Sen. Roger Marshall of Kansas can't be serious, can he?

Although I'm often disappointed in the religious literacy of many Americans, I'm only occasionally shocked, gob-smacked, startled by evidence of religious ignorance and bigotry coming from elected officials with high offices who should know better. Much better.

AntisemitismBut that was my reaction when I read this story about a Republican U.S. senator from Kansas that begins this way: "Sen. Roger Marshall on Thursday claimed a Congressional push to combat antisemitism violates Christian scripture."

That intrigued me, so I kept reading to find out what Marshall might have been talking about. The story continued: "A bill that overwhelmingly passed the House by a 320-91 vote Wednesday evening would require the Department of Education’s division of civil rights to consider the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism when investigating discrimination claims on campuses that receive federal funding. That definition cites 'claims of Jews killing Jesus' as an example of 'classic antisemitism,' which sparked opposition from some conservative Republicans."

Let's be clear about this: Charging Jews with deicide by killing Jesus Christ has, across 2,000 years of history, been right at the root of Christianity's long-taught anti-Judaism and at the base of modern antisemitism, as I explain in this essay.

It's stunning to me that Marshall seems not to know that. Here's what he said: “Religious leaders back home are very concerned about some of the language in that bill, that it pushes against what the scripture said. Obviously as a born-again Christian I believe that the Holy Bible is the word of God. I think that we’re not supposed to alter the word. So I’m just guessing the House overlooked something.”

I acknowledge that I'm making some assumptions here about what Marshall meant. But I can find no other way to read his words than to say he believes the Bible makes clear that Jews murdered Jesus and should always be held accountable for that heinous act. And, beyond that, such a belief should not be considered antisemitic.

Roger-MarshallMost Christian leaders and denominations have backed away from that calumny, particularly after the Holocaust. And Christians who take the Bible seriously (and not literally) know that there are passages -- especially in the Gospel of John -- that have been used to justify antisemitism today and anti-Judaism in the early years of Christian history. Does Marshall (pictured here) now want to protect and reaffirm those passages and renew the charge that the Jews killed Christ? That's how I read his words. Which is why I was so appalled.

There are several things wrong with Marshall's apparent approach. First is the fact that it was the Romans, not the Jews, who killed Jesus, who was, of course, also a Jew. Yes, some Jewish leaders at the time wanted him dead and asked the Romans who ruled the Holy Land then to accomplish the deed. But literally no Jewish person murdered Jesus.

In fact, some Christian leaders today add to that story by saying that their theology teaches them that Jesus died to save all humanity from their sins, so the sort-of-anachronistic conclusion for each Christian is that it was our sins that put Jesus on the cross. Thus Christians today can be considered guilty of deicide.

I mentioned that various branches of Christianity have dug deeply into their bloody history of persecuting Jewish people and have repented and apologized (as if that fixes things). Perhaps the most famous example is the 1965 (I know, why not until then?) document from the Roman Catholic Church called Nostra Aetate, which says that no Jew today and no Jew throughout history should be thought of as having killed Christ. Here's how that document words the thought:

"True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ.

"Furthermore, in her rejection of every persecution against any man, the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel's spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone."

The document is not a perfect confession of Christianity's miserable history of anti-Judaism, but many Jewish people welcomed that 1965 statement. And, for sure, it was a pretty good beginning. Perhaps Roger Marshall and others have never heard of the document or of the many other statements from many other branches of Christianity decrying anti-Judaism and modern antisemitism. (The former is more theological in nature; the latter more racial, ethnic and economic.)

What I'm writing about here today is, of course, happening in the context of the Hamas-Israel war and of the many protests roiling college campuses across the U.S. and elsewhere today. Like the protests in the 1960s against the damnable Vietnam War, these protests also take a complicated subject and oversimplify it. That just encourages more protests -- which students have a perfect right to do up until they cross a line and break laws. But that's what the concept of civil disobedience is designed to cover -- people who protest and who know (and accept) that it may lead to their arrest and punishment.

In any case, Roger Marshall has dragged out of the closet an ancient distortion of truth that much of the world rejected long ago -- that Jewish people killed Jesus. And if that's what he's really saying he needs to apologize and engage in some deep study about why that idea is so abhorrent.

(And, still on this same subject, here is a Christian Post column in which the author argues that everyone -- Jews, Romans, you, me, all of us -- killed Jesus. I agree with almost nothing in the piece but thought I'd let you see how some others come at this matter. The theology expressed in the piece is the author's own and has almost nothing to do with mine.)

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PLURALISM ADVOCATE DIANA ECK RETIRES

Diana Eck, who has taught at the Harvard Divinity School for decades and has been in inspiration for interfaith dialogue and understanding in many places, including Kansas City, is retiring, this RNS story reports. When she was asked about the hardest things she's faced in life, she said, "I think the hardest thing has been the realization that though we have — I have and my students have — been very involved in trying to lift up the ways in which people in our society are coming together — in interfaith initiatives, interfaith councils, interfaith projects, literally all across America, but to realize that despite our vision of how important this is, there are many people today who are still very surprised that all of these strangers are here with us, and, basically, would like them all to go home.” RNS also did this interview with Eck. I'm not sure where we find new Diana Ecks, but we need them.


Things may be getting a bit better for Catholic women

In the Catholic Church, the "women religious" (you may know them as the nuns) have always occupied what many consider an awkward (or maybe liminal) place. They aren't -- and so far can't be -- priests, but neither are they lay people.

Pope-womenAnd even though people inside the church have been working for centuries to elevate the role of women in the church, it's an excruciatingly slow process.

But as this National Catholic Reporter story reports, since Pope Francis took office, things have become decidedly different and better for the women religious.

"It's a different time," said Sr. Marlene Weisenbeck, a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration. She is president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

The NCR story further quotes her this way: "There are new people in the dicasteries, we have a new pope who has led the church on the basis of being close to one another and being transparent. . .It's a different time and the agenda has changed."

It must be gratifying to many Catholic women to know that some progress has been made. But even in other religious traditions in which women are allowed to be ordained as clergy, there still are practices and prejudices that those women continue to struggle to overcome.

To add to this picture, this NCR story describes in more detail how "calls for fuller participation of women in church leadership have been heard throughout the multiyear synod process, beginning with the global consultation process in 2022-23, followed by continental assemblies, then a monthlong summit last October at the Vatican."

Did efforts to keep women subdued and away from the tools of power begin with the metaphorical story of Adam and Eve? Maybe. If so, how foolish to structure our world not on reality but on a story that never happened, at least in the way it's told.

I grew up with three sisters and no brothers. I fathered two daughters and no sons. And in my blended family, only two of our eight grandchildren are male. So I've long had a stake in how females are treated. And in many places today I still see an unlevel playing field.

It would help if all of us could see the world through female eyes. Every time we subject women to pay differentials, to being seen as merely sex objects, to blocking how high they can rise in this or that field (including religion), we denigrate God's creation. So let's give the Catholic Church a small cheer for what its women religious see as progress. But let's not stop there.

(The photo above came from this site, a Global Sisters Report of the National Catholic Reporter. It was published with this caption: "Pope Francis greets Claretian Missionary Sr. Jolanta Kafka, president of the International Union of Superiors General, during a May 5 (2023) audience with participants in the plenary assembly of the union at the Vatican. (CNS/Vatican Media)"

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WHAT'S THE UNITED METHODIST FUTURE NOW?

Yes, the United Methodist Church, as I wrote here recently, has done the right thing by removing its ban on ordaining LGBTQ+ people to be pastors, but as this RNS story notes, there's lots of work ahead for the denomination to accommodate itself to this new, better, more inclusive reality. The story reports this: “Just because you remove language from the Book of Discipline doesn’t mean that your work is over,” said the Rev. James Howell, pastor of Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, N.C., one of the state’s largest United Methodist churches. “There’s a huge amount of work to do.”

That work includes educating members about the long-running practice of misreading the Bible in a way that the Bible seems to condemn homosexuality. It includes helping both straight and gay pastors know how to relate to each other in ways that diminish no one from any sexual orientation or gender expression. It means explaining what the church got wrong -- and how -- when its Book of Discipline insisted that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” It means making sure that individual churches don't begin to divide up into "straight" or "gay" congregations. And it means seeking forgiveness in a way that doesn't lead to what German Lutheran martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer called "cheap grace." My own denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), has been at this kind of work since 2011. We've made mistakes and we've done some beautiful work. So let's learn from each other.


The United Methodists get this issue right -- finally

Yes, of course I'm glad that a few days ago the United Methodist Church decided to change its rules to allow the ordination of otherwise-qualified LGBTQ+ people to be clergy.

Umc-logoIt should have happened years ago, just as -- after a long and often-bitter fight -- it finally happened in 2011 in the denomination of my congregation, the Presbyterian Church (USA).

But this UMC internal dispute went on and on, partly because the Covid-19 pandemic prevented an earlier vote and partly because the UMC was so terribly divided. That division happens because the UMC has been (and still is) an international church, and there are UMC churches in such places as Africa that remain committed to misreading the Bible on the question of homosexuality.

In some ways, that's why the UMC General Conference recently chose to divide its denomination into four geographic regions that will allow more local autonomy about church rules. As I suggested before, this division came too late to prevent about 25 percent of congregations from abandoning the UMC and either going independent or joining a more theologically conservative new denomination known as the Global Methodist Church.

There was concern from some quarters that the UMC, in throwing out opposition to ordaining LGBTQ+ people, might also abandon its rule forbidding “immorality including but not limited to, not being celibate in singleness or not faithful in a heterosexual marriage.” But the adopted wording should set aside that concern.

As this United Methodist News report says, "delegates affirmed 'marriage as a sacred, lifelong covenant that brings two people of faith (adult man and adult woman of consenting age or two adult persons of consenting age) into a union of one another and into deeper relationship with God and the religious community.'”

So slowly Christian churches are abandoning the bogus idea that the Bible condemns homosexual orientation. 

As I've said before -- and if you're one of my regular readers you may be tired of me saying it -- any time you find a religion teaching that certain people aren't fully human and, thus, not made in the image of God, you can bet something is badly amiss. To dehumanize a person is to assault the divine creator who made all of us -- not just some of us -- in God's image.

The Methodist Church added "United" to its name in 1968 when it merged with the Evangelical United Brethren Church. Maybe it's time now to consider setting the term "United" aside, given how ununited Methodists have become. But like all of these decisions, that's up to the Methodists and not up to this Presbyterian.

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MAYBE ONLY ONE EASTER NEXT YEAR?

Did you know that there's a chance that this Sunday, May 5, could be the last time that the Orthodox church in Christianity celebrates Easter on a day different from the Easter celebrated by the rest of Christianity? This RNS story explains the division and why it may soon end. "There is once again renewed hope," the story says, "that ongoing ecumenical dialogue between the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Roman Catholic Church will resolve an ancient rift between the two halves of Christianity over when Easter is celebrated." The two churches split up back in 1054 in the Great Schism, as it's called. Imagine a church having internal disagreements. (Oh, see above.)


When Taylor Swift sings of faith, people listen

My taste in music is reasonably broad but my interest in hard rock and in whatever hot pop music is called these days is minimal.

Tswift-religionSo it may not surprise you to learn that, despite Taylor Swift's enormous popularity for some years now, the first time I ever heard (and read the lyrics to) a Swift song was a couple of months ago when teenagers were invited to take over the pulpit in my congregation for youth Sunday. They used some of Swift’s music to talk to us about the pressures teens are under these days because of social media and other factors.

I can’t tell you the name of the song I especially liked, but I told myself I should find time to hear more.

So far that hasn’t happened, though I did read this intriguing Religion News Service story that describes the way recent Swift offerings use lots of religious symbolism in various ways.

As the story notes, Swift in the past has described herself as a Christian, though now "Swift’s faith appears more fluid. Her religious references are as eclectic as a Brooklyn thrift shop — well-worn Christian metaphors sit alongside a more bohemian mishmash of witchcraft, divination and paganism. Her newest release, 'The Tortured Poets Department,' is a patchwork of religious allusions, from good Samaritans and Jehovah’s Witnesses to altar sacrifices and prophecies."

All of which can be good and instructive but also what theologians call syncretistic, which means not a tossed salad of interesting religious ideas but a mushy soup of them that results in religion that doesn't stand for much and that accepts everything from divinely inspired insights to destructive garbage.

I'm not in a good position to tell whether Swift's use of religious imagery is one or the other or something in between. But the story about this can serve as a caution to us as we decide whether this or that religious idea is worthy of study or even adoption.

Religious ideas can lead to destructive, dehumanizing behavior, a point I have made in various ways in my latest book, Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Hope and Resilience in an Age of Anxiety. The terrorists who murdered nearly 3,000 people on Sept. 11, 2001, including my own nephew, were driven by incoherent and execrable religious ideas that resulted in death and destruction.

Not all worthless religious thinking is that evil. Some of it is just silly. Nonetheless, all of us are called to be discerning about how the faith-based ideas to which we pledge allegiance work themselves out in real life. For instance, as I point out in this essay, the bogus notion that homosexuality is a sin has caused enormous damage to countless people. And any time a religious idea causes that kind of pain and dehumanization you can bet the idea needs to be trashed and replaced.

As the RNS story to which I've linked you above notes, Swift's use of a wide variety of religious symbolism reflects where a growing proportion of the American population is these days:

"Whatever her personal beliefs, the syncretism displayed in the sprawling 31-song double album — which racked up 300 million listens in 24 hours, making it Spotify’s most streamed album in one day — is emblematic of the religious mishmash of millennial and Generation Z religion writ large. These days, roughly 28% of U.S. adults identify as atheist, agnostic or 'nothing in particular,' and a 2021 survey from Springtide Research Institute showed that 51% of its sample population of 13- to 25-year-olds use tarot cards or engage in fortunetelling."

So Swift simply may be adopting the broad spiritual language her fans speak -- and I want to be clear that not all of that language reflects syncretistic nonsense. Some religious ideas found outside the mainstream of religion are not only useful but could help reinvigorate traditional religions. Still, theological and scriptural ignorance -- even within houses of worship -- is widespread these days. And it's up to each of us to test the spirits to see whether they are moving us in generative or destructive directions.

(The image of Swift here today came from this site.)

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THE THREAT OF CHRISTIAN NATIONALISM

A new documentary called "Bad Faith" about Christian Nationalism warns that its advocates are working hard to undercut American democracy and, in effect, create a theocracy, this Guardian article reports. The Guardian describes the documentary this way: "The film juxtaposes the decades-long roots of the movement with its evolving principles: that America was founded as a Christian nation, for and by Christians; that maintaining such a state is a divinely sanctioned, righteous fight; that anti-democratic or violent tactics should be employed in the name of God. And in recent years, that Donald Trump – a thrice-married, profligate cheater with too many character scandals to name – is, if not a true 'Christian', a divinely sanctioned 'King Cyrus' figure sent to disrupt the secular order." If you believe any of that nonsense, maybe you need better sources of information.

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P.S.: If you missed my latest Flatland column when it posted this past Sunday morning, you can find it here. It's about the wide variety of sacred structures in the KC area and the seemingly endless way they affect and change our landscape.

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ANOTHER P.S.: Last weekend, this post on my blog was about Mike Bickle, the founder and former head of the International House of Prayer (IHOP), a Kansas City area ministry that has been in turmoil for some time. I wrote about my encounter with Bickle at his ministry in Rosebud, Mo., as he cared for his brother Pat, who had become a quadriplegic via a high school football injury. But when I wrote the piece I could not locate the 1977 story that I had written about it. My former Kansas City Star colleague, Judy L. Thomas, who has been writing a lot about IHOP recently, did find that story and sent it to me. It started on the front page of the Sunday Star on April 10, 1977. I'm attaching a pdf of it here in two files in case you want to read it. It took some time for me to get a printout with big enough and dark enough type to make it all out, but it's there if you want to make the effort. Thanks again to Judy. Download The_Kansas_City_Star_Sun__Apr_10__1977_ and Download The_Kansas_City_Star_Sun__Apr_10__1977_ (1)


A pre-IHOP Mike Bickle story from the 1970s

Over the last several months, I have been fascinated to follow the story about charges of sexual misconduct by the founder of the International House of Prayer (IHOP), Mike Bickle.

IhopkcA week-plus ago, IHOP officials announced they were closing the old IHOP, based in metro Kansas City, and that they had plans to reopen as a much smaller center.

As for who Mike Bickle is, here's a recent answer from this Kansas City Star report:

"Mike Bickle, 68, founded IHOPKC in 1999. Allegations of 'clergy sexual abuse' against Bickle were presented to IHOPKC leadership in late October 2023.

"On Dec. 12, 2023, Bickle publicly addressed the accusations for the first time, saying in a statement on X, formerly Twitter, 'I sadly admit that 20+ years ago, I sinned by engaging in inappropriate behavior — my moral failures were real. (I am not admitting to the more intense sexual activities that some are suggesting).'

"About 10 days after Bickle’s statement, IHOPKC announced that it was 'immediately, formally and permanently' separating from Bickle, saying it had confirmed 'a level of inappropriate behavior' on his part."

I have been wary of Mike Bickle and his approach to theology for more than 50 years. In the fall of 1973, Mike's brother, Pat Bickle, then a Kansas City area high school football player, suffered a devastating injury in a game at North Kansas City High School. It left him a quadriplegic, unable to move except for the ability to turn his head a bit this way or that.

Within that next year or so, I traveled to Rosebud, Mo., to interview Mike and Pat. Mike then was running some kind of ministry in that small town an hour or so east of Jefferson City. Pat was lying in a bed in the home that was Mike's ministry headquarters.

I have tried -- but so far haven't found -- the story I wrote about that for The Kansas City Star then. But I remember vividly hearing Pat -- encouraged (egged on, really) by Mike -- say that he had deep faith that God would heal him physically.

I remember asking Mike whether he was giving Pat false hope that one day he would not just walk again but maybe even run and play football. Mike denied that it was false hope. And Pat really seemed to imagine that such a thing would happen to him. He said that he dreamed regularly that he could walk and run.

Mike used a kind of evangelical language that he became famous for using at IHOP. In fact, this link will give you a YouTube video in which Mike talks -- in a rambling, disjointed way -- about the divine miracle that would cure his brother, a vision of which, he says, came from two people who were active in the early days of IHOP.

But Pat died at age 50 without ever experiencing a miraculous physical healing.

And now Mike no longer is part of IHOP. None of that surprises me. I didn't have a vision (like Mike seemed to have regularly about various things) of the disastrous way in which Mike's ministry would end back when I spent some time with him and Pat in the mid-1970s. I just knew that I was put off by the way Mike filled Pat with the wildly unrealistic idea that he would walk and run and dance again.

But when you sell the idea of miracles -- and sell is the right word here -- you make them seem really miraculous and you never let on that the likelihood of them coming true is zero, or close to it. Why? Because you probably read Matthew 19:26 literally -- "for God all things are possible."

I'm not suggesting that miracles never happen or never could happen. I'm just saying that when you cherry-pick scripture passages to bend reality so that what you want to happen seems like an inevitable answer, you are abusing scripture.

In fact, it's one more example of the notion that you can take the Bible literally or you can take it seriously, but you can't do both.

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IS THIS ANOTHER METHODIST ERROR?

Several years after lots of churches have left the United Methodist Church in a major schism, what's remaining of the denomination has, in effect, voted to try to close the barn door. Which is to say that the UMC, as this Religion News Service story reports, "passed a series of measures Thursday to restructure the worldwide denomination to give each region greater equity in tailoring church life to its own customs and traditions."

Umc-schismOne reason the UMC divided in the first place was that large segments of its churches that are located overseas, especially in Africa, did not want anything to do with the idea of approving the ordination of LGBTQ+ people as pastors. Whether this latest four-part division could have avoided the split by letting churches that felt that way remain in a larger body that allowed such ordination is just guesswork. But at first glance it looks as if this new four-part division will encourage a local option on such matters, resulting in a denomination that speaks with several voices on how to interpret scripture not just on LGBTQ+ issues but on any issue. In which case it may be unclear what the "United" in the denomination's name really means. We'll see.


Here's something you can do locally to counter antisemitism

Gavi-JCRB-24-RU

Because modern antisemitism has deep roots in Christianity's long history of anti-Judaism, the hatred of Jews is an ancient problem.

But it's a calumny that is experiencing an alarming resurgence, especially since the Oct. 7, 2023, Hamas terrorist attack on Israel. Here, for instance, is a CNN piece on the subject that was published several weeks after that attack.

What lots of people ignore, however, is that the growth of these anti-Jewish acts and words affects Jews everywhere, including our Jewish friends and neighbors right here in Kansas City, So earlier this month the JCRB/AJC (Jewish Community Relations Bureau/American Jewish Committee) held a symposium called "Driving Out Darkness in the Heartland: 2024 Regional Summit on Combating Antisemitism."

It was held at Rockhurst University just as the annual commemorations sponsored by the SevenDays organization were marking the 10th anniversary of the 2014 murders of three individuals at local Jewish institutions. Those individuals were killed by a neo-Nazi who was trying to slay Jews but who wound up killing three Christians, instead. On the SevenDays website to which I've linked you, there is information about the founding of the organization and the work it does -- especially with teenagers -- to overcome hatred by teaching kindness through education and dialogue. (I serve on the SevenDays board.) One of the speakers at the JCRB/AJC symposium was SevenDays founder Mindy Corporon, author of Healing a Shattered Soul. Mindy's father and son were among those killed 10 years ago.

In opening the seminar, Gavriela Geller (pictured above), executive director of JCRB/AJC, offered a distressing picture of how Kansas City area Jews are feeling about this new round of antisemitism.

“Since Oct. 7," she said, referencing the Hamas attack date, "the Jewish community has experienced what I can only describe as an explosion of antisemitism, the likes of which have not been seen for years. . .We have experienced a 500 percent increase in these events right here in our community." Then she offered a litany of examples:

“There is in our own community a Jewish woman who has been harassed and threatened so badly that she had to move.

"I want you to know that we have had our youngest incident report yet, a second-grader, bullied on the school bus for being Jewish.

"I want you to know that Jewish college students are being harassed, targeted and isolated. . .simply for walking across campus wearing a Jewish star or kippah.

"We hear stories like this every single day. And in Jewish communities right here in Kansas City, it’s scary. Your neighbors are scared.

"Jews know enough of our history to always have a valid passport. But the question that I’ve heard people ask in the last six months is, ‘When will we know it’s time to leave?. . . Should we buy property abroad?’

“I do not know how else to say -- how to explain -- how serious this is. . .how deeply this is impacting our community right here."

Then she pointed toward action to be taken in light of these appalling circumstances.

“Over the course of this year," she said, "JCRB will work to craft and implement our region’s first-ever plan to combat antisemitism. This plan will inform our proactive action, legislation and the partnerships necessary to tackle this evil. We are the heart of America, and what we’re creating will act as a model for the rest of the country.”

Discussions about that process filled the rest of the daylong seminar.

This is a project that needs all people of goodwill to help. If you have ideas, contact the JCRB/AJC. I've given you the group's primary website link above, and here is a link to its "Contact Us" page. Share your ideas. Ask how you can help. At a minimum, please wish those who will work on this plan well.

From time to time, I hope to report back to you about how this work is going and to share with you a final product when it's ready.

Kansas City is known around the country not just as the site of the gruesome murders at Jewish facilities 10 years ago but also as a center for generative interfaith dialogue and cooperation. This is another time for that latter reputation to come to the fore. So let's all do what we can to help.

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INDIA'S VERSION OF NATIONALISTIC HATE SPEECH

American politicians aren't the only ones in the world who sometimes engage in outrageous speech that dehumanizes others. India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi proved that a few days ago when, at a campaign rally, he essentially called for India's Hindus to hate India's Muslims. It was, says my Indian friend Markandey Katju, an example of Modi crossing all limits of decency and propriety. The link I gave you to Markandey's brief remarks includes a video of Modi spewing disgusting words, but he's not speaking in English. The first link is to an AP story that focuses on the bitter reaction to Modi's words on the part of Muslims. Modi and his Hindu Nationalism have been a disaster for India, just as American politicians promoting Christian Nationalism for the U.S. are doing us no favors.


A new story of Jewish resistance to the Holocaust

Resistance-doc

In the last week or so, as I've been judging some of the entries in this year's White Rose Student Research Contest sponsored by the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education (on the board of which I serve), I've also been thinking about the focus of the contest theme several years ago.

It was resistance. Students (middle and high schoolers) were asked to research and write about the many ways in which the Jews of Europe in the 1930s and '40s fought against their own annihilation, which was the goal of Hitler's Nazi regime.

One reason to look at that aspect of the Holocaust is because one of the widespread mischaracterizations of Europe's Jews is that they went like quiet lambs to the slaughter. That idea is wrong on many counts. And this article from Commentary describes a new documentary ("Resistance: They Fought Back") about the many forms of Jewish resistance in World War II.

Seth Mandel writes this: "(T)he lesson of the film is that spiritual and intellectual resistance are prerequisites to effective armed rebellion — and that the Jews of Europe excelled across all three."

TWJP-coverSeveral years ago I co-authored (with Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn) a book about such resistance by Jews in Poland. In They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, we told various stories about how non-Jews participated in the Jewish resistance by hiding those Jews from the Nazis. We both were overwhelmed by what Mandel calls the "spiritual and intellectual resistance" of both Jews and the non-Jews (mostly Catholics in Poland) who helped them.

As Mandel writes about this new documentary, "Many Jewish ghettos revolted against the Nazis, but they were mostly cut off from the world, and certainly each other. Couriers, then, were the only way to communicate. The job required courage: They were spies, Jewish women living as Christians and moving weapons and contraband into Jewish towns under Nazi occupation and sometimes smuggling people out of the ghettos."

My guess is that similar -- if so far largely unreported -- acts are happening today in the Hamas-Israeli war. And on both sides, too. If and when this war somehow ends, it will be well worth the effort to collect the stories of resistance and rescue that today are mostly hidden from view. When the evil of Nazism or the evil of terrorism unleashes chaos and destruction, we should assume that some people are acting with heart and courage to resist.

And then, like this new documentary, we should tell those stories to remind ourselves and others what humanity, at its best, is capable of achieving when people do what they can to resist evil.

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WHERE HAVE ALL THE CATHOLICS GONE?

Because of shrinkage in the number of Catholics there, the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore plans to "consolidate the number of parishes from 61 to 21 and reduce the number of 'worship sites' from 59 to 26, affecting many of the city’s landmark churches," this RNS piece reports. Something like that is happening to many branches of Christianity in the U.S., requiring some difficult decisions about church infrastructure and organization. But those decisions need to be made not just by top denominational leaders but also by the people affected by those decisions. Will that happen? Doubtful, but stay tuned.


What's behind American evangelical Christianity's crisis? Idolatry

American Christianity is in crisis. Worse, the path forward would seem to require confession, repentance and the rejection of idolatry -- none of which seems likely at the moment.

Kingdom-power-gloryThe problem isn't simply that Americans are walking away from religion, similar to what's been happening in Europe for a long time. Nor is the problem just that institutional Christianity continues to be badly divided -- first into such broad divisions as Catholicism, Protestantism, Orthodoxy, Pentecostalism, Evangelicalism and others but then also into what can only be called political and cultural camps. Something like that has been the case for almost ever.

Rather, the problem, as detailed by journalist Tim Alberta and others, has to do with a broad section of American evangelical Christianity that has confused allegiance to God with allegiance to a brand of politics that now seems increasingly dedicated to the destruction of American democracy.

As Alberta writes in his recent book, The Kingdom, The Power and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism, ". . .politics is about ends, not the means. Since the ends are about power -- the power to legislate, the power to investigate, the power to accumulate more power -- the means are inherently defensible, even if they are, by any other measure, utterly indefensible." Then Alberta adds this: "One of the Bible's dominant narrative themes. . .is the admonition to resist idolatry at all costs."

But idolatry is exactly what we see now in those members of American evangelical Christianity who have abandoned the gospel of Jesus Christ for the gospel of Donald Trump and MAGAism.

It was making an idol of that kind of secular authoritarian power -- political and otherwise -- that finally drove Russell Moore out of the Southern Baptist Convention, a denomination with roots in slavery. The SBC has sullied itself by behaving in ways that should deserve condemnation. Moore, now the editor-in-chief of Christianity Today magazine and the former president of the SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, describes his journey through the SBC this way:

SBC-logo1"For years I dealt with evangelical backlash, including from some of my closest allies and friends, over my opposition to Donald Trump and my views on issues such as racial justice and Church sexual abuse. I hardly thought of myself as a 'dissident.' Instead, I believed I was just what I’d always been: a loyal Southern Baptist evangelical trying to apply what I’d learned from children’s Sunday school onward about basic Christian morality and justice. Still, I felt like an outcast and a heretic. I felt homeless. And two years ago, I left the Southern Baptist world I loved."

Indeed, American evangelical Christianity once was a leader in introducing people to the generative and life-changing path of being a follower of Christ. But for many reasons -- including making excuses for the racism, hunger for personal power and disgusting moral compromises made by people like the two Jerry Falwells, senior and junior -- that branch of Christianity in the U.S. often now gets called an idolatrous club that needs to rediscover its first love. (Jerry Sr., as Alberta notes, once said this before he later toned down his rhetoric a degree or two: "The nation was intended to be a Christian nation by our founding fathers. This idea of 'religion and politics don't mix' was invented by the devil to keep Christians from running their own country." A theocracy, anyone?)

Alberta's late father was a pastor in a theologically conservative denomination of Presbyterians known as the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, which is different from the Presbyterian Church (USA), to which my congregation belongs. (And Alberta continues to identify as an evangelical Christian.)

Chris Winans, the pastor who took Alberta's father's place as pastor of the church in Michigan in which Alberta grew up, describes what he sees in evangelical Christianity today this way: "At its root, we're talking about idolatry. America has become an idol to some of these people. If you believe that God is in covenant with America, then you believe -- and I've heard lots of people say this explicitly -- that we're a new Israel. . .You have to fight for America as if salvation itself hangs in the balance. . .And that is a terrible misunderstanding of who we're called to be."

None of this happened in a flash. As Alberta writes, ". . .bankruptcy -- spiritual and otherwise -- happens slowly and then all at once. In 2016, Christians condoned their preferred candidate talking on the Access Hollywood tape about grabbing women by their vaginas because the election is a binary choice and the Supreme Court was at stake; by 2022 Christians walked around wearing "F. . . Joe Biden" on their chests because in politics the rules of decency, never mind the maxims of Christianity, do not apply. . .If Jesus warned us that what comes out of our mouths reveals what resides in our hearts, how can we shrug off lies and hate speech as mere political rhetoric?" And it's hate speech that dehumanizes the very people the Bible describes as having been created in the image of God.

Alberta, by the way, is far from the only author sounding this alarm in a book. The Rev. Duke Robinson, a Presbyterian pastor from California, quotes former Gen. (and Republican) Colin Powell this way in Robinson's new book, For Christ's Sake!: Will Churches Stop and Think?: "We have come to live in a society based on insults, on lies and on things that just aren't true. It creates an environment where deranged people feel empowered."

Alberta, Moore and others pointing to the moral compromises that American evangelical Christianity is making are taking leaders of their own faith community to task for the sin of having other gods before the one God who gave the people of Israel the Ten Commandments, the first of which is to have no other gods but God. Engaging in idolatry is, in that context, the first listed sin because it's the worst.

But here and there you can find small signs of people listening. For instance, this Christianity Today story describes evangelical Christians who have decided they simply can't support Trump but who  also refuse to vote for Joe Biden. So they're seeking alternatives. It's a start, though many political observers warn that voting for a third-party candidate or not voting at all risks re-electing Trump.

None of this is to say that other branches of religion aren't also guilty of similar idolatrous sins. What else do you call it when Catholic bishops put the reputation of the church above protecting children from being sexually abused by priests? Idolatry. What else do you call it when Islamist terrorists put political goals ahead of honoring Allah? Idolatry. What else do you call it when Christians who identify as theologically liberal devote all their energies to electing political leaders who agree with them on all things instead of caring equally for the widows, disabled and orphans in their own congregations and who put none of their energies into introducing people to Christ and to the almost impossibly difficult life of sacrifice, love and grace to which he calls followers? Idolatry.

(There are, of course, Christian groups that stand against Christian Nationalism and work for policies promoting justice and equality that they believe their faith calls them to support. One such group is called Faithful America.)

Something like perverted religion happens in other countries, too, as my friend Markandey Katju, a former justice on India's Supreme Court, writes about here, describing what he calls "a celebrated self-acclaimed yoga guru" who sells "fake medicines" and has made billions of dollars fooling vulnerable people. That knave's idol clearly is money. Even worse and with far greater global consequences, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, has virtually turned over the moral conscience of the church to Russia's murderous dictator, Vladimir Putin, as this new Atlantic article makes clear. That case is at least equal in shock value to the case of the Republican Party selling its soul to Trump for a quick high.

Institutional religion generally, not just evangelical Christianity in the U.S., has a lot for which to answer. But the spotlight is shining now on American evangelicals, and so far it's hard to find much good news there. In fact, Donald Trump just made it worse by peddling a King James Bible, in effect wrapped in the flag and bundled with America's founding documents. And as that bit of tawdriness assaults our ears and eyes in various ways, it's becoming more evident that concerns about Christian Nationalism are spreading, as this Religion News Service story reports. But maybe Trump was just trying catch up with his son, Donald Jr., who once hawked copies of the We the People Bible.

The politically conservative Christian columnist Cal Thomas is quoted this way in Alberta's book about all of this: "The great fault in the evangelical movement today is that we're disobedient to the commands of the one we claim to follow. What were those commands? Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Care for widows and orphans. Visit those in prison. Seek first the kingdom of God."

Again, his last point can be summarized this way: Avoid idolatry.

Brian-ZahndI'm not going to go into it all here (this piece already is too long), but part of Alberta's book that people in western Missouri might especially want to read has to do with the Rev. Brian Zahnd (pictured here) of the Word of Life Church in St. Joseph. Some years ago Zahnd quickly created a megachurch full of evangelicals on fire for conservative political positions. Eventually, he recognized his error, which was that "we had achieved it all. People. Money. Power." Holders of all that are not the ones the Jesus called "blessed" in the Sermon on the Mount. Then Zahnd changed courses because "I just came to the conclusion that Jesus deserves a better Christianity than this."

Zahnd was not alone in that thought. As Alberta reports, "The public's perception of evangelical Christianity is worse than at any point in recorded history."

There is much more in Alberta's book and in other sources that describe in more detail what has happened to evangelicalism in the U.S. and to religion more generally. But as for evangelicals, I'm going to stop here with two quotes, via Alberta, from journalist Julie Roys, who helped uncover the story that famed evangelist Ravi Zacharias, now dead, was a prolific sexual predator: "This evangelical-industrial complex -- making millions, getting famous, building some 'brand,' restoring wolves to prey on more sheep -- it has absolutely nothing to do with Jesus. And we've got to stop pretending that it does."

And:

"If Jesus were here, I think He'd be overturning tables everywhere. Everywhere."

And who could blame him?

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AND ADDING TO THE WOES OF EVANGELICALS. . .

In the news this week comes one more example of trouble within American evangelical Christianity. As this Religion News Service story reports, Wiebe Boer, the relatively new president of Calvin College, an evangelical institution in Michigan, has resigned after being accused of sending “unwelcome and (sexually) inappropriate” messages to women. That was in February. As RNS now reports, "When confronted by the board, Boer agreed to step down — leaving the campus in turmoil, with anger and confusion over how things went so wrong so fast. That anger has led to Boer being locked out of the school’s presidential residence, a lawsuit — and this past weekend — alleged threats of violence against one of the school’s senior leaders." This is, of course, exactly the kind of trouble no evangelical (or any) college needs right now.

And: Speaking of sexually related scandals that damage houses of worship in particular and religion in general, this Kansas City Star article describes new plans to close the International House of Prayer, located in suburban Grandview. IHOP has been in recent turmoil over what The Star calls "sexual abuse allegations against its founder Mike Bickle." If you're in the KC area, watch for follow-up stories to this not-very-surprising-to-me decision. These new plans first were reported in the Roys Report, founded by the same Julie Roys whom I quoted at the end of the lead piece above here today.

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P.S.: Did you know that tomorrow is National Columnists Day? Absolutely true. And here is a brief video from me explaining how and why that happens to be true.


How about if we update our images of the Amish?

Stereotypes begin with at least one element of truth -- or, perhaps, semi-truth. But that one element then gets inaccurately and unwisely attached to every member of a group even though that winds up making things look much simpler than they really are.

Amish-familyAny time you hear someone say or assume that "all (fill in the blank) people" think or act in a particular way, you can be sure you're hearing bogus information.

All of that sprang to mind recently when I read this intriguing piece about the Amish and how they live today. What's your stereotype about people in the Amish tradition? That, in terms of technology and modern conveniences, they're stuck somewhere back in the 1800s, right? (Sort of like what you see in this photo?)

Well, guess again.

Lauren Pond, the Marty Center's digital media and communications manager at the University of Chicago, writes that on a visit to Amish country in northeast Ohio, "what really caught my eye were the dozens of Amish men and women I saw tooling around on electric bicycles, often with children in tow. You read that correctly: electric bicycles.

"My disbelief inspired me to do further research and start work on a journalistic project about the Amish use of technology, through which I have learned that life among the so-called 'plain' people is far from simple these days."

You can read for yourself about her findings, but the central point is that Amish people and their practices come in a wider range than you might imagine. And they've been quite innovative about how to adapt to modern technology while still holding on to their foundational religious beliefs and practices.

What is it about your ethnic group, say, that people get wrong because they buy into stupid stereotypes? Or about followers of your religious tradition? In those categories, I personally deal with what people think (too broadly) about Swedes, Germans and Presbyterians. To say nothing of Missourians, who over time, have elected both Claire McCaskill and Josh Hawley to the U.S. Senate, just to prove our radical inconsistency.

Just as the Amish aren't all alike, the same is true of followers of any religion. But perhaps the larger truth to draw from this is that there are myriad ideas about who God is. And as soon as you think you have God fully defined and locked up, you can be sure you're not just wrong but really wrong.

The Apostle Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthians (4:7), said this (in the old King James version) about human understanding of divine matters: "But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us." 

That's a good way to think about what we think we know about others -- and what we think we know about God. We are called, in other words, to be what the late theologian and author Shirley C. Guthrie called "modest theologians." (And most of us have a lot about which to be modest in this field.)

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CAPITAL PUNISHMENT CONDEMNS ALL OF US

Hey, fellow Missourians: Did you notice what our state government did in our name a few days ago? Executed a man named Brian Dorsey, who, many testified, was rehabilitated. I hope all of you were appalled and have complained. About what? Perhaps this article by a death row pastor will open your eyes to the inhumane, expensive, no-good-results system of capital punishment that's still allowed in Missouri and some other states. And here's a recent column I wrote about another pastor who ministers to the condemned. Please let your voice be heard so we can stop this barbarity. Also: I just learned of an upcoming press conference at noon on Tuesday, April 16, by a group called "Jews Against Gassing" to protest Louisiana's use of gassing as an execution method. You can watch the press conference live when it's streamed here.

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P.S.: The annual AIDS Walk KC, to support the AIDS Service Foundation, is coming up on Saturday, April 27, and I plan to walk, as I have for most of the 30-plus years of the walk. I'd love your support. You can donate here. And thank you.


What we lose when we drop out of community to go it alone

The idea that human beings are built for relationship is found throughout the sacred scripture of many faith traditions.

Value of CommunityBegin, for example, with the creation stories in the book of Genesis and you will discover that Adam, the first man (at least metaphorically), was lonely and pretty useless without a companion. Thus, Eve.

Even Jesus didn't do ministry as a solo job. He recruited a dozen close companions. Knowing what we know about human behavior across history, one of the miracles of the Jesus story is that only one of those dozen disciples intentionally and permanently betrayed him.

So throughout history people have at least unconsciously understood the need for companionship. Among the results of efforts to meet that need: Houses of worship, social clubs, extended families, sports teams, restaurants, political parties and on and on.

Today, however, as this insightful Atlantic article makes clear, as Americans slip away from a commitment to institutional religion, they also are losing some of the very collective bodies that help to give their lives meaning. But what's worse is that what we're losing in the way of togetherness is being replaced by damaging isolation, due, in many ways, to our addiction to screen time.

As Derek Thompson of The Atlantic writes in the piece to which I've linked you, "America didn’t simply lose its religion without finding a communal replacement. Just as America’s churches were depopulated, Americans developed a new relationship with a technology that, in many ways, is the diabolical opposite of a religious ritual: the smartphone."

Our technology today not only keeps us physically apart but also apart mentally even when we're physically together. How often have you walked by a table full of people (especially but not exclusively young people) in a restaurant and noticed that almost no conversation is happening because they're all staring at their phones?

Again, Thompson: "As the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes in his new book, The Anxious Generation, to stare into a piece of glass in our hands is to be removed from our bodies, to float placelessly in a content cosmos, to skim our attention from one piece of ephemera to the next. The internet is timeless in the best and worst of ways — an everything store with no opening or closing times. 'In the virtual world, there is no daily, weekly or annual calendar that structures when people can and cannot do things,' Haidt writes. In other words, digital life is disembodiedasynchronousshallow and solitary."

It strikes me that many religious congregations don't fully understand or value the togetherness they offer others. If the divine plan was to create people for deep relationships, and if those relationships are life-giving and life-sustaining, faith communities should be demonstrating why that's so and why people need such connections.

I feel blessed not simply to be part of a congregation that pretty well understands all that but, from that base, to be connected to at least three groups of people who meet weekly in person (with a Zoom option in one case). Because of all that, I think I have a better sense of who I am and who I'm not than I ever would if I spent those together times sitting on my couch staring at a screen. (Though, yes, we all need some quiet alone time.)

So just now I'm going to quit staring at the screen on which I'm writing this and go join one of those groups for the next hour-plus. Its members will help support, sustain and care about me -- and I will do the same for them. I recommend this pattern, even if its roots aren't in a house of worship. Are we together on that idea?

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A PROMINENT THEOLOGIAN CONFESSES HIS LGBTQ+ ERROR

Back in 1996, a professor at Duke Divinity School, Richard B. Hays, published a book called The Moral Vision of the New Testament. In it, he explained why he thought that the Bible condemns homosexual acts. This misreading of scripture (see my essay here on why I call it that) gave comfort to Christians who called themselves conservative theologically and who agreed with Hays.

Now, however, as this RNS story reports, Hays and his son, also a theologian, are about to publish a book that says Hays was wrong in his earlier book. As the RNS story reports, "Hays argues, in a preview of the book posted on his publisher’s site, that a 'dynamic and gracious God who is willing to change his mind…has already gone on ahead of our debates and expanded his grace to people of different sexualities' and includes 'Richard Hays’s epilogue reflecting on his own change of heart and mind.'”

Sometimes people read the Bible to find arguments to back up opinions they've already formed. The LGBTQ+ question is an example, and it's currently causing a major schism in the United Methodist Church. Other examples across history of damaging misreading of scripture include ideas that women should not preach, that slavery is perfectly justifiable, that white people are superior to everyone else. And on and on. The LGBTQ+ question should have been dispensed with years ago, but scholars like Hays added to the fire that kept it burning. Thank goodness he's finally seen why he was wrong, even if his confession is bringing widespread condemnation from people who think he's lost his mind.