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Working against what the pope calls 'ideologies'

Christian churches around the world celebrated Pentecost last Sunday, May 23. The day, 50 days after Easter, often is called the "birthday of the church."

PentecostIt's a simplistic label, given that it took as long as 100 years or longer in some places for what became Christianity to separate itself decisively from its root religion, Judaism.

The story of Pentecost is found in the New Testament book of Acts. That story says that on that day in Jerusalem followers of the resurrected Christ experienced the presence of God in a special way -- as the Holy Spirit, one of the three persons of the Holy Trinity.

In many Mainline churches (like the Presbyterian denomination to which my congregation belongs), the Holy Spirit doesn't get a lot of attention, though in such branches of Christianity as Pentecostalism, the Holy Spirit nearly always takes center stage.

Pope Francis spoke about the Holy Spirit (sometimes known as the Holy Ghost) when he addressed a Mass on Pentecost at the Vatican.

The Holy Spirit, he said, “impels us to unity, to harmony, to the harmony of diversity. He makes us see ourselves as parts of the same body, brothers and sisters of one another.” Then he added something that people in our polarized world need to hear: "Say no to ideologies, yes to the whole.”

Ideologies, as I understand the pope's use of the term, means narrow, even extremist, thinking. And we're seeing the disastrous and violent results of such thinking across the globe. We saw it in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. We saw it in the neo-Nazi who murdered three people in Kansas City in 2014. We saw it in synagogue and church shootings in recent years. And more.

Cover-lle-hi-resMy new book tells the story of the murder of my nephew on 9/11, but it goes beyond that to explore the question of how people get seduced into such monochromatic thinking and what, if anything, we can do about it. The last chapter of Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety, proposes a handful of strategies that we can use to unplug extremism.

One of those strategies focuses on the importance of being religiously literate -- not just about our own faith tradition, if any, but also about other religions. The idea is that if we really know in some detail what others believe and how they act out those beliefs we won't be tempted to dismiss someone else's religion as a satanic tool that needs to be eliminated.

Ignorance produces fear, which can produce bigotry and violence. And all that is unnecessary.

In terms of Christian theology, as Pope Francis said, a relationship with the Holy Spirit should help us “embody the comfort" that the Spirit brings to us so we can bring it to others.

And if you're doing your best to comfort people, one of the results is that you're not planning their demise through violent, terroristic means. Pretty simple. Pretty hard. Pretty necessary.

(The Pentecost image above came from this site.)

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In the year (2019) before the pandemic, more American Protestant churches closed than new ones opened, a new study shows. Probably that trend got worse in 2020, but without the data, that's just a guess. I think that what's being rejected here isn't religion in general or spirituality but, rather, institutional religion. Combine sexual scandals with financial scandals with theology that's so rigid it oppresses humans or so squishy that it doesn't stand for anything and people eventually will walk away from it. But at least this trend keeps scholars and surveyors employed trying to figure out why.

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about the upcoming Auschwitz exhibit at Union Station in Kansas City -- now is online here.

A Muslim's argument for a theologically freer Islam

Fifteen or so years ago I attended a workshop in the Washington, D.C., area that focused on how Muslims in the U.S. were negotiating their place in our society. This included Muslims who were African-American and were converts to Islam but the primary focus was on the stream of Muslim immigrants.

Reopening-muslim-mindsOne of the questions we looked at was whether Islam is compatible with a political system based on democracy. The answer was a resounding yes, though some scholars and other speakers noted that some Muslims might have an approach to democracy that included a few wrinkles that normally wouldn't be found in how Christians, Jews and people of other religious traditions (and none) thought about how a democratic system is supposed to work.

For instance, some Muslims from such countries as Saudi Arabia might well be committed to a system of advisory councils that are used there to guide the government and might search for ways to use such councils in American democracy.

But just as followers of Islam were perfectly capable of living in a democratic political system, such as the American republic, so too are they capable of considering adjustments to the practice of their religion.

It's that latter idea that is at the heart of a new book I haven't yet had a chance to read but that I want to tell you about today by linking you to this interesting RNS story about it.

The book is called Reopening Muslim Minds: A Return to Reason, Freedom and Tolerance, by Mustafa Akyol. The author gained fame as a columnist in his native Turkey. As the RNS story notes, "Today he is both a fellow of the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., and a New York Times contributing opinion writer."

In essence, Akyol's new book argues that Islam should be open to less-rigid theological approaches than those often found in many of the more closed predominantly Muslim countries.

The RNS story quotes him this way: “This book, to some extent, grows out of disappointment with what happened in the Middle East over the past decade, including the failure of the Arab Spring, which saw an Islamic supremacist ideology gain prominence with groups like ISIS and at the same time an authoritarian retreatment such as in Egypt. This was unfortunate for those of us concerned about freedom in the Muslim world but, I also realized, there was a growing ethical gap within some puritan tradition of Islam in particular and wanted to look deeper into the sources.”

The RNS piece says that for Akyol the new book is "the latest in a career spent researching and making arguments for the compatibility of Islam with classical liberal values and the Enlightenment, following his previous works published in the West, Islam Without Extremes and The Islamic Jesus.

“One of the goals of the book is to make a case (that) ethical values come from human nature. Therefore those values exist beyond religious boundaries. Hence the book offers a deep criticism of the current parochialism in the world of Islam. And surely this is not a problem that is unique to Islam. Any community that rejects universal human dignity will breed intolerance and oppression.”

One of the things non-Muslims must approach with care is calling for what they might term a "Reformation" of Islam. One problem with using that term is that it draws a word that attempts to describe a particular historical development in Christianity and apply it to another faith tradition. Beyond that, of course, it's up to Muslims -- not Christians or followers of any other religion -- to suggest that Islam needs to adjust its thinking about this or that.

What I find encouraging about this new book (without, as I say, having read it yet) is that it demonstrates an intellectual vibrancy within Islam that avoids the destructive binary thinking found in such groups as al-Qaida and ISIS, which claim to be thoroughly Islamic but which violate many, if not most, of Islam's teachings.

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Further evidence of what a disaster Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been as the leader of India is that he's ignored Muslims from Pakistan who can and want to help with the Covid crisis in India. As the RNS story to which I've linked you reports, "44-year-old Sufi Muslim philanthropist Faisal Edhi is ready to move his fleet of 50 ambulances and medical supplies like oxygen to India." But he can't do it yet because of silence from the recalcitrant Modi. How sad.

Why 'Christendom' is a threat to Christianity's core

"Christendom" is a term that has largely fallen out of favor -- mostly because what it attempts to describe really doesn't exist anymore. It used to refer to those areas of the world where Christianity was the dominant religion and where that religion set the parameters of the surrounding culture.

Cross-flagChristianity still is the most populous religion in the world, but its ability to define the cultures in which it's practiced now has been diminished -- in some places rather severely. That's not an entirely bad thing, especially in places where Christianity seemed to embed itself in the political instruments of state, given that the result often was compromising of Christian principles, standards and teachings.

Author David French, senior editor of The Dispatch and a columnist for Time magazine, explores the question of Christendom vs Christianity in this piece, asking, "Is American Christendom increasingly incompatible with American Christianity?"

French describes the difference between them this way: "Think of the distinctions roughly like this — Christianity is the faith, Christians are believers in the faith, and Christendom is the collective culture and institutions (universities, ministries) of the faith."

And even though participation in Christianity is slipping in the U.S. and its influence is declining, French rightly insists that "America possesses immensely powerful, immensely wealthy Christian institutions that may not be part of the state but in many places are strong enough to exercise power over the state. And they certainly create their own culture, a culture that shapes the daily lives of millions of Americans."

For French, real Christianity involves imitating Christ, which means being disciples of Jesus and living by the self-sacrificing values he demonstrated in his life and in his death.

That, he says, is where Christianity often gets compromised in favor of the culture of Christendom.

As French writes, "The true imitation of Christ becomes not wisdom, but folly. Many people may choose doctrine. Few people choose the cross. For who would really choose the cross when their ministry does such good, when it reaches so many people, and when it’s so very important to the soul of a nation?. . .Yet the institutions of Christendom should model the way of the cross if they’re going to preach the way of the cross."

None of this is simply worry over hypothetical situations. French puts it this way: "I have written time and again about the immense amount of Christian fear that motivated support for Donald Trump. Christians voted, it was said, in self-defense. Faced with an avalanche of fearmongering that falsely proclaimed an existential threat to Christian institutions if the Democrats won just one more presidential race, Christendom responded — we must live.

"And so the mighty power of tens of millions of American Christians was exerted on behalf of a cruel, incompetent man — a man whose vanity and ignorance contributed to the deaths of countless thousands of his fellow citizens."

Political choices made on the basis not of religious doctrine and values but of power and influence almost inevitably turn out to be damaging to the religion of the people who made those choices. People outside of that faith tradition see through the hypocrisy and the lusting after power. That, in turn, damages not only the reputation of the religion whose followers made that choice but of religion generally.

That should be more obvious than it seems to be.

By the way, a new study from Brown University suggests that political polarization is often a result of an intolerance of uncertainty. It's true of people who describe themselves as liberal and those who describe themselves as conservative, researchers found. One of the researchers put it this way: “This shows that some of the animosity and misunderstanding we see in society is not due to irreconcilable differences in political beliefs, but instead depends on surprising — and potentially solvable — factors such as the uncertainty people experience in daily life.” The problem, then, is that people dislike uncertainty, paradox, mystery -- anything but clear and concise answers and outcomes. And yet what is life if not the playing out of uncertainty, paradox, mystery and ambiguity? We need to find ways to teach people how to live with uncertainty without degenerating into simplistic thinking.

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The primatologist and conservationist Jane Goodall, famous for her work with chimpanzees, has won won the 2021 Templeton Prize. As this RNS story explains, it's given to people who "use science to explore humankind’s place and purpose within the universe." Think of it as an honor to people who imagine that science and religion have something to say to one another, as they do. What's important for scientists and people of faith (they're not mutually exclusive groups) to remember is that science tries to answer questions about what, where, how and when. Religion, by contrast, concerns itself with a question that science can't answer, the question purpose, the question of why the world, including people, is here at all. If each discipline stays in its lane while appreciating (and communicating with) the lane of the other, everything works better.

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P.S.: Another cost of the fighting between Hamas and Israel has been that it has threatened interfaith cooperation, especially between Muslims and Jews, as this Associated Press story reports. Violence and war complicate everything. Everything.

A new snapshot of Jewish Americans today

Religious groups seem to attract surveyors and scholars like ants to a picnic.

Star-davidFor instance, the Pew Research Center regularly looks at the American religious landscape so you'll know that Orthodox Christians make up one-half of one percent of the population. You needed to know that, right?

And the Association of Religious Data Archives can tell you pretty much anything you want to know about religion in America (and a lot about religion around the world). Better yet, it includes links to many of the other surveys about religion.

So it should be no surprise that researchers -- in this case, from Pew Research -- would take a periodic look at Jews in the U.S.

In fact, Pew just released this large survey about that covering 2020. It's called "Jewish Americans in 2020."

One unsurprising conclusion is that older people in the Jewish community tend to identify as religious. By contrast, roughly 40 percent of Jews ages 18-29 do not consider themselves religious.

But it may be surprising to learn that "younger Jewish adults are much more likely than older Jews to identify as Orthodox."

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, has written this RNS piece in which he pulls out what he considers the take-aways from the Pew study. I've met Brad a few times, interviewed him and am impressed with his mind, so I know he's worth reading.

For instance, he writes this: "The Pew study repeatedly distinguishes between 'Judaism' — religious acts — and 'Jewish culture' — the many things Jews do that have Jewish meaning and significance but don’t include synagogue, liturgy or God.

"This is a potentially misleading dichotomy. . .The very distinction made between culture and religion assumes that there is a Jewish religion that is distinct from Jewish culture and implies that that culture does not accomplish many of the very things that religion accomplishes."

Good point. I know some Jews who make it a point to belong to a synagogue even though they rarely attend and would not describe themselves as "Torah-observant." But they belong out of a sense of solidarity with other Jews.

Hirschfield also expresses concern that many Jews seem more interested in their children marrying people who agree with them politically rather than those who are in Jewish harmony with them.

As he writes, "What’s most disturbing in this finding is that it indicates that politics has become the thing that stirs our passions, as religion used to. Our loves and our divides are based not on where we pray but on how we vote. That Jews feel this way, too, only means we are part of America in every sense of the word."

Such surveys -- of any religious group -- inevitably smooth over differences and fail to notice certain trends that are just showing up. But the Pew folks do a good job and this probably is as accurate picture of Jewish Americans as you're likely to get at the moment.

As Hirschfield notes, "More troubling is the gap between counting Jews and making Jews count. Data is never the whole story, nor what we do with survey numbers. . ."

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One way to get an insight into the current fighting between Israelis and Palestinians is to listen to an Arab man from the area who would love nothing more than for some kind of permanent peace to exist between the two sides. This Forward piece quotes him at length on the situation on the ground there now. "This time," he says, "the wound is much much deeper than before. Luckily, we have a short memory, and maybe the memory of people in Israel, Jews and Arabs, is shorter than the memory of other nations around the world. That’s the blessing we have in the holy land." It reminds me of what I heard an Israeli historian say on NPR the other day: The Israeli-Palestinian dispute, which is a subset of the Israeli-Arab dispute, he said, is one that can be managed but not solved. I suppose that's true of life, too, but in this case not coming to some kind of peaceful resolution is continuing to cost precious lives while incompetent or uncaring leaders seem not to be held accountable.

Here's a more detailed picture of 'Christian nationalism'

The term "Christian nationalism" has been heard in the land a lot in the last few years. And many people are beginning to understand that those who identify as Christian nationalists believe that the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation and that it should be a Christian nation today.

Christian nationalismPeople who disagree with that stance, in a sense, can take a hike, the nationalists believe. In the view of Christian nationalists, their version of Christianity should set the tone for society and establish the political goals of the entire nation.

But perhaps it will help to get a more detailed picture of what a Christian nationalist looks like and how he or she operates. So let's do that today by digesting this New Yorker article by Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist Eliza Griswold, who writes about Doug Mastriano, a Republican state senator from Gettysburg, Pa.

Why focus on him? Well, as Griswold writes, "in the past year, he has led rallies against mask mandates and other public-health protocols, which he has characterized as 'the governor’s autocratic control over our lives.' He has become a leader of the Stop the Steal campaign, and claims that he spoke to Donald Trump at least fifteen times between the 2020 election and the insurrection at the Capitol, on January 6th.

"He urged his followers to attend the rally at the Capitol that led to the riots, saying, 'I’m really praying that God will pour His Spirit upon Washington, D.C., like we’ve never seen before.' Throughout this time, he has cast the fight against both lockdowns and Trump’s electoral loss as a religious battle against the forces of evil. He has come to embody a set of beliefs characterized as Christian nationalism, which center on the idea that God intended America to be a Christian nation, and which, when mingled with conspiracy theory and white nationalism, helped to fuel the insurrection."

It should not surprise you, given all that, that bills "that Mastriano supported in the legislature would have mandated teaching the Bible in public schools and would have made it legal for adoption agencies to discriminate against same-sex couples, among other things," as the New Yorker story notes.

Nor should it surprise you that Mastriano has been promoting the idea that Muslims want to take over America and institute Shari'a law in place of the U.S. Constitution and that he has been repeating what's now being regularly and accurately called the "Big Lie" that Donald J. Trump won the 2020 presidential election. Indeed, Mastriano used campaign money to pay for half a dozen bus loads of pro-Trump supporters to come to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, the day of the insurrection at the nation's Capitol.

The New Yorker story is long and detailed, but it should give you a better sense of what Christian nationalism is all about. If you identify as a Christian and you object to the notion that this movement and stance is in any meaningful way Christian, then it's your job to speak out against Christian nationalism and do what you can to oppose it. Silence amounts to complicity.

(The image here today came from this site, which contains a useful United Methodist Church essay on Christian nationalism.)

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David Clohessy, former national director of SNAP (the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), has written this interesting RNS opinion piece saying it's time for Joe Biden, America's second Catholic president, to speak out and take action on behalf of victims abused by priests and protected by some bishops. Clohessy, whom I know, writes this: "In just a few weeks, Biden has shown both genuine compassion and impressive energy in addressing a myriad of serious problems. It’s time he do so with the most serious problem in his own church." And he offers a list of things Biden could do and say.

When religion leads its followers to binary thinking

One of the dangers of religion is that when not used carefully and thoughtfully, it can lead people into binary thinking.

Binary-thinkingWhich means we're faced with either good or evil. In religious terms, nothing is more good than God and nothing more evil than Satan. One lives in heaven and one in hell. 1 and 2. Black and white. Up and down. No third, fifth or 500th choice.

Reality, of course, is much more complicated than this-or-that thinking. And so are human beings. One of the reasons we Americans today are so politically divided (and divided in many other ways, too) is that many of us tend to engage in binary thinking that oversimplifies reality, thus misleading us -- sometimes on purpose.

I've been thinking about this problem a lot, but recently found some help by reading a book called The Happy Burden of History: From Sovereign Impunity to Responsible Selfhood. One of the four co-authors is someone I know, Andrew S. Bergerson, who teaches history at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and whose area of expertise includes the Holocaust.

In writing about modern German history, the authors say this: "One source of confusion here is that we take human beings at their word when they claim to have a coherent self under their command. Historians, for instance, tend to label people as victims, bystanders or perpetrators; or try to determine, once and for all, if a given German was a real Nazi or just a collaborator.

"They treat the self as if it could be expressed as a simple identity like a = b. We presume a coherent self for at least two reasons. There is a sense of nostalgia for a non-fragmentary self, as if we had once been whole and that antediluvian self has not lost its coherence. There is also a contradiction between the whole self we think we want and the plural self that is the only kind we can have. Either way, the myths of a coherent, cohesive individual dangerously oversimplify the way we think about selfhood in everyday life.

"Human beings are compilations of multiple identities. We are necessarily composed of fragments by virtue of the fact that we act in a variety different ways in a variety of different situations, and these manifold deeds engender identities as divergent as philosopher and thief."

Which raises questions about how we judge and label people. Is someone who broke into a locked-up store to grab a rope to throw to a drowning person guilty of theft? Religion that leads to binary thinking doesn't help us answer that question. But religion that says human life is always more valuable than property gives us a good framework to use to come up with a useful answer.

So that leaves us with the task of evaluating what our religious tradition, if any, teaches us. If it teaches simplistic, binary thinking it will lead us astray eventually. If it teaches us core values that can help us make difficult judgments in a complicated non-binary world, then it's a healthy and helpful religion.

Our hunger for simplistic answers is understandable but ultimately such answers will hide more than they reveal and will leave us with a view of the world that is badly out of focus, inevitably causing us to make bad decisions.

(P.S.: Bergerson is scheduled to be one of the speakers in a series of talks that will accompany the "Auschwitz: Not Long Ago, Not Far Away" exhibit that opens June 14 at Union Station in Kansas City. My next Flatland column, scheduled to post May 30, will have some thoughts about that exhibit.)

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How does change happen in institutional religion? Sometimes via people willing to challenge current rules. For instance, the Vatican says that Catholic priests are not allowed to preside at same-sex weddings. But as this RNS story reports, "Germany’s powerful Catholic progressives are openly defying a recent Holy See pronouncement that priests cannot bless same-sex unions by offering such blessings at services in about 100 different churches all over the country this week." Something similar happened in the 1960s when the Vatican declared that artificial birth control methods were forbidden. Especially in America, women defied that ruling in droves. The Vatican never changed its mind, but the practice changed in the U.S. Maybe that's what will happen in Germany now. And from there it may spread until the Vatican is following on this issue, not leading. It's not quite what's known as "civil disobedience," but it's close. Another example of a faith community defying the rules: The recent ordination of three women at a Southern Baptist church despite denominational rules against ordaining women to ministry.

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: I am participating in a global conference on press freedom, focused on Turkey, that will stream on YouTube starting at 11 a.m. CDT this Saturday. The graphic here will give you the link to view the event.

How religion both helped and hurt in the pandemic

Across human history we have seen examples of people turning to religion in times of crisis. The standard way of describing this phenomenon (inaccurately) is that there are no atheists in foxholes.

Emergency-prayerWe saw this happen clearly when the 9/11 terrorists struck, killing nearly 3,000 people in 2001. Almost immediately sanctuaries opened up for prayer meetings around the country.

People in such circumstances engage in what I've previously called 9-1-1 prayer -- dashing off an emergency call to God to help alleviate whatever crisis is at hand.

There's more recent evidence of this because of the Covid pandemic. Although people were prevented from gathering in person for worship, the evidence is that many people turned for comfort to religion and religious practices to get through this terrible last year-plus.

In fact, Landon Schnabel, who teaches sociology at Cornell University, has just written this article in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion that shows that "the spike in distress most Americans experienced in March 2020 was less pronounced among the most religious Americans and especially evangelicals. Religion did in fact protect mental health in the face of crisis.

"But this mental health boost came at the cost of less concern about and support for addressing an important real-world problem: curbing the spread of a highly contagious virus and saving lives during a pandemic. The same people who experienced less distress were also less likely to see the pandemic as something to be concerned about, less likely to support public health measures to contain it and less likely to practice social distancing or isolation to protect themselves and those around them from a highly contagious virus."

Another way of putting it is that many people of faith looked out for themselves more than they cared for the well being of others. Certainly not all people of faith failed in that way, but Schnabel's finding suggest that it was not uncommon for religious people to behave that way. But the reason may have been less religious than it was political, he writes: "Highly religious Americans and especially evangelicals are much more likely to be Republican and conservative than Democratic and liberal. In fact, white evangelicals consistently vote for the Republican presidential candidates at a clip of about four times in five, a pattern that did not change with Trump. Most evangelicals supported Trump, Trump said the pandemic wasn’t something to worry about and so most evangelicals weren’t worried. Therefore, politics as much if not more than religion itself can help explain why evangelicals experienced less distress."

It's one more example of how the former president persuaded evangelicals to abandon their long commitment to values that would have had them be more concerned for the welfare of others.

Turning to religion only in times of crisis indicates a view of God as first-responder. It's not a picture of God that any of the major world religions promote, but that doesn't mean it's uncommon.

(For a fuller, more academic approach to the question of whether people become more religious in times of crisis, I refer you to this interesting article from The Conversation.)

(P.S.: The art here today came from this site.)

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Did you know that there's a 1,700-year history of Jews living in Germany? In recent times, when most people think of Jews in Germany what comes to mind is the Holocaust, led by Germany's World War II Nazi government. But as this RNS story reports, there are Jews in Germany today who, while never forgetting that dark past, want to focus also on a growing presence and a potentially vibrant future. As the story notes, "Germans are looking back on 1,700 years of Jewish history, dating back to a decree in 321 from Roman emperor Constantine allowing Jews to be appointed to the governing body in Cologne, long before Germany came together as a nation." The story also reports that "Counting religious and secular Jews, Germany’s Jewish population is 225,000 strong, the third largest in Europe. According to the Central Welfare Office for Jews in Germany, or ZWST, there are 106 active Jewish communities, the largest in Berlin, Munich and Frankfurt." German Jewish history is intriguing. As is the long history of Jews in Poland, where Germany built its death camps in World War II. And in Poland, too, Jewish life is re-emerging, despite the relatively small number of Jews there. Perhaps some day what is called the oldest hatred -- antisemitism -- will begin to melt away. But in recent years there's been a resurgence of it in Europe and across the world. Sigh.

Working on racial justice issues requires deep honesty

In a few weeks we will mark the one-year anniversary of the murder of George Floyd by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. It was the event that kicked off a long series of protests around the country by people seeking racial justice (along with a few jerks who took advantage of the unrest of smash store windows and steal stuff; what is wrong with such people?).

Racial_JusticeWhat I noticed about many of the protesting crowds is that they were made up not only of Black people, but of people of all colors. It gave me some hope that at least some part of the white population in the U.S. finally was starting to take seriously the need to reject the destructive attitude of white supremacy on which our country was built.

But that rejection is a long process. And it needs to happen not just in the streets and in our policing and larger criminal justice system. It also needs to happen in our faith communities, as this Christianity Today article makes clear.

The author, Rich Villodas, is described as the lead pastor of New Life Fellowship, a large, multiracial church representing more than 75 countries in Elmhurst, Queens.

He thought he was doing pretty well in his efforts to show racial equity and justice within his congregation. But, he writes, it turned out he had a lot to learn.

Ten congregants asked to meet with him to talk about their feelings of being left out. And they weren't hesitant to voice their complaints. Villodas writes: "I’d worked hard to preach and lead from a place of racial justice and reconciliation. How could this be?"

What he decided was that "I also needed to grow and change. We all have racial habits. We all have conscious and unconscious ways of racially engaging others. Some habits are rooted in love, justice and appreciation for others’ differences; other habits are rooted in ignorance, fear and a propensity to marginalize whoever is different. But the good news is that bad habits can be changed. For old habits to die, we need a new set of habits in their places."

He's right. And it requires some serious self-assessment and community assessment so we're not just pretending that racial issues are resolved.

As Villodas writes, "One of the ways we dishonor the image of God in others is by not doing the hard work of examining the assumptions and biases we have against them. We have all been socialized by our families of origin and surrounding culture to see people in particular ways. We often live our lives without ever reflecting on the stories and lies we’ve been told about certain groups of people. Consequently, we perpetuate the myths and stereotypes subconsciously. Racial reconciliation requires us to develop a deep level of self-awareness."

My own congregation is going through an effort to develop such self-awareness, and I wrote about that in this recent Flatland column. If you're part of a congregation that hasn't yet begun this kind of work, let me encourage you to be a proponent of it and to keep pressing until a decision is made to consider ways of proceeding.

This is an opportunity to confront our past and to set a new and healthier racial course for the future. Let's not blow it. Again.

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A major Hindu religious festival, the Kumbh Mela, which occurs roughly every 12 years, was allowed to go on in India recently and looks to be a major source of the huge spike there in Coronavirus infections, this RNS story reports. As the story notes, allowing the festival in the midst of the pandemic is "also a sign of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP-led government favoring Hindu beliefs over safety." Modi is a Hindu nationalist and has been, over all, a disaster for India on many levels. And now hundreds of thousands of people are paying a really high price for his terrible decision making.

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Healing-Corporon Cover-lle-hi-resP.S.: The neo-Nazi who murdered Mindy Corporon's father and son and Jim LaManno's wife in April 2014 at Jewish sites in suburban Kansas City has died. The Kansas City Star story to which I've linked you says he (I am loathe to use his name) died at the El Dorado Correctional Facility in Kansas. Recently I had a chance to sit down with Mindy and do a virtual interview with her about grief and healing. She covers that subject in her new book, which was released this week. It's called Healing a Shattered Soul. And I cover that subject in my own new book, Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety. You can watch the video of our conversation here.

Remembering the gifts trees have been

As my wife and I prepare to downsize from our house to a nearby apartment later this month, I've been going through boxes and bins full of evidence that I've been a professional writer for well over half a century.

WDT-tree-IsraelScrapbooks, saved front pages, notebooks, loose documents. Paper, paper, paper.

Paper has been good to me. I've tried to be good to paper in return.

I've been reading Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, by Robin Wall Kimmerer. She writes about the symbiotic relationship between people and plants, including trees. I completely understood when I read this:

"Responsibility to the tree makes everyone pause before beginning. Sometimes I have that same sense when I face a blank sheet of paper. For me, writing is an act of reciprocity with the world; it is what I can give back in return for everything that has been given to me. And now there's another layer of responsibility, writing on a thin sheet of tree and hoping the words are worth it. Such a thought could make a person set down her pen."

Today, fewer and fewer of my words end up on actual paper. Even my books get offered to readers in digital format, saving trees -- though, of course, they're also available in paper versions.

Still, in one way, I owe my career to the trees that have given their lives to become the paper on which my words get printed. And in a perfect world I would use those trees and then plant other trees to replace them. It turns out that throughout my entire life I've planted only a dozen or so trees, including one in Israel (pictured here). So, in terms of environmental stewardship, a value my religion teaches me, I've come up short by a lot.

Many of the words I've written will never be seen again, even though they may be saved in microfilm or in other ways. Such words may be considered the mayflies of journalism. But what's important is not their lifespan but, rather, what difference they made while being read.

The words in the seven books I've written or co-authored almost certainly will last longer than any of my words that appeared in newspapers or magazines. But, again, lifespan is not the issue.

In any case, the beautifully written Kimmerer book is a reminder that each of us, for different reasons, has a responsibility to the natural world -- to understand it (and our relationship to it) as best we can, to care for it and to give thanks for it. After all, it's a gift, and we should be giving it gifts in return.

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India, where I spent two years of my boyhood, is in the midst of a serious spike in Covid 19 cases. But India also is a country full of deeply religious people -- primarily Hindu, but also Muslim, Sikh, Jain and others, including a comparatively small number of Christians. As this RNS report notes, people of faith in India are stepping up to help out in the Covid crisis: "In the grip of a deadly second wave of COVID-19, religious charities and faith-based organizations are among the many civil society groups that have stepped up to mobilize relief efforts. Besides lending out their premises for hospitals or quarantine centers, the religious volunteers deliver food, medicine and other vital supplies to those recovering at home." In other words, we see an example of people of faith doing exactly what they're expected to do.

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Cover-lle-hi-resP.S.: Please email me at if you'd like me to speak to your book group, club or congregation about my new book, Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety. Or do so if you'd just like to order an autographed copy directly from me. And thanks.