Wednesday, March 21, 2012

French Jews and Muslims grapple for answers to school shootings

PARIS (RNS) Children spilled out of Beth Hanna Jewish school under a spring sun and the watchful eyes of armed police. Leah Chicheportiche mingled with other waiting parents in this northeastern Paris neighborhood, including many men sporting the trademark black hat of Hasidic Jews.

"We're a bit worried -- even here in Paris --  after the incident," said Chicheportiche, a mother of five, keeping a watchful eye on two daughters licking ice-cream cones on Tuesday (March 20).

A day after a motorcycle gunman mowed down three children and a rabbi in the southern city of Toulouse, she added: "We hope they'll arrest him quickly."

As schools across France marked a moment of silence for Monday's victims and the government notched up its terror alert for the southwestern region and increased security around religious institutions, many ordinary French are grappling for answers.

Monday's shootings at the Ozar Hatorah Jewish school in Toulouse came days after the shooting deaths of three French soldiers of North African and Caribbean origins. Two were Muslim. Police say the same weapon was used in all the attacks. Now they are hunting down the killer -- and the nation is searching for solace.

"It's a very big shock and the most dangerous part is we don't know where he is," said Rabbi Mendel Azimov, who helps oversee Beth Hanna, which his father founded.

Azimov's uncle runs Ozar Hatorah, where the killings took place. "It's not just a community problem or a religious problem," he said, "it's a national problem."

The shootings have seeped into a presidential campaign already checkered with sharp exchanges on immigration and religion -- notably over Jewish and Muslim ritual animal slaughter practices. Both President Nicolas Sarkozy and his main rival, Socialist Francois Hollande, have suspended their campaigns following Monday's shootings.

"Barbarity, savagery, cruelty cannot win. Hate cannot win," said Sarkozy, who met with Jewish and Muslim leaders on Tuesday and vowed to find the killer.

France's Muslim and Jewish communities -- the largest in western Europe -- are organizing a silent march to mark the killings on Sunday.

"This march has no sense unless it's a joint march," Richard Prasquier, head of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France.

But others fear the incidents may only deepen differences between the two faiths.

"It doesn't unite us," said Victor Levy, a Jew from North Africa who owns a stationery shop a block from Beth Hanna. "It only increases the doubts between the two communities, because each wonders if the other is racist. Little words against the other that shock, that create hatred between the two religions."

Muslims and Jews have long been neighbors in this slightly grimy slice of Paris, known as the 19th arrondissement. In many ways, this neighborhood offers the face of 21st-century France: multicolored and multifaith.

Malians in traditional robes brush past ethnic Algerian Muslims and Tunisian Jews. Old men of all backgrounds play rounds of boules in playgrounds. Halal butchers and kebab joints vie for customers alongside kosher supermarkets and traditional bakeries.

Many Muslims and Jews here hail from the same area -- North Africa. But this is perhaps the only neighborhood outside of Brooklyn where you can get carryout from Crown Heights Pizzeria.

"I'm Jewish, and the guy across from me is a Muslim," said Levy, the stationery shop owner and a Sephardic Jew, pointing to a laundromat across the street. "We get along fine. But when people do idiotic things like what happened in Toulouse, it lights a fire."

But across the street, Moroccan laundry owner Bijuegda Dris, disagreed.

"This has nothing to do with the communities," he said. "The killer is just a crazy guy."

Tensions between Muslims and Jews in France periodically erupt, mostly keeping pace with the Israeli-Palestinian standoff. Jewish synagogues and cemeteries have been attacked in recent years -- either by gangs of Muslims or far-right youths, authorities say. Muslim institutions are also desecrated, often by neo-Nazis. Young Muslims and Jews occasionally clash.

But at Beth Hanna, Rabbi Azimov is focusing on healing. It is up to religious leaders, he said, to unite the two communities. Both must work to get beyond the killings.

"We have a special tradition that says that when bad things happen, you have to increase kindness and goodness and prayer," he said. "We have a belief that when you have light, darkness disappears."

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Romney’s Land of Lincoln

Illinois lynched the first Mormon to run for president, but 168 years later it may have sealed the GOP nomination for LDS scion Mitt Romney. If so, it will have been because Republicans in the Land of Lincoln are more moderate than their peers in Michigan and Ohio, big Midwestern states that barely ended up in the Romney column this year. Fewer consider themselves "very conservative"; fewer consider abortion the most important issue of the campaign. 

White evangelicals in Illinois are more likely to be of the moderate megachurch variety typical of the suburban Chicago grandaddy of megachurches, Willow Creek. Thirty-nine percent of them voted for Romney, as compared to 35 percent in Michigan and 30 percent in Ohio. Non-evangelicals are more likely to be moderate Methodist types. They gave 54 percent of their votes to Romney, as opposed to 45 percent in Michigan and 44 percent in Ohio. In 2008, Obama had the home-state advantage; nonetheless, it's telling that he was the choice of 15 percent of Republicans in Illinois, versus 10 percent in Michigan and eight percent in Ohio. And 37 percent of evangelicals, versus 33 percent in Michigan and 27 percent in Ohio.

Meanwhile, Rick Santorum is stuck with the task of revving up a pedal-to-the-metal evangelical base that is just not big enough in most of the states that lie ahead. Louisiana, in four days, won't change the narrative, regardless of how much he wins by. Nor does it help when he's got to disown cheerleading by zealous pastors like Rev. Dennis Terry, who got his flock at Greenwell Springs Baptist Church whooping it up by preaching: 

Listen to me. If you don’t love America, if you don’t like the way we do things I have one thing to say — get out! We don’t worship Buddha! I said we don’t worship Buddha, we don’t worship Muhammad, we don’t worship Allah, we worship God, we worship God’s son Jesus Christ.”

According to CBN's David Brody, that's just "a good example of how the mainstream media just doesn’t understand the evangelical worldview. Yes the language was strong and bold from the pulpit but reporters interpreted the words incorrectly by painting a much broader brush than what was intended." Santorum's problem is that the suburban Republicans who gave Romney his 12-point victory in Illinois tend to interpret them the same way.

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“The Hunger Games” Gets Religion

What can we learn about Jesus through The Hunger Games? According to Julie Goss Clawson in her new book The Hunger Games and the Gospel, a lot. As she puts it, "The Hunger Games is not the Gospel, or even an allegory of the Gospel story, but it reflects the good news, helping to illuminate the path of Kingdom living for readers today." And it achieves that the same way Jesus did: by telling great stories.

If you're a Christian and a fan of The Hunger Games series, I urge you to check out Clawson's book. It's available as a digital download for only $4.99 and, at just under a hundred pages, you can probably read it in the time it takes you to wait in line to see the movie on Friday.

Throughout her book Clawson uses Jesus' Beatitudes as a framework for understanding the situation of oppression that we see in The Hunger Games and how that might parallel situations in the world today -- ones in which Americans may find ourselves, often as not, clueless Capitol citizens whose way of life depends on the coercion of others. That's a hard thing to contemplate, but an important one.

Here's a brief excerpt from chapter 1.

The system of oppression presented in The Hunger Games is modeled on the tactics used in the Roman Empire. Tribute and tessearae were common practices used by the Romans to keep their ever-expanding empire under their thumb. Roman citizens whose jobs had been outsourced to conquered slaves were granted tesserae, or coins that they could exchange for bread. The famous Pax Romana, where "peace" was maintained by quelling uprisings through intimidation and fear, enabled the Romans to extract tribute from the people they had conquered. With vast amounts of the food and wealth they had produced going to pay the Romans, occupied peoples sank deeper and deeper into poverty.

Jesus, of course, was born into this setting of Roman occupation and oppression.  When in the nativity story in Luke we read of the Roman Emperor conducting a census that required all peoples to return to their ancestral lands, what we are really reading about is the tribute system at work.  In Jewish culture land was not bought and sold (although it could be lost to debtors), but belonged to one’s ancestral line.  Joseph apparently had been unable to scratch out a living on his family lands and so had left to try to make it as a carpenter.  That is, until the Roman Empire declared that all people must return to work the land so that the Emperor could be sure to extract as much tribute as possible from the people he conquered.  It can be easy to forget when hearing the Christmas story that Jesus was not born to the elite or the powerful. His family was lower class and oppressed.  Even a very pregnant woman had no choice but to obey the Empire and travel to Bethlehem where her son would be born in the muck of a stable and laid to sleep in a feeding trough.  This is how the poor in spirit are born.

To question the Roman system of oppression resulted in death. For instance, around the time of Jesus’ birth the Romans responded to Jewish acts of rebellion in the Galilee region (like their refusal to pay tribute to the pagan gods of Rome) by slaughtering and enslaving tens of thousands of people.  In 4 BCE, the Romans burned the town of Sepphoris (just a few miles from Jesus’ boyhood home in Nazareth) to the ground, enslaving all its inhabitants.   We see similar acts of oppression in the Hunger Games.  After the Quarter Quell games and Katniss’ subversive act of bringing down the force field, the Capitol retaliates against her District.  No one in the town responds to her televised action with either protest or celebration, “yet within fifteen minutes, the sky was filled with hoverplanes and the bombs were raining down” (Mockingjay 7).  Like the Romans did to Sepphoris, the Capitol burned District 12 to the ground for daring to produce someone who challenged the absolute control of the Capitol. . . .

Oppression crushes hope in whatever way it can – through lack of resources, denial of freedoms, and the threat of violence.  This is Katniss’ world in the Hunger Games, it was Jesus’ world under Rome, and it is the lived experience of people all over the world today.

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Wednesday’s Religion News Roundup: Romney does less bad, Springsteen’s Catholicism, Orthodox abuse

As the Jewish victims in the French school shooting were being buried in Israel, police in France laid siege to the house of the suspect, a 24-year-old Islamic militant claiming ties to Al Qaeda.

French Jews and Muslims grapple for answers.

Mitt Romney won big in Illinois last night, and did less bad with conservatives and evangelicals than he has before. He did a lot better than the first Mormon to run for president did in Illinois, a state he didn’t leave alive.

So Romney’s good now, right? Please? CBN’s David Brody is already warning Mitt that he has to do more to win evangelical hearts and minds or it’ll be a “hold your nose” vote in the fall: “A standard evangelical turnout won’t do the trick for Romney.”

Illinois was considered a “must win” for Rick Santorum to remain viable. So now it’s on to Santorum’s next “must win,” Louisiana – which he could actually win, despite attempting to distance himself from the rather controversial remarks of Pastor Dennis Terry at a Baptist church service Santorum attended.

Among other things, Pastor Terry said, “If you don’t love America, and you don’t like the way we do things, I’ve got one thing to say, get out!”

Now he has also explained that his remarks were misreported. “I said no such thing. I said those who do not love America and what she stands for should leave.”

This may require some deep exegesis.

So if Santorum loses, what’s he going to do with that cool Secret Service code name? Give it back to the Pope?

Speaking of the Pope, will he need a new ATM card now that JP Morgan closed their account with the Vatican?

Don’t go to Goldman Sachs, Benedict. They won’t even let the nuns in, and they’re shareholders.

Here’s everything you ever wanted to know about Archbishop-designate William Lori, the church’s point man on religious freedom who’s got himself a new gig in Baltimore.

Speaking of new gigs, Bruce Springsteen is promoting his new album, which features powerful religious language to convey its message:

“I got brainwashed as a child with Catholicism,” the Jersey guy (yeah, baby) jokes. “Its like Al Pacino in The Godfather: I try to get out but they pull you back in! Once a Catholic, always a Catholic.”

Barbara Johnson, known as the lesbian denied communion at her mother’s funeral, addressed a gathering of gay and lesbian Catholics in Baltimore. “It’s my mother’s love and compassion, and willingness to stand up for what is right that you see standing before you today,” Johnson said.

Not just a Catholic story: The Washington Post reports on the sexual abuse of children in the Orthodox Jewish community.

The Israeli parliament, the Knesset, has passed a law aimed at encouraging rabbinical courts to impose sanctions on husbands who refuse to give their wives a get, or Jewish bill of divorce.

The Knesset also prefers zaftig to skinny when it comes to women, and has a law that says so.

Cain and Abel redux: Son says sibling rivalry fueled the downfall of the Crystal Cathedral and the Schuller dynasty.

-- David Gibson

Photo credit: "Rolling Stone" cover via the Official Bruce Springsteen Site

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Friday, March 16, 2012

Crystal Cathedral downfall offers cautionary tale

(RNS) Last Sunday (March 11), Pastor Sheila Schuller Coleman appeared for apparently the last time before some 800 people at the morning service of the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif.

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Sheila Schuller Coleman, eldest daughter of Crystal Cathedral founder Robert H. Schuller, was latest member of the Schuller family to take the helm of the gleaming megachurch in Garden Grove, Calif. RNS photo courtesy Crystal Cathedral.

For members of the extended Schuller family who had built and shepherded the iconic megachurch into the spiritual home for 10,000 members, so much had changed:

-- Faced with staggering debts and a bankruptcy filing, the glass building was recently sold to the local Catholic diocese, but can remain Protestant in the short term.

-- The staff had dropped from 350 to 200, including the recent firings of Coleman's sister, husband and brother-in-law, who had all worked on its "Hour of Power" broadcasts.

-- Just the day before, her parents, Robert H. and Arvella Schuller, had departed the ministry they started more than 50 years ago, citing a multimillion-dollar fight with its board.

As members of the Schuller family head in new directions -- Coleman and brother-in law Jim Penner plan to start a new church this Sunday -- the famous glass-walled church offers a cautionary tale of the potential pitfalls facing family-run ministries.

"If you have a family ministry, the health of the relationships within the family is key to whether the governance of the ministry is going to work well or not," said the Rev. Wes Granberg-Michaelson, a former board member and former general secretary of the Reformed Church in America, the denomination of the Crystal Cathedral.

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Crystal Cathedral founder Robert H. Schuller, left, parted ways with his son, Robert A. Schuller, right, over the future direction of the “Hour of Power” television program in 2008. Religion News Service photo courtesy Crystal Cathedral.

Granberg-Michaelson said the turning point for the ministry came when the family disputed who should take the reins of leadership as Robert H. Schuller prepared to step back as the public face of the ministry. Initially, Schuller wanted to see his son, Robert A. Schuller, take his place, and passed on the mantle of senior pastor in 2006.

Within two years, the younger Schuller left after he and his father could not agree on the ministry's future direction. The next year, Coleman was chosen to handle administrative duties.

"I think that Robert A. could have carried that ministry and could have continued it," said Granberg-Michaelson. "I also think that it would have been possible to find a person from the outside that would make that a mission-driven ministry and essentially a ministry that moved beyond the family. But neither one of those things happened."

Miriam Carver, an Atlanta-based nonprofit governance consultant, tried to help the ministry in 2008. She advised the board that it was inappropriate to have board members who also were staffers and family members. "You can certainly see that phenomenon, but it's really bad practice because it's a conflict of interest," she said. The board declined to implement her recommendations.

The lessons from the downfall of the Schullers' ministry can be taught to a wide array of organizations, experts say.

"There's always been a caution against nepotism in all kinds of work," said Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Washington-based Ethics and Public Policy Center. "Why shouldn't it also extend to Christian ministries?"

Part of the reason Catholicism embraced priestly celibacy was to avoid "complicated inheritance issues" that surfaced in medieval times when priests were allowed to marry, said Christopher Bellitto, a historian at Kean University in New Jersey.

Family domination of a church has become increasingly rare, said Dave Travis, CEO of Dallas-based Leadership Network. His church think tank finds many of the first-generation pastors of large churches are taking a different approach. "They're not family-controlled churches, for the most part, and they don't necessarily aspire for their children to follow them into the ministry or into the ministry in that same church," he said.

To be sure, some inherited ministries can work, even thrive -- Jonathan and Jerry Falwell Jr., Joel Osteen and even Franklin Graham have all taken the reins of their ministries from their famous fathers. Travis said the family problems were only a part of the downfall of Crystal Cathedral, which also was affected by the focus on its TV ministry and its imposing building.

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(RNS) Sunset at Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California. RNS file photo courtesy Creative Commons Website.    

"They put a lot of stock in the building where they were," he said. "As the neighborhood changed, they were kind of stuck there."

Now located in a far more diverse area than the predominantly white one it was decades ago, the Crystal Cathedral finds that its Hispanic congregation is one of its most thriving ministries. But that, too, is changing: On April 1, it will begin meeting at the Anaheim Convention Center.

As the remnant of the dwindling Crystal Cathedral congregants contemplate their next steps, remaining leaders are urging them to stay put -- and note that they will shun the contemporary flavor that Schuller's daughter and son-in-law had supported.

"We invite everyone to join us next Sunday for worship in the Crystal Cathedral," said John Charles, new chairman of the Crystal Cathedral Ministries' board of directors, in a statement. "Since sharing this news with our congregation, we have received an outpouring of assurance and encouragement from numerous members of the congregation about their excitement over the return to the traditional worship style on which the ministry was founded."

Whatever happens, the California church appears to be a shadow of its former self, when people across the globe would rave to Granberg-Michaelson during his travels about how they were helped by viewing Schuller's "Hour of Power."

"It touched countless people," he said. "To see this come unraveled, it's just a deep tragedy."

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The Bishops Assume the Position

The best thing that can be said about "United for Religious Freedom," the new statement from the USCCB's Administrative Committee, is that it's not hysterical. It is, however, uncompromising and disingenuous. Let us count the ways.

1. "This is not about access to contraception, which is ubiquitous and inexpensive, even when it is not provided by the Church’s hand and with the Church’s funds." On the contrary, for those of modest means, the cost of contraception is not inconsequential; denying them coverage can indeed deny them access.

2. "This is not about the Bishops’ somehow “banning contraception,” when the U.S. Supreme Court took that issue off the table two generations ago." Did the U.S. Supreme Court take the issue of abortion off the table as well, so far as the bishops are concerned? I don't think so.

3. "The mandate includes an extremely narrow definition of what HHS deems a “religious employer” deserving exemption—employers who, among other things, must hire and serve primarily those of their own faith." No mention here of the president's accommodataion, which would excempt a much wider range of faith-based institutions from the mandate by shifting the burden of coverage to their insurance companies.

4. "The introduction of this unprecedented defining of faith communities and their ministries has precipitated this struggle for religious freedom. Government has no place defining religion and religious ministry." Distinctions about what does and does not constitute a religious institution is a long-standing feature of federal anti-discrimination law. For example, a school must meet certain criteria in terms of religious purpose in order to be able to discriminate in hiring on religious grounds. 

5. "HHS thus creates and enforces a new distinction—alien both to our Catholic tradition and to federal law—between our houses of worship and our great ministries of service to our neighbors, namely, the poor, the homeless, the sick, the students in our schools and universities, and others in need, of any faith community or none." What do you mean by "our," bishops? Most of those great ministries are 501 (c) 3 non-profits with their own boards of trustees, unconnected legally to the any part of the Catholic Church and not subject the episcopal rule. That's not to say that many of them are not strongly identified with Catholicism, or that they don't advertise their connection to the faith. But just as the head of the Catholic Hospital Association has embraced the president's accommodation, so many of the "great ministries" may choose to depart from the bishops' campaign against the mandate.

6. "The HHS mandate creates still a third class, those with no conscience protection at all: individuals who, in their daily lives, strive constantly to act in accordance with their faith and moral values." So the bishops are hewing to a right of individual employers to exemptions from health care coverage according to their personal religious lights. If I don't believe in blood transfusions, blood transfusions are out? If I believe God condemns race-mixing, coverage of a spouse of a different race is out? To what degree do the bishops wish to permit conscience to trump laws? What of those fundamentalist Mormons who who are conscientiously obliged to practice plural marriage?

7."United for Religious Freedom." Regardless of how the question is asked, Americans believe that this struggle is not about religious freedom but about contraception. And they're right. If the bishops had gotten the exemption they wanted in the first place, they would not be fighting this fight.

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Friday’s Religion News Roundup: Rowan retires, no porn for Santorum, Jesus on ‘The Bachelor’

Big news from the U.K.: Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams is retiring at the end of the year to take an academic post in Cambridge. He says his successor (Uganda-born John Sentamu is a favorite) will need "the constitution of an ox and the skin of a rhinoceros." 

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Rowan Williams was appointed the Archbishop of Canterbury in 2002, but struggled to maintain the Anglican Communion amidst growing conservative anger over homosexuality. RNS file photo

Williams, you'll recall, presided over the Episcopal Church's decision to go its own way on gay priests and bishops, and as conservative Third World bishops in the Anglican Communion increasingly ignored him as they set up an alphabet soup of competing jurisdictions. The NYT says Williams was never comfortable in the role given his liberal tendencies vs. conservative opposition. His eyebrows deserved an archdiocese all their own.

One thing he won't have to worry about in retirement: talks in the British government toward legalizing same-sex marriages.

Could the Crystal Cathedral have been saved if a non-Schuller had been tapped to lead it? Some experts say yes.

Remember Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown woman dubbed a "slut" and a "prostitute" for trying to testify in favor of contraception coverage in Congress? Now she's getting flack for dating a nice Jewish boy.

Newt Gingrich is citing the Bible for continuing his uphill presidential campaign, and Rick Santorum -- in a bid to tick off young voters, apparently -- wants to ban hard-core pornography.

NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly is pushing back against efforts to create an inspector general to keep tabs on his department's surveillance of Muslims. ""I think there's plenty of oversight," Kelly said. "I don't know what more you would want."

The NYT is facing criticism for running an ad from atheists encouraging Catholics to leave their church while turning down a similar ad that asked the same of Muslims.

The Kentucky Supreme Court is wrestling with whether requiring Amish buggies to display orange safety triangles violates the Amish right to religious freedom.

Abortion foes have gotten the green light from Catholic leaders to use an exorcism prayer outside an abortion clinic in Kettering, Ohio.

After a newborn boy in Brooklyn died from herpes contracted during a ritual circumcision, there are at least two other boys in New Jersey who contracted herpes via circumcision, though they survived.

Reuters offers a quick primer on Nigeria's violent Islamist sect Boko Haram. The Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia says no churches should be allowed on the Arabian Peninsula.

The 13 Cubans who had occupied a church in central Havana in a bid to meet with B16 later this month have been removed by police. And the Vatican has pulled its support for a seminarians' soccer tournament that apparently lost its "educational" value.

And finally, because it's Friday: A woman in Port St. Lucie, Fla., says Jesus appeared on her television screen during -- wait for it! -- an episode of The Bachelor. As someone who's spent more than his fair share of time in Port St. Lucie, this is not at all surprising.

-- Kevin Eckstrom

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Sunday, March 11, 2012

Pope Benedict XVI denounces cultural shift toward gay marriage in U.S.

VATICAN CITY(RNS) Pope Benedict XVI on Friday (March 9) denounced the "powerful political and cultural currents" that are working to "alter the legal definition of marriage" in the United States.

The pope's condemnation of same-sex marriage came in an address to a delegation of bishops from Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, headed by Archbishop John Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

Maryland legalized gay marriage March 1 and Minnesota will be one of five states to vote on the issue in the coming months. Minnesota's bishops are campaigning for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

Benedict stressed that "sexual difference cannot be dismissed as irrelevant to the definition of marriage," and called on the church to continue its "reasoned defense of marriage."

The pope also echoed bishops' concerns over their battle with the Obama administration on the contraception mandate. "Threats to freedom of conscience, religion and worship" in the United States, he said, "need to be addressed urgently."

The pontiff also challenged the bishops to act more incisively against the "widespread practice of cohabitation," which is not only "gravely sinful" but also "damaging to the stability of society."

The church, he said, must do more to promote the "virtue of chastity" in a society that "tends to misunderstand and even ridicule" it.

In a veiled reference to the sexual abuse crisis, Benedict also said that the church must continue to dedicate itself to educating the young, despite being "chastened by the events of the past decade."

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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Ex-cons, homeless seek enlightenment through art

ST. LOUIS (RNS) The Buddha said, "I teach one thing and one thing only: suffering and the end of suffering."

The end of suffering is something that Keith Freeman -- a former drug dealer, convict, alcoholic and crack addict -- has been after for decades.

And after taking part in an intense, five-month program at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts that connected former prisoners and homeless veterans with ancient Buddhist artwork, Freeman thinks he may have taken a step closer to enlightenment.

The group is hosting 15 performances in the Pulitzer's galleries featuring rookie actors speaking scripts culled from their own group sessions as they wrestled with Buddhist truths and their own demons.

Growing up, Freeman's father was absent and his mother was often sick, so he raised his four younger brothers and sisters. But by the time he was 15, he had quit school, fallen in with the wrong crowd and was stealing from freight trains. By 17, he was locked up in the state penitentiary for a year. Before he was 30, he returned to prison, this time for selling drugs.

Freeman spent the next two decades in what he now can identify as a state of trishna, or craving for sense pleasures. Trishna is one of Buddhism's Noble Truths, and the source of all suffering, the source of self-annihilation.

"It was a battle between living and wanting," Freeman said. "I fought that battle for a long time."

Last year, he entered an outpatient drug program at the St. Patrick Center, a homeless service center in St. Louis. Last fall, caseworkers chose Freeman and 16 others who had auditioned for the Pulitzer's "Staging Reflections of the Buddha" program.

The original pool of actors was chosen for their willingness to open themselves up to something new, and to experience the vulnerability that comes with acting, said Emily Piro, who coordinated the "Staging" project for St. Patrick.

Emily Pulitzer, founder and director of the Pulitzer Foundation, said the project was conceived to "build bridges between audiences and art, and between parts of the community."

The goal, she said, was to teach the participants "how to articulate ideas, and how to trust."

Most of the participants are clients of the St. Patrick Center, but a few are veterans of St. Louis-based Prison Performing Arts. Another nonprofit group helps the actors with resumes and other job skills.

The Pulitzer Foundation's current exhibit, "Reflections of the Buddha" includes 22 Buddhist pieces from Afghanistan, China, India, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan and Tibet.

In the Pulitzer's galleries and classrooms, the actors meditated and wrote haiku. A series of game-playing and improv exercises fostered teamwork and communication skills.

The improv sessions led to the scripts the actors are performing for the public, as staffers sat nearby, furiously typing the actors' thoughts on laptops.

For many of the Christian and Muslim actors, the experience was their first exposure to 2,500-year-old Buddhist philosophies. Along the way, social workers tracked the sessions and met with the group separately to connect the dots between the art and the actors' lives.

The notes created during the improv games were then woven into scripts, which were reviewed for accuracy and given to the actors to memorize.

During the performances, the actors and audience move from one piece of artwork to the next -- a dynamic that Emily Pulitzer likens to a Passion play. As they lead an audience around the galleries, the actors will recite lines originally spoken by their colleagues in the improv sessions as they contemplated the pieces.

The performance "forces those who come ... to see the art from someone else's perspective," said Kristina Van Dyke, director of the Pulitzer Foundation. It's a "perspective they might not have heard before, and it forces them to see" former prisoners and homeless veterans in a different light.

Allen Wilson, 48, who lives in St. Louis and is a client at St. Patrick Center, said he wasn't sure what to think of the program at first.

"But as I came to understand what it was about, I've learned a lot about myself, the character in myself," Wilson said. "It gives you peace of mind when you can go to a different level and get a better awareness of yourself."

Christopher Fan, an intern with the "Staging" program from Washington University and a practicing Buddhist, said the actors had soaked up difficult Buddhist ideas. "In 12 weeks, they've gained more insight than I have in my 21 years as a Zen Buddhist," Fan said.

For Freeman, being exposed to Buddhism challenged him to worry less about the future. "It's about knowing not to give power to your burdens," he said. "When you do, it takes away from your soul."

Instead, he said, he's going to concentrate on his writing. He's got three screenplays already planned out in his head, and the combination of Buddhist philosophy and acting had taught him something about how he'd like to conduct the rest of his life.

"Put on my game face, stay in character and look forward," he said. "Backwards is not an option."

(Tim Townsend writes for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in St. Louis.)

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FBI says Muslims’ trust is broken by NYPD spying

NEWARK, N.J. (RNS) As friction over the New York Police Department's spying on New Jersey Muslims continues to grow, the state's top FBI officer said the uproar is damaging his agency's ability to gather important counterterrorism intelligence.

"What we have now is (Muslim communities) ... that they're not sure they trust law enforcement in general, they're fearing being watched, they're starting to withdraw their activities," Michael Ward, director of the FBI's Newark division, said Tuesday (March 6).

"And the impact of that sinking tide of cooperation means that we don't have our finger on the pulse of what's going on in the community as well -- we're less knowledgeable, we have blind spots, and there's more risk."

In his first public comments on the deepening controversy, Ward said the FBI has spent the years after 9/11 opening lines of communication with New Jersey's Muslim communities.

"Now that trust is being challenged, those relationships are being strained," he said, his voice rising with emphasis. "And it's the trust and those relationships that provide the true security against terrorism."

In a rare public criticism of another agency, Ward also questioned the effectiveness of the NYPD's 2007 surveillance as plainclothes officers charted mosques and other places frequented by Muslims.

"There's a difference between effective intel and intel that's not effective," he said. "If the NYPD intel could come over (to New Jersey) and identify hot spots of al-Qaida sympathizers, or if they could identify individuals being radicalized over the Internet, then that would have a direct correlation to counterterrorism efforts and that would be something that we could use, that would be useful intelligence.

"But (the NYPD) coming out and just basically mapping out houses of worship and minority-owned businesses, there's no correlation between the location of houses of worship and minority-owned businesses and counterterrorism" work.

Ward also said there should be "an articulable factual basis" for domestic intelligence collection, such as a "specific reason why we're looking at this location, this person."

NYPD spokesman Paul Browne responded in an e-mail that plainclothes officers of the NYPD who operated in other states, such as New Jersey, "were not conducting blanket ongoing surveillance of communities."

Plainclothes officers would go into neighborhoods with heavy concentrations of populations from the "countries of interest," and observe the individuals in the public establishments.

"This is an important point -- only public locations were visited. This was perfectly within the purview of the NYPD," Browne said.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly have staunchly defended the need for and legality of the NYPD operating beyond New York, while New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Newark Mayor Cory Booker have criticized the undercover operation.

Ultimately, Ward said, speaking broadly of the Muslim and other communities' view of law enforcement, "Reputations are built by many deeds and ruined by one."

(Jason Grant writes for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J.)

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COGIC reinstates bishop after criminal charges dropped

NEW ORLEANS (RNS) The Church of God in Christ has lifted the suspension of a New Orleans bishop after a judge ruled that the charges of forcible rape, sexual battery and indecent behavior brought against him were too old to prosecute.

A Tuesday (March 6) statement from the church said its General Board had removed the suspension against Bishop Charles E. Brown and would have no further comment. The statement did not indicate that the denomination sought to interview the alleged victims. Brown was unavailable.

Brown, 59, leads two Pentecostal churches: Full Gospel Church of God in Christ in New Orleans and Williams Memorial Temple Church of God in Christ in Houston. He is also the jurisdictional bishop for the New Orleans area.

Brown was arrested last June on a complaint by an unidentified woman who said he had molested her as a minor. COGIC officials suspended him in September, shortly after the allegations became public.

Afterward, two other women came forward with allegations of sexual misconduct. He was indicted on a charge of forcible rape in one of the encounters.   

Prosecutors also filed four charges of indecent behavior or sexual battery. All of the crimes allegedly took place between 1977 and 1989. Brown denied the charges and pleaded not guilty.

Criminal District Court Judge Karen Herman ruled that the statute of limitations, as written when the crimes allegedly were committed, long ago ran out. At that time, the victims were required to report them no later than 10 years after they turned 17.

(Bruce Nolan writes for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.)

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Scotland Yard says witchcraft abuse a hidden crime

LONDON (RNS) British police say they have investigated more than 80 witchcraft-based child abuse cases in the last decade, and warned that the practice is "far more prevalent" than previously believed.

Authorities say the belief in witchcraft is widespread and growing in some African immigrant communities in Britain.

The disclosure came as a couple from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Magalie Bamu and Eric Bikubi, were sentenced to life in prison for torturing and drowning the woman's 15-year-old brother, Kristy Bamu.

Police said the two were convinced that the youth was a witch who had cast a spell on another child. They added that Bikubi had a "lifelong obsession" with a form of witchcraft known as kindoki and believed he had a special ability to detect evil.

Scotland Yard officials said they had probed 83 cases involving ritualistic or "faith-based" crimes in the past 10 years, and believe those cases represent only a small part of the true total of witchcraft practices in Britain.

Detective Superintendent Terry Sharpe said "this is a hidden and underreported crime and therefore difficult to deal with in terms of protecting victims from harm."

Sharpe, who heads a police team code-named "Project Violet" that tackles religion-based child abuse, added that "the intelligence from the community is that it's far more prevalent than the reports we are getting."

Previous cases include "exorcism ceremonies"; torture; attacks with knives, sticks, metal bars and hammers; drownings and disembowelments. The cases involve beliefs brought into Britain from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean.

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Tuesday, March 6, 2012



Presidential candidate Rick Santorum bows in prayer during a campaign rally in Phoenix, Ariz. RNS photo courtesy Gage Skidmore.

Topics: Politics, Election,
Beliefs: Christian - Catholic
Tags: 2012 campaign, home-schoolers, rick santorum

Rick Santorum’s secret army: home-schoolers

(RNS) Rick Santorum's rise as a serious contender for the GOP presidential nomination is thrilling Christian home-schoolers -- a potent and organized political force, particularly in primaries. By Daniel Burke.
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Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims blast Rick Santorum on ‘equality’ comment

(RNS) Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus are accusing Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum of bigotry and ignorance after said that "equality" is solely a Judeo-Christian concept. By Omar Sacirbey.
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Rick Santorum defends views on Obama’s theology

 WASHINGTON (RNS) Republican presidential contender Rick Santorum, leading the GOP field in national polls, is defending his views questioning prenatal testing and President Obama's "theology." By Susan Page.
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Santorum might not be Mitt Romney’s only problem in Michigan

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (RNS) Mitt Romney’s position on the Detroit auto bailout and health care plan have been blasted, but a pollster suggests one issue not often discussed on the campaign trail this year could end up costing him Tuesday's Michigan primary victory: his Mormon faith. EPIC-MRA po...
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Mitt Romney trouncing Rick Santorum among Catholics

(RNS) A new analysis shows Mitt Romney trouncing Rick Santorum among Catholic voters, but evangelicals have yet to embrace him. By Daniel Burke.
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Why the United States has no moral credibility as a peacemaker

Imagine a basketball game where before the game, the referee walks up to one of the two coaches, and says:  “I want you to know that you and I share an unbreakable bond.   If you are ever behind, I am going to jump in, and protect you.   If you commit a foul, I am going to waive off those fouls.”   Would that be a credible and impartial referee?

Back when Simon Cowell was on American Idol, imagine Cowell calling the two finalists to the stage, and in broad view turning to one of them, and saying:  “I have kept my commitments to” you, and that “at every crucial juncture – at every fork in the road – we have been there for you.”  Imagine the look on the face of the other contestant, knowing that she or he stands no chance with this rigged situation when the person who is supposed to be the judge is a one-sided advocate for one contestant. 

As absurd as the above situations are, this is exactly where we find our selves with respect to the peace negotiation between Palestine and Israel.    The above quote is from President Obama’s speech to the partisan American Israel Public Affairs Committee that just took place.  

For decades now the Untied States has been claiming to play the role of the Peacemaker between Palestinians, who have been driven out of their ancestral homeland since 1948, and been under Israeli occupation in Jerusalem, West Bank, and until recently, Gaza.    Yet the same United States has a one-sided love affair with Israel, the same United States supports Israel with billions of dollars of financial aid and military aid, and the same United States has vetoed about sixty United Nations resolutions condemning Israeli atrocities against Palestinians. 

If Americans want to know why we are seen globally as a bully and a hypocrite, we have to look no further than our treatment of the Palestinian-Israeli disaster.   Simply put, our fanatic and one-sided support of Israel leads us to lack any moral credibility in negotiating a just and meaningful peace resolution between Palestinians and Israelis in the eyes of the world community.  

We continue to arm and fund Israel while the Palestinians continue in abject poverty and occupation (made worse through their own corrupt leaders and infighting).     Israel would have had to come to just and meaningful peace with Palestinians a long time ago, were it not for the over hundred billion dollars of aid and political support that the US unconditionally bestows upon Israel.

So here we are caught up in a global situation whereby there are two forces that could legitimately act to stop the occupation and bring about a meaningful peace:  the United Nations and the United States.   The United Nations lacks no means to enforce the many, many resolutions they have passed.  And the United States is a partial, partisan supporter of Israel.   So where is peace supposed to come from?

The Palestinian people, who have suffered under occupation for sixty years and are routinely deprived of the most basic human rights.  The Israeli people, who have lived under fear for many decades and are now living in a situation of injustice that sullies the good name of Jewish people, and directly leads to the animosity of many people worldwide towards Israelis.  Both parties deserve better than this blind, fanatic, one-sided referee.   Maybe then we could have peace and justice for us all. 

1) Obama at AIPAC is from: 

2)   Israel and America: Symbol for the relationship between the two countries   image from
Image ID: 93616696

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Soccer group agrees to test hijabs for female players

(RNS) Muslim female soccer players are celebrating a decision by the International Football Association Board to allow them to test specially designed head coverings for four months.

Soccer's international governing body, known as FIFA, has prohibited headscarves since 2007, citing safety concerns. The new headscarves will be fastened with Velcro rather than pins.

The headscarf prohibition has generated controversy among fans of the world's most popular team sport, especially in Muslim countries in Africa, the Middle East and central Asia.

Iran's women's soccer team was banned from this summer's 2012 Olympic Games in London after players appeared with headscarves before a match against Jordan last year. Later, Jordan's Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, who is also vice president of FIFA, started pushing to lift the ban.

In Canada, Quebec's Lac St. Louis Regional Soccer Association barred a referee from a game in 2011 because she wore a headscarf, citing prohibitions against religious symbols on uniforms. During a 2007 youth tournament in Quebec, a Muslim player was ejected from a game for wearing a headscarf.

While banned in international soccer, headscarves have been permitted and worn without incident in other competitive sports. Several women competed with headscarves in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, including Bahrain's Roqaya Al-Gassra, who reached the semifinals of the 200-meter sprint in Beijing.

Many Muslim female athletes wear typical sports clothing without worrying about Islamic dress codes, including Laila Ali, a retired professional boxer; Pakistani Olympic swimmers Kiran Khan and Rubab Raza; and Moroccan hurdler Nawal El Moutawakel, who became the first Muslim woman to win an Olympic gold medal, in Los Angeles in 1984.

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Mormons warned against baptizing Holocaust victims, celebrities

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Anne Frank, photographed at school before her family went into hiding from the Nazis in 1942. Photo courtesy of the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation

SALT LAKE CITY (RNS) Anne Frank, Simon Wiesenthal's parents, Gandhi, Daniel Pearl, Elvis. Mormon leaders are fed up.

On Friday (March 2), the LDS church's governing First Presidency issued an unequivocal mandate to its members: Do not submit names of Jewish Holocaust victims or celebrities for proxy baptism. Doing so could cost Mormons access to their church's genealogical data or even their good standing in the faith.

"Without exception, church members must not submit for proxy temple ordinances any names from unauthorized groups, such as celebrities and Jewish Holocaust victims," LDS President Thomas S. Monson and his counselors wrote in a letter to all Mormon bishops, dated Feb. 29.

"If members do so, they may forfeit their New FamilySearch privileges [access to the church's genealogical holdings]. Other corrective action may also be taken."

The letter, which was to be read over pulpits and posted on bulletin boards in every Mormon congregation on Sunday (March 4), reminds members that their "pre-eminent obligation" is to their own ancestors, and any name submitted for proxy rituals "should be related to the submitter."

The crackdown could help LDS officials put an end to overzealous Mormons sidestepping the rules or mischief-makers bent on embarrassing the faith.

The Mormon practice known as "baptism for the dead" involves living people being baptized on behalf of their dead relatives. Mormons believe it is their moral obligation to do the temple rituals, while those in the hereafter can either accept or reject the ordinance.

In the early 1990s, Jewish representatives complained about the practice, arguing that it disrespected Jews who died in the Holocaust. Mormon leaders agreed to remove them from the list of candidates for baptism, unless they were related to living church members.

The task, however, proved difficult, and many of the names continued to pop up in the database. In 2010, the Mormons assured Jews that a new computer system would help solve the problem.

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Daniel Pearl was killed in 2002 in Pakistan while on assignment for The Wall Street Journal. Pearl, who was Jewish, was posthumously baptized by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. RNS photo courtesy Daniel Pearl Foundation.

But it exploded again in recent weeks as reporters published accounts of proxy baptisms for several well-known figures, including the deceased parents of famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, and slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.

LDS officials reacted swiftly and decisively to the news, issuing an apology and saying in several cases they had removed the submitters' access to their genealogical records.

"We consider this a serious breach of our protocol," spokesman Scott Trotter said in a statement, "and we have suspended indefinitely this person's ability to access our genealogy records."

The letter from the church's First Presidency is an emphatic step, said Philip Barlow, an expert on Mormon history and culture at Utah State University. "It says 'we really mean business' and the imprimatur will etch more deeply on (Mormon) minds."

When the First Presidency speaks, Barlow said, "LDS ears hear that with a louder microphone than a university president would have. It has the added resonance of prophetic authority."

And it also "signals a seriousness to outsiders," he said.

In a statement, Abraham Foxman, national director of the New York-based Anti-Defamation League, welcomed the hard line from Mormon leaders.

"Church members should understand why proxy baptisms are so offensive to the Jewish people, who faced near annihilation during the Holocaust simply because they were Jewish, and who throughout history were often the victims of forced conversions," Foxman said.

"As two minority religions who share histories as the target of intolerance and discrimination, we will continue to work with each other to bring greater understanding and respect to both of our faith communities."

(Peggy Fletcher Stack writes for The Salt Lake Tribune.)

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Friday, March 2, 2012

Billy Graham Evangelistic Assoc. lays off 50 employees

(RNS) The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association is laying off 10 percent of its staff as it shifts resources to make online evangelism a priority.

Some 50 people on the 500-member staff will lose their jobs between mid-March and this summer, said Brent Rinehart, a BGEA spokesman, on Thursday (March 1).

About 20 of the affected staffers work at the association headquarters in Charlotte, N.C. Others have worked as field staff across the globe or at The Cove, the BGEA's training center in Asheville, N.C.

"It's definitely not a reflection of the financial health of the organization," Rinehart said. "It's really more redeploying resources to focus on those areas of great impact."

One of those areas is, a website the BGEA launched last April that includes a real-time count of "decisions" people make to become Christians.

The ministry laid off 55 people in 2009 during tough economic times that affected numerous religious and nonreligious organizations.

Famed evangelist Billy Graham remains the chairman of the association he founded in 1950. His son, Franklin, runs the day-to-day operations as the CEO and president.

The ministry operates festivals, training and the Billy Graham Library in addition to its online outreach. The BGEA's revenue dropped from $126 million in 2005 to $85.7 million in 2009, Rinehart said. In 2010, it totaled $91.6 million.

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A Shariah billboard encourages readers to ask questions and call the toll-free number or visit the campaign website. RNS photo courtesy ICNA.

Tags: campaign, muslim, shariah

Muslims launch campaign to explain Shariah

(RNS) "If you are looking for problematic texts in the Quran, yes, they exist. They also exist in the Bible and Torah and other books," said Emory University's Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im. "But Christians aren't judged based on what the Bible said 2,000 years ago, but on how they behave today. Why are Muslims judged according to these literalist interpretations, and not according to how the vast majority of good Muslims behave today?" By Omar Sacirbey.
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N.C. Muslims rally around suspects in beheading plot

WILMINGTON, N.C. (RNS) As a Muslim woman waits in jail here for word on a possible indictment in her alleged involvement in a murder-for-hire beheading plot, her friends and family are using social media to come to her aid. By Amanda Greene.
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Verizon plans to drop Muslim TV network

(RNS) Verizon FIOS, the national cable television operator, has decided to drop Bridges TV, a pioneering television network that seeks to challenge stereotypes of Muslims and create understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims. By Omar Sacirbey.
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Report calls Muslim terrorism a ‘minuscule threat’

(RNS) A new report by a terrorism expert at the University of North Carolina says the threat of terrorism at the hands of American Muslims is "a minuscule threat to public safety." By Omar Sacirbey.
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Louis Farrakhan blasts Jews, Obama

(RNS) Saying "I'm not anti-Semitic, I'm just telling the truth," Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan told followers that Jews control the media and entertainment industries, and said President Obama could be assassinated in an inside plot that could be blamed on Muslims. By Omar Sacirbey
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The Levitt family of Silver Spring, Md., dressed in Harry Potter costumes for Purim in 2011; the family does not celebrate Halloween, preferring instead to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Purim. RNS photo courtesy Levitt family.

Topics: Faith, Doctrine & Practice,
Beliefs: Judaism
Tags: halloween, purim

Is Purim the Jewish Halloween? Some Jews say no.

(RNS) The raucous Jewish holiday of Purim begins on Wednesday (Mar. 7) and many a Jewish kid will dress up in costumes and give out treats to neighbors. Sound like Halloween? For some Jewish families, the answer is a resounding "no." By Lauren Markoe.
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The Cathedral of Hope recently made a generous donation to a small Minnesota church that will keep it from closing for the next several months. RNS photo courtesy Phoebe Sexton / Cathedral of Hope.

Tags: cathedral of hope, dallas, donations, gays, minnesota, same-sex marriage

Wash. moves closer to legalizing gay marriage

SPOKANE, Wash. (RNS) Opponents of same-sex marriage promised a fight at the ballot box after Washington lawmakers took steps to make the state the seventh to legalize gay weddings. By Tracy Simmons.
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Yes, Mormons tithe, but most others don’t

(RNS) Across the religious landscape, tithing is often preached but rarely realized.  Research into church donations shows a wide range of giving, with Mormons among the most generous relative to income, conservative Christians next, followed by mainline Protestants and Catholics last. By Bruce Nolan.
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N.J. lawmakers approve gay marriage, but veto looms

NEWARK, N.J. (RNS) Even as Gov. Chris Christie's threat of a "swift" veto looms, gay rights activists are celebrating after the state Assembly voted on Thursday (Feb. 16) on a bill to legalize same sex marriage in New Jersey. By Maryanne Spoto.
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Nonprofit groups oppose Obama’s change in charitable deductions

WASHINGTON (RNS) For the fourth year in a row, President Obama is proposing lower tax deductions for the wealthy on donations to churches and other nonprofit organizations. And for the fourth year in a row, nonprofit groups say the change would lead to a dramatic drop in charitable giving. By Annalisa Musarra.
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Both sides gear up in N.C. gay marriage fight

WILMINGTON, N.C. (RNS) Here in the only Southern state that does not have a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, both sides are gearing up for a fight at the ballot box on May 8. By Amanda Greene.
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William Hamilton, who said `God is Dead,’ dies at 87

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William Hamilton, who died Tuesday, considered himself a Christian, but did not go to church. Religion News Service photo by Ross William Hamilton/The Oregonian.

PORTLAND, Ore. (RNS) William Hamilton, the retired theologian who declared in the 1960s that God was dead, died Tuesday (Feb. 28) in his downtown Portland apartment. He was 87.

Hamilton said he'd been haunted by questions about God since he was a teenager. Years later, when his conclusion was published in the April 8, 1966, edition of Time Magazine, he found himself at the center of a theological storm.

Time christened the new movement "radical theology," and Hamilton, one of its key figures, received death threats and inspired angry letters to the editor. He lost his endowed chair as a professor of theology at what was then Colgate Rochester Divinity School in 1967.

Hamilton moved on to teach religion at New College in Sarasota, Fla., and then joined the faculty at Portland State University in 1970. He taught classes in religion, literary criticism and death and dying for the next 14 years.

"He was a gifted and inspiring teacher, a person of vibrant and wide-ranging intellect," says Ronald Carson, who met Hamilton in 1962 and has been his friend for 50 years.

Carson recalled hearing Hamilton speak for about 10 minutes and being "mesmerized."

"I have no idea what he said," he said, "but I remember going away from that session and thinking, 'I would love to be like him.'"

Hamilton was Carson's teacher at Colgate and recruited the younger man to teach at New College.

"He was curious, questioning, skeptical and sort of caused his students to take up that attitude toward what they were learning," said Carson, who now teaches in the honors college at the University of Texas at Austin. "I am missing him today."

In addition to teaching, Hamilton often spoke at churches, where Christians were struggling with the same questions that had spurred his studies. The image of God as all-knowing and all-powerful couldn't be reconciled with human suffering, especially after the Holocaust, Hamilton said in a 2007 profile in The Oregonian.

"I wrote out my two choices: 'God is not behind such radical evil, therefore he cannot be what we have traditionally meant by God' or 'God is behind everything, including the death camps -and therefore he is a killer.'"

He discovered that he no longer believed in an active God.

"The death of God is a metaphor," he said. "We needed to redefine Christianity as a possibility without the presence of God."

While Hamilton may have paved the way for the most recent wave of strident atheism, he wasn't a fan of best-selling writers who attacked religion in general or Christianity in particular.

"There is a self-righteousness, a glibness in their writing," he said. "They are too sure of themselves. They've backed themselves into a fundamentalist mode."

For his part, Hamilton saw himself as a Christian who no longer went to church.

"The death of God enabled me to understand the world. Looking back, I wouldn't have gone any other direction. I faced all my worries and questions about death long ago."

Hamilton is survived by his wife of 62 years and five children, eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. No funeral services are planned.

(Nancy Haught writes for The Oregonian.)

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