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Rituals can enrich our world with meaning: 5-31-19

Sometimes religious ritual gets a bad reputation. It gets criticized as hollow, empty, rote. And, in fact, sometimes it is exactly that.

StarofDavid-1But ritual has stuck around this long because in sometimes-mysterious ways it speaks to us. We need it. It provides context and meaning that simply isn't otherwise available.

And when humans are deprived of meaningful ritual, they are impoverished in destructive ways. Just the other day, after attending a funeral at a Catholic church, I heard someone else who was there (and, like me, also not Catholic) say how much the funeral Mass meant to her, in part because its ritual was so structured, so set, so historic.

Some years ago, I attended a ceremony at a synagogue in which two adult friends went through Judaism's ritual called Bat (for females) and Bar (for males) Mitzvah. This normally happens when a child turns 13 or 14 or so, and marks a ceremonial entrance into adulthood.

But my friends had never gone through the ceremony because when they were growing up their branch of Judaism had decided not to do them. In part, it was a rejection of ritual.

But they missed that ritual. And, as adults, realized what was absent from their religious lives. So they went through the ceremony and the work required to be ready for it.

I was remembering them the other day when I read this story from Tablet Magazine about one man and 21 women living in a retirement home in Massachusetts who also just went through a Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremony.

The author of the Tablet story writes this: "Students found the process a life-changing journey; one woman told me she no longer blames God for family tragedies such as the premature deaths of her father and husband. Some enjoy the intellectual stimulation of Jewish text study, while others have become attracted to Jewish spirituality and ritual practice. Still others are grateful to finally celebrate the milestone experienced by their brothers, children and grandchildren."

When we ritualize the world, we take it more seriously. And sometimes, in a culture that tries to entertain itself to death, that's an excellent thing to do.

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Some African bishops in the worldwide Anglican Communion have decided not to attend next year's Lambeth Conference in England because it will include gay bishops in same-sex marriages. This is one more example of the pain that can be caused by a harsh and loveless misreading of the Bible. Sigh.

Where Christian fundamentalists have taken us: 5-30-19

Earlier this week, here on the blog, I wrote about a continuing membership decline in churches associated with the Southern Baptist Convention.

XianflagA few decades ago, the SBC had an internal battle in which people who identified as fundamentalists took power from those who identified as moderates.

But there continues to be a lot of misunderstanding and puzzlement about the phenomenon known as fundamentalism in Christianity. (It occurs in most other religions, too, but for today I want to focus on that movement in my own faith tradition.)

This New York Times opinion piece does a good job of outlining the growth of fundamentalism over the last 100 years in the U.S. And especially how people who used to call themselves fundamentalists began referring to themselves instead as evangelicals. What that has done is to make the term evangelical almost meaningless in that the range of Christians who wouldn't mind having the term attached to them is broad, indeed, even though many of them would avoid callling themselves fundamentalists.

The author of the article to which I've linked you, Matthew Avery Sutton, is a professor of history at Washington State University.

He writes that at the end of World War I, just 100 years ago, lots of people were eager to move into the modern world and to avoid thinking a lot about the ways in which the war showed how fallible humanity is:

"But for many other Americans, modernity was exactly the problem. As many parts of the country were experimenting with new ideas and beliefs, a powerful counterrevolution was forming in some of the nation’s largest churches and Bible institutes. A group of Christian leaders, anxious about the chaos that seemed to be enveloping the globe, recalibrated the faith and gave it a new urgency. They knew that the time was right for a revolution in American Christianity. In its own way, this new movement — fundamentalism — was every bit as important as the modernity it seemingly resisted, with remarkable determination.

"Beginning on May 25, 1919, 6,000 ministers, theologians and evangelists came together in Philadelphia for a weeklong series of meetings. . .The men and women assembled there believed that God had chosen them to call Christians back to the 'fundamentals' of the faith, and to prepare the world for one final revival before Jesus returned to earth. They called their group the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association."

All that's true, but in some ways that gathering in Philly was a response to a 12-volume set of essays that were published starting in 1910. They were called, simply, "The Fundamentals," and sought to place Christianity in a tight doctrinal box. In some ways that effort succeeded. But fundamentalism in any religion or political system is inherently unstable because it has no reliable way to adapt to change, to take into account new findings, to react to discoveries and scholarship that show that some of the so-called fundamentals of a faith are simply wrong or so badly articulated as to be misleading.

But even though the Christian fundamentalists chose a path that failed to speak well to modernity, to say nothing of post-modernity, Sutton writes this: "Yet there can be no doubt that the work of fundamentalists and their evangelical successors produced one of the most significant and powerful religious-political movements in American history. They have driven religion into the center of American politics and culture, where it is likely to stay for many decades to come."

Whether that conclusion holds true, of course, is up to Americans, especially American voters. If they reject the unhelpful conflation of religious belief with patriotism (common among fundamentalists), they can reduce the influence of those people of faith who want to the entire nation to believe exactly what they believe. And that reduction would be a very good thing.

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As this Religion News Service article reports, the work of hospital chaplains is increasing in this time of upheaval in the health care world. No wonder. The work of chaplains in many areas is vital, as I noted in this 2017 Flatland column.

What we say to say a final goodbye: 5-29-19

By the end of today I will have attended three funerals in three days. Sigh.

WHT-BHT-graveThe first on Monday was for a woman in her 60s. The next on Tuesday for a man in his 30s. And the final one today is for a woman in her 90s.

If those ages seem random and strange to you -- as they do to me -- it turns out that they simply reflect the randomness and strangeness of life itself, along with life's gifts. In total, those three people got roughly 150-plus years to see sunsets, love family, heal the hurt in others.

One question this trio of deaths raises for me, again, is how best to say farewell to the dead. What final words can we say to and about them that might make a difference in the lives of others, particularly those who attend their funerals or memorial services? That's the question that Cyrus M. Copeland, author of a new three-volume work, described in this Religion New Service article, has tried to wrestle with.

RNS reports: "In the last book of his trilogy, Passwords: Seven Steps to Writing a Memorable Eulogy, he reflects on the evolution of our last words to the dead and gives advice on what to say.

"Copeland, who concedes his own eulogy for his father back in 1992 was not his best work, has learned a lot about the power of a good eulogy to honor the dead and give sustenance to the living."

I myself also gave a 1992 eulogy for my father. It was written on the fly, though I knew Dad was nearing the end of his life and I had thought about what I might want to say about him.

Eulogies are for the living. Yes, they honor the dead, but their primary purpose, it seems to me, is to give something of a summary of a life and its meaning and to make those present wish they had known the dead person better than they did.

As Copeland notes in the RNS piece, eulogies seem to have changed some in recent years, becoming more personal and not as often delivered by clergy.

Copeland: "As a writer, I love it when people tell stories that are good, authentic and true. It’s also laudable that we have taken charge of sending on the people we love in a very personal way. There’s something about taking on the responsibility of remembrance that returns a certain amount of power back to the person behind the microphone. It’s a tremendous honor, because in speaking movingly about the loss we suffered and the celebratory nature of the life we’re lauding, we plant the seeds of our own healing at the same time."

Yes, as my own pastor preached this last Sunday, the power is in the stories we tell, not necessarily in the doctrines we recite.

And stories of the people we've loved and lost seem most poignant of all.

(The photo here today shows the grave of my parents in Oakland Cemetery in Woodstock, Ill.)

* * *


The Rev. Franklin Graham is asking people to pray that Donald Trump will overcome his various "enemies." High on that list I would include Trump himself, just FYI.

Southern Baptists are in a downward movement, too: 5-28-19

It is no news that Christian denominations in the U.S. have been losing membership for decades.

Sbc-logoFor instance, in 1965 membership in the denomination to which my congregation belongs, the Presbyterian Church (USA), peaked at 4.2 million. The most recently reported figures show that number fell to 1.352 million in 2018. The good news for the PCUSA is that the number of new worshiping communities increased from 144 to 158 in 2018 as part of the church's "1,001 New Worshiping Communities" effort. Those new communities now include The Open Table, which our church helped to start four years ago and which now is going gangbusters.

While the decades-long decline has, until fairly recently, been affecting mostly Mainline Protestant churches such as mine, the losses now are being felt in more denominations that would describe themselves as conservative or evangelical.

That includes the Southern Baptists. As this Associated Press report notes, the Southern Baptist Convention reported that its churches now have experienced their twelfth year of declining membership.

"The Southern Baptist Convention," the AP reported, "said it had 14.8 million members in 2018, down about 192,000 from the previous year. Baptisms also declined by about 7,600 to 246,442. That’s an important measure for a denomination with a strong commitment to evangelism."

What all of this means is that the religious landscape in America is changing rather rapidly. It's becoming increasingly diverse, with the growth in numbers of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and others. It's becoming increasingly detached from institutional religion, as the number of religious unaffiliated American adults has grown to almost 25 percent. And it now includes more congregations that are quite small. For instance, nearly two-thirds of PCUSA congregations have fewer than 100 members.

In the AP story, Scott McConnell, director of the SBC’s Lifeway Research, is quoted as saying that SBC leaders “look at numbers like this and see a wake-up call for the church to get back to the roots of what really matters — very actively sharing, with our local communities, the Gospel, the message of the Gospel and what the church has to offer.”

Different denominations, of course, disagree about "what really matters" or have different definitions of what "the Gospel" means. For some, it's almost all about personal salvation. For others, it's much more about working outside the walls of the church to address issues that are breaking God's heart -- racism, sexism, poverty, lack of educational opportunities and many other social issues.

And all of those differences make contrasting and comparing different branches of American Christianity quite difficult and often not very illuminating.

So the SBC is in a downward trend, too, but that denomination's long-term viability is no more predictable than any other religious statistic in the U.S.

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As people of faith continue to struggle with the abortion issue, it can help to read about a member of the clergy who started out with one position and moved to quite a different position. This Atlantic piece tells that story.

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Jerusalem: City of the Book, by Merav Mack and Benjamin Balint, with photography by Frederic Brenner. As nearly everyone knows, Jerusalem is a key city for each of the Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, to list them chronologically. And what makes geography holy, sacred, revered? One of the things that does is words, which are revered in all three religions. In the book of Genesis, found both in the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Bible, God speaks the world into existence. In the New Testament, Jesus is described as the "Word of God." And Islam's Qur'an is said to be made up of the words dictated to the Prophet Muhammad by the angel Gabriel over more than 20 years. Words, words, words. This new book pays homage to such sacred words by describing the many ways in which such words have been kept and treasured and even secretly stored and protected in Jerusalem. As the authors note, the book "is not a systematic history of Jerusalem as such, much less a political history, but an essay into how Jerusalem has been imagined, made legible and shelved in libraries. . . (W)e use the history of the collections themselves to excavate the richly layered history of the city and its cultural exchanges and to tell the untold history of how the peoples of the book have populated the city with books." As they write, "More than any other place, Jerusalem has always existed by the power of words." There are great stories here of discovering texts in this or that library or archive, along with some intriguing photographs of what the authors found on their journey of discovery. For those of us who have been to Jerusalem, this book helps to grow the picture of the city that remains in our memories.

A Memorial Day funeral for a friend: 5-27-19

On Memorial Day today, I will attend a funeral service at a Catholic Church for a friend.

MicheleMichele was not a military veteran, but she contributed as much to the common good of her country and society as she possibly could, and her family and friends will say farewell today on this day of memory.

One of the things I most admired about Michele was her intellectual curiosity and her willingness to use all of that for the benefit of others. As her obituary, to which I've linked you above, notes, "In 1973, Michele graduated as class salutatorian from Kansas City General Hospital as an R.N. Michele went on to numerous additional academic achievements. In 1980, she received a BSN from Avila University, a Master of Pastoral Studies from Loyola University in 1987, a Master of Public Health from the University of Kansas in 1998, and a Juris Doctor from UMKC in 2003. She was a member of the Bar in Missouri and Kansas."

A nurse, a theologian -- in the best and broadest sense -- and an attorney who, with her lawyer husband, Dan, helped people through the Social Security disability maze.

Michele and my wife Marcia became friends some years ago, and when Michele was diagnosed with the incurable and always-fatal disease frontotemporal dementia (FTD), Marcia helped to gather together a group of Michele's friends as a "care team" to walk with Michele through this calamitous diagnosis and to be of whatever assistance to Dan and her that they could be.

This team met regularly, provided company, meals, love, prayers and all kinds of other support.

It was a marvel to watch.

If the idea of a care team interests you, there are some books that can describe how they work and how to form one. One such book is called Share the Care. It's a 2004 book but still has lots of excellent ideas for supporting someone going through a serious illness.

I can't explain why amazing people like Michele die young. The world is not perfect. God at creation called it "good" but not perfect. There is much good in the world, indeed. And Michele contributed a lot to that. But until perfection comes, we will need care teams and family love and funerals and tears and hope.

Farewell, Michele. Thanks for all your gifts to us.

* * *


On Friday here on the blog, I wrote about the ways in which the newly victorious Hindu nationalist party in India has made life miserable for Muslims in that country. As a follow-up, here is a National Public Radio story about a Hindu family from southern India whose daughter and son-in-law have joined ISIS and become estranged from the family. Another example of religious extremism causing trouble.

* * *

P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about Youthfront and its new headquarters -- now is online here.

Christianity's calamitous decline near where it began: 5-25/26-19

Although many American Christians don't think of their religion this way, Christianity is, at root, an Asian faith. Its origins as, first, a sect of Judaism and later as a distinctly separate faith tradition, are found, of course, in land that over the centuries has gone by various names, such as Israel and Palestine.

IraqBut today, in parts of Asia not all that far removed from its birthplace, Christianity is in deep trouble. That's especially true in Iraq, where, as this Atlantic article notes, "Before the American invasion (in 2003), as many as 1.4 million Christians lived in the country. Today, fewer than 250,000 remain — an 80 percent drop in less than two decades." (And here is a BBC story about the same subject and containing similar, but not exactly the same, figures.)

As the Atlantic piece further explains, "The precarious state of Christianity in Iraq is tragic on its own terms. The world may soon witness the permanent displacement of an ancient religion, and an ancient people. Those indigenous to this area share more than faith: They call themselves Suraye and claim a connection to the ancient peoples who inhabited this land long before the birth of Christ.

"But the fate of Christianity in places like the Nineveh Plain has a geopolitical significance as well. Religious minorities test a country’s tolerance for pluralism; a healthy liberal democracy protects vulnerable groups and allows them to participate freely in society. Whether Christians can survive, and thrive, in Muslim-majority countries is a crucial indicator of whether democracy, too, is viable in those places. In Iraq, the outlook is grim, as it is in other nations in the region that are home to historic Christian populations, including Egypt, Syria and Turkey. Christians who live in these places are subject to discrimination, government-sanctioned intimidation and routine violence."

It would be in the interest of Islam there and elsewhere around the world for the faith of Muslims to be practiced in countries that allow religious liberty. I've written elsewhere and often that so-called blasphemy laws in Muslim nations make Islam appear to be a weak religion that, for survival, must depends on friendly governments. It's not weak. It can stand on its own and should.

But if Christians are driven from Iraq and from other places in the Middle East, the chance for a rich, pluralistic culture begins to disappear, too. And almost nothing saps the strength of a religious tradition more than being isolated and thus considered the only religious alternative.

Because of the ISIS terrorists in Iraq and Syria (terrorists who are down but not dead), the BBC piece notes, "churches, monasteries and homes belonging to Christian families have been decimated and thousands of families have not returned."

And some radical leaders have "asserted that the killing of Christians and Yazidis helped to spread Islam."

This is one more issue that should concern Christians around the globe and move them to come to the aid of their coreligionists. And it's one more issue that the American government and the United Nations should be addressing much more often, loudly and effectively than either is at the moment.

* * *


When it comes to people of faith trying to influence political parties, the author of this RNS blog writes, it's mostly the parties who lead and the religious left and right who follow: "For all its power to move voters to the ballot box, the religious right has an agenda that’s unpopular even with many of its supposed constituents and has floundered when it comes to making legislation or overturning legal precedents. And in spite of the Democratic Party’s great diversity and depth of religious belief, its leaders’ core commitment to pluralism and a secular state keeps them from adopting the language of faith in compelling ways." All of that is another reason for religious people to know their own values deeply and to be cautious about imagining that political systems are the means by which such values can be adopted and implemented.

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about Youthfront and its new headquarters -- now is online here.

The religious disaster India is becoming: 5-24-19

Given all the social, political, environmental and other problems Americans are experiencing at the moment, it's understandable that we might wonder why we should care about what's happening now halfway across the world in India.

IRA-pixBut if we care at all about religious freedom, about protecting minorities from the tyranny of majorities, about political and religious stability in a nation with a population that exceeds one billion people, India must be on our radar.

Especially in light of the new election results that give Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ultra-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) continued political control of the country. Modi, never a paragon of enlightenment or moderation, has been growing increasingly strident in his threats against the Muslims (some 400 million of them) who live in India.

Modi has won what the writer of this piece in The Nation calls "a terrifying mandate."

He is, the piece says, "a proponent of a far-right militant ideology called Hindutva, which was invented in the 1920s by an all-male vigilante group called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Its founders corresponded with Adolf Hitler and met with Benito Mussolini in 1929 to model their party along fascist lines. A member of the group assassinated Mahatma Gandhi in 1948."

India achieved its independence from Britain in 1947, and the country, long home to both Hindus and Muslims, was partitioned. Pakistan (West and East, now known as Bangladesh) was created to be a Muslim-majority country while India, though understood to be a secular nation, would be a Hindu-majority country.

As Muslims left India for Pakistan then and as Hindus moved back to India from what was becoming Pakistan, there was terrific violence, leaving one to two million people dead. In hindsight, partition was an unnecessary disaster. Hindus and Muslims, for the most part, had managed to live together in relative harmony for a long time in India.

Now Modi and his BJP stalwarts are doing what they can to make life miserable for the Muslims who still reside in India. It's religious oppression that is completely at odds with the nation India was and is meant to be.

Some months ago I wrote here about the wise, sane effort that has been started by my childhood friend (I lived in India for two years of my boyhood) Markandey Katju, a former judge on India's Supreme Court. He has begun a movement to reunite India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, contending there is no reason that Hindus, Muslims and people of other faith traditions on the subcontinent can't live together in peace.

You can follow his efforts at the website of the Indian Reunification Association (IRA). (The map here today shows what India would look like after reunification.)

The author of the piece in The Nation to which I linked you above says that now Modi  has "shifted his rhetoric from fighting corruption to generating hate."

It's exactly the wrong approach. At minimum, you can show your support for Katju's more sensible (if long-term) efforts to reunite India and let Muslims and Hindus live together as members of one nation. You can do that on the IRA website to which I've linked you.

* * *


Yesterday here on the blog, I wrote about author James Carroll's idea to fix the Catholic Church by abolishing the priesthood. I disagreed. So does Fr. Thomas Reese, in this piece written for Religion News Service. Instead of dismantling the priesthood, Reese writes, "Pope Francis is correct that only a fundamental change in attitudes and church culture will save the church. This is not easy, but calls to conversion are at the core of the Gospel message. It is what the church is supposed to be all about."

A proposal to abolish the Catholic priesthood: 5-23-19

In this cover story in the June issue of The Atlantic magazine, author James Carroll (Constantine's Sword and others books) bemoans the scandal-plagued Catholic Church and suggests one answer is simply to abolish the priesthood.

Priest scandalCarroll, himself a former Catholic priest, must know that for as far as the eye can see, this solution will not be adopted. It is so impractical and revolutionary that it seems like wasted breath even to talk about it.

But that it got suggested at all -- with prominence in a magazine with a long, long history of cogent journalism -- says something sad and remarkable about the current state of Catholicism. What it says is that these are desperate times in the church and that they call for unusual measures.

Carroll is more pessimistic about the Catholic Church than I am, but because he speaks as an insider and I don't, I must have respect for his angst. But it doesn't mean I must agree with his dismantle-the-priesthood solution.

For one thing, Carroll tends to say things in needlessly provocative and even spiteful ways. For instance, Carroll notes that one of the responses of Pope Francis to the abuse scandal was "a meek call for a four-day meeting of senior bishops, to be held in Rome under rubric 'The Protection of Minors in the Church.' This," Carroll asserts, "was like putting Mafia chieftains in charge of a crime commission."

Many senior bishops, to be sure, have failed to respond to this crisis in appropriate or effective ways, but to equate them with Mafia chieftains is a good way to cut off a necessary conversation with them.

Carroll says the actions and inactions of his church eventually drove him to stop going to Mass: "I embarked on an unwilled version of the Catholic tradition of 'fast and abstinence' — in this case, fasting from the Eucharist and abstaining from the overt practice of my faith. I am not deluding myself that this response of mine has significance for anyone else — Who cares? It’s about time! — but for me the moment is a life marker. I have not been to Mass in months. I carry an ocean of grief in my heart."

He also expresses his admiration for the church and its potential in ways that buttress my point when I write (as I often have) that the world needs a healthy Catholic Church: "Around the world there are more than 200,000 Catholic schools and nearly 40,000 Catholic hospitals and health-care facilities, mostly in developing countries. The Church is the largest nongovernmental organization on the planet, through which selfless women and men care for the poor, teach the unlettered, heal the sick, and work to preserve minimal standards of the common good. The world needs the Church of these legions to be rational, historically minded, pluralistic, committed to peace, a champion of the equality of women, and a tribune of justice."

But what Carroll and others call the "issue of clericalism," meaning a powerful, insular, all-male priesthood, is destroying the church: "Clericalism, with its cult of secrecy, its theological misogyny, its sexual repressiveness, and its hierarchical power based on threats of a doom-laden afterlife, is at the root of Roman Catholic dysfunction. The clerical system’s obsession with status thwarts even the merits of otherwise good priests and distorts the Gospels’ message of selfless love, which the Church was established to proclaim. Clericalism is both the underlying cause and the ongoing enabler of the present Catholic catastrophe. . .Clericalism explains both how the sexual-abuse crisis could happen and how it could be covered up for so long. If the structure of clericalism is not dismantled, the Roman Catholic Church will not survive, and will not deserve to."

Perhaps I'm being overly optimistic when I say that it seems possible to me to dismantle clericalism without abolishing the priesthood as an ordained office. Priests must (and many do) see themselves as servants, not as authority figures who are beyond challenge. Like clergy in all religious traditions, they must model what it looks like to live out the faith even while they acknowledge that they, like the rest of us, are fallible human beings.

It seems to me that that's the task of the Catholic Church today rather than blowing up the office of priest and starting over again. As a Protestant, my preference would be for the Catholic Church to start to ordain females as priests, too. But, of course, I have no say in that matter as an outsider.

Carroll points to a "gradual ascendance of lay leaders in the Church." I hope that continues. But churches also need professional leaders. Abolishing the priesthood might bring Carroll and others some visceral satisfaction, but in the end it would wreck more than it would fix.

* * *


New research suggests it's socially easier to be religiously unaffiliated in Canada than it is in the U.S. Yes, and it's also easier to walk down the street there with a hockey stick and not get arrested for being armed.

Pope Francis encourages better journalism: 5-22-19

I was glad to hear Pope Francis talk about press freedom and responsibility the other day, even suggesting that the press should be given credit for helping to uncover the abuse scandal in the church.

JournalismIn those remarks, he called on the media not to lose interest in stories, especially when people continue to suffer.

"We need journalists who are on the side of victims, on the side of those who are persecuted, on the side of who is excluded, cast aside, discriminated against," he said.

And this: "Who is talking about the Rohingya today? Who is talking about the Yazidi today? They have been forgotten and they continue to suffer."

One reason that the media sometimes lose focus on such suffering people is that there seems to be no public demand for the stories. The public often seems to prefer news about fluff and circuses: Was the "Game of Thrones" final episode a disaster? Who won "American Idol?" That kind of junk.

And, sad to say, the media frequently cave in to such demand for junk-food news.

Another problem is that consumers of news -- whether newspaper readers or TV watchers or internet users -- only rarely demand better. When, for example, people complain to me about the fact that The Kansas City Star no longer has a religion section, I quickly ask whether they have complained directly to Star editors. Only rarely does someone say he or she has bothered to do that. The quiet wheel gets no grease.

Beyond that, news consumers also rarely praise excellent journalism when they see it. But that kind of praise can encourage more good journalism. More often these days journalists hear Trumped-up charges of #FakeNews.

So Pope Francis is right to be encouraging journalists to tell the stories of people suffering in various ways. But they also need to be writing about various solutions to the problems they are spotlighting. Pointing to answers that might work is something journalists should do more often.

And if you don't know what Francis was talking about when he mentioned the Rohingya and the Yazidi, I've just linked you to some of the latest journalism about those subjects (journalism that apparently Francis isn't reading).

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#EvilDidNotWin in Texas

Just 18 months after a gunman murdered two dozen people at a Baptist church in Texas, that church opened a new sanctuary and its members intend to continue doing ministry there. As the story notes, "The new worship center and memorial room honoring the victims were made possible through millions of dollars in donations from around the world." Good for the contributors. Good for the church members and leaders.

* * *

P.S.: On the blog here yesterday, I wrote about what's going wrong in the abortion debate in the U.S. My friend Markandey Katju, former justice on India's Supreme Court, has just published this essay about abortion in which he argues that public policy about this matter should be made by legislatures and not judges. Markandey is personally in favor of allowing abortion to be legal, but, as he says, "as a judge I have to set aside my personal views." I just thought you might be interested in a judicial voice in this conversation -- a voice from a really smart guy with whom I don't always agree.

The extremes are leading the abortion debate: 5-21-19

Former Sen. Jack Danforth, R-Mo., once said he wished the U.S. Supreme Court had held off making its 1973 Roe v Wade decision legalizing abortion until there was much more of a societal consensus.

Abortion (1)That consensus would have been nice, of course, because in theory it might have led to much less bitter debate in the country. But 46 years after the decision, as recent events and developments have shown, Americans are no closer to stopping the divisiveness over the issue, even though poll after poll shows a strong majority of Americans favors keeping abortion legal.

What's going on here is more than two clearly opposite and locked-in positions for or against abortion, although it's the extremes that tend to get most of the focus. At one extreme of the issue you have people who believe that abortion in all cases, even when there's been a rape or incest or God knows what, should be forbidden. In my experience, such people are fundamentalists who know nothing about pastoral care and often don't pay much beneficial attention to children once they're born, especially children born into extreme poverty.

At the other extreme you have people who think of abortion as a birth control method to be used whenever a child is conceived who would be in some way a little inconvenient. I'm not thinking here of people in loving relationships who have tried in responsible ways to prevent a pregnancy but have failed, leading to terrible circumstances. Rather, at this end of the extremes, I'm thinking of irresponsible people who knowingly engage in unprotected sex and believe that abortion is simply one more way to avoid taking responsibility for the resulting pregnancy.

In between those extremes are the rest of us, which is, by far, most of us. I personally want abortion kept legal because I believe that in some circumstances it is the least evil of a series of evil choices. And I want the decision about abortion to be left up to the potential parents and their attending physician, with whatever help making the decision they want from various kinds of counselors, including clergy.

The abortion laws recently in the news in such states as Alabama, Georgia and Missouri are not, of course, designed to respond to the wishes of the majority of the electorate. They are, rather, rigid approaches designed to get abortion back before the U.S. Supreme Court in the hopes of overturning Roe v Wade and, thus, outlawing legal abortion.

All of this gets complicated by the continued use of the misleading terms "pro-life" and "pro-choice." If you're really pro-life, you not only oppose easy access to abortion as a means of post-pregnancy birth control, you also should find ways to love and support whatever lives are born no matter the circumstances. And if you're really pro-choice, you not only want the abortion decision left in the hands of the woman, her physician and others she wants to consult, you also should want to allow individuals and organizations the freedom not to participate in or financially support abortion except when abortion is the only way to save lives or prevent such disasters as forcing a 13-year-old girl from bearing the child implanted in her by her incestuous father or a rapist.

The extremes need not be in charge of this issue, folks. Those of us who live between the extremes need to find ways to gain control of how to handle abortion in a sensible, compassionate way. One way to do that is to pay close attention right now in your state to who among your elected officials are on the extremes. Then vote them the hell out of office.

(As she often does, my friend Melinda Henneberger of The Kansas City Star's editorial page, wrote a column in deep harmony with my own views -- this time on abortion. If you missed it in Sunday's newspaper or online, you can read it here. "It should not have taken me this long," she wrote, "to see that neither the pro-life nor the pro-choice label fits me. But I won’t ever again try to make myself fit either one." And here is an editorial from The National Catholic Reporter that is in harmony with views both Melinda and I have expressed on this subject.)

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The other night I saw a special pre-opening preview of the new film "A Dog's Journey," based on a book by my friend W. Bruce Cameron, a Kansas City native, who was there with his wife, Cathryn Michon, the screenwriter. This RNS story about the film discusses Bruce's rediscovered Christian faith. And since a dog gets reincarnated several times in this film, the story raises the question of what Christians should think about that, given that Christianity does not teach reincarnation. I liked Bruce's answer: “I would urge Christians not to take it too seriously. After all, the movie opens with a talking dog, so clearly it is a fanciful tale.” I first met Bruce at one of the annual conferences of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, of which I used to be president.