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SCOTUS is getting it wrong on the death penalty: 4-30-19

For many years, I have been against -- and written against in several venues -- the death penalty. It is vengeful, ineffective as a deterrent, not equitably applied, inordinately expensive and it reduces the state to the level of criminality. There's more wrong with it but that's a good start.

Death-penaltyAnd in recent decades Americans have been less and less supportive of capital punishment. Indeed, 20 states now have outlawed it. One reason is that, as the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) reports, since 1973, more than 160 people have been released from death row because of evidence that they were innocent.

Still, the reality is that sometimes capital punishment kills innocent people. And that goes on our permanent record as Americans because the governments we elect allow that to happen.

With the pendulum swinging away from capital punishment, this opinion piece in The Atlantic raises exactly the right question:

Why has the post-Anthony Kennedy Supreme Court "introduced itself to the nation by strapping itself to the decaying corpse of the American death penalty"?

As Garrett Epps, professor of constitutional law at the University of Baltimore writes, "It is a curious choice. Capital punishment is a relic of a harsher time, now stumbling toward extinction, unpopular with both right and left. For these conservative justices — Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh — to embrace it is like an American politician journeying to the Soviet Union in 1991 and saying, 'I have seen the future and it works!'”

Curious indeed. And deeply troubling.

One of the reasons that people who identify as politically conservative have been moving away from support for the death penalty is that it's so damn expensive. Here is some information from the DPIC on that subject:

• Oklahoma capital cases cost, on average, 3.2 times more than non-capital cases. (Study prepared by Peter A. Collins, Matthew J. Hickman, and Robert C. Boruchowitz, with research support by Alexa D. O’Brien, for the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission, 2017.)
• Defense costs for death penalty trials in Kansas averaged about $400,000 per case, compared to $100,000 per case when the death penalty was not sought. (Kansas Judicial Council, 2014).
• A study in California revealed that the cost of the death penalty in the state has been over $4 billion since 1978. Study considered pre-trial and trial costs, costs of automatic appeals and state habeas corpus petitions, costs of federal habeas corpus appeals, and costs of incarceration on death row. (Alarcon & Mitchell, 2011).
• Enforcing the death penalty costs Florida $51 million a year above what it would cost to punish all first-degree murderers with life in prison without parole. Based on the 44 executions Florida had carried out since 1976, that amounts to a cost of $24 million for each execution. (Palm Beach Post, January 4, 2000).
• The most comprehensive study in the country found that the death penalty costs North Carolina $2.16 million per execution over the costs of sentencing murderers to life imprisonment. The majority of those costs occur at the trial level. (Duke University, May 1993).
• In Texas, a death penalty case costs an average of $2.3 million, about three times the cost of imprisoning someone in a single cell at the highest security level for 40 years. (Dallas Morning News, March 8, 1992).

But for me it's not (or not mostly) an economic question. It's a moral question. I don't believe the government should be killing people to teach people it's wrong to kill people. That's just perverse.

My hope is that the anti-death-penalty crowd will speak clearly and more often -- and maybe even louder -- to get the attention of the Supreme Court justices who seem to love capital punishment. By the way, five of the nine Supreme Court justices are Catholic. Maybe they should re-read what the church teaches on this subject. They can start with this page on the website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

On that page, along with much other information, they'll find this excellent thinking from the late Pope John Paul II: “The dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform.”


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There's a Bible-reading marathon going on this week in Elyria, Ohio. Not quite sure what good this does, but maybe it will educate the reporter who wrote the story about it that the name of the last book of the New Testament is Revelation, not Revelations. That would be progress.

New ruling leaves Methodists in a quandary: 4-29-19

In late February, when the United Methodist Church's international governing body narrowly voted to keep the denomination's ban on LGBTQ pastors and on allowing any pastor to officiate at a same-sex wedding, I wrote this piece expressing my disgust and sorrow about the decision. (In that post, I coupled the Methodist decision with other disappointing developments in the Catholic Church.)

UMC-logoLate last week, the Judicial Council, or top court, of the United Methodist Church ruled that the so-called "Traditional Plan" adopted in February was, with some small exceptions, constitutional and could be regarded as official church policy. The pieces of the plan it ruled unconstitutional were comparatively minor and did not make the whole plan unconstitutional.

If you are interested in the details of what the Judicial Council did, here are links to three articles that will help explain the action. This one is from Religion News Service, this one from the Chicago Tribune and this one from the UMC's own news service.

I am disappointed in the Judicial Council's ruling although certainly not surprised. But now that the council has made its ruling, the 40-some UMC churches in the Kansas City area (and congregations around the U.S.) each will have to figure out how to respond. I wrote in this recent Flatland column about how several local gay-friendly UMC churches were wrestling with what to do.

I am not in the business of telling Methodists how to order their polity or live their lives. But as a member of a Presbyterian Church whose denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), decided in 2011 to allow ordination of otherwise-qualified LGBTQ folks to ministry and to allow our pastors (who want to) to conduct same-sex weddings, my hope is that many American Methodist churches will do one of two things:

Stay within the UMC and continue to work to change the newly affirmed regressive rules or leave the denomination and partner with other Methodist congregations that want to do the right thing by LGBTQ people. The other option, of course, is for advocates of "The Traditional Plan," which passed in February, to leave the denomination and quit fighting with people who didn't want that plan.

Churches that stay in the UMC but do nothing to reverse the February decision and the Judicial Council's confirmation of that decision would be telling LGBTQ people that they aren't welcome in their congregations. What a terrible message.

As I note in this essay, there is no biblical reason not to welcome gays and lesbians as church members, no reason not to ordain them as pastors if they are otherwise qualified and no reason for pastors not to officiate at same-sex weddings.

The traditional readings of scripture on these points are, I firmly believe, simply wrong and misguided.

Adam-Hamilton-2The Rev. Adam Hamilton (pictured here), founding pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in suburban Leawood (and now elsewhere, too), will have to take (and is taking) a leadership position among congregations unhappy with the February decision.

In fact, in this long Facebook post, Adam lays out what he sees as the future and talks about a Methodist gathering in this area later in May to try to discern a way forward.

It's a carefully written, clear piece. If you care about this issue, I hope you'll read it.

No analogy is ever perfect, but this fight reminds me of what many churches and denominations went through over the issue of slavery in the 1800s.

And, yes, I'm drawing a parallel between keeping black people in legal bondage then and LGBTQ people in social and ecclesiastical bondage now. How sad that some Christians didn't learn from that earlier experience.

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Besides increasing security, what are synagogues, mosques, churches and other houses of worship supposed to do to protect themselves from violent extremists like the one who murdered a woman and wounded a rabbi and two other people in a synagogue near San Diego this past Saturday? I'm essentially out of answers except to continue working to promote religious literacy and interfaith understanding. If that task interests you (as it should), join me tomorrow night at the annual Table of Faiths dinner sponsored by the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council.

How religious assumptions can mislead us: 4-27/28-19

Earlier this week, here on the blog, I wrote about how important it is to know something of the cultural contexts in which the Bible was written if we are to have any hope of understanding with much clarity what the writers meant.

Nanos-2019-PaulJust as many seniors today miss pop cultural references in conversations with millennials, including their grandchildren, so people who read sacred writ with no grasp of the times and circumstances in which those words were penned will be considerably more in the dark than people who have studied the history and social customs of the times in question.

Another thing that can shape and misshape our readings of the scripture of various religions is that we often come to the texts with assumptions about what we might find there or what is happening. These assumptions are picked up in lots of ways, including our own (often inadequate) religious education.

Mark D. Nanos, a Jewish scholar (pictured here) who focuses on the Apostle Paul, mentioned all this the other evening in the second of a three-part lecture series he's doing at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in suburban Leawood. The series, sponsored by a group of Jewish and Christian women called "Strangers No More," wraps up at 7 p.m. Tuesday at COR. If you want to attend this final talk, details are here.

(And if you want a brief synopsis of the work Nanos does, here is a column I wrote about him a year-plus ago for Flatland.)

"What you assume that you will find (in sacred texts)," Nanos said, "the questions you ask, the methods you use, the answers you're driving for" probably will shape your conclusions more than anything else. "That's the way our brains work."

But we must be aware of this tendency to assume we know what to expect from what we're reading so that we can check ourselves and see what's really in the text and not just what we imagine is, he said.

It's especially important, Nanos said, that the assumption-busting work he and others are doing about the Apostle Paul and the books of the New Testament get introduced to young readers because "the prejudices start then. The patterns start then."

For instance, in chapter 9 of the book of Acts we find the story of how Saul (later Paul) encountered the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, with the result that Paul abandoned his practice of persecuting the followers of Jesus and became a disciple instead.

The standard Christian misreading of that passage, based on long-held assumptions in the church, is that as a result of the experience, Paul rejected Judaism and converted to Christianity. Beyond that, this misreading suggests, once Saul changed his name to Paul, he then spread the Christian faith around the known world and became, in effect, the co-founder of Christianity.

Well, there are many things wrong with that assumption-laden interpretation, including the fact that Paul never rejected or left Judaism and that in his lifetime there was no Christianity for him to convert to. He remained within Judaism, but in that segment of Judaism that believed the Messiah had come as Jesus of Nazareth. When we get that wrong -- when, that is, we assume Paul left his Damascus Road experience a Christian -- it leads to all sorts of Jewish-Christian relations problems. That's partly because we assume that if Paul left Judaism there must have been (and continues to be) something wrong or irrelevant about it.

And from there we soon get the long history of anti-Judaism in what later became Christianity.

All of this is a good reason not to read sacred writ alone -- especially not sacred texts that are from traditions beyond our own. We are likely not just to miss a lot but to get a lot wrong, sometimes with terrible consequences. For instance, I can't tell you how many non-Muslims have quoted a line or two cherry-picked from the Qur'an to prove that Islam is a religion of violence. Muslims, of course, could cherry-pick a few lines from the Bible to prove, allegedly, the same thing about Christianity. This is not studying scripture. This is weaponizing sacred writ.

So Nanos is right about the assumptions we make when reading the Bible and other sacred texts. Such assumptions are hard to avoid, but we at least can be aware that we may be making them and ask for help in identifying what they may be.

Taking that path is much more likely to lead us to insight and helpful meaning.

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The Internal Revenue Service has recognized The Satanic Temple as a tax-exempt religious organization. If, like me, your first reaction to this news was "Well, I'll be damned," you might want to rethink that.

Seeing our national parks through spiritual eyes: 4-26-19

It is a good guess that the original impulse behind religion was the sense of awe and wonder people felt when looking at the natural world, including the seemingly endless sky.

Am-Holy-GroundIt may be possible for some people to stand at the base of mountains, to listen to what poet Wallace Stevens called the "slopping of the sea," to gaze at a double rainbow or to see a spectacular water fall and not wonder at how it all was created and at the power behind that creation. But I don't know how that's possible.

So far, Americans are able to see such humbling sites at 61 different national parks (not even counting various national monuments) scattered across this amazing land.

I have been to a few, though I must say I envy people who have made it a goal to see all of most of them -- and then accomplished that goal.

Brad Lyons and Bruce Barkhauer are in that see-them-all group and have written a lovely little devotional book full of graceful photos and brief meditations drawn from what they've seen.

It's called America's Holy Ground: 61 Faithful Reflections on our National Parks, and, while not a full guide to the parks, it is one way to enhance the experience of visiting the parks or to think about what those parks can teach us even if we can't be there. It's official publication date will be Tuesday but it can be pre-ordered now.

Lyons is president and publisher of Chalice Press, which is publishing this volume, while Barkhauer is a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) pastor.

A brief example of what you'll find in the book: In the section on Acadia National Park in Maine (which is one I actually have seen), the authors note that "from early October to early March, this is the first place in the continental United States to greet the sun, so the beginning of each day is truly marked here."

They then offer some thoughts about the power of new beginnings in our lives and how we sometimes need them.

To say that many of the photos in the book are gorgeous would be true, but on the other hand it's sort of difficult to take a terrible picture in our national parks.

If I were about to visit one or more of our national parks (and may our government preserve them forever), I'd for sure take this small book along as a welcome companion.

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National and international journalistic coverage of religion is about to get quite a bit better. Religion News Foundation, Religion News Service, the Associated Press and The Conversation have just announced the creation of "a global religion journalism initiative." It's all thanks to a $4.9 million grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. Good. Given the role religion is playing for both good and ill now, such coverage is needed more than ever.

Are fundamentalists brain damaged? 4-25-19

When we use the term fundamentalism in religion, it generally means a strict, literalistic approach to faith. Things are, in other words, all black and white and not gray.

FundamentalismIn Christian terms, the word fundamentalist goes back to a 12-volume set of books containing 90 essays written between 1910 and 1916. Called "The Fundamentals," the essays listed beliefs that the authors insisted every Christian should hold, no questions asked, in effect.

But given the complex, nuanced nature of the world, what would lead someone to become a religious fundamentalist? What, in other words, would attract someone to a rigid way of viewing life that has no room for disagreement, for conversation, for alternative ways of thinking?

Surprising -- to me -- new research suggests one possible cause: brain damage. As the story to which I've just linked you reports, the research "has shown that religious fundamentalism is, in part, the result of a functional impairment in a brain region known as the prefrontal cortex."

But before we dismiss all fundamentalists in this way, let's also pay attention to what the people who did the study say. As the story reports: The authors emphasize that lack of "cognitive flexibility and openness aren’t the only things that make brains vulnerable to religious fundamentalism. In fact, their analyses showed that these factors only accounted for a fifth of the variation in fundamentalism scores. Uncovering those additional causes, which could be anything from genetic predispositions to social influences, is a future research project that the researchers believe will occupy investigators for many decades to come, given how complex and widespread religious fundamentalism is and will likely continue to be for some time."

Well, you can read the details for yourself. But I think it's worth doing this sort of research because of the reality that fundamentalism in any religion can be a dangerous approach that ignores good scholarship and helpful challenges to orthodoxy. (I make several points about all of this in my last book, The Value of Doubt.)

In its worst forms, fundamentalism can lead to a special kind of ignorance that spawns bigotry and even violence. And surely there's enough of all that in the world now.

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As I mentioned in this Flatland column that posted on Sunday, United Methodist churches are awaiting decisions this week from the UMC Judicial Council about the constitutionality of the recent vote by the UMC's governing body to reaffirm the denomination's anti-LGBTQ stand. Here's a Religion News Service piece about what's at stake (a lot).

Understanding the Bible's cultural context: 4-24-19

Because the Bibles used by Christians are collections of writings produced over hundreds and hundreds of years, readers will miss a great deal if the texts are read exclusively through the eyes of 21st Century Americans.

Cultural-backgroundsRather, a fuller understanding of what's being said and -- more to the point -- what's meant requires that readers know something about the cultural context in which the writing was done.

Various good study Bibles can help with this. I am now using the Common English Bible version that has lots of notes and explanatory pieces with the text. It's excellent but not perfect.  (What is?)

But a new Bible from Zondervan, a division of HarperCollins Christian Publishing, aims specifically at offering readers information about the cultural context of the texts. It's called the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. Previously it was available in the New International Version and the New King James Version translations. Now it's available in the New Revised Standard Version, which is more widely used among Mainline Protestants.

It, too, is not perfect, but it strikes me as quite good and really helpful.

When I say it's not perfect, I noted almost immediately a typo in an introductory piece called "Major Background Issues from the Ancient Near East." It said that the "gods in the ancient word. . ." when it meant "world."

More serious is the use of the term "Gentile Christians" in the introduction to the book of Romans. That's an anachronism. There was no Christianity yet, only followers of Jesus. And by simply picking up and using the previously produced "NRSV Authorized Concise Glossary and Concordance," editors of this new edition have picked up similarly anachronistic wording, such as describing the Apostle Paul as "violently anti-Christian" early in his career. There was no Christianity for Paul to be against. Why does that matter? This column that I wrote earlier for Flatland helps to explain.

All of that said, there is much here to recommend the book, including helpful historical notes, maps and various sidebar articles to help readers understand how the original readers might have understood what was written.

There's even a helpful sidebar article called "Homosexual Activity in Antiquity," though it would have been more useful if editors had called the Greco-Roman practice of adult males having boys entering puberty as sexual toys the practice of pederasty. The Apostle Paul's objection to homosexual acts was primarily an objection to that exploitative practice and not to what today we are beginning to understand as homosexual orientation, about which he could have understood little or nothing. For more on that, here's my essay on what the Bible really says about homosexuality.

Here and there throughout this new book readers will find useful information gathered from archaeology and other disciplines, especially findings from the last 100 or so years.

All of that helps to set the Bible in a cultural context and make it easier to know what the writers were trying to say. Serious Bible readers will want to use more than one study Bible to compare and contrast, but this new one should be among those they consider using. In fact, serious readers of any sacred writ should find this kind of help. An example from another faith tradition is the quite-good Study Qur'an.

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Just for fun today, here's the Babylon Bee's post-Easter account of the annual migration of those horrible marshmallow peeps' migration back to the Isle of Disgusting Candy. Think of the Babylon Bee as the satirical religious equivalent of The Onion.

What the heck does life mean, anyway? 4-23-19

One of the prime purposes -- or possibly by-products -- of religion is to help adherents find meaning in their lives. And by meaning I mean something larger than ourselves, something that's even beyond our complete grasp and understanding.

Meaning-lifeBut what if one has turned away from religion? What if one, though raised with faith, has decided that meaning must be found outside of religion?

Finding such meaning is the task that Florida State University philosophy professor Michael Ruse has set for himself in his latest book, A Meaning to Life.

The book is both engaging and annoying. Ruse writes whimsically at times and clearly enjoys what he's doing. But in his rejection of Christianity (he was reared a Quaker), he simply misstates at times what the faith teaches, sometimes preferring instead to rely on common misunderstandings.

A prime example is his description of Christianity's teachings about eternal life: "We can join God in heaven," he writes, "but only if we behave down here on earth."

No. That's works righteousness. That notion of how we get to heaven, if at all, suggests that we must earn our way there by being good boys and girls. It completely misses the core Christian teaching about grace.

I must add that sometimes Ruse is not clear whether he's simply summarizing the thinking of others or is offering his own take on matters. So perhaps -- I honestly could not tell -- in the quote about heaven I just gave you he was trying to say something like, "Lots of Christians believe that we can join God in heaven. . ." A good editor could have cleared that up.

In any case, he should have made clear whether this was his own misunderstanding or whether he was passing along someone else's misunderstanding.

He also says that for John Calvin, founder of the Reformed Tradition of Protestant Christianity, the presence of Christ in the sacrament of Holy Communion is "just symbolic."

No. It was just symbolic for reformer Ulrich Zwingli, who argued about this matter with reformer Martin Luther. But Calvin was a believer in the "Real Presence" of Christ in the sacrament, though he and other non-Catholic Real Presence believers did not and do not use the Catholic doctrine of "transubstantiation" to explain how that presence manifests itself in the Eucharist.

If Ruse got those two matters about Christianity wrong, one wonders what else he got wrong that may have caused him to leave the faith.

He also, by the way, seems to assume that the theory of atonement called the penal substitutionary theory is somehow at the core of Christianity to explain why Jesus went to the cross. But, in fact, many theologians today have rejected that theory. They have moved away from it because it gets things backwards. It suggests that God loves us because Christ died for us, whereas what Christianity really teaches is that Christ died for us because God loves us. Quite a difference.

Much of the book is taken up with thoughts about the difference Charles Darwin made in the world with his theory about evolution through natural selection. After and because of Darwin, people of faith -- especially biblical literalists -- were profoundly challenged. They somehow had to figure out how evolution and divine creation could co-exist.

Many people, including Ruse, could not figure out how to make that happen, so they abandoned religion, and yet still tried to find some helpful concept of meaning to life.

In the end, Ruse concludes that "the meaning of life has to come from within." He calls himself an agnostic, meaning he doubts there is a God and doubts there is life after death, but just doesn't know "whether life has any -- time for those capitals -- Ultimate Meaning."

So his advice is this: "Live for the real present, not the hoped-for future. Leave it at that."

Well, it's not bad advice, but, in the end, not worth the 170 pages it took to get there. Although having spent several hours getting through those pages, I'm a little closer to my death and to the possibility of finding out whether Christianity or Ruse is right. I'm betting against Ruse. My bet is called faith. Faith isn't a crutch. It's a way of living boldly without certitude -- because certitude kills faith.

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The murderous Easter bombings in Sri Lanka should be seen in a context that, this New York Times analysis says, shows that "religious minorities of many faiths have been battered by this surge of nationalism and sectarian politics." Here again, religious certitude is leading its proponents toward violence. And no one is safe.

Donald Trump's moral center is AWOL: 4-22-19

By now you may well have heard or read a hundredy skillion accounts about -- and analyses of -- the Mueller Report on whether Russia interfered with the 2016 U.S. presidential election. (Yes, it did. Big time.)

Read-the-reportThis post will not be another one, exactly.

Rather, I will say a few words here about what that report demonstrates about the appalling lack of any moral center in President Donald J. Trump. And I'll add a few words about how he seems to differ in that regard from the kind of moral vacuum revealed in former President Bill Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky affair -- and maybe even from Richard M. Nixon's astonishing moral failures.

The Mueller Report, among much else that's disgusting, provides lots of detail about how Trump attempted to obstruct justice (see especially Volume II).

Time and again he asked subordinates to lie or to fire people, including his main target, Special Counsel Robert Mueller. It seems likely to me that one reason Mueller's team decided to leave the question of obstruction of justice to Congress is that the people Trump asked to do the dirty work of obstruction refused to do it. That made it hard to make a legal case for obstruction. Had they done that work for Trump -- had, for instance, White House Counsel Don McGahn followed Trump's June 17, 2017, order to fire Mueller -- the case for obstruction would have been much clearer. (For details of that, see page 85 of Volume II of the Mueller Report.)

(Just as an side, isn't it interesting -- if meaningless, except as a history trigger -- that Trump's order to McGahn happened on June 17, which was the date in 1972 of the Watergate break-in, which ultimately lead to the impeachment and resignation of President Richard M. Nixon?)

The last person I had moral confidence in when he was elected president was Jimmy Carter, and he turned out to be a pretty ineffective leader, though he's clearly been perhaps our best ex-president ever. Ronald Reagan in many ways was a decent human being but he had little clue about the responsibility government has to protect and defend society's powerless, seeing government, instead, as the problem. George H.W. Bush also was a decent man, though not quite as good as Jon Meacham's book, Destiny and Power, made him out to be. And Bush was connected to a long-time political family that sometimes seemed more interested in power than in the public good.

Bill Clinton got a lot right in terms of policy but he had the personal morals of a vacuum cleaner. And George W. Bush, who seems a much better ex-president than he was a president, made egregious moral decisions about war. I'm not about attacking Afghanistan, which was justified for self-defense after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but about invading Iraq based on false -- maybe manufactured -- information. Barack Obama was wrong about several matters, especially drawing a red line in Syria and not sticking to it, but, on the whole, he was at core a decent, moral man who put up with enormous pressures from fools like Donald Trump, whose racist approach to him tried to make Obama appear to have been born outside the U.S.

But Trump is among the most immoral people ever to hold the office of president, and the 400-plus pages of the Mueller report prove it (or, rather, confirm it) page after page after demoralizing page.

This report should be -- but no doubt won't be -- a shocking rebuttal to the 80-plus percent of Christian evangelicals who voted for the man despite the reality that his life has been a living contradiction of nearly all of their values.

I thought Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said it pretty well when he declared himself “sickened at the extent and pervasiveness of dishonesty and misdirection by individuals in the highest office of the land, including the President.

“I am also appalled that, among other things, fellow citizens working in a campaign for president welcomed help from Russia — including information that had been illegally obtained; that none of them acted to inform American law enforcement; and that the campaign chairman was actively promoting Russian interests in Ukraine. . .Reading the report is a sobering revelation of how far we have strayed from the aspirations and principles of the founders.” (But notice that it's those kind of immoral people who are attracted to the chance to work for Trump. See Michael Flynn. See Michael Cohen. See. . .)

None of this is to express remorse that Hillary Clinton wasn't elected president. She ran such a poor race that she didn't deserve to win. But Romney's words and my own sense of being appalled at Trump's behavior are legitimate expressions of shock that Russia helped elect an American president who is lacking any foundational sense of morals or ethics.

The moral failure of Hillary's husband, Bill Clinton, was primarily a story of simple lust, which is all Trump's failure would be were it limited to paying off porn stars or models so they wouldn't talk about having sex with him. Clinton was foolish and self-centered in the Lewinsky matter. And his behavior damaged the office of president. But through it all he retained a concern for people who needed help and for the welfare of the country.

Richard Nixon's narcissistic failures and his lust for power that led him to cover up crimes were closer to what we see now in Trump, but even Nixon remained able, in the end, to see his duty to country by removing himself from the Oval Office to allow a truly decent human being, Jerry Ford, to take over.

The Mueller Report, by contrast, confirms what many of us have long suspected -- that Trump is a vindictive, petty, self-absorbed, vengeful man with precious little thought for the welfare of all Americans, for the common good. Worse, people who identify as serious Christians overwhelmingly supported him in 2016 and, for the most part, continue to do so. Again and again I have wondered what it is about the Christian religion that such people don't understand.

All I know is that to learn about this ancient faith and its difficult call to live loving, sacrificial lives, the last thing they should do is ask Donald Trump or pattern their lives after his.

* * *


Even Easter was not immune from the sickness of violent extremism. More than 200 people died in various attacks in Sri Lanka. Terrorism like this often is rooted in religion run-amok, religion in love with false certitude. No part of the world seems immune.

* * *

P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about the uncertain future of KC area gay-friendly United Methodist churches -- now is online here.

Their unique voices were saved for us: 4-20/21-19

As those of us who are Christian celebrate Easter this weekend, I want to share with you a book that offers a different sort of hope, but hope nonetheless.

Voices-ghettoIt's Voices from the Warsaw Ghetto: Writing Our History, edited with an introduction by David G. Roskies, who teaches at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

As it became clear in 1940 that Germany's Nazi killing machine was brutalizing Europe's Jews (though the ultimate scale of the Holocaust still could not be imagined), historian Emanuel Ringelblum organized a bold, marvelous project. He asked Jews, especially residents of the Warsaw Ghetto, to write about their lives and he arranged a secret collection system to save their words.

Against all odds, many of those words survived to tell the ghastly, murderous story of what happened to individual lives, day by gruesome day.

This new book, to be officially published this Tuesday, collects some of the most poignant writing, all of which is set in context by Roskies' insightful introduction.

As Samuel D. Kassow, who teaches history at Trinity College, notes in his foreword to the book, "Ringelblum wanted the archive to penetrate the microcosms of ghetto life, to enter the communities of the courtyards and the house committees. He wanted writing that recorded the pulse of Jewish life and the flow of Jewish time."

And, of course, it had to be done now. Not tomorrow. The writer of an entry today may be deported to a death camp tomorrow. Or may die of starvation or overwork or one of many diseases running rampant through the ghetto.

The collection of writings was called Oyneg Shabes, which is translated as "Treasure of the Sabbath." Roskies notes that "1,693 items comprising 35,000 pages were recovered from the Ringelblum Archive alone. So it is through paper that today one can conjure up the people anew -- through all manner of minutes, memoranda, diaries, memoirs, last letters, essays, poems, songs, jokes, novels, stories, plays, questionnaires, charts, scholarly treatises, sermons, classroom compositions, diplomas, proclamations, posters, photographs, drawings and paintings." Seventeen items from what Roskies calls "that profusion and confusion of voices" were chosen for this book.

Roskies says that the "authors wrote in various ways. But all the monographs express the tragic sufferings of the Jews. . ."

To me, one of the most intriguing documents in the book is called "Signs of the Messiah." In it, Shimon Huberband, a rabbi (1909-1942), describes how as soon as World War II started on Sept. 1, 1939, "all the Jews were confident that the Messiah and his redemption would come" the next year. As has always happened with Christians who predict the date for the end of the world, the Jews in Poland were consistently wrong about their ever-changing dates for the Messiah to come.

But the clues they used are fascinating and were readily exploitable by people who had various reasons for announcing the dawning of the messianic age.

In the end, this is a book of hope because it shows that even in the face of something so evil and cruel as the Holocaust, there were ways to act in human and humane ways -- ways that rescued at least part of history. It is hard to imagine all that we would not know about the human spirit in that dark time if these documents had not been hidden away and eventually found.

So, yes, read them and weep. But also read them and rejoice that we can read them at all.

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This seems to be where we are in our culture when it comes to Easter -- the lead on this USA Today article says this: "There's more to Easter than dyed eggs, jelly beans and brunch. There's television. And movies." Oh, goody. Anything to keep from thinking about the story of resurrection, right? Yikes.

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about the uncertain future of KC area gay-friendly United Methodist churches -- now is online here.

Some vital context for the 'Green New Deal': 4-19-19

I confess that despite the fact that I think environmental degradation may be what most threatens the future of humanity, I have paid almost no attention to the so-called Green New Deal proposed by Democrats in Congress.

GndMy excuse of being too busy sounds hollow, though it's true, so I'll just tell you that I have been essentially unaware of the proposal's details but have been aware that it has stirred up considerable debate, some of it predictably nasty.

So once again I turned to long-form journalism to help me grasp what this is all about, how it fits into a historical context and particularly why people of faith who care about being good stewards of the gifts of nature should be part of this discussion.

This cover piece in the current issue of Harper's Magazine lays out a lot about how the U.S. dealt with some environmental catastrophes in the past and why it's possible for us to do so again -- whether guided by the Green New Deal or, maybe more likely, something else.

After reviewing in detail how America came up with the Tennessee Valley Authority and reacted to the Dust Bowl, contributing editor Kevin Baker writes this: "We must address climate change, and we must transform the way our political and economic systems work in this country — just as we did during the Great Depression. There is no way to do one vital thing without doing the other."

But then Baker adds this: "The political establishment, even within the Democratic Party, doesn’t seem to understand this. . .

"Part of responsible leadership is alerting people to looming problems and rallying them to do something — and in this crisis, as in so many, much less would have needed doing if we had done it sooner.

"When the federal government realized, more than a hundred years before the Dust Bowl, that much of the Great Plains did not have enough water to support standard, Eastern agriculture, the right thing to do was not to acquiesce in the Big Railroad lies about rain following civilization because that was what struggling farmers wanted to hear.

"We have known that man-made, preventable climate change is happening for a long time. Scholars have been predicting global warming in some form since the nineteenth century; Alexander Graham Bell, perhaps the most revered scientist in America at the time, wrote on the subject in 1917. Edward Teller, the 'father of the hydrogen bomb,' famously warned oil executives about climate change in the late 1950s, and President Lyndon Johnson’s science advisory committee issued a report highlighting the potential dangers in 1965. James Hansen’s five-alarm testimony before Congress came in 1988, and Al Gore’s Oscar-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, came out in 2006. 'Decades away,' Mr. President? Our discovery of climate change is now decades behind us, and still we do nothing."

As for the details of the Green New Deal, in the first paragraph above I've linked you to a New York Times explainer that should help.

For people of faith, the cosmos, including Earth itself, is understood to be a divine gift that humanity has been deputized to care for -- despite the unfortunate wording in the King James Version of the book of Genesis that humanity should have "dominion. . . over every living thing that moveth upon the earth," suggesting that Earth and all that dwells here be whipped into submission for humanity's self-centered wishes.

But people of faith haven't been as insistent about ecology as they need to be and, when they have spoken out, they often haven't been taken seriously.

It's time to educate ourselves about all of this, and this Harper's piece can be a good place to start. Or start with this RNS column saying that fixing climate change will require a cultural change -- one most Americans, including our leaders, seem loathe to undertake.

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In honor of Passover, which begins this evening, here's a story from Philadelphia about a congregation that is using rap to draw young people into the overriding story of a people going from oppression to liberation. If you don't adjust to the times, the times will walk away from you.