Category Archives: culture

Silent Night at 200: A Song Of Hope

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It will soon be Christmas and instead of the government shutdown or the depraved and irresponsible actions of President Trump, I am going to focus on Christmas, particularly musical expressions, as well as meditations about my own faith journey as well as the experience of soldiers during the holidays.

In the midst of everything happening in Washington D.C. and the potential crises that could plunge the world into war in the coming months it still is important to focus on the holidays. Since I am a Christian I share about Christmas without any shame, even as I respect and honor other people’s traditions and expressions of faith.

So here is a post about the song Silent Night. 

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Stille Nacht Autograph in the Hand of Joseph Mohr

In 1816 a young Austrian Catholic Priest in a small parish near Salzburg penned the lyrics to a hymn that even in the midst of war can bind people together. Father Joseph Mohr after moving to another parish in Oberndorf took those lyrics to Franz Gruber a nearby schoolmaster and organist. Mohr asked Gruber to put the words to music, specifically with a guitar accompaniment. Together the performed the song at Oberndorf’s parish church’s Vigil Mass on December 24th 1818.

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There are a number of fanciful apocryphal stories about why the song was written and performed on the guitar, including one about the bellows of the church organ having been eaten by mice, but these are akin to sensationalist tabloid journalism. The simple truth is that Mohr sought out Gruber to arrange the song for guitar to be sung by two people accompanied by a choir for that Christmas Vigil Mass.

Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht 

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Alles schläft; einsam wacht
Nur das traute hochheilige Paar.
Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar,
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Hirten erst kundgemacht
Durch der Engel Halleluja,
Tönt es laut von fern und nah:
Christ, der Retter ist da!
Christ, der Retter ist da!

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Gottes Sohn, o wie lacht
Lieb’ aus deinem göttlichen Mund
, Da uns schlägt die rettende Stund’.
Christ, in deiner Geburt!
Christ, in deiner Geburt!

 The song rapidly grew in popularity and spread quickly in Europe. A traveling Austrian singing group, the Rainer family performed it in front of Austrian Emperor Franz I and Tsar Alexander I.

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They also gave its first American performance in New York outside the famed Trinity Church in 1839. I continued to grow in popularity and was translated into many languages, now numbering about 140.

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The American Episcopalian Bishop John Freeman Young translated it into English in 1863. It is his version that is most used today in English speaking lands today. A website called the Silent Night Web http://silentnight.web.za has 227 versions of the song in 142 languages on its site.

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Silent night, Holy night

 All is calm, all is bright

‘Round yon virgin , mother and child

Holy infant so, tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.

Silent night, Holy night
Shepherds quake, at the sight
Glories stream from heaven afar
Heavenly, hosts sing Hallelujah.
Christ the Savior is born,
Christ the Savior is born.

Silent night, Holy night
Son of God, love’s pure light
Radiant beams from thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord at thy birth,
Jesus, Lord at thy birth.

The song is one that always takes me back to a very simple faith and an event that by all accounts is not explainable by logic. Karl Barth, perhaps the most influential theologians in the history Of the Christian faith wrote:

”The nativity mystery “conceived from the Holy Spirit and born from the Virgin Mary”, means, that God became human, truly human out of his own grace. The miracle of the existence of Jesus , his “climbing down of God” is: Holy Spirit and Virgin Mary! Here is a human being, the Virgin Mary, and as he comes from God, Jesus comes also from this human being. Born of the Virgin Mary means a human origin for God. Jesus Christ is not only truly God, he is human like every one of us. He is human without limitation. He is not only similar to us, he is like us.”

Silent Night is the most simple and profound hymn of the incarnation and because of its simplicity it has become a song that points to an end of war, an end of suffering, and the beginning of new life.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

, Holy night
Shepherds quake, at the sight
Glories stream from heaven afar
Heavenly, hosts sing Hallelujah.
Christ the Savior is born,
Christ the Savior is born.

Silent night, Holy night
Son of God, love’s pure light
Radiant beams from thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord at thy birth,
Jesus, Lord at thy birth.

Father Mohr refused to profit from his song and donated his proceeds to care for the elderly and educate children in the parishes and towns he served. He died in 1848.

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I find that the song will bring me to tears fast than almost any song. It is one that I have sung in English, German and French. In my travels as a military Chaplain have used on every Christmas Eucharist celebration that I have done, including at two lonely COPS in Iraq, COP South and COP North on the Syrian Border in Al Anbar Province. Likewise I have celebrated joint ecumenical Christmas services with German military chaplains and civilian clergy. Last Friday I did that again for the members of the German NATO contingent at my chapel.

It is a simple and humble song. It is performed the world over by the great and small, the famous and the unknown. It is a song that in two world wars has stopped the violence as opposing soldiers paused to sing it together each in their own language. This happened during the Christmas Truce truce of 1914 as well as in 1944 along the Western Front during the Battle of the Bulge.

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EbGZ7T5EHpQ

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On Tuesday as people gather for Christmas Eve Sunday and when they gather for Christmas Day services the song will be sung around the world. In lands where war rages the song will be sung. It is my hope that someday that war will be no more and the tiny child spoken of in this humble hymn will understand the incredible grace of the message spoken by the Angels as recorded in Luke’s Gospel:  “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men in whom he is well pleased.” (American Standard Version)

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, culture, faith, History, music, Religion

The Banality of Criminality: Complicity and Dishonor in the Age of Trump, the Example of Michael Flynn

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Dwight D. Eisenhower noted:

“The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity. Without it, no real success is possible, no matter whether it is on a section gang, a football field, in an army, or in an office.”

It is becoming more clear every day that the wheels are coming off the Presidency of Donald Trump, and that as a man and as a person that he is losing any grip on reality and lives in a cloud-Cuckoo land of lies, untruths, and alternate facts. He has shown throughout his life and career that he has no integrity, especially while serving as President, which makes Eisenhower’s words relevant to our present crisis.

Likewise it is quite clear now, that the President has been implicated in what the founders of the country and the writers of our Constitution would understand to be high crimes and misdemeanors. The banality of his and his administration’s criminality is buttressed by the cult of personality that surrounds him. The latter would not be possible without the fifty year process of the moral and ethical disintegration of the Republican Party. Eisenhower wouldn’t recognize the GOP of today.

However, the President has not been indicated in Federal Court, nor charged with crimes and impeached by the House of Representatives yet, but the writing is on the wall. It is only a matter of time before Robert Mueller indicts the men closest to the President; his son Donald Jr., and son-in-Law Jared Kushner. The evidence is mounting of their premeditated attempt to collude with Russia for both political and financial gain. The revelations of the past week would be the beginning of the end for the President and his lawless administration if only the GOP members of the Senate would have the courage to do what Barry Goldwater did in 1974 to give Richard Nixon an ultimatum.

Over the past week we have seen countless GOP leaders excuse the blatant lies of the President, and ignore the complicity of him, his family, and his closest collaborators as “they didn’t happen”, “if they did happen they weren’t criminal”, ” they happened and they were against the law, but they are not really Crimes because it’s a bad law”, or “people do them all the time”, and “what about Hillary?” Of course none of these defenses call for personal responsibility or defense of the law and Constitution, it is all about holding onto power.

But even more troubling than the President and his conditorei of putrid family members, bankers, investors, shyster lawyers, and incredibly compromised and often incompetent individuals he has appointed to cabinet positions, are some of the former military men in the cabinet who served in the cabinet. The most notorious of these is the convicted felon and retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, who after getting a gift in the form of sentencing accused the FBI of tricking him into lying. I won’t even go into Ryan Zinke, John Kelly, or Mike Pompeo.

Flynn’s film-flam act is maddening to me because as an officer he should have known better. He lied to investigators and he certainly knew that lying to them was wrong. I know this because I enlisted the same year that he was commissioned, and was just two years behind him when I was commissioned. We come out of the same post-Vietnam pipeline of Army officers. We both were commissioned from the ROTC program, albeit from different universities. But we knew the rules, our programs were similar in that Ethics was taught, and after Vietnam it was considered a big deal. I don’t know about Flynn, but I had to take a course on military law while in ROTC. We went through officer basic and officer advanced courses that contained a common core of classes, We served as platoon leaders, company executive officers, company commanders, as well as battalion and brigade staff officers.

As officers we both administered the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and both took sworn statements, administered Miranda Rights, conducted 15-6 investigations, Reports of Survey, and as commanders administered non-judicial punishment under Article 15. When doing that we served as prosecutor, judge, and jury over the soldiers charged with violating the UCMJ. There is no way that Flynn didn’t known that lying to an investigator wasn’t wrong. He lied and knew that it was wrong.

My career path veered from his when I returned to the National Guard to attend seminary full time to become a Chaplain. My senior positions have all been served as an Army or Navy Chaplain. Like him I served in combat, except I did so unarmed, far away from big battalions that could protect me.

But maybe I embraced an ethic that Flynn didn’t, let’s call it The Code. Let me explain.

My thirty-seven plus year military career began in the Army. I enlisted in the California Army National Guard when I entered the senior ROTC program at UCLA. Though I never attended West Point, Annapolis, or any of the other military academies, I always embraced the Cadet Code of the United States Military Academy at West Point. It states:

“A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.”

Likewise I have always subscribed to and tried to uphold the motto of West Point, which General Douglas MacArthur put into such moving words in 1962:

“Duty, Honor, Country” — those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, what you will be. They are your rallying point to build courage when courage seems to fail, to regain faith when there seems to be little cause for faith, to create hope when hope becomes forlorn.

Unhappily, I possess neither that eloquence of diction, that poetry of imagination, nor that brilliance of metaphor to tell you all that they mean.

The unbelievers will say they are but words, but a slogan, but a flamboyant phrase. Every pedant, every demagogue, every cynic, every hypocrite, every troublemaker, and, I am sorry to say, some others of an entirely different character, will try to downgrade them even to the extent of mockery and ridicule.

But these are some of the things they do. They build your basic character. They mold you for your future roles as the custodians of the nation’s defense. They make you strong enough to know when you are weak, and brave enough to face yourself when you are afraid.

They teach you to be proud and unbending in honest failure, but humble and gentle in success; not to substitute words for action; not to seek the path of comfort, but to face the stress and spur of difficulty and challenge; to learn to stand up in the storm, but to have compassion on those who fall; to master yourself before you seek to master others; to have a heart that is clean, a goal that is high; to learn to laugh, yet never forget how to weep; to reach into the future, yet never neglect the past; to be serious, yet never take yourself too seriously; to be modest so that you will remember the simplicity of true greatness, the open mind of true wisdom, the meekness of true strength.

They give you a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a vigor of the emotions, a freshness of the deep springs of life, a temperamental predominance of courage over timidity, an appetite for adventure over love of ease.

They create in your heart the sense of wonder, the unfailing hope of what next, and the joy and inspiration of life. They teach you in this way to be an officer and a gentleman…”

The code may sound old fashioned, a bit puritanical, or even pharisaical to some, including many current and former officers. I actually had a friend, a retired Army Chaplain who retired at a grade higher than I will ever hold told me that in my criticism of the President and his high ranking supporters that he saw “my inner Pharisee” come out. I told him that it wasn’t my “inner Pharisee, but my inner Army company Commander.” I subscribe to a code of honor that far too many people across the political spectrum despise and ridicule, especially those of the Christian Right who defend the President as if he is the Messiah. Sometimes I feel like Jack Nicholson’s character in A Few Good Men, except I wouldn’t order the code red.

The concept of honor may be a punch line to many people but for me it has been a way of life. That honor includes telling the truth, even as an officer to commanders and those that outrank me. Doing this has cost me dearly many times in my career in both the Army and Navy. I cannot shut up an be silent when I see superiors lying, cheating, and tolerating those who do. To enforce such ideas on junior personnel is expected, but to speak those words in a prophetic voice to those in power is dangerous, but I have often lived dangerously, and truthfully I have been lucky. Only once has someone tried to have me tried by Court Martial, and that was a retired officer last year who made a written complain to my commanding officer for a sermon that I preached, but I digress…

The reality is that throughout my life I have tried to live up to the Cadet Code, and the motto of Duty, Honor, Country my whole life and for doing somI have often been treated as an anachronism, out of step with the world, even at times from senior military officers.

I could tell you stories, but only over a beer in a bar about those instances, without any recording devices at hand. That being said, if I ever ran into the people that I am talking about, I would confront them in person and give them a chance to defend their actions. I would then walk away, satisfied that my honor was still intact.

But what bothers me now mor than anything is watching men and women who I once respected, defend the indefensible, excuse the inexcusable, and accuse the already acquitted for actions of the President and those around him who if he had been a Democrat they would have already voted to impeach. But my standard has been consistent regardless of who the President is and what his party affiliation. I wanted to see Bill Clinton impeached, I couldn’t support John Edwards because of he cheated on his wife when she had cancer, and as much as I liked and admired him, I thought it was right that former Senator Al Franken resigned, as much as I liked and respected him as a Senator. I have no respect for Newt Gingrich in part for having an affair, and divorcing his wife while she was fighting cancer. Likewise,as much as I like him as a person, I still believe that George W. Bush was a War Criminal for invading Iraq.

The office of the President, the Constitution, and our system of government mean much more to me than my party affiliation. Frankly, that has always been the case for me.

I spent the vast majority of my adult life as a Republican for God’s sakes, but after returning from Iraq, and seeing the claims of the Bush Administration for the war, which I had believed, turn out to be lies on the order of the crimes that we prosecuted at Nuremberg, just couldn’t remain in the party.

When I see people who I know and consider to be friends throw ethics, morality, and faith under the bus to defend the indefensible acts of this President I do get worried, and all of us should be because it is happening all the time.

I was raised to believe that military officers are to hold to a higher moral code than politicians, lawyers, businessmen, or even priests or preachers; I was an officer long before I was ordained. For me it all goes back to the West Point Cadet Code.

So when I see Michael Flynn attack the FBI for “tricking him to lie” after he was cut a huge deal for his testimony, I have to wonder where he was in the classes about military ethics. But then maybe his Professor of Military Science hadn’t been assigned to the Task Force that investigated the My Lai Massacre, or whose primary history professor at California State University Northridge, Dr. Helmut Haeussler, who served as an interpreter at the Nuremberg Trials. I know what happens when military officers sacrifice their integrity to serve leaders that have none, or in wars where they abandon all the principles that they were supposed to uphold.

But then, just maybe in the words of my friend, mentor, and former superior, maybe I am a Pharisee because I value honor over political expediency, or what helps me the most right now.

So for today I will leave you with the words of General Ludwig Beck who lost his life during the abortive attempt to kill Hitler on July 20th 1944:

“It is a lack of character and insight, when a soldier in high command sees his duty and mission only in the context of his military orders without realizing that the highest responsibility is to the people of his country.”

That is what I consider to the moral failure of the officers cannot see anything wrong in the actions of this President and his administration; they place their party and ideology over the Constitution, the law, and the people. They not only tolerate, but they defend those who lie, cheat, and steal to gain political power.

For me it always comes back to that code of honor.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under crime, culture, ethics, History, Military, News and current events, Political Commentary

A Visit to Lutherstadt Wittenberg

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

For the first time in 22 years during our recent trip to Germany I returned to the city where a little known Augustinian Monk and Professor of Theology, Dr. Martin Luther began the Protestant Reformation and changed the world forever. There had been other revolts against the Catholic Church by various dissenters but none of them had ever found and ear with rulers who by their support could change the status quo and protect them from being tried as heretics.

To be tried as a heretic meant that you were also in violation of the law of the local monarch or the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, and likewise an enemy of the State. Once convicted of heresy the the opponents of the regime were then executed in whatever way the Church and State deemed to be the most effective way of discouraging future dissenters.

Luther was not only a keen theologian, he knew how to gain the support of common people, as well as the princes and other members of the nobility who knew that they were getting screwed by both the Church and the Empire. Thus while his theological motives based on his experience of the grace of God were genuine, he understood the political implications of his theology which broke the chains of Germans Protestants to Rome.

The result would lead Luther’s political supporters into multiple wars against Rome and the Holy Roman Empire, and then against German dissenters who dissented from Luther. It would also set the stage for successful breaks from Rome in England, and in Geneva, where John Calvin proclaimed a harsh and cold version of Protestantism. In many ways Luther never fully rejected parts of Catholic doctrine such as the Eucharist as the Body and Blood of Christ, and the efficacy of Baptism for the forgiveness of sins, despite writing circles around himself to show his differences with Rome. He would never be Protestant enough for Calvin, or Ulrich Zwingli of Zurich, or the later more radical Calvinist separatists in France, Holland, England, and Scotland. Of course none of those were acceptable to the Radical Reformers of the Anabaptist-Mennonite movement in Holland which spread to England in the guise of the early English Baptists, who were simply Anabaptists who had thrown out pacifism.

Luther was a remarkable man with many flaws. His theology led to married clergy, the Bible being translated into German and then many other languages. In fact Luther’s translation of the Bible into German helped birth the modern German language as much as the later King James Bible did for English some 80years later.

Likewise, through his emphasis on the Three Solas, Sola Gratia, Sola Fides, and Sola Scriptura he opened the door for individuals to have more say in their spiritual lives and interpretation of the Christian faith, which led to many more breaks with the Church, his Church within a few years. Luther opened the door to a Christianity which has never stopped splitting, often with ugly consequences, and sometimes reforming for the better. Luther was a huge influence on John Wesley who influenced me like William Wilberforce and John Newton who helped abolish slavery in England and it’s colonies. At the same time one cannot overlook just how Luther’s vehement denunciations and demonizations of the Jews helped set the stage for the German anti-Semitism that brought about the Holocaust.

But all that being said from a theological point of view Luther shattered the theological oneness of the western church. Instead of one Pope, Luther opened the door for everyone to be his own Pope.

His theology also allowed rulers to break from Rome and still support their own State Church. In the various fiefdoms of Germany some went with Luther, others Calvin, and still others Zwingli. In England, Henry VIII took the Church of England out of Rome and that church recognized the English King, or at times the Queen the head of the Church.Without Luther to shatter the barrier between Church and State, there would likely never have been the freedom granted to the great

This when the men who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States wrote those documents they were absolutely opposed to the government of the United States having a State religion or for that matter even endorsing any sect of Christianity. The great Virginia Baptist and friend of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, John Leland wrote:

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

Luther certainly would not have agreed with that, but he opened the door to it and we should all be grateful that he did. One wishes that the Christian Nationalists of the United States would read their United States history because they are try to establish a particular minority sect of Christianity, a fundamental evangelicalism rooted in the political theology of John Calvin as the official State religion. To do so they are using a man who would shame the Medici Popes in his profound disregard and disrespect of anything resembling the Christian faith; for his carnal indulgence, his wanton greed, vain pomposity, and his narcissism which borders on self-deification. Luther would have recognized him and them as frauds of the most odious kind.

Luther’s flaws are many. He suffered severe, probably clinical depression, and many PTSD from the beatings administered by his father. That was not helped by his understanding as a young man, theology student, and monk of a very punitive and angry God who he could never please. His life crisis came at a time in his life, between 28 and 32 years old, when developmental psychologists tell us that many great thinkers, intellects, and leaders have their breakthroughs.

He was also at times terribly sarcastic, vindictive, and angry. He could turn on friends and former students who broke with him in a visceral manner. He was also beset by an anti-Semitic streak that while it was a part of the times that he lived was used by other German anti-semites, especially Hitler’s Nazis in their persecution, and later extermination of the Jews. He was also prone to see the religious wars of his time, be they against the Turks, the Roman Catholics, or the Radical Reformers, through the lens of an apocalyptic worldview.

Despite all his flaws he is one of the most important men in history. Without his break with Rome and the support of European nobility there probably would have been no Enlightenment as we know it for the great artists, writers, scientists, and others of that period would likely have never had safe places to go beyond the limits of Medieval Scholasticism and Aristotelian philosophy.

Likewise the principle of the Reformation is that Reformation never ends. The Church must continually reform or die. Unfortunately, that is seldom the case, the Christian Church has always been resistant to change and frequently is the last holdout against truly evil movements. Christians, not just in the United States, frequently heed the call of racism, nationalism, and misogyny more than any other group. Of course there are other religions where many of the faithful and their leaders do the same thing, but today’s post is about Luther and the the Christian faith.

Luther understood that the Gospel must speak to the issues of the day. He said: A gospel that doesn’t deal with the issues of the day is not the gospel at all. In our day those issues are ones that I think that had he lived among us that Luther would see and preach about. I could see him boldly condemning the court preachers of Donald Trump, (yes I see the split infinitive and I don’t care – to “boldly go” as someone we’ll know has said). Men like Robert Jeffress, Jerry Falwell Jr., and Franklin Graham wouldn’t stand a chance against the Monk from Wittenberg. Neither would the Medici President and his sycophant supporters who scream in indignation when he or they are exposed for who they are.

So, until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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“Open the Gates…” Berlin’s Neue Synagogue on Oranienburg Straße

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

We are spending our last night in Berlin after a rather quiet day which included a visit with Dr. Rink, the Bishop of the German Evangelische military chaplain service. We spent an our and a half with his and his chief spokesman at his office. I should have gotten some pictures of us and the offices but forgot because it was such an interesting visit. We will be leaving in the morning which is a holiday, the Tag der Deutschen Einheit, or day of German Unity which celebrates the official reunification of Germany in 1990. The preparations here are quite extensive with much of the area around the Brandenburger Tor and Reichstag blocked off for events and an already large police presence.

This afternoon I took a walk around the district that our hotel, the Hotel Dietrich Bonhoeffer Haus is located. Not far from it is Berlin’s Neue Synagogue, the restored frontal portion of a building dedicated in 1866 by Berlin’s Jewish community. Among those present at the dedication was Otto Von Bismarck, the the Minister President of Prussia prior to the Unification of Germany in 1870.

It was a massive structure that could hold over 3000 worshippers and its Moorish architecture and resemblance to the Alhambra in the Spanish city of Grenada. It was one of the first large buildings to be of iron construction. It is a beautiful structure with its great golden dome topped by a Star of David flanked by two smaller domes.

In addition to its place as a center of worship it was a center of Berlin’s largely assimilated and liberal Jewish community. Berlin was the center of the Jewish Enlightenment, or Haskalah in Germany, and Prussian Jews enjoyed full citizenship and civil rights going back to 1850. The movement emphasized secularism and equality. Prominent Jewish citizens included Albert Einstein, as well as theater and film director Max Reinhardt; composer, music theorist, writer, and painter Arnold Schoenberg, composer Kurt Weill, who is famous for his song Mac the Knife which was popularized in the United States first by Louis Armstrong and then Bobby Darin; and painter Max Liebermann, who was President of the Prussian Academy of Arts until the Nazi takeover in 1933. Additionally, Louis (Lazarus) Lewendowski the highly acclaimed liturgical composer and musician who put his imprint on much Jewish liturgical music used around the world today.

It was used for public concerts and it hand an organ and a mixed choir thanks to Lewendowski, making it a part of a distinctly western and liberal strain of Judaism. In 1929, Einstein performed a renowned violin concert in it.

When the Nazis seized power in 1933 the repression of Berlin’s Jewish community began. Jews lost their citizenship, their employment in the Civil Service and military, membership in professional organizations, and suffered many other humiliations and persecution. As a result many Jews left Germany. Einstein, Schoenberg, Reinhardt, and Weill all fled to the United States. Liebermann died of a heart attack in 1935. He lived near the Brandenburger Tor and reported said as Nazi Stormtroopers marched through it celebrating their takeover of the government: “Ich kann gar nicht soviel fressen, wie ich kotzen möchte.” (“I could not possibly eat as much as I would like to throw up.”)

Despite Nazi repression the Synagogue continued to operate and became a center for Jewish relief efforts. It was one of the few synagogues spared destruction during the Kristallnacht terror organized by Joseph Goebbels on November 9th 1938. A group of Nazis broke into the synagogue, vandalized the Torah scrolls, and attempted to set fire to the building. A Berlin Police Lieutenant named Wilhelm Krützfeld took action and ordered the mob to disperse because the building was a protected historical building. To make his point he drew his pistol and threatened the vandals. His actions allowed the Feuerwehr to arrive and ensured that the building was not burned. Krützfeld reported his actions and only received a verbal reprimand from the Nazi Police President Graf Helldorf who had played a major role in the organization of Kristallnacht. Krützfeld and members of his precinct also helped Jews with identity papers and warned them of Gestapo raids. He was transferred in 1940 and because he could no longer serve the Nazi state requested retirement due to health reasons in 1943. Following the war in 1945 he returned to active police service and died in 1953. his superior, Helldorf, became a part of the anti-Hitler conspiracy and was condemned to death by Roland Freisler and the Volksgericht in 1944.

The synagogue remained active until 1940 when it was ordered closed and taken over by the Wehrmacht which desecrated it and turned it into a warehouse for uniform supplies. It was badly damaged by allied air raids during the war and the main sanctuary was burned out and heavily damaged. The Ruins of the main sanctuary and the main dome were demolished in 1955 with the Jewish community meeting next door to the ruin.

In 1988 on the 50th year anniversary of Kristallnacht the process to restore it as a Jewish cultural center began and it reopened in 1993. The restoration only comprised the front section of the building, but in 1995 the Reformed Jewish community of Berlin was reestablished in it. Today it functions as a synagogue, a cultural center, and a museum.

If you come to Berlin you need to see it.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under culture, faith, historic preservation, History, holocaust, nazi germany, Religion, world war two in europe

Civilization is Tissue Thin: The Uncomfortable Necessity of Understanding Evil

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote, “Nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer; nothing is more difficult than to understand him.”

I think one of our problems is that we want to believe that evil is simply done be evil people. That is why when we see a Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, or the monsters of the so-called Islamic State, we are often strangely comforted. This is often  because we can point to a single person with a wicked ideology and say “they are evil,” all the while forgetting that they are, or were, like us, also human. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn reminds us of the folly of that type of thinking:

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

A few years ago I took a break from my Gettysburg studies and writing and dusted off an old academic paper dealing with the one of the more uncomfortable aspects of the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews. I did that because I felt that I needed to reexamine the nature of evil in the modern world. Since that time I have gone back, done more study, more writing, and made more visits to locations of Nazi evil. I will be doing more of that in the next few weeks as we go back to Germany for an eighteen day visit.

When I ponder the evil committed by supposedly civilized men and women of Germany, I realize that they are little different than others who share the culture of the West. These people were the products of a culture of learning, and of science. They were part of a culture formed by the Christian tradition, the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment, the age of Reason. As I pondered this I came to remember something said by the late Iris Chang, “civilization is tissue thin.”

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Lynching in the American South

That series of articles about the Einsatzgruppen dealt with the ordinary men, and the bureaucratic systems that implemented an ideology so twisted and evil that it is unimaginable to most people. In fact even in the Nazi system the majority of the genocide was not committed in the death camps, but up close and personal by men standing over pits with pistols, rifles, and machine guns.

While most people in the United States know a little about the Holocaust, most do not fully comprehend how devilish and insidious the crimes of the Nazis were. More frightening is the fact that in a 2015 survey 46% of people worldwide have never heard of the Holocaust, and of the 54% who are aware of it some 32% think it is a myth or has been greatly exaggerated. The numbers will only get worse as we become farther removed from these events and the survivors, witnesses, and perpetrators die off. The same is true for other genocidal acts.

We typically know about the extermination camps like Auschwitz, but the lesser known dark side of the Holocaust, perhaps the scariest part, is the story of the men of the Einsatzgruppen. The Einsatzgruppen and affiliated units, including those of the Wehrmacht, the Waffen SS, the mobilized battalions of the Order Police, and locally recruited units, rounded up massive numbers of people and killed them up close and personal. In all these units murdered over two million people, about 1.3 million of whom were Jews.

My study of the Holocaust began in college as an undergraduate. My primary professor at California State University at Northridge, Dr. Helmut Haeussler had been an interpreter and interrogator at the Nuremberg trials. I was able to take a number of lecture classes from him a large amount of research and independent study courses in a year of graduate work while finishing my Army ROTC program at UCLA. It was an immersion in the history, sociology, and the psychology of evil, during which I was able to meet and talk with Jewish survivors of the Holocaust.

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Einsatzgruppen and Ordungspolizei in Russia

Since then I have continued to read and study. I lived in Germany for over four years, and made many other visits, during which I went to a number of Concentration Camp sites. I visited the rebuilt synagogue in Worms which had been destroyed during the infamous Kristallnacht, and other museums and Holocaust memorial sites in Germany. I visited the Zeppelin field, the site of Hitler’s massive Nazi Party rallies in Nuremburg, as well as the graveyards which contain the victims of other Nazi crimes, including the Nacht und Nebel or night and fog actions, where people simply disappeared and were murdered by the Gestapo.

For me, those visits were sobering, maybe even more so because I understood exactly what happened in those sites. These are uncomfortable places to visit, and I can understand why many people would not want to visit them, or even study them.

The darkness that they remind us of  is a part of our human condition. Traces of the evil on display in those places is present in every human being. Frankly, most people cannot bear looking into that abyss, for fear that they might be swallowed by it.

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Nankingnanking_massacre_1

I can understand that and I have to admit that it is hard to do so. I am a historian as well as a clinician with much experience dealing with death and trauma. With my training I do a pretty good job of keeping my emotional distance to maintain objectivity when confronted with evil. However, it is hard for me not to have some emotional reaction when visiting these places, or reading about the events and people, and in writing about them.

Likewise, I am very troubled by the growing lack or awareness or denial of the Holocaust. It is very hard for me not to have a virulent reaction when I see books and websites dedicated to Holocaust denial, or that minimize other well documented genocides, and crimes against humanity.

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Soviet Mass Killings in Ukraine

My sensitivity to human suffering and the terrible indifference of people in this country to it was greatly increased by my experience of war, and my post-war struggles with PTSD, depression, anxiety, which at points left me very close to committing suicide. A non-chaplain friend, a now retired Navy Command Master Chief Petty Officer that I served with at my last duty station recently remarked that I am a tremendously empathic person, and that I have a large capacity to feel the pain and suffering of others. This capacity for empathy and the ability to feel the suffering of others is part of who I am. It is a good thing, but it makes my work studying and writing about the Holocaust, other genocides, crimes against humanity, and subjects like American slavery, racism, and Jim Crow a sometimes difficult and often very emotionally consuming task. This sometimes leaves me even more sleepless and anxious than normal; especially when I see the indifference of so many people to the suffering of others today.

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The Killing Fields

It is that indifference which motivates me to write; because if these events are not recalled and retold, they, like any part of history will be ignored and then forgotten. The statistics bear this out. There are people today, who say that we should stop talking about these events, that they are old news, and they cannot happen again; but history tells us different, and not just the Holocaust, but indeed every genocide. Then there are those who shamelessly use the Holocaust imagery to spread fear among their followers even as they openly demonize minority groups and religions as the Nazis did to the Jews.

I have to agree with Elie Wiesel who said, “Indifference to me, is the epitome of all evil.”

The late Iris Chang, who wrote The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II wrote something that is pertinent to almost every modern episode of genocide, or other crime against humanity. It is the ability of leaders, be they political, military, or religious to convince people to rationalize actions that they normally would find repulsive.

“After reading several file cabinets’ worth of documents on Japanese war crimes as well as accounts of ancient atrocities from the pantheon of world history, I would have to conclude that Japan’s behavior during World War II was less a product of dangerous people than of a dangerous government, in a vulnerable culture, in dangerous times, able to sell dangerous rationalizations to those whose human instincts told them otherwise.”

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The Islamic State

There are many other such events that we could note; the American decimation and genocide committed against native American tribes that spanned close to two centuries, the 1915 Turkish genocide of Armenians, the Rwandan genocide of 1994, the Serbian atrocities in Bosnia and Kosovo, the Chinese Communist “Great Leap Forward,” the actions of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and the more recent but seldom discussed action of the Myanmar government and military against its Rohingya Muslim minority.

                        Rwandan Genocide 

What we call civilization, to use the words of Iris Chang, is tissue thin. That is why we must never forget these terrible events of history, and that part of human nature, and in a sense part of every one of us, that makes them so easy to repeat. That is why we must periodically take the time to remember and reflect on the Holocaust, other genocides and crimes against humanity.

It is even more important now with the rise of fascist, nationalist, and racist regimes around the world. Even in the United States these demons of the past, racism, nationalism, and fascism have come out into the open as those who believe in them have become emboldened by the words of President Trump and members of his administration.

In fact in trying to clean up his inaction after the violence committed by neo-Nazis and KKK sympathizers in Charlottesville the President first equated the Nazis and Klansmen with the people that they attacked and under pressure made a speech condemning the Nazis and Klansmen. According to Bob Woodward, when a Fox News correspondent said that was an admission that he was almost an admission that he was wrong.” The President exploded at Rob Porter, the aide who convinced him to make the speech: “That was the biggest fucking mistake I’ve made,” the President told Porter. “You never make those concessions. You never apologize. I didn’t do anything wrong in the first place. Why look weak?” A few days later the President returned to the subject and again made the argument of moral equivalence.

Coupled with so many of the President’s words and policies directed against Blacks, Mexicans and Central Americans, Arabs, Africans, and others; as well as his attacks on the First Amendment and his praise and defense of cold blooded dictators around the world one has to take it more seriously.

This is not an issue that simply lurks in the past, it is a very real part of the present. Historian Timothy Snyder wrote:

“The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. It would serve us well today to understand why.”

 

Yes, these are terribly uncomfortable subjects, but we cannot allow this generation to allow them to be forgotten, lest they be repeated. That is why that I must continue to write about them and do my best to make sure that they are not forgotten as we cannot afford to let them happen again.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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“It Merely Required no Character” The Truth About Trump’s Christian Enablers

Catch-22 (1970) Alan Arkin Mike Nichols 24

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

When I see the political-religious leaders of the Christian Right defend the indefensible actions of President Trump I am reminded of the words of Joseph Heller in his classic novel Catch 22  who wrote about the Chaplain:

“The chaplain had mastered, in a moment of divine intuition, the handy technique of protective rationalization, and he was exhilarated by his discovery. It was miraculous. It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.” 

As much as I doubt I am still a Christian, even if I wasn’t already a Christian I couldn’t think of a single reason to follow the false God of men like Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell Jr., Franklin Graham, Tony Perkins, or any of the host of big name Evangelical Christian preachers who excuse the behaviors of President Trump and his decadently despicable defenders, including people that I once thought that I knew.

I used to think that most people like to believe that religion is a benign or positive influence in the world. As much as I want to believe the positive aspects I have to admit based on the historical and sociological evidence that this is not so, especially during unsettled times of great change. We live in such an era and when it comes to identity, God is the ultimate trump card.

If one wonders why the most fanatical individuals and groups on earth are tied to religions, whether it is the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, Hezbollah, Orthodox Jews, radical Hindus and Buddhists as well as militant Christians. Of course all of these groups have different goals, but their thought and philosophy are quite similar.

Robert Heinlein wrote:

“Almost any sect, cult, or religion will legislate its creed into law if it acquires the political power to do so.”

Heinlein, the author of the classic Starship Troopers was absolutely correct. Just look at any place in any time where any religion, sect or cult has gained control of a government. They are not loving, they are not forgiving and they use the police power of the state to persecute any individual or group that is judged to be in error, or even worse has the gall to question their authority.

Since the Christian groups tend to thrive in the West, they only speak in terms of violence, most, with the exception of Russian Orthodox Christians, do not have a government to translation of those words into action. Many, especially conservative Catholics and some Evangelical and Charismatic Protestants seem for a long for the day when they can assume control of a theocratic government.

Samuel Huntington wrote in his book The Clash of Civilizations:

“People do not live by reason alone. They cannot calculate and act rationally in pursuit of their self-interest until they define their self. Interest politics presupposes identity. In times of rapid social change established identities dissolve, the self must be redefined, and new identities created. For people facing the need to determine Who am I? Where do I belong? Religion provides compelling answers….In this process people rediscover or create new historical identities. Whatever universalist goals they may have, religions give people identity by positing a basic distinction between believers and non-believers, between a superior in-group and a different and inferior out-group.”

Huntington was right, you see the true believers, those who follow their religion without question and believe that it is superior to all others also believe that their religion entitles them to be atop the food chain, others who don’t believe like them be damned, if not in this life, the next. That is the certitude of the true believer, especially the religious one. Secular or atheistic fanatics could care less about the next life, for this life is all that they have. But the religious “true believers” are not only interested in destroying someone in this life, but ensuring that in the next that they suffer for eternity, unless they believe in the annihilation of the soul after death, which really spoils the whole Dante’s Inferno perspective of the damned in the afterlife.

The great American philosopher, Eric Hoffer wrote:

“The impression somehow prevails that the true believer, particularly the religious individual, is a humble person. The truth is the surrendering and humbling of the self breed pride and arrogance. The true believer is apt to see himself as one of the chosen, the salt of the earth, the light of the world, a prince disguised in meekness, who is destined to inherit the earth and the kingdom of heaven too. He who is not of his faith is evil; he who will not listen will perish.”

That is why they, the religious true believers of any faith are capable of such great evil, and why such people can murder innocents in the most brutal manner simply because they do not believe correctly. In fact today when I see the words and actions of these supposed Conservative Christians.

Please do not get me wrong. I am a Christian, a priest, a historian and a theologian, but I also know just how insidious those who hold their religion over those of others can be. While I hold faith dear, I know that it can be abused for the claim of some to have God as their final authority is a sort of trump card with which they are able to justify the most obscene and evil acts against others.

Likewise I struggle with faith every day. If you have read this blog from the beginning you will see chronicle my struggles with faith and its practice, especially in life and politics.

I guess that is why I am even more frightened of religious true believers than non-religious true believers. While the non-religious true believer may sacrifice everything for the sake of power and control in this life, and may in fact commit the most heinous crimes against humanity, their hatred is bounded in space and time to this earth. The religious true believer is not content with that; their enemies must be damned and punished in this life, but for eternity, without hope of salvation.

When they look at people like me or Yossarian they believe as Heller wrote:

“Morale was deteriorating and it was all Yossarian’s fault. The country was in peril; he was jeopardizing his traditional rights of freedom and independence by daring to exercise them.” 

With that I wish you a good day.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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“On History’s Clock it was Sunset” a Reflection on the Funeral of Senator John McCain

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Senator John McCain’s memorial service in the Capitol, his funeral at rites at Washington’s National Cathedral, and his burial at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis marked the end of an age that he symbolized. McCain had an outsized influence around the world for a United States Senator. As Senators go it is hard to find one with his moral, and political influence around the world. I think that maybe we would have to go back to Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson to find one with his influence abroad.

Likewise, one has to go back far longer to find a Senator who could oppose a malignant President of his own political party as did McCain oppose Donald Trump. Barry Goldwater facing off with Richard Nixon in 1974 is one, but I think the most similar comparison with with Senator Stephen Douglas who stood up to James Buchanan in 1857 and 1858.

Though McCain was a flawed man, something that he readily acknowledged, he was an honorable man. Like Abraham Lincoln, McCain believed that the soul of America, its found in the principles of the Declaration of Independence. This was a document that both men based their lives in understanding the full meaning: those principles were not just limited to white male property owners as was the case in 1776, but extended beyond that, to every American, and for that matter every human being.

We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

McCain understood that in terms of human rights, the environment, civil rights, and a respect for the underlying philosophical, religious, and legal principles that are the foundation of free societies everywhere. But now, in the United States and around the world those foundational principles are under attack from power hungry autocrats. Sadly they are led by the man whose name was unmentioned at his funeral but whose malignant presence was felt overwhelming by many who were there or who watched it, President Donald Trump.

Some attendees and others recorded that they momentarily felt that perhaps what has been lost will be recovered. But within hours most realized that this was not just a funeral for John McCain, it was a funeral for what America was and will likely never be again regardless of how the Trump presidency ends. The malevolent forces that he has unleashed were already there in the United States and in many other countries, but they were held in check until a leader unbound by the principles of the Declaration, without respect for law, without appreciation for the unwritten codes of morality, political, and civil behavior that are essential for the maintenance of a republic like ours became President.

In a sense the election of Donald Trump opened wide the gates of Hell, to the worst aspects of human behavior. If Donald Trump was to choke on a chicken wing while raving at a cable news host while tweeting and die, the damage would not only be done, but it would continue until those who would “support him even if he killed someone on 5th Avenue” are defeated at the polls, driven from power, and shamed into a sense of normalcy as were the Germans after Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich was overthrown. America will survive, we may even return to our founding principles, but it will not be without much pain, much sacrifice, and the loss of many things that we currently hold dear.

Thus when I read a column today that mentioned that McCain’s funeral was also a funeral for what we have lost I began to think about the opening chapter of Barbara Tuchman’s classic work The Guns of August. In that chapter Tuchman recounted the funeral of Britain’s King Edward VII in 1910, four years before the beginning of the First World War. She wrote:

SO GORGEOUS WAS THE SPECTACLE on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration. In scarlet and blue and green and purple, three by three the sovereigns rode through the palace gates, with plumed helmets, gold braid, crimson sashes, and jeweled orders flashing in the sun. After them came five heirs apparent, forty more imperial or royal highnesses, seven queens—four dowager and three regnant—and a scattering of special ambassadors from uncrowned countries. Together they represented seventy nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place and of its kind the last. The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history’s clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting.

At the end of the chapter Tuchman wrote:

Along Whitehall, the Mall, Piccadilly, and the Park to Paddington Station, where the body was to go by train to Windsor for burial, the long procession moved. The Royal Horse Guards’ band played the “Dead March” from Saul. People felt a finality in the slow tread of the marchers and in the solemn music. Lord Esher wrote in his diary after the funeral: “There never was such a break-up. All the old buoys which have marked the channel of our lives seem to have been swept away.”

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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