Let’s get ready to rumble!

episcopal gaysLast summer I attended a worship service at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. I went so that I could witness the congregation’s interfaith Eucharistic prayer. The sermon text was Mark 7 and the priest told us that it showed how Jesus was xenophobic, racist and sexist.

The next day I ran into another priest from the church. I told her I had been at the previous day’s service. “I’m so sorry,” she immediately replied. “Why?” I asked, thinking she was going to apologize for the sermon. “Oh, our sound was all off and we had those problems with the lighting. Didn’t you notice?” she said.

Oh how I wish I could go back to Grace Cathedral this weekend when it hosts a vote on who will be the new bishop of California:

The Episcopal Diocese of California’s nomination of three gay clergy among seven candidates for bishop is no surprise — priests in the diocese have been blessing same-sex unions for at least 27 years.

But the possible election of one of them Saturday threatens to split not only the 220-year-old Episcopal Church in the United States but also the centuries-old Anglican Communion, the group of churches around the world that share worship and prayer traditions rooted in the Church of England.

That lead came from the San Francisco Chronicle‘s religion writter, Matthai Chakko Kuruvila, who does an excellent job of highlighting the international importance of a local issue and the myriad interests concerned by the vote. Episcopalians in America are but a fraction of the world’s 77 million Anglicans, he writes, only one-ninth the size of the Nigerian church.

Four California churches now proclaim affiliation with the Anglican province in Uganda and are distancing themselves from the Episcopal Church in the United States and battling it in court for ownership of church properties. An Oceanside church says it is affiliated with the Diocese of Bolivia.

This rift has a racial and colonial subtext in which power dynamics have been reversed. The Anglican faith of white colonizers is now being dictated by the once-colonized.

africananglicanMany reporters highlighted the racial aspect of the schism, but I’m not sure about the colonization angle. Not just because both the colonizers and the colonized are, well, dead, but because it ignores the fact that this is not a colonial situation in which people are being forced to change their aboriginal traditions. The Africans aren’t forcing new traditions on anyone, they’re merely maintaining the church’s historic teachings. That the descendents of the colonizers have changed their minds doesn’t make this reverse colonization.

I also wanted to highlight this from the Los Angeles Times:

“To watch your church suddenly say, ‘Anything goes,’ is a horrifying thing,” [Cynthia Brust, a spokeswoman for the American Anglican Council, which has 300 affiliated churches in the U.S.] added.

The Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong, who was bishop of the Diocese of Newark in New Jersey before his retirement in 2000, said Brust misses the point.

“There’s not a scientist in the world today who supports the idea that homosexuals are mentally ill or morally depraved,” said Spong, a noted author and outspoken church leader on the subject. “So I’d rather see the church split. I have no desire to be a part of a homophobic church.”

Many reporters frame this issue as a division between conservative and liberal interpretations of Scripture. But as Spong so eloquently says, for some folks Scripture is not necessarily the arbiter of how the church should consider homosexuality.

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Europe: Coffins, cribs, crosses, crescents

42a9740b66a15 wellness gro  First let me praise Jeffrey Fleishman of the Los Angeles Times for taking a religion-haunted story — the debates over immigration in Europe — and letting the ghost dance right out in the open. Besides, it’s hard not to read a story with a face-slap lead like this one: “Europe is buying more coffins than cribs.”

However, I do have one or two questions about the story, questions that transcend yet another red-flag use of the term “fundamentalists.”

The basic idea is becoming familiar. Rising numbers of Europeans are making lifestyle choices that are resulting in the decline of the old cultures on the Continent. In other words, they are not conceiving many children or allowing many of the ones that are conceived to be born. Meanwhile, Muslim families are moving into Europe and growing. Do the math.

Germany has one of the world’s lowest birthrates: Fewer babies were born in 2005 than in the last year of World War II. The country will need 250,000 to 300,000 immigrants every year to sustain its population. A recent United Nations report estimated that by 2050, Germany will need 3.5 million working-age immigrants each year to maintain its population ratio and fund pension, healthcare and other programs for the elderly.

The U.N. survey found that even allowing for immigration, the European population will drop by 2.5 million a year by the middle of the century. … The question in Europe quickly turns from one of numbers to one of Western values — a concept not fully articulated by Europeans themselves, but often used to protest the loosening of immigration policies. The Muslim population has doubled to about 15 million since the 1980s, and many on the continent view the religious head scarf, arranged marriages and conservative imams as challenges to democracy and equality.

My big question concerns the article’s very next statement. Yes, my question is rooted in my concern that too many mainstream reporters seem to think that there is a good Islam and a bad Islam and that reporters and politicians in the West get to decide which one is which.

Cultural unease intensified after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and was further heightened by the bombings in Madrid and London and the furor over Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. Some Muslim leaders have begun urging Europe’s largest minority to do more to integrate and understand that Islamic principles — despite the teachings of fundamentalists — are not jeopardized by Western society.

248 15My question can be stated several different ways.

Is there any mainstream branch of Islam that does not ultimately advocate the union or the ultimate cooperation of the mosque and the state? Is there any form that accepts Muslims living as a minority in a secular, pluralistic state (let alone one that has some kind of historic relationship with another religion)?

Or let me ask this: Is the government of Saudi Arabia “fundamentalist,” in terms of global Islam? If Saudi Arabia is “fundamentalist,” what is Osama bin Laden?

And this question leads to another: Can we say that the Muslims in Europe — moderate, traditional and Islamist — are on the rise because, when it comes to family life, they are following their traditions (including faith) while the Europeans are in decline because they have written off their heritage of faith and family? This issue is implied, weakly, in Fleishman’s article, but never stated. At the very least, it would have been interesting to ask that question about nations such as, well, Italy and Ireland.

So what are European values these days?

“Religion has become an issue,” said Rainer Ohliger, an analyst with Network Migration in Europe. “Religion was not an issue for immigrants in the 1980s. Then, it was social integration, housing and welfare. Why did it change? In Germany you could see the echo effect of arranged marriages and other traditions practiced in Turkey. Then you had 9/11, and all of a sudden the Muslim religion was perceived as a danger, although in Germany that perception started earlier.” …

The German state of Baden-Wuerttemberg now gives a 30-question oral test designed to filter Islamic extremists; other states may follow suit. In the Netherlands, where citizens were shaken by the killing of a Dutch film director by an Islamic radical, a new residency test requires immigrants to watch a video depicting Dutch life that includes two men kissing and topless women at a beach.

Europe: love it or leave it?

Or do the Muslim critics of the old Europe simply wait. Their day will come, because it’s in the math.

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Reading between same-sex union lines

weddingcakeThe big news in David D. Kirkpatrick’s latest New York Times report from the front pews of the Culture Wars is hinted at in the lead and then buried way near the bottom. The big news: It seems that a few leaders on the Catholic left may agree to back a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriages.

Here’s the lead:

About 50 prominent religious leaders, including seven Roman Catholic cardinals and about a half-dozen archbishops, have signed a petition in support of a constitutional amendment blocking same-sex marriage.

And here are the details that really matter, the names of some (repeat some) of the clerics who signed on with that Alliance for Marriage petition.

Organizers said the petition had brought together cardinals from both the left and right sides of the United States bishops’ conference, including the liberal Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles and the conservative Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, as well as Cardinals Edward M. Egan of New York, Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington, William H. Keeler of Baltimore and Sean Patrick O’Malley of Boston.

So what is the news in that? After all, the Catholic Church has defended its ancient doctrines on marriage and sex. Even the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference has supported a ban on same-sex marriages. The news, and Kirkpatrick underlines it, is that some Catholic progressives have stepped foward to back an effort that has, primarily, been led by evangelicals and by conservative Catholic politicians who do not mind cooperating with evangelicals. This has major political implications.

The petition drive was organized in part by Prof. Robert P. George of Princeton, a Catholic scholar with close ties to evangelical Protestant groups. Aides to three Republican senators — Bill Frist of Tennessee, the Republican leader; Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania; and Sam Brownback of Kansas — were also involved, organizers said. …

No one expects the measure to pass this year. But drives to amend state constitutions to ban same sex-marriage proved powerful incentives to turning out conservative voters in Ohio and elsewhere in 2004. At least two states with contested Senate races — Tennessee and Pennsylvania, where Mr. Santorum is seeking re-election against a Democrat who also opposes abortion rights — are debating constitutional bans on same-sex marriage this year.

However, I really do wish that the online version of this story included a link to the full list of the clerics who signed the petition. The Alliance for Marriage site does not have a full list either.

Why does this matter? Almost all of the nation’s major religious groups are opposed to same-sex marriage. But some are acting on the issue and some are not. This list will, in some ways, show who is who on the issue and also offer clues for reporters who are looking ahead to the annual summer doctrinal wars in mainline religious conventions and conferences. It even has implications for which churches stay in, and which churches may vote to leave, oldline groups like the National Council of Churches. There are also updates on growing tensions among major African-American and Hispanic groups.

Read between the lines of these paragraphs:

The prominent conservative Protestant figures included leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination, as well as the president of conservative Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and a handful of Episcopal bishops.

Other signers included James C. Dobson of Focus on the Family; the evangelist D. James Kennedy; Bishop Charles E. Blake of the historically black Church of God in Christ; the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez Jr., president of the National Hispanic Association of Evangelicals; Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb of the Orthodox Union; and officials of the Orthodox Church in America.

Has anyone out there found a link to the full list of clergy who signed? There are stories in that list.

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Emerging trends in emergent church?

04a prayer candlesWhat are we supposed to think when we read that pastor so-and-so is controversial because he is the leader of such-and-such a church (which may or may not call itself a church), which is part of the emergent stream of the emerging conversation inside the emerging or emergent church?

If you don’t “get it,” does that mean you are merely the kind of person who just doesn’t “get it,” which means you will not understand what the people on the inside who do “get it” are talking about when they talk about “it”?

Yes, on one level we are talking about postmodernism. At the same time we are talking about evangelical Protestants who love postmodernism, which may or may not mean that they are no longer evangelicals, but it surely means that they are free-church Protestants because they are all creating their own future churches out of the pieces of lots of other churches in the past (woven together with media and technology from the present), except for those who are so free church that they now insist that their congregations (because they say so) should no longer be considered old-fashioned churches at all. I think that’s what they are saying and I ought to know, since, for some reason, many emerging-church leaders read this blog. I think.

Clearly I am confused. But that’s OK. In fact, it’s kind of postmodern. Maybe I “get it” after all.

So, journalists, if you are as confused as I am, you need to scroll through the resources at the new covering-the-emerging-church resource page assembled by the religion-beat professionals at ReligionLink.org. They say that this emerging thing is just starting to warm up and get complex, because it’s not just for evangelicals anymore.

As the emerging church — also known as the postmodern church or “po mo” — evolves, it’s also diversifying. Some want to transcend boundaries between conservative evangelicals and liberal mainline churches. Others are seeking more leadership opportunities for women and non-Anglos. And many churches, though they’re not all about youth or culture, are borrowing ideas from the emerging church trend, available through the Internet, conferences, books and CDs. Jewish leaders hoping to engage more youth have even consulted with emerging church groups.

So are people messing with (1) the doctrine of the church, (2) traditional doctrines (plural) taught by the church or (3) the very idea that doctrines should exist at all?

ReligionLink says that:

The emerging church seems to be forking in three directions, says scholar Ed Stetzer in his forthcoming book, Breaking the Missional Code: When Churches Become Missionaries in Their Communities (co-author David Putman, Broadman & Holman Publishers, May 2006). The most conservative fork accepts the gospel and the church in their historic forms but seeks to make them more understandable in contemporary culture. A second fork accepts the gospel but questions and reconstructs much of the traditional church form. The third, the most radical, questions and re-envisions both the gospel and the church.

chartreslabyrinth3abSo what does all of this mean?

Early on in my work as a religion reporter — about 25 years ago — I started trying to find quick ways to find out who was who in the various Christian groups that I covered. This quest evolved into my fascination with the work of sociologist James Davison Hunter at the University of Virginia (click here for background).

Before long, I learned that you could learn a whole lot in this post-1960s world by asking mainline and Catholic leaders three blunt questions. Think of these as research questions that would work for any Godbeat reporter.

(1) Did the resurrection of Jesus really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus alone?

(3) Is sex outside of the sacrament of marriage a sin?

Now, it appears that it is time to start asking these old mainline questions among some of the “emerging” evangelical leaders, including the person who often is named as the leader of the progressive pack. As ReligionLink notes:

For a sense of the distance between conservative and liberal emerging evangelicals, read Mark Driscoll’s “rant” about Brian McLaren and homosexuality at the Christianity Today blog, Out of Ur. [Out of Ur is the blog of Christianity Today's sister publication, Leadership Journal. CT's blog is here.]

By all means, read it. The rise of a true evangelical left is an emerging story.

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We are all moderates now (except you)

mitresThe Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee is trying to find a successor to Bishop Bertram Herlong, and its 14-ballot roller coaster of an election, still unresolved, shows the profound divisions within the diocese.

Jeannine F. Hunter of The Tennessean scratched the surface of those divisions in a story published the day before the election. She quoted people on both sides, but liberals within the diocese used more pointed language and, in practice, controlled who claimed what labels.

Consider these paragraphs:

The Rev. Ann Walling, assistant to the rector at St. David’s in West Meade, said even before 2003, individuals who took moderate and progressive theological positions found themselves “marginalized in terms of inclusion in the life of the diocese.”

She said evidence of division includes churches removing the word “Episcopal” from church signs; diminished support to long-standing mission congregations; refusal by some churches to accept female ordination or denial by some clergy to receive Holy Communion with “those of moderate points of view.”

“All in all we are in a very distressing situation,” she said, adding that many long for a return to a “mode of acceptance of a great diversity of perspectives.”

Susan Huggins, spokesperson for Continuing Episcopalians of Tennessee, which opposes affiliation with ACN, said that tomorrow’s election could “determine the direction of this diocese.”

The Nashville-based organization believes ACN intends to disenfranchise ECUSA, Huggins said. Her group seeks to move the diocese back to the middle ground, she said.

Notice especially how the words moderate and progressive flow together so effortlessly, not just in direct quotations but in Hunter’s paraphrases, leaving the impression that the only extremists in the diocese are mean conservatives.

This election is far more complex than Hunter’s story suggests. All four nominees say they would have voted against confirming Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire, which in today’s Episcopal Church makes them fairly conservative. But two of the candidates — James Magness and Winston Charles — have left open the possibility of changing their minds in the future about the wisdom of consecrating openly gay bishops or blessing gay couples.

The two other candidates, Neal Michell and Brian Cox, are affiliated with the Anglican Communion Network — which, along with the American Anglican Council — has become the bete noir of the Episcopal left. But neither Cox nor Michell has said he will try to affiliate the diocese with the Network, and both have criticized it in meet-the-candidate forums. Both Michell and Cox clearly say they have no intention of trying to withdraw the diocese from the Episcopal Church.

As the results from Saturday’s voting demonstrate, moderates — at least those who can find a compromise between two firm convictions — are in short supply in the diocese these days. Instead, the diocese has passionate camps of conservatives and liberals who know what they believe and fight for it, even if that means a marathon of futile ballots. It makes for much more interesting and informative reporting than The Tennessean has managed.

(Disclosure: I’ve written admiringly about nominee Brian Cox’s ministry of reconciliation before and consider him a friend. Clearly I have no vocation as an episcopal kingmaker: Cox consistently placed fourth.)

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And all the people said, “Whoa”

calbeachThe stunning news from the funeral of Los Angeles Times legend Otis Chandler is that the liturgists at the famous All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena were not more creative with the content of the service.

After all, if this was a funeral Mass they could have used Paul Winter’s Missa Gaia and allowed a humpback whale to assist with the singing of the Sanctus. It’s hard to tell, from the featured story, what kind of rite this was.

It does sound as if the free-spirited newspaper publishing giant was a good fit at this famous congregation, although the text stops short of saying that he was an actual church member. For those who follow the news, All Saints is a flagship parish on the left wing of the Episcopal Church. Recently, the parish has made headlines because some U.S. government strongmen have — GetReligion says “boo, hiss!” — wondered if the sermons are skating too close to partisan politics. The church has been a lightning rod on sexuality issues for two decades, while also serving as a doorway into the Episcopal fold for some postmodern evangelicals at Fuller Theological Seminary.

At the service itself,

Chandler’s love of nature, even when he was shooting it, was a constant theme, as it was in his life. On Sunday, Harry Chandler said, about 30 family members attended a service at Oxnard’s Hollywood Beach that culminated in his four surviving children and six of his oldest grandchildren donning wetsuits, getting onto surfboards and paddling out past the breaking waves to convene in a circle and scatter his ashes. Chandler’s wife, Bettina, scattered more of his ashes near their home in Ojai, Johnson said. …

The Rev. George Regas, the former rector of All Saints who officiated at Otis and Bettina Chandler’s wedding, said Chandler was not much of a churchgoer.

“Otis’ church was nature,” he said. “His cathedral was Planet Earth.”

Otherwise, the story makes it sound as if the service was pretty straightforward — more “boardroom persona than his parallel life as a surfer dude.” But the oh-so-California blending of nature and religious language appears to have been the major theme of the day. After all, California is so far West in the United States that it is the media-friendly doorway to all things in the pop East.

Or am I reading too much into the following imagery?

Harry described how, in the minutes after his father’s death, just before dawn, he took a ruminative stroll around the property surrounding the elder Chandler’s Ojai home. After a couple of minutes, he said, he turned to see a flock of large birds circling over his father’s bedroom. Otis Chandler had always compared himself to the eagle that is The Times’ symbol, saying that he wanted to soar.

Harry said he watched the birds “rising up, gliding around and around, higher and higher,” as if lifting his father’s soul heavenward. “‘Goodbye,’ I breathed, unable to speak. ‘I will miss you always.’”

The bottom line, however, is that Chandler’s colorful and emotional funeral is another example of why so many mainstream journalists — often believers or almost believers on the religious left — love the Episcopal Church so much. As I asked in an essay long ago, while I was myself an Anglican: Why does the Episcopal Church, now small and aging, make so many headlines?

I believe the Episcopal Church draws more than its share of media attention because its leaders wear religious garb, work in conveniently located buildings, speak fluent politics and promote a mystical brand of moral liberalism. Episcopalians look like Roman Catholics and act like liberal politicians. Clearly, this is a flock that will continue to merit the attention of America’s media elite.

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Will evangelicals rediscover crosses?

crossIn Wednesday’s Lenten post, I noted that Slate‘s Andrew Santella wrote an interesting article about the revival of Lenten practices among Protestants. I chided him for throwing all Protestants together, from those that have marked Lenten penitence since the beginning with those evangelicals that are rediscovering the practices of the church.

Well, the Baltimore Sun‘s Matthew Brown hit one out of the park with his story on the same topic. By narrowing his focus to one local evangelical congregation, he was able to tell a fascinating story:

People approached the dais one by one. Standing before them, the Rev. Jason Poling pressed his thumb into a small bowl of palm ashes and traced a cross on the forehead of each.

“Remember that you are dust,” he said. “And to dust you shall return.”

Christians throughout the world marked the start of Lent yesterday by receiving the mark that is meant to remind them of their mortality — a tradition that dates to the first millennium. But for New Hope Community Church, an evangelical congregation in Pikesville, the early-morning service was a first.

Brown describes the difference between most services at New Hope (very casual) and Ash Wednesday’s service (Poling wore a robe, draped the lectern in purple and put a cross on the platform). He quotes the pastor talking about the power of the liturgy and explaining the use of liturgical traditions to his congregation.

With the megachurch movement, too much baby was thrown out with the bath water, he says. (I’ve decided that would make a great title for a paper on how some Protestants came to reject infant baptism.) Anyway, Brown gets some outside analysis from Robert Webber, president of the Institute for Worship Studies and author of the eight-volume Complete Library of Christian Worship. In the late 1990s he surveyed evangelicals about their faith practices:

“They didn’t like contemporary worship anymore,” said Webber, a professor of ministry at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Ill. “They were looking for an encounter with God, they were looking for mystery, they were looking for more Eucharist.”

The whole article is interesting. Brown ties in the anti-Vatican II sentiment among some modern Roman Catholics and writes as if he understands why some Christians use symbols, rites and rubrics and why others don’t. Knowledge of a given situation seems like a minimum requirement for reporters of religion, but sometimes it’s hard to come across. Brown interviews an evangelical congregant who used to be Roman Catholic — providing a great perspective for the piece.

Brown even includes innovative criticism of the evangelical return to ritual from an Anglican Dominican priest in Philadelphia who teaches evangelicals about rituals:

“I worry that they tend to take these practices completely out of their context and practice them in a way that I sometimes feel trivializes them to the point that, well, this is the latest spiritual fad,” [Rev. Kevin Goodrich] said.

Poling says he is sympathetic to the concern.

“Evangelicals are independent,” he said. “When we appropriate traditions, we do so on our own terms. We feel the freedom to modify them as appropriate to our beliefs and theology. But I think there is a genuine humility to us going to the well of the ancient faith.

All in all, a very nice piece by Brown — both from a local perspective and the larger religious trend angle.

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Who lit the bomb in Nigeria?

NigeriaStatesMapAnyone who knows anything about global religious-liberty issues has known for several years that Nigeria is a bomb waiting to go off. In the north, Muslim states have pressed for sharia law. In the largely Christian and animist south, leaders have struggled to embrace the rule of law, as defined in the West. The two legal doctrines cannot, by definition, coexist and, thus, Nigeria has been sitting on a legal and religious landmine.

Now the cartoon intifada may have caused the long-awaited explosion. First the MSM headlines talked about riots and deaths inspired by the Danish cartoons, complete with churches burning and Christian neighborhoods being attacked. Now the headlines are dominated by the horrific account of the second wave of violence, with Muslims facing the fury of the Christians and animists they previously attacked.

As for me, I think that the top paragraphs of this New York Times report by Lydia Polgreen did a solid job of capturing both sides of this deadly equation, under a headline that cited the source of the violence, rather than simply blaming one side or the other: “Nigeria Counts 100 Deaths Over Danish Caricatures.” Here is the opening of that story:

Dozens of charred, smoldering bodies littered the streets of this bustling commercial center on Thursday after three days of rioting in which Christian mobs wielding machetes, clubs and knives set upon their Muslim neighbors.

Rioters have killed scores of people here, mostly Muslims, after burning their homes, businesses and mosques in the worst violence yet linked to the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad first published in a Danish newspaper. The violence in Nigeria began with attacks on Christians in the northern part of the country last week by Muslims infuriated over the cartoons.

Now old ethnic and political tensions between Muslims in the north and Christians here in the south have been reignited, with at least 33 bodies still visible on the streets of Onitsha on Thursday and a local organization that has tried to collect the scattered corpses reporting that it has already picked up 80 others. The cycle of tit-for-tat sectarian violence has pushed the death toll in the last week well beyond 100, making Nigeria the hardest-hit country so far in the caricature controversy.

The hellish images and quotations speak for themselves. There is enough evil and blood in this story to cover the hands of violent people on both sides. Yet the Times did not bury the key fact that the bloodshed began, once again, with riots against the cartoons of Muhammad.

If GetReligion readers want a one-stop list of URLs for this story, they should click here and head — of course — to the Christianity Today weblog. Editor-reporter Ted Olsen jumped on the Nigeria story early enough to have posted one collection of links about the violence against the churches, with the haunting headline “Muslim Riots Move from Anti-Europe to Anti-Christian.” Now he is following up with the second wave of violence against Muslims.

nigeriaI have to admit that I was relieved when I read the Times report, in large part because coverage in the Washington Post seems to have paid more attention to the second set of riots than the first, kind of like a basketball referee who sees the second foul and not the first that inspired it.

You can see this in the series of wire service reports that covered the anti-cartoon riots (here, here and here), the riots in which the victims were Christians. Then the coverage kicks up a notch with Post editors turning to their own correspondents for coverage of the hellish violence unleashed against the Muslims. Here is a piece of one of those reports, with the blunt headline “Christians Turn on Muslims In Nigeria; More Than 30 Die.”

Christian mobs in this southern city attacked Muslim motorists and traders Wednesday, leaving more than 30 people dead, according to witnesses, as religious riots sparked by the publishing of cartoons of the prophet Muhammad continued into a fifth day in Nigeria. Nationwide, the death toll reached at least 80.

Hordes of angry men marauded through Onitsha armed with machetes, guns and boards with nails pounded into their ends, witnesses said. The mobs burned two mosques and looted and destroyed Muslim-owned shops as they sought vengeance for similar attacks against Christians in two predominantly Muslim cities in northern part of the country.

“They’ve been killing our brothers and sisters in the north,” men shouted Wednesday morning, according to Afoma Clara Adique, 40, a motorist who had driven through Onitsha. She escaped the mobs, she said, but only after speaking to the men in a regional language used by Christians. Before she could get away, Adique said, she saw burned and dismembered bodies along the side of the road. … Her traveling companion, Tony Iweka, 45, a magazine editor, said a man in the mob raised his right hand to display what appeared to be a freshly decapitated head.

The Post did note that, with all of the anti-cartoon riots around the world, this was the first clash in which there were “counterattacks by Christians.”

It is impossible, of course, for reporters to get around the need to describe who attacked who.

However, can I make a suggestion? No doubt, there are radical Islamist clerics who are firing up their people to take to the streets and do whatever it is that rioters are going to do. There may be cases in which it is accurate to say that “Muslim” believers did horrific things, perhaps even while shouting “Allahu akbar!” Now, if reporters can find Christian leaders — clerics, actually — calling for violence, then by all means quote these ministers. It certainly is relevant that some of the rioters are leaving, in their wake, violent graffiti that refer to Christians taking revenge. Reporters have to report the facts.

But here is my suggestion. Right now, I think it is safer, especially in headlines and leads, to identify the victims of the violence than to be absolutely clear as to the faith-based motives and the identity of the thugs and demons doing the violence. It is safer to say that rioters killed Christians and burned churches. It is safer to say that rioters killed Muslims and burned mosques.

It is easier for journalists to prove — with their own words — that specific Muslims or specific Christians did or said something than it is to pin the blame for those actions on entire communities. This is true in France, the Netherlands, England, Jordan, Egypt, Nigeria and many other places. It may soon, sadly, be true in North America.

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