Projecting Religion

What projection
does the
Pope reflect
back to
us about

A report from Rome this morning on NPR presented an interesting discussion of the reaction to the death of Pope John Paul II.

What caught my attention was a statement that he filled public squares, but not churches. The point was that he drew huge crowds into open spaces but his religious teachings were rejected by many of the same people who came to celebrate him.

I view this less as criticism of the Pope than as a modern paradox of belief. We celebrate the ideal and project into the celebrity whatever it is we hope for, then we go about our own lives doing what matters to us in our day-to-day existence.

I’m reminded of what my friend Dennis Benson said about rock stars many years ago. Dennis said fans project their own expectations and hopes onto the rock stars. The performers, knowing this, act out on stage those expectations. But neither the fans nor the performers are really what is acted out. There is a great deal of theatrics in these “acts.”

One of the wisest performers to express this is Dolly Parton who has said many times that women who come to her concerts are saying to themselves that she’s just like them. With a bit of luck or some other intervention of fate, they could be up on stage getting the attention and acclaim. She embodies their projection.

I’m not comparing the Pope to a rock stars. Nor am I implying that he enacted hollow theatrics. He did quite the opposite. He was committed to values and principles that he lived out and that were important in changing attitudes in this world. So, I’m not diminishing the great contribution he made.

But as the Pope is celebrated in death, the number of worshippers declines across Europe and Roman Catholics live by values that are contrary to the teachings of the church, as in the practice of birth control, to name only one example. This raises a question of what exactly people are projecting onto this Pope.

That he was able to generate this much respect and acclaim is remarkable. He captivated the imagination. But what is it that we imagine? There is much more here to be mined. What projection does the Pope reflect back to us about ourselves?

Two Views of Legacy

He may,
in time
to come,
be credited
with destroying
his church.
–Thomas Cahill

Two views of the legacy of Pope John Paul II reveal how thoughtful people differ today about the role he played in the world and the religious community.

As one on the outside looking in, Thomas Cahill’s extremely sharp critique yesterday took me aback. Upon reading it, I had to take a breath and re-read his words. I can imagine equally sharp responses to his opinion.

of us
to pretend
to honor
him by
lowering our
flags while
an amoral
to genocide.
–Nicholas Kristof

On the other hand, Nicholas Kristof points to the “culture of life” legacy that the Pope advocated,
and how this should be the motivation for specific actions in Darfur, Sudan to stop the rape and killing there. The world knows of this suffering created by conflict in the region and seems unable to put a stop to it. Kristof offers specific steps that would honor the Pope’s commitment to human rights and justice.

He urges the following action steps:

  • expand UN and African ground forces
  • urge Congress to pass Darfur Accountability Act
  • visit to Darfur by Sec. of State Condoleeza Rice to emphasize U.S. priority.

I Blog, Therefore, I Am

What should
we make
of blogging?
Is it simply
the latest
internet fad,
a truly
tool for
change or,
as some
have suggested,
a vehicle
for mob
–David Reid

The BBC has put together a package on blogging that discusses why people blog and how blogs are being used today.

The package discusses the advantages and risks inherent in blogging and explores different types of blogs.

When I wasn’t blogging people asked why not. Now that I am, some ask why. (Not really, just kidding.)

However, there are risks and advantages to blogging. They need to be considered beforehand, rather than after.

Thomas Freidman Says the World is Flat, After All

Writing in the New York Times Magazine, Thomas Friedman lays out his case that the world’s flat after all.

It’s flat because new technology makes it possible for anyone with the smarts, a computer and an Internet connection to collaborate in a global network of knowledge.

This is the newest wrinkle in globalization, according to Friedman who has written on the subject in The Lexus and the Olive Tree and Longtitudes and Latitudes.

are being
and value
is being
less and
less within
silos and
more and
more through

–Thomas L. Freidman

It’s a
Flat World,
After All

Globalization is the social and business reality in which faith and culture are being shaped and lived out. It’s more than a wrinkle, really. It’s already having profound impact on how corporations function, as Freidman illustrates. The collaborative workstyle he describes is a whole new way of working across distances and other boundaries.

In meetings I attend there is often discussion about a “global church” but the meaning of the phrase is still very murky to me. Is it about organization? Is it about theology? Is it about worship? Is it about changing relationships in mission?

Friedman makes clear that in the corporate world globalization is about basic challenges to existing management styles and organizational structures. I suspect the biggest challenge globalization presents to organizations and individuals is the need to re-think our place in the world.

The potential is profound. It will mean all of us have to re-think our roles and responsibilities as workers and as citizens. What will the future hold in an interactive, collaborative, participatory, always-on, pluralistic environment? What will faith look like in these circumstances?

Corporations are coming to terms with a very different competitive environment that is knowledge-based and geographically distributed across the globe. Imagine what this means for management and control.

It’s not just where we’re heading. It’s where we are. In some ways faith communities have been at the leading edge of thinking about life in a holistic way. We know that we are connected with people in ways far more binding than technology and national boundaries. And, at least as I understand it, Christian faith provides us a basis for viewing this reality in a constructive and expansive way, not in a fearful and defensive way.

I think Freidman’s contention that the world is flat presents us with an opportunity and a challenge. The opportunity is to interpret this new understanding so that we don’t live in fear and to find words to talk about our responsibilities as members of the global community. The challenge is to support policies that provide opportunity to all people–workers in the U.S. and workers beyond the U.S.–in a just and equitable sharing of the world’s resources so that we can sustain the environment and live purposeful lives wherever we are.

I know how grandiose these words sound. But, faith is a fairly grandiose enterprise if it helps us understand our meaning and purpose in life. For me, coming to terms with the flat world means coming to terms with new words to discuss the global community. It means working to create a new global awareness. It’s an exciting challenge, trying to figure out how to get around on this flat world.

Practicing Healing

One of
the most
things we
can do
to heal
one another
is to
listen to
each other’s

–Rebecca Falls

I continue to receive deeply moving stories in response to my commentary on Terri Schiavo.

Whether writers agree or disagree with me, many tell of painful struggles around their own life and death experiences with loved ones. I am moved by the real pain in these stories.

They are changing my skepticism about our ability to have a constructive dialogue about life and death decisions.

If my respondents are any indication, then most people remain open to further discussion of these issues in a civil and responsible manner. That means they are willing to listen but they also want to be heard.

Many have said they have felt no one in the public media has spoken for them. With very few exceptions, they say the language of the debate has been extreme and they don’t like this.

These notes reflect far more thoughtful perspectives than the sharply worded sound bites that we’ve heard. Many writers advocate a point of view, but they do so without rancor, or without taking absolute positions that allow no room for a different opinion.

I think local churches and other community groups would serve us well by offerring dialogue groups on the various issues that cluster around life and end of life ethics. If we truly listen to each other in an attitude of respect, we might begin a process of healing that will move us forward in our common desire to respect life and create a more just and humane world.

Changing the Conversation

We can
draw to
the surface
without inciting
people to

A google search of “dialogue” turned up more than 2 million entries. More than I’ll get read this weekend!

However, I wanted to see if there are guidelines that might be helpful to read as we discuss critical issues in our civic life about which we disagree strongly.

In fact, there are. The National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation provides a variety of useful tools and connections to groups that are conducting dialogue for constructive purposes.

First, I’m concerned that the whole culture has become more coarse and crude. It isn’t prudish to not want to be exposed to sexually explicit, dehumanizing language when you’re sitting in the privacy of your own home watching television, for example. But this is a common occurrence and the only way to avoid it is to turn off the TV. I think we’ve done terrible disservice to our children to provide popular culture that is so disrespectful of human dignity.

But I also think that poverty and social injustice are disrespectful of human dignity as well and if we don’t address these we we demonstrate a coarse disregard for the sanctity of life, so it’s not just popular culture that needs attention.

Secondly, I’m concerned that the political conversation has become toxic. It’s common to hear personal attacks, highly charged rhetoric, condemnation and negative stereotyping that only results in response in kind. This isn’t dialogue and it won’t help us to resolve our differences. In fact, it could well undermine our civic community.

As I write, I risk sounding as if I’m pontificating. I’m aware this can be called naive’, or prudish, or unrealistic. Maybe so. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, too. But I think this kind of behavior desensitizes us to the humanity of others and, ultimately, is dehumanizing for the whole of society.

And I think we need to call it into question when we hear it, especially in the political or religious dialogue where we can make a difference. And I think we need to be advancing for discussion alternatives about the important issues that we face and lay aside the personal attacks and inflated rhetoric.


My commentary on Terri Schiavo has drawn considerable e-mail response. The vast majority of writers express appreciation and agreement. Some tell of tortured personal experiences similar in nature. A few are rather sharply worded attacks, but only one is really nasty.

This feedback tells me a couple of things. First, people on all sides of the issue identified personally with Ms. Schiavo’s ordeal, and in doing so, they read their own lives into the dilemma; thus, the rush to prepare living wills and advance directives. Second, people are deeply, emotionally involved in this situation. It is not an abstraction, it is up-close-and-personal.

Can we
engage in

With her passing, the next phase of the public debate lies before us. This is the debate over public policy regarding end-of-life issues and the seating of judges. This raises a question that continues to perplex me, especially because many, many writers tell me they feel voiceless and ignored. They also express frustration that the extremes have been in the media spotlight and have framed the issues.

The question is this: How can we engage in a respectful dialogue about issues that are important to the whole society in a way that encourages participation? And most importantly, how can we do this so it leads to constructive ends?

It will require the media, political and religious leaders to behave differently. Frankly, I doubt this will happen. I’m not going to bash the media or the politicians in this post. But it’s clear to me that harsh rhetoric only invites harsh response. It’s an escalating war of words. I don’t see how this helps us deal with the tough questions we must resolve.

However, for the survival of a diverse and democratic state, we must change the quality of our conversation or we will lose those values that we have all enjoyed as the “great democratic experiment.” I don’t think it’s rhetorical flourish to say, as Bill Moyers said recently, that the soul of democracy is at stake.

Beyond the important specific issues in the debate about end-of-life decisions are the questions of how we talk, listen and learn from each other; and how we learn to disagree without destroying ourselves or the social fabric. This is an urgent concern right now. It must be addressed as we enter into this next phase of this debate.

I believe we will need to call ourselves to account; politicians, clergy, journalists, and ourselves. What is at stake is more than winning a debate. What is at stake is the quality of our civic society and how inclusiveness and participatory it will be.

Dr. Land Continues

I continue to be fascinated by Dr. Richard Land’s comments about this and other issues. I’m not entirely sure why, but perhaps it is because he is reported to have the ear of the President and speaks weekly by telephone with top White House aides in a briefing session. This quote appeared in The Tennessean this morning.

”This is a sad day for America. It’s a particularly sad day for anyone who is physically or mentally handicapped, or seriously and debilitatingly ill, and those who love them. The judiciary at the state and federal level condemned Terri Schiavo to death by dehydration and malnutrition on the hearsay evidence of a husband who is cohabiting with another woman whom he introduces as his fiancee and with whom he has produced two children.” ? Richard Land, head of The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention


Here is a morning’s round-up of reactions to the life of Terri Schiavo and lessons to be drawn from it.

Leonard Pitts, writing in the Miami Herald about coming to terms with his mother’s death from breast cancer, says that facing the reality of death is not a betrayal of faith.

Jonathan Chait in the LA Times offers the provocative opinion that the Republican party, rather than being highjacked by religious conservatives, has highjacked religious conservatives. He points to the cynical greed of lobbyist Jack Abramoff who took $4 million from one tribe to prevent another tribe from opening a competing casino. Abramoff and Ralph Reed enlisted Focus on the Family followers to write letters opposed to the gambling casino while pocketing $4 million, nor explaining that they were really protecting the existing casino from competition.

The New York Times editorializes that this family tragedy was turned into an international spectacle by self-aggrandizing outsiders and powerful persons for whom politics is about maximizing hysteria at the margins.

The Washington Post writes that Ms. Schiavo’s legacy would best be served as the start of a national conversation about how we decide complex questions about end-of-life care, among other important questions, given new medical technologies that present us with options to preserve life that we’ve not had before.

The Houston Chronicle says the Schiavo case illustrates that one law cannot accommodate the unique circumstances of the multitude of complicated medical conditions we face. It also comments on the quiet conversation among some medical professionals about the the costs of maintaining persons in irreversible medical decline compared to the need for funds to vaccinate poor children, health insurance for the middle class, health needs of the poor and the nutritional needs of underprivileged children.

It’s About Faith

The news of the death of Terri Schiavo led me to pray for her family and for all of those who have been so movingly affected by her plight. Her life can be a symbol of reconciliation and healing, if we take a step back from confrontation and seek to listen to each other and engage with each other in a respectful way.

condensed a longer reflection on the Schiavo situation for a commentary on the
the website of The United Methodist Church,

That reflection, which will be
posted today, follows:

The past few
weeks have been rough for me. The spectacle surrounding the Terri Schiavo case
has evoked personal memories that cut deeply.

I’ve thought about this intensely, prayed
about it and tried to put it in perspective.

Four years ago this July, my
spouse, our daughters and I, sat for three excruciating weeks at the bedside of
our dying son and brother. It was an experience I would not wish for anyone.

To be clear, our circumstances were
different from Ms. Schiavo’s. Matt had prepared an advance directive. We
followed his wishes.

His condition
was different from Ms. Schiavo’s, but the decision to not intervene with
extraordinary measures is the same emotionally devastating decision, regardless
of the circumstances. When House Majority Leader Tom DeLay said that withholding
a feeding tube was a barbaric act, it was as if someone put a branding iron to
my heart. It was searing and

Ms. Schiavo’s 15-year
ordeal is over, but I know that as I write this, parents, husbands, wives and
children are sitting in a hospice, or a hospital room, waiting as we did for a
loved one to reach life’s end.

they are aware of the public debate that has raged during the months leading up
to Ms. Schiavo’s death. They have heard the inflammatory rhetoric and have
perhaps questioned their own decisions. As they undergo their own private
ordeal, they will look deeply at their motivations, painfully evaluate negative
characterizations about this most sacred human experience, and struggle with
difficult decisions they must make about life support and palliative care.

The kindest, most loving thing they can
do may be to allow their loved one to die naturally without intervening, but
Rep. DeLay has framed this as a barbaric

They deserve better. They
deserve support, compassion, affirmation and sensitive listening. They wait in
agony, grasping to understand circumstances that none of us is prepared for,
trying to make a loving decision under extraordinarily difficult

They face stress now,
and they will face it later. Bereavement following the loss of a child can lead
to mental illness, disintegration of marriages, depression and abuse of alcohol
and drugs, according to a study conducted by the Danish Epidemiology Science
Center and appearing in The New England Journal of Medicine.

But these families are not
receiving compassion. They’re hearing words tossed about such as “starvation,”
“barbarism,” “euthanasia” and “assisted suicide.”

No loving parent wants to watch a
child die. It’s not how life is supposed to be. But rail as we might against the
injustice of it all, it happens. And there’s no way out of it but through

For me, it was the most painful
yet sacred experience I’ve ever been through–and also the most confusing. I
experienced a jumble of emotions that went to the core of my soul. It was
heartbreaking and spiritually elevating at the same time. I never felt more
alone, or more connected to and loved by those around

I became afraid of the dark, and
yet I felt as close to the presence of a loving God as I’ve ever been. As I read
the Scriptures, they came alive in a way I’d never experienced

I’ve not written publicly
about this because it’s been too painful and too private. But I write today
after prayerfully reflecting upon the trauma inflicted by the political debate
surrounding Ms. Schiavo. It’s been hurtful in more ways than the politicians
will ever understand. Their intervention–and that of the clergy who have given
them theological cover–is breathtaking for its insensitivity and lack of

The politicians did not
have to step into this broken family’s dispute. They made an extraordinary
effort to create this spectacle, betraying their own claims about respect for
the sanctity of life and the dignity of all persons. And the clergy could have
spoken of the need to offer pastoral care and counseling to the family, of the
fullness of life under God and the great moral challenges that we face in
circumstances such as this. But that is not the path either group chose.

We need serious discussion about
end-of-life care, genetic therapy, medical research and access to health care.
If we had this conversation, we would talk seriously about what makes for a life
of quality. And we would discuss the insight contained in the sacred writings
and holy scriptures of the world’s

We would talk about our
responsibility to care for citizens with disabilities and ensure their rights.
We would talk about preventive care and guidelines for end-of-life intervention.
We would talk about adequate funding for all of us to have access to health

And we would talk about holistic life, a
life imbued with the sacred; life as body, spirit and

My family’s experience with Matt was not
barbaric, it was sacred. For me to remain silent in response to the intemperate
language and political grandstanding of the Schiavo case seems a betrayal of my
son and the awe-filled experience we shared together at his

In a March 23 op-ed piece in The
, Dr. Rubel Shelly, an ethicist at Vanderbilt University wrote,
“Perhaps death itself needs to be reconsidered by all of us. It is not an
absolute evil. Sometimes the real evil lies in forcing someone to endure
existence that is no longer really life.”

As a Christian, I believe death is not
the end. It is a transition. I believe with Paul that “We do not live to
ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and
if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we
are the Lord’s.” (Romans 14:7,8)

We are Easter people, and that means in
the darkness we look to the coming dawn, and in the gathering light we see the
renewing presence of a loving God who calls us to heal the wounded, comfort the
afflicted, bring wholeness to the broken and to live a life imbued with sacred
value. Whether we live, or whether we die, we are the

The end of life is not about politics.
It’s about faith.

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