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March 2021

Preaching must be political -- just not partisan

In some ways the jobs of opinion columnists and preachers are quite similar: Both must try to find what is -- or at least seems -- true and share it with readers, listeners or viewers.

Faith-politicsColumnists, however, are rarely obligated to test what they find to be true and worth sharing against sacred scripture. Preachers, however, fail themselves, their religious tradition and those who listen to them if they don't do that.

But preachers who simply recite scripture without using it as a light to expose what is going wrong in the world are simply wasting everyone's time. Which means preachers in all traditions must be in some sense political. Not partisan, but political.

In Christianity, the history of being political in proclamations goes back to Jesus and to the very first creed of the infant church: "Jesus is Lord." What that said to the Roman rulers of the Holy Land at the time was that Caesar was not lord. There could be nothing more political at the time than concluding that and announcing exactly that.

Today Christian preachers also must find ways to expose idolatries using both the Bible and their own God-given eyes and brains.

But as this excellent piece about preaching by a preacher who teaches homiletics shows, that's no easy task.

"Some evils and injustices," writes Casey Barton, "are so embedded into our stories of our society, our relationships or our churches that we rarely even think to hold them up to critical examination. Tragedy and trauma, however, have a way of rooting these out and forcing us to face them. The pulpit is one place for the church to face them. . .Preaching occurs at the intersection of Scripture and this moment of God’s story. The act (of preaching) itself takes courage and discernment."

One of the task of preachers from any tradition is to use what are called their prophetic voices. This doesn't mean prophecy in the sense of predicting the future. Rather, it means taking a role similar to that of the old Hebrew prophets who told the world what God wanted and who pointed out when people were failing to live up to that.

As Barton writes, "To speak prophetically is to tell hard truths to those God has placed in our care. This calling is easy to forget because confrontation is hard."

As an old joke has it, people in the pews are all in favor of preachers who denounce the sins of others, but when it comes to denouncing our own sins, the response tends to be: "Now you're just meddling."

Barton correctly declares this: "Political power is not, has never been and will never be the means to achieving the kingdom of God (Mark 10:41-44). No political party or politician will save us — we place our faith only in God (Exodus 20:2-3). The use of, or incitement to, violence in the service of achieving any aim is sin (Proverbs 10:6-7, 11).

"Especially in this moment in history, our congregations need to hear that white nationalism, Christian nationalism and the preservation of oppressive racist systems is sin, anti-gospel, anti-Christ and oppressive and hurtful to our brothers and sisters of color (I’m speaking centrally to my white brothers and sisters who speak in predominantly white churches, for whom it may be most important to say this)."

The major world religions teach that every human being is of ultimate, infinite value, no matter color, sex, nationality or any other category. If preachers don't point out examples of thoughts and actions that violate that basic teaching, they fail -- as some of them failed when they said scripture justifies slavery or that scripture requires LGBTQ+ community members always and everywhere to be thought of as sinners and kept as second-class citizens.

Preachers who equate voting for this or that particular party with God's desires are violating their trust. But Christian preachers who understand that preaching inevitably is political now must figure out how to preach in that way without degenerating into partisanship.

Barton's piece should be a good guide for them -- and us.

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Cover-lle-hi-resIn this year of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorism attacks, the world continues to struggle with the religious roots of terrorism and with ideas about how to prevent such extremism. This column, for instance, raises questions about whether terrorists really, truly, deeply believe that they will go to paradise if they die in the radical cause they've chosen. The author suggests they may not. And yet, in the moment, they may need such a conviction to allow them to go through with suicide and the murder of others. Ideas, it turns out, have consequences. As for how to unplug extremism, the last chapter in my new book offers several suggestions, and I commend it to you. The book is Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety, just published in mid-January.

Is religion slowly disappearing in the U.S.?

The American religious landscape, once a landslide for Christianity, especially Protestant versions of it, continues to change, and only God knows what it will look like in 50 or 100 years.

Shrinking-churchWhat we do know is that the number of Americans who now claims a membership in a Christian church has slipped below 50 percent, as recent Gallup data shows.

At the same time, we know that the number of people who identify as religiously unaffiliated -- the so-called "nones" -- continues to grow, and there's a new book out that looks at all that, The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are and Where They're Going, by Ryan Burge.

Burge says that "churches are a leaky vessel by nature. They lose people through death, and an aging population is so acute for several traditions in the U.S. — mostly mainline Protestantism, but evangelicals are also aging rapidly now. And defections are up. You’ve got to add people into the cup to see the water at the same level."

And not enough of that is happening to keep churches growing or even stable in many cases.

The story about church membership reports that "Forty-seven percent of Americans now say they belong to a house of worship, down from 70% in the mid-1990s and 50% in 2019. The decline is part of a continued drop in membership over the past 20 years, according to Gallup data."

It was pretty obvious 20-plus years ago that this was beginning to happen, and I asked my Kansas City Star editors for permission to travel around the country to document both that and the spread of other religious traditions. But it didn't happen, so I can't pull out old clips today and claim to have told you so.

What faith communities from various traditions face today -- especially after a year of Covid -- is whether they can offer anything to stem the tide of decline. The old answer from 50 or 75 years ago was just to keep the doors open, keep preaching the same message in the old style and expect people to show up.

It's now clear that doesn't work. So should churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship throw in the towel and become social clubs, charities that focus on some of society's needs or tennis clubs? Uh, no.

Instead, of course, they must reinvent themselves to be true to their traditions even while finding new ways to share their core convictions and the actions that flow from those convictions with others.

Which is much more difficult than many people imagine because within settled religious traditions there is a tendency to resist change, especially among those people who imagine that any change compromises their faith. So they can remain on their sinking boat or find ways to sail on in new ways.

I have no plans to be around in 50 or 100  years, so one of you may have to bring me news then of what the American landscape looks like by then -- wherever I am. I'll keep the light on for you. And, if some of you get your wish for me, maybe the heat, too.

(By the way, Religion News Service has done this interesting analysis of what the Gallup figures really mean.)

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To add to the subject started above here today, here is a piece in The Guardian suggesting that an "allergic reaction" to the so-called Christian right and to Christian nationalism has turned many people off, and that accounts for at least some of the decline in church membership. The article quotes David Campbell, professor and chair of the University of Notre Dame’s political science department, as saying this: “Many Americans – especially young people – see religion as bound up with political conservatism, and the Republican party specifically. Since that is not their party or their politics, they do not want to identify as being religious. Young people are especially allergic to the perception that many – but by no means all – American religions are hostile to LGBTQ rights.” Whenever religion oppresses people or treats them in other degrading ways, it should be rejected.

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Cover-lle-hi-resP.S.: I spoke via Zoom yesterday to a church-based book club about my new book, Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety, and it occurs to me that you may be part of such a book club either through a congregation or just with friends. I'd be happy to consider an invitation from you to address your group about this book, which describes that many traumas that my extended family went through because of the murder of my nephew in the 9/11 terrorist attacks and that also raises the question of how people get attracted to extremist ideas and what we can do to unplug extremism. Just email me at whether you want me to speak or just want an autographed copy of the book. Thanks.

Can the Abrahamic faiths lead to Middle East peace?

Easter/Passover weekend -- which this year come just a week after Muslims celebrated Shab-e-Barat and about a week before Ramadan -- is a good time to think about what it will take, finally, to reach something like a peace agreement between Israel and its Arab neighbors, including the Palestinian people.

Abrahamic-faiths.jpgOne thing it will take, says the rabbi who wrote this RNS column, is to not be so foolish as to imagine that peace will be possible if the diplomats and other negotiators trying to make it happen simply ignore the reality that three major world religions must be considered in any solution.

"(I)t will be important not only to advance normalization as a strategic objective," says Rabbi David Rosen, the American Jewish Committee’s Jerusalem-based international director of interreligious affairs, "but to bolster interreligious bonds in the specific and deeply significant name of Abraham. Such ties are an essential feature of sustainable peace."

In other words, diplomats must pay special attention to the reality that Judaism, Christianity and Islam all trace their roots back to Abram, who later became Abraham.

To ignore that aspect of this volatile situation will be to invite what we've seen now in so many ways for the past 70-plus years, a failure to find a peaceful solution acceptable to the major parties in the Middle East.

Religion, in other words, matters. And it matters a lot.

Rosen again: "Excluding faith from diplomatic processes marginalizes peace-loving religionists and their leadership, who represent the overwhelming majority, and cedes the public square to extremists, allowing them to be seen as the authentic voice of religion. Concealing the presence of moderate religious communities intensifies the impression that peace initiatives are inimical to the interests of the devoutly religious. If we do not want religion to be part of the problem, it must be part of the solution: the more visible faith is, the better."

This is certainly not to say that Jews, Christians and Muslims must give up or even water down their religious traditions and beliefs. Rather, it is to say that they must respect the differences between and among the Abrahamic faiths and to insist that everyone participating in the peace process also respects those differences -- and the considerable common ground.

There are, of course, extremist voices coming from all three traditions, but they can be, if not silenced, at least marginalized so that they don't drive the negotiating process.

The Abrahamic Accords that the Trump Administration helped to produce (credit where credit is due) can, in fact, be a good starting point for the sort of remember-religion process that Rosen advocates. And perhaps that might lead to a more bipartisan approach to Middle Eastern foreign policy in the U.S. government. I know that sounds like wishful thinking, but how about if we try it before we discard it?

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What keeps many people who identify as Christian nationalists from getting vaccinated for Covid-19? This RNS opinion piece offers some answers. Including: ". . . skepticism among evangelicals has a background. Suspicion from religious conservatives regarding the COVID-19 vaccine is built on the back of their growing distrust of science, medicine and the global elite." The author also adds this: "Vaccine hesitancy is not restricted to immunization over COVID-19. In 2017, the Pew Research Center found that more than 20% of white evangelicals – more than any other group – believed that 'parents should be able to decide not to vaccinate their children, even if that may create health risks for other children and adults.'” It's weird. Christians (and others) wear masks, practice social distancing and get vaccinated not only to protect themselves but also to protect others because they're called to love those others. How is it that so many "white evangelicals" don't get the latter reason, when it is at the core of Christian faith?