Death & dying

The crimes stunned Knoxville: But faith brought Channon Christian's father back to life

The crimes stunned Knoxville: But faith brought Channon Christian's father back to life

It’s one of the biggest puzzles on the religion beat, one that readers ask me about all the time. Here’s the question: Why don’t news organizations cover more “spiritual” stories, as in stories about the impact religious faith has in the daily lives of real people?

The short answer is one that readers don’t want to hear: Most editors don’t think that positive stories about changed lives is “news.”

Now, if the person whose life is changed by faith is a politician, a celebrity or the starting quarterback for the local football team, then that might make this a “news” story. Maybe. Well, it also helps if this “spiritual” hook is combined with some issue that’s controversial.

This is what the cynic in me thought the other day when I saw this headline in The Knoxville News Sentinel, my local newspaper: “Gary Christian: From rage to restoration, a murder victim's father finds the faith he left.

If you live in East Tennessee, this headline calls back years of headlines about a horrific crime story that seized this region like few others — the torture, rape and murder of Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom. In aftermath, the face of Channon’s father — Gary Christian — became an iconic image of loss, grief, agony and, yes, wrath.

This massive News Sentinel feature dug deep into what has happened since the trials. It’s a story about rough, realistic healing and the spiritual changes that allowed a man to return to faith. To be blunt: You don’t see many stories of this kind in news print.

First, here is the long, but essential, overture.

Gary Christian stood in an East Tennessee church pulpit on a sunny August Sunday, speaking about pain and death and faith and God. It’s not a place — or a point — where the father of murder victim Channon Christian would have been 18 months ago.

For 10 years Christian never talked to the Lord he had loved all his life. He left God behind after his beautiful, compassionate, smart 21-year-old daughter was carjacked, tortured, raped, beaten and murdered in January 2007.

Then, last April, kneeling at his child’s grave and surrounded by friends, Christian asked for God’s help.

God had been waiting. He'd never left.

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Time for a big think on Catholicism’s moral authority and culture of dissent  

Time for a big think on Catholicism’s moral authority and culture of dissent  

That didn’t take long.

On August 2, the Vatican’s doctrine office announced that Pope Francis ordered a revision of the Catechism of the Catholic Church to proclaim that “the death penalty is inadmissible” and the church “works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”  

On August 15, 45 Catholic conservatives joined in a bold public appeal to all members of the College of Cardinals, beseeching them to convince Francis to “withdraw” the teaching and end “this gravely scandalous situation.” In ensuing days, dozens added their endorsements by e-mailing appealtocardinals@gmail.com.

The dramatic rebuke of the pope’s teaching occurred one fortnight after the 50th anniversary date of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical defining birth control as immoral (apart from the natural or “rhythm” method), which sparked  far broader dissent worldwide.  

Reporters will observe that liberals contend the birth-control decree undermined the church’s moral authority because so many lay parishioners could not agree -- and still do not. Conservatives argue that maintaining traditional teaching is necessary to uphold the church’s moral credibility. Another angle here is that opposition to executions has hardened partly due to Catholicism's "pro-life" concerns over abortion and mercy-killing. 

There’s been similar conservative angst over Francis’ ambiguous suggestion of openness toward communion for divorced Catholics in second marriages. 

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Doing some thinking, with the Catholic left, about Pope Francis, death penalty and LGBTQ future

Doing some thinking, with the Catholic left, about Pope Francis, death penalty and LGBTQ future

One of the ways that journalists can tell a Pope Francis controversy has legs is when it quickly becomes clear that conservative Catholics and liberal Catholics are offering very similar readings of the same text.

The difference, of course, is that Catholics on the doctrinal left are excited about the text and many on the doctrinal right are worried.

In this case, I am talking -- of course -- about the pope's "evolution of doctrine" statement on the death penalty. (In candor, let me again note once again that I am totally opposed to the death penalty, with no exceptions.) As a refresher, let's listen to the gospel according to The New York Times:

... Francis said executions were unacceptable in all cases because they are “an attack” on human dignity, the Vatican announced on Thursday, adding that the church would work “with determination” to abolish capital punishment worldwide.

Francis made the change to the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, the book of doctrine that is taught to Catholic children worldwide and studied by adults in a church with 1.2 billion members. Abolishing the death penalty has long been one of his top priorities, along with saving the environment and caring for immigrants and refugees. ...

The pope’s decree is likely to hit hardest in the United States, where a majority of Catholics support the death penalty and the powerful “pro-life movement” has focused almost exclusively on ending abortion -- not the death penalty.

Kudos for the restraint shown in avoiding a reference to "the so-called 'pro-life' movement."

 Now, in my post with this week's podcast -- "So how much do you trust Pope Francis? Here's why death penalty debate is heating up" -- I quoted the following reference from an email to Rod Dreher from a Catholic reader, referring to this "evolution of doctrine" debate:

From the Catholic Catechism of 2030:

“Sexual relations between persons of the same sex were long considered to be intrinsically disordered acts.

“Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost when a person engages in same-sex relations. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the meaning of human sexuality.

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This journalist — a Catholic — has witnessed 400-plus executions, but he won't say if he approves

This journalist — a Catholic — has witnessed 400-plus executions, but he won't say if he approves

It's almost incomprehensible: Associated Press journalist Michael Graczyk has served as a media witness for more than 400 executions.

When I worked in AP's Dallas bureau from 2003 to 2005, Graczyk was a Houston-based colleague of mine — and a great guy.

Graczyk, 68, is making headlines this week because of his retirement after 46 years with the news service. 

The Dallas Morning News featured the veteran newsman on today's front page. The Washington Post had a story on him Tuesday. And AP got the scoop on Graczyk's plans. No surprise there, right?

All of the interviews, of course, are fascinating. And all paint a portrait of an accurate, fair-minded journalist: In hundreds of cases, Graczyk has made it a point to interview condemned inmates who were willing. But not only that, he also has given victims' relatives an opportunity to speak, if they so desired.

Here's a journalist who epitomizes the best of his profession.

But right about now, you may be thinking, "OK, but what's the religion angle?" I'm glad you asked.

Each of the stories makes reference to Graczyk's own faith, although the Post fails to mention his Catholic background specifically.

Let's start with AP's religious note:

Graczyk has been asked many times whether he believes the death penalty should be legal. He said he’s a practicing Catholic and respects the church’s teachings against capital punishment, but that he has not made up his own mind.

“I’m not dodging the question,” he said. “I don’t know.”

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Death penalty doctrine: Francis builds on insights of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI?

Death penalty doctrine: Francis builds on insights of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI?

Have you ever noticed that the amount of news coverage granted to the writings of Pope Francis tends to rise or fall based on the degree to which his pronouncements mesh with the editorial pages of The New York Times?

Notice, please, that I said the "amount" of coverage, not the "quality." This pope has made important, and complex, statements on hot-button topics that led to the spilling of oceans of ink and pixels in coverage that missed the point of his words. His comments defending traditional Catholic teachings -- think gender, for example -- often draw little or no response.

Then again, who am I to judge?

The news, today, is that Rome has changed the Catholic Catechism on an important issue linked to the defense of life, from conception to natural death. We are, of course, talking about the death penalty (confession: which I have always opposed, with no exceptions).

So far, the coverage has been good -- since this is a change welcomed by the religious left. However, let me note some information that really needs to make it into the coverage, to show readers how this change came to pass. So, here is a question: Who said the following?

"A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform. I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary."

That would be the late St. Pope John Paul II, of course, in a 1999 sermon. That wasn't the only time that he signaled that the death penalty didn't align with pro-life doctrines.

Did the words of John Paul II make it into the early coverage that you read?

I am pleased to note that the evolving Times story about this issue now includes the following. Yes, this language pushes a political button, but that button is real:

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New York Times' 20th anniversary piece on East Texas dragging death is powerful, yet disappointing

New York Times' 20th anniversary piece on East Texas dragging death is powerful, yet disappointing

The New York Times' front page Monday featured a "beautiful and powerful story" — as one top journalist described it — on the 20th anniversary of James Byrd Jr.'s racially motivated dragging death in the East Texas town of Jasper.

Emotional and compelling, the piece is expertly written and filled with riveting details.

It even contains several references to faith.

So why am I about to give this story — which I mostly liked and really hoped I could praise — a negative critique? The simple answer is that the Times, in an otherwise excellent piece of journalism, fails to answer basic questions tied to religion. 

Up high in the story, the newspaper hints strongly at a religion angle when it mentions church and notes that Byrd's family forgave his killers:

JASPER, Tex. — Sometime after church but before dinner, Sgt. James Carter of the Jasper County Sheriff’s Office knocked on the front door of James and Stella Byrd’s home. He stepped into the living room, removed his white cowboy hat and bowed his head. Then, with a somber look on his face that the Byrds still remember years later, he delivered the news that their son James Byrd Jr. was dead.

The horrific circumstances surrounding his death they would learn later: Chained by his ankles to a pickup truck by three men, he had been dragged three miles, murdered before the sun rose that Sunday morning 20 years ago.

“I just knew something was terribly wrong,” Betty Boatner, 63, one of Mr. Byrd’s younger sisters, whispered as she sat on a picnic bench at a memorial park now named in his honor. “It’s such a small town that we had already heard the rumors that a black man was found dead, but we didn’t know who it was. Until the knock on our door.”

The family forgave Mr. Byrd’s three killers long ago and made peace with Jasper, the small East Texas town where they have lived for three generations. But as the nation faces a spread in bias crime incidents, the family wants to ensure the public remembers one of the worst hate crimes of the 20th century. In the years since Mr. Byrd’s death, both state and federal hate crime laws bear his name.

As I kept reading, I expected — or at least hoped — that the Times would elaborate on the family's forgiveness of the killers and the reasoning, which I suspected would include religion, behind it. But that explanation never comes.

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As Jahi McMath — girl at center of life-support controversy — dies, coverage still haunted by ghosts

As Jahi McMath — girl at center of life-support controversy — dies, coverage still haunted by ghosts

GetReligion first commented on the story of Jahi McMath back in 2014 in a post titled "God, faith and church (or not)" by my wife, Tamie Ross.

More recently, my colleague Julia Duin delved into a magazine piece on McMath in a post titled "To die or not to die: The New Yorker probes the case of a 13-year-old girl."

Each of those posts lamented the lack of specific details concerning religion and the family's theological reasons for wanting to keep the teen on life support.

So it's little surprise to find much of the recent news coverage of McMath's death haunted by holy ghosts.

Let's start with a big chunk of CNN's report:

(CNN) Jahi McMath, an Oakland teenager whose brain-death following a routine tonsil surgery in 2013 created national headlines, died on June 22, according to the family's attorney.

She was 13 when she underwent surgery to treat pediatric obstructive sleep apnea, a condition that made her stop breathing in her sleep and caused other medical problems.

Nearly five years later, "Jahi died as the result of complications associated with liver failure," the statement from attorney Christopher Dolan said.

She underwent surgery on December 9, 2013 at the Children's Hospital & Research Center Oakland. After the procedure to remove her tonsils, adenoids and extra sinus tissue Jahi was alert and talking to doctors and even requested a Popsicle.

According to her family, Jahi was in the intensive care unit when she started to bleed and went into cardiac arrest. On December 12, 2013 she was declared brain-dead. Her family disagreed with the declaration.

This launched a months-long battle between the hospital, which sought to remove Jahi from a ventilator after doctors and a judge concluded she was brain-dead, and her relatives, who fought in court to keep her on the ventilator and contended she showed signs of life.

See any missing words there?

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One year later: BuzzFeed feature gets the 'miracle' details in GOP baseball shooting

One year later: BuzzFeed feature gets the 'miracle' details in GOP baseball shooting

Did you notice that Rep. Steve Scalise returned, to the best of his abilities, to the annual Congressional Baseball game the other night?

It has been a year since that stunning mass shooting, when an angry liberal Democrat came close, close, close to gunning down most of the Republican leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives. Here is a link to a nice NPR update on how Scalise is doing, using the 1-year anniversary as a news hook,

Sure enough, the word "miracle" is a key part of the story.

The anniversary reminded me of a magazine-length piece at BuzzFeed that has been buried deep in my GetReligion folder of guilt for several weeks. This happens, sometimes, with long, long stories. They are hard to critique in a short post and, well, they rarely draw responses from GetReligion readers. We are all rather busy, aren't we?

Anyway, the BuzzFeed story focused on two primary angles of the near massacre -- one political (and rooted in journalism) and the other is religious. This is the rare case in which the religion angle was handled better than the political one. The massive headline on this piece proclaimed:

THE 9 MINUTES THAT ALMOST CHANGED AMERICA

How The Congressional Baseball Shooting Didn't Become The Deadliest Political Assassination In American History

The political angle?

Why wasn't this bizarre and troubling event a bigger deal -- a bigger news story -- than it was? Why did the story slide on A1 so quickly? This story almost, almost, almost was one of the biggest events in the history of American politics. BuzzFeed noted:

What is certain is the disquieting way June 14 slipped beneath the news so quickly. The shooting felt much further away by July, August, September than mere months. If people joke about how the weeks feel like years in the current era, there’s an unsettling truth behind the joke -- the way anything can lose scale and proportion. Two dozen members of Congress were nearly killed one morning last year, and the country didn’t change very much at all.

Was the problem blunt politics, including bias in newsrooms?

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ESPN tells an NBA veteran's emotional story extremely well — and with a strong faith angle

ESPN tells an NBA veteran's emotional story extremely well — and with a strong faith angle

The boss man sent me a link to this story.

"This has positive Bobby written all over it," tmatt said in his email.

In other words, knowing my love for "faith in sports" angles, he thought I'd appreciate ESPN's emotional feature on Kyle Korver, whose brother died unexpectedly a few months ago.

For those who, like me, don't follow the NBA all that closely, Korver is a veteran sharpshooter for the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavs, by the way, are down 3-2 to the Boston Celtics in the NBA's Eastern Conference Finals and face elimination Friday night. 

The boss man was right: ESPN writer Brian Windhorst told this story extremely well. And he didn't allow it to be haunted by a holy ghost.

LIke Korver does so often, Windhorst nailed the 3-point shot. Let's stand at the free-throw line and consider the first two paragraphs:

PELLA, IOWA -- ON a mid-March day in Central Iowa, Kyle Korver and his three brothers were watching the NCAA tournament together in the same room. Despite his alma mater, Creighton, losing, it was a good day and a good memory.

Korver has hung on to that moment and others like it over the past two months as he has struggled with sorrow. At times he has cried himself to sleep in the afternoons before games and woken feeling something he can only describe as his insides trembling. He has relied on prayer to give him the strength to get up and go to work.

Relied on prayer.

As far as hints to readers — and reporters — that there's a strong religion angle that needs to be addressed, that's an easy layup.

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