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“If Not Us, then Who? If Not Now, When?” Dr. Martin Luther King Day Weekend 2020

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has always been one of my heroes. This time of year I always ponder the importance of his life and work for civil rights, and I wonder what might have been had this man of peace not been cut down in cold blood at the young age of 39 by James Earl Ray on April 4th 1968. He was an amazing and courageous man whose memory should not be let to one day a year. We have to ensure, though our words and actions that it is not allowed to die.

This week was very busy for me at work. Lots of visits to workshops at the shipyard, counseling sessions, and the unexpected death of one of our shipyard worker, which brought a lot more personal interactions as well as group meetings to let his co-workers know of his death in person, followed by a small group session with the team that worked closest with him. In between was our service commemorating the life of Dr. King, in which I performed the invocation and benediction. It was one of the most memorable of these events I have been at in a long time. I was honored to be able to participate, especially, as our speaker Dr. Josephine Hardy Harris, noted, so many of the civil rights and liberties gained through the efforts of Dr. King and so many others are under attack today, and Monday should not be a “day off”, but a day “on” to care for others and to speak the truth.

Dr. King was a man of courage, a man of honor, a man of conviction. But he came of age in a time when many people were willing to maintain the status quo and play things safe, like many clergy of his time, including many African-American clergy.

Many pastors of the era, remained quiet about the conditions of segregation, and the racism of the day. Their lack of action did not mean they were bad people, they just understood that if they spoke up, their lives, and the lives of their families and congregations could be in danger. As such many pastors just hoped to see things slowly improve, without rocking the boat, and without endangering themselves or their families. They had seen what happened to blacks who spoke up or confronted the evil, lynching’s, cross burnings, threats and murder. They and their families had been dealing with it since the beginning of Reconstruction, and the establishment of Black Codes, and Jim Crow Laws. Finally, many had contented themselves with just trying to get along. At the beginning of the movement, many pastors did not support or gave only lukewarm support to Dr. King, and his companions, Andrew Young, Fred Shuttlesworth, and Ralph Abernathy going into that critical year of 1963.

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Rosa Parks 

King did not start out to become a Civil Rights leader. However, he was inspired to actively join the movement through the example of Rosa Parks, who defiance of the law for blacks to sit “in the back of the bus” in 1955. He led the Montgomery Bus Boycott which lasted for 385 days. The reaction among segregationists to King and his protest was against violent. King’s house was bombed, and his life threatened. There were 39 attempts on his life before he was finally killed, but he refused to stand down.

King’s leadership of the boycott brought the young pastor to national prominence. However, by 1963 much of the Civil Rights movement and the African American community was despairing of the lack of progress. Many people had become disenchanted with King, not considering him bold enough despite his rhetorical abilities.

But in April 1963, working with other Civil Rights leaders in Birmingham Alabama King relit the fires of the movement. Montgomery Police Chief “Bull” Conner used his police force to violently attack the demonstrators. Conner ordered his men to unleash their police dogs on the protestors, and used high pressure water cannon against them, including women, children and the elderly. The violent reaction to the protests shocked much of America and the world.

King was arrested by Conner’s officers, and while he was in the Birmingham jail he composed one of his most famous works, the Letter from the Birmingham Jail.  The letter was a social, political and theological masterpiece. It was some of his harshest criticism was of white liberals, as well as black moderates:

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season”

Dr. King continued his activism until his assassination. In August 1963 he led the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where before a crowd of an estimated 200,000-300,000 he gave his I Have a Dream Speech.

http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm

The crescendo of the speech was remarkable and is perhaps one of the most remembered speeches in American history.

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” — one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”2

This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

And this will be the day — this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning:

My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.

Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride,

From every mountainside, let freedom ring!

And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.

And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.

Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.

Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.

Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.

But not only that:

Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.

From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

                Free at last! Free at last!

                Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

King knew the dangers and the risks of appealing to a strategy of non-violence based on love of his enemies. King spoke to the world when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964:

“Here and there an individual or group dares to love, and rises to the majestic heights of moral maturity. So in a real sense this is a great time to be alive. Therefore, I am not yet discouraged about the future. Granted that the easygoing optimism of yesterday is impossible. Granted that those who pioneer in the struggle for peace and freedom will still face uncomfortable jail terms, painful threats of death; they will still be battered by the storms of persecution, leading them to the nagging feeling that they can no longer bear such a heavy burden, and the temptation of wanting to retreat to a more quiet and serene life. Granted that we face a world crisis which leaves us standing so often amid the surging murmur of life’s restless sea. But every crisis has both its dangers and its opportunities. It can spell either salvation or doom. In a dark confused world the kingdom of God may yet reign in the hearts of men.”  http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1964/king-lecture.html 

Dr. King understood how easily hatred could consume people and movements and urged people not to follow the course of hate. It is a message especially timely in our day. Dr King wrote:

“Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.”

The day before his assassination in Memphis, Dr. King still recognized what he might face. His “I have been to the Mountaintop” speech http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkivebeentothemountaintop.htm recounted many of the things that he had encountered, including an assassination attempt in 1958 which had come close to killing him. It was an amazing speech and one wonders if having lived under threat so long that he almost had a premonition of his death the next day.

And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.

And I don’t mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

Dr. King’s dream is not dead and we who live today cannot allow it to die. There is still much work to see justice done for all Americans as well as those suffering from violence, persecution, discrimination and poverty around the world.

It is 2020. It has been 57 years since Dr. King sat in the Birmingham jail. Sadly, there are some who long for a return to the day of Jim Crow. In some states there have been and there are ongoing attempts to return it by stealth, especially through restrictions on voting that predominantly impact African Americans and the poor. Racism is not dead, nor are so many other “isms.” As Dr. King told us, “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy,” and “It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment.”

Dr. King and many of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement have passed on. Likewise, many people today are complacent about the injustices present in our society, injustices experienced by many people. We need a generation of new men and women with hearts like Dr. King’s, who will be the conscience of the nation and confront these injustices.

Birmingham_campaign_dogs

Representative John Lewis, one of the original Freedom Riders was beaten numerous times during those protests. When leading the march across the Pettus Bridge in Selma, Lewis had his skull fractured by a State Trooper when he stopped to pray.  Lewis’s words call us to action today:

“If not us, then who? If not now, then when?” 

We cannot let Dr. King’s dream die, especially when White Supremacists, encouraged by the words of the President attack those rights in city halls, state houses, the Congress, the Cabinet, and the Courts.

If the Dream is to survive, if we are to go to the mountaintop, if we are to see the day when people will be judged by the content of their character, and not their race, color, religion, or gender, we have to be the ones to not sit back and be bystanders, but to take action. To answer Congressman Lewis’s question, it has to be us, and it has to be now.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under civil rights, ethics, faith, History, laws and legislation, leadership, ministry, News and current events, philosophy, Political Commentary, racism, Religion

Silent Witnesses of Evil Deeds… Are We Still of Any Use? Trump’s Christian Advocates


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Over his three years in office President Trump has managed to tell over 15,000 lies or distortions of the truth as of December 16th 2019 according to the Washington Post. That being said we all expect politicians to lie, it’s part of American life and political discourse. Will Rogers once said “If you ever injected truth into politics you have no politics.” I think that the expectation that elected officials will lie is one reason that Mark Twain quipped: “An honest man in politics shines more there than he would elsewhere.”

However the shear numbers of lies and falsehood proclaimed by the President is having a toxic effect on our society, in particular on those in the church, men and women who call themselves by the name of Christ who not only believe them, but repeat them, and defend them.  The fact is that for decades these same Christian leaders and people have proclaimed their allegiance to what they call “moral absolutes”and  “Biblical values”while excoriating Democrats, particularly Bill and Hillary Clinton for their lies. The fact is that by doing this Christians simply become another political interest group hustling politicians for favors that benefit them, even at the expense of the credibility of their witness to Christ.

The constant repetition of the President’s well documented lies, and their defense by administration flacks, Congressional supporters, the Fox News media empire, and the big name Evangelical Preachers who have sold their souls in his defense have damaged the soul of the country and yes the Church.

Of course one would expect the President’s opponents to point out his lies but in normal times you wouldn’t expect his conservative religious supporters to go to the mat defending him and his lies, and even calling him a “role model” for young people.  In a recent survey some 70% of his predominantly Christian, Republican supporters say that he is and that my friends is, if you value the long term witness of the Christian Church absolutely devastating, especially since for over a decade young people have been fleeing the church in never before seen numbers while unbelievers, even those that admire Christ and what some would call Christian values want nothing to do with the Church.

The fact is that the repetition of lies and falsehoods, whether you are a Trump supporter or opponent there is a not a good thing either for the Church or for the country. It has a terrible effect, and one only has to look to the countries of Europe to see how Christian support for malevolent leaders has reduced it to irrelevance. Whether it be the support of ethnic and religious persecution, or the participation in and protection of sexual predators masquerading and Bishops, Priests, and Nuns has eviscerated the witness of the Church.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood this and asked a question that should be asked by people that call themselves by the name of Christ who at the same time defend the indefensible and not only defend, but take great pleasure in defending the lies of the President. Bonhoeffer observed the same dynamic in his day. He wrote:

“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? What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest, and straightforward men. Will our inward power of resistance be strong enough, and our honesty with ourselves remorseless enough, for us to find our way back to simplicity and straightforwardness?”

Please believe me when I say that I am not being an alarmist about this situation. I know too much about history, human nature, and yes the Church not to see the danger. Sophie Scholl, a leader of the Anti-Nazi White Rose Resistance who was martyred two years before Bonhoeffer wrote:

But that’s part of the problem. The lies and actions of the President and his administration have been cumulative; and toxic to our political, social, and even religious institutions. What was shocking to most on day one became normalized over the course of the past three years, four and a half if you go back to the time Candidate Trump came down the escalator at Trump Tower to announce his Presidential candidacy.

The effect is both numbing and corrosive: first on the President’s defenders who surrender all pretext of moral or religious authority, and on his opponents who gradually are worn down by the barrage of lies and the fact that they are also the minority party, or if the are Republicans, the minority in the President’s party. In addition to his lies and obfuscations the President appears to have directly collided with the Russians to influence the 2016 election, use his office for personal gain, pardoning war criminals, breaking treaties, and offering support for nations who kill American based reporters, and even assassinating a military leader of a nation we are not at war with on the soil of a badly needed, but fragile ally; and finally today made comments that he would commit US troops to nations who paid the most for them. In essence, he has agreed to turn the U.S. Military from a force dedicated to supporting and defending the Constitution, to a force for hire, mercenaries if you will.

Sophie Scholl, a leader of the Anti-Nazi White Rose Resistance who was martyred two years before Bonhoeffer wrote:

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

Since President Trump first announced his candidacy for President in 2015, I have been sounding out a warning about the President, mostly for my Christian friends. By doing so I have lost friends and been ostracized or attacked by others for doing so, despite the fact that until my return from Iraq in 2008, I had been both a politically active Conservative Christian and Republican for over thirty-two years. That being said regardless of the cost I would rather follow my conscience than surrender it to the cacophony of lies and acceptance of evil by people who were once friends.

I do not consider myself to be a victim of my former friends. In fact I understand how they got to this point. In fact what has happened with them did not begin with the lies of President Trump. For decades, they, like I did until 2008, bought the repeated lies of the politicians, pundits, and preachers of the American conservative movement. The leaders of this movement coopted them by constantly repeating that they were under attack and needed to take control of the government in order to both defend the faith and implement a Christian government.  Whole theologies were built around this and gradually many, if not most conservative and Evangelical Christians accepted the idea that Christians had to “take dominion”over the country regardless of the cost. The leaders of the so-called “Christian Right” including Franklin Graham, Tony Perkins, James Dobson, Pat Robertson, Albert Mohler, Robert Jeffress, Paula White, and far too many others have sacrificed every bit of their integrity in defending the President and excusing his lies to further their own power. His Secretary of State, Secretary of Health and Human Services, and others in his administration hold the same views as the Trump Court clergy.

Truthfully, I understand how they got there. If I hadn’t gone to Iraq, seen what I saw there, realized the lies that went into the propagation of the war and the lies of Christians who demonized all Muslims because of some after the attacks of September 11th 2001, I would probably still be one of them. For me it took war to understand the moral and theological bankruptcy the politics and theology of the Christian Right, of which over 80% voted for the President and over 75% still support him.

But there is a critical difference for those in the military versus religious sycophants. Above everything our oaths demand obedience to the Constitution above personal loyalty to any President, any Political Party, or any personal religious preference. Members of the military must remember the words of men who served under men with similar personality traits as our President. General Ludwig Beck, Chief of Staff of the German Army, resigned his post in 1938 over Hitler’s threatened invasion of Czechoslovakia. He wrote:

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

Beck also wrote something that is all to important to any military officer, intelligence and law enforcement officials, as well as diplomats in such times as we live today:

“Final decisions about the nation’s existence are at stake here; history will incriminate these leaders with bloodguilt if they do not act in accordance with their specialist political knowledge and conscience. Their soldierly obedience reaches its limit when their knowledge, their conscience, and their responsibility forbid carrying out an order.”


Likewise, another German officer, Major General Henning Von Tresckow, who Like Beck lost his life in the attempt to kill Hitler on July 20th 1944, noted:

“I cannot understand how people can still call themselves Christians and not be furious adversaries of Hitler’s regime.”

Finally, the German pastor Martin Niemoller, himself a Conservative Christian, nati-Communist, and early supporter of Hitler wrote:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

As I said, Niemöller was an early supporter of Hitler, until he saw the truth about him. I think the same of Christians who support the basest and most immoral, unconstitutional, and deranged aspects of Trump’s policies. But I think that it was Bonhoeffer who asked the right question in terms of Christians and their support of morally bankrupt regimes, not just Trump’s, but those in many nations where Christians back such regimes. “Are we still of any use?”

It’s a pretty good question, I would ask anyone who calls themself a Christian to meditate upon it.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under ethics, faith, germany, History, leadership, Military, ministry, nazi germany, News and current events, Political Commentary, Religion

“Anyone Could Do It; It Required No Brains at All. It Merely Required No Character” Trump’s Evangelical Allies

Catch-22 (1970) Alan Arkin Mike Nichols 24

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Heinlein wrote:

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

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

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

Samuel Huntington wrote in his book The Clash of Civilizations:

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

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

The great American philosopher, Eric Hoffer wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With that I wish you a good day.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, civil rights, ethics, faith, History, Loose thoughts and musings, ministry, Political Commentary

Light, Life, and Love: Christmas in the Hell of Stalingrad, Kurt Reuber and the Madonna of Stalingrad

Bundeswehr zeigt "Stalingrad"-Ausstellung

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Tomorrow is Christmas Eve and I am reflecting about the true meaning of Christmas in a world where hope seems to be dying before our eyes. In such an environment I reflect on men who lived in a human made hell, a hell made by hate filled ideologues who launched the world into its bloodiest war, and I wonder, could it happen again? A decade ago I would have said it never could again happen, but now I am not so sure. So, in the age of Donald Trump, I must try to find hope wherever I can find it.

I think most of my readers know that I am a career military officer and have served in peace and war as a chaplain. That service includes a tour in Iraq, a war, which by almost any standard would have been considered unjust and illegal, yet I served there, and came back a changed man. As such the stories of those who served in war, especially those who serve in hopeless battles, and even in evil causes during Christmas have a special place in my heart. One of those men was a German pastor and medical doctor named Kurt Reuber.

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As I said, Reuber was a theologian, pastor and medical doctor, likewise he was an accomplished artist and used that medium to convey his own faith, and doubts. He was a friend of Albert Schweitzer and in 1939 he was conscripted to serve as a physician in the Germany Army. By November 1942 he was a seasoned military physician serving with the 16th Panzer Division, part of the German 6th Army, which had been fighting in the hell of Stalingrad. When his division along with most of 6th Army was surrounded by the Soviets, cut off from most supply and without real hope of relief, he like other physicians continued to serve the soldiers committed to his care.

pg-34-stalingrad-2-getty

However, unlike most physicians, the care Reuber offered care included spiritual matters, as he sought to help his soldiers deal with the hopelessness of their situation. As Reuber reflected on the desperation of the German soldiers in the Stalingrad pocket. He wrote to his family.

“I wondered for a long while what I should paint, and in the end I decided on a Madonna, or mother and child. I have turned my hole in the frozen mud into a studio. The space is too small for me to be able to see the picture properly, so I climb on to a stool and look down at it from above, to get the perspective right. Everything is repeatedly knocked over, and my pencils vanish into the mud. There is nothing to lean my big picture of the Madonna against, except a sloping, home-made table past which I can just manage to squeeze. There are no proper materials and I have used a Russian map for paper. But I wish I could tell you how absorbed I have been painting my Madonna, and how much it means to me.”

“The picture looks like this: the mother’s head and the child’s lean toward each other, and a large cloak enfolds them both. It is intended to symbolize ‘security’ and ‘mother love.’ I remembered the words of St. John: light, life, and love. What more can I add? I wanted to suggest these three things in the homely and common vision of a mother with her child and the security that they represent.”

The picture was drawn on the back of a captured Soviet map and when he finished it he displayed it in his bunker, which became something of a shrine. Reuber wrote:

“When according to ancient custom I opened the Christmas door, the slatted door of our bunker, and the comrades went in, they stood as if entranced, devout and too moved to speak in front of the picture on the clay wall…The entire celebration took place under the influence of the picture, and they thoughtfully read the words: light, life, love…Whether commander or simple soldier, the Madonna was always an object of outward and inward contemplation.”

drkrop

As the siege continued men came to the bunker for both medical care and spiritual solace.  On Christmas Eve Reuber found himself treating a number of men wounded by bombs outside the bunker. Another soldier lay dying, just minutes before the soldier had been in the bunker singing the Christmas hymn O Du Froehliche.  Reuber wrote:

“I spent Christmas evening with the other doctors and the sick. The Commanding Officer had presented the letter with his last bottle of Champagne. We raised our mugs and drank to those we love, but before we had had a chance to taste the wine we had to throw ourselves flat on the ground as a stick of bombs fell outside. I seized my doctor’s bag and ran to the scene of the explosions, where there were dead and wounded. My shelter with its lovely Christmas decorations became a dressing station. One of the dying men had been hit in the head and there was nothing more I could do for him. He had been with us at our celebration, and had only that moment left to go on duty, but before he went he had said: ‘I’ll finish the carol with first. O du Frohliche!” A few moments later he was dead. There was plenty of hard and sad work to do in our Christmas shelter. It is late now, but it is Christmas night still. And so much sadness everywhere.”

On January 9th 1943 with all hope of escape or reinforcement gone Reuber gave the picture to the battalion commander as the officer was too ill to carry on and that man was one of the last soldiers to be evacuated from the pocket. Reuber’s commander carried the Madonna out of the pocket and returned it delivered it to Reuber’s family, preserving it for all.

Reuber was taken prisoner and survived the harrowing winter march to the Yelabuga prison camp. In late 1943 Reuber wrote his Christmas Letter to a German Wife and Mother – Advent 1943. It was a spiritual reflection but also a reflection on the hope for life after the war, when the Nazi regime would be defeated, and Germany given a new birth. I wonder if the Christians currently swearing their fealty to President Trump will be capable of such reflection when his regime finally collapses, regardless of how and when it does. Twenty or so years ago I would have likely been part of Trump’s cult of “Christian” followers.

Reuber wrote:

“The concatenation of guilt and fate has opened our eyes wide to the guilt. You know, perhaps we will be grateful at the end of our present difficult path yet once again that we will be granted true salvation and liberation of the individual and the nation by apparent disappointment of our “anticipation of Advent”, by all of the suffering of last year’s as well as this year’s Christmas. According to ancient tradition, the Advent season is simultaneously the season of self-reflection. So at the very end, facing ruin, in death’s grip – what a revaluation of values has taken place in us! We thus want to use this period of waiting as inner preparation for a meaningful new existence and enterprise in our family, in our vocation, in the nation. The Christmas light of joy is already shining in the midst of our Advent path of death as a celebration of the birth of a new age in which – as hard as it may also be – we want to prove ourselves worthy of the newly given life.”  (Erich Wiegand in Kurt Reuber, Pastor, Physician, Painter, Evangelischer Medienverb. Kassel 2004. )

prisoner's madonna

Reuber did not live to see that day. He died of Typhus on January 20th 1944, not long after writing this and just a few weeks after painting another portrait of the Madonna, this one entitled The Prisoner’s Madonna. He was not alone, of the approximately 95,000 German POWs taken at Stalingrad only about 6,000 returned home.

His paintings survived the war and his family gave The Madonna of Stalingrad to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin after it was restored as a symbol of hope and reconciliation. Copies are also displayed in Coventry Cathedral and the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Volgograd, the former Stalingrad. A copy of The Prisoner’s Madonna is now displayed at the Church of the Resurrection in Kassel.

I have a print of the Madonna of Stalingrad in my office since then, until I moved to my new assignment. It is now in my storage space. I will have to bring it and a few other items to my new office at the shipyard. It has become one of the most meaningful pictures I have since I returned from Iraq in 2008. I miss looking on it every day. To me the print is a symbol of God’s presence when God seems entirely absent.

Praying for an end to war.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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December 23, 2019 · 23:45

Compromising Possible Opponents: The Nazi Alliance With, and Later War Against the Churches, a Lesson for Today

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Earlier in the week I began to write about the Nuremberg Trials and the opening statement of the American Chief Prosecutor, Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson. The first section was comprised his general remarks. The second dealt with the Nazi war against free organized labor. The third section presented here was the shortest part of his opening statement. It deals with the Nazi battle against the Churches.

The fascinating thing is that religious people and religious institutions are often the most unwavering in support of authoritarian regimes that often turn on them, because the Authoritarian can only allow one savior or God, and that would be him. Adolf Hitler was such a man. Saddam Hussein, Josef Stalin, the Salvadorian dictators, the Caesars, or any number of other men and women who wielded absolute power. Though Trump has not completely crossed the line into a full blown authoritarian and dictator, he is acting more and more like one on a daily basis, and his strongest supporters are conservative Christians, especially evangelicals, regardless of what he does against the law, Constitution, and simple Christian beliefs. If he does retain power will turn on them the second any offer criticism of him.

At Nuremberg Jackson laid out his argument to show how Hitler’s initially favorable treatment of the churches was directed with the aim of suppressing or corrupting all competing institutions of power in the state that could potentially become centers of resistance. Likewise, Jackson built up his argument this to show how Hitler’s action were an attempt to remove any moderating influence that could stand against its plans for aggressive warfare and genocide.

The division of the German State Church into the Evangelical Church (Lutheran and Reformed) and Roman Catholicism was a Problem for the Nazis. They desired a coordination of religion under their rule. The Protestant and Catholic state churches of Germany were potential rivals for the soul of the citizenry of the Third Reich. They ran schools, universities, hospitals, benevolent organizations, published influential newspapers, and had their own political parties and labor organizations.

German Protestantism since the day of Martin Luther was linked to German nationalism and seen by the Nazis as the ideal vehicle to build upon. The Catholic Church which was predominant in Bavaria and was strong in the other states of southern and western Germany. It was not very strong in the north, especially Prussia where in the 1800s Otto Von Bismarck persecuted the Catholic Church through the Külturkampf. Like Bismarck, Hitler, though Catholic himself viewed the Church as less than fully committed to the Reich because of its allegiance to Rome, which Hitler and many other Nazis considered to be a foreign power.

Likewise, other Nazi leaders of Catholic background realized the power of the Church and its institutions, and even stood in awe of them. Heinrich Himmler would pattern his SS indoctrination upon the Jesuits. The former Catholics included Joseph Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler, and Himmler’s number two man, Reinhard Heydrich. Richard Evans wrote in his book The Third Reich in Power:

Himmler’s deputy, Reinhard Heydrich, reacted against a strict Catholic upbringing with a hatred of the Church that can only be called fanatical. In 1936, Heydrich classified the Jews and the Catholic Church, acting above all through political institutions such the Centre Party, as the two principal enemies of Nazism. As an international body, he argued, the Catholic Church was necessarily subversive of the racial and spiritual integrity of the German people. Moreover, the Catholics, unlike the Protestants, had been largely represented by a single political party, the Centre, whose voters, again unlike those of most other parties, had mostly remained loyal and resisted the appeal of Nazism during the elections of the early 1930s. Much of the blame for this could be laid in the Nazis’ view at the feet of the clergy, who had preached vehemently against the Nazi Party, in many cases ruled that Catholics could not join it, and strongly urged their congregations to continue voting for the Centre or its Bavarian equivalent, the Bavarian People’s Party. For many if not most leading Nazis, therefore, it was vitally important to reduce the Catholic Church in Germany as quickly as possible to total subservience to the regime. (Third Reich In Power pp. 234-235)

The average church member was not the physical target of their attacks, instead the Nazis worked at, and quite often were very successful at weaning away many of the faithful from anything more that perfunctory and traditional displays of religion. Even there the Nazis did their best to supplant holidays such as Christmas and Easter with Nazi themes and ideology.

The battle for the Party was to deprive the Churches of their social and political power, and for the most part they were successful in their campaign. They suppressed church political parties and newspapers, labor unions, youth organizations. The latter were dissolved and replaced by the Reich Labor Front, and the Hitler Youth. Church schools were eventually closed by 1939 and religious education in public vocational schools was reduced to very small amounts of time with the teaching becoming more in line with Nazi racial ideology and anti-semitism.

The Protestant Church mostly fell in line with a minority in opposition known as the Confessing Church. Even so the Protestant opposition for the most part limited its opposition to the Nazis to the infringements against the church, not the nationalism or Nazi war aims. Richard Evans wrote:

The co-ordination of the Protestant Church was driven forward, among other factors, by the appointment of the lawyer August Jäger as State Commissioner for the Evangelical Churches in Prussia. Jäger declared that Hitler was completing what Luther had begun. They were ‘working together for the salvation of the German race’. Jesus represented ‘a flaring-up of the Nordic species in the midst of a world tortured by symptoms of degeneracy’. In conformity with the ‘leadership principle’, Jäger dissolved all elected bodies in the Prussian Church and replaced many existing officials with German Christians. Meanwhile, Reich Bishop Ludwig Müller had taken over the administrative headquarters of the Evangelical Church with the aid of a band of stormtroopers. By September, pressure was growing within the Reich Church to dismiss all Jews from Church employment. Much of the pressure came from ordinary pastors. Prominent here were young pastors from lower-middle-class backgrounds or non-academic families, men for whom war service had often been a life-defining experience, and racially conscious pastors from areas near Germany’s eastern borders for whom Protestantism represented German culture against the Catholicism of the Poles or the Orthodox faith of the Russians. Such men desired a Church militant based on the aggressive propagation of the Gospel, a crusading Church whose members were soldiers for Jesus and the Fatherland, tough, hard and uncompromising. Muscular Christianity of this kind appealed particularly to young men who despised the feminization of religion through its involvement in charity, welfare and acts of compassion. The traditional Pietist emphasis on sin and repentance, which dwelt on images of Christ’s suffering and transfiguration, was anathema to such men. They demanded instead an image of Christ that would set a heroic example for German men in the world of the here and now. For them, Hitler took on the mantle of a national redeemer who would bring about the rechristianization of society along with its national reawakening. (Third Reich in Power pp. 224-225)

The Nazified and nationalistic German Protestants, led by these clergy paint a striking image very similar to conservative American Evangelical Christians who echo many of the same theological themes, and who have in many cases elevated President Donald Trump into a redeemer and nearly messianic figure.

Jackson continued his opening statement at Nuremberg dealing with this toward the middle of the day on November 21st 1945. These are his words:

The Nazi Party was always predominantly anti-Christian by ideology. But we who believe in freedom of conscience and of religion base no charge of criminality on anybody’s ideology. It is not because the Nazis themselves were irreligious or pagan, but because they persecuted others of the Christian faith that they became guilty of crime, and it is because the persecution was a step in the preparation for aggressive warfare that the offence becomes one of international consequence. To remove every moderating influence among the German people and to put its population on a total war footing, the conspirators devised and carried out a systematic and relentless repression of all Christian sects and churches.

We will ask you to convict the Nazis on their own evidence, Martin Bormann in June 1941 issued a secret decree on the relation of Christianity and National Socialism. The decree provided:

“For the first time in German history the Fuehrer consciously and completely has the leadership of the people in his own hand. With the Party, its components, and attached units, the Fuehrer has created for himself, and thereby for the German Reich leadership, an instrument which makes him independent of the church. All influences which might impair or damage the leadership of the people exercised by the Fuehrer with the help of the N.S.D.A.P. must be eliminated. More and more the people must be separated from the churches and their organs, the pastors. Of course, the churches must and will, seen from their viewpoint, defend themselves against this loss of power. But never again must an influence on leadership of the people be yielded to the churches. This influence must be broken completely and finally. Only the Reich government, and by its direction the Party, its components, and attached units, have a right to leadership of the people. Just as the deleterious influence of astrologers, seers, and other fakers are eliminated and suppressed by the State, so must the possibility of church influence also be totally removed. Not until this has happened does the State leadership have influence on the individual citizens. Not until then are the people and Reich secure in their existence for all the future” (D-75).

And how the Party had been securing the Reich from Christian influence will be proved by such items as this teletype from the Gestapo, Berlin, to the Gestapo Nuremburg, on 24th July, 1938. Let us hear from their own account of events in Rottenburg:

“The Party, on 23rd July, 1939, from 2100 carried out the third demonstration against Bishop Sproll. Participants, about 2,500-3,000, were brought in from outside by bus, etc. The Rottenburg populace again did not participate in the demonstration. This town took rather a hostile attitude to the demonstrations. The action got completely out of hand of the Party Member responsible for it. The demonstrators stormed the palace, beat in the gates and doors. About 150 to 200 people forced their way into the palace, searched the rooms, threw files out of the windows, and rummaged through the beds in the rooms of the palace. One bed was ignited. Before the fire got to the other objects or equipment in the rooms and the palace, the flaming bed was throw from the window and the fire extinguished. The Bishop was with Archbishop Groeber of Freiburg, and the ladies and gentlemen of his menage in the chapel at prayer. About 25 to 30 pressed into this chapel and molested those present. Bishop Groeber was taken for Bishop Sproll. He was grabbed by the robe and dragged back and forth, Finally the intruders realised that Bishop Groeber was not the one they were seeking. They could then be persuaded to leave the building. After the evacuation of the palace by the demonstrators I had an interview with Archbishop Groeber, who left Rottenburg in the night. Groeber wants to turn to the Fuehrer and Reich Minister of the Interior Dr. Frick anew. On the course of the action, the damage done, as well as the homage of the Rottenburg populace beginning today for the Bishop, I shall immediately hand in a full report, after I begin suppressing counter mass meetings. In case the Fuehrer has instructions to give in this matter, I request that these be transmitted most quickly.” (848-PS).

Alfred Rosenberg Nazi Ideologist and Reich Minister for Occupied Territories

Later, defendant Rosenberg wrote to Bormann reviewing the proposal of Herrl as Church minister to place the Protestant Church under State tutelage and proclaim Hitler its supreme head. Rosenberg was opposed, hinting that Naziism was to suppress the Christian Church completely after the war.

The persecution of all pacifist and dissenting sects, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Pentecostal Association, was peculiarly relentless and cruel. The policy toward the Evangelical Churches, however, was to use their influence for the Nazi’s own purposes. In September, 1933, Muller was appointed the Fuehrer’s representative with power to deal with the “affairs of the Evangelical Church” in its relations to the State. Eventually, steps were taken to create a Reich Bishop vested with power to control this Church. A long conflict followed, Pastor Niemoller was sent to a concentration camp, and extended interference with the internal discipline and administration of the Churches occurred.

A most intense drive was directed against the Roman Catholic Church. After a strategic Concordat with the Holy See, signed in July, 1933, in Rome, which never was observed by the Nazi Party, a long and persistent persecution of the Catholic Church, its priesthood and its members, was carried out. Church Schools and educational institutions were suppressed or subjected to requirements of Nazi teaching inconsistent with the Christian faith. The property of the Church was confiscated and inspired vandalism directed against the Church property was left unpunished. Religious instruction was impeded and the exercise of religion made difficult. Priests and bishops were laid upon, riots were stimulated to harass them, and many were sent to concentration camps.

After occupation of foreign soil, these persecutions went on with greater vigour than ever. We will present to you from the files of the Vatican the earnest protests made by the Vatican to Ribbentrop summarising the persecutions to which the priesthood and the Church had been subjected in this Twentieth Century under the Nazi regime. Ribbentrop never answered them. He could not deny. He dared not justify.

I now come to “Crimes against the Jews.”

THE PRESIDENT: We shall now take our noon recess. (A recess was taken until 1400 hours.)

THE PRESIDENT: The Tribunal will adjourn for fifteen minutes at half past three and then continue until half past four.

MR. JUSTICE JACKSON: I was about to take up the “Crimes Committed Against the Jews.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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A Veteran’s Day Postscript: Belonging to a Different World

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I wrote about Armistice Day and Veteran’s Day but I decided to write a postscript to it today. I write this specifically as a combat veteran who more than a decade after my return still deal with the effects of war, PTSD, TBI, sleep disorders, nightmares and night terrors, bad knees, ankles, shoulders, tinnitus, inability to understand speech, and a bunch of other stuff. I know many more who deal with what I do and worse. At least I am no longer suicidal, though I do experience periodic bouts of depression, panic attacks, and anxiety.

For me it began in February 2008 when on the way back from Iraq the military charter aircraft bringing us home stopped in Ramstein Germany. After a few hour layover we re-boarded the aircraft but we were no longer alone, the rest of the aircraft had been filled with the families of soldiers and airmen stationed in Germany. Just days before most of us had been in Iraq or Afghanistan. The cries of children and the intrusion of these people, not bad people by any means on our return flight was shocking, it was like returning to a world that I no longer knew.

I think that coming home from war, especially for those damaged in some way, in mind, body or spirit is harder than being at war.

In that thought I am not alone. Erich Maria Remarque in his classic novel All Quiet on the Western Front wrote:

“I imagined leave would be different from this. Indeed, it was different a year ago. It is I of course that have changed in the interval. There lies a gulf between that time and today. At that time I still knew nothing about the war, we had been only in quiet sectors. But now I see that I have been crushed without knowing it. I find I do not belong here any more, it is a foreign world.”

Likewise, Guy Sajer a French-German from the Alsace and veteran of the Grossdeutschland Division on the Eastern Front in World War II noted at the end of his book The Forgotten Soldier: 

“In the train, rolling through the sunny French countryside, my head knocked against the wooden back of the seat. Other people, who seemed to belong to a different world, were laughing. I couldn’t laugh and couldn’t forget.”

I have been reminded of this several times in the past week. It began walking through a crowded Navy commissary on Saturday, in the few minutes in the store my anxiety level went up significantly. On Tuesday I learned of the death of Captain Tom Sitsch my last Commodore at EOD Group Two, who died by his own hand. His life had come apart. After a number of deployments to Iraq as the Commander EOD Mobile Unit 3 and of Task Force Troy he was afflicted with PTSD. Between June of 2008 and the end of 2009 he went from commanding an EOD Group to being forced to retire.  Today I had a long talk with a fairly young friend agonizing over continued medical treatments for terminal conditions he contracted in two tours in Iraq where he was awarded the Bronze Star twice.

I have a terrible insomnia, nightmares and night terrors due to PTSD. My memories of Iraq are still strong, and this week these conditions have been much worse. Sager wrote:

“Only happy people have nightmares, from overeating. For those who live a nightmare reality, sleep is a black hole, lost in time, like death.”

Nearly 20 years after returning from war, a survivor of the 1st Battalion 308th Infantry, the “Lost Battalion” of World War One, summed up the experience of so many men who come back from war:

“We just do not have the control we should have. I went through without a visible wound, but have spent many months in hospitals and dollars for medical treatment as a result of those terrible experiences.”

butler-medals1

Two time Medal of Honor winner Major General Smedley Butler toured Veterans hospitals following his retirement from the Marine Corps. He observed the soldiers who had been locked away. In his book War is a Racket:

“But the soldier pays the biggest part of this bill. If you don’t believe this, visit the American cemeteries on the battlefields abroad. Or visit  any of the veterans’ hospitals in the United States….I have visited eighteen government hospitals for veterans. In them are about 50,000 destroyed men- men who were the pick of the nation eighteen years ago. The very able chief surgeon at the government hospital in Milwaukee, where there are 3,800 of the living dead, told me that mortality among veterans is three times as great as among those who stayed home.”

Similarly Remarque wrote in All Quiet on the Western Front:

“A man cannot realize that above such shattered bodies there are still human faces in which life goes its daily round. And this is only one hospital, a single station; there are hundreds of thousands in Germany, hundreds of thousands in France, hundreds of thousands in Russia. How senseless is everything that can ever be written, done, or thought, when such things are possible. It must be all lies and of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood being poured out, these torture chambers in their hundreds of thousands. A hospital alone shows what war is.”

Lt.ColonelCharlesWhiteWhittlesey

Lieutenant Colonel Charles Whittlesey

Sometimes even those who have been awarded our Nation’s highest award for valor succumb to the demons of war that they cannot shake, and never completely adjust to life at “home” which is no longer home. For them it is a different, a foreign world to use the words of Sager and Remarque. Lieutenant Colonel Charles Whittlesey won the Medal Medal of Honor as Commander of 1st Battalion 308th Infantry, the “Lost Battalion” in France. After the war he was different. He gave up his civilian law practice and served as head of the Red Cross in New York. In that role, and as the Colonel for his reserve unit, he spent his time visiting the wounded who were still suffering in hospitals. He also made the effort to attend the funerals of veterans who had died. The continued reminders of the war that he could not come home from left him a different man. He committed suicide on November 21st 1921not long after serving as a pallbearer for the Unknown Soldier when that man was interred at Arlington National Cemetery.

In his eulogy, Judge Charles L. Hibbard noted:

“He is sitting on the piazza of a cottage by the sea on a glorious late September day but a few weeks ago. . . He is looking straight out to sea, with naught but sea between him and that land where lie so many of his boys. The beating surf is but an echo, the warm, bright sunshine, the blue sky, the dancing waves, all combine to charm. But a single look at his face and one knows he is unconscious of this glory of Nature. Somewhere far down in the depths of his being or in imagination far off across the waters he lives again the days that are past. That unconscious look has all the marks of deep sorrow, brooding tragedy, unbearable memories. Weeks pass. The mainspring of life is wound tighter and tighter and then comes the burial of the Unknown Soldier. This draws the last measure of reserve and with it the realization that life had little now to offer. This quiet, reserved personality drew away as it were from its habitation of flesh, thought out the future, measured the coming years and came to a mature decision. You say, ‘He had so much to live for – family, friends, and all that makes life sweet.’ No, my friends, life’s span for him was measured those days in that distant forest. He had plumbed the depth of tragic suffering; he had heard the world’s applause; he had seen and touched the great realities of life; and what remained was of little consequence. He craved rest, peace and sweet forgetfulness. He thought it out quietly, serenely, confidently, minutely. He came to a decision not lightly or unadvisedly, and in the end did what he thought was best, and in the comfort of that thought we too must rest. ‘Wounded in action,’ aye, sorely wounded in heart and soul and now most truly ‘missing in action.’”

Psychologist and professor Dr. Ari Solomon analyzed the case of Colonel Whittlesey and noted:

“If I could interview Whittlesey as a psychologist today, I’d especially have in mind … the sharp discrepancy between the public role he was playing and his hidden agony, his constant re-exposure to reminders of the battle, his possible lack of intimate relations, and his felt need to hide his pain even from family and dearest friends.”

I wish I had the answer. I have some ideas that date back to antiquity in the ways that tribes, clans and city states brought their warriors home. The warriors were recognized, there were public rituals, sometimes religious but other times not. But the difference is that the warriors were welcomed home by a community and re-integrated into it. They were allowed to share their stories, many of which were preserved through oral traditions so long that they eventually were written down, even in a mythologized state.

But we do not do that. Our society is disconnected, distant and often cold. Likewise it is polarized in ways that it has not been since the years before our terrible Civil War. Our warriors return from war, often alone, coming home to families, friends and communities that they no longer know. They are misunderstood because the population at large does not share their experience. The picture painted of them in the media, even when it is sympathetic is often a caricature; distance and the frenetic pace of our society break the camaraderie with the friends that they served alongside. Remarque wrote, “We were all at once terribly alone; and alone we must see it through.”

If we wonder about the suicide epidemic among veterans we have to ask hard questions. Questions like why do so many combat veterans have substance abuse problems and why is it that approximately one in ten prisoners serving time are veterans? It cannot be simply that they are all bad eggs. Many were and are smart, talented, compassionate and brave, tested and tried in ways that our civilian society has no understanding for or clue about. In fact to get in the military most had to be a cut above their peers. We have to ask if we are bringing our veterans home from war in a way that works. Maybe even more importantly we have to ask ourselves if as a culture if we have forgotten how to care about each other. How do we care for the men and women who bear the burden of war, even while the vast majority of the population basks in the freedom and security provided by the soldier without the ability to empathize because they have never shared that experience.

For every Tom Sitsch, Charles Whittlesey or people like my friend, there are countless others suffering in silence as a result of war. We really have to ask hard questions and then decide to do something as individuals, communities and government to do something about it. If we don’t a generation will suffer in silence.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Transitions: Looking at My Last Few Months in the Military


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

This week begins my transition from over 38 years of military service in the Army and Navy to the civilian world. My relief will arrive and for the next couple of weeks I will help him during the transition. Since I will be excess to the command and will not want my ghost hanging over him I am going to ask to be placed on temporary duty at the Joint Forces Staff College until my retirement in the spring of 2020. He deserves not to have his predecessor hanging around as he takes over, and I need to be in a place where I can launch myself into the civilian world without being the old guy in the way of the man entrusted with taking over my responsibilities, a man who is a friend.

I think that will be better for both of us. It will help my transition to the civilian world and will allow him to not have my shadow lurking around his shoulders as I make my transition. The academic world is much better for me and my future than just hanging around where I am no longer needed.  One has to understand when their time is up. I know that. Hopefully, my superiors will understand.

Anyway, Sunday and Monday I will be parting and preparing to move  my  work office to home. It will be a lot of work. I thank you for your encouragement, support, and prayers. All of my readers mean a great deal to me, and I wish you all the best.

Peace,

Padre

 

 

 

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