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November 2019

How bad theology makes the opioid crisis worse

It is not news that the U.S. has been suffering through an opioid crisis. Addiction to these powerful drugs has caused the death of tens of thousands of people. And people who haven't yet died of this addiction sometimes wish they would.

Bad-TheologyAs with every major trend in society, religious threads can be found in the opioid story, and the author of this Religion&Politics article does a good job of identifying one such thread and describing the harm it's doing.

Bad theology, argues Timothy McMahan King, author of Addiction Nation, is doing considerable harm. And his own experience of recovering from an opioid addiction makes what he writes even more credible.

A "belief in the 'demonic' nature of certain substances," he writes, "has real world consequences. First, it underlies the myth that prohibition is the only solution. If we believe that certain substances are inherently evil, then prohibition is a logical solution. We need a 'war on drugs' because they are the enemy. But, if we recognize that the primary moral concern should be the potential harm to oneself or others that excessive or habitual use might bring, then the primary moral issue at stake is not getting rid of all drugs but reducing the potential harm they might cause. We need to ground our discussion not in stark statements of inherent good or evil but in understanding that our relationship to a substance like an opioid can exist along a spectrum, from harmful to beneficial."

The "demonic" reaction to this crisis is another example of when all-or-nothing, black-and-white, good-and-evil binary theology not only doesn't help us but hinders us from finding healthy solutions to complex problems.

When people of faith have no more questions, only answers, it's time to watch out for them. They will almost inevitably inflict harm on someone.

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The other day, when the U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill to sanction senior Chinese official for their treatment of Muslim Uighurs, the vote was 470-1. The lone dissenter was a Republican from Kentucky, Thomas Massie, who later tweeted this: “When our government meddles in the internal affairs of foreign countries, it invites those governments to meddle in our affairs.” Using that same reasoning, he'd probably have voted the same way and said something similar if the vote had been in the early 1940s and had criticized Germany for its treatment of Jews.

The faith that drove Harriet Tubman

Maybe by the time this blog entry posts, I'll have had a chance to see the new movie "Harriet" about the former slave and great abolitionist Harriet Tubman.

HarrietWhat I don't yet know about the movie is whether it will explore the role religious faith played in her brave life. But you can read about exactly that in this piece from "The Conversation."

"Tubman’s Christian faith tied all of (her) remarkable achievements together," writes , professor and chair of History Department at Colorado State University.

"She grew up during the Second Great Awakening, which was a Protestant religious revival in the United States. Preachers took the gospel of evangelical Christianity from place to place, and church membership flourished. Christians at this time believed that they needed to reform America in order to usher in Christ’s second coming.

"A number of black female preachers preached the message of revival and sanctification on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Jarena Lee was the first authorized female preacher in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

"It is not clear if Tubman attended any of Lee’s camp meetings, but she was inspired by the evangelist. She came to understand that women could hold religious authority."

Probably nothing has shaped American culture more than the decision to make slavery legal here. It tainted and deformed the infant nation in ways that so far have been impossible to fix completely.

But an important story in the face of that was the ability of people like Tubman and Frederick Douglass, both of whom were born into slavery in Maryland, to guide the American people toward a better vision of what they could be without slavery.

If you haven't read David Blight's new biography of Douglass, I really encourage you to do that. I wrote about that book here and here.

Tubman and Douglass are far from the only heroes of color in American history, of course, but I find it encouraging that there are new efforts to tell their stories, especially in this time of deep political and racial divisions in the U.S., divisions encouraged in subtle and unsubtle ways by our president.

May the voices of Tubman, Douglass and others with similar stories prevail over the voices of racial division.

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The other day, here on the blog, I wrote about the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and the struggle in Congress to reauthorize it. As I said there, I thought the Commission, on the whole, has done some good and there should be a way to keep it both bipartisan and operating. Religious scholar Mark Silk, for whom I have great respect, thinks otherwise. He writes here that it's time to shut USCIRF down. You decide, though I haven't changed my mind about finding a way to make it effective and politically neutral.

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P.S.: I invite you to experience the annual "Journey to Bethlehem" pageant that my church, Second Presbyterian, offers to the community. It's tonight and Saturday evening at 55th and Brookside. I'll be the gatekeeper on Saturday to let groups in at the right pace. Details for this free event are here.


Studying other religions to become more welcoming

As the American religious landscape becomes more varied and complicated, interesting efforts are under way in perhaps unexpected places to make sure adherents of non-Christian religions are finding their place in our culture.

Religious-literacyOne of those places is the University of Nebraska, where an assistant professor is planning a 2020 course called "When the World's Religions Came to Lincoln," Lincoln, of course, being the university's home, as any Alex Gordon fan knows.

As the Lincoln Journal Star story to which I've linked you reports, under Max Mueller, an assistant professor of classics and religious studies, students "will research the needs and traditions of various faith communities in Lincoln and apply the knowledge to propose a common worship space on campus."

This may lead to adherents of non-Christian religions on campus feeling more welcome, which would be a good thing, but it also almost certainly will lead to the Christian students who take the class learning more about their own faith tradition. That's what almost always happens in interfaith study and dialogue.

For instance, many of the students who are part of the Kansas City Interfaith Youth Alliance (I serve on the KCIYA board) have told me that the experience of being around people from faith traditions other than their own required them to know more about their own tradition so they could explain it better to others. In the end, that has led to a deepening of their own commitment rather than a desire to convert to some other religion.

All of this improves religious literacy, which can reduce ignorance, which leads to fear, bigotry and even violence. And what would be wrong with that?

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Fifteen states have extended or repealed statutes of limitations on sexual abuse charges, meaning, as this AP report says, that the Catholic Church is facing another huge round of lawsuits. This "the deluge of suits," the story says, "could surpass anything the nation's clergy sexual abuse crisis has seen before, with potentially more than 5,000 new cases and payouts topping $4 billion." Too bad bishops weren't imagining this when some of them were covering up abuse by priests.

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about the ethical use of artificial intelligence in health care -- now is online here.

'Thoughts and prayers' but no dough?

It's now become a derisive cliche to say, in response to some major natural disaster affecting lots of people (hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires and the like), that you will offer your "thoughts and prayers."

T-fThey are cheap and easy words to say, even if you really do keep such victims in your thoughts and really do offer sincere prayers for their well-being.

Well, they are cheap and easy at least compared with making a direct financial contribution to help or sending yourself as a volunteer into the disaster zone.

And it turns out that new research from the University of Wyoming shows that people who offer prayers for disaster victims are less likely to offer financial help, as this press release from the school reports.

“The results suggest that the act of praying is a substitute for material help -- in other words, prayers crowd out donations, at least in some contexts,” says Linda Thunstrom, an assistant professor in the department of economics of the school's College of Business.

You can read her full study report here.

This study says two things to me.

One is that in this time of endless news cycles, we tend to get overwhelmed by disasters. There are, of course, all the natural disasters, on which Thunstrom and her team focused. And in this era of climate change they seem to happen more often than they used to. But add to those disasters mass shootings, terrorism of various kinds and other human-made disasters and it's not surprising that all many of us can is say we'll keep the victims in our thoughts and prayers.

The other thing this study shows is how hard it is to live out religions that require their adherents to be loving and generous, which, of course, is all the world's major religions. Taken seriously, these religions are demanding, requiring of us submission and commitment to a life in accord with the religion's teachings. Serious prayer often is part of that, but almost all of us know times when we've responded to trouble simply by saying we'll pray for the person in trouble and then not doing it.

But if, as the study shows, simply offering "thoughts and prayers" cuts down on our willingness to give financial help, how about if we quit saying that so often? Maybe our silence would move us toward more action.

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Increasingly, artificial intelligence is affecting our lives, whether through such devices as Alexa or self-driving cars. But AI's use has only just begun, and as this Slate piece argues, it may well affect our lives of faith, too. Has anyone really given this much thought? If not, it's past time to do that.

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about the ethical use of artificial intelligence in health care -- now is online here.

Should religions have the final word on time of death?

Here's a development in religion that sort of slipped by me in late October, but it's one I think is worth backing up to because of the end-of-life issues it raises.

Euthenasia wordleAs this Catholic News Service story reports it, "Representatives from the Catholic and Orthodox churches and the Muslim and Jewish faiths signed a joint declaration at the Vatican reaffirming each religion's clear opposition to euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide.

"They also encouraged promoting palliative care so that dying patients could receive the best, most comprehensive physical, emotional, social, religious and spiritual care and appropriate support for their families, according to the joint statement."

To read the declaration in its original, click here.

Several points:

First, I'm glad to see interfaith work focusing on important issues.

Second, the voice of institutional religion needs to be heard on matters of life and death.

Third, this joint statement, for all its good points, strikes me as failing to reflect the nuances of end-of-life decisions, of real-world dilemmas and of the freedom all people should have to express their desires about end-of-life matters.

My third point reflects my reaction to this part of the joint declaration:

"We oppose any form of euthanasia – that is the direct, deliberate and intentional act of taking life – as well as physician-assisted suicide – that is the direct, deliberate and intentional support of committing suicide – because they fundamentally contradict the inalienable value of human life, and therefore are inherently and consequentially morally and religiously wrong, and should be forbidden without exceptions."

To forbid some act "without exceptions" is so sweeping as to suggest that there could be no possible circumstance in which someone in deep pain who clearly is within days or even hours of dying should not have the freedom to say that he or she sees no point in 24 more hours of needless suffering. It is to remove agency from the dying person even while forcing that person to continue in useless pain. That seems not just unnecessary but immoral if the person dying is mentally lucid enough to decide whether he or she wants that pain to continue.

I am not arguing for what is dismissed as "situational ethics," meaning sort of making up moral rules as you go along. Rather, I'm arguing that life is far too complicated for one rule about a difficult decision to apply happily to absolutely everyone.

The rules about physician-assisted suicide, or assistance in dying, as it's sometimes known, should be strict and restrictive. To allow someone to end a life is a huge responsibility and should never be handled in a casual, cavalier manner.

But rules that apply "without exceptions" are simply too broad to reflect all the possible realities of life. In the end, it should be the dying person who takes responsibility for any decision about whether to continue potentially curative treatments or even simple efforts at pain-relief at the end of life.

Representatives of the Abrahamic religions now have spoken on the matter and anyone who identifies as being part of one of those three religions should pay attention. But any insistence that this joint declaration ends the discussion would be unworthy of those faith traditions.

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Leith Anderson, the retiring president of the National Association of Evangelicals, says he wants "the standard to be what the Bible teaches, not what the polls report.” The unmerited assumption behind his expressed desire is that everyone agrees on what the Bible teaches. Christianity and Judaism are divided today largely because of disagreements about that very thing.

Part of Jesus' manger returns to Bethlehem. Really?

The first time I was in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which tradition says was the birthplace of Jesus, I was not quite 13 years old. But even then I was surprised that somehow experts (or someone) knew that one particular spot in the grotto of the church was exactly the spot on which Jesus breathed his first human breath.

Beth-starWhen I returned to that spot in 2012, I took a photo at the site, still a little (or a lot) skeptical that anyone could identify the exact place of birth. The photo you see here today is not the one I took but, rather, one taken by a friend of my youngest sister. I use it because it's framed in a way that makes it seem like a revered icon of some sort.

Which relates to the point I want to make today in response to the news that, as this story reports, a small piece of the manger in which the baby Jesus is said to have slept in Bethlehem has been sent by the Vatican back to the Holy Land.

The manger? The actual manger exists somewhere?

Well, as the story notes, "Legend says that Christians guarded the Holy Manger, which was sent to Rome for safekeeping in the seventh century, following the Muslim conquest of the Holy Land. Since then, it has been the property of the Vatican."

Why do we care whether Jesus was born exactly where the stylized star pictured here today now lies or whether he was born 10 feet or 10 miles away? Indeed, some scholars believe Jesus wasn't born in Bethlehem at all but in his hometown of Nazareth.

Well, there's something to be said for verification of historic events. But isn't the point of the religion that grew up around this child in a manger, wherever it was, more about the idea of love and compassion, mercy and justice? Those are values that surely don't depend on the veracity of a story about being born in a barn or cave or on the ability in the year 2019 to know exactly where that barn or cave was. Nor do they depend on whether the little piece of wood going back to Bethlehem is really part of something in which the Christ child lay.

If we worship such furniture or such geography, we'll miss the whole point.

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In a recent homily, Pope Francis called consumerism “a virus that attacks the faith at the roots.” Sounds like someone had a bad Black Friday shopping experience.