Fresh take on Yom Kippur

I wish we saw more coverage of liturgical holidays but I get why we don’t. How do you write something fresh and new about something that’s been done … for thousands of years? It’s very difficult to transmit culture or tradition as “news” — since, by definition, they’re not. So that’s why you see news outlets focusing on progressive churches or groups that change, rather than retain, doctrine. It’s actually a fundamental flaw in the transmission-of-information part of the news process … but that’s for a lengthier treatment elsewhere.

But for fresh and new, let’s look at a couple of good treatments. First off is Religion News Service. And don’t be put off by the cliche’d headline of “For somber Jews on Yom Kippur, white is the new black.” Near the top it begins with a rabbi saying his congregation will be dressed in white for Yom Kippur:

Orthodox Jews commonly dress in white on this most holy on the Jewish calendar, the Day of Atonement – which begins the evening of Sept. 13.

In Reform and Conservative synagogues around the world, the picture on Yom Kippur is more colorful, with congregants dressed in suits and dresses of a variety of hues. Here, only the rabbis and hazzans, the musically-trained prayer leaders, will stand out in their white robes.

But in recent years, the tradition has spread to less observant Jews who make up the majority of world Jewry, and who find that wearing white is a way to connect to the message of Yom Kippur, which ends a month-long period of introspection and atonement for one’s sins.

It’s a trend piece without hard data, but nice anecdotes. We hear from members of congregations and rabbis. And it doesn’t shy away from some nice theological aspects — particularly for a brief piece:

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a member of the “Ask the Rabbi” team at Chabad.org – the online presence of the traditional Chabad movement, offers another Yom Kippur analogy.

“We’re wearing white, for the same reason a bride on her wedding day wears white. White is purity. We’re pure,” Freeman said.

And the groom? God. There may have been some nasty issues between the couple, said Freeman. But Yom Kippur gives them a fresh start.

“We say to Him, ‘We can’t live without you.’ He says to us, ‘I always loved you.’”

Another piece I enjoyed could not have been more brief and comes from Buzzfeed — a graph of people searching Google over the years for what time the sun sets. It peaks each year on Yom Kippur. See above.

Finally, there’s an interesting piece about an app that lets you digitally upload a confession and have it put onto a digital goat that is pushed over a cliff by an animated priest.

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AFP gives Maalula its due

It was my intention today to look at religion news coverage of the anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks. And I hope to still do that. But I didn’t come across anything particularly winsome or substantial. I’m sure there must be some good (or bad!) stuff out there. Please do pass it along.

During my search, I came across a story that I do want to commend. Mostly for just being written.

This weekend I met someone who had journeyed to Maalula and had experienced great joy there. He was telling a group of us about encountering an icon in the deepest reaches of a church there. As he told the story, someone said that they thought Maalula had been taken by Syrian rebel forces that day. Reports coming out of Maalula are horrible. Absolutely horrible. And AFP has one that begins:

Jihadists who overran Syria’s ancient Christian town of Maalula last week forced at least one person to convert to Islam at gunpoint and executed another one, residents said Tuesday.

“They arrived in our town at dawn on Wednesday and shouted ‘We are from the Al-Nusra Front and have come to make lives miserable for the Crusaders,” an Islamist term for Christians, said a still frightened woman who identified herself as Marie.

She spoke to AFP in Damascus, where she was attending the burial with hundreds of others of three Christians from Maalula killed in last week’s fighting, the long line of mourners led by a brass band playing dirges.

“Maalula is the wound of Christ,” mourners chanted as they marched through the narrow streets of the capital’s ancient Christian quarter, their voices nearly drowned out by the rattle of automatic gunfire in honour of the dead.

There was an irony in that, as the assault on Maalula came only a couple of weeks before a major feast, the Exaltation of the Cross.

With a caveat that we could do without the Alanis Morissette-style use of “irony,” a few thoughts. First, thank you for covering and featuring this prominently. I am shocked at how little news editors realize these stories are of interest and significance to many global readers. Also, thank you for the sourcing. Was someone forcibly converted at threat of being shot? Well, it’s unlikely that any reporter could say for sure. It’s appropriate to source it to “residents,” although I would like reporters to attempt to confirm the report as much as possible. We don’t get a name of the victim but we do get eyewitness accounts.

The story goes on to discuss the significance of Maalula to Christianity. It’s one of the most renowned Christian towns in Syria. Its inhabitants speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus. The story isn’t just about religion. We learn a little bit about why rebels find it strategically important.

We hear from a man who returned to Syria from the United States, where he’d run a restaurant in Washington State for 42 years. He says the worst part of what happened to Maalula was the reaction from Muslim neighbors who greeted the rebels. That is a powerful aspect to have in the story but, of course, it would be much better to hear from those same Muslim neighbors about their perspective. Were they happy? If so, why?

The piece ends with an anecdote:

The most tragic story was that of Rasha, who recounted how the jihadists had seized her fiance Atef, who belonged to the town’s militia, and brutally murdered him.

“I rang his mobile phone and one of them answered,” she said.

“Good morning, Rash rush,” the voice said, using her nickname. “We are from the Free Syrian Army. Do you know your fiance was a member of the shabiha (pro-regime militia) who was carrying weapons, and we have slit his throat.”

The man told her Atef had been given the option of converting to Islam, but had refused.

“Jesus didn’t come to save him,” he taunted.

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Is a global fast for Syria a local news story?

According to Catholic News Agency:

Pope Francis made a global petition on Sept. 1 asking that everyone, regardless of religion or location, to fast and pray during the whole day of Sept. 7 for world peace, particularly in Syria.

I noticed that various friends and acquaintances were participating in a special day of prayer and fasting — some sent the word along to join in, some merely mentioned that they were doing it, some shared how their particular parish was taking up Pope Francis’ call. I had seen a few wire reports leading up to the day of fasting and prayer, but I was curious if this would be considered a local news story.

The answer is, it varied.

The New York Times didn’t consider it a story. Period. If you run a query for “Francis” and “fast” for the last seven days, nothing comes up. Rod Dreher has an absolutely fascinating commentary on what the New York Times decides from its perch is newsworthy and what it doesn’t, using just this week’s coverage as an illustration. Let’s just say that nothing about Christians and Syria registers. But, you know, if you want a touching story about an elderly gay couple reminiscing about lots of public sex or a lengthy look at an all-nude gay resort in the Ozarks — two stories that were featured prominently — that is definitely your paper of record.

What’s particularly odd about the New York Times‘ inability to mention Pope Francis’ call for a day of fasting and prayer against war in Syria is that the paper ran a big story headlined, “Obama Falls Short on Wider Backing for Syria Attack.” I don’t know if the reporters and editors attempted to leave religion angles out of the story but when even a world leader like the Pope doesn’t make the cut, you have to wonder what is going on.

The Washington Post didn’t have anything in the Sunday paper, but it did have an Associated Press report online. Not about the global fast so much as Francis and some pilgrims to St. Peter’s Square. Nothing at all about local Catholics or other religious adherents who joined in.

But while the Post and the Times didn’t think local (or global!) participation in days of fasting and prayer were particularly newsworthy, some news organizations did:

Catholics unite in prayer before Syria vote
News 12 Westchester – 10 hours ago
Pope Francis asked Catholics to fast and pray for the refugees in the civil war-torn nation,and for a quick and peaceful resolution to the ongoing conflict. (6:17 PM). WESTCHESTER – Catholics across the Hudson Valley united in prayer during Sunday Masses …

NC residents take part in global day of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria
News & Observer – ?Sep 7, 2013?
PEACEMASS0908. Members of the congregation pray the rosary during a special mass led by Bishop Michael F. Burbidge at Sacred Heart Cathedral on Saturday, September 7, 2013 in Raleigh, N.C. The mass was held in observance of Pope Francis’ call to join in a worldwide day of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria. … At Sacred Heart Cathedral in Raleigh, dozens of people filled the pews at a Mass for Peace organized quickly after the pope spoke out last week against Western military intervention in Syria.

Actually, This News & Observer piece is worth a quick look:

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Bloomberg’s totally unbiased abortion story

The best construction I can put on the article we’re about to look at is that Bloomberg editors and reporters accidentally put an abortion rights op-ed in the news section by accident. And yet there are enough things about the piece that make it seem like it was a failed attempt at a news story to make me think otherwise.

The op-ed article begins:

At least 58 U.S. abortion clinics — almost 1 in 10 — have shut or stopped providing the procedure since 2011 as access vanishes faster than ever amid a Republican-led push to legislate the industry out of existence.

I read that, assumed the media professional who submitted it had accidentally flagged a particularly histrionic op-ed (as sometimes happens), and looked for the name of the Planned Parenthood official or other abortion rights supporter who had penned it. One expects to see such bias in ideological media, but one would hope for more impartiality among people claiming to be news writers. I’ll note way up top that the story does not substantiate the lede. There’s no way it could, to be honest. But, hey, other than that problem …

I’ll also note, up top, that if you want to work for one type of political campaign, practice writing “access” as much as possible. However, that word is a really weak word to use for news writing.

More generally, I find the anti-regulatory bias of this piece just fascinating. I’m trying to imagine a mainstream media report about another industry that had a bunch of health and safety problems. Many dozens of reports of legal, health and safety violations all across the country. Including, say, a major practitioner in that industry being convicted of serial murder of very young children and horrible treatment of customers. Urine. Blood-soaked instruments. Narrow hallways that prevented evacuation of dying customers. That sort of thing. And then imagine that legislatures passed stricter regulations for same. Then imagine that some of the regulated parties were unable to or chose not to meet the basic standards required of other similar outfits.

Do you think the lede would be about how awful the regulators were? Of course not! One might even expect to see a story about how awful it was that the regulated industry was unable to meet basic standards of care or health or safety.

Anyway, the entire story is something of a mess, but let’s just look at the next few sentences:

A wave of regulations that makes it too expensive or logistically impossible for facilities to remain in business drove at least a third of the closings. Demographic changes, declining demand, industry consolidation, doctor retirements and crackdowns on unfit providers were also behind the drop. More clinics in Texas and Ohio are preparing to shut as soon as next month.

Opponents have tried to stop access to abortion through civil disobedience, blockades and legal action. Clinics were bombed and doctors killed.

Again, such a fascinating opposite-day spin on meeting health and safety regulations. Unfortunately there’s not substantiation in terms of data to support the claim that meeting the same standards as other outpatient surgical centers do is somehow impossible. Perhaps that’s why the second line is added. More use of the word “access”! I’m trying to think of some way to respond to “clinics were bombed and doctors killed” but I won’t insult the reader’s intelligence. We all know that this hackish and unprofessional. Particularly for an article about safety and health regulations at abortion clinics that somehow doesn’t mention Kermit Gosnell …. once. Literally not once. No mention of the charges against him. The grand jury report. The convictions for murder.

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So this renegade Polish priest and an Episcopal bishop walk into a bar …

OK, not really. But you know how we’re always going on about stories that make people not affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church seem like they are, in fact, affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church? Well, here’s a great example of a religion journalist doing it right. Here’s the very top of St. Louis Post-Dispatch religion reporter Tim Townsend explaining part of a complicated scenario:

It has stood up to three Catholic bishops. It has weathered a decade-long legal storm. It has embraced doctrine far afield from its Roman roots.

Now St. Stanislaus Kostka Church is on the verge of aligning with a different denomination entirely, joining forces with the Episcopal church.

Awesome, right? The piece is chock full of good information, including doctrinal issues and the technicalities of a possible change. We learn that the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri has announced the possibile union and what it would mean for the historically Polish church (they’d get to keep their own rites and identity or choose to use Episcopal liturgies).

We get the background on where things stand on the near-interminable legal battle between St. Stanislaus and the St. Louis Archdiocese. The latter had appealed a 2012 decision that granted St. Stanislaus control to its own lay board, but later dismissed the appeal. Here’s how the tricky issue of affiliation is handled:

As part of the agreement, St. Stanislaus agreed to abstain from representing itself as affiliated with the Roman Catholic church. In the eyes of the Vatican, the church lost that affiliation in 2005, as part of a battle with then-St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke.

The Rev. Marek Bozek, the former Roman Catholic priest who has led St. Stanislaus since parishioners hired him in 2005, in violation of Roman Catholic canon law, was unavailable for comment Tuesday.

But in a “September Reflection” letter posted on the parish’s website, he makes reference to the issue — posting a photo of Smith’s visit last month to the church to meet with parishioners.

Bozek said the church has lacked that kind of authority, and has been “struggling to survive without a bishop for over nine years.”

“One cannot be a Catholic without having a bishop,” he continued, citing a description of a bishop’s ministry in the “Book of Common Prayer.” “It is my hope that by the time this process is completed, we, St. Stanislaus Parish, will have a caring and wise bishop and that we will be a part of a diocese.”

I also like how we learn about St. Stanislaus’ need for a bishop, although it would be nice to know the particulars of why one is necessary. We then hear from parishioners about their mixed feelings about such a move (and that the Episcopal Church is just one of the contenders for affiliation).

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Jake Tapper on opinion journalism masquerading as news

I’m a longtime fan of Jake Tapper of CNN, and formerly of ABC News. I like that he asks tough but reasonable questions of politicians, regardless of which party they’re in. I like that he reports and presents the news without his opinion. I like that he’s not defensive when someone critiques his work.

Defensiveness is something we all suffer from, but we journalists seem to have it worse than most. But Tapper, being a high profile reporter, gets a lot of criticism. Sometimes he responds to it by agreeing with the critique and modifying his wording or approach. Sometimes he explains why he disagrees with the critique. He engages with readers and he cares about getting good stories. I only wish we had more journalists of his type.

You can see examples of how GetReligion has written about his work and his response to criticism here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, herehere, here, herehere, here, here, and here. What’s really striking about the frequency with which we write about his journalism is that he’s not a reporter of religion but of politics. Almost all of the reporters we praise that frequently are religion reporters. Most of our criticism is probably levied at political reporters. He clearly has an interest in the role religion plays in politics, and that interest has paid off with solid stories and a devoted following among various news consumers.

He gave a brief interview to Robin Rose Parker at the Washington Post Magazine. I thought it worth noting. A few of his thoughts:

Most interviews that I do are not super aggressive. They can’t be, and they shouldn’t be; that would get pretty tiresome. So when there’s an interview that’s tough or a question that’s tough, it’s something that raises eyebrows. It’s not easy to do that in the White House briefing room, at a press conference. That’s never easy. It’s not fun. Because as humans we are built to try to avoid conflict. Society constantly looks down its nose at conflict, even if the media doesn’t. And it’s not a comfortable feeling. It’s absolutely nerve-racking. It’s much easier to be chummy with people in power. It’s much easier to ask softball questions, to not upset the apple cart. And that’s why most people, including me, don’t spend all of their time asking tough questions. But there are times when they are called for, and I think definitely they’re needed in politics, in political journalism.

He talks about how he appreciates those politicians that rise to the challenge of answering tough questions as well as those that understand it’s his job to ask those questions. I particularly liked his concluding thoughts:

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Should some marriages be scare-quoted?

Many moons ago, when I was asking questions about why Religion News Service put “religious liberty” in quotes, defenders of the practice said it was just a way of signaling that while some people believe that a given issue deals with religious liberty, others do not. It’s a way to indicate that one is not taking sides on the matter. Astute readers noticed that if this were the policy, than we should see quotes around abortion “rights” and same-sex “marriage.”

But we never see such quotes in mainstream media stories, even though the key to abortion battles is whether there is, in fact, a “right” to abortion. And with marriage issues, it’s the same thing. Supporters of redefining marriage to include same-sex couples obviously think it’s a possibility that marriage law can be so changed while many opponents believe that it’s an ontological impossibility to have two people of the same sex in a marriage. And yet putting quotes around abortion “rights” and same-sex “marriage” would not be seen as neutrality at all, would it?

All that is background to a piece a reader sent in from the BBC this week, headlined “Kenyan trio in ‘wife-sharing’ deal.”

The quotes are all over the place in the article about two Kenyan men and the woman they both desire to marry:

Two Kenyan men have signed an agreement to “marry” the same woman…

Lawyers said the “marriage” would only be recognised if they could prove polyandry – a woman having more than one husband – was part of their custom…

People have reacted with shock to the “marriage”, arguing that it is not acceptable in terms of their culture, religion or the law, he says.

Defending the “marriage”, Mr Mwendwa told the BBC Focus on Africa programme that while he may acting in breach of the law, he had decided to enter into a contract with Mr Kimani to end their rivalry.

Later, though:

Community policing officer Adhalah Abdulrahman persuaded the two men to marry the woman after he saw them fighting over her in Mombasa county, the local Daily Nation newspaper reports.

The reader who sent it in:

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Off to war again. But a just one?

Everyone ready for another war? Ready or not, it appears that we are about to go to war with Syria. Or, as the Washington Post says:

An imminent U.S. strike on Syrian government targets in response to the alleged gassing of civilians last week has the potential to draw the United States into the country’s civil war, former U.S. officials said Tuesday, warning that history doesn’t bode well for such limited retaliatory interventions.

It’s all happening rather quickly and there are lots of angles to cover — the intelligence situation, the lack of Congressional approval, the political outcomes expected, etc. — but what about the religion angles? Of the many religion angles in this story, one deals with whether this war can be considered “just.” The Huffington Post hosted a piece by Maryann Cusimano Love, an associate professor of International Relations at Catholic University of America who serves on the Core Group for the Department of State’s working group on Religion and Foreign Policy, which notes:

St. Thomas Aquinas never imagined a world in which chemicals could kill thousands of people in a breath, but these old moral codes can still provide guidance in modern warfare. [Just War Theory] is a centuries-old guide to thinking about when and how it can ever by morally justifiable to violate the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.” JWT holds that even during warfare we are still capable of moral behavior, and still obligated to protect human life and dignity. JWT stakes out the middle ground between realpolitik, which always allows war, and pacifism, which never allows war.

What are the arguments that bombing Syria is just? What are the debates surrounding whether this would be a just war? Well, I haven’t seen a particularly thorough treatment of the issue, but I did want to highlight a couple of pieces that did a great job introducing some discussions. The first comes from Religion News Service and begins:

WASHINGTON (RNS) As the Obama administration readies for a probable military strike against Syria, Religion News Service asked a panel of theologians and policy experts whether the U.S. should intervene in Syria in light of the regime’s use of chemical weapons against civilians. Would the “Just War” doctrine justify U.S. military action, and what is America’s moral responsibility? Here are their responses, which have been edited for clarity.

And we get a series of responses from folk such as Stanley Hauerwas, professor emeritus of theological ethics at Duke Divinity School, and Qamar-ul Huda, senior program officer in the Religion & Peacemaking Center of the U.S. Institute of Peace. Here’s one sample response:

The Rev. Drew Christiansen

Jesuit priest and visiting scholar at Boston College and longtime adviser to the U.S. Catholic Bishops on international affairs

My problem is that I don’t see why this kind of chemical attack matters so mightily when 100,000 civilians have been killed in Syria already. It seems to me that you’ve had massive attacks on civilians — with the world standing aside — that should have been the reason for intervention. But there’s also a question of proportionality and success, and I think that there are good reasons to think you might make things worse by a military attack.

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