Category Archives: laws and legislation

The Misuse of Force: Shock and Awe Backfires in Ferguson

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“When the gap between ideal and real becomes too wide, the system breaks down.” Barbara Tuchman

Not Iraq, not Syria or the Ukraine, but Ferguson Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. The shooting of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, by a white police officer was one of the most crass, unconscionable and violent over-reactions of a local government in the United States in years. When the peaceful protests began after the shooting Ferguson and St Louis County police deployed heavy weapons, armored vehicles and chemical weapons against the mainly peaceful protestors who simply sought answers and justice at yet another unjustified killing of a young black man by law enforcement.

The “shock and awe” displayed by the local police agencies had the opposite effect. Instead of defusing the crisis, it provoked violence, mainly from looters by also from young people fed up with police using tactics of fear and intimidation against citizens who have little opportunity. The economic and demographic inequities, including the de-facto segregation in Ferguson are stunning. Two thirds of the population is black and only one member of the city council and one member of the local school board are black. Likewise the police force in Ferguson is overwhelmingly white. It is almost like apartheid South Africa, but it is right here in the United States, and it’s not just a problem in Ferguson but in many other towns and cities in this nation.

After weeks of delay and after days of protests, demonstrations and riots, the Police Chief of Ferguson revealed the name of the officer who killed Brown. However, instead of discussing justice, or inviting an external investigation of the shooting the man took the time to praise and defend the officer and release surveillance video designed to demonize Brown in the eyes of the public. In fact there was no other reason to do it. It was designed to play in his narrative to smear a dead man, for the actions of his officer; and maybe, even more insidiously to possibly taint any jury pool that might have to sit in judgment on that officer. Now I believe in due process and that the officer is innocent until proven guilty, but the calculated actions of the Ferguson police chief were designed to convict a dead man who could not defend his own actions or reputation because his body had at been riddled by at least six bullets including two the to head. Now there may be mitigating circumstances that show that the officer felt that he was in danger, but still six bullets including two to the head.

No wonder instead of subsiding more protests, again mainly peaceful, but with some malicious actors as well have continued. One only has to look at what happened in Cairo’s Tahir Square at the beginning of the Arab Spring, or in Gaza to see why people risk their lives to face overwhelming militarized police forces or military forces deployed in such operations. There is a sense of inequity based on the proportionality of the forces used, and when that inequity becomes too great, revolutions occur.

Part of the problem is that police on every level have become extremely militarized. Local police departments only need to fill out a form to get the latest in surplus combat equipment from the military, thanks to policies enacted after the passage of the wonderfully Orwellian named Patriot Act. Once a department gets the new weaponry, why go back to the old way that police did things. In fact there is an almost a case of “penis envy” that local police departments have. If one department gets an armored MRAP or APC, then another, even if it has no legitimate use for one gets one. Instead of peacefully serving warrants by knocking on a door to confront a non-violent offender, it is time to deploy a platoon of tactical officers to do the same job.

Now I am not excusing looters, arsonists or other criminals that take advantage of unrest such as this to create havoc, and in fact many of the protestors attempted to keep businesses and other property safe from the criminals, even as they themselves were being targeted by the tear gas fired by police. Likewise the police arrested reporters and fired at other reporters covering the story. The reporters had every right to be there covering the protests and nothing in the Constitution excuses the behavior of police interfering with reporters conducting their business.

There is a quote from the most recent television adaptation of Battlestar Galactica where Commander Adama says something most relevant to this needless militarization of police power:

“There’s a reason you separate military and the police. One fights the enemies of the state, the other serves and protects the people. When the military becomes both, then the enemies of the state tend to become the people.”

The fact is that anybody with the slightest understanding of history, sociology, economics or group psychology should know this. It’s not that hard to defuse these kinds of situations before they reach a crisis. It simply takes the courage of leaders to meet people where they are and address their concerns without resorting to deploying heavily armed militarized police forces before any violence occurs. As a career military man who has served with our advisers in Iraq, and who has been an adviser on a boarding team keeping the peace on detained Iraqi oil smugglers in 2002, in both cases unarmed and the latter not even having the body armor of the rest of my team, and having been in a number of potentially violent close quarters situations with emotions running high I can safely say that listening and working to de-escalate the situations worked, and that was with Iraqis, not Americans.

When I was going to seminary and was serving in the National Guard, I worked in poor and crime ridden neighborhoods, homeless shelters and inner city public hospitals. I have seen the inequity and the results in broken homes, lives and communities. Likewise, because we were pretty broke and poor in seminary and in the couple years after it we experienced what is now called “profiling.” We lived on the edge of a very affluent suburb between Dallas and Fort Worth, for several years we had a series of crappy hand me down used cars that we used to go to school, work and church. Because some of those cars were so crappy looking we are frequently followed by the police, and every couple of months one of us would be pulled over.

I remember watching through the peep hole on my front door when a tactical team raided my across the hall neighbor late one night in 1991 of 1992. I remember being awakened by the crash of the team breaking through the door, and seeing their guns drawn. It scared the crap out of me, and in fact it made me feel less safe and more vulnerable. What if they had raided my house by mistake, like so often happens, I might have been gunned down at the door. You see, we were poor, and obviously poor people should not be in affluent areas, they are bad for property values. But, we often didn’t know where the next pay check, tank of gas, tuition payment, money for medications or or even groceries were coming from.

I cannot imagine what it would be like to not just experience that for a few years, but to have to live that way with little or no hope of the situation ever getting better. But, that being said, I think I can understand the pent up frustration and rage of those who live their whole lives in such conditions, where they are because of their race, the kind of car they drive or the way that they dress, are accosted and interrogated by the police as a matter of course.

To borrow from the movie Cool Hand Luke: “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” The problem is that it’s the police who are not listening and they are being joined by the cacophony of Right Wing politicians, pundits and preachers blaming everyone but themselves and the long term, economic and social policies that have brought this to a head. The scary think is how the pundits on Fox News, at Townhall.com, World Net Daily and other “conservative” and allegedly “Christian” websites and “news” sources incessantly blame the victims of police violence and intimidation, and lack of opportunity and hope rather than looking at the real problems.

Barbara Tuchman was absolutely right. “When the gap between ideal and real becomes too wide, the system breaks down.” We are seeing that in Ferguson and I dare say that if we as a nation do not take action to solve these problems that this is just the beginning, and we will have no one to blame but ourselves.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Dangers of the Expanding National Security State: The Drumhead

 

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Lieutenant Worf: “Sir, the Federation does have enemies. We must seek them out.”


Captain Jean-Luc Picard: “Oh, yes. That’s how it starts. But the road from legitimate suspicion to rampant paranoia is very much shorter than we think. Something is wrong here, Mister Worf. I don’t like what we have become.”

Back in 1991 when I was still in seminary I spent every Saturday evening glued to my television set to watch Star Trek the Next Generation.  Even today I enjoy watching the human drama that Gene Roddenberry and his cohorts created on the small screen.  Of all the Star Trek series my favorites are TNG and Deep Space Nine. Those series often touched on very pertinent social, political, medical, and technological and dare I say national security issues. In fact I have used some Deep Space Nine episodes in my previous posts about the NSA leak situation and the War on Terrorism.

One of the most chilling episodes regarding national security and potential terrorism or sabotage is called “The Drumhead.” In light of the the ever expanding National Security State and the ability of governments, private industry and even individuals to use technology to gather information on almost anyone and to abuse that power, The Drumhead is an episode that remains as relevant today, perhaps even more so, than when it first aired in 1991.

The episode is about an investigation that takes place on the Enterprise following an explosion in its engineering spaces.  Suspicion centers on a Klingon exchange officer. However, the investigator, the retired Starfleet Judge Advocate General, Nora Satie and her Betazed assistant soon casts a wide net which eventually brings charges against a crew member and eventually Captain Picard.

At first Admiral Satie’s investigation seems reasonable. After all the Federation faced danger from the Romulans, who were always trying to use Klingons unhappy with the Federsation-Klingon peace treaty, to further their interests. The initial situation raised the possibility that the Enterprise, was sabotaged and that the Klingons or others might be involved.  Thus as Sati began her investigation she was welcomed by the Captain as well as the Security Chief, Lieutenant Worf, the only Klingon serving as a Starfleet officer.  Satie, assisted by Enterprise security officers then discovered how the Klingon scientist smuggled classified information off the Enterprise.

The Chief Engineer of the Enterprise, Lieutenant Commander LeForge determined in his investigation that the explosion thought to be “sabotage” was caused by a flaw in a recently replaced dilithium chamber.  Although she was convinced that the Klingon was not the saboteur Satie believed that another saboteur was aboard the Enterprise.  Satie and her assistant uncovered a piece of information that a crewman lied about his family background on his enlistment contract. They then used it to connect the crewman to to the Klingon spy by supplying false information about the explosion in an attempt to get the crewman to admit guilt.

As the investigation widened Picard discussed it with Lieutenant Worf. I find this dialogue to be quite relevant to today thirteen years into the war on terror and about the same amount of time since the Patriot Act was passed.

Lieutenant Worf: “Sir, the Federation does have enemies. We must seek them out.”


Captain Jean-Luc Picard: “Oh, yes. That’s how it starts. But the road from legitimate suspicion to rampant paranoia is very much shorter than we think. Something is wrong here, Mister Worf. I don’t like what we have become.”

When Picard objected to the grilling of the crewman, Admiral Satie and her chief assistant began an investigation of Picard.  As she informed him that he was now a subject of the investigation, the normally calm Picard erupted, telling Sati;  “Admiral! What you’re doing here is unethical; it’s immoral. I’ll fight it.” Admiral Sati then laid down the gauntlet, and told Picard, “Do what you must, Captain. And so will I.”

Admiral Satie called on the Director of Starfleet Security, Admiral Henry, to watch her interrogate Picard who she had by now labeled a traitor.

Picard forced to testify at an open hearing where Sati began to attack him. However, the tables are turned during Picard’s testimony. The dialogue is riveting as Sati attempts to use anything that she can to prove Picard a traitor the the Federation.

Admiral Satie: Tell me, Captain, have you completely recovered from your experience with the Borg?
Captain Jean-Luc Picard: Yes, I have completely recovered.
Admiral Satie: It must have been awful for you… actually becoming one of them. Being forced to use your vast knowledge of Starfleet operations to aid the Borg. Just how many of our ships were lost? Thirty-nine? And a loss of life, I believe, measured at nearly 11,000. One wonders how you can sleep at night, having caused so much destruction. I question your actions, Captain; I question your choices, I question your loyalty!
Capt. Picard: You know there are some words I’ve known since I was a schoolboy: “With the first link, the chain is forged. The first speech censured, the first thought forbidden, the first freedom denied, chains us all irrevocably.” Those words were uttered by Judge Aaron Satie, as wisdom and warning. The first time any man’s freedom is trodden on, we’re all damaged. I fear that today…
Admiral Satie: [stands up in anger and interrupts Picard] How dare you! You who consort with Romulans, invoke my father’s name to support your traitorous arguments! It is an offense to everything I hold dear! And to hear those words used to subvert the United Federation of Planets. My father was a great man! His name stands for integrity and principle. You dirty his name when you speak it! He loved the Federation. But you, Captain, corrupt it. You undermine our very way of life. I will expose you for what you are. I’ve brought down bigger men than you, Picard! [Admiral Henry gets up and leaves the room]

With Sati obviously unhinged, Admiral Henry ends the investigation and sends Admiral Satie home.

Of course this is fiction but the mindset and attitude of Admiral Satie seems to have been embraced by some in our government and security agencies, including the TSA and the NSA. But the talk is out there, former Senator and Secretary of Defense William J. Cohen said: “Terrorism is escalating to the point that Americans soon may have to choose between civil liberties and more intrusive means of protection.”

Well the choice has been made and I don’t think that there is any going back despite the posturing of politicians on both sides of the political divide. The fact is that polls show that the majority of Americans are willing to sacrifice freedoms for security.
Sati had become so consumed with “defending liberty” that she was willing to trample the rights of anyone that she suspected of disloyalty to the Federation.  

Sati’s questioning of Picard by is fascinating and thought provoking, because there are people that think and act just her fictional character. People who believe, that they too are defending “freedom.”

Frederick Douglass once said: “Find out just what the people will submit to and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them; and these will continue until they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”

The balance has to be found in this effort; right now the pendulum is so far to the security side that it seems freedom is no longer even a concern at least for the vast majority of the population and our political leadership, and not just the Executive Branch, the Congress seems to love making new laws that further limit freedom, local governments have militarized their police forces and the courts don’t seem to mind. Unless we undertake a real debate in the issue it is very likely that it will fade away and the national security state that we have become will grow even stronger with the inevitable loss of even more civil liberties.

One only has to look at what politicians on both sides of the political chasm have said about “protecting the homeland” to realize that this is only the beginning and that if we do not have a spirited public debate that we risk our Constitutional liberties under the 4th Amendment as well as potentially the 1st Amendment. Prosecuting actual wrongdoers is one thing, but prominent legislators on important committees dealing with national security suggest prosecuting reporters for doing their job, something that would be a crushing blow to freedom of speech and freedom of the press. The fact that some suggest this shows how just how close we are to surrendering even more freedom in the name of security.

The last scene of The Drumhead is enlightening. Lieutenant Worf, who had so eagerly embraced the investigation, goes to Picard to let him know that Admiral Satie and Admiral Henry have left the Enterprise. Worf is apologetic about his rather overzealous role in the investigation. He tells Picard about Sati: “after yesterday, people will not be so ready to trust her.” Picard replies “Maybe. But she, or someone like her, will always be with us, waiting for the right climate in which to flourish, spreading fear in the name of righteousness. Vigilance, Mister Worf – that is the price we have to continually pay.”

Eternal vigilance in the face of both terrors from abroad and self imposed tyranny designed to protect us from the terrorists. Yes James Madison, was absolutely right when he said “The means of defense against foreign danger historically have become the instruments of tyranny at home.” However I fear that those that warn of such dangers will themselves be labeled the enemy.

Henry Steele Commager said “Men in authority will always think that criticism of their policies is dangerous. They will always equate their policies with patriotism, and find criticism subversive.” This, my friends is the reality that we live in and the danger that we face.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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We Hold These Truths…

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Last night I re-read the Declaration of Independence. I do this about every time this year. It is not a long read, but quite profound. As I read again I reflected on the beginning of the second sentence of that document.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” When penned by Thomas Jefferson and ratified by the Continental Congress in July 1776 these words, which begin the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence announced something unimaginable to the world, most of which labored under the rule of ensconced monarchies, nobilities and state religions, where your social status and religious affiliation counted more than anything else, places where few commoners had any hope of social advancement, no matter what their talent, ability or genius.

They were a clarion call of equality and revolutionary in their impact, not only in the American colonies but around the world. In the coming years people around the world would look to those words as they sought to free themselves from oppressive governments and systems where the vast majority of people had few rights, and in fact no equality existed.

But the liberty and equality stated in the Declaration of Independence did not extend to all in the United States, or in its territories as it expanded westward, and the inequity eventually brought on a great civil war.

Eighty seven years after those words were published the nation was divided, in the midst of a great civil war, a climactic battle having just been fought at Gettysburg. A few months later President Abraham Lincoln penned one of the most insightful and influential documents ever written, the Gettysburg Address.

One thing that our founders overlooked was that even while proclaiming equality, they later enshrined that one group of people, African slaves were not equal, in fact they only counted as three fifths of a person. Eventually, many states on their own abolished slavery, but because of the invention of the Cotton Gin slavery became even more fully entrenched in the American South, when an oligarchy of land and slave owners held immense power, where nearly half of the population was enslaved and where even poor whites had few rights and little recourse to justice.

After the Dred Scott decision of 1857 which declared that African Americans, no matter if they were slave or free could be American Citizens and had no standing to sue in Federal courts. Scott had sued to gain his family’s freedom after his owner refused to allow him to purchase it, because they were in a territory where slavery was but even more importantly held that the Missouri Compromise of 1824 which had prohibited the introduction of Slavery into Federal territories was unconstitutional and that the Federal government had no right to limit slavery in territories acquired after the creation of the United States. Chief Justice Roger Taney writing for the majority wrote that all African Americans were viewed by the authors of the Constitution as:

“beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

Taney held that Article V of the Constitution barred any law that would deprive a slave owner of his “property” on entrance into free states or territories. and enunciated a string of negative effects, or “parade of horribles” that would derive if Scott’s petition for freedom was granted. His declaration is amazing in its ignorance and prejudice. Taney wrote:

“It would give to persons of the negro race, …the right to enter every other State whenever they pleased, …to sojourn there as long as they pleased, to go where they pleased …the full liberty of speech in public and in private upon all subjects upon which its own citizens might speak; to hold public meetings upon political affairs, and to keep and carry arms wherever they went.”

The two dissenting Justices, Curtis and McLain disagreed with the proposition that the writers of the Constitution believed as Taney and the majority believed, noting that at the time of the ratification of the Constitution that blacks could vote in five of the thirteen states, making them citizens, not just of those states but the United States. Referring to the Declaration of Independence in 1854 Lincoln wrote: “the standard maxim of free society …constantly spreading and deepening its influence,” ultimately applicable “to peoples of all colors everywhere.”

However, much to the concern of slave holders and the South, the decision energized the abolitionist movement who believed that now no black, even those with a long history of being Freed Men living in non-slave states could be claimed as property by those claiming to be former owners, and that state laws which gave blacks equal rights and citizenship could be overturned. Lincoln again referring to the Declaration wrote of the Dred Scott decision:

“to aid in making the bondage of the Negro universal and eternal….All the powers of the earth seem rapidly combining against him. Mammon is after him; ambition follows, and philosophy follows, and the theology of the day is fast joining the cry. They have him in his prison house;…One after another they have closed the heavy doors upon him…and they stand musing as to what invention, in all the dominions of mind and matter, can be produced the impossibility of his escape more complete than it is.”

Eventually the tensions led to the election of Lincoln along sectional lines and the immediate secession of seven southern states and the establishment of the Confederacy. British military historian and theorist Major General J.F.C. Fuller wrote that the war was “not between two antagonistic political parties, but a struggle to the death between two societies, each championing a different civilization…”

The Confederate Vice President, Alexander Stephens openly proclaimed that the inequity of African Americans was foundational to the Confederacy in his Cornerstone speech of 1861, if there are any doubters about the “rights” the leaders of the Southern States longed to preserve in their secession from the Union, Stephen’s words are all to clear in their intent:

“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. [Applause.] This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

Lincoln, in his Second Inaugural Address acknowledged what everyone had known, but few, him included in the North were willing to say in 1861:

“One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it….”

Even so it took time for the abolition of slavery to be acknowledged as a major concern by the Federal government, it was not until 1862 after Lee’s failed invasion of Maryland and the Battle of Antietam that Lincoln published the Emancipation Proclamation, and that only applied to Confederate territories.

But in 1863 after Gettysburg Lincoln was asked to speak a “few words” at the dedication of the Soldiers’ cemetery. Lincoln’s words focused the issue of the war in relation to those first words of the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence, the understanding that all men are created equal.

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Unfortunately, the issue of equality has languished in our political debates. Equality is the sister of and the guarantor of the individual liberties enunciated in the Declaration. However because of human nature always more vulnerable to those that would attempt to enshrine their personal liberty over others, or attempt to use the courts and Constitution to deprive others of the rights that they themselves enjoy, or to enshrine their place in society above others. In some cases this is about race, sometimes religion, sometimes about gender and even sexual orientation. Likewise there are those that would try to roll back the rights of others, as those who seek to disenfranchise the poor and minorities, particularly African Americans at the ballot box.

That is why it is important, even as we celebrate and protect individual liberties that we also seek to fight for the equality of all citizens, irrespective of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. The Declaration of Independence is our guide for this as Jefferson so eloquently wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men…”

Have a happy 4th of July and please remember that unless liberty is liberty for all then it is really only liberty for some; those of great economic power and influence; or who happen to be the right race, religion, gender or sexual preference.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Thoughts on the 2014 National Day of Prayer and a Big Reason to be Thankful

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Friends, I am traveling today and it is indeed the National Day of Prayer and the sinner that I am, I am always in need of prayer. Just to let you know that I do pray contrary to what some may think, I had good reason to pray today. Somehow on the trip I dropped my wallet and when I got to my mid way stop in Baltimore I didn’t have it. Near panic ensued as I looked everywhere I had been in the BWI terminal as well as called back to Norfolk where I departed.I saw my entire life flashing in front of my eyes and wondered if an identity thief was going to take me for everything I have before I could cancel all of my credit cards, not to mention the pain of getting new military ID and drivers license. I felt so incredibly stupid.

Finally after contacting the Staff College it looked like I was going to be heading home and missing the conference that I really needed to attend. A lady sitting near me took pity on me and gave me $20 so I could at least eat. I was grateful. After talking with our travel people I went to the desk agent at the Southwest gate where my Houston flight was to depart from and asked them what to do since I had no identification. They put my name in their computer and found that their gate agents in Norfolk had found the wallet. The young man at the gate worked with everything to not only get me back to Norfolk but, to arrange to get me my wallet and on another flight to get me to Houston late tonight. It was positively amazing. 

But what was really cool was that people who I didn’t know, who I don’t know if they are Christians, or any other religion or in fact if they had any faith at all stepped in to help me. I do not know or care what their political affilation, religion, Alma Mater is, or even if they are Los Angeles Dodgers fans. Someone turned in my wallet in Norfolk rather than making off with it. The airline personnel of Southwest Airlines went  above and beyond the call of duty to help me and to calm me, and yes I did need calming.

Other people, security and TSA at BWI and Norfolk tried to help. Then there was the kind lady who gave me $20. Since I routinely give to panhandlers because I have been poor before her act of kindness was quite touching. What is cool about this experience was that a bunch of good people cared about me. Like I said I don’t know any of them but they were wonderful and I am thankful, not just to God, but to the decent human beings who whatever their motivation were wonderful.

It will be a lot longer travel day than I had planned but my misadventure has shown me that we still have a lot of good and kind people in this country and that is something to celebrate.

Since I needed calming I was able to get me a big beer and now with that in hand waiting for my flight I give you my thoughts on the National Day of Prayer. I actually wrote this article last year, but since most people seem to think that the day is for the right wing political hacks at the “National Day of Prayer Task Force” founded in by Shirley Dobson in 1982, here is the real story. As the late Paul Harvey would have said “the rest of the story.”

“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.” John Leland

Today was the National Day of Prayer. The event was established by President Harry S Truman in 1952 was designed to mark the common freedom that we have as American citizens.

I am a big fan of religious liberty and critic of those that desire to establish any religion as the official religion of the country and in doing so suppress the rights of others. An attempt was made in the North Carolina State Legislature early this year to establish the right of the state to establish a religion in complete disregard of the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of North Carolina. Part of the text of that bill, which was killed in committee stated:

“The North Carolina General Assembly does not recognize federal court rulings which prohibit and otherwise regulate the State of North Carolina, its public schools, or any political subdivisions of the State from making laws respecting an establishment of religion.

I do feel that there are those that want to use such occasions as today’s observance of the National Day of Prayer as a means to establish their religion, as the law of the land. However, if we actually look at our history such is not the case and was never the intent of our founders or those that established the National Day of Prayer.

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President Truman’s proclamation stated:

“Now, Therefore, I, Harry S. Truman, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim Friday, July 4, 1952, as a National Day of Prayer, on which all of us, in our churches, in our homes, and in our hearts, may beseech God to grant us wisdom to know the course which we should follow, and strength and patience to pursue that course steadfastly. May we also give thanks to Him for His constant watchfulness over us in every hour of national prosperity and national peril.”

Ronald Reagan eloquently stated the purpose and significance of the National Day of Prayer in his 1983 proclamation which in part read:

It took the tragedy of the Civil War to restore a National Day of Prayer. As Abraham Lincoln said, “Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us.”

Revived as an annual observance by Congress in 1952, the National Day of Prayer has become a great unifying force for our citizens who come from all the great religions of the world. Prayer unites people. This common expression of reverence heals and brings us together as a Nation and we pray it may one day bring renewed respect for God to all the peoples of the world.

From General Washington’s struggle at Valley Forge to the present, this Nation has fervently sought and received divine guidance as it pursued the course of history. This occasion provides our Nation with an opportunity to further recognize the source of our blessings, and to seek His help for the challenges we face today and in the future.

Now, Therefore, I, Ronald Reagan, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim Thursday, May 5, 1983, National Day of Prayer. I call upon every citizen of this great Nation to gather together on that day in homes and places of worship to pray, each after his or her own manner, for unity of the hearts of all mankind.

President Reagan’s 1983 and subsequent proclamations stood firmly in the American tradition of Civil Religion and was decidedly non-sectarian.  It acknowledged that our citizens “come from all the great religions of the world” and called on Americans to gather on the day “in homes and places of worship to pray, each after his or her own manner, for unity of the hearts of all mankind.”

While the American religious tradition is highly Christian and even more so from the Reformed tradition this has always existed in tension with a decidedly secularist philosophy embodied by many of the Founding Fathers who were very careful to recognize the importance of religion but at the same time both sought to protect religious liberty by NOT enacting laws to establish a particular religion nor to entangle the government in the affairs of religion which could in their view be detrimental to true religious liberty.

In fact both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were very careful about proclamations and ensuring that government was not favoring any particular religious body. Jefferson wrote to Reverend Samuel Miller in 1808 that:

Fasting and prayer are religious exercises; the enjoining them an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the time for these exercises, and the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and right can never be safer than in their hands, where the Constitution has deposited it. …civil powers alone have been given to the President of the United States and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents.”

Madison who was the author of the Bill of Rights and included religious liberty in the First Amendment in support of Virginia Baptists who were under pressure from those who were determined to make and keep the Episcopal Church as the state religion of the commonwealth. Madison wrote to Edward Livingston in 1822 that:

“There has been another deviation from the strict principle in the Executive Proclamations of fasts & festivals, so far, at least, as they have spoken the language of injunction, or have lost sight of the equality of all religious sects in the eye of the Constitution. Whilst I was honored with the Executive Trust I found it necessary on more than one occasion to follow the example of predecessors. But I was always careful to make the Proclamations absolutely indiscriminate, and merely recommendatory; or rather mere designations of a day, on which all who thought proper might unite in consecrating it to religious purposes, according to their own faith & forms. In this sense, I presume you reserve to the Govt. a right to appoint particular days for religious worship throughout the State, without any penal sanction enforcing the worship.”

President Obama’s 2013 Proclamation for the National Day of Prayer stands in line with the founders as well as that of Presidents Truman and Reagan. It calls Americans to join with him to:

Americans have long turned to prayer both in times of joy and times of sorrow. On their voyage to the New World, the earliest settlers prayed that they would “rejoice together, mourn together, labor, and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work.” From that day forward, Americans have prayed as a means of uniting, guiding, and healing. In times of hardship and tragedy, and in periods of peace and prosperity, prayer has provided reassurance, sustenance, and affirmation of common purpose.

Prayer brings communities together and can be a wellspring of strength and support. In the aftermath of senseless acts of violence, the prayers of countless Americans signal to grieving families and a suffering community that they are not alone. Their pain is a shared pain, and their hope a shared hope. Regardless of religion or creed, Americans reflect on the sacredness of life and express their sympathy for the wounded, offering comfort and holding up a light in an hour of darkness.

All of us have the freedom to pray and exercise our faiths openly. Our laws protect these God-given liberties, and rightly so. Today and every day, prayers will be offered in houses of worship, at community gatherings, in our homes, and in neighborhoods all across our country. Let us give thanks for the freedom to practice our faith as we see fit, whether individually or in fellowship.

On this day, let us remember in our thoughts and prayers all those affected by recent events, such as the Boston Marathon bombings, the Newtown, Connecticut shootings, and the explosion in West, Texas. Let us pray for the police officers, firefighters, and other first responders who put themselves in harm’s way to protect their fellow Americans. Let us also pray for the safety of our brave men and women in uniform and their families who serve and sacrifice for our country. Let us come together to pray for peace and goodwill today and in the days ahead as we work to meet the great challenges of our time.

The Congress, by Public Law 100-307, as amended, has called on the President to issue each year a proclamation designating the first Thursday in May as a “National Day of Prayer.”

NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim May 2, 2013, as a National Day of Prayer. I join the citizens of our Nation in giving thanks, in accordance with our own faiths and consciences, for our many freedoms and blessings, and in asking for God’s continued guidance, mercy, and protection.

However, no matter how similar President Obama’s proclamation is to those of President Reagan or Truman or for that matter any other President with the exception of President George W Bush, he is attacked by people on the extremely partisan political right World Net Daily columnist Bob Unruh and others for supposedly “cleansing the day of prayer of Christianity.”

The fact that Unruh and others like him routinely engage in this behavior makes me tired. The real fact of the matter is that most of the men who helped establish the freedom of religious faith and practice in this country were decidedly not very Christian and determined not to repeat the tragic mistakes of European nations which had both established state religions or churches and had on numerous occasions entered into bloody warfare to ensure that their religion came out on top.

But for them that is par for the course. Unruh and so many others are such strong advocates for a Christian Theocracy, something that it is perfectly obvious to me that they have no understanding of history, our Constitution or the ideals of our founders. It is a common theme that runs through all that they do. I have written about them many times before so I won’t go into gory detail today. I’d like to but I won’t, if you want to find my articles just search under the term “religious liberty” or look on my Civil Rights or Faith and Life pages.

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Our founders were so opposed to the idea of a State Religion that in one of the first treaties entered into with another nation, the Treaty of Tripoli of 1796 drafted by the future President John Adams noted in Article 11:

As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion, — as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen, — and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”

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Jefferson wrote in the Virginia Act for the Establishment of Religious Freedom:

Be it therefore enacted by the General Assembly, That 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 nowise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities. 

Madison wrote:

“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?”

John Leland, leader of the Virginia Baptists who were being persecuted by Episcopalians intent on re-establishing themselves as the official State Religion of Virginia became involved in the fight for religious liberty in the newly independent colonies 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 heavily influenced both Madison and Jefferson in crafting the Virginia statement on religious liberty and the First Amendment. Toward the end of his life Madison wrote:

“The settled opinion here is, that religion is essentially distinct from civil Government, and exempt from its cognizance; that a connection between them is injurious to both; that there are causes in the human breast which ensure the perpetuity of religion without the aid of the law; that rival sects, with equal rights, exercise mutual censorships in favor of good morals; that if new sects arise with absurd opinions or over-heated imaginations, the proper remedies lie in time, forbearance, and example; that a legal establishment of religion without a toleration could not be thought of, and with a toleration, is no security for and animosity; and, finally, that these opinions are supported by experience, which has shewn that every relaxation of the alliance between law and religion, from the partial example of Holland to the consummation in Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, &c., has been found as safe in practice as it is sound in theory. Prior to the Revolution, the Episcopal Church was established by law in this State. On the Declaration of Independence it was left, with all other sects, to a self-support. And no doubt exists that there is much more of religion among us now than there ever was before the change, and particularly in the sect which enjoyed the legal patronage. This proves rather more than that the law is not necessary to the support of religion” (Letter to Edward Everett, Montpelier, March 18, 1823).

I am all in on religious liberty including the rights of people that are not Christians to practice whatever faith or non-faith that they please. This is the freedom that our founders fought to bring forth in this land.

Today we celebrated the National Day of Prayer and I had the privilege of leading our prayer at our facility. I have included that prayer here:

Loving God, we thank you for the privilege of living in this country where our founders were wise enough to neither establish nor forbid any religious practice. We thank you that as the beneficiaries of the wisdom handed down by these men that we have the liberty to believe and practice our faith in the manner that we see fit and that whether Christian or Jew, Moslem or Wiccan, Buddhist or any other faith represented in our land that we have this freedom. We thank also thank you for the freedoms granted to all, the freedom to believe, practice and even not believe as our conscience dictates and that Congress can enact no law to either establish a state religion nor prevent the free exercise of the beliefs of any citizen. 

For the wisdom and the foresight of these fallible men whose actions redound to us we give you thanks.  We pray this in your Holy Name. Amen. 

So as the time draws near to go to bed and I offer my night prayers for all, I do wish you the peace and freedom that so many Americans have fought and died to maintain.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

 

 

 

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War Crimes are Us: I Want No Part of Sarah Palin’s Torture Loving Christianity

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Well, Sarah Palin is at it again and I do have to say something. The former Alaska Governor, losing V.P. Candidate and failed reality television celebrity who can’t even hold a down a steady job with Fox News committed an act so brazenly anti-Christian and anti-American that as a Christian I have to condemn it. I wrote about this subject before in my article Baptism and Water Boarding: When Professed Christians Defile Their Own Faith to Make Cheap Political Points which I wrote almost a year ago in response to people making the same comment.

Palin said at the National Rifle Association convention Sunday April 27th that “waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists” and the crowd, many certainly God fearing Christians went wild. You see Palin and many like her believe with all their hearts that waterboarding and other techniques of “enhanced interrogation” should not only be used, but be national policy when it comes to dealing with enemies of the state. Their view is not that torture is inherently evil but might be justified in a supreme emergency to save lives, but that it should be institutionalized as a matter of judicial and military policy and publicized. Torture is considered by all civilized nations to be a war crime and crime against humanity. We set the standard for that in what we did at Nuremberg.

Justice Robert Jackson, the chief prosecutor of the Nuremberg Trials wrote:

“If certain acts of violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them, and we are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us.”

First I object to Palin’s use of the “baptism” to bless torture, to bless actions that our country sentenced the soldiers of Germany and Japan to death for doing after World War II. Yes, at Nuremberg, Tokyo and Manila American justices sentenced leaders both civilian and military to death for institutionalized policies of torture. People like Palin who advocate the routine use of torture as an act of national policy put our military, intelligence and diplomatic personnel as well as other citizens at greater risk should they be held captive by a state or non-state actor.

Some are speculating that she is doing this to slam John McCain, the only serving member of the Senate or Congress to have been a Prisoner of War and subjected to waterboarding as a means of torture. If so it shows that she has no grace or ability to be thankful, for without John McCain she would not be on the national political stage and the vast majority of us would have been blessed never to know who she is.

Of course for people like Palin and her cheering media supporters who have no skin in this game it doesn’t matter. They don’t serve in the military, nor intelligence or diplomatic corps, nor do they don’t volunteer in humanitarian relieve operations. In fact to them those who lose their lives because of such stupid statements, actions and policies are simply part of the cost of war.

Baptism is a sacrament of the Christian church, or in some cases considered an “ordinance.” There is a difference. Christians who view baptism as a sacrament see it as something that is the entrance into new life, it is a vehicle of God’s grace where the Holy Spirit acts in a special way to cleanse the person being baptized from sin, incorporate them into the family of faith and a chance for the Christian community to join with the Baptized in recommitting ourselves to the faith and pledging to help the new Christian in theirs. In churches where it is an ordinance; or something we do because it was commanded by Jesus it is still important. It is an outward demonstration and witness of faith that has already been received. Christians have been persecuted and even gone to their death as martyrs for what they believed about baptism in all of its forms. Thus what Sarah Palin did is not only cheap and tawdry political speech by a narcissistic self-aggrandizing diva of extremely limited intellect and zero spiritual acumen, but sacrilege that every Christian who values their faith and baptism should condemn in the strongest terms.

The sad thing is that many Christians will not condemn her nor call her into account simply because they have bought into the evil of systematized torture as an instrument of public policy. Likewise many want Palin to run again for either the Presidency or for the Senate because she embodies what they believe.

But here is the real rub. Once you make torture a part of your public policy where does it stop? Every society that has practiced it has used it not only on their military foes, but on their own people.

What Palin supports and endorses is nothing more than the evil perpetuated by every totalitarian regime that has ever existed.

For those that support her, be warned; like the non-Nazi German conservatives who initially supported Hitler but later had second thoughts you too could considered a terrorist using the methods that Palin advocates against others today. You get what you vote for…

As Martin Niemoller said after the fall of the Third Reich:

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak out for me.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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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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Filed under christian life, civil rights, faith, laws and legislation, pro-life anti-abortion, Religion

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.

bloom-county-liberal-label-1

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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Filed under christian life, civil rights, faith, laws and legislation, Political Commentary, Religion