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Can faith communities get back to normal? (They're in it now.)

Overall, the Covid pandemic has been brutal on houses of worship.

2nd-towerSome have closed for good. Many have experienced severe budget problems. When congregations have been able to meet in person, the normal attendance numbers often have been way down.

And as this Associated Press report on this subject suggests, it's been happening everywhere.

The story says that things got so bad at the Biltmore United Methodist Church of Asheville, N.C., that its building has been put up for sale.

But, the story says, "Biltmore is just one of an untold number of congregations across the country that have struggled to stay afloat financially and minister to their flocks during the pandemic, though others have managed to weather the storm, often with help from the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, and sustained levels of member donations."

And it's not just Christian churches that have suffered. It's also mosques, synagogues, temples and other houses of worship that are home to lots of different congregations.

The congregation with which I'm most familiar because I've been a member there for more than four decades is Second Presbyterian Church of Kansas City. It, too, has suffered financially and experienced a decline in attendance for in-person worship, when that finally returned. But on the whole we've done remarkably well.

For instance, a few weeks ago we brought in 10 new members. And soon after that added nine more through our confirmation classes for teenagers. We've struggled some to gather financial pledges for this new year, but overall it's not been a disaster. Indeed, our total membership number actually grew this past year despite several deaths of members.

Still, all of us -- and people in countless other congregations -- long for something like normal times (whatever that term means).

But here's what I think is important for such congregations to remember: They are built for abnormal times. Which is to say that they know that throughout history people of faith have faced challenge after challenge, including plenty of trouble of their own making. What keeps them going is a faith that God has called them to respond to whatever is happening in the world around them with compassion, love, understanding and inventiveness.

In just the past century-plus, people of faith have had to respond to two world wars, several pandemics, economic depressions and recessions, terrorism committed in the name of faith, environmental disasters, meteorological catastrophes, stunning technological challenges and more.

There simply are no normal times. And the most adaptive and wise among believers know that. So let's quit pretending that there is smooth sailing ahead. Any calm seas are simply a temporary reminder that they won't last. It's the willingness to trust that despite all of this there is a god who created the world out of an impulse of love. That should be all people of faith need to know.

(As for "normal," the photo here today shows the work in progress a couple of years back on repairing the tower at my church. Just part of adjusting to changing needs.)

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Until the other day, the chapel at Princeton Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian institution, has long been named for a slaveholder named Samuel Miller. But Princeton's board, under pressure from the seminary’s Association of Black Seminarians (ABS) and allies, has voted to remove the Miller name and simply now call it the Seminary Chapel. So, first, congratulations to the board for doing the right thing, but more congratulations to the ABS for putting this matter on the board's agenda. Heaven knows if it ever would have been considered otherwise. But the question that the RNS story to which I've linked you doesn't address is whether Princeton will simply cancel and disappear Miller or whether the story of his long years of being honored by Princeton will be told for future generations so that despicable history isn't lost. Such actions as removing statues of Confederate generals should be just one step in redeeming history. Once they're removed, the story of how they got honored in the first place and why, finally, they were determined to be unworthy of honor needs to be told for future generations. If those stories are lost, future generations are more likely to have a distorted view of their own history and, thus, be more likely to repeat the worst parts of that history.

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about Black people with ties to Indigenous people -- now is online here.

Increased persecution of Christians in Afghanistan comes as no surprise

In so many ways, the war that the U.S. fought for 20 years in Afghanistan -- though initially justified for self-defense reasons -- has amounted to one disaster after another.

Religions-of-the-worldAnd now we can add to that list the increasing persecution that the ruling Taliban is leveling on Christians in that predominantly Muslim country.

As this Religion News story reports, "Afghanistan is the most dangerous country for Christians, according to an annual list put together by the Christian watchdog group Open Doors. It is the first time in two decades that North Korea has not been at the top of the list."

The Taliban, of course, represents a radically militant brand of Islam, though many Muslims around the world would say the Taliban's version of the religion is a wild distortion of traditional Islam. The Taliban considers people who convert to Christianity to be apostates and worthy of being crushed in various ways. And heaven especially help you if you are a female Christian convert.

Afghanistan, of course, is not the only country in which persecution of Christians happens. As the RNS story to which I linked you above reports, "Across the globe, Open Doors found that there has been a 24% increase in Christians killed because of their faith, increasing from 4,761 cited in its report last year to 5,898 this year."

And yet the news about religious persecution around the globe is not all bad. As this Christianity Today article notes, "There are positive situations in a few countries. Of course they are not perfect, and Open Doors still gives several low marks. But these glimmers of light are worthy of prayer, support and continued engagement to press for further improvements."

That article then points to some better news in the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, Egypt and Uzbekistan, for instance. Which you can read about at the link I gave you in the previous paragraph.

What drives me a little crazy about religious persecution is that it's done by people who think they know what each person should believe and what faith commitments and actions are right for each person. It's the height of arrogance and often rooted in a hunger for political power.

Historically, the U.S. has stood for religious freedom and generally asserted it as a foundational human right. Let's make sure our elected officials and policy makers continue to hold to that high ideal.

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The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is criticizing anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (as it should) for suggesting that things are worse for people today than they were for Anne Frank, the teenager who died in a Nazi concentration camp after hiding with her family in a secret annex in an Amsterdam house for two years, as this Huffington Post story reports. His late father must be so proud. At least RFK Jr.'s wife told him what he said was "reprehensible."

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P.S.: A magazine to which I've subscribed for years (it's essentially free) is Christian History. Today I just want to direct you to its most recent issue, called "The City of Man – Christian Civic Engagement Through the Ages." It's a pretty deep dive into the question of how Christians (and, more broadly, people of any faith tradition) are to think of themselves in relation to their country, their government and the civic social fabric around them. It's hard to think of a better time to ponder all this, given the stark political divides in the U.S. and especially within American Christianity itself, one branch of which has become a willing tool of what's left of a once-honored political party. I hope you'll give this issue of the magazine a look and even subscribe. Subscriptions are free, though the magazine gladly accepts donations. (When my wife and I downsized from our home to an apartment last year, I gave a big stack of back issues of this magazine to a local seminary. But I confess I miss having them around.)

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ANOTHER P.S.: In case you missed it, Thích Nhất Hạnh, the Vietnamese political exile (who returned to Vietnam just three years ago) and famous global Buddhist spiritual leader, has died at age 95. In some ways he was to Buddhism what the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu was to Christianity. Here is a longer story about how he taught mindfulness and how he approached death in that same way.

What the hell are people of faith to make of Satan?

I'm sometimes intrigued by how often Satan shows up in the news.

Possibility-SatanThis recent example came from Moline, Ill., one of the Illinois-Iowa "Quad Cities."

The law and school district policies there allow groups to rent meeting space in public schools in non-school hours. That means that even groups associated with this or that religion can do that, though it doesn't mean that the folks who oversee the public schools become advocates for any of the religious groups that rent that space.

The story says that a group called The Satanic Temple plans to hold monthly meetings of the "After School Satan Club" at a Moline elementary school. As you might imagine, this caught the attention of some parents and others.

The fact is, religions have struggled from the beginning to explain the source of evil in the world. Indeed, one of the most difficult issues in theology is called the old theodicy question, which goes something like this: If God is good and all-powerful, why is there evil and suffering in the world.

I sometimes refer to that question as the open wound of religion because, at least this side of an afterlife, there is no exhaustive, satisfactory answer for it.

But one of the answers to that question -- and to the more general question of the source of evil -- has been to propose the existence of the devil, or Satan, often thought of as somehow personified. Whole branches of Christianity, in fact, place great emphasis on the power of Satan and the possibility that people who sin will wind up receiving punishment for all eternity in hell, where Satan is the landlord.

Other branches place much less emphasis on all of that, partly because they worry that the theology about all this can get pretty scary and pretty stark, with little room left for interpretation or different understandings about evil and its source.

Now and then, however, people with theological sensitivities and a willingness to delve deeply into sacred writ and religious practices are willing to raise questions about evil and even whether Satan or hell exist -- and if so, how.

For instance, a couple of years ago I wrote here about the newly published book by Christian Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart, That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell and Universal Salvation. It's a fascinating read by a thoughtful man who says the very idea of an eternal hell contradicts Christian teaching about God's unconditional love for humanity.

As I wrote then describing his no-hell argument, ". . .eternal punishment is in the cards for no one because a hell like that simply doesn't exist. Never has. Never will. Everything about the incoherent idea of such a hell is, he says, a repudiation of the nature of the very God whom Christianity confesses as universal lord and savior -- not savior just of some but redeemer of the whole cosmos.

"And he makes this argument not by throwing out the biblical witness but by taking that witness seriously."

More recently, another book questioning at least some traditional Catholic teachings about Satan is The Possibility of Satan: A Case for Reformulating the Catholic Church's Teaching on the Devil, by Alan McGill.

I would call this a considerably more nuanced look at these questions than the way Hart has approached them. But, in the end, McGill, who teaches theology at Cristo Rey Atlanta Jesuit High School and Religious Studies at Georgia Gwinnett College, wants the Catholic Church to take more seriously the interpretive tools it has at its disposal for understanding the meaning of scripture -- and not just take the biblical texts literally.

As McGill said to me in a note, "My book argues that a doctrinal insistence upon the ontological reality of Satan as a particular disembodied being, a position advanced by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and, to a lesser extent, by the writings of Pope Francis, needs to be developed  in view of  the Church’s own teachings on the importance of interpreting scripture in light of its literary genres and other historical-critical considerations."

In other words, there is a place for considering the idea of myth -- which doesn't mean falsehood but, rather, a storytelling way of getting at core truth, a way that doesn't rely strictly on what today we would consider literally accurate historical accounts.

"My argument," McGill writes, "is hermeneutical in nature, proposing that a failure to interpret the mythical motif of Satan as myth obfuscates its relevance to all people in all times and places. Further, I propose that a doctrinal insistence upon the existence of Satan and other irredeemable spirits leads to a dualism that undermines the sacramental vision of creation in which the divine is envisaged as present in and through all things and all persons, whether embodied or disembodied."

Both books -- McGill's and Hart's -- are worth your time, especially if you're intrigued, as am I, by detailed theological arguments that pertain to eternal human destiny.

As for the After School Satan Club in Moline, my temptation would be to skip it. Growing up, I found after school sports under certain hard-driving coaches devilish enough.

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For reasons I can't really explain, somehow leaders of my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), find ways of angering Jews, even though Presbyterians have a record of working closely with Jews here and abroad. Some years ago it had to do with PCUSA support for the BDS movement (boycott, divestment, sanctions) against Israel. The latest example was the statement by the Rev. J. Herbert Nelson II, stated clerk (sort of chief executive) of the General Assembly of the PCUSA. As this RNS story reports, Nelson "urged American Jews to help end Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory and described Israeli policies toward Palestinians as 'enslavement.'”

There is much to criticize about how the modern state of Israel has dealt with the Palestinians. Just as there is much to criticize about the desire of some Palestinians and other Arabs to want to wipe out Israel. But it is of no help at all to throw the hyperbolic language of slavery into this powder keg of a situation. Nelson used the occasion of Martin Luther King Jr. Day to, in effect, equate the experience of slavery in the U.S. with the way Israel treats Palestinians. It's not unlike people who regularly drag the name Hitler into discussions of current authoritarian regimes around the world. Such comparisons are almost always unhelpful at best and misleading at worst. Instead of using inflammatory language, I would hope Nelson and other leaders of my denomination would be offering ideas for how to bring about peace between Israel and the entire Arab world, including the suffering Palestinians, instead of fanning the flames of hatred.

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P.S.: I was not aware of this Holocaust education site until a friend just pointed it out to me. It's done by the World Jewish Congress and UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) and seems both reliable and easy to follow. Have a look and see what you think.

Should we watch the Olympics while China egregiously violates religious liberty?


With the coming of the Winter Olympics in China, let's take a few minutes to remember what's a lot more important than who skates the most beautifully or who wins the gold in, say, Downhill Chess.

The reality is that these games will be hosted by a country that has been brutalizing some of its citizens -- the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. It's horrifying, and it's one reason President Joe Biden has declared a diplomatic boycott of the games. (Good on him.) For some background, I invite you to read this article from the Deseret News.

How bad is it for the Uyghurs? This piece from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (which knows genocide and its roots when it sees them) begins this way:

"The Chinese government’s campaign against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang is multi-faceted and systematic. Core strategies of the campaign include identity-based persecution, mass detention, surveillance, enforced sterilizations, forced labor and forced assimilation.

"Uyghurs are barred from freely practicing their religion, speaking their language and expressing other fundamental elements of their identity. Restrictions apply to many aspects of life, including dress, language, diet and education. The Chinese government closely monitors Uyghur religious institutions. Even ordinary acts such as praying or going to a mosque may be a basis for arrest or detention.

"China has created a large system of arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance. Approximately one million Uyghurs are currently imprisoned in detention centers, for reasons as simple as practicing their religion, having international contacts or communications or attending a western university."

For more economic reasons, even former President Donald Trump knew the ruling Chinese regime had to be confronted. At least he got that right.

But China's treatment of these beleaguered Muslim people is a scandal of major proportions. Which forces Olympic athletes to decide whether they want to participate and, thus, give some sense of legitimacy to China's rulers and their policies. The bleak alternative is to boycott the games and lose, for some of them, their only chance to compete on this global stage.

If they do participate, perhaps there are ways that they can register their disgust of the Chinese government's evil policies toward the Uyghurs. I hope so. In any case, however the athletes decide their Hobson's choice, I won't hold it against them and hope you won't either.

But what about the rest of us who are merely long-distance spectators? We can choose to stand against this religious persecution by not watching the games on TV. We can watch something else. We can read a book or three. We can volunteer that time for charity work. We can take a long walk every day the Olympics are on TV.

If you want to know more about China's punishing of the Uyghurs, you can read this report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Look at page 16 (as numbered on the page itself) and then just search on "China" for much more information. 

What else can we do? Have you written to your members of Congress asking, "What have you done lately to help protect and save the Uyghurs?" Start there.

(The photo here today came from this site.)

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This interesting and satisfying side story came out of the hostage story at a Texas synagogue over last weekend. It's about how connected the rabbi there was to the broader faith community in his town. As the story notes, "The rabbi, who has led the Reform synagogue of about 125 families since 2006, is also an interfaith champion with deep-rooted friendships not only among Christians but Muslims, too." So pastors, imams and others gathered to help the FBI as it sought a peaceful end to the situation. Such a conclusion turned out fine for the hostages but the hostage taker died.

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Cover-lle-hi-resP.S.: Today is the one-year anniversary of the publication of my latest book, Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety. I hope you have a copy and have read it. In addition to describing the many traumas my extended family experienced because of the murder of my nephew, a passenger on the first plane to strike the World Trade Center on 9/11, the book also explores the roots of extremism, how people get sucked into it and what we can do about it. And, for sure, we're far from done with radicalism. Thanks to all of you who have told me how much this book has meant to you. I'm grateful to all of you.

Are people who chose pets over children just selfish? The pope thinks so.

From the time of his surprising election in 2013, I have admired much of what Pope Francis has done and said.

Kids-petsIndeed, the man who then was my pastor and I wrote an admiring book about what we Protestants could learn from this wise man: Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church.

But something the pope said recently was, frankly, ridiculous. He said people who choose not to have children (or to have just one) but choose instead to have pets are guilty of "selfishness."

Francis has taken considerable flak for his words, and mostly they are deserved, even if some of what he said was a reflection of his essential compassion and made sense.

For instance, he spoke about Joseph, husband of the mother of Jesus, Mary, saying that "a man does not become a father simply by bringing a child into the world, but by taking up the responsibility to care for that child." Right.

And he put in a good word for adoption, saying: "How many children in the world are waiting for someone to take care of them! And how many spouses wish to be fathers and mothers but are unable to do so for biological reasons; or, although they already have children, they want to share their family's affection with those who have been left without."

But there can be many good reasons not to have children as well as good reasons to adopt a pet. The pontiff seemed to miss that point.

As the author of this CNN opinion piece put it: "The pope's suggestion that failing to have children is selfish is far from the truth. Especially for those of us living in countries with a large environmental footprint, the choice to have a small family or no human family at all is one that helps everyone -- particularly children, whose future depends on a more sustainable planet.

"Additionally, a person's value, moral standing and character is not defined by parenthood. And showing love for animals is surely something that enhances and demonstrates our humanity -- rather than diminishing it."
And the author of this column in The National Catholic Reporter said it this way:


"The pope's mentality is not entirely foreign to me. My parents, born in China at a time when few people had sufficient resources to feed their children, let alone pets, have also often balked at American families' spoiled pets, recognizing that many Chinese families today cannot afford to spend nearly as much on their children. 'This dog has more toys than my siblings and I did growing up,' they would comment. Owning pets, especially expensive pets from breeders, is a privilege that demands examination in light of the world's ever rising inequality.

"For most, however, it was not just about the pets. Rather, in a seemingly anti-pet statement, the Catholic Church's narrow view on reproduction and marriage is again reinforced by a pope who himself is outspoken about gender equality and LGBT inclusion. While church teaching on marriage theoretically leaves room for couples who are unable to conceive children, childbirth (and sometimes as an afterthought, adoption) is still upheld on a pedestal as the highest way for a Catholic marriage to be 'fruitful.'"

Similarly, the writer of this Bloomberg opinion piece says: "I’d argue that doting on a fur baby rather than an infant is far from selfish. Humanity and morals aside, the pope would do better than to rhetorically kick puppies. There are solid economic reasons for the decline of birthrates across the world, and they need addressing."

Having a wanted child is a beautiful thing. I fathered two of them and will never regret it, even if and when we disagree about things.

But the key word there is "wanted." To have children simply because you feel some obligation to populate the world or to replace yourself is immoral at best and almost certainly a disaster for the child, who almost inevitably will recognize that he or she lives out of a sense of parental obligation and not a sense of love.

Pope Francis seemed to be speaking off-the-cuff in unprepared remarks. On such sensitive issues, maybe he should think twice before speaking once.

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It is pretty easy to forget the details of an important person's life and remember only an achievement or two and a few words he or she said. In some ways, that's what has happened to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whom the nation and the world will celebrate this weekend and Monday. (His actual birthday is Saturday. He was born Jan. 15, 1929.) So to give a fuller picture of King -- focusing on the last year of his life before he was assassinated -- Religion News Service has searched its archives and come up with several King stories from that time that you can read here. And if you've never read King's 1967 speech in which he described why he opposed the war in Vietnam, you can read it here. It's remarkable and courageous.

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P.S.: I've mentioned here before the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism, located at Indiana University. The center has announced a series of programs coming up this year. You can read about them here and register for them (watch for the "Register" link within the document) so that you can attend virtually. Not that the document to which I've linked you is horizontal in shape and requires clicking an arrow on the right to move forward.

The continuing threat of Christian nationalism

Even on Jan. 6, 2021, I knew that in some strange way religion was part of the story of the bloody insurrection at the nation's Capitol building.

Jan-6Anyone watching the rioting mobs on TV could see lots of signs mentioning Jesus plus various Christian banners, flags and crosses.

But it has taken time to piece together the central role that white Christian nationalism played in the effort to overturn the election of Joe Biden and steal it for Donald Trump.

I'm linking you today to two articles that can help all of us see more clearly what happened a year-plus ago and why we're far from done with the religious impulse that nearly broke our democratic system.

This first article, from Yahoo News, laments that "We are forgetting that January 6th was very much a religious event — white Christian nationalism on display. We must remember that fact. Because evidence is mounting that white Christian nationalism could provide the theological cover for more events like it."

And this piece from Religion News Service helps us understand that what happened on Jan. 6  was horrifying, but it "is not the only way Christian nationalism jeopardizes our democracy."

As Samuel L. Perry, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Oklahoma, writes in that commentary, "Christian nationalist ideology — particularly when it is held by white Americans — is fundamentally anti-democratic because its goal isn’t 'government of the people, by the people, and for the people.' Its goal is power. Specifically, power for 'true Americans like us,' Christians in an almost ethnic sense, those who belong — the worthy. Stemming from this, the most salient threat white Christian nationalism poses to democracy is that it seeks to undermine the very foundation of democracy itself: voting."

Perry (who, by the way, wrote both of the commentaries to which I've linked you today) has taken us back to a 1980 conference at which "Paul Weyrich, co-founder of the Moral Majority, spoke about electoral strategy to Christian right leaders including Tim LaHaye, Phyllis Schlafly, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell Sr. and then-presidential candidate Ronald Reagan."

Here's what Weyrich had to say then: “Many of our Christians have what I call the goo-goo syndrome. Good government. They want everybody to vote. I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people. They never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”

We should have been paying better attention to those chilling words.

The question is why Christian nationalists get sucked into Trump's Big Lie. Perry notes this: "In several studies we and other scholars have shown that Christian nationalism seems to incline white Americans toward baseless conspiracy theories."

So are all people of faith susceptible to such nonsense? No. But my guess is that Christians who prefer monochromatic answers to questions and issues -- either black or white, never gray -- tend to simplify this complex world so dramatically that they open themselves up to knaves offering simple answers -- answers like "Stop the Steal," a slogan that makes much more sense coming out of the mouths of Biden supporters and aimed at Trumpers than the other way around.

The Christian nationalist movement is a stain on Christianity. But it also injures religion in general because it tends to leave the impression that all or most people of faith are like the nationalists in their simplistic and often erroneous conclusions about faith, politics and life in general.

Another voice speaking out about Christian nationalism is Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary. In this piece, she writes: "The idea that insurrectionists terrorizing the Capitol would claim the moral force of God is horrifying. The actions of those rioters were the furthest thing from the values of compassion and love that I’ve taken from the teachings of Jesus."

An aspect of Christian nationalism that often gets overlooked is how Native Americans have experienced it. This RNS piece goes into some interesting detail about that, especially as it relates to the Doctrine of Discovery.

And this article from The Forward describes how a social media operation called Gab weaves Christianity "into the conspiracy theories that populate" such sites.

All of which makes me wonder where we, as a nation, will be next Jan. 6. I'd like to tell you I'm optimistic that we'll fix things. But ask me then.

(The photo here today accompanied the Yahoo News article to which I've linked you.)

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Here is a story about a Milwaukee church that sounds like the kind of faith community the nation could use more of. It goes out of its way to welcome international students, refugees and others. As the story notes, the church is "a bit of an outlier these days, a place where refugees, immigrants and international students are welcome at a time when American evangelicals are increasingly suspicious of newcomers to the United States." I wonder where that suspicion comes from. Hmmmm.

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Prayers-blessings-bookP.S.: Healthcare workers, as you surely know, have been on the front lines of the wars against Covid-19, with all its miserable variants. In response, some thoughtful faith leaders have produced a lovely book called Prayers and Blessings for Healthcare Workers, edited by Mandy Mizelle. It's an interfaith collection of prayers, blessings and poems. If you've never said thank you to hospital or hospice chaplains -- and other workers in the healthcare field -- a copy of this book would be a great way to do that.

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ANOTHER P.S.: As an added bonus today, because it's at least somewhat related to the main topic above, I'm linking you here to a long, long and really helpful piece about how to avoid online racism. It's full of good ideas and interesting statistics. And it's written in an engaging and believable way, even if you find yourself disagreeing with some of what the author has to say. I hope you'll take a look.

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A FINAL P.S.: If you missed my column yesterday in The Kansas City Star about the need to close the prison at Guantanamo, you will find it here.

Is Christianity at the foundations of racism?

After a couple of years of hot public debate about racism -- years that followed several decades of many Americans trying to acknowledge and fix racism -- maybe it's time to drop back a bit and think about how the concept of race came about in the first place.

Willie-jenningsHow would you react if you read that a theologian and seminary professor at Yale offers this idea on that subject: "Race is a distorted way of seeing the world within Christian thought"?

Well, that's exactly what Prof. Willie Jennings (pictured here) says in this interview with The Christian Century magazine.

Clearly, that simple -- and perhaps surprising -- sentence needs some clarification, some expansion. And that's what happens in that interview.

Jennings says what we all know but seldom express or even think about: Race "is not part of the created order. It is a particular historical emergence of a way of perceiving oneself and the world."

Indeed, others have argued that the idea of whiteness and white supremacy grew out of bogus ideas about race. After all, race is a political and social construct, not a biological construct, as the Human Genome Project reminded us. And all human beings are, genetically, more than 99 percent alike, no matter what race they may call themselves.

But what about Jennings' idea that the distortion of race can be traced to "within Christian thought"?

Well, you can read the whole of the interview for yourself, but I'm going to quote a fairly lengthy section about just this connection between race and Christian thought so you can see what Jennings is getting at:

"The modern vision of race would not be possible without Christianity. This is a complicated statement, but I want people to think about this.

"Inside the modern racial consciousness there is a Christian architecture, and also there is a racial architecture inside of modern Christian existence. There are three things we have to put on the table in order to understand how deeply race is tied to Chris­tianity. The first brings us back to the very heart of Christianity, the very heart of the story that makes Christian life intelligible.

"That story is simply this: through a particular people called Israel, God brought the redemption of the world. That people’s story becomes the means through which we understand who God is and what God has done. Christianity is inside Israel’s story. At a certain point in time, the people who began to believe that story were more than just the people of Israel, more than just Jews. And at some point in time, those new believers, the gentiles, got tired of being told that they were strangers brought into someone else’s story — that this was not their story. They began — very early and very clearly — to push Israel out from its own story. They narrated their Christian existence as if Israel were not crucial to it.

"The fact that Christians came to identify themselves as the chosen people is already a profound distortion of the story. But this is where they are when we come to the colonial moment. They believe that they are at the very center of what God wants to do in the world. This belief is in everything they do and say: the way they read the Bible, the way they form their theology, the way they teach, the way they carry out their Christian lives.

"As they begin to realize their power, they also realize the power to shape the perceptions of themselves and others. That is, they begin to understand that not only do they have the power to transform the landscape and the built environment, but they also have the power to force people into a different perception of the world and of themselves.

"This is what we came to call European: the power to transform the land and the perception of the people. A racial vision started to emerge. It floated around in many places with many differences in body type, skin color, and so forth. It didn’t come out of nowhere. But now, inside this matrix, it starts to harden. It starts to become a way of perception, not simply of a conjecture. This is where Whiteness begins.

"So unless you know that this is a Christian operation, you cannot grasp the absolute power of race to define existence right now, even when people move beyond that Christian matrix and say they don’t confess it or agree with it. They are still inside it. That’s my definition of Whiteness: it is a way of perceiving the world and organizing and ordering the world by the perception of one’s distorted place within it. But it is also more than a perception: Whiteness includes the power to place that perception on other people and to sustain it."

A couple of thoughts: In my experience, many Christians today have little or no appreciation for the roots of the faith in Judaism. Because of that, they miss much of the richness of both traditions. A scholar whose work can help with that is Amy-Jill Levine. Look her up on Amazon. Read all of her books. She'll help you with this.

Doctrine of discoveryThe history that Jennings talks about includes what is called the clearly racist, Vatican-rooted "Doctrine of Discovery." Let me give you several sources to check out to read about that disaster -- here, here and here. That doctrine gave religious permission to European invaders crush the Indigenous people who occupied what would become the United States.

When I am asked on a survey or some other document to reveal my race, I always look for a way not just to check a box but, rather, to say something like this: "I was brought up to believe I'm white." It's something I learned from the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. And it's a way of reminding the people who want to classify me that such racial categories hide much more than they reveal and that they are much more destructive than they are generative.

If there is any good news in all of this it is that from within Christianity -- and from within other faith traditions, too -- have come people who are trying to educate others about the distortions of racism and to find a useful path forward. But so far just not enough such people.

As Jennings notes in the interview, "Christianity itself continues to face the unfinished work of pulling itself out from inside the reality of White intimacy and out of a spiritual life that remains so caught up in what is true, what is good, what is beautiful, what is noble, what is honorable and therefore what is desirable — from a White point of view. All of us have to go through the fiery brook of the redefinition of our desires away from Whiteness, and for so many people that fiery brook is too deep and too long to traverse. They are still caught in the midst of it."

For me, as a Christian, the point is to be honest about racism and its connection to my faith tradition and then to try to move toward an approach that acknowledges and celebrates the wide range of human beings, each one of whom must be seen as a child of God. No exceptions.

(The photo of Willie Jennings seen here today is by Mara Lavitt for Yale Divinity School.)

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Poor God. Imagine having the job of listening to competing prayers not just every day but especially on Jan. 6, 2021, in the midst of the insurrection. Well, now you don't have to imagine those wildly different prayers. Religion News Services has collected a bunch of them and now offers them to readers here. Come back here to the blog this coming Wednesday and we'll explore the role Christian nationalism played in the Jan. 6 riot and the danger it poses in the days and years ahead.

Can a resurgent, ugly antisemitism be reversed?

Antisemitism has been called -- with much justification -- the oldest hatred. A book to read about the history of this systemic bigotry is Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, by David Nirenberg.

AntisemitismI tend to draw a distinction between antisemitism and anti-Judaism. I see the first as racial and ethnic in nature and the second as theological in nature. My essay on the long, long history of anti-Judaism in Christianity can be found here.

Still, this hatred, by whatever name or names, continues into this new year, as it has continued into every new year for thousands of years.

So to help all of us with understanding its nature and what to do about it, I want to share with you today this online page from the Institute of National Security Studies. It contains a collection of articles about various aspects of hatred of Jews.

One of those essays -- this one, in fact -- is by a man I've gotten to know in recent years, Alvin Rosenfeld, who teaches at Indiana University and directs the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism there.

He points out, correctly, that until fairly recently antisemitism in the U.S. had dwindled to the point that many American Jews had little personal encounter with it.

Now, however, he writes, "Anti-Jewish animus. . .has become strident in recent years and shows no signs of diminishing. It is no wonder, then, that a new sense of unease is palpable in Jewish communities throughout the country."

In fact, when you think of how well Jewish citizens have become part of the American social fabric, this recent resurgence of antisemitism is especially disheartening. Rosenfeld writes:

"Most American Jews of the post-WWII generations are fully integrated in American life, regard America as their home, and have prospered here. Within the long history of the Jewish diaspora, in fact, America stands out as a country that, for the most part, has been open and encouraging to its Jewish citizens. Due to a resurgence of antisemitism that has moved from the fringes to mainstream areas of American life, however, Jews are confronting challenges that most have never faced before. Like European Jews, they feel far more vulnerable than they have in the past and can no longer take their safety for granted."

Some of this is simply that antisemitism never died in the U.S. But some of it no doubt due to the rise of white Christian nationalism that sees Jews as "the other," with no place in America.

You can read the rest of what Rosenfeld writes about this and you can sample several other of the pieces available at the link I gave you above in the fourth paragraph. May we all seek the roots of such public hatred of any groups of people and find ways to uproot it.

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Perhaps you saw reports this week that the last living parent of any of the four Black girls murdered in a 1963 Birmingham, Ala., church bombing died. Maxine McNair, mother of 11-year-old Denise McNair, died Sunday at age 93. Sometimes I hear people asking why we Americans can't just move on when it comes to racial inequities and discrimination. Their implied message is that slavery, Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement are done and gone. Well, not exactly. When I think of racially related news events that have happened in my own lifetime, I'm sometimes overwhelmed by two things -- how much different things are today than when I was a child and how much still remains to be fixed. For example: From the time I was born, three and a half years passed before President Harry S Truman issued an order integrating the armed forces. Restrictive housing covenants were in effect across the nation for most of the first half of the 20th Century. I was three years old when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled them unenforceable but it wasn't until I was 23 that Congress outlawed them. (Which, of course, immediately resulted in integrated neighborhoods and equal housing access across the U.S. Not.) Those covenants were promoted by Kansas City developer J.C. Nichols, and it was only recently that his disgraced name came off the big fountain on the Country Club Plaza. The point is that we are far from solving racial divisions in our country. People who want us to quit talking about it and doing anything about it are mostly the ones who benefit from racial inequality.

There will be time, there will be time. . .but for what?

I have a desk calendar that I replace each year. It comes from a company called At-a-Glance. For reasons I don't fully get, each day of the week has a separate page -- except for Saturdays and Sundays. They share a page, as they do this weekend and as you can see in this photo, taken before I crammed it full of appointments and reminders.

Jan-1-2Apparently someone at At-a-Glance determined years ago that for almost everybody things slow down enough on weekends that it would be possible to compress two days into one. Maybe it had something to do with a weekly sabbath. Maybe it had something to do with the standard Monday-Friday workweek. Maybe some executive wanted to save paper. I don't know.

But it seems a little unfair.

The first days of a new year offer a good time to think about time itself and how we use it, how we abuse it, how we murder it or sanctify it.

In T.S. Eliot's remarkable poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," there is much rumination about time. Eliot, for instance, has Prufrock say this:

There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

Yes, there is time, there is time. But, in the end, not much. Even for people who live what seems like a long time. My late father's brother, for instance, is scheduled to turn 100 years old at the end of March. I hope to be in Illinois then to celebrate that good and funny man.

But what is 100 years in a universe now believed to be 13.7 billion years old? Well, that information is believed by people who believe science. There still, of course, are biblical literalists who think Earth itself is only a few thousand years old. No wonder QAnon conspiracy theories and political Big Lies find easy audiences.

What 100 years amounts to, really, is a long lifetime of opportunities to help make the world more delicious for others, to help others see the beauty all around us, the gifts of nature that sustain us. Those are hard to see when we focus on individual freedom to the exclusion of the common good. But when our focus is on the well-being of others and of society as a whole -- as healthy religions teaches us it should be -- then we can discover that time is a gift to be used imaginatively, lovingly, prodigally.

Starting today.

Happy New Year.

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One final thought about 2021: As the author of this RNS opinion piece correctly notes, in the just-ended year, "across the religious left, right and center, the dominant narratives suggested that as religion recedes as a force in American public life, it is becoming easier for political movements to co-opt faith for their own purposes. Perhaps this has long been so, but it’s astonishing to watch as the guardians of religious institutions — denominational leaders, prominent clergy and laypeople with oversight authority and responsibility — appear not only powerless to stop it, but often eager to go along." How else to explain the attraction people who call themselves conservative Christians continue to have for a disgraced man whose life has violated nearly all the values such Christians say they hold dear? Will faith leaders and followers do better in 2022? I hope so. But I'm taking no bets.