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Sometimes faith leadership comes from unexpected places

It often seems to be the case that when major developments happen in the world of religion, attention turns to large houses of worship, major denominations, famous faith leaders.

Lgbtq-Xian-flagBut sometimes -- thank goodness -- leadership comes from less well-known people and places.

Take, for instance, the ongoing dispute in the United (an ironic word now) Methodist Church over matters having to do with LGBTQ+ people. This large Mainline Protestant denomination has been tearing itself apart over this for several years, and eventually will make the split permanent.

It's true that some major UMC players, including the Rev. Adam Hamilton, founding pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in suburban Kansas City, have been active in seeking resolution of this matter. But one of the first -- if not the first -- church to stand on a redemptive principle and walk away from the UMC because it was (and is) treating LGBTQ+ people as second-class citizens was a quite small church in, of all places, Tulsa, Okla.

This RNS story describes how "before the current wave of churches disaffiliating from the United Methodist Church, there was Community of Hope in Tulsa."

The story tells how the Rev. Leslie Penrose was moved to go to seminary in the 1980s to become equipped to deal with such matters as homosexuality in the church. In 1993, Penrose "and 16 others started Community of Hope at another United Methodist church in Tulsa, an outreach from the church to 'people on the margin.' About half of the congregation was LGBTQ, she said, many living with HIV or AIDS."

Finally fed up with the way UMC rules treat LGBTQ+ people, Penrose left the denomination in 1999 and became a pastor in the United Church of Christ, which by then was welcoming gay people into leadership and membership. Soon thereafter the Community of Hope Church in Tulsa joined her as part of the UCC flock.

Penrose retired in 2007, but as the RNS story notes, she is "not surprised that the debate over LGBTQ Christians is still raging within the United Methodist Church — but she is appalled, she said. 'The church is supposed to be on the leading edge of these kinds of issues, not dragged kicking and screaming,' she said."


I used to think that same-sex marriage would never be legal across the U.S. in my lifetime. I'm glad I was wrong. I now think that I won't live to see the day when all Christian churches -- and other faith traditions as well -- welcome LGBTQ+ folks and make them eligible to participate fully in all aspects of the life of their faith community. I hope I'll be proven wrong again. But, come on, folks. Get a move on. I'm not going to last forever.

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In a U.S. Senate confirmation hearing the other day of a man nominated to be an assistant attorney general, Republican Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana asked the nominee if he believed in God. Such questions are way out of order, violating even the Constitution. And you should know that in case you ever have a chance to vote for someone to replace Kennedy.

When what needs to be saved is the Bible itself

I still have the Bible -- a King James Version -- that I received when I was confirmed as a member of my hometown church in Illinois in 1958.

ScriptureWell, I have lots of Bibles, but not many of them are in my collection because they are rare, valuable or ancient. Rather, I collect different translations mostly because I like to compare the word choices translators make. And I have scripture from traditions outside of Christianity for reference purposes.

Still, there is something to be said for ancient family Bibles that can offer bits of history that may not be available elsewhere.

For instance, this story from Minneapolis describes a rare 1767 Bible that a book conservator has just rescued from becoming dust.

The story tells of an old Bible that a man named "Phil Handy had found. . .in his aunt’s Florida attic, wrapped in thin brown paper. The book was unassuming, the size of a fat brick. But for years, Mr. Handy had heard rumors of a family Bible dating back to the Revolutionary War and containing handwritten genealogy information, including dates of birth. . .Mr. Handy, 76, brought the Bible home to Minnesota and began searching for a book conservator. A call led to an email led to a studio in a garage loft in Stillwater, Minn., home to Valkyrie Conservation" and a conservator named Bailey Kinsky.

There is, of course, a difference between valuing any copy of sacred writ for what it says and valuing it for what it's worth in the marketplace.

But between those two ways of thinking about Bibles, Qur'ans and other scriptural texts, there's the idea that individual books may have family stories to tell.

For a long time I kept a Bible that my mother used to use (one of my daughters has it now), and I can see various notes she stuck in the pages and various scribblings in the margins plus some underlined words and phrases. And it told me a little more about what the woman who birthed me thought was important or interesting.

In a weekly group of men I'm part of from my church, we spend part of our time reading the Bible. More and more, guys don't bring a printed copy but reach for their phones and read along on them.

I'm not complaining about that. I do it myself sometimes. But there is something to be said for ink on paper, for heavy Bibles you haul around. One is that what's called the word of God can be heavy in meaning as well as in weight. It's hard to experience that on my smartphone.

Still, I'm glad there are young people, as the Minneapolis story notes, who seem interested in saving old books. Maybe some day 100 or 300 years from now one of the books I've written will show up in some basement bin and be in need of repair. In that case, even if the pages and binding can be saved, it'll be too late to fix some of the writing. By then, of course, I won't care. Much.

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Catholics and people of faith everywhere should be glad that, under the leadership of Pope Frances, reform is coming in the way the church handles its finances, as this RNS story reports. It's clear the overhaul of the Vatican’s financial and judicial system won't be quick or easy. But if religious institutions can't be trusted to handle money fairly and honestly, it undermines faith in the religion itself.

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P.S.: If you missed my latest Flatland column when it posted on Sunday -- it's about Native American spirituality and the work of the Kansas City Indian Center -- you can find it here.

Is 'Christian Zionism' bound to wither away before long?

Zionism -- the idea that the Jewish people should have their own homeland -- has been around a long time, though perhaps less time than you may think.

Christian-ZionismAnd what's called Christian Zionism, which supports the Zionist project, though for what Jews may well considered highly mixed motives, may actually be older than Jewish Zionism.

In his upcoming book on Middle Eastern Christians, (which I'll write about here on the blog at the end of August), Mitri Raheb writes that "Christian Zionism preceded Jewish Zionism by half a century." (The book is The Politics of Persecution: Middle Eastern Christians in an Age of Empire. Sept. 1 is its publication date.) It took until 1860, he writes, for Sir Moses Montefiore to sponsor "the establishment of the first Jewish colony in Palestine, just outside the Old City in Jerusalem and opposite Jaffa Gate." One reason some Christian British leaders before then and at the time of Montefiore were interested in Zionism, Raheb suggests, is that, if successful, it might reduce the number of Jews in Britain. In other words, antisemitism was at the core of Christian Zionism (and still is in some ways). Imagine that.

At any rate, today Christian Zionism in the U.S. is largely associated with Christians who would identify as evangelical or conservative. And, as Raheb notes in his forthcoming book, "Throughout history, Christian Zionists interpreted almost every major political event in the Middle East through the lens of biblical prophecy." They mostly still do. And that includes their belief that the Second Coming of Christ can't or won't happen until Jews control the Temple Mount, as Jews call it, or Al-Aqsa Mosque, as Muslims call it, in Jerusalem. Oh, and when the Second Coming happens, according to this brand of prophecy, Jews either convert or are done away with. To repeat: Imagine that.

In any event, this article in The Conversation suggests that Christian Zionism is nowhere near as steady a concept among evangelical Christians as it seems.

As Walker Robins writes in the piece: "The Israeli right’s preference for working with conservative American evangelicals over more politically variable American Jews has been evident for years. And this preference has in many ways paid off."

But, he adds, "the alliance’s future may be in doubt. Recent polling shows dramatic declines in support for Israel among young American evangelicals. Scholars Motti Inbari and Kirill Bumin found that between 2018 and 2021, rates of support fell from 69% to 33.6% among evangelicals ages 18-29.

"While these polls speak most immediately to the current context, they also underline a larger historical point: Evangelical support for Israel is neither permanent nor inevitable."

Faced with Arab hostility and war since the day in 1948 that Israel declared itself a nation, it needs all the friends it can get. But it might want to be careful about how sincere those friends are about Israel's long-term survival and -- more to the point -- the survival of the Jewish people as Jews.

I find Robins' conclusion sort of heartening: "This diverse and globally connected generation of evangelicals has its own ideas and priorities. It is more interested in social justice, less invested in the culture wars and increasingly weary of conservative politics. Young evangelicals remain to be convinced of Christian Zionism. And they very well may not be."

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As news stories circulate of mass graves of Indigenous children from old boarding schools, churches in the U.S. and Canada are increasingly looking at their own records of relationships with Indigenous people, this RNS story reports. As the story notes, "This painful history has drawn relatively little attention in the United States compared with Canada, where the recent discoveries of graves underscored what a 2015 government commission called a 'cultural genocide.' That’s beginning to change." This gives me a chance to give you a heads up about my next Flatland column, which will post Sunday morning here. It will be about the ways in which Native American spirituality is woven into the programs offered by the Kansas City Indian Center.

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P.S.: Many of you in the Kansas City area either knew or knew of the Rev. Dr. Robert H. Meneilly, founder of Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, Kan. Dr. Bob, as he often was called, died this week. In his memory, I'm going to link you here to a pdf of a Star Magazine profile of did of him in early 1981. Just click on this link: Download Tammeus meneilly. Its age and the way it's pasted up make it a little hard to read but it's all there. I've also written a tribute to Meneilly for KCUR-FM, which you can find here.

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ANOTHER P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about Native American spirituality and the work of the Kansas City Indian Center -- now is online here.

What produces moral clarity that leads to action?

For quite a few years I have served as a preliminary judge for the White Rose Student Research Contest, sponsored by the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education.

White-roseSo I have known about the college-age students in Germany -- especially Hans and Sophie Scholl, siblings -- who led the anti-Hitler effort under the White Rose name. But until recently I had not read the 2017 book, At the Heart of the White Rose, edited by Inge Jens.

The book is a remarkable collection of many of the letters and diary entries -- along with some explanatory commentary -- the Scholls wrote before they were executed by the Nazis on Feb. 22, 1943. Hans was 24, Sophie 21.

The documents reveal how their growing commitment to oppose Hitler's evil regime was rooted in their Christian faith -- a faith that they understood in different ways at different times. Reading it from this side of World War II and the Holocaust, it's possible to detect small changes in their thinking that led them to a resistance movement.

In some ways, it was a wildly optimistic and unrealistic resistance, given that Germany was deeply in the grip of Nazi anti-Jewish ideology and given that the resisters were few in number and were unexperienced young people.

But, for all that, it's an inspiring story about standing for truth and against destructive power.

One aspect of the Scholls' life that shows up in shining ways is their devotion to -- and love of -- their parents. Their father, Robert Scholl, even spent some time imprisoned for imagined crimes against the Nazi government, though he was far from a revolutionary leader. Still, he and his wife instilled important values in their children that led them to recognize the brutality of what was happening to Jews as well as to others under Hitler and to want to do something to stop it.

At one point Hans writes to his mother in reply to something inspiring she had written to him: ". . .don't imagine that your words pass me by. What a mother says sticks. . ."

By March 1938, the Germany in which Hans grew up was becoming unrecognizable to him: "My head feels heavy. I don't understand people anymore. Whenever I hear all that anonymous jubilation on the radio, I feel like going out into a big deserted plain and being by myself."

And yet there is an eerie silence in these letters and other writings. Neither Hans nor Sophie, for instance, wrote a word in these documents about the shock of Kristallnacht ("Night of Broken Glass") on Nov. 9 and 10, 1938, when Nazis burned down synagogues, vandalized homes, schools and businesses of Jews and killed almost 100 Jews in Germany. Were they stunned to silence? Were they fearful of saying anything critical even in private letters and diaries?

Almost a year after Kristallnacht, by contrast, Sophie writes to a soldier with whom she seems to be in love and says: "I just can't grasp that people's lives are now under constant threat from other people. I'll never understand it, and I find it terrible. Don't go telling me it's for the Fatherland's sake."

And in May 1940, she writes this to the same man, Fritz: "Although I don't know much about politics and have no ambition to do so, I do have some idea of right and wrong, because that has nothing to do with politics and nationality. And I could weep at how mean people are, in high-level politics as well, and how they betray their fellow creatures, perhaps for the sake of personal advantage. Isn't it enough to make a person lose heart sometimes?. . .I'm sometimes tempted to regard mankind as a terrestrial skin disease."

As the war proceeds, with Germany winning victory after victory in the first years, we see resistant hearts starting to beat in the Scholl siblings. The question is what they will do in response.

Sophie gives at least a hint in a September 1940 letter to Fritz: "To me, justice takes precedence over all other attachments, many of which are purely sentimental."

And in August 1941, Hans writes to a young woman with whom he's in love, telling here that the "past few weeks have been more important to my inner self than many of the foregoing months. I realize I'm gradually getting a grip on myself, and that one road is materializing out of many illusions and false trails. Am I telling the whole truth? Not everything will be as I would have wished, I'm afraid."

By May 1942, Hans, Sophie and a few other conspirators are clandestinely distributing White Rose leaflets calling for "every individual, conscious of his responsibility as a member of Christian and Western civilization. . .(to) defend himself as best he can at this late hour. . .(to) work against the scourges of mankind, against fascism and any similar system of totalitarianism." And that summer they learned of the death camps Germany's government built in Poland and published what they could find out about them.

Cover-lle-hi-resYou can read a fuller account of the Scholls and the White Rose effort here.

But this collection of private writings from young resisters is a good lesson in how people come to form their moral conscience and what actions moral clarity leads to.

In this case, the resistance they offered was nonviolent. We will have to study other examples to discern how deep belief and certitude can turn into a violent response. And for sure we need to do that. In fact, the last chapter of my latest book, Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety, focuses on just that question.

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Fr. James Martin, a Catholic priest (he wrote a nice endorsement of my latest book), said recently that “Anti-Catholicism is the last acceptable prejudice.” The Atlantic's excellent religion writer, Emma Green, then did this interview with Martin to explore that contention. It's well worth a read. Note, please, that Martin acknowledges that "we have to be careful not to label every single critique of the Church as anti-Catholicism. The Church deserves its critics, especially in the light of the sex-abuse crisis and financial scandals and other things." Still, he said (and I agree), that "anti-Catholic tropes get a pass in our culture for a number of reasons, in a way that anti-Semitism, anti-Islam or even homophobia do not." But just as thoughtful criticism of Israeli government policy is not antisemitism, so criticism of the Catholic Church's abysmal handling of the priest sex abuse scandal isn't anti-Catholicism. (I wish critics of my own writing who have accused me falsely of being anti-Catholic understood this latter point. But I'm not holding my breath.)

Some modest surprises in the U.S. religious landscape

The membership decline in American Mainline Protestant churches began decades ago. As news these days, that story amounts to dog-bites-man.

PRRI_Jul_2021_Religion_1 (1)But recently there's been a man-bites-dog twist to the story. As this Religion News Service story reports, "White Christian decline has slowed. (White) Mainline Protestants now outnumber white evangelicals."

But wait. There's more: "(R)eligiously unaffiliated Americans, or 'nones' in religion demography parlance, have lost ground, making up just 23% of the country. The complex group — which includes atheists, agnostics and some people who say they pray daily but don’t claim a specific faith tradition — peaked at 25.5% of the population in 2018."

You may categorize these findings as a surprise. Or at least a bit of one. But tracking this kind of religious landscape information is complicated. For instance, don't miss the qualifier "white" in the second paragraph above, especially the one that comes before the word "evangelicals." If you look at the page to which I have linked you in this paragraph, you'll see that "Evangelical Protestants" still make up 25.4 percent of American Christians, compared with the 14.7 percent who are "Mainline Protestants."

Beyond that, there are different interpretations about who gets included in some of these categories, as this helpful RNS story notes: "Not unlike their evangelical step-cousins, Mainliners are in the middle of their own identity crisis — and who’s in and who’s out depends a bit on who is answering the question." (I usually include these denominations as Mainliners: The United Methodist Church, The Presbyterian Church (USA), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the American Baptist Church, the United Church of Christ and the Episcopal Church. Sometimes the Quakers, the Reformed Church in America and the African Methodist Episcopal Church get included among the Mainliners.)

Still, the reality is that the religious ground in the U.S. continues to shift -- sometimes dramatically, sometimes not. And it's easy to think that what you knew 25 years ago -- a precipitous decline among Mainliners and a boom among Southern Baptists and other evangelical branches -- still holds. In fact, Southern Baptist churches in recent years have lost lots of members.

If you want to read the full Public Religious Research Institute's 2020 report from which the RNS stories stem, you'll find it here.

What we don't yet know (and no doubt won't for some years) is how the Covid pandemic has affected (and continues to affect) religious affiliation in the U.S. We all know, of course, that many congregations quit meeting in person and that only recently has that begun to change. (I wrote a bit about that change in this recent Flatland column.)

In the meantime, the question is whether any of this statistical stuff tells us much of anything about the difference religion is making in the lives of people. Probably not, but it's always good to be aware of your landscape.

(The image here today came from the Public Religion Research Institute's site, to which I've linked you above.) 

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To add to the information above about America's religious landscape, here's a piece explaining the belief among some Christians that the Bible is "inerrant" in its "moral and spiritual teaching and record of historical facts.” Inerrancy has always seemed to me to be a dangerous and flimsy house of cards. To fall, all it requires is the smallest historical or other error. For instance: Who killed Goliath? David, right? It says so in I Samuel 17:50. But wait. In I Samuel 21:19 the killer is identified not as David but as Elhanan. Both answers can't be right, can they? In my branch of Christianity we say that you can take the Bible literally or you can take it seriously, but you can't do both. I vote for seriously.

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P.S.: Because of the concern people of faith have about the environment, from time to time I write about ecological matters, such as this post in October 2018. A reader recently passed along what I think is a really good status report on various aspects of ecological degradation because of climate change/global warming. You can read it here. It was gathered from lots of sources by a private company,, which other companies use to help control how weather affects their businesses.

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ANOTHER P.S.: In the spirit of respecting the humanity of all people (a religious idea) and not stereotyping particular people as all this or all that, I offer you this column about British people written by my childhood friend (we were in school together in India for a time when I was a boy) Markandey Katju, former justice on India's Supreme Court. Markandey is an avowed atheist but a deep respecter of each person's humanity. As we all should be.

Some religious groups continue to oppress LGBTQ+ folks

It is both a strength and a weakness of institutional religion that it adopts changes ever so slowly. That's true both of practices and beliefs, though sometimes it's difficult to separate the two.

Lgbtq-Xian-flagIt's a strength in some ways because it keeps faith communities from blowing willy-nilly in the cultural wind, accommodating themselves to every silly fad that comes along. But it's a weakness when religious bodies fail to recognize that in this or that matter they've not only been wrong theologically but that their error has hurt some of the very people they are called on to lift up.

An ongoing example is the struggle over how faith communities treat LGBTQ+ people. It has been clear for a long time, as I've argued in this essay about all of this, that the Bible -- either the Jewish or Christian version -- does not condemn what we've slowly come to understand as homosexuality and, thus, should not be used as a weapon to punish and belittle gay people.

And yet it took my own denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA) decades of arguing to recognize the damage being done to gay people by our rules against ordaining them as pastors or officers and against our pastors performing same-sex weddings. We finally changed those rules a decade or so ago.

But another separate denomination of Presbyterianism in the U.S., the PCA (Presbyterian Church in America) has just declared (again) that it will not ordain LGBTQ+ people and that its pastors won't do same-sex weddings. This is the serpentine, wordy wording the PCA just approved:

Those who profess an identity (such as, but not limited to, ‘gay Christian,’ ‘same sex attracted Christian,’ ‘homosexual Christian,’ or like terms) that undermines or contradicts their identity as new creations in Christ, either by denying the sinfulness of fallen desires (such as, but not limited to, same sex attraction), or by denying the reality and hope of progressive sanctification, or by failing to pursue Spirit-empowered victory over their sinful temptations, inclinations, and actions are not qualified for ordained office.”

All of which, as I say, is based on what I would call a serious misreading of scripture. Any time you find religious rules or biblical interpretations that oppress people or treat them as second-class human beings instead of liberating them to be the people God created them to be, you can be sure you've got it wrong.

Sadly, the PCA is far from the only Christian denomination wandering in this desert. As this RNS story reports, "A bill concerning same-sex marriage failed to pass on its second reading Wednesday (July 7) at the African Methodist Episcopal Church General Conference, the denomination’s quadrennial meeting taking place in Orlando, Florida. . .The proposed bill was. . .designed to repeal a section in the AME Book of Discipline that prevents clergy from performing same-sex marriages."

I find it especially painful that a predominantly Black church, such as the AME, whose members know all about what it's like to be suppressed people, would find theological justification for suppressing other people. But after voting down that change, the denomination's leaders voted to create a new committee to study LGBTQ+ issues along with relevant scripture passages. Perhaps something redemptive will come of that. Eventually. Perhaps.

LGBTQ+ folks -- and our society generally -- have made considerable progress in freeing people from such suppression in the last 50 years. But the forces -- many of them religious in nature -- that would continue that suppression have not given up and gone away. So there's still much work to be done to change hearts and minds.

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Several Christian organizations, angry about what they saw in the Jan. 6 insurrection at our nation's Capitol, have produced a three-session adult study curriculum called “Responding to Christian Nationalism” for pastors who want to educate church members, this RNS story reports. Good. Christian Nationalism is a serious distortion of the gospel (and of our nation's founding documents) and should be confronted aggressively.

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P.S.: Some of you may be interested in what looks like a great conference on antisemitism coming up next week through the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism at Indiana University in Bloomington. This virtual international scholars conference starts July 19 and is called "Antisemitism in Today's America: Manifestations, Causes and Consequences."

Why Jesus didn't exclude anyone from Holy Communion

The internal Catholic battle over whether the church (or its bishops) can or should prevent certain politically active members (such as President Joe Biden) from receiving Communion, or the Eucharist, seems to mystify a lot of people.

EucharistAnd no wonder. In some ways it's an inside-baseball story that seems baffling to people outside the Catholic Church and particularly to people outside of Christianity and outside of any religious commitment at all.

This article from "The Conversation" does a pretty fair job of explaining why the issue is so important inside the church and, thus, helping people outside the church understand it a bit better.

This concluding explanation is especially helpful: 

"In its most basic terms, Catholics receive the really-present Christ in Communion so that they may be Christ in the world.

"Catholics believe that when one consumes the Eucharist, one is incorporated into Christ and becomes bonded to others who are also part of the body of Christ on Earth. It is not simply a matter of individual belief, but of Church unity and the mission of being Christ in the world.

"To set oneself outside of the practice of Communion – or to be set outside by another – is to be apart from the very practice that incorporates one into the body of Christ."

But there's more going on in this dispute. The "more" has to do with power. Let's begin by remembering that at what Christians call the "Last Supper," Jesus instituted the sacrament of Communion by serving his disciples bread and wine and explaining that those elements were (or represented) his body and blood and urging them to continue offering this meal in remembrance of him.

Let's also remember that among those Jesus served was Judas Iscariot, who was about to betray him to religious leaders in Jerusalem, and Peter, who was about to deny three times that he even knew Jesus. Many Christian scholars would argue that Jesus already knew of Judas' upcoming betrayal (as is pretty clear from gospel accounts) and that he certainly knew -- and predicted -- the denial of him by Peter.

And yet those two received bread and wine along with the others.

Jesus certainly had the power to withhold bread and wine from them or from any of the others at that meal. That he served everyone was a model of how to exercise power -- a difficult model because it shows that power can be used to include and not to exclude. Jesus drew the circle to include all and not to exclude anyone. Was that lack of discernment on his part? No, that was doing what he could to let Judas and Peter know they were loved and that he hoped that they would do the right thing.

They didn't. But their failure doesn't mean Jesus failed at including them. It means, rather, that Judas and Peter -- not Jesus -- failed.

Although, like Catholics, I believe in what's called the "Real Presence" of Christ in the Eucharist, I am outside the Catholic Church and have no say in how its bishops understand or shape church teaching. But I think those bishops would do well to reread the story of the Last Supper and figure out why Jesus didn't exclude Judas or Peter.

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For many years, a lot of the attention that was focused on Buddhism in the U.S. had to do with its many white converts and not on the Asian immigrants who introduced the faith to the U.S. and who make up a majority of its adherents here. That is changing, this NBC News story says, as Asian-American begin to reclaim some of the limelight. As the story says, "Asian American Buddhists. . .are challenging the white-dominant narratives of Buddhism and re-centering Asian American identity in what it means to be Buddhist in the U.S." A thought along those lines: Maybe Christians who came here from the Holy Land should play a larger role in leading the faith here. Christianity, after all, is an Asian faith at its root, with deep roots in Africa, too.

Here's a concept: Let's operate businesses ethically

No doubt it's a sign of something badly amiss in the business world that if you Google "examples of unethical business scandals" you get 515,000 results, including this one, which lists the 10 biggest corporate scandals.

Ethics-in-FinanceRemember the Enron scandal of 2001 in which the company was hiding billions of dollars in liabilities on its books to make it look as if it were profitable? As the website to which I linked you above reports, eventually Enron was "forced to file for what was then the biggest chapter-11 bankruptcy in history." (And now we've seen the Trump Organization and its top financial officer indicted for allegedly criminal business behavior.)

But, as we all know, the world of high (and even low) finance can be, and sometimes is, plagued by unethical behavior, often in a search for the god named profit. How and why does this happen? Well, part of the answer is that not enough emphasis is placed on financial ethics in business and professional schools.

Kara Tan Bhala, a wise woman (and now a Kansas Citian) I know who has decades of experience in this field, has published a new book that she hopes can fill in some of the gaps in knowledge about ethics in finance. It's called Ethics in Finance: Case Studies from a Woman's Life on Wall Street.

The terrific thing about the book is that it's full of true stories told in engaging ways. They are stories of ethical lapses and conundrums Bhala has encountered in her professional life along with her clear analysis of what went wrong and how, given employment of proper ethical standards, the wrong could have been avoided.

In this insider's look at the world of finance we find a wealthy married man asking a female subordinate to set him up with a prostitute in Asia. We read about how women in a big financial firm were systematically kept out of a special inner sanctum company Christmas party (within the regular company-wide party) just because they were women. We discover whistle-blowers who get fired for bringing unethical business behavior to unwanted light.

The stories are rich and detailed, mostly because Bhala lived them and took careful notes.

Bhala is head of and founder of the Seven Pillars Institute for Global Finance and Ethics, which describes itself as "an independent think tank for research, education and promotion of financial ethics. . .affiliated with the University of London – Queen Mary College."

She knows whereof she writes. And she knows the cost of not doing things ethically. For instance, she refers to the 2008
Global Financial Crisis, calling it "a catastrophic event triggered by greed, regulatory capture, excessive compensation and a whole lot of bad ethics in financial services."

Let's not relive that, please.

In each case that she writes about, she identifies the core ethical issue at play and then analyzes it from various perspectives to find out what went wrong and what should have been done to avoid ethical lapses, some of which turn out to be quite costly to the companies involved.

Early in the book she acknowledges widespread skepticism about whether there even can be ethics in business: "When I inform people I run a not-for-profit think tank that does research, education and promotion of financial ethics, invariably the first skeptical response is, 'Isn’t financial ethics an oxymoron?' After a weary answer of 'No, it’s not an oxymoron, it’s a necessity for the long-term proper functioning of finance and society,' the next question usually goes, 'But you can’t teach ethics, can you?' That’s when I get slightly more aggressive and say, 'Well, should I have allowed my daughter to grow up
feral then?'”

Bhala is determined to push the idea that ethics in finance and business not only is possible, it's absolutely necessary.

In many ways I wish this commitment to ethical standards were more evident not just in economic matters but in all matters, including academics, sports (you know, quit using foreign substances on baseballs), the arts, religion, journalism and other fields.

People from all of those areas and more could benefit by following Bhala's engaging stories and adopting the ethical standards she describes being broken again and again. The result could be that we might trust one another more. What a concept.

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Speaking of operating a business ethically, cheers for The National Catholic Reporter, for which I used to write a regular column, for divesting from investments in fossil fuels. NCR's board took its time and tried to make sure it was aligning its values with the way it invests its $12.7-million endowment. If environmental degradation is a major issue facing the world -- and I list it at or near the top -- then people of faith should be responding to the crisis in helpful ways. The board of NCR, which is based in Kansas City, has shown one way to do that.

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P.S.: My friend Markandey Katju, a former judge on India's Supreme Court, has written this piece about Afghanistan and the dire consequences if the Taliban and its radical approach to Islam again dominates that beleaguered nation. He writes: "The first thing they will do on assuming power will be to impose a Wahhabi-type bigoted version of Islam in the country. Women will be compelled to wear the burqa, and not permitted to leave their house without a male relative." Sigh.

Can 'Four Americas' become more united starting this Fourth of July?

Four Americas

This Independence Day weekend provides us another opportunity to do two things: Celebrate what's good (a lot) about the U.S. and its history and, at least as important, learn or remember what went wrong in American history. The goal would be to know how to make changes that would avoid previous errors and get the future as right as humanly possible.

I thought my former Kansas City Star colleague Dave Helling got it right in this recent column.

Here's what Dave suggests: "You can teach American history in all its abundant messiness. Embrace the brilliance and the errors of the founders and the other great figures of our nation.

"They were patriots. They were hypocrites. They were intelligent. They were prejudiced. They were human beings, flawed and miraculous at the same time."

What Dave suggests is what the world's major religions teach: Seek out what is true because the truth is liberating and leads to a more authentic and reliable future.

One way to do that this weekend might be to spend some time reading this intriguing article in the current issue of The Atlantic.

In it, journalist George Packer gives readers the core of his new book, Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal.

Packer argues that we Americans have divided ourselves into four different Americas based on four different visions of who we are and who we should be: Free America, Smart America, Real America and Just America. My guess is that many of you, like me, will find that you don't fit neatly into any of these categories, though there are aspects of each that reflect some of your beliefs and mine.

If that's the case, then there's this lesson to learn: When we imagine that someone is one-dimensional, we miss a great deal. And one-dimensional thinking inevitably produces a distorted, unfair picture.

Cover-Value of DoubtReligion, at its best, teaches followers to be comfortable with mystery, paradox, ambiguity and uncertainty. Which means it also teaches followers to avoid false certitude -- an idea I tried to unpack in my book called The Value of Doubt.

Once we say we have nothing more to learn or experience in this or that field, we foreclose growth and change. In Christian theological terms, we shut out the Holy Spirit -- and where that spirit would take us and what that spirit would teach us.

As Packer writes in his Atlantic piece: "National narratives, like personal ones, are prone to sentimentality, grievance, pride, shame, self-blindness. There is never just one — they compete and constantly change. The most durable narratives are not the ones that stand up best to fact-checking. They’re the ones that address our deepest needs and desires. Americans know by now that democracy depends on a baseline of shared reality — when facts become fungible, we’re lost. But just as no one can live a happy and productive life in nonstop self-criticism, nations require more than facts — they need stories that convey a moral identity. The long gaze in the mirror has to end in self-respect or it will swallow us up."

It's that moral identity that we form by understanding our history in great depth, by paying attention to the moment (especially to whose voice is missing or is being shut out) and by imaging a future in which every human being -- every one -- is considered to be of inestimable value. That latter idea is what political scientist Glenn Tinder, in his book The Political Meaning of Christianity, calls "the spiritual center of Western politics."

It's what I hope we can find again. It's what I hope we can recommit to as a nation -- not as four Americas that can't talk to each other but as one in which people respect differences but remain civil and committed to a beautiful future.

Happy Fourth.

(The image at the top here accompanied Packer's article in The Atlantic.)

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Imagine this: China, pursuing a genocide against its Uyghur Muslim population, is working with Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc. to build a Hampton by Hilton hotel on the site of a demolished Uyghur mosque in the city of Hotan, this RNS story reports. Talk about cancel culture. Talk about despicable business and political ethics. I think that unless this outrage is reversed, no Hilton hotel will ever house me as a guest.

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P.S.: Here's a link to a piece I just wrote for The Miami Herald that I hope will help families of people who died in the Surfside, Fla., condo collapse.