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When waiting might be the right answer: 8-8-19

On this date in 1945, the military leaders of the United States -- in this case mostly meaning its civilian commander, President Harry S. Truman -- were waiting.

WaitingThey had dropped the first atomic bomb ever used in warfare on Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug. 6. It killed tens of thousands of people, mostly civilian. Truman was convinced that it was a better option than an allied invasion of Japan, which he calculated would have cost many more lives than that. And no doubt he was right.

The question historians have long wrestled with is whether Truman and the allies waited long enough for Japan to surrender after Hiroshima before dropping the next bomb on Aug. 9 on Nagasaki. Truman and other leaders were convinced that if the Hiroshima bombing hadn't convinced Japan's leaders to surrender another bombing was needed.

All of which brings us to the sometimes-frustrating practice, often advocated by religion, of waiting. It is, or at least can be, a spiritual discipline, and in my experience it is used far too infrequently, even if the Christian season of Advent is dedicated to the idea of waiting.

The Bible -- both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament -- are full of verses that suggest waiting, especially waiting for the Lord.

The book of Psalms, especially, has verse after verse suggesting that waiting is a wise thing, including Psalms 37:7, which suggests that we "Be still before the LORD, and wait for him." That's the Common English Bible translation. Others, such as in the graphic here today, sometimes add the word "patiently" before the word "wait."

The tension here is between the idea that God actively intervenes in human affairs and we merely need to wait for that to happen and the idea that God gave us brains and hearts and that we should use them to make the best decisions possible and not just sit around waiting for God to act without our help.

But in either case, it seems to me that sometimes waiting is not just prudent but also effective. Once we have made our strongest arguments for good and against what we perceive of as evil, waiting provides the opponent a little time to consider whether we -- not they -- might be right. And it shows that we want a peaceful and just resolution, not blood and gore just because we are capable of producing blood and gore.

Waiting, in other words, sometimes is the more moral choice. And yet sometimes -- as when a mass shooter is firing in a shopping mall -- waiting is the immoral choice. We must act immediately. It takes discernment to know the difference.

In the case of Nagasaki, had I been Truman, I'd have waited at least another day. Maybe two. And I'd have filled those days with clear statements to the Japanese leadership and people that we are prepared to do to another city what we did to Hiroshima.

All this is, of course, hindsight. Meaning it's infinitely easier for me to make this choice than it was for Truman in the moment. Still, if the choice is between waiting, at least for a short while, and inflicting some kind of violence on others, I'd always hope that waiting would get a chance to make its case.

* * *

WHAT MAINLINE LUTHERANS ARE UP TO

The 3.5-million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's national governing body is meeting this week (through Saturday), and this RNS story describes what's on the agenda. The gathering reveals a church dealing with social and political issues through theological lenses. Good. One of things planned at the meeting, the story points out, is a "vote on a policy statement titled 'A Declaration of Inter-Religious Commitment.' The proposed statement outlines how Lutherans can cooperate with people of other religious traditions and still remain faithful to their own understanding of God, according to the presiding bishop." Also good. The more people of different faith traditions understand and respect one another, the more peace is a possibility in the world.


Here's yet another way to misread scripture: 8-7-19

One of my former associate pastors, when reading a passage from the Bible that has historically been subject to many different interpretations, sometimes would say this: "I don't know if that's factually accurate, but I do know it's true."

Alter-BibleThat's a pretty good attitude to have in reading any sacred writ from any faith tradition. Those words are almost never written with the purpose of telling a historically accurate account. Rather, they have other purposes. If they happen to include accurate history, as we 21st Century readers would think of it, fine. And sometimes they do. But their primary purposes have to do with eternal truths, spiritual realities, moral guidance.

The Rev. Samuel C. Long, the author of this Patheos.com blog post, makes this point really well.

The problem, he writes, is that "we misread genres. We expect biblical texts to act in a certain way when in reality they were never intended to. We struggle with the tension between regarding this as Holy Scripture and allowing it to speak from its own context. . .

"What if we let our interpretation of the Bible be driven by same techniques that we apply to other genres? Perhaps these interpretive lenses would open up the rich and original meaning that the authors intended."

I have said this here before, but it bears repeating. Christians and Jews can take the Bible literally or they can take it seriously, but they can't do both.

If we get all hung up on useless questions like whether Adam had a bellybutton, we'll miss the Genesis story of love being the impulse behind God's creative work.

Which is not to say that those kinds of quirky questions can't be fun. They can be. But the time to ask them is after we've answered questions about what a biblical passage says about God, what it says about humanity (us) and what it says about our relationship to God.

Then bring on the bellybutton questions for some fun.

(The photo here today shows the new three-volume translation of the Hebrew Bible by Robert Alter. I wrote about that here.)

* * *

IN THE WAKE OF VIOLENCE, WHAT?

Religious leaders and faith-based organizations from around the country are reacting to the recent mass shootings in Dayton, El Paso and Gilroy. As they should be. But it all seems so ineffective without rational gun laws, effective mental health care and a president who doesn't poison the atmosphere. Those three areas are where we all should be putting our efforts.


Is religion around the world disappearing? 8-6-19

If there's one thing we know about religion across the span of human history it's that it has undergone countless changes, starting from when a human first stared at the star-packed sky in awe and wonder.

WorldReligions-1And it's still changing. The question is how. And the question is what might it look like a generation or 10 from now.

Those are among the questions explored by this rather lengthy BBC piece. It is part of a "BBC Future" series that explores deep questions about human civilization.

Early in the religion piece, there's this useful warning: "If you believe your faith has arrived at ultimate truth, you might reject the idea that it will change at all. But if history is any guide, no matter how deeply held our beliefs may be today, they are likely in time to be transformed or transferred as they pass to our descendants – or simply to fade away."

The problem with ultimate truths is not that there aren't any but that human beings are finite and sometimes we imagine that we are capable of comprehending the infinite. We could use a little humility about all of this.

A little bit of the BBC piece seems to be contradictory. At one point the author writes this: "Today, many of our societies are huge and multicultural: adherents of many faiths co-exist with each other – and with a growing number of people who say they have no religion at all. We obey laws made and enforced by governments, not by God. Secularism is on the rise, with science providing tools to understand and shape the world.

"Given all that, there’s a growing consensus that the future of religion is that it has no future."

Well, the idea that religion is dying and before long will disappear took hold in the last 50 or 75 years among some scholars. But this "growing consensus" seems now to be fading as the evidence, as the BBC piece eventually acknowledges, suggests something quite the opposite from disappearance:

"(R)eligion is not disappearing on a global scale – at least in terms of numbers. In 2015, the Pew Research Center modeled the future of the world’s great religions based on demographics, migration and conversion. Far from a precipitous decline in religiosity, it predicted a modest increase in believers, from 84% of the world’s population today to 87% in 2050." (In politics, 84 percent is considered an almost-unheard-of landslide.)

It's true that the number of religiously unaffiliated people in the U.S. and western Europe, particularly, has been growing in recent decades while many forms of institutional religion in those areas of the world have been losing members. But if you look at the question of religious growth and shrinkage worldwide a rather different picture emerges.

The point here is that from time to time it can be helpful to take a long view of various aspects of human life, including religion. We always are in the midst of change, even if it's sometimes hard to track. This kind of journalism helps to widen our focus.

* * *

MORE LESSONS FROM EMMETT TILL

Jemar Tisby, author of The Color of Compromise, which I reviewed here in January, has written this essay about the University of Mississippi frat boys who posed for a picture with guns in front of marker dedicated to Emmett Till. He asks good questions: How did these young men fail to learn that such behavior is racist? Did their faith communities fail to teach them that? Weren't they listening? Who taught them that such behavior was acceptable?


An understanding look at evangelical Trump voters: 8-5-19

In Ariel Burger's lovely 2018 book, Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel's Classroom, he quotes Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate, as saying, "It is the otherness of the other that fascinates me. . .What can I learn from him? What does he see that I do not, cannot?"

Red-state-xiansIt's that same spirit of openness and inquiry that permeates journalist and Lutheran pastor Angela Denker's new book, Red State Christians: Understanding the Voters Who Elected Donald Trump, which will be officially published tomorrow.

After traveling the country, speaking mostly to Christians who identify as evangelical, 81 percent of whom voted for Trump for president in 2016, she concludes this: "All across America, people are doing surprising things that don't fit into our prescribed boxes that we used to categorize people. Evangelicals are not a monolith, not universally any one thing, and Red-State Christians defy categorization."

It's a wise lesson that people on all sides of the political divides (plural) would do well to heed. The reality that labels hide much more than they reveal often escapes people, except for those who purposefully employ such labels to win political battles and divide people.

There are good reasons for people across the country to read this book and a few special reasons for Kansas Citians and Missourians to pay attention. Denker, who has lived in Kansas City in the past, is (like me) a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism. And she has family living in rural Cole Camp, Mo., about whom she writes in this book.

But the best reason to recommend the book is that Denker has done the reportorial legwork. She has talked to real people all over the country, a few of whom (but far from all) fit the stereotype of the MAGA-hat wearing people we've all seen at Trump rallies, cheering for his xenophobic remarks and applauding his worst instincts. In addition to a few of those folks, however, the book is full of interesting people with interesting and deeply human stories about what they believe and why they believe it, and why, at times, they are profoundly conflicted about Trump and why many of them voted for him.

Denker is clear that she often is personally appalled by Trump and that she didn't vote for him. But her strength is that she is usually able to set that aside to be able to listen to others who have sometimes-radically different views.

Many of those Trump voters, she writes, "have lost confidence in America's Christian identity. The United States is no longer the place where resurrection seems possible because anything is possible. . ." You begin to see in that insight reasons for the MAGA slogan that would return the country to a condition that, in fact, never existed except in the minds of some people. And "America's Christian identity," as Denker puts it, gives rise to Christian nationalism, about which I wrote most recently here.

Occasionally in a book full of helpful insights, I found some sentences that just stopped me. For instance, as she's writing about her father-in-law being drafted from rural Missouri into the Army in the Vietnam era, she calls 1968 "the most tumultuous year in American history." Oh, my. What about 1776, 1812, 1861, 1865, 1917, 1929, 1941, 1945, 2001?

But mostly this is an excellent read, in which the author not just does good reporting but, once having done that, is not afraid to draw some sharp conclusions. An example:

After spending time at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, including talking to members and staff and attending services, Denker concludes this about the pastor, the Rev. Jack Graham: ". . .Graham plays a religious leader, but he leads people away from God. He manipulates. He uses hatred of the other, fear and submission to gain power -- a distortion of the true gospel of Jesus, grounded in love, acceptance, forgiveness and the absence of fear." And then she mentions a member of Prestonwood with whom she had spoken as proof that "not every Red-State Christian at Prestonwood drips with the same anger and fear. Thank God."

Throughout the book we find various Jack Grahams, but we also find sincere, deeply faithful Christians who seek to live out their faith in consistent ways and who may or may not be ardent Trump supporters, all for reasons that make sense to them. Denker listens and learns. As readers will.

All the hot-button issues are in this book: guns, abortion, LGBTQ matters, immigration, race, the role of women, military might and more. And the lesson to be learned is that in some ways the people Denker calls Red-State Christians sometimes are all over the map on those issues. You have to talk to them to learn. You can't just assume.

Speaking of race, she asks who the anti-Trump evangelicals are. Her answer: "Most of these voices come from church leaders of color, many from the African American church. Today, in communities of color, it is still churches that serve as a beacon of hope, power and organizing, providing assistance, mentoring and a moral compass."

Among the people who, in this book, come across as much more human than they seem via press coverage of them is Paula White, one of Trump's closest spiritual advisers. Denker concludes that White "is too tired to keep up the old televangelism charade. What she has left, however, is a genuine love of Jesus and a childlike hope that she can share his gospel even with Donald Trump."

Based on Trump's relationship with White and several other strong women close to him, Denker says that "unlike so many of his evangelical pastor counterparts, Trump does appreciate a strong, smart woman. At least in that one way he is more Christlike than many of them."

Near the end of the book is this pretty fair summary of the whole thing: "While liberals often assume brown-skinned refugees are poverty-stricken invalids in need of saving and education, conservatives too often see them as radical Muslims in need of conversion. What we all need is to listen more."

Listening more. What a concept.

* * *

ATHEISTS NEED NOT APPLY?

In this piece, The Guardian, an excellent British newspaper, explores the question of why there are so few atheists among American politicians. One of the members of Congress quoted at some length in the piece, Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), grew up in Independence, Mo., and in the church now called the Community of Christ. Interesting guy.


Are your 'biblical values' my 'biblical values'? 8-3/4-19

Biblical-valuesIf you've ever tuned in to broadcast outlets that bill themselves as Christian, you've almost inevitably heard appeals to what the speakers declare are "biblical values."

What that often means is that the Bible is being used to buttress whatever value the speaker wishes to promote, whether that's anti-abortion, say, or opposition to same-sex marriage or dismissal of an environmental ethic of conservation -- all political positions dressed up as Biblical truths.

The question of what biblical values really are is, of course, much more complicated, as is made clear in a valuable new book, What Are Biblical Values: What the Bible Says About Key Ethical Issues, by John J. Collins, who teaches at Yale Divinity School.

In reality, drawing various value statements out of the Bible is a complex business, and much of what you extract from scripture and turn into foundational principles depends on how you interpret what you read. In fact, Collins asserts, "we cannot expect. . .to distill from the Bible one coherent set of values."

The Bible, written by dozens of authors over hundreds of years, is not God's master's thesis with a consistent one-author message, though both Christianity and Judaism (and in many ways Islam) revere the Bible as being in some way the word of God: But "the laws as we have them," Collins writes, "are never pristine divine revelations but always entail human authorship and human motivations and arose in particular historical circumstances that must be taken into account."

You want simple? You want obvious? You won't find it in the Bible, save for the overriding message of the need for love and respect of all people.

Which is one reason, of course, that the Bible never should have been used to defend slavery, even though Collins acknowledges that "at no point does the Bible condemn the practice of slavery." Nor, of course, does the Bible condemn the practice of hijacking airplanes and smashing them into buildings or mining battle fields with explosive devices to murder opposing soldiers. By the way, as Collins notes, the great 19th Century abolitionist Frederick Douglass said that if someone were to persuade him that the Bible supported slavery he would burn the book.

Whether you want to adopt a rigid, literalistic approach to the Bible or one that allows what you describe as your progressive political opinions to be seen as in harmony with biblical values, you will be challenged by Collins' book.

For instance, he concludes that "nothing in the Hebrew Bible excludes the application of the death penalty, and many passages demand it." And even the New Testament offers no ringing condemnation of capital punishment, causing Collins to conclude that "opposition to the death penalty receives scant support from the Bible. Perhaps the most important lesson to be drawn here is that decisions as to how the law should be applied ultimately rest with society." But all of that must be seen in the context of a Hebrew Bible in which, as Collins notes, there is "no value more central or fundamental than the demand for social justice."

On another hot-button issue, Collins notes that "there is, then, a long history of Christian condemnation of abortion, but it is not explicit in the New Testament. Neither is there any acceptance of abortion in either Testament."

And, of course, the Bible is silent on many issues confronting us today. You won't for instance, find anything in the Bible for or against net neutrality or nuclear disarmament. To adopt positions on such issues you have to look for broader biblical statements about fairness and peace.

Beyond that, some "biblical values" are simply ignored or useless today. Should farmers not harvest their whole crop, leaving the edges of the fields to gleaners today? Should women be silent in church? Should we not combine wool and polyester into a usable cloth?

I was pleased to find that in Collins' discussion of what, if anything, you can find in the Bible about homosexuality, his thoughts are largely in harmony with mine expressed in this essay, which concludes that the Bible should not be used as a weapon in this societal debate because, as Collins notes, "the Bible does not have a concept of homosexuality as a disposition or orientation. Homosexuality in this sense is a modern construct, which arose in the late nineteenth century."

One reality today has been a reality for a long time, and that is, as Collins writes, that people tend "to project their beliefs into the Bible, whether it provided a basis for them or not."

Collins also cautions against using the Bible to advocate a certain view of eschatology, or end-times theology: "(T)here is no more reason to take biblical accounts of the end of history literally than there is to take the accounts of creation as factual." True, though it's hard to convince fundamentalists and the like that Genesis isn't a book of science and history.

One thing I think Collins, and many other scholars, get wrong is his interpretation of the 13th chapter of Romans, in which the Apostle Paul seems (but only seems) to be saying that people should be obedient to whatever government is in power. As Pauline scholar Mark D. Nanos has persuasively argued, what Paul is talking about here is not the Roman government but the authorities in the Jewish synagogues. Paul was writing to Gentiles, telling them to be good guests in synagogues as they seek to find their way into a Jewish way of life -- one that asserts that the Jewish Messiah has come as Jesus of Nazareth. Paul, therefore, was not asking people to pledge allegiance to murderous dictators of civil (in this case Roman) governments. Collins interprets Paul as referring to "governing authorities" without being clear that Paul meant temple authorities, not the Roman emperor. It's a common error, but one that needs to end.

Another question to ask of Collins is why he uses this subtitle for his book "What the Bible Says on Key Ethical Issues," when he clearly writes that "the Bible does not mean anything until it is interpreted. Appeal to textual agency ('but the Bible says') is far too simple an evasion of the reader's responsibility." That "Bible Says" subtitle, thus, is a mystery, indeed.

In the end, Collins correctly insists that the Bible must be use "judiciously." The Bible can inspire and challenge us, he writes, "but the mere fact that something is found in the Bible is in itself no guarantee of right conduct or justice or anything else. Interpreters remain responsible for what they take from the Bible."

* * *

BARR ESCAPES WITHOUT MUCH CRITICISM

Religion scholar and RNS blogger Mark Silk says Catholic leaders should be much more upset than they seem to be at Attorney General William Barr for allowing capital punishment to resume in federal cases. He's right. Barr, who is himself Catholic, is, in effect, flying in the face of Catholic teaching about this. On the other hand, when other officials who are Catholic didn't adhere to church teaching about abortion, they got lots of church criticism. Why the inconsistency?


A stand against 'Christian nationalism': 8-2-19

What is Christian nationalism? Well, as the Wikipedia page to which I just linked you says, Christian nationalists "focus primarily on internal politics, such as passing laws that reflect their view of Christianity and its role in political and social life."

Flag-crossIn her forthcoming (Aug. 6) book, Red State Christians, which I'll review Monday here on the blog, Angela Denker notes that some Christians, particularly those among the 81 percent of self-identified evangelical Christians who voted for Donald Trump in 2016, "have turned toward the flag, feeling their patriotic fervor and nostalgic desire for a more Christian America. . .

"This desire to turn back the clock was more about national identity than Christian identity, though the two are inextricably tied together for many Red-State Christians. They wanted to be the ones who get to define what America is, and for them, it must be conservative, and it must be Christian. Otherwise the country -- and their Christian faith -- will utterly collapse."

One reason I raise this subject today is that, as this story notes, a new group has formed called "Christians Against Christian Nationalism."

The group has issued this statement, which contains this definition of Christian nationalism: "Christian nationalism seeks to merge Christian and American identities, distorting both the Christian faith and America’s constitutional democracy. Christian nationalism demands Christianity be privileged by the State and implies that to be a good American, one must be Christian. It often overlaps with and provides cover for white supremacy and racial subjugation. We reject this damaging political ideology and invite our Christian brothers and sisters to join us in opposing this threat to our faith and to our nation."

If one's primary loyalty is to a religious tradition, loyalty to a nation always comes second. In some cases, it may be a relatively close second, but it always must be second. One way to think about that is to remember the first of the Ten Commandments, which tells people to have no other gods before God. If the nation has become your god, that's trouble.

Sometimes Christian nationalists seem to forget that commandment.

At the new group's website, you can see who all has signed the statement and is behind this effort.

What has become increasingly clear in recent years is that when Americans conflate religious identity with national identity, they water down their religion and they imperil the religious liberty that their nation should protect.

Here's one way to detect whether your faith community, if it's a Christian church, is making that error: In the sanctuary, are the American flag and the Christian flag both displayed as somehow co-equal? If so, you should challenge that.

* * *

A FIGHT OVER 'FAKE NEWS'

If you're not familiar with the online religious satire publication called The Babylon Bee, I commend it to you. It can be hilarious, though often it hits with a too-heavy hand. I have signed up to get a copy e-mailed to me each day. It now turns out that the fact-checking site Snopes and the Bee are sniping at each other over the question of whether a particular Bee article constitutes fake news. Well, when the Bee's slogan is "Fake News You Can Trust," Snopes should know that satire is the point. E. B. White once said that explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. Nobody much cares -- and the frog dies of it. Snopes should remember that.


A group that's responding to Turkey's crisis: 8-1-19

In late 2017, I wrote this Flatland column about people in the Kansas City area from Turkey. As I noted, "The brutal, imperious reaction of Turkey’s dictatorial government to a failed coup attempt last year has turned life into a nightmare for most, if not all, Kansas City-area residents of Turkish nationality."

AST-logoYou can read there how several area residents, all Muslims, were dealing with that disaster.

But, of course, Kansas City area residents were not alone in this. Lots of Turkish people all over the U.S., of course, also were affected and remain so today.

One of the responses to this trouble has been the creation of an organization called Advocates of Silenced Turkey (AST). As the group explains on its website, "Since the July of 2016, the Turkish government has improperly imprisoned 130,214 homemakers, teachers, NGO workers, academics, judges, prosecutors and journalists.

"Once upon a time, the Republic of Turkey was lauded by insiders and outsiders for constituting a powerful model for democratization. In New Turkey, however, silence against the regime’s draconian laws, mass imprisonment, and frequent violations of universal human rights has become the sole norm.

"In a regime which ranks as the worst upholder of the rule-of-law in Eastern Europe & Central Asia, 187 media outlets have been shut down and 308 journalists. .  .are political prisoners of the state. Dissent in New Turkey is absent. Human rights in New Turkey are absent. Respect for human dignity in New Turkey is absent."

Recently I spoke by phone with Zeynep Girdap, a representative of Advocates of Silenced Turkey, and she added to that information.

"AST," she told me, "does a lot of things. They organize events to foster donations (to help Turkish people who now can't go back home and whose relatives may be in prison in Turkey) and to contact members of Congress to inform them about these issues." AST also writes white papers about what's happening in Turkey.

AST, she said, doesn't have a headquarters but is made up of people all over the U.S. and Europe who work together online.

People interested in staying up to date on AST's activities can sign up for a regular e-mailed newsletter on the organization's website (scroll to the bottom of the opening page).

It's always intriguing to me how people react in times of crisis, whether it's a family matter or something involving an entire nation. The people who eventually make a difference are the ones who volunteer to get engaged in the kind of information and advocacy work AST does. Such volunteers also get a chance to shape the response to the disaster and to correct course if the organization in question drifts into waters it should avoid.

Turkey, of course, is a predominantly Muslim country but under earlier national leadership it sought to create a secular government that would protect the religious freedom of all its citizens. The current regime has been violating all kinds of freedoms of its citizens, no matter their faith tradition. I don't know how much longer other NATO nations will put up with a member that does such atrocious things.

* * *

BEYOND SEX OFFENDER REGISTRIES

More faith communities are doing background checks on potential employees to make sure they don't hire sexual offenders, but as this RNS story notes, they may need to dig deeper than the standard checks normally do. The primary goal here, in case anyone has forgotten, is to protect children. Is your congregation doing all it can to accomplish that?