Strange case of the missing “Buddha boy”

Buddha boyWriting about Buddhism always baffles me. But I do love reading about it, and the most recent case of mysterious disappearance of a 15-year-old boy, whose followers claim he is an incarnation of the Buddha, is a thriller.

None of the Western news reports I dug into took any time to talk to any independent Buddhists, in an attempt to get beyond the hearsay and rumors that are floating around Nepal, the boy’s home.

Here are the details from the BBC (with even more available at Wikipedia):

A missing Nepalese teenager popularly known as “Buddha Boy” reappeared briefly on Sunday, his followers say.

The committee managing the meditation site of Ram Bomjan, 16, released video of its members purportedly meeting the boy near his village in southern Nepal.

The boy’s meditation and apparent 10-month fast attracted global attention before he vanished in March.

An apparent 10-month fast? The Telegraph has pointed out that the “attraction was closed” to people outside the seven-member committee that manages Bomjan.

Please show a little more journalistic skepticism, BBC. To the BBC’s credit, their article did include the “these claims have not been independently verified” line. How about instead of “apparent 10-month fast” we use the phrase “claimed 10-month fast”?

Other than that, I go back to my first beef: why aren’t Buddhists unaffiliated with Bomjan consulted for some thoughts for these articles? What does the media savvy Dalai Lama have to say about this?

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Do swing voters go to church?

JesusLand2Want to see an op-ed piece that misses the big picture? Check out the “Swing Is Still King At the Polls” essay today in the Washington Post by former Bill Clinton pollster Mark J. Penn. It’s another attempt to throw cold water on debates about the red vs. blue divide in the 2000 and 2004 elections.

The point of the essay is simple: There is a big and important mushy zone between the pure red voters and the pure blue voters.

Well, duh. This has been a constant theme here at GetReligion forever and ever, amen. The evidence is that there are hard blue zip codes on the left (secularists and the strong religious left) and hard red zones on the right (traditional religious believers with major clout in the Bible Belt and, thus, the U.S. Senate). As I keep saying, you really need to read that “Tribal Relations” piece in The Atlantic Monthly.

But back to Penn. I really hope the Post balances this piece — quickly — with an op-ed by someone (Hadley Arkes perhaps) who understands the role of moral and cultural issues in the red vs. blue era. Yes, friends and neighbors, Penn writes about red, blue and swing voters and totally ignores the very issues that have defined the era. He also seems to have missed the point that the red vs. blue divide is not a pure divide between the GOP and the Democrats. There are red issue voters stranded in the Democratic Party. Then again, perhaps that is why Penn does not bring them up, since it is not in his interest to mention that. This is the hot story as the Democrats ponder what to do with, for example, abortion and the definition of marriage.

Try to find an awareness of these tough issues in this Penn language:

… (O)utside the Beltway, trends show that voters are increasingly open and flexible, not rigid. They are looking at candidates’ records and visions, not their party affiliation. In the past 50 years independents have grown from one-quarter to one-third of the electorate, according to Gallup polls. In California, the number of independent voters more than doubled between 1991 and 2005. The fastest-growing political party in the United States is no party.

According to the American National Election Studies at the University of Michigan, the number of split-ticket voters in the electorate — meaning people who vote for a Democrat for president and a Republican for Congress, or vice versa — has gone up 42 percent since 1952. That shows a radical new willingness on the part of Americans to look at individual candidates, not party slates. It is a sign of a thinking electorate, not a partisan one.

Read Penn’s piece. Did I miss something? Can anyone find any threads in it linked to faith, morality and culture? Where has this guy been for the past decade?

At this point, we do not know what will happen to the voters who pivot on the faith and culture issues, for the simple reason that both parties are a bit scared of them at the moment (even the GOP). But those issues will not go away, and it will be impossible to ignore them forever.

SantorumBookLET ME JUMP IN with a quick update: Here is a story by David Kirkpatrick — who covers the conservative disputes beat at the New York Times — that certainly shows the role of social issues in one of the hottest contests in the nation. That would be the U.S. Senate race in Pennsylvania.

It’s a solid story — a variation on the right-wing signing up pastors template — but with one element that is rather buried at the end. What happens when churches on the left do the same thing (or take hot issues into the pulput)?

This is how the story ends. I think this element needed to go higher, with more info. Were these events similar?

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the network reflected “a growing backdoor, under-the-radar effort to lure churches into political campaigns” that could risk their tax exemptions.

Michael Geer, the president of the Pennsylvania Family Institute and a speaker on March 6, said such critics were trying to “squelch the free speech” of conservative pastors. No one complained, Mr. Geer said, when opponents of the state marriage amendment had an organizing meeting last week at St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in Harrisburg, Pa.

But were materials from any candidates put in the spotlight at the Lutheran gig? Were the materials tightly linked to the social issues being discussed in the forum? That’s the thin line people are walking on the left and right.

That’s what we need to know. Like I said, the social issues are not going to go away.

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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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“God is not creating new terra firma”

logan circleThe Washington Post carried an interesting religion story Friday on an issue that directly effects my life as a member of a church that meets in the congested heart of the nation’s capital. Gentrification, parking and religious discrimination are all factors in this story and I found it interesting how the article handled each.

Here’s what we’re dealing with:

The District plans to issue tickets to illegally parked cars outside a cluster of downtown churches beginning in May as it undertakes a citywide review of a long-standing practice that police and traffic officials have largely ignored.

The city’s Department of Transportation may also let congregations apply for permits that would allow their members to double-park during services — a proposal that is provoking criticism.

This week, the agency caused confusion with an announcement indicating that the District would ticket double-parked cars outside congregations across the city.

A reader of ours, Chris Blackstone, left us some very intelligent comments regarding this story, stating that the parking issue is becoming more and more of an issue as wealthy white residents move into predominantly older D.C. neighborhoods with large established churches. This is known as the most significant social trend in Washington right now as the city revitalizes itself and neighborhoods like Logan Circle, Chinatown and Dupont Circle become attractive places for developers to build $500,000-plus condos.

Blackstone believes this story is driven by these new residents who don’t appreciate double-parked cars and blocked driveways on Sunday mornings or evenings. Older residents who have lived in the neighborhoods for years find the church part of the scene and don’t mind the crowded parking. Sticking mostly to what officials told him, Post reporter Paul Schwartzman misses this factor, but it’s tough to blame him because the story landed on page six of the metro section. The newspaper’s editors apparently didn’t see this story as much of a priority.

church parkingGetting into the meat of the story, Schwartzman found a local resident, Todd Lovinger, who leads the battle against double-parkers and opposes the idea of churches’ applying for special permits that would allow their members to double-park during church time:

“They’re trying to make it appear that they’re doing something, but they’re allowing an exemption that nullifies what they’re doing,” Lovinger said. “It’s a giant loophole.”

Lovinger called the proposal “unconstitutional” because “it exhibits a bias to one religion, namely the Christian churches that assemble on Sunday. Jewish congregations have the same problems on Friday and Saturdays, but the District is not addressing that.”

Rice said the transportation agency is “happy to work with” any religious institution and community enduring a similar parking crunch. And he countered the complaint that parking permits amounted to a loophole, saying applicants would have to testify before the agency’s Public Space Commission, which would decide on issuing exemptions.

That’s a nice back-and-forth there between the Transportation Department’s Bill Rice and Lovinger, but did Schwartzman consider finding out the number of synagogues in Washington, as Blackstone pointed out? Or mosques? It would be interesting to know, for one, and could also nullify that argument, despite the agency’s promise to work with all religious institutions.

Parking near churches on Sundays in Washington is certainly an issue. Parking at my church, which meets in Chinatown, is always a hassle unless one arrives at least 30 minutes before the 5 p.m. service. Parking in Dupont Circle (where my girlfriend lives) is always difficult on Sunday night when an area church has its service.

So from both perspectives, as a congregant seeking a parking spot and a person battling churchgoers for parking spots, it affects my life. While I appreciate this one article on the matter, a more thorough look at the various aspects would be nice.

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No bishop for the butcher

pec001So, unless I have missed something somewhere, it does not appear that a bishop — or perhaps even a priest — showed up to help lead the memorial services for the butcher of Belgrade.

I do not think that Ramsey Clark counts. He is a priest in the wrong faith.

So is Reuters planning to print a correction? The wire service did, after all, print a story that bluntly said the Serbian Orthodox Church — as a sign of support for his legacy — would be holding a memorial service for former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. Instead, the hard socialist left of the Serbian past staged what resembled large political rallies for its fallen leader.

Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Alissa J. Rubin reported that:

Neither Milosevic’s widow, Mirjana Markovic, nor his children, Marko and Marija, attended the funeral, which was televised on a single Serbian network. Markovic and her son live in exile in Moscow, and she faces corruption charges in Serbia.

Despite expectations that a Serbian Orthodox bishop would preside, the former leader was buried after dark without a religious service under a linden tree in the garden of the house he owned here. After letters from his widow and son were read, leaders of the Socialist Party kissed the simple wooden grave marker, followed by two boys and a girl dressed in camouflage uniforms.

So what is going on here? As I said the other day, it is true that, in Serbia, themes of national pride and centuries of suffering are woven into political life and some of that is connected with Orthodoxy. I would be stunned if there were no religious images linked to as powerful a figure as Milosevic. After all, he was a master at manipulating the emotions of many, many Serbians.

Yet Patriarch Pavle and other key Orthodox leaders were vocal in their support of movements in opposition to Milosevic and his Communist thugs.

So who showed up to mourn his death? You can check off the names and groups for yourself. Daniel Williams, in the Washington Post, reports the following:

On Saturday, political associates fashioned a legend of Milosevic as a steadfast champion of Serbia and victim of the West. “We are bidding farewell to the best one among us,” said Milorad Vucelic, a Socialist Party official.

The leader of the Serbian Radical Party, Vojislav Sesel, who is on trial at The Hague for war crimes, also sent a message: “Our Serbia will rise like a phoenix from the ashes.” Another war crimes suspect, Dragoljub Ojdanic, chief of staff during the Kosovo war who is out of Hague custody on bail until his trial begins, attended the funeral wearing his general’s uniform.

Ramsey Clark, a former U.S. attorney general fresh from participating in Saddam Hussein’s defense in Baghdad, praised Milosevic, saying “He was a man for the ages.”

And all of the GetReligion readers on the political left said: “Ouch?”

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Swallowing bitter pills

ru486newsprintThe FDA announced this week that another two women who had undergone abortions using pills had died. It is important for reporters to be very specific about what is and is not known about life and death issues such as these, and many reporters did a fine job. But there was one component that was sorely lacking. Let’s look at this sample coverage from Andrew Bridges with Associated Press:

Two more women have died after using the abortion pill RU-486, federal health regulators said Friday, in warning doctors to watch for a rare but deadly infection implicated in earlier deaths.

At least seven U.S. women have died after taking the pill, sold since 2000. The Food and Drug Administration cannot prove the drug was to blame in any of the cases.

This information is certainly helpful, but I was thinking back to a story I read in December that had shocked me. Not because the news was so surprising so much as bizarrely underreported. Here’s Salynn Boyles of WebMD in an article published by Fox:

The FDA received reports of 607 adverse events involving the abortion drug RU-486 over a four-year period, it was reported this week.

The adverse events included five reported deaths and 68 cases of severe bleeding that required transfusions.

Late last month, federal officials confirmed that five women who died of toxic shock syndrome within a week of taking the drug to induce abortions had the same rare bacterial infection.

Now, seven deaths provides some context, certainly. But 68 cases of severe bleeding that required blood transfusions? And 607 adverse events? Ay yay yay! Without debating the morality of abortion, why would reporters hide this? If you or a woman you knew were considering abortion — whether you agreed with her thinking or not — wouldn’t you want to share information like this with her? Why, in a story about the dangers of an abortion pill, would you not mention that you may be facing a blood transfusion if you take the pill? Yes, these numbers are comparatively small relative to the half-million women who have used pills to end pregnancies, but that doesn’t excuse hiding them.

Anyway, most outlets tried to push the story forward by looking at Planned Parenthood’s announcement that it was changing the way it administered the drug. Four of the seven women who died did so after receiving their abortion pills from Planned Parenthood. Apparently the FDA and Planned Parenthood have been battling for a while over the way Planned Parenthood directs patients to take the drug. The New York TimesGardiner Harris explains:

When Mifeprex was first approved by the agency in 2000, the standard regimen was to give the drug in a doctor’s office followed two days later by an oral dose of a different drug, misoprostol, also in a doctor’s office. Women expelled the fetus over the following days or weeks in a process that mimicked a miscarriage. The procedure must begin within 49 days of conception.

Soon after Mifeprex’s approval, most Planned Parenthood doctors switched to a different regimen, instructing women to insert misoprostol vaginally at home two to three days after taking Mifeprex. Studies of the new regimen showed that it was effective, and it allowed women to take lower doses of misoprostol. It also meant fewer office visits for Planned Parenthood.

But this regimen was not approved by the drug agency. It is not unusual for doctors to use drugs differently from how they are officially approved. But as reports of deaths among women undergoing the procedure trickled into the F.D.A., government officials issued stern warnings that doctors should stick to the approved regimen.

Until Friday, Planned Parenthood had rejected those warnings.

bitter pill 01I just want to point out this one device author Gardiner Harris used when writing about Planned Parenthood. He says that Planned Parenthood is using a regimen not approved by the FDA. Then he says that it’s not uncommon for doctors to deviate from approved uses. That is most certainly true. It’s also remarkably generous for him to include in a story about two women’s deaths. Especially since those deaths followed medical consultations with Planned Parenthood that included instructions contrary to what the FDA approved for an extremely controversial and dangerous drug. I think it’s good that he mentioned it, so I’m not criticizing him. But it’s good to think about whether all sources get this treatment.

To draw a comparison, let’s say that seven men from around the country all died after hunting trips. The only thing they had in common was that they used the same make and model of gun, which had just been put on the market. Would we expect most reporters to put the best construction on the gun manufacturer? I don’t know.

Reporters, and most of us are guilty of this whether we’re reporters or not, tend to put the best construction on those with whom we agree while attacking the motivations or practices of those with whom we disagree. If you want to write an attack piece, putting the worst construction on one group’s actions — and the best construction on their opponents — is the easiest way to do it. It’s also unethical and fails to provide a news service to readers. Generously explaining everybody’s side is more difficult but it ends up providing a better — albeit much more complex — story.

In the meantime, someone should probably dig a bit more into all these complications from abortion pills, not just the deaths.

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Kisses for the butcher?

sloba3 01As you can imagine, I froze when I read the following passage in the Los Angeles Times story from Belgrade about the tensions caused by memorial rites for former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. Reporter Alissa J. Rubin described this scene:

Milosevic’s coffin sat alone in a large, white-walled exhibition hall, where the museum lately has displayed avant-garde art. It rested on a table in the middle of the room, a large framed photograph of Milosevic leaning against it.

As people filed by, many crossed themselves and then kissed the photo’s frame as they would an icon in a Serbian Orthodox church. The mood was somber but resigned — in many ways Milosevic died here in Serbia in 2001, when the deposed leader vanished from public view.

This image would seem to blend well with the following statement in the new Reuters wire service report that is available all over the place on the World Wide Web:

The Serb Orthodox Church, which backed Milosevic’s hardline brand of nationalism, will hold a funeral ceremony in Pozarevac, something of a surprise for a man who was not thought to be religious.

This short piece offers no information to back up that stunning statement, which would certainly be a shock to the Orthodox that Milosevic’s Communist thugs jailed, assaulted or killed through the years. It would certainly be a shock to the bishops who led public efforts to overthrow his regime.

Watch the coverage this weekend for references to Patriarch Pavle, the key figure in Serbian Orthodoxy. Watch to see what he says and does.

Anything — repeat ANYTHING — involving religion in the Balkans is going to be emotional and complex beyond coverage in a 600-word newspaper report. What I fear today (yes, I am Orthodox) is that any Orthodox presence in events linked to this butcher’s passing will be, through television images, primarily, be used to suggest that the church supported this man.

There were bishops or priests who, as clergy often do, were involved in scenes in which they blessed troops going into combat. There are millions of people who were nationalists in Serbia who also are, to one degree or another, Orthodox. The church will probably grant the family a funeral. But I hope that, at some point, journalists can actually dig into the reality of all that Milosevic did to persecute religious believers and all that the religious leaders in the region — led by Orthodox bishops — did to oppose him and plead for peace.

If you want to read more about that, click here, here and finally here. Note, in particular, the efforts by leaders in Europe and America to ignore pleas for peace and nonviolence that came from a remarkable coalition of Orthodox, Catholic, Jewish and Islamic leaders in, of all places, Kosovo.

In the end, so many of these stories return to the horror of Kosovo and how Milosevic manipulated Serbian emotions about that region, soaked in centuries of blood and sacred history. I put it this way in a 1999 column:

Since morphing from Communist to nationalist, Milosevic has skillfully used Serbia’s array of fears, hatreds and resentments to justify terror in Kosovo and elsewhere by his paramilitary and police units. The Serbian strongman knows that Kosovo contains 1,300 churches and monasteries, many of them irreplaceable historic sites.

Retired New York Times editor A.M. Rosenthal, who once won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting in Eastern Europe, put it this way: “I do not get emotional about the history of Kosovo. I am not a Serb. Serbs do. … Serbs are as likely to give up Kosovo willingly because the Albanians want it as Israelis are to give up Jerusalem because the Arabs want it.”

If you want to know more about that, click here and see some photographs from the past few years. Yes, the butcher of Belgrade knew where to light a match in order to cause an explosion.

Please help me look to see if any of this weekend’s reports try — for better or for worse — to cover these issues with any sensitivity or depth.

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“Sectarian” bloodshed, blah, blah, blah

helicopter 01I am sorry to sound like a broken record and, believe me, I realize that I could make the following comments about dozens of other MSM reports from Iraq day after day after day. But the Operation Swarmer story is one of today’s top stories in newspapers and broadcast media.

So here I go again. You can see, with merely one glance at the top of this Los Angeles Times report, that the “sectarian” nature of this conflict remains at the heart of the story.

BAGHDAD — U.S. and Iraqi forces began a major helicopter and ground attack Thursday on an insurgent stronghold near Samarra, the Sunni Arab dominated city where the bombing of a Shiite Muslim shrine last month set off waves of sectarian bloodshed across the country.

The assault was underway 80 miles north of Baghdad as the parliament elected three months ago held its inaugural session here amid extraordinary security and sharp exchanges that reflected Iraq’s deepening divisions.

And on and on and on, from “Sunni-led insurgency” to “full-scale sectarian conflict” to the dizzying reference to the urgency of bringing “minority Sunni representatives into a broad coalition government along with majority Shiites, ethnic Kurds and secular-minded parties.”

There are religious elements to all of that. But what do the words mean? Yes, I know that, to some degree, the leaders of these factions want political power and oil money. I know all of that. I know that some of the divisions are tribal (at least, I think I know that). But it still seems to me that American newspaper readers, in an era in which we are trying to understand why some (repeat some) Islam leaders want to destroy the West or absorb it, would like to know why so many Arab Muslims want to kill each other, as well. We are being told why they hate us and why they hate Israel. Could someone please explain to us, in language we can understand, why they also want to kill each other?

This is an important question and it leads to others. Is political unity impossible if the ultimate goal is a theocracy built on doctrinal unity? Is a secular compromise possible if Allah casts a final “no” vote?

Adnan Pachachi, at 83 the oldest member of parliament, underscored the urgency of the task in unusually blunt remarks to his colleagues after he had been appointed temporary speaker.

“The country is going through dangerous times … and the perils come from every direction,” he said during the nationally televised session. “We have to prove to the world that there will not be civil war among our people. The danger is still there, and our enemies are ready for us.

“We’re still at the beginning of the road to democracy,” he added, “and we’re stumbling.”

OK, is this Pachachi fellow Sunni, Shiite, Christian or secular? That matters, right?

Yes, it does matter.

Tension between the Shiites, who dominate the interim government, and other blocs surfaced in parliament when Pachachi, a secular Sunni, said in his speech that Cabinet ministers should not be chosen on a sectarian basis.

He was cut off by Abdelaziz Hakim, head of the Shiite bloc’s largest party. Sitting in the front row in black robes and a turban, he said: “This is the first session. We shouldn’t go into all these details.”

So let’s start with a basic question: Why is the Sunni sect symbolized by the color green and the Shiites by the color black?

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