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Why plea bargain with men charged in 9/11 attacks?

More than 20 years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people, including my own nephew, the frustratingly slow process of bringing to trial five Guantanamo prisoners charged with participating or planning the attacks still hasn't resulted in a trial.

GitmoBut there does seem to be a path toward progress now that prosecutors in this military commission system have begun talking about plea bargains with the defense attorneys representing those charged.

Carol Rosenberg of The New York Times has been on this Gitmo story for years. Recently she wrote this account of those negotiations and what they might do to bring this long international nightmare to something of a close. As Rosenberg notes, a plea bargain would remove the possibility of the death penalty for anyone who agreed to such a deal. That's another reason to support this approach. Capital punishment should be used never, anywhere, ever, period.

For additional background, here is an excellent article by John Ryan of Ryan, too, has been following all of this closely and carefully. And here is a story from NPR about this.

In addition, here is an Associated Press story about all of this that quotes Terry Rockefeller, who has been an important leader in the group September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, to which I also belong.

That story quotes Terry as saying that a resolution would enable the defendants to testify in other criminal or civil cases related to the attacks.

“We’re almost to the 10th anniversary (or the arraignment of the defendants), and it’s not only clear to us that a trial, if it were to ever happen, would take years but it will face years of appeals,” said Rockefeller, whose sister Laura was killed in the World Trade Center. “And we believe pretrial agreements are the only way to get any measure of truth, justice and accountability.”

Imagine dragging out all of this for another five or more years. That's what 9/11 families don't need. What they do need is some kind of legal resolution that gives them a chance to hear from the defendants themselves about what they did and why they did it. That's still an accounting we don't have.

Cover-lle-hi-resIt also would be helpful to know how and why these men got sucked into religious extremism and what they think should happen to prevent others from traveling down that destructive path.

That's part of what I write about in my latest book, Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety. And it's something we need to figure out if we're to have any hope of avoiding additional extremist violence.

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Indigenous people from Canada are meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican this week, and hope to extract an apology from the Catholic Church for what it did years ago to Indigenous children who were sent to various boarding schools -- often with disastrous and even deadly results. Here's an article by an Indigenous author that will provide some background to all of this. He writes this: "Their aim will be to address the church’s role in Canada’s residential school system and lay the groundwork for the Pope’s coming visit to Canada. For me, a Cree man who grew up deeply entrenched in the Catholic Church, this is a moment of tension and fascination, as I ponder how the meeting could unfold and what it might accomplish." I trust this pope not to make things worse and maybe even to begin a process of badly needed repentance and healing.

What is widespread charity? A sign of widespread failure

Despite a fair amount of recent attention to church-state issues as they play out in Christian Nationalism, the basic question of how people of any faith tradition relate to their surrounding culture, including the nation-state in which that culture is located, is far from new.

Render-caesarIn fact, it was at the heart of the question Jesus once was asked about paying taxes to Caesar. His answer no doubt frustrated the person who asked the question, but it was wise then and is wise now: Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's.

But what can we learn about church-state-culture questions today by returning to the question Jesus was asked, especially if we do so by taking a deeper look at how the followers of Jesus 2,000 years ago were struggling to figure out how to relate to whoever was Caesar at the time?

Theologian and scholar John Dominic Crossan, who has spent much of his career dealing with questions about the historical Jesus, explores that very question in his new book, Render Unto Caesar: The Struggle for Christ and Culture in the New Testament. Its publication date will be this coming Tuesday.

It's a helpful, serious, intriguing book, and I recommend it for people who want a scholar's detailed but understandable study of that biblical period. The book's strength, however, is in its ability to describe two approaches to theology and to give readers insight about the difference between an economic and cultural system that requires a lot of charity to help those at the bottom of the economic scale and a system of distributive justice and other equitable systems in which there is precious little need for charity because everyone has an equal chance at acquiring the basics of what is needed for life.

Crossan makes a strong and persuasive argument that governmental and cultural systems in which a large portion of the population depends on charity are unjust and at odds with the world Jesus imagined and proclaimed, the "kingdom (or reign) of God," which of course differed from the reign of the Roman Empire and its succession of Caesars.

To do that, Crossan focuses on the gospel of Luke and its companion second volume by the same author, the New Testament book of Acts. He contrasts what he finds there with the violent and strange book of Revelation, the final work in the New Testament.

It is well worth quoting Crossan on this point at some length. So:

"For Roman Christianity to succeed, the divinity of the emperor, Caesar Augustus, would have to cede its transcendent place to that of Jesus the Christ -- Lord to Lord, Son of God to Son of God and God Incarnate to God incarnate. That, for Luke-Act, is the Roman cost of acculturation. What, then, is the corresponding Christian cost of acculturation, the price of Roman Christianity?

"That price -- then and now, past and present -- is a shift from justice to charity, a move from demanding distributive justice on a structural and systemic level to offering distributive charity on a personal and individual level. It is a turn from solving the causes to salving the effects of poverty, a jump from biblical prophecy to affluent philanthropy, a swerve from Amos (Tammeus insert: Remember it was the Hebrew prophet Amos who wrote, "Let justice roll down. . .") to alms."

Crossan acknowledges that it seems perverse to challenge the idea of charity. But he insists that the existence of widespread charitable structures and efforts is a sure sign that there isn't close to enough justice and equity in the cultural and economic systems in which charity has become a necessity.

"The only solution," he insists, "is the replacement of the injustice of Rome's rule (read, there, our own culture and economic system) by the justice of God's rule. Jesus practiced charity but also demanded justice -- the former gets you canonized, the latter gets you crucified. Charity is not justice, and salving injustice is not solving injustice.

"In the biblical tradition, therefore, distributive justice should be the norm, adequate alms should be for emergencies, and distributive alms should never replace distributive justice or enable distributive injustice."

Well, there is much more in Crossan's new work to digest, but he seemed especially prophetic in explaining why widespread charitable systems are indicative of system social and economic failure. It should be enough to make us want to change our economic and cultural systems so that all are treated fairly. As things stand now in the U.S. there has been in recent decades a serious redistribution of wealth -- from the bottom to the top. The idea is that no redistribution of wealth -- bottom to top or top to bottom -- should be necessary if the system is fair and equitable.

So how about we read Crossan and then get to work to fix things in a way that would honor the teachings and values of Jesus even if we're not Christian, given that those values are found in all the great world religions?

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Here's a Daylight Saving Time issue I confess I hadn't thought of. If the government makes DST permanent as a year-round way of keeping our clocks (it's already passed the U.S. Senate and awaits action in the House), it could adversely affect some Jewish folks. How? As the RNS story to which I've linked you reports, "According to Jewish law, morning prayers must take place after the sun rises. Daylight saving time, which currently begins on the second Sunday in March and ends on the first Sunday in November, extends darkness on late-winter mornings." And that means that in the depth of winter, such prayers couldn't start on some days until 8 a.m. or so. The story then says this: "'It will affect our religious life, our professional life and our family life,' said Rabbi Abba Cohen, vice president for government affairs for Agudath Israel of America. 'If congregational and personal prayers begin after 8 in the morning, how will people get to work at 9 a.m. or earlier?'” The question is, of course, how much accommodation must or should be made on such matters for particular groups of people? That's one of the beautiful things about a representative democracy. We get to debate such matters and make judgments collectively.

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I have long wished that Christians, myself included, had a better understanding of the Hebrew Bible. To ignore or downplay its importance is to ignore our roots. But I've also wished that Christians, along with the experience of reading it as containing prophecy about Jesus, could read it on its own terms the way Jews read it today. That would give us a deeper appreciation of how its original readers and hearers might have understood it. A new book, Torah Tutor: A Contemporary Torah Study Guide, can help with exactly that task. Its official publication date will be this Tuesday. It's written by a rabbi, Lenore Bohm, and it seeks to give people a better sense of Jewish scripture and why we should care about it. One of her goals is to give readers an adult appreciation "of what you encountered as a child. I suspect this is why some Jews think of religion as 'childish.'” And it's not just Jews, of course, with that problem. Many people in and out of Christian congregations essentially ended their theological education about sixth grade, it appears. As Bohm explains, "The Torah addresses central human concerns: family relationships, the pursuit of justice, the meaning of power and the power of desire, the purpose of celebration, the sanctity of human life, the importance of animal life and the value of confronting one’s finitude." What kind of unexamined life would you lead if those questions didn't matter to you? In any case this new book can be a great primer for anyone wanting a more complete and nuanced understanding of holy writ of any kind and of the Torah in particular. It should be in the library of all congregations, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim, given their relationship as part of the Abrahamic tradition. Indeed, if you read Torah Tutor before you read Render Unto Caesar, the book I've reviewed above, you'll get more out of Crossan's work.

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column posted Sunday morning here. It's about such intentional communities in the KC area as Jerusalem Farm.

How do religious leaders reach people in congregations?


Many faith communities maintain offices in the capitols of the country in which they're headquartered to be able to promote legislation and policies that conform to their traditions and beliefs.

An example is the Office of Public Witness of the Presbyterian Church (USA), located in Washington, D.C. Its website describes the office as "the public policy information and advocacy office of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Its task is to advocate, and help the church to advocate, the social witness perspectives and policies of the Presbyterian General Assembly."

MWL-cor-4I'm guessing that if you polled the people in the pews of 100 randomly chosen PCUSA churches this Sunday, you'd find that the percentage of people who even know that office exists is quite low. Just as you'd find few people in those congregations who keep up on many of the resolutions the church's national governing body (the General Assembly) passes.

And we Presbyterians are not unique in this. Some faith communities do better than others in keeping people informed about what their leaders are doing and saying and what difference it makes at the congregational level. But, in my experience, not many do it well.

I was thinking about this the other evening when I attended a gathering at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection called "Unlikely." Under the sponsorship of the Multi-Faith Neighbors Network, it brought together Jews, Christians and Muslims committed to understanding one another and working together.

One of the features of the evening was the distribution of the "The Charter of Makkah" (or Mecca, as it's often spelled). It's a document produced in 2019 and signed by many worldwide Muslim leaders. It calls for international religious harmony and understanding and stands against radicalism. (And my guess is lots of Muslims around the world have never heard of it.)

As this Wikipedia entry on the charter notes, it was conceived and produced by the Muslim World League and "was written to create a pan-Islamic set of principles that supported anti-extremism, religious and cultural diversity, and legislation against hate and violence."

In other words, it's a worthy effort advocating ideas and actions that would improve the world considerably if they were implemented.

But it's also well worth noting that the Muslim World League is funded by the Saudi government and has been since it was formed in 1962. The Saudi government has been a promoter of the rigid Wahhabi form of Islam for a long time. But in recent years the league has been denouncing extremism, and the Charter of Makkah seems, at least on the surface, to be evidence of that.

In any case, I was glad that roughly 1,000 people were in the sanctuary of the Church of the Resurrection to be exposed to these ideas and to hear from representatives of the three Abrahamic faiths about ways to understand each other better and cooperate.

But almost every time I have attended such an event -- called interfaith, multi-faith or inter-religious, depending -- over the last 25 or so years, I wonder whether organizers are simply preaching to the choir. Is the message getting moved from leadership to people in the pews? Or is this another example of people at the congregational level not hearing what leaders are saying or doing either out of apathy or mediocre communications or something else?

In the end, although I admire the effort made by the organizers of the "Unlikely" event, the continued presence of religious radicalism around the globe makes me wonder what else could be done besides such interfaith events. Still, as I say, there were roughly 1,000 people there the other evening and it was a fairly diverse crowd. So maybe I should be happy with that.

(The photo at the top here today, taken by Eyyup Esen of the Dialogue Institute, shows some of the crowd at the recent "Unlikely" event listening to the Rev. Adam Hamilton, founding pastor of the Church of the Resurrection. The other photo, by me, shows Dr. Mohammad al-Issa, secretary general of the Muslim World League, and who was the main speaker at the event.)

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The Vatican, especially Pope Francis, has been thinking about not just the people in the pews but also about those it and he would like to have in the pews. Thus, it has just announced a restructuring of the Vatican's central bureaucracy so it can focus more on evangelism. (Here is a story about this from the Catholic news site Crux.) The new document changes the names of governing bodies from congregations and councils to "dicasteries." The RNS story to which I've linked you in the first link above reports this: "Among the 16 dicasteries, the newly constructed Dicastery for Evangelization is given top listing, just ahead of the newly reformed Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, the oldest and, for centuries, arguably the most powerful office of the Roman curia. As a sign of the office's significance, the dicastery for evangelization will be headed directly by the pope — a parallel to how the Roman pontiff directly headed the doctrinal office until 1968." It's been nine years since Francis was elected, meaning it's taken nine years for this reorganization to come into being. It's another reminder of how slowly this church -- and religion in general -- often moves.

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The Good for Nothing Tree, by Amy-Jill Levine and Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, illustrated by Annie Bowler. This is another in a lovely series of children's books drawn from the parables of Jesus. Levine, a New Testament professor and author of many books, teams again with Sasso, a rabbi emerita and author, and Annie Bowler, the illustrator, to explore one way of understanding the meaning of the parable of the barren fig tree. It's a book about patience and sticking with a goal even when it may seem silly to do so. Make sure this is in the hands of teachers of children in your congregations, no matter whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim or something else. My eight-year-old granddaughter read it to me and loved it.

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P.S.: There's further evidence of a welcome split among Orthodox Christians over Vladimir Putin's war on Ukraine. The Orthodox Public Affairs Committee has issued this statement harshly criticizing Patriarch Kirill, Putin's buddy and leader of the Russian Orthodox Church. Kirill and others close to him, the statement says, "are all complicit in not only supporting the invasion of Ukraine, but also in perpetuating the lies of the government against their own people. Rather than standing up to Putin and his cronies, they are as guilty as the rest." It's refreshing to hear such truth spoken by religious leaders.

Are scripture translators missing some words?


The Bible used by Christians (well, Bibles, plural, given there are differences among them) was written originally in Hebrew, Greek and some Aramaic. The original Qur'an, of course, was in Arabic.

ScriptureTranslating holy writ can be a daunting task for many reasons. The best scholars and translators try to figure out what the original words meant to readers/hearers at the time they were written and whether there is an English (or other language) equivalent that would capture that meaning today.

Sometimes it's just a crap shoot. Which is a scary thing to say if you are convinced that the Bible, say, is inerrant in all ways. But on the whole translators do the best they can to give readers either a word for word translation or a meaning for meaning translation.

Sometimes, however, as this article from Christianity Today points out, there are words in some languages for which there are no precise English equivalents. And that makes translating sacred writings all the more difficult.

The author of the article is Jost Zetzsche, a professional translator, whose latest book is Encountering Bare-Bones Christianity.

"For almost five years," he writes, "I’ve been collecting and curating data about how languages around the world translate the Bible in different and often insightful ways."

He offers 10 examples. One of the more fun ones is:

"Ambum: turtle (Aekyom)

"Remember the story in the Gospel of Luke where Jesus had 12 turtles? It’s unlikely, unless you’ve read the Bible in Aekyom, a language in Papua New Guinea. People who speak this language count their age according to the number of times river turtles come up on the banks to lay their eggs. So when Jesus went to Jerusalem with his parents, he had 12 turtles. Imagine the turtle wealth of Methuselah!"

Another one I found intriguing is:

"Yumi: we and you (Tok Pisin)

"Some languages have a distinct advantage over English (and Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic) in their pronouns. English speakers use an ambiguous we, but many languages distinguish between an inclusive we ('you and I and possibly others') and an exclusive we ('he/she/they and I, but not you').

"For example, the disciples ask Jesus on the boat during a storm, 'Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?' (Mark 4:38, ESV). But who is included in that 'we' who are perishing? Speakers of Fijian, Tok Pisin and hundreds of other languages are forced to make an inference in this case (and in 2,352 other cases in the Bible), with deep theological implications.

"Do the disciples believe that Jesus could also die? Is his sharp rebuke that follows based on their belief that he actually could die? Translation teams have differed in their interpretation, but the Tok Pisin translators chose the inclusive yumi to include Jesus among those who could perish. They noted that the disciples had waited against their better judgment and existential fears until they felt the danger to Jesus (and themselves) was too great not to wake him."

Well, the point is that it's really helpful to compare translations of whatever scripture you're reading because they can differ sometimes dramatically. One my favorite examples is Matthew 19:24 in the New Testament. Most translations have Jesus saying that it's easier "for a camel to go through the eye of a needle" than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.

Lamsa-bibleBut George M. Lamsa's translation of that verse says, "It is easier for a rope to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God." And there's a footnote that explains: "The Aramaic word gamla means rope and camel." Given that Jesus spoke Aramaic, the "rope" version makes more sense to me. (And, yes, I know about a Jerusalem gate known as the camel.)

So don't get stuck on one translation, and don't imagine every translator throughout history has understood scripture the same way -- or the way you do.

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Hindus in India and around the world are celebrating Holi, as the colorful festival is called. And by around the world I mean in the Kansas City area, too. The Hindu temple in Shawnee on Sunday will be participating. How have Hindu natives of India or Hindus of Indian descent living in the U.S. found ways to celebrate this joyful holiday? Here is an answer as reported by Religion News Service. It's another example of the U.S. welcoming people of many different religious backgrounds.

Why do students who are active in religion get higher grades?

There are, of course, countless stories across history of how religion can be bad for you, from religious fanatics who turn into terrorists to people who hate others merely because of their religion or tradition. Antisemitism and Islamophobia come to mind immediately.

God-grades-gradIt also turns out, however, that religion not only does a lot of good for the world, but sometimes it helps its followers in various ways, including, according to this report from The Conversation, getting better grades in school. In fact, the author of the piece, Ilana Horwitz, who teaches at Tulane University, has written a whole new book about this idea.

It's called God, Grades and Graduation: Religion's Surprising Impact on Academic Success.

As Horwitz writes in The Conversation piece, "Over the past 30 years, sociologists and economists have conducted several studies that consistently show a positive relationship between religiosity and academic success. These studies show that more religious students earn better grades and complete more schooling than less religious peers."

She reports that her own research shows that "religion has a powerful but mixed impact. Intensely religious teens – who some researchers call 'abiders' – are more likely than average to earn higher GPAs and complete more college education."

But this, as Horwitz acknowledges, is a field that could use more study to make sure these conclusions are correct and, if they are, why that's so.

No doubt you can make some good guesses about why intensely religious students might get higher grades than others, including their willingness to follow directions and their desire not to disappoint authority figures (teachers).

And yet there's also an argument to be made that the curiosity about the world shown by students who reject religion can be a positive factor influencing performance in school. (I actually had a higher grade point average in college at a time when I wasn't religiously active than I did in high school when I was.)

In the end, perhaps, the question comes down to one of purpose. Which is to say that if a student has a good sense of the purpose of life -- one gained through connection to religion -- that student may understand the need to be well educated to be able to fulfill that purpose.

That answer makes more sense to me than the idea that religious students do better academically out of fear that if they fail God will punish them. Fear can, of course, be a great motivator, but I think a desire to appreciate the intricacies of the creation is a better one.

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KEYSTONE, Colo. -- I'm here with some family members taking a bit of time off, so there won't be the usual second item on the blog today, except for the brief P.S. below. Normality should return soon.

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P.S.: The prosecutors in the cases against the five detainees at Guantanamo Bay prison camp charged with being directly involved in the 9/11 terrorist attacks are reported to be starting plea negotiations with the men's defense attorneys. This is good news in that if done carefully and properly it can bring an end to this long, long wait for justice for 9/11 families, mine included. One big question is whether the plea deals, if consummated, will require the defendants to explain in detail what happened on 9/11 and why. We 9/11 families and many others want to know from the participants. Here is the AP story on the subject. It quotes Terry Rockefeller of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, of which I'm a member.

Is Saudi Arabia's leader really an ally of the U.S.?

In 2002, some months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks -- perpetrated mostly by men from Saudi Arabia -- I visited that kingdom with other opinion journalists from the U.S. and Canada. We spent time talking with private citizens, government officials, including the crown prince (later king, now dead), and religious leaders.

Mohammad_bin_SalmanI left the country thinking that, for many reasons, the government there couldn't hold things together there more than a few more years. The future of the House of Saud was in jeopardy, I thought, perhaps hopefully.

I was wrong. Through all kinds of means, including the government co-opting religious leaders, the Saud dynasty has managed to stay in power, and today is overseen by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (pictured here), 36, son of King Salman, 86, one of the last remaining sons of the country's founding king, Abdulaziz Al-Saud, who established Saudi Arabia in 1932.

The crown prince, known as MBS, has been, to put it softly, a controversial and complicated leader, as this insightful article in The Atlantic makes clear. Indeed, after the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, a killing widely believed to have been orchestrated by MBS, the prince hasn't been seen much or given interviews to foreign journalists.

 So give credit to Atlantic journalist Graeme Wood and that magazine's editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, for managing to get an interview with MBS in which they raised difficult questions for him to answer.

As Wood writes, "During our Riyadh encounter, Jeff asked MBS if he was capable of handling criticism. 'Thank you very much for this question,' the prince said. 'If I couldn’t, I would not be sitting with you today listening to that question.'”

But, of course, handling criticism and telling the truth can be -- and often are with politicians (and others) -- two different things.

One reason I link you to the Atlantic story today is that Saudi Arabia continues to challenge the moral center of the U.S. and our leaders. Our government has tolerated a wide range of human rights restrictions and abuses by the House of Saud in part because our country has depended on Saudi's oil to power our vehicles.

For quite different reasons, Russia has challenged our moral center, too, especially in its invasion of Ukraine. And in turn our political leaders have been much more willing to do what they can to punish Russia's dictator than, historically, they've been willing to criticize or work against whoever holds the title of king in Saudi Arabia. (MBS rules now because his frail father, who holds the title of king, has appointed him to do that.)

These kinds of different approaches to nations that are allies, enemies or somewhere in between need to be much more fully discussed and understood by the American people than they seem to be now. If our government, as our representative, is playing footsy with corrupt or otherwise malevolent leaders of other nations, it's a reflection on those of us who voted those leaders into office.

So give the Atlantic piece a read. And if you conclude that U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia needs to change, let your members of Congress know that. That's how things change and it's how we can help guide our country toward policies that reflect our core values.

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There now is additional evidence that the Russian Orthodox Church and its leader, Patriarch Kirill in Moscow, have completely abandoned their moral compass and become Putin puppets. News broke this week that a Russian Orthodox priest has been arrested after preaching a sermon in which he denounced the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And, apparently, other leaders in the church also are in trouble for complaining about that invasion. You can't give to Caesar what is God's and expect God to bless you. It's an old lesson, but one that Kirill either never learned or has forgotten.

The many sides of religious freedom in the U.S.

For most of the history of the United States, religious freedom has been a foundational value. The Constitution even prohibits the government from making laws that favor one kind of faith over another.

Religious-liberty.jpgBut the reality is that ideas about religious liberty and what it means are pretty much all over the place. For some it means freedom from even hearing religion's voice in the public square, while for others it means insisting that the courts protect actions that discriminate against or harm others if those actions are done with a religious veneer.

This RNS article explores some of our many responses to the idea of religious freedom, and it's worth a read if for no other reason than to get us to rethink what we believe about this subject.

The author of the piece writes this: "In late 2020, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty polled a thousand Americans, asking a number of nuanced questions about religious freedom. The results seem to indicate that while Americans see value in religious liberty, they believe it has limits."

That shouldn't be a surprise, given that many Americans also think freedom of speech has -- and should have -- some limits, the most famous being crying "fire" in a crowded theater. (Which, by the way, is different from crying "movie" in a crowded fire station.)

What that Becket study shows, the author writes, is that "the average American is more likely to give faith practices more latitude when they impact least, but more hesitant to protect beliefs and behaviors that disturb others in the community or the workplace."

Some complaining about the alleged curtailing of religious freedom in the U.S. is simply ridiculous. A prime example is saying that "we no longer can say 'Merry Christmas' in public." Bunk. Or that students can't pray in public schools. Yes, they can. And many of them do, silently, just before taking their next math quiz.

If you want to know what real religious oppression is like read the annual reports from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Read 'em and weep. And be glad that even if we don't get religious liberty right all the time in the U.S., it's still a core value that we mostly cherish.

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A few days ago in this blog post, I described the various ways in which Vladimir Putin's war against Ukraine is tied up with religion. For a deeper look at that subject, I point you to this article from The Conversation about a new church on the outskirts of Moscow called (wait for it) The Main Church of the Russian Armed Forces. Some American Christian churches have had internal arguments in recent years about whether the Christian flag and the American flag should be displayed together in sanctuaries (answer: No, they shouldn't). But that's a mild conversation compared to the debate Russians should be having about the oversized connection between the Russian military and the church that grew up around someone who came to be called the Prince of Peace. What a sad distortion of Christianity. But it explains a lot about Putin's belligerent attitude toward Russia's neighbors (and toward Russia's own citizens).

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P.S.: As you may have noticed there are different spellings and pronunciations of the capitol of Ukraine and different spellings for the last name of the country's president. Why? The Forward has interesting answers here.

Where can students find truths that set them free?

After last Sunday's worship service at my church (it was youth Sunday and two high school students preached an absolutely terrific sermon), some of us got into a discussion about how students learn history these days.

Jake-Wichita-1Not just church or religious history, but national and international history as well.

A widely expressed concern was that most of us born during or soon after World War II were taught a truncated American history that didn't tell us the fuller story of slavery, of what European invaders did to Indigenous people who had been here long before them and even of the events we lived through without understanding their historical context.

Given all the current attention being given to those parents who want to control everything that is being taught in their children's schools, some in our group expressed concerns that students weren't getting anything close to a full accounting of American history.

It's a legitimate concern. And yet just the day before that discussion I witnessed high school students learning some vital American history outside a regular history class. They learned about one of the major developments in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s by participating in their school's music program and playing in a band.

It turned out that one of the pieces played at the Saturday concert in Wichita, Kan., by the 1-4A All-State Band was called "The Nine," composed by the very man who was the band's conductor that day, Randall Standridge. What did the name of the piece mean? It referred to the nine Black high school students who were the first to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957.

You can read the program notes about that composition here, as well as listen to the 10-minute piece. This is not a recording of what I heard that Saturday in Wichita but, rather, a presentation of the same piece by a different band.

As I looked at the nearly all-white audience and band members (that included our grandson and first-chair percussionist Jacob, pictured here with my wife Marcia and me), I was really glad that Standridge had given everyone a chance to know at least one chapter in America's fraught racial history. Unless we know that history we can't know where we are today and why things are the way they are.

As recorded in John 8:32 in the New Testament, Jesus once said that knowing the truth will set people free. Ignorance, by contrast, keeps us bound and susceptible to foolishness. As parents and grandparents, it's important to remember that school classrooms are not the only place children learn. And one of our tasks is to make sure that students have many opportunities to be educated outside of traditional classrooms -- including in our faith communities.

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The article to which I'm linking you here was written just before the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday a few days ago. But the truths it speaks about the scandalous behavior of the head of the Orthodox Church in Russia still obtain. The author, an ordained deacon in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, writes clearly and forcefully about Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, saying that "his silence to date is a scandal." He's referring, of course, to Vladimir Putin's monstrous attack on Ukraine and of Kirill's failure to do what any person of faith should do -- condemn that war and the small dictator who started it. As the author writes, "Kirill, at almost every turn, has attempted to undermine the very bridges he’s entrusted to construct." And he calls the few words Kirill has bothered to utter about the war against Ukraine "prevaricating and pernicious." With such leaders, is it any wonder that many people abandon religion as a den of hypocrites and fools? If his religion teaches Kirill to behave in such a sycophantic and deplorable way, who would want to follow it? That is not, of course, what Orthodox Christianity stands for. But Kirill has done to that faith tradition what people like Osama bin Laden have done to Islam. And it's a crime against morality.

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God and Race: A Guide for Moving Beyond Black Fists & White Knuckles, by John Siebeling and Wayne Francis. This book should have -- and much of it could have -- been written 10 years ago. Many people and congregations in that time already have begun to respond in various ways to the realities of racism in the U.S., and for those individuals and groups a lot of what's published here will seem like -- and actually be -- material they already know. The question is whether people and communities of faith who for various reasons haven't educated themselves about this subject or taken active steps to respond will read it and learn.

The pastors -- one white, one Black -- who have written the book offer good advice and helpful guidance for acknowledging the white supremacy built into our nation's founding and for responding to the many ways that racist systems still operate in the U.S. And they are right to say, as they do, that "learning how to have conversations about race is an art, and that art is what this book is all about." Perhaps one important reason not to delay addressing racism is the point that Siebeling, the white pastor, makes: ". . .by 2055 white people will no longer be the majority in our nation." But this advice from Francis, the Black pastor, may be helpful in getting the conversations and learning started: "Let yourself cry. Let yourself get angry. Let yourself feel confused. Any emotion is better than apathy." However, apathy is difficult to overcome, as the history of racism in the U.S. clearly shows. But if this book can help even a little, it would be a welcome development.

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P.S.: The United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in suburban Leawood, Kan., will host a global faith forum event at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, March 9. The last link I've given you in the previous sentence will give you more information about subjects and speakers and let you register for it.

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ANOTHER P.S.: Once again the United Methodist Church, a large Mainline Protestant denomination, has postponed an international meeting at which its threatened schism (mostly having to do with LGBTQ+ issues) would have been decided. This now has gotten silly. The pandemic caused the initial postponement but there's now no good reason not to meet and settle this.

What does religion have to do with the Russia-Ukraine crisis?


As we consider developments in Ukraine and the efforts of Russia to make sure it is either no longer independent or at least is part of the Russian sphere of influence, let's think about the role of religion in those two countries. (I wrote this post about religion in Ukraine in 2019 because that country was at the center then of the first impeachment of Donald Trump.)

A majority of Ukraine's citizens identify as Orthodox Christians. As the site to which I've just linked you reports:

"The main Orthodox Churches of Ukraine:

  • Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) -- part of the Russian Orthodox Church, which views Ukraine as part of its canonical territory,
  • Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kyiv Patriarchate),
  • Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church,
  • Old Believers."

As should be no surprise, the most widespread religion practiced in Russia is also Christian Orthodoxy. And even though more than a quarter of the Russian population identifies as either non-religious or atheist, more than half the population identifies as part of Russian Orthodoxy. Some estimates put the percentage of the population that is Orthodox as high as 71 percent and the unaffiliated or non-religious as low as 15 percent.

In any case, what we have here is one country dominated by Christian Orthodox adherents struggling to control another country of Christian Orthodox adherents. Imagine that.

In fact, it doesn't take much imagining at all. What, after all, was the case in the American Civil War? It was mostly Christian against Christian. And what was the predominant religion in Germany when it invaded Poland in 1939? Christian, which was true of Poland, too.

As religion scholar Diana Butler Bass writes a recent post on her blog called "The Cottage," "(T)he world is witnessing a new version of an old tale — the quest to recreate an imperial Christian state, a neo-medieval 'Holy Roman Empire' — uniting political, economic, and spiritual power into an entity to control the earthly and heavenly destiny of European peoples.

"The dream gripping some quarters of the West is for a coalition to unify religious conservatives into a kind of supra-national neo-Christendom. The theory is to create a partnership between American evangelicals, traditionalist Catholics in western countries and Orthodox peoples under the auspices of the Russian Orthodox Church in a common front against three enemies — decadent secularism, a rising China, and Islam — for a glorious rebirth of moral purity and Christian culture.

"In the United States, Trumpist-religion is most often framed as 'Christian nationalism.' It is, indeed, that. But it is also more — it is the American partner of this larger quest for Christian internationalism."

Beyond that, as the journalist-Anglican priest author of this column notes, Putin places central importance on the return of Ukraine and especially its capitol to the Russian sphere of influence because of his misreading of history. Today, the author notes, the "compliance of the Russian Orthodox church with the political goal of a greater Russia has been shameful. . .Few churches have sold out to the state more completely than the Russian Orthodox church." In many ways, Putin's ideas about religion in his part of the world are guiding his rapacious decisions about Ukraine.

If you're beginning to wonder why Jesus is called the Prince of Peace, I would suggest that the problem is not with Jesus but, rather, with his reluctant followers, or at least his reluctant declared followers.

Not every war is about religion, though in many cases religion has played a key role. And the Russia-Ukraine situation is no different. In this case, the sides aren't tossing theological arguments at one another. And yet as this RNS opinion piece argues, Putin is after not just Ukraine's territory but also its spiritual soul. And that really is a religious battle, and vicious one at that.

For a more detailed look at this whole mess, here is an interview with Archbishop Daniel, head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the U.S.A. Among other things, he said this: "I’m asking people of Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Catholic Church and people of goodwill regardless of background to use the weapon of prayer, to soften the heart of the aggressor against Ukrainian people and to stop the crimes against humanity that we’re experiencing." (And here is an Associated Press story further explaining the role of religion in this crisis. Plus, let's not forget that despite Putin's ridiculous claim that he would "denazify" Ukraine, the president of that country is Jewish and is getting lots of rave reviews for his bravery and leadership. Here's an Atlantic piece about that.)

The religions of the people of Russia and the people of Ukraine should, one might think, influence how they behave. If, however, Russia's government is in any way representative of the people, it's hard to make the argument that Putin's governments or any of the people supporting it are following the path of Jesus. Similarly, it's hard to make anything close to the argument that such terrorist groups as al-Qaida and ISIS are following the path of the Prophet Muhammad. They're not.

If I were God -- and thank God I'm not -- I would have run out of patience long, long ago.

(The photo displayed here today came from this site.)

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Continuing the Ukraine-Russia-religion theme today, here's a piece worth reading from John L. Allen Jr., former of The National Catholic Reporter but now of The Crux. John looks to the future to anticipate (a tough job) how this unnecessary, murderous war may affect the religious landscape not just of Europe but also the of world. He writes: "On the other side of the war, the global religious landscape is destined to look different. What those differences will be, however, will be determined by the choices religious leaders make right now."

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Reaching-conference-1 Reaching-conferenceP.S.: An upcoming faith-based conference in Kansas City about violence, race, Covid and much else facing the community will happen Saturday morning, March 12. One of the graphics here will give you a link to use to sign up for this free event.

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ANOTHER P.S.: If you missed my latest Flatland column when it posted on Sunday, it's still available to read here. It's about how at least some of us have survived the last two brutal years.