Category Archives: faith

Raymond Reddington, Me, and the Forgiveness of Sins

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In spite of being very busy working in the house and going  back to work to deal with the crisis d’jour I have been very reflective about all I have been through over the past few months. Unlike past times of reflection this has been a rather uplifting experience of grace and not a de-evolution into a morbid state of moroseness.

As I wrote on Saturday I drafted and sent up my retirement letter today for my Commanding Officer’s endorsement. I also let my detailer, the officer who manages officer assignments know that I was putting in my papers so he can plan to replace me. I also let the men and . It was a strange but very freeing. I will have much to do to get ready for that day about a year from now but knowing that I can begin working on everything that I need to accomplish. There is much to do but I am at peace and really looking forward to what comes next, whatever it may be.

Due to a situation dealing with my Catholic congregation  I am having to do a town hall meeting to explain howe things work to all of my faith group leaders and contractors on Sunday afternoon. Thus I will be going in to the chapel on Sunday and I will make an appearance before my Protestant congregation to discuss my feelings about the member that tried to get me sent to court martial. I have finally been able to deal with the anger from that experience but the pain is still there. At least I am in a better place to talk about it and know now that I won’t do anything to blow the situation up.

This experience has taught me something about grace, forgiveness, and trust, but I digress…

The fact is that I have a tremendous ability to dwell upon injustices and I have a terrible time with forgiveness. I do really love the concept and as a Christian I have no idea of how Jesus managed to forgive nor the great saints of every faith who managed to live lives full of grace and forgiveness have managed to do so. It probably goes back to my Irish-Scottish DNA, the DNA that can make one a hilarious hoot one minute and a brooding bore the next regardless of whether or not alcohol is involved.

But there is something that I have learned recently: forgiveness doesn’t require me to be dishonest about how I feel about something. I learned that from Raymond Reddington, and yes I have been binge-watching The Blacklist of late and I find Reddington’s grip on philosophy, religion, and the human condition to be quite fascinating. Reddington observed:

“Sins should be buried like the dead. Not that they may be forgotten but we may them and find our way forward nonetheless.”

Truthfully I don’t believe in the forgive and forget bullshit, it’s a nice thought, but our brains don’t work that way. We can forgive someone every day, but the memories will still be there. That’s what makes it so hard. That is why the Christian understanding of the forgiveness of since is so important and so difficult. It wasn’t meant to be easy or painless, but it might make a difference, as Reddington noted:

“A friend told me recently that forgiveness won’t change the past but could very well change their future. Apparently, everything is forgivable.” 

So that’s all for tonight. Yes I know there are many things going on that I can write about but right now I need to stay in this place for a moment.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

 

 

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All Good Things: My Decision to Retiree from the Military

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In the Star Trek Film Generations Captain Jean Luc Picard told Commander William Riker:

“Someone once told me that time was a predator that stalked us all our lives. But I rather believe than time is a companion who goes with us on the journey, and reminds us to cherish every moment because they’ll never come again. What we leave behind is not as important how we lived. After all, Number One, we’re only mortal.” 

Today was like any other Saturday for me except that I made the decision to put in my retirement papers from the Navy. Lord willing about this time next year I will be “piped ashore” in a retirement ceremony.

When that day comes it will be the end of a thirty-eight year military career in which I have served as an enlisted man, then an officer. I have served in the active duty Army, the Army Reserve, and California, Texas, and Virginia Army National Guard. Then in February of 1999 after 17 1/2 years in the Army I declared free agency so to speak and joined the Navy.  On February 8th I was a Major in the Army Reserve and on the 9th I was taking the oath of office as a Navy Lieutenant. My wife and my paternal grandmother were there when I took the oath in a humble, and now abandoned Naval Reserve Center in Huntington West Virginia.

So now, some 19 years and 8 months later I have made the decision to put in my retirement papers. For me it is a time for reflecting and realizing that it is the right time to do this. The last number of months in my assignment have been difficult and brought me little joy. I have sought to serve my congregations and to mentor, help, and protect the personnel assigned to me.

I have grown weary of the frustrations of dealing with a moribund bureaucracy, decaying facilities with no money to fix them, the prospect of losing most of my experienced enlisted personnel with no experienced personnel coming in, and dealing with Protestant and Catholic congregations that try my very soul. When one of my Protestant parishioners attempted to have me tried by court martial because he disagreed with my sermon content and then wrote a lying letter to my commander forcing an investigation in which I had to spend money on a lawyer to defend myself I crossed the Rubicon. I knew that I was going to retire at the end of my current tour.

Then this week I hit the culminating point when the faith group leader of my Catholic congregation and my new contract Priest raised such a ruckus and problems for my enlisted personnel and one of my Chaplains that I had to intervene despite being on leave and in the middle of massive work on my house. I spent Friday evening texting that lay leader and it only made me more upset. I realized that no matter what I did that had done to keep them going in the absence of a priest and how I fought for them that they had no loyalty of concern for me or my personnel. Gratefulness to others is not a virtue for most American Christians today, I knew that but learned it again.

This morning I read a Navy Message announcing a Selective Early Retirement Board for Captains and Commanders. I am in the zone and if chosen to be retired I would have little lead time to plan my retirement and do all the things that I would need to do medically, administratively, and personally to retire and have a decent chance of landing on me feet. Honestly, I would have rather spent the last year in a combat zone in Iraq like I did in 2007 and 2008 than deal with the bullshit that I have been dealing with lately.

I know that did the best that I could and I can say that the team of chaplains and Religious Program Specialists whose work I help direct and support are some of the finest people I have ever served with. Their honesty and likewise their care for me has been about the only thing that got me through. Honestly, I am so grateful for them and I treasure them all, just as I have so many of my other soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen, and civilians employed by the military for the last thirty-seven years.

I am at peace, and I am going to spent the time leading up to my retirement to cherish every moment. Now I know that my situation at work is not going to change but I am going to cherish the moments with the people that I care for and do my best to serve without getting to stressed out because I know now that I my future is only beginning. “Second star to the right and straight on till morning.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

 

 

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Filed under christian life, faith, History, iraq, leadership, life, Military, ministry

No Sympathy for Sarah

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Over the past number of years I have had my life threatened by Nazis, White Supremacists, and supposedly Christian zealots. Likewise I had to the real threat to my freedom and career by a Trump supporter in my chapel who tried to have me tried by Court Martial because he disagreed with the administration’s policies on imprisoning children and separating the for their families and recalling from scripture, Christian tradition, and history the duty of Christians to confront evil policies. I was exonerated but I still have legal fees to pay.

Over the past week or so I have had a number of friends and acquaintances when learning of what I went through tell me how sorry they felt for White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. I had to be blunt and tell them that I feel no sympathy for her. It surprised them.

I told them both that I had no sympathy for someone who works for and lies for the man who supports and encourages the people the very people who have threatened me in such dire ways. I have no sympathy for a person who uses her position to first and foremost blatantly lie on a daily basis.

If that wasn’t enough I have no sympathy for a person serving as the White House Press Secretary speaking against the rights to free speech, the freedom, of the press, and freedom of association guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Likewise, I have no sympathy for a person for a person who uses the position of White House Press Secretary to deride, mock, and impugn the integrity of journalists and to give aid and comfort to those who threaten the lives of those journalists.

Finally, I have no sympathy for any government official who when confronted about the actions of their boss which encourage violence against all opponents and give aid and comfort to those who have and will again commit violence by whining about how she has been disrespected.

I have no sympathy for this spawn of Mike Huckabee. She has enjoyed a life of privilege and power as the daughter of a powerful preacher who became a powerful politician and pundit.

She, like her father and her boss is a sociopath and narcissist. As such she has no capacity for empathy or receiving any kind of criticism. I do not believe that she is a good person for a good person with a good heart could not do what she is doing. To me she is no better that Joseph Goebbels. I believe that if she was ever given the kind of political and governmental power that Goebbels was given by Hitler that she would joyfully exercise it.

Thus, I have no sympathy for Sarah, even less than I have for her boss. She made the decision to serve him and has willingly carried out his desires with the energy of a Nazi propagandist.

Maybe if she grows a conscience and realizes the evil that she has steadfastly defended and encouraged and decides to speak the truth from the James Brady Press Room I might change my mind. But until she decides to honor her Christian faith and obey the Constitution I have no sympathy for Sarah, and neither should you. She has made her bed and one day she will have to answer for her actions.

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Dealing With “Christian” Political Extremists: My Recent Experience

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Last night I wrote about Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his newly formed Religious Tyranny Task Force. The goal of that task force is to make sure that white conservative Christians can impose their beliefs on other and suffer no recriminations from discriminating against Gays and others that they do not want to serve or care for, even if their religious rights trump the civil rights of others. It is perhaps one of the most incestuous and dangerous displays of marriage of the Church and the police power of the state in the history of the United States.

Likewise, last month I wrote an article about having been accused by a chapel congregation member of conduct unbecoming an officer and contempt towards the President of the United States. I wrote the article after I was cleared of the charges during the preliminary inquiry. But it left me with many questions about the people of my congregation; questions that I have been wrestling for the better part of the month.

Since I am the senior supervisory chaplain on my base and come from a tiny denomination of the Old Catholic tradition that is stuck in the middle between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism I am an odd fit. My denomination is orthodox in its theology of God and Christ but very much a part of the the understandings of the Protestant Social Gospel of the early 1900s, the social teachings that came out of the Roman Catholic Church during Vatican II, and the Civil Rights Movement. I am also informed by being a trained historian.  This includes having a strong understanding of influence of the early Baptists in the United States on religious liberty as it came to be written into the Bill of Rights. The Baptists of that period were highly persecuted, in Europe and in the North American colonies by state churches. As a result they were much more progressive and tolerant of the rights of all religious minorities and even non-believers.

These men included Roger Williams who founded the colony of Rhode Island as a colony with no state religion and Virginia Baptist John Leland who was the inspiration for James Madison drafting the Bill of Rights.

I do my best to support the congregation and my junior chaplains regardless of their theological beliefs or political viewpoints. As such I try to allow my junior chaplains the chance to do good by pastoring the congregation while I support by them substituting every four to six weeks so they can get a full weekend off once in a while. In fact my policy is that I will not police their sermon content or how they do ministry so long as they care about the people, are not abusive, do not violate the rights of others, or commit crimes. So if a congregation member were to complain to me about their sermon I would tell that congregant to talk to them and if they could not work it out to contact that chaplains church or religious organization. I cannot police the beliefs

Since the accusations were leveled and I was told that I was exonerated I have been thinking of how next to approach the congregation, and today I got a copy of the investigation. I was heartened by some of the statements given by members of the congregation, while others troubled me. In the investigation was a copy of the letter the complainant sent to my commander. The difference between his letter and even the even the most prejudiced other congregant was amazing for even those somewhat critical of the sermon admitted their prejudices and gave me some benefit of doubt. In fact his letter was over the top and in opposition to what everyone of the others said that the investigating officer decided not to get a statement from him. But I could never believe that someone could make up such venomous lies in an attempt to destroy my name, reputation and career in such a despicable manner.

My review of the investigation and the statements has made me even more concerned about going before the congregation again. Knowing the attitudes of many it feels like by doing so I will be exposing myself to other charges from people who are little different than the Gestapo, Stasi, and KGB informants who routinely denounced priests and pastors. Sadly, with the Justice Department now behind them such people will have free reign to denounce people simply based on their often quite shallow and narrow theological understandings which are far more informed by their right wing politics than by Scripture, Tradition, or Reason.

So in the next few weeks I have a decision to make on how I will deal with this. I have a few ideas and I discuss them with my Protestant pastors who are much more conservative than me are incredibly supportive. I also am thinking and praying about what to do. Whatever I do I will script my remarks and have at least one of my other chaplains in attendance. I may even record it because I don’t want to give any of these Trump cultists to make up anything that cannot be refuted.

The sad thing is that I even have to be concerned about this. I never in a million years could have imagined being denounced by retired military officer for my sermon content. That gives me pause and frankly makes me very concerned. The experience has embittered me.  Don’t get me wrong. There are a few people in the congregation who have stood behind me and encouraged me, but most have either turned their backs on me or remained bystanders.

So I ask for your prayers, thoughts, encouragement, or wisdom in what I should do next. I am struggling with anger while trying to love and forgive the people who hurt me that God still loves and who Christ died to save.

However, there is one thing that I do know. It is something that both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood. Dr. King said: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”  While Bonhoeffer wrote: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” 

So I know I cannot remain silent because what is happening in the church in the United States not to mention the country is a manifestation of evil.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

 

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Acting in the Name of God: Sessions Commissions Religious Tyranny Task Force

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Almost a quarter of a century ago the late Senator Barry Goldwater observed something that is now coming to full fruition. He remarked to John Dean:

“Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the [Republican] party, and they’re sure trying to do so, it’s going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise. I know, I’ve tried to deal with them.” November, 1994, in John Dean, Conservatives Without Conscience.

They were always up front about who they are and what they believe and they galvanized Christians to follow Republicans for one purpose and one purpose only: to seize control of the government. Gary North was one of the intellectual leaders of the movement. Quiet and less known than the more prominent pastors and televangelists, North has been a long time adviser to Ron and Rand Paul and numerous other GOP leaders. North wrote:

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

Well they did and have made common cause with a President that under any other circumstances they would never have anything to do with and with his unwavering support are about to launch the biggest campaign of government sponsored religious discrimination and persecution ever seen in this country. It began early in the administration picked up a measure of legal empowerment by a with the issuance of an Executive Order by the President in May.

Today, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the formation of a Religious Liberty Task Force at the Department of Justice. The goal is to protect the ability of conservative Christians ability to discriminate on people based on “sincere and strongly held religious beliefs.” The sole object of this task force is to support religious zealots with the full police power of the government. This will be wielded mostly at LGBTQ people as the administration and the Justice Department have signaled their intention to roll back civil and legal protections for LGBTQ people having determined that that there is “no basis for these protections.” Be assured it will not stop there. The grossly satanic intertwining of Church and State is exactly what our founders warned against and exactly why the the great Virginia Baptist John Leland fought for the wall of separation between Church and State. Leland proclaimed:

“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.”

Thankfully his friends Thomas Jefferson and James Madison agreed. Today many of the theological descendants of Leland are in the forefront of the ideas that he believed protected all Americans, not just Baptists.

Likewise, George Truett, the great Southern Baptist Pastor who served as President of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary wrote in his book Baptists and Religious Liberty in 1920 about the decidedly negative effect of when the Church became the State religion:

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

Under Trump todays “Christians” have thrown in  their lot with a modern Constantine, a man with no conscience, no empathy, and even less faith than the Roman Emperor.

There will be dark days ahead for all of us and we will have no one to blame but the so called conservative Christians who like Esau have throw out their faith for bowl of rancid porridge. They will given the chance tear down the wall between the separation of church and state and drive a dagger into the heart of the First Amendment.

God help us because these “Christians” will not. I know, because one in my own congregation tried to get me charged and court-martialed because he disagreed with my sermon. These people are not going to stop until they crush anyone that gets in their way. They must be fought from the pulpit, the polling place, and the public square.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Road Built With Hate and Paved by the Indifference of Trump’s Christian Followers

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

We are still in the midst of our repairs and renovations of our home. There is still so much to do and as with anything like this it seems that it is taking years. Because I am rather tired I have re-written an article that I think is especially important today in regard to the path that is being trod by President Trump’s passionate followers, the bulk of which are supposedly conservative Evangelical Christians.

Thew fact is that Trump’s followers were prepared for his advent by years of highly politicized propaganda nationalistic covered with a very thin veneer of Christian jibber-jabber, most of which is at odds with 2000 years of the teachings of the Church going back to Jesus. But this propaganda has brought about a wave of hatred that consumes many toward those that they identify as enemies, and indifference to the victims of the policies that their political and clerical leaders espouse.

Historian Ian Kershaw wrote: “The road to Auschwitz was built by hate, but paved with indifference.” I find that comment all too real today when I look at the President, his propagandists, and those who follow him without question even when they know that he is lying to them.

The longer that I live the more that I understand how this happens. Today, as there were in 1930s and 1940s Nazi Germany, there are all too many hate-filled ideologues who desire to destroy or subjugate entire races and ethnic groups, or members of different religions or political ideologies. In the United States they have free reign to do speak and write freely about their goals and for many years we have regarded most of them as fringe characters who had no chance of ever enacting anything that they proposed.

Barry Goldwater, the true conservative scion of the GOP was frightened by the Christians who now form the core of the Trump personality cult. Goldwater said:

“Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the [Republican] party, and they’re sure trying to do so, it’s going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise. I know, I’ve tried to deal with them.” 

Many of these were and continue to be the most vocal supporters of President Trump, and see in him a man who will help them accomplish their desires as no President has done before. One of them, Steve Bannon serves as his chief policy adviser and strategist, and there are no shortage of civil rights opponents and proponents of a police state in his cabinet, including his Attorney General. The the most recent about the latter, the top law enforcement official in the country joined a chorus of Republican youth chanting “lock her up” meaning former First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

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Despite the myriad of actions taken by the Trump administration, its abuses of power, its probable connections to a hostile power, its attempts to shut down law enforcement probes of the Russia connections, its unabashed attempts to silence the press and all other opponents, and its nearly uncountable number of lies and distortions that it makes on a daily basis is that the vast majority of Congressional Republicans nor his supposedly Christian followers seem to care.

Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of opposition, but among his followers and the great number of people in the middle who prefer not to get involved there is little real opposition; moral, religious, ethical, or political to anything that he says or does, mostly because they do not understand how it effects them or their liberties, nor how toxic it is to the nation. It seems to me that they are not only apathetic to the abuses of power, but have no empathy towards the people that they are directed against.

But as I said at the opening of this article, the were prepared by decades of political propaganda covered with a veneer of Christian jibber-jabber. I know this because for a bit over two decades I was exposed to it and and believed it. Years ago I knew and went to church with Randall Terry, the former head Operation Rescue. He once said: “Let a wave of intolerance wash over you. I want you to let a wave of hatred wash over you. Yes, hate is good…” I have walked in the shoes of Trump’s “Christian” personality cult, and at one time I was as whipped into a frenzy of hate by those preachers, and their colleagues in right wing talk radio. That was before I went to and returned from Iraq. Thus I fully understand them and now I reject them and their intolerant creeds.

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For the Trump supporters this is not a problem. He represents a chance for them to recover their greatness, just as Hitler did for many of his followers in the 1930s, including those who joined the Party late. One of the greatest film monologues that illustrated this phenomenon is that of Burt Lancaster in his portrayal of a Nazi judge who is on trial in the movie Judgment at Nuremberg. His comments remind me so much of what I see among many Trump supporters today:

“There was a fever over the land. A fever of disgrace, of indignity, of hunger. We had a democracy, yes, but it was torn by elements within. Above all, there was fear. Fear of today, fear of tomorrow, fear of our neighbors, and fear of ourselves. Only when you understand that – can you understand what Hitler meant to us. Because he said to us: ‘Lift your heads! Be proud to be German! There are devils among us. Communists, Liberals, Jews, Gypsies! Once these devils will be destroyed, your misery will be destroyed.’ It was the old, old story of the sacrificial lamb. What about those of us who knew better? We who knew the words were lies and worse than lies? Why did we sit silent? Why did we take part? Because we loved our country! What difference does it make if a few political extremists lose their rights? What difference does it make if a few racial minorities lose their rights? It is only a passing phase. It is only a stage we are going through. It will be discarded sooner or later. Hitler himself will be discarded… sooner or later. The country is in danger. We will march out of the shadows. We will go forward. Forward is the great password. And history tells how well we succeeded, your honor. We succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. The very elements of hate and power about Hitler that mesmerized Germany, mesmerized the world! We found ourselves with sudden powerful allies. Things that had been denied to us as a democracy were open to us now. The world said ‘go ahead, take it, take it! Take Sudetenland, take the Rhineland – remilitarize it – take all of Austria, take it! And then one day we looked around and found that we were in an even more terrible danger. The ritual began in this courtoom swept over the land like a raging, roaring disease. What was going to be a passing phase had become the way of life. Your honor, I was content to sit silent during this trial. I was content to tend my roses. I was even content to let counsel try to save my name, until I realized that in order to save it, he would have to raise the specter again. You have seen him do it – he has done it here in this courtroom. He has suggested that the Third Reich worked for the benefit of people. He has suggested that we sterilized men for the welfare of the country. He has suggested that perhaps the old Jew did sleep with the sixteen year old girl, after all. Once more it is being done for love of country. It is not easy to tell the truth; but if there is to be any salvation for Germany, we who know our guilt must admit it… whatever the pain and humiliation.”

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While we have not reached the point that the Third Reich did between 1933 and 1938, it will not take much for us to get there. We misjudge ourselves if we belief that such things cannot happen here.

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.”

Reinhold Niebuhr, the great American theologian noted: “Ultimately evil is done not so much by evil people, but by good people who do not know themselves and who do not probe deeply.”

We should heed their warnings before we cross that precipice and head into the abyss.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Consequences of Having Scruples: Johannes Steinhoff and Government Service in the Trump Era

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I have written a lot about the dehumanization of people and genocide, and some of the things that create a climate where such events take place, and how political and religious leaders stir the primal passions of otherwise good, decent and law abiding citizens. I wrote yesterday about some of my favorite resistance figures in history. It will be a multi-part series. I think the next in the series will deal with White and African American abolitionists in the ante-Bellum period and the American Civil War.

But that being said writing about the anti-Nazi resistors caused me to go back are re-read a book by World War II German Luftwaffe ace Johannes Steinhoff.

Steinhoff was unlike many of the German officers who wrote memoirs following the war, memoirs that historian Williamson Murray wrote “fell generally into two categories; generals writing in the genre of “if the fuhrer had only listened to me!” and fighter pilots or tank busters writing about their heroics against the productive flood from America or the primitively masses of the Soviet Union.”

Steinhoff’s book, The Final Hours: The Luftwaffe Plot Against Goering should be essential reading for any currently serving officer, diplomat, Federal law enforcement, intelligence, or Department of Justice official  as the Trump administration becomes more established and capricious.

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General Johannes Steinhof (above) as a Bundeswehr and NATO officer, showing his burns and before his crash (below)

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In his books, Steinhoff does something that you do not see authors do in most military or political memoirs, he actually does serious self reflection on his role in supporting an evil regime. In his introduction to his book The Final Hours the legendary fighter ace who was horribly disfigured when his Me-262 jet fighter crashed and burned two weeks prior to the end of the war wrote:

“In recalling these events, which had been long buried in my memory, it has not been my intention to make excuses. Our unconditional self-sacrifice in the service of the Third Reich is too well documented for that….

So it is because of what is happening today—with freedom threatened in virtually every respect by its own abuse—that I offer this contribution, in the form of an episode in which I was myself involved, to the history of the soldier in the twentieth century. Soldiers have always, in every century of their existence, been victims of the ruthless misuse of power; indeed, given the opportunity, they have joined in the power game themselves. But it fell to our own century to accomplish, with the aid of a whole technology of mass extermination, the most atrocious massacres in the history of mankind. This fact alone makes pacifism a philosophy worthy of respect, and I have a great deal of sympathy with those who profess it. 

The figure of the soldier in all his manifestations is thus symptomatic of the century now nearing its close, and it is to the history of that figure that I wish to contribute by describing what happened to me. I have tried to show what it is possible to do to men, how insidiously they can be manipulated by education, how they can be hoisted onto a pedestal as “heroes,” how they can be so corrupted as even to enjoy the experience—and how they can be dropped and denounced as mutineers when they discover that they have scruples. The complete lack of scruples that such treatment implies is peculiar to rulers who believe that the problems of their own and other peoples can be solved by imposing, through the use of military force, peace on their, the rulers’, terms—in our case a pax germanica, but the second Latin word is readily interchangeable.” from “The Final Hours: The Luftwaffe Plot Against Goring (Aviation Classics)” by Johannes Steinhoff

Since I am a historian and and a career military officer with service in the Iraq War, a war that was illegal and unjust by all measure I can understand Steinhof’s words. Because much of my undergraduate and graduate work focused on German history, particularly that of Imperial Germany after the unification, the Weimar Republic, and the Nazi Reich, I draw a lot of lessons from the period. I also understand how people in this country can fall for the same kind of vitriolic propaganda that the Germans of that era did. I can understand because for years I fell for the lies and propaganda being put out by the politicians, pundits and preachers of the American political right.

In fact I wrote about an incident that happened to me in my own chapel where a dedicated Trump supporter attempted to have me charged with Conduct Unbecoming an Officer and Contempt for the President.  He did this because I used biblical preaching backed by sound theology and history to condemn the President’s comparison of immigrants of darker skin colors as “animals” and an “infestation.” I compared those words with the way Hitler and other totalitarian leaders used such terminology to dehumanize their victims. As I mentioned I was completely cleared by the preliminary inquiry but it sends a chill through my spine.

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A picture of me (on left) in Iraq 2007 with my assistant and bodyguard RP1 Nelson Lebron

One of those lessons is that in times of crisis, that people, no matter what their race, culture, religious belief system, educational, or economic background are still human. Humanity is the one constant in all of history, our prejudices are often ingrained in us during childhood and reinforced by the words of politicians, pundits, and preachers. In times of stress, crisis, and societal change or upheaval even good people, moral people, people of great intellectual, scientific abilities can fall prey to demagogues who preach hate and blame others, usually racial, ethnic, or religious minorities, as well as civil libertarians who champion the rights of those minorities for the problems of the nation.

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

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

But that being said, there are a lot of people who from childhood believe the lies about others without question. In good times such people continue on with life as normal, but in crisis those hatreds and prejudices come to the fore. Rudolf Höss, the notorious sociopath who commanded Auschwitz told American Army psychologist Gustave Gilbert about his reaction when ordered to turn the camp into an extermination center. He said that the order “fitted in with all that had been preached to me for years,” and “at the same time I didn’t think of it as propaganda, but as something one just had to believe.” 

Eugene Davidson in his book on the Nuremberg Trials wrote:

“Every society has in it at all times negative, criminal, sadistic, asocial forces. What holds them in check more than law and police is the consensus of the society – a general belief that despite everything wrong and stupid and muddleheaded in politics, the state is a going concern that will somehow make its way into the future.” (Davidson, The Trial of the Germans p.581)

But when things do not go well, when people do not feel that things will be okay, that the future will be better, and that they have a purpose they look for answers. However, they tend to find their answers in the rantings of demagogues, race baiters, conspiracy theorists, and others who they would tend to dismiss out of hand in good times. In Germany it was the loss of the First World War, the humiliation of Versailles and the economic chaos and social change of the Weimar period which allowed Hitler to gain an audience, then a following, then political power. The demagogues played to what was already in the hearts and minds of the disaffected masses, without that fertile soil, the rantings of Hitler and his propagandists would have never succeeded. Albert Speer wrote:

“As I see it today, Hitler and Goebbels were in fact molded by the mob itself, guided by its yearnings and its daydreams. Of course, Goebbels and Hitler knew how to penetrate through to the instincts of their audiences; but in the deeper sense they derived their whole existence from these audiences. Certainly the masses roared to the beat set by Hitler’s and Goebbels’ baton; yet they were not the true conductors. The mob determined the theme. To compensate for misery, insecurity, unemployment, and hopelessness, this anonymous assemblage wallowed for hours at a time in obsessions, savagery and license. The personal unhappiness caused by the breakdown of the economy was replaced by a frenzy that demanded victims. By lashing out at their opponents and vilifying the Jews, they gave expression and direction to fierce primal passions.”

In a sense a similar thing has happened in the United States which has experienced a series of wars beginning with Vietnam, the shock of the 9-11-2001 attacks, the economic crash of 2007 and 2008 which devastated the savings, home ownership, and investments of many Americans while at the same time benefiting the banking and brokerage houses whose government assisted policies brought about the crash. Of course there are other issues, many religious conservatives hate the progress made by the Women’s and Gay Rights movements, and their leaders play to their fears in apocalyptic terms. I could go on, but I am sure that my readers can identify other issues which demagogues and others use to spread fear and hate to further their goals. The fact is that without the the fertile soil that lays in the hearts of their most fervent followers they would never have a following.

In Weimar Germany hate mongers like Julius Streicher and propagandist Josef Goebbels stuck a chord with disenchanted people who felt that they had lost their country. They were fearful, angry, and desired a leader who would “make Germany great again.” Hitler and his Nazi media sycophants played to that fear, and took advantage of their anger at the existing order. Davidson wrote such people “exist everywhere and in a sick society they can flourish.” 

For decades the way has been prepared for true extremists to take advantage of the fears and doubts of people as modern American versions of Streicher and Goebbels have been at work for years. Rush Limbaugh was a modern pioneer of this in the United States, and he has been joined by so many who are even more extreme in their rantings that it is hard to name them all. Likewise, whole media corporations especially Fox News, websites, and political networks spread such fear every minute of the day, claiming that they, and they alone are real Americans. They actively support politicians who condemn, and sometimes even threaten people who oppose them, and all the while claim that “make America great again.”

When I was younger I devoured that propaganda, despite all of my learning I followed the rantings of men who I realize today are propagandists who promote the basest of lies, and hatred, often in the name of God. I was changed when I was at war, and when I returned home from Iraq in 2008 I realized through hard experience that I had been lied to, and that as a result that thousands of my brothers and sisters were dead, and tens of thousands shattered in body, mind, and spirit. Likewise I saw the massive destruction levied on Iraq and realized how terrible war really is. That was my epiphany, that is what it took to see how much I had been lied to, and it called me to question everything else that I had so willingly believed, things which had been fed to me by years of indoctrination in church, through the media, and by politicians who I believed were truly Christian. I can understand now how Martin Niemoller felt after the Nazi seizure of power when he said, “I hated the growing atheistic movement, which was fostered and promoted by the Social Democrats and the Communists. Their hostility toward the Church made me pin my hopes on Hitler for a while. I am paying for that mistake now; and not me alone, but thousands of other persons like me.”

There was a time that I hated people who espouse the views that I hold today, the views that I write about so often here on this site. I can remember how angry I would get as I listened to the propaganda being put out by Limbaugh, Hannity, the Fox News Channel and all of the others that I listened to every time that I had the chance. But when I changed after Iraq, I felt the sting of that hatred in very real ways. I remember the day I was called by my bishop in my former church, who told me that I had to leave because my views on women, gays, and Moslems were to use his words were now “too liberal.” After that, many men who I considered to be the best of friends turned their backs on me, some in the most bitter and vindictive of ways.

But I realize now that what they did was because I had in a sense left the cult, and had to be ostracized. I can understand that now, because when I was under the spell I too turned my back on people who had fallen out of favor, or people who had rejected the tenants of the church or the political movement, and those are things that I can never undo. But at the time it made sense, it fitted in with all I had been taught for decades, as Albert Speer wrote of Hitler, “One seldom recognizes the devil when he is putting his hand on your shoulder.”

What happened to Steinhoff’s generation is threatening to happen again, in our country, an authoritarian movement is threatening to destroy our democracy and republic. In it soldiers are esteemed, until they realize what is going on and speak out, but by then it is usually too late. I am understanding that fact more and more every day, and having had people troll this blog and call me a traitor and worse, I understand just a bit of what happened to Steinhoff and his fellow officers when they protested to the highest levels what was happening to Germany in early 1945.

In 1944 he and other fighter pilots were subjected to a political indoctrination session and realized that in the Nazi state loyalty and doctrinal purity to Naziism was more important than either combat service or competence. He wrote:

“Now, however, we realized to our horror that a group of officers had decided, after five years of war, to conduct a purge among the troops with the object of eliminating all those “whose past life and present conduct were not consonant with the National-Socialist type” and who did not “stand firm on National-Socialist principles.” We sat there petrified, but some of those present appeared hugely to enjoy the ensuing discussion of what they called “National-Socialist guidelines.” Perhaps, though, for many it was simply an attempt to escape into a less concrete area of discussion than the desperate military situation—and then there was the added satisfaction of being able to censure others. Fanaticism took the place of hopelessness, and phrases like “faith in the Führer,” “rootedness in National-Socialist ideology,” and “irreproachability of character” fell without hesitation from people’s lips. The Luftwaffe leadership, it was said, must be “combed” from top to bottom, and then someone even came out with the “National-Socialist soul…”

We will soon know how military professionals react to being labeled as traitors. President Trump and his followers have been demonizing the personnel of the nation’s intelligence, law enforcement, and diplomatic communities since before the election. The President lambasts critics of any station on his Twitter feed which results in them receiving death threats from his followers. I expect that when Secretary of Defense James Mattis speaks his mind and tells the truth that we will find out.

Personally I expect that when he does that Trump and his most strident supporters will label him as a traitor for doing so. Like a religious cult they have no capacity to tolerate dissent, loyalty to the man will supersede loyalty to the country or the Constitution. When that happens it will be interesting to see the throngs of people in the military and outside of it who make the choice to throw one of the most courageous, selfless, and intellectual soldiers ever produced by our nation under the bus.

Their’s will be a conscious decision. My opinion is that the Constitution and the country will always come first. I wanted to give the President the benefit of the doubt and prayed that he world do the right thing for the country. But I was wrong. I am concerned because of his past and current behavior that his only loyalty is to himself. General Ludwig Beck, who resigned rather than obey Hitler’s order to invade Czechoslovakia in 1938 and died in the anti-Hitler coup attempt in 1944 said:

“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.” 

I have no doubt that General Mattis understands that and will courageously speak his mind, even if he is condemned for doing so. Sadly I have many doubts about other leaders: be they military, political, business, or religious. There are many people who will sell their souls for their personal advancement, the advancement of their agenda, or an increase in their bottom line. It is after all human nature.

But the question is: will we see true men and women of courage who will stand when it appears there is no chance of success? As Atticus Finch said in To Kill a Mockingbird: “Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.” 

That will be what is demanded in the coming months and years.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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