India sorts out terrorist bombings

mumbai bombingDetails on the perpetrators of Tuesday’s horrific bombings of the Mumbai train system are still scant, but investigators are considering it the work of Islamic extremists from Pakistan. As further details come in, it will be important for journalists to sort out the messy theological details of the group and whether it is connected to a more international Islamic terrorism effort.

What is unfortunate for many reasons is that the Mumbai train bombings have been quickly ushered off the front pages of our papers and off the evening newscasts. This is partly because there are no obvious culprits as of yet. Then there is the rapidly deteriorating situation in the Middle East, with what is beginning to look like outright civil war in Iraq, and the escalation of violence between Israel and its neighbors. More on that later.

Here’s the BBC’s account from Thursday afternoon on the Mumbai bombings:

Indian police are continuing their hunt for those behind Tuesday’s bomb attacks on commuter trains in Mumbai, in which some 200 people were killed.

Police have questioned hundreds of people, and one person was arrested in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh.

But police have denied reports they released sketches of any suspects.

A Muslim organisation banned in India, the Students’ Islamic Movement (Simi), is the latest group to deny involvement in the attacks.

While the perpetrators of this attack may not be connected by name to the terrorist attacks in London, New York and Washington, D.C., it is important to question those claims of independence from a larger worldwide movement. Are there theological similarities that allow a Muslim to perform such an act of reckless murder? Is the random killing of hundreds of innocents compatible with the teachings of the Quran? My understanding, from a variety of sources, is that it is not.

Why was India the target of such attacks? An obvious answer is Pakistani militants. A less obvious answer is that India’s rapid secularization horrifies fundamentalist Muslims. Even less obvious is whether this was the action of Hindu extremists. Here is Christopher Kremmer in Australia’sThe Age:

Tuesday’s bombings, targeting commuters in the financial capital of Mumbai, represent not just the ruthless murder of at least 170 people but a strike at the idea of India itself.

Sadly, we are no longer shocked by such attacks. But the real surprise, given the vulnerability of India’s teeming cities and its history of religious and political violence, is that there have been relatively few of them.

Leaders from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh down have wisely avoided rushing to judgment about who may have been responsible. Mumbai’s history of bombings includes underworld elements and Hindu extremists, as well as Muslim ones. Speculation fuels rumours, and rumours can trigger reprisals. The Congress-led coalition now in power has nothing to gain from a collapse of law and order in Mumbai or anywhere else.

I appreciated this Reuters article in the Khaleej Times on Mumbai Muslims giving blood to Hindu bomb victims. But the article begged for answers on why this was significant religiously, other than Muslims and Hindus not usually cooperating on anything.

I regret not writing about the Mumbai bombings sooner. If an attack of a magnitude 10 times less than this had hit my hometown of Washington, D.C., I would have been all over it. Remember the coverage of the London bombings? Needless to say, I think the American mainstream media need to offer some type of explanation for the pittance of coverage this dramatic event has received.

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Peggy Noonan sums it all up

10075248On one level, Peggy Noonan’s column this morning in The Wall Street Journal is not about religion news coverage. In fact, it isn’t about religion, at least not directly.

It’s about politics. Her thesis is that modern Americans expect their politicians to be living, breathing reference-system computers, able to respond with grace and accuracy on a mind-zapping array of issues. It’s an impossible task.

That’s what the column is about.

But here is what hit me, as I read one of those Noonan-esque blitzes of words, issues and images — what percentage of the issues that haunt our non-naked public square are rooted, to one degree or another, in issues of religion, morality and culture? Check them off as you read the following from Noonan’s column:

We are asking our politicians, our senators and congressmen, to make judgments, decisions and policy on: stem cell research, SDI, Nato composition, G-8 agreements, the history and state of play of judicial and legislative actions regarding press freedoms, the history of Sunni-Shiites tensions, Kurds, tax rates, federal spending, hurricane prediction and response, the building of a library annex in Missoula, the most recent thinking on when human life begins, including the thinking of the theologians of antiquity on when the soul enters the body, chemical weaponry, the Supreme Court, U.S.-North Korean relations, bioethics, cloning, public college curriculums, India-Pakistan relations, the enduring Muslim-Hindu conflict, the constitutional implications of McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform, Homeland security, Securities and Exchange Commission authority, energy policy, environmental policy, nuclear proliferation, global warming, the stability of Venezuela’s Chavez regime and its implications for U.S. oil prices, the future of Cuba after Castro, progress in gender bias as suggested by comparisons of the number of girls who pursued college-track studies in American public high schools circa 1950 to those on a college-track today, outsourcing, immigration, the comparative efficacy of charter and magnet schools, land use, Kelo, health care, HMO’s, what to do with victims of child abuse, the history of marriage, the nature and origin of homosexuality, V-chips, foreign competition in the making of computer chips, fat levels in potato chips, national policy on the humanities, U.N. reform, and privacy law.

And that was just this week.

I would note that Noonan has left out many other moral and cultural issues that dominate American life and center on mass media and popular culture — issues that frame, define and, at times, drown out our political discussions. But that’s another issue, for another time.

Times SquareIf politicians struggle to stay up to date on all of these issues, so do the journalists who cover them. This is one reason that GetReligion is, well, almost asking modern journalists to do the impossible when it comes to spotting and defining all of the various religious ghosts that haunt public life. How can anyone cover all of this?

Well, this is why we have — to quote Martin Marty again — moved past the age of the solo religion writer.

Don’t get me wrong, having a trained, experienced, talented religion writer is very important. But, today, the whole newsroom needs a plan of action for handling religion news. Religion is a factor in many, many news beats. And, yes, newsrooms need to think of this as a diversity issue. The issues are diverse. Newsrooms need to respond to that reality.

End of sermon. Peggy, thanks for the summary.

P.S. Here is my all-time favorite Noonan blitz of information and images, drawn from her classic column about the “Culture of Death,” written immediately after the Columbine High School massacre.

Your child is an intelligent little fish. He swims in deep water. Waves of sound and sight, of thought and fact, come invisibly through that water, like radar; they go through him again and again, from this direction and that. The sound from the television is a wave, and the sound from the radio; the headlines on the newsstand, on the magazines, on the ad on the bus as it whizzes by — all are waves. The fish — your child–is bombarded and barely knows it. But the waves contain words like this, which I’ll limit to only one source, the news:

. . . was found strangled and is believed to have been sexually molested . . . had her breast implants removed . . . took the stand to say the killer was smiling the day the show aired . . . said the procedure is, in fact, legal infanticide . . . is thought to be connected to earlier sexual activity among teens . . . court battle over who owns the frozen sperm . . . contains songs that call for dominating and even imprisoning women . . . died of lethal injection . . . had threatened to kill her children . . . said that he turned and said, “You better put some ice on that” . . . had asked Kevorkian for help in killing himself . . . protested the game, which they said has gone beyond violence to sadism . . . showed no remorse . . . which is about a wager over whether he could sleep with another student . . . which is about her attempts to balance three lovers and a watchful fiance . . .

This is the ocean in which our children swim. This is the sound of our culture.

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Sin and shame in Amish country

amishvillageNormally we try to analyze recent mainstream media coverage of religious issues. The magazine article in this post is from January of 2005; it’s a bit dated. But reader Daniel Grover passed it along yesterday and it was too interesting to keep from others.

Not to engage in stereotyping, but who knew that Legal Affairs — “the magazine at the intersection of law and life” — would have such thorough coverage of religion? Senior editor Nadia Labi looked at claims of pedophilia, incest and other abuse among several Amish females. The subject matter was horrifying enough that she avoided adding any excess moral condemnation. She was wise enough to get out of the way and let the story — which was plenty compelling and interesting enough on its own — tell itself.

But she patiently and clearly explained Amish beliefs and how they played into the story. Here she discusses the tolerance the government has for the religious community:

The license the Amish have been granted rests on the trust that the community will police itself, with Amish bishops and ministers acting in lieu of law enforcement. Yet keeping order comes hard to church leaders. “The Amish see the force of law as contrary to the Christian spirit,” said Donald Kraybill, a professor at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania and an expert on the group. As a result, the Amish shy away from sending people to prison and the system of punishment of “the English,” as the Amish call other Americans. Once a sinner has confessed, and his repentance has been deemed genuine, every member of the Amish community must forgive him. . . .

But can a community govern itself by Jesus’s teaching of mercy alone? It is sinful for the Amish to withhold forgiveness — so sinful that anyone who refers to a past misdeed after the Amish penalty for it has ended can be punished in the same manner as the original sinner. “That’s a big thing in the Amish community,” Mary said. “You have to forgive and forgive.”

In the case of the women interviewed by Labi, their perpetrators faced punishment ranging from parental admonition to shunning for a few weeks. Labi explains the origins of the Amish, and how their refusal to baptize infants led to persecution in Europe. But this explanation of why they shun the secular world is really interesting:

As Donald Kraybill explains in his book The Amish and the State, there are two kingdoms in Amish theology: the kingdom of Christ, inhabited by the Amish, and the one in which everyone else lives. To maintain the boundary between the two worlds, the Amish hold themselves apart from the secular state as much as they can. In the mid-1900s, dozens of Amish fathers went to prison rather than agree to send their kids to public schools with non-Amish children. The community opened its own one-room schoolhouses, where the curricula ignored subjects like science and sex education. A woman who now lives near the Amish in Ohio’s Guernsey County reports that many of her neighbors weren’t taught that the earth was round. “A lot of Amish will tell you they don’t want their kids to be educated,” she said. “The more they know, the more apt they are to leave.”

This approach to the two kingdoms is fascinating to me. I’ve shared previously my prediliction for a Lutheran Two Kingdoms approach, which teaches that the church administers God’s means of grace while the earthly kingdom operates through natural laws and human vocations. In the Lutheran view, Christians are citizens of both kingdoms at the same time. So in our church you can be forgiven for a grievous sin at the same time you’re being carted off to prison. While Lutherans and Amish may be at opposite ends of the Two Kingdoms spectrum, many contentious stories at the intersection of religion and politics are debates about how far to move in one direction or the other. Of course, in American Protestantism of many stripes, the issue is whether to even have two spheres, as debates about school prayer, Ten Commandments monuments and Jesus’ policy views on intercontinental missiles indicate.

Oh how I wish reporters would familiarize themselves better with the different views about church and state. Their reporting would surely improve if they understood the doctrinal assumptions underlying our debates.

But back to Labi. Her feature is more reportage than analysis, but it does raise interesting points. Most notable for me was the idea that the sinfulness of the non-Amish kingdom is a threat while the sinfulness of the people within the Amish kingdom is not. Labi interviewed women from Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. She researched the legal records for each of the abuse claims. She interviewed — or attempted to interview — the accused and convicted perpetrators. And she thoughtfully analyzed how Amish doctrine plays into the situation. Which is probably why she was nominated for a National Magazine Award and a Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism this year.

Photo from fulphillyment via Flickr.

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Head-butter: Christian or lapsed Muslim?

zidanMolly Moore wrote in Tuesday’s Washington Post that France’s national soccer team captain Zinedine Zidane, banished in the final minutes of Sunday’s World Cup final for head-butting an opponent in a moment of rage, is the “son of Christian Algerian immigrants.”

But other news reports have described him as a “non-practicing Muslim,” as stated in a Wikipedia article and backed up by this article in The Hindu.

Here’s the Post‘s summary of events:

PARIS, July 10 — French soccer captain Zinedine Zidane — voted the World Cup’s top player — should have been reveling in a hero’s welcome Monday afternoon.

Instead, he stood on a balcony overlooking a crowd of cheering fans at Paris’s Place de la Concorde a day after a game that ended with not only disappointment but also disgrace.

[The Post has corrected a mistake, which appeared only in its online story, that said Zidane was "sobbing uncontrollably and breaking into tears at Paris's Place de la Concorde." His teammate David Trezeguet was the player seen crying.]

One of France’s few modern-day heroes and one of the greatest soccer players of his generation, Zidane — in a startling show of rage in the 110th minute of Sunday’s World Cup final — transformed a night of patriotic pride into a morning of national shame and despair across France. Having announced his intention to retire from the sport after the tournament, his head butt of Italian defender Marco Materazzi resulted in a red card and thus likely was the final on-field act of his career.

So is Zidane a lapsed Muslim with Christian parents? There’s a story to be told here. His parents are from Algeria, which according to the CIA is 99 percent Sunni Muslim and 1 percent Christian and Jewish.

Why does this matter? Some have speculated that Zidane slammed his head into the chest of Italian footballer Marco Materazzi because Materazzi called Zidane “the son of a terrorist whore,” in addition to other not-so-nice words.

Materazzi has denied using these words, saying that he “categorically did not call him a terrorist. I’m not cultured and I don’t even know what an Islamic terrorist is.”

Materazzi maintains that he engaged in the typical taunting that goes on in nearly all sports, but I find it hard to believe that a player like Zidane could flip out and harm his spectacular World Cup football over a few silly taunts. I guess we’ll find out soon when Zidane gives an interview to France’s Canal Plus.

So while our friends cover the simmering controversy that is Zidane’s head-butt, I’d like to point you to Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, which did some research and discovered the roots of the France/Italian football rivalry: an attempt to resolve the ancient score between the two countries over Pope Clement V’s decision to move the papacy to France. The Daily Show knows its religion history.

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Tapping a Godbeat site down under

stephen crittendenIt’s hard for an American to come away from a meeting with international journalists without feeling a bit, well, guilty.

I try to keep up with the news, but I know that my grasp of international affairs is still weak. Spending a few days in Oxford discussing news trends with people from Nigeria, Kenya, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Egypt, Pakistan, Peru, Norway and a few other nations is a sobering experience.

I also feel guilty, from time to time, about the lack of international news content here at GetReligion. However, I have to admit that international items seem to draw less feedback from readers. One glance at a Google chart that shows the location of our readers also shows the obvious — most of our 2,000 to 3,000 readers a day are in North America.

This probably is a chicken-and-egg, Catch-22 situation. Which comes first? More international coverage or more international readers?

Anyway, all of this is a setup to introduce you to a site that I bumped into the other day — offering transcripts and links to The Religion Report‘s broadcasts on ABC Radio National in Australia. The host is Stephen Crittenden (pictured) and he has been at this for almost a decade.

As you would expect, there is a heavy emphasis on global affairs — from the ecological views of the Orthodox Patriarch in Istanbul, to a topic that we discussed quite a bit during my visit to Oxford, “Freedom of Religion in Malaysia?” Australia is also a major player in Anglican affairs, which affects quite a few shows. Here is a sample of a recent interview transcript, in which Crittenden talks with veteran British journalist Andrew Brown about the efforts to find a compromise between liberal Episcopalians and conservative African Anglicans.

The host starts with the obvious question: How’s Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams doing, during the current crisis (cue: swirl of cathedral pipe organ)?

Andrew Brown: Well I don’t think it’s a dispute that anyone could have handled well. I mean to handle it well you’d have to have people on both sides, or even on one side who were interested in compromise, or who seriously thought they might be wrong. That isn’t the case.

Stephen Crittenden: Nonetheless, wasn’t it always going to be a pretty tall order to think that the Episcopalians would repent? They never had any intention of repenting, did they, of electing a gay bishop?

Andrew Brown: No, of course they’re not going to repent, because to repent implies you think you’ve done something wrong, and they don’t think they have, or most of them don’t think they have. Similarly it’s a bit of a stretch however often it’s put in the documents to expect the conservatives to listen to gay or lesbian people because they have no intention of doing so.

Well, that is certainly opinionated stuff, shooting in both directions. However, the reports at this site also include quite a few links to other sites, documents, etc. Check it out. And let us know other global Godbeat sites that you find helpful.

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Seventh-inning sermon

baseballAs far as All-Star games go, this year’s was pretty exciting. The National League was leading for most of the game until some American League player (sorry, I don’t follow that league enough to know names) batted a couple of runners home in the top of the 9th with a triple. I believe Bud Selig showed what a bad commissioner he is when he made homefield advantage for the World Series dependent not on the merits of the teams who got there but, rather, on the outcome of this game. How long, Lord, will we be under his reign? How long?

Anyway, I don’t want to be one of those people who goes overboard in defense of her favorite game, but like many folks, I find similarities between baseball and religion. The liturgy of the games; the smells, bells and whistles; the deliberate pace; the standing and sitting. So I was inclined to appreciate John Dickerson’s piece in Slate.

Dickerson is the chief political correspondent for the online magazine owned by the Washington Post. He wrote a first-person account of his visit to Camden Yards Sunday to hear Billy Graham preach. Even though it’s written informally, it’s newsy. He paints a vivid picture of the experience, from the sinfully-priced sodas to the lusty Christian band that got things going. His artful style is engaging and sassy without being terribly judgmental. Cal Thomas — a friend of Dickerson’s mother — takes him to meet Franklin Graham:

He spoke with perfect diction and a whiff of a Southern accent. He is not a man in doubt. His positions on abortion, condoms, and immorality are just what you’d expect, but his weightless charm isn’t. There was no smiling at the wrong time or obsequious fawning or theatrical whispering. He’s selling salvation to be sure, and he is less diplomatic than his father, but he has such an even keel that for a moment you forget that he’s just condemned to eternal damnation all those who don’t enter into heaven through Christ.

But enough about Franklin. Like the crowds at Camden, we’re waiting for the main event. Here’s his description of Rev. Billy Graham’s sermon and altar call:

Then he said we’re all going to hell. It was very literal. There was no windup or the verbal padding I’m used to from Catholic Church, where the priest talks in parables and inference that usually obscure the starker messages of sin and redemption. “You are going to die,” he said. “I’m going to die. And after that, there will be a judgment. ‘Every idle word that man shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the Day of Judgment,’ the scripture says. When you break a law, you pay the price. You’ve broken God’s law. We’ve broken the Ten commandments. If you’ve broken one of the commandments, you’ve broken them all. And we’re all sinners. And we’re all under the threat of judgment.” It was spare and simple. He did not raise his voice. It was as if after all that rock, Woody Guthrie had hooked up his battered
acoustic to the sound system. “Are you ready to die? You’d better decide for Christ here and now.”

But Dickerson doesn’t just give the one side of Graham’s well-known work. It’s not all Law:

This was where the incongruity of the venue worked so powerfully. Graham’s message wasn’t just for Sunday or weddings or funerals. What he was offering was the promise of grace at any moment, including in left field under an Esskay hot-dog sign. Too frail to walk, the old man left the stage as he arrived, driven across the field on a golf cart. It’s the same way they bring relief pitchers from the bullpen. He was departing after one more save.

Some might say that last line is a bit much but I thought it worked well. And it kind of makes me wish Dickerson were writing more about religion.

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Getting religion in the public square

the cross in americaThe most recent edition of PBS’ Washington Week included an interesting exchange between a member of the audience at the Aspen Ideas Festival and a panel consisting of leading journalists from Time, The Atlantic and NBC News:

Q: I would like to ask how can we keep religion out of government and politics?

MS. IFILL: How can we keep religion out of — how can we or should we?

Q: Hell, how should we? (Laughter.)

I was a bit taken aback by the bluntness of the question. To some, it’s not a matter of whether religion should be involved in public life, but a matter of how it can best be eliminated.

Ifill quickly passed that question to Andrea Mitchell, NBC News’ chief foreign affairs correspondent, who referred the audience member to American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation by Jon Meacham, the managing editor of Newsweek. Mitchell said the book shows the role of religion among the Founding Fathers, how religion was not completely excluded from our civic society and how it does have a role.

No, really?

I haven’t read Meacham’s book yet, but it is highly respected and has has helped shift popular Washington opinion toward the understanding that religion can indeed have a role in public society.

But as with all matters of religion, some people disagree.

Peter Slevin of The Washington Post has written a 1,400-word viewpoint, I mean news article, on an organization dedicated to keeping religion in the public square:

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — A 29-foot war memorial shaped like a cross should be allowed to remain on public land. A teacher should be able to emphasize references to God in the Declaration of Independence. Protesters should be permitted to approach women near the doors of an abortion clinic.

These courtroom fights and dozens of others pending across the country belong to the portfolio of the ambitious Alliance Defense Fund, a socially conservative legal consortium. It spends $20 million a year seeking to protect what it regards as the place of religion — and especially Christianity — in public life.

Considering itself the antithesis of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Scottsdale-based organization has used money and moxie to become the leading player in a movement to tug the nation to the right by challenging decades of legal precedent. By stepping into the nation’s most impassioned debates about religion in the public sphere, the group aims to bring law and society into alignment with conservative Christianity.

religion in the public squareNote now the article portrays the group as on the offensive. But if you read through the article, all of the examples place the group on the defensive. Rather than attempting to move American law to the right, the group seems more determined to keep the law where it is.

This impression of advancement was helped along by ADF founders Alan Sears and Jeffery Ventrella. The group has a financial interest in proclaiming this version of reality. American values and cultural mores have already been trampled underfoot. And they are the ones, if we can get a check, to bring them back from the brink:

Alliance executives say they are on solid ground when it comes to history and the law, and they insist that the pendulum is beginning to swing their way. Sears said the group, “by grace,” expects to grow 20 percent a year.

“Over and over, there’s a search-and-destroy mission for religious expression,” Ventrella told the trainees in Chicago. “Do we want to forget our religious heritage? When we abandon God, we will forget man. So what’s God got to do with it? Everything.”

The article does an excellent job of documenting the group’s attempts to inflame situations using impassioned rhetoric, but I wonder if the Post would have examined similar efforts by just about any other interest group. I receive ACLU and Sierra Club fundraising letters with rhetoric that could give the ADF a run for its money.

So, why the ADF? The Post article briefly mentions Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law & Justice and Jerry Falwell’s Liberty Counsel. Those groups, and the Rutherford Institute, surely would appreciate similar front-page treatment.

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As Canterbury Turns: The mission of the church

mission of churchTime‘s Jeff Chu asked the Presiding Bishop-elect of The Episcopal Church ten questions about her view of the church’s mission, the relationship between religion and science and the exclusivity of Christianity. While the quality of her answers will be the subject of debate, I think he used a great — and simple — technique for getting information out of Katharine Jefferts Schori. And her answers are fascinating, I think. For instance, she says this about what the focus of the church should be:

Our focus needs to be on feeding people who go to bed hungry, on providing primary education to girls and boys, on healing people with AIDS, on addressing tuberculosis and malaria, on sustainable development. That ought to be the primary focus.

Jefferts Schori is more direct about her theological views than her predecessor, which may turn out to be a blessing or a curse. But it’s so nice that Chu just asks the questions and gives us her answers. That way we can compare her words with those of Nigerian bishop Peter Akinola in a letter from April 2005:

I am also thankful that while we are all engaged in many different expressions of practical concern for the poor and the oppressed at home and abroad we share a common commitment to the primary mission of the Church, which is to proclaim redemption from sin and the promise of life eternal through faith in Jesus Christ.

You see that? While so many reporters take the easy route and frame the debate in the Anglican Communion as centering on gay sex and female ordination, the issues are much deeper. The bigger questions are what the very mission of the church is. Is it to care for the temporal needs of humanity or the eternal? The physical or the spiritual? Is it, again, to proclaim Christ?

Jefferts Schori answers a Chu question about whether Jesus is the only way to heaven by saying that believing that way would “put God in an awfully small box.” Those are some pretty serious doctrinal divides that cross the Atlantic. Not that Jefferts Schori wants to talk doctrine. In one of her answers to Chu’s questions, she pooh-poohed doctrinal discussions, deriding them as bickering.

Other reporters might want to press Jefferts Schori on that last point, asking her which, if any, doctrinal points are worth debating and why. And whatever else can be said, I’m sure she would answer in a straightforward manner.

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