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Why Christianity's creeds often miss the main point

Before I get to the core of David Bentley Hart's most recent book, Tradition and Apocalypse: An Essay on the Future of Christian Belief, I want you to know that the author seems to be simply incapable of writing a passionless or vacuous sentence. It's also true, however, that in seeking just the right word for just the right meaning he stretches his vocabulary into mysterious caverns I've never visited. If you can read Hart without a dictionary -- print or virtual -- next to you, award yourself an honorary doctorate degree.

Tradition-ApocalypseNow, then: Hart insists that we'll almost certainly miss the point if we look for the core truths of Christianity as they are expressed in past institutional statements of dogma/doctrine, confessional statements of faith or accounts of the alleged history of how doctrinal development happened. And we also are unlikely to find those truths by studying Christian history, he says -- at least not in a way that points to or anticipates the revelation of the glorious endpoint ahead, which is (or should be) at the heart of the faith.

Rather, we're more likely to find Christian truth and meaning by looking to some future culmination, some final revelation, some distant horizon when what began at the first Easter finds its final shining, halcyon horizon.

More on that soon. But speaking of that astonishing Sunday morning in Jerusalem nearly 2,000 years ago, read -- and then read again -- how Hart, an Orthodox Christian scholar who has done his own translation of the New Testament, describes what happened in what may be the best summary of that cosmic event I've ever read:

". . .Christianity entered human history not as a new creed or sapiential path or system of religious observances, but as apocalypse: the sudden unveiling of a mystery hidden in God before the foundation of the world in a historical event without any possible precedent or any conceivable sequel; an overturning of all the orders and hierarchies of the age, here on earth and in the archon-thronged heavens above; an overthrow of all the angelic and daemonic powers and principalities by a slave legally crucified at the behest of all the religious and political authorities of his time, but raised up by God as the one sole Lord over all the cosmos; the abolition of the partition of Law between peoples; the proclamation of an imminent arrival of the Kingdom and a new age of creation; an urgent call to all persons to come out from the shelters of social, cultic and political association into a condition of perilous and unprotected exposure, dwelling nowhere but in the singularity of the event -- for the days are short."

The problem, of course, was that Jesus promised us God's Kingdom but what we got, at least so far, was and is the church. So when that started to dawn on disappointed people after the resurrection, they drew up creeds and doctrinal statements to explain it all and to encourage people to wait for the reign of God to come in full flower -- wait not by doing nothing, wait not by abandoning faith, but wait by trying to live according to the kingdom values Christ taught: love, mercy, justice, compassion, grace.

Those official creeds and confessional statements have been charged with bearing the weight of "tradition." Hart rightly contends that they haven't been able to do anything close to that. For countless reasons, they have fallen short -- primarily because they have looked to the past instead of anticipating the glorious culmination of history, an end-of-time when all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.

"If only it were possible," he writes, "for everyone to enjoy the blissful naivete of incurious belief, without it degenerating into fundamentalism or morbid formalism or some other impediment to healthy moral and intellectual growth; then, perhaps, the incensed anxiety that produces traditionalism and the tragic disappointment that destroys faith could both be avoided."

But even worse than doctrinal statements created by church authorities to keep people attached to the faith (by fear, if necessary), Christianity allowed itself to be coopted by political leaders (Emperor Constantine is an early example) who turned this radical faith in the risen Christ and the ushering in of God's reign into the catastrophe of Christendom. And then more statements of doctrine and dogma got created to justify what the church was degenerating into as it began, in effect, to worship Pilate instead of the one Pilate had ordered crucified.

"Faith," Hart writes, "whose only rationale is faith is not faith at all. Doctrine jealously preserved or confidently espoused solely on the grounds that it is doctrine is nothing but vacuous assertion masquerading as sincere conviction."

And it's not as if those various statements of belief from various periods of the last 2,000 years locked in the essentials of the faith forever.

"How easily," Hart notes, "what, by any sound historical judgment, appear to have been essential elements of the Christianity of the first generations became at best accidental to the Christianity of the next few centuries, and then as often as not entirely absent from the Christianity that ensued in the next few centuries after that, as social, political and ideological conditions shifted around the communities of believers."

Hart-DB-author-photo-2019-credit-Nicole-Waldron-1But it's even worse than that: "In fact," he concludes, "the entire way of life that was at one time the very essence of Christian existence, with its contempt for wealth and its civic dereliction and its hostility to the mechanisms of power by which societies and nations and empires thrive and survive and perpetuate themselves, is the very way of life to which most Christian culture throughout the centuries has proved implacably hostile. . . It would be no exaggeration to say that, viewed entirely in historical perspective, cultural and institutional 'Christianity' has, for most of its history, consisted in the systematic negation of the Christianity of Christ, the apostles and the earliest church."

In fact, Hart (pictured here) adds this: "(A)t some very deep level, the history of Christian belief and the substance of Christian doctrine seem irreconcilable with one another. . .(T)he historical record remains a chaos of ambiguities, and the authority of tradition remains grounded in nothing but itself."

So what is the church to do? Hart suggests we quit relying on the past as much as we've been doing in our doctrinal statements and what we call our tradition and remember that the "Gospel" is "the promise that God's truth has entered creation as a historical event whose full meaning can be known only in its entire historical unfolding." And, clearly (and disappointingly) that hasn't yet happened.

What, then, do we mean by "Christian tradition?" Hart: "(T)he living tradition, if indeed it is living, is essentially apocalyptic: an originating disruption of the historical past remembered in light of God's final disruption of the historical (and cosmic) future."

It is, in other words, fealty to what Christians pray for each time they say "The Lord's Prayer": "Thy kingdom come. . ."

That, Hart insists, is what we must remember: The reign of God that Jesus proclaimed is coming. Don't lose hope. Just don't imagine that it will resemble much of anything found in the creeds or in our own imaginations. God would not be God if God were that limited. In fact, of what the Apostle Paul calls the three great virtues of the tradition -- faith, hope and love -- both faith and hope, Hart insists, "are destined to fall away when they reach their fulfillment in immediate knowledge; only when love alone abides will we know even as we are known."

That's what Christianity insists is coming. That's what the Christian "tradition" should emphasize, setting aside nearly all else as secondary at best and distracting at worst.

If there is a disappointment in this book it's that it left me wanting more. For instance, Hart focuses with some intensity on the Fourth Century Nicene Creed, but deals only tangentially with the dozens of other statements of faith that various branches of Christianity have adopted over the centuries.

I would love to have read what Hart thinks of the dozen-plus confessions in the Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church (USA), including the Theological Declaration of Barmen, written in the 1930s as a rebuke of Adolf Hitler, and the Confession of 1967, produced in a time of social and racial turmoil and aimed at the concept of reconciliation. And what about the 1648 Westminster Confession of Faith, which allowed Greek philosophical thinking about an alleged "immortal soul" we each supposedly have to challenge Christian concepts, especially Christianity's idea of the "resurrection of the body"? Maybe Hart will do another book analyzing all these and more. I hope so.

(The photo of Hart here today is by Nicole Waldron.)

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A Democrat in Arizona's House of Representatives has been caught hiding Bibles that have been in the state capitol building. And Rep. Stephanie Stahl Hamilton has apologized. Hiding Bibles? Apparently this was some combination of junior high humor and a protest about church-state separation. Oh, please, Rep. Hamilton. Yours was a solution in search of a problem. Which is a lot of what the bills passing in many state legislatures are these days, the one in Kansas included.

How youth pastors face the mental health crisis of teens

Among a thousand other causes, social media has put enormous pressure on young people, and it's increasingly clear that one result is what's being termed a mental health crisis for teenagers. (And May will be Mental Health Awareness Month.)

Mental-3Over the last few years, teens who have led the Youth Sunday worship service at my congregation, for instance, have talked with us about the hate and destruction they find on social media and how it can destroy or at least challenge their mental well-being.

This Religion News Service story adds to that picture by describing how youth pastors in various congregations are having to confront mental health issues related to the teenagers they serve.

The story quotes Kevin Singer, a sociologist of religion, this way: “'Mental health issues among young Americans have reached epidemic levels.' He cited a report released last fall by Springtide Research Institute, where he serves as a national speaker, on the mental health of Generation Z. It found that majorities of young people reported being moderately to severely depressed, anxious and lonely."

The story then adds this: "At the same time, Singer said, the data makes it clear that spirituality contributes to more robust mental health. 'The one thing we can say, based on our data, is that there is a very positive relationship between mental health thriving and the degree to which a young person identifies as religious or spiritual' (though, as Singer pointed out, they may define spirituality very differently from older generations)."

The issues teens face today -- beyond the ones they've always faced about figuring out who they are and what their future is -- include things as stark as whether they'll be shot if they happen to ring the wrong doorbell and how the faulty American systems of government, the economy, the legal system, policing, race relations and more will affect their lives.

And the phenomenon is not as new as you may think. As this Christian Century article notes, the trend began as far back as 2012. That story then reports this: "In his newsletter, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt points to the 'rewiring of childhood' in the 2010s with the widespread use of mobile devices and social media. Girls report experiencing more online bullying and harassment than boys, and Haidt observes that even those who aren’t chronically online may suffer. When all your peers are posting, you can feel isolated, lonely, and depressed if you aren’t joining them."

In the Kansas City area, the organization called YouthFront, which not only helps train youth pastors but offers camping and other experiences to thousands of area youth, has developed this approach to mental health issues among young people, as shared with me by Mike King, YouthFront's president and CEO: 

"Our staff at Youthfront increasingly heard requests for help from parents, churches, pastors and caregivers trying to navigate mental health issues among their kids. We were seeing the symptoms of what we now know is a national crisis, as declared by The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children's Hospital Association. Out of our heartbreak and concern for these precious young people, we felt called to respond to what we were seeing nationally and feeling amongst the families and churches we serve in our ministries: Youthfront established Presence-Centered Counseling (PCC) as our in-house mental health services affiliate. 

"PCC serves children, youth, couples, individuals and families, and in its first full year in 2022, provided hundreds of counseling sessions to youth and adults alike. Our lead therapist, Jamie Roach, LPC, brings a depth of experience and parenting expertise. PCC’s other therapist, Caroline Oas, LPC, specializes in play therapy for young children. In addition to their work with clients, Jamie and Caroline also speak to churches, pastors and small groups about mental health issues among our children and teenagers. 

"Youthfront seeks to support youth pastors as they navigate these issues, through coaching, consultation and training. Youthfront has also received a substantial grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. to focus on 'Christian Parenting and Caregiving.' This provides a strategic initiative to train, coach and resource parents, churches and other caregivers of young people to take an active role in the spiritual formation of youth and address their wellbeing.

"Youthfront is also committed to a theologically robust approach to the mental health and spiritual development of youth utilizing best practices from the psychological field without surrendering to a therapeutic worldview."

(Disclosure: one of my daughters, Lisen Tammeus Mann, is YouthFront's vice president of development.)

How is your congregation handling this matter? If you don't know, it's time to find out.

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Once again our distorted criminal justice system is off on the wrong track. This time it's about the horrific shootings at a synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018. Jury selection began this week, and prospective jurors are being asked if they'd have any problem sentencing the defendant to the death penalty if he's found guilty. There is no good, moral reason for our legal system to have capital punishment as an option. It isn't a deterrent, it's far more expensive than life in prison and it lowers the state to the level of the criminal. Beyond that, of course, the system gets it wrong sometimes and innocent people get killed by the state. Let's change this barbaric system of blood for blood.

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P.S.: A nearly complete ancient Hebrew Bible -- one of the oldest surviving manuscripts -- is going to be auctioned off in May, this AP story reports. It's expected to bring between $30 million and $50 million. If that's too much for you, I've got a couple of different Hebrew Bibles that I'll lend you for either nothing, if that's all you can afford, or for you making a small donation to the synagogue in the KC area that lists me as an honorary member. First come, first served.

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ANOTHER P.S.: An online event tomorrow evening will feature Fox and Rob Richardson, creators of the book and Oscar-nominated documentary called "Time." At the event, sponsored by the Equal Justice USA Evangelical Network, the Richardsons will talk about how they fought to keep their family together as he spent more than 20 years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary named Angola, and how faith played a key role in their family's survival. You can register for this free event here.

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AND A THIRD P.S.: Markandey Katju, former justice on India's Supreme Court and a boyhood friend from my time in India, again this year observed a day of fasting in Ramadan even though he describes himself as a Hindu atheist. Here is his story about why he does that and why it's important.

Our courts must stop allowing tax dollars to support religion

The move toward public funding of schools operated by faith communities is disturbing. I hope the courts will stop it before it completely demolishes the wall of separation between church and state.

Unequal-justiceThat doesn't mean I think parochial schools are bad ideas. Under our Constitution and its protection of religious liberty, such schools have every right to exist. Indeed, they often offer top notch education. But no public money should go to them because it would amount to taxpayer support of whatever religion the school represents and teaches.

However, as this article from The Conversation makes clear, the courts slowly have been deconstructing the church-state wall when it comes to financing parochial schools.

Charles J. Russo, who teaches at the University of Dayton, writes this:

"School-choice advocates have won key cases at the Supreme Court in recent years, opening up more ways for public dollars to support faith-based education. But Oklahoma pushed the debate into unchartered territory this spring with a proposal for a school that would have been the first of its kind: a Catholic charter, primarily paid for by taxpayers."

He then adds this: "(T)he key question in this case is not whether a charter would help or harm local education, but whether explicitly religious instruction at charter schools is constitutional, given the First Amendment’s protections against government establishment of religion."

The question is whether, despite the court's willingness to allow public funding of parochial students or schools in various cases in recent years, this Oklahoma case finally goes too far. I think it does, and I hope the courts will agree with me.

These sorts of legal cases tend to show how our courts are connected, if loosely, to our political systems. How judges get elected or appointed can shape the results of cases brought before them.

The most obvious example of this is the U.S. Supreme Court, and the most obvious example of the role politics plays in court decisions was the Dobbs case that resulted in overturning the 1973 Roe v Wade decision that made abortions legally available in the U.S.

The point is that each of us has a stake in our court systems, and we express our desires to have this or that kind of court by our votes for political candidates.

It's one more reason to pay attention politically. And it's one more reason to think that low voter turnout (the April 4 elections in Kansas City had a turnout of less than 14 percent of registered voters) leads only to trouble -- sometimes all the way to the Supreme Court.

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In my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), we say we are "the church reformed and always reforming." Or, when we want to show off, we say, "Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda." The idea, of course, is that the church is a living organism that never quite gets it all right, so it must change. When it quits changing, it can -- and almost certainly will -- die. I was intrigued to read this RNS column by a rabbi urging a similar attitude among Reform Jews.

"Reform," he writes, "is a verb. It is an active process. Reform Judaism began as Jews, eager to enter the modern world, began to reassess their relationship with the inherited tradition, and to create new understandings of Judaism. That has always been a part of Reform Judaism — a constant act of re-thinking, re-imagining, and re-forming."

That's the kind of open and critical attitude that can lead to vibrancy -- if it's taken seriously.  The other route leads to something like what some of us Christians call "The Seven Last Words of the Church": "We've never done it that way before."

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Ancient Echoes: Refusing the Fear-Filled, Greed-Driven Toxicity of the Far Right, by Walter Brueggemann. The author, one of the best-known scholars of the Hebrew Bible, has written dozens of books. This new one, to be published May 16 but available for order now, will not be remembered as one of his best or most important. It's less a work of scholarship than it is a polemic.

To be sure, what Brueggemann identifies as the "far right" in American politics deserves cutting analysis and stinging criticism. And the author offers some of that, but he describes the positions held by the far right by using his own generalities instead of using their own words and actions to shine the light of revelation on them. Once he defines his target, he draws on stories from the Bible to show that Christians and Jews who are faithful to their traditions should reject far right positions as unbiblical.

"I believe," he writes, "that the communities directly funded by the biblical traditions, the synagogue and the church, are indeed summoned and authorized to speak out on the force of right-wing ideology on behalf of hospitable neighborliness. . .These communities have a deep stake in the flourishing of democracy, and a solid reason for refusing and resisting the propensity of fascism that wants to reduce political influence to the privileged and entitled few."

The biblical stories Brueggemann tells are interesting, but sometimes they seem only tangentially related to the political position he's critiquing. Given the author's history of writing engaging and enlightening books, I expected more and better from this one. You, of course, are free to read this one and tell me I'm wrong.

A troubling story about a local charitable foundation

Two wonderful things about the United States: Citizens enjoy religious liberty, protected by the Constitution, and that frees them to believe anything thing they want to believe, as long as they don't turn those beliefs into crimes or other actions that would infringe on the religious freedom of others.

Church-and-StateAlthough the words "separation of church and state" are not found in the Constitution, they do describe a court-based principle that has long been part of our legal and religious tradition.

The question we must face from time to time is what to do when our tradition of religious liberty seems to bump up against our tradition of church-state separation. There's no simple answer, though we do have legal -- and sometimes legislative -- remedies when this happens.

A current situation in the Kansas City area raises exactly some of these questions. It's described in this excellent piece of journalism by Maria Benevento, who writes for The Kansas City Beacon.

She focuses on  Stanley M. Herzog Charitable Foundation. As she writes, ". . .an examination of its public statements and partnerships shows a foundation that has aligned itself with conservative figures, awarded grants to schools that exclude LGBTQ students and families and funded science teacher training that promotes a literal interpretation of the Biblical creation story in opposition to scientific consensus on evolution. The Herzog Foundation also promotes efforts to expand government support for private schools."

I find several things about that troubling, but one isn't necessarily that the foundation is aligned "with conservative figures." That label hides much more than it reveals, and there are people who describe themselves as conservative who make a great deal of sense.

But giving grants to private schools that exclude LGBTQ+ students should be unacceptable to everyone if we're ever to live up to our national aspirational vision of everyone being equal under the law. Funding such schools provides support for bigotry and buys into a serious misreading of the Bible.

There certainly is a place in this country for both private and parochial schools, though the bedrock of public education is vital to who we are -- and want to be -- as a nation. And efforts to get the taxpayers to support those private and parochial schools should be resisted as long as denying public funding doesn't violate some other constitutional principle.

Something else I worry about in what Benevento wrote is the foundation promoting "a literal interpretation of the Biblical creation story in opposition to scientific consensus on evolution." As I said above, people are free to believe in that literal interpretation -- and should be free to do that.

But Rep. Maggie Nurrenbern, a Democrat from northern Kansas City, raises exactly the right question about teaching biblical literalism:

“It’s a very challenging reality that these kids are going to be faced with when they exit these schools and hopefully go on to an institution of higher learning… and they will be faced with the reality that everything they’ve been taught, or a good chunk of what they’ve been taught, is simply wrong.” 

Time after time students who have grown up with the idea that the world was created in six literal 24-hour days and that Earth is only a few thousand years old eventually have to go through the trauma of realizing that the two (sometimes-conflicting) creation stories in the biblical book of Genesis are metaphors, stories with a purpose, and not literal history. It can be traumatic for them and often causes a serious crisis of faith. All unnecessarily.

Well, there is more in Benevento's story worth knowing, but you can read it for yourself and draw your own conclusions. But one strange thing to me is that the people connected with the Herzog Foundation seem simply to have refused to talk with the reporter about their work. If they believe in it, why don't they defend it?

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Newly tabulated figures give a clearer picture of where, in the U.S., religion is growing and where it's shrinking, this RNS story reports. Some of the results are a bit surprising. For instance, as the story notes, "Between 2010 and 2020, many counties across North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa and Michigan saw drops in total religious adherents of at least 10%. That same decline appeared in Pennsylvania, New York and Massachusetts, as well. However, South Florida and many of the least-populous counties in Texas close to the border with Mexico saw notable growth, as did parts of New Mexico and Arizona. Additionally, counties in Idaho became more religious in 2020 over 2010." None of these figures, of course, tells us anything about the sincerity of the faith people say they follow nor about how it affects life around them. I'd be much more interested in those figures.

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Sit in the Sun: And Other Lessons in the Spiritual Wisdom of Cats, by Jon M. Sweeney. The author is a Catholic man married to a female rabbi. And he learns about how to live by observing his cats, Martin and Rosa. So what could go wrong? Aside from a few grammatical errors, very little. In fact, this small book is both fun and instructive -- and nicely illustrated by Jennifer Khatun. Sweeney writes that "my cats truly are my spiritual guides and might be good guides for us all as we try to imbibe in ourselves what felines already seem to understand so well."

Sweeney, author of some 30 books, draws on spiritual teachers (human ones) from a wide variety of traditions to help him make sense of what his cats are teaching him by how they live. But he returns again and again to his cats as teachers: "Martin and Rosa don't fight for human rights, but they demonstrate with their lives how not to have their lives ordered around my expectations. They are great companions in my home, but they also show how being good and doing good is not always the same as being well-behaved."

In the end, the author concludes this: "I would not be as good at prayer, contemplation and the practice of lectio divina, or spiritual reading, without the persistent reminders that come from my felines." Notice that he's claiming to be "good" at those practices, but not yet purr-fect.

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P.S.: "Vilna: A Resistance Story," a play about Jewish resistance in the Holocaust, will be presented April 22-30 at the White Theatre at the Jewish Community Center in Overland Park, Kan. The link in the previous sentence will take you to The Kansas City Star's recent story about this. This link will take you to a long, fascinating story in The Tablet about how Jews survived (a few did) in Vilna. And this link will take you to the White Theatre site to get tickets. As I write this Tuesday afternoon, most performances are sold out except for Thursday, April 27, and Sunday, April 30. My wife and I plan to see the play Thursday. If you're there, too, say hello.

Why we keep track of violators of religious liberty

Religious freedom is guaranteed in our U.S. Constitution, but in a perfect world it wouldn't need to be. That's because it should be seen as a fundamental human right. It should be seen as that because it is precisely that.

Religious libertyWhich is one reason our government pays attention to freedom of religion not just in the U.S. but around the world. Each year the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom issue reports about which countries are violating this foundational right. Here's a link to the State Department's reports. And here's a link to the USCIRF reports.

Read them and weep.

It's good that State and USCIRF do this, even if most Americans don't know about these reports. What we do know is that the countries that are violating the right to religious freedom know when one or both of those annual reports names them as perpetrators. And often they hate it much more than they put energy into trying to fix things. 

Kelsey Dallas, a religion reporter for the Deseret News in Utah, has written this helpful article about how the U.S. tries to track and publicize countries that violate religious freedom. 

In it she quotes Sam Brownback, the former Kansas governor and senator who later became the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom under former President Donald Trump. Brownback was a miserable governor and a mediocre senator, but he did quite a credible job as religious freedom ambassador. And he was willing to tell Dallas the truth about the pressure writers of these reports are under not to criticize other countries for religious liberty violations.

She writes this: "Although significant, the State Department’s formal tracking and sanctioning process does not tell the whole story of what’s happening around the world when it comes to religious freedom, said Sam Brownback. . .Officials often face pressure to leave certain nations off the list of countries of particular concern due to other policy priorities. And the list also sometimes fails to capture what’s happening in real time.

“'The desk that represents a country … rarely wants it on a sanctions list. They’ll say, "Look, we’re working with them. You’re going to make it harder to work with them,”' Brownback said."

What's important to remember about all of this is that although it's couched in broad language of violations by various countries, it's real people who are being injured when those countries put policies and practices in place that crush religious liberty. Just ask the Uyghur Muslims in China, which, as the BBC has reported, "has detained more than one million Uyghurs against their will over the past few years in a large network of what the state calls 're-education camps', and sentenced hundreds of thousands to prison terms."

That's substantially different from complaints by Americans that they feel persecuted because of the "war on Christmas" or some such.

From now on, I hope you will communicate with your legislators about their responsibilities to advocate for religious freedom everywhere. Loss of that freedom simply dehumanizes people.

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Let's give some applause this weekend to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America for creating what this RNS story calls ELCA's "own Truth and Healing Movement to help its 3 million members better understand the 'colonizing impacts' the church has had on Indigenous people, both past and present." As we know from the scandal of Indigenous children dying in government-sponsored but church-run boarding schools, lots of branches of Christianity have blood on their hands and explaining to do for what Native American children suffered. And as we have been reminded recently, the "Doctrine of Discovery," which the Vatican finally just repudiated, led to cultural and ethnic genocide against Native Americans, as I wrote about here a few days ago. My own congregation over the last few years has been doing anti-racism work and one of our focuses has been on Indigenous history and our Indigenous neighbors. In fact, on our church website we have a list of resources -- books, films, podcasts and more -- for both Indigenous and Black/Brown matters. Take a look. Perhaps it will be helpful to you and/or your congregation, if you have one.

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P.S.: My friend Kite Singleton, an architect and a member of my congregation, recently shared with me a pdf of a program he put together several decades ago about Akbar the Great, the Mughal emperor who was Muslim but also was interested in learning about other faith traditions. If you've never learned much about this fascinating man, here, with Kite's permission, is a link to that pdf: Download Akbar-Kite-Singleton

Moving toward acknowledging some brutal history

Recently here on the blog, I made relatively brief note that the Vatican has issued a statement repudiating what has become known as the "Doctrine of Discovery," which, based on papal bulls, gave European invaders permission to take over any lands they "discovered" and turn the Indigenous residents of those lands into Christians.

Native-americans-tribe-mapI wrote then that this was an important development -- however many centuries late it has come -- that deserves a little more treatment than I was able to give it at the time.

So today I link you to this Religion News Service story about the repudiation and Indigenous reaction to it.

A key point to remember is that the doctrine was evidence of unmerited European hubris and the arrogant willingness to consider Indigenous people to be what our Declaration of Independence calls them, "merciless Indian savages."

That said, the history of settler colonialists' relations with the people they found already living on this land is complicated, meaning that once in a great while the invaders treated Native people with something less than contempt and forged something like a working relationship with some of them. Two books to read (I've just finished them and recommend them) that fill in some details are Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America, by Pekka Hämäläinen, and Covered with Night: A Story of Murder and Indigenous Justice in Early America, by Nicole Eustace.

Eustace refers to the ambiguity in such relationships when she writes this: "Settler colonialists can never decide if they are on the verge of finding a new Eden -- a place where wealth comes almost without toil and all the lush country is theirs for the taking -- or if they have ventured to the very gates of hell, to a land where labor is forced by lash and land is seized by musket, where each person has a price and the cost of success is the surrender of every Christian ideal."

Similarly, the RNS story to which I've linked you reports this about one Indigenous leader's response to the Vatican's move:

“I just think it’s fascinating and it’s really great because what it does is it catapults the issue to the world stage in a very prominent manner,” said (Steven) Newcomb (who is Shawnee and Lenape), author of the 2008 book Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery and co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute.

But Newcomb, like many Indigenous activists and organizations that have been outspoken about the continuing impact of the Doctrine of Discovery, has mixed feelings about the Vatican’s repudiation.

“They haven’t even begun to come to terms with the true nature of what we’re actually talking about,” he said.

The RNS story also quotes the National Congress of American Indians this way about the Vatican action: “We thank the Creator that Indigenous peoples are strong, resilient, full of wisdom, faith, hope, and love, and we stand ready to have difficult conversations about the future and to work together to build off of today’s step forward to bring about meaningful positive change to our people and nations, and for the healing, reconciliation and restoration of all peoples across the globe.”

There's no doubt that the Vatican has done the right thing by repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery. It's a small and late step, but perhaps it can point the way toward something that would feel like justice to Native Americans and Indigenous people in other lands.

Beyond that, the repudiation is a good model for the idea of repentance, which in the best of cases can be followed by restitution and reconciliation. In other words, peacemaking. But without what the aggrieved consider justice, no peace is ultimately possible.

(The map here today shows the territory once occupied by 86 Indigenous tribes. But it's obviously incomplete for several reasons. First, the nomadic nature of some tribes makes it hard to locate them in a particular spot at a particular time. Besides that, today there are some 575 or so federally recognized Indian tribes. One way to know which tribes considered which parts of what is now the U.S. as ancestral land is to use the app called Native Land.)

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A Baptist pastor writes here that he wants no part of the U.S. if -- as Christian nationalists propose -- it excludes people from other faith traditions, including the writer's Jewish cousins. Here is his cogent main point: "Christian nationalism is the most potent threat to this nation’s democracy and diversity. But as Christ has taught us, love is more powerful than tyranny. We can defeat the tyranny of Christian nationalism through love for our siblings who live and believe differently than we do."

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P.S.: Recently I watched a webinar on capital punishment that I found helpful and was especially taken by the passion with which speakers expressed their views. Here is a Good Faith Media story about it with extensive quotes from those speakers.

On being careful about which Jesus to follow

On this Easter weekend, I invite those of you who are Christian to think about something that Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church Michael Curry said recently at an ecumenical gathering:

Jesus_on_a_Mac[1] (2)“Look at the history of Christianity.  We stray when Jesus — his teachings and his spirit — is not our way. Then we lose our way.”

I think he's right, but I also think we Christians need to decide which of the various Jesuses revealed in the four gospels of the New Testament most accurately represents his thinking, life, ministry and purpose. There are several versions of Jesus, just as there are several versions of each of us. And we would do well to be discerning about which model to adopt.

(The Jesus depicted in this illustration is not one you'll find in the Bible, though you will find a Jesus there who enjoys humor. You can read about that Jesus in Elton Trueblood's book, The Humor of Christ.)

Let me do something perhaps unexpected and recommend the fully human Jesus we find in the 15th chapter of the gospel of Matthew. Let me give you the story as it's recorded in the New King James version of the Bible, verses 21-28:

21 Then Jesus went out from there and departed to the region of Tyre and Sidon.

22 And behold, a woman of Canaan came from that region and cried out to Him, saying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed.”

23 But He answered her not a word. And His disciples came and urged Him, saying, “Send her away, for she cries out after us.”

24 But He answered and said, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

25 Then she came and worshiped Him, saying, “Lord, help me!”

26 But He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.”

27 And she said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.”

28 Then Jesus answered and said to her, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.

Notice several things here: First, it's often said -- without evidence -- that the term "dogs" was one that Jews at the time used to belittle Gentiles. But I think the editors of the Common English Bible get it right in this note: "Jesus' words and the woman's reply should be taken at face value, as references to what actually happens when dogs are present at meals."

That said, the Jesus we find here seems focused not on appealing to everyone, to moving everyone to spiritual renewal and a healthy relationship with God. Rather, he says his ministry, at least for the moment, is for the people of Israel. Later in Matthew, we find that mission expanded to the Gentiles. But what we have is here a focused Jesus who is willing to learn -- and perhaps most astonishingly, given the patriarchal culture in which he lived, learn from a non-Jewish woman.

She challenged him and perhaps even taught him what he should be doing. I can relate to such a Jesus. He may well even then be what the church later declares him to be -- fully human and fully divine -- but it's his educable humanity that I find appealing here.

You may, if you want, choose a Jesus of righteous anger who turns over the money-changing tables in the temple. Or you may choose a Jesus who says his true family isn't made up of his mother and siblings but, rather, of everyone who does the will of God. Or you may choose a Jesus who, in astonishing pain and anguish, forgives people from the cross.

All these -- and many more -- Jesuses are in the New Testament. And Michael Curry is right that the church goes astray when it loses Jesus. It's just that we need to be careful which Jesus we choose to follow, if any. As for me, a Presbyterian Christian, one of the Jesuses I like most of all is the one willing to listen, learn and, in the end, respond compassionately.

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If you attend a worship service this weekend -- in any faith tradition -- pay attention to see if you can detect whether the sermon was written using an Artificial Intelligence device. Clearly, that's a thing now, as The Guardian piece to which I just linked you reports. That article adds this: "In addition to the generalized chatbots, which can provide conversational answers to theological questions or prompts using information scraped from the entire internet, more specialized religious chatbots have emerged. One of them, HadithGPT, gives advice rooted in Islamic texts." If I ever detect an AI-written sermon, my temptation will be to record it on my phone or digital recorder and then never listen to it.

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Prayer-session-city-hallOn National Day of Prayer this year, May 4, the Rev. Darron L. Edwards, pastor of United Believers Community Church, plans to lead prayers for Kansas City on the 29th floor of City Hall starting at 9 a.m. Here's a poster with details.


If the world is binary, why are there at least 40 shades of red?

Various branches of various religions have torn themselves apart again and again arguing about matters of sexuality, especially over what scripture does or doesn't say about it.

Non-binaryThe most prominent current example is the United Methodist Church, which is in the midst of a slow schism over LGBTQ+ matters. I mentioned that in this recent Flatland column.

One reason people of faith fight over all this -- besides issues of power -- is that sometimes they ignore what science is telling us about human sexuality. The reality, as this Scientific American article reveals, is that this is not a binary world when it comes to sexual identities -- and never has been, despite long-standing efforts to make it seem as if the only two sexes are male and female. (I'll pause while some of you quote one of the creation stories in Genesis to me.)

Here's a key paragraph in the Scientific American article: "Sex can be much more complicated than it at first seems. According to the simple scenario, the presence or absence of a Y chromosome is what counts: with it, you are male, and without it, you are female. But doctors have long known that some people straddle the boundary—their sex chromosomes say one thing, but their gonads (ovaries or testes) or sexual anatomy say another. Parents of children with these kinds of conditions—known as intersex conditions, or differences or disorders of sex development (DSDs)—often face difficult decisions about whether to bring up their child as a boy or a girl. Some researchers now say that as many as 1 person in 100 has some form of DSD."

Then this: "When genetics is taken into consideration, the boundary between the sexes becomes even blurrier. Scientists have identified many of the genes involved in the main forms of DSD, and have uncovered variations in these genes that have subtle effects on a person's anatomical or physiological sex. What's more, new technologies in DNA sequencing and cell biology are revealing that almost everyone is, to varying degrees, a patchwork of genetically distinct cells, some with a sex that might not match that of the rest of their body."

Well, you can read the rest of this piece. The point to take away, however, is that even though to most of us humanity seems divided between male and female, it's not that simple. And when we insist on making it that simple we wind up dehumanizing people because they don't fit into our preconceived notions about sexuality.

There is evidence that the Indigenous residents of what is now the United States had at least some understanding of all of this. For instance, in her 2021 book Covered by Night: A Story of Murder and Indigenous Justice in Early America, Nicole Eustace mentions someone who wound up having to bury an Indian man who had died at the hands of one or two white men in the early 1700s in Pennsylvania.

Someone back then described the person as "the Hermaphrodite." Eustace then writes this: "This third-gender person at ease moving between worlds likely appeared at the grave in a ceremonial role, offering Sawataeny's (the dead man) soul a ritual introduction into the realm of the afterlife. Logan (a white man who helped arrest the men charged with the death) never mentioned such a person again. Likewise, he recorded neither the name nor the national affiliation of this caretaker. Still, as a two-spirit figure who joined masculine and feminine genders in one being, 'the Hermaphrodite' stood as the literal embodiment of the ideal of unity and the rejection of polarities. . ."

What we're learning about sexuality is similar to what we're learning about the rest of the world. It's rarely, if ever, binary. It is, rather -- perhaps appropriately -- a rainbow of colors, of pieces, of parts, of ideas. There are, for instance, more than 40 different shades of red. And that makes me wonder whether the person counting just got tired of counting and quit at 40.

What is true of sexuality may be even more true of race. That's because race is a political construct, not a biological one. As the Human Genome Project revealed to us, all of humanity's genomic makeup is close to exactly the same, despite how we identify (or others identify us) racially.

So when it comes to arguing over stupid and hurtful ideas like "conversion therapy" to make gay people straight, let's make room for some scientific help to understand human sexuality. That approach will hurt many fewer people and honor all of them as bearers of the image of God.

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As Passover begins for Jews at sundown today, the author of this column suggests all of us can learn something from Passover's emphasis on remembering the "bad old days" so we can more fully appreciate the blessings of today. I think we should always be hesitant to take a thought or tradition from one religion and apply it to everyone. For one thing, that flattens out the unique aspects of each faith tradition. But in this case there are good reasons for everyone to face honestly the darkness of our pasts if we are to have any hope of understanding where we are and where we're headed. As Rabbi Avri Shafran writes, "That the United States is a beacon of freedom and democracy today is no reason to obscure or ignore elements of our country’s past that leave us far from proud. It is, rather, a compelling reason to remember them."

Clergy job satisfaction is cratering in this Covid era

It's no secret that the Covid-19 pandemic smashed into faith communities and their houses of worship in all kinds of ways, from disappearing members to financial struggles to funerals never held.

Pastor-dissatisfactionSo it may not be surprising to learn of another negative impact. As this Good Faith Media story reports, "The number of U.S. Protestant pastors who feel confident about their calling and satisfied with their vocation has plummeted, according to a Barna Group report published March 15."

The figures seem almost shocking. As the story reports, "While a majority (52%) of Protestant pastors are 'very satisfied with their vocation as a pastor,' this is a 15-point drop from 2020 and a 20-point decline since 2015.

"Around one in three pastors currently 'feel very satisfied with their ministry at their current church' (38%) – down nine points from 2020 and 15 points since 2015."

(Here is a link to the survey itself.)

How can this be explained?

Well, David Kinnaman, CEO of Barna Group, offered this thought: “Pastors have been frontline workers of a sort the last three years, and the toll of stress, isolation, resentment and division continues to impact pastors negatively."

And then he added this: "It is alarming that the number of pastors experiencing satisfaction in their work continues to decline.”

Alarming, indeed.

One thing this survey doesn't tell us is whether the results of this survey are in line with similar declines in satisfaction in other professions since the start of the pandemic. I'm guessing there may be some similarities in certain other fields (nursing, teaching, policing) but that most employment fields have not seen such unhappiness. But that's just a guess.

As for why it's happening to clergy, the Barna survey doesn't give us a lot of help. It's more just a report that it's happening.

But a few thoughts: Sometimes people in the pews can be demanding. They like this but don't like that -- and are anxious to tell the pastor what he or she is failing to deliver. When that gets coupled with the upheaval of Covid, some of those demanding people may get more demanding. Others, of course, cut the pastors lots of slack and do their best to help find smooth ways through troubled waters. But it takes just one griper to out-balance three or six encouragers.

Beyond that, many pastors have not experienced anything like a major pandemic and have had to pivot quickly (then, later, pivot sort-of back again) to meet the needs of a congregation. It's unlikely that any of them learned how to do this in seminary. There are no "Responding to Pandemics 101" courses in seminaries. So no wonder they're overwhelmed and unsure how to proceed.

In any case, whatever the various causes for the declines in job satisfaction and rises in fears about the future, this is a time for congregations to be wildly generous with grace for their clergy. Grace. You know, undeserved merit. In many ways, it's the idea at the heart of religion. And it's time that members of all congregations know that many of their leaders are struggling and need help to make it through.

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The Vatican did something a few days ago that is so important that I intend to come back to it in a later blog post. But for now, let's cheer its decision to repudiate what's known as the "Doctrine of Discovery." The doctrine, promulgated in 1493, essentially said that European nations (we're mostly talking about Spain at the time the doctrine was published) that "discover" new lands elsewhere on the globe have a right to ownership and sovereignty over land they discover. It was, in effect, the Catholic Church's way of giving legal and ecclesiastical support to what turned out to be the cultural and physical genocide of Indigenous people who were living in what became known as the "New World," a term that betrayed the ignorance of people who came up with that term.

This pernicious doctrine, based on a papal bull called Inter Caetera, set the course -- or at least blessed the course -- of the Europeans who invaded these lands. The story to which I've linked you notes this: "It was significant that the repudiation of the 'Doctrine of Discovery' came during the pontificate of history's first Latin American pope. Even before the Canadian trip, the Argentine pope had apologized to Native peoples in Bolivia in 2015 for the crimes of the colonial-era conquest of the Americas. It was issued while he was in the hospital Thursday with a respiratory infection."

As John L. Allen Jr. of the publication Crux notes in this article, simply repudiating the doctrine may be the easy part of what's to come. As he writes, "One of thorniest doctrinal dilemmas unleashed by the Second Vatican Council, though never resolved by it, was how to reconcile two core teachings: First, the missionary nature of the church, expressed in the final command of Christ on earth to 'make disciples of all nations'; and second, the idea that non-Christian religions nevertheless contain 'seeds of the word' and 'often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men.'

"The practical question which presents itself, in light of that tension, is whether the Catholic Church should still be trying to convert followers of other religions or not."

The church should get some credit for this repudiation move, but not a lot. Why? Because the doctrine never should have been created in the first place and, once it was, the church should have been repudiated a day or two later, not more than 500 years later.