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“The Only Thing that Doesn’t Abide by Majority Rule is a Person’s Conscience” Standing Up to the Empowered Christian Right

mock

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

One of my favorite films is To Kill a Mockingbird. I am a convinced that many people that call themselves “conservative Christians,” are so busy protecting their place and power in society that they despise anyone not like them. For decades before and now after the election of Donald Trump the same collection of conservative Christian Supremacists have played fast and loose with the truth, scammed billions of dollars from desperate followers, and drove almost every moderate there ever was out of the Republican Party with their ideology of Christian Dominionism.

I have written about this before. In light of my experience with them I imagine that some of these folks will, now that they have help a man that they belief will fully support their agenda, “kill the Mockingbird” in order to ensure that they keep their privileged position in society. Traditionally the Mockingbirds are those people that they have condemned to social inferiority and discrimination and eternal punishment simply because they are different. To today’s theocrats, the most frequent targets of their wrath are gays and the LGBT community, as well as Muslims, other non-white immigrants, women, and the disabled. The fact that just because someone else gets equal rights doesn’t mean that they lose any rights equality before the law, except to persecute them, seems to be beyond their capability to understand.

This is especially the case of the preachers, pundits and politicians that crowd the airwaves and internet with their pronouncements against Gays, immigrants, Arabs, poor blacks, political liberals, progressive Christians, and for that matter anyone who simply wants the same rights enjoyed by these Christians. This makes me fear them more far more than I fear Donald Trump. They represent a majority of the Republican House caucus and there quite a few in the Senate including, Attorney General nominee Senator Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, whose racist sentiments were so reprehensible that kept him from appointment as a Federal Judge during the Reagan administration.

In the book there is a line spoken by Miss Maudie Atkinson, a neighbor of Atticus Finch and his children. She says to Atticus’s daughter Scout:

“Sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whiskey bottle in the hand of another… There are just some kind of men who – who’re so busy worrying about the next world they’ve never learned to live in this one, and you can look down the street and see the results.”

As I survey the world of Christian conservatives I become surer of this every day. I’ve often wrote about my own fears in regard to dealing with such people as well as the troubling trends that I see. Over the years I have written articles on the trends that I see in the church, trends toward greed, political power, social isolation and the active campaign of some to deny basic civil rights to people that they hate on purely religious grounds.

The language of some like Matt Staver of Liberty Counsel, Tony Perkins of the American Family Association and a host of others describe actions of governments and courts to ensure equal treatment of all people under the law as threats to Christians, affronts to them and of course to God. Their words are chilling. Before the Obergfell v. Hodges decision, Matt Staver that if the Supreme Court upheld marriage equity for gays that it would be like the Dred Scott decision. Of course that is one of the most Orwellian statements I have heard in a while, for the Dred Scott decision rolled back the few rights that blacks had anywhere in the country and crushed the rights of non-slave states. These men are now pushing to ensure that President-Elect Trump does there will, and some have pledged to turn against him if he doesn’t fully support their every demand. I hope that they become so onerous that Trump turns on them like he has on so many other past supporters. They would deserve it and this is a distinct possibility. If we look at history, every authoritarian leader of the past century has turned on supporters who think that they are more entitled than other followers, often with a vengeance.

Again, as a reminder to readers, especially those new to the site, I spent a large amount of my adult Christian life in that conservative Evangelical cocoon. I worked for a prominent television evangelist for several years, a man who has become an extreme spokesman for the religious political right. I know what goes on in such ministries, I know what goes on in such churches. I know the intolerance and the cold hearted political nature of the beast. I know and have gone to church with Randall Terry, the former head Operation Rescue who once said: “Let a wave of intolerance wash over you. I want you to let a wave of hatred wash over you. Yes, hate is good…” I have walked in those shoes, and at one time I was as whipped into a frenzy of hate by those preachers, and their colleagues in right wing talk radio. Thus I fully understand them.

As Atticus Finch told his children:

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

Thus I total reject the message of such people now, not out of ignorance, but because I have walked in their shoes. At times I supported their causes, not to any extreme, but all too often my crime was simply said nothing when I knew that what they preached, taught and lived was not at all Christian, but from the pits of Hell.

As far as them being entitled to hold whatever opinion they want, even if I disagree, yes that is their right. But as Atticus said:

“People are certainly entitled to think that I’m wrong, and they are entitled to full respect for their opinions. But before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The only thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”

My conscience will not allow me to be silent when I see men like Staver, Perkins, Franklin Graham and so many others preach hatred towards those who are different than them. In 2010 that caused me to be thrown out of a church I had served faithfully from over 14 years as a priest and chaplain. These people are viscous and need to be opposed at all costs.

In the movie and the book the Mockingbirds were Tom Robinson, the black man falsely accused of rape and assault and Boo Radley, a shy recluse feared by his neighbors, a man who stories were made up about; stories that turned a simple man into a monster in the eyes of people who did not know him. Today they are others who fit the Mockingbird role, people who just want to get along and live in peace, but who endure discrimination and damnation from those who call themselves Christians.

Jem Finch, the son of Atticus asks his sister a question in the book and the film:

“If there’s just one kind of folks, why can’t they get along with each other? If they’re all alike, why do they go out of their way to despise each other?”

I ask the same question on a daily basis and I wonder how it can happen again and again.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under civil rights, ethics, faith, film, History, laws and legislation, leadership, LGBT issues, movies, News and current events, Political Commentary

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas: A Haunting Song of Hope

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

There are some songs at Christmas that despite their relative newness as compared to ancient carols seem to strike a chord that resonates deep in the hearts of people. One of those for me, and probably many others is the song Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. The music was written by Ralph Blane and the lyrics by Hugh Martin for the musical Meet Me in St Louis and first performed by Judy Garland in that film. In the movie Garland’s character sings the song to her younger sister after their father announces plans to move from their home of St Louis to New York for a job.

The lyrics for the musical were changed because Garland’s director Vincent Minnelli and co-star Tom Drake felt that Martin’s original lyrics which began with “Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas, it could be your last. Next year we may all be living in the past” were too depressing. The lyrics were changed to “let your heart be light, Next year all our troubles will be out of sight” in response to their request. The words sung in the musical by Judy Garland have a haunting but very real feel for people who face uncertainty at Christmas, as such they were very meaningful to the US military personnel who heard them at the front in the Second World War.

As originally produced they reflect a hope for a better future as opposed to a carefree present. As such they are probably much more appropriate to our current time than in the mid-1950s when Frank Sinatra recorded a modified version of the song for his album A Jolly Christmas.

Sinatra asked Martin to “jolly up” the line “we’ll have to muddle through somehow” and Martin changed it to “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.”

When Frank Sinatra recorded the song in 1957 it too became a hit and the focus on present happiness rather than a hope for a better future fit the times in which it was recorded. Sinatra’s version also notes that “faithful friends gather near to us once more” instead of “will be near to us once more.”

The song was re-written by Martin a number of times including a “Christian” version which included the words “if the Lord allows” instead of “if the fates allow.” Though I am a Christian I think that change was kind of lame, but then if there are a few dollars to be made off religious people who otherwise won’t listen to a song why not?

The song is one is one of the most recorded Christmas songs ever written and can be heard being sung by artists as diverse as Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Rod Steward, the Carpenters, Kelly Clarkson, John Denver with the Muppets, the Pretenders, Olivia Newton John, Kenny Loggins, and even Twisted Sister.

The song as recorded by Judy Garland is actually my favorite, though I also love the Sinatra version. Somehow “muddling through somehow” seems to be more appropriate in my experience.

So enjoy these versions of a song that has touched the hearts of hundreds of millions of people since it was first recorded. May it be an inspiration in these uncertain times of a hope for a better future. Maybe that makes it a better Advent song, but I digress….

For me it is kind of a sad song, but mixed with hope…and I always try to live in hope.

Here’s to muddling through somehow…

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Holiday Road: Reflections on a Great Vacation 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

We returned from a week in Munich with a side trip to Nuremberg last night. The week was the best real vacation we have had in our lives to date. We finally took seriously the idea that a vacation should not be about wearing ourselves out. I remembered a quote from a book I read in seminary by Leland Ryken who noted “worship our work, work at our play, and play at our worship,” and I decided to pay attention to our own misadventures in vacationing as well as a bit of humor.

Just before we got married we saw a screening at the Warner Brothers studio of the original National Lampoon’s Vacation movie. As the movie worked to its climax Chevy Chase who played the well intentioned yet inept father who after one disaster after another on the way to Wally World blew up at his family screaming “This is no longer a vacation. It’s a quest. A quest for fun. You’re gonna have fun, I’m gonna have fun… We’re all gonna have so much fucking fun we’re gonna need plastic surgery to remove our goddamn smiles!… I must be crazy. I’m on a pilgrimage to see a moose. Praise Marty Moose! Holy shit!” 

Unfortunately that is often how I approached vacation and for that matter rest and relaxation period. The last three years we have gone to Munich for the Oktoberfest and to see other things. The first year we were with a group of friends but the schedule was intense, and while we had fun we were exhausted within a few days. Last year we planned for two trips outside of Munich but while we were there we realized that we needed to take some time off and rest, so while we took a day trip to Salzburg, Austria, we eliminated a planned trip to Nuremberg. While I was disappointed it made the trip a lot less stressful.



This year we determined that we would pace ourselves. Knowing that we could not check in to our hotel until the afternoon of our arrival in Munich we visited the Dachau Concentration Camp which is not far from the Munich Airport. We made our trip to Nuremberg on Monday to see the Nuremberg Palace of Justice, War Crimes Trial Museum and courtroom. We got up at a normal hour, had breakfast and drove the two hours to Nuremberg. We had a good visit to the museum and courtroom and the walked around part of the old city, did a bit of shopping and lunch. Then we drove back to Munich, stopped at a clothing store that we used to frequent when we lived in Germany and made a trip to the Oktoberfest. 


The rest of the week we took our time. We visited museums like the Deutsches Museum, a science and technology museum, and the Bavarian State Museum, and then we would walk around town, spend time at sidewalk cafes just to talk and take in the surroundings, do some shopping and the go back to the hotel to rest before going to dinner at a local restaurant and then go back to the fest. On Thursday we met a German friend at her house just outside of Munich, taking a S-Bahn train to get there before we went back to the hotel, had dinner at a local restaurant before taking the subway back to the fest for a short visit. On Friday we rested and packed before we walked around the local area and spent some time at the sidewalk patio of the restaurant we had been eating at while waiting for our friends to get back from their expedition to a brewery on the outskirts of Munich to celebrate Judy’s birthday. 


Yesterday we came home, stayed up until about 11:00 PM and then slept late in order snap back into the time zone. Of course yesterday was a long day, getting up about 7:00 AM, having breakfast, checking out of the hotel, returning our rental car, getting to our flight and making the trip. Since we arrived at our house about 8:00 PM our time the travel process which included two flights took about nineteen hours and by the time we went to bed we had been up close to twenty-two hours. But when you make a transcontinental trip that is part of the deal. 


During the week we were on four flights lasting about 18 hours, not including layovers and checking in or getting through passport control and customs. We drove about 300 miles in Germany and used a lot of the public transportation, U-Bahn and S-Bahn trains to get around Munich proper. I walked about 50 miles during the trip, Judy a bit less. We ate as healthy as we could, took smaller meals, didn’t do a lot of snacking or junk food, and of course since it was Oktoberfest we had a lot of beer. 

The trip was amazing and as I said up front it was the best, most relaxing, stress-free, and refreshing vacation we have had up to this point of our lives. 

So until tomorrow. 

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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The Waco Kid Rides into the Sunset: Rest in Peace Gene Wilder


http://www.movieclips.com/videos/blazing-saddles-official-clip-applause-for-the-waco-kid-409395779531
Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Sunday night lost a comic genius and great human being. Gene Wilder passed away with his family surrounding him at the age of 83 from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. While many remember him most for his role as the quirky candy genius Willy Wonka, I will always remember him most for his roles in Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, and The Producers. Of course I will never forget him in Stir Crazy or The Silver Streak, but for me it was his roles in the Mel Brooks comedies that I will never forget. 


http://nyti.ms/1xh2yeM 
The first time I saw him was in The Producers where he played the neurotic accountant Leo Blum who helped Max Bialystok (Zero Mostel) figure out that he could make more money producing a Broadway flop than a hit. I saw that film on television when I was about 12 years old, well before I ever saw him in Blazing Saddles or Young Frankenstein, and I never forgot him. Then in 1974 I was able to convince the box office attendants and ushers that I was old enough to be admitted to the latter two films. Actually, it wasn’t that hard back then to fake it, no one ever asked for I.D., and I’m sure that some of them were stoned before they even showed up for work but I digress… 


https://www.yahoo.com/movies/video/blazing-saddles-clip-waco-kid-192608486.html
There are few people who could play neurotic people with the comic sensitivity that Gene Wilder did, the man was brilliant.  The next film that I saw him appear was Brooks’s classic Western spoof, Blazing Saddles where he played the washed up alcoholic gunfighter, the Waco Kid, whose name was Jim, though most people called him Jim. Wilder was a last minute replacement for Gig Young who actually did have an alcohol problem and collapsed on set forcing Brooks to shut down production for a day and bring Gene Wilder in relief. Wilder was perfect for the role and complimented Clevon Little who play the Black sheriff Bart to a tee. I think my favorite scene is where Sheriff Bart wishes a little old lady a “good day” and is told by her “up yours nigger.” Almost inconsolable Bart comes back to the office where the Waco Kid gives him some great advice. 

https://youtu.be/KHJbSvidohg

https://youtu.be/IpiHCZHGbF8


Then there was Young Frankenstein where Wilder played the grandson of the original Dr. Frankenstein opposite Marty Feldman, Terri Garr, Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman, and Peter Boyle. This was followed by Willy Wonka and so many others. I loved Wilder when he was paired with Richard Pryor as well. 

https://youtu.be/MySGAaB0A9k
I could go on and on about Gene Wilder, by I will stop for now. He and so many of his fellow cast members from these films are gone. Zero Mostel, Kenneth Mars, Clevon Little, Madeline Kahn, Harvey Korman, Richard Pryor, Alex Karras, and Peter Boyle to name but a few. He never announced that he was suffering from Alzheimer’s because he didn’t want to upset kids who saw him and said “look there’s Willy Wonka.” He was a joyful spirit who loved life, and now joins the love of his life, the late Gilda Radner, and now he goes into that final sunset. 


Rest in peace,

Padre Steve+ 

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We, We Happy Few, We Band of Brothers: Reflecting on D-Day


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Seventy-two years ago today American, British, Canadian, and Free French forces landed on the beaches of France on the Normandy Peninsula to begin the liberation of Europe. 

I have written a good number of articles about the invasion on this site, in fact you can look them up, but instead of editing an older article or looking at some aspect of the invasion that I haven’t before I wanted to share a few thoughts. 

This past week, beginning during the Memorial Day weekend I spent a lot of time doing reading and reflection. I also decided to watch a number of films, and series that dealt with D-Day and the fight to liberate Europe from the Nazis. I have been to Normandy, in fact I have actually taught there at Sainte Mere Eglise and Pont du Hoc just prior to the 60th anniversary of D-Day. For me it was a moving experience to stand in those locations where so many men contended against the military forces of a regime so evil that it defies the imagination. 

As I said, in addition to reading and reflecting I took time to watch some films, as well as a television mini-series that dealt with that time in history. I watched the film A Bridge too Far on Memorial Day and then began to watch the ten episodes of the series Band of Brothers. When I was done with those last night I watched the film the Longest Day. I thought about watching Saving Private Ryan, but every time I watch that film I am so overcome with emotion that it is hard to function the next day. 


Anyway, this was the first time that I have watched all ten episodes of Band of Brothers in order in a short period of time. I was glad that I did it that way. As I watched it I thought of my own service and those men who have been my “band of brothers” be it in Iraq, or on a boarding team in the Persian Gulf. There is something about serivice in a combat zone and in harm’s way which cannot be replicated in any other part of life. 

The series really captures the constant wear and tear on the human mind, body, and spirit when one goes to war. It captures the bonds that most people today never experience. There were quite a few times where I knew exactly what they were going through, what they were thinking, and what they felt; including the paradoxes of seeing the evil committed by some, but also of recognizing that many of the enemy soldiers were really not that different from us. 

Today we remember that ever shrinking number of men who landed on the beaches of Normandy, fought their way across France, Belgium, and Holland before driving into Hitler’s Germany. I have had the great honor of knowing a number of those men, and even burying one of the men who served in the unit immortalized in Band of Brothers. In this time when so many have never served in the military in any form, and even fewer who have served in combat, it is important not to forget their memory, nor those who have served in subsequent wars. 

There was a segment of one of the Band of Brothers episodes where one of the soldiers was reflecting on how distant the war was to many Americans by New Year’s Day 1945, even though the men were fighting and dying to repel the Germans after the Ardennes Offensive, which we now call the Battle of the Bulge and others were fighting and dying against the Japanese in the Pacific. Those men wondered what it would be like to return home after the war, among a people who didn’t understand. It was a question that many of us asked when we came home from Iraq, and others did coming home from Korea, Vietnam, or Afghanistan. 


The men of the Band of Brothers had the same kind of issues coming home as we do today, some dealt with them better than others, just like today. But the way changed them all and it also bound them to each other. 

In his play Henry V William Shakespeare wrote, 

“And Crispin Crispain shall ne’er go by, From this day to the ending of the world, 

But we in it shall be remembered – We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; 

For he today who sheds his blood with me shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,

This day shall gentle his condition;

And gentlemen in England now abed shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,

And hold their man hoods cheap while any speaks that fought with us on Saint Crispin’s Day” 

We, we happy few, we band of brothers. 

Peace,

Padre Steve+


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Filed under History, iraq,afghanistan, Military, movies, world war two in europe

Politics! Politics! Politics! The Genius of Mel Brooks

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Next Tuesday is the South Carolina primary, and after all the hoopla in Iowa and New Hampshire I don’t know if I can stand the incessant political bombardment on the airwaves and the internet. As such I take a bit to get my fill so I know what is happening, and then retreat into my private world.

Sometimes that private world has some fascinating intersections with politics.  I love the movies of Mel Brooks and find them hysterically funny. Call me crude, uncultured or anyhting else you want to call me I find Brooks to be one of the most brilliant writers to ever grace film.  Despite some of the course language and frequent use of the double entendre employed I find that Brook’s films speak our current political climate in strikingly biting ways. Brooks had an amazing way of confronting ingrained prejudice, discrimination, racism, religious intolerance, and the massive economic, social, and political privileges enjoyed by the wealthy. What is amazing to me is that his movies have become classics and that four decades later they still are relevant to the political, social, economic issues that we face as well as the continued curse of racism.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uDxzIuhTROU

Both Blazing Saddles and History of the World Part I came out in times of political and economic turmoil. Like now when these films came out people were disillusioned and cynical about their political leaders.  The country was badly divided, racism was rampant while divisive social issues, a problem riddled military and economic malaise ruled the day.  The Soviet Union seemed to be on the ascendant while some were writing the obituary of the United States and Western Europe. There are a lot of similarities.

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

In such difficult times most political leaders and their partisan followers are absolutely devoid of humor, as are most pundits and politically minded preachers.  As a result everything becomes personal, and anyone that deviates from the party line is “the enemy.”  This goes for partisans on both sides of the political chasm.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dk47saogI8o

Unfortunately our problems are multifaceted in scope, and deeper than the Marianas Trench.  Scandals have long been part and parcel of both the Legislative and Executive branches of our government.  As a people we seem to hate the sinner involved but love the scandal itself. The scandals titillate us and satiate our most wanton desires for reality entertainment.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ryvljjccqL8

Our corporate 24 hour news cycle thrives on them and even the slightest odor of a potential scandal sends the media into a frenzy. But many of the scandals while troubling seldom amount to a hill of beans. Meanwhile implicated office holder or official is incessantly beaten by the opposing media and sometimes even “friendly” media long after grounds for the scandal are shown to be false.  That being said there is a double standard because it is quite often that a truly guilt party gets off with no punishment, few are forced to resign from office, while even fewer ever end up in court for offenses that most of us would get jail time for doing.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=boO4RowROiw

More troubling from my point of view is the manner in which politicians at almost every level prostitute themselves in order to rake in political donations from big donors.  This is a bi-partisan problem.  Business, political action committees, and special interest groups of all varieties participate in getting in bed with those in power. I think one of the most egregious examples are the Koch brothers, but they are not alone. In the midst of the money driven depravity for power the actual needs of constituents or the greater good of the country are seldom address. God forbid a constituent show up at a town hall meeting and ask hard questions or state opposition to their representative’s position.  Sometimes those who have the courage to do so are physically assaulted by the supporters of the politician, forcibly removed and sometimes arrested.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ZegQYgygdw

The average congressman spends a third or more his or her time in office raising money for the next election, some spend more than 50% of their time raiding campaign contributions.  The thing is that money talks and if you look at any major legislation who will see a direct correlation of money to the votes of congress. Again, both parties are guilty of this and they do it every day. Is it a wonder that Congress has single digit approval ratings?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2XfqlbFvGN8

Is it any wonder that the President barely polls 40% approval?  Is it any wonder that grass roots Tea Party members and the progressives that by and large make up the Occupy Wall Street movement are in the streets?  True partisans on both sides deride the opposing movement but the fact that so many people are upset shows that our political system as we know it is broken and may not last.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uDxzIuhTROU

Now I admit that was an awfully serious interlude. However, it sets the stage for the humor of Mel Brooks.  Like I said in the beginning I love the humor of Mel Brooks. He is a comic genius and understands that humor is often more effective in making political and social commentary than almost any other means. Both Blazing Saddles and The History of the World Part One had wonderful if crude satire about politics and speak volumes about our political condition and how many people feel about their government.  I am putting a few clips from both films here and let them do the talking with no commentary from me.  Have fun and enjoy even as you cringe at how accurate Brooks’ commentary is today.  You would think that he is a prophet.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under film, History, movies, News and current events, Political Commentary

Joyeux Noël: I Belong Here with those in Pain Who have Lost Their Faith

 

palmer

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

As a veteran who served in the badlands of Al Anbar Province during Christmas of 2007 I can relate to Father Palmer, the British priest and chaplain in the film Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas) when he makes the comment “I belong with those who are in pain, and who have lost their faith, I belong here.”

I again watched that film last night. The film is the story of the amazing and exceptional Christmas Truce of 1914. It is a film that each time I see it that I discover something new, more powerful than the last time I viewed it. It reminds me of serving in Iraq, at Christmas from my perspective as a Chaplain, and thereby giving voice to those who serve now, as well as those who served God’s people in hellish places before me. It reminds me of how much I hate war, and how much I often hate the clergy who are all too often, bloodthirsty cheerleaders for war.

 

As a Chaplain I am drawn to the actions of the British Padre in the film, who during the truce conducts a Mass for all the soldiers, British, French and German in no-man’s land, who goes about caring for the soldiers both the living and the dead. His actions are contrasted with his Bishop who comes to relieve him of his duties and to urge on the replacement soldiers to better kill the Germans.

As the Chaplain begins to provide the last Rites to a dying soldier the Bishop walks in, in full purple cassock frock coat and hat and the chaplain looks up and kisses his ring.

As the chaplain looks at his clerical superior there is a silence and the Bishop looks sternly at the priest and addresses him:

“You’re being sent back to your parish in Scotland. I’ve brought you your marching orders.”

Stunned the Priest replies: “I belong with those who are in pain, and who have lost their faith, I belong here.”

The Bishop then sternly lectures the Priest: “I am very disappointed you know. When you requested permission to accompany the recruits from your parish I personally vouched for you. But then when I heard what happened I prayed for you.”

The Priest humbly and respectfully yet with conviction responds to his superior: “I sincerely believe that our Lord Jesus Christ guided me in what was the most important Mass of my life. I tried to be true to his trust and carry his message to all, whoever they may be.”

The Bishop seems a bit taken aback but then blames the Chaplain for what will next happen to the Soldiers that he has served with in the trenches: “Those men who listened to you on Christmas Eve will very soon bitterly regret it; because in a few days time their regiment is to be disbanded by the order of His Majesty the King. Where will those poor boys end up on the front line now? And what will their families think?”

They are interrupted when a soldier walks in to let the Bishop know that the new soldiers are ready for his sermon. After acknowledging the messenger the Bishop continues: “They’re waiting for me to preach a sermon to those who are replacing those who went astray with you.” He gets ready to depart and continues: “May our Lord Jesus Christ guide your steps back to the straight and narrow path.”

The Priest looks at him and asks: “Is that truly the path of our Lord?”

The Bishop looks at the Priest and asks what I think is the most troubling question: “You’re not asking the right question. Think on this: are you really suitable to remain with us in the house of Our Lord?”

With that the Bishop leaves and goes on to preach. The words of the sermon are from a 1915 sermon preached by an Anglican Bishop in Westminster Abbey. They reflect the poisonous aspects of many religious leaders on all sides of the Great War, but also many religious leaders of various faiths even today, sadly I have to say Christian leaders are among the worst when it comes to inciting violence against those that they perceive as enemies of the Church, their nation or in some cases their political faction within a country.

 

“Christ our Lord said, “Think not that I come to bring peace on earth. I come not to bring peace, but a sword.” The Gospel according to St. Matthew. Well, my brethren, the sword of the Lord is in your hands. You are the very defenders of civilization itself. The forces of good against the forces of evil. For this war is indeed a crusade! A holy war to save the freedom of the world. In truth I tell you: the Germans do not act like us, neither do they think like us, for they are not, like us, children of God. Are those who shell cities populated only by civilians the children of God? Are those who advanced armed hiding behind women and children the children of God? With God’s help, you must kill the Germans, good or bad, young or old. Kill every one of them so that it won’t have to be done again.”

The sermon is chilling and had it not been edited by the director would have contained the remark actually said by the real Bishop that the Germans “crucified babies on Christmas.” Of course that was typical of the propaganda of the time and similar to things that religious leaders of all faiths use to demonize their opponents and stir up violence in the name of their God.

When the Bishop leaves the Priest finishes his ministration to the wounded while listening to the words of the Bishop who is preaching not far away in the trenches. He meditates upon his simple cross, takes it off, kisses it hand hangs it upon a tripod where a container of water hangs.

The scene is chilling for a number of reasons. First is the obvious, the actions of a religious leader to denigrate the efforts of some to bring the Gospel of Peace into the abyss of Hell of earth and then to incite others to violence dehumanizing the enemy forces. The second and possibly even more troubling is to suggest that those who do not support dehumanizing and exterminating the enemy are not suitable to remain in the house of the Lord. Since I have had people, some in person and others on social media say similar things to what the Bishop asks Palmer the scene hits close to home.

When I left Iraq in February 2008 I felt that I was abandoning those committed to my spiritual care, but my time was up. Because of it I missed going with some of my advisors to Basra with the 1st Iraqi Division to retake that city from insurgents. It was only a bit over a month after I had celebrated what I consider to be my most important Masses of my life at COP South and COP North on December 23rd as well as Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. In fact they were really the last masses that I felt the mystery and awe of the love of God that I used to so much feel.

When I left the new incoming senior Chaplain refused to take my replacement leaving our advisers without dedicated support. He then slandered me behind my back because what I was doing was not how he would do things and because I and my relief were under someone else’s operational control. It is funny how word gets back to you when people talk behind your back. Thankfully he is now retired from the Navy and I feel for any ministers of his denomination under his “spiritual” care. So I cannot forget those days and every time I think about them, especially around Christmas I am somewhat melancholy and why I can relate so much to Father Palmer in the movie.

It has been eight years since those Christmas Masses and they still feel like yesterday. In the intervening years my life has been different. Just a year later I was walking home from church where my wife was to sing in the choir during the Christmas vigil mass. I couldn’t handle the crowds, the noise, and I felt so far away from God. That night I walked home in the dark looking up into the sky asking God if he still was there. If there had been a bar on the way home I would have stopped by and poured myself in.

Since Iraq I have dealt with severe and chronic PTSD, depression, anxiety and insomnia were coupled with a two year period where due to my struggles I lost faith, was for all practical purposes an agnostic. I felt abandoned by God, but even more so and maybe more importantly by my former church and most other Chaplains. It was like being radioactive, there was and is a stigma for Chaplains that admits to PTSD and go through a faith crisis, especially from other Chaplains and Clergy. It was just before Christmas in late 2009 that faith began to return in what I call my Christmas Miracle. But be sure, let no one tell you differently, no Soldier, Sailor, Marine or Airman who has suffered the trauma of war and admitted to PTSD does not feel the stigma that goes with it, and sadly, despite the best efforts of many there is a stigma.

Now that faith is different and I have become much more skeptical of the motivations of religious leaders, especially those that demonize and dehumanize those that do not believe like them or fully support their cause or agenda. Unfortunately there are far too many men and women who will use religion to do that, far too many.

As for me, I thought that I was in a better place a year ago. I had the floor kicked from out from under me in the summer of 2014 and it has been a hard fight and while I am beginning to get back to some sense of normal it is a day to day thing. I still suffer the effects of the PTSD, especially the insomnia, nightmares and the nightmares which came back with a vengeance last summer. I also still have the anxiety in crowded places and bad traffic, but working with my new therapist I am coming up with some effective coping mechanisms. As for faith, I do believe again, though at the same time I doubt. I would have to consider myself a Christian Agnostic who echoes the cry of the man who cried out to Jesus, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief!” I believe and yet, I don’t.

Like the Priest in Joyeux Noel I know that my place is with those who are “in pain, and who have lost their faith.” For me this may no longer be on the battlefield as I will retire from the Navy in a few years. However, that being said I will strive to be there for those that struggle with faith and believe, especially those who struggle because of what they saw and experienced during war and when they returned home.

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Likewise I expect that I will do my best to speak truth to those in power and those whose faithfulness is more a product of their comfort with the God that they create in their own mind rather than the Crucified God wise death on the Cross s a scandal. For many Christians the scandal of the cross is too easy to avoid by surrounding ourselves with pet theologies that appeal to our pride, prejudice and power. The kind of malevolent power represented by the bishop in Joyeux Noel. Thus I take a measure of comfort in the words of Simone Weil who said “He who has not God in himself cannot feel His absence.” 

Thus, like Paul Tillich I have come to believe that “Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful.”  In other words to become a complete pain in the ass until the day that I die.

Praying for Peace this Christmas,

Padre Steve+

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