A new effort to unplug religious extremism

We are now two months out from the 1/6 domestic terrorist attack on the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., but clearly we aren't past it. And may not be for some time.

ReligiousextremismNot only are law enforcement agencies and courts still busy bringing perpetrators to justice, but Congress continues to explore what happened and how to prevent it. Beyond that, various segments of society are studying what happened and how to make sense of that.

In the latter category are faith leaders, especially certain Christians who identify as evangelical. As this RNS story reports, a group of more that 500 of them recently signed a letter "decrying 'radicalized Christian nationalism,' arguing that the religious expressions by insurrectionists during the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol are 'heretical' and a 'perversion of the Christian faith.'”

Some people were shocked to find that quite a few of the people storming the Capitol on Jan. 6 carried signs with them identifying them as Christians, or at least followers of Jesus. I'm reminded of what someone (Gandhi?) once said about loving Jesus but often being disgusted with his followers.

The open letter from the faith leaders that RNS reported on said, “We know from experts on radicalization that one of the key elements is a belief that your actions are ‘blessed by God’ and ordained by your faith. This is what allows so many people who hold to a Christian Nationalism view to be radicalized.”

Indeed, time after time throughout history we've seen radicalism and violence spring from religious certitude. Once you think God is on your side or you are on God's side, there's hardly a limit to the nonsense you can believe and the destructive acts you can perform.

It's one reason I wrote my book The Value of Doubt: Why Unanswered Questions, Not Unquestioned Answers, Build Faith. My argument in that book was that the opposite of faith isn't doubt but, rather, certainty. To make sense of life and give it meaning, we have to be at least somewhat comfortable with ambiguity, mystery, uncertainty. In religious terms, after all, we are people with finite minds trying to grasp the infinite. We'll never fully get it.

The RNS story about the newly released letter also reminds us of this frightening reality: "The letter comes on the heels of a new report by the conservative American Enterprise Institute revealing that more than a quarter of white evangelicals — more than any other religious group polled — believe the debunked QAnon conspiracy theory, an ideology that was well represented among insurrectionists on Jan. 6."

Maybe such letters will help turn the tide against such nonsense. And yet it seems that nonsense always finds an audience. Sigh.

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STOPPING SEXUAL ABUSE AMONG RELIGIOUS LEADERS

The sexual abuses committed by the late evangelist Ravi Zacharias have undone his reputation. More than that, they have prompted church leaders to examine how he got away with this deception for so long and to wonder who is getting away with it today, this RNS story reports. It's exactly the question that should be asked -- and that should have been asked regularly for the last century or more. This kind of behavior has not been nearly as rare as some people imagine. And each time it happens it injures the faith community involved and religion in general. What is your faith community doing to make sure it's not happening there?


Religious ideas can be both generative and dangerous

Religion has shown itself capable of producing beauty, comfort, enlightenment, healing acts, generosity, compassion, mercy, justice and love.

Dangerous-religThe bad news is that it also has shown itself capable of producing pain, suffering, war, prejudice, anger, violence and blind hatred.

So the task of people who take religion seriously -- and even of those who don't -- is to recognize when and how religious ideas can be dangerous and then to work to make sure they aren't used in destructive ways. The last chapter of my new book, Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety, is devoted to exploring ways that we can stand against extremism rooted in religious ideas that are being misused. And I commend the book to you.

But I also commend a new book on the subject of religious ideas recently given to me by a friend. It's Dangerous Religious Ideas: The Deep Roots of Self-Critical Faith in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, by Rabbi Rachel S. Mikva.

She maintains that "all religious ideas are potentially dangerous" and that "the same convictions that inspire compassion, commitment and inclusivity can justify brutality, apathy and intolerance."

She's right, of course, but the question is how, once we know that, we can prevent turning a potentially dangerous religious idea into an actually dangerous one.

The answer, in part, is to learn self-critical thinking, which means being able to challenge various interpretations of ideas, particularly theological ones, without dismissing them as stupid or irrelevant.

A rabbi once described the Talmud to me as 3,000 pages of unresolved debate. The lesson in that, he said, is that we should never imagine that we have said the final word on any subject but must remain open to new light, even as we commit ourselves to a religious path that makes the most sense to us.

For Mikva, it's not a matter of corrupting good religious ideas, it's recognizing that "the flaws are built in. . .It is my contention that most religions of the world have known it all along."

One of the problems, she correctly asserts, is that "people tend to begin with their conviction and then hunt for scriptural verses to support their view, making religions speak to the contemporary debate."

That approach, of course, means, as Mikva writes, that "the idea of scripture is dangerous. As long as there is scripture, people will wield the word as a weapon against each other in order to justify their own biases. As long as there is scripture, we have to reckon with the painful silences of those voices left out of the canon. As long as there is scripture, some people will turn their back on other God-given ways of knowing."

One of the ideas in this book that I found most helpful comes from a Flemish philosopher named Herman De Dijn, whom Mikva paraphrases this way: "religion is not really about truth in any event. . .Religion is about meaning. . ."

Which is not to say that religion doesn't offer truth to its adherents. Rather, it's to say that if that truth doesn't issue in meaning to help make sense of life's purposes, it's pretty useless.

The author explores the difficult ideas of chosenness in Judaism, election in Christianity and divine guidance in Islam to help readers see how such notions can be both destructive and generative. Which, of course, is the problem with many religious ideas -- they can be both, though usually not at the same time. And it takes discernment to avoid using such ideas to tear down others.

Mikva says that "by identifying the dangers of religious ideas, I mean to improve them, not to disqualify them."

Maybe every book of scripture and every religion itself should come with a label that says, "Caution: May be dangerous if used without discernment."

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THE FBI-SAUDI DATA SHOULD BE PUBLIC

Cover-lle-hi-resSpeaking of dangerous religious ideas, we know that a majority of the 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia, which also was the home of Osama bin Laden, leader of the al-Qaida terrorist group that led the attacks. We also know, as this Yahoo news story reports, that there are "still-classified documents about an FBI investigation into the Saudi role in the terror attacks that were blocked from public release by the Trump administration." Now, in the wake of a U.S. intelligence report saying that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was primarily responsible for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, some 9/11 family members are pressing the Biden administration to release that FBI information so we know what role, if any, the Saudi government may have played in 9/11. As a member of a 9/11 family, I support this move. Americans need to know the full truth behind the attacks. My newly released book tells the story of the multiple traumas my extended family experienced because of the murder of my nephew on 9/11, and it explores the question of why some people buy into extremist ideas and what we can do about that.


We can't fix conditions about which we lie

Before Black History Month ends, I want to say a few words, within the context of religious history, about the value of history itself in understanding not just where we came from but where we are today.

TruthTo do that, I will draw on this Atlantic piece and on some words from author Isabel Wilkerson (Caste; The Warmth of Other Suns) I heard when she spoke to a large virtual group brought together recently by the Kansas City, Kansas, Public Library.

Both , of The Atlantic, and Wilkerson make the historical point that the U.S. was not truly a democracy until passage of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in 1965, one year before I was old enough to vote (you had to be 21 then).

"Democracy," Newkirk writes, "is central to America’s idea of itself, but that idea had never been a reality until the VRA."

Newkirk's piece is formed as a letter to his late mother, and in it he talks about Barack Obama's 2008 election as president, saying to her, "You were 44, born dispossessed and disenfranchised in a county where only 250 Black adults out of more than 13,000 were registered to vote (in 1964 in Greenwood, Miss.)"

It's a reminder that the end of slavery in 1865 did not magically make things equal between Blacks and whites. Nor did the Reconstruction, which ended up failing miserably. After which we entered the period of Jim Crow laws, then the "separate-but-equal" time and, eventually, in response to all of this racial failure, the Civil Rights Movement.

In an analogous way, Christians should understand that their faith tradition, almost from its beginning, preached a virulent, pernicious anti-Judaism, which eventually nurtured modern antisemitism. My essay about all of that is here. It's been only since the mid-1960s that the Catholic Church, for instance, officially announced, in a Vatican II document called Nostra Aetate, that Jews should not be blamed for the death of Christ.

Christians who deny that the Holocaust, the Ku Klux Klan and other wretched chapters are part of their own faith tradition's history bury the truth -- just as Muslims who deny that al-Qaida, ISIS and other terrorist groups came out of a distortion of traditional Islam aren't being historically accurate or responsible.

If Christians and Muslims don't get that history, they don't get who they have been and who they are.

Which is a point Wilkerson made in reference to American society and its racial history.

"We need to know our country's history," she said. "There needs to be an airing out of exactly what has happened to this country to get us to where we are." She noted that in recent years she's heard people say "something along the lines of 'I don't recognize my country' or 'This is not the country I know' or 'This is not what America stands for.'

"And what that says is that not enough of us know our country's history."

If you don't know history, she said, "you won't be able to fix what's wrong." And that, she said, "is why I'm calling for a true, deep, meaningful truth and reconciliation commission" similar to the one that operated in South Africa after the end of the racial segregation policy known there as apartheid. The idea, she said, is to repair and rebuild what's been broken.

But if, for instance, Americans don't know -- or deny -- that we didn't have a full democracy until 1965, they won't grasp what to do now that racial issues have come back to the surface amid all kinds of efforts at voter suppression.

The world's great religions teach the importance of truth-telling. But that's clearly a hard-to-learn lesson in a nation that was rooted in the sick idea of white supremacy, an ideology that seems unwilling to die, as evidenced by, among many other things, the 1/6 terrorist attack on the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. Still, voices of faith must continue to proclaim the high value of truth -- and of reconciliation once truth is acknowledged and there's a willingness to repent and make repairs.

Cover-lle-hi-resBy the way, the last chapter of my new book, Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety, is devoted to what we can do to stand against extremism, whether its source is racial, religious or something else. I commend it to you.

(P.S.: It's not that there aren't good-faith arguments and legitimate disagreements to be had about American history and how to interpret it, but Sen. Josh Hawley [R-Mo.], one of my senators, I regret to say, has taken absolutely the wrong approach to all of this, as evidenced by his CPAC speech this weekend.)

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WHY THE UNITED METHODISTS STILL ARE UNITED

The United Methodist Church, which has been on the edge of schism for several years, is finding that breaking up is hard to do. Originally the church's international governing body was to meet last May to decide on how to divide the denomination, but the Covid pandemic caused that meeting to be moved to this August. However, that's now been bumped back a year to 2022. The core of the internal disagreement has to do with how to read scripture that talks about LGBTQ+ folks. There is almost no such scripture, but what there is has been regularly misread to keep gays and lesbians second-class citizens, meaning they can't be ordained to ministry. What does the Bible really say about all of this? My essay on that subject can be found here. Many UMC churches in the U.S. are simply moving in the direction they'll take once schism is final, but there still are details to be worked out. It's a frustrating time in the denomination. Hug a Methodist today.


Taking new looks at the Black Church

A couple of months ago, the weekly Bible study group that I help to lead took several weeks to look at the Black Church in the U.S., focusing especially on its theological approaches and the passages of scripture that have been especially important over its history.

Black-Church-GatesIn some ways, that was a response to the heightened focus on Black Americans in 2020 that resulted from several murders of Black people by law enforcement officers, the street protests of that and other matters, all of which produced a desire to understand more about how important the Black Church has been to Black Americans since the days of slavery.

I think we all learned a lot, and I was grateful to two Black clergy friends who joined us for our final session to respond to questions from members of our group.

Now the Pew Research Center has released a new, pretty comprehensive study of the Black Church. As this RNS story about it reports, the study shows that "most Black Americans attend predominantly Black congregations, but a majority think such congregations should welcome people of other races. .  .Pew describes its new 176-page report, based on a survey of 8,660 Black adults, as its 'most comprehensive, in-depth attempt to explore religion among Black Americans.'”

Besheer Mohamed, a Pew senior researcher, is quoted in the story as saying that the breadth of the study could help dispel the notion that the Black church is monolithic and could also demonstrate that there is more to Black religious life than what happens in church.

Indeed, there is. The Muslim population in the U.S. includes a sizeable portion of African-Americans, many of whom are converts or children/grandchildren of converts from Christianity to Islam. Two mosques made up of such people in Kansas City are the Al-Inshirah Islamic Center on Troost and the Al Haqq Islamic Center on Prospect.

But the Black Church, both locally and nationally, has played a pivotal role in the lives of Black Americans and has a fascinating history, starting with its emergence in the time of slavery.

A new book that I've not had the chance to read yet can tell you much of that story. It's The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song, by scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. It was just published last week. And that book was the basis of a terrific recent two-part PBS series by the same name.

Black-Man-BurdenThere also are sources that can help you grasp the role of the Black Church in the Kansas City area. One I recommend is by my former Kansas City Star colleague Charles E. Coulter. It's called "Take Up the Black Man's Burden": Kansas City's African American Communities 1865-1939. Lots of detail there about Black churches in the metro.

Offering evidence that the Black Church is not monolithic in its views, the RNS story reports this: "For example, while 44% of Black adults overall say clergy should officiate same-sex wedding ceremonies, 37% of Black Protestants agree, compared to 62% of Black Catholics and 64% of religiously unaffiliated Black people."

Historically, of course, much of the leadership of the Civil Rights Movement came from the Black Church. It still is involved today in racial justice issues, though it seems to have turned over some of the leadership responsibilities to people who are either outside the Black Church or who have motivations that are less theological than, say, such previous leaders as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

In any event, this new study of the Black Church is worth a look as people of all faith traditions try to find their way in this socially tumultuous time.

But it's not the only new research out on the Black Church. As this RNS story reports, the Barna Group just released a survey that finds this: religious Black Americans say understanding the role of religion in the lives of Black people is essential for understanding the African American experience.

The story notes that the "findings, released Thursday (Feb. 18), are the second of several planned reports from Barna’s State of the Black Church project. The first, released in January, found that most attendees of Black churches say African Americans generally feel politically powerless, but those worshippers also see Black congregations as a source of comfort and control."

So now you have two helpful sources for understanding the Black Church today.

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A TOLL ON THE CLERGY, TOO

Among those Americans deeply affected by the Covid pandemic are members of the clergy. This NPR piece contains thoughts about all of that from four of them. I was especially drawn to comments by the Rt. Rev. Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis, who said: "My role as bishop is to care for all those clergy who are caring for lay people. There are about 150 of them who I am in touch with regularly. I know it's been a toll on them to figure out how to do ministry in a way they have not been trained for. Who am I, as a priest, as a minister, if I can't do those things that are bedrock – showing up in person, laying hands, touching, anointing with oil? We have lots of conversations about what it means to be a minister or a priest in this time when those foundational things are not available to us." This may be a good time to give a bit of tender care to your own priest, imam, pastor, rabbi. . .


When faith needs to be torn down and rebuilt

A few days ago, at their invitation, I spoke to members of the faculty of Central Baptist Theological Seminary about my new book, Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety.

Cover-lle-hi-resOur general topic was religious extremism and what we can do to unplug it, which is part of what my book is about.

Deconstructionists-PlaybookIn our conversation, one of the faculty members mentioned his experience of having students enter seminary with quite rigid ideas about Christianity -- so rigid that they had difficulty imagining any other model of the faith than the one they already had. Their minds, in other words, were closed and they seemed bereft of the ability to do critical thinking, especially the self-critical variety.

After our discussion, I ran across news of a forthcoming book that might be useful in such situations, whether at a Christian seminary or elsewhere.

The book is called The Deconstructionists Playbook, and here is the RNS story about it. (Why isn't there an apostrophe after the final "s" in "Deconstructionists"?

The story says the people behind the book describe "deconstruction as 'a hot word amongst progressive Christians' that 'embodies the personal task of ditching toxic theologies and doctrines for beliefs grounded in love, social justice and liberation for all.'”

In other words, it's the process of re-examining the religious ideas one has adopted to see if they still make sense today or whether they need some kind of revision. But, of course, once you pull apart a faith tradition, you may have little left, which then requires some kind of reconstruction -- or at least construction of something more suitable to current needs and understandings. Apparently the new book offers help with that, too.

In reality, faith is (or should be) a constant process of deconstruction and reconstruction -- unless adherents get locked into some kind of fundamentalism that imagines all questions have been answered. It's not that faithful people throw out their religion each day and start over. Rather, it's that they recognize those matters that they don't understand in a useful way and they work to fill in gaps. Beyond that, they recognize that they had previously misunderstood things that now they are in a position to grasp better.

Reconstruction is a way of being a modest theologian in that we recognize that ours are finite minds trying to grasp something of the infinite -- ultimately an impossible task, though some folks get closer than others.

In my experience, a lot of people quit on theology with, at best, a sixth-grade understanding of God and the purpose of life. A vibrant life of faith is open to new light and fresh ways of experiencing the divine. Thank goodness for seminary teachers who can help to open up their students so the schools aren't sending into the world a collection of rigid theologians with no room for new insights and no way to understand the value of doubt.

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MUST WE ALWAYS SAY NICE THINGS ABOUT THE DEAD?

About the time I heard about the death of Rush Limbaugh the other day, I happened across this commentary piece in the Sydney Morning Herald. (Don't y'all read at least one Down Under newspaper every day?) The column raised the question of why it's still considered (mostly) in bad taste to speak ill of the dead. The author's questions: "Why do we take such issue with criticism of the dead, when we have no problem at all with criticism of the living? Many of us have secretly breathed a sigh of relief when a feared or despised relative has finally died. Why is articulating this relief so taboo?" Did I not feel some relief at the death of Osama bin Laden? And although I found Limbaugh helpful the few times I had reason to contact him when he worked for the Kansas City Royals doing p.r., I found his radio career mostly despicable and full of needless fury. Still, he was a human being. And if I take that away from him I take it away from myself.

Judge-limbaugh(This cartoon is by Lee Judge, my former Kansas City Star colleague, and is used with his permission.)


Are we surrounded by true prophets?

Something odd but intriguing has been happening pretty much under the radar in American Christianity.

ProphecyAs this New York Times article reports, "in recent years, self-described prophets have proliferated across the country, accelerating in stature over the course of the Trump era. They are stars within what is now one of the fastest-growing corners of Christianity: a loose but fervent movement led by hundreds of people who believe they can channel supernatural powers — and have special spiritual insights into world events."

When Christians and adherents of other faith traditions speak of people having "prophetic voices," they usually aren't referring to an ability to predict the future. Rather, they mean speaking out about problems in society and suggesting ways they can be fixed. One way of putting that notion of prophetic voice is to say that what breaks God's heart should break our hearts and that we must not be silent about those matters, whether they refer to ecological damage, racism, sexism, poverty or some other issue.

But the "prophets" in the Times story are people who claim they know what's coming and are deputized by God to alert the world to whatever that is.

There is, the story notes, a long tradition of such people in the history of Judaism and Christianity: "The desire to divine the future is a venerable one, fueling faith in figures from ancient Greek oracles to modern astrologists. Christianity in particular is a religion whose foundational text is filled with prophecies proven true by the end of the book."

Much of what Christians read as prophecy in the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible, of course, is not viewed that way by Jews, particularly those passages that Christians assert forecast the birth, life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

But in any case, future-predicting voices have been around a long time in religious history. For the most part, people in recent centuries who have claimed the gift of prophecy have been seen as religious quacks or misguided fools. That, however, has changed in recent years as more and more of these voices have found an audience.

And just who are these prophets? The Times story answers this way: "Many are independent evangelists who do not lead churches or other institutions. They operate primarily online and through appearances at conferences or as guest speakers in churches, making money through book sales, donations and speaking fees. And they are part of the rising appeal of conspiracy theories in Christian settings, echoed by the popularity of QAnon among many evangelicals and a resistance to mainstream sources of information."

Perhaps all this is just one more aberration we can blame on the internet. But the question is whether the gift of prophecy is real and, if so, how one can know a true prophet from a charlatan. There may be no clear answer to that question, meaning it's up to each of us to be careful and discerning about whether we give such voices credence.

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RESURRECTING A USEFUL OFFICE

President Biden has signed an executive order recreating the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Good. That office, about which I had some initial church-state reservations, has done some good work in the administration of several presidents. But, properly overseen and operated, it can be a beneficial way to connect faith communities to the common good.

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SevenDays-Logo-TransparentP.S.: The annual Give Seven Days events in the Kansas City area will happen virtually this year, April 13-25. Here's a pdf with all the details you need to participate: Download 7-days-2021_eventspostcard. As part of the events, I will be moderating an interfaith panel on Monday, April 19. Please save the date on your calendar. Thanks.


Will Biden help protect international religious freedom?

Each year the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and the U.S. State Department issue reports (here and here) describing how religious liberty is being restricted -- sometimes brutally -- in countries around the world.

Relig-libertyOne reason they do that is that the U.S. considers religious liberty to be a foundational human right that no government should abuse. In other words, it's an important moral value for which our nation stands.

Over the years, both the USCIRF and the State Department reports have been useful, though they sometimes have differed in naming the countries they consider particularly egregious. The problem has been that these reports and the work that goes into producing them rarely get much coverage in the press.

The U.S. ambassador at-large for international religious freedom is the one whose office oversees the State Department's reporting and work in this area. Until last month, that job was held by former Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback. He was a miserable governor whose economic experiment with vast tax cutting badly injured the state, a condition from which it's only now beginning to recover. But Brownback turned out to be a pretty fair religious freedom ambassador -- not using the office, as some feared, strictly to complain about persecution just of Christians around the world. He had a broader vision than that, for which we can be grateful.

As this Kansas City Star article reports, Brownback now is figuring out what he wants to do next in life. One hopeful sign is that he says he wants to devote energy to racial reconciliation.

“I think my side, conservatives, need to put forward a racial reconciliation agenda and how we would address it,” Brownback said in an interview with The Star.

Agreed. But the devil, as always, is in the details. So we'll see.

Now that Brownback has left that office, however, the question is what the new Biden administration will do to help protect religious liberty around the world.

This story from the Deseret News explores that very question.

It quotes Rabbi David Saperstein, who used to hold the job Brownback just left, this way: “I’m confident in the Biden administration’s ability to maintain a deep commitment to furthering religious freedom even as it embraces a robust interpretation of human rights.”

Some see the promotion of basic human rights as an area of possible conflict with promoting religious liberty, given, for instance, that some people who identify as religious also believe that some rights of LGBTQ+ people should be limited -- such as the right to same-sex marriage, no matter what the U.S. Supreme Court already has ruled.

So whoever Biden appoints to fill the job Brownback held will need to find a way to promote religious liberty as well as basic human rights.

And more Americans need to be committed to paying attention and complaining in some effective way when people around the world find themselves lacking religious liberty.

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LOSING THEIR GRIP ON REALITY

Clearly part of the problem in finding any sense of unity now in the U.S. is that a shocking number of people who identify as white evangelical Christians have bought into QAnon conspiracy theories. As this RNS story reports, a new study "by the conservative American Enterprise Institute reported 29% of Republicans and 27% of white evangelicals — the most of any religious group — believe the widely debunked QAnon conspiracy theory is completely or mostly accurate." We can't begin to come together when people are operating in radically separate realities -- one rooted in facts, one in fantasy. Even those rooted in facts must acknowledge that sometimes they pick and choose the facts they embrace, but at least they're not off in Bizarreland, where a cabal of child-eating pedophile Democrats controls life in the U.S.


Has California's diversity training become antisemitic?

It appears that in an effort to do something good -- teach California high school students about ethnic diversity -- state officials have made some bad judgments, at least one of which has resulted in what the author of this Tablet piece describes as cleansing the state of its Jews.

EthnicStudiesEmily Benedek writes that when the ethnic diversity curriculum was finally made public, it properly included historic U.S. social movements about which students should know. But it "also included the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement for Palestine (BDS)."

And, she notes that "BDS’s primary goal — the elimination of Israel — was not mentioned."

Beyond that, she writes, the proposed curriculum contains "a list of 154 influential people of color" but "did not include Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, or Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, though it included many violent revolutionaries. There was even a flattering description of Pol Pot, the communist leader of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, who was responsible for the murder of a quarter of the Cambodian population during the 1970s."

So the problems go beyond issues Jews and others may have with how the curriculum teaches about Jews.

But as this Jewish Journal story notes, recently "thirty-five academics sent a letter to the California State Board of Education and State Superintendent Tony Thurmond on January 21 questioning the alleged benefits of the proposed Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC)."

Inside that story are links to different op-ed columns that evaluate the proposed new curriculum.

What we seem to have here is a lesson in what can happen when people adopt sloppy (intentional or not) means to a laudatory end. As good diversity trainers can tell you, careless or inept diversity trainers can do a lot of damage. (Speaking of that, I invite you to read Toriano Porter's recent Kansas City Star column that touches on this subject.)

High schools and colleges should be teaching students the art of critical thinking, not subjecting them to propaganda. The complaints from Jews and others about California's proposed ethnic studies curriculum should be thoroughly examined and, if necessary, changed to make sure that line isn't being crossed there.

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THE LDS-NFL CONNECTION

Yes, the Super Bowl is over and the Chiefs didn't win. Sigh. But as a footnote to this past football season, here's an RNS story about how Chiefs head coach Andy Reid is shaped by his Mormon faith and how that faith, in turn, has helped to shape the National Football League. As the story notes, the relationships among Brigham Young University, the faith taught by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day saints and the game of football "helped redefine both the sport and the religion."

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Cover-lle-hi-resP.S.: My late nephew, murdered in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, would have turned 51 today. His death forms the center of my new book, Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety. I've just given you a link to the book's Amazon page. But if you want an autographed copy, email me at wtammeus@gmail.com and I'll tell you how we can work that out. By the way, Kansas City's great independent bookstore, Rainy Day Books, now has hardback and paperback copies of my book available.

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ANOTHER P.S.: Thanks to the Rev. Bob Hill, pastor emeritus of Community Christian Church in KC, and others for organizing a three-week online event (that ended yesterday) about Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "Letter from the Birmingham Jail." An excellent way to celebrate Black History Month and move people from conversation to generative action.


Jesus as a moral stranger -- and other life observations

A primary purpose of religion is to help people understand their purpose and the broader purpose of human life itself.

Brooks-Volf-1That task often issues in such questions as: "Why are we here?" And: "What gives life meaning?" And: "What does a life worth living look like?"

It was the latter question that New York Times columnist David Brooks (left or top) and Yale theologian Miroslav Volf (right or bottom) took up last week in a Zoom webinar sponsored by the Country Club Christian Church of Kansas City, which is doing various kinds of programming to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its founding. You can see a video recording of the hour-long conversation here.

It was exactly the kind of programming that faith communities should be offering to the public, to say nothing of to members of their own congregations. It used theological and educational sources to draw people into the kinds of deep questions that too often they either avoid or don't think to ask, given that they're often distracted by some reality show on TV or their incessant Twitter feed.

Brooks-Volf-2In his columns and books, Brooks, who was born into a Jewish family in New York City but who in more recent years has embraced Christianity, has dealt increasingly with these broader questions of life and its purposes. And Volf, who teaches theology, has spent most of his life on these questions, as shown in a book of his I reviewed here in late 2019, For the Life of the World: Theology That Makes a Difference. In it, he and his co-author try to describe what it means to live a "flourishing life," the kind of life to which God calls all people.

One of the points Brooks made in the webinar is one lots of people are loathe to accept, which is that we're usually formed not by moments of joy and celebration but, rather, by moments of suffering.

"You see deeper into yourself than you do in the normal days of happiness," Brooks said.

We need not, of course, seek out suffering. As Matthew 6:34 quotes Jesus as saying, "Each day has enough trouble of its own." In the old King James Version that was rendered "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof."

But when suffering happens, we should pay attention to what it's telling us. And we should be aware when others are suffering because surely one of the purposes of a life worth living is to be a healing presence to those in crisis. That, too, is how, as Brooks says, suffering helps us see deeper into ourselves.

I was especially intrigued by the way Volf described the distressing way in which the message of the life of Jesus has been missed by so many.

"My experience of today's culture," Volf said, "is this: That Jesus has become a moral stranger to us. What he thought was important we generally think it isn't important. What we think is really important, he generally thought wasn't important." That's why, he said, he sees Jesus "losing attractiveness in the culture today."

One problem, of course, is that in many Christian churches the Jesus to whom people get introduced is the Jesus who tells them to do this or that or they'll end up in hell. Lots of us Christians believe that was far from his message. Rather, we think he was trying to tell us that the reign of God is coming but that we can live in that reign today by living lives of compassion, justice, mercy and love. It's not that this loving God is not also a god of judgment. Rather, it's that if Jesus, in Volf's words, becomes a moral stranger to us, we will be so focused on heaven that we'll be no earthly good, as a pastor friend of mine liked to say.

Well, you can listen to the Brooks-Volf conversation for yourself and draw your own conclusions. But if we don't spend at least a little time each day thinking about life's purpose and what we should be doing to advance that purpose, we will live an unexamined life. And, trust me, you cannot fully examine a life by reading about it on your social media feed.

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RELIGIOUS COMPLICITY IN THE 1/6 TERRORIST ATTACK

Did the media ministry known as "Focus on the Family," founded by James Dobson, help to promote the lies and conspiracy theories that eventually resulted in the Jan. 6 treasonous attack on the Capitol in Washington, D.C.? The author of this article finds lots of evidence that the answer is yes. Steve Rabey, a Colorado journalist, author and former seminary instructor, writes that "(i)n the months since the election, the Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family has regularly provided election skeptics with plentiful ammunition and has embraced men and women in Congress who voted to overturn state election results. Meanwhile, Focus’s partner organization in Washington, D.C., the Family Research Council, continues to claim the election was stolen, and that Antifa — not Trump supporters — may have caused the Capitol attack on Jan. 6. There is no evidence to suggest Antifa led the attack, while FBI investigations have linked several militia and far-right extremist groups to the violence."

Rabey's piece includes mention of one of Missouri's senators, a leader in what I call the Putsch Caucus: "Sen. Josh Hawley’s (R-MO) decision to lead the Senate effort to overturn the Electoral College results for Biden have cost him supporters and even a book contract. His hometown paper said he 'has blood on his hands' and asked him to resign. But Focus is standing by their man, along with his wife Erin, an attorney who clerked for Supreme Court Justice John Roberts. Focus published a book for moms by Erin Hawley and has featured her on its radio programs. She has worked for the elite law firm, Kirkland & Ellis, but the firm scrubbed her name and bio from its website the day of the Capitol attack." None of this should surprise anyone who has ever listened to radio broadcasts from Focus on the Family or heard commentaries from Dobson. Still, it's disturbing and sad when religious groups become almost exclusively partisan, no matter which end of the political spectrum they choose.

(Also: Politico has done this helpful story about how people who identify as evangelical Christians sometimes confuse faith with patriotism and the damage that can do.)

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THE BOOK CORNER

God-just-love

God Is Just Love: Building Spiritual Resilience and Sustainable Communities for the Sake of Our Children and Creation, by Ken Whitt. As the U.S. makes a new beginning under a new president and as faith communities plan for new beginnings after emerging from the pandemic, Whitt, an American Baptist pastor, packs this small book with good ideas for getting things closer to right this time. Yes, the "Just" in the title, he acknowledges, could be translated "only," but it also is a reference to the loving justice of God. And Whitt encourages readers to find ways to offer just love to everyone, beginning with children.

Whitt's long-time interest in science, particularly on the cosmic scale, leads him to emphasize the idea that "life is impossible on this created world without destruction -- including those events that we call catastrophes." So out of the Big Bang comes a new world. And out of the Noahic flood comes a new chance. He asserts that "resurrection -- life arising from death -- is the way of the universe, the way of life on the planet Earth and the deep spirituality of my life."

A particular emphasis for Whitt is the idea with which Jesus began his ministry -- announcing that the reign of God is at hand. This divine kingdom, Whitt says, "is already within and among us in power." We simply must begin to live by the kingdom values of mercy, justice, compassion and love -- a high calling, indeed.

Whitt also complicates the thinking of readers when it comes to the biblical story of the flood: "God is love. The creation is good. But what happens within the heart of God when we are not good and not loving? God birthed a creation, a cosmic adventure. Can this birth be aborted?" I don't think Whitt is saying that God willingly performed an abortion via a flood to give the world a fresh start. But by raising that question in that way, the path is open for some deep and useful discussion about the role of death in the story of life.

This is a book youth leaders from houses of worship should find invaluable as they seek to guide young lives. But it's also encouragement for the rest of us to reimagine what our faith is calling us to think, be and do.


Worsening anti-Jewish attitudes no longer caused by the church?

There simply is no question that almost from its beginning, Christianity preached a pernicious anti-Judaism. In response, Jews defended themselves and attacked these Jesus followers. But that response has been nothing like the virulence of Christian-led attitudes and actions against Jews.

Anti-judaismMy essay about the history of that sad story is here.

But let's not imagine that nothing good has happened within the last century to begin to correct that terrible stain.

In fact, this RNS column by Ken Jacobson, deputy national director of the Anti-Defamation League, cites several developments that are cause for celebration in all of this.

Jacobson writes this: "Beginning in the 1960s with the Second Vatican Council’s declaration, known as 'Nostra Aetate,' the church explicitly rejected Jewish collective responsibility for the death of Jesus. The significance of this statement in improving the condition of Jews in Western countries can hardly be exaggerated.

"Not only are these ancient tropes banned from Catholic teaching today, but Catholic kids are not being exposed in such an authoritative manner to those anti-Semitic epithets that were so destructive."

More than that, he writes that "as a result of its transformation, in a world where anti-Semitism is resurgent — classically on the far right as well as in the guise of criticism of Israel on the left and in Islamist circles as anti-Zionism — the church has become part of the solution rather than part of the problem."

Which, of course, is not to say that antisemitism and anti-Judaism (the first is racial, social and economic in origin, the second is theological) aren't still problems. Indeed, globally antisemitism has been resurgent for several decades, and it has rediscovered a home in the U.S. in recent years, too. Globally its source more often is from within Islam now than from within Christianity, but in any case the ancient hatred still lives.

That said, the Catholic Church should feel good about the direction of the journey it has been on with its Jewish brothers and sisters. Much is left to be accomplished in this area, but Jacobson says this: "These are hopeful notes at a time when so much seems to be falling apart."

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FRANCE CONFRONTS RADICAL ISLAMISTS

Lawmakers in France, where Islam is now the No. 2 religion, are debating a controversial new bill aimed at knee-capping radical versions of Islam, which I and others often refer to as Islamism, to differentiate it from traditional Islam. There is much about which France should be cautious here. It would be easy for French leaders to ignore essential religious freedom and it would be just as easy for them to ignore the threat of violent extremists. In matters like this, governments always should err on the side of liberty. Still, there are law enforcement tools to be used in appropriate ways and there are educational tools, too, that must be employed. What France must not do is adopt measures that would crush legitimate expressions of religion while seeking to control radicalism. That will require some serious adult discernment.

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P.S.: If you missed my latest Flatland column when it posted this past Sunday, you'll find it here. It's about a clergy group in Kansas City working with the police and neighborhood groups to stem the plague of violence in our city.

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ANOTHER P.S.: In my recent column for USA Today, I wrote about the need to finish the remaining cases of prisoners that the U.S. is keeping at Guantanamo Bay and shut the place down. Now a group of 100-plus organization is asking President Joe Biden to do just that. Here's the Huffington Post story about that.