Category Archives: ministry

The Nature Of Evil

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Thirty years ago when I was in seminary my Philosophy Of Religion Professor, Dr. Yandall Woodfin told our class that until we had death with the realities of evil, death, and suffering we had not yet done Christian theology. He was right, but I have not learned that by wrestling with theology per say, but rather human experience as recorded by history, especially my studies of the Holocaust, and American Slavery, as well as what the and as observed in my life as a trauma and surgery department chaplain in a number of large and medium sized hospitals, including Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas.

Since that time I have witnessed hundreds of violent deaths. Most in the United States but some in Iraq. I have seen cruelty, committed by human beings that only can be described as evil. I have also spoken directly with men who killed in cold blood, including an assassination type hit on a man and his son who owed him fifty dollars. That man was a Navy Hospital Corpsmen with a wife and a child, his victims a couple of locals. When I looked in his eyes there was no feeling, it didn’t matter what he had did, he was a classic sociopath. He had no empathy for the men he killed or the devastation he left in the lives of his wife and child. The state he committed the murder in does have the death penalty, but he received two back to back life sentences. The Navy discharged him and that cut off my attempts to communicate with him.

But the question always comes back to the nature of evil itself, and the willing ignorance of many people of it. Having come face to face with this man and others like him, I have to agree with the comments of Captain and psychologist Gustave Gilbert about the Nazi War Criminals at Nuremberg:

“In my work with the defendants (at the Nuremberg Trails 1945-1949) I was searching for the nature of evil and I now think I have come close to defining it. A lack of empathy. It’s the one characteristic that connects all the defendants, a genuine incapacity to feel with their fellow men. Evil, I think, is the absence of empathy.”

I have to admit that the amount of ignorance in the defense of evil that I see daily is simply mind blowing. It makes me shake my head. But then I cannot be surprised anymore. About two years ago I saw a poll in which nine percent of Americans said that holding White Supremacist or Neo-Nazi views and ideology was okay. 

Now nine percent doesn’t sound like a big number or anything to worry about until you extrapolate that percentage into the numbers of people who hold that view. Based on the population of the United States that nine percent equals about thirty million individuals. Now I’m sure that many of these patriotic Americans are not card carrying Klansmen or Nazis, but the fact that they would turn a blind eye to the evil of both in the name of some incomprehensible moral equivalence as did President Trump after Charlottesville is quite disturbing. Perhaps it is his example that enables them to be so open about their acceptance of evil. 

A while back on my Facebook page a friend of a friend commented on an article which discussed new research that indicates that the Nazis in their occupation of the Ukraine killed perhaps a half million more Jews than previously believed. That woman made the comment that there were others, and yes that is true. Had the Nazis won the war tens of millions more of the Jews as well as the Slavs who they referred to as Untermenschen or subhumans would have been killed, either directly or through a policy of intentional starvation. But make no bones about it, from the months that Hitler spent in Landsberg prison for his role in the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923 writing Mein Kampf until the end of the war as the Red Army closed in on his bunker in Berlin, the Jews above all were the object of his personal hatred. 

Close to six million Jews and millions of others were killed by the Nazis. Millions of Africans were enslaved in the United States and even after emancipation were by law treated as less than full citizens. Under Jim Crow they were discriminated against at every level of government including states that were neither a part of the Confederacy or not even States when the Civil War was fought, they were impressed as forced labor under the Black Codes and thousands were murdered, often in public by people who brought their children to watch Black men die. 

But these people were not just numbers. It’s all to easy to blur them into a mass of dehumanized humanity by talking about the millions, when every single one was a human being, yes, I believe created in the image of God. We have to see their faces and we have to recognize their essential humanity as men and women, children, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, husbands and wives, whose lives were in the case of the Jews obliterated as if they never existed, and others like African slaves who were simply property.

I explained that in quite a few fewer words and told her that she shouldn’t challenge me on the subject, which of course she did. So I went into more detail and shot her argument down in flames, to the cheers of other commentators on the post. When you have spent much of your academic life studying a subject it really gets old hearing people make excuse for evil by trying to minimize that evil, especially against the targeted people. 

It’s like Confederate apologists saying that the institution of slavery which enslaved millions of Africans was actually worse for White people. Yes it is true that many poor whites benefited little from slavery, but they were not bought and sold as chattel, sold away from their wives and children, whipped, and marched across country in chains to new owners, or yes even killed simply because they were not considered human beings but property. 

Sadly, as Dr. Timothy Snyder wrote “The history of the Holocaust is not over. Its precedent is eternal, and its lessons have not yet been learned.” 

So there are about 30 million Americans who believe that holding Nazi and White Supremacist beliefs is okay. A few years ago I would believed that the number was lower, but after seven months of living in Trump’s America I believe that it might be even higher than the poll indicated. I only say this based on the postings I see on various social media platforms, news comment pages, the proliferation of websites that cater to these beliefs, and the lack of real condemnation of such individuals by the majority of the GOP Senate and House majorities, and the outright defense of them by other GOP representatives at the Federal and State level. These people have not learned the lessons of the Holocaust, nor American slavery. 

Again I don’t believe that the majority of these people are real card carrying Nazis or Klansmen. Most would probably be considered great citizens: they work, they raise families, they go to church, and many would claim that they have “a Black or Jewish friend” so obviously they cannot be racists. But that being said they turn a blind eye to the evil of race hatred and White supremacy, and sometimes join in on social media meme wars where they mock the victims. But no matter what, not condemning the purveyors of White Supremacist or Neo-Nazi ideology, or by using the arguments of moral equivalence to minimize those crimes against humanity makes these people as complicit in the past, present, and future crimes of Naziism as if they were. 

They may be ordinary people, as seemingly normal as anyone else, but as Hannah Arendt noted about Adolf Eichmann and other Nazis who advanced the destruction of the Jews was that they were so normal. She wrote: 

“The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.” 

That my friends is as true as the day she wrote it after Eichmann’s trial, as it is today, and why we must constantly educate people in every forum possible that it is all too easy to become either a perpetrator or evil or a bystander. As Snyder wrote: “It is less appealing, but morally more urgent, to understand the actions of the perpetrators. The moral danger, after all, is never that one might become a victim but that one might be a perpetrator or a bystander. It is tempting to say that a Nazi murderer is beyond the pale of understanding. …Yet to deny a human being his human character is to render ethics impossible. To yield to this temptation, to find other people inhuman, is to take a step toward, not away from, the Nazi position. To find other people incomprehensible is to abandon the search for understanding, and thus to abandon history.” 

Since they were human beings the Nazis were not unique to history. In every era of history human beings have committed atrocities, many in the name of some kind of ethnic, religious, or nationalist ideology of supremacy that held other people to be less than human. That may sound harsh, but it is all too true based on history.

Yehuda Bauer wrote: “The horror of the Holocaust is not that it deviated from human norms; the horror is that it didn’t. What happened may happen again, to others not necessarily Jews, perpetrated by others, not necessarily Germans. We are all possible victims, possible perpetrators, possible bystanders.” 

In the movie Judgment at Nuremberg the judge played by Spencer Tracy noted something important about the defendants in the trial. His words need to be heard today as well:

Janning, to be sure, is a tragic figure. We believe he loathed the evil he did. But compassion for the present torture of his soul must not beget forgetfulness of the torture and the death of millions by the Government of which he was a part. Janning’s record and his fate illuminate the most shattering truth that has emerged from this trial: If he and all of the other defendants had been degraded perverts, if all of the leaders of the Third Reich had been sadistic monsters and maniacs, then these events would have no more moral significance than an earthquake, or any other natural catastrophe.

But this trial has shown that under a national crisis, ordinary – even able and extraordinary – men can delude themselves into the commission of crimes so vast and heinous that they beggar the imagination. No one who has sat through the trial can ever forget them: men sterilized because of political belief; a mockery made of friendship and faith; the murder of children. How easily it can happen. There are those in our own country too who today speak of the “protection of country” – of ‘survival’. A decision must be made in the life of every nation at the very moment when the grasp of the enemy is at its throat. Then, it seems that the only way to survive is to use the means of the enemy, to rest survival upon what is expedient – to look the other way. Well, the answer to that is ‘survival as what’? A country isn’t a rock. It’s not an extension of one’s self. It’s what it stands for. It’s what it stands for when standing for something is the most difficult! Before the people of the world, let it now be noted that here, in our decision, this is what we stand for: justice, truth, and the value of a single human being.

It is high time that we learn that again and that we make up our minds to oppose the ideologies that made the Holocaust and Slavery possible. As Hannah Arendt observed: “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

But then there are those who have no problem with it, sociopaths who have an extreme absence of empathy.

So until tomorrow, 

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under crime, ER's and Trauma, ethics, faith, History, holocaust, Military, ministry, nazi germany, News and current events, philosophy, Political Commentary, world war two in europe

String Bags vs. The German Leviathan: The Crippling Of the Battleship Bismarck

Alan Fearnley; (c) Alan Fearnley; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

A couple of days ago I reposted an article about the sinking of the HMS Hood by the German Battleship Bismarck. The story of the Bismarck is an epic saga of naval warfare and history. It is tragedy played out as if scripted by a playwright in three parts. The first was the sinking of the illustrious “Mighty” Hood by the Bismarck on May 24th 1941. 

The second, which I deal with today, was the pursuit and search for Bismarck by the British Home Fleet and the desperate attempt of the British to find a way, any way, to slow Bismarck down and bring her to battle, before she could return to the safety of Nazi occupied France.  The final chance to stop the mighty German Leviathan came as night fell on May 26th. 

I hope you appreciate the heroism of the men who flew the hopelessly obsolete aircraft who dealt the blow which crippled Bismarck. This is a re-write of past articles and I will post the final article about the sinking of the Bismarck tomorrow. 

There is one other thing to mention. I cannot imagine what it would have been to be a crewman on the Bismarck, knowing that nightfall would bring them safely unter the protection of the Luftwaffe, and then discover that there was no escape from death and destruction. 

Peace

Padre Steve

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On May 24th 1941 the German Battleship Bismarck had sunk the celebrated Battlecruiser HMS Hood in the Denmark Strait and had seriously damaged the new Battleship HMS Prince of Wales. The news of the disaster stunned the Royal Navy. Fighting a war on multiple fronts and now standing alone against Hitler’s Germany the British deployed every warship available to find and sink Bismarck.

On the evening of the 24th of May Bismarck was being shadowed by the heavy cruisers HMS Norfolk and HMS Suffolk. To the east the ships of the Home Fleet, Britain’s last line of defense under the command Admiral John Tovey was making the fastest speed to intercept the Bismarck.  Far to the southeast, Vice Admiral James Sommerville’s  “Force H” comprised of the carrier HMS Ark Royal, the fast but elderly battlecruiser HMS Renown, and the light cruiser HMS Sheffield were ordered to leave the vital convoy which there were escorting and proceed to the northwest to join the hunt for the German battleship.

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HMS Ark Royal with Swordfish in 1939

With Bismarck loose the North Atlantic Convoys on which Britain depended for her survival were vulnerable. The previous year the commander of the Bismarck task force Admiral Günther Lütjens with the Battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had wreaked havoc on the convoys. Now of Britain was on edge with the news of Bismarck’s break out into the Atlantic. Churchill was furious with the Navy when the Mighty Hood, the largest and most powerful ship in the Royal Navy destroyed with the loss of all but three crew members. Now every effort was directed to find and sink the Bismarck.

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Bismarck photographed from a Swordfish from 825 Squadron

Accompanying the Home Fleet was the brand new Aircraft Carrier HMS Victorious with 825 Naval Air Squadron embarked under the command of LCDR Eugene Esmond. The squadron, like many in the Fleet Air Arm was equipped with Fairy Swordfish Torpedo Bombers. The squadron had seen action aboard other carriers in the North Atlantic, the Norway Campaign and in the Mediterranean before being assigned to the Victorious. On the night of 24 May 1941, in foul North Atlantic weather the Victorious launched nine Swordfish from a range of 120 miles in a desperate attempt to slow the Bismarck down. Esmond’s squadron scored one hit amidships on the Bismarck which did no serious damage.

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825 Squadron Swordfish on HMS Victorious

About 6 hours after the attack by Victorious’s Swordfish, Bismarck shook her pursuers and disappeared into the mists of the North Atlantic, while her consort, the Heavy Cruiser Prinz Eugen escaped to the northwest in order to conduct independent raiding operations. Not knowing the location or course of the Bismarck the Royal Navy frantically searched for the German Leviathan. Most of the ships nearest to Bismarck’s last reported position were low on fuel and others seemed too far away to be of any importance in the search.

However the British were able to intercept and decode some German communications which indicated that Lütjens had orders to steam to Brest, in German occupied France for repairs.

Though the British believed that the Bismarck could be headed toward Brest they could not be sure, as each hour passed the chances of finding and bringing Bismarck to battle diminished. For nearly 36 hours the British searched in vain for the Bismarck, and for much of the 25th Tovey’s squadron was searching in the wrong direction. Then at 1030 on the 26th of May their luck changed.

Likewise the crew of the Bismarck believed with every hour that they would soon be under the protection of Herman Goering’s Luftwaffe and safely in France, but the good fortune of the British was the worst thing that could happen to the 2200 men aboard Bismarck.

On that morning a Royal Air Force Coastal Command PBY Catalina co-piloted by US Navy Ensign Leonard Smith found the Bismarck. Once Smith transmitted Bismarck’s location every available ship converged on her location but unless something could be done to slow the German down the chances bringing her to battle diminished by the hour.

The only heavy forces close enough to successfully engage Bismarck, Tovey’s battleships HMS King George V and HMS Rodney were over 100 miles behind Bismarck, too far away unless Bismarck changed course or could be slowed down. Somerville’s Force H to the south did not have the combat power to survive a surface engagement with the Bismarck should they encounter the Bismarck without the support of other heavy fleet units. Even so Sommerville was willing to risk the Renown in a suicidal action to bring Bismarck to battle if it would allow Tovey to catch her before she could escape. Desperation was the order of the day for both sides.

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820 Squadron Swordfish returning to Ark Royal after the attack on Bismarck

The situation was desperate, if Bismarck could not be slowed down she would be in range of heavy Luftwaffe Air support as well as support from U-Boats and destroyers based in France. Unless something akin to a miracle occurred Bismarck would join the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in Brest and with the addition of Bismarck’s sister-ship Tirpitz form a surface squadron strong enough to devastate British shipping in the Atlantic.

Ark Royal’s aircraft were the last hope of slowing down Bismarck before she could effect her escape and emerge from the Atlantic after having dealt the Royal Navy a devastating blow.

The strike aircraft available on Ark Royal were the most unlikely aircraft imaginable to successfully carry out such a mission. Ark Royal’s 820 Squadron, like Victorious’ 824 Squadron was equipped with Fairy Swordfish Mk 1 Torpedo Bombers. These were biplanes with their crew compartment exposed to the weather.

Introduced to the Navy in 1936 the aircraft was an antique compared with most aircraft of its day. Likewise the Mark XII 18” torpedo carried by the aircraft was smaller or slower and equipped with a less powerful warhead than comparable torpedoes used by other navies. Despite their limitations the venerable Swordfish had performed admirably during the early part of the war sinking or damaging three Italian battleships at Taranto in November 1940. Their success against the Italians at Taranto gave inspiration to the Japanese for their attack against the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor the following year. But now, in the face of foul weather and a powerful opponent the Swordfish were all the Royal Navy had left to stop Bismarck before she could make her escape.

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Bismarck steering erratically after the torpedo hit to her stern

With that in mind  Sommerville in sent his light cruiser, the  HMS Sheffield ahead to shadow Bismarck while Ark Royal closed in to launch her Swordfish against Bismarck. The first wave of aircraft strike, unaware Sheffield was near Bismarck mistakenly attacked the British cruiser. Thankfully, the new design magnetic detonators failed to detonate the torpedoes saving Sheffield from destruction. With little daylight left the aircraft returned to Ark Royal where they rearmed with torpedoes equipped with contact fuzes and refueled by flight deck crew laboring in rain and 50 knot winds blowing across the carrier’s flight deck. Just before 8 p.m. 15 Swordfish of 820 Squadron took off for what they knew was the very last chance to attack Bismarck before night fell. If they failed Bismarck would most certainly escape.

As darkness began to fall the 15 Swordfish from 820 Squadron descended through the clouds to attack the German ship. Just fifteen obsolete aircraft and thirty men attacking the most powerful warship afloat. They dispersed and attacked from all points of the compass. Bismarck twisted and turned and fired all of her guns at the attacking aircraft. The Germans fired with every weapon available, even the 15″ guns of her main battery, which she fired her into the ocean ahead of the Swordfish. It appeared for a moment that the Bismarck had successfully avoided serious damage. All but two torpedoes missed.  One torpedo struck the German midships and barely dented her massive armor. However a second torpedo, launched by a Swordfish piloted by Lieutenant John Moffat hit Bismarck in her weakly armored stern. The target angle from the aircraft to Bismarck was poor and those aboard the battleship who saw the torpedo approach believed that it was certain to miss, but it hit.

The hit jammed Bismarck’s port rudder at a 12 degree angle, and destroyed her steering gear. Repair crews and divers were dispatched but the weather was such that German damage control teams could not repair her steering gear. Bismarck now steamed in circles, unable to maneuver. This enabled Tovey with King George VRodney, the heavy cruisers Norfolk and Dorchester, as well as a number of destroyers to catch up with the elusive German battleship.

The attacks of the antiquated Swordfish on the Bismarck achieved results that no one in the Royal Navy expected. When reports indicated that Bismarck had reversed course following the torpedo attack Tovey could not believe them. It was only when lookouts aboard Sheffield confirmed the reports from the Swordfish that Tovey realized that Bismarck must have been damaged and was unable to maneuver.

It was a dramatic and unexpected turn of events. The German crew sank into gloom as the night went on and they dealt with torpedo attacks from the British Destroyers as Tovey’s battleships moved in for the kill.

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Filed under History, ministry, Navy Ships, World War II at Sea, world war two in europe

A Klassiker Drubbing, A Wedding, and a Reunion

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today was a good day. I was able to do a limited amount of work to help Judy around the house last night and today as we get ready for her second knee replacement surgery Friday, and I will continue with that tomorrow. It hurts and I have to use a cane to get around, but we are making progress. I have my own appointments for my knees on Monday and Tuesday and submitted my cancellation request for my voluntary retirement on Friday so I can get my knees, hips, and other medical needs fixed before I leave active duty.

I helped Judy to the extent I could today and she allowed me to watch on the ESPN app the progress of the Bayern Munich vs. Borussia Dortmund “Klassiker” match since Fox Sports dropped it to their Spanish channel which needs a subscription to view. That pissed me off because Bayern blew out Dortmund in every sense of the meaning of blowout by a score of 5-0. Bayern Striker Robert Lewendowski scored his 200th and 201st Bundesliga goals in the beat down. In which Bayern controlled the ball 59% of the game, had 22 shots, 10 of which were on goal while limiting Dortmund to 4 shots, just one of which was on goal, taking command of the race for the Bundesliga title, leading by a point with a 15 goal differential. The difference between today and the winter break for the Bundesliga when Dortmund had a 9 point lead on the table and had beaten Bayern 3-2 in a thrilling game made Dortmund the team to beat. But since then it has been all Bayern, as die Röten chipped away at Dortmund’s lead battling injuries and questions about their first year coach Niko Kovac and finally took the lead on Dortmund with 6 matches left in the season. If Bayern can finish strong it will be their 7th straight Bundesliga championship, but the first one in years that has had been such a thrilling title chase. It’s not over yet but I think, as I told my NATO German friends back in January, when it is done Bayern will be on top. Of course to understand this you have to be a fan of a team which has big rivals and a tradition of winning. For the record, Bayern has won a total of 70 league, National, European, and international championships or cups. There are not that many other professional sports teams that have such a record of championships. I expect they will add to that this year with another Bundesliga title and probably another German Cup, but I digress…

In other news I had the honor of officiating the marriage of a dear friend and colleague from the Joint Forces Staff College. She is a wonderful woman, brilliant intellect, retired Navy Commander, with a great personality and sense of humor. Over the years she has gone through a lot of hard times, but with grace and dignity. When she asked me to conduct her wedding and to meet her fiancé I was overjoyed. I had never seen her look so happy and to at the same time discover that her fiancé was a gem. It was an honor and joy to marry them this evening.

Likewise, the event was a reunion with a lot of my friends from the Staff College. That was a remarkable time. I have missed them since transferring to Little Creek in April 2017. Today I got around with the help of a cane. Last year I was walking and running 5-15 miles a day 5 days a week and would go to Gettysburg and Antietam and walk up to 20 miles a day with a pack on my back across those hallowed battlefields. My friends there want me to come back when my voluntary retirement is canceled, which it should be.

So anyway, until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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A Last Drink before Surgery in the Morning

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

As I lift this stein, an hour and a half before I can neither eat and drink before by arthroscopic knee surgery Thursday I wish you all the best. Sadly, in order to get to the hospital where the surgery will be done I will have to be up way before sunrise. As anyone with any sense knows, the darkness of the morning is God’s way of letting you know you should still be in bed.

I had a great day having lunch with a Navy Chaplain who I now call a friend who I threw a coffee cup at in between missions in Al Anbar Province in 2007. Yes I was already dealing with PTSD back then but didn’t know it. He’s a great guy, and my wife Judy loves his wife as a dear friend. Then this evening I dinner and a couple of beers with a fellow progressive Navy Chaplain of my age who suffers from many of my afflictions and others far worse.

Now, I have every bit of confidence in the surgery that will be conducted on my left knee Thursday, which is like a few hours from now, which is kind of like today if I lived in Germany. But by the time you read this dear reader it will be today, unless you ready it tomorrow or sometime after that, but I digress…

That being said, my right knee, which I had a Platelet Rich Plasma treatment on a week ago still hurts like a motherfucker. If that continues I will probably need a knee replacement which could throw my projected retirement date into doubt. Honestly, I don’t give a flying fuck so long as it gets fixed before I leave active duty and have to surrender valuable private sector work in order to wait on the VA to fix it. Call me selfish and entitled, but after nearly 38 years of throwing my body under the bus for the country I deserve getting it taken care of before I retire and am cast off into the abyss of veteran care.

So anyway. Whenever you read this, lift a pint and say a prayer for me, and those far worse off than me. There are a lot of them, and most are too intimidated by the system to throw the bullshit flag like I have been doing for the past decade. I owe much of this to my military and civilian therapists and psychiatrists who encouraged me as a Chaplain and senior officer to tell the truth and speak out. Sadly, quite a few of the senior officers and Chaplains I have known swallowed the pain and taken their lives, and there were times that I would have done the same if it wasn’t for Judy and our dogs, especially Molly who decided she wanted to live with me in North Carolina during the times I most wanted to die. I couldn’t kill myself because she was so devoted to me. Now I have Izzy, Pierre, and Minnie. Judy would love all of them, but Pierre and Izzy are devoted to me. Strange how things like that keep you alive when nothing else does.

Until tomorrow, have a great night.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Remembering the Four Chaplains Of the Dorchester

four chaplains

The Four Chaplains

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today I am writing a brief remembrance of four men who I never met but whose lives helped guide me into my vocation as a Priest and Chaplain. I think I first read about them in junior high school and at that time I had never thought about becoming a minister, priest, or chaplain. To be sure, ever since I was in early grade school I wanted to be in the military but it would not be until my senior year of high school that I felt a call to become a Navy Chaplain. I’ll come back to that in a moment, but first a brief op-ed on religion in the United states.

In this day and age where fanatical religious extremists of many faiths seek to divide society, launch wars of religion, discriminate against non-believers or even people who believe differently than them, or hold different philosophical or political beliefs, it is important as Americans to find something that holds us together. The fact that our founders were profoundly against establishing or favoring any particular faith or denomination, there are those today who militantly fight to establish an Evangelical Christian theocracy that has no basis for existence based on the testimony of the Founders, and the earliest proponents of religious liberty in the United States including Virginia Baptist John Leland who helped influence James Madison in crafting the First Amendment of the Constitution wrote:

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

Sadly, men like Franklin Graham, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell Jr., Robert Jeffress, and a host of others use their theocratic political judgments to condemn people of good faith in this life and the next. Aided by men like President Trump they stand in opposition to Leland and the others like him who understood that the American experiment in religious liberty could not be tied to fixed dogma or a particular religion or denomination.

But I digress, you can read previous articles on this site in which I quoted Leland and other defenders of real religious freedom. For me it’s a matter of my Christian faith. So back to the story of the four Chaplains of the U.S. Army Transport Dorchester.

The four men that I never met were Army Chaplains. These are their stories.

George Lansing Fox was a 42 year old Methodist minister from Lewiston, Pennsylvania who had served as a medic in the First World War in which he was awarded the Silver Star, the Purple Heart, and the French Croix De Guerre. Thirty-one year old Reformed Rabbi Alexander Goode of Brooklyn, New York was the son of a Rabbi who before the war had applied but not been accepted as a Navy Chaplain. After Pearl Harbor he volunteered and was commissioned as an Army Chaplain. Clark V. Poling was a Baptist minister serving as pastor of a Reformed Church when the war broke out. His father had served as a Chaplain in the First World War and Poling, the married father of one child became an Army Chaplain in 1941. Father John Patrick Washington of Newark New Jersey was a Roman Catholic Priest who entered active duty in May 1942. The four men attended the Army Chaplain’s School, then at Harvard and were united for the journey across the Atlantic aboard the transport ship SS Dorchester.

U.S. Army Transport Dorchester

On the night of February 3rd 1943 the Dorchester was torpedoed by the German submarine U-223. She went down in 20 minutes, of the 904 men aboard the ship only 230 survived. Despite the fact that the ship’s captain had ordered a high state of readiness and that all hands wear life jackets at all time, “Many soldiers sleeping deep in the ship’s hold disregarded the order because of the engine’s heat. Others ignored it because the life jackets were uncomfortable.”

When the ship was hit by a torpedo power went out and the four chaplains worked amid the chaos to calm the situation and assisted the soldiers, sailors, and merchant mariners aboard the ship as they tried to abandon ship. The four chaplains handed out life jackets until the supply ran out and then gave their own life jackets to soldiers that had none.

In doing so they signed their own death sentence, the water temperature was just 34 degrees, the air temperature was 36 degrees, many who survived the sinking died of exposure within minutes of the sinking, rescue ships found hundreds of bodies floating in the water. As the ship went down they died together, praying with arms linked after giving away their life jackets as the troop transport that they were on sank beneath the waves into the icy depths of the North Atlantic. A survivor wrote:

“As I swam away from the ship, I looked back. The flares had lighted everything. The bow came up high and she slid under. The last thing I saw, the Four Chaplains were up there praying for the safety of the men. They had done everything they could. I did not see them again. They themselves did not have a chance without their life jackets.”

Other survivors reported hearing the prayers of the chaplains in English, Latin, and Hebrew as the ship went down. Their bodies were never recovered. They have been remembered as heroes. In 1960 Congress named February 3rd as Four Chaplains Day. The U.S. Post Office commissioned a stamp in their honor in 1948. The Chapel of the Four Chaplains was dedicated in the basement of Grace Baptist Church in Philadelphia in 1951. President Harry Truman spoke at its dedication noting:

“This interfaith shrine… will stand through long generations to teach Americans that as men can die heroically as brothers so should they live together in mutual faith and goodwill.”

The chapel was moved to Temple University in 1953 and to the former Philadelphia Naval Shipyard in 2001.

 

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Father John Patrick Washington (Top Left), Reverend Clark V. Poling (Top Right), Rabbi Alexander Goode (Bottom Left), and Reverend George Lansing Fox

Of course my journey in finding that call and answering it had a number of detours in which I first rejecting following the call. Instead, when I was in college I simply enlisted in the Army National Guard, entered ROTC and then was commissioned as an Army officer. After a number of incidents on active duty which renewed that sense of call I left active duty to go to seminary, went back into the National Guard and in September of 1992 became an Army National Guard and civilian hospital chaplain.  On February 9th 1999 I resigned my commission as a Major in the Army Chaplain Corps to become a Navy Chaplain, and in the process accepting a reduction in rank.

In the nearly 37 years that I have served in the military of which almost 26 have been spent as a chaplain I have had the privilege of serving with many fine ministers of many denominations, priests, rabbis, and even an imam.  Of course I have served alongside some chaplains who regardless of their faith or denomination were simply assholes, but that being said I truly do appreciate those men and women from so many faiths and denominations who have cared for me. I do think that any of them could have linked arms with me and prayed after doing the last best things that we could do for the soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen who entrust themselves to our care.

Despite what some senior chaplains in both the Army and Navy had done to me at different points; when I think of those men and women who regardless of their beliefs or the beliefs of the religious organizations that endorse them for the chaplaincy, I realize just how blessed that I am.

In the day that we live I can still stand with Harry Truman when he praised these chaplains. Now I am sure that there are quite few people who would say that either Goode, Fox, Poling, or Washington are already in Hell; but I don’t believe that. I understand from Scripture and the teachings of Jesus that God looks on the heart, and that the most important commandments are to love God and love our neighbors. I think that Jesus said that in doing those things that people fulfill the entire law.

Thus I thank God for the Chaplains of various denominations, Mainline Protestants, Evangelicals, Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Anglicans, Mormons, Jews, Buddhists, and Muslims who I would be blessed to link arms with to care for those in our care.

So today, I ask my readers to share this message with others.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Mia San Mia: Finding Myself Again after the Thrill is Gone

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Glenn Frey of the Eagles penned these immortal words which kind of sum up here I am with life as a Navy Chaplain:

Same dances in the same old shoes
Some habits that you just can’t lose
There’s no telling what a man might use
After the thrill is gone…

Now please be sure, I cannot stop being a Priest, nor can I refuse the chance to care for people in need of pastoral care, or the sacraments, and I will remain faithful to the Church. That being said, apart from caring for servicemen and women and their families, the thrill is gone as far as serving in the Chaplain Corps.

I think that I realized it back in 2014 while teaching at the Joint Forces Staff College. I realized that my real calling as a Priest was being a historian, teacher, and writer. It is not surprising, the most influential people in my life have included Priests and Pastors who do more as teachers and writers in fields outside of traditional theology or pastoral care. In fact I credit the late Andrew Greeley for helping to restore and reorient my faith after a terrible faith crisis following my tour in Iraq. His Bishop Blackie Ryan mysteries were they only things I read that in any sense communicated the mystery and magic of faith to me in a terribly dark time.

That being said I have always been a historian for as long as I can remember. I used to cut Geometry class in 10th grade to go to the library and read the books in the history reserved section that could not be checked out. I cut Geometry so often that the librarians thought I had a permanent pass to be there. Good thing my mother didn’t know. By the way, hi mom.

I probably should have retired when my assignment to the Staff College ended, but I thought that I could do another tour. If I had been used to my strengths it might have worked out, but I was put in charge of a large base chapel though my last base chapel experience was in the Army some twenty years before, in a far different religious, cultural, and political climate, where I had funding and command support to close down a regular army base, turn it over to the National Guard and find a way to creatively ensure that the base chapel remained open and the congregations continued after the transfer.

In the current Navy climate there is no money, funding, or support for anything on the base side of operations, far less chapel programs to make things work for servicemen and women and their families; active duty, Reserve, and retired. It’s a sad commentary, my facilities are falling apart, funding continues to be cut, and my staff is being decimated. If my base was being closed and turned over to the reserves I am sure that the chapel would go away and the 700 plus people who worship there would be cut loose.

Then there is the problem that I my opinion is that the Chaplain Corps is more invested in surviving than ministering. The institutional rot runs deep, and I think that unless there is a radical change that the Chaplain Corps has maybe 10 years left in it before the Navy decides to shitcan it. The Marines and Coast Guard will probably be the only thing that keeps the Navy Chaplain Corps going if it survives, but I digress. I know for me it is time to leave the institutional ministry of the Navy, the thrill quite frankly is gone.

But it’s not like that I didn’t know what I was getting into. I was warned about the Chaplain Corps even before I left active duty in the fall of 1988 to attend seminary. My Brigade Executive Officer told me: “Steve, you think the Army Medical Department is brutally political, and backstabbing, we can’t hold a candle to the Chaplain Corps.” Sadly, that witness has not only been born out in my career, but repeated by Chaplains and Line officers in both the Army and Navy since then. Despite the many selfless men and women who have served as military Chaplains, the institution itself has what Kierkegaard called, the sickness unto death, and most don’t realize it. I served in the Army and Navy Chaplain Corps fore 26 of my 37 plus years in the military, serving all because I believed in the First Amendment, sometimes more than God. But it is time for me to go.

Today, I interviewed for a part time history instructor position at a local college. I found out about the position by a stroke of luck. I was going through a required pre-retirement class and one of our exercises was to find a job listing and write a targeted resume for it. In a moment of inspiration I decided to follow the advice of our Department of Labor instructor to not only do an exercise, but to see if I could actually find a job doing it. A simple Google search provided an advertisement for a history instructor at a for profit local college. So I followed the instructions in the job description and made the phone call.

That was a month ago. Today, I did my interview and gave a demonstration lecture. It went well. There is still one more applicant, but he or she will have to be shit hot to take it from me. The comments about the interview and sample lecture about the causes and road to the First World War were as I had hoped: he’s an engaging and captivating speaker and great story teller.

I do hope and pray that I will get this job simply because I love history, as well as teaching it and writing about it. The fact is that I cannot do anything else. My former. Dean at the Joint Forces Staff College said that I was a “Historian masquerading as a Chaplain, not that there was anything wrong with that.” One of my subordinate Chaplains at my current base said to me: Sir, I need to start taking notes so I can try to get graduate credit for our talks.

But that is who and what I am. In the Latin words of a Bavarian motto taken up by the Bayern München soccer team. Mia San Mia, We are Who We Are, or for me, I am Who I Am.

After twenty-six plus years as an Army and Navy Chaplain, I realized that while I would always remain a Priest and a part of the church, that I couldn’t be a parish pastor or continue working in institutional ministry just because I had the education, the experience, and the need for steady employment post Navy, enough to make up the difference between my retirement, disability, and what I make on active duty. But even without that, I know that I need to stay engaged and to read, teach, and write; Mia San Mia.

I am who I am.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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A Visit to Lutherstadt Wittenberg

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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