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The Stab in the Back: The Destructive Power of Myth in the Life of a Nation

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In light of the many historical myths and conspiracy theories being floated by pseudo “historians” like the infamous David Barton it is always appropriate to look at examples of the power of those myths in the lives of nations and their influence on citizens. Some myths can be positive and inspiring, but others can lead to conspiracy theories, false accusations and the demonization of others for the purpose of inciting hatred against political, social or religious opponents. They also can be used to perpetuate false beliefs about other countries that influence policy decisions, including the decision to go to war that ultimately doom those that believe them. A good example of this is the Stab in the Back myth that began after the armistice that ended the First World War, as well as the false beliefs held by Hitler and other Nazi leaders about the United States.

There are many times in history where leaders of nations and peoples embrace myths about their history even when historical, biographical and archeological evidence points to an entirely different record.  Myths are powerful in the way that they inspire and motivate people. They can provide a cultural continuity as a people celebrates the key events and people that shaped their past, even if they are not entirely true.  At the same time myths can be dangerous when they cause leaders and people to make bad choices and actually become destructive. Such was the case in Germany following the First World War.

After the war the belief that the German Army was not defeated but was betrayed by the German people, especially those of the political left.  Like all myths there was an element of truth in the “stab in the back” myth, there were revolts against the Monarchy of Kaiser Wilhelm II and even mutiny on elements of the German High Seas Fleet and Army units stationed in Germany. However the crisis had been brought about by General Ludendorff who until the last month of the war refused to tell the truth about the gravity of Germany’s position to those in the German government.

So when everything came crashing down in late October and early November 1918 the debacle came as a surprise to most Germans.  The myth arose because the truth had not been told by Ludendorff who was arguably the most powerful figure in Germany from 1916-1918.  In the looming crisis which included Ludendorff’s collapse and relief, General Wilhelm Groener presented the facts to the Kaiser and insisted on his abdication.  The Republic that was proclaimed on the 9th of November was saddled with the defeat and endured revolution, civil war and threats from the extreme left and right.  When it signed the Treaty of Versailles it accepted the sole responsibility of Germany for the war and its damages. Ordered to dismantle its military, cede territory that had not been lost in battle and pay massive reparations the legend of the “stab in the back” gained widespread acceptance in Germany.

Hitler always believed that the defeat of Germany in the First World War was due to the efforts of internal enemies of the German Reich on the home front and not due to battlefield losses or the entry of the United States.  This was a fundamental belief for him and was expressed in his writings, speeches and actions.  The internal enemies of Germany for Hitler included the Jews, as well as the Socialists and Communists who he believed were at the heart of the collapse on the home front.  Gerhard Weinberg believes that the effect of this misguided belief on Hitler’s actions has “generally been ignored” by historians. (Germany, Hitler and World War II p. 196)

Hitler believed that those people and groups that perpetrated the “stab in the back” were “beguiled by the by the promises of President Wilson” (World in the Balance p.92) in his 14 Points.  Thus for him Americans were in part responsible for undermining the German home front, something that he would not allow to happen again.  In fact Hitler characterization of Wilson’s effect on the German people in speaking about South Tyrol.  It is representative of his belief about not only the loss of that region but the war: “South Tyrol was lost by those who, from within Germany, caused attrition at the front, and by the contamination of German thinking with the sham declarations of Woodrow Wilson.” (Hitler’s Second Book p.221)

While others will note Hitler’s lack of respect for the potential power of the United States, no other author that I am familiar with links Hitler’s actions and the reaction of the German political, military and diplomatic elites to the entry of the United States into the war to the underlying belief in the “stab in the back.”   Likewise Hitler had little regard for the military abilities or potential of the United States. Albert Speer notes that Hitler believed “the Americans had not played a very prominent role in the war of 1914-1918,” and that “they would certainly not withstand a great trial by fire, for their fighting qualities were low.” (Inside the Third Reich: Memoirs by Albert Speer p.121)

Hitler not only dismissed the capabilities of the Americans but also emphasized the distance that they were from Germany and saw no reason to fear the United States when “he anticipated major victories on the Eastern Front.” (Germany Hitler and World War II p.92)   Hitler’s attitude was reflected by the majority of the military high command and high Nazi officials. Ribbentrop believed that the Americans would be unable to wage war if it broke out “as they would never get their armies across the Atlantic.” (History of the German General Staff, Walter Goerlitz, p.408).  General Walter Warlimont notes the “ecstasy of rejoicing” found at Hitler’s headquarters after Pearl Harbor and the fact that the he and Jodl at OKW caught by surprise by Hitler’s declaration of war. (Inside Hitler’s Headquarters 1939-1945 pp.207-209) Kenneth Macksey notes Warlimont’s comments about Hitler’s beliefs; that Hitler “tended to dismiss American fighting qualities and industrial capability,” and that Hitler “regarded anyone who tried to show him such information [about growing American strength] as defeatist.” (Why the Germans Lose at War, Kenneth Macksey, p.153.)

Others like Field Marshal Erwin Rommel record the disregard of senior Nazis toward American capabilities in weaponry.  Quoting Goering who when Rommel discussed 40mm anti-aircraft guns on aircraft that were devastating his armored forces Goering replied “That’s impossible. The Americans only know how to make razor blades.” (The Rommel Papers edited by B.H. Liddell-Hart p.295) Rommel was one of the few German commanders who recognized the folly of Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States noting that “By declaring war on America, we had brought the entire American industrial potential into the service of Allied war production. We in Africa knew all about the quality of its achievements.” (The Rommel Papers p.296)

When one also takes into account the general disrespect of the German military for the fighting qualities of American soldiers though often with good reason (see Russell Weigley’s books Eisenhower’s Lieutenants and The American Way of War) one sees how the myth impacted German thought.  This is evidenced by the disparaging comments of the pre-war German military attaché to the United States; General Boeticher, on the American military, national character and capability. (See World in the Balance pp. 61-62)

The overall negative view held by many Germans in regard to the military and industrial power and potential of the United States reinforced other parts of the myth. Such false beliefs served to bolster belief in the stab-in-the back theory as certainly the Americans could not have played any important role in the German defeat save Wilson’s alleged demoralization of the German population.  This was true not only of Hitler, but by most of his retinue and the military, diplomatic and industrial leadership of the Reich. Hitler’s ultimate belief shaped by the stab-in-the back and reinforced by his racial views which held the United States to be an inferior mongrel people. This led him to disregard the impact that the United States could have in the war and ultimately influenced his decision to declare war on the United States, a decision that would be a key factor in the ultimate defeat of Germany.

Myth can have positive value, but myth which becomes toxic can and often does lead to tragic consequences. All societies have some degree of myth in relationship to their history including the United States.  The myths are not all the same, various subgroups within the society create their own myth surrounding historic events. The danger is that those myths can supplant reason in the minds of political, military, media and religious figures and lead those people into taking actions that work to their own detriment or even destruction.

It is the duty of historians, philosophers and others in the society to ensure that myth does not override reality to the point that it moves policy both domestic and foreign in a manner that is ultimately detrimental to the nation.  The lesson of history demonstrated by myths surrounding the German defeat and role of the United States in that defeat shows just how myth can drive a nation to irrational, evil and ultimately tragic actions not only for that nation and its people, but for the world.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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The Path Less Travelled: Being a “Liberal Moderate” in a Polarized Society

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Somewhere along the path from conservatism to moderation I got labeled.

I got labeled with the “L” Word. No, not the “Lesbian” “L” Word which is actually kind of cool, but the other less socially acceptable one, the “Liberal” label.

I remember back in 1981 when I saw my first Lesbian couple walking together at California State University Northridge. I was sitting on the lawn outside of the office that I worked and they walked by. As a typical male I was enthralled by what I saw, but that enthrallment was short lived as when I walked back into the office I heard that my hero, President Ronald Reagan had been shot and that retired Army General, former Nixon aide and now Secretary of State Al Haig was now in charge of the country.

To tell the truth I don’t know how the transformation from Conservative to Moderate (read Liberal) happened. When I was in college I cheered the demise of Jimmy Carter. After college the same was true about Walter Mondale, Mike Dukakis. Al Gore and even John Kerry. I listened to Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Neil Boortz as much as I could. Not even 7 years ago I was defending “W” against what I thought were unfair assaults from the left. I enjoyed liberal bashing. It was fun and as the people that knew me back then could tell you I was quite good at it and to this day I regret it.

You see a funny thing happened between 2004 and now. I think it was a place called Iraq, where I began to question the unquestionable questions of conservative orthodoxy in a number of forums including both politics and religion. I became a moderate and a passionate one at that. Since “moderate” is a very misunderstood term let me explain. If you are a conservative it means that I am a liberal. Some liberals assume that I am a conservative but on the whole the word moderate is now associated as being liberal and I am okay with that because I believe in freedom, equity and fraternity for everyone, not just people that are like me or believe like me, especially religious types.

I actually think being a moderate is really a tricky thing. Back when I was in seminary during the pre-Fundamentalist takeover of Southwestern Baptist Seminary I remember hearing a big name Fundamentalist preacher say that “middle of the road moderates were only good to be run over.” One of my professors who would be a casualty of the takeover of the seminary said that for many in the Southern Baptist Convention of the time that “Liberal means anyone to the left of me.”

Now I do have to confess, unlike a lot of people when they get older and become more conservative I have become more “liberal” in that I am more accepting of people different than me. I was talking with a dear friend a while back who is proud of his Tea Party affiliation and he mentioned that when he was young that he was a liberal but now older that he was a conservative. I have no problem with that, it is a free county. My friend, who is still a friend despite political differences, maintains his beliefs, but gives me room to differ, something that I return to him. Both of us feel that friendship is more important, and I can count numerous other friends that I have the same kind of relationship with.

BuFor me it is a bit of a conundrum. I have friends who are way to the Left or to the Right of me who I respect and who I care for, we agree to disagree. The fact is that in reality I am a very pragmatic person and I would rather see people work towards compromise and cooperation so that the vast majority of people can prosper in freedom. So I choose to be friends with people far different from one another and who disagree with me. But we are still friends, my issue is not with people of good will, but with people who seek to stand as judge, jury and executioner of those that disagree with them, even former friends.

As far as what I believe…I am a Christian who believes in tolerance, acceptance and equity. I reject the militant triumphalist political version of the Christian faith that is the creed of the religious right, which by the way has nothing to do with any of the historic Creeds of the Christian Church. To put it in a Christian theological perspective I believe in the grace, love and mercy of the the Crucified God and reject the politically charged triumphalism of those who use my faith to oppress others who do not believe the way that they do. That being said I also reject the idea that religion and faith should be excluded from public discourse, only that there is an open exchange of ideas and not the imposition of any faith or lack thereof, on others using the police power of the state. If I want that I will move to Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan or any other country that uses its laws to enforce the majority religion, and suppress the rights of religious minorities or unbelievers or Communist China if I want to live under the tank treads of official state controlled atheism.

After I returned from Iraq I was for all intents and purposes an agnostic, a pretty difficult position to be a priest, but my sense of call and vocation kept me going even when I didn’t know if God still existed or even cared. When faith returned it was different, I believe but at the same time I doubt. This transformation in faith has made me more willing to question as well as accept things that I would not have before Iraq including the role of the church in politics, the treatment and rights of the LGBT community to equity, the rights of Moslems and other religious minorities and probably the cardinal sin of believing that women should be ordained to the priesthood and episcopate. Voicing those things back in 2010 got me thrown out of a church, so I know just how tolerant some of my Christian brothers and sisters can be. In fact there is a recent Pew survey which spelled out just how personal and vindictive the religious, political and cultural divide has become, having been turned on by people I thought to be friends, I know that well. I don’t like it but it is part of life now days in the new cultural-religious “ante-bellum” United States. I could go into other social issues that have a religious component but won’t right now, but I will say that I believe in a theology of liberation for all people. Again if that makes this “moderate” a “liberal” in the eyes of some so be it.

It was funny a couple of months ago I had a retired Navy Chaplain blast me here on this site for calling myself a “moderate.” He labeled me as a liberal. Obviously he had the same definition of moderation as the fundamentalists that said that a moderate was only good to be run over. But I won’t be run over and if that means that some people label me a liberal, so be it. I think there is honor in that, and I would rather be honorable to what I believe than sell out and become a modern Christian Pharisee intent on controlling the lives of others that do not believe like me.

However there are times that I feel that I am pissing into the wind when I watch those that we all have elected to office in Washington DC and our various State Houses behave, especially those of the more radical “conservative” bent, though I know some liberals who are have an equally invective edge. I am probably not alone in this feeling and do hope that the hard liners on both sides of the political spectrum can get their collective crap together before the plunge us into the abyss like the politicians of Weimar Germany did in the late 1920s and early 1930s. We all know how well that turned out.

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All that being said I am still a moderate, but in today’s social and political climate I am a distinctly liberal one, and for that I will not apologize. If that makes some angry or uncomfortable than I have done my job, as Finley Peter Dunne first remarked, it is my duty “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

So until tomorrow.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Surrender at Appomattox: Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain teach us about Reconciliation

The Authentic History Center

It was the day after General Robert E Lee had requested to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant that his Army of Northern Virginia be allowed to surrender. The once mighty army now a haggard but proud force of about 11,000 soldiers faced hopeless odds against a vastly superior enemy. Since Gettysburg Lee’s army had been on the defensive, Lee’s ill fated offensive into Pennsylvania being one of the two climactic blows that sealed the doom of the Confederacy, the other Grant’s victory at Vicksburg which fell a day after Pickett’s Charge.

On the 9th and 10th of April three men, Ulysses S Grant, Robert E Lee and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain taught succeeding generations the value of mutual respect and reconciliation after a bitter and bloody war.

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With each battle following Gettysburg the Army of Northern Virginia became weaker and finally after the nine month long siege of Petersburg ended with a Union victory there was little else to do. When his artillery chief Porter Alexander recommended that the Army be released, “take to the woods and report to their state governors” Lee replied:

“Already [the country] is demoralized by the four years of war. If I took your advice, the men would be without rations and under no control of their officers. They would be compelled to rob and steal in order to live…. We would bring on a state of affairs it would take the country years to recover from… You young fellows might go bushwhacking, but the only dignified course for me would be to go to General Grant and surrender myself and take the consequences of my acts.”

Abraham Lincoln had already set the tone for the surrender in his Second Inaugural Address given just over a month before the surrender of Lee’s army. Lincoln closed that speech with these words of reconciliation:

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

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Grant provided his vanquished foe generous surrender terms. Grant met with Lee and offered the following terms of surrender:

“In accordance with the substance of my letter to you of the 8th inst., I propose to receive the surrender of the Army of N. Va. on the following terms, to wit: Rolls of all the officers and men to be made in duplicate. One copy to be given to an officer designated by me, the other to be retained by such officer or officers as you may designate. The officers to give their individual paroles not to take up arms against the Government of the United States until properly exchanged, and each company or regimental commander sign a like parole for the men of their commands. The arms, artillery and public property to be parked and stacked, and turned over to the officer appointed by me to receive them. This will not embrace the side-arms of the officers, nor their private horses or baggage. This done, each officer and man will be allowed to return to their homes, not to be disturbed by United States authority so long as they observe their paroles and the laws in force where they may reside.”

When Lee left the building Federal troops began cheering but Grant ordered them to stop. He later noted: “The Confederates were now our countrymen, and we did not want to exult over their downfall.”

The surrender itself was accomplished with a recognition that soldiers who have given the full measure of devotion can know when confronting a defeated enemy. Major General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the heroic victor of Little Round Top was directed by Grant to receive the surrender of the defeated Confederates. As they passed, moved with emotion he ordered his soldiers to salute the defeated enemy for whose cause he had no sympathy.

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Chamberlain was not just a soldier, but before the war had been Professor of Natural and Revealed Religions at Bowdoin College, and a student of theology before the war. He could not help to see the significance of the occasion. He understood that he would be criticized by some for offering the salute, however unlike some, the staunch abolitionist and Unionist who had nearly died on more than one occasion fighting the defeated Confederate Army understood that no true peace could transpire unless the enemies became reconciled to one another.

He noted that his chief reason for doing so:

“The momentous meaning of this occasion impressed me deeply. I resolved to mark it by some token of recognition, which could be no other than a salute of arms. Well aware of the responsibility assumed, and of the criticisms that would follow, as the sequel proved, nothing of that kind could move me in the least. The act could be defended, if needful, by the suggestion that such a salute was not to the cause for which the flag of the Confederacy stood, but to its going down before the flag of the Union. My main reason, however, was one for which I sought no authority nor asked forgiveness. Before us in proud humiliation stood the embodiment of manhood: men whom neither toils and sufferings, nor the fact of death, nor disaster, nor hopelessness could bend from their resolve; standing before us now, thin, worn, and famished, but erect, and with eyes looking level into ours, waking memories that bound us together as no other bond;—was not such manhood to be welcomed back into a Union so tested and assured? Instructions had been given; and when the head of each division column comes opposite our group, our bugle sounds the signal and instantly our whole line from right to left, regiment by regiment in succession, gives the soldier’s salutation, from the “order arms” to the old “carry”—the marching salute. Gordon at the head of the column, riding with heavy spirit and downcast face, catches the sound of shifting arms, looks up, and, taking the meaning, wheels superbly, making with himself and his horse one uplifted figure, with profound salutation as he drops the point of his sword to the boot toe; then facing to his own command, gives word for his successive brigades to pass us with the same position of the manual,—honor answering honor. On our part not a sound of trumpet more, nor roll of drum; not a cheer, nor word nor whisper of vain-glorying, nor motion of man standing again at the order, but an awed stillness rather, and breath-holding, as if it were the passing of the dead!”

The next day Robert E Lee address his soldiers for the last time. Lee’s final order to his loyal troops was published the day after the surrender. It was a gracious letter of thanks to men that had served their beloved commander well in the course of the three years since he assumed command of them outside Richmond in 1862.

General Order
No. 9



After four years of arduous service marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources.

need not tell the survivors of so many hard fought battles, who have remained steadfast to the last, that I have consented to the result from no distrust of them.
But feeling that valour and devotion could accomplish nothing that could compensate for the loss that must have attended the continuance of the contest, I have determined to avoid the useless sacrifice of those whose past services have endeared them to their countrymen.

By the terms of the agreement, officers and men can return to their homes and remain until exchanged. You will take with you the satisfaction that proceeds from the consciousness of duty faithfully performed, and I earnestly pray that a merciful God will extend to you his blessing and protection.

With an unceasing admiration of your constancy and devotion to your Country, and a grateful remembrance of your kind and generous conideration for myself, I bid you an affectionate farewell. — R. E. Lee, General

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The surrender was the beginning of the end. Other Confederate forces continued to resist for several weeks, but with the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia led by the man that nearly all Southerners saw as the embodiment of their nation the war was effectively over.

Lee had fought hard and after the war was still under the charge of treason, but he understood the significance of defeat and the necessity of moving forward as one nation. In August 1865 Lee wrote to the trustees of Washington College of which he was now President:

“I think it is the duty of every citizen, in the present condition of the Country, to do all in his power to aid the restoration of peace and harmony… It is particularly incumbent upon those charged with the instruction of the young to set them an example of submission to authority.

It is a lesson that all of us in our terribly divided land need to learn regardless of or political affiliation or ideology. Lee learned that Grant’s Aide-de-Camp was a Seneca and said after the surrender “It is good to have one real American here.” The officer replied, “Sir, we are all Americans.”

It is time again that we learn that lesson.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Distant Origen: The Danger of Doctrinal Certitude While Living in the Uncomfortable Middle

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“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”  Dietrich Bonhoeffer

There is an episode of Star Trek Voyager called Distant Origin where a scientist of a race in the Delta Quadrant believes that genetic evidence indicated that their race originated on Earth. His thesis is challenged the doctrine of his species and he was accused of “heresy against Doctrine” for positing something different than his people believed. He ends up being persecuted and punished for his beliefs.

Now I want to be diplomatic about this. I am not someone who simply is contrary to established doctrines, be they theological, scientific or even military theories. That being said I think it is only right to question our presuppositions, as Anselm of Canterbury did through faith seeking understanding.

That understanding as a Christian is based on the totality of the message of the Christian faith. Hans Kung said it well:
“Christians are confident that there is a living God and that in the future of this God will also maintain their believing community in life and in truth. Their confidence is based on the promise given with Jesus of Nazareth: he himself is the promise in which God’s fidelity to his people can be read.” 

What we have to admit is that our belief is rooted in our faith, faith which is given to us through the witness of very imperfect people influenced by their own culture, history and traditions. Even scripture does not make the claim to be inerrant, and the Bible cannot be understood like the Koran or other texts which make the claim to be the infallible compendium of faith delivered by an angel or dictated by God himself. It is a Divine-human collaboration so symbolic of the relationship that God has with his people, often confusing and contradictory yet inspiring.

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There is a certain sense of relationship between God and humanity within scripture and that relationship creates certain tensions between God and those people. The interesting thing is that Scripture is a collection of texts which record often in terrible honesty the lack of perfection of both the writers and their subjects. They likewise record the sometimes unpredictable and seemingly contradictory behavior of God toward humanity in the Old Testament. They bear witness to the weaknesses, limitations and lack of understanding of the people of God of the message of God but even in that those limitations and weaknesses that God is still faithful to humanity in the life death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

The real fact of the matter is that fixed doctrines are much more comfortable than difficult questions than honestly examining the contradictions that exist within Scripture, history and tradition. The fact is this makes many people uncomfortable and thus the retreat into the fortress of fixed and immutable doctrine found in the various incarnations of Fundamentalism.

The fact is the world is not a safe place, and our best knowledge is always being challenged by new discoveries many of which make people nervous and uncomfortable, especially people who need the safety of certitude. So in reaction the true believers become even more strident and sometimes, in the case of some forms of Islam and Hinduism violent.

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Christianity cannot get away unscathed by such criticism. At various points in our history we have had individuals, churches and Church controlled governments persecute and kill those that have challenged their particular orthodoxy. Since Christian fundamentalists are human they like others have the capacity for violence if they feel threatened, or the cause is “holy” enough. Our history is full of sordid tales of the ignorance of some Christians masquerading as absolute truth and crushing any opposition. It is as 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.”

This is the magnetic attraction of fundamentalism in all of its forms, not just Christian fundamentalism.  Yet for me there is a comfort in knowing that no matter how hard and fast we want to be certain of our doctrines, that God has the last say in the matter in the beginning and the end. We live in the uncomfortable middle but I have hope in the faith that God was in the beginning. Besides as Bonhoeffer well noted “A God who let us prove his existence would be an idol” 

But there some Christians who now faced with the eloquence of men like Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye who make legitimate challenges respond in the most uncouth and ignorant manners. The sad thing is that their response reveals more about them and their uncertainty than it does the faith that they boldly proclaim.

Our doctrines, the way we interpret Scripture and the way we understand God are limited by our humanity and the fact that no matter how clever we think we are that our doctrines are expressions of faith. This is because we were not in the beginning as was God and we will not be at the end, at least in this state. We live in the uncomfortable middle, faith is not science, nor is it proof, that is why it is called faith, even in our scriptures.

We are to always seek clarity and understanding but know that it is possible that such understanding and the seeking of truth, be it spiritual, historical, scientific or ethical could well upset our doctrines, but not God himself. As Henri Nouwen wrote: “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.” Is that not the point of the various interactions of Jesus with the religious leaders of his day? Men who knew that they knew the truth and even punished people who had been healed by Jesus such as the man born blind in the 9th Chapter of John’s Gospel.

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“You are that man’s disciple; we are disciples of Moses! We know that God spoke to Moses, but we do not know where this one is from.” The man answered and said to them, “This is what is so amazing, that you do not know where he is from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if one is devout and does his will, he listens to him. It is unheard of that anyone ever opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he would not be able to do anything.” They answered and said to him, “You were born totally in sin, and are you trying to teach us?” Then they threw him out.”

The interchange between the religious leaders and the man is not an indictment on Judaism, but rather on religious certitude in any time or place. The fact is that the Pharisees are no different than those who ran the Inquisition, or those who conducted Witch Trials or those who attempt to crush anyone who questions their immutable doctrine no matter what their religion. They were and are true believers.

In the episode of Star Trek the Next Generation called The Drumhead Captain Picard counsels Lieutenant Worf after their encounter with a special investigator who turned an investigation into a witch hunt on the Enterprise. Picard told Worf, who had initially been taken in by the investigator:

“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.”

And that is true.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Baseball, Perspective and Life

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Well my friends Opening Day is upon us after a long and at times brutal winter, and for that I am glad. So tonight after a very long day moving furniture and books getting ready for the contractors to come and install the tile on my living room floor I am basically doing a re-run but not calling it that. I was working on another article but it is too late and I am too tied to finish it, so I am reprising this article from 2011. Have a great night and catch you tomorrow.

“I think about the cosmic snowball theory. A few million years from now the sun will burn out and lose its gravitational pull. The earth will turn into a giant snowball and be hurled through space. When that happens it won’t matter if I get this guy out.” Bill “Spaceman” Lee

Bill “Spaceman” Lee is a funny guy. A Major League pitcher who has long since retired Lee somehow in an often convoluted way was able to keep things in perspective. I love this quote because it is a reminder that a lot of the stuff that we take very seriously in the long run isn’t that important. In fact it reminds of just how little control we have and why it is such an exercise in futility to be anxious and worry about things that we cannot control. I’m pretty sure that Jesus had a word or two about this as well which his disciples thought was important enough to put in the Gospels.

Anyway, last night was another night where for the most part I took the night off from looking at the news about Japan and Libya. I watched for a while as I ate dinner and did laundry but when I began to put my platform bed together I decided I didn’t need to keep listening to newscasters, commentators, talking heads, politicians and pundits as they pondered, puzzled and piddled about the problems of the day. Let’s face it unless big news breaks in the middle of any news channels’ programming it is all the same information being repeated repeatedly by people who many times are paid huge amounts of money to sound ignorant. I guess that it beats real work. Oh well I have continued to take a mental break from this things because they will be there in the morning and will probably be worse than they are now. But to paraphrase what I said last night what is going on now needs to be kept in perspective because this nation and the world have been throw worse during the 20th Century then we are going through now.

Since I wrote about some of those things in my last essay night I won’t re-hash them. But I will say that our media machine both the old established media and the new media are the greatest producers of anxiety that the world has ever seen. These people have created an industry where news is packaged to create anxiety and keep views hooked wondering what terrible calamity will befall them, because if it happened somewhere else it will probably happen here too even if all the facts on the ground are different. David Brinkley said it well when talking about television news: “The one function that TV news performs very well is that when there is no news we give it to you with the same emphasis as if it were.” Thus even hypothetical issues become objects which are used to drive up anxiety, anger and fear and I think that pundits of all types and stripes are the worst offenders in this. It is simply shameful but I digress.

If we look at American History we see that while the media since day one has promoted anxiety and fear in one form or another that we have for the most part been able to keep things in perspective. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt said “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” he was absolutely on the money. Our problem today is that we live in a world where our ability to communicate information especially about bad things both real and imagined exceeds both our ability to absorb it and to cognitively and emotionally respond to any real threat vice the imagined threats. Branch Rickey once said “thinking about the Devil is worse than seeing the Devil.”

In such a tumultuous environment it is hard to keep to keep events in perspective. As I said in my previous article I was tired from hearing the constant barrage of bad news. Now I am pretty good about keeping perspective but even if I can cognitively deal with the news it can be hard to maintain a non-anxious presence if I am being constantly bombarded with disasters and tragedies of the magnitude that we have witnessed the past several weeks. Thus I turned off the news and put on baseball movies and decided to do the same last night.

Since I am tying baseball into the whole issue of keeping one’s perspective I want to mention the great baseball comedies Major League and Bull Durham. While they are comedies told through the lens of baseball they are great movies about life and keeping one’s perspective. I love both of these movies, they are not the emotional and spiritual tales like Field of Dreams and For the Love of the Game they are great in using the medium of a baseball comedy to give life lessons.

Major League deals with a Cleveland Indians team that has not won a world series in over 40 years and whose owner is trying to lose so many games that she can move the team to Miami. The team is made up of has been players, cast offs and rookies of uncertain ability and maturity. In the movie which was set before the Indians renaissance of the 1990s dealt with a losing team that the owner purposely built to lose, but finds its pride to spite their nefarious owner and win the American League East. The character that I can relate to is the old catcher called up from the Mexican League, Jake Taylor played by Tom Berenger who is the field leader of the team helping the young players to mature while holding the Indians together as they go through difficult times and then go on to win the East against the Yankees and in the process rediscover a love that was lost due to his own mistakes.

Bull Durham is another one of my favorites and once again my favorite character is the journeyman catcher, Crash Davis played by Kevin Costner who is sent back to “A” Ball to assist a young pitcher named Eby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh played by Tim Robbins. In the process Crash helps LaLoosh, assists his teammates as they go through hard times and discovers love even at the end of his playing career.

What I like about these films is how they show how to keep perspective in life. In the movies both Jake Taylor and Crash Davis are guys on the down side of their careers. They play on losing teams which they help lead back into contention and help the young players mature into winners. They simply concentrate in the things that they can influence.

Of course baseball is taken deep into the future in Star Trek Deep Space Nine.

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The way I figure is that in life we can worry about stuff that we can’t control and ignore the things and people around us that really matter that we can have some influence upon and that is not just a baseball thing. That is a life thing; it is a faith thing and a relational thing. Are these characters perfect examples? By no means, they are regular guys in situations that are not the greatest to be in and they make mistakes, sometimes on the field and a lot of time in relationships. That is why I think that they are good examples; they are real not some kind of untouchable perfect hero. I can relate to guys like that.

I know that I’m a Mendoza Line* kind of guy in a lot of ways. I’m a journeyman who has been able to be successful enough to hang around a long time in my chosen profession. I think that is how I keep my perspective, I’ve been around long enough to make lots of mistakes, experience a lot of bad times and having come through a really bad time after Iraq realize that no matter what happens things will work out. That was like being in a major slump but somehow despite everything I made it through those hard times.

So when I now talk about keeping perspective on life I talk about it from a vantage point of having failed in different ways but also having succeeded in others sometimes even in the same endeavor. So my perspective is now I know that I can’t control what is happening in all the world’s crisis points or for that matter almost anything, I need to take care of the people and things that I have a little bit up influence upon.

I think that is a lesson that baseball teaches us. It teaches us that so much of life is beyond our control and that just because everything isn’t okay doesn’t mean that we need to live in fear and in a constant state of anxiety. As Walt Whitman so eloquently put it “I see great things in baseball. It’s our game – the American game. It will take our people out-of-doors, fill them with oxygen, give them a larger physical stoicism. Tend to relieve us from being a nervous, dyspeptic set. Repair these losses, and be a blessing to us.”

Peace

Padre Steve+
*The Mendoza Line is named after Mario Mendoza who played for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He hit for a career batting average of .215 and the Mendoza Line is considered to be a .200 average which is the line below which players can pretty much be assured that they will not remain in the Major Leagues.

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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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Military Ethics, Legality and Morality: The Damage Being Caused by the Emphasis on STEM to the Detriment of the Humanities in Military Officer Programs

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“We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds: we have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretense; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical. Are we still of any use?” Dietrich Bonhoeffer 

I have lost count of the number of scandals regarding the ethical failures of American military leaders. Today at lunch I was talking with a gentleman in charge of the military outreach for a local university where I am considering beginning a Ph.D. program in Organizational Leadership.

There are many reasons given for the these ethical failures, everything from the disintegration or the nuclear family, to the lack of religious upbringing, to the supposedly liberal educational system. However, while I think some of these issues may have some impact, I am not convinced that they are the root cause of the ethics crisis that seems to be plaguing the military.

As we discussed aspects of the program the subject got to the subject of military leaders being fired for ethical, legal and moral lapses. This is something that I am giving much though since I am now teaching ethics at a senior level military staff college. What I am noticing is that many officers struggle with basic concepts regarding history, philosophy, ethics, political science, religion, the arts and literature and other subjects that because I immerse myself in them just assume that any military professional should know.

But that is not the case. For the last thirty to forty years the commissioning programs of our services have given preference to those in the STEM, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics fields. In fact the probability is that the liberal arts or social science major will not be admitted to service academy or ROTC program, even a non-scholarship program unless they are in a STEM major. This is especially true of my own service, the Navy and the Air Force but is not absent from the Army and the Marine Corps.

This is not new. In 1981 I joined Army ROTC because the Navy told me that even to be a non-scholarship student in the program I would have to change my major from history to a STEM major.

This is not simply a military issue, but it is a systemic issue in higher American education programs, programs which due to the demands of the business and technology sectors have gutted liberal arts programs and the social sciences. All of this has been done in the name of making sure that people are “prepared for jobs” and that education is related directly to employability and again jobs. That is why in large part for profit schools have proliferated offering programs focused on narrow job fields in technical majors. This has impacted higher education in public and private universities which at one time had thriving liberal arts, humanities and social science programs as well as the military where the emphasis on STEM has created havoc in terms of ethics.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

“The ‘polymath’ had already died out by the close of the eighteenth century, and in the following century intensive education replaced extensive, so that by the end of it the specialist had evolved. The consequence is that today everyone is a mere technician, even the artist…”

Education is now viewed by most as a pathway to a better job, not a quest for understanding, knowledge or even personal improvement. That attitude is enmeshed in our culture and has been for decades. It even shows up in seminaries where programs are not focused in the classics and timeless subjects in theology, history, philosophy, ethics, languages and hermeneutics but instead methods of “growing” a church or running a program. When I was in seminary, a large conservative evangelical seminary many students complained about having to take classes that had nothing to do with running their church. Many of my fellow students despised Church History, Ethics, Philosophy of Religion, and even Systematic Theology and then complained that the courses that were oriented to running a church would be out of date in a few years.

The common theme whether this be in the for profit schools, the public and private universities, the military and seminaries is that we have trained two generations of people to be good technicians and technocrats. Men and women very skilled at getting at job done but that lack the basic ethical and moral grounding that those in previous generations received as part of their education, in the home, in their religious institutions and in the educational system.

The problem is that when you strip away a solid grounding in the arts, liberal arts and social sciences you breed people who may be very good at getting a job done. However they are people who lack the knowledge passed on by people who have shaped civilization for millennia.  They are ignorant of Hammurabi, Moses, Plato, Cicero, Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, Thomas Aquinas, the great philosophers and thinkers from the East and the West, those who brought about the Reformation, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and even the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, Universal Suffrage, Emancipation and Civil Rights.

Their technical education divorces them from those that developed the legal, ethical and moral codes of our culture. They lack the cohesive understanding of social responsibility and connection that have held western civilization together. Those have been replaced by ethics that are dominated by pragmatism or utilitarianism, even in seminaries where classes on ethics or moral theology are often relegated to elective status. How else can we explain the wholesale disintegration of moral and ethical codes of behavior across the vocational spectrum be it business, government, the military or religious institutions?

The question for many people, and maybe most people in our society, including the military is not what is moral or ethical but what is “legal,” and what are the loopholes in the law that allow one to escape the consequences of their immoral, illegal or unethical behavior.

We have raised at least two, maybe three generations of technicians and technocrats, and that trend shows no sign of abating. In North Carolina last year the Republican Governor proposed eliminating tuition assistance from any program not directly related to “jobs.” By that he meant eliminating such assistance from non-STEM programs.

What this does, and I think we are seeing this today is produces people who are good at doing jobs, but have a difficult time in critical thinking or looking at the logical consequences of their ideas and actions.

Many cannot see the moral or ethical dimensions of life and even turn religion to an exercise designed to benefit them in a tangible material way. Thus there is a proliferation of churches that preach some kind of “prosperity Gospel” and those that pervert religion and use it to suppress the freedoms of others by force of law.

But let me return to the military implications of my thesis. What I have observed in my career of over 30 years of military service is a culture that has developed in an ethical vacuum. We have sought to inculcate a service culture based on Army, Navy, Air Force or Marine Corps “values” such as “honor, courage and commitment.” However, for many maybe even most those are mere words. They are shibboleths akin to religious creeds recited by people for whom they are irrelevant because they are not job related.

Now this is not an attack on those in the military, for those in the military simply reflect the culture that they come from. This includes the family, religious, social and educational systems of our society. In fact I actually believe that for the most part people in the military do a better job with values, ethics and morality than many in the civilian society. That being said there is something seriously wrong in what we are doing. If there wasn’t there would not be so many egregious lapses that call the moral fitness of senior military leadership into question.

This is especially important because the trust of the nation is invested in these men and women. The responsibilities that they have regarding the lives of people, the security of the nation and the maintenance, security and use of powerful weapons, including nuclear weapons and information technology that can be used to pry into the private lives of unknowing citizens all dictate that the ethical and moral standards of the military have to be above those found in the private sector.

Unfortunately there is no immediate “fix” for the problem because it it so systemically rooted in our society. However something will have to be done, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of Defense have directed the military redouble its emphasis on teaching ethics at every level. However it is my opinion that we will have to go far beyond the recitation of creeds and repetition of words about “values” that have little relevance to people educated and brought up to simply do a job. This will be a difficult task, especially in military organizations being reduced in number while still engaged in war and increasing other operations around the world.

As to the broader societal issues, those run deep, but one thing in my mind is certain, there has to be a renewed emphasis on the humanities, liberal arts and social sciences to include the classics of western and world literature, art, philosophy, history and thought. We cannot reduce education to technical elements that require little in the way of critical thought, or for that matter provide people with “education” that does not force them to deal with the dark areas of life that are uncomfortable and the gray areas that fill our universe.

In the Second World War many of the best and brightest of young German intellectuals joined the SS and its sister organizations, organizing and executing the extermination of the Jews and others in Germany and occupied lands. Most of these men did not give their actions a second thought. They were doing their jobs, most of the time in a very dispassionate matter. They carried out orders because they were “legal.” Ethics and morality were no concern simply because they were sworn to obey orders.

The task to change this cannot be that of the military and its leadership alone. If we fail to change our education systems, our home life and even our religious life we will unleash the greatest generation of amoral technocrats who have ever walked the face of the earth. They will be men and women who will have no problem committing the greatest crimes, simply because they are “legal” and because they have only been taught to do their job.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Conscience and Hard Solid Thinking: Two Things We Lack, A Reminder from Dr Martin Luther King Jr.

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Today I am reminded of the words of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. as he addressed issues prevalent in the 1960s which unfortunately are still with us today. A lot of people today seek to marginalize Dr King’s life and work by simply relegating him to the pages of history. The attitude of such people seems to be that maybe Dr King was important in his day, but that we have advanced to the point that we don’t need to see beyond the King of history. Thus we miss so much of what he still teaches us today.

Dr. King was a man of tremendous personal courage. Nearly every day of his public ministry and advocacy for the rights of African Americans and the poor his life was in danger. Of course he, like so many other men who throughout history understood that those that champion the cause of justice and peace must ask hard questions. They must engage in hard thinking. They must challenge their own beliefs as well as those that they come in contact, and they must do so from the least safe place to do so, the place of conscience which commands us to do what is right.

In 1968 Dr. King said something that should make us all look in the mirror and ask who we really are and what we represent. He noted how cowardice, expediency and vanity all vie with conscience. He said:

“On some positions, Cowardice asks the question, “Is it safe?” Expediency asks the question, “Is it politic?” And Vanity comes along and asks the question, “Is it popular?” But Conscience asks the question “Is it right?” And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because Conscience tells him it is right.” 

If you look closely at what Dr. King said one can almost see every political, business or religious leader make decisions about things which matter to people, but without facing the demands of conscience.

It would be easy just to say this of our leaders. However, it is also true of most of us, for regardless of our protestations most of us follow the demands of cowardice, expediency or vanity rather than conscience. We do it not because we are bad people, but because we fear the potential negative consequences of doing the right thing, we count the cost and decide we cannot pay it.

Every time we make these decisions not to do the right, but to shrink in cowardice, appeal to the calculation of being politic, or choose to go with what is popular, something in us dies.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and martyr wrote about the results of such equivocation from prison:

“We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds: we have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretense; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical. Are we still of any use?”

But to follow the demands of conscience requires us to think, and think critically. Too often we simply do things or support causes because we are comfortable with the ideas, and because we do not want to face inconvenient or uncomfortable ideas. We do not like to be challenged. I think that is why there is such a great appeal to often ignorant loud mouthed politicians, pundits and preachers, the Unholy Trinity, to do our thinking for us. The pundits, preachers and politicians often appeal to the must base human instincts to turn citizens against each other, or to drive up support for their ideology. Such ideas are made more destructive when they appear as “memes” on social media, attached to pictures which are designed to invoke an emotional response of anger, hatred and resentment at person or group being demonized. In following them we can become unthinking fanatics, convinced of our rightness without ever examining examining what we believe to see if it really true.

This is not thinking when we follow the lead of such people, regardless of their ideology. In doing so we give up our right and responsibility to think for ourselves and ask the hard questions. Eric Hofer noted how ideology blinds us:

“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.”

Dr King’s words spoken in 1963 are equally true today:

“Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.”

As we honor the memory of Dr. King this weekend may we do so by not just relegating him to the pages of history, but may we find in his words inspiration to be people of character and conscience today. May we start doing the hard thinking that allows us to follow the demands of conscience and not cowardice, the hard thinking that places justice over popularity and the hard thinking which exposes the emptiness of political calculation.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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New Year 2014: Resolutions, Coffee and Donuts, The Mendoza Line and the Unknown Possibilities of Existence

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“New Year’s Day: Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual.” Mark Twain

New Year’s Day is typically one of the laziest days that I observe during the year and this year was no different. The reason for this is because I figure that there are another 364 days left in the year and I need to pace myself.

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Last night we were up a couple of hours after the ball fell in Times Square and thankfully our dogs Molly and Minnie let me sleep until eight-thirty. After I let them go out, take their morning constitutional and feed them breakfast I went back to bed and stayed there until after noon when Minnie told me in no uncertain terms that I needed to be up and that she needed another constitutional.

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After that it was time for a shower followed by a cup of coffee, and this morning in a fit of wild abandon I discovered that Krispy Kreme Chocolate Mini Donuts are great when dipped in coffee. It is amazing the chances I will take in a New Year, as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, magic, and power in it.” But I digress.

Like I said yesterday I don’t do New Year resolutions. I find that I don’t do well with them and my reality is more in line with Mark Twain who so rightly observed:

“Yesterday, everybody smoked his last cigar, took his last drink and swore his last oath. Today, we are a pious and exemplary community. Thirty days from now, we shall have cast our reformation to the winds and gone to cutting our ancient shortcomings considerably shorter than ever.”

That doesn’t mean that I will not seek to improve myself or do better. As I have mentioned on numerous occasions I am not a “Hall of Famer” in the game of life, I am a “Mendoza Line” guy when it comes to doing life. For those unfamiliar with the Mendoza Line it is named after Mario Mendoza a shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates and other teams who was competent at defense but a marginal hitter, his batting average being just enough not to be sent to the minor leagues. The Mendoza Line is considered to be a batting average of .200 though Mendoza’s actual lifetime average was .215. Thus for me life is something that I manage to muddle through and if I do well I might muddle through a bit better than I have before.

That being said I do have some goals this year. I want to become a great teacher of Ethics and Military History and get started on a Ph.D. so that whenever I retire from the Navy I can be competitive in teaching at the college and university level. I want to get started on a book this year and maybe even find a publisher and I hope that a major media or commentary site will start publishing some of my blog articles.  So if you know someone that can help in that last category please give me a shout out.

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Other things I want to do apart from work and education. I want to make a trip to England, Ireland and Scotland with Judy this year. I want to go to a lot of Norfolk Tides baseball games at Harbor Park, see a Orioles game at Camden Yards, and maybe if possible see a game at Fenway Park or Wrigley Field.

On a personal level I want to see more improvement in my PTSD recovery, to sleep better without nightmares and night terrors, to not be as anxious in crowded places or in bad traffic and to develop some better spiritual disciplines. Those are all things I have struggled with since coming back from Iraq and though I am have been doing better over the past year I want to see some more marked improvements in each area this year.

Likewise I want to be better at caring for those in my life, family, friends and those that I work with and those that I will teach and those who read this website.

Of course none of us know what the future brings, but thankful to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln “the future only comes one day at a time” so we should be good.

So a New Year is a hand, 364 more days in it and lots of possibilities. The past is now past, and though the past may still be with us and influence the present it does not have to bind us in its icy grip.

The new year presents me, and maybe all of us the chance to look at possibilities that we never imagined, to accept the past and all that is part of it without being trapped by it. It is as the entity Q told Captain Jean Luc Picard in the Star Trek the Next Generation episode Tapestry:

Captain Picard: I sincerely hope that this is the last time that I find myself here. 

Q: You just don’t get it, do you, Jean-Luc? The trial never ends. We wanted to see if you had the ability to expand your mind and your horizons. And for one brief moment, you did. 

Captain Picard: When I realized the paradox. 

Q: Exactly. For that one fraction of a second, you were open to options you had never considered. That is the exploration that awaits you. Not mapping stars and studying nebulae, but charting the unknown possibilities of existence. 

Our trials will not end in the coming year. However, if we open ourselves to new possibilities and to options that we never before considered we just might find that at the end of 2014 things might go better. Even more important we might be different, better or changed. As T.S. Elliott wrote: “For last year’s words belong to last year’s language and next year’s words await another voice.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under Baseball, christian life, dogs, Just for fun, philosophy, PTSD

Happy New Year: Welcome to 1984, 30 Years Late; But Our Thoughts are Free

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Thoughts are free, who can guess them?
They fly by like nocturnal shadows.
No man can know them, no hunter can shoot them
with powder and lead: Thoughts are free! 

Die Gedanken Sind Frei (The Thoughts are Free) 

Welcome to 1984.

Okay, I know it’s 2014 but bear with me, I figured that the first post of the New Year should be about the reality that has been with us for years but most people didn’t recognize until 2013. The NSA revelations though shocking to many shouldn’t have been because almost every countries intelligence services are attempting to do similar things. Likewise the private sector both aids and abets the government intelligence and security services and do similar things themselves to their customers.

Technology is a great thing and we love it. We depend on it. Smart phones, internet, text messaging, blogs, electronic banking, finance and commerce, e-books, and even gaming technology has revolutionized the way that we live.

Technology itself is neutral, it can be used for good or evil and every point on the morality spectrum in between. Thus it can be used for good, for convenience and holds much promise for most people, even as a minority uses it to commit acts of terrorism as well as all sorts of criminal activity against otherwise honest and law abiding people.

The tension that exists between the good and evil uses of technology, especially after the attacks of September 11th 2001 has prompted different reactions from both civil libertarians and people trusted with security of nations, businesses and infrastructure networks.

The fact is I can understand and argue for a strong civil libertarian response as well as the security response. Honesty I wrestle with the tension between civil liberty, including the right to privacy and the need for security. I want both but the reality is that the world has changed since I grew up.  It is not that people, governments and businesses didn’t seek to impinge on personal freedom or privacy and that others did not seek to kill or disrupt the lives of others in times past. The difference is the vast advances in technology which enable all of them to have ever more influence over our lives.

Technology has made possible what George Orwell only imagined when he wrote 1984. Governments, business, the banking industry, private security firms, internet service providers and search engines, as well as criminals gather information for good and for bad purposes. For our security we use Passwords and Pins which others seek to crack, while those delicious Cookies that are planted on our computers when we visit different websites contribute to our convenience while enabling others to collect incredibly detailed information about us.

It really is amazing and unfortunately I don’t have any answers because I am a realist. I am not a fan of the National Security State, nor am I a fan of the way business and other organizations collect information. That being said I also know that there are those in the world who desire to use the technology that we are so dependent on to kill or harm people or disrupt society.

Back in the day when terrorism was simply a matter of relatively small bombs, assassinations, hijackings, kidnappings and postal or wire fraud it was a nuisance. It was bad if you were in the path of it but for most people it was not a real threat. I lived with it in the 1980s in Germany with the Red Army Faction, the Baader-Meinhoff gang  and Libyan agents blowing up American and West German facilities and kidnapping and killing soldiers. We lived with it, daily searches of our vehicles at the front gate and extra guard duties, my wife and I almost were at the Frankfurt PX when it was bombed in 1985.

But with the advent of technology even small and seemingly insignificant groups have unprecedented power to kill and destroy. The attacks on the Twin  Towers, the Tokyo subway system, the Madrid commuter trains, London transit system, the Moscow Subway system and theaters, hotels, restaurants and train stations in Mumbai India and the recent attacks on the Russian city of Volgagrad show our vulnerability to groups that use technology, old and new.  Likewise the ability of criminal organizations or individual criminals to use technology to gain access to massive amounts of financial data as was demonstrated in the breaking of Target’s retail system demonstrates our vulnerability.

We want absolute freedom, privacy and security. However absolutes are no longer possible. Absolute freedom has never been possible, though we like to imagine it, yet absolute security can only be achieved by sacrificing all freedom. Now days security usually trumps freedom especially when the potential losses in lives, property and treasure are so great.

My inclination is toward civil liberties and privacy but such in the modern world may be on way to extinction and not all because of technology. Yes the technological part is big, and as a realist I do not think as long as the capabilities that technology provides us exist and advance that we can go back to a point that they cannot be used against individual liberty, life or property. Again, they technology itself is neutral, but how it is used makes all the difference.

The more worrisome issue for me is the way that the freedom of thought is being extinguished not in the name of security or freedom but for efficiency. Various parties including government, political, religious, scientific and business interests all seek to control thought for their own purposes.

Thus even history is twisted, as Orwell wrote: “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” It used to be that conservatives complained about liberals doing revisionist history, but as a historian I find what I see coming out of some conservative circles much more frightening as history is twisted for the most gross political, religious and social ends. We allow half witted poorly educated loudmouths like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck to think for us, promote fake history and conspiracy theories while giving credence to fake historians like David Barton. If there is a danger to any real freedom of thought it is because we as a people have allowed ourselves to taken in by such charlatans. Likewise the corporate state uses academics and intellectuals to prop itself up but once it has them it refuses to let them function independently.

Chris Hedges wrote of the corporate state:

“It is one of the great ironies of corporate control that the corporate state needs the abilities of intellectuals to maintain power, yet outside of this role it refuses to permit intellectuals to think or function independently.”

While Ray Bradbury wrote in Fahrenheit 451:

“Cram them full of non-combustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change. Don’t give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy.”

I believe that in such an age that freedom of thought is the most important thing, even more than freedom of speech. Soren Kierkegaard wrote: “People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.”

In college I learned the words of the old German song Die Gedanken Sind Frei (The Thoughts are Free). It is an ancient song that during the days of Metternich was popular among student fraternities in Austria and the various German states. After the 1848 revolutions it was banned by many governments in their crackdown against democratic movements. It was a song close to many of the anti-Nazi resistance groups including the White Rose movement led in part by Sophie Scholl. In light of the terrifying possibilities of repression that exist with the technology of today and what will certainly come into being in the coming years it is important to realize that our liberty must always come from within. The third verse of the song goes like this:

And if I am thrown into the darkest dungeon,
all these are futile works,
because my thoughts tear all gates
and walls apart: Thoughts are free!

Bertram Russell wrote of the freedom of thought:

“Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth — more than ruin, more even than death. Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible, thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits; thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless of the well-tried wisdom of the ages. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid … Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man.”

It took some time but 1984 is finally really here. That is the new reality, but do not lose hope so long as your thoughts remain free.

Happy New Year!

Peace

Padre Steve+

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