Category Archives: christian life

The Power of the Lie: Propaganda and Undying Belief in the Leader


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

After a long day of travel and some intitial meetings at my denominational chaplain training symposium I settled back into my hotel, contemplating some of the events of the past week and reflected on Hannah Arendt’s book The Origins of Totalitarianism which I finished reading this week. It is a very hard read because each sentence, each paragraph, and each page requires one to think about history, philosophy, ethics, religion, and politics. In fact, if a reader is lacking in these disciplines they will not fully appreciate both the message and the timeliness of this book, which was published over sixty years ago. Sadly, the state of our educational system means that even many college educated people, whose education has prepared them for the workplace but unable to think critically would have trouble appreciating Arendt’s words. 

With us now at President Trump’s 100 day point, in which he has failed to accomplish any for his promises and according to his own words did not realize hard difficult being the President would be, it is important to reflect on the present and the past, to compare, contrast, and learn lessons. There are many to learn, but I think the most important is the power of lies and propaganda in the minds of the President’s most loyal supporters, Evangelical Christians. He won over 80% of the Evangelical vote, and in the most recent opinion polls Evangelicals remain the President’s most loyal followers, and are more likely to believe his most demonstrably verifiable falsehoods than anyone, despite the fact that the President in his actions and words mocks the heart of the Christian faith on a daily basis even while chumming the water with new promises designed to keep Evangelicals in his camp. Trump has successfully co-opted Evangelicals using the same “us against them” language that the preachers of the supposedly Christian Right and their political allies in the GOP have been using for forty years. 

Arendt repeatedly addressed the subject of followers who support leaders that do not have their interests at heart. She noted:

“The obvious contradiction between a mass organization and an exclusive society, which alone can be trusted to keep a secret, is of no importance compared with the fact that the very structure of secret and conspiratory societies could translate the totalitarian ideological dichotomy—the blind hostility of the masses against the existing world regardless of its divergences and differences—into an organizational principle. From the viewpoint of an organization which functions according to the principle that whoever is not included is excluded, whoever is not with me is against me, the world at large loses all the nuances, differentiations, and pluralistic aspects which had in any event become confusing and unbearable to the masses who had lost their place and their orientation in it.” 

The apocalyptic worldview of Evangelicals, shaped by decades of propaganda claiming that Christians were being persecuted, and the mythology promoted by Tim LaHaye’s thirteen best selling novels of the Left Behind series have created a base that is willing to believe every conspiracy theory imaginable. As Arendt wrote: 

“The claim inherent in totalitarian organization is that everything outside the movement is “dying,” a claim which is drastically realized under the murderous conditions of totalitarian rule, but which even in the prepower stage appears plausible to the masses who escape from disintegration and disorientation into the fictitious home of the movement. Totalitarian movements have proved time and again that they can command the same total loyalty in life and death which had been the prerogative of secret and conspiratory societies.” 

Many Americans, and not just Conservatives and Evangelicals, but people on the Left as well have become both gullible and cynical, the way some on the Left threw Hillary Clinton under the bus based on now discredited conspiracy theories, and who were in large part to blame for her defeat is prima facia evidence. But this trait is particularly strong in Evangelicals and in Evangelical culture. I know this because I grew up in it and worked for a televangelist in seminary some 25 years ago who later jumped in big on the Trump train. 


It is easy to be taken in by such propaganda. William Shirer, an American newspaper and radio correspondent who spent eight years in Nazi Germany wrote: 

“I myself was to experience how easily one is taken in by a lying and censored press and radio in a totalitarian state. Though unlike most Germans I had daily access to foreign newspapers, especially those of London, Paris and Zurich, which arrived the day after publication, and though I listened regularly to the BBC and other foreign broadcasts, my job necessitated the spending of many hours a day in combing the German press, checking the German radio, conferring with Nazi officials and going to party meetings. It was surprising and sometimes consternating to find that notwithstanding the opportunities I had to learn the facts and despite one’s inherent distrust of what one learned from Nazi sources, a steady diet over the years of falsifications and distortions made a certain impression on one’s mind and often misled it. No one who has not lived for years in a totalitarian land can possibly conceive how difficult it is to escape the dread consequences of a regime’s calculated and incessant propaganda.” 

I lived that in Evangelicalism as well as in conservative Anglicanism but escaped it. But the fact is, that for decades the Conservative movement and in particular conservative Evangelicalism have lived in the cloud-cuckoo-world of propaganda and conspiracy theories promoted by unsavory radio and television commentators like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Alex Jones, and Bill O’Reilly and hundreds more like them, as well as their own politically oriented preachers like Mike Huckabee, Franklin Graham, James Robison and thousands of others. 

Arendt wrote: 

“A mixture of gullibility and cynicism had been an outstanding characteristic of mob mentality before it became an everyday phenomenon of masses. In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true… Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.”

That my friends is what those who stand aghast at the deliberate falsifications of the Trump administration are fighting against. So anyway. Enough for now. I hope that I have time to follow this up tomorrow as I head home. Until then. 

Peace

Padre Steve+

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An Easter Thought for those Who Struggle

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today I am just wishing you a happy Easter, whatever that may mean to you. Now I know that many of my readers are not Christians, or struggle with faith and belief. I do too. I am all too much like the disciples of Jesus who could not believe the message of the resurrection on that first Easter morning. Even so this morning I will add my alleluia to the cry “He is risen!” 

Easter can be a difficult time for those that struggle with faith and for those that do so struggle, life can be more like Good Friday and the joy that many celebrate on Easter can be hard to find, W.H. Auden said it well:

“Christmas and Easter can be subjects for poetry, but Good Friday, like Auschwitz, cannot. The reality is so horrible it is not surprising that people should have found it a stumbling block to faith.” 

For all too many people, including me after Iraq faith is a struggle. I’m doing better right now, but I still struggle. I know the theology, I believe, yet I struggle. The actions of many who call themselves Christians, the hatred shown by many Christian leaders for others, and the way my Christian fore bearers throughout history have acted out of hate and the need to dominate others in the name of Jesus troubles me and gives me pause.  At times I wonder if anything that the Church proclaims can be true because its witness and its hostility to others is so contrary to that of Jesus. Mahatma Gandhi well summed up my feelings when he remarked: “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” 

I think I understand what Easter means, according to my often painfully inadequate faith, it is the triumph of life over death that only comes only through the experience of Good Friday, the emptiness of what we now call Holy Saturday, and the shock of the resurrection.  One of my favorite theologians, Jurgen Moltmann, wrote:

“In the cross of Christ God is taking man dead-seriously so that he may open up for him the happy freedom of Easter. God takes upon himself the pain of negation and the God forsakenness of judgement to reconcile himself with his enemies and to give the godless fellowship with himself.”

God shares our pain. But for those that struggle and those walking through their own personal versions of Good Friday, Easter often seems like it will never come. I can understand that.

So for all my readers where ever you are and whatever you are going through, be it joy or sorrow, love or loss, even suffering or death; I wish you the best this Easter and I do pray that one day we will all understand what all this means. Until then, for me it will mean opening my life, my inadequate faith, my friendship, and my door to all who I encounter.  That will be my “Alleluia.”

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Christian Choice: The Idolatrous Worship of Power or Stand in Favor of the Weak

Dietrich Bonhoeffer 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

One of the most frightening things to me as a historian who happens of claim to be a Christian is the propensity for the Church and its leaders to be attracted to the worship of power and all of its folly. This has been the case since Constantine made Christianity the State religion of the Roman Empire. Leaders of the church in every place and clime as well as almost every denomination have cozied up to rulers in the pursuit of power almost always to the detriment the Church and sometimes their nation. The hierarchies of different churches were in the forefront of the extermination of supposed “heretics,” the persecution of non-state favored religions, the slave trade, the conquest, subjugation, and extermination of indigenous peoples in the Americas, Africa, parts of Asia; they were often the supporters of disastrous wars, and at home used their place of power to wealthy beyond all measure.

Conversely, on the occasions where the Church and its leaders have advocated for the poor, the marginalized, and others who had no earthly power it lead to advances in human rights and liberty. The abolition of slavery in Great Britain was led by William Wilberforce against heated opposition in Parliament and even the Church of England that spanned decades. During the period of the Industrial Revolution, some churches and Christians made a determined effort to end child labor, support workers’ rights, and advocate for the poor, but many others feasted upon the wealth that their rich benefactors lavished upon them and remained silent. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other African American church leaders helped lead the Civil Rights movement and were joined by some white religious leaders, but many others, including men who were early leaders of the Christian Right opposed the Civil rights movement and used their pulpits to advocate for segregation. Many other just remained silent, just as their forbears had from Constantine one. Silence and the acquiescence to injustice has been a hallmark of the Christian church.

The German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw the disastrous effects of the German church’s subservience to the Nazi regime and before that to the Kaiser. He wrote:

“Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear rather than too much. Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more, than they are doing now. Christian should take a stronger stand in favor of the weak rather than considering first the possible right of the strong.”

Sophie Scholl (Center)

Bonhoeffer spoke those words in a 1934 sermon, just a bit over a year following the Nazi takeover as Hitler was still consolidating his power and before he and his regime began their war of conquest and extermination. Some German Christians did take the chance to stand up for those oppressed by the Nazis, both in Germany in in the areas the Nazis conquered. Many of those who did would pay for their opposition with either their freedom or their lives, but most of the church was silent. One of the young Christians who opposed the Nazis was Sophie Scholl, a 22 year old student at the University of Munich. She and a number of fellow students formed a group called the White Rose to distribute anti-Nazi materials and to speak out against the crimes of the regime. She wanted those Christians of her day that silence was not an option. She wrote:

“The real damage is done by those millions who want to ‘survive.’ The honest men who just want to be left in peace. Those who don’t want their little lives disturbed by anything bigger than themselves. Those with no sides and no causes. Those who won’t take measure of their own strength, for fear of antagonizing their own weakness. Those who don’t like to make waves—or enemies. Those for whom freedom, honor, truth, and principles are only literature. Those who live small, mate small, die small. It’s the reductionist approach to life: if you keep it small, you’ll keep it under control. If you don’t make any noise, the bogeyman won’t find you. But it’s all an illusion, because they die too, those people who roll up their spirits into tiny little balls so as to be safe. Safe?! From what? Life is always on the edge of death; narrow streets lead to the same place as wide avenues, and a little candle burns itself out just like a flaming torch does. I choose my own way to burn.”

The same is true today in the United States. The vast majority of Evangelical Christians who support the policies of the Trump presidency in order to be at the table of temporal power have cast the church into the pigsty of lies and polices that crush the lives of people who have no power and mock the words of Jesus.

There is a choice to be made by anyone who claims the mantle of Jesus the Christ or claims to follow him. Will we do better than our ancestors or will we to silently slide down the road to perdition?

With that I will end for the day. Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The “Chosen People” of the Confederacy and the Mission to Advance Slavery

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Another in my series dealing with aspects of Black history in the United States which is in every bit a part of American history as any other historical narrative about our nation. One thing that constantly amazes me is the way that some people, in fact many people, including the School Board of the State of Texas go out of their way to minimize the real and tragically crime against humanity that American slavery represented. Like many of the proponents of the whitewashing of slavery out of school textbooks, many of the most vehement supporters of the institution of slavery and its supposed Divine mandate were Christian churches, preachers, and writers. They were in the forefront of the secession movement and at the beginning of the Civil War bragged about how “God was on their side.” One again this is not an easy read if you take your Christian faith seriously, and it has direct application in how american Christians treat other despised races, ethnic groups, religions, and lifestyles today.

So have a great day,

Peace

Padre Steve+

OTCauction

 

“Lo! Suddenly, to the amazement of the world a mighty kingdom arose…. [of strictly providential Divine origin….The One like the Son of Man has appeared in the ride of the Confederate States.” Reverend William Seat 1862 [1]

Perhaps more than anything, the denominational splits helped prepare the Southern people as well as clergy for secession and war. They set precedent by which Southerners left established national organizations. When secession came, “the majority of young Protestant preachers were already primed by their respective church traditions to regard the possibilities of political separation from the United States without undue anxiety.” [2]

One of the most powerful ideological tools since the days of the ancients has been the linkage of religion to the state. While religion has always been a driving force in American life since the days of the Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, especially in the belief about the destiny of the nation as God’s “Chosen People,” it was in the South where the old Puritan beliefs took firm root in culture, society, politics and the ideology which justified slavery and became indelibly linked to Southern nationalism. “Confederate independence, explained a Methodist tract quoting Puritan John Winthrop, was intended to enable the South, “like a city set on a hill’ [to] fulfill her God given mission to exalt in civilization and Christianity the nations of the earth.” [3]

Religion and the churches “supplied the overarching framework for southern nationalism. As Confederates cast themselves as God’s chosen people.” [4]  the defense of slavery was a major part of their mission. Southern clergymen had to find a balance between the two most important parts of their political and religious identity, evangelicalism and republicanism. Since these concepts could mean different things to different people Southern clergy and politicians had to find a way to combine the two. Depending on the interpreter “republicanism and evangelicalism could be reactionary or progressive in implication, elitist or democratic.” [5] This can be seen in how Northern and Southern evangelicals supported abolition or the institution of slavery.

A group of 154 clergymen calling themselves “The Clergy of the South” “warned the world’s Christians that the North was perpetuating a plot of “interference with the plans of Divine Providence.” [6] A Tennessee pastor bluntly stated in 1861 that “In all contests between nations God espouses the cause of the Righteous and makes it his own….The institution of slavery according to the Bible is right. Therefore in the contest between the North and the South, He will espouse the cause of the South and make it his own.” [7]

The effect of such discourse on leaders as well as individuals was to unify the struggle as something that linked the nation to God, and God’s purposes to the nation identifying both as being the instruments of God’s Will and Divine Providence. As such, for Southern preachers to be successful agents of the state, the “key to their success as the foundation of a hegemonic ideology lay in making” [8] evangelicalism and republicanism to seem to be both elitist and democratic at the same time.  This resulted in a need to convince the “Southern people to acknowledge God’s authority was bound up with a legitimization of both clerical and civil rulers. Christian humility became identified with social and political deference as the clergy urged submission to both God and Jefferson Davis.” [9]

“Sacred and secular history, like religion and politics, had become all but indistinguishable… The analogy between the Confederacy and the chosen Hebrew nation was invoked so often as to be transformed into a figure of everyday speech. Like the United States before it, the Confederacy became a redeemer nation, the new Israel.” [10]

jackson-prayer

This theology also motivated men like the convinced hard line Calvinist-Presbyterian, General Stonewall Jackson on the battlefield. Jackson’s brutal, Old Testament understanding of the war caused him to murmur: “No quarter to the violators of our homes and firesides,” and when someone deplored the necessity of destroying so many brave men, he exclaimed: “No, shoot them all, I do not wish them to be brave.” [11] He told Richard Ewell after that General order his men not to fire on a Union officer galloping on a white horse during the Valley campaign, “Never do such a thing again, General Ewell. This is no ordinary war. The brave Federal officers are the very kind that must be killed. Shoot the brave officers and the cowards will run away with their men with them.” [12]

For Southerner’s, both lay and clergy alike “Slavery became in secular and religious discourse, the central component of the mission God had designed for the South….The Confederates were fighting a just war not only because they were, in the traditional framework of just war theory, defending themselves against invasion, they were struggling to carry out God’s designs for a heathen race.” [13]

From “the beginning of the war southern churches of all sorts with few exceptions promoted the cause militant” [14] and supported war efforts.  The early military victories of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and the victories of Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley   were celebrated as “providential validations of the cause that could not fail…” Texas Methodist minister William Seat wrote: “Never surely since the Wars of God’s ancient people has there been such a remarkable and uniform success against tremendous odds. The explanation is found in the fact that the Lord goes forth to fight against the coercion by foes of his particular people. Thus it has been and thus it will be to the end of the War.”  [15]

lee-jackson-in-prayer

This brought about a intertwining of church and state authority, a veritable understanding of theocracy as “The need for the southern people to acknowledge God’s authority was bound up with a legitimation of the authority of clerical and civil rulers. Christian humility became identified with social and political deference to both God and Jefferson Davis.” [16]

Jefferson Davis and other leaders helped bolster this belief:

“In his repeated calls for God’s aid and in his declaration of national days of fasting, humiliation, and prayer on nine occasions throughout the war, Jefferson Davis similarly acknowledged the need for a larger scope of legitimization. Nationhood had to be tied to higher ends. The South, it seemed, could not just be politically independent; it wanted to believe it was divinely chosen.” [17]

Davis’s actions likewise bolstered his support and the support for the war among the clergy. A clergyman urged his congregation that the people of the South needed to relearn “the virtue of reverence – and the lesson of respecting, obeying, and honoring authority, for authority’s sake.” [18]

leonidas-polk

Bishop Leonidas Polk

Confederate clergymen not only were spokesmen and supporters of slavery, secession and independence, but many also shed their clerical robes and put on Confederate Gray as soldiers, officers and even generals fighting for the Confederacy. Bishop Leonidas Polk, the Episcopal Bishop of Louisiana, who had been a classmate of Jefferson Davis at West Point was commissioned as a Major General and appointed to command the troops in the Mississippi Valley. Polk did not resign his ecclesiastical office, and “Northerners expressed horror at such sacrilege, but Southerners were delighted with this transfer from the Army of the Lord.” [19] Lee’s chief of Artillery Brigadier General Nelson Pendleton was also an academy graduate and an Episcopal Priest.

Southern churches were supremely active in the war effort. Churches contributed to the Confederate cause through donations of “everything from pew cushions to brass bells, Southern churches gave direct material aid to the cause. Among all the institutions in Southern life, perhaps the church most faithfully served the Confederate Army and nation.” [20] Likewise, many Southern ministers were not content to remain on the sidelines in the war and “not only proclaimed the glory of their role in creating the war but also but also went off to battle with the military in an attempt to add to their glory.” [21]

Sadly, the denominational rifts persisted until well into the twentieth century. The Presbyterians and Methodists both eventually reunited but the Baptists did not, and eventually “regional isolation, war bitterness, and differing emphasis in theology created chasms by the end of the century which leaders of an earlier generation could not have contemplated.” [22]  The Southern Baptist Convention is now the largest Protestant denomination in the United States and many of its preachers are active in often-divisive conservative social and political causes. The denomination that it split from, the American Baptist Convention, though much smaller remains a diverse collection of conservative and progressive local churches. Some of these are still in the forefront of the modern civil rights movement, including voting rights, women’s rights and LGBT issues, all of which find some degree of opposition in the Southern Baptist Convention.

But the religious dimensions were far bigger than denominational disagreements about slavery; religion became one of the bedrocks of Confederate nationalism. The Great Seal of the Confederacy had as its motto the Latin words Deo Vindice, which can be translated “With God as our Champion” or “Under God [Our] Vindicator.” The issue was bigger than independence itself; it was intensely theological. Secession “became an act of purification, a separation from the pollutions of decaying northern society, that “monstrous mass of moral disease,” as the Mobile Evening News so vividly described it.” [23]

The arguments found their way into the textbooks used in schools throughout the Confederacy. “The First Reader, For Southern Schools assured its young pupils that “God wills that some men should be slaves, and some masters.” For older children, Mrs. Miranda Moore’s best-selling Geographic Reader included a detailed proslavery history of the United States that explained how northerners had gone “mad” on the subject of abolitionism.” [24] The seeds of future ideological battles were being planted in the hearts of white southern children by radically religious ideologues, just as they are today in the Madrassas of the Middle East.

While the various theological and ideological debates played out and fueled the fires of passion that brought about the war, they also provided great motivation to their advocates.  This was true especially to Confederates during the war, that their cause was righteous. While this fueled the passion of the true believers, other very real world decisions and events in terms of politics, law and lawlessness, further inflamed passions.

Notes

[1] Ibid. Daly When Slavery was called Freedom p.147

[2] Brinsfield, John W. et. al. Editor, Faith in the Fight: Civil War Chaplains Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg PA 2003 p.67

[3] Ibid. Faust The Creation of Confederate Nationalism p.27

[4] Ibid. Gallagher The Confederate War pp.66-67

[5] Ibid. Faust The Creation of Confederate Nationalism p.32

[6] Ibid. Daly When Slavery Was Called Freedom  p.145

[7] Ibid. Daly When Slavery Was Called Freedom p.138

[8] Ibid. Faust The Creation of Confederate Nationalism p.32

[9] Ibid. Faust The Creation of Confederate Nationalism p.33

[10] Ibid. Faust The Creation of Confederate Nationalism p.29

[11] Fuller, J.F.C. Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship, Indiana University Press, Bloomington IN 1957 p.129

[12] Davis, Burke They Called Him Stonewall: A Life of T.J. Jackson CSA Random House, New York 1954 and 2000 p.192

[13] Ibid. Faust, The Creation of Confederate Nationalism p.60

[14] Ibid. Thomas The Confederate Nation 1861-1865 pp.245-246

[15] Ibid. Daly When Slavery Was Called Freedom pp.145 and 147

[16] Ibid. Faust The Creation of Confederate Nationalism p.26

[17] Ibid. Faust The Creation of Confederate Nationalism p.33

[18] Ibid. Faust The Creation of Confederate Nationalism p.32

[19] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume One: Fort Sumter to Perryville Random House, New York 1963 1958 p.87

[20] Ibid. Thomas The Confederate Nation p.246

[21] Ibid. Daly When Slavery Was Called Freedom p.142

[22] Ibid. McBeth The Baptist Heritage pp.392-393

[23] Ibid. Faust The Creation of Confederate Nationalism p.30

[24] Ibid. Faust The Creation of Confederate Nationalism p.62

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Ash Wednesday 2017

cross-ash-wednesday

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent, which thankfully is far shorter than baseball season, even though it will drag on into the second week of the season, but such is life, and Lent.

Lent is an ancient season of the church, going back to around the Council of Nicea, 325 CE. It is celebrated, though better said “observed” by a majority of Christians, though some evangelical Protestants do little to recognize it. The season is better observed than celebrated as it is a season of penitence.

Lent is technically 40 days long, though it is really 46 days long, but the Sundays don’t count. Call it fuzzy calendar math done to match Biblical accounts of the 40 days of the great flood and Noah’s Ark, the 40 years spent by the Israelites doing laps around Mount Sinai, and the 40 days spent by Jesus in the desert being tempted by Satan, but the forty days actually span 46 calendar days.

It begins today, which is Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy, or Maundy Thursday, which begins the Easter Triduum. It is marked by times of fasting, and abstinence, as well as personal reflection, penance, charity, and renewed focus on our spiritual lives.

That being said, I don’t do Lent well. It is a time that I struggle, and since I returned from Iraq a period in which I have experienced some of my deepest depression and crisis. I thoroughly dislike the season and not because of its profound theological and spiritual significance and benefit. On the contrary, I believe that everything that is a part of Lent, the fasting, abstinences, prayer, reflection, penance, and works of charity is good; they can help keep us grounded in the world and our community.

That being said, I still thoroughly dislike the season because I struggle so much emotionally during it, probably because Lent usually falls not long after the anniversary of my return from Iraq. So my dislike for Lent, and my struggle during it is more coincidental than it is actually based on any real objections to it.

That being said once Lent begins I cannot wait for it to end. I still do my best to observe the fasting and abstinence, and over the past few years I have really worked on being a better person, and to attempt to fulfill the commands that Jesus said surmised the law, to love God and love my neighbor. The first one of those is hard because there are times during Lent that more than any time of the year I struggle with the very existence of God. The second, to love my neighbor is less of a struggle, though some people really push my limits. Likewise, over the past year if I say I will pray for someone I tend to do it, and if they are in need I try my best to help in some tangible way.

So today I will be conducting my last Ash Wednesday service during my assignment at the Staff College. This will be a somewhat bittersweet as I found my assignment there to be the most fulfilling of all of mine since I served in Iraq, without all the emotional baggage and struggles with PTSD, TBI, and the associated symptoms of them, the depression, anxiety, night terrors, insomnia, fear of crowds, and thoughts of death. Thankfully, I am doing better, and have managed to get through he past couple of weeks after the ninth anniversary of my return from Iraq without crashing, though a few times I felt the shadow of depression casting its pall over me. Thankfully, as of yet, I haven’t crashed, and hope not to, although I know that I will breath a deep sigh of relief once we get past Easter.

But going back to Lent, if it is to have the kind of impact it should, in our lives it cannot simply be our struggle with God, it also has to encompass a commitment to those around us and to our world. That means doing more than talking, doing more than praying, but actively participating in the lives of others, even those with whom we have adversarial relationships. As Hans Kung noted: “In the last resort, a love of God without love of humanity is no love at all.”

So anyway, I wish the best for all of you today, and if you observe Lent, I pray and trust that it will be beneficial to your life, and to those you know. Likewise, I ask you to pray for me, a sinner.

Have a great day,

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Howling at the Moon and Ministry at the End of a Long Military Career

Crash-Davis

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

The past few days I have been quietly reflecting on ministry as I get ready to transition out of my current assignment at the Staff College to be the senior base chaplain at one of the bases nearby. Fortunately I will be able to continue conducting the Gettysburg Staff Ride for the college but the transition to being a base chaplain for the second time in my career, the first some twenty years ago when I was in the Army, has caused me to ponder the form ministry again and why I am here. It also has made me think of my long career and my transition from being a rising star, to a old and bit sore veteran who still has something to give, I’ve been in the military now for almost 36 years, not much left to prove but some left to give.  A younger friend and chaplain once said I reminded him of Kevin Costner’s character in the movie Bull Durham, Crash Davis. I like the analogy, as Crash said: “I have been known on occasion to howl at the moon.”

I like hard questions and hard cases. My life has been quite interesting and that includes my faith journey as a Christian and human being. It is funny that in my life I have as I have grown older begun to appreciate those that do not believe and to rather distrust those who proclaim their religious faith with absolute certitude, especially when hard questions are asked.

Paul Tillich once said “Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful.” 

I get “trolled” a lot and I find it amusing when trolls come by to condemn my “heresy.” When they do I realize that most of them must have some kind of psychological need to be right. I say this because for all of their certitude I sense a deep fear that they might be wrong. I think that is why they must do this.

I think that the quote by the late theologian is quite appropriate to me and the ministry that I find myself. I think it is a ministry pattern quite similar to Jesus in his dealings with the people during his earthly incarnate ministry.

Jesus was always hanging out with the outcasts, whether they be Jewish tax collectors collaborating with the Romans, lepers and other “unclean” types, Gentiles including the hated Roman occupiers, Samaritans and most dangerously, scandalous women. He seemed to reach out to these outcasts while often going out of his way to upset the religious establishment and the “true believers” of his day.

There is even one instance where a Centurion whose servant he healed was most likely involved in a homosexual relationship, based on the writer of the Gospel of Matthew’s use of the Greek word “Pais” which connotes a homosexual servant, instead of the more common “Doulos.” That account is the only time in the New Testament where that distinction is made, and Pais is used throughout Greek literature of the time to denote a homosexual slave or “house boy” relationship. Jesus was so successful at offending the profoundly orthodox of his day that his enemies made sure that they had him killed.

I think that what has brought me to this point is a combination of things but most importantly what happened to me in and after my tour in Iraq. Before I went to Iraq I was certain of about everything that I believed and was quite good at what we theologians and pastors call “apologetics.” My old Chaplain Assistant in the Army, who now recently serves as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army Chaplain Corps called me a “Catholic Rush Limbaugh” back in 1997, and he meant it quite affectionately.

I was so good at it that I was silenced by a former Archbishop in my former church and banned from publishing for about 7 years after writing two articles for a very conservative Roman Catholic journal, the New Oxford Review.

The funny thing is that he, and a number of my closest friends from that denomination are either Roman Catholic priests or priests in the Anglican Ordinariate which came into communion with Rome a couple of years back. Ironically while being “too Catholic” was the reason I was forbidden to write it was because I questioned certain traditions and beliefs of the Church including that I believed that there was a role for women in the ordained ministry, that gays and lesbians could be “saved” and that not all Moslems were bad that got me thrown out in 2010.

However when I returned from Iraq in the midst of a full blown emotional, spiritual and physical collapse from PTSD that certitude disappeared. It took a while before I was able to rediscover faith and life and when I did it wasn’t the same. There was much more mystery to faith as well as reason. I came out of that period with much more empathy for those that either struggle with or reject faith. Thus I tend to hang out at bars and ball games more than church activities or socials, which I find absolutely tedious. I also have little use for clergy than in dysfunctional and broken systems that are rapidly being left behind. I am not speaking about belief here, but rather structure and methodology.

I think that if there is anything that God will judge the American versions of the Christian church is our absolute need for temporal power in the political, economic and social realms and the propagation of religious empires that only enrich the clergy which doing nothing for the least, the lost and the lonely. The fact that the fastest growing religious identification in the United States is “none” or “no preference” is proof of that and that the vast amounts of money needed to sustain these narcissistic religious empires, the mega-churches and “Christian” television industry will be their undoing.  That along with their lack of care for anyone but themselves. Jesus said that his disciples would be known by their love for one another, not the size of their religious empire or temporal power.

The interesting thing is that today I have friends and colleagues that span the theological spectrum. Many of these men even if they do not agree with what I believe trust me to love and care for them, even when those most like them in terms of belief or doctrine, both religious and political treat them like crap. Likewise I attract a lot of people who at one time were either in ministry or preparing for it who were wounded in the process and gave up, even to the point of doubting God’s love and even existence. It is kind of a nice feeling to be there for people because they do not have to agree with me for me to be there for them.

In my darkest times my only spiritual readings were Father Andrew Greeley’s Bishop Blackie Ryan mysteries which I began reading in Iraq to help me get through the nights in between missions in Iraq and through the nights when I returned from them.  In one of those books, the last of the series entitled “The Archbishop goes to Andalusia” the miscreant Auxiliary Bishop to the Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago goes to Seville Spain.  In the novel Bishop Blackie makes a comment after celebrating Mass in the cathedral at Seville. He said “Every sacramental encounter is an evangelical occasion. A smile warm and happy is sufficient. If people return to the pews with a smile, it’s been a good day for them. If the priest smiles after the exchanges of grace, it may be the only good experience of the week.”  (The Archbishop in Andalusia p.77)

In my ministry as a military chaplain working in combat units, critical care hospital settings, and teaching, I have found that there are many hurting people, people who like me question their faith and even long held beliefs.

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So, I guess that is why I stay in the game, I still love it, and why when I go to my new assignment I will do my best to care for all who come to me for any kind of guidance, respecting who they are and what they believe, while mentoring the junior chaplains who I will supervise so that they blossom as minsters of their faith groups, and chaplains to our diverse community. More than likely this will be my last assignment before I retire, and for me the job is not about me or any promotion, it is helping the next generation, because they are the future.  They must increase, and in the military sense I must decrease, I mean for God’s sake, 39 or 40 years of military service should be enough for me.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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“An Example of Somebody Who’s done an Amazing Job” Frederick Douglass’s Immortal Words for the Church and Trump

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Frederick Douglass 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

A couple of weeks ago President Trump made an interesting acknowledgement of African American Abolitionist and civil rights champion, Frederick Douglass. The President said:   “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice.” But I really wonder if the President, and the 80% plus continent of Evangelical and other conservative Christians really understand what Douglass stood for, or have ever heard his harsh words for the church of his day, which are as applicable now as when he penned them in 1845. It is hard read if you claim to be a follower of Jesus, because while the issue of slavery has been resolved, at least officially, there are many others who reside in this country now who are with the blessing of many “Christians” are discriminated against, persecuted, and even hated. Yes, Douglass’s words still echo loudly in our land.

Anyway, have a good day.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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But African Americans too had an effect on the debate. In the 1820s Black abolitionists organized with white abolitionists and of their own accord “in order to improve their lives and to attack slavery.” [1] Even before “Garrison published his famous Liberator in Boston in 1831, the first national convention of Negroes had been held, David Walker had already written his “appeal,” and a black abolitionist magazine named Freedom’s Journal had appeared.” [2] Initially most blacks that could simply desired to improve their lives and hoped that their self-improvement would result in less discrimination and more opportunity. This was known as the self-improvement doctrine. But in the face of continued discrimination in the North and in a society where slavery was expanding and slavery proponents “philosophical and political defenders became ever more in intransigent, and where racism became an increasingly rigid barrier even to the most highly talented blacks, the self-improvement doctrine lost viability.” [3]

Escaped former slaves like Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth and others added their voices to the debate. Unlike the white abolitionists these leaders “formative years and antislavery educations were spent on southern plantations, and not in organizations dedicated to moral suasion.” [4] Douglass became a prominent abolitionist leader and was very critical of the role of churches, especially Southern churches, in the maintenance of slavery as an institution.

However, Douglass did not spare Northern churches from criticism for buttressing the peculiar institution. Douglass’s polemics against Northern and Southern churches in the South in his autobiography reads like the preaching of an Old Testament prophet such as Amos, or Jeremiah railing against the corrupt religious institutions of their day:

“I find, since reading over the foregoing Narrative, that I have, in several instances, spoken in such a tone and manner, respecting religion, as may possibly lead those unacquainted with my religious views to suppose me an opponent of all religion. To remove the liability of such misapprehension, I deem it proper to append the following brief explanation. What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference‐‐so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women‐whipping, cradle‐plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.

“Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels. Never was there a clearer case of “stealing the livery of the court of heaven to serve the devil in.” I am filled with unutterable loathing when I contemplate the religious pomp and show, together with the horrible inconsistencies, which every where surround me. We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church members. The man who wields the blood-clotted cowskin during the week fill the pulpit on Sunday, and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus. The man who robs me of my earnings at the end of each week meets me as a class-leader on Sunday morning, to show me the way of life, and the path of salvation. He who sells my sister, for purposes of prostitution, stands forth as the pious advocate of purity. He who proclaims it a religious duty to read the Bible denies me the right of learning to read the name of the God who made me. He who is the religious advocate of marriage robs whole millions of its sacred influence, and leaves them to the ravages of wholesale pollution. The warm defender of the sacredness of the family relation is the same that scatters whole families, — sundering husbands and wives, parents and children, sisters and brothers, — leaving the hut vacant and the heart desolate. We see the thief preaching against theft, and the adulterer against adultery. We have men sold to build churches, women sold to support the gospel, and babes sold to purchase Bibles for the poor heathen! All for the glory of God and the good of souls.”

The Christianity of America is a Christianity, of whose votaries it may be as truly said, as it was of the ancient scribes and Pharisees, ʺThey bind heavy burdens, and grievous to be borne, and lay them on menʹs shoulders, but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. All their works they do for to be seen of men.‐‐They love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, . . . . . . and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi.‐‐But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in. Ye devour widowsʹ houses, and for a pretence make long prayers; therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation. Ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves.‐‐Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint, and anise, and cumin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith; these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. Ye blind guides! which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter; but within, they are full of extortion and excess.‐Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead menʹs bones, and of all uncleanness. Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.ʺ  Dark and terrible as is this picture, I hold it to be strictly true of the overwhelming mass of professed Christians in America. They strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel… They attend with Pharisaical strictness to the outward forms of religion, and at the same time neglect the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith. They are always ready to sacrifice, but seldom to show mercy. They are they who are represented as professing to love God whom they have not seen, whilst they hate their brother whom they have seen. They love the heathen on the other side of the globe. They can pray for him, pay money to have the Bible put into his hand, and missionaries to instruct him; while they despise and totally neglect the heathen at their own doors.

Such is, very briefly, my view of the religion of this land; and to avoid any misunderstanding, growing out of the use of general terms, I mean by the religion of this land, that which is revealed in the words, deeds, and actions, of those bodies, north and south, calling themselves Christian churches, and yet in union with slaveholders. It is against religion, as presented by these bodies, that I have felt it my duty to testify. [5]

Douglass and other African American abolitionists were cognizant of the fact that in spite of their good intentions that many Northern abolitionists were unconscious of their own racism and many black abolitionists were repelled by it. As such black abolitionists were characterized by “racial independence and pragmatism” while white abolition leaders though “still committed to antislavery principles, increasingly divided over doctrines such as political action or evangelical reform.” [6] Douglass and others realized that blacks had to take control of their own destiny and take an active role in the abolitionist movement. In 1854 Douglass declared “it is emphatically our battle; no one else can fight it for us….Our relations to the Anti-Slavery movement must be and are changed. Instead of depending on it we must lead it.”  [7] Douglass and other black abolitionist leaders found this necessary because many white abolitionists were unable to “comprehend the world in other than moral absolute, as well as their unwillingness to confront issues of racial prejudice and poverty….” [8] As a result Douglass and other black abolitionist leaders went into the critical decade before the Civil War with a clear idea that the fight would be much more difficult and complicated than many of their white counterparts could image.

Notes

[1] Blight, David W. Beyond the Battlefield: Race, Memory and the American Civil War University of Massachusetts Press Amherst and Boston 2002 p.30

[2] Ibid. Zinn The Other Civil War p.23

[3] Ibid. Blight Beyond the Battlefield p.31

[4] Ibid. Blight Beyond the Battlefield p.31

[5] Douglass, Frederick. Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: His Early Life as a Slave, His Escape From Bondage, and His Complete History. Anti-Slavery Office, Boston, 1845. Retrieved from http://antislavery.eserver.org/narratives/narrativeofthelife/narrativeofthelife.pdf/view February 24, 2017  copyright © 2005 by the Antislavery Literature Project.

[6] Ibid. Blight Beyond the Battlefield p.32

[7] Ibid. Zinn The Other Civil War p.24

[8] Ibid. Blight Beyond the Battlefield p.32

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