arrival of the first slaves in 1619: 2-13-19

It was 400 years ago this year that the first slaves from Africa arrived in what was to become the United States. Why is this worth commemorating?

Kaine-MillerNot to beat ourselves up again for the astonishingly immoral choices our ancestors made, about which we who are alive today had no say. And not to force descendants of those slaves to listen once again to the odious and agonizing stories of brutal, inhuman cruelty forced upon their ancestors.

No, the reason that it's important to take note of such anniversaries is to remind ourselves of the road Americans have traveled since 1619 and to get a clear grasp of where we are and where, as a people, we'd like to go from here. We cannot know our current location or the path forward if we know nothing -- or just a little -- of our past.

Which is one reason I'm glad that Congress has established the "400 Years of African-American History Commission." This USA Today story tells about that and about other aspects of the 400-year commemoration.

I thought Sen. Tim Kaine, an introducer of the bill to create that commission, made a helpful point about those 400 years in remarks last week in Kansas City at a forum about religion and politics. (Kaine, shown with some of the people he met with here last week, is the fourth from the left in the front row of this photo, with Kansas City mayoral candidate Steve Miller to his left, our right.)

Kaine said he finds it helpful to "divide 400 years into eight half-centuries. Five of the eight half-centuries that African-Americans have been on this soil they were enslaved, and even those who were free during those first five half-centuries. . .could never be a citizen. In the next 100 years after the Civil War, (there was) no slavery -- the 13th Amendment -- but no equality, either. . .It's only been in the last one-eighth of these 400 years that African-Americans have had quote quote legal equality, but that doesn't mean social equality, it doesn't mean economic, that doesn't mean. . .(a long list)."

Sometimes white people wonder why African-Americans still lag in so many social, economic and educational categories. One of the obvious answers is that they've had, realistically, about 50 or so years to overcome the previous 350 years of slavery, Jim Crow and de facto segregation, often reinforced by such policies as racially restrictive covenants in deeds for private homes, such as in Kansas City's Country Club district, that forbid sales to blacks (and Jews).

I hope this new 400-year commission doesn't go the way of lots of good-idea commissions by disappearing in a short burst of enthusiasm with no lasting product. One reason I'm hopeful is that my friend Bob Kendrick, head of the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City, has been appointed to the commission. Bobby isn't one to be silent when there's work to be done and barriers to be moved. So we'll see.

In the meantime, it wouldn't hurt for you to tell your representatives in Congress that you'd like some of the work produced by the new commission to find its way to your hometown. By doing that you might just educate your member of Congress or senators of the commission's existence.

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Two Texas newspapers have done a revealing report on the extent of sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches, and church officials are pledging to do better. This is just one more example of why we need excellent newspapers and, especially, why we need good coverage of religious matters. If we as citizens wind up dependent on non-professional blogs and tweets for our news, we're doomed.

The role of religion in the public square: 2-12-19


The other day at the YMCA on East Linwood in Kansas City, a couple of dozen folks -- clergy and other religious leaders -- gathered for what was billed as a conversation on "Faith & Politics: Living Authentically in Private What We Proclaim in Public."

Kansas City mayoral candidate Steve Miller (left in the photo here) had invited people to the conversation, which included his long-time friend and former Rockhurst High School classmate, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., the vice-presidential running mate of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election.

The subject was way too broad for the barely-an-hour time we had. In fact, this topic could not be exhausted in a semester-long college class. Still, it allowed Miller to introduce himself to more people as a serious candidate for mayor and it allowed Kaine to say a few things that are worth repeating.

(As an aside: I take it as a measure of the health of Kansas City that we have a long list of people running for mayor and that most of them, in my view, would do very well in the job. I'm not sure how we've managed to stir up this much interest among highly qualified people, but perhaps it's a testimony to the generally good job that Mayor Sly James has done in his two terms.)

Kaine acknowledged that because of the several current scandals in Virginia involving the governor, the lieutenant governor and the state's attorney general, he had spent most of the last 24 hours on the phone trying to make sense of it all and find a way toward resolution. But even in this case, he said that “All the issues I grapple with, I really do grapple with from a faith perspective.”

Kaine's Catholic faith, he said, grounds him so that he tries to look at whatever public issue he's facing by asking first what his faith tradition guides him to do. Miller, also a Catholic, echoed that thought.

“Because I’m a person of faith," Kaine said, "I look at (things) a little bit differently. . .I don’t know how I would deal with (things) if I didn’t have a faith background.”

I asked Kaine what, if anything, politicians like him can do about the reality that rigid, fundamentalist, only-one-answer religion has literally been killing people around the world. Is there a role for local or national political leaders to address that difficult matter?

“Humans," he said, "can pervert any good thing to a bad end.” People can “pervert religion. That’s not religion’s fault, that’s humans’ fault. . .I think religion done right is a humility inducer. I’d be a lot cockier and arrogant if I didn’t have a faith life."

Kaine is exactly right about that. If religion finds its initial impulse -- as it often does -- in awe and wonder, it should lead followers of any tradition to be humble about what they think they know, especially about divine or eternal matters. To have all the answers before even hearing the questions is the great sickness that plagues some followers of religion today both in the U.S. and around the world.

Kaine added this: "Leaders and people who talk about their faith should model this, too. This (religion) should make us more vulnerable. . .more able to acknowledge that we learn from one another. So to bring religion into the public square, you’re not bringing it in to proselytize and tell people to be like me but to show people, ‘Hey, I have a yardstick and here’s what it is.’. . .We should be humble. God knows the right answer; we don’t.”

(I'm pretty sure that Kaine spoke that semi-colon into existence.)

In both politics and religion, one of the scarcest resources these days is humility. Thus, principled compromise is often seen as some kind if immoral capitulation to evil. It's that black-and-white thinking in a gray world that leads us to violent trouble.

I may or may not agree with Miller and Kaine on all matters of civics and politics, but I think they grasp the right role of religion in the public square. And that's important whether we're talking about local trash pickup or international terrorism.

(By the way, as coincidence would have it, my pastor, Paul Rock, preached about faith in the public square this past Sunday. Another excellent Rock sermon, which you can watch here.)

* * *


After a Hindu temple in Louisville, Ky., was vandalized in what appears to be a religious hate crime, people of other faith traditions gathered there to fix the damage and support temple members. That's a good model. But while the evidence of vandalism can disappear, what about whatever causes someone to be infected with such odious hatred? That's what needs to be fixed.

A huge interfaith effort begins: 2-11-19

When India achieved independence in August 1947 and was partitioned -- into India, West Pakistan (now just Pakistan) and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) -- there was horrific violence between Muslims leaving India and Hindus leaving what was becoming Pakistan.


In many ways, this was out of character for Indians. Hindus and Muslims, though cultural and theological rivals, often had lived in harmony -- and sometimes in close proximity -- for centuries. But the very idea that India should be reserved for Hindus and that Pakistan should be for Muslims seemed to help create a contentious climate in which violence was almost inevitable. It was one of the saddest periods in the history of the subcontinent.

And today, by the way, the Hindu-Muslim divide is far from complete, especially in India, which is home to millions of Muslims. In fact, India either already has surpassed or soon may surpass Indonesia as the country with the largest Muslim population in the world, though Hindus still, by far, make up a majority of India's population.

All of that is background to the creation of a new organization designed to promote the reunification of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The India Reunification Association (IRA) came into existence last week, founded by a childhood friend of mine, Markandey Katju, a former justice on India's Supreme Court.

Markandey and I were schoolmates for a time at Boys High School in Allahabad (now Prayagraj) when my family spent two years in India in the 1950s. My father was part of a University of Illinois agriculture team there.

As chairman of the new IRA, Markandey writes this on the organization's website: "The idea of Indian reunification (i.e. reunification of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) under a secular government, is an idea whose time has come, not that this reunification will take place immediately, or even in the near future. We are sowing a seed which will take 10-15 years of patient work by patriots to grow into a fruit bearing tree. However, if we do not plant the seed now, we will not get fruit even after 10-15 years. Many of us may not live to see the day when the tree bears fruit, but our reward will be that we have worked for it."

2015-01-25 15.14.20He also notes this about the history of Hindu-Muslim relations in India: "Before 1857 there was no communal problem, and Hindus and Muslims used to live peacefully together like brothers and sisters. Hindus used to join Muslims in celebrating Eid and Muharram, and Muslims used to join Hindus celebrating Holi and Diwali."

Even as a former part-time resident of India, I don't have a large stake in this effort -- which, to be sure, is controversial on the subcontinent. But I applaud it and hope that at the very least it provides an opportunity for Hindus and Muslims there and everywhere to enter into healthy and respectful relationships over the long haul.

Islam, after all, is the second largest religion in the world, and Hinduism is third. If they can coexist in peace not just as residents of neighboring countries but as citizens of the same nation, what a terrific model that will be for interfaith understanding around the world.

Markandey, just so you know, is a confirmed atheist, but he certainly grasps the importance of inter-religious peace and harmony, although for him that's not the only reason to reunify India. His note on the IRA website explains that further.

So I hope that Indians and Pakistanis will consider this seriously and not let the idea be another source of conflict between them.

(The image above is from the IRA website and shows what a reunified India would look like. The photo at right was taken of Markandey and me a couple of years ago in California.)

* * *


What was God thinking in the creation process? Twitter has all the answers, of course. Twitter always has all the answers, except when it doesn't. But here is a collection of tweets that explain God's creative thinking process for dogs, bees, spiders, parrots and more. If you take all this seriously, God needs to do a little more work on your brain.

A 'blackface' tale from the 1950s: 2-9/10-19

The "blackface scandal" involving the governor of Virginia and others in his state has sent me back to my childhood and to the almost all-white small town in which I grew up, Woodstock, Ill.

WDT-patrol-boyI want to share with you part of chapter from my 2014 book, Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans, in which I describe a situation in which I, as a child, would have been expected to wear blackface for a Boy Scout minstrel show. (The Scout troop was sponsored by my church.)

In fact, as I explain in the book, the only reason I didn't participate in the minstrel show and wear blackface myself is that my family relocated to India for two years as part of my father's agriculture work before the show was staged.

This was not, however, 1984, and I was not 25 years old, both of which numbers were true for Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia. For me it was in the mid-1950s and I was 10 or so years old.

Still, what I experienced -- and later had to unpack emotionally, racially and even theologically -- was one more example of white supremacy run amok. (The photo you see here of me was taken when I was in 5th grade, at age 10 or 11, about the time of the first minstrel show I write about.)

Here's what I wrote in the book, a story perhaps appropriate for Black History Month:

When I was a boy in Woodstock there was only one black family (with two or three branches) and only one Jewish family. Oh, we had a few immigrants from such places as Poland but that was the extent of our diversity except for the seasonal influx of Spanish-speaking migrant workers to harvest vegetables and other crops. When we’d drive into Chicago, an hour-plus away, and see African-Americans on the streets, my mother sometimes (especially early in my life) would call them “darkies” or perhaps she merely tolerated us children calling them that. I never heard her or Dad use the toxic term nigger, but I certainly heard it from others, though talk of race and black people was pretty rare.

We were, however, marinated in racist thinking. For instance, when I was in Boy Scouts in the mid-1950s, I rehearsed for a traditional minstrel show that required the boy actors and singers to put on blackface and tell “Rastus and Remus” jokes to a large audience in the high school auditorium. I have copies of the 1956, 1957 and 1958 programs from those minstrel shows. And although I am included in a group photo on the back of the 1956 program, the event itself took place a couple of months after I already had moved to India with my family. So even though I remember rehearsing for the show, I was never an on-stage participant in the real event — but of course would have been had we not left the country.

The 1957 show received several promotional news stories in the Woodstock Daily Sentinel, which noted that the boys presenting the minstrel show were part of Boy Scout Troop 124, sponsored by First Presbyterian Church, the congregation to which my family and I belonged (I became a confirmed member in 1958 after returning from India). Indeed, in the 1956 minstrel program the church’s pastor, Cecil C. Urch, is listed as “Institutional Representative,” while in the programs from the 1957 and 1958 shows he is listed simply as one of the “producers & directors” or a member of the “Committee Men.”

My point in noting all this church connection is so that it’s clear that a Mainline Protestant church in the 1950s in northern Illinois saw nothing wrong with sponsoring a show of songs and jokes in which adolescent boys wore blackface and pretended to be African-Americans. This was the racial atmosphere Woodstock and much of Middle America was breathing then. And for context, let’s remember that the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which began with Rosa Parks refusing to take a seat in the back of a bus in Alabama, started on December 1, 1955. The news about black people refusing to take it anymore apparently was slow getting from Montgomery to Woodstock.

Thanks to my childhood friend Bob Okeson, who performed in these minstrel shows, I have in my possession not just the programs but also a copy of the song lyrics sung in the 1957 performance — called, none-too-subtly, “Plantation Days.” The opening number was “There’s Nothing Like a Minstrel Show.” Other songs included “Ole Dan Tucker,” which began, “I come to town de udder night, I hear de noise an’ see de fight…” The script obviously tried to help the white boys figure out allegedly black dialect. Finally, after renditions of “Short’nin’ Bread” and “Old Black Joe,” the show ended with “Lazy Bones,” which began this way: “Lazy-bones, Sleepin’ in the sun, How you ‘spec’ to get your day’s work done…”

How, indeed? The obvious message was that these lazy-boned black people needed someone like a Simon Legree from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to whip (literally) them into shape. It was a message that sank deep into the marrow of many white Middle Americans.

All of this might have been more understandable had it taken place a hundred years earlier in the Chicago area. In fact, something quite like it did. As historian Richard Lawrence Miller reports in Volume Three of his excellent four-volume biography Lincoln and His World, Abraham Lincoln himself, who later would be credited with freeing America’s slaves, attended and enjoyed minstrel shows. Miller reports that one of Lincoln’s friends, Henry Whitney, recalled this about a Chicago performance of one:

Woodstock-book-cover“On or about the 23d day of March, 1860, only a few weeks before the sitting of the Chicago (Republican presidential nomination) convention, he (Lincoln) was attending the United States Court, being then quite a candidate for the Presidency. I had three tickets presented to me for Ramsey & Newcomb’s Minstrels, a high-toned troupe, and I asked him if he would like to go to a ‘nigger show’ that night; he assented rapturously; his words were: ‘Of all things I would rather do tonight, that suits me exactly,’ and I never saw him apparently enjoy himself more than he did at that entertainment. He applauded as often as anybody, and with greater heartiness. The nondescript song and dance of Dixie was sung and acted by this troupe, the first time I ever saw it, and probably the first time it was sung and acted in Illinois. I can remember well the spontaneity of Lincoln’s enthusiasm, and the heartiness of his applause at the music and action of this rollicking and eccentric performance. … He clapped his great brawny hands in true rustic heartiness and exclaimed, in riotous enthusiasm: ‘Let’s have it again! Let’s have it again.’”

And yet in that same era — more than a hundred years before the Woodstock Boy Scouts offered a minstrel show to parents, grandparents and friends — there was at least some public sentiment suggesting that such blackface entertainment was not just racist but profoundly immoral. On the same page on which Miller quotes Henry Whitney’s minstrel show recollection, he also quotes this editorial about minstrel shows from what is called “A Massachusetts Paper” that was reprinted in the Sangamo Journal, a Springfield, Illinois, newspaper, on August 7, 1845:

“The performers of these ‘melodies’ doubtless consider themselves superior to the colored race; and proud of their white skins, look down upon a negro with contempt. Yet they go to the Southern plantations, and catch the words of the unconnected songs of slaves degraded by a long period (of) servitude, and debarred from the slightest intellectual culture, added to these words the most ineffably nonsensical productions of their own stupid brains, then endeavor to make their countenance resemble, as nearly as possible, those of the negroes whom they affect to despise — take the instruments which these wretched beings use, or devise others of so harsh a sound that no savage would endure them, and appear before the public, offering them what they style a ‘grand, original, chaste, and delightful entertainment.’ Perhaps the thought never occurred to them they are, in reality, voluntarily sinking themselves to a far lower state of debasement than that in which the negroes are unfortunately placed.

“‘Entertainments’ of this kind are outrages upon all good taste and refinement, if they are not decidedly immoral in their tendency; and it is to be hoped, that they will be speedily supplanted by amusements of a moral, rational, and elevated character.”

But more than a century later in Woodstock it was as if no one ever had raised an objection to minstrel shows. It was as if the Civil War had never been fought, the Emancipation Proclamation never issued, the first stirrings of the Civil Rights Movement had yet to happen. And all these years later the memories of having even rehearsed for a minstrel show embarrass me and break my heart.

T-slide-604Not long ago the memory of these mid-1950s minstrel shows surfaced in comments on the “I Grew Up in Woodstock” Facebook page, and I was quite taken by the oft-expressed idea that racism was rampant in Woodstock then, coupled with a few comments that tried to soften that clear reality. The few people seeking to explain (not excuse; they know and acknowledge that minstrel shows are seen now as inherently racist) what happened in the 1950s insisted that all this minstrel show stuff was done in good fun and that no one — black or white — should have or would have taken offense back then. In other words, there was precious little idea at the time that “Amos and Andy” or “Stepin Fetchit” were anything but sources of innocent humor. It didn’t mean to be racist, was the argument, and thus it wasn’t.

(In this photo of my Boy Scout troop, taken in our church building just before our family left for India, I'm the one on the far left.)

But, of course, white Middle Americans never experienced this kind of derisive humor from the perspective of the people of color who were the butt of the jokes. So white Middle Americans simply have no standing to dismiss criticism that labels minstrel shows of the 1950s and before as inherently racist.

It’s not so surprising that an essentially all-white small town could put on a minstrel show in the mid-1950s and imagine that it was simply entertainment. Residents of Woodstock at the time — and, indeed, many Middle Americans then — were simply enmeshed in a culture in which bigotry was so common that it seemed normal and acceptable. For instance, on page 11 of the June 6, 1957, Woodstock Daily Sentinel you can find this headline: “File Suit to Stop Japs from Trying William Gerard.” Twelve years after the end of World War II, our local newspaper was still using the derogatory term Japs. And if you look in the classified ads of the Sentinel in that era you find help wanted ads divided into “Male” and “Female,” reflecting the common practice then that reserved certain jobs just for men and others just for women. Beyond that, if you look at the 1959-’60 list I have of “band mothers” from Woodstock Community High School you will discover that each woman is a “Mrs.” (no single mothers, apparently) and all but five of the eighty-three women are identified not by their own first name but by their husband’s first name. This kind of prejudice and cultural myopia was pervasive, and it mostly seemed like the expected ordering of the universe to most Middle Americans then.

The reality was that most of us Middle Americans grew up benefiting hugely from what sociologists now call “white privilege,” but we were so deeply entangled in it that only when those outside our system began to point it out and question it did we even recognize the sea in which we swam. Eventually, however, many Middle Americans did come to understand that they were part of a system that routinely gave advantages to one on the basis of race just as it denied rights, privileges and advantages to another on that same basis. Even today not all Middle Americans recognize that reality but many more do so than when I was a child. And today the issues of diversity go far beyond black and white. They also go to the many immigrants who have come to our shores since the 1965 immigration reform act was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson and they especially go to the many religions those immigrants brought with them.

When I write or give speeches about interfaith dialogue these days, I often say that if the call of the Twentieth Century to Americans was to get racial harmony right (an unfinished task), the call of the Twenty-first Century is to get religious harmony right. And that, clearly, is also unfinished business as we wrestle with what it means to have Hindu and Buddhist temples, Islamic mosques and Sikh gurdwaras in neighborhoods that traditionally have been home only to Christian churches or Jewish synagogues.

As I say, this coming to terms with racial and ethnic differences was a slow process. When I went off to college at the University of Missouri in Columbia in 1963 I had no idea who my roommate might be in the dorm to which I was assigned. I remember Mom asking me if I would be bothered if he turned out to be a black kid. Of course not, I said, though I will now confess that I secretly hoped to ease into better race relations more slowly with, perhaps, a black kid or two down the hall, though not in my own room. As it turned out, I wound up rooming with a white Missouri farm boy for four years — two in the dorm, two in apartments — and the dorm black kids were confined (by choice or chance, I didn’t know) to rooms on the dorm’s bottom floor, called The Grotto. Choice? Maybe, but I doubt it.

In Woodstock, Illinois, in the 1950s — and in much of Middle America — most of those of us who were white simply assumed that we were the human norm, we were in charge, we were the way God intended people to be. Insulation and isolation tend to produce such malformed assumptions, and I’m pretty sure that people in remote villages in southern India or western China felt the same way then about themselves. It takes exposure to the wider world to help us understand where we fit in the breathtakingly broad human picture. It took us Middle Americans too long to recognize how pinched was the view of humanity that our cultural isolation and insulation had given us, but eventually, as I say, many of us began to see ourselves as part of a much broader context. And it helped that our children began to fall in love with people who came from ethnicities and cultures different from ours.

When we finally began to open up to this reality, the Human Genome Project came along and told us that biologically there is no such thing as race anyway. What we call race is primarily a political or cultural construct. That’s information most of us still are processing, uncertain whether it can possibly be right. But what we do know is that the white cocoon that was Woodstock in the 1950s has burst forth in a rather remarkable rainbow. And for that I’m grateful.

I saw clear evidence of this rainbow when I attended a football game in September 2013 between my alma mater and the team from the new high school in town, Woodstock North. In the stands cheering the teams on were blacks, whites, Hispanics and Asians. And they reflected the makeup of the students enrolled at the schools today, though that student population continues to be overwhelmingly white. But neither the Woodstock High junior varsity nor the varsity football teams I watched play was all white.

One of my classmates from the graduating class of 1963, also at the game as part of our fiftieth high school reunion, turned to me and pointed to the black kid on the sidelines wearing number 34.

“That’s my grandson,” he said, his voice full of pride. “My daughter has two adopted black children.”

When we were graduating, no one in Woodstock could have or would have uttered such a sentence. But today Middle Americans not only have witnessed this kind of change but at times have either led it or simply let it happen because their only other choice was to move to the radical fringe of a changing society. And that’s not where Middle Americans live.

Have we Americans made some racial progress since those 1950s and since the 1984 yearbook containing an entry about Virginia's governor? Of course. But racist attitudes run deep and sometimes silently. And if we quit paying attention to them they can and will reappear -- sometimes with the help of faith communities. And, yes, I believe in forgiveness and transformation. But we must understand in a deep way the sins for which we're asking to be forgiven.

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President Donald Trump told the National Prayer Breakfast a few days ago, “I will never let you down, I can say that — never.” I'm not sure whom he thought he was addressing, but he's clearly already let down lots of people of faith, including some of those who voted for him.

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P.S.: The other day here on the blog I wrote about the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber and her new book, Shameless, in which she argues for a new Christian sexual ethic. Here is the New Yorker's story about her and the book. Worth a read.

Is God's gorgeous universe a hologram? 2-8-19


One of the reasons I love big-end and little-end science, by which I mean cosmology and subatomic physics, is that it seems to me that both reveal God's creativity, wisdom and playfulness.

There is mystery galore in the cosmos, and just when you think you've figured out the world's dependable Newtonian reality, along comes some theory or observation that destroys your certainty.

As a friend said to me in a recent e-mail, "I once read that the universe is less like a great machine than it is like a great thought."

And why wouldn't that be true? The witness of scripture, after all, is that God spoke the world into existence ("Let there be light" and "Let there be. . ."). And what are words if not expressions of our thoughts?

All of this came up the other day when I read about a Brandeis University physics teacher who is proposing that the world we can see and touch and feel is actually a hologram. Really.

As the press release to which I just linked you explains, Matthew Headrick "works on one of the most cutting-edge theories in theoretical physics — the holographic principle. It holds that the universe is a three-dimensional image projected off a two-dimensional surface, much like a hologram emerges from a sheet of photographic film.

"'In my view, the discovery of holographic entanglement and its generalizations has been one of the most exciting developments in theoretical physics in this century so far,' Headrick said. 'What other new concepts are waiting to be discovered, and what other unexpected connections? We can't wait to find out.'"

You can read for yourself about what the release calls "an international effort by 18 scientists and their labs to determine whether the holographic principle is correct."

One thing I want to focus on is how all of this seems to me to be in harmony with the almost-century-old "Uncertainty Principle" proposed by German physicist Werner Heisenberg. It said that the more exactly you can locate a subatomic particle, the less exactly you can know the speed at which it's traveling, and vice versa. Sort of the way Schrödinger's cat can be simultaneously both dead and alive.

In short, the world is more mystical, magical, porous and paradoxical than most of us have ever imagined it to be, even though the language of the biblical creation stories can lead us to imagine a simple rock-solid universe that is in some fundamental way knowable.

But that biblical language in its original Hebrew is more reflective of a world of uncertainty, of puzzlement, even of playfulness. That language uses metaphor, myth and allegory as foundational building blocks of meaning. And we miss the point if we miss that.

For instance, in the opening verses of Genesis, the Hebrew words used to describe initial conditions at creation that often get translated as "without shape or form" or "without form, and void" are "tohu wabohu," writes Robert Alter in his three-volume The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary. But he says that "the second word of the pair looks like a nonce term coined to rhyme with the first and to reinforce it." (A nonce word is a made-up term used for a single instance.) So to keep the imaginative looseness of the original Hebrew in an English translation, Alter uses the alliterative terms "welter and waste."

It's his way of presenting us with the original puzzling uncertainties of the Hebrew text instead of repackaging the Hebrew into English words that simply try to explain what the Hebrew means. When that happens, much of the mystical, magical flow of the original is flattened, destroyed.

And let's suppose, just for fun, that the Genesis creation stories (there are two of them, and they don't match up very well) were trying to give us a clue about the holographic nature of reality. By translating the Hebrew in the way that most English translators do, that clue would be lost.

And remember that the world that the Bible -- and we -- are trying to describe is mostly invisible to us in that we simply have no way of seeing or touching dark matter or dark energy, which make up most of the cosmos.

All of which should lead to awe and wonder. And what are the primary impulses that lead to religion if not awe and wonder?

So God's world is not a case of what you see is what you get. Rather, it's what you get is far more than what you can see, sense, measure, touch or calculate. If that doesn't produce some humility in us, there's something radically wrong with us.

(The image here today came from this site.)

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When you think of people who identify as Christian evangelicals, what comes to mind? This RNS column by a Calvin College history professor does a good job exploring the problems inherent in coming up with a useful definition of "evangelical." Life is complicated, friends, and we do no one any favors by pretending it's simple or monochromatic.

Is Islam compatible with religious freedom? 2-7-19

Before I retired from full-time work at The Kansas City Star, I attended a conference in the Washington, D.C., area that looked at the question of whether Islam was compatible with democracy. We heard differences of opinion about that from various alleged experts, but, in the end, the obvious conclusion was that there was nothing within Islam that would deny the possibility of a predominantly Muslim nation being a democracy.

Religious-freedom-islamA tangentially related question now is the subject of new research by Daniel Philpott, a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame. He has sought to answer whether Islam is compatible with religious freedom.

His answer is a bit nuanced because it accurately reflects the complicated world of Islam. But he concludes that on the whole there is no reason to think that Islam is inherently opposed to religious liberty and, in fact, there are reasons to hope that such freedom can grow in predominantly Muslim countries.

The Notre Dame press release to which I've linked you describes Philpott's new book on this subject, Religious Freedom in Islam, and reports that he "finds that roughly one-fourth of Muslim-majority countries exhibit strong evidence of religious freedom. In the remaining three-fourths, he finds that 40 percent are governed not by Islamists, but by a hostile secularism imported from the West, while the other 60 percent are Islamist. Additionally, Philpott contends that 11 Muslim-majority countries are religiously free — far more than outliers — and that they are free not despite Islam but because of their very interpretation of Islam."

In such countries as Saudi Arabia, where religious freedom is little more than a dream, what keeps religious liberty at bay is not something inherent within Islam but, rather, the relationship religious leaders have created with the leaders of the House of Saud, which governs the country. When modern Saudi Arabia was created in the 1930s, the king worked out an agreement with Wahhabi religious leaders to let them define Islam the rigid way they wanted to in return for their political support of his government.

The result has been a nation bereft of religious liberty, unlike the 11 Muslim-majority country that Philpott describes as "religiously free." And why do those nations countenance such freedom? Because, he says, of the way they interpret Islam.

So just as there are many divisions within Christianity and Judaism that lead to different ways of thinking about religious liberty, the same is true with Islam.

In the end, I think Philpott is right to insist that religious liberty is a foundational human right that should be protected everywhere on the planet for everyone.

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Although many observers -- to say nothing of Pope Francis himself -- have been downplaying expectations for the upcoming Vatican summit of bishops on the sexual abuse scandal, religion scholar and blogger Mark Silk says there are reasons to be hopeful. I'll cast my lot with Mark but expect to be disappointed. How's that for middle ground?

What happens when religion loses its place? 2-6-19

Instead of doing a full review of Timothy P. Carney's forthcoming book, Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse, I want to focus on just one of his interesting ideas. (The book's official publication date is Feb. 19, but it can be pre-ordered now.)

Alienated-americaIn trying to understand the alienation from society that people who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 feel, Carney, commentary editor for the Washington Examiner, spends a fair amount of ink on religion. He specifically calls the Christian church "America's indispensable institution."

There are many reasons to agree with him about this, but also reasons to be cautious about what might appear to be the exclusivist nature of the claim, given that the U.S. is an increasingly pluralistic nation in terms of religion. Carney, however, insists that everything he says "about Christians in America applies equally, as far as we can tell, to adherents of other religions." Fair enough.

Still, given that the church still functions as a crucial element of many American communities, it's worth thinking about why having such faith-based communities is a good thing.

Carney concedes that "Americans are falling away" from religious affiliation. Indeed, it's now estimated that almost 25 percent of American adults identify as religiously unaffiliated.

"But," he writes, "cheering on secularization is an error. On the aggregate, the Americans who are turning away from religion, particularly among the working class, are doing worse than those maintaining their connection to religion. And secularization is harming the country as a whole."

He describes studies that carefully control for income, race, education, age, gender and region and that find this: "(F)amilies that attend religious ceremonies weekly were much more likely than those who seldom or never attend to (a) eat dinner together. . .(b) do household chores together weekly and (c) go out to movies, sporting events or parks at least once a month."

Those are measurements of strong, cohesive families through which healthy, life-affirming, community-building values get transmitted. "In other words," Carney writes, "Gallup found that very religious people have better lives than similarly situated nonreligious people."

So, he concludes, "America's growing irreligiosity is a problem."

I agree, though my agreement doesn't mean I think that all religiously unaffiliated people (only a small percentage of whom are atheists) are lost souls who do nothing but harm the country. That would be a ridiculous conclusion.

But religious institutions, when they are healthy, add to the well-being of the communities they serve. They, in fact, create community. They provide a supportive structure for families and individuals in ways that create meaning. And meaning is what all humans thirst for. Especially what we might call eternal meaning.

Carney's book focuses a lot on the people who support (or once voted for) Trump as he tries to understand how they made that commitment. And that's interesting stuff here. But, at least to me, the most intriguing material in the book has to do with the indispensability of religious institutions -- and what we lose if we lose them. One of the more disturbing observations he makes in that regard is that "in Trump Country, even if expressions of religiosity are high, the churches are empty. . .In this alienating wasteland, we get increased inequality, decreased mobility and faded hope. Then we get even more broken families, even less churchgoing and more deaths of despair." Ouch.

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Earlier this week here on the blog I wrote about the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber's call for a new Christian sexual ethic. That prompted a friend to connect me to a draft of this sexual ethic that was written in 2012 by the Community of Christ, based in Independence, Mo., and still under consideration by that denomination. It's strikes me as a really good effort. See what you think.