Category Archives: christian life

Padre Steve Plays Devil’s Advocate: The Complex and Often Confusing Issue of Religious Liberty

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“Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The First Amendment of the US Constitution

Religious freedom is a central tenant of the Bill of Rights and has been a central facet of American life since our inception as a country, in fact pre-dating our founding in some of the original 13 colonies most notably Rhode Island and Pennsylvania. Now before anyone gets the idea that I am about to write something in favor of limiting the freedom to worship or for that matter any limitation on religious practices I am not in fact I am a stalwart supporter of religion in the Public Square and not just mine. You see I am a bit of a purest about this and my view is as long as the religious practice is not harming anyone who cares?

I believe like Thomas Jefferson who wrote in the 1779 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom:

“no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”

Some might take me to task for that as a Christian, but my point is not to argue for the Christian faith in this article. Instead my intent is to point out some of the inconsistencies of those who proclaim their rights also seek to limit the religious and even the civil rights of others based on their religious beliefs.

What I will do in this essay is to play the “Devil’s advocate” in the matter of the free exercise of religion as it currently exists in the United States.

This has to be done because of the number of laws being passed by various states which are labeled as acts to protect religious liberty. Unfortunately the reality is that these laws grant license for the Christian majority in those states to discriminate against others on the basis of their religious beliefs. These individuals and religious organizations loudly proclaim their defense of the right to free exercise, but it is more their free exercise rights that they are defending than the rights of others.

In fact those that shout the loudest are also those who seek to limit the religious rights of others using the laws of the Federal Government and the various States and Commonwealths that make up the United States. Since law in the United States is based on legal precedence everything that goes to court on matters of religious liberty as well as the actions of various legislatures matters. Precedent matters and once legal precedent has been established it is very hard to change. Thus each decision sets a precedent and these precedents can effect decisions in entirely unrelated matters.

Our First Amendment Rights are marvels which are envied by the citizens of most of the rest of the world and why shouldn’t they be?

In many nations simply being born as a member of a minority religion, or other hated minority group is enough to ensure that you will never have full legal rights and may even face persecution and death at the hands of those in power. The list is long. Some of the countries include Sudan, Kosovo, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Indonesia, Russia, Pakistan, India, Uganda, Nigeria, the Congo, and the Central African Republic. Of course there are many more but those are just some of the places where members of minority religious face discrimination, persecution and even death.

The rights we have as Americans provided the opportunity for churches that were suppressed on the European continent and elsewhere to thrive free of government persecution. The Baptists are a good example. In the early 1600’s the first Baptists, English Baptists were persecuted, imprisoned and even killed for their beliefs by the English Crown in particular by King James who despite authorizing the Bible given his name and loved by many Baptists as the “only” valid English translation was a notorious homosexual, not that there is anything wrong with that, hated those early Baptists and persecuted them throughout the land.

On the continent itself the Anabaptists and Mennonites as well as others referred to as “enthusiasts,” the forerunners of the Pentecostal movements of the 20th Century were brutally suppressed in many European lands. The example of the siege and destruction of Munster Germany by combined Catholic and Lutheran forces after “enthusiasts” seized power is just one example.

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The Jews were persecuted often brutally almost everywhere in Europe for centuries. They were the “Christ killers” and that was even enshrined in the liturgies of churches. But the Jews had a surprising amount of freedom and influence in the Ottoman Empire where in places like Baghdad they composed a rather sizable part of the population and were quite prominent in the Empire.

Catholics were heavily persecuted in England and could not hold public office for many years following the English Reformation. Hundreds of Catholics martyred for simply practicing their religion in private, simply celebrating Mass could get them a death sentence.

Then there were the Huguenots in France. They were French Protestants who had gained a great deal of influence and power that were brutally suppressed and many killed by the French Crown and the Catholic Church.

The Lutherans were not big fans of other religions in Germany and worked with their archrival Roman Catholics to kill off the Anabaptists and the Enthusiasts.

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Spain was another brutal place for religious liberty. Even some Roman Catholics now canonized as Saints such as Ignatius of Loyola and Teresa of Avila were brought before the Inquisition. Protestants, Jews, Moslems were all persecuted in Spain, and Spain was equally repressive of native religions in the lands that it colonized in the “New World.”

The Russian Empire was known for its toleration of Catholics, Protestants and Jews especially in the equal treatment given to them in various Pogroms conducted by the government and the Orthodox Church.

The Ottoman Empire had a limited amount of religious toleration so long as you didn’t make trouble and paid your taxes. One cannot really call it liberty for the Empire and persecuted anyone equally that threatened the Caliphate or that they thought were heretical. These included the tribes of the Arabian Peninsula.

Then along came the United States where our forefathers ensured religious liberty in our Bill of Rights along with freedom of speech, assembly and the press. It is a wonderful thing, but we have not always done well with it and there are always those trying to carve out addition “rights” for themselves or their faith communities. Sometimes the more religious people have had a negative influence in this experiment, often being involved with acts of religious and civil intolerance worthy of our European ancestors.

That being said many religious people, particularly Christians and churches have done many good things in promoting human rights, religious rights and the civil rights of all in our country.

In Colonial America most of the colonies had official state religions. In Massachusetts that was the Congregationalist Church and it conducted many of the witch trials and the persecution of people deemed heretic including Quakers and Baptists.

dyer-hanging1Hanging the Quakers in Massachusetts

While Christians were in the forefront of the Abolitionist movement whole denominations split on the issue of Slavery. These denominations included the Southern Baptists, the Methodists and the Presbyterians. Curiously neither the Episcopalians nor the Catholics split over the issues although the war found them heavily engaged on both sides of the conflict.

After the war many American Christians worked for the rights of workers, the abolition of child labor and even something that I oppose, Prohibition. Some Christians and churches advocated for the full civil rights of African Americans though few spoke up for rights of the Native Americans and the Chinese immigrants to California who were frequently mistreated and worked for almost nothing on the most demanding jobs like building the trans-continental railroad, mining gold and building stone walls for ranchers.

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While enshrining the right to the free exercise of religion the Founding Fathers kind of ignored the human rights of a whole class of people, African American slaves. They allowed the practice of slavery counting Blacks as 3/5ths of a person, which 3/5ths I don’t know but nonetheless only 60% of a full human being. my own family owned slaves and the family patriarch who fought as a Confederate officer in the American Civil War and after the defeat of the Confederacy refused to sign the loyalty oath, which good honorable men like Robert E Lee did and lost the family lands to the Federal Government.

We drove the Native Americans off of their lands, hunted them down and confined them to reservations all while ignoring the treaties that we made with the various Indian Nations. This practice was actually recently defended by the faux “historian” of the Christian Right, David Barton.

If we believe Barton’s “history” the vast majority of the people perpetuating these acts were solid Bible Believing Christians. But then how do we reconcile these crimes against humanity, even crimes against fellow Christians with the Christian faith? If you are Barton you assume that what happened was due to the sin of the Native Americans who had to be subjugated by Christians.

Likewise nearly every ethnic group that immigrated to the United States has experienced some form of discrimination, often religious from the good citizens of this land. It turns out that throughout history we have had some problems in the matter of religious liberty and toleration, especially of those whose customs, language, culture and religion are different than our own.

But the crux of all of this comes down to religious liberty which as Americans we hold dear, at least our own religious liberty. The problem is that those who fight the hardest for their religious liberty frequently want to deny the rights that they have to others that they disagree with in belief, practice or even politics.

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Now everyone is for religious liberty in the Public Square until a loathsome man like Fred Phelps and his family owned and operated “Westboro Baptist Church” shows up to protest and hurl vile epithets at those grieving the loss of family members killed in war, taunting these people in the most abhorrent of ways.

However, as grievous as these people are they do this under the right to the free exercise of religion. Some Fundamentalist Moslems have as a stated goal of instating Sharia Law in this land, at least for Moslems. This they proclaim under the banner of religious liberty, however the imposition of Sharia Law on Moslems in the name of their religion also takes away their civil rights under the Constitution and the various laws of the Federal Government of the States that make up our fair land.

The Roman Catholic Church at the direction of the Vatican has attempted rather successfully until a recent Supreme Court ruling to shield Bishops that were complicit in personnel moves and cover ups regarding Priests accused or convicted of sexual misconduct and the sexual abuse of minors from criminal prosecution and civil suits under the guise of diplomatic immunity as the Vatican is a nation state. Could any other religious organization shield its clergy from the laws of the land that any other citizen would be subject to? Not on your or my life, but in the past the Vatican has blatantly done so and hopefully under Pope Francis this too will change.

One of the key issues of religious liberty is the right of those of various beliefs and practices that use television, radio and the internet to espouse hatred and violence in the name of their religious beliefs and under the banner of religious liberty? I may not agree with what they broadcast but they have the right to do it.

Many Conservative Christians, especially Evangelicals and Roman Catholics are keen to support their rights to publicly exercise their religion, even in the government. But they are not good when it comes to other branches of Christianity or non-Christian religions.

The Metropolitan Community Church comes to mind. It is a predominantly Homosexual Christian church many of whose members were driven from their home churches due to their sexuality. Many, except for being gay are very conservative in their theological beliefs. That church has been in the forefront of the fight for marriage equity as well as the right for homosexuals to serve openly in the Military.

The part about marriage is particularly fraught with peril because both the Church and the State have interests in marriage. For many marriage is primarily a religious act with civil overtones, in fact ministers of all denominations are licensed by the state to perform marriages on behalf of the State becoming in effect de-facto officers of the courts and at the same time most states deny homosexual couples the right to marry, regardless of one’s position on the legitimacy of such unions who could say that it is right for the states to approve and license the clergy of almost every religious tradition to conduct weddings that have the full civil effect, including tax breaks for all but a certain group? We have this enshrined in our culture but would deny it to the Metropolitan Community Church to perform weddings for its members. What if someone said that any other minister could not marry members of their own church under their church laws, ordinances and beliefs? There would be a public outcry, but not for the Metropolitan Community Church or other denominations that sanction Gay marriage.

There are so many issues regarding religious liberty. What about adherents of Wicca and other Earth based religions or Native American religions? Some of their practices would not be welcomed by those of many Christian denominations as well as secularists and atheists but if they are not hurting anyone else why should others object?

Likewise why should people object if a religious symbol is displayed on private property or on state property where it has been displayed for decades or longer? Is it hurting anyone? Not really but hurt feelings and being offended count as much as real injury to the litigiously minded. Usually these cases are long, expensive and divisive court proceedings that have served little purpose. I am not in favor of government using such symbols to advance the rights of any given religion, even Christianity. But that being said there are times where religious symbols are part of our American culture where we have memorialized our war dead without the intent of promoting a religious cause. However, if one symbol is present we should not object to others.

Likewise there are those that would attempt to limit the free speech rights and religious rights of Christians and others that protest the practice of abortion using civil disobedience to do so. Some in polite and well-mannered but others are pretty unseemly. That being said I do not think that the religious beliefs of anti-abortion people should be the law for unbelievers or for that matter a believer with different views on abortion.

The problem is that many who call themselves “pro-life” are not pro-life at all but simply anti-abortion. Many Christians who call themselves “pro-life” bless and baptize practices condemned by the same Church Fathers and Biblical writers who they use to support the rights of the unborn. They support the death penalty despite the aversion and opposition to it by the Early Church a and the evidence that in many states that the practice is abused and sentences often wrong. Many advocate for harsh treatment of aliens and exhibit a xenophobic attitude towards some immigrant groups, especially those that are not Christian. Likewise the belief that the economic Social Darwinism of unfettered Capitalism is not only Biblical but God’s best ordained economic system is promoted as the Gospel. The same people often treat the poor and the elderly with distain and treat their political opponents as agents of the Devil rather than people that God might actually care about.

Local governments and even home owners associations have acted to quash home churches and Bible studies. Some have acted to zone land so that the construction of religious buildings, edifices or displays is illegal all of which have been protested and fought in the courts by the groups involved particularly Evangelical Christians of various denominations. Even churches that neighbors have deemed to be too loud in their expression of worship have been penalized by local governments and courts.

Yet many Christians had little problem with using the government to suppression other religious or splinter groups. The tragic example of the Branch Davidians at their Waco compound looms large. David Koresh was a labeled as a “dangerous” cult leader. Nor do many Conservative Christians have a problem in limiting the rights of American Moslems and protest if a Moslem clergyman becomes a military Chaplain or if Moslems want to build a Mosque in their neighborhood. I think that religious intolerance is often in the eye of the beholder. As David Barton the President of “Wallbuilders” an organization that seeks to promote America’s “Christian heritage” quoted William Penn “Whatever is Christian is legal; whatever is not is illegal.”

Barton’s friend and ally Gary North wrote:

“We must use the doctrine of religious liberty to gain independence for Christian schools until we train up a generation of people who know that there is no religious neutrality, no neutral law, no neutral education, and no neutral civil government. Then they will get busy in constructing a Bible-based social, political and religious order which finally denies the religious liberty of the enemies of God.”

So as you can see the subject of religious liberty and the freedom to practice our religions is one that is not as clear cut as we would like to admit.

To play the Devil’s advocate here let me ask this question: “Should we limit the rights to the free exercise of religion for any group?” If we do so where do we draw the line? If we say “everything goes” does this mean for everyone or just us? Could it be that in the enshrining of this right that the Founders actually meant the expression of rational and enlightened religion and not religious expression that limits the rights of other groups or supports the abolition of others Constitutional Rights? Those are all hard questions. As you can see there are a tremendous amount of issues at play when we attempt to legislate or regulate religious practice.

I think that our religious liberty is something to be cherished. But I can see times and places where there would be a need for the community or state to limit such expression. This would not be to take it away but to ensure that such expression is not used as a weapon against others, just as religious beliefs have been used in the past and present by people and governments around the world.

You see the lawyer that dwells deep within my heart that my fellow seminarians saw could argue the point for any position in this debate, which I guess kind of, makes me a bit of a prostitute. But still there are valid points to be made on all sides of this issue and to the extenuating civil, social and even economic and national security concerns that the absolute right to the freedom of religious expression impacts.

The waters get pretty muddy and my concern is that those on various sides of this issue are more about promoting their agenda, be it religious or secular. As I said at the beginning of this essay the issue is about legal precedence and sometimes the unintended consequences of decisions reached hastily when those on the various sides of an issue go to court or establish a new law which enshrines any group with the ability to discriminate against others based on the majority’s religious beliefs.

The question of religious liberty and the tension between competing Free Exercise rights and concerns about the “excessive entanglement” of religion in government will be with us for a long time. I think the result of the heated and often litigious nature of the debate will actually turn people away from the Christian faith and will actually do great damage to the First Amendment protections that we all enjoy.

This causes me great concern as I value the right to the free exercise of religious expression and the right of others not to have the religious views of any group made the law of the land.

Religion can and often has been abused and used by the faithful as a dictatorial bludgeon and those who now advocate so stridently for their faith to be made the law of the land should well remember the words of James Madison:

“Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other sects?”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Freedom of Living on the Margins of American Christianity

1622612_10152232336042059_727365308_nMe and my Littlest Buddy, Minnie Scule

I have been living on the margins of American Christianity for a bit over six years now. The watershed moment was when I returned from Iraq in February 2008 my faith shattered and my soul wounded suffering from severe PTSD. I was not in good shape then and two years later after faith returned, albeit in a different form I realized that I no longer fit in the mainstream of conservative American Christianity.

When I began to express some of those changes, which mainly had to do in the manner of how I viewed others I got in trouble. At the time I was part of a pretty conservative Episcopal-Catholic denomination with very strong Evangelical and Charismatic leanings. I wrote that I thought that homosexuals could be Christians and not automatically damned to hell. I wrote that not all Moslems were bad. I expressed a great deal of empathy for non-believers, particularly Atheists and Agnostics having recently come out of a period where for all intents I was an Agnostic praying that God really did exist and care. I also asserted that I saw no reason why women could not or should not be ordained to the Priesthood and the Episcopacy and I expressed other views that while not connected with anything to do in the Christian faith was not politically correct in conservative circles.

During that time period I found that I was getting slammed and “unfriended” on Facebook by people I had previously considered friends whenever I had the nerve to disagree with them, or innocently post something that they disagreed with on my Facebook page. I think that was the hardest part for me, I was shocked that people who I had thought were friends, who knew what I was going through were so devoted to their ideology that they condemned me and threw me away. I found that I agreed with Mahatma Gandhi who observed: “I like your Christ; I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Of course I say that with a fair amount of humility because most of the time I am not a very good Christian, if that means actually trying to emulate Jesus.

Of course that is not uncommon in the annals of Christianity. Ulrich Zwingli, the Reformer of Zurich was so upset when his students and closest associates became Anabaptist that he had them drowned in the Rhine River. In fact any time Church leaders have had significant powers over people through the levers of the State they have quite often used that power to crush anyone that did not believe like them or questioned their authority.

In a sense for two millennia various groups of Christians have been creating God in their own image and inflicting their beliefs on others. Anne Lamott has a pithy little thought that I love: “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

In September of 2010 I was asked to leave that church, even though my actual theological orthodoxy, as to what I believed about God and Christ was unchanged. Thankfully another church, the Apostolic Catholic Orthodox Church, a denomination of the Old Catholic tradition took me in. It is a tiny denomination, much like the Old Catholic Church of the Netherlands, but very affirming and I fit well in it.

As far as my old church, it was going through a difficult time and the Bishop who threw me out was a big part of the problem. He was removed a few months later when it was revealed that he was plotting to take all of the military chaplains out of the denomination to another without consulting the other bishops. One friend who is still in that church speculated that I was asked to leave by the bishop because he thought I might reveal his plans, even though he had not told me directly about them.

What was odd about that church was that in 2004 I was censured by the then second ranking archbishop in that church, forbidden from publishing and even having or having any personal contact with his clergy where I was living because I was “too Catholic.” The irony was that this bishop was a big cause of the trouble that the church went through including the massive splits that occurred in 2005-2010. He left that church, became the editor of a conservative Catholic website and now is a Priest in the Anglican Ordinate and effectively a Roman Catholic Priest.  I love irony.

Thankfully I still have many friends in my old church, and thankfully there are good people there doing their best to live the Gospel. I can’t say that I would fit in there anymore, but I have no residual animosity to the current leadership of that denomination and pray that they continue to recover from the tumult and division that marked their struggle from 2005-2011. I admit that it was a painful time and for a while I was quite bitter about how I had been treated, but it has been easier to live by forgiving. C. S. Lewis noted: “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” Since I have been forgiven for so much how can I not at least try to live in a forgiving manner?

Last night I wrote about my frustrations with American Christianity in particular the conservative Christian subculture. Looking at what I wrote I can see that I definitely exist on the margins of that world. But that is not a bad thing, there is a certain amount of freedom as well as intellectual honesty and integrity that I have now that I could not have being for all intents closeted in my former denomination.

Living on the margins allows me to echo Galileo who wrote: “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” It allows me to be at the intersection of faith and unbelief and allows me entry into both worlds, both of which I believe to be sacred and both need to be heard, as well as protected.

Thus when I champion religious liberty, it is not the liberty to use religion to bludgeon others or to use the police power of the State to enforce their religious views on others. Unfortunately that is what I see going on in this country as conservative American Christians especially Evangelicals, Charismatics and conservative Roman Catholics wage a Kulturkampf against modernism and secularism. It as if many of the leaders of that movement desire to set up a Christian theocracy. Gary North, a longtime adviser to Ron Paul and many in the Tea Party movement wrote:

“We must use the doctrine of religious liberty to gain independence for Christian schools until we train up a generation of people who know that there is no religious neutrality, no neutral law, no neutral education, and no neutral civil government. Then they will get busy in constructing a Bible-based social, political and religious order which finally denies the religious liberty of the enemies of God.”

Personally, and with no invective intended I have to imagine that if a Moslem leader in this country said somethings similar that the Religious Right would be screaming bloody murder and that Bill O’Reilly and Fox News would be leading the charge.

Thus we see a reprise of the Scopes Monkey Trial in efforts to diminish the teaching of real science in schools and replace it with various religious theories of origins such as Young Earth Creationism. It doesn’t seem to matter what the issue is: equality for women, minorities, gays, teaching science, caring for the poor, the sick and the weak, acknowledging the value of other cultural traditions and religions it seems that many politically charged conservative Christians have no tolerance for anyone outside their often quite narrow belief system. North wrote:

“The long-term goal of Christians in politics should be to gain exclusive control over the franchise. Those who refuse to submit publicly to the eternal sanctions of God by submitting to His Church’s public marks of the covenant–baptism and holy communion–must be denied citizenship, just as they were in ancient Israel.”

I’m sorry but again this sounds not too dissimilar to the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, without the sheep and the comfortable clothes, or the Moslem Brotherhood types, Hezbollah or the Iranian Imams. The religion of North might be different from the Taliban but the goals are eerily similar, and only a fool would not see that. But then we Christians are quite good at ignoring the hate being preached by those that claim to be defending us from those “evil” Moslems.

This is no empty threat, throughout the country Christian Conservatives and their political front men are ramming through laws that have but one intent, the establishment of a Christian theocracy and the persecution of those who do not agree. Allegedly all of these laws are designed to “protect religious liberty” but in fact are nothing more than a legislative attempt to disenfranchise non-believers or others that the majority does not approve. Unfortunately the people pushing these laws do not understand that once the become law they can be used against them if another group comes into power. They set precedent and under such precedent even Sharia Law could could be enacted in Moslem dominated areas of the country, such as Dearborn Michigan, or polygamy in separatist Mormon communities in Utah and Idaho.

I am sorry but that is antithetical to the thoughts of our founders and the real defenders of religious liberty in the early days of our republic. John Leland, head of the Virginia Baptists and a key player in the drafting of the First Amendment and religious liberty protections in Virginia wrote:

“The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever…Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians.”

Leland understood what he was talking about, because in Virginia Baptists and others were being persecuted by Anglicans who before the Revolution had been the State Church of Virginia and wanted to be again in the new republic. James Madison wrote of the danger:  “Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other sects?”

I will defend the right of religious conservative to believe what they want, including the right to teach it in their churches, church schools and homes and to express those views in the public square as part of real dialogue. I may not agree with them, but if I want my views to be protected I should grant others what I would want. What I cannot support is the attempt of some politically active Christian conservatives to force those views on others through the power of the State, the public schools or any other place where the citizens of our very diverse and pluralistic society have to co-exist.

I love the movie Inherit the Wind. I especially love the scene where Spencer Tracy playing the fictionalized version of Clarence Darrow gives a logical yet passionate defense of religious, civil and intellectual liberty.

“Can’t you understand? That if you take a law like evolution and you make it a crime to teach it in the public schools, tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in the private schools? And tomorrow you may make it a crime to read about it. And soon you may ban books and newspapers. And then you may turn Catholic against Protestant, and Protestant against Protestant, and try to foist your own religion upon the mind of man. If you can do one, you can do the other. Because fanaticism and ignorance is forever busy, and needs feeding. And soon, your Honor, with banners flying and with drums beating we’ll be marching backward, BACKWARD, through the glorious ages of that Sixteenth Century when bigots burned the man who dared bring enlightenment and intelligence to the human mind!”

Since I don’t want to go back to the 16th Century I will be content to live in the freedom that I have on the margins of contemporary American Christianity. Personally I would rather be there than in the 16th century.

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Back in 2010 when I was getting kicked out of my old church and suffering the rejection of friends it wasn’t something that I enjoyed. However, I am grateful to be where I am now and to have the freedom that I enjoy. I certainly didn’t plan it this way, but I am definitely okay with the way things have turned out.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Padre Steve Shrugged: My Frustration with the Christian Subculture

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“If Christ were here now there is one thing he would not be – a Christian.” Mark Twain

Padre Steve is shrugging a lot today, so please excuse this but I have to say it. Sometimes I just want to scream when I see people and institutions claiming to be Christian when they exhibit none of the Christian graces or marks of the Christian faith.

I am constantly amazed by the self serving and self-righteous hatred shown by many of my allegedly Christian brothers and sisters towards that they do not approve.  This is especially true of how they treat the LGBT community, who only want to get equal rights under the law. Of course my brothers and sisters who want to legislate the LGBT community out of existence. Some American Christians promote laws in Africa to send gays to prison or even worse sentence them to death. They do this with gusto, all while claiming with absolute certitude their interpretations of the Bible. While they condemn gays they ignore all the other Old Testament laws that prescribe similar harsh sentences, such as death for the very things that they do. The fact that supposedly Christian leaders such as Scott Lively and others are attempting to pass laws in the United States and other countries, especially in Africa to openly persecute and even execute gays is abhorrent.

To use the power of the State to enforce one’s religious beliefs on others is exactly what the founders of our country attempted to negate in our Constitution and Bill of Rights. Thomas Jefferson writing to Alexander Humbolt in 1813 correctly noted: “History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes.”  

Thus I shrug my shoulders and wonder which Bible they are reading, and I am a Priest, with a sound Biblical and theological education. Thus to those without that it really has to be confusing. But I am also a historian, ethicist and occasionally a stand up philosopher and I can spot theological and historical bullshit when I see it and smell it. Unfortunately many leaders of the American “Christian Right” are full of it and it stinks to low Hell.

I shrug my shoulders in wonder of the ignorance I see displayed by my Christian bothers and sisters, some of whom certainly regard me as an apostate or heretic for criticizing their political-religious crusades.  But then I remember that the Bible they read is the one that excuses all the sins that they approve of, but condemns the sins of those that they don’t like. I think that the translation they cite is the Damn Everyone Else to Hell But Me Version of the Bible. But wait, you say that that there is no such translation? Well it may not be in print but it is certainly written on their hearts, like it is on the hearts of all true believers, but I digress. The great American philosopher Eric Hoffer wrote: “A doctrine insulates the devout not only against the realities around them but also against their own selves. The fanatical believer is not conscious of his envy, malice, pettiness and dishonesty. There is a wall of words between his consciousness and his real self.”

Likewise I get frustrated by my Christian brothers and sisters who routinely tell those suffering from Cancer or other painful or terminal conditions that they need to read a book or listen to a sermon by some Christian that is obviously more spiritual and better than the rest of us. Instead of coming alongside of those suffering they spout empty words, just like Job’s friends.

So I shrug because I remember that the command of Jesus to Christians is to bear one another’s burdens, not preach at those that are suffering.

But that being said I shrug my shoulders in amazement when I see those same Christian brothers and sisters embracing the abject and atheistic Social Darwinism of Ayn Rand and her Objectivist Philosophy. This has now been “baptized” by many leaders of the Christian Right as “Biblical” or “Christian.”

I also shrug when I see men who are paid millions of dollars a year to stir up hate and discontent by criticizing those that they do not approve throw tantrums and compare themselves to Jesus. Fox News Pundit Bill O’Reilly whined last week and did just that, saying that “even Jesus had haters.” Sorry Bill, but there is no comparison. You and those like you are hacks paid to stir shit up and keep people enraged so they keep watching your program. Unlike you, Jesus showed love and compassion to those that condemned him and didn’t get a penny for it.

I am a Christian, but I hate to say that the more I look around the more I see Christians who make me wonder about the God that they claim to represent. If I was not a believer I would have to admit that I see nothing redeeming in what I see and that have to wonder why I would want to believe in a God who according to the Christian Right is capricious, vindictive, petty, unloving, unethical and unjust. A “God” who is nothing like the one who according to Paul the Apostle:

“who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” (Phil 2:6-8 NRSV)

Thus I shrug. I cannot fathom the absurd depths of ignorance and hatred that is so routinely and even unthinkingly a part of the lives of some of my fellow Christians.

If the fact that I say this pisses people off, I have to say that I no longer care.  I cannot pretend as I can no longer live in the cloud cuckoo land of conservative American Christianity.

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So anyway. I had to get it out. I know that there will be some people who take offense to most of what I said and that is fine with me. But it has to be said if Christianity is to survive in the West. If Christians do not throw aside the mantle of power, privilege and priority that it assumed under Constantine, the mantle of the imperial church and return to being Christians, the Christian faith will not survive. And yes, that includes all of those massive auditoriums built by narcissistic mega-church pastors and the congregations that worship them.

People are fleeing what we call Christianity in the United States. They are fleeing churches in ever growing numbers and all the statistics, surveys and polls confirm this. More and more people are identifying themselves as not having a particular religious belief. Likewise more and more are openly admitting to being atheists or agnostics.  The numbers and percentages of unbelievers are growing at exponential rates. They are known as “the Nones” or those with no religious preference. As a military chaplain I have seen this trend growing for the past 25 years and it is only getting worse, and truthfully I cannot blame them. And who can blame the “nones” for turning their backs on Christianity? If I was not already a Christian there is little that convince me to become one today, not because of Jesus, but because of how Christians treat others. So that being said I will still love and care for all of my “nones” and be there for them.

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Christians have forgotten the reality of the Gospel. The world will not know us by our correct doctrine, nor will it know us by how well we observe the law, nor will it know us by any other thing but this: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

The fact is that if I wasn’t already a Christian there is nothing in the witness of most American Churches and Christians, especially Evangelicals and conservative Catholics that would ever bring me to faith in Jesus.  I totally agree with author Ann Rice who back in 2010 said:

“For those who care, and I understand if you don’t: Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being ‘Christian’ or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.”

The sad thing is, that before Iraq and my PTSD crash and crisis of faith that left me a practical agnostic for nearly two years that I used to be just like many of people that I am calling out today. Maybe I was a bit more nuanced theologically and better able to say cruel things without making them sound too cruel, but truthfully some of the things that I said and believed at one time were not much different than what my more crass brothers and sisters do today. For that I am sorry.

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Okay, I have said it. I have gotten it off my chest for now, though I am sure that some time in the next number of months or year that I will pop my cork again. But what can I say?

So for tonight and until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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To Believe and Not to Believe, that is the Challenge

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“Most priests, if they have any sense or any imagination, wonder if they truly believe all the things they preach. Like Jean-Claude they both believe and not believe at the same time.” Andrew Greeley “The Bishop and the Beggar Girl of St Germain”

When I returned from Iraq in 2008 I was a mess. I had gone to Iraq thinking that I had the answers to about anything and that I was invincible. I felt that with years of experience in the military and in trauma departments of major trauma centers that I was immune to the effects of war and trauma. Likewise I had spent years studying theology, pastoral care and ethics as well as military history, theory and practice. I had studied PTSD and Combat Stress and had worked with Marines that were dealing with it. If there was anyone who could go to Iraq and come back “normal” it had to be me.
Of course as anyone who knows me or reads this website regularly knows I came back from Iraq different. I collapsed in the midst of PTSD induced depression, anxiety and a loss of faith. For nearly two years I was a practical agnostic. What I had believed with absolute certitude before the experience of war was gone.

During that time, particularly when I was working in the ICU and Pediatric ICU at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth. I attempted to have enough faith to help others during their crisis, be they patients at the brink of death or families walking through that dark valley and our staff. It was difficult because at the time I did not have any faith to even believe that God existed.

It was during those dark days that the writings of Father Andrew Greeley, mainly his Bishop Blackie Ryan mysteries that provided me with one of the few places of spiritual solace and hope that I found. Baseball happened to be the other.
During those dark times when prayer seemed futile and the scriptures seemed dry and dead I found some measure of life and hope in the remarkable lives of the people that inhabited the pages of the Bishop Blackie Ryan novels. Through them I learned that doubt and faith could co-exist and that there was a mystery to faith in Jesus that defied the absolute doctrinal statements as well the as cultural, political and sociological prejudices that I had grown up with.

I did learn something else, something that makes many people uncomfortable and that took me a long time to accept. That was that doubt and faith could co-exist. As I read Greeley’s stories I began to see scripture in a new light. I discovered that the stories of the men and women that we venerate for their faith were more remarkable because of the doubt and unbelief that are documented in scripture. Some even disputed God and are still considered faithful. The Bible is full of these stories.

So when I hear of religious leaders who proclaim all that they say and allegedly believe as absolute truth I know that they are trying too hard. In essence they made their beliefs an idol that keeps them from facing the reality of the world and the reality of their own hearts. It such cases faith becomes fanaticism. It interjects a sense of self righteousness into all relationships and leads to the worst forms of pride, prejudice and hatred of anything that does not fit in their narrow understanding.

Eric Hoffer wrote: “A doctrine insulates the devout not only against the realities around them but also against their own selves. The fanatical believer is not conscious of his envy, malice, pettiness and dishonesty. There is a wall of words between his consciousness and his real self.”

It took losing my faith to rediscover it and life as I anointed a man in our emergency room in December 2009. I call that my Christmas Miracle. Faith returned to to me, much to my surprise and I believe again. But I also doubt, at least a couple of times a day. And for that I’m grateful. It keeps me humble and has broken down the wall that had insulated me. and I am alive again.

That also gives me a certain joy and appreciation in ministry. Greeley wrote in his last Bishop Blackie mystery:

“Every sacramental encounter is an evangelical occasion. A smile warm and happy is sufficient. If people return to the pews with a smile, it’s been a good day for them. If the priest smiles after the exchanges of grace, it may be the only good experience of the week.”  (The Archbishop in Andalusia p.77)

I guess that is how I approach ministry now, even outside the church or chapel. As a chaplain many of the people I serve may never darken the door of a church, they like me struggle with faith, belief and unbelief.

Greeley wrote that is was possible for a priest to lose their faith “no more often than a couple of times a day.” That describes me pretty well.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Faith and Doubt on a Friday During Lent

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William James wrote that “Faith means belief in something concerning which doubt is theoretically possible.”

Many religious people, be they Christians, Jews, Moslems or others equate their faith in what cannot be seen or proven to be a certainty. But faith, even as understood by someone like the Apostle Paul was something that was not provable in this life. In fact Paul is bold enough to proclaim that if Christians are not correct concerning their faith in the risen Christ that they are to be pitied among men.

Faith in something, even God is not proof. In fact faith can never be asserted to be fact until the final consummation. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his classic Creation and Fall Temptation, Two Biblical Studies wisely noted that:

“Man no longer lives in the beginning–he has lost the beginning. Now he finds he is in the middle, knowing neither the end nor the beginning, and yet knowing that he is in the middle, coming from the beginning and going towards the end. He sees that his life is determined by these two facets, of which he knows only that he does not know them”

Bonhoeffer’s words show a wisdom often lacking in young theologians. No matter how firmly we believe the words of Scripture or the Creeds they are at their heart statements of faith, not fact. They may be true, and I believe them to be. That being said we cannot prove them  and simply making circular arguments about their truth does not make them true. Thus I always find that I am amazed when I see some Christians insist that what they believe is “absolute truth” even when they have no “proof” of its truth outside of their statements of faith. Such is the trap of circular logic. Bonhoeffer quite correctly noted that “A God who let us prove his existence would be an idol.”

I have learned to appreciate the struggle of faith. I believe, but I seek understanding. That being said I know that whatever I know, I only know in part, as Paul said I see “through a glass darkly,” but one day I shall see “face to face.”

Those that equate faith with certitude do so at their own peril, and often are willing to sacrifice others to ensure that their belief remains unquestioned.

The great American Jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote:

“Certitude leads to violence. This is a proposition that has an easy application and a difficult one. The easy application is to ideologies, dogmatists, and bullies–people who think that their rightness justifies them in imposing on anyone who does not happen to subscribe to their particular ideology, dogma or notion of turf. If the conviction of rightness is powerful enough, resistance to it will be met, sooner or later by force. There are people like this in every sphere of life, and it is natural to feel that the world would be a better place without them!”

The fact is that there is nothing wrong with doubt. There is nothing wrong with struggle. In fact it is shown in the lives of those that we consider “saints” throughout both the Jewish and Christian scriptures.

Faith without doubt and faith without struggle is not faith, it is idolatry. Bonhoeffer expressed this well when he said “A God who let us prove his existence would be an idol.”

In fact absolute certitude masquerading as faith in the life of the faithful often leads to great violence and evil. One only has to look at what happened on September 11th 2001 to see the results of such violent certitude.

As for me I have faith, but at the same time I doubt. Sometimes doubts outweigh faith and at other times faith outweighs doubt. That being said I find comfort in the scriptures where Paul honestly and openly writes of his conflicts and doubts. Henri Nouwen had it right when he said:

“Theological formation is the gradual and often painful discovery of God’s incomprehensibility. You can be competent in many things, but you cannot be competent in God.”

That is the real fact of the matter. It is something that Christians more interested in truth rather than protecting their social position have believed for decades have died to proclaim.

None of us, no matter how learned we are, or how certain we believe, really know much about God. And that my friends is certain.

Peace

Padre Steve

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The Enduring Message of Lent for those at the Mendoza Line

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Jesus said to his disciples:“Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them…”

Today was Ash Wednesday the beginning of Lent. For those who do not know me or are not familiar with my life, story or writings it is a time that I best describe as one where I am conflicted. Lent is my least favorite season of the liturgical year.

But before you start picking up stones, arrows or even bullets to schwack me, let me tell you why…

You see I have no issue with what Jesus said, which is at the heart of the Ash Wednesday Gospel reading from Matthew Chapter six. In fact I totally agree with what Jesus said in the passage because I know that I am a total screw up and as far as the Christian life goes I am a “Mendoza Line” performer.*

I am always amazed when I read the words of Jesus and compare them with the way many American Christians do the Christian life:

“Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them…”

“When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them…”

“When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting…”

What has become apparent to me is that many Christians are quite proud at being the new chosen people and many actually look down on unbelievers or for that matter even other Christians who do not fit with interpretation of either doctrinal correctness or personal holiness.

I can no longer do that and to think that for quite a few years I did is something that bothers me.

You see I am not bothered by people who really know their faith, nor am I bothered by those who those who live a beautiful life of personal holiness and piety. Such would be petty especially because people who are able to do this are probably doing better than me. What bothers me is when people hold their holiness over the heads of other people as if they were better than others.

Such attitudes are not the Gospel, but they are all too common and sadly the world can see right through Christian hypocrisy. That might be what people inside the church, especially young people are fleeing it, and why more and more people are rejecting what they see in the visible church, while still wanting to seek God and a spiritual life.
I have to admit that if I was not already a Christian in the face of so many intolerant, vile, hypocritical people who claim to represent Jesus that I would reject the Christian faith out of hand. There is nothing that I want from people that feel that they are superior to others when all that we have as Christians is from the “free gift of God.”

I really don’t need to be reminded that I am a screw up. At the same time there is something liberating in the message of Lent. It runs counter to the message of our culture. As I mentioned last night I will be giving up some things, but not because I am any better than anyone else, but to remind me of my humanity and my need for God.

I doubt that I will ever really look forward to or enjoy Lent, but I don’t have to look forward to it or enjoy the season in order to have some spiritual growth and benefit from it. I hope to have some spiritual growth during this season of Lent. For the first time since I returned from Iraq I am going to try to do a few of the more external observances, but will not get stuck in them. Instead I will seek to learn and grow spiritually during this time.

Pope Francis mentioned something last year that I think is relevant to us during the Lenten season, especially of we in our efforts to seek God find a way to exclude him through our own self righteousness:

“Spiritual worldliness, which hides behind the appearance of piety and even love for the Church, consists in seeking not the Lord’s glory but human glory and personal well-being.”

To be honest that expresses the frustration I experience during Lent and I pray that somehow in my life and witness of Jesus the Christ that I will not through my own self-righteousness drive people away from him.

Peace

Padre Steve+

*Note: Mario Mendoza with a shortstop who played with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was an excellent defensive player but his hitting left much to be desired. In the course of his career he hit for an average of .215. To this day a ball player who hits at the .200 level is known as a Mendoza line hitter, it is the level that a player can hit at and still stay in the major leagues.

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Lent is Here Again…Oh Joy…

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Lent is my least favorite season of the Church year. Try as I might, despite the catholic ethos that I acquired as a student in  a Southern Baptist Seminary, Clinical Pastoral Education and the military chaplaincy I have a hard time with it.

I think that part of the reason is I don’t think that I need to set aside a season of the year to acknowledge what a colossal screw up I am. Like George Constanza in Seinfeld I don’t need God, my mother or anyone else to remind me of my shortcomings. They are ever before me.

Despite that for years I tried to be the most observant observer of the outward traditions of the season. If we were to fast from meat on Fridays I would do it on Wednesdays too. As someone who came to the catholic side of life later in life I felt that I needed to out do those who had grown up that way. As a priest in a conservative Episcopal denomination with aspirations of eventually making the transition to Rome I did all that I could to take up the internal spiritual disciplines as well as the external forms of Catholicism. I did so good at it that I was banned from publishing by the Archbishop who headed our denomination’s communications department. The irony is that he is now a Priest in the Anglican Ordinate that is in communion with Rome. Go figure.

But that all came apart during and after my time in Iraq. Beset with chronic PTSD and moral injury faith itself became problematic. For all intents and purposes I existed as an agnostic who prayed that God still existed for nearly two years after I returned from Iraq. For me that fact that I returned to faith in any form was a miracle and when it did return I was told to find a new church home because now instead of being either too “Catholic” or “a Wounded Warrior Priest” I was now “too liberal.”

I would like to say that I am over it but obviously I am not, but I digress…

So this year Lent is again upon us. Tonight was Fat Tuesday, so I had a big burger, fries and a couple of beers for dinner at Gordon Biersch. Afterward I  picked up some fresh Krispy Kreme hot glazed donuts on the way home and washed them down with another beer. For those of you that don’t know there is little better than beer and hot fresh donuts. I discovered that in my darkest hours after Iraq. I think I even have a post that I wrote back in 2009 called Beer and Donuts. I’m not going to look for it now and give you the link but you can put “Beer and Donuts” in the search box on the home page and I am sure you will find it.

In my journey I am coming to realize that holiness is not simply a matter of out Phariseeing the Pharisees, or matters of external observance. I am coming to believe that Jesus really nailed it when he said that to fulfill the law was to love God and love your neighbor.

So my Lenten observance will be of two aspects. For the first time since 2010 I am going to give up something physical, the hamburger.I am going to go without a hamburger of any kind until Easter. When I break my Lenten fast it will be with a hamburger, or should I say a very non-Kosher cheeseburger.

That may not seem like much, but please hear me out. For those that  not know me when I eat a hamburger it is not simply to ingest something fast and filling, it is a ritual that is almost spiritual in its own right. You see I don’t eat crappy burgers. I eat fresh burgers of the best quality, cooked medium or medium rare. I prefer a toasted bun, fresh crisp lettuce, tomatoes and red onions and either Swiss or Gruyère cheese. I then need at least two to four ounces of dill pickles, a side of mayo, catchup and at least a half bottle of yellow mustard. It is a nearly religious ritual for me to enjoy a burger in this manner.  After all a eating a hamburger should be a spiritual experience.

Bh6mIhqCAAMTni9.jpg_largeThe Last Burger before Easter

As far as the spiritual dimension I am going to try to be a bit more conscious of my prayer life, more importantly my prayer for others who are in distress. I figure that God will take care of my needs and that when I pray it would be better that I concern myself with people who are in real danger, real need, real distress. Those who are the least, the lost and the lonely. Likewise I will endeavor to be more positive in all of my interactions. I am going to try to take the words of the immortal Sergeant Oddball (Donald Sutherland) of Kelly’s Heroes seriously.

“Why don’t you knock it off with them negative waves? Why don’t you dig how beautiful it is out here? Why don’t you say something righteous and hopeful for a change?”

Tomorrow I will celebrate a simple Ash Wednesday liturgy at our small chapel and the scripture readings will come out of Matthew Chapter Six where Jesus begins “beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them…”

With that I will take my “Mario Mendoza Line ” self off line and begin working on yet another Gettysburg article.

Peace and blessings

Padre Steve+

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A Matter of Degree: The Taliban, Kansas, Jim Crow and Nuremberg

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“The segregation laws in your country and the anti-semitic laws in mine, are they not just a difference of degree? Herman Goering (Brian Cox) to Captain Gustav Gilbert (Matt Craven) in the film Nuremberg)

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Over the weekend I posted a link to an article about the attempt by the Kansas State of Representatives to pass a law entitled the “Religious Liberties Protection Act.” The Bill, which seems innocuous was actually a law written to enshrine the discrimination against Gays in the public and private sectors by anyone claiming that serving them would infringe upon their “sincerely held religious beliefs.”

The law was held up in the State Senate, and today the Bill was shelved, but it’s author Representative Charles Macheers, insisted that in order to protect Christians and other religious people that anyone claiming that their religious beliefs were infringed upon should be legally able to discriminate against others.  Though specifically directed against Gays it would have set a terrible legal precedent.

I posted a link to an article about the Bill on my Facebook page. Most people, even many of my more conservative Evangelical Christian friends, who are not big fans of Gay rights or Marriage Equity, to their credit were appalled by the law and by the attitude of my former colleague.

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When someone asked me about it on my page, I made a comment that the law was a product of “the Kansas Taliban.” The comment was deliberately designed to be provocative. It was loaded and it did what I intended.

I honestly believe that there is little difference between the religious zealots of the Taliban and those that introduce such religiously based laws here. Such laws enshrine discrimination and differ from the Sharia of the Taliban only in a matter of degree. The attitude exhibited by such zealots, be they Christian, Moslem or any other religion is so strikingly similar it is frightening.

My comment elucidated a response from a man who I had worked with years ago at a Evangelical Christian television ministry. The head of that ministry has become one of the leading figures in the politically active Christian Right and is quite active politically, especially in Texas. The man who jumped in on my conversation has been working for that ministry for over 20 years.

His comments were so hateful, disrespectful and ignorant that my friends, who range from very conservative Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christians to devoted secularists, Gays and Lesbians and even an Atheist jumped in to defend me and what I said. The fact that my friends really know me and understand me, and even if they disagree with me they are willing to defend me. That is remarkable tribute to American values. It was a testament to the good nature of most Americans, as well as Brits who commented on the post. The fact is I would do the same for them.

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My comment about the “Kansas Taliban” was not about religious people who despite their strongly held beliefs are respectful of others and hold the rights of people who believe differently than them to matter. It was directed at those who use fear and hate to promote an agenda that vilifies and demonizes others based on their religious or ideological beliefs. The fact that the people promoting the Kansas law were conservative Christians is only important as it demonstrates that some Christians can be just as brutal and thoughtless as the Taliban.

That is a nuance that people driven totally by ideology miss. Some might think I am attacking Christians. That is not the case. The attack is on any group that would attempt to enforce their religious beliefs on others through the police power of the state.

The real fact of the matter is that the Mullahs of the Taliban have much in common with Christians and others who desire to impose their beliefs by the law of the state on those that do not agree with them, be it in religious beliefs, political ideology or racial, ethnic, cultural or linguistic differences.

My former colleague called me many things before he dropped me as a Facebook friend. He made himself look foolish. It was his loss. I would have been willing to listen, care for and respect his views had he not resorted to name calling and character assassination in his attempt to shame and silence me. Anyone who really knows me knows that for me life is more about caring for and having relationships with people, even if we differ in our beliefs than attempting to argue them into my position or abandon a relationship with them because they do not agree with me.

Sadly for him my former colleague did not understand that. It was a loss that he brought about, and in that sense it is his loss, because I actually do care for him and remember him fondly from when I knew him 20 years ago; but in the end of the day it is probably a loss for both of us.

Unfortunately that is the cost of those more committed to their ideology than they are to people. It matters not if they are Christians, Moslems, Jews, Hindus, secularists, or others that hold the purity of their political, social, ideological, racial or economic theories as more important than people.

My comment about the Kansas Taliban was fitting, and like Hermann Goering’s comments at Nuremberg to Gustav Gilbert the difference between the ideology and actions of the Taliban as opposed to militant Christians who attempt to use the power of the State to suppress, control and persecute those that they find offensive is only a matter of degree.

That may not seem important to some. But it is the difference between a divided society that can agree to disagree respecting the differences within it, and one for which factions attempt to use the police power of the State and the law of the land to persecute those that are different.

Goering in his critique of America in the 1930s and 1940s was correct; what we as a society enshrined in law and in our culture to discriminate against others differed little from what the Nazis did, only in the matter of degree.

It is something for us all to think about.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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What Do You Say When You’re Not Sure? An Essay on Doubt

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“Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty. When you are lost, you are not alone.”

I am watching the movie Doubt tonight. It was a movie that came out when I was deployed to Iraq. I never had seen it before tonight. I purchased it after the death of the lead actor, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, when a friend of mine from my former denomination posted a remembrance about one of the scenes from this film. It was the sermon about gossip. That moved me, so after reading more about the film I purchased it. However, I was not prepared for the opening scene where Hoffman’s character in his homily speaks about doubt.

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“Last year, when President Kennedy was assassinated, who among us did not experience the most profound disorientation? Despair? Which way? What now? What do I say to my kids? What do I tell myself? It was a time of people sitting together, bound together by a common feeling of hopelessness. But think of that! Your bond with your fellow being was your Despair. It was a public experience. It was awful, but we were in it together. How much worse is it then for the lone man, the lone woman, stricken by a private calamity?

‘No one knows I’m sick.’

‘No one knows I’ve lost my last real friend.’

‘No one knows I’ve done something wrong.’

Imagine the isolation. Now you see the world as through a window. On one side of the glass: happy, untroubled people, and on the other side: you.

I want to tell you a story. A cargo ship sank one night. It caught fire and went down. And only this one sailor survived. He found a lifeboat, rigged a sail…and being of a nautical discipline…turned his eyes to the Heavens and read the stars. He set a course for his home, and exhausted, fell asleep. Clouds rolled in. And for the next twenty nights, he could no longer see the stars. He thought he was on course, but there was no way to be certain. And as the days rolled on, and the sailor wasted away, he began to have doubts. Had he set his course right? Was he still going on towards his home? Or was he horribly lost… and doomed to a terrible death? No way to know. The message of the constellations – had he imagined it because of his desperate circumstance? Or had he seen truth once… and now had to hold on to it without further reassurance? There are those of you in church today who know exactly the crisis of faith I describe. And I want to say to you: doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty. When you are lost, you are not alone.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”

Since Iraq I have experienced much doubt related to my experiences there, PTSD and Moral Injury. For nearly two years I experienced such a crisis of faith that for all practical intent I was an agnostic, praying to a God that I wasn’t sure existed hoping that there was a God.

When I watched that opening scene, as well as many others I found that I was reduced to tears, uncontrollable, they flooded me. The actors in the film, Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Amy Adams and Viola Davis, brought a power to their performances that made it so real, and powerful. It has been a long time since a film affected me like this, perhaps the last two were We Were Soldiers and Taking Chance, both of which related directly to my military experiences.

The writing of the screenplay, adapted to from a play by John Patrick Shanley,in part based on growing up in a small Catholic School run by the Sisters of Charity. I found it fascinating because of the mystery involved in the story, there is so much uncertainty in the story, a Priest who may be doing something wrong, a Nun who has no proof but is determined to drive him out, young Sister who in her innocence wants to believe the best about both the Priest and her superior, and a mother who just wants her son to survive, despite the abuse of his father and the racial prejudice of the community.

For me the film stuck on two levels, one my logical, suspicious and oft judgmental spirit, and my desire to want to believe the best about people, even me. It is a tension that I live with on a daily basis. In a way I could understand all three of the major characters.

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There is a scene where Father Flynn (Hoffman) talks with Sister James (Adams) and he tells her:

“There are people who go after your humanity, Sister, that tell you that the light in your heart is a weakness. Don’t believe it. It’s an old tactic of cruel people to kill kindness in the name of virtue.”

I understand it, because I am both, I am the one who believes the best but is also able to see the same “light” in others as weakness. The juxtaposition was quite stunning, and took me by surprise and perhaps was part of my emotional response to the film.

Another thing that made the film especially pertinent to me were the people, and the parts of the Catholic Church they represented. The Priest played by Hoffman was a man who really believed in the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, like so many Priests who helped me along my way. The Sisters, played by Streep and Adams were from the Sisters of Charity, founded by Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton and headquartered in Emmittsburg Maryland. There was a sister that I met at that location, when I was stationed at Fort Indiantown Gap when I was still an Army Chaplain. Sister Cornelia Colgan, touched my life in a special way and I am sure is still offering prayers for me from heaven. She passed a way an number of years ago, but for about 5 years between 1997 and 2002 we maintained a close correspondence until deployments and war intervened and we lost contact. I still have a couple of mementos that she gave me and I remember her fondly.

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1OwpGUI-TAI 

At an emotional level the sermons and words of Father Flynn and the final words of the film spoken by Sister Aloysius (Streep) speak to where I am still at in my faith. I believe, but I have such doubt.

Likewise there is a sense of aloneness, that still sometimes haunts me, despite close friendships and relationships. There are many times that I felt that I was alone when I returned from Iraq in 2008, but I have discovered that there are many like me.  Some of them like Sister Aloysius who despite her certitude also doubts, having not really gotten over her own grief and loss.

Doubt 1

At the end of the film there is a touching scene, Sister Aloysius has succeeded in forcing  Father Flynn out of the Parish and Sister James approaches her in the garden and a conversation ensues. Aloysius is alone, and appears quite vulnerable. Crying she admits to Sister James: “I have doubts. I have such doubts.”

 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TAOUtgdcjik 

I think that is reality for anyone who honestly wrestles with faith. I know that it is for me, for doubt reminds me that I am not alone. 

Peace

Padre Steve+

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God With Us? The Misuse of God’s Promise by Political Partisans

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It is one of the most amazing stories of salvation history. The Incarnation of God in Jesus the Christ. Matthew’s Gospel (Ch 1 v.24), referring back to the words of Isaiah delivers the message in words which find their way into our culture every Christmas through Georg Friedrich Handel’s Messiah: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, ‘God with us.’”

That message, which lays at the heart of the Christian Gospel is really amazing.  It is a message that points to a Gospel meant for all people and not any particular nation, nor any political, racial, or ethnic group that wishes to appropriate it for themselves alone.

It is the message of the humility and grace of God.  It is the message God humbling himself to become incarnate and not only live among his creation, but to suffer and die for the salvation of it. All of it. As Paul wrote so well in his epistle to the Philippians:

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross.” (Phil 2:5-7)

Unfortunately that message is all too often appropriated and twisted into something unrecognizable by those who seek to use it to bolster their particular ideology, nationalism or even racism. In practice, human beings are much more likely to claim this message to bolster their own hatred and intolerance or justify their nation’s desire for conquest. It matters not if the a Christian in any sense of the word or not. One sees the same idea floated by zealots of almost every major religion. The appeal to being on the same side of God trumps all other arguments.

As a historian I have studied this often. In the United States it is encompassed in the idea of Manifest Destiny; but can be seen in the life and history of many nations who in their belief that God was on their side have slaughtered hundreds of millions of people. One does not have to look far to see leaders of nations, political factions, ideologues or other fanatics appropriate God as the trump card of their message. However, it is not just a matter for history. It happens every day, and it is not pretty. Many use it to justify the most reprehensible crimes, persecution, ethnic cleansing and even genocide. They do so all in the name of God, preaching that God is with them, and not those who they despise.

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Today I saw a blog on a service that I use to promote my website. The author of the blog promotes an extremely conservative political ideology with most of his posts being directed with some vehemence, often colored by blatant racism at President Obama and others that he does not agree with. Usually his posts are filled with such hyperbole and nonsense that I simply ignore them. However, today he posted something that as a Christian really bothered me. His post was titled Do Not Fear, God is With Us, and it featured the picture shown above. When I saw it, I felt a chill run down my spine. It was as if I was envisioning the virulent hatred of other races, creeds and nations exhibited by those who have claimed that mantle before. I can see it now, a belt-buckle with a Swastika, ringed in the words “Gott Mit Uns.” 

gottMitUns

The sad thing is that the Christians who claim this mantle misuse scripture and twist it to justify their hatred of all that they disagree with, have lost sight of the Gospel. Instead they have allowed their passionate hatred and prejudice to hijack the message of the Gospel to promote political partisanship, hyper nationalism and xenophobia. This can hardly be called Christian. If such ideas were was limited to the fringe of society it would not be so concerning. However, this blogger represents a significant portion of the American electorate; and his comments are echoed by the very powerful, and allegedly Christian leaders of partisan political organizations, as well as pundits, politicians and preachers. If you do not agree with them you are not a real American.

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Cartoon from the Nazi Der Sturmer linking the Nazi Movement to Christ, with the Jew being the villain 

Instead of seeing the message of God’s grace, love and mercy for all people, we see triumphalist Christians that claim that God is with them. In their zeal they ride roughshod over others, and despise all who disagree with or oppose them. Their opponents are painted as being in league with the Devil, modern Judas Iscariots. In their lives and ideology many Christians follow leaders who espouse brutal doctrines of Social Darwinism and sell their birthright for a pittance. They attempt to use of the police power of government at every level against those that they disapprove, in matters of faith, lifestyle or politics. Likewise they have no compunction about using the military and economic power of the nation to crush weaker nations, all because they believe that they and their country have God on their side.

But do such sentiments have any place in the message of Christians? I think not. As Paul the Apostle notes: if in Christ “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28) Or as Paul writes in 2 Corinthians “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” (2 Cor 5: 19)

The Gospel is not about God being on the side of any nation or political ideology. Such ideas always end in disaster for those that believe them, and who use God to justify their actions.

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McNoughton’s “One Nation under God”

The picture on the website that triggered this little article is one by a Mormon artist, John McNoughton. McNoughton has frequently blended the image of Jesus with the most banal appeal to American “patriotism” and crude attacks on President Obama. In this picture as well as others the artist has Jesus holding a copy of the Constitution of the United States in his right hand, with his friends on that side, and his foes, including judges, others viewed as liberals and women. In his more crass attacks on the President in other paintings he shows Obama trampling the Constitution while white people are bound in chains. All of these show up with startling frequency on supposedly Christian websites.

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US Political Cartoon from 1896

The sad truth is that McNoughton is not the first to practice this crude form of xenophobic patriotism, which appeals to God in order to vilify the opponents of their ideology. It has been used in this country before, as well as in Europe to vilify Jews, racial minorities and political opponents.

Yes, I do believe that God is with us, however, that is not confused with appeals to my patriotism, which is real and has led me to serve this nation for over 30 years in the military including two combat tours in the Middle East. Nor does it add or detract from my support of our Constitution, why does not mention God once, despite its guarantee of religious freedom for all, not just Christians. It is an amazing document, one that I will die to defend, but it is not handed down by God, and Jesus never referred to it.

Instead, my belief that God is with us flows from the mystery of the Incarnation, that miracle of salvation history.  I believe in the message wonderfully referred to in the liturgy as the “mystery of faith,” that Christ has died, Christ is risen and Christ will come again. My belief flows from the simple message that for God so loved the world… and not that God so established this or any other nation or political ideology as his own.

I understand the fear that drives men like the blogger who posted the article I saw, as well as men like McNoughton. Their fear of the other allows them to use these images to promote their hopelessly confused faith and ideology. Dietrich Bonhoeffer who saw the same fear and hatred present among his fellow Germans, especially German Christians wrote:

“The Christian must treat his enemy as a brother, and requite his hostility with love. His behavior must be determined not by the way others treat him, but by the treatment he himself receives from Jesus; it has only one source, and that is the will of Jesus.”

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What I see from the present political ideologues has nothing to do with love of God or our neighbor, but their efforts to protect their status in society, their political power and subject all others to their will.

God is with us indeed, in the humility of a borrowed manger, on the gibbet of a Roman cross, and in shame of a borrowed tomb. God is really present with us in the the bread and wine, in the word, and in the lives of his people; especially the least, the lost and the lonely. To attempt to crudely use God to buttress any earthy power is heresy. Those that use it in such a manner, though proclaiming their fealty to Christ, or any other God, willingly trample the message of the God who humbled himself, even to death on a cross.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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