What happens when the power of words frightens religious leaders?

Let's back up a little today to the attempted murder earlier this month of famous author Salman Rushdie, badly stabbed at a speaking engagement in western New York.

Satanic-versesAs the world knows, a fatwa, meaning a religious ruling, was issued by Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini after the publication of Rushdie's 1988 novel The Satanic Verses. It called for Rushdie's murder. He's lived a quite confined life ever since then, for no better reason than that a top religious leader was afraid of printed words and chose to order the writer of those words killed.

If you want a bit of background on what has happened in Rushdie's life and what's happened related to that fatwa since he published that book, Reuters has put together this appalling list of events and developments.

As the Associated Press then reported, Iran has denied any connection to the attempt to murder Rushdie, but even so an Iranian official "sought to justify the attack."

One reason I became a journalist, author and, eventually, a blogger is that I recognized that words have the ability to make people think things they otherwise might not, that words can have enormous power, that words can offer beauty and enlightenment -- sometimes, as author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. once said, at top speed.

Religion that is fundamentalist in nature is frightened to death of the power of words its leaders don't control and interpret. One obvious sign of fundamentalist religion is that usually its scripture is to be read in a literalistic way that admits of no contradictions, no historical errors, no opposing views.

That kind of reading, of course, kills the spirit of scripture and denies its very nature as words gathered over time and often written by more than one person. The Qur'an differs in that it's said to be the words of God spoken to the Prophet Muhammad by the angel Gabriel over more than two decades. But even Islamic scholars and imams insist that the Qur'an must be interpreted. Thus, in recent years, we've seen such published help with that task as The Study Qur'an.

RushdieThe man who ordered Rushdie (pictured here) killed, of course, wanted to limit the interpretation of Islam's sacred texts to a tiny group of well-controlled scholars. Similarly, Christian leaders who are biblical literalists insist that there's only one proper way to understand the text, which, of course, they believe to be inerrant.

I like the way, from a Jewish perspective, author Edward Feld puts this subject in his soon-to-be-published book, The Book of Revolutions: The Battles of Priests, Prophets and Kings that Birthed the Torah: "Most Jews who see the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) as foundational to their lives still recognize, as I do, that we do not have it quite right yet -- we have not grasped Torah's truths in their entirety because the parts do not ultimately quite fit together. This is the very opposite of a creedal religion that maintains that adherence to certain fundamental concepts gives one certainty regarding issues of faith and salvation. Even as we attempt to comprehend every jot and tittle of the Torah, there is always a beyond to which it points."

Similarly, in her forthcoming book, Heretic: A Memoir, Jeanna Kadlec, notes that apparently biblical literalism was not the original way of reading the Bible. She writes about Charles Hodge, who was instrumental in the move toward literalism. Kadlec calls Hodge the "reigning theologian at Princeton Seminary for much of the 19th century." He wrote about this approach to reading the Bible in his three-volume Systematic Theology, published from 1871 to 1873.

Kadlec writes: "(I)t cannot be overstated how much Hodge's thesis, that the Bible was the completely inerrant, infallible word of God, was an astonishing break with Protestant church fathers and traditional interpretation of the authority and limitations of scripture. Martin Luther … used to acknowledge that the Bible contained contradictions and historical errors. Even the famously strict arbiter of human depravity John Calvin had been known to suggest that biblical writers were not particularly concerned with factual accuracy …."

So it's important to beware of scriptural literalists. Or people who read any document in a literalistic way, including the U.S. Constitution, which is how so-called "Originalists" read it, forgetting that even Thomas Jefferson suggested that the American people would do well to rewrite the Constitution about every 20 years. Wonder what it would say today if that had happened. Part of me isn't sure I'd want to know.

(Also: Here is a good column by a rabbi who argues this: "Salman Rushdie’s wounds are the result of a grim tendency present in all the Abrahamic religions — a tendency toward incivility, triumphalism and violence." And here is a Reuters piece explaining fatwas, or religious rulings, such as the one that called for Rushdie's murder. If you want to know even more about fatwas, here is a piece about them from The Conversation.)

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Did you take a vacation this summer? Did you really get away from it all for awhile? The American economy seems to run counter to the ancient advice from religion, which is this, according to this article in The Conversation: ". . .religious practices have long emphasized rest and contemplation, which not only improve a person’s mental and physical health, but can also boost a sense of spiritual well-being." I just spent a bit of time at a retreat center in southern Missouri, partly for that very reason. I'll have more to say about that next week here on the blog. School may have started already, but summer isn't over. Maybe there's still time to get in a bit of downtime yourself.

How religious nationalism wounds India and Pakistan

Earlier this week, the world commemorated the 75th anniversary of India gaining its independence from Britain and, at the same moment, a split off from India of West and East Pakistan, the latter now known as Bangladesh.

Indian-subcontinentLess than nine years after those Aug. 15, 1947, events, I arrived in India with my family so my father could be part of a University of Illinois agriculture team for two years. Remnants of British rule were everywhere, though India, under Jawaharlal Nehru, its first prime minister, seemed to be finding its way. (The photo on the right shows me and my sister Mary with Nehru. That's U.S. Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker behind us.)03-01-2006 04;45;17PM

The country made considerable, if uneven, progress after that. Today, however, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a virulent Hindu nationalist, the country is in desperate trouble in many ways.

The vision of the man behind Pakistan's independence from India, however, has just about disappeared. As this article from The Conversation notes, "Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, sought to create a democratic, egalitarian and secular country where the Muslims of the subcontinent, who constituted about 25% of the population, could enjoy full equality. For most of his life, he sought to achieve this equality within an undivided Hindu-majority India. Later he became convinced that a separate homeland was necessary to realize such equality.

"Today, widespread and escalating violence against Indian Muslims under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right-wing, Hindu-nationalist rule seems to confirm Jinnah’s fears."

Over the long history of India -- well before it was gathered together under British rule as one nation instead of a collection of diverse kingdoms -- Hindus and Muslims often were able to live together in relative harmony. That blew apart at partition in 1947, when Muslims leaving India for Pakistan and Hindus leaving the new Pakistan for India, crossed each other on the journey and engaged in what The Conversation piece calls "a devastating process that uprooted more than 15 million people and resulted in 1 million to 2 million dead."

Modi has been contributing to a modern version of that bloodshed by pushing India to be a country just for Hindus, even though millions of Muslims continue to live within India's borders.

It's one more example of what can -- and often does -- go wrong in countries that identify themselves with just one faith tradition (in addition to Hindu nationalism, think Christian nationalism). Theocracy is by its very nature exclusivist and it contains the seeds of violent domination.

As India slides into the worst results of Hindu nationalism, Pakistan also is in deep trouble. As The Conversation article notes, "Ideology and religion are divisive forces in Pakistan today – from sectarian violence against Shia Muslims to the state’s blasphemy laws that authorize a death sentence for anyone who insults Islam. Religion, as interpreted by the state, plays a significant role in politics and governance."

Blasphemy laws, by the way, are a strong indication that leaders of the religion that wants them believe that the religion is so weak on its own that it can't survive without legal help from the state.

2015-01-25 15.14.20Into this mix of clashing religions and clashing international politics, let's throw the laudable effort by my oldest friend in India from my boyhood days, Markandey Katju, to reunite India and Pakistan. Katju, a former justice on India's Supreme Court, has, with others, formed the Indian Reunification Association. Katju and others in the group believe India and Pakistan never should have been separated and that now is the time to begin reunification talks. I support their efforts but recognize what a long shot it is. (The photo here shows Katju and me a few years ago in California.)

It will not surprise you to learn, if you didn't know it already, that adherents of other faith traditions also face repression in both India and Pakistan. It's what happens when religious freedom doesn't really exist within a nation's borders.

And yet despite that reality, some non-Islamic faith traditions continue to operate in various ways for good ends inside Pakistan. For instance, there's the Presbyterian Education Board, based in Lahore. It operates high-quality schools for children who otherwise might not get much of an education. The educational opportunities it offers are not limited to Christian children. As the group's website explains, the organization's "purpose is to provide high-quality education fully informed by and rising out of its Christian values and its Christian roots. The scope of the Board extends to primary and secondary schools (including dormitories for Christian children); higher education, and vocational, professional and technical training for children, regardless of race or creed."

The Indian subcontinent has so much to offer the world in the way of culture, arts, history and more. But religious nationalism and a failure to see the possibilities of a united future are holding the citizens of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh in needless harness.

(By the way, here is a blog post about whether India still is a democracy from my friend Leroy Seat. And here is information from the Pew Research Center about religion in India today. Scroll down to a subhead that says, "Indians divided on the legacy of Partition for Hindu-Muslim relations.")

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What role does -- or should -- religion play in helping people maintain or regain good mental health? That was the subject of a recent interfaith gathering that's described in this article from The Conversation. It notes the reality that religion can both help and hurt people struggling with mental issues. It reminds me that in suburban Johnson County, Kansas, an interfaith group of some 20 congregations, called the Good Faith Network, is working to improve mental health resources for the population there. I wrote about that in this recent column for Flatland, KCPT-TV's digital magazine. I liked this response from a panelist in response to a question in The Conversation piece about how religious leaders can help people with mental health: ". . .transparency. I have seen ministers from pulpits talk about mental health challenges, talk about their grief or talk about themselves going to therapy. That can really open the door, letting our humanity show."

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P.S.: I was, frankly, disappointed that more of you didn't read my previous blog post about where we've come as Americans since the Civil Right Movement, but you can catch up with it here.

Re-reading a civil rights history book I never read

The deadly tally of hate's cruel harvest in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and '60s was breathtaking, appalling, convicting, unnecessary. Even today those who lived through that time and/or their descendants continue to grieve -- not unlike the way those of us who lost family members in the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 are forever in grief's relentless grip. That's all true even as we also celebrate the slow progress made because of the Civil Rights Movement.

Parting-watersThose who died because of racial hatred (starting in 1619 and continuing until yesterday) belong to all of us because all of us are human and because, finally, the Human Genome Project demonstrated persuasively that every human being is, genetically, something like 99.9 percent like every other human being.

I am thinking about all of this today because I just finished reading an amazing book that I should have read -- along with its two other volumes -- when it came out in 1988, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-'63, by Taylor Branch, who won a Pulitzer Prize for this work.

What makes this history all the more absorbing for me is that I lived through it, first as a child but later as a college student and, finally, as a journalist. It feels as if I've read this book, but only because I remember so much of what it describes. In fact, the reverberations from the King years continue right up to today because Americans have not fully solved the racial problems that began in the misshapen hearts of human beings even before the first slave arrived on this land in 1619.

Sometimes I hear people wonder why we're still talking about slavery and its repercussions. Well, think of this: The day I was born in 1945 there still were people alive in the U.S. who had been born into slavery. So this is not ancient history.

Branch's book -- as I say, the first volume of a trilogy -- draws on countless original documents, tape recordings, photos and other sources to tell a story that goes bone deep. In fact, I should have kept count of how many people wound up with broken bones, to say nothing of lost lives, at the hands of people who were convinced that Black people were subhuman and should not have full citizenship rights in this country.

The violence -- gunshots, lynchings, exploding bombs, fist fights, on and on -- seems to be everywhere in this accounting.

Mlk-jrFor instance, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s own house in Montgomery, Ala., was bombed as he was leading the bus boycott there in the mid-1950s. As Branch describes it, King was leading a church service at the time. (King is pictured here.)

"Finally," Branch writes, "one of the ushers waved King to the side of the platform to give him a message, but S.S. Seay stepped between them, shaking his head in the negative. This caused King to wave (the Rev. Ralph David) Abernathy over to him. 'What's wrong?' he whispered.

"Abernathy and Seay looked at each other, stalling. 'Your house has been bombed.' said Abernathy.

"'Are Coretta (King's wife) and the baby all right?'

"'We are checking on that now,' said a miserable Abernathy, who had wanted to have the answer before telling King.

"In shock, King remained calm, coasting almost automatically on the emotional overload of the past few days. Nodding to Abernathy and Seay, he walked back to the center of the church, told the crowd what had happened, told them he had to leave and that they should all go home quietly and peacefully, and then, leaving a few shrieks and a thousand gasps behind, walked swiftly out a side door of the church."

The miracle, in some ways, was that King survived as long as he did, making it to age 39 before being gunned down at a motel in Memphis, Tenn. These violent times are difficult to talk about and think about, and often we shrink the whole Civil Rights Movement to a single Black lady refusing to move to the back of a bus, then to a great King speech in D.C. and finally to a few laws that got passed. As author and critic Jemar Tisby noted in a webinar I attended this week sponsored by the Equal Justice USA Evangelical Network, "we sanitize the past."

Branch, who doesn't sanitize the past, captured the attitude that helped to create this kind of murderous atmosphere in this sentence about the effort to register Black voters in Mississippi: "A white voter explained his gut appraisal to reporters: 'We killed two-month-old Indian babies to take this country, and now they want us to give it away to the n-word." (In the book, Branch spelled out the word in its plural form.)

As Branch describes event after event that finally led to desegregation laws, voting rights laws and much else, now and then he draws the conclusions demanded from the facts he's just related. For instance, while a prisoner in the city jail in Birmingham, Ala., King responded with a long letter to a communication from so-called moderate white preachers who were urging King to slow down and, worse, simply wait for freedom to come to Blacks. If you've never read King's Letter from Birmingham Jail, please do. It's a classic.

Branch writes this about that letter: "In supreme irony, the prisoner in the hole mourned over the most respectable clergymen in Alabama as lost sheep who were unable to find the most obvious tenets of their faith."


What's clear in this history of how we got to where we are today in the U.S. is that this was not a battle between pure saints and demonized sinners. Every person involved had flaws. The difference was that some of the flawed people occupied the high moral ground and others could not see that reality.

Much has changed since the days when King was leading the way toward progress in race relations, and much of it has been for the better. But the work to end the systems and structures that continue to keep people of color, including Indigenous people, oppressed is far from over. I would love to be around 75 years from now to read a Branch-like book about how Americans finally recognized the systemic nature of racism and worked to erase its last vestiges. But some days I wonder if such a book will ever be written because those vestiges weren't erased. I'm not giving up, however. In my mind I can say, with King, that I've been to the mountain top and have seen the promised land.

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I'm saddened to report the death of Frederick Buechner, a Presbyterian pastor who, instead of spending a life in the pulpit, spent it producing wonderfully insightful and engaging books. As the RNS story to which I've just linked you notes, "Over the course of his life, Buechner wrote nearly 40 books across a number of genres: fiction, autobiography, theology, essays and sermons." My guess is that in 52 sermons given in your average Mainline Protestant church in the U.S. over a year, Buechner would be quoted in at least a third of them. My one connection to Buechner is that each of us at different times won the same award -- the David Steele Distinguished Writer Award from the Presbyterian Writers Guild. I am smart enough never to imagine that I'm in the same class of writers that Buechner led, but I accepted that award anyway. He sent a gracious note to me about it. If you've never read Buechner, here are two books I'd start with: Peculiar Treasures and The Yellow Leaves.

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In harmony with the main blog post above here today, I want to introduce you to a quite small (62 pages) but really helpful new book called 100 Questions & Answers about the Black Church, from the Michigan State University School of Journalism. It's published by Front Edge Publishing, which also published my latest book. The Black church book's official publication date is Aug. 30, but it can be ordered now. This book is one of a series of books from the school, each of which asks and answers 100 questions about such subjects as Arab Americans, Hispanics & Latinos, Native Americans, American Jews and many other subjects. Here is a link to that whole project. What I especially appreciated about the Black church book is that it is both simple and authoritative. The project involved Michigan State students but they were overseen by experts in this field. This book does not, of course, substitute for the kind of detailed Black church history found in the Taylor Branch book I wrote about above or in other books and documentaries (including "The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song," based on the book of that title by Henry Louis Gates Jr.). But this 100 questions book can spark an interest in exploring this subject in more detail. And as important as the Black church has been not just to people of color but to the nation as a whole, that kind of exploration would be a good thing.

Does your theology shape your politics? (How can it not?)

The vote earlier this month in Kansas on an abortion issue once again raised the question of how involved religious institutions are -- or should be -- in political matters.

Faith-politicsTo begin an exploration of that question, I want to say something I've said more than once before: The idea of church-state separation in the U.S. should not keep religious voices out of the public square. Rather, it should keep the government from interfering in religion.

That said, there are -- and should be -- restrictions on what houses of worship can do politically if they are to retain their non-profit status with the Internal Revenue Service. Pastors, for instance, should not endorse specific political candidates from the pulpit.

And yet in many ways faith communities are inevitably engaged in politics. The very first creed of what became Christianity -- "Jesus is Lord" -- was a deeply political statement, implying that Caesar was not lord. (Ask Caesar how he liked that, assuming you and he spend the afterlife in the same place.)

So it was not surprising to find that in the recent election in Kansas, faith communities were deeply involved. As KCUR-FM reported before the election, for instance, "The proposed amendment — which would say the Kansas Constitution does not protect access to abortion — has received support from the Catholic Church, the Kansas-Nebraska Convention of Southern Baptists and the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, Kansas District. All told, each organization oversees or is affiliated with hundreds of churches across Kansas, creating a powerful force urging churchgoers to vote for a change to the constitution."

And as the National Catholic Reporter noted, "In Kansas, both sides together spent more than $14 million on their campaigns. Abortion providers and abortion rights groups were key donors to the 'no' side, while Catholic dioceses heavily funded the 'yes' campaign." In fact, here is an RNS story describing how the vote was "a rejection of the Catholic Church hierarchy."

It turns out that this whole area of religion's involvement in politics has been the subject of scholarly attention over the years. This RNS story, for instance, describes a fairly recent Pew Research Center study about what people in the pews are hearing about political matters from the pulpit.

The story says that the Pew study "in March of 2021 asked people if they had heard sermons that contained references to the fallout from the 2020 presidential election in the previous month. The survey asked about four topics specifically: the possibility that the 2020 election was rigged, former President Donald Trump’s inaccurate statements about election fraud, as well as support for or opposition to those who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021."

You can find answers to those questions at the story link I've given you. But here's one part of what was found: "Democrats, the poll found, were just as likely as Republicans to hear the winner of the (2020) presidential election mentioned from the pulpit. However, when asked if their pastor had called Trump out for making false statements about election fraud, Democrats were nearly three times more likely to answer affirmatively compared with Republicans (20% vs. 7%)."

One thing that tells us is that people tend to belong to faith communities that are in some way in harmony with their political views -- or at least communities that don't actively criticize political positions members take.

Another important faith-politics connection is this: If your religious beliefs don't somehow inform or at least help to shape your political beliefs (using that term in a broad, not a partisan, way), what good are they? One's theology should help form how one lives every part of one's life, including politics, and how one relates to others. Otherwise it's an empty shell.

(By the way, a new survey of students who plan to attend a four-year college shows that about a quarter of them say they won't consider applying to a school in a state in which abortion is banned. Imagine that.)

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To continue the theme above a bit, Jamie Manson, president of Catholics for Choice and former book review editor of The National Catholic Reporter, has written this opinion piece suggesting that the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision overturning Roe v Wade wasn't nearly the victory for people of faith that the recent vote by Kansans to protect abortion rights was. "The vote in Kansas," she wrote, "shows that when pro-choice people of faith speak, act and vote their values, they can win even when they are up against the power, money and influence of the Catholic hierarchy."

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P.S.: The U.S. Department of Justice has started an investigation into the Southern Baptist Convention in the wake of SBC messengers, or delegates, to the denomination's recent annual meeting passing a resolution On Lament and Repentance for Sexual Abuse. Southern Baptists also voted overwhelmingly then to adopt a report that approved recommendations toward addressing and preventing sexual abuse in the SBC and its churches. The first link in this paragraph will take you to an SBC announcement of the DOJ investigation. This link will take to you a story about this by Christianity Today.

Killing others to take revenge for others' killings

When a drone strike took out (that's a euphemism for murdered) al-Qaida honcho Ayman al-Zawahiri (pictured here) last week, I did not come close to grieving the end of his miserable, destructive life.

ZawahiriBut I did grieve for humanity. We seem unable to rise above revenge and violence except in rare circumstances led by rare people. History is not a story only of crimes and wars, but crimes and wars do take up a huge amount of space in that story.

Cover-lle-hi-resAs you no doubt know, al-Zawahiri has been described as a leading planner of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, in which some 3,000 people were murdered, including my own nephew. (I tell that story and explore the roots of extremism in my latest book, Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety. You'll be smarter after you read it.)

Like his equally disgusting leader, Osama bin Laden, al-Zawahiri seemed incapable of following the core teachings of the Prophet Muhammad to honor God and/or to find non-violent ways to settle disputes. (At times, of course, even the prophet and his followers engaged in violence in his lifetime, as have many other religious leaders and adherents across history.)

As the New Yorker piece to which I linked you in the first paragraph above reports, "President Joe Biden, announcing the attack on Monday evening, said that he hoped Zawahiri’s death 'provides a small measure of peace to the 9/11 families and everyone else who has suffered at the hands of Al Qaeda.'”

Well, no, Mr. President. I can tell you that the death of anyone as a result of an act of revenge for 9/11 doesn't bring me even a small measure of peace, and I can tell you that many, if not most, other members of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows (PT) feel the same way. We don't want more killing in our loved ones' names. Period.

Here is the way one PT member put it in a group email the other day: "I don’t know how we can do this and claim to follow rule of law as a civilized country. It saddens me that we can do this and still claim to be an upright, moral society. I still deeply grieve my brother’s death and desperately crave justice -- but not this way. I say this knowing members of my own family would not agree with me. But how can we cry out against the targeted attacks of 9/11 and then do likewise? Zawahiri may have been an evil man, but I am not an executioner. I have often thought of the convenience of using a drone to remove Putin but he is protected by our own fear of the consequences we would suffer worldwide. I cannot be against the death penalty and celebrate a drone takeout."

Of course, we didn't want al-Zawahiri and similar theological thugs freely roaming the world and spewing out their violent nonsense. But it gives me no pleasure to know that one more person has perished as a response to the deaths of my nephew and thousands of other victims of terrorism.

What this drone-killing highlights is the continuing mess that is Afghanistan.

As the New Yorker piece notes, "Apart from the issue of justice served, the greatest source of interest in Zawahiri’s killing lies in where he was found — not far from the now-shuttered U.S. Embassy, in Sherpur, one of central Kabul’s relatively upscale neighborhoods, where senior figures in the Taliban regime currently reside. According to an unnamed Taliban leader quoted by Reuters, Zawahiri moved to Afghanistan just a few months after the Taliban seized power last August. An unnamed senior Biden Administration official told reporters on Monday that at least some figures in the Taliban’s Haqqani faction knew of Zawahiri’s presence. After the strike, the Taliban removed all signs of his stay from the safe house in which he had been residing."

So that's further proof that the Taliban was once -- and now is again -- a disastrous ruling party in Afghanistan. Extremists never make good political leaders.

The war in Afghanistan was, at first, a justified response of self-defense on the part of the U.S. to prevent more terrorists from being trained on its soil. But before long it turned into the Forever War and it ended (if it has) badly. Every president who has dealt with it made errors and has been sullied by the experience.

As the New Yorker piece concludes: "It is on the basis of. . .millenarian radicalism that Al Qaeda has justified the deaths of thousands of innocents, including Muslims. Zawahiri is gone, but as long as his ideas live on and bands of volunteers find haven in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, the threat of occasional shocks of mass violence will menace Afghans, their neighbors and the world."

So now there's one more death to add to the total that terrorism has extracted from the wounded world. Sometimes I am at the edge of losing hope for humankind ever getting it right. History: Read it and weep.

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A little more on Afghanistan today: From the time the Taliban came back to power there just a year ago, the status of women has declined markedly. But the good news is this: Some women are continuing to fight for the rights they achieved between the two periods of Taliban rule, this Reuters story reports. Even though public demonstrations against Taliban restrictions on women have died down, the report says, women "meet in homes in private acts of defiance, discussing women's rights and encouraging people to join the cause. Such gatherings would have been virtually unthinkable the last time the Taliban governed Afghanistan." You have to wonder why the Taliban is afraid of women. Perhaps the same reason America's founders were afraid to give them the vote. And why women didn't get the vote until the adoption of the 19th amendment a little over 100 years ago. But even then, the result was white women's suffrage only. Like most Black men, most Black women weren't able to vote until passage of the 1965 voting rights act. And no doubt Adam feared Eve a little, too. Sigh.

A new resource for learning about Indigenous life and history


Oklahoma City, Okla. -- Visiting the new First Americans Museum (FAM) here the same week that Pope Francis was in Canada apologizing to Indigenous people there seemed like good timing for a small group made up mostly of members of my congregation. (My photo here of the museum shows it from the back.)

Okla-2As part of the anti-racism work our church has been engaged in, we've been offering different educational opportunities for people to learn more about the Native Americans who live and work in our area and about Indigenous history more broadly.

This museum opened just last year -- and it's well worth a trip. The day after our group spent time at the FAM, we traveled north to Pawhuska, Okla., the center of Osage life and visited the Osage Nation Museum there. It's much smaller than FAM, but its very intimacy and focus make it quite appealing and worth the time.

When I began to educate myself more about Native American history and life, I knew more about Indians from India than American Indians because I lived for two years of my boyhood in India. But like lots of people from small, almost-all-white towns in the U.S., I learned nearly nothing as a kid about Indigenous people here and their history.

To share what we're learning as we work to create something of a partnership with the Kansas City Indian Center, we've put this Indigenous resource list (books, films, podcasts, etc.) on our church website. Feel free to read it, borrow it, share it. It's incomplete, for sure, but we're continuing to add to it. And I'm happy to hear your suggestions for what to add. In fact, as I write this I see that the FAM and the Osage Nation Museum aren't on our list. But then I asked our church staff to add them and now they're there.

Okla-7By making his apology trip to Canada, Pope Francis was at least inadvertently calling attention to a primary source for the miserable way the church and white Europeans generally have treated Indigenous people around the world. That source is the 1493 Doctrine of Discovery, a papal bull from Pope Alexander VI. It said that any land not inhabited by Christians was available to be "discovered," claimed and exploited by Christian rulers. It also urged that "the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself."

So in various places around the world, the first residents of this or that land were, by church decree, considered barbarous savages in need of salvation. Imagine all the trouble that has caused over the centuries when Christian supremacy crossed paths with and made friends with white supremacy.

I hope you will make an effort to learn more about the nearly 600 federally recognized tribes -- and which among them might be your neighbors.

The First Americans Museum here in Oklahoma City is a great place to start (well, after you get through the resources list to which I've linked you above.)

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The world is commemorating the 77th anniversary of the atomic bombing of, first, Hiroshima (Aug. 6) and, second, Nagasaki (Aug. 9), two Japanese cities with rather different religious backgrounds. As this article from The Conversation notes, Hiroshima was marinated in Buddhism while Nagasaki "has a long history of Catholicism." So survivors from those two target cities processed the bombing experience and the response to it in different ways. As the story notes, one Catholic physician concluded "that those killed by the bombs were sacrificial lambs, chosen by God because of their unblemished nature. Thanks to their sacrifice, he noted, the war ended – whereas those who survived, like him, had to endure defeat and destruction." By contrast, a man who grew up to be a Buddhist priest "viewed the atomic bombing as representing three circles of sins: the sins of Hiroshima residents, of Japanese nationals and of humanity as a whole." As always, our faith tradition (even when we have none) helps to shape our reaction to life in many ways. No wonder there's so much disagreement about nearly every aspect of life on Earth.

The digital world is changing religion in various ways


Just 15 or so years ago, the church of which I'm a member did not have a Facebook page, a Twitter account or a way to broadcast worship services online.

Lordy, lordy, how the digital world has changed my congregation as well as religion generally in the U.S. (and around the world.)

The question some scholars have been wondering as they've observed all this is whether this digital religious life is attracting new members -- especially young adults -- or whether it's simply augmenting the kinds of religious experiences people are already having.

A sociology professor, Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme of the University of Waterloo in Canada, has just published a study suggesting that the new digital world in religion has not become a substitute for in-person participation in institutional religion but, rather, a complement to such participation.

The press release to which I just linked you quotes Wilkins-Laflamme this way:

“We know that more and more people are turning towards digital mediums for spirituality such as chat groups with pastors, online sermons, and religious content on social media. We’ve found that while digital religion isn’t necessarily attracting a lot of new millennials to participate, it is making the experience of those already involved richer.”

My own experience in my congregation tends to confirm this new study. But it's also worth noting that through its digital communications avenues my congregation -- and, no doubt, others -- is connecting to not just people who are becoming new members but also people who join us for individual events or programs either in person or online because a specific topic or event interests them. (Eventually, some of them have also become new members of our church.)

A good example would be a program that has grown from a strictly online 10-minute Facebook Live weekly event at the start of the Covid pandemic to an outdoor live event that now attracts people from various parts of our community.

When people were quarantined early in Covid, our pastors began doing an online mid-week meditation just to let us know we are still together as a congregation and to give us encouragement and support to survive the pandemic.

Once limited in-person gatherings became possible again, those weekly meditations moved to what we call our Front Porch, which can seat dozens, and added musicians to perform for us. We offer these events now from spring through fall and call them our 7:07 or 8:08 concerts, depending on when in the evening they start. (As the weather gets hotter, we start later.)

I'm writing this the day after our most recent 8:08 event, and can report that something like 50 people joined in, including quite a few who aren't members of our church. Why did they come? Mostly because they learned about these concerts via digital media. Here, for instance, is a link to information about tonight's gathering. Come on by. Events are free, save for whatever you put in a tip jar for the musicians.

There's still lots to learn about how the internet and digital media generally are having an effect on faith communities. But I'm glad someone like Wilkins-Laflamme (love the name for a professor in Canada) is spending some time doing this kind of research.

(The photo above here today shows one of my congregation's 8:08 gatherings last year.)

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Twenty or more years ago, I attended a combination bat- and bar-mitzvah, not for Jewish teenagers but for two adult friends who had never had a chance to go through that ritual of entry into adulthood. It was wonderful and moving. It turns out my friends were ahead of their time. This New York Times piece describes how "Here and there, older adults are inventing or reinventing other rites of passage at important junctures in their lives." It's a reminder of the importance of ritual (which, when I was younger and knew a lot more than I do now, I used to dismiss as meaningless) and custom. Clearly, not all rituals and customs are worth keeping. But some help us see our path in life more clearly and give us directions for how to navigate the road ahead. Let's keep those.

KC's religious landscape continues to change


This seems to be the summer of Kansas City area faith communities combining.

For instance, members of Central United Methodist Church at 52nd and Oak, southeast of the Plaza, have voted to close their congregation and then reopen as a branch of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection (COR) of suburban Leawood.

And two Conservative Jewish congregations, Beth Shalom and Ohev Sholom have decided to merge. I've just linked you to a Jewish Chronicle story about that. As many of you no doubt know, I capitalize the word "Conservative" because it's the official name of one of the primary branches of Judaism -- Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist -- not because it's full of people who are politically conservative, whatever that means anymore.

Although I'm not a Methodist (despite the fact that I once was married in a Methodist church), I have connections both to Central (next door to which I now live) and to COR.

One of my daughters and her family once were members of Central and later of COR, while my other daughter first attended preschool at Central and later taught preschool there. (Knowing that daughter as I do, I bet she no doubt also taught teachers some things even while she was a preschool student there.)

And Central is where I first met the Rev. Adam Hamilton, then an associate pastor there before he became the founding pastor of COR, the largest United Methodist Church in the country. Adam even wrote the foreword for my latest book, Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety.

There seems to be a kind of organic life in Christianity, especially in Protestant churches in the U.S. Which is to say that churches grow, shrink, merge, disappear and split pretty frequently. That's been especially true after World War II, when a vast majority of Americans identified as Protestant. Today Protestants make up less than half of Americans who identify as affiliated with any religious tradition.

Central-M-2No doubt some of those dynamics played into the decision to close Central and have it become, instead, a campus of COR.

In any case, I want to share with you what the Rev. Sally Haynes, Central's pastor, shared with her congregation about this change. On July 1, she wrote:

Dear Central Friends,

I want to share with you the results of last night’s Church Conference, where we voted whether to close as Central UMC in order to reopen as a campus of Church of the Resurrection.

The vote passed, 72-9.

As a result of this vote, our last worship service as Central UMC will be on Sunday, September 25. The first service on our site as Church of Resurrection will likely be December 11 or 18.

You’ll be getting lots more information in the days ahead about how we’ll celebrate Central’s legacy between now and our closing. You’ll also be hearing much more about Resurrection’s ministry plans as they develop. By the way, Resurrection will hold their own vote in a couple of weeks to receive Central, so please hold them in prayer as they complete their own discernment process. There is every expectation that their vote will pass, affirming everything that I’ve said above.

Beyond the many meetings we’ve had and last night’s vote, I want to invite you to pause a moment and allow the weight of our actions to sink in. As you breathe in and out, what emotions are you feeling?

If you’re like me, you’re feeling the whole spectrum. Gratitude for all that Central has meant. Grief at the ending of what was. Excitement for what will be. Anxiety about what changes will occur. And hope for a future that is bigger than can be imagined in this moment. Hope, always hope.

Whenever I’ve wondered if this change might be too much for us, I’ve thought about the wall of pictures of Central’s previous buildings in the downstairs breezeway. The oldest picture shows Kansas City as a frontier town, the last stop for provisions before heading off into the prairie. You can practically smell the fresh-cut lumber of the building scattered around the dirt roads. There is a steeple visible above that rugged town, and that steeple is us. Other pictures show different church buildings, locations, and names over the decades. Our history has been doing whatever it takes -- moving, merging, changing names -- to share the good news of God’s love through Jesus Christ to our area. We’ve been doing that since 1844, and this vote allows us to share this powerful DNA so that our legacy can continue.

The Good News will continue to be shared with a world that needs it so powerfully because, once again, Central is willing to do whatever it takes.

So, this morning I am breathing deeply, grateful for the past, and hopeful for the future.



And here's what Adam Hamilton later shared with the COR congregation on the church's website:


Thank you to all who attended our Church Conference last Saturday in person or online. We voted to approve Central United Methodist Church at 51st and Brookside as a new location of Church of the Resurrection.

The vote was nearly unanimous (165-3) with a lot of excitement. This is a remarkable opportunity to continue and expand upon the historic work Central has done in building a Christian community in this part of the city. The first public school classes in Kansas City were held at Central. UMKC began holding classes at Central. Shepherd’s Center International and Kingswood Manor retirement community were started out of Central. And Central UMC played a key part in starting Resurrection.

The planning and transition process is underway. Central will worship until September 25 when they will have their final service and close, passing the baton to Resurrection. We will then begin preparing to launch this new Resurrection location in December (with activities taking place for Central members between September and December). If you live in the Plaza/Brookside area and might be interested in helping launch this location and worshipping there, can you take a minute and let us know?

The Jewish Chronicle piece to which I linked you above gives some explanation for why the two Conservative congregations elected to merge. My only insight into that is that sometimes it's more difficult for people in the middle -- labeled, say, moderates or centrists -- to attract the kind of energy and enthusiasm that can be found at either end of the continuum, whether we're talking religion or politics or even music and other forms of art.

But remember also that the total religious landscape in the U.S. has been changing in recent decades to the point that at least 25 percent of adult Americans now identify as religiously unaffiliated. American Judaism reflects that. As the Pew Research Center reported in 2020, some 27 percent of American Jews identify as non-observant, or non-religious.

In any case, the reality is that religion in Kansas City is far from static. Houses of worship open, change, move, close. Individuals commit to one path but then change to another or to none at all.

As these Christian and Jewish mergers this summer prove again, the landscape changes regularly. But, as I wrote recently, if all religious communities ever disappear, we'll all be sorry.

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PAWHUSKA, Okla. -- I'm in Oklahoma this weekend with a group from my church visiting museums and other sites related to Indigenous life in the U.S. It's part of the anti-racism work we're trying to do, and that begins with educating ourselves. So this note will have to suffice for the usual second item here on the blog.

Is the U.S. susceptible to another civil war? A really good question

After the American Civil War, the failure of Reconstruction meant that although the war itself may have led to the end of slavery, it did not destroy the idea of white supremacy, which was at the root of the war. That's why we Americans wound up with legal segregation, including all the racist Jim Crow laws, with lynching, with, finally, the necessary Civil Rights Movement.

How-Civil-Wars-StartAnd it's why, after the Civil Rights Movement, we ended up with many bitter white people, especially (but not exclusively) in the American South, who believed they had lost something precious. (Thus, the "Lost Cause" mythology.) Many of those disappointed whites didn't own much or have much of an economic future, but in their own minds they at least had the advantage of being white.

I've been thinking about our Civil War and its aftermath recently as I've been reading University of California international relations professor Barbara F. Walter's 2022 book How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them.

Much of the book has to do with countries outside of the U.S., such as Northern Ireland, Serbia, the Philippines, Syria, Ukraine and others. But underlying all of that is the idea that current political, economic and social conditions in the U.S. are such that we cannot categorically rule out another civil war. That may seem far-fetched, but it seems more believable now after the January 6, 2021, insurrection and, indeed, after both the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections.

I was particularly struck by Walter's observation -- based on years of her and other scholars studying civil wars around the world -- that when people feel they have been "downgraded" in some way, they are more open to action (sometimes violent) to stop it and regain what they think they've lost. She writes:

"Downgraded factions can be rich or poor, Christian or Muslim, white or Black. What matters is that members of the group feel a loss of status to which they believe they are entitled and are embittered as a result."

In some ways that comment quickly reminded me of one of the major errors that Hillary Clinton made in her 2016 presidential campaign. She referred to at least some supporters of Donald Trump as a "basket of deplorables."

Although it's far from the only stupid thing presidential candidates have said over the years, it rang with an appalling tone of dismissiveness from which she never recovered -- even if the candidate who beat her was himself an appalling man who became the worst president in American history (though I'm open to the argument that Andrew Johnson, given the long-term consequences of his failure to make sure Reconstruction succeeded, might have been worse in the long run).

What made Trump appealing enough to win not the popular vote in 2016 but the majority of votes in the antiquated Electoral College was his appeal to the very people Walter writes about in her book, those who believe they've been downgraded -- especially those who were so badly hurt economically in the Great Recession of 2007-'08. That economic downturn came about in many ways because of misguided government tax and business policies that were stacked against middle-class Americans but that mostly helped the richest Americans.

It's from such an attitude of being downgraded -- whether justified or not and whether economic in nature or not -- that you get protesters marching to this antisemitic chant: "Jews will not replace us." And you get such misleading political slogans as "Make America Great Again," which seemed to suggest that the greatest time ever in American history was the early 1950s when Ozzy and Harriet Nelson slept in separate beds on their TV show and Black people knew that they belonged in the back of the bus.

There are things about all of this that involve religious ideas, and we'll get to that in a minute. But back to Walter's book first.

She writes: "Human beings hate to lose. They hate to lose money, games, jobs, respect, partners and, yes, status. . .They are much more motivated to try to reclaim losses than they are to make gains. People may tolerate years of poverty, unemployment and discrimination. They may accept shoddy schools, poor hospitals and neglected infrastructure. But there is one thing they will not tolerate: losing status in a place they believe is theirs. In the twenty-first century, the most dangerous factions are once-dominant groups facing decline." (Think of the Great Replacement Theory.)

Among once-dominant groups facing decline in the U.S. are white males, especially those blue-collar and farm workers battered by the economy. So far the Democratic Party, which used to represent such folks, seems not to have a cohesive or coherent plan to regain their votes. It's a major party failure.

But ideas about feeling degraded -- whether they reflect reality or not -- lead to such dangerous groups as the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, the Three Percenters, the Ku Klux Klan and others. (And, yes, social media now play a huge, disastrous role in disseminating mis- and disinformation that fuels this catastrophic growth of extremism.)

It's from such groups -- which have other names in other countries -- that civil wars have sprung. As Walter writes, "People don't realize how vulnerable Western democracies are to violent conflict. They have grown accustomed to their longevity, their resilience and their stability in the face of crises. But that was before social media created an avenue by which enemies of democracy can easily infiltrate society and destabilize it from within. The internet has revealed just how fragile a government by and for the people can be."

Among the many failures in American society today and in recent years has been institutional religion's cozying up to such extremism in the form of white Christian nationalism, for instance, as well as religion's failure to find more effective ways of offering generative alternatives to radicalism. Yes, some people of faith have tried and some have done important work in this area, but not enough. And when people distort a faith tradition -- whether it's certain Christians in the U.S., Hindus backing nationalist ideology in India or Muslims supporting terrorists who murder women and children to make political points -- the results are inevitably catastrophic.

We-need-to-buildIt's unclear where all this is going in the U.S. But Walter offers helpful scholarship to open our eyes to some of what's happening here and around the world, events that may lead to civil war. As I noted recently on the blog, Eboo Patel, founder of Interfaith America, writes in his new book, We Need to Build: Field Notes for Diverse Democracy, "The United States is the world's first attempt at a mass-level diverse democracy. That's one of the reasons we call this 'the American experiment' -- because not only was such a thing never tried before; people also considered it impossible."

It looks increasingly as if our job is to make sure that diverse democracy can, in fact, work for the common good. That outcome is not guaranteed. So we'll need the voices of religion to help us with that, not to undermine the effort by mistaking patriotism for allegiance to God.

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Pope Francis did the right thing this week by going to Canada personally and apologizing for the role the Catholic Church played in the effort to strip away the language and culture of Indigenous children by sending them to boarding schools to turn them into white kids. But the right thing isn't always enough. And that's true here. Additional work should include an effort to educate not just all the world's Catholics but everyone, including other Christians, about the deformed theology that led to such disastrous developments as the Doctrine of Discovery. That 1493 racist piece of religious exclusivism helped lay the groundwork not just for the brutal boarding schools but for the appalling mistreatment of Indigenous people in Canada and in what became the U.S. And my guess is lots of white folks in church pews have never heard of it. You can't fix what you can't see or don't know exists. So, Pope Francis, you found the right place to start. Just don't stop there. Here is a piece in the Toronto Globe and Mail by an Indigenous writer making points similar to what I just made -- but with much more credibility than I have on this issue. 

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column is now online. It's about a Catholic priest who, through no fault of his own, has had what he calls a cloud over his priesthood. You can read it here.

Abortion? Humans disagree about what a 'person' is

Much of the abortion-related discussion both before and after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision has been about when life actually begins.

Personhoodpod-01But as this intriguing piece from The Conversation suggests, maybe that's not the most basic question. Rather, the author says, we should be talking about what it means to be a "person" and about how different cultures around the world have come up with different answers to that question. (The author is Robert Launay, a professor of anthropology at Northwestern University.)

I'm sure I should have expected that there would be different views about what "person" means, but I admit I've never given it much thought. A person is simply another human being, right? Well, says Launay, who specializes in the study of non-European religions, not so fast. It's more complicated than that. He writes: "The central question is what – or who – constitutes a person."

Answers to that question vary a lot, it turns out, though some answers are far more popular than others. For instance, as Launay notes, "Ideas about personhood in U.S. culture are largely a product of Christianity, in which personhood is inextricably tied to the notion of the soul. Only a being who possesses a soul is a person, and personhood is treated as a black-and-white matter: Either a being has a soul or it does not."

But then, of course, you can easily wander into a discussion of whether there's a difference between a person's "soul" and "spirit," and, if so, what is it? Let me know if and when you settle that one.

Launay is right that Christianity focuses on one's soul, but let's make a side point here to say that Christianity doesn't teach that people have immortal souls. (That's an old Greek idea that somehow has wormed its way into parts of Christianity.) Only God is immortal. If someone is to live eternally in the presence of God (call that heaven, if you like), that will happen only because God grants that person that gift, not because when the person was born he or she was given an immortal soul. You can find more about this idea about soul in this 2020 blog post, which includes links to some references.

Launay writes a bit about the Beng culture of Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), saying, "For Beng, all babies are reincarnations of people who recently died. They emerge from a place called 'wrugbe,' which is simultaneously the afterlife and a sort of before-life." And apparently it's not immediately clear whether the newborn already is his or her own "person" or retains something of the personhood of the one who recently died.

It reminds me of the Tibetan idea of "bardo," which that great source of all accurate wisdom, Wikipedia, describes as "an intermediate, transitional or liminal state between death and rebirth." If you haven't read George Saunders' amazing novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, I highly recommend it, having just finished it. (Whew. What a read.)

Launay also notes that in some cultures, “'Persons' are not even necessarily human." Remember, in fact, that the U.S. Supreme Court, in its "Citizens United" ruling, declared, in effect, that corporations are persons. (For many reasons, we need to get that ruling fixed.)

So it's no wonder that human beings argue about abortion, about when life begins, about what a person is. And it helps to be at least a little bit humble about thinking you know the final word of truth about all of this.

(It's intriguing that as more scholars and legal experts begin to analyze the recent Dobbs case in which the Supreme Court overturned Roe, they're finding inconsistencies in the court's wording about what it means to be a "person." This article from Religion & Politics is a good example.)

(The photo illustration here today came from here.)

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The stunning newly released images from the James Webb Space Telescope once again raise the question of when, if ever, folks who believe that Earth is just a few thousand years old will concede that they've lost that election. As this RNS piece by religion scholar Mark Silk notes, despite the telescope's evidence that what it's seeing is billions of years old, "there certainly are Christians who don’t accept it. Foremost among them are 'young Earth' creationists such as those associated with Answers in Genesis, the fundamentalist Christian apologetics organization that was founded in 1980 as the Creation Science Foundation." (Wonder if those folks include some flat earthers in their midst.) Silk quotes one of the young earthers this way: “God created everything in the heavens and the earth within six literal days approximately 6,000 years ago (per the biblical timeline), all for his glory.” It must be sad and disheartening to miss all the poetry, the allegory, the myth and the mystery in scripture. But whichever way the biblical literalists use to figure out the Earth's age, I bet they have made a 24-hour adjustment for the time the sun stood still for that long, as described in Joshua 10:13. After all, you want to be as precise about such matters as you can be.

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column is now online. It's about a priest who, through no fault of his own, has had what he calls a cloud over his priesthood. You can read it here.