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What's the first thing you'd say to or ask of a dead person?

Survey work done this year by the Pew Research Center suggests that lots of Americans experience some kind of visitation by a dead family member in a dream or some other form.

Cemetery-lightHere's the thrust of the Pew study to which I just linked you:

  • Around half of U.S. adults (53%) say they’ve been visited by a dead family member.
  • 34% have “felt the presence” of a dead relative
  • 28% have told a dead relative about their life
  • 15% have had a dead family member communicate with them

Before we let our scientific minds dismiss all this as unbelievable nonsense, let's remember that Jesus himself is reported to have had that very experience -- and in the presence of a few of his closest followers.

You will find that in Matthew 17, in what usually is called the story of the transfiguration of Jesus. It goes like this in the updated edition of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible:

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became bright as light. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will set up three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

There's more, but that's enough to show you that Matthew reported Jesus talked to dead people. Peter really seemed to get into the act, not just believing what he was seeing but deciding that the obvious response to seeing long-dead dead people was to build a tent for them. Thoughtful of him, I'd say.

Well, different religious traditions handle such questions about communicating with the dead in different ways. It may surprise you to learn that I am in no position to say which, if any, of those ways is correct.

What I do know is that it's foolish to dismiss the experiences that others may have about connections to the dead. I personally have never had a dead person talk to me in a way I could hear, but I have done my best to keep from losing my memories of people with whom I was close. And sometimes I even imagine brief conversations I'd like to have with one or more of them now.

Similarly, after I've died I'd like for my bride, children, grandchildren, other family members and friends to think of me occasionally, perhaps as they read or reread one of my books or stumble across something else I've written that somehow has survived. Or maybe they'll suddenly remember that I never paid a debt I owed them. (You can't take debts with you, either.)

But I don't want them hanging on to the idea that I'll be wandering back to communicate directly with them once I'm gone. If they want to talk with me, now is the time to do it.

(The photo here is one I took several years ago at Forest Hill Cemetery in Kansas City.)

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A few days ago, Pope Francis made some remarks that focused quite directly on his critics in the U.S., and I think he identified a problem that exists not just in faith communities but in American politics. As this America magazine article notes, "Addressing the Jesuit brother who had raised the question, Francis remarked, 'You have been to the United States and you say you have felt a climate of closure. Yes, this climate can be experienced in some situations. And there you can lose the true tradition and turn to ideologies for support. In other words, ideology replaces faith, membership of a sector of the Church replaces membership of the Church.'”

Ideology replacing faith is the core issue and concept here. You see it not just among some Catholic critics of the pope, but, more evidently, among many non-Catholic Christians who identify as evangelical or conservative or fundamentalist. It's why so many of them got drawn into Trumpism. But, of course, you also see ideology replacing faith among some Christians who identify as progressive or liberal. Some of them get so committed to issues of social justice that they ignore -- and eventually forget -- the theological underpinnings of their commitments. In many cases, ideology detached from its theological roots is in danger of being rootless and, thus, a potential victim to the shifting winds of thinking that is merely political.

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P.S.: If you missed my latest Flatland column when it posted on Sunday, it's here. It's about the new Alvin L. Brooks Center for Faith-Justice at Rockhurst University in Kansas City.

Is the hatred that once stalked the Heartland still alive?

I have just finished reading a fascinating book about a man who, to the surprise of many Americans, became a powerful leader and controlled governmental actions and policies.

He bragged that he could commit crimes if he wanted to and get away with it.

He took regular retribution against those who stood against his large ego.

He encouraged one group of people (white) to hate other groups of people.

He had a history of sexual assaults on women, most of which he got away with -- most, but not all.

The author of the book says the man "made a mockery" of the moral principles of the nation. Indeed, if this man's lips were moving you could bet with confidence that he was lying about something.

Think you know the name of the subject? Sorry. It's not Donald Trump, though I understand why you might have thought so.

Fever-HeartlandRather, the subject is D.C. Stephenson. In the 1920s, he was the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana and had his eyes on leading all Klan members in the country and eventually being elected president of the United States. Indiana -- at both the state and local level -- in the early 1920s was deeply held Klan territory.

His remarkable -- and scary -- story is told in Timothy Egan's new book, A Fever in the Heartland: The Ku Klux Klan's Plot to Take Over America, and the Woman Who Stopped Them.

In many ways, it's the story of the too-frequent willingness of Americans to be taken in by charlatans selling terrible ideas, such as white supremacy.

I want to be clear about this: I am not saying that Trump is today's Stephenson. Things are much more complicated and nuanced to be able to draw such a one-to-one comparison. Besides, the point is not about two men who resemble each other in various and weird ways. Rather, the point is about the sometimes-shocking willingness of the American people to fall in behind deeply flawed leaders who seem willing and even eager to undermine the best values on which the U.S. was founded -- even as we recognize that many of those values were aspirational and still haven't been fully realized or fulfilled.

But there are echoes of Stephenson's strange life (it didn't end well) in Trump's singularly astonishing life. And there is much all of us can learn from knowing how Stephenson manipulated the American people so that they supported him, at times almost without question and with only a few voices standing against his putrid bigotry.

Egan writes that at one point in Stephenson's life, as he was becoming a major force in the emerging Klan, he experienced "mass adulation for a man who'd led a life without friends, a life devoid, by his design, of contact with the family that had raised him and the family he'd created and abandoned. He needed to be told that he was loved, that the world would know he was loved, even if the love was dictated by his own hand."

Egan calls that hidden background Stephenson's "Big Lie." And the author asks whether it would matter to the people idolizing him if they knew the truth. His answer: "They believed because they wanted to believe."

Then he adds this: "These people needed to hate something smaller than themselves as much as they needed to have faith in something greater than themselves."

To help them along with this, Stephenson found many willing accomplices among the clergy -- pastors whom he bribed to preach a gospel that was consistent with the hatred the Klan was spewing. It was way too easy to do. It wasn't the first time clergy had stood for terrible ideas (start with slavery, but don't end there). And, as we know from recent history, it wasn't the last time, either.

(Oh, by the way, Egan mentions that in October 1924, more than 5,000 delegates from around the country "gathered in Kansas City for the Klan's second national convention." Wonder whether and how we Kansas Citians will commemorate the upcoming 100th anniversary of that rancid stain on our past. Egan also mentions the great newspaper editor from Emporia, Kan., William Allen White, and his role in getting Kansas to oust the Klan legally. White was, thus, an early example of what some folks, egged on by Trump, today deride as the "enemy of the people.")

D.C. Stephenson was fond of saying "I am the law." And for a time in some places it was hard to argue with him about that. But eventually the real law woke up and did its duty, convicting him of murder in the second degree and sending him to prison.

But here's what Egan writes as he reflects on Stephenson: "Democracy was a fragile thing, stable and steady until it was broken and trampled. A man who didn't care about shattering every convention, and then found new ways to vandalize the contract that allowed free people to govern themselves, could do unthinkable damage. So now all the world knew what Stephenson had masterminded."

There are villains and heroes galore in Egan's account of Stephenson's sad and destructive life, but in the end the lessons are clear. As Egan writes, "What if the leaders of the 1920s Klan didn't drive public sentiment but rode it? A vein of hatred was always there for the tapping. It's still there, and explains much of the madness threatening American life a hundred years after Stephenson made a mockery of the moral principles of the Heartland."

So now it's our turn to unplug the "vein of hatred." I'm not giving up hope that we can do just that, but I wish I were more confident.

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And speaking of hate, as I was above here on the blog, congratulations to more than 1,000 Baylor University alumni, faculty and staff members who have written a letter asking the university to adopt policies that treat LGBTQ+ people more equitably. The RNS story to which I've linked you reports that Baylor recently "sought — and received — a new exemption from the U.S. Department of Education to discriminate against LGBTQ students while still receiving federal aid." This kind of bigotry is rooted in a misreading of scripture, as I point out in this essay that I keep elsewhere on the blog. It's way, way past time for Baylor and everyone else to stop engaging in dehumanizing people in this way.

A chance to imagine who our 'family' really is


HARWICH, Mass. -- In general, religion thinks family is important, even if there are differences among faith traditions about what family means.

Mbj-1Jesus, for instance, once was interrupted while speaking to a group and told that his mother and siblings were outside and presumably wanted him to stop what he was doing and come away with them. Instead, he asked who his mother and sisters and brothers really are.

His answer had nothing to do with bloodlines. His parents and siblings, he said, are those who do the will of God.

On this trip to New England for a "family" wedding, I've been thinking about Jesus' answer and whether it has any meaning that's related to what I consider my family.

The first visit to family that my wife and I made was to see my sister and her husband. Barbara has been family since two years before I was born. And Jim has been part of my family since 1964. The fact that they have made different decisions about matters of faith than I have doesn't change any of that. It simply means that when we get together in person or by Zoom we don't spend all (or any) of our time talking about Presbyterian matters.

Next we were scheduled to visit Haven, the widow of my late nephew. He was the son of Barb and Jim and was murdered in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. (The Japanese maple tree shown in the photo above is one my two other sisters and I gave to Barb and Jim as a memorial to Karleton.) Haven and her now-family live on Martha's Vineyard, but she was ill and we had to cancel the visit. But Haven and her husband Dan clearly are part of my family. In fact, Haven and I are closer now than we were when Karleton was alive.

While in Boston, we also were able to have a brief visit with my niece Erin, Karleton's sister, and her two children. Too fast, but a great catch-up. Erin lives in Cambridge and is within a few months of the age of my younger daughter Kate.

In Boston, we stayed a couple of night's with my wife Marcia's first cousin once-removed. Mark is also family and we're happy to have this wonderful man as part of our extended clan. While there, we had dinner with Mark's parents, also part of Marcia's (and, thus, my) family.

Also in Boston we attended the wedding of my niece Julia (daughter of my first wife's sister). (The other photo here show Julia with me and Marcia.) That branch of human beings has been part of my family since 1968, and the fact that I'm no longer married to the sister of the mother of the bride hasn't broken our family ties. We have made a choice to be family, despite the broken marriage.

And now that Julia and Michael are a married couple, we think of him as part of our family.

The day after the wedding, we visited Marcia's nephew, his wife and their children in Newton, near Boston. John is the son of Marcia's late sister and that clan certainly is part of our family, too.

I'm not saying that Jesus didn't have a good point when he described what he considered to be his family. He did. In fact, I once preached a sermon called "Water is Thicker Than Blood" in which I argued that in some ways the waters of baptism create a more eternal family than do blood connections.

I still think so, but for now I don't live in eternity, exactly. So what I mean by family now is much more focused on the people who, by blood or choice, come into my orbit.

When people of faith talk about "family values," the term often is a cover for narrow prejudice against LGBTQ+ people and others who don't hold to the same pietistic values of those using the term.

So the question I ask you today is this: Who is in your family and why? I hope that when you're given a choice about that you widen the circle instead of narrowing it. Sometimes family is what keeps us sane and loving (except, of course, when it does the opposite).

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Speaking of family, as I was above here today, our family on Earth is threatened by climate change, so Pope Francis has just announced that he plans to update his 2015 encyclical on the environment, Laudato Sì. It's not clear what difference that will make, but Francis has a prophetic voice and I'm glad he uses it -- often wisely. Every day we become more aware of the ways in which the climate is becoming increasingly wild and unpredictable. And humanity's activity and policies are part of what is causing that. So the pope must speak.

A brief break from blog posts

-- I'm here in New England this weekend for a family wedding and to see some other friends and relatives.

So I give you permission to take a day off from the blog. However, if you want to get updated on news in the field of religion, I suggest you visit Religion News Service.

The blog will resume either this Wednesday, Aug. 23, or this Saturday, Aug. 26.

I also remind you that 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.

The religious roots of efforts to crush Indigenous Missourians

Although I'm not a native Missourian (I was born and grew up in Illinois except for two years spent in India), I've lived in the Show-Me state for more than half a century.

But it's been only in the last couple of years that I've learned much of anything about the Indigenous people who first occupied this continent. And only in the last few weeks that I've deepened that knowledge to include more information specifically about Indigenous Missourians.

Indig-MoIn many ways, I blame bad religion for some of that.

It was, after all, the 1493 Doctrine of Discovery contained in an encyclical issued by Pope Alexander VI that led European nations, because of their beliefs about white supremacy, to imagine that they were free to conquer and even enslave Indigenous people in what became the U.S. and elsewhere in the world. Oh, and not just to enslave them but also to turn them into Christians instead of leaving them be what our Declaration of Independence called them, "merciless Indian savages."

The wildly complicated history on this continent after that has led to the diminishment of Native peoples in countless ways -- though not, finally, to their elimination. That history is told with a special focus on Missouri in a remarkable new book, Indigenous Missourians: Ancient Societies to the Present, by Greg Olson.

Indigenous people have always lived in Missouri, of course, even after it became a state in 1821 and then, in 1839, as Olson notes, passed a law that "required any Native person who entered the state to have written permission from a government Indian agent in order to do so."

The roots of that kind of treatment, as I say, go back to religion. As Olson writes, by the early 1600s, "Native people in Missouri found themselves subject to laws and policies based on religious and cultural concepts developed half a world away. These foreign ideas, first carried to the continent by European colonizers, sought to legitimize the desire of Christians to take control of Native land without regard for the sovereignty of Indigenous nations."

In this brief review, I cannot do justice to the depth of Olson's detailed research and the way he uses those facts to portray what colonial settlers did to disrupt and in many cases destroy the lives of Indigenous Missourians. But Olson does not make the argument that deeply sinful Europeans crushed highly moral American Indians. He is much more nuanced than that, making sure readers understand both the mixed motives of settlers and the reality that Natives were simply other human beings who at times went to war against each other and who, like people everywhere, went bad in the usual ways.

But the sweep of the story is clear: European settlers crushed Indigenous residents in countless ways. The remarkable thing is that Native people did not disappear and are still with us. Beyond that, they are continuing to seek justice and to stop cultural misappropriation and other forms of discrimination.

Two examples of that: The "Not in Our Honor" effort by area Natives to get the Kansas City Chiefs to change the team's name and to stop fans from using the Arrowhead chop motion. It's all part of what Olson calls the need of Native peoples "to confront the ongoing issue of non-Natives appropriating Indigenous culture, traditions and ceremonies for their own purposes."

Second, there's the effort to get the Tribe of Mic-O-Say scouting organization to stop a similar appropriation of Native customs and history. The tribe goes back to the 1920s and to former (and late) Kansas City Mayor H. Roe Bartle (known as "Chief"). Recent local efforts to stop cultural appropriation haven't achieved their goals, but, as Olson reports, The Kansas City Star has editorialized about this, saying that the "Mic-O-Say program demeans Native Americans.  . .(and) is long past due for a major overhaul." Olson also correctly notes that the program has its defenders who say Mic-O-Say honors Indigenous people.

In the last couple of years my own congregation's efforts to be an ally of the Kansas City Indian Center have helped me get a better grasp on area Indigenous history and issues. But Olson's book should be a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the long, often sad history of how settlers mistreated Indigenous people and what that means for relations today. I can almost guarantee readers that they will learn things about the Midwest and specifically Missouri that they didn't know.

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ROCKLAND, Mass. -- I'm in New England for a family wedding scheduled for this coming weekend, so there won't be a second item here today and the blog will be on a short vacation after today until either Aug. 23 or Aug. 26.

Keeping Gitmo prison open defies our highest moral values


The year after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, the prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba opened as an off-shore place to house people whom American military forces or intelligence services were capturing in the so-called War on Terror.

Since then more than 800 prisoners have spent time there, though the last report I saw had the current total at 30.

I have written about this moral abomination various times over the years, including this piece for USA Today in early 2021 and this blog post for this past Fourth of July about a new report by the United Nations on the catastrophe that Guantanamo continues to be.

This weekend I want to restate how appalling the whole Guantanamo story has been and, as this opinion piece from The Nation insists, why simply closing the prison -- though that's important -- won't be enough.

What has happened -- and continues to happen -- at Guantanamo in our name as Americans has been a stream of flagrant violations of basic human rights and a repudiation of almost every good thing American citizens think our country stands for -- the rule of law, basic human rights, humane treatment of prisoners, a rejection of torture as a tool and simple human decency.

In the Fourth of July blog post to which I linked you above, you'll find a link to the U.N. report written about Gitmo after the Biden administration (to its limited credit) gave a U.N. representative broad access to investigate the prison and its history. That report, discussed in detail in The Nation column, outlines in appalling detail what has happened at the prison.

The author of The Nation piece, Karen J. Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School, discusses many of the crimes and outrages that have occurred at Gitmo and the people who have been denied fundamental human rights. But she also makes the spot-on point that those prisoners have not been the only victims of the U.S. failures at the prison over the years.

Greenberg notes that the U.N. leader who wrote the recent report on Gitmo "underscores her focus on finally bringing humanity to Gitmo by arguing that the widespread abuses Americans committed over the years, including by setting up a prison offshore of American justice, also significantly impacted the families of those who were killed in the attacks of September 11, 2001."

Indeed, the prison at Guantanamo and the painfully long military commission work to try the terrorists who plotted the 9/11 attacks have been a regular source of renewed pain for 9/11 families like mine. (My nephew was a passenger on the first plane to strike the World Trade Center. I wrote about the ongoing family trauma in my latest book, Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety.)

It's not just that we have to relive Karleton's murder in media reports every Sept. 11 but that almost-daily stories about developments at Gitmo are like pin-sharp, stabbing reminders of the beautiful young man we lost and of the unconscionable actions our government has done in our name at Gitmo and before Gitmo ever opened, including the widespread use of torture.

And as Greenberg also notes, the U.N. reporter wrote that "the use of torture was 'a betrayal of the rights of victims,' too, by making the holding of trials impossible to this day and so making both accountability and closure inconceivable for the victims’ families." That's one reason some 9/11 families have formed September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows as a way to work together and to support each other.

What still is needed, as Greenberg writes, is "accountability for the perpetrators and restitution for the victims." So far we have neither. So far what we mostly have is government-sponsored actions that have violated our highest values.

"Closing the prison," Greenberg writes, "if it ever actually happens, will not be enough. Sadly, even such an act will not bring true closure to the sins of America’s forever prison."

Every single presidential administration -- starting with that of George W. Bush, then Barack Obama, then Donald Trump, now Joe Biden -- has participated in these sins. And they need to end. Today.

(The A.P. photo above is from this site.)

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Why does religion sometimes get a bad name, despite all the good it does? Oh, sex abuse scandals, high-flying televangelists in their own jets, theft from Home Depot. Wait. What's that last one about? As this Religion News Service story reports, a Florida pastor has been charged with leading an organized crime ring in Florida to steal more than $1.4 million in merchandise from Home Depot and reselling the haul through Robert Dell's virtual store on eBay. If that's what he allegedly practiced, wonder what he preached.

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P.S.: In response to this book review that I did recently for The National Catholic Reporter (about a 103-year-old nun), I got a note from a Chicago-area deacon who is working on a book about an elderly nun in Uganda, Mother Teopista Nakuwandu. This link will take you to an interesting story about Deacon Don Grossnickle's work with her there. Read it if you need a little inspiration today.

Here's some help in understanding resurgent antisemitism

The recent trial, conviction and sentencing of the man who murdered 11 worshipers and wounded six more at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018 has, once again, put the spotlight on resurgent antisemitism in the U.S. and around the world.

AntisemitismWhat are the origins of what often is called the world's oldest hatred and why is it more present today than in recent decades?

For help with answering that question, I'm going to link you first to this article by Alvin H. Rosenfeld, the director of Indiana University’s Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism. I first met Rosenfeld, a prolific author, when he and I were on a panel together at I.U. some years ago. (For my review of one of his books, click here.)

Second, I link you here to this longish essay that I keep elsewhere on my blog about the bleak history of anti-Judaism in Christianity. It argues that from its earliest days until quite recently Christianity preached against the Jews and that theology has deep connections to what, in more recent times, became modern antisemitism. Anti-Judaism is theological in nature while modern antisemitism is rooted more in racial, ethnic and economic thinking (or the lack of it).

Rosenfeld begins his article by noting that "the 22nd annual Antisemitism Worldwide Report from the Anti-Defamation League and Tel Aviv University showed that reported or identifiable antisemitic attacks rose steadily from 751 in 2013 to just shy of 3,700 in 2022 — an increase of almost 400 percent. This is the largest number of such reported incidents since the ADL started recording the data in 1979."

Disturbing statistics, for sure. But worse, as he notes, "We are now in an era where antisemitism is not only growing, but antisemites also feel much more free to express themselves in both word and deed."

Rosenfeld spends much of his article detailing his contention that "there are two important sources of antisemitism. One, popularized in modern times by the malicious 1903 Russian hoax The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, is the figure of the conspiratorial Jew. The other is his figurative brother, the diabolical Jew. Bring the two together, and you have the delusional but abiding portrait of Jews as a community inherently hostile to non-Jews, intent on bringing endless suffering to mankind — a community that must be dealt with decisively before it is too late."

I would add theological anti-Judaism to that, as I do in my essay, to which I linked you above.

As for the Pittsburgh killer, Rosenfeld writes this: "To judge from his social-media postings, he was enraged: 'HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.' HIAS, formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, helps settle refugees and immigrants of all backgrounds."

Well, I invite you to read Rosenfeld's helpful piece and then to find ways to help combat antisemitism. I can immediately suggest two ways -- by supporting the work of two agencies on the boards of which I now serve, the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education and SevenDays. That would be a good start.

Oh, and as for the death sentence in the Pittsburgh shooting case, capital punishment itself needs to die, a case I made recently in this Flatland column.

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Mandelbaum-Jack2It's fitting that I wrote about antisemitism here today because we learned on Monday that Kansas City and the world lost a jewel of a man this week with the death of Jack Mandelbaum, one of the co-founders of the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education. (He's pictured here.)

As the MCHE website says, "MCHE was founded in 1993 by Holocaust survivors Jack Mandelbaum and Isak Federman. We teach the history of the Holocaust, applying its lessons to counter indifference, intolerance and genocide. Jack and Isak’s founding vision was of an outreach center focusing all resources on education. Because of this, MCHE is not a museum, but rather a nimble, responsive organization that is able to adapt to the audience and their need."

Steve Cole, MCHE board president, in a note to other board members, wrote that "while Jack’s impact was broader than just the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education, I marvel at the part of his legacy that is manifest in our organization. To have overcome his life’s experiences and to then have had the foresight to create MCHE specifically as a teaching enterprise leaves me in awe. MCHE has gone on to impact hundreds of thousands of people over its 30-year history, a great accomplishment that we honor as we continue our organization’s work in Jack’s memory."

I was blessed to have Jack's help when Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and I were writing our book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust. That work involved quite a few interviews in Poland, and Jack served as our translator for several of them there in his native land. Jack was the subject of the 2002 book by Andrea Warren, Surviving Hitler: A Boy in the Nazi Death Camps. Last year the play version of that book was performed at the White Theatre at the Jewish Community Center Campus. As Jacques and I talked via email this week about Jack's death, he summed him up this way: "He lived a truly remarkable life." Indeed. (Here is a link to Jack's obit from the website of Louis Memorial Chapel.)

(This photo shows a few of the family members and friends who came Tuesday afternoon to bid Jack farewell at the beautiful chapel at the Kehilath Israel Blue Ridge Cemetery in Independence.)


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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.

Do faith communities ask too little commitment of members?

In my experience decades ago as a mediocre-at-best high school athlete, one thing I learned about coaches and teams is that players often become much more committed to the team when a lot is expected and even demanded of them.

DechurchingEvery single morning before class, for instance, members of my high school basketball team were required to shoot 15 free throws -- and write down the results. That requirement told us the coach cared about getting possible easy points in a game if we were prepared to take them. One night, in fact, one of our players scored 23 points via free throws without a miss. (It wasn't me.)

High expectations often work in many other situations, including work, schools and volunteer organizations. That was certainly true of my years as a student at the University of Missouri School of Journalism and of my experience later working for various demanding editors.

Jake Meador, the author of this Atlantic article, now suggests that one reason church attendance and membership are declining is not that churches ask too much of members but that they don't ask enough.

Meador writes about a new book (that I haven't yet read), The Great Dechurching, and says that the book "finds that religious abuse and more general moral corruption in churches have driven people away. This is, of course, an indictment of the failures of many leaders who did not address abuse in their church."

But that's far from the only problem congregations today face, he writes.

He says that the book's authors, Jim Davis, a pastor at an evangelical church in Orlando, and Michael Graham, a writer with the Gospel Coalition, draw "on surveys of more than 7,000 Americans by the political scientists Ryan Burge and Paul Djupe, attempting to explain why people have left churches — or 'dechurched,' in the book’s lingo — and what, if anything, can be done to get some people to come back. The book raises an intriguing possibility: What if the problem isn’t that churches are asking too much of their members, but that they aren’t asking nearly enough?"

And here's the crux of what Meador is reporting: "The book suggests that the defining problem driving out most people who leave is. . .just how American life works in the 21st century. Contemporary America simply isn’t set up to promote mutuality, care or common life. Rather, it is designed to maximize individual accomplishment as defined by professional and financial success. Such a system leaves precious little time or energy for forms of community that don’t contribute to one’s own professional life or, as one ages, the professional prospects of one’s children. Workism reigns in America, and because of it, community in America, religious community included, is a math problem that doesn’t add up."

The sad part about that is that in Christianity the idea of being fully human is directly connected to being in relationship with others -- something our culture seems to devalue unless that relationship is connected to our financial life and success. Indeed, the model for those necessary human relationships is God, understood as the Holy Trinity -- three persons in community working always in perfect harmony as one.

If we don't get the idea of being in community, it becomes easier for us to dismiss the importance of others and eventually even to dehumanize, devalue and/or demonize them. And I don't know what you are experiencing in our culture now, but if you're not aware of all that demonizing and dehumanizing going on, you're in some culture other than the one in which I live.

So maybe it would be helpful if all communities of faith considered the ideas contained in this book and think about what it would look like and what it would mean if they asked for more commitment from their members -- and not just in financial terms.

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If you wonder why Christians should support D.E.I. (diversity, equity and inclusion) efforts wherever they're found, this RNS column has some good answers. The author, who worked in this field, writes: "For nearly 39 years, I have taught about and advocated for diversity, equity, inclusion, anti-racism and social justice in Christian contexts. I have been sustained by the knowledge that diversity is a part of God’s good creation and is celebrated in the Bible. And not just diversity, but love for our neighbors, care for the immigrant and justice for the marginalized and oppressed. In fact, the Hebrew and Greek words for justice appear in Scripture more than 1,000 times." I hope you'll give the article a read.

Somewhat related to this, my friend Markandey Katju, former justice on India's Supreme Court, recently wrote this piece about meeting with some Americans in New Delhi and talking to them about racial matters in America. I commend it to you even if I don't always agree with Markandey's take on things.

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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.

Why blasphemy and apostasy laws are so common

For a long, long time, Americans have said they cherish religious freedom. And the idea of such liberty is built into some of our founding documents.

World-religionsBut I sometimes wonder whether we recognize that in some ways our country is different from many nations on this point. And, as the Pew Research Center folks are pointing out, public desecrations of the Quran in Sweden and Denmark in recent weeks have sparked various reactions around the world, including calls for such acts -- viewed by some as blasphemy -- to be banned.

(My view is that such acts as burning the Qur'an should not be banned by laws about blasphemy and apostasy but, rather, by laws about hate crimes. I wrote about that recently in a secondary item on my blog here.)

In fact, in 2019, Pew researchers issued a report pointing out that "in scores of countries around the world, laws against apostasy and blasphemy remain on the books -- and many are enforced to various degrees."

The report said "that 79 countries and territories out of the 198 studied around the world (40%) had laws or policies in 2019 banning blasphemy, which is defined as speech or actions considered to be contemptuous of God or of people or objects considered sacred. Twenty-two countries (11%) had laws against apostasy, the act of abandoning one’s faith. The analysis draws on the Center’s wider body of research on global restrictions related to religion."

The report also noted that "These laws were most common in the Middle East and North Africa, where 18 of the 20 countries (90%) in the region have laws criminalizing blasphemy and 13 of them (65%) outlaw apostasy."

Such laws are evidence that religious freedom is pretty much dead in those countries. The question is why.

Perhaps I'm oversimplifying things, but it seems to me that blasphemy and apostasy laws exist because the leaders of the religions being protected believe the religion is too weak to stand on its own without government heft behind it.

What a sad admission to make.

For one thing, history shows us that religions often are at their strongest and most attractive when they have to confront critics and even organized efforts to destroy them. That's where the term "the blood of the martyrs" came from.  Persecuted religions, at least for a time, rally and confront the powers seeking to undermine them.

Despite all the blasphemy and apostasy laws around the world, the Pew report noted a little progress: "Some blasphemy laws came off the books in 2019. In New Zealand, a long-standing blasphemy law was repealed in 2019 after media in the country reported that it had not been enforced since 1922. Greece also repealed its blasphemy law in 2019, following campaigns against it by human rights activists."

Movements toward blasphemy laws begin with efforts to turn a country into a one-religion nation. That's why Christian Nationalism in the U.S. and Hindu Nationalism in India are so dangerous. Let that camel's nose under the tent and it won't be long before blasphemy and apostasy laws follow.

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New polling says that 70 percent of Americans believe in angels, this Huffington Post story reports. I do, too. In fact, I see by the MLB standings that they're in third place in their division, behind the Astros and Rangers. Seriously, I also believe in angels because I'm married to one.

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P.S.: If you missed my latest Flatland column when it posted this past Sunday, it's still right here for free. It's about the experience of a pastor who recently sat in the death chamber with a convicted murderer as the state of Missouri executed him.