What happened in the '90s that changed religion in the U.S.?

One of the stories about religion today that nearly everyone has heard has to do with the diminishment of Christianity in the U.S. It's been going on for decades, as Protestants now make up less than half the population and as the number of Americans who identify as religiously unaffiliated (they're called the "nones") has soared (it's now at least 25 percent).

NonesBut did you know that the 1990s seems to have played a key part in this story? I hadn't really thought about that until I read this Religion News Service article. It was written by Ryan Burge, an assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University, a pastor in the American Baptist Church and author of The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going.

He says that the 1990s are "when young Americans seemed to lose religion virtually overnight." I think he may be on to something.

What contributed to this phenomenon? "It’s hard to pinpoint just one thing," Burge writes, "but there are possible culprits." First is the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and with it the end of the "conflict between the virtuous Christian capitalists of the United States and the godless communists of the Soviet Union." That meant, he writes, "that being nonreligious no longer meant being un-American, giving permission for a lot of closet nones to begin expressing their true feelings on surveys."

Second was what he calls a "backlash against the religious right." That meant that "when faced with the strident rhetoric of the Revs. Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and the rest of the religious right leaders, many moderates headed for the church exits and never came back."

Third was the internet. "Demographers ignore the impact of the World Wide Web at their peril," Burge writes. "It would make sense that as young people were exposed to other faiths on the new technology — and saw the faults in their own — some would leave faith behind altogether." Well, the effect of the internet is more complicated than that, as he acknowledges, but it did play a role.

The question, of course, is whether anything can be done now to reverse the falling numbers. And, if so, what? That's what all kinds of scholars, congregational leaders and others are trying to figure out. And so far there's no clear answer.

There have been what I like to call some "movements" that have attracted people to this or that spiritual path in recent decades. But eventually movements need structure. And what results is another brand of institutional religion. That often means that what first attracted people to a movement slowly disappears and they drift away.

What we do know is that even most people who call themselves "nones" are not atheists. Whether institutional religion can find a way to appeal to them is still an unanswered question.

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A TEST OF OUR ULTIMATE GOALS

The three Abrahamic religions whose major holidays have overlapped this year have this as a central tenet: "True life is found in living for others." That way of putting it is found in this article from The Guardian, which also makes this point: "(I)f your strategy for political victory is turning voters against their neighbor, if you see spending on universal quality child care, public education, mental health or raising the rate of income support for people without jobs as a burden rather than an investment, or if low wages and growing inequality are built in to your policy design and intrinsic to your political ideology, then your driving purpose is not the wellbeing of the human collective. Your leadership will not make the well-being of most people better most of the time – because, simply, that is not what you are about." And if that's not what we're about, why not?


A time to unpack what forgiveness and apologies mean

Among the many mysteries of faith, the roles of apologies and forgiveness rank pretty high on Easter weekend.

ForgivenessOne way of putting the Christian story, after all, is that the death of Jesus meant the forgiveness of our sins. The long-standing question, of course, is who gets included in the word "our."

As we think about being forgiven and forgiving others, it's helpful to think about apologies and their worth. To receive forgiveness, must we first apologize? And if we somehow represent more people than ourselves, can we legitimately apologize on behalf of others? Beyond that, do we have any standing to apologize for actions taken not by us but by, say, our ancestors or some of our long-dead fellow citizens?

Questions like that, I hope, will come to your mind when you read this piece from The Conversation about what it means when a pope apologizes.

The specific apology first dealt with in the article is one Pope Francis made recently "to First Nations, Inuit and Métis delegations, acknowledging the harm done by residential schools in Canada. . ."

Stories of mass graves of Indigenous children at boarding schools have received a lot of attention in the past year or so.

The author of the article, Annie Selak, associate director of the Women's Center at Georgetown University, writes that "As a Catholic theologian who studies church authority, I’ve observed how previous papal apologies can speak for the entire church and either deny or claim responsibility." And she adds this:

"It was once unthinkable for a pope to apologize, for admitting guilt would imply that the church was sinful. However, the Second Vatican Council, a gathering of bishops, cardinals, heads of religious orders and theologians that met from 1962 to 1965 and modernized the church, shifted the church’s perspective on change and instituted major reforms. It also opened the door to admitting fault."

So faith communities can -- and do -- establish their own rules for apologies and forgiveness, and they may not match the rules set by other faith communities. Governments, too, can -- and sometimes do -- issue apologies for actions taken by current or previous governments. The question is whether those apologies change anything, either in the one offering them or the ones receiving them.

No doubt part of figuring that out has to do with whether the apology seems sincere or whether it was simply a statement about being sorry that "you took it that way."

Beyond that, apologies that don't result in changed behavior seem pretty worthless. And yet Selak makes a valid point when she writes this: "While there are certainly actions that are necessary to repair and restore justice, I argue that it is also important to recognize that apologizing is itself an action." (To which I'd add, "though sometimes an empty action.")

In traditional Christian worship there's often both a corporate confession of sins and, after that, words that offer what's called an "assurance of pardon."

Whether in worship or simply in our daily lives, it's always useful to think about who is authorized to offer an apology and who is authorized to offer forgiveness. As someone with German heritage, for instance, do I personally have any standing to apologize to Jewish people for the Holocaust? Similarly, do Jews born after the Holocaust have any standing to offer forgiveness to German people also born after World War II?

In the end, philosophers and theologians can argue about such matters. And should. But the question I, as a Christian, must ask myself on Easter weekend is whether I need to apologize for any of my actions or thoughts and seek forgiveness. The answer every Easter is the same: Of course I do. After all, I'm human.

(P.S.: Here is an excellent article, apropos for Easter, from New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine about how Christians can avoid more anti-Judaism on this sacred day.)

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SLIDING OVER THE MEANING OF EASTER

The origins of the so-called Easter Bunny are quite ancient, as this article from The Conversation notes. Indeed, it's always interesting to find out about the beginnings of our various cultural and religious traditions. In this case, however, the author, Tok Thompson, who teaches anthropology and communication at U.S.C., can't seem to acknowledge what Easter itself is about. He says this: "Easter is a celebration of spring and new life." But he doesn't say whose new life we're talking about. Here's a hint: Easter is about the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, called the Christ. You may believe in that resurrection or not, but that's what Easter is about.


Making sure journalism about religion gets terms right

Writing about religion, especially as a journalist (as opposed to an academician or a theologian), can be a tricky business because it's important to know a lot about many faith traditions and to be able to use the right terms.

Ap-stylebookTo help with that, the Associated Press is publishing a new "Stylebook," which will have quite a few additions and modifications in its section about coverage of religion. When I was at The Kansas City Star, we used both the AP Stylebook and a special local stylebook for various Kansas City references (as in, it's "the two Kansas Citys," not "the two Kansas Cities").

A stylebook that deals with religion, whether national or local in scope, has to pay close attention to how adherents and leaders of this or that religion refer to themselves and their tradition. For instance, as David Crary, the AP’s religion news director, explains in the Deseret News story (to which I've linked you above) about the new AP stylebook, "One of the most complicated things we did was to make 'Catholic' the default reference to Catholicism rather than 'Roman Catholic.' We consulted like crazy because we wanted to be sure that Catholic authorities were on board. They had a lot of detailed input for us."

Again, it comes down to how followers of a particular tradition prefer to be known or called. When, for instance, referring to people in my denomination, the correct term is "Presbyterians," not "The Frozen Chosen," even though the latter is a label we sometimes jokingly (sort of) apply to ourselves.

Holly Meyer, the AP's religion news editor, explained to the Deseret News what went into this revision of the AP Stylebook: "When we were given a green light to go ahead and revise the Stylebook, David (Crary) and I knew we needed help. We tapped three outside experts to go through it all and review it and give us feedback: Mary Gladstone (copy editor for Religion News Service), Bobby Ross Jr. (editor-in-chief of The Christian Chronicle and former AP religion reporter) and Richard Ostling (another former AP religion reporter). Their feedback was our guide for what entries to add."

Getting the descriptive words right in covering religion is more than a way to be as accurate as possible, it's also a way of showing respect to adherents and leaders of various faith traditions. And all of us certainly have learned various derogatory terms that have been used to describe this or that religious community. Such terms simply add to the misunderstanding and, frankly, hatred in the world. And why do we need more of either?

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SHOULD THIS CHURCH BE PUNISHED? IF NOT, WHY NOT?

Should the World Council of Churches expel the Russian Orthodox Church because it's essentially a Putin hand-puppet? This RNS article examines that question -- which has no easy answer. On the one hand, the ROC's patriarch has been an appalling enabler of Putin. On the other hand, the Rev. Ioan Sauca, acting general secretary of the WCC, makes this interesting argument: “It is easy to exclude, excommunicate, demonize; but we are called as WCC to use a free and safe platform of encounter and dialogue, to meet and listen to one another even if and when we disagree.” True, but at what point does that approach amount to having tea and crumpets with Stalin?

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P.S.: As a new member of the board of SevenDays, I invite you to participate in this year's SevenDays events, which you can read about at the link I've given you. All this started after a neo-Nazi murdered the son and father of Mindy Corporan and the wife of Jim LaManno at Jewish sites in the KC area in 2014. You can read about all that and how Mindy has dealt with the trauma by getting her new book, Healing a Shattered Soul. I especially hope to see you at the walk for kindness this Sunday at the Liberty Memorial.


What can we learn from those who witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus?

On the Christian calendar, Good Friday happens this week. On the Jewish calendar, Passover begins at sunset that same day. And on the Muslim calendar, Ramadan began April 1.

Witness-crossSo I can't think of a better time than this week for adherents of all three religious traditions to read a new book about Good Friday by a New Testament scholar who is Jewish. Thus, this weekend I introduce you to Amy-Jill Levine's small (151 pages) new book, Witness at the Cross: A Beginner's Guide to Holy Friday. (An aside: The Qur'an says Jesus, Islam's second most important prophet, wasn't crucified but, by a miracle, was saved by God.)

If you are familiar with Levine's fine work (and, if not, why not?) you will come to this one with high expectations that she not only will teach you things you didn't know (but maybe should have) but she'll also offer an approach to learning that you can carry into other areas beyond theology. And you will not be disappointed.

She challenges readers to challenge themselves and the world around them, to ask hard questions, to not settle for simplistic answers.

Indeed, she encourages readers not to walk away from their doubts or the anger they may have felt at various times in their lives, whether that has to do with religion or simply living.

"Abraham argued with God," she writes, "Moses argued with God, Job argued with God, and numerous psalms have the form of lament. I've had my moments (Levine sometimes slips herself into her books in this way), and you may have too. There is nothing sinful or shameful in speaking out about pain or injustice. There is nothing sinful or shameful in lamenting to God. . ."

This approach will be helpful in trying to understand the cry of Jesus from the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Indeed, Levine deals at some length with that, noting that it's the opening line of Psalm 22.

Although Levine is writing about an event that happened some 2,000 years ago, she always looks for ways to make it relevant to what's happening in the news today. For instance, when Pontius Pilate asks Jesus about whether he's "King of the Jews," Jesus tells him that his "kingdom is not from this world." Levine then asks this: "To what extent should church and state be mutually implicated? If Jesus is not a king in an earthly political sense, why do some of his followers want their political systems to be 'Christian' ones?" Why, indeed.

A few pages later she explores the question of what it really means to be "saved." In a word, it's not a simple concept. And if your idea of being "saved" is simply that you'll go to heaven, you may want to pay attention to the ways in which Levine will complicate your thinking in what she writes. As she notes, "in the Gospels, salvation is not simply a rescue from present danger; it is also a state of a right relationship between humanity and divinity."

Levine understands -- and tries to teach the rest of us -- that the Bible is not a simple book, nor one that can be understood in only one way. She writes: "The Bible, I have often said, is a book that helps us ask the right questions. It does not always provide answers, but by encouraging those who hold it sacred to speak to each other about difficult matters, it may lead us in good directions." And this: "I don't appreciate biblical studies that avoid the hard questions, whether of history or theology; I have known too many students who are shaken to their core in biblical studies classes when they suddenly realize that there are contradictions in the Bible."

The number of people -- and their identities -- who were at the cross on Good Friday is uncertain. But Levine is right to assert this: "Rather than engage in the futile attempt to determine who exactly these witnesses were, what they saw and what they did, we readers do well to listen to their stories and see how their stories transform us. At that point, we pick up the story ourselves."

Which, of course, is a primary reason for reading the Bible -- or any sacred text -- at all.

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WITHOUT FINANCIAL GUARDRAILS, THIS CAN HAPPEN

The African Methodist Episcopal denomination is facing several lawsuits alleging the church badly mishandled its pension fund and lost tens of millions of dollars. One of the lawsuits alleges that the church’s Department of Retirement Services “invested Plan assets in imprudent, extraordinarily risky investments that ultimately lost nearly $100 million of Plan participants’ retirement savings.” The courts, obviously, will have to straighten this out. But it's one more clear reminder to faith communities that they, too, need competent financial advisors, honest employees and, perhaps most important, reliable systems of financial accountability. Depending on the good-heartedness of human beings without such restraints almost inevitably leads to disasters. God knew that. Which is why the Ten Commandments exist.


Two lives, two models for living well however long we have

Delavan, Ill. -- As some of my extended family gathered here recently to celebrate the wonderful reality that my late father's brother Lawrence (pictured here with me) has reached age 100 but acts like he's about 60, I was trying to process the memorial service I had attended by Zoom a few days earlier for Jim Lippold (pictured below), a childhood friend who hadn't yet died.

LT-100-sJim, dying of cancer, decided to put together a celebration of his life so he could attend. And he did. Those of us not near him in Washington state gathered via Zoom from across the country on a Wednesday.

Three days later, on the same Saturday we were celebrating Uncle Lawrence Tammeus' 100th, Jim breathed his final breath. His brother Bob, with whom I graduated from high school, was in the next room while Pam, a dear neighbor of Jim's, was with him as he left.

So Jim, a terrific social worker with a degree in behavioral science, died three months shy of his 74th birthday while Lawrence, a terrific farmer and Army veteran, so far has hit the century mark, each having lived generative lives of grace, hope, commitment and beauty.

Mere numbers don't provide a lot of help in thinking about what all this means, but they do provide at least a little perspective. Jim and Lawrence, human beings who never met, each was what the Dalai Lama likes to remind all of us that we are: "one of seven billion."

Since he began saying that, however, seven billion has become 7.9 billion and is expected to hit 8 billion next year. In his book, From Strength to Strength, Arthur C. Brooks makes note of the Dalai Lama quote and then adds: "By this, he does not mean that I am insignificant or just like everyone else. Rather, he is encouraging me to zoom out from my narrow, earthbound perspective on my life, my work, my relationships, my money."

That's a good practice. And I was reminded of that not only by some of Jim's friends who spoke, as did I, at his celebration of life, but also by catching up with various relatives at Lawrence's party. Only occasionally do second cousins once removed cross my mind. But they're out there living sometimes-beautiful and sometimes-difficult lives. Mostly, of course, I'm focused on me and my immediate family and their needs, joys and struggles.

James-LipppoldWhat I need to remember is that there's a bigger picture, that my perspective is inevitably too narrow, that although each life is of inestimable worth, few lives, including my own, are mine to control. I can only live my life in a way that I hope will be instructive and inspirational to others.

But I can learn from both Jim and Lawrence. For instance, just a few months before he died, Jim wrote this to his Facebook friends: "I'm happy. This may sound crazy or impossible coming from a dying man, but it's true. . .I'm studying and reading about death and dying from mostly a Buddhist perspective, but generally spiritually and philosophically. My intention is to have a good death."

In some way, maybe I can be like Jim, who in the Vietnam era was a conscientious objector, no easy position to take in our small, almost-all-white, heavily Republican hometown of Woodstock, Ill.

And in some way, maybe I can be like Lawrence, who farmed the land that his own grandfather, an immigrant from Germany, had acquired in the 1880s and that Lawrence's father had farmed before him.

LT-100-p And while he was doing that he and his wife Velma were rearing three children and being stalwart members of their church, in the choir of which Lawrence sang for at least six decades, resulting in the award you see pictured here.

Even the longest human life is, compared with the 13.8-billion-year-old universe, fleeting. But that doesn't mean it is insignificant or meaningless. It means that, like flowers, like music, it is impermanent but can be beautiful.

Lawrence-June-21The lives of Jim and Uncle Lawrence remind me to spend what little time I have well, to bring some joy and insight and laughter into the lives of others, to love even when loving is difficult.

Maybe I'll print this post out and paste it on the mirror in the bathroom so I don't forget what Jim and Lawrence have been trying to teach me.

Oh, and if you see a 100-year-old man cruising around Delavan, Ill., in his green Corvette, ask Lawrence if you can hop in for a ride. You won't forget it.

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GRASPING WHAT RAMADAN CAN TEACH ALL OF US

Muslims around the globe began celebrating their holy month of Ramadan this past Saturday. What can those of us who aren't Muslim learn from this month of fasting and sacrifice? This article from The Guardian offers some ideas. The author, a school teacher in London, writes this: "It is a common misconception that Ramadan is all about food. In truth, it is about starving the body to feed the soul. By temporarily depriving our bodies of what they need, we forge room for spirituality and introspection, generosity and discipline, to blossom in its place." And it's precisely those qualities that can help us stand for the common good and against radicalism of any kind.


If our spiritual growth stops at age 12, say, what's the point?

What is the most perplexing question human beings ask about themselves?

NativeIt's some version of this: What is the purpose of life? Why are we here? If life has meaning, what is it?

In other words, people ask themselves the very question(s) that religion tries to help answer. And yet I find it both astonishing and disappointing that many adults, in my experience, have quit seeking answers to those questions. In some cases, they try to get by with the theology they had in sixth grade -- even if, in the meantime, they've completed graduate-level courses in science, engineering, journalism, agriculture, medicine or some other field.

I've been thinking about this phenomenon as I've been reading Kaitlin B. Curtice's book Native: Identity, Belonging and Rediscovering God. Curtice, who spoke recently via Zoom to a local audience at Village Presbyterian Church in suburban Kansas City, comes from both a white and a Potawatomi heritage. She spent much of her childhood as a member of a Southern Baptist congregation, but identifies now simply as Christian.

Fairly early in her book she writes this: "Many adults I've talked to have described a coming of age with their faith and/or identity in which they realize that what they were given as children wasn't meant to hold up in later years. We are all asking what the future of our identity looks like, what our own beginnings gave us. As we ask, we begin to deconstruct those things that were once so dear to us. We begin to let go of thing like legalism and see that though for some of us everything may have been good and safe, our faith tradition still left out and hurt so many people who should have been welcomed."

When my children were growing up, I'd tell them that if, at the end of the day, they didn't feel a little more ignorant, they weren't doing it right. I still believe that for them and for me, too. But to feel more ignorant at the end of a day, sometime in that day you have to come into contact with information, knowledge and insights you didn't know before.

And my contention is that because life's purpose is our most important question, some of that new information, knowledge and insight should have to do with that question.

I also tell people that the job of an opinion columnist is to complicate the thinking of others. But, in fact, complicating our own thinking is really the job of all of us. So I hope you'll find a way to explore the question of meaning through what you read, what you watch, to whom you speak and in other ways. I'm guessing that entering the afterlife won't involve a quiz we'll need to pass. But you do want to understand in a deep way that the purpose of life had to do with love, mercy, compassion, generosity, justice -- and did I mention love?

Let's all go figure out what that looks like today.

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A HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR'S STORY ON STAGE

In 2007, when Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and I went to Poland to do interviews for what would become our 2009 book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, Jack Mandelbaum of Kansas City met us there and helped us with translating the interviews from Polish to English. We'll always be grateful to him for that assistance.

A play about Jack's own story of living through the Holocaust, "Surviving Hitler," will be presented in a limited engagement by the Lewis and Shirley White Theatre at The Jewish Community Campus, 5801 W. 115th St. in Overland Park, April 9-14. Tickets are available at TheWhiteTheatre.org, though the Sunday, April 10, performance, for which I have tickets, already is sold out.

Jack was a co-founder of the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education, to say nothing of being a wonderful and amazing man. “Surviving Hitler” is a stage adaptation of the award-winning book of the same name by, Andrea Warren. The play, which Warren adapted for the stage with the help of director Tim Bair, dramatizes Jack's Holocaust experiences. This is history we can't afford to lose. So come see it and spread the word.

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P.S.: A couple of years ago I wrote this Flatland column about the marvelous collection of Judaica on display at Congregation B’nai Jehudah in Overland Park, Kan. If you haven't yet seen it, you (and your children or grandchildren) now have a chance to let a Girl Scout lead you through it. As Lauren Goldman recently wrote to me, "my daughter Natalie Goldman, is pursuing her Girl Scout Gold Award. To do so, she has created a special tour of the Michael Klein Collection at the Temple B'nai Jehudah. . .The tour, which includes art projects and a visit to the mitzvah garden, is meant for non-Jewish children to learn a little about Jewish history. It is Natalie's hope that this will create a warmer reception for Jewish friends growing up in the Kansas City community." What a good idea. Here's Lauren's Facebook post about this. And you also can connect through the temple's Klein page here. Visits to the collection are by appointment only.


Why plea bargain with men charged in 9/11 attacks?

More than 20 years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people, including my own nephew, the frustratingly slow process of bringing to trial five Guantanamo prisoners charged with participating or planning the attacks still hasn't resulted in a trial.

GitmoBut there does seem to be a path toward progress now that prosecutors in this military commission system have begun talking about plea bargains with the defense attorneys representing those charged.

Carol Rosenberg of The New York Times has been on this Gitmo story for years. Recently she wrote this account of those negotiations and what they might do to bring this long international nightmare to something of a close. As Rosenberg notes, a plea bargain would remove the possibility of the death penalty for anyone who agreed to such a deal. That's another reason to support this approach. Capital punishment should be used never, anywhere, ever, period.

For additional background, here is an excellent article by John Ryan of Lawdragon.com. Ryan, too, has been following all of this closely and carefully. And here is a story from NPR about this.

In addition, here is an Associated Press story about all of this that quotes Terry Rockefeller, who has been an important leader in the group September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, to which I also belong.

That story quotes Terry as saying that a resolution would enable the defendants to testify in other criminal or civil cases related to the attacks.

“We’re almost to the 10th anniversary (or the arraignment of the defendants), and it’s not only clear to us that a trial, if it were to ever happen, would take years but it will face years of appeals,” said Rockefeller, whose sister Laura was killed in the World Trade Center. “And we believe pretrial agreements are the only way to get any measure of truth, justice and accountability.”

Imagine dragging out all of this for another five or more years. That's what 9/11 families don't need. What they do need is some kind of legal resolution that gives them a chance to hear from the defendants themselves about what they did and why they did it. That's still an accounting we don't have.

Cover-lle-hi-resIt also would be helpful to know how and why these men got sucked into religious extremism and what they think should happen to prevent others from traveling down that destructive path.

That's part of what I write about in my latest book, Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety. And it's something we need to figure out if we're to have any hope of avoiding additional extremist violence.

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A CATHOLIC RECKONING OVER INDIGENOUS ISSUES?

Indigenous people from Canada are meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican this week, and hope to extract an apology from the Catholic Church for what it did years ago to Indigenous children who were sent to various boarding schools -- often with disastrous and even deadly results. Here's an article by an Indigenous author that will provide some background to all of this. He writes this: "Their aim will be to address the church’s role in Canada’s residential school system and lay the groundwork for the Pope’s coming visit to Canada. For me, a Cree man who grew up deeply entrenched in the Catholic Church, this is a moment of tension and fascination, as I ponder how the meeting could unfold and what it might accomplish." I trust this pope not to make things worse and maybe even to begin a process of badly needed repentance and healing.


What is widespread charity? A sign of widespread failure

Despite a fair amount of recent attention to church-state issues as they play out in Christian Nationalism, the basic question of how people of any faith tradition relate to their surrounding culture, including the nation-state in which that culture is located, is far from new.

Render-caesarIn fact, it was at the heart of the question Jesus once was asked about paying taxes to Caesar. His answer no doubt frustrated the person who asked the question, but it was wise then and is wise now: Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's.

But what can we learn about church-state-culture questions today by returning to the question Jesus was asked, especially if we do so by taking a deeper look at how the followers of Jesus 2,000 years ago were struggling to figure out how to relate to whoever was Caesar at the time?

Theologian and scholar John Dominic Crossan, who has spent much of his career dealing with questions about the historical Jesus, explores that very question in his new book, Render Unto Caesar: The Struggle for Christ and Culture in the New Testament. Its publication date will be this coming Tuesday.

It's a helpful, serious, intriguing book, and I recommend it for people who want a scholar's detailed but understandable study of that biblical period. The book's strength, however, is in its ability to describe two approaches to theology and to give readers insight about the difference between an economic and cultural system that requires a lot of charity to help those at the bottom of the economic scale and a system of distributive justice and other equitable systems in which there is precious little need for charity because everyone has an equal chance at acquiring the basics of what is needed for life.

Crossan makes a strong and persuasive argument that governmental and cultural systems in which a large portion of the population depends on charity are unjust and at odds with the world Jesus imagined and proclaimed, the "kingdom (or reign) of God," which of course differed from the reign of the Roman Empire and its succession of Caesars.

To do that, Crossan focuses on the gospel of Luke and its companion second volume by the same author, the New Testament book of Acts. He contrasts what he finds there with the violent and strange book of Revelation, the final work in the New Testament.

It is well worth quoting Crossan on this point at some length. So:

"For Roman Christianity to succeed, the divinity of the emperor, Caesar Augustus, would have to cede its transcendent place to that of Jesus the Christ -- Lord to Lord, Son of God to Son of God and God Incarnate to God incarnate. That, for Luke-Act, is the Roman cost of acculturation. What, then, is the corresponding Christian cost of acculturation, the price of Roman Christianity?

"That price -- then and now, past and present -- is a shift from justice to charity, a move from demanding distributive justice on a structural and systemic level to offering distributive charity on a personal and individual level. It is a turn from solving the causes to salving the effects of poverty, a jump from biblical prophecy to affluent philanthropy, a swerve from Amos (Tammeus insert: Remember it was the Hebrew prophet Amos who wrote, "Let justice roll down. . .") to alms."

Crossan acknowledges that it seems perverse to challenge the idea of charity. But he insists that the existence of widespread charitable structures and efforts is a sure sign that there isn't close to enough justice and equity in the cultural and economic systems in which charity has become a necessity.

"The only solution," he insists, "is the replacement of the injustice of Rome's rule (read, there, our own culture and economic system) by the justice of God's rule. Jesus practiced charity but also demanded justice -- the former gets you canonized, the latter gets you crucified. Charity is not justice, and salving injustice is not solving injustice.

"In the biblical tradition, therefore, distributive justice should be the norm, adequate alms should be for emergencies, and distributive alms should never replace distributive justice or enable distributive injustice."

Well, there is much more in Crossan's new work to digest, but he seemed especially prophetic in explaining why widespread charitable systems are indicative of system social and economic failure. It should be enough to make us want to change our economic and cultural systems so that all are treated fairly. As things stand now in the U.S. there has been in recent decades a serious redistribution of wealth -- from the bottom to the top. The idea is that no redistribution of wealth -- bottom to top or top to bottom -- should be necessary if the system is fair and equitable.

So how about we read Crossan and then get to work to fix things in a way that would honor the teachings and values of Jesus even if we're not Christian, given that those values are found in all the great world religions?

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A JEWISH OBJECTION TO DAYLIGHT SAVING TIME

Here's a Daylight Saving Time issue I confess I hadn't thought of. If the government makes DST permanent as a year-round way of keeping our clocks (it's already passed the U.S. Senate and awaits action in the House), it could adversely affect some Jewish folks. How? As the RNS story to which I've linked you reports, "According to Jewish law, morning prayers must take place after the sun rises. Daylight saving time, which currently begins on the second Sunday in March and ends on the first Sunday in November, extends darkness on late-winter mornings." And that means that in the depth of winter, such prayers couldn't start on some days until 8 a.m. or so. The story then says this: "'It will affect our religious life, our professional life and our family life,' said Rabbi Abba Cohen, vice president for government affairs for Agudath Israel of America. 'If congregational and personal prayers begin after 8 in the morning, how will people get to work at 9 a.m. or earlier?'” The question is, of course, how much accommodation must or should be made on such matters for particular groups of people? That's one of the beautiful things about a representative democracy. We get to debate such matters and make judgments collectively.

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THE BOOK CORNER

Torah-Tutor

I have long wished that Christians, myself included, had a better understanding of the Hebrew Bible. To ignore or downplay its importance is to ignore our roots. But I've also wished that Christians, along with the experience of reading it as containing prophecy about Jesus, could read it on its own terms the way Jews read it today. That would give us a deeper appreciation of how its original readers and hearers might have understood it. A new book, Torah Tutor: A Contemporary Torah Study Guide, can help with exactly that task. Its official publication date will be this Tuesday. It's written by a rabbi, Lenore Bohm, and it seeks to give people a better sense of Jewish scripture and why we should care about it. One of her goals is to give readers an adult appreciation "of what you encountered as a child. I suspect this is why some Jews think of religion as 'childish.'” And it's not just Jews, of course, with that problem. Many people in and out of Christian congregations essentially ended their theological education about sixth grade, it appears. As Bohm explains, "The Torah addresses central human concerns: family relationships, the pursuit of justice, the meaning of power and the power of desire, the purpose of celebration, the sanctity of human life, the importance of animal life and the value of confronting one’s finitude." What kind of unexamined life would you lead if those questions didn't matter to you? In any case this new book can be a great primer for anyone wanting a more complete and nuanced understanding of holy writ of any kind and of the Torah in particular. It should be in the library of all congregations, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim, given their relationship as part of the Abrahamic tradition. Indeed, if you read Torah Tutor before you read Render Unto Caesar, the book I've reviewed above, you'll get more out of Crossan's work.

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column posted Sunday morning here. It's about such intentional communities in the KC area as Jerusalem Farm.


How do religious leaders reach people in congregations?

Mwl-cor-1

Many faith communities maintain offices in the capitols of the country in which they're headquartered to be able to promote legislation and policies that conform to their traditions and beliefs.

An example is the Office of Public Witness of the Presbyterian Church (USA), located in Washington, D.C. Its website describes the office as "the public policy information and advocacy office of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Its task is to advocate, and help the church to advocate, the social witness perspectives and policies of the Presbyterian General Assembly."

MWL-cor-4I'm guessing that if you polled the people in the pews of 100 randomly chosen PCUSA churches this Sunday, you'd find that the percentage of people who even know that office exists is quite low. Just as you'd find few people in those congregations who keep up on many of the resolutions the church's national governing body (the General Assembly) passes.

And we Presbyterians are not unique in this. Some faith communities do better than others in keeping people informed about what their leaders are doing and saying and what difference it makes at the congregational level. But, in my experience, not many do it well.

I was thinking about this the other evening when I attended a gathering at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection called "Unlikely." Under the sponsorship of the Multi-Faith Neighbors Network, it brought together Jews, Christians and Muslims committed to understanding one another and working together.

One of the features of the evening was the distribution of the "The Charter of Makkah" (or Mecca, as it's often spelled). It's a document produced in 2019 and signed by many worldwide Muslim leaders. It calls for international religious harmony and understanding and stands against radicalism. (And my guess is lots of Muslims around the world have never heard of it.)

As this Wikipedia entry on the charter notes, it was conceived and produced by the Muslim World League and "was written to create a pan-Islamic set of principles that supported anti-extremism, religious and cultural diversity, and legislation against hate and violence."

In other words, it's a worthy effort advocating ideas and actions that would improve the world considerably if they were implemented.

But it's also well worth noting that the Muslim World League is funded by the Saudi government and has been since it was formed in 1962. The Saudi government has been a promoter of the rigid Wahhabi form of Islam for a long time. But in recent years the league has been denouncing extremism, and the Charter of Makkah seems, at least on the surface, to be evidence of that.

In any case, I was glad that roughly 1,000 people were in the sanctuary of the Church of the Resurrection to be exposed to these ideas and to hear from representatives of the three Abrahamic faiths about ways to understand each other better and cooperate.

But almost every time I have attended such an event -- called interfaith, multi-faith or inter-religious, depending -- over the last 25 or so years, I wonder whether organizers are simply preaching to the choir. Is the message getting moved from leadership to people in the pews? Or is this another example of people at the congregational level not hearing what leaders are saying or doing either out of apathy or mediocre communications or something else?

In the end, although I admire the effort made by the organizers of the "Unlikely" event, the continued presence of religious radicalism around the globe makes me wonder what else could be done besides such interfaith events. Still, as I say, there were roughly 1,000 people there the other evening and it was a fairly diverse crowd. So maybe I should be happy with that.

(The photo at the top here today, taken by Eyyup Esen of the Dialogue Institute, shows some of the crowd at the recent "Unlikely" event listening to the Rev. Adam Hamilton, founding pastor of the Church of the Resurrection. The other photo, by me, shows Dr. Mohammad al-Issa, secretary general of the Muslim World League, and who was the main speaker at the event.)

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A NEW-LOOK VATICAN

The Vatican, especially Pope Francis, has been thinking about not just the people in the pews but also about those it and he would like to have in the pews. Thus, it has just announced a restructuring of the Vatican's central bureaucracy so it can focus more on evangelism. (Here is a story about this from the Catholic news site Crux.) The new document changes the names of governing bodies from congregations and councils to "dicasteries." The RNS story to which I've linked you in the first link above reports this: "Among the 16 dicasteries, the newly constructed Dicastery for Evangelization is given top listing, just ahead of the newly reformed Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, the oldest and, for centuries, arguably the most powerful office of the Roman curia. As a sign of the office's significance, the dicastery for evangelization will be headed directly by the pope — a parallel to how the Roman pontiff directly headed the doctrinal office until 1968." It's been nine years since Francis was elected, meaning it's taken nine years for this reorganization to come into being. It's another reminder of how slowly this church -- and religion in general -- often moves.

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THE BOOK CORNER

Good-for-nothing

The Good for Nothing Tree, by Amy-Jill Levine and Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, illustrated by Annie Bowler. This is another in a lovely series of children's books drawn from the parables of Jesus. Levine, a New Testament professor and author of many books, teams again with Sasso, a rabbi emerita and author, and Annie Bowler, the illustrator, to explore one way of understanding the meaning of the parable of the barren fig tree. It's a book about patience and sticking with a goal even when it may seem silly to do so. Make sure this is in the hands of teachers of children in your congregations, no matter whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim or something else. My eight-year-old granddaughter read it to me and loved it.

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P.S.: There's further evidence of a welcome split among Orthodox Christians over Vladimir Putin's war on Ukraine. The Orthodox Public Affairs Committee has issued this statement harshly criticizing Patriarch Kirill, Putin's buddy and leader of the Russian Orthodox Church. Kirill and others close to him, the statement says, "are all complicit in not only supporting the invasion of Ukraine, but also in perpetuating the lies of the government against their own people. Rather than standing up to Putin and his cronies, they are as guilty as the rest." It's refreshing to hear such truth spoken by religious leaders.


Are scripture translators missing some words?

Bibles

The Bible used by Christians (well, Bibles, plural, given there are differences among them) was written originally in Hebrew, Greek and some Aramaic. The original Qur'an, of course, was in Arabic.

ScriptureTranslating holy writ can be a daunting task for many reasons. The best scholars and translators try to figure out what the original words meant to readers/hearers at the time they were written and whether there is an English (or other language) equivalent that would capture that meaning today.

Sometimes it's just a crap shoot. Which is a scary thing to say if you are convinced that the Bible, say, is inerrant in all ways. But on the whole translators do the best they can to give readers either a word for word translation or a meaning for meaning translation.

Sometimes, however, as this article from Christianity Today points out, there are words in some languages for which there are no precise English equivalents. And that makes translating sacred writings all the more difficult.

The author of the article is Jost Zetzsche, a professional translator, whose latest book is Encountering Bare-Bones Christianity.

"For almost five years," he writes, "I’ve been collecting and curating data about how languages around the world translate the Bible in different and often insightful ways."

He offers 10 examples. One of the more fun ones is:

"Ambum: turtle (Aekyom)

"Remember the story in the Gospel of Luke where Jesus had 12 turtles? It’s unlikely, unless you’ve read the Bible in Aekyom, a language in Papua New Guinea. People who speak this language count their age according to the number of times river turtles come up on the banks to lay their eggs. So when Jesus went to Jerusalem with his parents, he had 12 turtles. Imagine the turtle wealth of Methuselah!"

Another one I found intriguing is:

"Yumi: we and you (Tok Pisin)

"Some languages have a distinct advantage over English (and Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic) in their pronouns. English speakers use an ambiguous we, but many languages distinguish between an inclusive we ('you and I and possibly others') and an exclusive we ('he/she/they and I, but not you').

"For example, the disciples ask Jesus on the boat during a storm, 'Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?' (Mark 4:38, ESV). But who is included in that 'we' who are perishing? Speakers of Fijian, Tok Pisin and hundreds of other languages are forced to make an inference in this case (and in 2,352 other cases in the Bible), with deep theological implications.

"Do the disciples believe that Jesus could also die? Is his sharp rebuke that follows based on their belief that he actually could die? Translation teams have differed in their interpretation, but the Tok Pisin translators chose the inclusive yumi to include Jesus among those who could perish. They noted that the disciples had waited against their better judgment and existential fears until they felt the danger to Jesus (and themselves) was too great not to wake him."

Well, the point is that it's really helpful to compare translations of whatever scripture you're reading because they can differ sometimes dramatically. One my favorite examples is Matthew 19:24 in the New Testament. Most translations have Jesus saying that it's easier "for a camel to go through the eye of a needle" than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.

Lamsa-bibleBut George M. Lamsa's translation of that verse says, "It is easier for a rope to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God." And there's a footnote that explains: "The Aramaic word gamla means rope and camel." Given that Jesus spoke Aramaic, the "rope" version makes more sense to me. (And, yes, I know about a Jerusalem gate known as the camel.)

So don't get stuck on one translation, and don't imagine every translator throughout history has understood scripture the same way -- or the way you do.

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AN HOLIDAY FROM INDIA FINDS A U.S. HOME

Hindus in India and around the world are celebrating Holi, as the colorful festival is called. And by around the world I mean in the Kansas City area, too. The Hindu temple in Shawnee on Sunday will be participating. How have Hindu natives of India or Hindus of Indian descent living in the U.S. found ways to celebrate this joyful holiday? Here is an answer as reported by Religion News Service. It's another example of the U.S. welcoming people of many different religious backgrounds.