The Reward of Teaching



I love getting to do what I do as an Assistant Professor teaching Ethics and the Gettysburg Staff Ride. Through most of my career, be it as a Medical Service Corps officer and Chaplain in the Army, as well as a Navy Chaplain has been dealt with teaching ethics or history. However, until this assignment those duties have been things I took on in addition to my normal duties. 

I try to challenge my students, no matter what I teach to see issues in relationship to people; their character, intellect, strengths, weaknesses, beliefs, faith, ideology, and their relationships. In other words, their humanity. For it is our humanity that is the common thread in all of history. Technology changes, political models change, and humanity is constantly evolving, or sometimes devolving, but the one constant is people. 

Sadly all to often humanity is left out, we find a way to dehumanize almost everything, even how businesses, governments and even religious bodies refer to people as “human capital,” “resources” or in the case of some money grubbing churches “tithing units.” 

However, when I teach, I may teach about history, philosophy, or ethics, I still concentrate on people; who they and why they matter. That is at least for me is what matters. Events, inventions, theories, methods are all important, but if we leave out the actual part about the people they don’t connect. 

So in addition to the classroom, or touring historic sites, I focus on people, and then, especially on trips where I am out with my students for two or three days. On these trips we travel tighter, we eat and drink together and spend time discussing the events and people we are studying, but also share our life experiences and time together. So for me, teaching is also about my students, and to see their interst piqued, who then come back and later tell me that they went and explored the life of the people that we discussed. It is like them dis coving buried treasure. 

I think that is the joy and the reward of teaching, especially higher education, but I am sure any teacher, even those who teach primary and secondary education could do the same thing if they are creative, for it is the people who connect us, people matter. 

Today we had to break off the last day of our Gettybsurg trip due to a winter storm that shifted south and made road conditions really bad. From DC to Richmond I lost count of the number of accidents. Thankfully it looks like things get a bit better south of Richmond. 

But anyway for now, and if you live in the path of this storm, stay safe.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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“You Must Have Faith…” RIP Leonard Nimoy

Today we lost a great human being and wonderfully actor who playing the Vulcan “Mr Spock” in Star Trek help to teach us to be better human beings. As I mentioned earlier I am on the way to Gettysburg and I found out as my iPhone lit up with news alerts. Thankfully I am not driving. 

Those who follow my writings know just how much Star Trek in all its forms means to me, it is one of the constants in my life, which along with baseball and history has helped make me who I am today. 

One of the key players in that show, who I have always had a certain fondness for was Mr Spock, played by Leonard Nimoy. Nimoy played a character who could have been a one dimensional caricature with a depth, sensitivity, and complex subtlety that enriched us who watched him. 

Of course Nimoy was much more than Spock, he was a tremendously gifted actor and his career even without Star Trek would have been considered quite successful. But it was his portrayal of Spock in the original series, the films that flowed from that series and his reprise of the role in Star Trek the Next Generation and Star Trek: Into Darkness which made him an icon of film and television, and made me look for something higher, better and more noble in life. I’m sure others who grew up with him would agree with me in that. 

I was thinking about the many things that Nimoy said, as Mr Spock as well as out of character which were so rich. One of the most fascinating is in the movie Star Trek VI The Undiscovered Country where Captain Spock startles a young Vulcan Lieutenant when discussing a possible peace treaty with the Klingon Empire. 

Spock: History is replete with turning points, Lieutenant. You must have faith.” 

Valeris: Faith?

Spock: That the universe will unfold as it should

Valeris: But is that logical? Surely we must….

Spock: Logic, logic and, logic….Logic is the beginning of wisdom, Valeris, not the end…

I am a terribly logical person, I doubt at least as much and often more than I have faith. Sometimes I have a hard time getting around my logical side to believe, to have faith. Thus the exchange is something that resonates with me. 

Nimoy, as Nimoy had a profound wit, as well as wisdom. Nimoy tweeted his last tweet on February 23rd it is quite profound.

“A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. LLAP” 

For those who don’t get the last bit of that LLAP is the line that Spock and Nimoy are both most remembered for, live long and prosper. 

It is a fitting benediction. I shall miss him. 

Live long, and prosper.

Peace

Padre Steve+ 

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A Weekend In Gettysburg



Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Well we survived the latest iteration of the great Hampton Roads Snowmageddon 2015. I have to say  that the VDOT and local city governments did a great job in clearing the roads. 

Now I am on the way up to Gettysburg to lead the winter Staff Ride, now with an academic promotion and title of Assistant Professor. 

I love doing this, for me it is more than just looking at and studying a battle. What happened when I started teach this was that I began to study, research and write. As I did that my interst was piqued by the people who led the armies, as well as the politicians on both sides. In doing so I began to see this as more than an event, and the people as something more than caricatures with little depth who we typically only study in relation to what they did on the battlefield. Personally I think that is a terrible way to do history, I think we miss the really important stuff when we, and I am talking historians as well as laymen do that. 

So when I reach I spend a lot of time dealing with the people, their strengths, weaknesses, beliefs, character, motivations, intellect, personality, the things that give life to them. These are the things that my students can relate to because they are not just past events, but the the people in a sense serve as a mirror for us. 

When we get to Gettysburg tonight we will have some dinner and drinks at the Irish tavern doing some bonding and “table talk.” That is a wonderful way to learn, so much better that power point lectures and canned case studies. 

Anyway, I will check in over the weekend. 

Peace

Padre Steve+ 

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Living in the National Security State

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Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges, in time of war the law stands silent…

James Madison wrote that “A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps both.”

After September 11th 2001 the National Security State went into overdrive with the passage of the so called Patriot Act. That act opened the floodgates for an ever expanding national security state.

I have a lot of apprehension when I read the reports about the activities of the National Security Agency, other intelligence and police agencies at all levels of government and the pervasive erosion of civil rights.  The national security state and the seeming all pervasive security and surveillance apparatus which demolishes any sense of privacy, especially the protections enunciated in the Fourth Amendment and to some extent the First Amendment. Of course the use of similar methods by the private sector, often in conduction with government agencies is another concern, but that needs to wait for another day.

I also understand from history and empirical evidence that many others, many from unfriendly countries do not share those apprehensions. Many of these competitors are willing to use whatever openness that we have as a society against us, using similar technology and methods used by our intelligence, police, governmental and private sector. It makes for an ethical, legal and even constitutional conundrum. I know that I am not comfortable with this, and perhaps maybe none of us should be.

It is very easy on one hand in light of history, our Constitution and democratic process to condemn the NSA, the FISA courts and other lawfully constituted agencies and those that drafted the laws over the decades that allow the activities which they now conduct. The same can be said of foreign intelligence agencies which all engage in similar activities including the British GCHQ, the German Bundesnachrichtendienst and so many others including the Chinese and Russians.

Likewise it is equally easy in light of history, current events and national security concerns for people to jump to the other side of the fence and not only defend the activities of the NSA and agencies like it, and to demonize those that protest or expose such activities.

When I see the talking heads on cable news shows defending or condemning such activities and not agonizing over the complexity and issues involved I get worried. Because there are legitimate concerns voiced by critics as well as defenders. But since we live in an era of soundbites, gotcha and half-truths being portrayed as all truth I find it helpful to use either historical examples, literature or fiction, and even science fiction to wrestle with the fundamental truths. So I find looking at such issues through the prism of Star Trek sometimes more interesting and provocative than simply doing the whole moralizing pundit thing.

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There was an episode of  Star Trek Deep Space Nine that aired well before the events of 9-11-2001, and the subsequent Global War on Terror, that I find fascinating. The episode deals with a secretive agency in Starfleet operating in the gray areas between the laws and ideals of the Federation and the threats that the Federation faces. Even when the Federation is a peace, Section 31, as it is called is engaged in activities against historic or potential enemies. In a way it is somewhat like the NSA or the Defense Intelligence Agency.

At the beginning of the Deep Space Nine Episode Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges the head of Section 31, a man only known as Sloan comes back Doctor Julia Bashir to involve him in an clandestine operation. An operation to on the Romulans who at this point are a Federation ally against the Dominion.

Sloan makes his approach and Bashir, who expresses his reservations:

BASHIR: You want me to spy on an ally.

SLOAN: To evaluate an ally. And a temporary ally at that. I say that because when the war is over, the following will happen in short order. The Dominion will be forced back to the Gamma Quadrant, the Cardassian Empire will be occupied, the Klingon Empire will spend the next ten years recovering from the war and won’t pose a serious threat to anyone. That leaves two powers to vie for control of the quadrant, the Federation and the Romulans.

BASHIR: This war isn’t over and you’re already planning for the next.

SLOAN: Well put. I hope your report is equally succinct.

BASHIR: How many times do I have to tell you, Sloan? I don’t work for you.

SLOAN: You will. It’s in your nature. You are a man who loves secrets. Medical, personal, fictional. I am a man of secrets. You want to know what I know, and the only way to do that is to accept the assignment.

I find the exchange both illuminating and riveting. The fact is that in the situation we face today the arguments of both sides should make us very uncomfortable.

Whether we like it or not or not, the incredibly rapid technical and communication advances of the past couple of decades have primed us for our present conundrum of liberty and privacy or security. That technology, as wonderful as it is  has enabled a generation to grow up in a virtual world in many ways detached from the moral and ethical balances between individual rights and liberties as well responsibility to community.

All the wonderful gadgets that we employ in everyday life, make it easy for enemies and “friends” to do things that were unimaginable to people other than science fiction writers even twenty to thirty years ago. Likewise they were certainly beyond the wildest imaginations of any of the founders who drafted Constitution.

The reality is, the things that make are lives so easy are also the things that have the potential to remove the very liberties that we treasure, either by our enemies using them, or those that defend us.

The truth is, that throughout history, even our own there have been operatives within the government in charge of secrets, as well as spies. In the Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges episode we see an operation that is full of duplicity and moral ambiguity all committed in the name of security. I won’t go into the details because it is too full of twists, and turns, you can read the plot of the episode at Memory Alpha.org http://en.memory-alpha.org/wiki/Inter_Arma_Enim_Silent_Leges_%28episode%29

There is an exchange between Dr. Bashir and Admiral Ross of Starfleet command which is very enlightening because it practically mirrors how many on both the civil liberties and the national security side of the current controversy feel about the War on Terror.

BASHIR: You don’t see anything wrong with what happened, do you.

ROSS: I don’t like it. But I’ve spent the last year and a half of my life ordering young men and young women to die. I like that even less.

BASHIR: That’s a glib answer and a cheap way to avoid the fact that you’ve trampled on the very thing that those men and women are out there dying to protect! Does that not mean anything to you?

ROSS: Inter arma enim silent leges.

BASHIR: In time of war, the law falls silent. Cicero. So is that what we have become? A twenty fourth century Rome driven by nothing more than the certainty that Caesar can do no wrong!

ROSS: This conversation never happened.

In light of the controversy of today regarding the NSA, FISA Courts, government secrecy and intelligence gathering information on its own citizens, as well as allies, friends and and enemies we face a growing tide of reporters and others seeking to reveal those secrets. Back in 1989 ethicist Sissela Bok wrote something very important in her book Secrets: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life:

“…as government secrecy expands, more public officials become privy to classified information and are faced with the choice of whether or not to leak … growing secrecy likewise causes reporters to press harder from the outside to uncover what is hidden. And then in a vicious circle, the increased revelations give government leaders further reasons to press for still more secrecy.”

As we wade through the continuing controversy surrounding these issues we will see people do exactly what Bok said. These are the exact arguments are being made by the people and officials directly involved in such activities, as well as former elected and appointed officials, and members of the press.

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The interesting thing to me is that very few of the people or agencies, past and present, Republican and Democrat involved have clean hands. It is amazing to see former champions of civil liberties defend the NSA actions and those that empowered the NSA in the Patriot Act now condemn it. I find it both fascinating and frightening.

At the end of the Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges episode the mysterious Sloan pops back in on Doctor Bashir who is in his quarters, asleep and depressed by what he experienced during the operation on Romulus and with Admiral Ross.

SLOAN: Good evening.

BASHIR: Are you expecting applause? Have you come to take a bow?

SLOAN: I just wanted to say thank you.

BASHIR: For what? Allowing you to manipulate me so completely?

SLOAN: For being a decent human being. That’s why we selected you in the first place, Doctor. We needed somebody who wanted to play the game, but who would only go so far. When the time came, you stood your ground. You did the right thing. You reached out to an enemy, you told her the truth, you tried to stop a murder. The Federation needs men like you, Doctor. Men of conscience, men of principle, men who can sleep at night. You’re also the reason Section Thirty one exists. Someone has to protect men like you from a universe that doesn’t share your sense of right and wrong.

BASHIR: Should I feel sorry for you? Should I be weeping over the burden you’re forced to carry in order to protect the rest of us?

SLOAN: It is an honor to know you, Doctor. Goodnight.

We live in this kind of world and maybe it is good to sometimes step back and look at issues using a different prism. I really don’t have the answers. I am a civil libertarian who places a high value on the openness of a government to its people. I also know that there are those that have no regard for such openness or, to quote Sloan don’t “share your sense of right and wrong.”

Maybe that is not a good answer. I really don’t know. All I know is that as uncomfortable as this all is that those on both sides of the issue have valid points and concerns. It is a debate that needs to happen if we are able to balance that a society needs to balance individual rights and responsibility to the community; openness and secrecy; civil liberties and national security.

But that being said. it is a debate that needs to happen, even if it makes us uncomfortable. I for one think that it is better that we be uncomfortable when looking at such an important debate than to be prisoners of our certitude.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Traumatic Truths

motivational pictures

A few years ago I attended a conference about spirituality and trauma conducted by Dr. Robert Grant. I highly recommend his book The Way of the Wound if you have either been affected by trauma in any way, or if you deal as a professional counselor, therapist, or pastoral care giver. The fact is that we all experience difficult times and very often trauma is at the heart of them.

During that seminar he went through a number of things and going back through my notes I decided to pull some of them out, you can note some of my dark humor and sarcasm, not that there is anything wrong with that…. But really all kidding aside these are abiding truths and they can be both uncomfortable and comforting at the same time. To me they actually help make sense of the world.

Back when I was in seminary and in  my early years of ministry, in fact up until the time I landing in Iraq, I was filled with a lot of certitude. I can’t say that now, I have faith but I doubt at least as much as I believe. As baseball great Earl Weaver said: “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” 

So here are some truths, and as Oscar Wilde noted “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

Everyone Dies…. We can’t get around this one a recent study said that 96% of Americans will die someday.

Despite my snarkey comment the fact is that we live in a culture that denies death, while death is such an integral part of life.

No Guarantees…. We are not guaranteed anything in this life. You can live right, maintain good health, treat others right but still can meet with tragedy, betrayal and abandonment. 

We all know people, very good people who do all the right things and despite that still experience trauma and tragedy.

No one can cover all contingencies…. No matter how well we plan there will be unanticipated events in life that shred our plans.  The old saying that “no plan ever survives contact with the enemy” is true.

Now be assured I do believe in planning, including thinking about contingencies, and I do this pretty well. That being said there is seldom a week that goes by where I do not experience something that gums up my plans.

The things that we sometimes believe are solid and long lasting are often transitory in nature…. Even things that we think are solid and will last to the end of time change, deteriorate or dissolve over time.

Need I say more about this?

We and our world are finite…. We have a beginning and an end and our finiteness is sandwiched between the creation and the consummation. Dietrich Bonhoeffer talked about “living in the uncomfortable middle.” Bonhoeffer was right, we don’t know the beginning because we were not there and we do not know the end because it has not yet happened.

This thought by Bonhoeffer one drives a lot of people crazy, especially religious people who have to try to prove things that they cannot prove.

Evil and malevolence exists in individuals, organizations and systems, even those that we esteem highly…. One only has to look at the number of trusted people and organizations that have perpetrated and covered up their own evil acts to know the truth of this. 

I believe in the goodness of most people, but I am also a realist, evil and malevolence is all too real and all to much a part of our world. Until we get that, we will never understand those that commit evil, especially those that do so in the name of God.

So anyway, since we are getting ready for another big winter storm I will close for the day. Tomorrow we’ll see what I put out, until then I think that I just might drink beer instead.

Peace and blessings

Padre Steve+

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People Matter: Thoughts on History & Biography

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English historian and military theorist Colin Gray noted that “people matter most” when we deal with history, policy, or politics, especially in the matter of war.

I think one of the sad things about history is that many authors, especially in military history, but other areas as well, seem to treat the participants as bit players in a series of events, rather than a prism from which to understand and view history.

I cannot tell you how many times I have had students, and even colleagues tell me that history is dry, boring and uninteresting to them.  I will not condemn them, for certainly if it is that is case, it is not their fault, but rather those who write and teach history. If all history is, is arbitrary dates, lists of disconnected events and names of people, without any context to their lives, why should they care about it?

When I first began to study history I was much more concerned about events than people. However, over the past couple of years I have began to develop what I call my philosophy of history. That has come about through my study of the events leading to the American Civil War and in particular my study of the Battle of Gettysburg, but also in other historical events such as the Arab Revolt of 1917, and the French adventures in Indochina and Algeria.

In doing all of my research I have read a large number of books, articles and primary sources on these subjects and my personal library appears to be growing at an exponential rate. I have noticed that much of what I have read deals very little with the people involved, unless I am reading a biography, and even some of the biographies seem to be event heavy, and person light and sometimes it seems that the subjects of the biography are often one dimensional, and almost caricatures of who they really were. Some of the alleged biographies that I read would be better described as hagiography, the type of writing used by religious writers to make saints a lot less human. The same style of writing is found in hacks like David Barton and Bill O’Reilly for whom truth matters less than profit and propaganda value.

Such is not history. Neither is history which is designed to support a particular ideology, be it political, religious, or economic. Such is not history, but propaganda. When I see people, in this country forbidding the teaching of history because it is not patriotic enough I want to scream. It is like I watching the propagandists of Stalin’s Soviet Union, Hitler’s Third Reich, or any of many ( that rhymed nicely) other nations that used ideology or religion to supress history that didn’t meet their definition of “patriotic.” But then I digress…

My gut feeling says that such artificial divisions between history and biography do a disservice to the reader.  I take a tremendous pleasure in writing, and I like to try to communicate and interpret facts, which is indeed the vocation of the historian, in a manner that makes them interesting. What I am finding is that when telling the stories of events we must also tell the stories of the people who make these events.

Without such a connection there is little to interest most readers. People tend to be interested in people because there is a connection. The human being is still the human being, no matter what age, country, culture, religion that they belong to. I learned a lot of this from reading the works of Barbara Tuchman

In my writing now I attempt to bring the prism of the biography into the events that I write about.

I had a fellow faculty member note that he liked what I wrote about Gettysburg because it was more than just the events, it was the personal connection he felt to the people.

People matter because they have so many layers. I guess one of the things that makes my writing approach a bit different is that while I am a historian, I am also trained in philosophy, pastoral care and psychology, all of which deal with existential matters.

Image found that the complexities and contradictions of the subjects of history, the people help me understand the events more than anything. That is a “warts and all comment.” I think my epiphanies came in reading about the lives, as well at writings of men like T.E. Lawrence and Gouvereur Warren whose triumphs, struggles, weaknesses and injuries mirror my own. In learning about these men as people, in the context of what they accomplished helps me to understand their history and the era that they lived far more than simply recounting how they influenced a battle.

I find that the lives, beliefs, motivations, relationships, and experiences of people to be paramount to understanding events. People are complex, multi-layers and often contradictory. My heroes all have feet of clay, which in a sense makes their stories even richer, and the events that they helped bring about more fascinating, because then I gain a holistic perspective and develop an empathy for them. Even good and honorable people who find themselves due to race, religion, or nationality fighting for an evil cause, or evil people fighting for a good cause. If you are trapped by ideological or religious certitude that may confuse or even offend you, but it is a part of the human condition. That my friends is history.

Barbara Tuchman noted “that if the historian needs to submit himself to his or her material instead of trying to impose himself on his material, then the material will ultimately speak to him and supply the answers.” 

This is very important, because when we do this we discover the answers to the why questions, the why questions that are often very uncomfortable, yet necessary if we want to discover truth.

I know that I can find connections in the strengths as well as their weaknesses of people that I admire.  Thus when I see ordinary people taking part in events, for good or for evil,I can say that given the same set of circumstances that that could be me. Context matters, nuance matters, people matter. If we do not understand that, history becomes nothing more than a set of manipulate facts that can be used to buttress the most evil of

I do plan on developing these thoughts over the coming weeks and months, but for now it will suffice to say that when I write about history, that people matter.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Southern Justice and Its Relevance Today

NormanRockwellSouthernJustice-1Southern Justice- Norman Rockwell 1965

I have been writing about the continued problem of racism and hatred in this country, as well as in others lately. Fifty years ago, three young men working to register blacks to vote as part of the Freedom Summer in Mississippi were brutally murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan.

The three men were idealists who would all die because they fought for the right of Blacks to vote harassment and intimidation.

Twenty year old Andrew Goodman from New York City, was a progressive activist and Anthropology student at Queens College. Twenty-four year old Mickey Schwerner was a graduate student at Columbia University’s School of Social Work. Both Goodman and Schwerner were Jewish. Twenty-one year old James Chaney was from Meridian Mississippi and was a volunteer with CORE, the Congress of Racial Equity working on voter registration and education with local churches.

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The Ruins of Mount Zion Church

On June 21st 1964 the three men were investigating the burning of Mount Zion Methodist Church in Longdale. They had been working with the church  to assist in registering blacks to vote.  In the wake of their visit to the town and to the church, the local Klan, which included many men of influence, including those in law enforcement sought to lure CORE workers into the town to make an example of them. They did this by upping the ante and instigated a campaign to harass, attack and brutalize the black citizens and church members. They then burned the church to the ground.

 

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The three went to the site on June 20th and were arrested for an alleged traffic violation. They were then jailed and released later in the evening without being allowed to make any phone calls. On the way back to Meridian, two carloads of Klan members forced them over, abducted them and killed them. The bodies were buried at the base of a dam and not discovered for 44 days.

Cecil Price, a deputy Sheriff involved in the arrest was one of the murderers. He was one of the men later convicted of their murder. After the killing he told his helpers:

“Well, boys, you’ve done a good job. You’ve struck a blow for the white man. Mississippi can be proud of you. You’ve let those agitating outsiders know where this state stands. Go home now and forget it. But before you go, I’m looking each one of you in the eye and telling you this: “The first man who talks is dead! If anybody who knows anything about this ever opens his mouth to any outsider about it, then the rest of us are going to kill him just as dead as we killed those three sonofbitches (sic) tonight. Does everybody understand what I’m saying. The man who talks is dead, dead, dead!”

The disappearance of Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman brought national attention and a major investigation to the town. Eventually seven men, including deputy Price were convicted of the murders. The murders and the investigation became the subject of the movie Mississippi Burning.

In 1965 Norman Rockwell, well known for his portraits of American life and the Civil Rights movement painted “Southern Justice” which is sometimes known as “Murder in Mississippi”  This was not long after passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1964, which has been under attack in many southern states over the past decade and had a key provision gutted by the Supreme Court last year.

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50 years ago the murders of these three young men brought national attention to the pervasive racism and discrimination in the country. Until this incident most of the murders, lynching’s and burnings of homes, businesses, and even churches had been covered up by the media and law enforcement.  Frankly, a black life wasn’t worth investigating or the air time.

I do hope and pray that we never go back to those days, but as laws are passed to limit voting rights in various states I wonder if the clock is being turned back. I don’t think that it will in the long run these efforts to disenfranchise blacks, other minorities, students and the working poor will be successful, but we can never assume that. Freedom always hangs in the balance and it can be lost when we do nothing. The Klan is still active, and sadly its hatred for Blacks, immigrants, Jews, Moslems, Catholics, and Gays, or for that matter anyone who stands against them has spread to others not traditionally affiliated with the Klan.

Some might say that it has been fifty-years, that things have changed, so why bother bringing up the past? I’ll tell you why, because freedom is always under siege, and the sacrifice of so many, including these three young men, for those rights should never be forgotten.

In memory of Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Mickey Schwerner and others of the Freedom Summer and the Civil Rights movement who died or suffered to peacefully bring about change to our society.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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