Money of the past vs. Money of the future

ChristChurchThe aftershocks from the 2006 edition of the oldline Protestant sex wars continue to rattle around through the infrastructures of churches at the local, national and global levels.

As I stressed the other day, both the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and The Episcopal Church — a name that leaves it one step away from declaring itself a global body — are now essentially in the same position, a neverland called “local option.” Neither has formally abandoned 2000 years of Christian tradition on sex and marriage, but both have voted to allow regional bodies to do so without punishment. The Episcopal Church also quietly declined to formally support gay marriage, but openly proclaimed that it was opposed to all efforts to oppose gay marriage. It’s called via media.

Over at The New York Times, veteran religion scribe Laurie Goodstein produced a news feature that tried to sum up this purgatory state, this land between a clear victory for either the left or the right. Here’s the statement of her thesis:

For the Episcopal Church U.S.A. and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), as with other mainline Protestant churches, the summertime convention season has become a painful ritual. In each church, the conservatives and the liberals are bound together like brawling conjoined twins.

The liberals dominate the power centers of the denominations — the national offices and the legislative arms. The conservatives have threatened to walk away, but most have not because they say the church is rightfully, theologically, theirs. …

Members of both churches had looked to this year’s conventions to clarify their positions on ordaining gay clergy members and blessing same-sex couples. But instead, each convention produced the kind of parliamentary doublespeak that some Episcopalians call “Anglican fudge …”

That is part of the story, but I believe she missed — probably due to lack of space — several key elements.

The conservatives do have theology on their side, but it is the theology of the past, the actual teachings of the Protestant Reformers and, on moral theology, the ancient churches of East and West. But part of their problem is that they do not have the theology of the present on their side, in large part because almost all of their denominational seminaries have for decades been solidly modernist and now postmodernist. Thus, year after year, the conservatives are losing control of the theology of the future in these national churches that are committed to evolving — or reforming — their way into a future based on majority or super-majority rule.

The establishment leaders in these oldline churches also have money on their side — sort of. They legally control the structures that affect property and pensions, although conservative congregations have won a few battles against progressive regional executives and-or bishops. These are expensive battles for people on both sides, but, in the Anglican wars, many of the bishops in old, historic cathedrals have endowment funds to tap.

In other words, they control the money of the past and will use it to defend the theology of the future.

However, the conservatives have the growing congregations — locally and globally — and, thus, tend to have healthy budgets in the here and now. Many of them are outgrowing their sanctuaries or have just built giant new facilities that their local bishops or presbyteries literally cannot afford to operate if the people in the pews (and their checkbooks) walk away.

In other words, the conservatives control — in many key zip codes — the money of the present and will use it to defend the theology of the past.

Episcopal Shield 01How will this play out at the local level? One of the biggest religion stories in America today is unfolding down in the Dallas area, although you would not know that by looking at the online front page of The Dallas Morning News.

It seems that the flock many hail as the single largest Episcopal congregation in the United States — when it comes to live people sitting in real pews — has decided that enough is enough and is leaving The Episcopal Church. Click here to read the story by religion reporter Jeffrey Weiss and click here to read blog commentary by Rod “Crunchy Con” Dreher of the newspaper’s editorial-page staff.

As Weiss notes, the key to this story is that this massive congregation has the support of the local Episcopal bishop. They like him and he likes them. Still, the congregation has decided to leave the American church in order to show its loyalty to the larger global Anglican Communion, which, especially in the Third World, remains quite traditional in terms of doctrine and practice.

Weiss notes:

What happens next is not clear. Under the rules of the Episcopal Church, parish property does not belong to the congregation but to the diocese, which is supposed to act in accord with the national denomination’s rules. So in theory, according to some church law experts, the Dallas bishop could demand that Christ Church’s congregation no longer meet in the church campus, on Legacy Drive.

But Christ Church has the support of Dallas Bishop James Stanton, who opposed the 2003 vote that confirmed Bishop Robinson. Christ Church says it still regards the Dallas bishop as its “apostolic leader.” And Bishop Stanton said Monday that he intends to allow the congregation to continue to use the campus. “They bought it. They paid for it,” Bishop Stanton said.

National church leaders could not be reached for comment.

What this story does not dig into, yet, is the financial side of this local crisis. What is Christ Church’s building (pictured) worth? How much money has this megachurch, by Anglican standards, been paying into the diocesan budget? Can the national church afford to lose more pledges from major parishes and dioceses?

Meanwhile, everyone is waiting for a word from Canterbury. Will Archbishop Rowan Williams remain loyal (his views on moral theology are progressive) to the endowments of the past (to his theological class, so to speak) or to the churches that are experiencing growth in the present and are striving to protect their futures?

At some point, the Third World will not settle for fudge. However, what about Queen Elizabeth II?

UPDATE: Well not, it seems that even as I typed those words the Archbishop of Canterbury’s statement on these issues was coming out and starting to draw attention in London, if not on this side of the pond. It appears that he will attempt a kind of “local option,” but with two different levels of ecclesiastical and doctrinal ties that bind.

rowanwilliams narrowweb  200x290Are we talking Communion vs. communion, with The Episcopal Church being the small “c” in the eyes of the majority of the world’s Anglicans? Click here to go to the Ruth Gledhill report in The Times and here for her blog, with many other key links. The headline is going to spoil a lot of lunches today in blue Episcopal zip codes: “Worldwide Anglican church to split over gay bishop.” Here are the crunch paragraphs:

… Williams is proposing a two-track Anglican Communion, with orthodox churches being accorded full, “constituent” membership and the rebel, pro-gay liberals being consigned to “associate” membership.

All provinces will be offered the chance to sign up to a “covenant” which will set out the traditional, biblical standards on which all full members of the Anglican church can agree. But it is highly unlikely that churches such as The Episcopal Church in the US, the Anglican churches in Canada and New Zealand and even the Scottish Episcopal Church would be able to commit themselves fully to such a document.

In this relationship, The Episcopal Church and those who support it would have a status not unlike members of Methodist bodies, who have some historic ties to Anglicanism, but are not part of the formal structures of the global Anglican Communion.

That said, everything I wrote here still stands when it comes to money issues and legal issues. Can the Anglican Communion pay its bills without the big bucks it gets from American endowment funds? Remember that old saying: The Africans pray, the Americans pay and the British get to write the resolutions.

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What does bin Laden believe?

osamaShould the public know and understand the belief system of the world’s most despicable terrorist? Aren’t some ideas just too disturbing for academic study or general dissemination?

I would hold that the opposite is true and that the public needs to know the belief systems of Osama bin Laden and his band of followers. In meeting this need, our country’s mass media have largely failed us. As this Religion News Service article states, bin Laden doesn’t have a website explaining his views and he’s not likely to give an extensive interview anytime soon. He doesn’t publish papers in academic journals and, so far as I know, has never published a book. This makes it difficult, but certainly not impossible, for journalists to write about bin Laden.

If we fail to understand who bin Laden is we will forget the motivations for his actions that have spread destruction and horror across the globe. Thankfully, some are attempting to understand:

For nearly a year, these professors of religion, politics, history and law have gathered as a critical audience to bin Laden, a man who looms larger than perhaps any other in our country and yet who remains a mystery to many Americans.

They emphasize they do not sympathize with the al-Qaida leader, nor do they want to add academic weight to his teachings or beliefs. They merely want to understand the man, his purpose and the source of his influence and hatred.

“It’s not like you can turn on the television and hear a 10-minute press release from al-Qaida,” said Richard McGregor, an assistant professor of Islamic studies who helped start the group. “Our media is not going to give air time to these people. They’re not going to give air time to Osama bin Laden, they say, for strategic reasons. So what it means for the average person — you don’t know. You don’t know who is this person.”

Why have the media failed to present this side of the terrorists? Is it because the public is unable to stomach it? As history demonstrates with the Holocaust, a failure to understand the philosophy guiding a force can ultimately result in a failure to react and respond:

The materials are disturbing to read. Some faculty members invited to participate declined for visceral reasons, McGregor said.

“It is chilling to see somebody articulate so carefully these horrible, horrible acts,” he said. “These are not the ramblings of an insane, incoherent person. He’s quoting from Scripture. He’s quoting from The New York Times. And he’s talking about all of these things very coherently.”

Nonetheless, the value of their work is undeniable to the group.

osama dollMy only problem with the article is its failure to thoroughly articulate bin Laden’s beliefs. That could take a while, though, and this is just a news story on the academic groups. Perhaps a follow-up article is needed in some serious news magazine (I’d like to think that Time and Newsweek are up to the challenge, but I doubt it) to flesh out the group’s discoveries?

Here’s a hint of what we may discover, and it is indeed chilling:

The rhetoric is reasoned and well informed, not irrational. In addition to Scripture, he draws from current events and even respected scholars and war theory to justify his belligerence. But the rhetoric is weak theologically, McGregor said.

“It does not have deep roots in the Quran or deep roots in Islamic law,” he said. “Yes, he quotes the Quran once in a while. But within the Islamic religion itself, this is very extreme. This is really on the edge.”

Second photo courtesy of Flickr.

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Unanswered questions

bobby hatPretty much no one liked the report from London’s Metropolitan police regarding why complaints of corruption and misconduct against Asian officers are 10 times greater than for white officers. At least that’s how The Guardian‘s Sandra Laville and Hugh Muir would like you to see it.

I consider this article Exhibit A in why directed reporting, also known as reporting with a slant, fails a democratic society. Here’s the newsy part of the article:

A secret high-level Metropolitan police report has concluded that Muslim officers are more likely to become corrupt than white officers because of their cultural and family backgrounds.

The document, which has been seen by the Guardian, has caused outrage among ethnic minorities within the force, who have labeled it racist and proof that there is a gulf in understanding between the police force and the wider Muslim community. The document was written as an attempt to investigate why complaints of misconduct and corruption against Asian officers are 10 times higher than against their white colleagues.

The main conclusions of the study, commissioned by the Directorate of Professional Standards and written by an Asian detective chief inspector, stated: “Asian officers and in particular Pakistani Muslim officers are under greater pressure from the family, the extended family … and their community against that of their white colleagues to engage in activity that might lead to misconduct or criminality.”

The article goes to great lengths to explain why the report’s conclusions are not helpful to the country. That much is certain. Exactly how the conclusions might be wrong is less clear. But the issue is raised.

What the article fails to address is the biggest question of why indeed are Asian officers 10 times more likely to be complained about than white officers? I’d like to know, as would the people of London.

Photo via Flickr.

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Rod Dreher explores Da Nile

NileSunsetI am swamped in meetings all week, so I am running late and missing out on some stories. The Divine Ms. M is on the road, too. So thanks to young master Daniel Pulliam for pulling 666 duties (somebody had to do it). Please hang in there with us.

Meanwhile, Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher has been doing some very GetReligion-y work all week over at his new Crunchy Con blog at Beliefnet. The chain of posts began with this story in The New York Times about the breakup of an alleged terror plot in Toronto. Dreher did some intense paragraph counting and decided that, well, denial isn’t just a river in Eqypt. Here is a sample of Rod’s “See no evil” post from last weekend:

Who were these people? Several paragraphs down, the Times finally gives a hint by saying that they are “mainly of South Asian descent.” Ah, now we’re getting somewhere! Are they Hindu extremists from India? Vietcong.2? Nepalese Maoists?

Surprise! They just might be Muslims, as the reader is left to figure out for himself by clues left in the 21st (!) paragraph, when the Times says the Canadian suspects might have had contact with two men recently arrested in Georgia: “Those two were Ehsanul Islam Sadequee, 19, an American of Bangladeshi descent, and Syed Haris Ahmed, 21, a Pakistani-born American.”

You know, we happen to have been for nearly five years in a vast and bloody conflict with Islamic radicals who openly wish to destroy us in the name of Islam. And here we are, deep into a story about a possible major bomb plot, and the Times cannot bring itself even to mention the religion of suspects arrested by the FBI on terrorism charges, even though their religion would be a vital clue to understanding the story. Is it more important to know that these guys are of Bangladeshi and Pakistani origin, or that they are Muslims (something I’m only guessing based on their names; the Times doesn’t tell the reader until the next paragraph, and then only by quoting an FBI official)?

We soldier on till the 25th paragraph, when the names of some of the arrested in Canada are finally listed. Several of them are named Muhammad. Another clue! Then, in paragraph 27, a brother of one of the arrested men defends the suspects as good people, saying, “They go to the mosque.”

By day two, the Times had dug into the mosque angle — since this was, as it turns out, a pivotal element of the story. This is not a surprise, based on patterns in previous events. And, of course, the people at the mosque are not of one mind about what is going on, before or after the arrests. That is to be expected and that is part of the story.

So the Times did report:

Members at a mosque prayer meeting on Sunday said the six fellow worshipers who were arrested included the eldest, Qayyum Abdul Jamal, 43, described by several acquaintances as a school bus driver and an active member of the mosque who frequently led prayers, made fiery speeches and influenced young people who attended the services.

“He spent a lot of time with youth,” said Faheem Bukhari, a director of the Mississauga Muslim Community Center who sometimes attended prayers at the mosque. “He’d take them for soccer or bowling, and talk to them.” Mr. Bukhari said Mr. Jamal never openly embraced violence or talked about Al Qaeda, but was “very vocal and I believe could incite these young kids for jihad.”

The issue, again, is whether the MSM is actually afraid to discuss the religious elements of these terrorism stories and, to be specific, the actual divisions inside Islam about faith and life in the Western world. Rod has continued to write about these issues this week — often producing fierce debates among those commenting at his site. Check it out.

Photo credit: “Nile River Sunset” by Matthew Floreen,

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666 ridiculousness

666The idea of doing a post on the fact that today is June 6, 2006, and that somehow has religious significance made my head hurt due to its absolute silliness, and my colleagues suggested that I list six reasons why this is the case. Feel free to contribute your own reasons for agreeing or disagreeing.

But first, a quick rundown of the news articles: here is a BBC article on what I guess is a legitimate news event and another on that wonderful little Michigan town dubbed “Hell” and its celebrations. And Tim Townsend of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch took a look at a wide range of issues.

With that, here are the reasons 666 stories hurt my head:

  1. 666 is just a number. It is the sum of the squares of the first seven prime numbers, if you were interested.
  2. People commonly associate 666 with the “Number of the Beast” mentioned in Revelation 13:17-18. The text does not mention June 6, 2006. The current calendar was not used when Revelation was written. I also doubt they abbreviated their dates the way we do.
  3. Some people believe the “Number of the Beast” is actually 616. Nevertheless, there is still no significance to 6/6/06.
  4. If you are going to do articles on people doing things to make 6/6/06 significant, please do articles on why people are visiting the slots on 7/7/07. Wait, that’s dumb, don’t do that. While I’m at it, reporters writing on this should do an article on my favorite day of the year, November 11, and talk about how I enjoy watching my digital clock show all ones at 11:11 a.m.
  5. In Unix a file permission of 666 grants all users read and write permissions on the file. Apple’s first computer, the Apple I, was priced at $666.66. I think Apple computers are great. So are iPods.
  6. In Chinese, 666 sounds similar to the word meaning “Things going smoothly.” People pay extra in China to get 666 in their cell-phone digits.

All reporters writing about the significance of 6/6/06 must include and ask questions relating to these six reasons for me to do a follow-up post. They must also get serious answers from those making the news because there are more important things to write about in this world. But if questions like that are asked, reporters will realize the silliness of 6/6/06 stories and my head will stop hurting.

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Life and death in a faith-free zone

05 17Dis20 Another 3000 feet to go JJThe Los Angeles Times ran a story the other day called “Morality on a Slippery Slope” that was about life, death, beauty, adventure, courage and, most of all, life-and-death moral choices.

There wasn’t a hint of religion in it, which is what caught my attention.

Anyone who has read Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air or visited an IMAX theater to see Everest already knows what kind of disasters can take place at the top of the world in what advanced climbers call “The Death Zone.” At the heart of reporter Pete Thomas’ story was a simple question: When is it acceptable to pass another climber — a climber who, perhaps, is minutes or hours from death — in order to complete your own journey to the top of a famous summit? How do you decide whether to attempt a rescue? Are you allowed to think about your own ambitions, safety and finances, weighing those factors against the value of an endangered human life?

Think of this as the Parable of the Good Samaritan — acted out at 28,000 feet.

At the center of the story is Mark Inglis of New Zealand, the first double-amputee to climb Everest. The problem is that, just before reaching the summit, Inglis and his team passed a 34-year-old British climber named David Sharp, who had collapsed in a snow cave and was, witnesses said, nearing death. In all, an estimated 40 climbers decided that Sharp was already too far gone and, thus, climbed on to make sure that they reached the summit. Thomas notes:

Some in climbing circles bemoan what they perceive to be a diminished moral code caused, in part, by overcrowding and by commercial outfitters adopting a summit-or-bust attitude to justify the high fees they charge clients who, in some cases, lack adequate climbing experience. The cost of joining an expedition can run from $10,000 to more than $40,000.

Others, however, say that high ethics are still maintained among the veteran climbing fraternity — of which Inglis has been a respected member — and that situations vary. Conditions are extremely harsh in what is known as the Death Zone, above 25,000 feet, where oxygen is sparse, winds are fierce and temperatures reach 100 below. Judgment can be impaired and rescue attempts are difficult and can be perilous.

The Death Zone is very much on the minds of climbers this year, with 10 confirmed fatalities on Everest among an estimated 300 summit attempts so far. Thomas notes that this is second only to the reported 19 deaths in 1996 — the deadly year described in the breathtaking Everest film and Krakauer’s bestseller.

658 1 everest  imax  sHere’s another question: Why is everyone focusing their wrath on Inglis? Because he talked openly about why he took the course of action that he did? What about all of those other climbers?

Meanwhile, the world’s most famous mountain climber — Everest pioneer Sir Edmund Hillary — has clearly stated his stance on the doctrinal question raised by this morality tale.

Hillary expressed his disgust on New Zealand television about the Sharp incident, implying that his 1953 summit might not have occurred had his party found a climber in distress. “Human life is far more important than just getting to the top of a mountain,” Hillary said.

Another climber, named Myles Osborne, took part in a recent rescue of a frostbitten, struggling climber on Everest. Osborne stated his views in even more personal terms, saying:

… “I could not help but wonder how in any way is a summit more important than saving a life? The answer is that it isn’t. But in this skewed world up here, sometimes you can be fooled into thinking that it might be. But I know that trying to sleep at night knowing that I summited Everest and left a guy to die isn’t something I ever want to do. The summit’s always there, after all.”

Like I said, the article is totally faith-free in terms of language. The climbers do not speak in religious terms and Thomas did not consult any religious leaders about the choices involved in this tragedy. I am not saying that I blame the reporter, in this case, for failing to do so.

Then again, perhaps religion is at the heart of this story anyway. If people are this serious about mountain climbing, the act of climbing Everest may be a religious experience for them. They were on their way to their temple and could not pause to help the man by the side of the road. They followed the doctrines of their chosen faith.

Maybe this is a religion story after all.

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Who, what, when, where, (why?) and how

1562006051916395315rifle wFor the past week or more, I have had a question banging around in my head while reading news reports about the bizarre trial of John Allen Muhammad in Montgomery County, Md.

It’s hard to describe how people in the greater Washington, D.C., area feel about Muhammad and his deadly campaign of sniper attacks back in 2002. The siege affected people getting gas, dropping off kids at school, buying groceries and standing around waiting for a bus or a car ride on the way to work. The trial peaked last week with the emotional and damning testimony of Lee Boyd Malvo, the young man that Muhammad trained and called his “son.” Now, Muhammad has been found guilty of six counts of first-degree murder.

So here is the question that has been haunting me: “Why?” As in “Why did he do it?”

Anyone who takes an introduction to journalism class is familiar with the old wire-service mantra “who, what, when, where, why and how.” Yes, it is hard to achieve journalistic perfection while trying to answer these questions, let alone jam them into the lead paragraph of a story. But it is good to try.

In this case, we are dealing with acts of public terror in the age right after 9/11 by a man who took the name Muhammad. That makes it even harder to avoid the “why” question. Yet few of the news reports seemed interested in the crucial question of motive.

Now please understand that I am not saying that this killer’s actions can somehow be blamed on Islam. In fact, I am saying the opposite. The Nation of Islam is not part of mainstream Islam, let alone moderate Islam. Yet very few stories — at least those that I saw — mentioned how or why Muhammad joined the Nation of Islam. If you were a mainstream Muslim, how would you feel about that silence? This may have been one of those cases when journalists needed to mention the Nation of Islam in order to disconnect other Muslims from the story. After all, The Washington Post did report:

Muhammad introduced Malvo to the Nation of Islam and spoke to him about race and socioeconomic disparities. “The white man is the devil,” Malvo said, summing up Muhammad’s thinking.

So what was the motive? Of the newspapers that I read, the Baltimore Sun seemed the most interested in this question. Clearly, there were personal reasons and ties to a broken marriage and family. But how, precisely, did that link to sniper attacks and then to larger plans to blow up school buses and hospitals that work with children?

Was money the main motive? The Sun did note:

Malvo testified that Muhammad sought to extort $10 million from the government and use it to create a community in Canada to train 140 children to replicate his violent scheme across the United States in a bid to destroy the economy and foment revolution.

Yet here is the quote that haunts me, taken from a Sun report by Andrea F. Siegel and Julie Scharper during the heart of the trial. What precisely did this mean?

Malvo, who said Muhammad had been instructing him in Washington state for months at firing ranges by day and in anti-Americanism over their single daily meal, said he was devoted to Muhammad. The man had fed him, clothed him and brought him illegally from Antigua to the United States.

What precisely is “anti-Americanism”? There may be a religion ghost in there. There may not be. But I, for one, wanted to know more about the “why?” question in that old journalism mantra.

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Covering intolerance in the Middle East

saudi textbookMajor U.S. media outlets are all over a report [PDF] released Tuesday by Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom, which found that Saudi Arabian schools are teaching their students things the U.S. government told them not to teach after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

After the Washington Post‘s Outlook section ran commentary by Nina Shea, the report’s primary author and director of the CRF, I was worried that The New York Times would take a competitive we-don’-like-to-get-scooped pass on the all-important story.

But the Times came out swinging Wednesday morning with an emotionally charged headline reading “Don’t be Friends with Christians or Jews, Saudi Texts Say.” National Public Radio was a bit more measured, using the headline “Saudi Textbooks Still Teach Hate, Group Says.”

NPR played it straight through the entire story. Once the Times was done playing up the more dramatic claims of the report, it got to the heart of the story: Why in the world is the United States government friendly with another government that teaches its children to not be friends with Jews and Christians?

Saudi reformers note that if the latest textbooks are wanting, they are still a far cry from what they were five years ago. The Saudi public, said Muhammad al-Zulfa, a member of the consultative Shura council, say they are generally in favor of reforming textbooks and curriculum, but religious conservatives have stymied the effort.

“It is an uphill battle to revise the curriculum because the resistance by well-established conservative pockets is so fierce,” Mr. Zulfa said.

One Saudi official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity, also cited religious conservatives. “We know what needs to be taken out,” he said. “But it’s not that easy to do it.”

The missing element in both of these stories is why the Saudi texts teach this type of religious extremism. There is obviously a religious context rooted in the country’s Wahhabi teaching, but neither story attempts to explain that theology.

Another question is why the news in this report is news to anyone. How hard is it to grab a few textbooks, translate them and report on what they said? Is the problem gaining access to the textbooks, or the translating?

I would also like to commend NPR for providing a link to the full report, Shea’s Post article, the State Department’s religious freedom report on Saudi Arabai, translated experts of the textbooks, an image of a textbook cover, the Freedom House news release on the report, the official response to the report from the Saudi amabssador, the Saudi government’s statement on its campaign against extremism and a transcript of a Saudi Embassy news conference on extremism. Talk about being exhaustively helpful.

The Times, on the other hand, was meager in its offerings. It merely provided a link to a forum on the Middle East. I guess it’s small peanuts, but why can’t the Times provide these types of links?

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