Monthly Archives: March 2014

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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The True Harbinger of Spring: Baseball Returns to Hampton Roads

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“That’s the true harbinger of spring, not crocuses or swallows returning to Capistrano, but the sound of a bat on a ball.”  Bill Veeck, 1976

After a long and hard winter here in Hampton Roads I can day that spring officially arrived on March 29th. Yes I know that spring actually according to the calendar began on the 20th but it really didn’t feel that way until today.

No I can’t say that the weather was that great, it was in the high 60s with rain showers which were heavy at times. However, like the swallows return to Capistrano baseball returned today to Hampton Roads.

Yes it was only an exhibition game between our home town Norfolk Tides and their Major League affiliate the Baltimore Orioles, but it was baseball. It was actually pretty good baseball because the Orioles and the Tides are stacked with some pretty good talent. After years of suffering it appears that we will do well in both the Major League and AAA Minor League levels.

The game was eventually rain shortened because the rain had made the field conditions too hazardous to risk injuries to players so close to Opening Day. The Orioles won 4-3, Matt Wieters hit a 3 run home run in the second inning that helped seal the win.

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For me it was also special because the ballpark is a refuge for me. After Iraq a baseball game remains one of the few places that I feel absolutely safe. The past few years I was in North Carolina and did not get to see nearly as much baseball in person as I would have liked. Before I went there in 2010 on a geographic bachelor tour at the Camp LeJeune Naval Hospital I was a season ticket holder and this year I am again. I know a lot of people in the Tides organization and have seen some of the young Orioles work their way up through the minors at Harbor Park.

So today it really didn’t matter what the score was, or who won or even that the rain shortened the game. What mattered to me was that baseball was back and that with its arrival spring is really here.

Mark Kramer said that “Baseball is a harbor, a seclusion from failure that really matters, a playful utopia in which virtuosity can be savored to the third decimal place of a batting average.” That is something that I have to agree with, it is a safe harbor.

In a couple of days the regular season will begin for the Orioles and the Tides. The 162 game major league regular season and the 142 game minor league season, the latter which begins for us in Norfolk on Thursday April 3rd. Of course I will be catching the first Major League games on television and be there for our home opener on Thursday.

This is a good thing for me, as baseball is a calming influence in my life. I totally agree with Walt Whitman who wrote:

“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.”

And with that I wish you blessings on this night.

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.

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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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Another Birthday another Year

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“With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come.” William Shakespeare

Well 54 years ago today my mother was recovering from about 20 hours of labor and wondering just what the hell she had gotten herself into. Of course we are celebrating my birthday even though I had nothing to do with it. Not a bad thing if you ask me, since birthdays happens to everybody.

Fifty-four years, wow hard to believe. I’ve lost my hair, my midsection is thicker than it used to be and I can’t see or hear as well as I used to but all that aside I’m not doing too terribly bad for my age. I still woke up this morning on this side of the great eternal dirt nap and didn’t see my name in the obituaries so it’s all good.

Funny thing about birthdays, we don’t get to pick them. I wish my mom had been able to hold out another 5-7 days because then I would have been able to celebrate my birthday on or around Opening Day, which of course should be a national holiday. However, I think that she did enough she had to deal with all of the pain and I don’t remember a thing. Besides she got me here safe and evidently the genetic material that she and my dad donated to the cause is pretty good. My blood pressure and cholesterol levels are better than a lot of people younger than me and I can still run five to six miles in decent time for my age and I can still do a lot of push ups and crunches.

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Birthdays, because they occur every day of the year are always linked to other events, people and anniversaries. The most notable of these for me is the fact that on March 27th 1794 Congress authorized the construction of six frigates, effectively establishing the United States Navy as opposed to the Continental Navy from which we derive our official birthday.

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As far as people I share my birthday with singer Mariah Carey, San Francisco Giants Catcher Buster Posey, Colorado Rockies’ First Baseman Michael Cuddyer, producer and director Quentin Tarantino and Wilhelm Roentgen, the inventor of the X-Ray. I also share a birthday, in fact just a few hours apart with my wife’s best friend Tootsie and her niece Stephanie. When we started dating March 27th was a very busy and expensive day for her.

So what I realize is that when we celebrate our birthday we are actually celebrating someone else’s work and suffering. So thanks mom and dad. Likewise I have learned the value of getting older. The late and great Hall of Fame Manager of the Baltimore Orioles noted “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” I certainly realize that more and more every day.

So anyway, despite dealing with contractors, not getting a lot of sleep and trying to balance out life it has been a happy birthday. I have a wonderful wife, two great dogs and a lot of good friends.

So have a great night and until tomorrow, and if by some chance you are celebrating a birthday too…Happy Birthday!

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Freedom of Living on the Margins of American Christianity

1622612_10152232336042059_727365308_nMe and my Littlest Buddy, Minnie Scule

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Padre Steve Shrugged: My Frustration with the Christian Subculture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So for tonight and until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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