Mandela the sinner? Mandela the prophet? Yes, cover both

One of the greatest mysteries in life is the moral complexity that is often found in the hearts of great men and women who live truly great lives and, even, in their best moments perform great deeds that can be called blessed, or even holy.

There is no question that the turning points in the life of Nelson Mandela, the times when he went to the mountaintop, required him to make stunningly courageous choices about issues that can only be described in terms of morality and justice, forgiveness and grace, sin and redemption. Where did the content of these decisions — especially his decisions to oppose vengeance and revenge on white oppressors — come from? What was the well from which Mandela was drinking?

Yes, he was a brilliant political figure and a flair for the dramatic. But something else was going on, too.

Meanwhile, what about the many personal valleys along the way?

Out of today’s tsunami of coverage, much of it hagiographic in nature, I thought two pieces stood out in wrestling with this duality. Consider the top of a major news essay at The Daily Beast, which even dares to use the term “sinner,” in large part because the great man himself spoke it.

The headline? “Mandela: The Miracle Maker.”

Nelson Mandela, who died December 5, refused to be thought of as a saint. “I never was one,” he insisted — “even on the basis of an earthly definition of a saint as a sinner who keeps trying.”

He wasn’t just being modest. He had a weakness for fine clothes and good-looking women, and he certainly was no pacifist. But a halo was the last thing Mandela needed. He spent half a century wrestling South Africa’s white-minority rulers to the negotiating table, and when he finally got them there, he had to be a hard bargainer, not a holy man.

And yet he worked miracles. … By insisting on looking forward rather than back, Mandela kept the nation from collapsing into a bloody orgy of revenge. Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, who received the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the fight against apartheid, said it unequivocally to Mandela’s biographer Anthony Sampson: “If this man hadn’t been there, the whole country would have gone up in flames.” No one else — not even Tutu himself — had the moral authority to hold South Africa together.

The question journalists are wrestling with, of course, is this: What was the source and nature of his moral authority?

A sidebar at The Los Angeles Times directly addressed this issue, as well.

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Pod people: LA Times cheers for United Methodist ‘reform’

If readers want to know where The Los Angeles Times stands on the issues the loomed over the United Methodist Church trial of the Rev. Frank Schaefer, all they have to do is read one summary passage in a recent update.

Schaefer, GetReligion readers will recall, was on trial for violating his ordination vows, in which he promised to defend the “order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline” of his local, national and global church. He broke his ordination vows by performing a marriage rite for his son and another man.

Thus, the crucial Los Angeles Times passage:

… Schaefer’s United Methodist Church does not tolerate same-sex marriage, and Schaefer has become the latest poster child in the fight between reformists and traditionalists, who after learning of the wedding took Schaefer to a church court this month and won. After an emotionally charged trial, a jury of fellow pastors convicted Schaefer of breaking church law and suspended him for 30 days for performing the April 2007 marriage of his son in Massachusetts.

Now, he faces a choice: loyalty to church doctrine, or loyalty to his son and to other gay men and women who might ask him to perform marriages in the future.

OK, three cheers for a rare mainstream media reference to the word “doctrine,” which — properly so — is included along with the obligatory reference to the trivial sounding term “rules.”

But it’s all right there in the phrase stating that this is a “fight between reformists and traditionalists.”

Say what? This is a biased wording that plunges right past the problems in Schaefer trial coverage that host Todd Wilken and I discussed in this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to listen in).

Open your local cyber dictionary and you will find this information:

re·form: verb …

: to improve (someone or something) by removing or correcting faults, problems, etc.

In other words, this is not a battle between people who want to defend church traditions and those who want to “change,” “liberalize” or even “modernize” them. This is a battle in which one side — by the word chosen by the Times — are merely attempting to remove or correct an error, a fault, in the teachings of their church and, by proxy, two millennia of church history.

There is, in other words, a good side here and a bad side and there is no need for journalistic coverage that treats both sides in a fair and accurate manner.

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Hey WPost: What did Pope Francis say about abortion?

It is a serious understatement to note that Pope Francis has made more than his share of news during the honeymoon months of his papacy. Mainstream reporters have rushed to cover almost everything this charismatic leader has had to say.

The “almost everything” clause is, however, rather important.

It was news, for example, when the pope said that the church has been unbalanced in its approach to promoting it’s teachings on the sanctity of life, stressing public-square politics over pastoral care. Yes, the word “obsessed” was worthy of big headlines. However, days later, journalists on this side of the Atlantic ignored his ringing words at a global conference focusing on abortion and other family life issues. So some pronouncements on abortion are newsworthy and others are not.

Now, Pope Francis has released an important “apostolic exhortation” — the title is Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) in which, in very popular language, he addresses a wide range of topics, everything from global economics to improving the preaching in local pulpits.

So what is grabbing the headlines? Consider the top of this The Washington Post report:

Pope Francis on Tuesday sharply criticized growing economic inequality and unfettered markets in a wide-ranging and decidedly populist teaching that revealed how he plans to reshape the Catholic Church.

In his most authoritative writings as pontiff, Francis decried an “idolatry of money” in secular culture and warned that it would lead to “a new tyranny.” But he reserved a large part of his critique for what he sees as an excessively top-down Catholic Church hierarchy, calling for more local governance and greater inclusiveness — including “broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church.”

The 50,000-word statement is the latest sign that Francis intends to push the church in a new direction.

Viewing the document through a DC Beltway lens, the Post team also jumped — appropriately, I think — on the fact that Pope Francis used a strikingly American term during his discussion of the weaknesses of unfettered capitalism. His content was very similar to similar statements by the Blessed Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, but in this case the style is crucial.

“Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world,” Francis wrote in the papal statement. “This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacra­lized workings of the prevailing economic system.”

“Meanwhile,” he added, “the excluded are still waiting.”

Although Francis has previously raised concerns about the growing gap between the wealthy and the poor, the direct reference to “trickle-down” economics in the English translation of his statement is striking. The phrase has often been used derisively to describe a popular version of conservative economic philosophy that argues that allowing the wealthy to run their businesses unencumbered by regulation or taxation bears economic benefits that lead to more jobs and income for the rest of society. Liberals and Democratic officials have rejected the theory, saying it is contradicted by economic evidence.

This is certainly a very important section of “The Joy of the Gospel.” However, it is very, very interesting to note that the Post article — after the earlier media firestorm about this pope’s words on abortion — completely ignores the strong passage in the new document about abortion and related issues. The passage even, like the “trickle-down” reference, includes a word that can be seen as linked to political and theological battles in America and elsewhere.

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LATimes skips obvious ‘ghost’ in pet cemetery story

Losing a pet is often — if not always — a sad and traumatic experience. Over the past 20 years, my wife and I have shared out home with a total of five cats, three of whom have passed away, the most recent in March 2013. It’s never easy to lose a companion animal.

That’s what makes the Los Angeles Times‘ “Column One” story on the Los Angeles Pet Memorial Park, which is actually located about 45 minutes north of downtown, in suburban Calabasas, immediately attractive — the paper itself noted on Facebook that this was one of the week’s most popular news items. Those who’ve lost a pet can identify:

Sheets of blue film cover the windows of the viewing room at the Calabasas graveyard, casting an eerie glow over the Poland funeral party. A jug of water and a glass bowl of brown cookies — for man or animal, it’s unclear — sit untouched.

Sitting on a bench beneath a holographic dog portrait, Shelly Poland writes a letter to Jazz.

Jazz was really his wife’s dog, Greg says. He never wanted a pet and when Jazz died, Greg floated the idea of burying him in the backyard, a suggestion quickly withdrawn.

The story alternates between obituary-style remembrances of the departed pet and a few words about the pet cemetery and the people who are its customers and supporters. The park has a fascinating history, going back to 1928. But apart from one throwaway line, “The small staff connects grievers to florists, priests and rabbis,” there’s no mention at all of a religious or faith-based aspect. Much talk of the human bond between pet owners and pets, but spirituality is only hinted at the margins:

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LA Times offers a gentle, shallow Catholic health-care story

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I was encouraged, and a bit surprised, that the editorial team at The Los Angeles Times elected to cover the local White Mass honoring Catholics who work in health-care jobs, in Catholic hospitals and in other settings.

I was also happy, and surprised, that the story focused on the spiritual side of this story with several professionals talking about the degree to which it is natural to consider the needs of souls while attempting to heal the bodies of those who are suffering.

I was surprised, you see, that this story didn’t focus on some of the very real political conflicts that are currently threatening faith-based health institutions. Instead, the story offered — appropriately so — kind voices of pastoral experience that blended into the reporting like this:

An annual tradition since 2009, the event has outgrown several local churches that once hosted the mass. Sunday was the first time it was held at the cathedral.

“People think healthcare and God go together automatically, but work isn’t always a God-filled place,” said Kathleen Grelich, a physical therapist who attended the mass for the first time. “It’s nice to merge that here.”

Named for the white lab coats worn by many in the medical profession, the service is held around the Feast of St. Luke, the patron saint of healers. Archbishop José Gomez urged attendees to bring “God’s love and care to every person and patient” they meet to heal the body and spirit. He called healthcare professionals “apostles of love.” …

Worshipers, some wearing white coats, stood with their hands cupped in front of them while the Archbishop performed the “blessing of the hands” to pray for their strength, skill, sensitivity and steadiness.

So what is missing?

At first, I was happy that this story contained very little, if any, political content. However, the more I thought about that hole in the story the more troubled I became.

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After Hasan trial: Spot big religion ghost in this story

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The military trial of Maj. Nidal Hasan was never — as a journalism story — really about whether or not he was guilty of massacring his unarmed colleagues at Ft. Hood, Texas. With Nasan representing himself and openly discussing his role as the gunman, the key issues in the trial were linked to his own explanation of his faith-driven motives and the degree to which his superiors knew of his convictions in the months before his rampage.

Now, with the guilty judgment in and sentencing ahead, information continues to trickle out.

Hasan is not hiding anything, to say the least. In fact, he is continuing his drive to receive the death penalty and, thus, martyrdom for his violent actions in defense of his own radicalized Islamist beliefs.

So what is the most obvious GetReligion “ghost” angle in the following story in this new Los Angeles Times report? What is the most crucial information that is missing that is clearly linked to this subject, a gap that could be filled with a paragraph, a few sentences? Yes, you will need to read the short story.

Here is the top of the story:

Months before the Ft. Hood shooting in November 2009, the Army psychiatrist convicted Friday of killing 13 and wounding more than 30 was completing a fellowship at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where military supervisors praised his unique interest in Islam’s impact on soldiers, according to documents provided to The Times.

Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan’s supervisors had also repeatedly recommended him for promotion, according to documents. … Among Hasan’s “unique skills,” the report listed “Islamic studies” and “traumatic stress spectrum psychiatric disorders,” concluding that “Maj. Hasan has great potential as an Army officer.”

The officer evaluation report, and another from earlier that year, were provided to The Times by Hasan’s civil lawyer, John Galligan, who says he believes they are relevant to Hasan’s sentencing, which is set to begin Monday. He is eligible for the death penalty.

Once again, the key is what Hasan’s superiors knew, in advance, about his frame of mind and his fierce opposition to the U.S. Army’s role in Afghanistan and in the Islamic world.

The story also notes:

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The heroism of Antoinette Tuff

YouTube Preview ImageA reader sent along a link to a story about an amazing woman who talked down a gunman at an Atlanta-area elementary school. Her name is Antoinette Tuff and the full 9-1-1 call she made — which includes her conversation with the gunman — is gripping. You can hear it from CNN here. Her courage is inspiring and her love for her neighbors is just beautiful. She talks about her own hardships to help him see that he’s not alone in having a bad situation. The love she shows the mentally disturbed man who could have destroyed so many lives is just staggering.

The story the reader sent in, from ABC News/Yahoo included the following passages:

Hill, according to Tuff, said he had no reason to live because nobody loved him.

“And I just explained to him that I loved him,” Tuff told ABC News in an exclusive interview Tuesday night. “I didn’t know much about him. I didn’t know his name but I did love him and it was scary because I knew at that moment he was ready to take my life along with his, and if I didn’t say the right thing, then we all would be dead.”…

“I knew at that time it was bigger than me,” she said. “He was really a hurting young man, so I just started praying for him. And just started talking to him and allowing him to know everything that was going on with me and that everything was going to be OK.”

Then Tuff made the request that she said helped end the standoff. She asked the suspect to put his weapons down, empty his pockets and backpack and lie on the floor.

“He brought a gun bag, a book bag, a bag full of ammunitions in there, a bunch of magazine clips in there, a whole lot of stuff,” she said…

Tuff said she will be returning to work later this morning.

“Yes, I will be back,” she said, “sitting in that same seat, blessing that next person.”

The comment from the reader, a journalist herself, “Talk about a religion hole.”

Indeed. If you want to know more about the religious motivations of this woman who helped save so many lives, don’t look to em>Parade magazine. The story has nothing about her religious views.

One of my concerns about how journalists cover shootings is the fame given to those who kill others. When men and women courageously thwart gunmen, their names and actions should be remembered and covered well. The media have, in fact, done a good job of noting Tuff’s courage, but looking at what gave her the strength to handle such a worrisome situation could be handled better.

The Los Angeles Times ended its piece on the matter with this quote:

When it was all over, she said a prayer: “I said, ‘Thank you, Jesus.’ “

NBC News gave this snippet:

Only after the ordeal was over did Tuff reveal just how scared she’d been the whole time:

“I’m going to tell you something baby — I’ve never been so scared in all the days in my life,” she told the unidentified operator. Then, she started crying and exclaimed, “Oh, Jesus! Oh, God!”

To which the operator told the courageous bookkeeper: “You did great. Hold on. Hold on”

More, please.

There’s another religion angle cropping up in this story.

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LATimes sees the layers of threats against Copts in Egypt

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The dominant story coming out of Egypt right now continues, and with good cause, to be the growing conflict between the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and the so-called “secular” coalition that is backing the nation’s military elites, a coalition that includes many mainstream Muslims, liberal secularists, Coptic Christians and members of other religious minorities.

For the most part, this hellish conflict — which could grow into full civil war — is being portrayed as a fight between Islamism and secularism. However, the ongoing persecution of the ancient Coptic Christian minority, a persecution that has taken place to varying degrees over the decades and centuries, shows that the reality is more complex and confusing than a mere two-sided standoff.

I have been quite critical, at times, of The Los Angeles Times coverage in Egypt. However, it’s team on the ground in Egypt has now produced a story on the recent Coptic church burnings that does a pretty good job of showing just how confusing the current realities on the ground are for religious minority groups — the degree to which they are caught in a lesser-of-two-evils endgame. Here is a crucial slice of the report:

“The Muslim Brotherhood wants to burn down the country,” said Nagy Shokrallah, a fidgety man thumbing through photos of church damage on his BlackBerry. “When we take our children to visit the monasteries in the south, we tell them they were burned twice in history: the first time under Roman occupation and the second time by the Muslim Brotherhood” as Morsi and its other leaders were pushed from power.

Two Christians have reportedly been killed in recent days. Churches, schools, convents and at least one Christian orphanage have been attacked, torched or robbed, many of them in the southern deserts. Vestments have been scorched, statues shattered. Police have often provided little protection; parishioners said security forces didn’t arrive at St. George’s until three hours after the gunmen had fled.

“The military and police secured nothing at all,” said Tony Sabry, a member of a Coptic youth union, who criticized Gen. Abdel Fattah Sisi, commander of the armed forces, for instigating a purge against the Brotherhood that left Copts exposed. “Sisi has said he will restore the churches … but he should have protected them before their sanctity was violated.”

It’s crucial to note that the Copts do not believe they can trust the police and military to protect them. Why? Because the simple truth is that the vast majority of Egyptians want some kind of Islamic state and the role of the nation’s religious minorities in that future state is problematic, to say the least. At the same time, there are many Egyptian Muslims who see the ancient Copts — to one degree or another — as part of the nation’s past and its future.

Thus, some Muslims have helped protect the churches and monasteries, while others have attacked them. That’s the reality: This conflict INSIDE ISLAM can be seen throughout Egyptian life. If the military elites win, that reality will remain — only at less urgent threat level.

More on that in a minute.

Meanwhile, what happens to the Copts? What role will American and other nations in the West play in helping protect Jews, minority Muslims, Copts and others in this very threatening drama?

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