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“Sound the Loud Timbrel o’er Egypt’s Dark Sea, Jehovah Hath Triumphed, His People are Free.” The Emancipation Proclamation

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Another section  from one of my Civil War texts, this dealing with the Emancipation Proclamation.

Peace

Padre Steve+

From the beginning of the war many Northerners, especially abolitionists and radical Republicans believed that “as the “cornerstone” of the confederacy (the oft-cited description by the South’s vice-president, Alexander H. Stephens) slavery must become a military target.” [1] When some Union generals made their own attempts at issuing emancipation orders, Lincoln countermanded them for exceeding their authority. Lincoln resisted the early calls of the abolitionists to make that a primary war goal for very practical reasons, he had to first ensure that the Border Slave States did not secede, something that would have certainly ensured that the Union would not survived. As a result in the first year of the war, Lincoln “maneuvered to hold Border South neutrals in the Union and to lure Union supporters from the Confederacy’s Middle South white belts. He succeeded on both scores. His double success with southern whites gave the Union greater manpower, a stronger economy, and a larger domain. These slave state resources boosted free labor states’ capacity to should the Union’s heavier Civil War burden.” [2] His success in doing this was instrumental in enabling him to turn to emancipation in 1862.

Finally, some twenty months after Fort Sumter fell and after nearly two years of unrelenting slaughter culminating in the bloody battle of Antietam, Abraham Lincoln published the Emancipation Proclamation. Emancipation was a tricky legal issue for Lincoln as “an executive order of emancipation would be beyond the powers of the president, but not, Lincoln concluded, if such an order were issued as furtherance of the executive’s war powers.” [3] Lincoln had desired to issue the order during the summer and sounded out elected officials and soldiers as to his plan.

Lincoln discussed his views with General George McClellan during a visit to the latter’s headquarters. McClellan stated his strident opposition to them in writing. McClellan did not admire slavery but he despised abolitionists and he wrote one of his political backers “Help me to dodge the nigger – we want nothing to do with him. I am fighting for the Union…. To gain that end we cannot afford to mix up the negro question.”  [4]

Lincoln then called border state Congressmen to sound them out on the subject on July 12th 1862 only to be met with opposition. Such opposition caused Lincoln “to give up trying to conciliate conservatives. From then on the president tilted toward the radical position, though this would not become publicly apparent for more than two months.” [5]

Lincoln’s cabinet met to discuss the proclamation on July 22nd 1862 and after some debate decided that it should be issued, although it was opposed by Postmaster General Montgomery Blair who believed that “the Democrats would capitalize on the unpopularity of such a measure in the border states and parts of the North to gain control of the House in the fall elections.” [6] Wisely, Lincoln heeded the advice of Secretary of State Seward to delay the announcement until military victories ensured that people did not see it as a measure of desperation. Seward noted: “I approve of the proclamation, but I question the expediency of its issue at this juncture. The depression of the public mind, consequent on our repeated reverses, is so great I fear…it may be viewed as the last measure of an exhausted government, a cry for help…our last shriek on the retreat.” Seward suggested that Lincoln wait “until the eagle of victory takes his flight,” and buoyed by military success, “hang your proclamation about his neck.” [7]

After the Battle of Antietam, President Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. This document served as a warning to the leaders of the South, and insisted that there was much more at stake in their rebellion unless they surrendered; their slaves, the very “property” for which the seceded. The document “warned that unless the South laid down its arms by the end of 1862, he would emancipate the slaves.” [8] This was something that they could not and would not do, even as their cities burned and Confederacy collapsed around them in 1864.

The proclamation was a military order in which Lincoln ordered the emancipation of slaves located in the Rebel states and areas of those states occupied by Union troops. It was not designed to change law, which would have to wait until Lincoln felt he could have Congress amend the Constitution.  Instead of law it was “the doctrine of military necessity justified Lincoln’s action.” [9] The concept emanated from Boston lawyer William Whiting who argued “the laws of war “give the President full belligerent rights” as commander and chief to seize enemy property (in this case slaves) being used to wage war against the United States.” [10] There was a legitimate military necessity in the action as Confederate armies used slaves as teamsters, laborers, cooks, and other non-combatant roles to free up white soldiers for combat duty, and because slaves were an important part of the Southern war economy which could not function without them. The proclamation gave inspiration to many slaves throughout the South to desert to the Union cause or to labor less efficiently for their Confederate masters. A South Carolina planter wrote in 1865:

“the conduct of the Negro in the late crisis of our affairs has convinced me that we were all laboring under a delusion….I believed that these people were content, happy, and attached to their masters, But events and reflection have caused me to change these positions….If they were content, happy and attached to their masters, why did they desert him in the moment of need and flocked to the enemy, whom they did not know….” [11]

The proclamation authorized that freed blacks be recruited into the Federal army and it ensured that freed slaves would not again be surrendered back into slavery. As Montgomery Blair had warned Lincoln and the Republicans suffered sharp electoral reverses as “Democrats made opposition to emancipation the centerpiece of their campaign, warning that the North would be “Africanized” – inundated by freed slaves competing for jobs and seeking to marry white women.”  [12]

Lincoln’s response was to continue on despite the opposition and issue the Proclamation in spite of electoral reverses and political resistance. The vehemence of some Northern Democrats came close to matching that of white Southerners. The “white Southerner’s view of Lincoln as a despot, hell-bent on achieving some unnatural vision of “equality,” was shared by Northern Democrats, some of whom thought the president was now possessed by a “religious fanaticism.” [13] But Lincoln was not deterred and he understood “that he was sending the war and the country down a very different road than people thought they would go.” [14] He noted in December 1862:

“Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history….This fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation….In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free – honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve.” [15]

For Lincoln the Emancipation Proclamation was something that he believed was something that he had to do, and he believed that it would be the one thing that he did in life that would be remembered. He had long been convicted of the need for it, but timing mattered, even six months before it might have created a political backlash in the North which would have fractured support for the war effort, and in this case timing and how he made the proclamation mattered.

The Emancipation Proclamation had military, domestic political, and diplomatic implications, as well as moral implications for the conduct of the war.

The military implication would take some time to achieve but were twofold. First, Lincoln hoped that the Emancipation Proclamation would encourage former slaves, as well as already free blacks in the North to join the Union cause and enlist to serve in the Federal Army. The act would vest African Americans in the Union’s cause as little else could, and at the same time begin to choke-off the agricultural labor force that provided the backbone of the Confederate economy. Frederick Douglass eloquently made the case for African Americans to serve in July 1863, telling a crowd in Philadelphia, “Do not flatter yourself, my friends, that you are more important to the Government than the Government is to you. You stand but as a plank to the ship. This rebellion can be put down without your help. Slavery can be abolished by white men: but Liberty so won for the black man, while it may leave him an object of pity, can never make him an object of respect…. Young men of Philadelphia, you are without excuse. The hour has arrived, and your place is in the Union army. Remember that the musket – the United States musket with its bayonet of steel – is better than all the parchment guarantees of Liberty. In you hands the musket means Liberty…” [16] By the end of the war over 180,000 African American men would serve as volunteers in the United States Army.

Politically the proclamation would the diplomatic purpose by isolating the Confederacy from European assistance. This it did, after the proclamation public sentiment, especially among Europe’s working classes turned solidly against the Confederacy. Domestically it would break-ground for the Thirteenth Amendment, which Lincoln, the pragmatic lawyer was needed to actually abolish slavery. Morally, it  would serve as the guarantee of The United States Government’s public, irrevocable pledge of freedom to African Americans if the North won the war.

Lincoln signed the order on January 1st 1863. As he got ready to sign the document he paused and put down the pen, speaking to Seward he said “I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right, than I do now in signing this paper….If my name ever goes down in history it will be for signing this act, and my whole soul is in it.” [17] The opening paragraph read:

“That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.” [18]

At the ends of the proclamation he added the words suggested by his devoutly Christian Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase: “And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.” [19]

The response throughout the North was euphoric as celebrations took place throughout the North. In some cities one hundred gun salutes were fired. At Boston’s Tremont Temple people broke out singing a hymn “Sound the loud timbrel o’er Egypt’s dark sea, Jehovah hath triumphed, his people are free.” [20] The Boston Daily Evening Telegraph predicted, “Slavery from this hour ceases to be a political power in this country…such a righteous revolution as it inaugurates never goes backward.” [21]

Frederick Douglass wrote about his reactions to the Emancipation proclamation as he had nearly despaired wondering if the Lincoln administration would actually take up the fight for emancipation:

“The fourth of July was great, but the first of January, when we consider it in all of its relations and bearings in incomparably greater. The one we respect to the mere political birth to a nation, the last concerns national life and character, and is to determine whether that life and character shall be radiantly and glorious with all high and noble virtues, or infamously blackened, forevermore, with all the hell-darkened crimes and horrors which we attach to Slavery.” [22]

The proclamation was not all some had hoped for and it was certainly provoked a negative response in the South and among many Northern Democrats. Southerners accused Lincoln of inciting racial warfare and Jefferson Davis responded “The day is not so distant when the old Union will be restored with slavery nationally declared to be the proper condition of all of African descent.” [23]

But the proclamation did something that politicians, lawyers did not comprehend, that “the details of the emancipation decree were less significant than the fact that there was an emancipation decree, and while the proclamation read like a dull legal brief, filled with qualifying clauses and exceptions, it was not language made for this, finally, a moral document. It was its existence, its title, its arrival into this world, its challenge to the accepted order, and from that there was no turning back. In this sense it was a revolutionary statement, like the Declaration itself, and nearly as significant.” [24] That the proclamation most certainly was and it was a watershed from which there was no stepping back. “It irrevocably committed the government of the United States to the termination of slavery. It was an act of political courage, take at the right time, in the right way.” [25]

However, it would take another two years, with the Confederacy crumbling under the combined Federal military onslaught before Lincoln was able to secure passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in January 1865.  The amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude throughout the country, as well as nullified the fugitive slave clause and the Three-Fifths Compromise. It would be followed after Lincoln’s death by the Fourteenth Amendment which reversed the result of the Dred Scott decision and declared that all people born in the United States were citizens and entitled to the rights of citizenship. During the Grant administration the Fifteenth Amendment was passed, and this finally extended to African American men, the right to vote in every state.

Though limited in scope, the Emancipation Proclamation had more than a domestic military, social and political effect. It also had an effect on foreign policy which ensured that Britain, and thereby France would not intervene in the war on behalf of the Southern Confederacy. It stopped all British support for the Rebels to include seizing warships that had been contracted for by Confederate agents that were building or being fitted out in British Yards. Likewise the British rejected various proposals of Emperor Napoleon III to intervene in the war in late 1862 and during the summer of 1863.

Effects of the Emancipation Proclamation on Military Law

The Emancipation Proclamation and the elimination of slavery also impacted the Union war effort in terms of law, law that eventually had an impact around the world as nations began to adapt to the changing character of war. It was important because for the first time slavery was accounted for in the laws of war. The “Instructions for the Government of Armies of the United States in the Field, General Orders No. 100 by President Lincoln, April 24, 1863; Prepared by Francis Lieber, LLD noted in Article 42 of that Code:

“Slavery, complicating and confounding the ideas of property, (that is of a thing,) and of personality, (that is of humanity,) exists according to municipal or local law only. The law of nature and nations has never acknowledged it. The digest of the Roman law enacts the early dictum of the pagan jurist, that “so far as the law of nature is concerned, all men are equal.” Fugitives escaping from a country in which they were slaves, villains, or serfs, into another country, have, for centuries past, been held free and acknowledged free by judicial decisions of European countries, even though the municipal law of the country in which the slave had taken refuge acknowledged slavery within its own dominions.” [26]

It continued in Article 43:

“Therefore, in a war between the United States and a belligerent which admits of slavery, if a person held in bondage by that belligerent be captured by or come as a fugitive under the protection of the military forces of the United States, such person is immediately entitled to the rights and privileges of a freeman To return such person into slavery would amount to enslaving a free person, and neither the United States nor any officer under their authority can enslave any human being. Moreover, a person so made free by the law of war is under the shield of the law of nations, and the former owner or State can have, by the law of postliminy, no belligerent lien or claim of service.” [27]

The Continued Fight for Emancipation: Dealing with the Copperheads and the Passage of the Thirteenth Amendment

But there were still legitimate concerns that slavery might survive as the war continued. Lincoln knew that in issuing the Emancipation Proclamation raised the stakes of the war far higher than they had been. He noted, “We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope on earth.” [28] The threat of the destruction of the Union and the continuance of slavery in either the states of the Confederacy, the new western states, territories, or the maintenance of the Union without emancipation was too great for some; notably, the American Freedmen’s Commission to contemplate. With Grant’s army stalled outside Richmond the Copperheads and the peace party gained influence and threatened to bring about a peace that allowed Confederate independence and the continuance of slavery; members of that caucus they Edwin Stanton in the spring of 1864:

“In such a state of feeling, under such a state of things, can we doubt the inevitable results? Shall we escape border raids after fleeing fugitives? No man will expect it. Are we to suffer these? We are disgraced! Are we to repel them? It is a renewal of hostilities!…In the case of a foreign war…can we suppose that they will refrain from seeking their own advantage by an alliance with the enemy?” [29]

The effort of the Copperheads and the peace party to was soon crushed under the military successes of William Tecumseh Sherman’s armies in Georgia. This was especially true of the capture of Atlanta, which was followed by Sherman’s march to the sea and the Carolinas. Additionally the naval victory of David Farragut’s fleet at the Battle of Mobile Bay served to break the stranglehold that the Copperheads were beginning to wield in Northern politics.  These efforts helped secure Lincoln’s reelection by a large margin in the 1864 presidential election over a divided Democratic opposition, whose presidential nominee McClellan could not even endorse his party’s platform.

In his Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln discussed the issue of slavery as the chief cause of the war. In it, Lincoln noted that slavery was the chief cause of the war in no uncertain terms and talked in a language of faith that was difficult for many, especially Christians, who “believed weighty political issues could be parsed into good or evil. Lincoln’s words offered a complexity that many found difficult to accept,” for the war had devastated the playground of evangelical politics, and it had “thrashed the certitude of evangelical Protestantism” [30] as much as the First World War shattered Classic European Protestant Liberalism.  Lincoln’s confrontation of the role that people of faith brought to the war in both the North and the South is both illuminating and a devastating critique of the religious attitudes that so stoked the fires of hatred.  His realism in confronting facts was masterful, and badly needed.  He spoke of “American slavery” as a single offense ascribed to the whole nation.” [31]

“One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.[32]

Notes 

[1] Ibid. Foner Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction  p.42

[2] Ibid. Freehling The South vs. The South p.47

[3] Brewster, Todd. Lincoln’s Gamble: The Tumultuous Six Months that Gave America the Emancipation Proclamation and Changed the Course of the Civil War Scribner a Division of Simon and Schuster, New York and London p.59

[4] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.364

[5] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.504

[6] McPherson, James M. Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief Penguin Books, New York and London 2008 p.109

[7] Ibid. Goodwin Team of Rivals p. 468

[8] Ibid. Foner Forever Free p.49

[9] McGovern, George Abraham Lincoln Times Books, Henry Holt and Company, New York 2009 p.70

[10] Ibid. McPherson Tried by War: p.108

[11] Ibid. Zinn The Other Civil War p.39

[12] Ibid. Foner Forever Free p.49

[13] Ibid. Brewster Lincoln’s Gamble p.169

[14] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.184

[15] Ibid. Foner Forever Free p.49

[16] Douglass, Frederick. Philadelphia Speech of July 6th 1863 recorded in the Liberator in The Civil War and Reconstruction: A Documentary Collection edited by William E. Gienapp, W.W. Norton and Company, New York and London 2001 p.221

[17] Ibid. Goodwin Team of Rivals p. 499

[18] Lincoln, Abraham The Emancipation Proclamation The National Archives & Records Administration retrieved from http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/featured_documents/emancipation_proclamation/transcript.html 14 June 2014

[19] Ibid. Lincoln The Emancipation Proclamation

[20] Ibid. Brewster Lincoln’s Gamble p.244

[21] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.501

[22] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning pp. 180-181

[23] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.263

[24] Ibid. Brewster Lincoln’s Gamble p.245

[25] Ibid. McGovern Abraham Lincoln p.78

[26] Reichberg, Gregory M, Syse Henrik, and Begby, Endre The Ethics of War: Classic and Contemporary Readings Blackwell Publishing Ltd, Malden, MA and Oxford UK 2006 p.570

[27] Ibid. Reichberg et al. The Ethics of War p.570

[28] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.263

[29] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.534

[30] Ibid. Goldfield  America Aflame p.358

[31] Ibid. Wills Lincoln at Gettysburg p.186

[32] Lincoln, Abraham Second Inaugural Address March 4th 1865 retrieved from www.bartleby.com/124/pres32.html 24 March 2014

 

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Filed under civil rights, civil war, History, laws and legislation, leadership, Political Commentary

Compassion for a Bully

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Let me say up front that this is going to be a weird article. I have been thinking about how to write this since Thursday morning when I read a column by David Brooks in the New York Times called A Gift for Donald Trump. I’ve linked that article at the end of my comments here. I know that those who have followed my writings about President Trump for nearly a year or more will have to be wondering what the hell is going on with me. So let me explain.

The article made me really think. As I read it I had to pause, think, and reflect so many times, that I read it again. Honestly, after I read it, I sat there at my desk for at least fifteen minutes in silence. I began to actually think about Donald Trump, not the President, not the businessman, not the reality television star, but the person; and I felt pity for him, even some amount of anguish, for the first time I felt compassion for him as a human being.

Please don’t get me wrong. Donald Trump reminds me of every bully that I have ever known, and I don’t like bullies, never had, never will. I was always the new kid in town and I was not a big kid. As a result I got bullied, but I always fought back, even when the odds were against me, so even when I lost those fights, I gained a manner of grudging respect from my tormenters. I didn’t like bullies when I was a kid, and I like them even less now. Likewise, I got in fights to defend smaller and weaker friends against bullies. I have grown up but I still try to defend the weak against the powerful in whatever way I can. This has led me to become, since my tour in Iraq, a civil rights advocate for minorities, women, and LGBTQ people.

Because of my experience I oppose almost everything President Trump, his administration, the Congress, or state and local governments propose when I believe that those policies will adversely effect people who are already treated with distain, contempt, and discriminated against by majorities. It seems that like Don Quixote I tend to joust against windmills. That being said I felt a deep sense of pity for Donald Trump the man when I read Brooks’s article.

I began to reflect about what I know about President Trump. He seems to be emotionally stunted, he brags about not having cried since he was a child, which I have to attribute to his upbringing. As an adult he has lived his life in perpetual conflict. It doesn’t seem to me that he has a real friend in the world,  I remembered the biographic film that introduced him at the Republican National Convention and that unlike most similar films, there were no statements by friends, colleagues, teachers, coaches, or pastors. At the time that struck me as strange, but now, watching his daily actions, especially his Twitter rants in which he targets specific enemies, real, and imagined. Then I thought about when he went to the White House on Inauguration Day, jumped out of his limousine, and left his wife in the dust in his haste to meet the Obamas. As I pondered those things I also realized that even among his closest advisors, he has no real friends; and I felt pity.

I watched as Republican Congressional leaders who were obviously uncomfortable with him, many of who had opposed him until he secured the nomination, jump on board the Trump train as long as he got them what they wanted. No real love or loyalty, just a slavish use of Mr. Trump to get their legislative agenda passed, with some speculating that they will dump him in favor of Mike Pence as soon as he outlives his political usefulness to them. But they are scheming politicians and have prayed for the day that they had a Republican as President for over eight years. But the key thing that I am observing is that they don’t really care about Trump the man.

But even worse, I began to think of the supposedly Christian leaders who threw their support behind Mr. Trump because they thought he would support their agenda, which he seems to be doing. Over 80% of Evangelical Christians voted for him despite the fact that in the past they would have demonized a man who had three marriages, committed adultery during them, cheated business associates, had his daughter convert to a non-Christian religion, and on and on. These jerks have condemned other candidates for much less, but in this case they had no problem: Christian ethics, virtues, character, and lack of any kind of Bible knowledge be damned. They ignored it all or made excuses in order to justify to their followers why this was right and the others weren’t.

When confronted about Mr. Trump’s decided lack of Christian character, virtue, or practice they made excuses for him. Some like longstanding political hack James Dobson said that he was a “baby Christian,” with the implication that we shouldn’t expect much out of him. Other’s like Paula White testified to knowing that he was a Christian. But as things went on, others, men like Franklin Graham, Robert Jeffress, and other political preachers, obviously implying that Mr. Trump is not a Christian, started using the metaphor of Cyrus the Great, the Persian Emperor, who helped deliver Israel from the Babylonian captivity. But they will use him to get what they want, his soul be damned. That my friends is sick.

These supposedly Christian leaders only care about President Trump for what they can get out of him, not because of anything else. For people who are quick to condemn others to hell for the slightest transgression, they don’t seem to care about President Trump’s very soul. That bothers me than the slimy politicians who are doing the same thing. If you want to know why people are fleeing the Christian church in the United States of America, look at their actions.

So I sat silently and I began to feel a measure of compassion for President Trump. Brooks said that if he could give President Trump any gift it would be the gifts of prudence and fraternity. Prudence to guide his actions, and fraternity, type of deep friendship by people that care.

So I began to think. What would I wish for President Trump? David Brooks says prudence and fraternity. I cannot argue with those, but I would also say that he would first find real friendship from people who want nothing from him, people who only care about genuine friendship, and what the Greeks called, brotherly love. Someone who actually has Mr. Trump’s best interest at heart, not just his profit or their agenda. Prudence of course would would obviously be something I would want him to have.

Sadly, that will not be any of those abominable preachers who only care about using him to fulfill their agenda, which they equate with God’s. Shame on them because they don’t give a damn about him as a human being. If I had had the opportunity that they had I would have just asked to sit with him, eat a bucket of chicken, watch television, and do nothing but be a friend and confidant who wants nothing from him, except to care about him as a person.

Finally, I would wish that Mr. Trump would have a sense of empathy for others. I don’t doubt his business acumen, or his ability to read weakness in others, nor his ability to demean, threaten, and humiliate people. He has wealth, celebrity, and now he is in reality the President of the most powerful country in the world. He seems to have everything, and at the same time he seems to have nothing, his life seems empty of almost everything that makes us human. Jesus said, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, but lose his soul?” In terms of soul I’m not talking the eternal one, I’m simply talking about the touch of humanity that has to exist in him somewhere, that must have been squelched at an early age.

I don’t know much about Mr. Trump’s father and mother, or his relationship with them, or his relationship with his siblings. Honestly, I can understand parents who want their children to succeed in life, maybe even continue the family business; but that being said, I wonder if they ever really cared about him as a son. I wonder, if in their quest to help make him a material success, his parents helped turn him into a narcissist. I wonder if they bred into him a contempt for people that doesn’t allow him to open up, that doesn’t allow him to become vulnerable to the point of having real friends.

I would hope for him, as a person, that something can break through the layers of whatever surrounds his heart, so he can know true friendship and learn how to empathize with people.

I can disagree with the man, I can oppose his policies, I can find how he treats others contemptible, but I cannot hate him, because in spite of everything I feel compassion for a man who was most likely emotionally crippled by the way he was brought up, maybe by parents who didn’t recognize the damage they were doing. Of course I could be entirely wrong. I have never met him, and know very little about his parents and how they raised him. 

That being said, I feel a sense of pity for him, despite my opposition to him I cannot hate him. I really do hope that he finds friendship, comes to know fraternity, gains prudence and wisdom, and develops a sense of empathy, if not for the country, for him, his wife, and young son.

I don’t expect that I will keep me from criticizing his polices or his actions in regard to people, I fully intend to be truthful in regard to those things, but I cannot but hope for him, his family, and for all of us since he is President, that he will come to know friendship, fraternity, and empathy. If you pray, I hope that you can pray for the same thing, even if you oppose everything that he does in office. In opposition we cannot lose our humanity, we cannot stoop to hate, or even worse, calculated deception to make our point, for if we do, it will be the end of our humanity. If we win the political battle and lose that, then there is no hope for us, and someone else will come along and do far worse than Donald Trump can ever think of doing because they will be more cunning, more ruthless, and able to make their crimes seem perfectly normal. Trust me, we don’t want that.

So have a great day.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

 

 

 

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Filed under christian life, faith, leadership, Pastoral Care, Political Commentary

Resistance to Authoritianism: Part Two 


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Yesterday I began an article about resistance to authoritarian movements or leaders. The underlying premise of the first part was to set the stage by talking about freedom, truth, critical thinking and the all too often fact that most people do not like facing unpleasant truths. I ended that section with a quote by Hannah Arendt that: 

The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction ( i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false ( i.e ., the standards of thought) no longer exist.

That thought can be applied to any country where the evil of authoritarian rule threatens. The British military historian and theorist, B.H. Liddell-Hart wrote:

All of us do foolish things, but the wiser realize what they do. The most dangerous error is failure to recognize our own tendency to error. That failure is a common affliction of authority. 

Based on the performance of the Trump administration during the transition and over its first two weeks in office one wonders if most of its members have any capacity for reflection or ability to admit when they are wrong. Right now I see little proof that this tendency will change anytime soon. Thus it is imperative that all citizens, including those who serve in the institutions of government be the conscience of the nation. This is the most important part of successfully resisting the implementation of authoritarian government. All too often that does not happen. One can look at the histories of numerous nations where the citizenry, and those who executed the day to day functions of government did not do this, usually with very dire results for their nations. 

The reason for most, is usually nothing inherently evil on their part, they simply want to get along without asking too many questions, and turning their eyes from the unpleasantries, and evil. Resistance is dangerous. Liddell-Hart noted:

We learn from history that the critics of authority have always been rebuked in self-righteous tones, if no worse fate has befallen them, yet have repeatedly been justified by history. To be “agin the Government” may be a more philosophic attitude than it appears. For the tendency of all “governments” is to infringe the standards of decency and truth; this is inherent in their nature and hardly avoidable in their practice.

Hence the duty of the good citizen who is free from the responsibility of Government is to be a watchdog upon it, lest Government impair the fundamental objects which it exists to serve. It is a necessary evil, thus requiring constant watchfulness and check.

Authoritarian leaders who are able to gain control of an unquestioning populace and powerful bureaucracy are able to do much damage to liberty. Thus it it important that citizens constantly question it, and when it is failing to abide by the ideals, laws, and norms of the nation, to resist; using lawful means, and maintaining to moral high ground. However, that too is hard to do, many who resist do so in a highly emotional manner which sometimes leads them to tactics that are not helpful, even in the near term. 

That being said it is important that resistance be based on telling the truth in spite of opposition, and this means calling out the untruths and outright lies of the authoritarian leader and his sycophants. These are not hard to spot, but too many people are afraid to call a lie a lie. But the lies are the basis for the declarations of faith that authoritarian leaders uses to gain the support of both true believers, as well as the angry and disaffected people who recognize the lie, but due to their cynicism about government and disappointment in the democratic process support the authoritarian leader. The authoritarian leader takes advantage of the primal fears and hatreds of both in order to cement his bond with them which makes resisting more dangerous, because those who do resist are demonized. As Eric Hoffer wrote in his classic The True Believer:

Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil. Usually the strength of a mass movement is proportionate to the vividness and tangibility of its devil. When Hitler was asked whether he thought the Jew must be destroyed, he answered: “No…. We should have then to invent him. It is essential to have a tangible enemy, not merely an abstract one.” 

Those who resist or those who are different prove to be ideal devils for the authoritarian leader and his followers. Liddell-Hart understood this and noted that those who believe in freedom must resist authoritarian rule because it does not respect the power of thought and the intellect, so I am going to close for today with his words: 

It is man’s power of thought which has generated the current of human progress through the ages. Thus the thinking man must be against authoritarianism in any form, because it shows its fear of thoughts which do not suit momentary authority.

Any sincere writer must be against it, because it believes in censorship. Any true historian must be against it, because he can see that it leads to the repetition of old follies, as well as to the deliberate adulteration of history. Anyone who tries to solve problems scientifically must be against it, since it refuses to recognize that criticism is the life blood of science. In sum, any seeker of truth must be against it, because it subordinates truth to state expediency. This spells stagnation.

Those who resist cannot do so simply because they are against the authoritarian leader, but they must stand for something positive and far reaching in order to expand freedom for others. Liddell-Hart wrote:

But “anti-Fascism” or “anti-Communism” is not enough. Nor is even the defence of freedom. What has been gained may not be maintained, against invasion without and erosion within, if we are content to stand still. The peoples who are partially free as a result of what their forebears achieved in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries must continue to spread the gospel of freedom and work for the extension of the conditions, social and economic as well as political, which are essential to make men free.

Have a great day, and enjoy the Super Bowl, and remember God couldn’t care less who wins it; the Deity is a baseball fan. 

Peace,

Padre Steve+


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Groundhog Day and Nazi Comparisons

groundhog-day-driving

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today was Groundhog day and Punxsutawney Phil has promised us another six weeks of winter. Since is was sixty degrees today with partly cloudy skies and light winds, I say let it continue. But that’s not really really what I’m writing about today, though historically it seems that we are in an era that seems like the movie Groundhog Day, except we aren’t repeating yesterday every day, but we are seeing history unfold in a similar way to an era that we would rather consign to to musty history books about the Third Reich.

Today, two friends shared an article of a blogger condemning those who are comparing the actions of President Trump to Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. He started his article “I’m no expert but…” and then went on to minimize what people are saying about Trump, comparing them to others on the right and left who have made comparisons of their political opponents with Hitler. I agree that there are people, plenty of them on the right and left who have compared their political opponents to Hitler, and if Donald Trump was a normal president I would say that such comparisons would be unfounded, but in my humble opinion, they are not.

I am a historian, as one of my colleagues told me yesterday, a “historian masquerading as a chaplain, and that’s not a bad thing.” My chief area of study in my undergraduate days was in German history, particularly the period of the end of Imperial Germany, the German civil war, the Weimar Republic, and the Nazi era. The same was true with my second master’s degree in Military History, and much of my church history studies in seminary. I have written on a number of aspects of the subject, it is included in the Military Ethics class that I teach, and I would dare say that I am an expert in the subject and that I do not make comparisons to the Nazi era, or its leaders, to American political leaders lightly.

In fact, until the rise of Donald Trump, I have never had cause to compare the words, methods, or actions of any American President or serious presidential candidate to the Nazis. Any such comparisons, even to Richard Nixon, would be to unfounded hyperbole and ludicrous. I do know that there are people on the political left and right who have compared their political opponents to the Nazis or even Adolf Hitler himself, and as a serious historian I find their accusations to demean the historical importance of the period, especially in view of the great evil of the Nazis, especially in regard to the Holocaust.

Likewise when I see someone write a lengthy blog about these comparisons and begin it with “I’m not an expert but…” I am offended because it demeans the work of serious people, real experts, and equates them with ignorance. The man cited many of the differences between Germany of 1933 and the United States of 2016. There are differences, significant differences, but they do not disqualify comparisons between the periods, or between Herr Hitler and Mr. Trump. Those comparisons are in matters of substance, psychology, language, sociological, and political trends.

In 2001 the United States, which had just gone a divisive election which was decided in the Supreme Court was attacked. The shock to the country was immense, the attack was followed by prolonged wars and a massive economic crisis followed by the election of a President who was African American, an event which brought out some of the worst and most open racism I have ever seen in my life. In 1918, Germany lost a war, had its system of government fall, and was enveloped in a civil war punctuated with being saddled with the full blame for the war that they lost, and were ruled not by the Kaiser, not by conservatives, or nationalists, but by Socialists, something that many could not abide. As such, the Socialists were saddled with the blame for a war started by nationalists, and the myth of the Stab in the Back was used to explain the defeat of the German armies.

stab in the back

The Stab in the Back

In both situations, the politics of the countries became exceptionally divisive, and over time the political center began to dissolve. In both instances, populist movements of the right and left stamped out the center, compromise was off the table. In both 1933 and 2016, the politician who took power represented a minority of the electorate, and neither had ever held any elected office. They were both demagogues who found convenient internal racial and religious scapegoats, and foreign powers to blame for the woes of the country. Neither Trump, nor Hitler was ever given a chance of gaining power, until they achieved it.

Both took advantage of the struggles of people who had not done well during the economic downturns, played on longstanding prejudices, exploited the weakness of the major political parties, coopted the fears of religious people who felt that they were not being considered. They were also supported by people of means, who were quite well off and willing to take their chances with a leader who could deliver people who would otherwise reject them. The similarities, while not exact go on and on.

But even more, when it comes down to the person of President Trump, honestly he cannot be compared to Adolf Hitler himself. Hitler was much more subtle and much more clever, although both were narcissists, both had no real friends and treated people as commodities, both demonstrated a need to be loved, and fear of rejection, as well as a compulsive need to demean, degrade, and bully any opponents, but Trump is but a cheap copy of Hitler.

It is interesting that the President’s first wife, who by the way supported his run for president, said that Trump kept copies of Mein Kampf and Hitler’s speeches by his bedside. During his campaign he frequently praised dictators and even quoted Mussolini in a tweet. His repeated use of the term “America First” is a throwback to an American movement that supported Hitler and his aggression in Europe up until Pearl Harbor and Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States a few days later. If you look at the structure of his speeches during the campaign, they are laden with phrases used by the German dictator, and their structure is similar, albeit without Hitler’s mesmerizing prose. I have seen him speak in person, and watched the anger that he incites in his followers. I watched his inauguration speech several times, and read it again and again and I was struck by the similarity in tenor to many of Hitler’s speeches. If I was not so well acquainted with Hitler’s speeches, and his books, I would never dare to make the comparisons, it would not only be unwise, but also terribly wrong to make such a comparison based on a personal or ideological dislike, based on raw emotion and ignorance of the subject.

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He has surrounded himself with advisors who openly support fascist methods, and use propaganda techniques which mimic Hitler and his propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels. Like Hitler, once in power President Trump has used his office to demonize his opponents and rule by executive decree, effectively marginalizing the legislature and to defy and eviscerate the courts. In one important difference since Trump took power of a superpower, he did not have to wait years like Hitler in order to build up a military to threaten his neighbors and defy international institutions.

I could go on and on, but if there was any other historical comparison that I could use instead of the Nazi comparison, I would. But let me qualify that statement. Trump is not Hitler and he has not at least yet, acted on his most radical statements concerning deportations of millions of people, discrimination based on race or religion, banning all opposition, and curtailing freedom of speech, although he and his advisors constantly threaten the press and anyone who voices the slightest opposition to them, including simply pointing out their repeated lies. Nor has he embarked on any new wars, though his words and the words of Steve Bannon, his closest advisor, threaten war with China, Iran, Mexico, and are destroying the bonds that we have with our longest and closest allies.  On the National Security Council the President has sidelined his military chiefs and replaced them with the ideologue Bannon. The sad thing about the last part was this was exactly how Hitler treated his military chiefs. They were called in to carry out orders, not to give sane advice, and he undercut them whenever he needed. In both cases many of their followers tolerated no criticism of their leader, often resorting to threats of violence or actual physical violence to suppress their opponents. In both cases their leaders not only tolerated such behavior, but encouraged it.

Hitler is dead, his Reich defeated, but his ideas are still around and can be seen in the current right-wing nationalist movements masquerading as populists in Europe and the United States. What happened in Germany in the 1930s  can happen again. Thus it is better to sound an early warning using facts and reason to hopefully ensure that it doesn’t happen. Such warnings should not be taken for granted, too many people and political leaders, not only in Germany, but around the world, took Hitler for granted believing that he could be controlled and that his radical ideas were hyperbole and would never be acted on. They were wrong. As a result the world, and Germany itself paid a massive price in human life for ignoring the danger until it was too late.

Again I don’t make such comparisons lightly, and in a relatively short article like this I cannot go into the detail with all the citations, though I have the material at hand to do so, I haven’t the time to write a book about it, though I’m sure that I could. I have three books that I am currently working on, all dealing with the American Civil War, one of which is getting to the point that I am trying hard to complete it and get it to a publisher in the next month or two, so I really don’t want to start another book. But I think that this weekend I will provide my readers a list of references on the Third Reich as well as totalitarianism, that if read critically, and thoughtfully, would be of great help to understanding our own time.

If you want you can look at some of my articles on this site dealing with mass movements, and totalitarianism, especially those that are based on the writings of Eric Hoffer or Hannah Arendt. They are helpful to understanding the political, ideological, and emotional aspects of how people like Hitler and Trump gain power, and why people are willing to through out reason, logic, ethics, and even faith, to support them.

So anyway, until the weekend, have a great day.

Peace

Padre Steve+

P.S. I did watch the movie Groundhog Day last night. It is one of my traditions.

 

 

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The World of Alternative Facts and the Danger to the Republic

kellyanne-conway

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

We have entered a world that our founders never expected to happen but warned us about. Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 1, that the fiercest enemies of the republic were those men who begin “by paying an obsequious court to the people, commencing demagogues and ending tyrants.”

I think that we have entered that era in our history.

Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s embarrassing attack on those who disagreed with the President’s claim that the inauguration of President Trump had the highest attendance in history when every analysis of the crowds revealed to be far smaller than the last few inaugurations was defended by President Trump’s advisor Kellyanne Conway. Conway turned absolutely Orwellian to defend that and a number of other claims that were patently false. She called them Alternative Facts.

Sadly, this has been the modus operandi of Mrs. Conway and the President’s spokespeople since the beginning of his campaign. Rather than admit to a falsehood they reinforce the lie, time after time. The behavior is extraordinary in the American experience but not in history.

I hate to bring up a Nazi example but the the tactic is that of the Nazi, the Soviet, and every other authoritarian and dictatorial propaganda machine. But being a historian who has spent much of my life researching and writing about the Nazi seizure of power I was actually taken aback by her comments and the use of the term “alternative facts.” There are no such thing. John Adams, our second President said it well: “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclination, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” 

But such clarity cannot be found in what Mr. Spicer or Mrs. Conway said. They repeated a lie and then Mrs. Conway called it an “alternative fact.” It was absolutely Orwellian, not that it matters to many of the President’s diehard supporters. He told us during the campaign: “You know what else they say about my people? The polls, they say I have the most loyal people. Did you ever see that? Where I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, okay? It’s like incredible,” and he was absolutely correct. Hitler told his generals when he was about to stage a propaganda coup to blame Poland for starting the war, “I shall give a propagandist reason for starting the war – never believe if it is plausible or not. The victor will not be asked afterward if he told the truth…” It seems that from day one of his campaign the President has followed a similar course of action to first win the nomination of his party and then the general election. I don’t think that he can stop now that he is office. In his inaugural address the President noted: “America will start winning again, winning like never before.”  Winning at all costs seems to be everything, and nothing will stand in the way, even facts.

The Nazi Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels once said:“It would not be impossible to prove with sufficient repetition and a psychological understanding of the people concerned that a square is in fact a circle. They are mere words, and words can be molded until they clothe ideas and disguise.”

Sadly, this will not be the last of these kind of statements made by Mrs. Conway or Mr. Spicer. We have entered a new era, and while many people think that the Trump administration will sink itself, and that maybe the GOP will revolt, impeach him, and make Mike Pence the President, they are deluded. That will not be allowed to happen by Trump or his supporters. The stream of alternative facts are going to become so commonplace that people will stop noticing them, they will get numb to them.

William Shirer who served as a correspondent in Berlin from 1934 to 1941 wrote in his book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich:

“I myself was to experience how easily one is taken in by a lying and censored press and radio in a totalitarian state. Though unlike most Germans I had daily access to foreign newspapers, especially those of London, Paris and Zurich, which arrived the day after publication, and though I listened regularly to the BBC and other foreign broadcasts, my job necessitated the spending of many hours a day in combing the German press, checking the German radio, conferring with Nazi officials and going to party meetings. It was surprising and sometimes consternating to find that notwithstanding the opportunities I had to learn the facts and despite one’s inherent distrust of what one learned from Nazi sources, a steady diet over the years of falsifications and distortions made a certain impression on one’s mind and often misled it. No one who has not lived for years in a totalitarian land can possibly conceive how difficult it is to escape the dread consequences of a regime’s calculated and incessant propaganda. Often in a German home or office or sometimes in a casual conversation with a stranger in a restaurant, a beer hall, a café, I would meet with the most outlandish assertions from seemingly educated and intelligent persons. It was obvious that they were parroting some piece of nonsense they had heard on the radio or read in the newspapers. Sometimes one was tempted to say as much, but on such occasions one was met with such a stare of incredulity, such a shock of silence, as if one had blasphemed the Almighty, that one realized how useless it was even to try to make contact with a mind which had become warped and for whom the facts of life had become what Hitler and Goebbels, with their cynical disregard for truth, said they were.”

I am sorry, but when it comes to facts and truth, that is the kind of world we on entered on January 20th. Please note I am not saying that President Trump is a Nazi, or commit Nazi style atrocities. I am simply comparing the methods, and the language of his spokespeople to the Goebbels propaganda machine, and I am also calling to mind the words of our founders on the danger of demagogues.

Honestly, I hope that our President governs wisely and gains a sense of humility as he holds in his hands such great power. I want him to succeed for all of us, but this opening weekend has given me much cause for concern and this has less to do with policy than it does the deceptive words that I see coming from those who shape his message.

I know that is a hell of a way to start the week, but this does matter.

Have a great day.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Day After: Reflections

trump-fist-pump

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Just a short note this morning. I was pretty busy around the house yesterday and I have been battling a cold for the past week that keeps lingering. I hate being woken up coughing during the night.

Anyway, this morning before I started to do some work around the house I took time to read articles and opinions from around the world and from many points of view on the meaning of President Trump’s assumption of office and inaugural address. They varied with from great concern and near panic to hope. What I am not going to do today is talk about details of those articles. They are all over the web and I encourage my readers to take the time to visit American newspapers and publications of various political and ideological points of view as well as the English language websites of European, Asian, and Middle Eastern news services, newspapers and journals. If you don’t have the time for that the New York Times Opinion section has a great interactive section with many writers of various political views from around the world that you can scroll through at your leisure as it goes on and on. But I really think that no-matter what your political beliefs or ideology are that it does help to read things outside of your bubble or comfort zone. Too many people never leave their bubble and it does us great harm because we don’t understand each other, we don’t know each other, and what we believe about each other is indelibly poisoned because all we see is the caricature, and not real people.

Anyway, the latest book that I finished reading was German historian Heinz Hohne’s tome about Heinrich Himmler and his SS entitled The Order of the Death’s Head: The Story of Hitler’s SS. The book is a fascinating read because it describes the chaotic administration of Nazi Germany which though it was a totalitarian state was a bureaucratic nightmare of competing organizations of the Nazi Party and the German State, bound together, yet each dependent on the graces of Adolf Hitler, who in order to maintain his undisputed power would play them off against each other. But I do highly recommend Hohne’s book. I am not going to go into detail here, I may write something in the near future on the subject as I go through my old texts from my undergraduate and graduate school dealing with the Nazi state, but I digress…

Anyway, my takeaway from President Trump’s inaugural address and subsequent remarks yesterday and today is that he is going to maintain a very small number of trusted advisors, and play off competing factions of the Republican Party and various Federal agencies, maintain his rhetoric to keep his personal base of voters in line all to ensure his personal power. I think that he will be successful in this as he seems to be rather genius at outmaneuvering his opponents. Those in the GOP who think that they can control him or to reign him in to their more traditional conservatism should take note of his words as he ripped the political class of Washington DC; his words were aimed as much at the GOP insiders as they were the Democrats. His administration will be centered on him.

His raised fist served as a visible symbol and reminder to those who think that they can get the best of him. Some of the articles that I read seem to indicate that he will fall afoul of the GOP Congress if he maintains his populist rhetoric and does not tow the GOP think tank policy that has long dominated the GOP caucus. But Congress should beware, Trump does not appear to care about the norms of how things are done in Washington and his followers expect him to act, and he will use them to intimidate Congressional Republicans if they try to use their majority to get in his way. He said as much when he said: “What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people.”

I am not going to speculate what the result of this will be, but I do think that it will be chaotic because that seems to be what he thrives on.

After reading all of those reactions, re-watching the speech and his body language, and reading it again, I could not help but think that we are heading toward something we have never seen before in this country: an authoritarian leader at the helm of a populist movement that is not bound by party loyalty or ideology, whose opponents in both parties are disorganized and unable to grasp that the playing field itself has changed, as have the rules.

That is something that gives President Trump with his executive authority a huge advantage. He will invoke this authority through executive orders to move faster than the Republican congressional majority or the divided Democrats can, and to bypass them and the media by communicating directly with his supporters.

Anyway, those are just a few thoughts on the day after.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Neither Safe, nor Politic, nor Popular: The Call of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

martin luther king jr

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

On a weekend where we honor the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. we saw our President-Elect stoop to a Twitter tirade against Representative John Lewis, a true hero of the Civil Rights movement because Lewis dared to question his legitimacy. A true statesman would have either ignored it or simply making the comment that Lewis is entitled to his opinion. But our President-Elect has incapable of such behavior. When he was at Liberty University last year on Martin Luther King Day, he only mentioned Dr. King in regard to the fact that he had set a record for attendance at Liberty.

Even longstanding conservatives bastions in Congress who have worked with Mr. Lewis, and conservative media titans were  shocked by President-Trump’s action and many rightly commented that the only person that Donald Trump has not attacked is Vladimir Putin.

Like a lot of people it seems it seems that our soon to be President seeks to marginalize Dr. King’s life and work by simply relegating him to the pages of history. The attitude of such people seems to be that maybe Dr. King may important in his day, but that we have advanced to the point that we don’t need to see beyond the King of history, but the President-Elect seems not even to care about that. It is a sad spectacle where the man who was elected to be all of our President dismisses such an important man in our history.

So now more than ever it is important for all Americans remember and act upon the legacy of Dr. King.

Dr. King was a man of tremendous personal courage. Nearly every day of his public ministry and advocacy for the rights of African Americans and the poor his life was in danger. Of course he, like so many other men who throughout history understood that those that champion the cause of justice and peace must ask hard questions. They must engage in hard thinking. They must challenge their own beliefs as well as those that they come in contact, and they must do so from the least safe place to do so, the place of conscience which commands us to do what is right.

In 1968 Dr. King said something that should make us all look in the mirror and ask who we really are and what we represent. He noted how cowardice, expediency and vanity all vie with conscience. He said:

“On some positions, Cowardice asks the question, “Is it safe?” Expediency asks the question, “Is it politic?” And Vanity comes along and asks the question, “Is it popular?” But Conscience asks the question “Is it right?” And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because Conscience tells him it is right.” 

If you look closely at what Dr. King said one can almost see every political, business or religious leader make decisions about things which matter to people, but without facing the demands of conscience.

It would be easy just to say this of many of our leaders, especially the President-Elect, however, it is also true of most of us as well. I hate to admit it is regardless of our protestations most of us follow the demands of cowardice, expediency or vanity rather than conscience. We do it not because we are bad people, but because we fear the potential negative consequences of doing the right thing, we count the cost and decide we cannot pay it.

Every time we make these decisions not to do the right thing, but to shrink in cowardice, and appeal to the cold calculations of being politic, or choosing to go with what is popular, something in us dies.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and martyr wrote about the results of such equivocation from prison:

“We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds: we have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretense; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical. Are we still of any use?”

But to follow the demands of conscience requires us to think, and think critically. Too often we simply do things or support causes because we are comfortable with the ideas, and because we do not want to face inconvenient or uncomfortable ideas. We do not like to be challenged. I think that is why there is such a great appeal to often ignorant loud mouthed politicians, pundits and preachers, the Unholy Trinity, to do our thinking for us. The pundits, preachers and politicians often appeal to the must base human instincts to turn citizens against each other, or to drive up support for their ideology. Such ideas are made more destructive when they appear as “memes” on social media, attached to pictures which are designed to invoke an emotional response of anger, hatred and resentment at person or group being demonized. In following them we can become unthinking fanatics, convinced of our rightness without ever examining what we believe to see if it really true.

This is not thinking when we follow the lead of such people, regardless of their ideology. In doing so we give up our right and responsibility to think for ourselves and ask the hard questions. Eric Hoffer noted how ideology blinds us:

“A doctrine insulates the devout not only against the realities around them but also against their own selves. The fanatical believer is not conscious of his envy, malice, pettiness and dishonesty. There is a wall of words between his consciousness and his real self.”

Dr. King’s words spoken in 1963 are equally true today:

“Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.”

I hope that in 2017 we may we find in Dr. King’s words inspiration to be people of character and conscience. But to do so we must start doing the hard thinking that allows us to follow the demands of conscience and not cowardice. We must do the hard thinking that places justice over popularity and the hard thinking which exposes the emptiness of brazen political calculation embodied in the easy answers and half-baked solutions of the Unholy Trinity.

Sadly, I don’t think that most people want to do this type of thinking, our materialistic culture does not value it. As a result I fully expect we give up our rights as a people to a few oligarchs who throw a few small breaks our way while they expand their control, power and wealth. It’s a bad formula and we all suffer for it.

In spite of that it is time to stop asking if things are safe, politic, popular, or expedient and do the hard work and thinking that conscience demands. If we don’t we deserve what we get. I’m sure that Dr. King would agree.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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