Monthly Archives: September 2015

For Us or Against Us: The Politics of the Christian Right & the Shutdown

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Once again the United States stands on the verge of another potentially dangerous, and costly government shutdown led by the fanatical religious leaders of a political party. While it appears that a short –term stopgap bill will pass both houses, it will leave the country hanging for the next couple of months with another showdown in December.

Senator Mitch McConnell who the day President Obama took office in 2009 colluded with other GOP leaders to set a policies  to ensure Obama failed as president blamed Democrats for not passing various spending bills offered to by the GOP.  But he failed to note that the authors of the GOP bills, mainly from the Christian Right planted poisoned pills in each of them that ensured Democrat opposition. Truthfully those bills were not offered in good faith and gave Democrats no reason to vote for them. 

When I see this behavior I am reminded of the words of Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, who prosecuted the major Nazi War Criminals at Nuremberg; “[I]n our country are evangelists and zealots of many different political, economic and religious persuasions whose fanatical conviction is that all thought is divinely classified into two kinds — that which is their own and that which is false and dangerous.”

The leaders of this unabashedly shameless movement have no problem lying to, or deceiving their followers in order to accomplish their political goals. Sadly, almost all of them come from the supposedly Christian Right, and are determined to destroy the country in order to save it. They use the same kind of tactics used by extremists in other countries throughout history to destroy the political center and turn the government itself into an enemy, until they can take it over and use it for their purposes. Sadly, much of this is coming from a relatively small, but incredibly vocal and politically influential coalition of politically charged conservative Christians. The leaders of this movement have openly stated that their desire is to impose a Christian theocracy on the country, a theocracy where non-Christians, or non-believers of any kind would not have rights as citizens. The have taken up the mantle of the Emperor Constantine, who united the Roman Empire with the Church. George Truett, a great Southern Baptist champion of religious liberty noted:

“Constantine, the Emperor, saw something in the religion of Christ’s people which awakened his interest, and now we see him uniting religion to the state and marching up the marble steps of the Emperor’s palace, with the church robed in purple. Thus and there was begun the most baneful misalliance that ever fettered and cursed a suffering world…. When … Constantine crowned the union of church and state, the church was stamped with the spirit of the Caesars…. The long blighting record of the medieval ages is simply the working out of that idea.”

The late Senator Mark Hatfield, a strong evangelical Christian wrote “As a Christian, there is no other part of the New Right ideology that concerns me more than its self-serving misuse of religious faith. What is at stake here is the very integrity of biblical truth. The New Right, in many cases, is doing nothing less than placing a heretical claim on Christian faith that distorts, confuses, and destroys the opportunity for a biblical understanding of Jesus Christ and of his gospel for millions of people.” 

Since I have written about these supposedly Christian leaders numerous times and quoted them at length I am not going to go back into that; however, I will note the warning of colonial Baptist leader Roger Williams, who founded the Rhode Island Colony after fleeing the Massachusetts Bay Colony over the religious oppression of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which included killing heretics, conducting witch hunts and trials, and exterminating local Native Americans, especially those who had become Christians.

Williams wanted nothing of this and fled, swimming the Narraganset to reach Rhode Island. He wrote, “An enforced uniformity of religion throughout a nation or civil state, confounds the civil and religious, denies the principles of Christianity and civility, and that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh.”

Another early colonial New England Baptist leader, Isaac Backus wrote, “God has appointed two kinds of government in the world, which are distinct in their nature, and ought never to be confounded together; one of which is called civil, the other ecclesiastical government.”

Both of these men, and those who followed them in the tradition of religious liberty realized the importance of the absolute separation of church and state. Well, the Christian Right now has control of the Republican Party. In their zeal to destroy their political and religious enemies they will also destroy that party. Likewise they will cause great harm to the church and the Christian faith in this country. From Williams and Backus, to John Leland, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, to George Truett, Robert Jackson, Mark Hatfield and Barry Goldwater; true champions of religious liberty have recognized the danger of what is happening today and fought against it.

But will American Christians be willing to stand against this before liberty is lost, and the Christian faith in this country, destroyed by the fanatics who are leading the charge to shut down the government once again? Sadly, I doubt it. We may yet avoid the shutdown, but until Christians police themselves and the political leaders that they have elected, this will continue until freedom is lost, the country damaged, and the church discredited and destroyed.

The leaders of this movement undermined and destroyed Speaker of the House John Boehner, a conservative pro-life Catholic because he was not extreme enough for them. They are currently working to destroy other conservative Christian leaders in the Republican Party, including Senator McConnell and other conservative Christians who do not completely submit to them. These supposedly Christian leaders who are bringing this about are not conservatives, they are revolutionaries who believe that they are on a mission from God which trumps all else. Barry Goldwater was right about them when he said, the late Senator Barry Goldwater said in 1994, “Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the [Republican] party, and they’re sure trying to do so, it’s going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise. I know, I’ve tried to deal with them.”

But the leaders of this movement don’t care. In their apocalyptic worldview, it does not matter because they speak for God.  If they cannot win it all then they will leave scorched earth behind. The shutdown of 2013 and their actions this year show us that they would if need be, destroy the country in order to save it. That my friends is a scary thought.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Who but Tyrants? The Danger of State Religion

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

James Madison wrote something about certain Christians of his day that could have been written today. The topic, one of Madison’s favorite topics actually, was the subject of the relationship between church and state. Madison wrote:

“[T]here remains [in some parts of the country] a strong bias towards the old error, that without some sort of alliance or coalition between Govt. & Religion neither can be duly supported. Such indeed is the tendency to such a coalition, and such its corrupting influence on both parties, that the danger cannot be too carefully guarded against.”

I have lost count of the number of preachers, pundits, and politicians, who have been making public statements and doing their best to pass legislation to make Christianity the official state religion of the United States. To a person all represent the politically militant wing of the conservative, or maybe better named Right Wing Christianity. I wrote about this some yesterday and have written numerous pieces on the subject so I am not going to say much more here; except to say that the historical ignorance of those that want to impose Christianity as the law of the land is mind-numbing in large part because of how fiercely the concept was resisted by those who founded the United States.

The great Virginia Baptist leader John Leland, a friend of both Jefferson and Madison was scathing in his condemnation of those who wanted to impose a Christian state religion and place it in the Constitution:

“How undeniable the fact, that civil government is not founded on Christianity …. How improper, how unjust, how anti-Christian it must be, for one man or one party of men to get that kind of religion interwoven into the civil constitution, which they believe is best, under the pretence that their consciences are wounded if others do not believe like themselves. The plea of conscience, in such cases, is the art of ill design, or the effect of imposition, which none but tyrants or bigoted enthusiasts will make …. Government is the formation of an association of individuals, by mutual agreement, for mutual defence and advantage; to be governed by specific rules. And, when rightly formed, it embraces Pagans, Jews, Mahometans and Christians, within its fostering arms–prescribes no creed of faith for either of them–proscribes none of them for being heretics, promotes the man of talents and integrity, without inquiring after his religion–impartially protects all of them–punishes the man who works ill to his neighbor, let his faith and motives be what they may. Who, but tyrants, knaves and devils, can object to such government …. It is the glory of the United States, that, after Christian tyranny had raged with savage fury for fifteen hundred years, its progress should be arrested in this land of liberty.”

The fact is, in every place and clime where a religion, be it a Christian Church, or any non-Christian religion holds the franchise of power with the state that no person is safe. Robert Ingersoll stated it very well, “The liberty of man is not safe in the hands of any church. Wherever the Bible and sword are in partnership, man is a slave. All laws for the purpose of making man worship God, are born of the same spirit that kindled the fires of the auto da fe, and lovingly built the dungeons of the Inquisition….”

Today, a very vocal minority that has seized control of a major political party wish to reverse the very liberty promoted by our founders and men like Leland who fought for it by legislating at every turn laws which give special privilege to Christians, often under the name “Religious Freedom Restoration Acts,” which exempt people from obeying laws applicable to all citizens, merely based on their “sincere religious beliefs.” Some of these laws even permit discrimination against others based on an individual’s sincere religious beliefs. One of that party’s leading candidates for the Presidential nomination, Ben Carson, said that a Moslem should not be able to be President, defying the Constitution itself. I do not have to wonder what Jefferson, Madison, Leland or so many other pioneers of real religious liberty would say to Mr. Carson or others like him. Their replies to the people of their day more than suffice to reply to such ignorant buffoons.

Leland was right. This country was miraculous because to again quote Leland; It is the glory of the United States, that, after Christian tyranny had raged with savage fury for fifteen hundred years, its progress should be arrested in this land of liberty.” And as he so succinctly put it, who but tyrants, knaves, and devils, could resist a government which “embraces Pagans, Jews, Mahometans and Christians, within its fostering arms–prescribes no creed of faith for either of them–proscribes none of them for being heretics, promotes the man of talents and integrity, without inquiring after his religion–impartially protects all of them–punishes the man who works ill to his neighbor, let his faith and motives be what they may.”

For me it gets old to continue to have to write about this, but then someone has to, otherwise the truth about religious freedom will be trampled under the jack-boots of Christian tyrants who have the fact is we deceived sincere Christians into following a creed that will enslave them. History matters, and have not advanced so far that we cannot return to the barbarism of our ancestors. If the political manifestation of the Christian Right was ever to establish themselves and their Dominionist theology as the law of the land, we would all be in trouble.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Religion & State: The Less Mixed the Better

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Virginia Anglicans Persecution Baptists in the 1780s

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Robert Heinlein wrote that, “Almost any sect, cult, or religion will legislate its creed into law if it acquires the political power to do so.” His words are quite relevant and in a way consistent with the desires of the founders of the United States.

Since I am still getting readjusted to life back in the states after my very nice trip in Germany where I was mostly off the grid I will just share a few thoughts. They are not really original to me, but they are born of reflection on the palpable political anger of the politicians, pundits and preachers of the political-religious movement that I refer to as the “Christian Right.”

In order to be clearly understood it is important for my readers to understand that I am not lumping all “conservative Christians” into the political Christian right. In fact some conservative Christian traditions and their followers are diametrically opposed to the political theology of the Christian Right, which has as its heart the theology of Christian Dominionism, something I have written about many times. This is a modernized understanding of political Calvinism, which has sometimes known as “Seven-Mountain” theology, as such I make a profound distinction between such groups and the political movement which calls itself the Christian Right and assumes that as such it speaks for all conservative Christians.

Gary North, a prominent ideologue of the movement who has advised many of the current Christian Right leaders of the Republican Party, and whose ideas are widely promulgated by the politicians, pundits and preachers of the Christian Right was quite clear in what this movement desires. “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.” Thus, every time you hear the words “religious freedom” or “religious liberty” being uttered by them, please understand that they are talking about their religious liberty only, and that that liberty has at its heart the desire to establish their political-religious dogma as law of the land. Thomas Paine, the author of the amazing little book “Common Sense” which was so much a part of the thought of our founders noted, “Persecution is not an original feature in any religion; but it is always the strongly marked feature of all religions established by law.”

Robert Ingersoll, one of this first prominent skeptics in this country and acknowledged atheists wrote something quite profound in understanding the nature of what our founders intended and why there were protections both for and from religion in the Constitution:

“They knew that to put God in the constitution was to put man out. They knew that the recognition of a Deity would be seized upon by fanatics and zealots as a pretext for destroying the liberty of thought. They knew the terrible history of the church too well to place in her keeping or in the keeping of her God the sacred rights of man. They intended that all should have the right to worship or not to worship that our laws should make no distinction on account of creed. They intended to found and frame a government for man and for man alone. They wished to preserve the individuality of all to prevent the few from governing the many and the many from persecuting and destroying the few.”

Ingersoll correctly reflected the thoughts of Jefferson, Madison, Adams and even George Washington as well as early Virginia Baptist John Leland, and other pioneers of religious liberty like Roger Williams, the founder of the colony of Rhode Island.

According to every scientifically based survey of Christians and non-Christian attitudes toward the church and its religious involvement show that ever-increasing numbers of Christians are fleeing the church. Likewise, increasing numbers of non-Christians want nothing to do with it, even if they are favorably disposed to Jesus and his teachings.

In light of this fact, maybe it is time for Christians to get off their high-horse expecting that they should hold the rights to the political franchise and remember the words of James Madison who said, “Every new & successful example therefore of a perfect separation between ecclesiastical and civil matters, is of importance. And I have no doubt that every new example, will succeed, as every past one has done, in shewing that religion & Govt. will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.”

Have a great night,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Mass Movements, Devils & Tipping Points

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The Nazis made the Jews their “Devil”

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The great American philosopher, Eric Hoffer once wrote, “Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all the unifying agents. Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without a belief in a devil.”

Hatred is an amazing emotion. I the day and a half that I have been home from Europe I have been almost overwhelmed by the amount of hatred being posted on social media, blogs, and by supposedly Christian preachers, politicians and pundits. Of course if you want find a politician, pundit and preacher all wrapped into one person look no further than Baptist preacher, conservative media pundit, and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, but I digress…

It is funny when you even mildly disconnect from this climate for even a week, just how overwhelming returning to this can be, and how easy it would be to respond in kind, because unlike love, hatred is easy to conjure up. It is kind of like what you need to build a fire; fuel, oxygen and heat. To generate hatred on a massive scale all you need is a disaffected populace, a convenient target, and an agent to ignite the mixture.

Shrewd politicians, preachers, and pundits do this well. They demonize the target group or population and then let the hatred of their disaffected followers flow. The leaders need that disaffected and angry base in order to rise to power; such was how Hitler, Stalin, and so many other despots gained power. They took advantage of a climate of fear, and found others to blame. For Hitler it was the Jews; while for Stalin it was various groups like the Ukrainians, or the Poles who were the devil to be feared and destroyed. Timothy Snyder in his book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin wrote:

“Dead human beings provided retrospective arguments for the rectitude of policy. Hitler and Stalin thus shared a certain politics of tyranny: they brought about catastrophes, blamed the enemy of their choice, and then used the death of millions to make the case that their policies were necessary or desirable. Each of them had a transformative utopia, a group to be blamed when its realization proved impossible, and then a policy of mass murder that could be proclaimed as a kind of ersatz victory.”

Snyder is quite correct, demonizing a people and making them some kind of “other”, “they”, or “them”, is a wonderful way to blame a group of people for the ills of society. It is also a good way to deflect the blame for the corporate failures of societies and governments onto a convenient scapegoat; and to blame others for the personal failures and petty jealousies of the people doing the demonizing. It also allows people to abandon ethics and the simple notion of the Golden Rule an engage in genocide.

Mass movements and their leaders; of which the contemporary “Christian Right” is one, love to use this technique; especially when using it against those of other races or religions. The technique is not at all new, it has been used from antiquity but has become much more dangerous in the modern era with the spread of instant communications technology. History shows us all too clearly how it has happened and how easily it can happen again. Witch hunts, slavery and Jim Crow, the extermination of the Native Americans which inspired Hitler in his campaign of genocide and the Holocaust; the Soviet gulags and ethnic cleansings, the Rape of Nanking, the Chinese Communist “Cultural Revolution” the Rwandan genocide, Srebrenica, the Turkish genocide of the Armenians, and the current crimes against humanity of the so called Islamic State. Sadly, the list can go on and on.

All of these events simply required the elements of a disaffected population, a devil or scapegoat to blame, and a leader or leaders to ignite the volatile mixture; fuel, oxygen and heat. Hoffer was quite correct that “Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without a belief in a devil.” The really successful leaders of such movements understand this. For Hitler it was the Jews and other untermenschen; for American Southerners after the Civil it was the Blacks and their white supporters. For the American “Know Nothings” of the 1840s and 1850s it was immigrants, especially Irish and Germans who were Catholic; for Stalin it was non-Russian ethnic minorities. For the leaders of the Islamic State, it is Jews, Shi’ite Moslems, less than “faithful” Sunnis, Christians and well for that matter anyone who does not line up one hundred percent with them on every issue. The examples are so plentiful to support this fact that it is almost overwhelming.

The problem is that when any society, or government begins to label or stigmatize a race, religion, ethnicity, sexual preference, or political ideology, and then in the process demonize those people to the point that they become less than human we have reached a tipping point. We reach the point where we are just one crisis away from all of those crimes against humanity that we believe that we are no longer capable of doing. But sadly, we human beings are not nearly as evolved as we think and I think that the tipping point in the United States may be far closer than we could ever imagine.

Those that follow my writings on this site know how much I love the various Star Trek television series and movies. There is an episode (The Siege of AR-558) of Star Trek Deep Space Nine where the Ferengi bartender Quark, makes a truly astute observation during a battle for survival at an isolated outpost:

“Let me tell you something about Hew-mons, Nephew. They’re a wonderful, friendly people, as long as their bellies are full and their holosuites are working. But take away their creature comforts, deprive them of food, sleep, sonic showers, put their lives in jeopardy over an extended period of time and those same friendly, intelligent, wonderful people… will become as nasty and as violent as the most bloodthirsty Klingon. You don’t believe me? Look at those faces. Look in their eyes.”

I really do not think that we are too far from some tipping point where the politicians, pundits and preachers; especially those of the political right and the media whores who are more concerned about market share than truth, decide that their “devils” must be exterminated. Of course when they will do they will claim a higher moral, religious, or racial, purpose; or perhaps use the language of Manifest Destiny, the Lost Cause, or the Stab in the Back or some other historical myth that suffices to justify their actions.

In the Star Trek the Next Generation episode entitled The Drumhead Captain Picard has to warn his security officer, Lt Worf about the dangers of rampant paranoia. Worf starts: “Sir, the Federation does have enemies. We must seek them out.”
 

Picard pauses and then notes:

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

To claim Picard’s words for myself after being somewhat off the grid in Europe the past week and having come home to the fusillade of hatred being spewed forth, I have to admit that I don’t like what we have become either.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Oktoberfest, Community & Gemütlichkeit

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

This is the first of a series of short posts reflecting about our trip to Munich, Salzburg and the Oktoberfest.

We are back from Oktoberfest and starting to catch up on life back at home. The trip was wonderful Judy and I had a great visiting meeting and talking with a wide variety of people, from Munich locals, to Swiss, French, English, and other visitors to the Oktoberfest including American expats, and many others.

What we liked was that it was hard not to get a chance to talk and spend time with people, sitting in one of the Bier Gardens of the Hofbrauhaus tent at the Theriesienwiese grounds, the Hofbrauhaus itself, other restaurants, sidewalk cafes or the hotel bar. I have to say that the ease with which you can mix with and get to know people; the ability to talk about life, culture, and even current events without someone looking for an angle to exploit is in start contrast to so much of what we see in the States.

One of the interesting things is how the Germans, even those who live in big cities understand the concept of community. The Germans take life and work seriously, but unlike many, if not most of us, they know when business stops and fun, family and community begin. When people leave work they leave work, and even the business culture, in which stores are not open 24 hours or on Sundays provide Germans the opportunity to spend good amounts of time with family, their neighbors and friends as they meet for dinner or drinks at the local Gasthaus or inn on a regular basis. Likewise communities sponsor sports teams, and a wide array of other clubs that draw them together, everything from Rotary, to veterans associations, bands and choirs, hunting and shooting clubs and many more. Many of these groups sponsor events in which the entire community can partake.

The concept in all of this is that of Gemütlichkeit, a German word that basically describes a situation of where a cheerful mood, peace of mind and social acceptance are joined with the connotation of being unhurried in a cozy atmosphere. It also is understood in relationship to holidays where public festivities in the form of music, food, and drink help promote a sense of community. In this there is a sense that someone is part of something bigger than himself or herself where they are connected with being accepted by others while enriching the community.

Unfortunately for many Americans this is not the case. Unless one belongs to an organization such a various types of lodges, local sports fan clubs, or a local pub or bar where “everyone knows you name” there are precious few places one can experience this type of community. Churches like to claim that they are places of fellowship, but in my adult experience I have to say that most churches neither foster community nor are they places where one can go to be accepted. They are often the most cliquish, unfriendly, uninviting, and judgmental places around, and this is across the board. This cliquish and uninviting spirit covered in a veneer of spirituality and forced friendliness knows no denominational or theological boundaries, but I digress….

Judy and are lucky, we have a sense of community with friends who span the breadth of society; most of those who we know from the place where everyone knows our name, the Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant bar in Virginia Beach.

The Germans for all of their serious nature and sometimes-brusque manner of getting around do know how to draw the line between work, and play and in the process build community. Their cities and towns are designed to keep a community connection, including many parks; excellent public transportation systems, sidewalk cafes, local corner grocery stores and bakeries, as well as family run businesses that have not been destroyed by the huge box-stores like Wal-Mart. They are places that you get to know people, where life is lived, and community experienced.

Part of this is the difference in culture and how over the years our American culture has become detached from this sort of community. In many ways we have become increasing individualistic through the proliferation of suburbia, massive box-stores, and all that goes with it, including the abandonment of cities, and small poor rural communities. Even our churches, across the denominational spectrum have embraced the community destroying box-store religion of the mega-churches. The fact is we don’t know our neighbors and that leads to a culture that devalues people, destroys community and actually being on more social problems including crime.

Without community we fall back into our basest survival instincts; we see people in regard to what they can do for us. People simply become nothing more than commodities that we discard when they are no longer useful. We adopt the modern American business model as our model for relationships; and when we do this, we devalue friendship; we become paranoid, distrustful, isolated and ultimately come to despise our neighbors.

Anyway, speaking of this Judy and I will need to see some of our friends this afternoon and just enjoy that gift of friendship.

Wishing you all today that sense of Gemütlichkeit,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Do You wish to Resign? Oaths, Star Trek & Kim Davis

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

We are returning home from Germany and the Oktoberfest today, Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, as they say in Appalachia we should be home tonight. This post too was written and scheduled for publication before the trip. I do promise to write some articles about the trip to Munich, as well as our trips to Salzburg and Nuremberg over the next week or so.

But that being said, I was watching an episode of Star Trek the Next Generation before I we left for our trip to Germany on Thursday night, and there was a remarkable scene that occurred between Captain Jean Luc Picard (Sir Patrick Stewart) and Lieutenant Worf (Michael Dorn).

I think that the scene is especially pertinent in light of the controversy regarding the recalcitrant county clerk of Rowan County, Kentucky, Mrs. Kim Davis and her defiance of her oath of office in regard to issuing marriage licensees to Gay couples. In the episode, Worf avenges the murder of his mate by killing the man who killed her, a man who had also used his position to falsely accuse Worf’s father as and by Klingon law, Worf as traitors.

After Worf kills the man and returns to the Enterprise he claims that he has simply acted according to Klingon tradition. The response does not satisfy Picard who dresses Worf down. Picard notes that while Worf’s actions may be in accord with Klingon tradition that they are not in compliance with the oath that Worf, like all Starfleet officers swore to uphold:

“The High Council would seem to agree; they consider the matter closed. I don’t. Mr. Worf, the Enterprise crew currently includes representatives from thirteen planets. They each have their individual beliefs and values and I respect them all. But they have all chosen to serve Starfleet. If anyone cannot perform his or her duty, because of the demands of their society, they should resign. – Do you wish to resign?”

That is something that I think matters. In a country like the United States, composed of so many people of different races, cultures, ethnic groups, and religions there are bound to be times that the beliefs of certain people come in conflict with the oaths that they swear to the Constitution. In fact I would dare say that at any given time almost any American can find themselves disagreeing with the Constitution, the law and the government. That is something that our founders in their wisdom understood. Sadly, many Americans cannot understand that simple truth and assume that their personal beliefs, religious or otherwise trump the Constitution and any oaths that they have solemnly sworn, often in the name of God.

The fact is that without a respect for one another, and without understanding that we can all have our own beliefs, yet still agree to take oaths to uphold the law and defend the rights of people that we may not agree, that there is no freedom, only anarchy.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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I Imagined that it Would be Different than This: Thoughts on Coming Home from War

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Judy and I are now on our last full day in Germany and the Oktoberfest in Munich. Tomorrow evening we should be back in the good old USA. Since I am posting in advance as I do not plan on writing anything in Germany unless something really important happens, I am re-posting a modified version of an article that I first posted over a year ago.

For me it began in February 2008 when on the way back from Iraq the military charter aircraft bringing us home stopped in Ramstein Germany. After a few hour layover we re-boarded the aircraft but we were no longer alone, the rest of the aircraft had been filled with the families of soldiers and airmen stationed in Germany. Just days before most of us had been in Iraq or Afghanistan. The cries of children and the intrusion of these people, not bad people by any means on our return flight was shocking, it was like returning to a world that I no longer knew.

I think that coming home from war, especially for those damaged in some way, in mind, body or spirit is harder than being at war.

In that thought I am not alone. Erich Maria Remarque in his classic novel All Quiet on the Western Front wrote:

“I imagined leave would be different from this. Indeed, it was different a year ago. It is I of course that have changed in the interval. There lies a gulf between that time and today. At that time I still knew nothing about the war, we had been only in quiet sectors. But now I see that I have been crushed without knowing it. I find I do not belong here any more, it is a foreign world.”

Likewise, Guy Sajer a French-German from the Alsace and veteran of the Grossdeutschland Division on the Eastern Front in World War II noted at the end of his book The Forgotten Soldier: 

“In the train, rolling through the sunny French countryside, my head knocked against the wooden back of the seat. Other people, who seemed to belong to a different world, were laughing. I couldn’t laugh and couldn’t forget.”

I have been reminded of this several times in the past week. It began walking through a crowded Navy commissary on Saturday, in the few minutes in the store my anxiety level went up significantly. On Tuesday I learned of the death of Captain Tom Sitsch my last Commodore at EOD Group Two, who died by his own hand. His life had come apart. After a number of deployments to Iraq as the Commander EOD Mobile Unit 3 and of Task Force Troy he was afflicted with PTSD. Between June of 2008 and the end of 2009 he went from commanding an EOD Group to being forced to retire.  Today I had a long talk with a fairly young friend agonizing over continued medical treatments for terminal conditions he contracted in two tours in Iraq where he was awarded the Bronze Star twice.

I have a terrible insomnia, nightmares and night terrors due to PTSD. My memories of Iraq are still strong, and this week these conditions have been much worse. Sager wrote:

“Only happy people have nightmares, from overeating. For those who live a nightmare reality, sleep is a black hole, lost in time, like death.”

Nearly 20 years after returning from war, a survivor of the 1st Battalion 308th Infantry, the “Lost Battalion” of World War One, summed up the experience of so many men who come back from war:

“We just do not have the control we should have. I went through without a visible wound, but have spent many months in hospitals and dollars for medical treatment as a result of those terrible experiences.”

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Two time Medal of Honor winner Major General Smedley Butler toured Veterans hospitals following his retirement from the Marine Corps. He observed the soldiers who had been locked away. In his book War is a Racket:

“But the soldier pays the biggest part of this bill. If you don’t believe this, visit the American cemeteries on the battlefields abroad. Or visit  any of the veterans’ hospitals in the United States….I have visited eighteen government hospitals for veterans. In them are about 50,000 destroyed men- men who were the pick of the nation eighteen years ago. The very able chief surgeon at the government hospital in Milwaukee, where there are 3,800 of the living dead, told me that mortality among veterans is three times as great as among those who stayed home.”

Similarly Remarque wrote in All Quiet on the Western Front:

“A man cannot realize that above such shattered bodies there are still human faces in which life goes its daily round. And this is only one hospital, a single station; there are hundreds of thousands in Germany, hundreds of thousands in France, hundreds of thousands in Russia. How senseless is everything that can ever be written, done, or thought, when such things are possible. It must be all lies and of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood being poured out, these torture chambers in their hundreds of thousands. A hospital alone shows what war is.”

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Lieutenant Colonel Charles Whittlesey

Sometimes even those who have been awarded our Nation’s highest award for valor succumb to the demons of war that they cannot shake, and never completely adjust to life at “home” which is no longer home. For them it is a different, a foreign world to use the words of Sager and Remarque. Lieutenant Colonel Charles Whittlesey won the Medal Medal of Honor as Commander of 1st Battalion 308th Infantry, the “Lost Battalion” in France. After the war he was different. He gave up his civilian law practice and served as head of the Red Cross in New York. In that role, and as the Colonel for his reserve unit, he spent his time visiting the wounded who were still suffering in hospitals. He also made the effort to attend the funerals of veterans who had died. The continued reminders of the war that he could not come home from left him a different man. He committed suicide on November 21st 1921not long after serving as a pallbearer for the Unknown Soldier when that man was interred at Arlington National Cemetery.

In his eulogy, Judge Charles L. Hibbard noted:

“He is sitting on the piazza of a cottage by the sea on a glorious late September day but a few weeks ago. . . He is looking straight out to sea, with naught but sea between him and that land where lie so many of his boys. The beating surf is but an echo, the warm, bright sunshine, the blue sky, the dancing waves, all combine to charm. But a single look at his face and one knows he is unconscious of this glory of Nature. Somewhere far down in the depths of his being or in imagination far off across the waters he lives again the days that are past. That unconscious look has all the marks of deep sorrow, brooding tragedy, unbearable memories. Weeks pass. The mainspring of life is wound tighter and tighter and then comes the burial of the Unknown Soldier. This draws the last measure of reserve and with it the realization that life had little now to offer. This quiet, reserved personality drew away as it were from its habitation of flesh, thought out the future, measured the coming years and came to a mature decision. You say, ‘He had so much to live for – family, friends, and all that makes life sweet.’ No, my friends, life’s span for him was measured those days in that distant forest. He had plumbed the depth of tragic suffering; he had heard the world’s applause; he had seen and touched the great realities of life; and what remained was of little consequence. He craved rest, peace and sweet forgetfulness. He thought it out quietly, serenely, confidently, minutely. He came to a decision not lightly or unadvisedly, and in the end did what he thought was best, and in the comfort of that thought we too must rest. ‘Wounded in action,’ aye, sorely wounded in heart and soul and now most truly ‘missing in action.’”

Psychologist and professor Dr. Ari Solomon analyzed the case of Colonel Whittlesey and noted:

“If I could interview Whittlesey as a psychologist today, I’d especially have in mind … the sharp discrepancy between the public role he was playing and his hidden agony, his constant re-exposure to reminders of the battle, his possible lack of intimate relations, and his felt need to hide his pain even from family and dearest friends.”

I wish I had the answer. I have some ideas that date back to antiquity in the ways that tribes, clans and city states brought their warriors home. The warriors were recognized, there were public rituals, sometimes religious but other times not. But the difference is that the warriors were welcomed home by a community and re-integrated into it. They were allowed to share their stories, many of which were preserved through oral traditions so long that they eventually were written down, even in a mythologized state.

But we do not do that. Our society is disconnected, distant and often cold. Likewise it is polarized in ways that it has not been since the years before our terrible Civil War. Our warriors return from war, often alone, coming home to families, friends and communities that they no longer know. They are misunderstood because the population at large does not share their experience. The picture painted of them in the media, even when it is sympathetic is often a caricature; distance and the frenetic pace of our society break the camaraderie with the friends that they served alongside. Remarque wrote, “We were all at once terribly alone; and alone we must see it through.”

If we wonder about the suicide epidemic among veterans we have to ask hard questions. Questions like why do so many combat veterans have substance abuse problems and why is it that approximately one in ten prisoners serving time are veterans? It cannot be simply that they are all bad eggs. Many were and are smart, talented, compassionate and brave, tested and tried in ways that our civilian society has no understanding for or clue about. In fact to get in the military most had to be a cut above their peers. We have to ask if we are bringing our veterans home from war in a way that works. Maybe even more importantly we have to ask ourselves if as a culture if we have forgotten how to care about each other. How do we care for the men and women who bear the burden of war, even while the vast majority of the population basks in the freedom and security provided by the soldier without the ability to empathize because they have never shared that experience.

For every Tom Sitsch, Charles Whittlesey or people like my friend, there are countless others suffering in silence as a result of war. We really have to ask hard questions and then decide to do something as individuals, communities and government to do something about it. If we don’t a generation will suffer in silence.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Filed under History, leadership, Military, PTSD