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What's the shape of American families today?

Family is important. No doubt. It shapes us and sometimes misshapes us. It encourages us and sometimes crushes our hopes. It nurtures us and sometimes abuses us.

AFS-logoIn thinking about family from a religious point of view, however, what Christians (and no doubt people of other faith traditions) can say is that family is not the instrument God uses to offer us whatever we imagine salvation means. Rather, that's the job of the church, the synagogue, the mosque, the gurdwara, the temple.

I'm pondering families and their changing nature (they've had many shapes across history) today because I've been reading this year's annual "American Family Survey" that the Deseret News in Salt Lake City publishes. The latest edition of it focuses on how the pandemic has affected family life and on how families are thinking about various issues in this presidential election year.

This link will take you to all the stories the Deseret News published about the study.

You can read all that -- and the report itself -- but I found this paragraph in the study's summary particularly interesting:

"The percentage of respondents who told us that their identities as parents and as spouses or partners were very or extremely important to them increased relative to 2018. In the midst of a presidential campaign and protests about racial equality, the percentage saying that their partisan and racial identities were important also increased. In this sense, 2020 was a more politicized environment for American families than 2018, but also one in which family relationships were more salient."

It should be no surprise that people who identify as Republicans differ in several ways in their responses from people who identify as Democrats.

As the study's summary notes, "Democrats were substantially more likely than Republicans to regard economic issues as the primary challenge facing families — more than 8 in 10 Democrats mentioned economic challenges, compared to just over one third of Republicans. In contrast, Republicans tended to focus on culture and family structure."

Republicans also seemed a lot more worried about the decline in regular attendance at worship in recent decades than did Democrats.

But, in the end, the question for all of us is what constitutes family and what makes families healthy. As I've indicated, the definition of family has shown a lot of flexibility over the centuries. In fact, when Chief Justice John Roberts of the U.S. Supreme Court spoke at the court's recent gathering to honor the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, he noted that in addition to her biological family, the court also constituted family for her.

Along those lines, I once preached a sermon I called "Water is Thicker Than Blood," in which I suggested for Christians that the water of baptism creates a family that is more permanent than the family into which we are born. In that sermon, I mentioned that Jesus once asked who his family is and answered his own question not by mentioning his biological mother and others but by saying that his family is made up of whoever does God's will.

Groups such as the Family Research Council like to promote the idea that the family is the most important collection of human beings in anyone's life and that the best model of a perfect family is one male husband, one female wife and several children who aren't having sexual identity issues.

The new study about families suggests that life is much more  complicated than that. In the end, you may not be able to choose your parents, but in a sense you can choose your family. That's what Ruth the Moabite did in the book of Ruth in the Hebrew Bible. And it's what Jesus did. So we have some pretty good models for doing that.

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My friend Melinda Henneberger, a Kansas City Star editorial page columnist, has made an excellent argument in this column about why Democrats in the U.S. Senate who will consider voting for or against Judge Amy Coney Barrett for a seat on the Supreme Court should avoid any criticism of her membership in a religious group known as People of Praise. She writes: "First, you cannot fight bigotry with bigotry; religious intolerance is just as wrong as any other kind of othering. Indulging it won’t get us a more tolerant America. And Senators, treating her like the kook that she is not is just what the president is counting on you to do." There are good reasons to be against this appointment, but Barrett's faith commitments should not be among them.

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P.S.: At noon on Saturday, Oct. 24, Habitat for Humanity of Kansas City and the Lykins Neighborhood Association are hosting a groundbreaking ceremony for what they call the nation's first memorial to victims of human trafficking, to be located in Lykins Square Park at 7th and Myrtle. You can find details about the event in this pdf flyer: Download Into the Light Flyer A4

Do you believe in 'faithism'? I hope not

For several reasons, today I'm going to explore what a science fiction writer I know calls "faithism."

Religions-of-the-worldIn a recent note to me, he wrote this: "Christianity and Judaism and Islam and all supernatural religions that say THEY are superior to others are part of a sick vein of #FAITHISM in the USA and the world at large. Why don't you attack faithism on your blog?"

Clearly he means that some people wind up worshiping their religion instead of the god to whom religion means to point. And he is right. For instance, some people seem to worship the Bible instead of the god attested to in the Bible. Which is to say that they are so positive that every single word in scripture is inerrant in historical and every other way so there is no need for interpretation. Their position is: The Bible says it clearly. I believe it. That's it.

Which is, of course, an idiotically low view of scripture. All scripture must be interpreted, whether we're talking about the Tanakh (which Christians traditionally have called the Old Testament), the New Testament, the Qur'an or the scripture of any other faith tradition. To get at any scripture's meaning, it's necessary to know as much as possible about who wrote it, to whom, in what language, when, the historical circumstances at the time and more.

It's simply foolish to assume that words written, say, 2,500 or 2,000 years ago are directly applicable to our situation today without some exegetical effort to bridge the gap.

Faithism, to return to that made-up word, is,  as I've suggested, a reference to the idea that only one religious tradition owns the truth and that there is only one way to reach what many people of faith call heaven. For instance, in the New Testament (John 14:6), we find Jesus quoted as saying that he is the way, the truth and the life and that "no one comes to the Father but through me."

If we are biblical literalists, that single verse, taken out of any context, would end any debate. I've heard or read two excellent sermons in my life that directly take on that often-misused verse and explain why there are several ways to make sense of it that don't end up in faithism, meaning the idea, in a Christian context, that if you don't pledge allegiance to Jesus you are eternally doomed.

Sometimes words of scripture taken at face value lose faith value. They do that by missing the broader point.

Every religious tradition, of course, makes exclusionary claims. Our often-binary minds want to say that only one of those religions can be true. Well, that's one possibility, but it's also possible that each tradition brings some new light to the table, some insight that hadn't yet occurred to others.

And yet, in the end, we must choose to follow just one religion or no religion at all. (I've never had enough faith to be an atheist.) Similarly, it's impossible simply to speak "language." Instead, we must choose English or German or Hindi or something else. Or we must be silent.

So there you are, my friend who urged me to write about faithism. I've certainly not unpacked all that word might mean. But every word I've written is the truth and divinely sanctioned. Unless it isn't.

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I especially like this Religion News Service opinion column about white evangelical Christians because it acknowledges ways in which such people have contributed to problems in America while also suggesting that we quit demonizing them or any other people of faith. What a concept, huh? "On Nov. 4," writes, Arthur E. Farnsley II, research director of Religion and Urban Culture 2.0 at IUPUI, "all Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, atheists and every other American will still be in the same boat. Constantly berating white evangelical Protestants now will only make it harder for all of us to stay afloat." (IUPUI is Indiana University/Purdue University at Indianapolis.) Let's be a little more gentle with each other, folks, even with people we might think are dead wrong. Well, unless you yourself have never been wrong about anything.

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P.S.: Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health and leader of the Human Genome Project, won the annual Templeton Prize earlier this year. It honors people in the cross-hairs of science and religion. The other evening he gave his acceptance speech, and it's worth a read or a view. You can do either here.

Some think the Holocaust happened in. . .Australia

The Holocaust is the most famous genocide in history -- and it happened within the lifetimes of many people who still are alive.

Treblinka-21And yet a new 50-state survey of millennials and members of Gen Z finds what must be called appalling ignorance about how Germany's Nazi government murdered some six million Jews along with millions of others in World War II.

Some examples:

-- 63 percent of all national survey respondents did not know that some six million Jews were murdered.

-- More than a third of those respondents thought that only “two million or fewer Jews” were killed.

-- Three percent of Missouri respondents thought the Holocaust happened in the U.S., and 1 percent of them thought it happened in Australia.

-- And nearly half of all national respondents (48 percent) could not name any of the more than 40,000 concentration camps or ghettos established in World War II.

And on and on in this survey conducted for the Claims Conference (the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany). That agency, established in the early 1950s, is responsible for negotiating with the German government, as the agency's website says, "a program of indemnification for the material damages to Jewish individuals and to the Jewish people caused by Germany through the Holocaust."

The good news in the survey about the Heart of America is that Kansas was tied for the fifth highest ranking among the states with the most knowledgeable respondents, while Missouri was not in the bottom 10. That may reflect well on the decades of work by the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education (I serve on its voluntary Council of Advocates). The Missouri survey results are found here. And the Kansas results are here.

But clearly more education is needed. Studying this history -- or any history -- has several purposes, and among them is helping all of us know how we got to where we are today. We cannot understand our present without knowing our past. And we will not be able to avoid the errors and disasters of the past if we ignore that past.

Holocaust denial and the rise of neo-Nazis in our time find some their roots in the kind of stunning ignorance displayed by the respondents to the Claims Conference survey.

Anti-Judaism and antisemitism are the results of what may be humanity's oldest hatred. Such hatred moves people to deny the full humanity of other people by calling them such terms as "sub-human." And once someone is in that category, of course, it's easier to countenance his or her extermination.

If you have members of your family or your faith tradition who would do badly on this Claims Conference survey, I hope you'll share it with them. And I hope you'll help them overcome such destructive ignorance.

(The photo here today shows Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and me on our visit to the Treblinka death camp in Poland as we worked on our 2009 book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust.)

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New research suggests that religious congregations that consider themselves more in line with progressive politics have increased their political activity a lot more in recent years than congregations that consider themselves more conservative. The study, done by teachers at the University of Notre Dame and Duke University, "finds that the very congregations that should have increased their mobilization the most under Trump in fact increased it the least, including on issues for which Trump has strongly advocated, like immigration and endorsing candidates," this press release about it says. Among the congregations most politically active, the study finds, are Black Protestants.

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P.S.: The Kansas City area Christian youth ministry, YouthFront, like many agencies, has struggled through this pandemic period, but has planned a free virtual reporting and fund-raising event on Thursday, Oct. 22, called "A Story to Tell: A Year of Challenge. A Night of Hope." That link will get you to a page to register. Just FYI, my daughter Lisen is the organization's development director.

What religion has to do with this time of racial unrest

In many ways, the ongoing story of protests in American streets against racial injustice has deep roots in religion. That's certainly true of misguided and misused religion that tolerated, if not actively encouraged, slavery -- and then, when the Civil War was over, provided cover for whites in the South to justify crushing Blacks' hopes for freedom, hopes that had been encouraged by Reconstruction.

Blm-3To get deeper into all of this today, I'm going to link you to two helpful articles. This one from The Conversation is about how faith and spirituality run deep in the Black Lives Matter movement. And this one, from The Atlantic, explores the possibility of a "next Reconstruction," given the failure of the first one 150 or so years ago.

In the first piece, two scholars who have studied the #BLM movement for five years have concluded that "BLM was not only a movement seeking radical political reform, but a spiritual movement seeking to heal and empower while inspiring other religious allies seeking inclusivity."

(By the way, the BLM co-founder just denounced televangelist Pat Robertson for claiming that the organization is "anti-God.")

The Atlantic piece, which describes how and why Reconstruction failed after the Civil War, quotes Frederick Douglass making a point undergirded by religion: “In whatever else other nations may have been great and grand, our greatness and grandeur will be found in the faithful application of the principle of perfect civil equality to the people of all races and of all creeds, and to men of no creeds.”

It was a hopeful, aspirational statement, not a description of reality back then, and it found its roots in the religious idea that every human being is a child of God and precious in God's sight. The political scientist Glenn Tinder, in his book, The Political Meaning of Christianity, calls that idea the "spiritual center of Western politics."

Adam Serwer writes this in the Atlantic piece to which I've linked you above: "At the height of Reconstruction, racist horrors produced the political will to embrace measures once considered impossibly idealistic, such as Black male suffrage. Many Black Lives Matter activists have a similarly radical vision."

But then he notes this: "Believing in racial equality in the abstract and supporting policies that would make it a reality are two different things. Most white Americans have long professed the former, and pointedly declined to do the latter. This paradox has shown up so many times in American history that social scientists have a name for it: the principle-implementation gap. This gap is what ultimately doomed the Reconstruction project."

One reason Americans are struggling today over racial justice issues is that our predecessors failed to fix things after the Civil War, even with its post-war constitutional amendments (XIII, XIV and XV). That sad story is told in great detail in Ron Chernow's book Grant. One of the stories Chernow tells is about how, in Reconstruction, the governor of Mississippi, Adelbert Ames, pleaded with federal officials to send troops in to protect Black people from vicious, marauding whites who were following the ideas set forth by Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederate States of America, who said that the confederacy's corner-stone "rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. . .Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system."

What was the "curse against Canaan"? Another misreading of scripture. You can read about it here. The idea that Noah cursed his son Ham's son Canaan somehow led to the bizarre idea that Ham and Canaan were Black and that from that point on Blacks would be enslaved or in any case not equal to whites. It was theology gone mad, but the idea still is around today.

President Grant allowed his racist attorney general to handle the plea from the Mississippi governor, and that meant federal troops did not intervene to protect Black citizens there. As Chernow writes, "Disheartened by Grant's refusal to rush troops to Mississippi, Ames sat brooding and besieged in the governor's mansion in Jackson. He concluded that Reconstruction was a dead letter, white supremacists in his state having engineered a coup d'etat."

The Atlantic article adds this to that story: "Retreating from Reconstruction, these Republicans cast their objections to the project as advocacy for honest, limited government, rather than racism. But the results would ultimately be the same: an abandonment of the freedmen to their fate. . .Local authority was ultimately restored by force of arms, as Democrats and their paramilitary allies overthrew the Reconstruction governments through intimidation, murder and terrorism, and used their restored power to disenfranchise the emancipated for almost a century."

(It helps to remember that the Republicans back then were considered the progressive party while the Democratic Party was the cordial home of white supremacists. All that's pretty much reversed now. Abe Lincoln must be rolling over in his grave.)

If bad theology led to crazy ideas like the curse of Canaan and like using scripture to justify slavery, maybe good theology can help us find a way toward the day when racist systems are dismantled and all people are seen as of ultimate worth. But that won't happen by accident.

(The photo above here today is one I took of the Black Lives Matter community art on Brookside Boulevard just south of 63rd Street in Kansas City.)

Tsu-4 Tsu-5(Just as an aside, although the Civil War ended 155 years ago, there still are monuments and markers all over the country -- some of which, such as those honoring traitors like Robert E. Lee, are coming down. While in Kirksville, Mo., last weekend, I ran into this double-sided sign describing a Civil War battle that took place right there on the town square. Read it and you'll know that history, too. Or read the article about it to which I've linked you. Or, heck, go to Kirksville. And while you're there say howdy to my granddaughter at Truman State University.)

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Judaism's High Holidays, which begin Friday night with Rosh Hashanah, have a new look in this pandemic season, as this Washington Post article explains. Every faith tradition has been affected in various ways by Covid-19, though not all of the changes have been terrible. Here and there congregations have seen at least a little bit of good come out of all the disaster, as I wrote earlier this summer in this Flatland column.

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P.S.: How sad that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died at the start of the Jewish High Holidays. She was exactly the kind of justice we need on that court.

American Jews are asking an odd question

There have been European immigrants to the U.S. -- including the Irish and the Italians -- who had to negotiate their way into a culture in which white people were (and are) the dominant caste in a country founded on the principle of white supremacy.

Star-davidIt took time for those two groups and others to be recognized as white. The book to read is Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, by Isabel Wilkerson.

It turns out, as this interesting article by  notes, that American Jews today sometimes struggle with the question of whether they are white. She says she and other American Jews are asking this: "Where do we fit into the country’s fraught racial landscape?"

Well, part of the problem of even asking that question, as Jaradat notes, is that it "overlooks our diversity. Researchers estimate that Jews of color number between 12% to 15% of American Jewry."

But as Wilkerson shows, in the U.S. being white means being part of the dominant caste, which means that even poor whites whose economic, social and other needs are not being met often imagine that no matter how bad things are for them they can take comfort in the fact that they're not part of the lower caste of people with darker skin. (Yes, it's a sick system, which is why we need to fix it.)

Some of this question for and about Jews in the U.S. gets into an ancient debate about whether Jews make up a race, a religion, an ethnicity or something else -- or all of them.

As Jaradat writes, "Some claim that even posing the question 'Are Jews a race?' is taboo because it plays into the hands of anti-Semites. After all, the Nazis used a racial definition of Judaism: anyone with three of four Jewish grandparents was considered Jewish, regardless of whether they — or their grandparents — identified as such or practiced the religion. The modern state of Israel also follows a racial definition, offering citizenship to anyone with one Jewish grandparent."

See the kind of knots we all get tied in when we insist on identifying ourselves and others by race -- which, as the results of the Human Genome Project proved to us, is a political, not a biological, construct. Which is to say that the DNA of every human on Earth is about 99.99 percent the same, no matter what racial or other category they get put in.

Sometimes all of this just makes me want to shake my head and ask, "What the hell is wrong with us?" Part of the answer, of course, is that we have developed a racist and casteist system in the U.S. that I finally have more hope that people are recognizing and wanting to deconstruct. Stay tuned.

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American voters who are also people of faith, says this RNS opinion column, are looking for a presidential candidate who -- in the midst of the pandemics of Covid and racism -- can give them hope. Ryan Eller writes that it's quite possible that "the majority of religious Americans will vote for whichever candidate best understands their grief and shows deep empathy for them. . ." The "candidate they trust," he says, "will restore hope and help them heal. Call these swing voters the Forgotten Faithful." They sound like Richard Nixon's alleged "Silent Majority," but that term described people who were neither silent nor in the majority. We'll see about the Forgotten Faithful.

What a compromised King David can teach us

Many characters found in Bible stories are, well, flawed people, starting with Adam and Eve.

30-days-davidMoses murdered a guy and had to flee. Peter denied Jesus three times, and other disciples of Jesus sometimes come off as dumb as fence posts. Jonah ran away when God asked him to go to Ninevah and shape up the people there.

And King David? Where to start? Well, start with what today almost certainly would be called his rape of Bathsheba and his being an accessory to the murder of Bathsheba's husband.

And David could be a complainer. The novelist Joseph Heller caught that so memorably in his terrific 1984 novel God Knows, in  which David is a prime character. Chapter two begins with David saying that "the killing of Goliath was just about the biggest goddamn mistake I ever made."

Later in the book, David offers this lament: "Some Promised Land. The honey was there, but the milk we brought in with our goats. To people in California, God gave a magnificent coastline, a movie industry and Beverly Hills. To us He gives sand. To Cannes He gives a plush film festival. We get the PLO. Our winters are rainy, our summers hot. To people who didn't know how to wind a wristwatch He gives underground oceans of oil. To us He gives hernia, piles and anti-Semitism." And on and on.

I mention all of this to suggest that anyone who writes a book in which he or she uses King David as a positive role model has not only to acknowledge his failures but, when writing about his assets, pipefit them around his deficits in careful ways. Which is exactly what Larry Buxton, a pastor and teacher, has done in his new book Thirty Days With King David: On Leadership, which will be published Tuesday. It's the second in a series of "Thirty Days With" books from, the first being Thirty Days With Abraham Lincoln: Quiet Fire, by Duncan Newcomer.

In the hands of a different author who might have wanted to make strong political points, this book could have been a jeremiad against the leadership (such as it's been) of President Donald Trump. But Buxton mentions Trump only once or twice in passing and does not point out directly that leadership qualities being praised in King David are not only lacking in Trump but often are 180 degrees from how Trump acts.

So if you want to see that in this book, that's up to your interpretation of it, not something Buxton seems to intend.

But here are some of the leadership qualities of David that Buxton suggests leaders today would do well to emulate: Patience, vision, humility, integrity, openness, tenderness, forgiveness, courage, gratitude, self-control, calmness and justice.

In each case he draws on the stories of David in the Tanakh (what Christians traditionally have called the Old Testament) and finds examples of when David acted as a leader with patience, vision, humility and so on. It's an effective technique and a helpful review of this ancient history of Israel and its leaders.

Buxton begins the book by calling David "the world's most famous writer" because he often is credited with writing most, if not all, of the book of Psalms in the Bible. Well, here is where I wish Buxton, who is not reticent to point out David's faults, would have noted that many scholars have determined that David may have written none of the psalms attributed to him.

As the great Hebrew scholar Robert Alter notes in his own translation and commentary on the psalms, "The Davidic authorship enshrined in Jewish and Christian tradition has no credible historical grounding. . .One cannot categorically exclude the possibility that a couple of these psalms were actually written by David, though it is difficult to gauge the likelihood (and some scholars altogether doubt David's historicity)." (The parenthetical marks here are Alter's.)

Still, in his new book Buxton was not out to debate Davidic authorship of the book of Psalms and was just noting that many people know David because, rightly or wrongly, they associate him with the psalms.

But even if David never wrote any of them, his story in the Bible is a deep well from which to draw lessons for our lives, and Buxton helps point the way toward that.

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My friend Mary C. Curtis has written this excellent column about faith and politics as the 2020 election approaches. She calls it an election "that reveals a faith divide as deep as ever in America, as stark as black and white, but with many shades of gray." And she's spot on with this observation: "For too many who would identify as persons of faith, the words of the holy books — with encouragement from leaders who profess to have all the answers — serve as invitations to close hearts and minds rather than reach out to the unfamiliar." I first met Mary through the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, which I once served as president.

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P.S.: Continuing the commemoration yesterday of the 19th anniversary of 9/11, here's a recent column on that subject that I wrote for, in case you missed it when it posted.

Psssst: Want to hear a little gossip?

Pope Francis said something the other day that didn't get a lot of attention, but I think it's worth unpacking a little.

Gossip"Gossiping," he said, is a "plague worse than COVID."

He departed from his prepared text to say that. The story to which I've linked you adds this: "Francis didn't give specifics during his weekly blessing, but went on at some length to say the devil is the 'biggest gossiper' who is seeking to divide the church with his lies."

So he's using some hyperbole here, for sure. But Francis certainly has his hands full with a Roman Curia that contains, by many accounts, backbiters and dissenters -- OK, gossipers -- who can make life pretty miserable for the pontiff.

But let's set that aside and see if there's something in his words that might accurately describe a despicable human behavior that we all would do well to curb.

We can, of course, turn to scripture to find admonitions against what's called gossiping today. For instance:

"Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear." -- Ephesians 4:29

"There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies and one who sows discord among brothers." -- Proverbs 6:16-19

"A dishonest man spreads strife, and a whisperer separates close friends." -- Proverbs 16:28

Similarly, the Qur'an is quite explicit about the need to avoid gossip:

"Believers, avoid making too many assumptions -- some assumptions are sinful -- and do not spy on one another or speak ill of people behind their backs. . ." 49:12

"Believers, if a troublemaker brings you news, check it first, in case you wrong others unwittingly and later regret what you have done." 49:6

In this thoughtless time of social media flash responses, such scriptural advice is more necessary than ever.

The news media -- from irresponsible personal blogs to reputable outlets -- contain lots of gossip. There's even a category called "gossip columnists," who mostly trade in rumors about celebrities. They wouldn't do that if there were not a market out there for such trash.

And just the other day, while reading Isabel Wilkerson's terrific new book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, I ran across a way that gossip is used in any culture (ours, India's, Nazi Germany's) that has or has had a formal or informal caste system: "With few other outlets for control and power, people on the bottom rung may put down others of their own caste to lift themselves up in the eyes of the dominant (caste). . .The caste system thrives on dissension and inequality, envy and false rivalries, that build up in a world of perceived scarcity. As people elbow for position, the greatest tensions arise between those adjacent to one another, up and down the ladder."

My own experience is that gossip is engaged in primarily by people who are unsure or insecure about who they are and what value they have -- no matter what gender they are. They seem to have missed the religious idea that absolutely every human being is precious in God's sight, meaning there are no garbage human beings and no sub-humans. Maybe the pope should have added that to his off-the-text rant about gossipers.

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A Catholic priest, with the support of a bishop, says in a video that Catholics who vote for Democrats in the upcoming election will "face the fires of hell." I had no idea that a Wisconsin priest was in charge of the afterlife. Good to know.

Did Christianity make Judaism irrelevant?

Was it God's plan to have Christianity supersede Judaism, making the latter irrelevant and obsolete?

Nelson-webinarThat arrogant belief, called supersessionism, has been around for a long time and has helped to create century after century of Christian anti-Judaism, the history of which I describe in this essay. Supersessionism has come in various styles over the centuries, ranging from what scholar Cary Nelson calls "hard" supersessionism to the "soft" variety.

Nelson, a professor emeritus of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and author or editor of more than 30 books, recently presented a webinar about all of this at the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism at Indiana University. (A video of the webinar should be available soon on this page of the Institute's website.)

As a Christian, I found it painful to listen to Nelson describe all the ways in which Christians have, century after century, denied that Judaism matters. The fact that in recent decades, particularly in light of the Holocaust, various branches of Christianity have backed way from hard supersessionist positions is helpful, but supersessionism is far from dead, and today it expresses itself most virulently in people who believe that modern Israel has no right to exist.

To give webinar participants a bit of relatively modern historical perspective, Nelson went back to Jan. 26, 1904, when Theodore Herzl, described here as "the visionary behind modern Zionism and the re-institution of a Jewish homeland," met at the Vatican with Pope Pius X "to seek the pope's support for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine," as Nelson noted.

"According to Herzl's account in his diaries, which is not disputed, the pope's reply was blunt: 'We cannot give approval to this movement. We cannot prevent the Jews from going to Jerusalem but we can never sanction it. The soil of Jerusalem, it was not always sacred (but) it has been sanctified by the life of Jesus Christ. As the head of the church, I cannot tell you anything different. Jews have not recognized our Lord. Therefore, we cannot recognize the Jewish people.'"

Just over six decades later, the Catholic Church reversed that myopic and insulting view by issuing a history-changing document called Nostra Aetate (or "In Our Time"). Although no doubt some Jewish scholars and religious authorities, if given a chance, would have made some edits to some of that document's language, the effect of the document was that for the first time in its history the church said that Jews -- both at the time of Jesus and today -- should not be charged with deicide, meaning they should not be held responsible for the death of Jesus.

Since then there's been quite a bit of Jewish-Christian dialogue and, at least in parts of the church, a growing acceptance of the idea that God's covenant with the Jews is irrevocable. And yet, as Nelson pointed out in the webinar and will describe in detail in a forthcoming book, Peace and Faith: Christian Churches and the Israel-Palestinian Conflict, supersessionism among Christians still is around.

The video of Nelson's webinar gets into more details, but for my purposes in this blog post, I simply want to point out that people making religious truth claims need to be aware of all the ramifications of those claims, especially if one result is the proclamation that followers of a different religious tradition not only are wrong but should be shut up or even permanently removed.

In my essay on anti-Judaism in Christianity that I linked you to above, I note that there may not be a direct link between historic Christian anti-Judaism and the Holocaust, but clearly those centuries of anti-Jewish teachings helped to create the atmosphere in which the emergence in the 1800s of modern antisemitism became possible. And without modern antisemitism, the Holocaust is simply inconceivable.

Ideas matter -- especially religious ideas that create in adherents a false certitude about what is true. What a more peaceful world this would be if everyone remembered that we are finite beings attempting to understand something about the infinite. Given that truth, it's probably arrogant to say anything at all about God. And yet our human curiosity insists that we do say something. Just know that if whatever you say about God dehumanizes other people, making them irrelevant or making them enemies, you've gotten things dangerously wrong.

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While we're on the subject of antisemitism today, the Jewish newspaper the Forward has done this story explaining the ways in which antisemitism informs the crazy conspiracy theories being promoted by a movement called QAnon, which I last wrote about here. "There is a strong current of anti-Semitism in the QAnon worldview," the article reports. "The anti-Semitic components are not incidental. QAnon may have started in 2017, but its ideology resonates with much older anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, the modern American face of an age-old and very dangerous ideology." (Side note: You may notice that I spell it "antisemitism" while the author of the Forward piece spells it anti-Semitism. Who's right? Good question, but the answer is too long to get into here. If you care, e-mail me at [email protected] and I'll explain why I choose the un-hyphenated version.)

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P.S.: Speaking of attacks on people because of their religious tradition, MSNBC host Joy Reid should be ashamed of herself for ignorant and hateful words she uttered on air the other day about Muslims, as described in this RNS column condemning her. The column says she "compared President Donald Trump’s seeming support for those committing violence at protests to 'the way Muslims act.'” At best it was misguided Islamophobia. As the authors of the RNS column say, "the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding found in a survey two years ago that American Muslim adults reject violence more than any other group in the U.S. (And) American Muslims are more likely than the general public to reject violence against civilians by the military as well as by an individual or small group." People with prominent public voices should know the facts before they speak. Reid's response to the criticism she's rightly received for this has been inadequate.

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ANOTHER P.S.: I am a guest on the episode of Mindy Corporon's "Real Grief -- Real Healing" podcast that was released Saturday. We talk about the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001 and the shape grief and healing can take. You can listen in here.

Newly unveiled Vatican archives are sadly telling

A few months ago, here on the blog, I wrote about what researchers might find now that the Vatican archives covering the papacy (1939-1958) of Pius XII (pictured here) are being made public.

Pope-pius-xiiOne of the early results has to do with what this Atlantic article calls the "private discussions behind both Pope Pius XII’s silence about the Nazi deportation of Rome’s Jews in 1943 and the Vatican’s postwar support for the kidnapping of two Jewish boys whose parents had perished in the Holocaust." It was written by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David I. Kertzer. He won the prize for his terrific book called The Pope and Mussolini.

The Atlantic article is long, detailed and disheartening -- but perhaps not unexpected, given the realities of the depth of antisemitism in Europe in that era and given the ponderously slow way that change traditionally comes to the Vatican and, thus, to the Catholic Church.

"In light of the publication of this massive trove of documents," Kertzer writes, "the claim has been made that nothing much new will be learned about the pope’s silence during the Holocaust from the recent opening of the Vatican archives. But scholars need not have worried about a lack of new material. . .The new discoveries provide ample grounds to believe that the full story of Pius XII and the Jews remains to be written.

"It would only be after Pius XII’s death that Church attitudes toward the Jews would change in a meaningful way, thanks to his successor John XXIII, who convened a Vatican Council devoted in part to rooting out the vestiges of medieval Church doctrine on the Jews. The culmination of those efforts came only after Pope John XXIII’s death; in 1965, the Second Vatican Council issued the remarkable declaration Nostra Aetate. Reversing long-held Church doctrine, it called on the faithful to treat Jews and their religion as worthy of respect."

Some years ago, portions of the archives covering the papacy of Pius XII were unveiled. But it turns out they were carefully redacted, meaning certain documents were withheld -- and now we see more clearly why.

Kertzer explains: "No aspect of the pope’s attitude toward the Jews has received as much attention as the controversy over his silence during the war — his failure to denounce the Nazis and their accomplices for the systematic slaughter of Europe’s Jews. In an effort to respond to critics, it was (Giovanni Battista) Montini (one of Pius XII's chief deputies) himself who later, as Pope Paul VI, commissioned a group of Jesuit scholars to pore through the Vatican archives — which have remained closed to other scholars until now — to bring to light all relevant documents regarding the pope’s and the Vatican secretary of state’s actions as they considered how to respond to the unfolding horrors of the Second World War. This resulted, from 1965 to 1981, in the publication of 12 volumes filled with thousands of documents. Volume 9, devoted to how the Holy See sought to help the victims of the war in the year 1943, contains 492 documents."

But what was missing -- described in detail by Kertzer -- reveals an deep anti-Jewish current in the Vatican that, by today's Catholic standards, looks despicable. So this is painful stuff for the Catholic Church, but it's absolutely necessary to have these documents so that everyone can know the history, if for no other reason than not to repeat it. So good for the church for finally unveiling these sorry secrets.

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Actor Chadwick Boseman, who just died, was an authentic and consistent man of faith both in private and in the public eye, this RNS column asserts. As the Rev. Tyler Burns writes in that piece, "Both his stardom and his real self seemed a synthesis of pious faith and an unwavering commitment to his Blackness. Over his short career, he committed himself fiercely to bringing our heroes to life, to remind us to appreciate their legacy. His sweat-drenched portrayal of music icon James Brown in 'Get on Up' and his defiant performance as the barrier-breaking baseball star Jackie Robinson in '42' are just two examples of his choice to honor the legacy of those who came before us." To me, the sad thing is that Boseman didn't speak about his cancer much so that his fans could have walked with him on that journey and so that he could have encouraged others to get checked. But that's a highly personal decision that no one has a right to criticize.

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P.S.: I wrote this column for this week about the upcoming 19th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and how we should be responding all these years later.