Previous month:
June 2023
Next month:
August 2023

Doing youth ministry well can help repair this wounded world

When I was in junior high and high school, I was part of a youth group at my small Presbyterian church in my small hometown in northern Illinois.

Mend-worldI most remember the endless ping-pong games we played. Surely there was something deeply theological about that. What I also remember is Grace Kerr. She was the wife of a retired Baptist pastor our church hired to lead the youth ministry. Grace's great gift was the ability to listen to the hopes and dreams of the kids who attended youth group.

The activities began to move from repetitious games to discussions of issues that interested us, including how to overcome various kinds of difficulties that life threw at us. To help explore that, Grace asked her brother to come speak to us. He had difficulty speaking because he had had a tracheotomy and had to talk through his throat in raspy words. The man was an inspiration.

If Grace still were around, she would almost certainly be happy to endorse the thinking behind a new book called To Mend the World: A New Vision for Youth Ministry, by Jason Lief and Kurt Rietema.

They want youth pastors today to pay deep attention to the needs and dreams of young people so they can more readily discern how the systems (educational, economic, justice and more) in the world work and how they can draw on core moral values to challenge those systems when they oppress people instead of lifting them up. In other words, they want youth pastors to be more like Grace Kerr.

"The problem," they write, "is that youth ministry fails to speak to the lived experience of young people. While the packaging has changed, youth ministry remains stuck within a biblical and theological perspective that misses the point. As a result, youth ministry affirms the very cultural trappings it's trying to help young people navigate. This is why youth ministry must die -- so it can be transformed."

Lief, who teaches theology at Northwestern College in Iowa, and Rietema, who serves on the staff of YouthFront in the Kansas City area and also teaches at two area colleges (disclosure: One of my daughters is YouthFront's vice president of development), outline an approach to youth ministry that, in fact, can be a model for many of the other types of ministry churches do.

"The time has come," they write, "for Christian faith to be more than a guarantee of the life to come; it's time for youth ministry to reclaim the message of the early Christian communities and call young people to wake up and embrace this finite, embodied life. It's time for youth ministry to become less spiritual and more human."

The authors (who write separate chapters, though I'm using quotes here simply attributed to them jointly) pay special attention to how youth ministries can use something called social entrepreneurship to give young people a vision for what Martin Luther King Jr. called the "Beloved Community," in which members use such systems as the economy to make sure the focus is on social good and not simply on profits at any cost.

In a chapter that Rietema writes, readers learn about how young people in the Argentine neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas, began to get a vision of some ways to create a deep sense of community among the youth of the area. Eventually these young people created (with some help and guidance) the Snack Shack KC, which, as its website explains, "is a safe and fun place for young people to gather, play games, do homework and, of course, snack."

As Rietema explains in this new book, "They were high school students who created their own brick-and-mortar business, giving life to a lifeless main street. . .We've been sold a story that teenagers don't have an attention span that lasts any longer than a three-minute YouTube video. But that night (of the Snack Shack's grand opening), these kids proved that they'll stick with something for months, even years, to make their dreams into reality."

What the authors conclude is that "youth ministry must become less spiritual and more human by helping young people see how, in Jesus Christ, God embraces this created life. Youth ministry must turn away from abstract forms of spirituality in which salvation is some sort of transaction for a future heavenly life by calling young people into a Christian way of life that centers on the particularity of God's love for the world.

"To do this, youth ministry needs to obliterate the wedge driven between this temporal, created world and spirituality. This begins by helping young people see how the gospel addresses the immanent forces of secular culture (politics, technology, science, economics, etc.) that shape their lives." After all, kids are inevitably soaked in the surrounding culture, and elements of that culture can be -- and often are -- destructive in countless ways. "(O)ur humanity," the authors write, "is grounded in the resurrection life of Jesus Christ that transcends the cultural patterns of this world."

In fact, the authors ask this foundational question -- foundational for all faith traditions: What does it mean to be fully human? Their Christian answer is drawn from the creation accounts in Genesis in which humans are made "in the image of God": "To be made in the image of God, therefore, is to be made in the image of the triune God. Theologically speaking, to be human is to be fundamentally relational." What matters is whether we are part of a loving, supportive community that seeks first the common good and not, first, individual achievement or aggrandizement.

That's the Beloved Community. And it's what so many of the cultural systems at work today either ignore or work against. For instance, the authors note that "capitalism has become the dominant discourse undergirding the institutional lives of young people. Every day they are bombarded with messages about jobs, competition, branding and so on. Increasingly they are encouraged to participate in the capitalist emphasis on commodification, abdicating their responsibility as human creatures to love and care for others."

Christianity, they write, "should invite young people to see economic life as a word God speaks to us by inviting them out from the distortions of economic life that misshape our identities and into new practices that seek the flourishing of all creation."

Faith communities, thus, are called to use their prophetic voices to undo systems that perpetuate injustice. And that work includes -- but cannot be limited to -- youth ministry. I see, in retrospect, that Grace Kerr understood that and I'm grateful that she did.

* * *


New polling confirms that Americans' belief in God is sliding, but so is the belief in Satan, this RNS story reports. So it's no surprise that the percentage of adult Americans who say they believe in hell is also down -- from 71 percent two decades ago to 59 percent now. Perhaps people have been reading the fascinating book by Christian Orthodox scholar David Bentley Hart: That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell and Universal Salvation. I wrote about that book here in 2019. Or maybe they think, reading a lot of the daily news, that they already live in hell and that whatever is in store in an afterlife can't be worse.

* * *

P.S.: Speaking of faith-based books, as I was above here today, you might be interested in knowing that Fortress Press has just published a 40th anniversary edition of Guerrillas of Grace: Prayers for the Battle, by Ted Loder. There are good reasons some books have anniversary editions printed. Have a look.

Is Artificial Intelligence threatening our very humanity?

The examination of how Artificial Intelligence might affect what makes us human -- a discussion that has only just begun to unpack visions of a profoundly uncertain future -- raises the foundational question of what we mean by humanity.

AI-vs-humanThere are, of course, answers to that question from biology and other sciences that help distinguish how homo sapiens differ from other members of what used to be called (Is it still?) the animal kingdom. But eventually such answers lack a moral depth and fail to provide any kind of serious ethical guidance for those of us labeled human.

I've been thinking about A.I. and the essence of humanity for a couple of reasons. First, I'm reading for review (see my blog this coming weekend) a new book called To Mend the World: A New Vision for Youth Ministry, by Jason Lief and Kurt Rietema. In it they offer some helpful thoughts about what it is that makes us truly human. (I'll get there in a minute.)

At the same time, I just read this rather long but fascinating article from Real Clear Investigations about A.I. and how it is adding to a future that the authors, Joel Kotin and Samuel J. Abrams, say "is becoming ever less human."

"While history is littered with apocalyptic predictions," they write, "the new alarms are different because they are taking place amid broad cultural forces that suggest human beings have lost faith in themselves and connections with humanity in general."

It won't surprise you that the two authors of the new book on Christian youth ministry approach the question of how to define humanity from a religious perspective. In fact, they return to the assertion found in the creation stories in the book of Genesis that humanity is "made in the image of God." For Christians, that means the Holy Trinity, one god in three persons, traditionally identified as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, though I prefer Creator, Cross-bearer and Comforter.

In the godhead, according to Christian theology, there is a community of three who, in perfect harmony, act as one. The theological term for how the three relate to one another is perichoresis, a lovely word you might want to look up.

So in an essay in the youth ministry book, Lief writes that "theologically speaking, to be human is to be fundamentally relational." In a related essay, Lief insists that the "gospel is not good news about a future reward; it's good news about how the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ bring the transformation of the kingdom of God to this world -- to this time and space. This isn't social gospel -- it's just gospel." And clearly that description helps to define what we mean by humanity because the focus is on meeting the needs of people now living, especially those whom the world has wounded in some way.

So if humanity is something like what Lief and Rietema say it is (and I think they're right), what should we know about A.I. and how should we be reacting to its spread?

Well, first, it will be important to acknowledge what Kotin and Abrams point to, which is that the development of A.I. "is taking place as social science research reveals that people are increasingly cutting themselves off from one another. The traditional pillars of community and connection ‒ family, friends, children, church, neighborhood ‒ have been withering, fostering an everyday existence defined for many people by loneliness. The larger notion of human beings as constituting a larger, collective project with some sense of common goal is being replaced by a solipsistic individualism, which negates the classical liberal values of self-determination and personal freedoms in a worldview that nullifies the societies they built."

(There's much more in their article about this, but I'll leave it to you to read -- and argue or agree with.)

But if A.I. indeed has a tendency to move us away from community, the result will be that we become less and less human in the sense that Lief and Rietema describe humanity.

People of faith, therefore, must take the encroachment of A.I. seriously and know both its benefits and its dangers. The same thing was true several decades ago about genetic research, though there's still much to learn about that, too.

One of our tasks as human beings is to know what we mean by humanity and then to do what we can to defend humanity against those developments, theories and strategies that would dehumanize us. If we fail at that, we deserve what's coming.

(By the way, here is a report from Politico about how A.I. already is having a big impact on religion.)

(The image above came from here.)

* * *


I almost never get to write about the Rastafarians, a religious movement that considers the late Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie the incarnation of God. But as this Religion News Service story reports, a group of followers, including Dorrell Howard, known as Bongo Thunder, gathered in Brooklyn recently to celebrate the 131st anniversary of Selassie's birth. As the story also notes, "Rastafari emerged in the 1930s in Jamaica after Selassie’s coronation on November 2, 1930. For Rastas, it is seen as the realization of Jamaican political activist Marcus Garvey’s prophecy in the 1920s: 'Look to Africa when a Black king shall be crowned, for the day of deliverance is near.'” It just seems like further proof that somewhere in the world there's a religious or spiritual movement about which most of us know nothing but that is, nonetheless, reflective of humanity long search for ultimate meaning.

Do we have a deep need to acknowledge the divine?

Back in the late 1960s, when I was on the staff of the now-defunct Rochester, N.Y., Times-Union, a Gannett paper, I read (and, as I recall, reviewed) a book called Faith and Violence by Trappist monk Thomas Merton. In fact, the book was published the same year Merton (1915-1968) died.

Seven-StoreyIn the midst of the Vietnam War, American race riots and, well, the 1960s, the book was a timely critique of all of that from a Christian perspective. I vowed then to read Merton's most famous book, The Seven Storey Mountain, first published in 1948. But somehow I never got around to it. Until now. I've had a copy of it on our bookshelves for years, but only a week or so ago did I open it and begin to read it.

I'm not done yet, but I want to share with you something Merton mentions briefly to see if you agree with him.

When Merton was a child, he was told that his father was dying. (Well, it turned out his father was quite sick but did not die until quite a bit later.)

He writes that when his grandmother "told me this news, I was old enough to understand what it meant, and I was profoundly affected, filled with sorrow and with fear. Was I never to see my father again? This could not happen. I don't know whether or not it occurred to me to pray, but I think by this time it must have, at least once or twice, although I certainly had very little of anything that could be called faith.

"If I did pray for my father it was probably only one of those blind, semi-instinctive movements of nature that will come to anyone, even an atheist in a time of crisis, and which do not prove the existence of God, exactly, but which certainly show that the need to worship and acknowledge Him is something deeply ingrained in our dependent natures, and simply inseparable from our essence."

Is, in fact, the need to worship God deeply ingrained in us and "inseparable from our essence"?

When I read that I thought that Merton was being too specific. His reference, clearly, was to the god proclaimed by Christianity as well as by Judaism and Islam, the god all three traditions believe is the one true god.

It's possible that Merton was right. But I suspect he'd have been more correct if he had suggested simply that human beings have a "need to worship and acknowledge" some power greater than themselves. The three Abrahamic faiths would say that's the god they worship. But I think the need to affirm a higher power exists in people who have never heard of the one whom Judaism, Christianity and Islam call Hashem, God, Allah. And that higher power may be nothing more divine than the cosmos itself and the rules of nature.

St. Augustine once wrote this: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

So perhaps Merton was simply reflecting Augustine's thinking, as he frequently did. But in both cases, they have given the specific name God to the target of our unspecific internal need to see our own lives as part of some larger perspective. And if Merton were still around I might email him and ask him if he thinks I'm right. My guess is he'd tell me to knock it off and finish reading his book.

* * *


In 1950, Albert Einstein wrote a letter in which he questioned the Bible's story of the creation of the world, and now that letter is for sale at an upcoming auction, this RNS story reports. As I interpret the letter, Einstein was rejecting a literal interpretation of the biblical account that God created the world in seven days. It seems as if he could live with the Bible's account if it were taken metaphorically. That would mean Einstein got it right. He apparently knew this truth: You can take the Bible literally or you can take it seriously, but you can't do both.

* * *

P.S.: My friend Raj Bhala, who teaches law at the University of Kansas, has put together a newly updated edition of his important book, Understanding Islamic Law (Shari’a), which I consider the definitive work on the subject. You can read about that in this K.U. press release. By the way, here is a piece I wrote in 2018 for Flatland about the ridiculous effort to prevent courts in the U.S. from considering any use of Shari'a law.

A 3-year process moves toward changing Catholicism (a little)

The 1963-'65 Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) has been described as both the savior of the Catholic Church and another nail in the church's coffin.

James-MartinThe truth, of course, is somewhere between those extreme positions, but much closer to the former than the latter. Vatican II moved a stiff, resistant, old religious tradition and made it more open to modernity, more willing to listen to other voices, more able to share power with the people in the pews. But it also created a cadre of resistance that has continued to do what it can to undo the reforms that began under Pope John XXIII.

Now Catholicism is in the midst of a new process -- with a coming event, a synod -- that some are comparing to Vatican II in its potential importance. Which, of course, means that the upcoming Synod on Synodality gathering in Rome is attracting both supporters and critics. Because the word "synodality" isn't in the daily vocabulary of many people (even my own computer's spellcheck system doesn't recognize it), it's possible that many Catholics -- to say nothing of people from other traditions -- won't pay much attention when the assembly takes place Oct. 4-29 at the Vatican, near the end of a three-year period of discussions and study.

And that would be too bad. The church -- the largest branch of Christianity in the world -- has an opportunity to critique not just the changing culture around the globe but also to examine what needs adjustment in its own thinking about its own responses to a world wounded by violence, greed, hatred and oppression.

One of the many subjects that may receive some attention at the synod is the way the church approaches questions about human sexuality. As this Religion News Service story points out, Pope Francis, who from time to time challenges church tradition, has appointed to the upcoming synod "the Rev. James Martin (pictured here), an American Jesuit priest who has championed the cause of the Catholic LGBTQ community."

Martin is a prolific author, as his Amazon author's page attests. And what he writes is well worth reading. (He was kind enough to write an endorsement blurb for my latest book.)

But what his appointment tells me is that Pope Francis is willing to hear ideas that challenge Catholic tradition, which from time to time -- in the slow-walk way of religion generally -- gets altered at least somewhat. And that's a healthy thing for any religious tradition.

My own views about LGBTQ+ matters within faith traditions have evolved over the decades, as this essay, which I keep elsewhere here on the blog, attests. I concluded that religion that turns any people of any description into second-class (or lower) members gets it wrong. So until my own denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), changed its rules to allow gay pastors and officers and to allow pastors to perform same-sex weddings, I stayed within the church and advocated the change that finally came in 2011.

In some ways, that's what I see Martin doing -- and that's what I see the pope encouraging him to keep doing. All of which is a good sign for the future health of Catholicism. (By the way, here is a follow-up report from RNS about Martin's appointment and Martin's own hopes for the results.)

* * *


My maternal grandparents were born in Sweden and came to the U.S. in the first few years of the 20th Century. Although they grew up just a few miles from one another, they didn't meet until after they had gone separately through Ellis Island and arrived in northern Illinois. They had good economic reasons to come to the U.S., but they always expressed their love for their native Sweden.

I'd love to be able to ask them their reaction to recent news that Sweden has been allowing people, in the name of free speech, to burn copies of sacred scripture -- the Qur'an, the Torah, the Bible. Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, in this column for Religion News Service, is appalled, and rightly so. There is, after all -- whether Swedish officials know it or not -- a difference between free speech and intolerable acts of hatred.

"Let me begin," Salkin writes, "by saying that I have a visceral disgust over the burning of any book. Heinrich Heine was correct: 'Where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people also.' So much the more so: I despise the burning of religious texts. Short of physical violence, it is the highest and most grievous species of injury."

There is much to admire about Sweden and the Swedish people, but the current leaders who don't know the difference between legitimate free speech and hate crimes committed by the burning of scripture need to be replaced by people who do.

* * *

P.S.: A couple of extra reads to throw your way today from my boyhood-in-India friend, Justice Markandey Katju. First, this column about what India's oppressed Muslims (they make up about 15 percent of the country's population) should do, especially in response to the virulent Hindu Nationalism promoted by the current Indian government. Next, this brief piece about a Hindu and a Muslim holiday falling on the same day. If you want to respond to Markandey, you can do so at [email protected].

* * *

PoetryANOTHER P.S.: It's Poetry Night tonight at our free Front Porch concerts at Second Presbyterian Church, 55th and Brookside, in Kansas City. We start at 7:07 p.m. Poets include the fabulous Glenn North, Kathleen McBride, Greg Hack and even me. I'll have new poems about the first Christmas, the first Good Friday and the first Easter. Details here.

America's religious landscape seems to change daily.

Over the last several decades, I've written often about America's shifting religious landscape.

PRRI_Jul_2021_Religion_1Some of these changes began (or at least sped up) with the 1965 immigration reform bill that President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law. It allowed lots of people from Asia and the rest of the Southern Hemisphere to become U.S. citizens, and many of them brought with them their own faith traditions, including Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, Buddhism and others.

Christianity remains the religion of more Americans than any other, but Protestants, who used to make up the vast majority of American citizens, now make up fewer than 50 percent of the population. And those identifying as religiously unaffiliated (known as the "nones") now make up about one-third of the adult population in the U.S.

(The image here shows America's religious landscape as it looked in 2020.)

Those are some of the broad-stroke changes of recent decades. (My friend Leroy Seat is in the midst of publishing on his blog three pieces that list what he calls the biggest theological changes in Christianity he's seen in his lifetime. It's an intriguing list that includes "Widespread rejection of Hell," "Growing de-emphasis on Heaven" and "Change in views related to sexual ethics." Have a look.)

But change also happens inch by inch, semester by semester. And a good example of that can be found at the Vanderbilt University Divinity School, which has just installed a new dean.

As this interesting article in The Tennessean reports, there have been many "many seismic shifts that have distinguished Vanderbilt Divinity from peer institutions."

As the story notes, "As a more progressive interdenominational theological school in the South, Vanderbilt Divinity faculty and alumni are challenging religious traditions in a region where faith leaders and elected officials are reasserting those traditional values." That can be a generative process but it also can produce anger and destruction. Let's hope for the former.

The push-and-pull of theological traditions -- certainly in Christianity but no doubt also in other religions -- influences the shape of faith in some new way almost daily in the U.S.

That's because religion still matters in the U.S. (a point I made in this recent column for The Kansas City Star's editorial page). And it would be helpful if the traditional media would pay more attention to it. But that will happen only if readers, listeners and viewers demand it in the way that sports fans demand coverage.

* * *


People who keep track of the religious landscape recognize that the few Christian branches that are growing in the U.S. are Pentecostal in worship style. It's a story that hasn't received a lot of media attention, so I was glad to find this article from, of all places, The Tablet, which traditionally covers Jewish matters.

It's quite a long read but full of interesting facts and analysis. But at the very least, it offers this description of this expressive branch of the faith: "Pentecostalism, a faith characterized by lively prayer services that can include speaking in tongues and impassioned preaching, is a comparatively recent Christian denomination. It began in the 19th century, with the parallel development throughout the Anglosphere of a grassroots spiritual enthusiasm grounded in personal experience. Its theology is rooted in history both ancient and more contemporary." In the U.S., two prominent Pentecostal branches are the Assemblies of God and the Church of God in Christ. I'd be curious to know your experience of Pentecostalism. I've been to a few services over the decades, but my experience of Pentecostalism is quite limited.

* * *

P.S.: You can get an email for free each time my blog publishes -- almost always on Wednesdays and Saturdays -- by clicking on this link and filling out a simple form.

How the U.S. Constitution misshaped Indigenous history

One of the deeply embedded lessons in religion is to recognize and commemorate not just those aspects of our ancestral stories that are joyful but also those that were catastrophic. A few examples:

Rediscovery-AmericaIn Judaism, Tisha B'Av is a 24-hour fast commemorating the destruction of both temples in Jerusalem as well as other disasters in Jewish history. Similarly, Yom HaShoah each year remembers the Holocaust, in which Nazi Germany murdered six million Jews and many others. (By the way, I just finished reading The Escape Artist, by Jonathan Freedland. It's a Holocaust book not to be missed.)

In Christianity, Good Friday is set aside to remember the death-by-crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.

In Shi'a Islam, Ashura commemorates the martyrdom of Husayn, the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson.

People of faith don't mark such dates because it's fun to remember terrible things. Rather, they do it because catastrophes teach important lessons about the past that have applications for the present and future.

So in this month when Americans celebrate Independence Day, July 4, 1776, it's also helpful to remember that it took until September 1787 to complete the draft of the U.S. Constitution and until June 21, 1788, for it to be formally adopted (when New Hampshire ratified it).

And it's helpful to remind ourselves not just of the good that sturdy document has accomplished over all this time but also to commemorate what it got wrong and why. Yes, it formalized a system of slavery and white supremacy, but it also was a major blow to Indigenous residents of the land that became the United States.

In his new book, The Rediscovery of America, Yale history professor Ned Blackhawk describes the consequences for Native people of the adoption of the Constitution:

"For Native peoples. . .the Constitution excluded them and aided in their dispossession. It offered little protection against the processes of colonization then underway. Moreover, it anticipated even greater land seizures to come. Forged by a nation born out of revolt, it emerged from three decades of interior warfare and positioned the new government to navigate its expansion through military and diplomatic tools. The Constitution now legitimated the process of American colonialism unleashed by the Revolution. It originated in a generation of Anglo-American struggles for political, economic and social autonomy, and its framers worked to ensure Anglo-American supremacy over interior lands, Native peoples and African American slaves. It became, in short, a constitution for colonialism."

All these years later, what difference does any of that make? Well, it should not shock you to know that just as slavery, Jim Crow laws and much more has kept many Black people in the U.S. from achieving all their dreams, so, too, has this history of how the Constitution dealt with Native Americans (and much more later destructive history) affected their lives from then until today.

Religion also teaches repentance and accountability for wrongs. An example in American history: the reparation payments the U.S. finally made to Japanese-American citizens who, in World War II, were rounded up and stuck in concentration camps. So far the U.S. hasn't done what should be done to repair the damage done to descendants of slavery and to Native tribe members whose lives were so badly damaged by decisions our government made. It's time to fix that.

* * *


The term "cult" used to mean simply a group of people attached to a particular religious way of thinking and living. Which is why scholars of religion have tried to avoid using it as a pejorative. But increasingly in recent years the term refers to a close-minded group radically dedicated either to one person or a single set of ideas. In this Huffington Post piece, the author describes how she slowly came to the realization that the Christian church of her childhood was a cult: "Cults thrive on shame, fear, control. What else would you call this?" This is one more reason that several years ago I wrote The Value of Doubt: Why Unanswered Questions, Not Unquestioned Answers, Build Faith. If you are part of a faith community that doesn't want to hear your difficult questions about religion, that insists its way is the only true way, you're going to have enormous difficulty making sense of this wildly diverse world. Doubt can be a road to a sustainable, healthy religious faith. I'm glad the author of the Huff Post piece finally figured that out. I hope you have, too.

* * *

P.S.: Here's a link to a column I wrote for Tuesday's Kansas City Star editorial page. It actually praises this frustrating U.S. Supreme Court for a recent unanimous decision in a religion case.

Opening the eyes of our hearts to daily miracles

I want to back up a few weeks and think again about the catastrophic implosion of the Titan submersible (pictured here) near the wreck of the Titanic.

TitanAs Rabbi Avi Shafran notes in this RNS opinion piece, most, if not all, of us were praying for a miracle that would have allowed the survival of the Titan's five occupants.

"(W)hat a wonderful miracle would have been celebrated," Shafran writes, "had the happy ending actually happened. How enthralling it would have been to witness the jubilant welcome of the explorers as they emerged, wonderfully, into the light and fresh air, into the welcoming arms of their families and friends."

But, of course, we now know that all the passengers died instantly. Some of the pieces from the craft have been returned to the surface and are being studied to see what can be learned.

But what can the Titan story teach us about ourselves? Shafran is right that we can use it to learn to notice and appreciate the everyday miracles all around us. Simple miracles. Miracles we don't even notice are miracles. Like simply waking up from overnight sleep.

"It’s not only the fact that in sleep we are unconscious, out of control or that people can, and do, die in their sleep," Shafran writes. "Or even that sleep, like death, is insistent and will only allow itself to be postponed so long.

"The rabbis of the Talmud said something more; they considered sleep itself to be a virtual microcosm of death — 'one sixtieth' of it, in their turn of phrase and thought. Today we hardly stop to think about the return of consciousness as anything remarkable. We understand the science of sleep better and what might cause us to die before we wake. Resuming our lives — life itself, in a sense — seems a given."

Two things are at play here: Gratitude and mindfulness. When we aren't mindful, when we simply don't notice life and beauty and the astonishing (when we pay attention) ways that we live and move and have our being, we have chosen to be ungrateful. Shafran writes about the simple act of waking up in the morning. But once we're awake, do we notice that if we didn't blink now and then our eyes would dry out and become useless? Do we notice that if we didn't cough occasionally we might suffer a fatal congestion of some sort? Do we notice that we don't have to tell our bodies to breathe? They simply do it to survive.

It may be silly to call such happenings miracles, but I have some sympathy for whoever first said that there are two kinds of people: Those who never see miracles and those who see nothing but miracles.

Yes, of course, we are right to grieve the Titan implosion and right to question whether it was an accident waiting to happen. But we also can use that experience to notice -- and give thanks for -- the many ways that the miraculous is simply built into our quotidian lives.

* * *


Newly released figures show that more than 6,000 congregations now have chosen to leave the United Methodist Church, this AP story reports. That's about one-fifth of the total. I've written plenty about this over the past several years, but here's a brief explanation: This is a dispute over how to treat LGBTQ+ people in light of biblical passages that some people read as calling homosexuality a sin. To understand why that's a misreading of scripture, read this essay on the subject that I store elsewhere here on my blog. The people who prefer that misreading are the ones leaving the UMC. Here's a simple way to think about how to interpret scripture: If your interpretation leads you to oppress people or to consider them somehow subhuman, you can be sure you're getting it wrong. Healthy religion liberates and affirms the goodness of God's creation, even while acknowledging that God's justice and mercy are always fair and good.

* * *

P.S.: Earlier this spring I was filling in on the editorial page of The Kansas City Star (where I spent a lot of years) and wrote this editorial about what was wrong with a bill that would allow public schools in Missouri to teach courses on the Bible. Well, now that state lawmakers have ignored that advice, Maria Benevento of The Kansas City Beacon has written this piece that outlines some problematic things about the law. What? There are problematic things about it? How shocking. Gov. Mike Parson, by the way, to one one's surprise, has signed the bill into law. Sigh.

* * *

ANOTHER P.S.: You can get an email for free each time my blog publishes -- almost always on Wednesdays and Saturdays -- by clicking on this link and filling out a simple form.

A sobering report to digest this Fourth of July

(Note: I usually post my blog just on Wednesdays and Saturdays but I'm moving publication up one day this week to coincide with Independence Day in the U.S.)

This Fourth of July holiday is a good time not just to celebrate the vast goodness that the United States has done in the world in its 247 years since declaring its independence but also to acknowledge where and how our country has erred -- sometimes grievously -- and to commit ourselves to doing better.

UN-special-rapAs a member of a 9/11 family (my nephew was murdered in those 2001 terrorist attacks), I have paid relatively close attention to the imprisonment of people at the Guantanamo prison on the U.S. Navy's base on the island of Cuba. Many of the hundreds of prisoners held there over the years have experienced egregious torture and other crimes. The group of prisoners still there includes the five men charged with planning the 9/11 attacks. So far none of those five has been tried.

But recently the Biden administration finally allowed the first United Nations human rights investigator to visit the camp since it was set up 20 years ago. She issued this report. You can read about it in this report from The Guardian. And to watch a recording of the U.N. special rapporteur's press conference about it, click here.

I was intrigued by the way the rapporteur, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, began her written report by praising the Biden administration for allowing her access to what she needed to assess things at Gitmo:

"Enabling access by United Nations (UN) experts is an important signal from the United States Government to the international community that the Guantánamo detention facility is on a path to de-exceptionalism. It opens the possibility to address the profound human rights violations that have occurred there and their reparable harms to the lives and health of the 780 Muslim men who have been detained there, including 30 men who remain. It affirms the fundamental principle of access to all places of detention including high-security settings. It upholds the value of UN human rights expert visits in accordance with the Terms of Reference for Country Visits by Special Procedure Mandate Holders, enabling all requested access to former and current detention facilities and to detainees. . ."

So to translate: The U.S. finally is doing the right thing by allowing this investigator access -- in the interest of protecting universal human rights -- to what she needs to describe the terrible things that have been happening under U.S. auspices at Gitmo.

But then, as The Guardian piece to which I linked you above reports, "she had searing words for the treatment of detainees, and for what she described as the continued failure to face up to the US torture program unleashed in the wake of the 2001 terror attacks."

Fellow citizens, our government has committed evil in our name at Gitmo and other locations before some of the Gitmo prisoners ever got there, just as the 9/11 hijackers and the people who planned that operation under the direction of the late (and unmissed) Osama bin Laden committed evil in the name of Islam, a religion they slimed by their actions.

We need to know not just what happened in our name but we also need to demand that our leaders never stoop to such inhumane and inhuman levels of behavior again.

Details of what the U.N. investigator found are difficult to read. But they make plain that our foundational (though often just aspirational) values as a nation were betrayed by our leaders. And I hope you will give the U.N. report a read.

Almost every document, policy, law or budget that the U.S. government produces is in some profound sense a moral document. The endless reams of legal papers produced by the military commissions overseeing the Gitmo trials and prisoners certainly amount to that. And many of the documents -- and actions stemming from them -- related to the Gitmo prisoners have subverted our core national values about human rights in the process. So let's read what was done in our name and say, "Never again."

Here, by the way, is an analysis of the special rapporteur's report from Scott Roehm of the Center for Victims of Torture. His conclusion is especially clear-eyed about where we go from here:

"In sum, for all of the legitimate good that flows from the Biden administration having facilitated the Special Rapporteur’s visit, to the people whose rights she examined – victims of terrorism, detainees and former detainees – it’s what happens next that matters most. The administration expressing its 'disagree[ment] in significant respects with many factual and legal assertions the Special Rapporteur has made,' isn’t the most promising start. If the United States wants its engagement with the Special Rapporteur truly to reflect 'leadership by example' and an 'ongoing commitment to upholding human rights,' it needs to grapple openly and honestly with the very serious issues that she identified and take immediate, concrete steps to address them."


Finally, here is investigative reporter Andy Worthington's report on the Special Rapporteur's survey. Worthington has followed this Guantanamo story from the start.

* * *


As we think about the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision unplugging affirmative action as a tool used by colleges and universities, it helps to put it in historical perspective, which the author of this RNS opinion piece does.

Pleas to support a color-blind vision of society contained in the Constitution, she writes, "ignore 76 years of prodigious and violent defense of slavery between the framing of the Constitution in 1789 and the end of the Civil War in 1865. The 'color-blind' world of affirmative action’s opponents also ignores the massive, state-by-state imposition of the system we called Jim Crow in the years between the framing of the 14th amendment in 1866 (ratified in 1868) and Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, which spelled its end. . .One can only offer a theory of a color-blind past if one ignores this tragic history of racial injustice that is threaded through U.S. history." 

Many Americans dream that one day special legal efforts won't be needed to make sure people of all races and ethnic groups have an equal opportunity in our society. But overcoming a long history of de jure affirmative action in favor of white people clearly takes a long time, and we're not there yet.

* * *

ANOTHER P.S.: You can get an email for free each time my blog publishes -- almost always on Wednesdays and Saturdays -- by clicking on this link and filling out a simple form.

American prisons: Where slavery still is constitutional

In many ways, religion is trifurcated. Which is to say that it looks to the past, to the present and to the future.

Jail-cellsThe future holds before people of faith a beautiful vision of what will happen when the world finally works the way God meant it to work and, beyond that, it shows them an eternal place of bliss. The past reminds us of why, because of human error, greed and sin, the world doesn't yet work that smooth way. The present is here to move us to action to fix what's broken now while we appreciate the beauty that's already here.

What's crucial to understand, however, is that the past inevitably shapes the present. Because that's true, we need to understand the past so that we can grasp why future prospects are the way they are and how we might repair what's broken.

That's why this column from Good Faith Media is valuable. It reminds us of something many Americans may not know or remember: In America, "slavery was never fully abolished."

Here's what the article's author, Starlette Thomas, Good Faith Media's associate editor and host of its podcast “The Raceless Gospel,” writes about that:

"According to the 13th amendment, slavery can still be used as punishment: 'Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.' That exception moved slavery from the plantation to the prison system."

Which is why we have a plethora of books about the failures of our prison system, including  Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

And it's why reform of our criminal justice system is at the heart of improved race relations in the U.S.

Thomas adds this: "According to The Sentencing Project, there are currently two million people in the nation’s prisons and jails. The United States leads the world in incarceration and African Americans suffer disproportionately. It is no wonder that Americans view police officers differently."

Most Americans, I'd guess, including me, rarely think about prisons as a place where today you still can find slavery as part of the constitutional system of justice in the U.S. Perhaps if there were a campaign to undo the slavery portion of the 13th amendment, more of our citizens would understand more fully how much it needs fixing.

In the upcoming presidential and congressional elections, let's ask the candidates if they'd be willing to lead the charge on such a change. That could lead to some fascinating conversation -- and maybe even to change itself.

* * *


Although the population of the U.S. -- like that of much of Europe -- is becoming less identified with religion, I'm guessing that the recent unanimous Supreme Court ruling in Groff v. DeJoy, which clarified that employers must do more than the minimum to accommodate workers’ requests related to religious observance, has the support of most Americans. Indeed, it's important to make space for Americans to observe the practices of their faith traditions without government mandates or other interference. In this case (not a major ruling but important, nonetheless), a mail carrier was required to deliver mail on Sunday, and he objected because he believed his Christian faith required him to do no work on Sundays. But as this RNS story suggests, the ruling is popular with people of other faith traditions, too, because it also protects their rights. Good work, justices (at least in this case). By the way, here is a pretty good explanation of the court's decision offered by Ian Millhiser a senior correspondent at Vox.

* * *

P.S.: My friend Leroy Seat began attending a Southern Baptist church when he was about seven years old and later got ordained as a Southern Baptist pastor. He even served for nearly four decades as a Southern Baptist missionary in Japan. But, like millions of others, Leroy has left connections with the Southern Baptist Convention, which has moved increasingly to the rigid theological right. Well, I'll let Leroy explain all this. You can read his recent blog post about it here.

* * *

ANOTHER P.S.: Last week in Sweden, an Iraqi immigrant reportedly burned a copy of the Qur'an in front of a mosque, and Sweden said it was simply an exercise of the right to free speech. But lots of protests followed. My boyhood friend Markandey Katju, a former justice on India's Supreme Court, has weighed in on this by urging Muslims not to respond. Hmmm. See if you think that's good advice.