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What happens when 'alternative facts' get swallowed whole?

In the Apostle Paul's New Testament letter to the Philippians, he urges followers of Christ to "focus your thoughts on these things: All that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely and all that is worthy of praise."

TruthNotice that he begins with what is "true."

The problem today, as this commentary piece in The National Catholic Reporter suggests, is that many people today seem unable to discern truth from fiction because of " a common disregard for widely available factual data and an overemphasis on data that is missing or limited in scope. Conspiracy thinkers believe in their own capacity to discern information and perceive patterns of connection that others can't see, while their counterparts feel angry and exhausted at the very prospect of trying to have another conversation that — based on previous experience — will go 'absolutely nowhere.'"

The author of the piece, Ann Garrido, teaches homiletics at Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis.

She contends -- persuasively -- that our failure to understand what is true isn't merely a political problem having to do with bizarre QAnon conspiracy theories, it's also a moral problem and a matter of concern "in terms of faith."

Garrido writes that "Western Christianity understands the world as existing on its own separate from our minds and regardless of what we believe about it." And yet, she says, "Our beliefs do matter, however, because they motivate our actions. It is in our own best interest to make sure our minds align with reality, or our choices will be poor ones."

So why does conspiracy thinking rooted in fiction matter? Garrido contends that "if we know the information to be fictitious and nevertheless assert that it is true, then we are lying and in a state of sin. Moreover, if others have tried to point out to us that we are mistaken and we refuse to receive more accurate information when we could do so as creatures gifted with reason, we are culpable of the sin of 'vincible ignorance' — a term from the past that we probably need to take out of the closet and dust off.

"As a church we need to treat conspiracy thinking with the same vigor as other significant moral issues of our time, such as immigration policy, abortion, racism and human trafficking. . .Parishes and dioceses could be doing much more to take on conspiracy thinking as a moral crisis."

All faith communities -- Christian or not -- have an obligation to teach their adherents, but especially young people, how to recognize what is true and to contend for that truth in the face of conspiratorial nonsense. And yet, despite the importance of this task, we regularly read about pastors who continue to promote the Big Lie that Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential election.

Garrido insists that "a commitment to truth is fundamental to our lives as Christians. We witness to this by trying to always make sure that our own minds are aligned with reality. At the same time, we witness our commitment to truth by the way that we choose to 'be true' to one another even in situations marred by untruth."

If our children can't master this allegiance to truth by the age of discernment, the future is bleak, indeed. So the question is this: What are you and your faith community, if any, doing about this?

* * *


In chapter 3 of the biblical book of Amos, one of the so-called minor Hebrew prophets, he asks a series of rhetorical questions to which the answers, at least to his hearers in the 8th Century BCE, was obvious. One of them was this: "Does disaster befall a city unless the Lord has done it?" The obvious answer: Well, of course not. The prevailing theological idea then was that God gets deeply involved in everyday affairs and that if something bad happens to people it's because God is punishing them for some misdeed. (The book of Job was written at least in part to counteract that idea.)

So in terms of what Amos wrote, what sin or evil did 19 children and two of their teachers in Uvalde, Texas, commit that required divine judgment on them via gunshots? Most of us (but not all) today, of course, recoil at the idea that those children deserved to die for some reason -- and, worse, that God arranged it. Rather, most of us -- no matter the faith tradition -- are more attracted to an image of God that suggests God suffers with us and walks with us through pain. Some of us would add that at times God suffers on our behalf; thus, Jesus on the cross.

I say all this just to suggest that when bad things happen to innocent people it helps to think about that theologically. With enough discernment we can use such thinking to recognize that the systems we have created are failing us and that we have a responsibility to fix them. One of those systems has to do with laws regulating firearms. It's clearly a broken system, with a majority of citizens believing it needs fixing and a majority of our lawmakers unwilling to do what needs to be done.

The answer is not to give up and accept the death of those beautiful children. One of the answers is to change our lawmakers. Another is to change the way we finance elections so that money from such groups as the National Rifle Association doesn't distort our political system. Related to that is to do what we can to affect the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the Citizens United case that ruled corporations are people and cannot be prevented from spending almost unlimited amounts of money to elect candidates. That ruling has distorted our political system in countless ways.

But to choose to work for changes, it helps to understand our own theology. If it buys the idea that the evil in the world is simply a sign that God is punishing us, then we let children be massacred without responding to their deaths in any meaningful way. The other option is to join Kansas City area pastors who this week gathered together to ask all of us to help end this violence against our children. I'm with them. You?

(To add to your resources for thinking about this difficult subject, here's an RNS story about a woman wounded in a school shooting in 2013 and about the book she wrote to help people know how to respond to mass shootings.)

* * *

P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about religious congregations joining together to seek systemic answers to homelessness and mental illness -- now is online here.

Thinking theologically about the inevitable death of our home planet


There are two creation stories in the book of Genesis (they don't exactly agree). In both cases it's clear that God is in charge and is bringing the world, including Earth, into existence as an act of will and love.

Black-holePart of the liturgy at an Episcopal funeral I attended recently put it this way: "From before time you made ready the creation. Your Spirit moved over the deep and brought all things into being: sun, moon and stars; earth, winds and waters; and every living thing. You made us in your image, and taught us to walk in your ways. . ."

Many other faith traditions offer a similar story -- and almost every culture has some kind of creation story. I especially like some rooted in Native American spirituality.

Well, the cosmos now is about 13.8 billion years old, scientists say. This estimate, of course, differs wildly from what Young Earth Creationists contend. According to them (they read the Bible literally, not seriously), Earth was created just 6,000 to 10,000 years ago. But you can set aside such silliness. The best scientific evidence is that Earth is about 4.6 billion years old.

The question raised by either age estimate, however, is the same: How long will Earth last? (And rest assured that even Jesus said the answer is not "forever." Here's what he said in Matthew 24:35: "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away." Wait. Even "heaven" will pass away? So eternal life isn't exactly eternal? Let's get some help with such questions. Moving on.)

A good deal of the answer to the question of the timing of the demise of our planet depends on how long our sun will last (and even on how we humans treat our planet home). Those are good questions to think about in light of the recent first photo (seen above here) of a supermassive black hole at the center of our Milky Way Galaxy (pictured at the top of this post). Whatever falls into a black hole never escapes, by the way.

In his new book, The Universe: A Biography, British astronomer Paul Murdin outlines what scientists currently know or, on the basis of evidence, conjecture about the future of the sun and the Earth. It's not a happy story.

First, the sun "will warm and brighten" until it "will be at its hottest 2.55 billion years from now." All that heat "will cause the Earth to bake, at about the same time that it loses its magnetospheric defense against solar cosmic radiation. It's hard to see that life could continue on our planet."

Murdin warns of further upcoming dissolution and chaos from that point on that take a few billion more years until he describes the Earth this way: "Baked, dried, crumbled, engulfed, vaporized in the atmosphere of a fading star: the likely future of our fragile planet is a progressive path through successive stages of destruction on the way to oblivion."

The challenge for people of faith is to wonder whether this violent, sad ending is what God had in mind from the beginning. Or is there a divine plan to mitigate what scientists now believe is inevitable?

Murdin is willing to acknowledge that such speculation isn't worthless. He notes that some people postulate that creation "may have been organized by a powerful, beneficent being, who created the Universe for us. This is logically possible and is an argument that appeals to theologians because it provides a scientific context for the First Cause."

He also suggests that perhaps the idea of a "Multiverse" offers "a possible escape route from the rather pessimistic conclusion" he described above (in bold letters). We yet don't know much about all that, however, though theoretical physicists and others are exploring the idea.

So why should we -- apparently several billion years from Earth's demise -- worry about all of this? Well, if God is a loving creator, what does such a dark, predicted end of life on Earth say about that God? How does our theology account for such end-times thinking? As a Christian, I don't have any clear answer to that question, but I do have the conviction that death -- even of a planet, a solar system, a galaxy, a cosmos -- is not necessarily the end of the story. And I have the conviction that, in the end, God somehow intends to redeem the whole creation, as the former Anglican bishop of Durham, New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, reminds us in his writings again and again.

What Wright describes, however, is faith, not science. But if we ignore science, the theological questions with which we should wrestle are not nearly as deep and significant. And why would we want to worry about shallow, meaningless things?

* * *


The devastating report released this week about sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention confirmed what many already knew: the denomination's leadership and culture did very much what Catholic leadership originally tried to do with its own abuse scandal -- hide it, prevaricate about it and treat the victims with contempt.

As former SBC leader Russell Moore, who had demanded this independent report before he left the denomination, fed up with its obstinacy on this subject, put it in this response to the report's release: "The investigation uncovers a reality far more evil and systemic than I imagined it could be. The conclusions of the report are so massive as to almost defy summation. It corroborates and details charges of deception, stonewalling and intimidation of victims and those calling for reform." Moore's conclusion: "I cannot help but wonder what else this can be called but a criminal conspiracy."

You can get access to the full report and its two appendices here.

As the RNS story to which I've linked you in the first paragraph says, the new report, done by a company called Guidepost Solutions, "reveals a callous disregard for abuse survivors and a relentless commitment to protecting the denomination from liability. Guidepost Solutions found that SBC leaders were well aware of abuse cases in the church and even compiled a list of offenders but took no steps to find out if alleged abusers remained in ministry, instead focusing on protecting the SBC from liability."

Here, by the way, is the story about this report published by Baptist Press.

And here is a piece in The Atlantic by staff writer David French, who broadens the view to see a problem much larger what is contained in the new report about the Southern Baptist scandal. He writes: "I highlight reports of abuse in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, in one of its largest Christian camps, in one of its largest Christian universities and in its most prominent apologetics ministry because it is past time to recognize that the culture of American evangelicalism is broken at a fundamental level. How many times must evangelicals watch powerful institutions promote and protect sexual predators before we acknowledge the obvious crisis?"

Oh, and thanks again to the Houston Chronicle, which in 2019 ran this series of articles pointing out that 380 pastors affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention had been accused of sexual abuse. That finally brought this scandal to light.

So once again we find religious leaders damaging not only their own brand but doing serious injury to religion generally by failing to practice what they preach. Maybe all of these abuse scandals in religion will be forgotten by the time the Earth reaches the inevitable stage of oblivion, but forgetting about them or ignoring them now isn't the answer.

* * *

P.S.: Rosemary Radford Reuther, an early leader in feminist theology, died this week at age 85. Here is an NPR story that includes an interview with her from a few years ago about her career. She led the way for lots of people. And from the National Catholic Reporter, here is an appreciation of her life and work.

What you think you know about 'patient Job' is probably wrong

What do lots of people think they know about the book of Job in the Hebrew Bible and, for that matter, about Job himself?

Léon_Bonnat_-_JobFirst, that Job was a patient man. How else would we get the cliche "the patience of Job?" Well, wrong. Job was far from a patient man. He knew that what was happening to him was bad and wrong and he wasn't about to put up with it. Someone must have used the "patience" phrase first sarcastically.

Second, that Job deserved what he got because of his sins. Wrong again. Even God, at the start of the book, declared Job to be a righteous man.

Third, that Job's friends who told him why he was suffering got it right. Nope. Each one of them offered conventional wisdom about suffering -- the very conventional wisdom that the book of Job was designed to undercut. That's why I sometimes call Job's know-it-all friends the biblical three stooges.

Fourth, that at the end of the book Job repents "in dust and ashes" and is finally in a happy relationship with God. Not quite. At least not according to a new translation of Job by Edward L. Greenstein, an emeritus professor of Bible at Bar Ilan University in Israel. (I wrote about this translation here.) Greenstein insists that the "dust and ashes" version is a mistranslation. Greenstein's version has Job, at the end, telling God that now that he's seen and heard God he's "fed up" and that he "takes pity on" what Greenstein, in a footnote, calls "wretched humanity."

Fifth, in chapter 1 of Job, all his children die but in the last chapter he gets them back. Wrong again. Oh, it's true that his kids die, and that in the last chapter, in addition to having his wealth and livestock restored, he has three sons and seven daughters. But they're not the ones he lost. They're different because, of course, dead people simply can't be replaced with themselves. So Job's new children should not be thought of as replacements at all for the dead ones. That's because in Judaism and in Christianity (and some other faith traditions) each human being is singular and irreplaceable.

All of which brings me to this article in a recent issue of The Christian Century, called "The Book of Job Is a Parody: A Capricious, Insecure God."

In it, Kathryn Lopez, who teaches biblical studies at Campbell University in North Carolina, may be adding to the list of what people get wrong about Job.

She writes that starting early in Job "we are seeing not the author's view of God but rather a parody of a view of God found in the author's religious world. And, we might add, in ours.

"Sometimes I picture the author of Job looking down at us and shaking his head. What he meant to mock, we take seriously. The book of Job mocks the hollow piety found in his world and in ours. This is the idea that believers are required to act out a false patience and accept suffering as 'God’s will.' This view imagines, falsely, that it is more faithful to suppress the pain of our circumstances than to express legiti­mate anger. It imagines that hard questions lead to lack of faith and that to question God is to invite destruction. It ends up insisting on conformity that leads to spiritual abuse and deforms the human soul.

"This is not the faith that the author of Job wants for us."

But often it's the faith with which people are left through incompetent religious leadership or through a failure to ask -- or insist on answers to -- the hard questions of religion. (Which is why I wrote my book called The Value of Doubt.)

In the end, Lopez writes, "The book of Job comes into focus as a parody of flimsy faith and platitudes. Its rich poetry gets richer; its contradictions begin to make sense; its capricious God can be interpreted and not simply feared. The implications of this reading may not be fully clear, but at the very least they allow us to return to the book of Job and be surprised."

When we learn about such insightful readings of supposedly familiar biblical texts, it helps not to jump to the conclusion that the author is dead wrong because everybody, for instance, knows that Job was a patient man whose well-meaning friends often were right about Job suffering because he sinned. Not jumping to conclusions takes patience. Just not the alleged patience of Job.

(The painting here today, which Wikipedia uses with its entry on Job, is by French painter Léon Bonnat.)

* * *


Archeologists in Turkey have turned up what researchers now have decided was a huge underground city that served as a hiding place for persecuted Christians and Jews at the time Christianity was emerging from Judaism as a separate religion. As the Smithsonian article to which I've linked you reports, "The city is thought to have housed roughly 70,000 people in the second and third centuries C.E., Live Science’s Tom Metcalfe reports." Has there ever been a time when people of faith weren't persecuted -- and often by people of a different faith tradition? (Or, as Job must have felt, persecuted sometimes even by the god one worships?)

How do we account for the shrinking of American Christianity?

Today we consider once more the diminishment of American Christianity -- in membership, in influence, in various ways -- from both a Protestant and a Catholic perspective.

Delavan-ch-aFirst, this opinion piece from Religion Dispatches suggests that we can learn more about how and why the church is failing by looking at the upcoming U.S. Supreme Court abortion decision on Roe vs. Wade.

The author, the Rev. Peter Laarman, writes that he's been "thinking about what my Protestant tradition calls the 'prophetic office' of the clergy, in which a responsibility to resist unjust power is supposed to join the 'teaching office' (i.e., faithful preaching and religious education) and the 'priestly office' (administration of the sacraments and pastoral counseling) as one of three core ministerial responsibilities.

"In the mainline churches that prophetic office seems to be all but extinguished."

Laarman adds this: "Howard Moody was a prophetic preacher of the highest order, but in the case of the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion (CCS), which he created along with his colleagues Arlene Carmen and Art Levin, he let prophetic action do the preaching as he and his co-workers developed a network of 1,400 ministers and rabbis all across the country who. . . 'opened the lives of women' to a large cohort of mostly male clergypersons at a time when abortion was illegal in every state."

But that changed as clergy who identified as conservative or evangelical "ruined the mainline Protestant churches, turning off the people in the pews and driving out the moderates and generally setting the stage for the very sharp decline in mainline Protestant power and prestige that continues to this day. According to this narrative it follows that today’s tongue-tied mainline clergy do well to go slow, or even stay entirely silent, on issues considered potentially 'divisive.'”

So without bold leaders, people leave -- and, of course, some leave precisely because of bold leaders just as some are attracted to bold leaders who become rabidly political in ways that compromise the gospel. Indeed, as a piece in the June issue of The Atlantic  ("How Politics Poisoned the Church") says, Christian evangelicalism has morphed "from a spiritual disposition into a political identity. It's heartbreaking."

That article, by Tim Alberta, talks about such evangelical pastors as Bill Bolin of the FloodGate Church in Brighton, Mich., and notes that "substantial numbers of evangelicals are fleeing their churches, and most of them are moving to ones further to the right," where sermons, if one can call them that, feature anti-vaccine rants, the spread of QAnon conspiracy theories and complaints that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Republicans.

"The church," Alberta says, "is not a victim of America's civil strife. Instead, it is one of the principal catalysts."

As for the Catholic side, Fr. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest, writes in this RNS column that "There are numerous signs that the Catholic Church is failing in Western countries. There are few vocations, church attendance is down and young people are leaving the church in droves. There are as many theories explaining this decline as there are commentators, but the theories can be collected in two major baskets: those that blame culture and those that blame the church itself."

Reese says that the "Catholic hierarchy tends to blame contemporary culture for the church’s problems." And he declares that "There is a lot of truth in this cultural explanation for the church’s failings, but blaming the culture is like blaming the weather."

But he adds this: "Liberals believe Vatican II was just the beginning of reforms that were necessary for the church. They believe the hierarchy, especially John Paul II, feared chaos in the church and shut down any further reform. The documents of the council were interpreted through a conservative lens, and theologians were labeled dissidents and silenced if they did not toe the Vatican line."

All these theories, however, ignore the voice of experience of the people in the pews, he writes. If they have a bad experience, he says, they simply abandon the church. He puts it this way: "Ideas are important, but experience often matters more. Lots of people stay in the church even though they disagree with some church teaching. But a bad experience in confession, at a wedding or at a funeral can turn people away for good."

All of which raises the question for Christians of who is shaping Christianity in America for the future? There are efforts to do that, for sure. But it seems to me that the only ones that will succeed are led by people who remember this: It's not that the church has a mission; rather, it's that the mission has a church. And if the church gets in the way of the mission, it will need to change or turn the task over to someone else.

* * *


It's obvious that one of the societal issues about which people of faith disagree -- and that may contribute to the diminishment of American Christianity in some ways -- is abortion. I thought it would be helpful today to offer you two pieces to read -- one of which argues that Roe vs. Wade was wrongly decided in 1973 and should be reversed and one of which calls the apparent upcoming Supreme Court ruling reversing Roe "an affront to our nation’s judicial process and devastating to the people whose lives are jeopardized by the court’s actions." The first piece, available here, was written by my childhood friend from India, Markandey Katju, a former justice on India's Supreme Court. He comes at this from a legal point of view as an atheist. The second piece, available here, is from an organization called Catholics for Choice, whose president is my former National Catholic Reporter colleague Jamie Manson. Please read the one with which you think you'll disagree first -- and see if it changes your mind about anything.

* * *

P.S.: Anyone who has followed the various investigations into the 9/11 terrorist attacks knows that there have been many efforts to determine whether and how the leadership of Saudi Arabia supported or coddled the terrorists. A new report from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, described in this report, suggests there were several ways in which the House of Saud backed the terrorists. As the story to which I've linked you says, "The new report lays out what it calls the FBI’s 'investigations and supporting documentation' regarding the religious 'militant network that was created, funded directed and supported by the KSA [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia] and its affiliated organizations and diplomatic personnel within the U.S.'” All this is one more reason for the U.S. to distance itself from the ruling family in Saudi Arabia.

Finally, a start on an accounting of a shameful page of U.S. history


The news about federally supported boarding schools for Native American children just gets more and more disheartening. And there's still more to come.

What contributes to the horror of this dark picture is the role some churches played in the effort to turn Indigenous children into white children, replacing their culture with a system rooted in white supremacy. A motto for this twisted work was "Kill the Indian, Save the Man." The idea was, in effect, to finish the genocide that began when the first European invaders landed in what has become the United States.

It should have been a national scandal when the schools started in the early 19th Century. It wasn't. That it has become a national scandal today (here and, relatedly but separately, in Canada) is reassuring -- however late the details of this debacle are finally being made public.

This past Wednesday, the U.S. Department of the Interior (now overseen by an Indigenous woman) released a report that begins to describe the scale of what happened to Native children in many boarding schools. As the Associated Press story to which I've just linked you notes, this new report "has identified more than 400 such schools that were supported by the U.S. government and more than 50 associated burial sites, a figure that could grow exponentially as research continues."

HaalandYou can read the full report here. As reports there, the new document "provides the first accounting of the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative that was announced by Secretary Deb Haaland (pictured here) on June 22, 2021. It was submitted to her by Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland on April 1. The main document consists of 102 pages. There are three appendices, labeled Appendix A and Appendix B, along with Appendix C."

Newland's transmittal letter to Haaland includes this information: "This report shows for the first time that between 1819 and 1969, the United States operated or supported 408 boarding schools across 37 states (or then-territories), including 21 schools in Alaska and 7 schools in Hawaii. This report identifies each of those schools by name and location, some of which operated across multiple sites.

"This report confirms that the United States directly targeted American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children in the pursuit of a policy of cultural assimilation that coincided with Indian territorial dispossession. It identifies the Federal Indian boarding schools that were used as a means for these ends, along with at least 53 burial sites for children across this system -- with more site discoveries and data expected as we continue our research."

The report's executive summary adds this: "The Federal Indian boarding school system deployed systematic militarized and
identity-alteration methodologies to attempt to assimilate American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children through education, including but not limited to the following: (1) renaming Indian children from Indian to English names; (2) cutting hair of Indian children; (3) discouraging or preventing the use of American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian languages, religions, and cultural practices; and (4) organizing Indian and Native Hawaiian children into units to perform military drills."

As the AP story about the report's release says, "The dark history of the boarding schools — where children who were taken from their families were prohibited from speaking their Native American languages and often abused — has been felt deeply across Indian Country and through generations. Many children never returned home. The investigation has so far turned up over 500 deaths at 19 schools, though the Interior Department said that number could climb to the thousands or even tens of thousands."

Here is the Religion News Service story about the release of the report. In that story, RNS reports this: "The Roman Catholic Church and a number of Protestant denominations already have begun investigating their own roles in those boarding schools. The Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative report pointed to previous reports explaining that the government divvied up reservations among 'major religious denominations.'” And this: "Several Catholic groups and Protestant denominations also have called for the United States to establish a Truth and Healing Commission similar to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which issued its final report on its own residential school system for Indigenous children in 2015." (It's also good news that Pope Francis is planning a July trip to Canada to speak about all of this and Indigenous issues generally with First Nations people there.)

As Secretary Haaland released the report, she issued this statement this: "The consequences of federal Indian boarding school policies — including the intergenerational trauma caused by the family separation and cultural eradication inflicted upon generations of children as young as 4 years old — are heartbreaking and undeniable. We continue to see the evidence of this attempt to forcibly assimilate Indigenous people in the disparities that communities face. It is my priority to not only give voice to the survivors and descendants of federal Indian boarding school policies, but also to address the lasting legacies of these policies so Indigenous Peoples can continue to grow and heal.”

This Indian Country Today story about the new report says that "the list (of boarding schools named) includes religious mission schools that received federal support; however, government funding streams were complex. Therefore, all religious schools receiving federal, Indian trust and treaty funds are likely not included. The final list of Indian boarding schools will surely grow as the investigation continues. For instance, the number of Catholic Indian boarding schools receiving direct funding alone is at least 113 according to records at the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions." History also tells us that other faith communities, from Quakers to Methodists, were involved in such schools.

And there was a wide range of schools and mission centers, as I noted in this recent blog post about the Shawnee Indian Mission in suburban Kansas City, where many of the children lived with their families in the area and attended classes by day.

This new report is a good first step toward full disclosure. But there is more to the story and, in the end, it will require a generative response.

The roots of this boarding school story, as I suggested earlier, are deep and troubling. The question now is whether faith communities that were involved in this evil have acknowledged this history and are doing something now to make up for their participation in it. The ripple effects, after all, still are felt because -- to the surprise of some non-Native Americans -- Indigenous people are still among us, including members of more than 570 federally recognized tribes.

* * *


The annual Templeton Prize from the John Templeton Foundation is given to people whose scientific work connects with spirituality in some way. This year's prize, just announced, went to Frank Wilczek, a Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist and author. As the RNS story to which I've linked you reports, "the John Templeton Foundation praised the 70-year-old Wilczek for transforming 'our understanding of the forces that govern our universe,' while also applying 'the insights of his field to the great questions of meaning and purpose pondered by generations of religious thinkers.'” Science and religion need not be in conflict, especially if each remembers its boundaries. Science deals with the what, the how. Religion deals with purpose. The Templeton prize is important because it encourages thoughtful ways to for religion and science to talk with each other while each, in effect, stays in its own lane.

A story of the Six Million -- but now minus one

When Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and I published our book about people in Poland who rescued Jews there from the Holocaust, the very first story we told was about a survivor named Zygie Allweiss, now of blessed memory.
Ziggy brother-1And in that story in They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, we described how Zygie and his brother Sol -- later residents of the Detroit area -- were "the only Holocaust survivors from their large family." We even named all of Zygie's other siblings, Sarah, Loeser, Gittel, Mendel, Rachel, Fishel and Frimcha.
So today it's time for a joyful update. Zygie and Sol were not the only siblings to survive. Fishel, it turns out, made it, too. Zygie's daughter, Esther Allweiss Ingber, sent me a note the other day saying, "Good morning, Bill! Something very exciting has happened in my life! One of my father Zygie's older brothers who escaped to Russia after Poland was invaded in 1939 survived the war!"
(The photo here shows Fishel and his wife, Klara. The top photo shows Zygie and his daughter Esther with Rabbi Cukierkorn and me a few years ago when Jacques and I went to Detroit to speak about our book.)
As Esther explained, "Fishel Allweiss' granddaughter in Israel, Ira (short for Irina) Kuravsky, found Zygie's Page of Testimony on Fishel. Zygie submitted pages on all his family members to Yad Vashem in 2011. Ira contacted me yesterday on Facebook, coincidentally on Holocaust Remembrance Day.
"Fishel thought his whole life that his entire family had died in the war. He searched for them in Poland. He heard they died in a fire. How overjoyed he would have been to know that my dad and uncle, Zygie and Sol, survived and were living in America. And vice versa. . .I'm blown away." (Fishel, who worked as a watchmaker, died in 1981 of cardiac arrest.)
(Yad Vashem, by the way, is the Israeli Holocaust authority. It has an archive of Holocaust survivor records and it's the agency that awards the title of "Righteous Among the Nations" to non-Jews who saved Jews from the Holocaust and whose stories can be verified.)
Esther adds this: "Ira told me her grandfather Fishel was 18 in September 1939, when Germany invaded Poland. Fishel and his brothers Loeser and Mendel, and their father Jacob, were taken into the Polish Army. Fishel was badly injured."
A note from Ira to Esther filled in these details: "We knew about a family of 11 people. . .even names, but at home it was forbidden to talk about it. Grandpa (Fishel) was crushed by his searches, would travel to Poland after (the) war and everything. They would always tell him that everyone (was) burned in the synagogue. He was more depressed (after hearing that), and would turn to alcohol. He felt he had failed, and had failed to save the family, and he was alive and the rest of the family was gone, and (he) was unable to tell about his life in Poland. Perhaps Grandma (Klara) knew more (about Fishel's life before the war) but (that) was always a very sensitive subject at home."
One reason Fishel's family didn't connect with Zygie and Sol Allweiss while they still were alive is that the family thought their last name was spelled differently, as Alvais. Esther says that "Alexander Alvais of Israel, Ira's first cousin and the older son of Fishel and Klara's older son Arkady, wrote me this: 'We always thought that we were Alvais, and it was the problem when we try to find some information. Fishel did not speak English and did not write the family name. So we write it like we hear it. And from today we understand that it was wrong.'"
Now, says Esther, "I'll be learning more and sharing my family details with my new first cousin once removed."
This joyful story, of course, has to be set in its historical context, which means that most of Zygie's family perished at the hands of Hitler's Nazi killing machine for just one reason -- that they were Jews. Thus, they were among the six million other Jews murdered for being Jewish. And even though Fishel survived, it sounds as if his post-war life was not a happy one but, rather, one trauma after another thanks to Hitler's "Final Solution."
All of that brutal reality, of course, doesn't -- and shouldn't -- diminish Esther's happiness of discovering that her Uncle Fishel survived. But what a different story it would have been if the anti-Judaism promoted by the Christian church almost from its beginning had not helped to birth modern antisemitism and had not Hitler been infected with it and empowered by the German people to act.
Some of what we think we know about history turns out to be wrong. And sometimes that's good news, even if it's tempered by a surrounding catastrophe.

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We know now, of course, that many Jewish families were unable to bury their dead in the Holocaust. It's one of the many ways Hitler's Nazi regime dehumanized people. And burial can be an important, healing ritual, as this article from The Conversation makes clear. As the author, , notes, "In all cultures, people clean, protect, embellish and carefully deposit their dead. Muslims wash and shroud the body before interring it. Hindus may bathe it with milk, honey and ghee and adorn it with flowers and essential oils before cremation. Jews keep watch over the deceased from the time of death until the burial. And many Christians hold wakes at which family members gather to pay tribute to the deceased." And he concludes with this stark note: "Given the importance of those rites, it is also striking that the Russian defense ministry has reportedly been reluctant to bring their own dead back home, because they are concerned with covering up the scale of the losses. This seeming indifference to the suffering of Russia’s own people and their need for closure may be yet another act of dehumanization."

Here's another reason Russia's church leader is Putin's puppet

As the immoral, murderous war of desecration continues in Ukraine, many people have noticed that the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), Patriarch Kirill, has chosen badly by backing the war criminal, Vladimir Putin.

Kirill-PutinAnd there has been plenty of speculation about why Kirill has made such an abominable choice -- one that is, nonetheless, sadly consistent with the ROC's support of almost whoever has been in power in Russia across its history. I've written about that choice on my blog in recent weeks here, for instance, herehere and here (in most cases not as the lead item of that day's post).

But now this analysis from the publication "Foreign Policy" suggests that homophobia has something to do with Kirill's backing of Putin.

Janine di Giovanni, a Foreign Policy global affairs columnist, writes this: Putin "has enlisted Kirill as his wingman, who shares his homophobic views. Freedom House, a democracy watchdog, calls Putin’s anti-LGBT rants 'state-sponsored homophobia' used to control Russia and says, 'Regulating gender and sexuality remains at the forefront of Russia’s domestic and international political agendas.'”

For such a twisted agenda, it helps to have the backing of a well-known religious figure. Americans know about that.

Indeed, the author contends this: "At the heart of Kirill’s support for the war is homophobia. On Forgiveness Sunday — March 6 — he delivered a sermon, where he implied that the West had been engaging in 'the suppression and extermination of people in the Donbas' for years because 'in the Donbas, there is rejection, a fundamental rejection of the so-called values ​​that are offered today by those who claim world power.' Specifically, he said, the people of the Donbas had refused to hold gay pride parades; and thus, the West was trying to destroy them."

When religious leaders fall into the trap of relying on political leaders for approval and power, they'll come up with almost any excuse to continue the relationship. And that, in turn, damages not only their own religious tradition, it damages religion in general.

Which is just what Kirill is doing.

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If you've read Isabel Wilkerson's revelatory book Caste, you know that the social ranking system often associated with India goes beyond that country and beyond Hinduism. It turns out that there's now a dispute about using caste as an anti-discrimination category on college campuses in the U.S. This article from The Conversation explains that dispute and shows how widespread caste thinking and action is around the world. Read it and weep. 

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: I just got a fun email from Stacey Perkins Rock, the wife of my former pastor, now living in Europe: "Thought you’d like to know that I personally handed the Pope a copy of your book today. If you get a call from the Vatican City area code, pick up, it’s not a prank!" The book she's talking about is one I wrote with her husband, the Rev. Dr. Paul T. Rock: Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church. I'll be standing close to my phone for a few days, but prefer that if you're not the pope you don't call and pretend that you are. (Paul now is senior pastor of the American Church in Paris.)

We face social disasters if we don't fix social media


As you may have noticed, the human capacity for evil has transformed social media. It has moved from mostly a fun and interesting way to share thoughts and news with people we at least sort of know to an appalling source of hatred, misinformation, disinformation and did I mention hatred? Plus cat videos.

Many of you know that but, like me, continue to use social media, and sometimes for worthy purposes. But perhaps you haven't paid enough attention to its propensity to draw out the worst in humanity. This article from the current issue of The Atlantic will put you up to speed about how and when this has happened.

Before I get into some of those disheartening details, I want to say that there are things you and I can do to work against the hatred, extremism and lies that are regularly found parading around social media in the guise of wisdom and enlightenment. In fact, I think it's our job to find ways to do that if we care at all about the common good. I'll have a bit more to say about that at the end of this post.

The Atlantic piece was written by Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University and author of a book I recommend: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.

As he notes early in the piece, "Social scientists have identified at least three major forces that collectively bind together successful democracies: social capital (extensive social networks with high levels of trust), strong institutions and shared stories. Social media has weakened all three. . .Social media has both magnified and weaponized the frivolous. . .It’s not just the waste of time and scarce attention that matters; it’s the continual chipping-away of trust."

No doubt you've seen this yourself if you've ever tried to carry on a worthwhile conversation via text or social media with someone with whom you have political disagreements. There are ways to have such conversations and to have them be enriching for all participants. But the results often are at best disappointing and at worst destructive of relationships when those conversations happen via social media or text messages.

It's not just personal relationships that get wounded and even destroyed through social media, it's important institutions. As Haidt writes, "Part of America’s greatness in the 20th century came from having developed the most capable, vibrant and productive network of knowledge-producing institutions in all of human history, linking together the world’s best universities, private companies that turned scientific advances into life-changing consumer products and government agencies that supported scientific research and led the collaboration that put people on the moon. . .So what happens when an institution is not well maintained and internal disagreement ceases, either because its people have become ideologically uniform or because they have become afraid to dissent? This, I believe, is what happened to many of America’s key institutions in the mid-to-late 2010s. They got stupider en masse because social media instilled in their members a chronic fear of getting darted."

Social-Media(Darted is a term referring to Haidt's contention that social media equipped its users with sharp verbal darts to be tossed willy-nilly at people with whom one took issue.)

Political institutions, of course, are included in the list of institutions that got stupider. As he notes, "American politics is getting ever more ridiculous and dysfunctional not because Americans are getting less intelligent. The problem is structural. Thanks to enhanced-virality social media, dissent is punished within many of our institutions, which means that bad ideas get elevated into official policy."

Haidt confesses that he doesn't have all the answers for how to fix all this, but he does make some helpful suggestions, one of which is to "Prepare the Next Generation."

He describes his ideas for that in some detail, and you can read all that for yourself. I just want to add that already there are efforts in the Kansas City area to teach the next generation how not to fall into the trap of bitter wars through social media. One of those efforts is led by the SevenDays organization, which works with high school students to promote in students the values of kindness and care.

SevenDays was created after the 2014 murders of three people at Kansas City area Jewish institutions. Mindy Corporon lost one of her sons and her father and Jim LaManno lost his wife to the spiteful violence by a neo-Nazi. (All three victims were Christian.) Mindy decided her job was to respond not with bitterness but with love and care. So the task of SevenDays (I'm a relatively new board member) is to overcome hate through education and dialogue. And young people are a particular -- but not the only -- focus of that work.

Every school, congregation and youth club should offer social media training for students so they know what is acceptable and what is unacceptable free speech. The idea is not censorship. Rather, the idea is to give students tools that will help them not fall into the trap of responding to hate with more hate.

We can't do this work soon enough. Haidt again: "(W)hile social media has eroded the art of association throughout society, it may be leaving its deepest and most enduring marks on adolescents. A surge in rates of anxiety, depression, and self-harm among American teens began suddenly in the early 2010s. (The same thing happened to Canadian and British teens, at the same time.) The cause is not known, but the timing points to social media as a substantial contributor — the surge began just as the large majority of American teens became daily users of the major platforms."

So we all have work to do, no doubt starting in our own families. But we can't just leave it there. Teaching young people how to conduct civil and respectful discourse has to happen or the costs will be too great for society to bear.

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Slowly, the history of how Indigenous people in what is now Canada and the U.S. were treated by (Christian) European invaders is being revealed. The most recent example was an apology by the head of the Worldwide Anglican Communion for the church's role in running boarding schools for Indigenous children in Canada -- schools where many died as their overseers tried to wipe out their culture and turn them into white kids. Despite the deaths and mass graves, Indigenous people on both sides of the border still survive, and now is the time to learn about them and discover how their culture and approaches to ecology, for example, can instruct the rest of us.

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P.S.: Ready or not, the long-delayed schism of the United Methodist Church just got more real, as this Christianity Today story reports. Without a formal schism vote, the Global Methodist Church launched on May 1. As the CT story to which I've linked you says, "the new denomination plans to uphold traditional, conservative Wesleyan theology but run on a lighter, leaner infrastructure that emphasizes grassroots accountability and ministry connections." At its base the GMC will stand against treating LGBTQ+ folks equally with others by denying them ordination. Theology that finds ways to divide and oppress people stands against anything Jesus taught.

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ANOTHER P.S.: Republican Sen. Susan Collins charges that what appears to be votes by Justice Brett Kavanaugh and Justice Neil Gorsuch to overturn the 1973 Roe vs. Wade abortion decision was "completely inconsistent" with what they said at their confirmation hearings and in discussions with her. It's another distressing sign that increasingly nowadays Supreme Court justices are partisan and that, like many annoying politicians, they'll say things they don't really mean just to advance their careers. In any event, if the draft Roe vs. Wade decision stands, the political climate in the U.S., already at a divisive boil, is likely to get much worse. Sigh.