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Are we soon to learn Pope Pius XII's true Holocaust history?

A major conference at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University on Oct. 9-11 is likely to focus on the legacy of Pope Pius XII (pictured here) and his actions or lack of them in the Holocaust, this Associated Press story reports. The conference comes amid revelations from the newly opened Vatican archives -- revelations that suggest the pope knew more about the Nazi regime's mass murder of Jews than previous accounts have reported.

Pius-XIIAs the AP story puts it: "Newly discovered correspondence suggests that World War II-era Pope Pius XII had detailed information from a trusted German Jesuit that up to 6,000 Jews and Poles were being gassed each day in German-occupied Poland, undercutting the Holy See’s argument that it couldn’t verify diplomatic reports of Nazi atrocities to denounce them.

"The documentation from the Vatican archives, published this (recent) weekend in the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, is likely to further fuel the debate about Pius’ legacy and his now-stalled beatification campaign."

The issue of what Pius XII knew and what he did has been around since the end of the war more than 75 years ago. He's been dismissed as "Hitler's Pope" but also praised for doing what he could to protect Jews. It's important to get history right, and it would be a good thing if this newly released correspondence helped to clear up the picture.

But the AP story is careful not to draw hard conclusions.

For one thing, it notes that "it can’t be certain that Pius saw the letter" received by his close aide, though that person "was Pius’ top aide and had served the pope when he was the Vatican’s ambassador to Germany during the 1920s, suggesting a close working relationship especially concerning matters related to Germany." But no hard proof.

Similarly, the story reports that "Giovanni Coco, a researcher and archivist in the Vatican’s Apostolic Archives," also noted that the writer of the letter that revealed the murdering of Jews "also urged the Holy See to not make public what he was revealing because he feared for his own life and those of the resistance sources who had provided the intelligence."

So although at first blush this doesn't look good for Pius XII's reputation, there still are questions to be answered, and as of today at least, we are no closer to understanding exactly what he did or didn't do to save Jews from the Holocaust. In other words, he has yet to be proven guilty.

That said, the historical context is important, too. As I have written in this longish essay on anti-Judaism in Christian history, for centuries Christianity, including the Catholic Church, taught its followers that the Jews were guilty of the death of Jesus of Nazareth. Because Christianity considers Jesus part of the Holy Trinity, that charge amounts to deicide.

Indeed, it wasn't until the adoption of a document, Nostra Aetate, by the Second Vatican Council in 1965 that the Catholic Church declared that Jewish people -- at the time of Christ and now -- should not be considered guilty of deicide.

Let's hope this new conference will have the resources to reach some conclusions about Pius XII and the Holocaust. It's important to know this history.

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A new poll shows that more than half of Republicans think Donald Trump is a "person of faith." Weird. They must think it counts that he considers himself the primary and essential mover and shaker of the universe. Wonder where the headquarters for the Worldwide Church of Solipsism is located, Mar-a-Lago?

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WallaceBSmithP.S.: Wallace B. Smith, president emeritus of the Community of Christ, based in Independence, Mo., died Sept. 22 at age 94. He served as prophet-president of the Community of Christ from 1978 to 1996 and was widely regarded as an effective reformer who helped to shape the church's future after it changed its name from the Reorganized Church of Latter-day Saints.

Professionally, he was a physician and eye surgeon, but no doubt will be most remembered for changes he helped to make in the life and practices of the church, including building a large temple in Independence dedicated to peace, welcoming women into the priesthood and allowing all Christians to receive Communion at Community of Christ services.

In Smith's time, the Community of Christ, which has about 250,000 members worldwide, moved to become more of a peace church and aligned itself more closely with Protestantism, though it has kept its commitment to the Book of Mormon as scripture. (Smith was a great-grandson of Joseph Smith, founder of the Latter-day Saints movement, often known as Mormonism.) Recently I wrote this Flatland column about a relatively new ministry (housed at the temple in Independence) that seeks to draw in unchurched or inactive people, particularly from younger generations. Here, by the way, is interesting the Religion News Service story about Smith's death.

What can faith communities do to promote healthy marriages?

One of the social institutions that can do a huge amount of good for many people is in decline, and that diminishment is exacting a serious toll on families.

Fragile NeighborhoodsI'm talking about marriage, and today I want to share with you a few thoughts about it from an Orthodox Jewish man who wishes that Christian churches would put more resources and energy into promoting marriage and helping married couples stay married.

I'm certainly aware that in some Christian branches the idea of marriage is, well, problematic at best. It's based on the concept that women should be subservient in a marriage and that the primary decision maker in almost all cases should be the man. For starters, notice that this view makes zero room for same-sex marriage. That, of course, is due to a strongly held and widely practiced misreading of what the Bible teaches about homosexuality. You can read my essay on that subject here.

But many other branches of Christianity -- and many other faith traditions -- hold marriage in esteem and promote the idea that it can be and should be a balanced, loving partnership between two people who are committed to the union and to any children that the union produces, either biologically or by adoption. The trouble is that many churches spend few resources on helping members keep marriages strong, writes Seth D. Kaplan in his new book Fragile Neighborhoods: Repairing American Society, One ZIP Code at a Time. The book will be published Oct. 17 but can be ordered now.

"Churches -- and other houses or worship -- have long viewed the promotion of healthy relationships and strong marriages as a core part of their mission," Kaplan writes. "Moreover, they are uniquely positioned to accomplish this work because of their role in creating community and a sense of belonging around their values and norms." However, he asserts, "few churches have a coherent strategy for strengthening (marriage) among their members." (Is that true of your congregation, if you have one?)

Kaplan quotes J.P. De Gance and the marriage-support non-profit organization he created, Communio, as saying that "80 percent of evangelical churches, 82 percent of Catholic parishes and 94 percent of mainline churches report spending zero percent of their budgets on marriage ministry."

Kaplan notes that Communio clearly is rooted in Christianity, though he says that "its work is highly practical -- and data-driven. The evidence showing that healthy marriages contribute to the health of a social habitat, combined with the fact that churches have a presence in almost every neighborhood in the country, means that Communio's approach has the potential to help millions of families -- at very low cost -- while also sending positive ripple effects across countless neighborhoods."

Yes, there are good reasons for some marriages to break up (abuse and faithlessness among them) and Kaplan is careful not to suggest that every marriage can or should be saved. But if your faith community isn't doing what it might do to help marriages be strong and generative, perhaps Kaplan's suggestion of looking at Communio or some other type of marriage-support effort makes sense.

There is much more in Kaplan's book about how fragile communities can be strengthened, but one of the most helpful parts of the book is his description of his family's own strong neighborhood and the synagogue there to which his family belongs. One result, he writes, "is a sense of truth, willful interdependency and security that is too often missing in contemporary America."

One primary problem, as he correctly notes, is this: "Whereas the American Dream was once about developing a social order in which every person's potential could be fulfilled, today it has more to do with individual success, material gain and social mobility. . .Instead of seeking a life that is both socially and materially rich, we tend to prioritize only the material -- a more lucrative career, a bigger house, greater individual freedoms -- and many of us see our fellow citizens as holding us back from that material success. . .How can we reorient various spheres of our lives so that we think more in terms of 'we' and less in terms of 'I'?"

Good question. Let's work on some good answers.

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HARRISON, Ark. -- As we drove through this town in northern Arkansas last week, after visiting friends in Heber Springs, we passed by the billboard pictured below. I didn't stop and take a photo because of traffic, but I did find this photo of it online, along with some stories (such as this and this) from a few years ago about how lots of residents of Harrison are appalled by this and a previous similar sign because they say it doesn't accurately represent their thinking. The people behind putting up the sign are members of the Ku Klux Klan or its related off-shoots.

What are we to make of the billboard's argument that it's not racist to love "your people"? It's pretty obvious that in this case "your people" are white and are lovable because they're white. Why is white so lovable? Because of the old scourge of white supremacy, which insists on the inferior -- even subhuman -- status of anyone who isn't white. The white people referred to on this billboard are loved because they aren't people of color. Which, of course, refutes the billboard's argument about what's racist and what isn't. I hope people of faith in Harrison are talking about this and doing what they can to expose the racist thinking for what it is, even if they've been unsuccessful in getting the hateful billboard removed. And I hope the little girl pictured here grows up to realize the despicable way in which she was misused.


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P.S.: If you missed my latest Flatland column when it posted on Sunday -- it's about the importance of art to religion -- you can find it here.

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ANOTHER P.S.: Here's a much more inspiring photo than the one just above. It describes an upcoming "Turkic Food and Art Festival" sponsored by the Dialogue Institute of Kansas City, an organization dedicated to interfaith and intercultural understanding. It's free, but you need to register here.


Here's a 'simple faith' that doesn't need every single question answered

When I was reading the remarkable story of 11 abused and abandoned sisters who found a way to reunite after more than four decades -- Broken Water: An Extraordinary True Story, by Barbara Lane -- I reaffirmed something I've known but haven't thought about recently at least in these terms:

Broken-water-2There is a difference between simple and simplistic religious faith.

Those who hold simple faith recognize that there are eternal things they can't explain in this life but they remain faithful to their vision of God nonetheless.

Simplistic faith needs to have all the questions answered and won't be satisfied as long as there still are mysteries.

Simple faith is open to love and possibilities.

Simplistic faith is open only to what the holder of that faith can grasp and explain in regimented language.

Barbara Lane and, indeed, many of her rediscovered sisters (yes, 11, though their mother also produced two other children, a girl and a boy, whose whereabouts Lane still doesn't know) show what a simple faith looks like.

At the end of the appalling stories she tells about growing up in a relentlessly dysfunctional family (there was abuse, abandonment, foster homes, orphanages, poverty), she writes this:

"I thought about my brother, Jesus, who held my hand during one of the darkest nights of my soul. I thought about the resilience each sister was granted through the grace of God. I thought about the strength each one of us displayed through the telling of our deeply held secrets and I thought about the healing that would occur for those who seek to find hope through the reading of our words."

Those words -- and others -- demonstrate simple, not simplistic, faith. And when you finally get to them at the end of the book they seem remarkable for their purity, their clarity, their insight.

Much of this story takes place here in the Midwest -- St. Louis, southern Missouri, small-town Kansas and elsewhere. Indeed, once the author eventually locates her long-lost sisters who are scattered across several states, she several times passes through Kansas City International Airport on her way to visit them and learn their individual stories of survival in the face of a radically broken family.

It's helpful that in the book's preface, Lane provides some context to the painful stories the reader is about read. For instance, she quotes federal agencies that track statistics about children as saying that almost every year in U.S. about 250,000 children enter foster care and that an average of more than 700,000 confirmed cases of child abuse are reported each year.

Once Lane was reunited with her sisters -- a fascinating story on its own -- she spent 15 years meeting with them as a group and individually to learn their individual stories. At times she almost abandoned hope that the project could be completed, but inevitably she was driven back to the task, and completed it before some of her sisters began to die.

The most important break in her effort to locate her sisters turned out to be a St. Louis Post-Dispatch story about a family that won a contest for birthing the most consecutive number of female babies. At the time, there were nine sisters in the picture, with another baby on the way. And, yes, there was a photo of the family that included Barbara Lane at roughly age 2.

I'm not going to go into detail about what each sister went through to survive the hell that was their childhood. You can read all that for yourself. But I hope my distinction between simple and simplistic faith is helpful and perhaps moves you to read the book. The writing itself is not amazing and often fairly pedestrian. But it has the benefit of clarity.

The one question I failed to answer to my satisfaction is the meaning of the title, Broken Water. At first I wondered whether Lane was using the term as a reference to how many times her mother's water broke as she delivered another child. Later, when it became clear that the Black River in southern Missouri had special meaning to Lane and that at times she would sit by it and watch the breeze corrugate its surface, I thought perhaps that's where she got the title.

In the end, I quit trying to figure out the title's meaning. Obsessing about it would have been evidence of something like simplistic faith's demand for dotting every "i" and crossing every "t." Simple faith doesn't need an answer to the question of the title.

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Religious leaders must understand that they are always in the spotlight. That's unfair at times, but remembering it can prevent the sort of financial scandals that have given Christianity in particular and religion in general a bad name. For instance, this RNS story reports that "The longtime leader of a North Carolina Baptist charity stepped down this week after an internal investigation found he had used almost $90,000 in charitable funds for personal expenses over the past three years. The investigation also found that 81-year-old Michael Blackwell, who had led the Baptist Children’s Homes of North Carolina since 1983, had diverted hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to a special account set up for his benefit." Even if Blackwell's claim that it was all a misunderstanding has some validity, the report simply gives people one more excuse not to trust religious leaders or religion itself.

When patriotism and fidelity to faith require a critique

Sometimes people of faith get caught between allegiances. That is, their commitment to following God, however they understand God, can at times conflict with their commitment to be good and obedient citizens of a nation.

Patriotism-fulbrightMany Germans wrestled with just such a conflict in the early Hitler years leading up to World War II and the Holocaust. In fact, some Germans elected to take what they considered to be a patriotic action by criticizing the Nazi regime in 1934 in what's called the Theological Declaration of Barmen, a brave and powerful assertion that Hitler is not Lord, with a capital L. Rather, Jesus is.

(The link I've just given you will take you to Wikipedia's entry describing that confessional statement. If you want to read the whole declaration (it's not terribly long), you can find it here in the Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church [USA]. It's number nine of 12, so scroll down.)

The Barmen statement is an example of people concluding that the most patriotic thing they could do for their country in a moment of crisis is to criticize something that very country is doing or saying.

In some ways, that is what several organizations have done by sending this new statement to the United National Human Rights Committee: Download HR&S Coalition Submission to UN Human Rights Committee Review of USA

One of the 14 organizations that, together, submitted this report a week or so ago is one with which I've been connected: September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrow, made up of families like mine who experienced the death of a family member (my nephew) in the 2001 9/11 terrorist attacks.

As the statement notes, members of the U.N. Human Rights Committee are about to undertake a review of how well the U.S. is doing "with obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) with regard to the use of lethal force outside of armed conflict and the detention facility at US Naval Station Guantánamo Bay, Cuba ('Guantánamo')."

The statement acknowledges some progress made under the Biden administration, but concludes that there still is much to fix. It says, for instance:

"The ICCPR rights at stake in this submission have been previously raised by the Committee in concluding observations and lists of issues (LOI), and they persist to this day. Our organizations share the concerns expressed by the Committee regarding the US practice of using lethal force outside the context of recognized armed conflict, as well as indefinite arbitrary detention and unfair trials at Guantánamo."

Because I think this statement is important and a fair critique of U.S. action and policy (under Biden as well as under several previous presidents), I want to quote from it at some length here. I hope you'll see the care and detail put into the statement.

"With regard to the use of force outside of recognized armed conflict, the United States continues to claim that its military operations adhere to international humanitarian law (IHL), which is the lex specialis with respect to armed conflict and the protection of war victims. In doing so, like the three previous administrations, the Biden administration claims the unilateral authority to carry out the secretive extrajudicial killing of individuals suspected of engaging in terrorism outside any recognized battlefield, often via armed drones–and ignores its international human rights obligations under the ICCPR. As a result, past and current US policies on the use of lethal force outside recognized armed conflict, the strikes it has carried out under these policies, and its continued lack of transparency around state policy and practice in this area, fail to abide by its ICCPR obligations, in particular its obligations to respect the right to life (Article 6), due process (Article 14), and effective remedy (Article 2).

"Although the US government’s new Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan (CHMR-AP) is a welcome step in US efforts to prevent and respond to civilian harm, its impact remains to be seen as implementation is still under way, and three key issues raise concerns. First, the CHMR-AP does not apply to lethal strikes carried out by agencies other than the Department of Defense, such as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which has been responsible for numerous civilian
casualties. Additionally, the policy only applies to allegations of harm against civilians and does not address the rights to life and due process all persons have under international human rights law in situations outside of armed conflict, regardless of their status or the accusations against them. Third, the plan does not currently provide accountability mechanisms that could address human rights violations.

"Guantánamo remains open after 21 years despite myriad documented human rights abuses, including the US government’s use of arbitrary detention, torture and other ill-treatment, and unfair trials violating Articles 7, 9, and 14 of the ICCPR; and numerous calls for closure. Even though the Biden administration itself committed to closing Guantánamo in recognition of these abuses, 30 men remain detained today, the majority of whom are cleared for release, and the fundamentally broken military commissions continue to drag on. Recently, in a response to the 2023 report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms while Countering Terrorism (SRCT), the US government asserted its commitment to providing safe and humane treatment to detainees in accordance with international and US domestic law. However, there continue to be issues of immediate concern, including that the US has failed to adequately address urgent and serious medical complications due to an aging population and the torture they endured at the hands of US personnel."

One result of all this, of course, is that 9/11 families like mine still have received no justice and no answers in a court about exactly what happened on 9/11, by whom and why, as I noted in this recent column I wrote for The Kansas City Star.

Being a patriot doesn't mean being silent when the public officials you help elect are doing things you believe are damaging the nation. If you are silent in that case you are, in effect, on the side of those doing the damage.

Much the same is true inside a faith community. Sometimes it's the members, the people in the pews, who must speak up and point to something that has gone amiss. That, thank God, is what some Catholic families did to make public the painful stories of sexual abuse committed by some priests and the cover-up of those crimes by some bishops.

I think 20th Century English novelist and playwright J.B. Priestly got it right when he wrote this in his 1939 book Rain Upon Godshill: "We should behave toward our country as women behave toward the men they love. A loving wife will do anything for her husband except stop criticizing and trying to improve him. We should cast the same affectionate but sharp glance at our country."

(I also like the quote from the late Sen. J. William Fulbright that I used in the graphic here today, and I recall covering one of Fulbright's re-election campaigns for Senate back in the 1970s. One day I watched him get a haircut in Cabot, Ark., and entertain the barber and other customers with his humor and wisdom.)

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P.S.: Heber Springs, Ark. -- Speaking of Arkansas, my wife and I are here with friends for a few days, so there won't be a second item to the blog today. Back to normal in this coming weekend's blog, inshallah.

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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.

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FINAL P.S.: Christians have been under attack recently in India and Pakistan, and my friend Markandey Katju, a former justice on India's Supreme Court, writes that he wants it all to stop. Markandey, by the way, identifies as a Hindu atheist.

Should we expand our notions of what constitutes sin?

The pastors of many Christian churches rely on the Revised Common Lectionary to provide them with the biblical texts from which to preach each week.

SinThe lectionary offers a three-year cycle that tries to cover much of what is in the Christian Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. It misses some things and has other drawbacks, but one of the good ideas behind it is preventing pastors from preaching on nothing but their favorite texts over and over.

By contrast, in recent years the pastors of my Presbyterian congregation have chosen not to use the lectionary but, rather, to create a series of sermons on particular themes over several weeks. The most recently completed series offered three sermons on the question of what sin is and how we are to understand it in our time and place. Our transitional pastor, Jared Witt, did the first two sermons and then asked me to do the final one. Here are links to No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3.

Ideas about what constitutes sin have changed over the years, though at base those ideas seem always to have included the notion that anything we do that violates the standards God wants us to maintain can be called a sin. Similarly, anything we fail to do that violates God's standards for what we should do can be called a sin. Call them sins of both commission and omission.

Those rudimentary definitions, however, seem to focus most intently on the actions or inactions of individuals. What about our collective actions and inactions that result in profound harm to other people? What about the economic, racial, social and other systems we create that dehumanize people or prevent them from flourishing? Aren't those also sins and shouldn't we call them that?

Because humans are political animals, we create laws through our political systems to prevent people from behaving in ways that do obvious -- and sometimes permanent -- damage to others. Thus, murder, rape and theft are crimes. But sometimes our laws don't address the collective or societal actions (racism, unfair tax laws and more) that can be just as damaging, if not more so.

If, for instance, we Americans generally say we believe in the concept of each adult American having an equal vote to elect our representatives, how do we justify a system in which Vermont (population 645,570 in 2021) has exactly as many U.S. senators as California (population 39.24 million in 2021)? Should we consider it a sin to allow the vote of one Vermonter to be equal to the vote of 61 Californians?

Doesn't that demean and even dehumanize California voters?

My point is that ideas about sin should not be limited to individual actions. When we adopt that limited approach, it's easy for religious traditions to use sin as a tool of fear about one's eternal destiny. But when we also take into consideration societal actions and systems that oppress people in various ways, we should be driven to seek broader answers to fix what's broken and oppressive.

Some people try to avoid committing sins for fear of spending eternity in some kind of relentlessly burning hell. But our societal sins -- whether political, economic or something else -- can create a kind of hell on Earth right now. I'm thinking we should take that at least as seriously as we take individual sins.

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Rosh Hashanah began at sundown Friday, ushering in the Hebrew new year of 5784. Each year rabbis are obliged to prepare sermons for these high holy days, but for Rosh Hashanah in 1963, right after four Ku Klux Klansmen had dynamited the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, a rabbi there had no sermon ready and had to wing it. This RNS column by Mark Silk describes what happened, and it's worth a read.

A bruised, broken child becomes a whole person and pastor

One of the beauties of Christianity is that, like Jesus the Christ, after whom it was named, it is theoretically and officially welcoming to all who are moved to explore what it teaches and offers.

Thats-Me-1One of the most heartbreaking failures of Christianity is not just that it sometimes fails to be that welcoming but that sometimes it makes some people feel like unwanted outsiders with serious moral failures and intolerable ideas.

That has been true from the beginning and, sadly, remains true today. What is also true, however, is that across its history the Christian church has raised up prophetic voices that call the church to account for this by challenging it to live up to the ideal of love and inclusion that Jesus modeled.

A new such voice is that of the Rev. Steven Andrews (pictured below), a pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA) whose new book, That's Me in the Closet: A Spiritual Memoir, is a fiercely honest account of how an abused child who eventually discovered himself to be bisexual came to embrace a faith, Christianity, that promised him a chance to be fully who he is. (Andrews currently is the interim, or transitional, pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church of Kansas City.)

This is a painful story of a child who was rejected in countless ways, who knew he was highly intelligent but who had almost no social skills needed to survive childhood. Nonetheless, he was open to finding a place for himself in a hostile world. But the focus of the book is not solely personal. Rather, it also considers what others might learn from that at-times bitter story.

In many ways, the book is a plea to the Christian church in particular and to institutional religion more generally to become the healing, loving, generative presences that the wounded world so desperately needs them to be.

At the end of this difficult story of personal redemption and change, Andrews asks this about people who have been socially, sexually, economically, racially religiously and/or otherwise marginalized: "The question is, then, can we be ourselves anywhere? Can any church accept leaders and people for who they are? Can any church be a place where you can tell a story like mine and be your whole self the whole time? Or will institutional concerns always get in the way?"

Steve-Andrews-1It is exactly the right question. And for the answer to be "yes," some difficult changes may well be necessary -- in some faith communities more than others but, in the end, in all. For no single congregation or denomination or faith tradition gets it right every time.

As Andrews notes, "The institutional church does not, by its nature, take chances. It does not pursue its passions. It doesn't even pursue Jesus' passions. It doesn't express itself in authentic ways. It is afraid that if it were truly authentic, it would lose everything that keeps it alive. . .

"The church and Jesus are different. Every time I am hurt by the church, I say this to myself again. The church and Jesus are also the same. The church is the body of Christ. The Bible says that we are his hands and feet, that we have a mystical connection with him such that the church is an extension of him, a physical representation of him. For some reason, Jesus chose to throw in his lot with the church. What a holy fool! Either his judgment is poor or we need to to more to live like him."

I won't go into detail here about all the trauma Andrews went through as a child in an unstable, erratically mobile, often-dysfunctional family. Just know that today, as a member of the clergy, he identifies as bisexual, is married to a woman and together they are parents.

When you read the story you may have the same reaction I did: How did that kid survive all that and become what he is today, especially after he was told more than once, "You were an accident" or "You were a mistake"? Andrews' answer has to do with finding a loving God and learning how to be vulnerable and open to his true self.

"My life," he writes, "has taught me to be a boy in a closet. However, a loving God and loving people continue to draw me out of that fortress -- into a vulnerable, terrifying, life-giving authenticity. And I have chosen to be drawn out, to keep working against all the forces trying to drag me back in."

But don't imagine this was an easy journey into the arms of God. No, no. Still, God was persistent, and somehow Andrews came through it all whole -- despite the failures of the church, of family, of social structures to nourish his mind and heart and despite the fact that at more than one point in his young life he thought of himself as "worthless" and considered suicide.

What a good thing it would be for the church if members of all the governing bodies who run churches read this book and took its lessons to heart. What a better institution the church universal would be.

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TWJP-coverSometimes it takes what seems like nearly forever for stories to play out to some kind of resolution. For instance, the Vatican, as this RNS story reports, just "beatified a Polish family of nine — a married couple and their small children — who were executed by the Nazis in World War II for sheltering Jews." Poland had a deserved reputation for antisemitism, and yet there were Polish people who rescued Jews, as Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and I recounted in our 2009 book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust.

It's crucial that such stories be remembered if for no other reason than to help people understand that they are called to love and respect all people and that they must not engage in dehumanizing or demonizing others. As the RNS story noted about a family named Ulma, members "were killed at home by German Nazi troops and by Nazi-controlled local police in the small hours of March 24, 1944, together with the eight Jews they were hiding at their home, after they were apparently betrayed."

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P.S.: My friend Markandey Katju, a former justice on India's Supreme Court, has decided to argue with me in print about the death penalty. As a judge, he occasionally imposed capital punishment on someone. I am against the death penalty in all cases. No exceptions. But you can read his post about that here and decide which of us -- if either -- is right.

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Tom AreANOTHER P.S.: The Rev. Tom Are (pictured here), who has been the senior pastor of Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, Kan., has told his congregation that he's leaving to spend a year or so as transitional pastor of the Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, one of the nation's largest PCUSA congregations. Tom, a gracious and wise pastor, has been at Village for 20 years and has done a terrific job leading that important congregation. His last Sunday at Village will be Oct. 15.

Is nothing sacred anymore? Or is it all sacred?

There's a great quote often attributed (with no evidence he ever said it) to Albert Einstein: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is.”

Taking-miraclesEven if the relatively great scientist (see what I did there?) never said that, Rabbi Michael Zedek (pictured below) shows in his new book that he's in the camp of those who find miracles almost everywhere. (The publication date for Taking Miracles Seriously: A Journey to Everyday Spirituality is Sept. 26, but it can be ordered now.)

The book is Zedek's attempt to wake us up. The tendency of many of us, myself included, is to wander through life not being astonished and awe-struck by a rose or a cloud or the rising of the moon. I think of such things as God's art. In fact, one of my favorite writers, the late Stanley Elkin, in his book The Living End, has God finally explain that the whole reason for the creation was and is art. The sadness in God's heart, according to Elkin, is that God never found an audience.

Well, Michael Zedek is one who understands that we are surrounded by divine art that we should consider daily miracles.

"Were we open to miracles of the ordinary," he writes, "we also would discover that we are part of a sacred dimension that, even as it calls us to action, is always present, always around and in us."

I first met Zedek when he was rabbi at Congregation B'nai Jehudah, which at the time was located in Kansas City, though it has since moved to the suburbs. I've always found him to be thoughtful, bright and even funny when humor was an appropriate response. You may be used to his voice from his years on the radio show (now a podcast) "Religion on the Line."

Rabbi-michael-zedekThese days he is "Rabbi in Residence" at St. Paul School of Theology in the KC area.

His new book is, yes, about how to think about miracles, but it's more than that. As he writes, "I hope to demonstrate that there is no place where the sacred is absent." But, of course, like the imago dei, or image of God, in each of us, sometimes human actions and thoughts seem to blot out the sacred's presence. Zedek, to put it plainly, wants us to stop doing that. He wants us to recognize the truth of one of my favorite sayings from a Jewish prayer book: "Days pass. Years vanish and we walk sightless among miracles."

I confess that one reason I like Zedek's new book so much is that it's quite in harmony with one I wrote a few years ago, The Value of Doubt: Why Unanswered Questions, Not Unquestioned Answers, Build Faith. In fact, one of Zedek's chapters is called "The Danger of Not Doubting." Neither of us argues that we should doubt everything, everywhere, all the time. Rather, we both see doubt as a path toward a healthy faith commitment that can sustain us in good times and in bad.

Zedek, in this new book, is also careful to note the limits of language when we talk about divine matters. Yes, language can enlighten us and help us see what is sacred in some ways, but, in fact, he writes, "language is not up to the task." That's hard for a writer to hear, but it's true. And it helps to remember that all words -- even those in scripture -- are metaphors that point beyond themselves to some reality.

Well, there are other worthy insights and gems in what Zedek has written, and I don't want to give away all of them. But I agree with him that "our life task is to bring a sacred dimension into our lives and, then, to share that presence and its consequence with others."

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Pope Francis recently complained about his American critics, suggesting that some of them have replaced faith for "ideology," by which he seemed to mean partisan politics. He didn't name those challengers to his now 10-plus-year-old pontificate, but this Religion News Service story suggests several people whom the pope might have had in mind. In some ways, this is all inside-baseball for Catholics, but it's also a reminder that there are divisions -- sometimes serious ones -- within every religion and even within every congregation that is part of that religion. The question is whether people of faith who disagree with others within their community can find ways to respect each other, thus living up to the teachings of the faith. Yeah, well, wouldn't that be nice?

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P.S.: The Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism at Indiana University has a couple of fascinating free webinars coming up:

At 11 a.m. CDT on Sunday, Oct. 15:

  • John Pawlikowski “Removing the Shadow on the Cross: Rooting Out Antisemitism from Christian Teaching”
  • Here's the link to register.

At 11 a.m. CDT on Sunday, Oct. 22:

  • Chris Leighton “Contending with Christian Supersessionism: When Best Intentions Falter”
  • Here's the link to register. 

They will be recorded for later viewing if you can't watch live. But to get that link, register.

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ANOTHER P.S.: I've written a column for this Sunday's Kansas City Star and for McClatchy News Service about why plea agreements are a good way finally to resolve the cases against the five terrorists who planned the 9/11 attacks 22 years ago and who remain imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay. When the column posts Sunday morning, you can find it here. If you check before then you'll get an error message.

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Many of us gathered Friday evening at Westport Presbyterian Church for a memorial service in honor of the Rev. Scott Myers, who was pastor there for 29 years. I knew him for most of that time and rarely have known a man so dedicated to living the loving, generous way he believed Jesus called him to live. R.I.P., friend.

Young Americans are growing up in 'morally inarticulate world'

You don't even have to be paying much attention to our American culture today to hear desperate complaints that we have lost our moral center, assuming we ever had one.

Moral-failureMany -- but not all -- of these complaints come from people who want us to join their fundamentalist-leaning religious organizations, who want legalized prayer again in public schools, who are appalled that anyone cares about the legal and moral rights of LGBTQ+ people, who are pretty sure the end-times are near and/or that most of us are going to be sent by an angry and vengeful god to suffer eternally in the unquenchable fires of hell.

By contrast, there occasionally also are wise people -- like the journalist David Brooks -- who are able to take a sane look at what isn't working in our culture and our politics and offer some helpful insights about what's missing and how we've gotten off the moral and ethical track as a people. That's exactly what Brooks does in this challenging article in the current edition of The Atlantic.

Here's the problem, as Brooks describes it: "We inhabit a society in which people are no longer trained in how to treat others with kindness and consideration. Our society has become one in which people feel licensed to give their selfishness free rein. The story I’m going to tell is about morals. In a healthy society, a web of institutions — families, schools, religious groups, community organizations, and workplaces — helps form people into kind and responsible citizens, the sort of people who show up for one another. We live in a society that’s terrible at moral formation."

Then he adds this: "The most important story about why Americans have become sad and alienated and rude, I believe, is also the simplest: We inhabit a society in which people are no longer trained in how to treat others with kindness and consideration. Our society has become one in which people feel licensed to give their selfishness free rein."

Just to be clear, Brooks is not yelling "Make America Morally Great Again." In fact, he frankly acknowledges that back when there was an "ethos of moral formation that dominated American life," much went wrong.

"(W)e would never want to go back to the training methods that prevailed for so long," he writes, "rooted in so many thou shall nots and so much shaming, and riddled with so much racism and sexism. Yet a wise accounting should acknowledge that emphasizing moral formation meant focusing on an important question — what is life for? — and teaching people how to bear up under inevitable difficulties. A culture invested in shaping character helped make people resilient by giving them ideals to cling to when times got hard."

One result, as Brooks rightly notes, is that "In a culture devoid of moral education, generations grow up in a morally inarticulate, self-referential world."

In this kind of moral vacuum, he says, people will fill it with something -- in our American case, with "politics and tribalism."

One disastrous result has been this, Brooks maintains: "When private virtue fails, the constitutional order crumbles. After decades without much in the way of moral formation, America became a place where more than 74 million people looked at Donald Trump’s morality and saw presidential timber."

Brooks not only delineates the problem, he proposes several answers. I'll leave you to read his proposals for how to fill our national moral vacuum with something other than "politics and tribalism."

But I also encourage you to support efforts to create moral citizens wherever you find those initiatives. One I'm proud to be a part of as a board member is the SevenDays organization, which teaches kindness and understanding through education and dialogue. We work especially with teenagers to help them recognize the common humanity in all people and to stand against hatred wherever it shows up.

There are other good ways to respond, of course. But before you do that, you need to grasp what the essential problem is, and Brooks lays it out as well as anyone has done in recent times.

"(H)ealthy moral ecologies don’t just happen," Brooks writes. "They have to be seeded and tended by people who think and talk in moral terms, who try to model and inculcate moral behavior, who understand that we have to build moral communities because on our own, we are all selfish and flawed."

(I tried to say something similar in this sermon I gave this past Sunday at my church, Second Presbyterian of Kansas City.)


The upcoming Jewish High Holidays give rabbis an opportunity and a responsibility to use their prophetic voices to address what needs fixing in our society, the head of a rabbinical school writes in this RNS column. "For those in the pulpit of a synagogue and in other positions of religious leadership," he writes, "passivity and silence are not options. Neglecting to speak out against this multitude of dangerous events and ideologies is a grave sin of omission." But for clergy of any faith, such words from the pulpit can be authentic only if whoever is preaching is not compromised by already having blessed what is wrong and needs fixing. You can't, for instance, preach about the dangers of climate change if you live in a mansion, drive a gas-guzzling luxury car and fly around in a private jet. That's called hypocrisy. And the people in the pews (or watching on TV) will notice.

A theologian who will complicate the thinking of all

When I run across someone whose mind is theologically vibrant, open and insightful, it's hard for me to put down whatever that person has written or to stop listening to or watching recordings or videos.

Hart-DB A few years ago I discovered the Eastern Orthodox theologian and scholar David Bentley Hart (pictured here) and I put him at or near the top of such active minds today. 

I first wrote about Hart's new translation of the New Testament almost six years ago here. (He released a second edition of that book earlier this year.)

Then about four years ago I wrote here about his then-new book, That All Shall Be Saved. And this past April I reviewed his latest book, Tradition and Apocalypse here.

Today I want to alert you to this fascinating interview with Hart done by a pastor and published in the current edition of The Christian Century.

As I've said of his writing, Hart seems incapable of writing an uninteresting sentence. It turns out he's equally incapable of offering an uninteresting answer to an interviewer's questions.

I invite you to read the whole interview but suggest you keep a dictionary by your side when you do that. When you read Hart's books, a dictionary is absolutely essential. Well, unless you're David Bentley Hart.

But let me highlight a few things Hart said in this interview.

"(T)he New Testament. . .simply isn’t made up of historically trustworthy documents. The Gospels disagree with each other on the basic outline of key events and their duration — Matthew and Luke give us two completely different dates for the birth of Christ, John gives us the cleansing of the temple at the beginning of a three-year ministry rather than at the end of a one-year ministry, Paul disagrees with Acts at critical points, and I could go on."

Yes, people who take the Bible seriously -- and not literally -- know that. But it's good to be reminded of how the Bible came together, who wrote it and why it should not be considered a history book, although for sure it contains some accurate history.

Hart's thinking about the resurrection of Jesus is both conventional and unconventional. And in the Christian Century interview he put it in a way I've never considered before:

"I think the only way to understand it (the resurrection) is that the one who had been crucified really was alive and vindicated by God and present manifestly, at times physically, though not in a flesh-and-blood way, but physically nonetheless. . .

"It’s perhaps like (a) . . .rainbow. It’s real, but it’s not there in the physical sense of an actual colored strip that’s somehow drawn across the sky. You can’t separate the event of its manifestation from the event of its perception. . .I believe the resurrection was a real historical event, I just don't think it was one we understand."

So is Hart something of a, well, heretic? Ah, what a question. The interviewer, in fact, asked Hart this: "So you'd dispense with the concept of heresy?" Hart's answer:

"The more of the history of Christian dogma you know, the more you come to see not only the accommodations but the willful, almost cynical, minimalism of doctrinal determinations — and you realize that talk of heresy is language for children. It’s like a child throwing a tantrum — it’s just noise. It’s always a sign of ignorance and of a bad argument. Anyone who thinks he knows the orthodox consensus can always be shown to be wrong."

Finally (well, finally for here today, but there's much more in the interview), Hart was asked this: ". . .(Y)ou’re not conservative in the sense of proposing that Christianity bolster an American civil religion?" His perhaps unsurprising response:

"Christianity has never really taken deep root in America; we’ve all been much more committed to Mammon. I’m not talking conservative and liberal in the American cultural sense. It’s absurd to suggest that you can have any actual devotion to who Jesus of Nazareth was and embrace laissez-faire capitalism or the entrepreneurial principle or erecting a border wall and keeping out asylum seekers. National conservatives — the people who think Jesus would have loved the Second Amendment and hated Mexicans — are simply not Christians. There’s nothing about their vision of reality and their relations to their fellow human beings that bears the slightest resemblance to who and what Christ was and what he taught. There’s not even a meaningful debate to be held on this: the Christian right is a movement whose ultimate ends are to extinguish real Christian convictions in society."

OK, argue amongst yourselves. But as you do, take theology as seriously as David Bentley Hart takes it.

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The former Catholic archbishop of Washington, D.C., Theodore McCarrick will not stand trial on charges he sexually assaulted a teenage boy decades ago because a judge has ruled that "Uncle Ted's" dementia means he is incompetent to understand what's happening in the case. As the AP reports, McCarrick, 93, who now lives in Dittmer, Mo., "was defrocked by Pope Francis in 2019 after an internal Vatican investigation determined he sexually molested adults as well as children." This highly influential priest took evil advantage of his power and committed egregious acts that left various wounded victims in his wake. The church has a lot of explaining to do about McCarrick's life and career. It's hard to imagine all that he has thrown away because of his inexcusable actions. The most challenging part for the Christian world now will be to remember that even Ted McCarrick is a child of God.

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P.S.: Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, now Interfaith America, is starting a term as an Impact Scholar at the University of Utah, he writes in this article in the Deseret News. Eboo has spoken several times in Kansas City and was kind enough to do a back-cover endorsement of my latest book. He's a really smart guy and I'm intrigued to see what this Muslim man brings to interfaith conversations and work in a state dominated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In the article to which I've linked you above, Eboo writes this: "(D)iversity can just as easily lead to conflict as it can to cooperation. To achieve the latter takes real effort. Bridges do not rise from the ground or fall from the sky; people build them." Exactly.

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ANOTHER P.S.: I will be preaching at Second Presbyterian Church's 10:15 a.m. (CDT) Sunday worship service. You may watch it in the sanctuary at 55th and Brookside in Kansas City, Mo., or as it's live-streamed here or, later, you can watch a video of it here.