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We learn more from history's disasters than its celebrations

What those of us who lived through the Vietnam War era know is that our government lied to us. Over and over. About body counts. About whether the U.S. was winning. About how long the war would go on. This was true of our government no matter who was president, Democrat or Republican. You could look it up.

My-lai-massacre-museumOne result was predictable -- many people lost their trust in the government. Keeping trust in others is one reason the great religions of the world are consistent in promoting the high moral value of speaking truth.

I raise the ghost of Vietnam today for a couple of reasons. First, as this site reports, it was on this date in 1973 that "the last U.S. combat troops leave South Vietnam as Hanoi frees many of the remaining American prisoners of war held in North Vietnam. America’s direct eight-year intervention in the Vietnam War was at an end."

Well, "direct" intervention, maybe. But it took until April 1975 before "the last few Americans still in South Vietnam were airlifted out of the country as Saigon fell to communist forces."

So there's that terrible history and the role lies played in it.

But, by coincidence, today is also the date in 1971 when Lt. William Calley was found guilty of premeditated murder at My Lai (pronounced, appropriately enough, "Me Lie") in Vietnam by a U.S. Court Martial. Again, as this site reports, Calley, "a platoon leader, had led his men in a massacre of Vietnamese civilians, including women and children, at My Lai 4, a cluster of hamlets in Quang Ngai Province on March 16, 1968." (The photo here today shows the memorial that's been built at the My Lai site.)

Thank goodness for the work of investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, who broke the My Lai story. And thank goodness also for William G. Eckhardt, who, as part of the U.S. Army's Judge Advocate General's Corps, successfully prosecuted the case of Capt. Ernest Medina for his important role in the My Lai Massacre. Bill Eckhardt, later on the faculty of the University of Missouri-Kansas City Law School, now is a member of the congregation of which I'm also a member.

I know all of us, including me, would prefer to remember anniversaries of joyful happenings -- weddings, birthdays (my Uncle Lawrence Tammeus, brother of my late father, will turn 101 tomorrow, for example), discoveries, sports victories and on and on. But, in the end, I think we learn more about ourselves and the world in general by paying attention to anniversaries of catastrophes, when evil seemed to carry the day.

If you insist on marking a joyful event today instead of the two I've mentioned above, it was also on this date in 1982 when North Carolina freshman Michael Jordan made the final shot that gave his team a 1-point victory over Georgetown in the NCAA men's basketball championship. And I'm sure you're taking today off to celebrate.

But over the years I've learned a lot more about human nature from what happened in Vietnam than from any basketball game. Sigh.

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New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft has established a new $25 million “Stand Up to Jewish Hate” campaign through his Foundation to Combat Antisemitism, this RNS story reports. Good for him, but how sad that it's even needed. And yet we know that resurgent antisemitism is here and it's one more iteration of what's been labeled the world's oldest hatred. I wish I had more confidence that spending this money would change hearts. But, as we all know, silence in the face of oppression means taking the side of the oppressor. As the RNS story notes, the campaign’s launch comes after the recent "release of a report by the Anti-Defamation League asserting that antisemitic incidents in the U.S. rose 36% in 2022." If you aren't already a supporter of agencies that work against this and any kind of hatred, please join. In the Kansas City area, they include the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education, the SevenDays organization and the Jewish Community Relations Bureau/American Jewish Committee. I serve on the boards of the first two agencies.

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P.S.: If you missed my latest Flatland column when it posted on Sunday, it's right here. And free.

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ANOTHER P.S.: At 3 p.m. Central time today, a newly formed "Noose to Needle Project" will host a virtual panel discussion called “How Slavery, Lynching and Racial Terror Birthed the Modern-Day Death Penalty” as part of its official project launch. You can register for the free event here. Sorry for the late notice but I just received word about this yesterday.

Is political violence in the U.S. simply inevitable?

One reason I wrote my last book -- Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety -- was to explore the question of how people get sucked into extremism and what we might do about that.

ExtremismThat's why the last chapter contains several ideas for countering radicalism. And it's why I continue to worry about the various ways that extremist ideology can be found in our culture.

All of which is why I was attracted to the cover article in the current issue of The Atlantic, "The New Anarchy: America faces a type of extremist violence it does not know how to stop," by Adrienne LaFrance, executive editor of that venerable publication.

She takes a look at various periods of radicalism both in U.S. history and around the world, looking for clues not just about how extremism started but also how it eventually ended, if it did. It's well worth a read.

One piece of history she considers is the so-called anarchist period in the U.S. in the early 20th Century and the "Palmer Raids" that (illegally) tried to stop it.

LaFrance concludes with what she calls "the most important lesson" from this period: "Holding perpetrators accountable is crucial. The Palmer Raids are remembered, rightly, as a ham-handed application of police-state tactics. Government actions can turn killers into martyrs. More important, aggressive policing and surveillance can undermine the very democracy they are meant to protect; state violence against citizens only validates a distrust of law enforcement. But deterrence conducted within the law can work."

She also takes a look at the anti-government "Patriot" movement in the 1980s and '90s that "eventually led to deadly standoffs between federal agents and armed citizens at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992, and in Waco, Texas, in 1993. . .Those incidents stirred the present-day militia movement and directly inspired the Oklahoma City bombers, anti-government extremists who killed 168 people at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in 1995."

She then notes that "the surge in militia activity, white nationalism and apocalypticism of the 1990s seemed to peter out in the early 2000s. This once struck me as a bright spot, an earlier success we might learn from today. But when I mentioned this notion to Carolyn Gallaher, a scholar who spent two years following a right-wing paramilitary group in Kentucky in the 1990s, she said, 'The militia movement waned very quickly in the 1990s not because of anything we did, but because of Oklahoma City. That bombing really put the movement on the back foot. Some groups went underground. Some groups dispersed. You also saw that happen with white-supremacist groups.'”

The Oklahoma City bombing, in other words, was so shocking and lethal that it seemed to send extremists at least temporarily back into the dark corners from which they had emerged.

But what's happened since then? LaFrance writes this: "A generation later, political violence in America unfolds with little organized guidance and is fed by a mishmash of extremist right-wing views. It predates the emergence of Donald Trump, but Trump served as an accelerant. He also made tolerance of political violence a defining trait of his party, whereas in the past, both political parties condemned it."

So are we doomed to more and more violence? Not necessarily. As LaFrance notes, "As violence increases, so does distrust in institutions and leaders, and around and around it goes. The process is not inevitable — it can be held in check — but if a period of bloodshed is sustained for long enough, there is no shortcut back to normal. And signs of decivilization are visible now."

What, then, is our task now? LaFrance puts it this way: "Ending political violence means facing down those who use the language of democracy to weaken democratic systems. It means rebuking the conspiracy theorist who uses the rhetoric of truth-seeking to obscure what’s real; the billionaire who describes his privately owned social platform as a democratic town square; the seditionist who proclaims himself a patriot; the authoritarian who claims to love freedom."

I trust each of those descriptions immediately brought a name to mind. The question now is how we face them down.

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TWJP-coverWhen Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and I were working on our 2009 book about how some non-Jews in Poland rescued Jews from the Holocaust, it was quickly clear that this was a complicated story far more nuanced than a simple case of good versus evil. We hope that we reflected that adequately in They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust. Those complications came back to mind as I read this fascinating piece in The Tablet about a scholarly rethinking of the usual categories of "ordinary" Polish citizens in the Holocaust as victims, perpetrators or bystanders.

The author of the (long) article, Tomasz Frydel, insists that such an easy tri-part system obscures at least as much as it reveals, especially when it comes to the role historic antisemitism played as a motivating force for such so-called ordinary Poles. Frydel writes: "No doubt the system benefitted from antisemitism, but it was a sufficient, not a necessary, condition for participation. It only gets us so far in explaining why killing on the local level proceeded the way that it did."

These periodic reviews of human history are necessary and often important. Without them, we are likely to buy into stories that are monochromatic even as they seek to reflect a complex world in which simple answers distort complex truths. Sometimes that leaves us without clear answers. But in an often-ambiguous world, that may well be a more accurate picture of reality than the myths we tell about the boy George Washington chopping down a cherry tree or about happy slaves singing joyful songs on plantations in the South.

A big reason people doubt Christians? Hypocrisy

When I was in junior high and high school, my family regularly attended a Presbyterian church in my small hometown in northern Illinois.

HypocrisyThe closer I got to high school graduation, the more I seemed to sense a rupture between what the church taught about loving others and about doing justice and the way some members of the church lived their lives.

I'm sure now I was mostly just being a judgmental teenager, but what I labeled hypocrisy began to drive me away from the church. Indeed, once I left for college I spent about a dozen years unattached to the church, though I never lost my hunger for answers to the eternal questions. What I think drove me back to institutional religion and church membership was an eventual recognition that I myself was among the hypocrites and needed help with that.

I thought about all of that as I was reading this Good Faith Media article, which suggests that hypocrisy is a prime reason people today leave the Christian church. It reports this: "Hypocrisy of professed Christians is the leading cause of people doubting the Christian faith, according to a Barna Group report published March 1."

Barna surveyed U.S. adults, presenting them with "14 possible causes that might make them 'doubt Christian beliefs.'" It turned out that what Barna called “the hypocrisy of religious people” was the most common response by religiously unaffiliated people (42 percent) and by non-Christians (24 percent). And it was the second most-common response of Christians (22 percent).

None of this should surprise anyone, although in some ways I might have expected the hypocrisy answer to be held by even larger percentages of each group.

Hypocrisy simply means that someone is living a lie. Or that people don't practice what they preach. Children are especially good at picking up on hypocrisy they find in their parents, as anyone who has ever been a parent knows. In that way, children sometimes serve as a moral compass for parents and grandparents. Or at least a moral alarm bell.

Examples of hypocrisy on the part of supposed Christians are not hard to find. Jesus told his followers to love the little children and to be, in fact, child-like -- not childish. So how then can the child sexual abuse scandal in various faith traditions be explained? It can't. It's hypocrisy run amok. When faith preaches taking care of the poor but the preacher who delivers that message flies around to revivals in his own private jet, it's hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy is claiming to follow the God whose image each human being bears but then demonizing some of those humans because of their race, their gender, their economic status or some other phony standard.

And on and on.

We are imperfect people. Each one of us. And inevitably we will do things that seem hypocritical to others. But one purpose of being part of a faith community is to have accountability for how we live our lives. People who love us as part of that community need to notice and call us on our hypocrisy. You can be sure that people outside the faith community are noticing our hypocrisy and many are staying away precisely because of it.

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A recently published report by the International Commission to Combat Religious Racism contends that attacks against others by white supremacists are not rare and that the perpetrators are seldom acting alone, as this RNS story reports. The story also notes this: "The ICCRR report examines racially motivated attacks on places of worship and religious community centers in the United States and Canada. In total, the report includes attacks on 58 places." This is distressing and appalling, of course, but what we don't know is whether this is a one-time surge or a pattern that will be with us for a long time. I don't know the answer to that. What I do know is that white supremacist thinking has been around not forever but for centuries, and it keeps finding bitter fuel to add to the flames it's producing. What seems so hard for many white people, including me, to grasp is that if we're not actively engaged in combatting systemic racism, we are enabling or even encouraging the evil of white supremacy. Silence simply is not an option.

If people from outer space get to Earth, will we preach to them?

Now that the Pentagon and some academics seem to be taking seriously the idea that there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, what are people of faith supposed to make of the idea?

UapHere's what Sean M. Kirkpatrick, director of the Pentagon’s All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office, wrote in a research report co-authored by Abraham (Avi) Loeb, chairman of Harvard University’s astronomy department: “[A]n artificial interstellar object could potentially be a parent craft that releases many small probes during its close passage to Earth, an operational construct not too dissimilar from NASA missions.” That quote also can be found in the report itself, about which the Military Times wrote here.

And, just for the record, what we used to call UFOs, Unidentified Flying Objects, the Pentagon and others now call "unidentified aerial phenomena." So much more sophisticated, right?

At any rate, if the new report interests you, you can find it at the link I gave you in the second paragraph here.

As for what to make of the idea and how it might relate to religious teachings, it helps to acknowledge that Earth's major religions mostly have ignored the possibility of life elsewhere as they have tended to support Earth-centric ideas. The Genesis creation stories (there are two of them, and they don't match up particularly well), for instance, note that when God created our planet, she declared it "good." And when people got added to the picture, it was all "very good."

Was Earth, thus, God's early science fair project on which he later improved elsewhere? Nothing in the Jewish or Christian scriptures would lead us to conclude that life elsewhere is an idea utterly out of bounds.

What the world's major religions seem to agree on is the idea that God is sovereign. So to say that God could not create life in this vast cosmos somewhere besides on our tiny planet would have precious little support from theologians.

The question, of course, is what we should do if we happen to encounter such life -- either here or out in space. Again, our faith traditions suggest that any life has within it a divine spark, what some of us call the imago dei, the image of God. So we would be called to treat such life with respect even as we cautiously make sure that such creatures don't have our destruction at the top of their to-do list for today.

I'm frankly not at all worried about running into aliens, though I think we should abandon that term, given that they, too, would be residents in God's big world. Besides, maybe they know answers to things that have puzzled us humans forever: How do you put a round object in a square hole? Who shot J.R.? Why do we drive in a parkway and park in a driveway? And on and on.

Oh, and before we try to convert people from elsewhere to our religion, we might want to hear about theirs, if they have one.
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Back here on Earth, an Oklahoma state representative has been quoting certain passages from the Bible to show that scripture endorses corporal punishment for children. This is a practice called "proof-texting." You take a verse out of the context in which it was written and apply it to some situation today that has little or no bearing on that original context. It's why people say that even the devil can quote scripture to his (her? its? their?) advantage.

A single word switch in translating scripture can change much

I recently wrote here on the blog about a well-known translator of the Hebrew Bible, Robert Alter, and of his belief that many, if not most, modern English translations of the Bible are, as he put it, "execrable." Which I translated as "crap."

Haley-JacobToday I'm returning to the subject of scriptural translation because of something pointed out by Haley Jacob (pictured here), who teaches theology at Whitworth University, when she spoke recently as the Meneilly Visiting Scholar at Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, Kan.

Her overall subject was "The Hope of Glory? What is it? When is it? And have we got it all wrong?" But within that topic she happened to note what she thought was an unfortunate translation change from the 1952 Revised Standard Version of the Bible to the 1989 New Revised Standard Version. (There recently has been an NRSV updated version, but it keeps the same word Jacob questions that is found in the 1989 version.)

The verse in question is Romans 8:28 in the New Testament letter written by the Apostle Paul to the fledgling church in Rome. Here's the NRSV version: "We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose."

Here's the earlier RSV version: "We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose."

Yes, the "in everything" of the RSV becomes "all things" in the NRSV, but that's really of no consequence.

However the change to "work together for good for those who love God" from "works for good with those who love him" is consequential, indeed.

Jacob noted that many Christians have found hope and comfort in this verse, particularly the NRSV version because they have seen themselves (or some other sufferer) as the (eventual) recipient of the (eventual) goodness. Even the worst evil, in this view, can produce good, an idea Jacob rejected as false hope: "There is no good that can come out of evil," she declared. Rather, good can come from working against evil, against suffering, against injustice.

But when "for" in this verse is replaced with "with," the clear implication is that humanity has a role to play in helping God make good triumph. Working "with" God means people have agency, a calling, a responsibility. They are called to work with the divine to stand against evil and help to relieve suffering, serving as the hands, feet and heart of Christ on Earth, in Christian terms.

In fact, she raised the stakes even higher than that. She insisted that we are called to live what she called a "cruciform" life, a life shaped by the cross of Christ, a life lived in anticipation of suffering that almost certainly will happen when we stand against oppressive earthly powers on behalf of the poor and oppressed.

The NRSV translation, she said, encourages people to "nullify evil" by thinking that eventually good will come out of it if we just wait long enough. That's the road to inaction. And when we are silent in the face of oppression, we take the side of the oppressor.

All of this is one more reason to remember that any translation of the Christian Bible from Hebrew, Greek and a little Aramaic into English is an act of interpretation. And it's one more reason to check one translation against another to try to get the clearest picture possible of what the original writers meant. The same, of course, goes for scripture in other faith traditions.

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Gift-of-MeaningIt's been 30 years since a siege at the home of the Branch Davidians outside of Waco, Texas, eventually resulted in the deaths of four federal agents and about 80 members of the Davidians. This article from The Conversation makes the good point that this event has given ammunition ever since to anti-government extremists. One reason is that the government badly botched this event, a point I made in several articles I wrote from Waco a year after the Davidians' home exploded with deadly fire. One mistake after another made the outcome almost inevitable and, in the end, gave fuel to such radicals as Timothy McVeigh, who was behind the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. You can find the articles I wrote about all of this in my first book, A Gift of Meaning, published in 2001 and sometimes still findable on the internet. A primary point of the piece is that none of this needed to have happened and could have been prevented had federal agents taken the time to speak with religious studies experts at the nearby Baylor University. They had been keeping track of the Branch Davidians for decades and understood what not to do to trigger them.

How Jimmy Carter tried to live out his Christianity

Jimmy Carter, now in hospice care in his home in Plains, Ga., will never be ranked among our top 10 presidents. But his failure to achieve greatness as a political leader means next-to-nothing about his moral center and his status as what he and many other people of faith would call a child of God.

Jimmy-carterThis article from The Conversation by Lori Amber Roessner, a journalism professor at the University of Tennessee, unpacks some of what made Carter a politician willing to talk openly about his faith and to live out that faith in a consistent and consistently admirable way throughout his long life.

"(O)ne observation is certain," she writes. "Carter was a man of faith committed to a vision of the nation that aligned with his views of Jesus’ teachings."

Carter's understanding of all this, by the way, is radically different from what has more recently come to be known as Christian Nationalism, a badly misguided attempt to create something close to a theocracy in which just one branch of Christianity sets the national agenda. Rather, Carter's approach has been to take seriously Jesus' words about loving enemies, caring for the poor, feeding the hungry -- all with compassion -- as he looked for ways that such teachings could be implemented fairly in a nation that, at least in theory, welcomes people of all faith traditions and none.

As Roessner writes, "Carter remained steadfast in his commitment to his Christian values and a faith-inspired vision for the nation that advanced human rights at home and abroad." Indeed, in many ways it was Carter's insistence on a foreign policy that put human rights at or near the top of the agenda that perhaps best illustrates how his faith shaped his politics.

In his post-presidency, of course, he's known for his work with many humanitarian projects, from building Habitat for Humanity houses to working to eradicate Guinea Worm from Africa.

In 1976, the day after Carter won the New Hampshire primary, I traveled with the national media and met Carter and his campaign at the Philadelphia airport for a press conference before we moved on to other stops that day. Carter's New Hampshire victory was rather surprising for the little-known governor of Georgia at the time.

So as I was walking with other reporters down an airport corridor to attend Carter's press conference we noticed at the other end of the corridor Carter and his campaign staff moving toward us. As we got closer, Jim Wooten of the New York Times put on his big-boy voice and made an announcement to the relatively few people walking in the same hallway: "Ladies and gentlemen: The next president of the United States, James Earl CRATER."

Judy Woodruff of PBS, walking alongside Wooten, looked aghast and picked up her step to move away from Wooten, whose childish joke seemed to amuse almost no one but him, though it did point out how little most Americans knew about Carter.

Later I went to Plains, Ga., where I met Jimmy's mother, known as Miss Lillian, and his later-infamous Brother Billy, and where I stood in a peanut field with Carter watching him shoot a video for his campaign. Jimmy was clearly his mother's son. Miss Lillian was a smart, loving, quick-witted good heart. Both she and I had lived for a time in India, which gave us a little common ground as I interviewed her in the Plains campaign headquarters.

I think what even political opponents came to admire about Jimmy Carter was his consistency when it came to matters of religion. He clearly thought of himself as an evangelical Christian (he regularly taught an adult Sunday school class), but one that was much more interested in trying to live the life he believed Jesus called him to live rather than one who wanted to devote his time and energy to the culture wars, which already were underway during his presidency.

So it was not surprising when Carter moved away from the Southern Baptist Convention, which had been taken over by people who called themselves fundamentalists, and became attached to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. The website of his church in Plains, however, Maranatha Baptist, says it's affiliated with both the SBC and the CBF. 

The one small thing I regret (a little) writing about Carter when I covered the 1976 Democratic convention in New York when he was nominated for president was a silly description I used of him. In a piece I wrote for The Kansas City Star, I called him "The Trojan Peanut" as a way of pointing to the unlikelihood of this Georgia peanut farmer slipping in to receive the Democratic party's presidential nomination. I thought it was kind of cute at the time, but, in fact, it was dismissive of his political skills that knocked all the other competition out of the way that year. A small regret, perhaps, but a regret nonetheless.

Well, as someone who served on the board of Kansas City Hospice & Palliative Care for 12 years, I know the immense value of well-done hospice care. My prayer is that Jimmy Carter is getting the kind of care he himself would be giving to others if he were a hospice nurse instead of a former president.

May your road ahead, Mr. President, be smooth as mist.

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For this second piece today, I am connecting you to this intriguing, serious and complicated article having to do with abortion in light of the Supreme Court's Dobbs ruling. The author argues that conservative Christian theology seems to trump all other brands of theology when it comes to court cases these days in the U.S. legal system. The Dobbs decision, the author writes, "overruled Roe v. Wade and allowed state legislatures to criminalize abortion care for the first time in half a century. What the court also did was hand off a fundamentally theological issue to elected state representatives." The result is that now some people are arguing in courts that this or that group is insincere in its theological beliefs. Oh, my. As I say, this is not an easy issue to grasp, but when we turn our theology over to the court system to referee, we're simply asking for trouble. And trouble is what we have.

The concept of 'shalom' is more than just one thing

"This morning I awoke with no sensation of pain anywhere in my body for the first time in months. I had forgotten the feeling. To simply enjoy one's physical existence, to awaken to the exultation of the blessing of complete health, I experienced as such a gift. I knew as soon as I moved I'd feel pain. So I lay in bed, next to my beloved wife and caretaker, just reveling in complete peacefulness, at least for myself.

"This feeling of shalom, complete wholeness, of course, we can never appreciate until it's gone, hopefully to eventually return. As a younger person I never awoke with complete gratitude simply to give thanks to God. It never occurred to me that anything would ever be different. Wasn't I just experiencing God's plan for us all, the natural state of being, complete health, all bodily systems set to 'go?'
"Now I understand how much I missed. Others never awaken with that extraordinary blessing, for one reason or another. Others, like my sister, lost it at an early age, never to return. But here I am at 74 and can still experience the blessing of a pain-free body, at least for a short amount of time.

"Once I decided to move, of course, physical pain returned as expected, but every day different blessings arrive, hoped for but unanticipated in that each day is a new recovery. Painful movement improves the next moment for the better. Pain pills reduce the quantity and duration of the pain. A thoughtful inquiry about my well-being bolsters not only my spirit but my actual equanimity: the spiritual and physical intermingle somehow, beyond my comprehension. . .

"So one week after surgery I have sat up all day so far. I have enjoyed moments remembering visits, caring thoughts shared, my children's smiles. Turns out, there's more to wholeness than physical health. In genuine sharing, beyond physical comfort, there's 'nachat ruach,' spiritual contentment, that provides a blessing resulting from genuine and authentic caring given and received. . .

"(P)hysical wholeness is temporary. But spiritual wholeness through actual acts of love raises us to a higher level of joy, feeling the shalom of a love in partnership and friendship that exults beyond words."
So in this period when the three Abrahamic faiths observe Passover, Lent or Ramadan, may shalom find all of us.
(The photo here today is one I took a few years ago in Jerusalem. I think that's the dove of peace looking -- so far unsuccessfully -- for a safe place to land.)
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Are religious leaders moral individuals? That's the question asked in a recent poll that also included other occupations. Religious leaders came in fifth, behind doctors, teachers, therapists and scientists. As the Good Faith Media story to which I've linked you reports, "Just over half (53%) says religious leaders are very (18%) or somewhat (35%) moral, while 30% feel religious leaders are very (12%) or somewhat (18%) immoral. The remaining 17% are unsure." Looks like folks with a religious title in front of their names have some work to do.
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Book of Nature
The Book of Nature: The Astonishing Beauty of God's First Sacred Text, by Barbara Mahany. The author of this lovely new book (to be published March 21 but available for order now) has written important and beautiful words for The Chicago Tribune for decades. In this new book, she describes the natural world around us as scripture to be read with care. But it takes commitment and time to read and be awed by what she calls the book of nature. Mahany is a Catholic woman married to a Jewish man. It turns out that a rabbi introduced her to the concept of nature as holy scripture. Just what is the book of nature? It is, she writes, "the one sacred text that needs no translation; it's unfurled without words, composed in an alphabet of seashell and moonbeam, the flight of the birds and even the plundering of nests."
Paying attention -- or being mindful, as Buddhists would put it -- is a prerequisite for an accurate and useful reading of the book of nature, she says. But beyond that, it points to nature's author: ". . .I am attuned and on high alert to the filigree and bedazzlement of the author of it all, the one who paints the dawn in tourmaline streaks and salts the night sky in chalky, sometimes brilliant, flecks, the one who thought to quench the thirst of the migrating butterfly with mists of fog and remembered that baby birds might do well to memorize the star-stitched tracings far, far above the nursery that is the nest."
Mahany draws from many sources, including wisdom from the Indigenous peoples who occupied this land before European invaders unleashed physical and cultural genocide on them. So she recognizes the Indigenous idea that they belong to the land, which contrasts with the imported idea that the land can belong to people. And, in the end, she pleads for environmental sense to save the book of nature from human destruction: "The sobering spine-stiffening truth is that, as a people, we've abandoned our watch on this one holy earth, and the losses are dire: personal, political and, in the end, always sacred."

A modern 'revival'? What is that all about?

Religious revivals are a tradition in American Christianity.

Asbury-revivalThey began, in fact, before there officially was a United States, with the "Great Awakening" from 1734 to 1743. Jonathan Edwards, most famous for his preach-fear sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," was a young pastor in Northampton, Mass., where a revival broke out. (See? And you thought only people today got woke.)

You can read about that and other revivals, as they came to be called, in this article, which also deals with the recent revival activity at Asbury University in Kentucky. It's that latest revival I want to explore a bit today. You can read other details about it here (a Religious News Service story) and here (an opinion piece from The Atlantic).

The Asbury Revival, so-called, seemed to break out without warning about a month ago and eventually drew thousands of people to the small town of Wilmore -- so many, in fact, that the place was overwhelmed and the head of the school had to change rules to control things. (And as this RNS story reports, the Asbury Revival seems to be over on campus but in some ways has moved elsewhere.)

Some folks, predictably, described the Asbury event as a manipulation of the emotions of eager young adults that they'd eventually feel a little silly about.

But others, including the author of The Atlantic piece to which I linked you above, believed something genuine and generative was happening there.

I'm in no position to make any judgment about the authenticity of the Asbury Revival, and won't. But it does give all of us a chance to think about what I could call spiritual hunger in a time of religious diminishment in the U.S.

There's evidence of spiritual hunger all around, if you really look for it. For instance, the latest surveys about religious participation in the U.S. reveal that almost one-third of adults now describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated. But dig a little deeper and you'll find that only a small percentage of them -- and a smaller percentage of the whole population -- identifies as atheist.

So lots of people may have abandoned institutional religion in the U.S., but they still search for answers to the eternal questions. And, in the end, are there more important questions with which to wrestle than those that deal with our being, our purpose, our connections to the divine? No.

In fact, if what I call the eternal questions don't interest you, I would say your brain and your heart have gone AWOL.

I don't know what the long-term results of the Asbury Revival will be (nobody does), but if anyone who attended was moved to adopt something close to what the New Testament book of James describes as true religion, then the revival will have done at least some good. James 1:27 says this: "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world."

The term "orphans and widows" there is a shortcut way of saying, "Love your neighbor," which is half of the biblical command that ultimately describes healthy religion: Love God, neighbor and self -- and maybe even in that order. What James means by "the world" we might translate in our time to mindless consumerism.  Or endless soul-killing entertainment. Or mis- and dis-information. Or, simply, the internet.

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In at least partial response to the Asbury Revival, Robert N. McCauley, a professor of philosophy at Emory University, has written this article for The Conversation, speculating about whether such events in religion are predictable. Maybe not, he suggests. See what you think.

Our desire to be entertained to death is, well, killing us

Now and then it's important -- in fact, vital -- that we take a step back from how we're living and compare it to the generative, generous and caring ways that the world's great religions call us to live.

High-techWhen we do that, however, we might discover that we've pretty much got it wrong. That's what this article from The Atlantic suggests to me. It's about the "metaverse" in which we seem to be living now, a universe shaped and controlled by major tech companies, by social media and by others engaged in making sure that we're entertained to death every moment we're awake -- and that we're part of the show.

"(T)he metaverse," writes Megan Garber, "has leaped from science fiction and into our lives. Microsoft, Alibaba and ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok, have all made significant investments in virtual and augmented reality. Their approaches vary, but their goal is the same: to transform entertainment from something we choose, channel by channel or stream by stream or feed by feed, into something we inhabit. In the metaverse, the promise goes, we will finally be able to do what science fiction foretold: live within our illusions."

If that's the promise, it's one that will flatten, if not murder, our souls, our spirits, our genius.

So when Jesus, for example, called us to live flourishing lives (he said he had come so we might have life -- and have it more abundantly), it's pretty clear that he didn't mean we should spend our days and nights in front of a screen.

Meta-logo"No company," Garber writes, "has placed a bigger bet on this future than Mark Zuckerberg’s. In October 2021, he rebranded Facebook as Meta to plant a flag in this notional landscape. For its new logo, the company redesigned the infinity symbol, all twists with no end. The choice was apt: The aspiration of the renamed company is to engineer a kind of endlessness. Why have mere users when you can have residents?"

And, of course, we, the residents, are also the product. Which is to say that we are sold or rented to countless advertisers who want to us buy what they're selling, even -- and maybe especially -- if we have no earthly use for the product.

I have read the Atlantic piece both in print and online. In print, there are no ads on the pages of the article. Online, the first thing I see is an ad for some vitamins that I recently ordered online, though it's unclear why I should click on the ad and buy more of what I've already bought. But, you see, the pop-up commercial has moved me from being a reader of an interesting article to thinking about my own health and what I might need to stay healthy. I've become a resident of The Atlantic page as opposed to simply a reader.

And that self-centers me versus the idea of moving me out into the world to comfort the afflicted, to offer what I can to help people in need, to do unto others what I would have them do unto me.

As The Atlantic piece asserts, "we will surrender ourselves to our entertainment. We will become so distracted and dazed by our fictions that we’ll lose our sense of what is real. We will make our escapes so comprehensive that we cannot free ourselves from them. The result will be a populace that forgets how to think, how to empathize with one another, even how to govern and be governed.

"That future has already arrived. We live our lives, willingly or not, within the metaverse."

So, again, let's think about the kind of extravagantly hopeful, useful, awe-filled life to which healthy spirituality calls us. The metaverse ain't it. Now, go be human, fully human.

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On my blog recently, I wrote here about resurgent antisemitism. Along those same lines, here is a column by a senior contributing editor to the Jewish newspaper, The Forward, about how he has stopped telling American Jews to quit worrying about antisemitic violence because, it turns out, it's worse than he thought. It's clear that a hate-filled internet, with its various social media platforms, isn't helping.

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P.S.: The Midwest Center for Holocaust Education, on the board of which I serve, has scheduled monthly sessions at which people may hear from and speak to Holocaust survivors. The list of such people grows smaller each year, of course, so this is a rare opportunity. You can read more about it and how to participate here.

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ANOTHER P.S.: If you missed my latest Flatland column when it posted on Sunday, it's still available here for free. It looks at possible futures for the large United Methodist Church of the Resurrection and its now-six campuses in the KC area.