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Can we have both a moral and a compassionate response to war?

Just as every budget passed by a government is always in some sense a moral document, so what we say and do in response to a war also has moral dimensions.

Arab-israeliI'm glad that Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, whom I met some years ago and whose work I admire, has decided to raise precisely that issue in this column written for Religion News Service. The piece, of course, deals with the Hamas-Israel war.

"What’s at stake for me, and all of us," he writes, "is how to make sure our thinking about the war is both compassionate and moral, and this question is before each and every one of us, regardless of politics, geography, faith or nationality. It means asking: How will we guard against sacrificing our compassion in the name of defending morality? How will we guard against allowing dangerous moral relativism to fuel our well-intentioned compassion?"

A moral response to war, of course, begins with a decision to speak what we believe to be the truth. In this particular case, that requires an acknowledgment that Hamas' surprise attack on Israel earlier this month was terrorism and must be condemned as evil -- without equivocation. And Hirschfield does just that: "This war began with the purposeful, wholesale slaughter of people simply because they were Jewish, or simply because they were in Israel, even if they were not Jewish."

That doesn't mean, of course, that the Israeli government can't be criticized for some of its policies and actions over the 75-plus-year history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- and criticized without that critique being judged as one more example of antisemitism.

Speaking the truth about the sufferings of the Palestinian people is also a moral requirement. Hirschfield puts it this way:

"I’m not suggesting anyone should give up advocating for Palestinians. But those who support or justify the attack that initiated the current conflict need to overcome dangerous moral relativism that is at the foundation of their views. The two sides’ actions are simply not morally equal."

By "current conflict," he obviously means the early October attack by Hamas and Israel's response. But the attack and response did not come out of nowhere. And we need to recognize that reality even if, in the end, we have to admit that we simply cannot untie the Gordian knot that is -- and has been since at least 1948 -- the Arab/Israeli conflict.

Adding his voice to the discussion of how to have a moral response to this war, my friend Tom Roberts has written this piece for The National Catholic Reporter. In it, he argues that Christians should be on the side of both the Jews and the Palestinians as followers of Christ recall their own botched history of relations with both Jews and Muslims.

"Christians," he writes, "and particularly Catholics, should approach the question of moral compass amid the horrific violence with a hefty dose of humility, if not justifiable guilt, following centuries of religious antisemitism that was a major ingredient in the state antisemitism that resulted in the Shoah. This is the history that Jews under siege in Israel and elsewhere want us to remember. Catholics might also approach this fraught moment with a hope born of our own experience — a transformation of our difficult relationship with Jews in the modern era.

"Nor were we very good at understanding or tolerating the Islamic faith and its various cultures. Perhaps it is that ancient history and certainly more recent events that contemporary Muslims wish we would recall."

All that said, what we simply don't know at this point is whether the Middle East can get from here to some kind of just and peaceful existence for all people. But such an existence would be a morally justifiable result.

P.S.: In this recent blog post, I quoted the advice of a Kansas City rabbi to people who want to know how to help in the current Middle East war: "Find the peacemakers." Since then I've heard from readers making recommendations about some possible peacemakers and I've done a bit of looking around myself. So here's a start:

Friends Committee on National Legislation

Wikipedia's list of Arab-Israeli peace projects

A list of groups working toward Israel-Palestine peace 

A U.S. Aid for International Development site on peace-building projects in Gaza and the West Bank

A list from of peace groups working in Israel and Palestine

A list compiled by the Christian Science Monitor of groups working on peace in Israel and Palestine

A list from USA Today on how to help in the effort toward peace in the Middle East

And, of course, two local agencies (I serve on the boards of both) that are dedicated to teaching people peaceful solutions: The Midwest Center for Holocaust Education and SevenDays.

Plus, a peace organization to which I'm connected because I'm a member of a 9/11 family: September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows.

This obviously is not an exhaustive list, but maybe you'll find a group in that list that you want to help.

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The Hamas-Israeli war has revealed more clearly -- and perhaps exacerbated -- an existing split among American Jews, this RNS story reports. The war, it says, has "ignited anew a long-simmering battle between those Jews who stand unequivocally with Israel and those Jews who are critical of Israeli government policy and support Palestinians." But this should not be a surprise. When have all the members of any group with roots in religion agreed on everything?

SoltesFor instance, the other evening at the annual interfaith friendship and dialogue dinner sponsored by the Dialogue Institute of Kansas City, the keynote speaker, Ori Soltes (pictured here), who teaches at Georgetown University, asked members of the audience if we knew how many Protestant denominations there are in the U.S. His answer: About 300. Though I knew better, I publicly guessed many more than that because I am convinced some days that there are 300 different denominations represented within my own Presbyterian congregation of 400 to 500 members.

Similarly, I sometimes disagree with my friend-from-childhood, Markandey Katju, a former justice on India's Supreme Court, though we're in agreement about a fair amount. But we see the Hamas-Israeli war differently. Still, I think it's right to give you a chance to read his ideas about the war and its sources, so I'm linking you to this column that he's penned. Feel free to disagree with both of us. You can email me at [email protected] and you can email Markandey at [email protected].

This is the time to 'find the peacemakers'

In this awful time of war, we need examples of how to see one another as fellow human beings and not in some category that makes the other an enemy.

Israel-gazaI experienced that in person last week when a rabbi I know showed up at an interfaith service of prayer and reflection about the Hamas-Israel war and asked to speak, even though he wasn't on the program with the rest of us who had been asked to speak.

You can watch that whole service here, if you want, but if you just want to hear what Rabbi Mark Levin had to say, slide ahead to about minute 56 of the video. He was making a strong effort to present his views from a Jewish perspective while acknowledging that other perspectives are valid and need to be heard. It was an emotional time for all, including for Mark.

Something similar came to my attention the next day when I ran across this editorial column in The Presbyterian Outlook, an independent publication for which I used to write a regular column though now I mostly just write occasional book reviews for it.

In it, Terri McDowell Ott, editor and publisher of The Outlook, reprints a letter from a rabbi in the Washington, D.C., area to his neighborhood Muslim mosque's congregation.

It turns out that the rabbi's synagogue and the nearby mosque have had a close relationship for more than 15 years. In fact, the Muslims have prayed their Friday Jumma prayers at the synagogue every week for that long.

But after Hamas' terrorist attack on Israel earlier this month, the imam asked the rabbi, as the rabbi wrote, "if Jumma at our synagogue this week might inflame emotions and whether we should take this week off."

So Rabbi Michael G. Holzman replied this way: "Yes, Imam Magid, in his wisdom and compassion, senses the pain and hurt in the Jewish community this week, and we appreciate his desire to cause no further suffering. However, we firmly believe that any cessation of our relationship would cause more harm. . ."

And then he lists several reasons, including this: "We do not want to support the notion that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people is primarily a conflict between Judaism and Islam. Both of our religions clearly prohibit violence against innocents, the taking of revenge, or the holding of hostages. We reject the idea that the Holy Land is meant for believers of any one faith. We affirm the teaching of the holy Koran that God created us differently so that we can learn from one another. We understand from the Torah’s command to love the neighbor that we must first know the neighbor, and therefore we are meant to co-exist in proximity to one another."

It was similar in tone to what Mark Levin said, in this case aiming his first remark at Imam Mohamed Herbert, who had just spoken about his understanding of things from a Palestinian and Islamic perspective: "We share a land," Mark said, "we share a language, we share a history." But then he added a note about the difficult nature of relations in the Middle East: "No one will unravel this for you. No one. . .It's just too complicated." Levin said that when people ask him what to do about the unrest in the Middle East, "I say this: Find the peacemakers." And find ways to support them.

So there are Jewish, Islamic and other voices of calm, of reason, of humanity out there in the midst of the hateful noise coming from so many people. And it's important that we recognize those helpful voices, acknowledge them and encourage them -- and that we add our voices to theirs instead of to the voices crying for revenge and blood. For, as I told the gathering at St. Thomas the Apostle Episcopal Church before Mark Levin spoke, "There is not now -- nor has there ever been -- a military solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict."

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Former President Donald Trump, at a recent campaign rally in New Hampshire, vowed that if he's re-elected he'd keep out any immigrants "who don't like our religion." Wonder what religion he's talking about. Maybe what appears to be his own faith tradition: Solipsism.

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P.S.: It should surprise no one that the Hamas attack on Israel has added to the global resurgence of antisemitism. To provide a better picture of what's happening, the World Jewish Congress has just issued a new report, "A Flood of Hate:
How Hamas Fueled the Adversarial Information Ecosystem on Social Media." Among its several conclusions is this: "The prevalence of Hamas’ propaganda materials online helped fuel an adversarial information ecosystem rife with disinformation and hate speech that dehumanizes Israel and global Jewry at-large." Another source of information and commentary can be found in this report from the U.S. Institute for Peace. Among other things, that report notes "that a resolution from the Arab League ministerial meeting called not only for an immediate cessation of the war, warning of the catastrophic humanitarian and security repercussions, but also warned against attempts to displace Palestinians and urged Israel to resume talks to achieve the two-state solution on the basis of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative." Those are simply two sources of information, and all of us need to pay close attention to the credibility of all such sources.

Mental health issues are getting more of religion's attention

In a time of seemingly relentless bad news, it can be easy to move toward despair. So how about a little good news today?

Mental-3The news is that in various ways people of faith are taking mental illness more seriously and are working toward helping people find solutions.

For instance, as this article from Crux reports, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has launched a USCCB “National Catholic Mental Health Campaign.”

The campaign has three goals: “To raise awareness, to remove the stigma and advocate that everyone who needs help should get help.”

Simple, right? Well, over the centuries various religious traditions have at times blamed mental illness on the person experiencing it or on Satan. It's taken a long time for different branches of religion to face the reality that mental illness should be treated carefully and professionally the way physical illness -- broken arms, cancer, asthma -- is treated.

Why this campaign now? The Crux story put it this way: "The impetus for the campaign, the bishops said, is the 'alarming' shortage of mental and behavioral health resources and providers nationwide, and an equally 'alarming' increase in depression and suicidal tendencies, especially among young people over the last decade."

So that's a national response to this problem. I previously reported on local responses to it in this 2021 Flatland column and in this 2022 Flatland column. The former column described the effort to create what then was being called the Kansas Missouri Mental Health Collaborative that would work through congregations and other organizations. That organization recently had a grand opening celebration, but under a different name, the Prairie Sky Counseling Center.

Prairie Sky now has three locations and is looking to expand. All good news. Why?

Well, as the Crux story reported, "According to the latest statistics from the National Institute for Mental Health, in 2021 22.8 percent of American adults – meaning some 57.8 million people – were classified as having a mental illness, and for 5.5 percent of American adults, or 14.1 million people, that illness was considered severe."

Healthy religion seeks to respond to the needs of the whole person, and that includes one's mental health. If you need immediate help with a mental crisis, of course, you now can call 988, a suicide and crisis hotline. But non-crisis care now also is more available thanks to efforts by people of faith.

So cheers for them.

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With two major wars going on -- Hamas/Israel and Russia/Ukraine -- it can be hard (and self-punishing) to stay up to date. And I'm not even counting the Republican war with itself inside the U.S. House of Representatives. But for this weekend's blog post, I'm going to connect you with this Ukraine-related story, which shows that Ukraine's government may be about to "ban the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which has close ties to the Russian Orthodox Church, from operating within Ukraine’s borders." What's this about? Well, it's enough to know, as I've reported before, that the Russian Orthodox Church now is under the complete control of Putin's Kremlin. Any religious body that cedes control of its thoughts and actions to a political figure can't be trusted and needs to be condemned. I hope Ukraine completes this action.

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P.S.: For those of you who weren't able to attend (or watch on YouTube) a service on Wednesday evening at which I and others spoke about the need for peace in light of the Hamas-Israeli war, the link to the service is here. I found it a fascinating -- and surprising -- evening. Hope you'll give it a look and listen.

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ANOTHER P.S.: Here's news that, as far as I can tell, has zero connection to faith matters but it does show how wrong more than 90 percent of a state's population can be about some things. A new poll via St. Louis University shows that a huge number of Missouri residents don't know the proper way to pronounce the name of our state -- it's Missour-uh, not Missour-ee. My "Starbeams" column predecessor at The Kansas City Star, Bill Vaughan, who argued long and hard for Missour-uh, must be looking down on us and wondering what the devil is wrong with people. I feel your pain, Bill.

What some of our history texts books never told some of us

I wish I still had the U.S. history books that we were required to read when I was in public elementary, junior high and high school in northern Illinois in the 1950s and '60s.

Doctrine-of-discoveryI don't remember the titles of those books. What I remember most about them is what was not in them: Any good, accurate, thorough historical accounts of the origins and effects of slavery or of the cultural and physical genocide that white European invaders committed on the Indigenous population whose history on this land goes back thousands of years.

(I wrote about my Indigenous ignorance not long ago in this Flatland column.)

I've been thinking again about all of this recently because of a new book I'm reading by Robert P. Jones, The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy and the Path to a Shared American Future, and because I recently came across and read this article from Medium.

The Medium post by Donald Yacovone describes how he happened to discover a copy of Exploring the New World, by O. Stuart Hamer, Dwight W. Follett, Benjamin F. Ahlschwede and Herbert H. Gross — "published repeatedly between 1953 and 1965 — (that) had been assigned in my fifth grade social studies class in Saratoga, California."

He writes that he's "now engaged in a study of how abolitionism, race, slavery and the Civil War and Reconstruction have been taught in our nation’s school books from the 1830s to the present."

Then he says this: "After reviewing my first fifty or so textbooks, one morning I realized precisely what I was seeing, what instruction and what priorities were leaping from the pages into the brains of the children compelled to read them: White Supremacy. . . Across time and with precious few exceptions African Americans in these books appeared only as a problem, only as 'ignorant negroes,' as slaves and as anonymous abstractions that only posed 'problems' for the real subjects of this written history: white people of European descent."

What does religion -- my usual subject -- have to do with any of this? Oh, plenty. We could start with the "Doctrine of Discovery," based on papal documents issued in the 1490s just as Europeans were beginning to explore what they first thought was the eastern edge of Asia but that turned out to be what became known as North, Central and South America.

(I have written several times about this appalling white supremacist doctrine -- most recently here and here. And, by the way, it was just this past March that Pope Francis finally, 530 years after its creation, repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery on behalf of the Catholic Church. But even that statement of repudiation, Jones writes, "deploys deceptive rhetorical strategies to avoid accepting full ecclesiastical responsibility.")

But the topic of the Doctrine of Discovery is too important to do no more than mention it here and there. We all need to know what our children are learning about it and its far-reaching effects hundreds of years later.

In his new book, Jones writes this: "As I've continued my reeducation journey over the last ten years, I have come to consider the Doctrine of Discovery as a kind of Rosetta Stone for understanding the deep structure of the European political and religious worldviews we have inherited in this country. The Doctrine of Discovery furnished the foundational lie that America was 'discovered' and enshrined the noble innocence of 'pioneers' in the story we white Christian Americans have told about ourselves.

"It animated the religious and cultural worldview that delivered Europeans to these shores far before 1619. Ideas such as Manifest Destiny, America as a city on a hill or America as a new Zion all sprouted from the seed that was planted in 1493. This sense of divine entitlement, of European Christian chosenness, has shaped the worldview of most white Americans and thereby influenced key events, policies and laws throughout American history."

To all of that, Vacavone, in his Medium article, adds this: "The assumptions of white priority and white domination suffuse every chapter and every theme of the thousands of textbooks that have blanketed the schools of our country. This vast tectonic plate still underlies American culture and we ignore it at our peril."

As for clarity about the role the Doctrine of Discovery played in American history, it's hard to beat this explanation from Jones: "Every US state contains. . .legacies of white racial violence because every US state was built on the same foundation, anchored by the Doctrine of Discovery: the conviction that America was divinely ordained to be a new promised land for European Christians. In each of the thirteen original colonies and in eight additional slave states, this deep founding myth justified the enslavement and exploitation of Africans in pursuit of white flourishing. In all, it justified the killing and dispossession of Native Americans and the claiming of their lands by good white Christian people, who alone possessed the virtues necessary for sustaining 'civilization.'"

But, of course, Americans alive today are not responsible for what our ancestors did hundreds (or even 10s) of years ago over which we had no control. And it's a waste of energy to somehow feel guilt and shame for their actions. That said, we are responsible for fixing what's still broken. And that leaves us a huge amount of work still to do in the arenas of education, law, economics and so many others. But we won't know what needs fixing and how to fix it if we don't understand the history of how things got to where they are today.

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When religious leaders get co-opted by political leaders, religion is the loser. The latest example is found in the announcement this week that "The Russian Orthodox Church has installed one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s closest allies as the highest-ranking church leader in Crimea," as this Religion News Service story put it. That story reports that this religious leader now will be known now as His Eminence Metropolitan Tikhon of Pskov and Porkhov. And it notes that recently Tikhon told the Russian people to "be in unity with the one whom God’s Providence has put to rule Russia," meaning, of course, Putin. As Christian History Magazine noted in this recent issue focused on the Russian Orthodox Church, "the church is under the state's complete control."

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P.S.: In an effort to confront racial, structural and fiscal issues in America's capital punishment system, a coalition of Black and Indigenous faith leaders across the U.S. has created the Faith Leaders of Color Coalition. A press release announcing the group's creation said this: "This multifaith national organization is dedicated to advocating for justice, equity and the abolition of the death penalty, focusing on the perspectives and experiences of Black and Indigenous people often at the center of discriminatory systems in the deep South." You can find the group's website here. Please share it with anyone you think would be interested in joining.

I bet you didn't know most of these Reformation facts, either

October is the month in which many Protestant churches commemorate the start of the Protestant Reformation, which semi-officially began on Oct. 31, 1517, when Martin Luther is said to have nailed a list of 95 challenging questions to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany, though it's possible that the nailing part is a myth and he simply mailed his questions to church authorities. Nailed, mailed. Whatever.

ReformationIn any case, the Reformation reshaped the world in countless ways, and although I've read a lot about it over the years, I'd never done more than skimmed Diarmaid MacCulloch's now-classic account of the Reformation, called, simply, The Reformation: A History. That's true even though that book has been on a shelf in my home office since soon after it was published 20 years ago.

So recently I decided I'd start at the book's beginning and work all the way through to the end on page 831 (counting the pages on which are found footnotes and an index).

I'm not very far along in that self-assigned task, but already I'm learning things about the Reformation that either I didn't know at all or that I'd forgotten and now am being reminded of them.

So this weekend I'm going to highlight my ignorance and/or bad memory by sharing some of those with you:

  • In the Fourteenth Century, a Swedish noblewoman founded a monastic order that used a five-bead predecessor to today's 59-bead rosary: "Each bead recalled an aspect of the Passion, which was linked to an English poem of thirty-three words (the number of years Jesus spent on earth). The user would meditate on the passion mysteries, but would also have to repeat every day for a year the Lord's Prayer fifteen times and the Hail Mary fifteen times. That would ensure 5,475 years off one's time in Purgatory, since 15 times 365 days of the year adds up to 5,475."
  • The idea of celibacy for priests (and others) "began to develop in Christianity in the third century C.E., at a time when the church first attracted very large numbers of converts in ordinary society. . .Celibacy became officially universal in the West for secular (meaning non-monastic clergy) as well as regular clergy after the second general Church Council. . .in 1139"
  • Starting in the 12th Century, the pope began to need a permanent staff of assistant clergy "who shared in his growing power and who from the twelfth century had the privilege of electing a new Pope -- the Cardinals -- so-called from the Latin cardo meaning a wedge rammed between timbers, for 'cardinals' were originally exceptionally able or useful priests thrust into a church from the outside."
  • "(L)onely outposts of obedience to Rome in Bohemia. . .represented the only part of medieval western Europe to which the description 'Roman Catholic' can be applied with any meaning. . .(T)his familiar term makes no sense before the Reformation. . ."
  • In the early 1400s, there were "three men calling themselves Pope, one of them John XXIII." I bet some of you thought John XXIII was pope in the late 1950s and early '60s. He was, indeed. But as this site records, "in 1410, during what is called the Western Schism, Baldassarre Cossa was elected pope, taking the name John XXIII." But because Rome didn't recognize him as a true pope, the name John XXIII was still available when Angelo Roncalli became pope in 1958.
  • In "the realm of England, five different living languages were spoken in the fifteenth century -- English, Welsh, Cornish, Manx and French. . ."
  • French King Charles VII pioneered the idea of monarchs "maintaining permanent standing armies."
  • "Modern historians examining contemporary comment produce reliable estimates that Islamic raiders enslaved around a million western Christian Europeans between 1530 and 1640; this dwarfs the contemporary slave trade in the other direction, and is about equivalent to the numbers of west Africans taken by Christian Europeans across the Atlantic at the same time."
  • If Holy Roman Emperor "Charles V had not been so distracted in his efforts to save Europe's south-eastern frontier, he would perhaps have had the will and resources to crush the Protestant revolt in its infancy in the 1520s and 1530s. When Charles did strike, it was too late."

All of which is further evidence that the world is complicated, that history is fascinating and that the world of religion never stays in its "own lane," as they say, because it (properly) considers almost everything to be in its lane.

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As I was reading this Guardian piece Friday about the Israel-Hamas war, I was struck by this quote from someone in Gaza that the paper described as "a student who had fled several times with her family across Gaza City since the bombardments began": “We’re not safe at all, we’re constantly under attack. I don’t know, I’m just praying to God to protect us, to protect our homes, mine is really under attack. I might not find it again.”

This is a sample of what I've come to think of as 9-1-1 prayers, which is to say prayers in emergencies when people have no idea what else to do but pray. I used to think that such prayers really weren't prayers at all but, rather, desperate cries from people who may or may not ever have prayed before in their lives. But I now think that no matter who prays such prayers he or she is expressing a profoundly human response that acknowledges a personal inability to control things and a belief that some higher power really exists and needs to respond. Thus, 9-1-1 prayers may be the rawest, most authentic kind of prayers, similar to the kind of prayer attributed to Jesus from the cross: "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."

This completely avoidable war is costing both Israelis and the Palestinians a staggering amount in lives, money and hopes. There is not now -- nor has there ever been -- a military solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The question is whether leaders are wise enough now finally to recognize that and to find a way to live in something that resembles peace. Let's pray so.

Can Pope Francis help to reverse climate change? We'll see.

It was clear in 2015 that Pope Francis wanted the world to pay close attention to the disasters that climate change was causing when he issued his now famous “apostolic exhortation” on the environment, Laudato si’.

Laudate_DeumYes, it's been read and widely admired, but, clearly, Frances thought that it hasn't done enough to alert Catholics in particular or people of faith in general to what is happening to the environment, at least in part because of human activity.

So he recently released what this Crux story calls "a new document urging dramatic action to combat climate change ahead of the U.N. COP28 summit scheduled for Nov. 30-Dec. 12 in Dubai." As that story notes, "The new document, titled Laudate Deum, or “Praise God,” amounts to a strong rejection of skepticism about global warming and the consequences of human intervention in the environment."

I've given you links to both documents and urge you to read them if you haven't yet done so. They're important for several reasons, including serving as a reminder that people of faith need to be strong advocates for treating God's creation with care and love.

In the new document, the pope says that "with the passage of time, I have realized that our responses have not been adequate, while the world in which we live is collapsing and may be nearing the breaking point. In addition to this possibility, it is indubitable that the impact of climate change will increasingly prejudice the lives and families of many persons. We will feel its effects in the areas of healthcare, sources of employment, access to resources, housing, forced migrations, etc."

Is it overly dramatic to say that we "may be nearing the breaking point" when it comes to environmental degradation? Well, there are wise and careful people out there who, while acknowledging the ecological challenges we face, also remind us that we have choices we can make so that we will not reach that breaking point. In other words, environmental collapse is not inevitable, despite the fact that we are closer to it today than perhaps at any other time in human history (history that takes up a rather short period of time in the history of Earth and the history of the cosmos).

The pontiff acknowledges that there are some people who don't take climate change as seriously as he does. He writes, “I feel obliged to make these clarifications, which may appear obvious, because of certain dismissive and scarcely reasonable opinions that I encounter, even within the Catholic Church.”

This analysis from The Conversation helps to put this new papal statement in perspective. Among other things, it says:

"Like 'Laudato Si,' the new document strongly reproaches wealthy nations that contribute the most to climate change, accusing them of ignoring the plight of the poor. It offers a similar rebuke of rampant individualism, lamenting that responses to global crises of climate change and the pandemic have led to 'greater individualism' and hoarding of wealth, rather than increased solidarity.

"Scarcely any facet of modern life emerges unscathed by Francis’ sometimes withering critiques. In his view, societies have failed to respond to crises that are profoundly interrelated: global inequality, pollution and even new forms of artificial intelligence that feed the illusion of humans’ unlimited power. His 2015 broadside, in fact, targeted today’s 'technocratic paradigm' with such vehemence that one critic likened these passages to the rantings of an 'Amish hippie.'”

An Amish hippie? Hmmmm.

What we've learned about Pope Francis in his 10-plus years in office is that he's not afraid to look at the world through his theological lenses and he's not afraid of critics who disagree with him -- sometimes because they look at the world not through their theological lenses but through their political or economic lenses.

Will this new report give momentum to the pro-environmental cause? Hard to say. But what is clear is that Pope Francis would have been derelict in his duties had he chosen to remain silent about how climate change is causing human damage. And he knows that.

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When Hamas attacked Israel several days ago, I remembered this blog post I wrote in 2012 at the completion of a Jewish-Christian study tour of Israel that I helped to lead. In the post, I noted that the time seemed extra ripe for Israel to find a way to reach a two-state solution with the Palestinians, given that Israel had reached a point at which it could negotiate from a position of power and, relying on Jewish concepts about welcoming the stranger and offering mercy, find a resolution to the dispute that had been raging (in various degrees) since Israeli leaders announced the creation of the modern state of Israel in 1948.

"After nearly 4,000 years of this adversarial relationship with the world," I wrote then, "Jews -- especially those living here in Israel -- are, I think, at a crossroads and are rapidly moving to a position in which they can make peace not just with the still-stateless Palestinians but also with the whole world and even with themselves and their history."

I still think I was right about that being a great time to come to the bargaining table for everyone. But once again, as has been noted by lots of observers, both sides didn't miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

And now Israel and Hamas are at war. And the costs will be astonishingly high for both sides as well as for the entire world. That's especially true in light of the fact that there is no military solution to the problems of the Middle East. Rather, there must be political, social and even religious solutions that remember the ultimate value of every human being involved in this struggle. There is, in the end, no eternal reason the people of Israel and the Palestinian (and, more broadly, the Arab) people can't live together in peace.

One clearly complicating factor in the whole Middle East today is the fact that Saudi Arabia and Israel have been slowly moving toward a better relationship with each other -- all the while ignoring the hopes and desires of the Palestinian people in such a move. This Reuters analysis explains some of that.

But, of course, like any analyses written on deadline -- as was mine in 2012 that I linked you to above -- the likelihood of misinterpretation is high, at least in the details, even if some of the broader conclusions are solid.

What we do know is that the Middle East has been a cauldron of misunderstanding, hatred, violence and sometimes brilliance since Israel's creation. At the moment, I see no end of any of that in sight.

(P.S.: This Reuters piece is the best explanation I've seen yet for how and why Hamas surprised Israel with its attack.)

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P.S.: Speaking of human misery, my boyhood friend from India, Markandey Katju, a former Supreme Court justice there, has written this good analysis of why laws against caste systems won't work if nothing else changes. It's worth a read.

When families of clergy members dissolve into chaos

I confess that from the time (must have been mid-1970s) when (as I reported here almost 10 years ago) I met the late Rev. Sun Myung Moon (pictured here), founder of the Unification Church, I have been intrigued by how he managed to build such a large organization that seemed, despite its name, to have precious little to do with authentic religion.

MoonMoon made a stop in Kansas City and I, then a reporter for The Kansas City Star, was sent to a hotel to meet him. As I wrote in the piece to which I've linked you, "Since then I like to tell people that Sun Myung Moon once met me. I don't recall a lot about that evening except that I think I wasn't allowed to stay with Moon very long and that I didn't write a very long story about it. But Moon and I did meet and shake hands. I've been both intrigued and at times repulsed by Moon and his unique and astonishingly self-centered and works-righteousness approach to religion."

All of that came back to mind recently when I read this article in The Atlantic by Robert F. Worth about the connection between Moon's church and the assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

What struck me most about Worth's piece was his description of what has happened to Moon's family since his death.

He writes this: "(W)hat Moon called the 'Perfect Family' (has not) fared well since his death. Its members have spent much of the past decade fighting in court over his assets and legacy, and his children have struggled to live up to their 'sinless' billing.

"One son was accused by his wife of cocaine addiction and domestic abuse. (He denied both claims and has since died.) Another son leaped to his death from a balcony at a Nevada casino. A third son, Hyung Jin 'Sean' Moon, founded a separate, gun-centered church in Pennsylvania known as Rod of Iron Ministries, where followers do target practice with AR-15s and bring guns to church to be blessed. Hyung Jin wears a golden crown made of rifle shells, and delivers hate-filled sermons against the Democratic Party. He also expects to become the king of America. He reviles his mother — who runs the international church in South Korea — as the 'whore of Babylon.'”

And you think your family is a dysfunctional mess? Lordy, lordy.

For a long, long time, families of pastors almost everywhere have not had an easy time of it. As the old model of a male pastor with a subservient, smiling wife who volunteered at church or synagogue broke down, new models began to emerge, and many of those have helped. But even so, there has been pressure on clergy families to be what Moon -- stupidly and bogusly -- called his family, "perfect."

It's a profoundly unfair expectation, and sometimes family members have lived lives of quiet desperation -- and sometimes not so quiet.

All of which is one reason houses of worship and larger religious organizations and denominations need well-thought-out systems for ministering to the families of ministers -- and to single pastors, such as Catholic priests and others. Not all pastors have that kind of support, however, and some of the results have been disastrous.

If you're part of a religious congregation, what does it do to support families of clergy leadership? If you don't know, this would be a good time to find out.

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A jailed human rights activist from Iran has won this year's Nobel Peace Prize. It went to Narges Mohammadi for "her fight against the oppression of women in Iran and her fight to promote human rights and freedom for all." In the end, religion has to do with freedom, all kinds of freedom but especially the freedom to be fully human, to be the person God meant each person to be. And although it's possible to raise legitimate arguments about Nobel Peace Prize recipients and their worthiness to receive the prize, as long as it has something to do with human freedom it's a reminder to all of us to work for peace.

Where should all the world's persecuted Christians flee?

Refugee admissions

It should not be shocking news to anyone that religious persecution happens regularly around the world and that the list of those targeted includes many Christians.

The annual reports from the quasi-governmental agency, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, provide the terrible details, country by country. And private groups keep track of all this, too.

This RNS story, in fact, describes this report from two such private groups who say that fewer Christians fleeing persecution in their native countries have found a safe harbor in the United States in the past half decade.

The report said that "the number of Christians coming to the U.S. from countries named on a prominent persecution watchlist dropped from 32,248 in 2016 to 9,528 in 2022 — a decline of 70%."

It seems odd that such numbers are falling at a time -- especially in recent weeks -- when the number of asylum seeks at our southern borders has been soaring. But perhaps we're simply measuring two different things.

The opening of the new report says this: ". . .the number of persecuted Christians to whom protection is available through the U.S. refugee resettlement program and the application of asylum laws has still been dramatically curtailed. With further restrictions on the near horizon, our aim with this report is to raise awareness and call the American Church both to prayer and advocacy for the persecuted. We also hope Congress and the administration will strengthen U.S. commitment to the persecuted through the refugee and asylum processes."

No doubt in the best of all possible worlds (Where would that be?), the problem of religious persecution and people fleeing violent countries to seek safety in the U.S. could and would be solved in the countries of origin. Stop persecution and poverty and other evils and the problem gets fixed, right?

But as the report itself says, “The tragic reality is that many areas of the world simply aren’t safe for Christians, and Christians fleeing persecution need a safe haven in the United States.”

So we have to deal with reality, not with some beatific fantasy.

And what is important to understand is that our elected representatives probably won't even look at this problem unless they think it matters to constituents. The only way to make sure they know it matters is to communicate with them and to talk about the issue in your faith community and other organizations.

Let's also be clear that when we're talking about persecution of Christians abroad, we mean serious bodily endangerment, not the U.S.-based alleged "persecution" that happens when some clerk says "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas."

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Change in institutional religions comes slowly, if at all. But before it comes in full flower, sometimes there are hints that something is afoot. That's what seems to be happening now in the Catholic Church, as Pope Francis has suggested that at some point it might be possible for the church to bless, in some way, gay couples. This blessing, the pope insisted, would not amount to condoning gay marriage. As the Reuters story to which I've linked you notes, "Francis said the Church was very clear that the sacrament of matrimony could only be between a man and woman and open to procreation and that the Church should avoid any other ritual or sacramental rite that contradicted this teaching." Still, it seems remarkable for any pope to be talking about some kind of nod of approval of gay couples, especially given that the church still officially teaches that homosexuality is "objectively disordered" and that homosexual practices are "sins gravely contrary to chastity.”

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P.S.: The EJUSA Evangelical Network (E.J. stands for Equal Justice) will co-host a "National Christian Prayer Call to End the Death Penalty" starting at 5:30 p.m. CDT on Tuesday, Oct. 10, to mark World Day Against the Death Penalty. You can register to watch the event at this link.