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Thinking about The Star's apology for racist coverage


I was happy (though, as you will see, with understandably mixed personal feelings) to learn that journalism was changing for the better in terms of the racial makeup of those hired to cover the news when, in late 1969 or early 1970, the managing editor of the now-defunct Washington Evening Star (later The Washington Star) told me he'd hire me in a minute if I were Black.

I told him I understood and agreed with his desire to bring more people of color onto his reporting team, though that meant that I would have to look elsewhere if I wanted to leave the staff of the (also-now-defunct) Rochester (N.Y.) Times-Union, where I began work as a reporter in 1967, the year I graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

I devoted a fair amount of my time in Rochester covering matters that related directly to the Black community -- from writing about the effects of the new federal Model Cities program there to covering an organization established to promote and protect the interests of Black people in housing, education, employment and other areas -- to say nothing of covering the story when Black students at what then was called the Colgate Rochester Divinity School (Now Colgate Rochester Crozer) protested the lack of Black faculty (along with other issues) by taking control of the main administration building for a week or so.

All of which is prelude to saying a few words about the recent series of articles in The Kansas City Star that explored (and apologized for) the various ways the newspaper here failed to cover Black lives fairly or justly for much of its 140-year history. You can find those articles here. If you haven't read them all, please do.

I came to The Star as a general assignment reporter in 1970 with the understanding that my experience in Rochester would be drawn on to help the staff report on urban dynamics, race relations and related topics. (Indeed, one of the first stories I worked on had to do with racial discrimination alleged by Black soldiers stationed at Fort Riley in Kansas.)

The reporting and editing staff that I joined was -- no surprise -- predominantly white, though the newspaper already had two or three Black reporters (and at least one Black photographer) on staff. By then, The Star had abandoned its long and racist practice of refusing to run obituaries of Black people or print wedding or engagement announcements of Black people. In other words, at least some light was entering the old building at 18th and Grand, though much more was needed.

(When I took formal retirement from The Star, one of the people who came to a party at my house to celebrate was my former Star reporting colleague Geri Gosa [pictured here with me], who later became a TV reporter at Channel 5 in KC. She wasn't the first Black reporter at The Star, but she helped to normalize the idea that Blacks and other people of color belonged on the reporting staff.)

Retire 022In my years as a reporter (before I became an editorial page columnist in 1977), I wrote a fair amount about subjects that the newspaper had pretty much ignored until roughly the 1960s -- housing segregation patterns, racial turnover in neighborhoods, public housing issues, redlining and similar concerns.

Perhaps my most productive year covering such matters came in 1975. I wrote (with a shared byline on one of the pieces) three long articles that year in this general subject area:

1. I demonstrated that about 50 square miles of the city -- Truman Road to 75th, Troost to I-435, where the population was predominantly Black -- had been redlined by conventional mortgage lenders. And I wrote about the damage that did to the city.

2. I then explored the question of how, without conventional mortgage lenders, property in that area changed hands and why the inherently racist and make-do system inevitably led to deteriorating neighborhoods.

3. I also focused on one square block in that area for articles that described how racial turnover -- white to Black -- swept through it and what systems were at work to cause upheaval to people's lives and to take unfair advantage of people of color.

I was proud of that work but, as I look back on it now, I acknowledge that had I been part of a racially integrated team of reporters the articles could have been much deeper and more enlightening. My experience of living for two years in India as a boy had helped to give me a sense of what it is like not to be part of a dominant culture, but that's not the same as having one or more Black partners in reporting the articles I've listed above.

As I look at this history as someone whose work now focuses primarily on matters of religion, I see that what the white leaders of The Star were doing for at least the first 80 or 90 years of the paper's existence was violating the foundational religious idea that all people -- all people -- should be treated with dignity and respect because they all are equal in God's sight.

This failure to live by basic and essential religious standards was not (and still is not) surprising when we understand how Christians in a nation where a majority of the population still identifies as Christian have routinely violated that fundamental teaching about the essential dignity of all human beings. Think of slavery. Think of the many ways women have been treated as second-class citizens. Think of how LGBTQ+ people have been crushed over and over. And on and on.

Acknowledgment of one's own failures is the first step in fixing them. That confession took too long for The Star to get to, but under editor Mike Fannin it's now been offered. Now the more difficult work must proceed to make sure that systemic racism is obliterated from internal Star systems and from its coverage of our community.

From back in the 1950s, when my church-sponsored Cub Scout troop in Woodstock, Ill., used to put on sickeningly racist minstrel shows, until the now, many good things have happened in race relations -- but at enormous cost and with great resistance. However, the sickness of white supremacy that was present at our nation's birth and incorporated into its founding documents still hasn't been obliterated from our community, our culture, our nation. Let's commit to making more progress toward uprooting that evil in 2021 (that's primarily a job for white people), when it appears we'll have national leadership that will help with that project instead of encouraging its opposite.

(If you know Kansas City and look carefully at the upper right center of the photo at the top here that I took a couple of years ago from the Liberty Memorial tower, you can see both the old Star building at 1729 Grand, where I spent most of my career, and the new Star building nearby.)

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As we continue to think about race here today (and, by the way, race is a social/political construct, not a biological one), let's look at least briefly at the current race controversy within the Southern Baptist Convention. The SBC, as you may know, was created in 1845 as a church of Southern slaveholders. In more recent times it has apologized for its racist history and issued this long report on that history. But in recent weeks, the denomination kicked a hornet's nest when its six seminary presidents, including Jason K. Allen of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary here in Kansas City, issued a joint statement that denounced what is known as Critical Race Theory. (The link I've just given you will give you a pretty good sense of what CRT is about.) Now those SBC seminary presidents are being criticized in various ways and are defending their statement. It's unclear, at least to me, why they felt it necessary in the first place to issue the public statement critical of CRT instead of simply having an internal SBC debate or conversation about what aspects of CRT might be useful and what might not be for an organization so marinated in racism from its origin. Still, this gives all of us a chance to dig a little into CRT and decide whether it's a helpful way to conceive of answers that finally might help us recognize the long, sorrowful history of white supremacy in the U.S. and then work against it going forward.

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column describes my new book, which will be published Jan. 19. The column now is online here.

Is there any hope for hope in 2021?


Some years ago, when I was still writing the "Starbeams" column for The Kansas City Star (they were quips, satire and often-snarky but allegedly humorous remarks about current events and our culture), I wrote one for the front page for the first day of February at a time when brutal winter weather just seemed unwilling to disappear.

All the beam said was: "Jan. 31, Jan. 32, Jan. 33, Jan. 34. . ."

I'm feeling the same way about 2020, which should be sent to reform school. Yes, Jan. 1, 2021, is coming in a few days, and there are some signs of coming improvements in health, politics and other fields. But my realistic self tells me that January, February, March, April and maybe even May are going to feel a lot like March through December of 2020, especially if lots of Americans refuse to get vaccinated and if we lose the focus on systemic racism that we had for a time in the summer of 2020.

So where do we find hope in such a time as this?

We find it, I think, right in the middle of our darkness, our hopelessness.

The French Reformed theologian Jacques Ellul helped me understand that unexpected, ironic answer some years ago when I read his 1972 book called Hope in Time of Abandonment.

He was, of course, speaking to people of faith, but in many ways his ideas are applicable to almost anyone who is nearing the end of 2020 in a state of anxiety or near-despair.

Some words from Ellul:

-- "(H)ope is indeed that which most completely expresses the will of this God."

-- "Hope comes alive only in the dreary silence of God, in our loneliness before a closed heaven, in our abandonment. Man is going to express his hope that God's silence is neither basic nor final, nor a cancellation of what we had laid hold of as a Word from God."

-- "The hope is that this Word of God might once again be spoken, might again be born and might again be decisive. But it is more than that. It is not only expectation or certitude. It is demand. When God is silent he has to be made to talk. When God turns away, he has to be made to turn back to us again. When God seems dead, he has to be made to exist."

-- "It (hope) is a challenge directed at God. Hence, in a sense, it could be said that hope is blaphemous. It actually rejects the decision of God's silence. . .It does not ratify God's will to turn away.  . .It appeals to God against God. It demands an accounting of God, who is not acting the way he had said and had shown that he acts. Hope is. . .a demand that God keep his word."

So as 2020 slips away, rightfully embarrassed and apologetic, our task in 2021 is to demand better -- of ourselves, of others and even of God. There is much we cannot control. But we can control whether we have an active hope (not unlike the small green, insistent and hopeful plant growing right out of the rock fence in my photo above). That kind of hope differs rather radically from optimism, which rarely amounts to anything more than whistling past the graveyard.

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For years now there has been talk -- and mostly just talk -- about doing something significant to acknowledge the many ways in which slavery, the failure of Reconstruction after the Civil War, Jim Crow and other racial outrages did damage to our nation and especially to its Black citizens. Sometimes suggested fixes include "reparations," which many people think of as just money but which really starts with public truth-telling. There is at least one example in the U.S. of reparations being used to good effect, and that is in Rosewood, Fla., in response to the Jan. 1, 1923, massacre of Blacks in that small town. This RNS story describes what happened and then, decades later, what finally happened in terms of reparations and how that has worked. A descendant of the slaughtered Rosewood citizens says this: “In America, as an African American, I do feel that reparations are definitely warranted. Rosewood is a great example that it can definitely be done.” Faith plays a larger part of this story. The way reparations have worked there may not be a perfect model for elsewhere or nationally, but it is nonetheless worth studying.

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Cover-lle-hi-resP.S.: You can pre-order my new book, Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety, here on Amazon in hardback, paperback or e-version. (Publication date is Jan. 19.) Or email me at w[email protected] and we can work out getting you a signed copy.

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ANOTHER P.S.: My latest Flatland column, which describes why I wrote my new book, now is online here.


Cutting through the Christmas birth stories to what's vital


Twice in my life I have been to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the traditional site of the birth of Jesus.

Once I was there on Christmas Eve in 1957 and once in 2012.

The photo here, which I took in 2012, shows the specially marked spot (now in the grotto of the church) said to be exactly  where Mary gave birth to the Christ child. And you are welcome to believe that if you wish, just as you are free to believe that the birth really took place in Bethlehem.

Although no reputable scholar today claims that there never was a Jesus of Nazareth, there have long been disputes over whether to take the birth narratives in the gospels of Matthew and Luke literally, including the location of the nativity.

The French scholar Ernest Renan, for instance, in his 1863 book The Life of Jesus, writes this: "Jesus was born at Nazareth, a small town of Galilee, which before his time had no celebrity. All his life he was designated by the name of 'the Nazarene,' and it is only by a rather embarrassed and round-about way, that, in the legends respecting him, he is made to be born at Bethlehem. . .The precise date of his birth is unknown."

As for the date, Alfred Eidersheim, in his still-read 1883 volume, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, argues not only that Bethlehem is the right location for the birth but also he uses a long footnote to argue that the traditional Dec. 25 date is exactly right: "There is no adequate reason for questioning the historical accuracy of this date. The objections generally made rest on grounds, which seem to me historically untenable."

So what?

Good question.

Those of us who are Christian did not become disciples of Jesus because of where or exactly when he was born. For me and many others, the primary reason to be a Christ follower has to do with his self-emptying love that we are urged to emulate so that we recognize the image of God in every other human being alive and treat them as precious children of God.

The annual celebration of Christmas -- about to happen -- is (or should) simply be an opportunity to remind ourselves of that high calling and to do a self-inventory to see how we're measuring up to the impossibly high standards Jesus set. Then Christmas also should remind us that our works do not save us. Rather, what Christians call salvation is the freely given grace of God.

I'm done complaining about the commercialization of Christmas and I'm done listening to fools who say that there is a war on Christmas (to say nothing of one on Christianity) in the U.S. All of that energy distracts from the necessary focus on how to live a life of love and commitment to the teachings of Jesus.

I've just finished Jon Meacham's new biography of the late Rep. John Lewis: His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope.

If you are looking for models to teach you about how to be a disciple of Christ in a religiously pluralistic nation, you can't do much better than Lewis, whose leadership in the Civil Rights Movement was crucial to the many successes the movement had. And Lewis based his entire life on living out the values Jesus taught.

Meacham writes this: "John Lewis's life is a reminder that progress, however limited, is possible, and that religiously inspired witness and action can help bring about such progress." Then Meacham quotes Lewis near the end of his life (he died July 17, 2020), thinking about the pioneering civil rights work he did and his work in Congress to liberate people: "We truly believed that we were on God's side, and in spite of everything -- God's truth would prevail."

In a world full of war and disease, heartache and inequity, anger and revenge, it's that commitment to believing that God's truth will prevail that should inspire followers of Jesus as they approach the manger again this year. For if it prevails, no one will be an enemy.

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Sticking with our Bethlehem theme here today, the little town is suffering badly this year, this RNS story says. "Traditionally a festive time, if a busy one professionally, Christmas is usually an opportunity for the Holy Land’s tiny Christian minority, which comprises less than 2% of the Israeli and Palestinian populations (and dwindling), to come together and shine as a community. Annual Christmas concerts, plays, markets and prayer services have been either canceled or scaled back dramatically. Making matters worse, due to COVID-19 restrictions, family members who have emigrated are barred from returning to the Holy Land for the holidays, leaving those who remain feeling all the more isolated." The hymn, "O Little Town of Bethlehem," says, "How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given. . ." Apparently that's especially true this year." Sigh.

Is this flood of executions about to end?

The other day here on the blog, I mentioned the death penalty, but just in a quick and incidental way.

Anti-death-penaltyIt's time to take it up again in a considerably more serious way, given the final push under President Donald J. Trump to kill off as many federal prisoners as possible before he leaves office. So I am sharing this Religion News Service opinion column on the subject.

The author, Diane Randall, a Quaker, is the general secretary of the Friends Committee on National Legislation.

"Capital punishment," she writes, "is a relic of the past for democracies. That it still exists in the United States when the vast majority of the developed world has long since done away with it is a burden of shame. Capital punishment does not make us a stronger nation. It does not deliver justice but, rather, perpetuates violence and vengeance."

From the time capital punishment was re-instated by the courts in 1976, only a dozen or so federal prisoners were executed until this year. This bloody year has seen that number almost double.

For that reason alone, Jan. 20 can't get here soon enough. President-elect Joe Biden has been a strong opponent of the death penalty for a long time. It's hard to imagine that any federal prisoners will be killed while he's in office. Of course, the dwindling number of states that retain capital punishment still will continue offing prisoners, but at least there will be a halt at the federal level.

People of faith and of goodwill are not of one mind about capital punishment. One reason is that it's possible to find examples of and justification for the death penalty in the Bible. Of course, it's also possible to find creation in six days there, to say nothing of rules forbidding mixing different kinds of fabric into one piece of clothing (like today's poly-cotton blends).

"The fact is," writes Randall, "state-sanctioned killing has always been, and always will be, immoral. It should be abolished in every legal jurisdiction across the country. It does not serve justice but, rather, makes those who carry it out believe they struck a blow for justice. Look no further than the new firing squads and electric chairs to see the reality of the matter."

Exactly. Beyond that, it's impossible to call yourself pro-life if you favor capital punishment.

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A few weeks ago, six Southern Baptist seminary presidents issued a statement critical of "critical race theory." It's not that there aren't some issues to discuss related to CRT, but to find this criticism coming from Southern Baptist leaders immediately raises the question of whether they are drifting back to the denomination's origins as a pro-slavery branch of Christianity. The response to their defensive and unnecessary statement has included considerable criticism. The most recent response, as reported in this RNS story, is that a "pastor pursuing a doctorate at Southwestern Theological Baptist Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, announced in an editorial Wednesday (Dec. 16) that he was withdrawing from his degree program and severing his megachurch’s affiliation with the Southern Baptist Convention." The Rev. Ralph D. West, founder and pastor of Church Without Walls in Houston, wrote this: “In this time, these men chose to castigate a framework that points out a truth that cannot be denied. American history has been tainted with racism. America codified it. And more, our public and private institutions propagated it." It's further proof that despite obvious signs of racial progress in the last 70 years, there is much further to go, especially when it comes to understanding not just individual bigotry but also systemic racism. Sigh.

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Cover-lle-hi-resP.S.: You can pre-order my new book, Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety, here on Amazon. (Publication date is Jan. 19.) Or email me at w[email protected] and we can work out getting you a signed copy.

War: The sin humans can't seem to quit committing


As we move toward the end of this execrable year full of sound, fury, lies, pain and death (relieved a little by the return to form of Royals catcher Salvador Perez), let's take stock of the ways in which human beings are doing what the world's great religions tell them not to do -- kill each other.

There are several ways of keeping track of wars and lesser conflicts, but this site tries to list ongoing armed conflicts.

It shows that at the moment there are four current "major wars," defined as having 10,000 fatalities in this or the past year.

They are: The war in Afghanistan, the Yemini Crisis, the Syrian civil war and the Mexican drug war. As of the other day those four wars had resulted in the death this year of a few more than 53,000 human beings.

Next, that site lists simply "wars," meaning armed conflicts having resulted in between 1,000 and 9,999 deaths in the current or past year. The longest running of these is the Turkish-Kurdish conflict, which started in 1984 and so far has resulted in a total of more than 45,000 deaths.

Lots of governments seem not to be very pro-life.

(Yes, we kill each other in many other ways, too, from murder to state-sponsored executions to car accidents to failing to care for the most vulnerable people on Earth, letting them starve to death or die of preventable diseases. But for my purposes today, I want to stick to armed conflicts.)

A few weeks ago I pulled off one of my shelves a book that's been there since I got a signed copy of it in 1995, Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb, by Richard Rhodes, a former Kansas Citian. I had read his Pulitzer-Prize-winning previous book, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, but for some reason I never got around to Dark Sun. I've since apologized to Dick for my oversight, and he's forgiven me.

In Dark Sun, there's an accounting of at least part of the toll of World War II -- inflicted on the Soviet Union -- and it took my breath away. I'm going to share it with you today as a reminder of why religious leaders (who sometimes also lead wars or at least encourage them to be fought) warn humanity against war.

One-tenth of the Soviet population -- some twenty million human beings -- had died in the war; millions more were invalids. The NKVD (Soviet state security agency) under Lavrenti Beria had murdered at least another ten million Soviet citizens, a slaughter more extensive than that of the Holocaust. "In the age groups that had bore arms," writes (Russian born journalist and historian Alexander) Werth, "there were at the end of the war only 31 million men left, as against 52 million women."

The Germans had destroyed 1,700 towns, 70,000 villages, 84,000 schools, 40,000 hospitals, 42,000 public libraries. Twenty-five million people were left homeless. Coal production compared to 1941 was down 33 percent; oil down 46 percent; electricity down 33 percent; pig iron down 54 percent; steel down 48 percent; coke down 46 percent; machine-tool production down 35 percent. Thirty-one thousand industrial enterprises had been destroyed; overall, Soviet industry had been razed to one-half its prewar level.

"Ninety-eight thousand collective farms and 1,800 state farms were destroyed or looted," (Vayacheslav) Molotov (Soviet minister of foreign affairs) reported in 1947; "7 million horses, 17 million head of cattle, 20 million pigs, 27 million sheep and goats had vanished." Meat production was down 40 percent; dairy production down 55 percent. The Red Army was the strongest force in Europe, but the Soviet people were exhausted and nearly starving. And now the battered nation would have to gear up to build the atomic bomb.

In The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon wrote this: "So long as mankind shall continue to lavish more praise upon its destroyers than upon its benefactors war shall remain the chief pursuit of ambitious minds." He wrote that in the 1700s. All these years later, he's still right. Sigh.

(Speaking of empires and their leaders, it occurs to me that by his refusal to acknowledge the reality of his election defeat, President Trump is seeking to be the emperor with no close.)

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A U.S. Supreme Court ruling earlier this week indicates that marriage equality legislation is safe for now, this RNS story says. The case involved an obviously discriminatory rule in Indiana on who gets listed as a parent of a child conceived through invitro fertilization. So far this newly structured court has been pretty reasonable, maybe surprisingly so. May it continue.

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Cover-lle-hi-resP.S.: You can pre-order my new book, Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety, here on Amazon. (Publication date is Jan. 19.) Or email me at w[email protected] and we can work out getting you a signed copy.

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JfsANOTHER P.S.: Beginning Jan. 4, Jewish Families Services of Greater Kansas City is offering a biweekly online class to help caregivers of the sick and vulnerable in this Covid time. Details are here. As the JFS website about this says, "Topics will include expanding your spiritual toolbox, being a caring presence with technology, providing for the dying, shiva under the pandemic, new approaches to prayer, dealing with dementia, new forms of loss and grappling with isolation and loneliness."

Why religious illiteracy is killing us

In my forthcoming new book, I devote the final chapter to suggesting ways to work against religious extremism. I wish now I could have included a link to this Religion News Service column on that subject.

World-religionsIt starts by bemoaning the recent decision of the University of Vermont to disband its religious studies department and then makes the case for why religious literacy is so important to our nation and world.

The author, a Sikh teacher named Simran Jeet Singh, writes this: "The real shock of UVM’s announcement is its timing: devaluing of religion after an election cycle in which the president’s spiritual adviser called for African angels to intervene on election results, when our president-elect ran on restoring the 'soul of our nation,' when the Supreme Court is busy reappraising the establishment clause and the outgoing secretary of state has sought to redefine religious freedom.

"Even more troubling is that this is not an isolated incident; the University of Vermont’s proposal comports with a larger pattern of cutting religion programs in academic institutions."

Understand that religious studies departments at colleges and universities are not in the business of converting students to this or that religion. Rather, their goal is to help students become religiously literate in a religiously pluralistic society. Another way to put it is that they don't teach religion but, rather, teach about religion.

Cover-LLEThis kind of interfaith understanding has grown increasingly vital for Americans, given the changing religious landscape of this country. It's a subject I've been writing about for decades, especially since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in which the son of one of my sisters died as a passenger on the first hijacked plane to crash into the World Trade Center. My new book, Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety, tells our family story but also explores how and why people get seduced by extremist ideas that can lead to violence.

As the author of the RNS column to which I linked you above notes, "Teaching about religion is not just about understanding politics. It’s also about creating cultural literacy, ensuring that our young people are familiar with the diverse people they meet on the street."

Exactly. And it goes far beyond knowing that Joan of Arc wasn't Noah's wife. It has to do with learning how to live in peace and harmony with people who have chosen a different spiritual path than yours. (The book to read, by the way, is Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know -- and Doesn't, by Stephen Prothero.)

I hope you'll look into what colleges and universities near you are doing about having a quality religious studies department and encourage them. As Singh writes, "people knowing who I am and having an appreciation for my religious heritage can mean the difference between life and death."

P.S.: I just learned that the Lilly Endowment has just announced that it is giving grants totaling $43 million to American museums and cultural institutions to tell accurate stories about the role of religion in the U.S. and around the world -- including a grant to the National World War I Museum here in Kansas City. Details are here.

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The recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturning New York state's rules for religious gatherings in this time of Covid was narrowly drawn, temporary and pretty reasonable. But as this USA Today opinion column correctly argues, it was not surprising that it led almost immediately to a sharp political division about it. As the column notes, "This partisan response to the court ruling was predictable, particularly because the case was about religious freedom. In recent years, religious freedom has been consumed by tribal warfare." This is what Trumpism has done to us. It has increased our divisions and often done away with critical thinking just when we need it most. How sad for us.

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Speaking of religious literacy, as I was above, I want to recommend to you this book: Fethullah Gülen, A Life of Hizmet: Why a Muslim Scholar in Pennsylvania Matters to the World, by Jon Pahl, a Protestant pastor. I recently heard Pahl on a webinar, sponsored by the Dialogue Institute of Kansas City, and asked him to share his book with me so I could tell you about it. I'm glad I did. It has helped me understand the Muslim cleric behind the institute and the broader movement, based in Turkey, named Hizmet, which means service. Gülen, now an elderly man, is in exile in the U.S., having been falsely accused by Turkey's autocratic president of being behind the failed 2016 coup there. (In late 2017 I wrote this Flatland column about how that coup attempt led to tremendous trauma for many Turkish citizens, including some in the Kansas City area.) Pahl's book tells of a man devoted to service to humankind, devoted to interfaith dialogue and devoted to an Islam that wants to live in peace with the rest of the world. As Pahl writes, "Gülen's effort to foster a generation of Muslims committed to their faith and yet willing to dialogue with anyone has been a fascinating drama that is still very much ongoing around the globe." And he adds this: ". . .perhaps the chief significance of Fethullah Gülen's life has been to promote among pious and devout Muslims the embrace of scientific and technical mastery." In short, he has helped Muslims find their way in this high-tech world, contributing to its advances while continuing to be people of faith. Anyone who ever has been to one of the Dialogue Institute's annual friendship dinners in Kansas City or elsewhere would do well to give this book a read to help them understand Gülen's commitment to spiritual and scientific literacy as well as a nonviolent Islam.

Fixing what pro-Trump Christians broke will take time

I originally had some hope that President Donald J. Trump's election loss would fairly quickly begin to restore sanity to his supporters who identify as evangelical Christians.

Cross-flagTo suck up to political power, they had abandoned their long-held religious principles for someone whose entire life has been a repudiation of those principles.

But it's increasingly clear that the damage done not just to American Christianity in particular but to religion in general is going to be long-lasting. A simple, "Oh, sorry," isn't going to cut it. For one thing, most evangelical Christians seem nowhere close to offering such an apology, many still believing that Trump was God's chosen instrument and -- weirder still -- that he didn't lose the election.

Indeed, some pastors of many churches that such pro-Trump voters attend are continuing to preach a gospel that's in sharp contrast to the historic gospel of Jesus, who emphasized love for all, including the downtrodden and the stranger. And if pastors step out of line in their sermons they quickly get called on the carpet by the Trump true believers.

As this Good Faith Media column notes, Trump's "churchgoing followers, who’ve marched in lockstep from Parler to the pews, are listening out for anything their pastors might say that doesn’t jibe with the baptized bigotry of white Christian nationalism.

"The irony, of course, is that one so uninterested in and uncomfortable with the basic beliefs, values and trappings of the Christian faith can appeal so overwhelmingly to those long engaged in congregational life. They are willing, even eager, to shape their faith accordingly – and demand it of others."

The column's author, John D. Pierce, executive editor and publisher of Good Faith Media, adds this: "To preach from the ancient texts and implore listeners to follow Jesus’ life and example is a clear call to humility, justice, truth, sacrifice and compassion. Yet, those attributes and values have simply vanished from what many Americanized Christians now hold most passionately.

"Don’t believe me? Ask some pastors. I have. . .(Y)ou’ll hear the frustration, disillusionment and disappointment that drain their souls."

One of the opinion leaders for pro-Trump Christians has been author Eric Metaxas, who, as this RNS opinion piece notes, has been supporting Trump's delusional claims of victory over Biden. Indeed, the article reports that Metaxas says Trump won in a landslide and "as a result, Metaxas forecasts, many will be imprisoned for attempting to steal the election, an attempt that he calls 'the most horrible thing that ever happened in the history of our nation.' Thankfully, 'Jesus is with us in this fight.'”

It's hard to know what to do with such loonyness, such utter daftness. But I do know it's fruitless to try to reason with irrationality.

The author of the RNS column, Robert K. Vischer, dean of the University of St. Thomas Law School in Minneapolis, says that recovering from this catastrophe will not happen with "a quick fix. Trump’s willingness to entertain conspiracy theories may have contributed to his supporters’ eagerness to do the same, but this problem will not end with the Trump presidency. Critical discernment is not a light switch to be turned on and off at will; it’s a discipline to be cultivated. Christians who want to pull their fellow believers back from the conspiratorial worldview need to commit for the long haul."

All of which breaks my heart. There have always been divisions within Christianity among people of goodwill who hold different opinions. But the fantasies that Metaxas and others have bought and are trying to sell challenge the core of the faith's commitment to truth and must be recognized for what they are. That, however, will take some time.

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The U.S. State Department finally has done the right thing and named Nigeria among the 10 worst national violators of religious freedom. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has recommended including Nigeria on the State Department's list of bad players since 2009. This list doesn't get as much publicity as it deserves, but the U.S. is right to point out that religious freedom is a basic human right and to complain when other countries violate it.

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P.S.: My friend Markandey Katju (we were schoolboys together in India for a time), a former judge on India's Supreme Court, has responded to the recent American presidential election by writing this short reflection. See if you agree with him:

Long live the American people
The victory of Joe Biden in the recent presidential election has been widely welcomed all over the world. By electing Biden, the American people have once again proved that they are a truly great people. They sometimes make mistakes, like people everywhere, but then they realize and correct their mistakes.
The great American War of Independence (1775-1781) was a revolution which declared principles that resonated all over the world, such as that all men are created equal. Though in practice these principles were sometimes departed from -- for example, in the treatment of Native Americans and Blacks, most Americans have realised their mistake and corrected it. The Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution declared the rights of man and were incorporated in the constitutions of many countries, such as in Part 3 of India's Constitution.
Americans shed their blood in the Civil War in the fight against slavery and in the Second World War in the fight against Hitler's tyranny. They have made a huge contribution in science, technology, literature, etc. and are blazing new paths for the world to follow.
Long live the American people!

My new 9/11 book will be available soon

I want you to know about the coming publication of my latest book -- one that, in a sense, I've spent almost 20 years writing.

Cover-LLEIt's called Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety. Its official publication date is Jan. 19, but it can be ordered now in paperback or hardback versions here on Amazon. An e-version will be available later.

In the book, I tell the story of how the murder of my nephew, a passenger on the first plane to smash into the World Trade Center in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, caused trauma after trauma in my extended family.

But the book goes beyond the excruciatingly painful loss of Karleton Douglas Beye Fyfe (pictured below). It also explores the sometimes-mystifying question of why some people get sucked into monochromatic religious thinking that can lead to violence, and it offers some ideas about strategies to oppose such extremism.

This is my seventh book (two of them had co-authors), and it's one of the most difficult writing tasks I've ever undertaken. From the day those 19 al-Qaida terrorists, at Osama bin Laden's direction, hijacked four planes and wound up murdering thousands of people, I have saved family e-mails, notes, letters, columns, blog posts and other material. I didn't have any immediate plans to write a book about all of this when the attacks happened, but eventually it became clear that I had an obligation to tell this story publicly.

I'm one of the few journalists (I personally know of only one other) who lost a close family member on 9/11. So it seemed to me that I really had no choice but to tell this story, even though a few members of Karleton's extended family preferred that I not do that.

But as we commemorate the 20th anniversary of 9/11 in 2021, we have gained some hindsight perspective about what happened and about the theological rigidity that contributed to that catastrophe. Indeed, we now are seeing similarly stark thinking on the far edges of the political spectrum in this country -- and around the world. It's quite literally killing us, and we must find ways to fix that.

KDBF-salute (1)The experience of writing this book has been different for me. As I write in the "Postlude" of the book, "When I completed the manuscripts for my previous six books, I felt a sense of relief and accomplishment, along with some trepidation about whether anyone would read them. This book has been different.

"With the writing of this book done. . .I don’t feel relief and accomplishment. Rather, I continue to be overwhelmed by the loss of smart, sweet, tall, funny Karleton as well as by what often seems like the impossible task of ridding the world of religious extremism and the violence it can engender. I know we must try to eliminate it, and I know I am called to work on that. In fact, I also feel I have no choice about that if I’m to be true to my Christian faith, which obligates me to be an instrument of peace, a channel of God’s grace. I just wish I were more optimistic, more hopeful that humanity can eliminate faith-based violence."

In college I took lots of history courses. And I've read lots of history since then. History doesn't make you an optimist about the human condition. So I don't know if there really is a way to stem extremism, but I do know that religious faith is not about optimism. Optimism is fool's gold. Religious faith, instead, is about trusting God, whom you've never seen, except in each other. It's that faith that keeps me going.

Perhaps some of you will find something in my new book that will encourage you to join the work of living in ways that are respectful, civil and even loving. And if your book club or congregation wants to arrange to have me speak about this book -- virtually now but eventually in person -- just e-mail me at [email protected].

(I recently participated in a conversation about my work, including this new book, with Mike Matteuzzi, founder of Contemporary Spirituality, and you can listen to it here.)

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An archeology professor has published a new paper in which he suggests that Goliath, identified in the Bible as a giant whom David killed before he became Israel's king, may not have been so amazingly tall after all. Well, fine, but like biblical literalists, this professor seems to me to be missing the point of the story, which had very little to do with exactly how tall Goliath was. Still, I'd like to encourage scientists to continue reviewing biblical stories and sharing their findings. Maybe one day they'll answer the pressing question of whether Adam had a bellybutton.

What the damaging Vatican report can teach us

Several weeks ago, the Vatican released its long-awaited report on what church officials knew about former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick's history of engaging in sexual abuse and misconduct. (McCarrick is pictured here before he was laicized.)

McCarrickYou can read the breaking Nov. 9 news story and many follow-up stories and commentaries from The National Catholic Reporter here.

The Vatican report is 461 pages long. I have waited to write about it until I had a chance to do a deeper read of it than was initially possible, and if you want to get a clearer picture of some of the ways the church failed in this (and related sexual abuse matters) affair, I urge you to read the report, too.

Among the critical problems it reveals is what has come to be called clericalism. That's a reference to the ways in which priests, bishops and other ordained church leaders grow to feel as if they are bulletproof and can get away with almost anything because people in the pews are taught to respect the authority of priests. Eventually those who are ordained begin to imagine that they are worthy of worship -- and church structures sometimes let them imagine exactly that. In fact, Pope Francis warned against that very sin recently when he installed newly named cardinals.

But religious leaders in all faith traditions are meant to be models of humility and forthright bearers of truth. To use their ordained position as a means to lord it over people and to avoid accountability for their own sins is appalling but not particularly uncommon.

What must be so galling for American Catholics is the sad truth that their own bishops, represented by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, have shown little evidence even after the release of the McCarrick report that they finally understand the wider scandal, to say nothing of the way in which McCarrick got away with his perverted actions for years.

As Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese wrote recently, "The discussion of the Vatican report on ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick by the U.S. bishops at their annual fall meeting was sad but predictable — sad because the bishops failed to communicate that they understood the report’s implications; predictable in that some bishops defended (the late Pope) John Paul II against the report’s finding that the pontiff shared culpability in the McCarrick case."

Would that all priests thought about this in the way that Reese does and that the author of this column, Fr. Phillip J. Brown, does:

"We need to be guided by scientific data and well-articulated criteria in judging whether a man is suitable to be ordained a priest," Brown writes, "given the tremendous responsibility to care for others and everything else this vocation entails. There can be no room for wishful thinking or a misguided trust that sacramental grace will compensate for deficits in the human qualities needed to be a good pastor. No one should ever again simply ordain a man and hope for the best."

The Vatican report acknowledges that there were reports of misconduct by McCarrick long before he was booted out of the College of Cardinals, but it notes this: "In June 2017, the Archdiocese of New York learned of the first known allegation of sexual abuse by McCarrick of a victim under 18 years of age, which occurred in the early 1970s. Shortly after the accusation was deemed credible, Pope Francis requested McCarrick’s resignation from the College of Cardinals. Following an administrative penal process by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, McCarrick was found culpable of acts in
contravention of the Sixth Commandment of the Decalogue (Ten Commandments) involving both minors and adults, and on that basis was dismissed from the clerical state."

But this was years after the issues with McCarrick first surfaced.

The problems revealed in the Catholic scandal are not, of course, unique to that faith tradition. In recent years the public has become aware of sexual scandals in evangelical Protestant Christianity, in Judaism and even in Buddhism, to say nothing of the wildly silly notion promoted by some people who claim to be Muslim that male suicide bombers can look forward to rollicking around in paradise with 72 virgins.

Just imagine the damage this does not just to those individual faith traditions but to religion generally. Who would want to become an adherent of a religion that can't seem to keep its pants on? And what does such activity say about how this or that faith group thinks about -- and treats -- women?

What is especially frustrating about these scandals -- and many others, including financial ones involving religious communities -- is that many of us who are part of healthy faith communities know how much good they can do and actually do accomplish. And we wish others would see the good part of the story of faith in America (and around the world) instead of having their attention so focused on what goes wrong. But who can blame them for pay attention to the bad news? There is, after all, a lot going wrong.

Maybe we can all learn something from this new Vatican report, which appears to be pretty careful and thoughtful and honest about what happened, even if the report makes some people like the late John Paul II look bad. Maybe we can commit ourselves to honest assessments of what we're getting wrong in our own faith communities and start to fix them. Is that too much to hope?

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Anyone who is honest about the history of the U.S. and Canada knows that Indigenous people were driven from their land when European invaders arrived. It's a long, sad story. But now some churches in both countries are going beyond simply acknowledging that their ancestors stole land from native peoples. As this RNS story reports, some of them are giving land back to Indigenous tribes. They are "participating in the growing #LandBack movement, which calls on both Canada and the United States to return land to the First Nations and Native American peoples who first lived there," the story says. That may seem like a radical step, but it certainly seems more just than what have been called "land acknowledgment" documents, which simply confess that Indian land was unfairly seized but which then don't do anything about that theft.

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P.S.: As the world waits for a now-delayed official schism in the United Methodist Church, some members of that Mainline Protestant denomination aren't waiting to create something new. As this RNS story reports,  some "progressive United Methodists announced Sunday (Nov. 29) they are forming a new Methodist denomination, the Liberation Methodist Connexion, or LMX." You can read details about the direction this new denomination is taking, but my guess is this ultimately means that the UMC will wind up being divided at least three ways -- into what members would describe as a theologically conservative branch (that would continue to ban ordination of LGBTQ+ members), a middle branch that would be in favor of LGBTQ+ ordination but would not adopt some of the liberationist theology that the LMX will back and then the LMX itself. So the record of Protestantism to engage in split after split and even further splits continues. Sigh.