It is New Year’s Eve and in some parts of the world it is already 2017, it is amazing how time flies.
After the year that was 2016 with its seeming unending cycle of violence, hate, war, destruction, and political turmoil including Brexit and the 2016 Presidential campaign that culminated in the election of Donald Trump is over. Overall 2016 was a difficult year, and some would even call it bad. One hundred years ago the world was engaged in a war that was killing thousands of men a day. Some hoped that 1917 would be better, but it wasn’t. In fact in some ways the conflagration that had erupted in 1914 would get far worse.
I hope that 2017 is different and turns out better than 2016, we certainly could use a break, but the forces of history and nature are sometimes greater than our hopes, but we can always hope. Even so more than hope we who believe in liberty, freedom, humanity, brotherhood, and justice must work against the forces of war, terrorism, dehumanization, and political ideologies that are designed to enslave, devalue, and marginal people based on race, religion, gender, color, or belief.
I believe that the forces that made 2016 so terrible will not take a break and that we need to stand up and do the right and sometimes the hard things in order to protect liberty. The time for safe zones is past, as progressives we have to toughen up; think rationally, and act strategically if we are to protect the liberties of all people, including people who will find out far to late that they placed their trust in the wrong place. But I digress…
Many people will see in the New Year singing Auld Lang Syne. I suppose that as Judy and I pop the Champagne and toast tonight when we watch the Ball descend in Times Square on our television, safe from all the drunk drivers that we will as well. Not that we will be isolated, we will go out earlier and see our friends at Gordon Biersch around dinner time and get out before the crowds get going and the place gets too loud and crazy for our tastes.
But my favorite song for the New Year is Abba’s Happy New Year. Like Auld Lang Syne it is a melancholy song of the end of one year’s hopes, dreams and expectations and hopes and dreams for the New Year. I think one of the lines that I like, one which I think calls on us to actually do more than hope, but to act on hope, is “May we all have a vision…” A vision requires that we begin to imagine a better future, in a sense it is to dream, as Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed, I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
To fulfill that dream and vision we must live, work, dream and imagine that things can be better, and as Dr. King said, Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.
And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream…
The song, Happy New Year ends with this verse, May we all have our hopes, our will to try, If we don’t we might as well lay down and die, You and I
Here is wishing you the best New Year possible, and I for one will not lay down and die.
As 2016 comes to an end I am remembering so many people who passed away this year. Death does seem to touch all of us, and I am pretty sure that most of us have probably had a relative, friend, coworker, or classmate pass away this year. Some might have been expected, others unexpected. Likewise some may have lived long and full lives and others lives seemingly cut too short. Henry David Thoreau wrote: “On the death of a friend, we should consider that the fates through confidence have devolved on us the task of a double living, that we have henceforth to fulfill the promise of our friend’s life also, in our own, to the world.”
Of course we read abut or see stories of people dying all the time. The media and especially social media assures us that we know about the deaths of famous people, or the deaths of large numbers of people in natural disasters, accidents, murders, wars, and terrorism. The former we tend to magnify because of our celebrity and media culture. Actors, musicians,. sports figures, and famous people become part of our lives, and when they die it seems that some part of us dies as well, even if we never met them. The one celebrity that actually I met and with who I chatted occasionally with on Facebook and Twitter was Patty Duke. Her death came as an absolute shock. But, even so among those I had never met there were so many who through their lives touched me. I was looking through the New York Times which has a gallery of notable deaths and was reminded of the stories, events, songs, sporting events, plays, films, inventions, and decisions that impacted my life. I was really amazed with who we lost and what so many had contributed to my life as I know it. The link is here: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/projects/notable-deaths/2016
But the latter, people whose lives end in large groups tend to just become numbers to us, and that is something we cannot allow. We must try the best we can to remember them as individual lives. That struck me last week when I read about the Russian aircraft that crashed with the Red Army Chorale aboard. I remember going the victims through name by name, as I did with the victims of the various terror attacks, and mass killings this year.
Then there were the stories of military personnel, or first-responders, killed in the line of duty. Those were important for me to read, and sense the common humanity.
But it gets harder when we see the mass killings and disasters around the world and the numbers become overwhelming. The temptation is to allow the dead to become mere statistics rather than people who had lives. Instead of thinking about a mass number of people which generally ends in a round number, let us remember individuals, like Army reserve Captain Antonio Davon Brown whose was killed at thee Pulse Nightclub, or Justin and Stephanie Shults who were killed in the Brussels terror attack, Sean and Brodie Copeland, killed in the Nice terror attack. Dr. Liza Glinka, the Russian humanitarian who died along with the Red Army Chorale.
Sean and Brodie Copeland
Dr. Liza Glinka
Of course there are so many more many whose names will never be known in the west, and because of the ravages of war and ethnic cleansing in the Middle East will have their lives erased from memory. So it is important to us to ensure that those lives, those individual lives multiplied a million times are not forgotten.
This year lost a number of friends and relatives. “New York” Mike Ferry and Cara Beruk Hartwell were people who helped hold me together when I was stationed at Camp LeJuene and struggling just to survive as I went through very dark times struggling with PTSD, TBI, terrible anxiety, depression, and times when I was considering suicide. My friend from Gordon Biersch Dave Shaw, a retired Navy Chief Hospital Corpsman planning to retire from his civilian career and travel around the country; my co-worker Bert Trembley whose sudden death coupled with a few other events kicked me into a tailspin at the end of March. My great-aunt Betty Dundas who loved to sing in the church choir; my former neighbor Tim Nestor who suffered for years with heart problems finally received a transplant but had complications which killed him; Bishop Randy Adler of my former church who was always so kind to me, and finally my high school friends, Stephanie Leon and Tony Martin. Tony took the time in his last month to spend time with me chatting via Facebook messenger as he was in the final stages of his battle with cancer.
In a world where death is always present it is important to remember the lives of people, not just their deaths. To quote Timothy Snyder death “must not, above all, supply the rounding rhetorical flourish that brings a story to a defined end.” Life gives meaning to death, rather than the other way around, so it is important that we remember the lives, not just the deaths if we are to retain any sense of humanity.
One of my favorite films is To Kill a Mockingbird. I am a convinced that many people that call themselves “conservative Christians,” are so busy protecting their place and power in society that they despise anyone not like them. For decades before and now after the election of Donald Trump the same collection of conservative Christian Supremacists have played fast and loose with the truth, scammed billions of dollars from desperate followers, and drove almost every moderate there ever was out of the Republican Party with their ideology of Christian Dominionism.
I have written about this before. In light of my experience with them I imagine that some of these folks will, now that they have help a man that they belief will fully support their agenda, “kill the Mockingbird” in order to ensure that they keep their privileged position in society. Traditionally the Mockingbirds are those people that they have condemned to social inferiority and discrimination and eternal punishment simply because they are different. To today’s theocrats, the most frequent targets of their wrath are gays and the LGBT community, as well as Muslims, other non-white immigrants, women, and the disabled. The fact that just because someone else gets equal rights doesn’t mean that they lose any rights equality before the law, except to persecute them, seems to be beyond their capability to understand.
This is especially the case of the preachers, pundits and politicians that crowd the airwaves and internet with their pronouncements against Gays, immigrants, Arabs, poor blacks, political liberals, progressive Christians, and for that matter anyone who simply wants the same rights enjoyed by these Christians. This makes me fear them more far more than I fear Donald Trump. They represent a majority of the Republican House caucus and there quite a few in the Senate including, Attorney General nominee Senator Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, whose racist sentiments were so reprehensible that kept him from appointment as a Federal Judge during the Reagan administration.
In the book there is a line spoken by Miss Maudie Atkinson, a neighbor of Atticus Finch and his children. She says to Atticus’s daughter Scout:
“Sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whiskey bottle in the hand of another… There are just some kind of men who – who’re so busy worrying about the next world they’ve never learned to live in this one, and you can look down the street and see the results.”
As I survey the world of Christian conservatives I become surer of this every day. I’ve often wrote about my own fears in regard to dealing with such people as well as the troubling trends that I see. Over the years I have written articles on the trends that I see in the church, trends toward greed, political power, social isolation and the active campaign of some to deny basic civil rights to people that they hate on purely religious grounds.
The language of some like Matt Staver of Liberty Counsel, Tony Perkins of the American Family Association and a host of others describe actions of governments and courts to ensure equal treatment of all people under the law as threats to Christians, affronts to them and of course to God. Their words are chilling. Before the Obergfell v. Hodges decision, Matt Staver that if the Supreme Court upheld marriage equity for gays that it would be like the Dred Scott decision. Of course that is one of the most Orwellian statements I have heard in a while, for the Dred Scott decision rolled back the few rights that blacks had anywhere in the country and crushed the rights of non-slave states. These men are now pushing to ensure that President-Elect Trump does there will, and some have pledged to turn against him if he doesn’t fully support their every demand. I hope that they become so onerous that Trump turns on them like he has on so many other past supporters. They would deserve it and this is a distinct possibility. If we look at history, every authoritarian leader of the past century has turned on supporters who think that they are more entitled than other followers, often with a vengeance.
Again, as a reminder to readers, especially those new to the site, I spent a large amount of my adult Christian life in that conservative Evangelical cocoon. I worked for a prominent television evangelist for several years, a man who has become an extreme spokesman for the religious political right. I know what goes on in such ministries, I know what goes on in such churches. I know the intolerance and the cold hearted political nature of the beast. I know and have gone to church with Randall Terry, the former head Operation Rescue who once said: “Let a wave of intolerance wash over you. I want you to let a wave of hatred wash over you. Yes, hate is good…” I have walked in those shoes, and at one time I was as whipped into a frenzy of hate by those preachers, and their colleagues in right wing talk radio. Thus I fully understand them.
As Atticus Finch told his children:
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
Thus I total reject the message of such people now, not out of ignorance, but because I have walked in their shoes. At times I supported their causes, not to any extreme, but all too often my crime was simply said nothing when I knew that what they preached, taught and lived was not at all Christian, but from the pits of Hell.
As far as them being entitled to hold whatever opinion they want, even if I disagree, yes that is their right. But as Atticus said:
“People are certainly entitled to think that I’m wrong, and they are entitled to full respect for their opinions. But before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The only thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”
My conscience will not allow me to be silent when I see men like Staver, Perkins, Franklin Graham and so many others preach hatred towards those who are different than them. In 2010 that caused me to be thrown out of a church I had served faithfully from over 14 years as a priest and chaplain. These people are viscous and need to be opposed at all costs.
In the movie and the book the Mockingbirds were Tom Robinson, the black man falsely accused of rape and assault and Boo Radley, a shy recluse feared by his neighbors, a man who stories were made up about; stories that turned a simple man into a monster in the eyes of people who did not know him. Today they are others who fit the Mockingbird role, people who just want to get along and live in peace, but who endure discrimination and damnation from those who call themselves Christians.
Jem Finch, the son of Atticus asks his sister a question in the book and the film:
“If there’s just one kind of folks, why can’t they get along with each other? If they’re all alike, why do they go out of their way to despise each other?”
I ask the same question on a daily basis and I wonder how it can happen again and again.
Just a short thought today. Yesterday was very tiring, we were dealing with a veterinary emergency with our older Papillon Minnie, and also had Judy’s follow-up appointment for the Endometrial Cancer she was operated on for in 2015. It looks like Minnie will be okay, she is spending the night in a fully staffed veterinary hospital where she will be monitored, medicated, and given IV’s after scaring the hell out of us with what our vet diagnosed as Hemorrhagic Gastroenteritis, and the hospital vet things might have been Pancreatitis. She had showed no signs of being sick when we went to bed last night but when we got up she had vomited multiple times and was crapping bright red blood. As soon as I saw it I scooped her up, called the vet and drove her there. We finally got home after transferring her to the overnight emergency vet about nine-thirty last night. She’s doing better and hopefully she will be home tomorrow. Of course in the middle of everything we learned that Carrie Fisher had died and as much as I want to reflect on her life I cannot now, other than to say that I admired her greatly, especially for her openness in speaking about her own mental health issues. When I suffered my own PTSD crisis and decided to speak out and be transparent about my struggles, she was a role model.
But, anyway, as a follow-up to what I wrote yesterday I wanted to share this thought, from the late Charles Morgan Jr. I wrote about his comments in regard to what he said after the bombing to the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham Alabama some 52 years ago before and think that they are as pertinent in the age of Trump than they were when he wrote them about the Jim Crow South.
Morgan was a well off young Southern gentleman, a lawyer, and a man with a conscience. He was a defender of the civil liberties of many people during his life, most of which were incredibly unpopular when he made his strand.
Morgan made a comment that really stuck in my brain because it is so true. He said,
“It is not by great acts but by small failures that freedom dies. . . . Justice and liberty die quietly, because men first learn to ignore injustice and then no longer recognize it.”
The truth is that it those small failures; first to turn our backs on justice and to ignore it, and then finally, to fail to even recognize it when justice is being trampled. That is how freedom dies. Sadly, those who most often trample freedoms, usually in the name of God or religion are the last to recognize their complicity in that loss of freedom. Judge Learned Hand spoke these words; “If we are to keep our democracy, there must be one commandment: Thou shalt not ration justice.”
Sadly, there are too many who will do just that, all to often in the name of their God, or their religion. If we ration justice so that only a few; the rich, and the well off are able to afford it, then we will succeed in standing idly by as injustice becomes the norm. I fear that in the coming months and years that justice itself will become a scarce commodity.
As always I admit that I hope that I am wrong, but from all I read from Trump’s supporters in the so-called Christian Right, the Neo-Nazis of the self-proclaimed Alt Right, and the most radical talking heads on radio, the internet, and heads of right wing political action groups, I fear that we are in for very rough times unless the President-Elect himself makes a stand, because the Republican Congress has shown time after time that they will not do so.
I have had a wonderful Christmas holiday with my wife Judy, our dogs, and friends. I have spent little time on social media and I am being very judicious in what I post, share, or tweet. Social media is a good thing, but over the past year I have found that it can also be a very dangerous and hateful place, full of the fallacies of ignorant ideologues. I have gotten to the point where I do not even look at any news sites after nine or ten at night. Instead I have been doing a lot of reading because I believe that true knowledge has nothing to do with dealing with an informational overload of hundreds of stories of often dubious veracity every day, as well as the propaganda that is knowingly published as if it were either real news or truth.
Sadly the purveyors of such material, including confidants of the President-Elect, and the hacks of the Right Wing like Rush Limbaugh, and rabid conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones are now ceaselessly working to destroy any confidence in reputable and conscientious journalists. They are using a tactic that was at the forefront of Nazi propaganda efforts: destroying the confidence of people in their nation’s institutions, which they wish to either destroy or use for their own purposes, and demonize the free press, which the Nazis called the Lugenpresse or the Lying Press, a term which has been frequently invoked by Trump supporters at his rallies before and after the election. During the campaign the President-Elect himself has all too often invoked the same specter to demonize the press as a whole or individual journalists without using the actual term.
Over the past month and a half I have read Timothy Snyder’s book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, Richard Evans’ Third Reich at War, William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, and I am currently reading Shirer’s Berlin Diary, and George Orwell’s 1984. Shirer’s Rise and Fall is a book that I read decades ago. All are helpful in understanding how despots and authoritarians come to power and how they destroy the institutions of democracy, including the press and free speech.
As such I am limiting my media intake to media that I trust, and that excludes every American cable news network. Before I post, tweet, or share any article I read it and check it out, and even then I don’t share everything. I am using what I am going to term media triage and just because I happen to agree with something doesn’t mean that I have to share it.
As a Russian pro-democracy leader: You live in exile now in the United States, you were thrown in jail more than once. What’s your advice to us, as pro-democracy Americans faced with real threats to civil liberties and democratic rights in this country?
The great chess master replied:
“First of all, people here should understand that nothing is for granted. There were many warnings in the past, you know, but every time, Americans and Europeans—they believe that it’s like bad weather. It comes and goes. But the danger is real. I always want to quote Ronald Reagan, who said, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.” Now, probably, it’s not even one generation. Things can happen very quickly, because there’s so much power that comes in the hands of people who have very little affection for the values that make up the core of liberal democracy and the free world.”
We live in a day where the virtues of the Enlightenment are not only taken for granted but despised by authoritarians and ordinary people alike. There are many reasons for this, some quite valid and others spurious, but they have taken their toll around the world, and we fail to understand just how fragile democracy, classic liberal values, and freedom itself for granted. British historian Niall Ferguson wrote:“So much of liberalism in its classical sense is taken for granted in the west today and even disrespected. We take freedom for granted, and because of this we don’t understand how incredibly vulnerable it is.”
I am still hoping, maybe in vain, that our democratic institutions will survive. Kasparov remains hopeful and noted in the interview: “But I still think that America has a huge potential to recover from this crisis, and let’s not forget that a majority of Americans did not vote for Donald Trump.” I think we do as well, but do fear that events may prove Kasparov and my hope wrong. Majorities often don’t matter to authoritarians, a trait which the President-Elect has reveled in throughout his campaign and in his post-campaign events, but I take what he says and does seriously, as we all should.
That’s all for tonight, as I have plenty more to write on this and related topics, so have a great day.
Over the past few days I have posted a number of articles dealing with the tragedy of war during the Christmas season and I am continuing that on this day which is often called the Second Day of Christmas or the Feast of St. Stephen.
Christmastide is a joyous time for many, but in the course of history there have been times that military men have fought and died in hopeless battles far from their families. Thus it is often a time of sorry, especially for those that die alone. Among those who died alone in the Arctic darkness of December 26th 1943 were the officers and crew of the German battlecruiser Scharnhorst.
Scharnhorst in port
The Scharnhorst along with her sister ship Gneisenau were the product of the naval architects of Germany who in the early 1930s designed some of the most beautiful as well as deadly warships of the Second World War. Following Germany’s rejection of the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles the Kreigsmarine enacted a building program to enlarge and modernize the German Navy which then was composed of obsolete pre-Dreadnaught battleships and a few modern light cruisers and destroyers. The first major units constructed were actually begun by the predecessor to the Kreigsmarine, the Reichsmarineof the Weimar Republic. These were the Deutschland class Armored Ships, sometimes called “Pocket Battleships” and later reclassified as Heavy Cruisers. These ships were designed to replace the old pre-Dreadnaught battleships and incorporated electric welds to reduce displacement, diesel engines for extended cruise range to enable them to serve as commerce raiders and a battery of six 11” guns. While an advance over anything in the German inventory they were outclassed by the British battle cruisers Hood, Renown and Repulse.
However, the first truly capital ships built by the Kriegsmarine were the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. Rated as battleships, in reality they were battle cruisers because of their light main battery of 11” guns as opposed to the 14”, 15” or 16” batteries of other nations battleships. Despite this in displacement and armor protection of the ships was comparable to other battleships of the era and their designed speed of 31.5 knots was superior to almost all other battleships of the era including the British King George V Class and the US Navy’s North Carolina class. Only the massive battlecruiser HMS Hoodwas their superior in speed and firepower.
As built Scharnhorst and Gneisenau displaced 31,000 toms, however at full combat load they both weighed in at nearly 38,000 tons and were 772 feet long. They had an armor belt that was nearly 14 inches thick. Armed with a main battery of nine 11” guns and a secondary armament of twelve 5.9 inch guns they also mounted a powerful for the time anti- aircraft battery of fourteen 4.1 inch guns, 16 37mm and 16 20mm anti-aircraft cannons. Additionally they mounted six 21” torpedo tubes and carried three Arado 196 A3 scout planes. The main battery was eventually to be replaced by six 15” guns but this never occurred although Gneisenauwas taken in hand to mount the new weapons but the conversion was never completed.
Scharnhorst firing at HMS Glorious
Laid down on 15 June 1935 and launched 3 October 1936 Scharnhorstwas commissioned 7 January 1939. Her sister Gneisenau was laid down 6 May 1935, launched 8 December 1936 and commissioned 21 May 1938. Upon the commencement of the Second World War the two sisters began a reign of destruction on British shipping. In November they sank the Armed Merchant Cruiser HMS Rawalpindi During Operation Weserübung the pair surprised sank the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious and her two escorting destroyers, the only time a Fleet carrier was caught and sunk by battleships during the war. From January to March 1941 they conducted Operation Berlin against British merchant shipping in the North Atlantic sinking 22 ships before returning to base.
Scharnhorst and Gneisenau during Operation Cerebus
While in the port of Brest Gneisenauwas bombed and torpedoed requiring extensive repairs. Due to the exposed location of the port the German high command decided to return the ships to Germany along with the Heavy Cruiser Prinz Eugen. The operation was called Operation Cerberus and it took place from 11-13 February 1942. The ships made a dash up the English Channel which was unsuccessfully contested by the British Royal Air Force and Royal Navy. However, both Scharnhorstand Gneisenau were damaged by mines and needed subsequent repairs. While undergoing repairs in Kiel Gneisenauwas further damaged by the Royal Air Force requiring repairs in or to steam to the port of Gotenhafen for repair and conversion. Although some work was completed she was decommissioned and sunk as a blockship on 23 March 1945. Following the war she was raised by the Poles and scrapped.
Scharnhorst was repaired following Operation Cerberes and in March 1943 was transferred to Norway where along with Tirpitz, Admiral Scheer, Lutzow (the former Deutschland), Admiral Hipper and Prinz Eugenshe became part of a “fleet in being” poised to strike the Allied convoys bound for Russia.
Admiral Bruce Fraser
The German surface ships were a potent force that if the circumstances allowed could devastate the Russia bound convoys and the Commander of the British Home Fleet, Admiral Bruce Fraser was determined to entrap and destroy any of these ships that threatened any convoy. As such in December 1943 Fraser formed a task group built around the HMS Duke of York to be ready to pounce on any German raider that threatened the convoys. His intent was to catch any of these ships, especially Scharnhorst and trap them between the convoys and their base, in conduction with a second task group centered around the cruisers HMS Belfast, HMS Norfolk, and HMS Sheffield, Known as Force One, and destroy the German battleship.
The key to British the British operation was Enigma the German code machine and cipher system which they had acquired from captured U-Boats, and which British code-breakers had mastered. The Germans decided to send Scharnhorst and five destroyers to locate and destroy convoy JW-55B which had been spotted by Luftwaffe reconnaissance aircraft. Because of EnigmaFraser knew that Scharnhorst would attempt to intercept the convoy and put his plan in motion.
Scharnhorst and her escorts set sail on Christmas Day 1943 under the command of Rear Admiral Erich Bey to conduct Operation Ostfront. Since Fraser knew that the Germans were coming he had the convoy to temporarily reverse course which caused the Germans to miss the convoy. When he did not find the convoy in the expected location Bey detached his destroyers to expand the search area, leaving Scharnhorst alone to face the enemy.
Rear Admiral Erich Bey
At about 0900 on December 26th 1943 the cruisers of Force One discovered Scharnhorst and the Battle of North Cape was on. Though little damage was suffered in the first engagement, the radar of Scharnhorst was knocked out, leaving her not only without air support or escort, but blind.
HMS Duke of York firing at Scharnhorst
Scharnhorst attempted to flee but Fraser’s Duke of Yorkand her four escorting destroyers destroyers intercepted her. Without radar in the blinding snow squalls Scharnhorst was surprised. Duke of York’s first radar direct salvos knocked out her forward main battery but the German ship appeared to be making a getaway when a shell from Duke of York hit her number one boiler room and reduced her speed to barely ten knots. Although the German engineers and damage control teams made some repairs and were able to bring her speed back up to 22 knots, the British ships rapidly made up the distance enabling the British destroyers to launch torpedo attacks.
Knowing the ship was doomed Admiral Bey dispatched a message to the high command of the Kriegsmarine: “We will fight on until the last shell is fired.”
While she still attempted to fight off her attackers and escape she was struck by torpedoes from several destroyers as well as was pummeled by the at at distance of under 10,000 yards by Duke of York’s 14″ shells, as well as the 6″ shells of HMS Belfast and HMS Jamaica. Savaged by hits and incapable of further resistance the German ship capsized and sank at 1945 hours with the loss of all but 36 of her 1968 man crew. Her wreck was discovered 3 October 2000 some 70 miles north of North Cape Norway.
Survivors of Scharnhorst
Admiral Fraser praised the gallantry of the German ship to his officers later that night saying: “Gentlemen, the battle against Scharnhorst has ended in victory for us. I hope that if any of you are ever called upon to lead a ship into action against an opponent many times superior, you will command your ship as gallantly as Scharnhorst was commanded today”
After the battle Grand Admiral Erich Raeder who had authorized the sortie was relieved as commander in chief of the navy and was replaced by Grand Admiral Karl Donitz who commanded the U-Boat forces. Hitler was furious and ended most surface naval operations.
Memorial to Scharnhorst and her crew at Kiel
I have written many times about the tragedy of war, on land and at sea. Having served in combat zones on land and having been shot at by the enemy, as well as having served at sea on a cruiser I have a sense of what these men must have gone through on that final day of their lives. Though I am a realist and know that such tragedies will likely occur again, I do pray for the day that war will be no more and that those who serve in harm’s way will never have to again.
The great American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned these words of hope on Christmas Day, 1863, “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; The wrong shall fail, the right prevail With peace on earth, good will to men.”
Today is Christmas and I felt that his words are as pertinent today as when he first penned them. The thought of what is to come in the next few years, in the United States and in many other liberal democracies bodes ill for our future as authoritarian and often xenophobic leaders rise to power. The world that we grew up is is passing away, and what comes in its place, a dystopian world where hope will be a rare commodity beckons.
His words became the heart of the song I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. I have heard it a number of times in the past few days and each time it really touches me.
The song has been recorded in a number of versions by different artists over the years. However, the words of the song go back to the American Civil War. It began as a poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on Christmas Day 1863 following the serious wounding of his son Charles, a Lieutenant in the Union Army at the Battle of New Hope Church, and the death of his wife in a fire two years before.
The words are haunting. Probably because they demonstrate the profound tension that lies at the heart of the Incarnation, which is the heart of Christmas and the Christian faith. the tension, played out so well in the song is the existence of a message of peace and reconciliation in a world where war and hatred of many kinds tear human beings apart and the tragic inability of Christendom to even come close to the message of Christmas.
I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
I thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along th’ unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
The reality of this is seen in the third verse. It is a verse that echoes throughout history and seems to be true even today, in fact it seems to be the most real as we deal with war, hatred, terrorism, killing in the name of God, and political fratricide.
And in despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”
The interesting part about the songs as opposed to the poem is that they omit three of Longfellow’s verses that admittedly in a reunited country would not help record sales. Those verses speak to the heart of the Civil War.
Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
But Longfellow hears in the bells something more powerful. It is the message of Christmas and the incarnation. The message that justice and peace will finally embrace.
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.”
Till ringing, singing on its way
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
The song has been recorded many times by many artists. I like the version sung by Frank Sinatra, which the music was composed by Johnny Marks, composer of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Another earlier version composed by John Baptiste Calkin has been recorded by Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash among others.
As wars rage in the Middle East, tensions rise in Asia, Africa and even Eastern Europe while the Unholy Trinity of Politicians, Pundits and Preacher rage as we go into another, and even more divided election season, people look for hope. Longfellow, who lost so much in a short time in the midst of a terrible Civil War, reminds us that in such times, “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; The wrong shall fail, the right prevail With peace on earth, good will to men.”
In a time like this it is important to remember these words.
It is Christmas Eve on this holiest of occasions I am posting an updated version of something that I have posted before because for me it means even more today than it has in the past few years.
As a veteran who served in the badlands of Al Anbar Province during Christmas of 2007 I can relate to Father Palmer, the British priest and chaplain in the film Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas)when he makes the comment “I belong with those who are in pain, and who have lost their faith, I belong here.” In the post-truth Trump era I feel my services will still be needed when those who believed in him discover just how badly they have been betrayed.
I again watched that film Wednesday. The film is the story of the amazing and exceptional Christmas Truce of 1914. It is a film that each time I see it that I discover something new, more powerful than the last time I viewed it. It reminds me of serving in Iraq, at Christmas from my perspective as a Chaplain, and thereby giving voice to those who serve now, as well as those who served God’s people in hellish places before me. It reminds me of how much I hate war, and how much I often hate the clergy who are all too often, bloodthirsty cheerleaders for war.
As a Chaplain I am drawn to the actions of the British Padre in the film, who during the truce conducts a Mass for all the soldiers, British, French and German in no-man’s land, who goes about caring for the soldiers both the living and the dead. His actions are contrasted with his Bishop who comes to relieve him of his duties and to urge on the replacement soldiers to better kill the Germans.
As the Chaplain begins to provide the last Rites to a dying soldier the Bishop walks in, in full purple cassock frock coat and hat and the chaplain looks up and kisses his ring.
As the chaplain looks at his clerical superior there is a silence and the Bishop looks sternly at the priest and addresses him:
“You’re being sent back to your parish in Scotland. I’ve brought you your marching orders.”
Stunned the Priest replies: “I belong with those who are in pain, and who have lost their faith, I belong here.”
The Bishop then sternly lectures the Priest: “I am very disappointed you know. When you requested permission to accompany the recruits from your parish I personally vouched for you. But then when I heard what happened I prayed for you.”
I have served that type of Bishop before, not anymore, but I have, and I have little tolerance for those of high office in the Church or anywhere else use their office not to serve the Prince of Peace, but the gods of war and greed.
The Priest humbly and respectfully yet with conviction responds to his superior: “I sincerely believe that our Lord Jesus Christ guided me in what was the most important Mass of my life. I tried to be true to his trust and carry his message to all, whoever they may be.”
The Bishop seems a bit taken aback but then blames the Chaplain for what will next happen to the Soldiers that he has served with in the trenches: “Those men who listened to you on Christmas Eve will very soon bitterly regret it; because in a few days time their regiment is to be disbanded by the order of His Majesty the King. Where will those poor boys end up on the front line now? And what will their families think?”
They are interrupted when a soldier walks in to let the Bishop know that the new soldiers are ready for his sermon. After acknowledging the messenger the Bishop continues: “They’re waiting for me to preach a sermon to those who are replacing those who went astray with you.”He gets ready to depart and continues: “May our Lord Jesus Christ guide your steps back to the straight and narrow path.”
The Priest looks at him and asks: “Is that truly the path of our Lord?”
The Bishop looks at the Priest and asks what I think is the most troubling question: “You’re not asking the right question. Think on this: are you really suitable to remain with us in the house of Our Lord?”
With that the Bishop leaves and goes on to preach. The words of the sermon are from a 1915 sermon preached by an Anglican Bishop in Westminster Abbey. They reflect the poisonous aspects of many religious leaders on all sides of the Great War, but also many religious leaders of various faiths even today, sadly I have to say Christian leaders are among the worst when it comes to inciting violence against those that they perceive as enemies of the Church, their nation or in some cases their political faction within a country. In the Trump era the powerful preachers are doing exactly that, and I will not condone their actions or remain silent. This is not about politics it is about the perversion of the Christian faith by those who should know better.
“Christ our Lord said, “Think not that I come to bring peace on earth. I come not to bring peace, but a sword.” The Gospel according to St. Matthew. Well, my brethren, the sword of the Lord is in your hands. You are the very defenders of civilization itself. The forces of good against the forces of evil. For this war is indeed a crusade! A holy war to save the freedom of the world. In truth I tell you: the Germans do not act like us, neither do they think like us, for they are not, like us, children of God. Are those who shell cities populated only by civilians the children of God? Are those who advanced armed hiding behind women and children the children of God? With God’s help, you must kill the Germans, good or bad, young or old. Kill every one of them so that it won’t have to be done again.”
The sermon is chilling and had it not been edited by the director would have contained the remark actually said by the real Bishop that the Germans “crucified babies on Christmas.” Of course that was typical of the propaganda of the time and similar to things that religious leaders of all faiths use to demonize their opponents and stir up violence in the name of their God.
When the Bishop leaves the Priest finishes his ministration to the wounded while listening to the words of the Bishop who is preaching not far away in the trenches. He meditates upon his simple cross, takes it off, kisses it hand hangs it upon a tripod where a container of water hangs.
The scene is chilling for a number of reasons. First is the obvious, the actions of a religious leader to denigrate the efforts of some to bring the Gospel of Peace into the abyss of Hell of earth and then to incite others to violence dehumanizing the enemy forces. The second and possibly even more troubling is to suggest that those who do not support dehumanizing and exterminating the enemy are not suitable to remain in the house of the Lord. Since I have had people, some in person and others on social media say similar things to what the Bishop asks Palmer the scene hits close to home.
When I left Iraq in February 2008 I felt that I was abandoning those committed to my spiritual care, but my time was up. Because of it I missed going with some of my advisors to Basra with the 1st Iraqi Division to retake that city from insurgents. It was only a bit over a month after I had celebrated what I consider to be my most important Masses of my life at COP South and COP North on December 23rd as well as Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. In fact they were really the last masses that I felt the mystery and awe of the love of God that I used to so much feel.
When I left the new incoming senior Chaplain refused to take my replacement leaving our advisers without dedicated support. He then slandered me behind my back because what I was doing was not how he would do things and because I and my relief were under someone else’s operational control. It is funny how word gets back to you when people talk behind your back. Thankfully he is now retired from the Navy and I feel for any ministers of his denomination under his “spiritual” care. So I cannot forget those days and every time I think about them, especially around Christmas I am somewhat melancholy and why I can relate so much to Father Palmer in the movie.
It has been nine years since those Christmas Masses and they still feel like yesterday. In the intervening years my life has been different. Just a year later I was walking home from church where my wife was to sing in the choir during the Christmas vigil mass. I couldn’t handle the crowds, the noise, and I felt so far away from God. That night I walked home in the dark looking up into the sky asking God if he still was there. If there had been a bar on the way home I would have stopped by and poured myself in.
Since Iraq I have dealt with severe and chronic PTSD, depression, anxiety and insomnia were coupled with a two year period where due to my struggles I lost faith, was for all practical purposes an agnostic. I felt abandoned by God, but even more so and maybe more importantly by my former church and most other Chaplains. It was like being radioactive, there was and is a stigma for Chaplains that admits to PTSD and go through a faith crisis, especially from other Chaplains and Clergy. It was just before Christmas in late 2009 that faith began to return in what I call my Christmas Miracle. But be sure, let no one tell you differently, no Soldier, Sailor, Marine or Airman who has suffered the trauma of war and admitted to PTSD does not feel the stigma that goes with it, and sadly, despite the best efforts of many there is a stigma.
Now that faith is different and I have become much more skeptical of the motivations of religious leaders, especially those that demonize and dehumanize those that do not believe like them or fully support their cause or agenda. Unfortunately there are far too many men and women who will use religion to do that, far too many.
As for me, I thought that I was in a better place a few years ago, but then I had the floor kicked from out from under me in the summer of 2014 and it has been a hard fight and while I have gotten back to a sense of normal, call it a “new normal,” it is a day to day thing. I still suffer the effects of the PTSD, especially the insomnia, nightmares and the nightmares which came back with a vengeance, I had one nightmare so realistic that I flew off the bed into a bookcase and broke my nose a few months back. I also still have the anxiety in crowded places and bad traffic, but working with my new therapist I am coming up with some effective coping mechanisms. As for faith, I do believe again, though at the same time I doubt. I would have to consider myself a Christian Agnostic who echoes the cry of the man who cried out to Jesus, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief!” I believe and I don’t, and yet I still believe.
Like the Priest in Joyeux Noel I know that my place is with those who are “in pain, and who have lost their faith.” For me this may no longer be on the battlefield as I will retire from the Navy in a few years. However, that being said I will strive to be there for those that struggle with faith and believe, especially those who struggle because of what they saw and experienced during war and when they returned home.
Likewise I expect that I will do my best to speak truth to those in power and those whose faithfulness is more a product of their comfort with the God that they create in their own mind rather than the Crucified God wise death on the Cross s a scandal. For many Christians the scandal of the cross is too easy to avoid by surrounding ourselves with pet theologies that appeal to our pride, prejudice and power, and vote into office men that mock the very faith that they say they believe. That kind of malevolent power represented by the bishop in Joyeux Noel. Thus I take a measure of comfort in the words of Simone Weil who said “He who has not God in himself cannot feel His absence.”
Thus, like Paul Tillich I have come to believe that “Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful.”In other words to become a complete pain in the ass until the day that I die.
It is almost Christmas and I am reflecting about the true meaning of Christmas in a world where hope seems to be dying before our eyes. In such an environment I reflect on men who lived in a human made hell, a hell made by hate filled ideologues who launched the world into its bloodiest war, and I wonder, could it happen again? A decade ago I would have said it never could again happen, but now I am not so sure. So I must try to find hope wherever I can find it.
I think most of my readers know that I am a career military officer and have served in peace and war as a chaplain. That service includes a tour in Iraq, a war, which by almost any standard would have been considered unjust and illegal, yet I served there, and came back a changed man. As such the stories of those who served in war, especially those who serve in hopeless battles, and even in evil causes during Christmas have a special place in my heart. One of those men was a German pastor and medical doctor named Kurt Reuber.
As I said, Reuber was a theologian, pastor and medical doctor, likewise he was an accomplished artist and used that medium to convey his own faith, and doubts. He was a friend of Albert Schweitzer in 1939 he was conscripted to serve as a physician in the Germany Army. By November 1942 he was a seasoned military physician serving with the 16th Panzer Division, part of the German 6th Army, which had been fighting in the hell of Stalingrad. When his division along with most of 6th Army was surrounded by the Soviets, cut off from most supply and without real hope of relief, he like other physicians continued to serve the soldiers committed to his care.
However, unlike most physicians, the care Reuber offered care included spiritual matters, as he sought to help his soldiers deal with the hopelessness of their situation. As Reuber reflected on the desperation of the German soldiers in the Stalingrad pocket. He wrote to his family.
“I wondered for a long while what I should paint, and in the end I decided on a Madonna, or mother and child. I have turned my hole in the frozen mud into a studio. The space is too small for me to be able to see the picture properly, so I climb on to a stool and look down at it from above, to get the perspective right. Everything is repeatedly knocked over, and my pencils vanish into the mud. There is nothing to lean my big picture of the Madonna against, except a sloping, home-made table past which I can just manage to squeeze. There are no proper materials and I have used a Russian map for paper. But I wish I could tell you how absorbed I have been painting my Madonna, and how much it means to me.”
“The picture looks like this: the mother’s head and the child’s lean toward each other, and a large cloak enfolds them both. It is intended to symbolize ‘security’ and ‘mother love.’ I remembered the words of St. John: light, life, and love. What more can I add? I wanted to suggest these three things in the homely and common vision of a mother with her child and the security that they represent.”
The picture was drawn on the back of a captured Soviet map and when he finished it he displayed it in his bunker, which became something of a shrine. Reuber wrote:
“When according to ancient custom I opened the Christmas door, the slatted door of our bunker, and the comrades went in, they stood as if entranced, devout and too moved to speak in front of the picture on the clay wall…The entire celebration took place under the influence of the picture, and they thoughtfully read the words: light, life, love…Whether commander or simple soldier, the Madonna was always an object of outward and inward contemplation.”
As the siege continued men came to the bunker for both medical care and spiritual solace. On Christmas Eve Reuber found himself treating a number of men wounded by bombs outside the bunker. Another soldier lay dying, just minutes before the soldier had been in the bunker singing the Christmas hymn O Du Froehliche. Reuber wrote:
“I spent Christmas evening with the other doctors and the sick. The Commanding Officer had presented the letter with his last bottle of Champagne. We raised our mugs and drank to those we love, but before we had had a chance to taste the wine we had to throw ourselves flat on the ground as a stick of bombs fell outside. I seized my doctor’s bag and ran to the scene of the explosions, where there were dead and wounded. My shelter with its lovely Christmas decorations became a dressing station. One of the dying men had been hit in the head and there was nothing more I could do for him. He had been with us at our celebration, and had only that moment left to go on duty, but before he went he had said: ‘I’ll finish the carol with first. O du Frohliche!” A few moments later he was dead. There was plenty of hard and sad work to do in our Christmas shelter. It is late now, but it is Christmas night still. And so much sadness everywhere.”
On January 9th 1943 with all hope of escape or reinforcement gone Reuber gave the picture to the battalion commander as the officer was too ill to carry on and was one of the last soldiers to be evacuated from the pocket. Reuber’s commander carried the Madonna out of the pocket and returned it delivered it to Reuber’s family, preserving it for all.
Reuber was taken prisoner and survived the harrowing winter march to the Yelabuga prison camp. In late 1943 Reuber wrote his Christmas Letter to a German Wife and Mother – Advent 1943. It was a spiritual reflection but also a reflection on the hope for life after the war, when the Nazi regime would be defeated, and Germany given a new birth.
“The concatenation of guilt and fate has opened our eyes wide to the guilt. You know, perhaps we will be grateful at the end of our present difficult path yet once again that we will be granted true salvation and liberation of the individual and the nation by apparent disappointment of our “anticipation of Advent”, by all of the suffering of last year’s as well as this year’s Christmas. According to ancient tradition, the Advent season is simultaneously the season of self-reflection. So at the very end, facing ruin, in death’s grip – what a revaluation of values has taken place in us! We thus want to use this period of waiting as inner preparation for a meaningful new existence and enterprise in our family, in our vocation, in the nation. The Christmas light of joy is already shining in the midst of our Advent path of death as a celebration of the birth of a new age in which – as hard as it may also be – we want to prove ourselves worthy of the newly given life.” (Erich Wiegand in Kurt Reuber, Pastor, Physician, Painter, Evangelischer Medienverb. Kassel 2004. )
Reuber did not live to see that day. He died of Typhus on January 20th 1944, not long after writing this and just a few weeks after painting another portrait of the Madonna, this one entitled The Prisoner’s Madonna. He was not alone, of the approximately 95,000 German POWs taken at Stalingrad only about 6,000 returned home.
His paintings survived the war and his family gave The Madonna of Stalingrad to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin after it was restored as a symbol of hope and reconciliation. Copies are also displayed in Coventry Cathedral and the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Volgograd, the former Stalingrad. A copy of The Prisoner’s Madonna is now displayed at the Church of the Resurrection in Kassel.
I have a print of the Madonna of Stalingrad in my office. It has become one of the most meaningful pictures I have since I returned from Iraq in 2008. To me they are symbols of God’s presence when God seems entirely absent.
Once again I delve into the vault of Christmas Past and post yet another collection of Christmas music from various Rock, Pop, R&B, and Country artists that I enjoy. I hope that you will as well.
I grew up in the 1960’s 1970’s and went to college in the 1980s. As such my musical taste reflects much of the Rock, Pop, R&B, and Country crossovers of the era. So here are some of those artists performing some of their Christmas music. I have also included some more contemporary artists whose music I enjoy. Some are religious in nature and some not. While some are just fun to listen to there are others that speak to the sadness and melancholy that some people feel this time of year. As I have grown older I have come to appreciate non-religious Christmas or holiday music, especially that which touches the deepest emotions and longings that I feel, just as much as I do the traditional hymns of Advent and Christmas. I find it interesting as I have mentioned before that so many of the performers are people who would not be welcome in any church because of their faith, or lack of, their politics, or their sexual preference. But I digress…
I have posted over sixty songs here and they are no particular order, and I hope that you enjoy them. My wish is that you enjoy the Christmas or whatever holiday you are celebrating; after all the key is to enjoy life and hopefully love as well this holiday season.
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