Category Archives: philosophy

“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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“A Mind Ready to Stand Alone” Intellectual Freedom in the Age of Trump and After

Richard Hofstadter

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today was a very busy day and I am tired. Tomorrow will be busy with a full day of counseling, administration, and walking about the shipyard visiting our workers. So instead of commenting on impeachment, Iran, or illegal sign stealing, which I will start doing tomorrow. Obviously since sign-stealing in baseball, especially the World Series is culturally more important and reflective of our society than the impeachment of incredibly deserving President, and potential war, one criminal state against another, Mano an Mano. Anyway, I digress. So I am posting a commentary on the anti-intellectualism of much of America, and and especially of Trump’s ‘Merca. So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+ 

In July of 2017 the Pew Research Center published a detailed study of the current views of Americans regarding various institutions. One of those was higher education. The results showed that since 2015, Republicans, particularly Conservative Republicans place much less value on higher education and even that higher education has a negative effect on the country.

This should not be too surprising to anyone who studies American History. Our history is filled with anti-intellectual movements which are quite often tied in with conspiratorial world views, isolationism, and anti-immigrant or foreigner movements such as the Know Nothings, the Ku Klux Klan, and the original “America First” crowd. This has been a consistent drumbeat in American History, and yhe late historian Richard Hofstadter wrote:

“As a consequence, the heartland of America, filled with people who are often fundamentalist in religion, nativist in prejudice, isolationist in foreign policy, and conservative in economics, has constantly rumbled with an underground revolt against all these tormenting manifestations of our modern predicament.” 

But simple native prejudice and religious fundamentalism are only part of the problem. Throughout much of our history Americans have as Susan Jacoby has noted “only in terms of its practical results.” She notes that this phenomenon has “reasserted itself strongly in the “no frills” decisions of many local and state school boards. That the eliminated frills had once provided children with some exposure to a higher culture than pop was a matter of little concern to the public.”

The prevailing opinion, especially among conservatives is that education is only valuable if it produces jobs. In other words it’s training, not education and if you don’t know the difference between the two you are probably not really educated. The fact is that education, especially formal higher education should pursue truth more on their own long after their formal schooling ends. I can thank my teachers and professors at every level for inspiring me to do that. Sadly, more many, if not most Americans education at any level is simply a way to punch a ticket to get a job, but I digress…

In 2015 Pew noted that 54% of Republicans held a positive view of higher education, while 37% viewed universities, colleges and higher education negatively. That shifted in 2016 to a plurality of 45% positive and 45% negative. Their 2017 survey showed a much more pronounced shift, 58% negative and only 39% positive. Of the Republicans those who considered themselves “conservative” views were even more pronounced with 65% saying that higher education had a negative impact.

A change of such magnitude regarding what Americans have almost always universally valued as a societal good does not happen in a vacuum, the ground has to be prepared for it. Since a large portion of the GOP conservatives are Evangelical Christians one has to look at what has been going on in Evangelical Church and its politics for the past 50 years. whole denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention experienced splits as moderates were drive from the denomination and its educational institutions during the Fundamentalist takeover of it and its institutions.

The growth of Evangelical power centers that any type of education that comes from secular institutions have created their own educational centers to propagate their fundamentalist and radically right wing political views. Institutions like the American Family Association, the Eagle Institute, and others mimic traditional think tanks but are nothing more than propaganda outlets covered with an academic veneer in order to fool people into thinking that they are legitimate.  Likewise, the promotion and acceptance of fake history by faux “historians” like David Barton has led to a devastating decline in the willingness of Evangelicals, and hence Republicans to care about the truth and to rail at institutions which they despise out of the fundamentalist worldview.

Non-intellectual virtues such as patriotism, loyalty, faith, prosperity, and power have supplanted the intellectual quest for truth. Expertise of any kind is disregarded but particularly that of academics. Even on college and university campuses academics and the pursuit of academic and intellectual questions is being subsumed by bloated bureaucracies which treat instructors and professors as chattel while seeking profits which usually come at the cost of academics, but again I digress…

The fact is that American society as a whole is hostile towards intellectuals and academics. As Hofstadter wrote:

“All this is the more maddening, as Edward Shils has pointed out, in a populistic culture which has always set a premium on government by the common man and through the common judgement and which believes deeply in the sacred character of publicity. Here the politician expresses what a large part of the public feels. The citizen cannot cease to need or to be at the mercy of experts, but he can achieve a kind of revenge by ridiculing the wild-eyed professor, the irresponsible brain truster, or the mad scientist, and by applauding the politicians as the pursue the subversive teacher, the suspect scientist, or the allegedly treacherous foreign-policy adviser. There has always been in our national experience a type of mind which elevates hatred to a kind of creed; for this mind, group hatreds take a place in politics similar to the class struggle in some other modern societies. Filled with obscure and ill-directed grievances and frustrations, with elaborate hallucinations about secrets and conspiracies, groups of malcontents have found scapegoats at various times in Masons or abolitionists, Catholics, Mormons, or Jews, Negroes, or immigrants, the liquor interests or the international bankers. In the succession of scapegoats chosen by the followers of this tradition of Know-Nothingism, the intelligentsia have at last in our time found a place.” 

The American President has shown that he is exactly that kind of leader, and he is supported by followers who lap up everything that he says. Fed by the lies of pundits and radio talk show hosts who are college dropouts that despise anything that might be considered intellectual the President has added his voice to the cacophony of anti-intellectual thought that characterizes current American conservatism, in which men like William F. Buckley would be hard put to find a home.

There is a cost to such trends. We are not unique and such cultural trends do have consequences that many people do not think could happen here. But the non-intellectualism of our time, especially that of the militant and often fundamentalist Christian Right that predominates American conservatism is dangerous. Milton Mayer wrote of his experience with ordinary Germans in the years after the Second World War in his book They Thought They Were Free: 

“As the Nazi emphasis on nonintellectual virtues (patriotism, loyalty, duty, purity, labor, simplicity, “blood,” “folk-ishness”) seeped through Germany, elevating the self-esteem of the “little man,” the academic profession was pushed from the very center to the very periphery of society. Germany was preparing to cut its own head off. By 1933 at least five of my ten friends (and I think six or seven) looked upon “intellectuals” as unreliable and, among these unreliables, upon the academics as the most insidiously situated.”

The Nazis loved educated men who were able to subordinate themselves to the Party and the State to get the job done. There were quite a few academics, particularly lawyers and doctors who were willing to put their education to use in service of the regime. Real intellectuals, men who thought and fought for truth and freedom were removed from academia or their positions in government. They were replaced with men willing to sacrifice their integrity and honor to further their own interests or to serve Nazi ideology and the Party.

It is my view that regardless of what happens with the Trump Presidency, as bad as things seem now, that the assault on intellectuals, knowledge, education, and ultimately truth will continue unabated, with even more fury, regardless of whether he survives impeachment and is re-elected. Irving Howe wrote in his essay The Age of Conformity: 

“The most glorious vision of the intellectual life is still that which is loosely called humanist: the idea of a mind committed yet dispassionate, ready to stand alone, curious, eager, skeptical. The banner of critical independence, ragged and torn though it may be, is still the best we have.” 

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The Horror of Evil is that it Does Not Deviate from Human Norms: the Eternal Precedent of the Holocaust

rolfe

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I read and write a lot about Weimar and Nazi Germany as well as the Holocaust. They were the focus of my undergraduate major working under Dr. Helmut Heussler who served as a translator and interrogator at Nuremberg while I was a student at California State University at Northridge and later in my Masters of Arts in Military History. I read the documents, the histories, the narratives, and the reports both in English and German. I study the perpetrators, the victims, and yes the bystanders as well and there is not enough time in one man’s life to read all of them, but I will try.

Likewise I visit the sites where things happened in Germany, and every time that I make a trip to those places I learn more and believe me it is not comfortable.  When I visited the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg a few years ago I saw a picture of Dr. Heussler doing his work. Back then he was very young and it would be a number of years before he finished college and went on to his doctorate. When I saw his picture I remembered just how important he was in opening my eyes to the dark side of humanity; even those people that are not truly evil; those like most of us who exist between the shades of gray between sainthood and the devil.

The histories, the documents, the narratives paint a dark picture of humanity and the fallibility of people. The portrait that they paint a disturbing picture of the true nature of what is in all of us. When I look at the pictures and see the films I can see that the lessons of that time have not been learned. Dr. Timothy Snyder wrote:

“The world is now changing, reviving fears that were familiar in Hitler’s time, and to which Hitler responded. The history of the Holocaust is not over. Its precedent is eternal, and its lessons have not yet been learned.”

In the age where men who admire tyrants and authoritarians like Trump, Putin, Farage, Erdrogan, Assad, and so many others it is important that we try to learn the lessons lest we fall into the same trap as our ancestors and become perpetrators, victims, or bystanders. I often find myself wondering what will be said we Americans of our time in say fifty years or so. I have a feeling that it will not be favorable or sympathetic.

Such a fascination with the thoughts of others years after I am likely to be dead may seem unusually circumspect. But my call as a priest and a historian doesn’t allow me not to care about the future, or ignore present realities. The fact is that totalitarian regimes and events like the Holocaust are all too common in human history, one of those is the connection of humanity with its past and future, and that humanity being the constant in our history. Yehuda Bauer wrote:

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

The fact is that there are very few true saints and likewise very few truly evil people. Quite obviously Adolf Hitler and many of his associates fell in the latter category. The rest of us, and for that matter most of the people on all sides during from the Nazi seizure of power until the Gotterdammerung of the Third Reich in in the flames of Berlin in 1945 fell somewhere in the gray area between the truly evil and the saints and truthfully all of us given the right conditions are capable of becoming perpetrators, victims, or the worst, bystanders who turn their backs on evil because it doesn’t seem to affect us; but it does.

Admittedly this is a dark subject and as I always reminded my students “the one constant in history are fallible human beings.” 

During our recent blizzard and snow event my wife Judy was away, so one of the nights that I was alone I re-watched the film Judgment at Nuremberg. The film is profoundly disturbing not only because of the subjects that it deals with but also when we look at the great uncertainty time that we live and how similar it is to the world of the late 1920s and early 1930s. In one of the more disturbing scenes of the film, Maximillian Schell, who played Hans Rolfe, the defense counsel for Ernst Janning, played by Burt Lancaster gives a summation in the final defense of his client who has already admitted his guilt which is remarkable because he tells the truth about the guilt of everyone.

Rolfe’s summation of his defense following his client’s admission of guilt is damning. It is something that almost all of us do. It is how we look at the atrocities of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, the willful starvation of millions by criminal regimes; and then stand by saying little or nothing and doing nothing, sometimes even supporting the leaders or the regimes that commit these actions.

So please, no matter what your political point of view, take the time to watch clip or the whole film, and read the transcript of Schell’s speech below. It’s far easier than trying to do all the reading, study, and research that I have done.

“Your Honor, it is my duty to defend Ernst Janning, and yet Ernst Janning has said he is guilty. There’s no doubt, he feels his guilt. He made a great error in going along with the Nazi movement, hoping it would be good for his country. But, if he is to be found guilty, there are others who also went along, who also must be found guilty. Ernst Janning said, “We succeeded beyond our wildest dreams.” Why did we succeed, Your Honor? What about the rest of the world? Did it not know the intentions of the Third Reich? Did it not hear the words of Hitler’s broadcast all over the world? Did it not read his intentions in Mein Kampf, published in every corner of the world? Where’s the responsibility of the Soviet Union, who signed in 1939 the pact with Hitler, enabled him to make war? Are we not to find Russia guilty? Where’s the responsibility of the Vatican, who signed in 1933 the Concordat with Hitler, giving him his first tremendous prestige? Are we not to find the Vatican guilty? Where’s the responsibility of the world leader, Winston Churchill, who said in an open letter to the London Times in 1938 – 1938! Your Honor – “were England to suffer national disaster should pray to God to send a man of the strength of mind and will of an Adolf Hitler!” Are we not to find Winston Churchill guilty? Where is the responsibility of those American industrialists, who helped Hitler to rebuild his armaments and profited by that rebuilding? Are we not to find the American industrialists guilty? No, Your Honor. No! Germany alone is not guilty: The whole world is as responsible for Hitler’s Germany. It is an easy thing to condemn one man in the dock. It is easy to condemn the German people to speak of the basic flaw in the German character that allowed Hitler to rise to power and at the same time positively ignore the basic flaw of character that made the Russians sign pacts with him, Winston Churchill praise him, American industrialists profit by him! Ernst Janning said he is guilty. If he is, Ernst Janning’s guilt is the world’s guilt – no more and no less.”

Sadly, little has changed in the character of humanity. If we do or say nothing, if we support those who do such things, if we close our eyes and pretend that it is not our problem, then we too are the guilty party.  As Hannah Arendt wrote: “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

Sophie Scholl, a young university student who died at the hands of the Nazis for daring to distribute leaflets telling the truth about Hitler’s regime 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.”

Whether I live one day, or another fifty years, I do not want to be a person who wants to be remembered as one who “just wants to survive,” or “left in peace,” or as Arendt said one “who never makes up their mind to be good or evil.” Nor can I be one who just goes along with things as Janning did, carrying in Judgment at Nuremberg, or be one for whom freedom, honour, truth, and principles are only literature.” 

That is the only way I know how to live. Life has taught me that.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under books, civil rights, ethics, faith, film, History, holocaust, life, nazi germany, philosophy, Political Commentary

History, Biography, and Organizing my Library at Home

 

 


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today has been a very difficult day where I worked in the house, the storage space, and. helped Judy and some of her friends break down their wares at the end of a craft show. This evening I did some more work organizing books in my library here at home. This week while doing my transfer I also caught up with some reading since my orders didn’t actually show up until late Wednesday. I read Mark Rosen’s “The Wannsee Conference and the Final Solution: a Reconsideration”; “The Participants: the Men of the Wannsee Conference” edited by Hans Christian Jasch and Christopher Kreutzmuller; finished reading “Our Declaration: a Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality” by Danielle Allen; and began reading Stefan Kühls “The Nazi Connection: Eugenics, American Racism, and German National Socialism.” While browsing my books I pulled out “Hidden Horrors: Japanese War Crimes in World War II” by Yuki Tanaka.

In like of what I have been doing I am reposting an edited and expanded version of an older article emphasizing the connection between history and biography. This is something I try to do when I write. Tomorrow, I start my check-in process after having signed in to my new command, before they send me to Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth.

So until tomorrow, 

Peace,

Padre Steve+

English historian and military theorist Colin Gray noted that “people matter most” when we deal with history, policy, or politics, but especially in the matter of war.

I think one of the sad things about history is that many authors, especially in military history, but other areas as well, seem to treat the participants as bit players in a series of events, rather than a prism from which to understand and view history.

I cannot tell you how many times I have had students, and even colleagues tell me that history is dry, boring and uninteresting to them. I will not condemn them, for certainly if it is that is case, it is not their fault, but rather those who write and teach history. If all history is, is arbitrary dates, lists of disconnected events and names of people, without any context to their lives, why should they care about it?

When I first began to study history I was much more concerned about events than people. However, over the past couple of years I have began to develop what I call my philosophy of history. That has come about through my study of the events leading to the American Civil War and in particular my study of the Battle of Gettysburg, but also in other historical events such as the Arab Revolt of 1917,  the French adventures in Indochina and Algeria, and the Holocaust.

In doing all of my research I have read a large number of books, articles and primary sources on these subjects and my personal library appears to be growing at an exponential rate. I have noticed that much of what I have read deals very little with the people involved, unless I am reading a biography, and even some of the biographies seem to be event heavy, and person light and sometimes it seems that the subjects of the biography are often one dimensional, and almost caricatures of who they really were. Some of the alleged biographies that I read would be better described as hagiography, to make the subjects appear saintlike, the type of writing used by religious writers to make saints a lot less human. There are others who go to the opposite extreme and do all they can to demonize their subject. In either case the method is less than honest, but for many people, profit and propaganda value mean more than truth. Of course either type of writing appeals to the masses who do not care about nuance, or for that matter truth.

But such is not history. Neither are “histories” which are designed to support a particular ideology, be it political, religious, or economic. Such works are not history, but propaganda. When I see people, in this country forbidding the teaching of history because it is not patriotic enough I want to scream. It is like I am watching the propagandists of Stalin’s Soviet Union, Hitler’s Third Reich, or any of many other nations that used ideology or religion to supress history that didn’t meet their definition of “patriotic.” But then I digress…

My gut feeling says that such artificial divisions between history and biography do a disservice to the reader. I take a tremendous pleasure in writing, and I like to try to communicate and interpret facts, which is indeed the vocation of the historian, in a manner that makes them interesting. What I am finding is that when telling the stories of events we must also tell the stories of the people who make these events.

Without such a connection there is little to interest most readers. People tend to be interested in people because there is a connection. The human being is still the human being, no matter what age, country, culture, religion that they belong to. I learned a lot of this from reading the works of Barbara Tuchman who in her writings about events, never forgot importance of people, and refused to turn them in to one dimensional caricatures.

In my writing now I attempt to bring the prism of the biography into the events that I write about.

I had a fellow faculty member note that he liked what I wrote about Gettysburg because it was more than just the events, it was the personal connection he felt to the people.

People matter because they have so many layers. I guess one of the things that makes my writing approach a bit different is that while I am a historian, I am also trained in philosophy, pastoral care and psychology, all of which deal with existential matters.In the next few days you will be seeing some of my Gettysburg work, and hopefully as you read it you will notice that I attempt to find that nuance in the various men, on both sides of the conflict, who are part of the story.

I found that the complexities and contradictions of the subjects of history, the people help me understand the events more than anything. I think my epiphanies came in reading about the lives, as well at writings of men like T.E. Lawrence and Gouvereur Warren whose triumphs, struggles, weaknesses and injuries mirror my own. In learning about these men as people, in the context of what they accomplished helps me to understand their history and the era that they lived far more than simply recounting how they influenced a battle.

Likewise, I find that the lives, beliefs, motivations, relationships, and experiences of people to be paramount to understanding events. People are complex, multi-layers and often contradictory. All of my heroes all have feet of clay, which in a sense makes their stories even richer, and the events that they helped bring about more fascinating, because then I gain a holistic perspective and develop an empathy for them. Even good and honorable people who find themselves due to race, religion, or nationality fighting for an evil cause, or evil people fighting for a good cause. Both are troubling, I think that good and honorable men who submit themselves to criminal and evil causes are more troubling.

We are seeing much of that today in regard to various members of the Trump Administration. When I was reading the article on Friedrich Kritzinger, the State Secretary for the Reich Chancellery, a conservative Prussian Civil Servant who served under the Kaiser, the Weimar Republic and Nazi Germany. In his position he made sure that the bureaucracy of the Reich ran efficiently, and also wrote legal justifications for the absorption of the rump of Czechoslovakia, and western Poland into the Reich. He also took part in the Wannsee Conference, for which he was the only participant to express remorse. Stefan Paul-Jacobs and Lore Kleiber, wrote about him in The Participants:

“Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies?” (St. Augustine). This might not be a quote from Kritzinger, but it serves as a reminder that, by working as a lawyer for a regime, which he has known from the start to be criminal, he made himself a stooge.” (The Participants p.217”) 

The story of Kritzinger, is very pertinent for anyone trapped by ideological or religious constraints, or commitment to a leader that they know is corrupt, acting criminally, or undermining the law and Constitution. That may confuse or even offend you, but it is a part of the human condition. That my friends is history.

Barbara Tuchman noted “that if the historian needs to submit himself to his or her material instead of trying to impose himself on his material, then the material will ultimately speak to him and supply the answers.”

This is very important, because when we do this we discover the answers to the why questions, especially the why questions that are so very uncomfortable, are necessary if we want to discover truth.

I know that I can find connections in the strengths as well as their weaknesses of people that I admire. Thus when I see ordinary people taking part in events, for good or for evil,I can say that given the same set of circumstances that that could be me. Context matters, nuance matters, people matter. If we do not understand that, history becomes nothing more than a set of manipulated facts, devoid of context that can be used to buttress the most evil intentions.

I do plan on developing these thoughts over the coming weeks and months, but for now it will suffice to say that when I write about history, that people matter. That is why I write.

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Filed under books and literature, civil war, History, life, Military, philosophy, racism

The Morning After 9-11-2001: 18 Years Later, a Retrospective Meditation

Friends Of Padre Steve’s World,

I am thinking about the morning after the attacks of 9-11-2001 and how much my perspective has changed since those attacks. On Wednesday 9-12-2001 I was sleeping in my office on a cot and sleeping bag at Camp LeJeune, NC. In fact every Marine and Sailor assigned at Camp LeJeune was doing the same thing unless they were on leave out of the area and couldn’t get back.

The base was closed to visitors, internal road blocks on the base were set up, roving patrols and outposts covered any conceivable entrance to the base, by land or water. Combat air patrols out of MCAS Cherry Point flew overhead while Navy Guided Missile Cruisers and Destroyers patrolled off the coast. The base was locked down for four days. We had little information of what was happening, except what we could get on television. Our own intelligence didn’t have much more, but we all knew that we were going to war.

Within the month we knew that it would be in Afghanistan. Army Special Forces, Rangers, Units of the 82nd Airborne as well as Navy SEALS, a Marine Expeditionary Unit, and CIA operators working with the Afghan warlords of the Northern Alliance quickly drove the Taliban from power and Osama Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda operatives into hiding at Tora Bora.

But the roots of this tragedy were decades in the making. In the 1960s and early 1970s, Afghanistan was one of the most progressive nations in the Islamic World. It was a haven and destination for the hippies in the 1960s and 1970s. Then, in a Cold War maneuver, the Soviets helped the Afghan Communist Party gain power in a coup against the monarchy.  The reaction of the Taliban and other religious conservatives ignited a civil war in which the Soviets sent in hundreds of thousands of combat troops to prop up the Communist government, while the United States supported the Taliban, whose leaders were supported and personally met with President Ronald Reagan, and equated to our Founding Father’s.

But the 9-11 attacks had nothing to do with Afghanistan, other than the fact that the Taliban had granted Bin Laden and Al Qaeda sanctuary there under Islamic tradition. Bin Laden and his minions attacked the United States because we had stationed troops and aircraft in Saudi Arabia, the cradle of Islam for a decade after deploying them in the wake of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Religious Saudis, especially the militant fundamentalists like Bin Laden didn’t see our personnel as defenders of Saudi Arabia, but infidels who were crusaders and invaders that had no business there. Sometimes in terms of religion, history means more than contemporary politics or international relations.

Likewise, the gross  error of the Bush Administration to lump traditional enemies, the Iraqis and Iranians who’s disputes go back a millennium as partners in an Axis Of Evil sounded good on American television but were diametrically opposed to the Sunni- Shia Islamic divide, in fact Iraq had nothing to do with the attack and the Iranians were willing to work with us against Al Qaeda, which they considered a mortal Sunni enemy. But then again, to most Americans there is little difference between an Iraqi, Saudi, Iranian, Yemeni, Jordanian, Syrian, or Lebanese, even if they are not of the Islamic faith. The fact is that most Americans regardless of the political ideology are completely ignorant about history and religious history matters not. It is what it is and in the words Kurt Vonnegut “So it goes.” 

Our wars or retribution in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syrian, Somalia, and other countries have cost more than double the amount of lives lost on 9-11-2001. That does not includes the tens of thousands wounded Americans. This does not count the thousands dead and wounded of NATO and coalition partners, including the Afghans and Iraqis who supported us, and the hundreds of thousands of innocent victims of the wars that we have pursued for the past 18 years.

I was astounded that President Trump had initially agreed to meeting with the Taliban in order, for all practical reasons, surrender to them last weekend, the weekend before the anniversary of the attacks of 9-11-2001. The deal would have ensured a withdrawal of American troops, no sanctions on Al Qaeda, and no protections for the Afghan people who supported us over the last 18 years. I am tired of this war, but to abandon people who supported us just to gain peace wreaks of how we abandoned the South Vietnamese.

Back then we were not afraid to take in the South Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees, but under Trump we would leave the people we fought for and who fought with us to death. The Trump administration does not care about them because they are dark skinned and Muslim. It would be a stab in the heart of our national ideals, and for that I am glad that those talk fell through, not that I support the loss of another life, of any nationality or religion in this war. I have lost too many friends, beginning with Army LTC Karen Wagner who died at the Pentagon on 9-11, to others who died in combat in Iraq, and Afghanistan to accept such an action that is only designed to get the President the Nobel Peace Prize. I couldn’t give a damn about the President’s narcissism and need for approval, and his need to get a Nobel Peace Prize because Barack Obama already has one.

As for me, I did a lot of thinking about what happened 18 years ago, the people, the victims, and those that continue to suffer because of those attacks and the subsequent wars which have followed.

On Wednesday September 12th I woke up to a new world, and over the process of years my life was changed. We had a 9-11 Memorial on my base today. It was touching because it was about the events and the people. My new young chaplain did well in his part, the baton has been passed to a new generation. I just hope for their sake that war will not be the norm in the future. I hope that our leaders and other world leaders will seek peace rather than war. Otherwise we are doomed.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

 

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Filed under afghanistan, History, Military, philosophy, Photo Montages, shipmates and veterans, terrorism

Remembering My Dad on What Would Have Been his 84th Birthday

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Tonight, just a short article to remember my dad. He would have been 84 years old today had not he been stricken with Alzheimer’s Disease and died in 2010.

I miss him. Although I was the oldest child he was closer to my brother. He was deployed or assigned to posts with much travel and family separations during much of my time in grade school and junior high school I developed a very independent streak. When he retired in 1974 my brother was just turning 8 years old, while I was turning 14. It was a time of a lot of change for the family, and I had grown quite an independent streak that I maintain to this day. But my dad loved me, and even as I grew away from he he continued to love me. From him I learned integrity, honor, courage, and the respect for others.

I am sure that my brother Jeff, absorbed and learned much more from him from the fact that despite being almost six years younger than me, he has always been more mature. My parents used to say that he was 8 going on 40. He is serious, dedicated to work and family, and practical. He has not moved from the city that my dad retired in, and still lives under a mile from my mom. His oldest son just graduated from Marine Corps Basic Training. His middle son is starting college while working for the school district that we both attended and in which he now serves as a principle. His youngest daughter is a junior and from all I know about her is academically brilliant and athletic.

On the other hand, I am a dreamer, afflicted with wanderlust and military glory. It wasn’t the intentional product of how my parents raised me, it was just how I absorbed the life and culture that I grew up.

Within months of my dad’s retirement I was about ready to go to high school, then college. When I got my commission as an Army Second Lieutenant in June of 1983, my dad and brother, as well as my soon to be wife Judy were there. My dad got to see me make the transition from the Army to the Navy in 1999, something he was very proud of, and in 2006, before I went to Iraq and while visiting injured Marines at a burn unit in Fresno, dad and mom met me. I was a Navy Chaplain in a Marine Corps uniform, but my dad was proud. I didn’t know it at the time but he was already to be suffering from the initial effects of Alzheimer’s. By the time I returned from Iraq in 2008, he was struggling. By 2009, he hardly know me. I got word of his death the morning after I had been selected for promotion to Commander, June 23rd 2010.

He received a full military funeral with honors. His funeral was officiated by a Navy Chaplain and friend. He had an honor guard of officers and Chief Petty Officers, and an Air Force honor guard fired a 21 gun salute as a Navy Bugler played taps. My mother was given the flag by a Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer.

My dad didn’t take shit from anyone and didn’t stand aside when others were ill treated by the Navy. He demonstrated the current Navy ethos of Courage, honor, and commitment well before it became our motto, but he taught me about it in real life. We had a rocky relationship at many points in our lives, but I miss him and I am proud of him. In his latter days he also showed a tremendous love and appreciation for Judy.

I miss him terribly and wish that he would have been alive to see me retire from the Navy next Spring. At the same time I know that he will be with me in spirit.

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

 

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Filed under faith, life, Military, Pastoral Care, philosophy, US Navy

Freedom of Religion and the Yuck Factor: American Religious Theocrats

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The distinguished British Mathematician and Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote:

“Religion carries two sorts of people in two entirely opposite directions: the mild and gentle people it carries towards mercy and justice; the persecuting people it carries into fiendish sadistic cruelty…” 

I fully agree with him based on my knowledge of human history and behavior. I strongly support religious freedom, so long as it is not abused by people to harm others. I get sick of religious liberty hyperbole when it is used by theocrats of all religious stripes. I am kind of like James Spader’s character, Alan Shore in Boston Legal; but then, maybe there is a valid reason that my seminary classmates at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary asked me why I wasn’t in law school. They did not mean it as a compliment.

During one episode dealing with a case regarding religious liberties Spader’s character (Whose God is it Anyway, Season Three Episode 5) said:

“I don’t know about you but I’m getting a little tired of the religious freedom thing. When did religion get such a good name anyway. Be it the Crusades, the reformation genocides, the troubles in Northern Ireland, the Middle East, mass slaughters in the name of Allah, the obligatory reciprocal retributions. Hundreds of millions have died in religious conflicts. Hitler did his business in the name of his creator. Religious extremism, it’s our greatest threat today, a holy jihad. If we’re not ready to strip religion of its sacred cow status, how about we at least scale back on the Constitutional dogma exalting it as all get out….

Everyone should get to believe in his God, pray to his God, worship his God of course. But to impose him on others, to victimize others in his name?  The founding fathers set out to prevent persecution, not license it…

At a certain point we have to say “enough with this freedom of religion crap. Yuck, yuck, yuck. I know, I’ll get letters….” 

At this time though I am doing my best to fight budget cuts that could harm the rights of Navy and Marine Corps personnel of their rights to practice their religion in base chapels, cuts that will harm the religious rights of the most vulnerable service members and their families. I don’t have to agree with their religion, politics or theology, but I follow the Constitution, and legal precedent, not my own opinions on faith.

Let me explain.

Those who follow my writings know how much I struggle with faith and doubt on a daily basis. I believe, but as the man told Jesus when he asked Jesus to heal his child “I believe, help my unbelief.” I no longer believe in the “absolute truths” that I once believed. Of course to some this makes me a heretic or worse. That being said, I have faith in a God I cannot see. I have faith in a God who clothes himself in human weakness and allows himself to be killed as a state criminal.

That being said I see many of my fellow Christians, not to mention those of other faiths who attempt to use their interpretation of what they believe are absolute truths and attempt to impose them on others. Using their houses of worship they indoctrinate believers into believing the “truth” including the judgment on non-believers.

I remember going through classes in my previous denomination which were entitled “The Government of God” and utilized Robert Bork’s book Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline as its primary text. Obviously the class had little to do with faith, but was a tool by which we were indoctrinated to believe the political-religious ideology of our church leaders. There were several more texts, which basically echoed Bork’s thought, but they were taught in a manner is if they were as important as the often contradictory Biblical tests or the writings of the church Fathers, the great saints, scholastics or Protestant Reformers. It was an exercise in political indoctrination based on religious ideology. At the time I had no idea that what the church leaders were appealing to was nothing more than a variation on Christian Dominionism. I will not mention it’s name because most of those who taught this are not alive to defend themselves, and one, though I disagreed with his theology, I knew that he really did love people.

However, such ideology is incredibly dangerous, even when it is taught by well meaning people, because when people in power take it to heart and act upon it, all pretense of fairness, justice and integrity is lost. Those who are simply different are persecuted, those who do not tow a particular party or religious line are suspect, and the innocent are presumed guilty. It has happened throughout human history in every corner of the world, and it still goes on today.

I ended up rejecting that view of faith and life after coming home from Iraq, and for voicing my disagreement on a number of issues was asked to leave that denomination in 2010.

I believe again, but my doubts are real. But even more I have a belief in justice, and I believe that that justice itself cannot be built on absolutes. As Captain Jean Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) noted in the Star Trek the Next Generation episode Justice: 

“I don’t know how to communicate this, or even if it is possible. But the question of justice has concerned me greatly of late. And I say to any creature who may be listening, there can be no justice so long as laws are absolute. Even life itself is an exercise in exceptions.”

I have found that as Picard said, “that life itself is an exercise in exceptions.”  We all make them, and the Bible and the history of the church is full of them. So I have a hard time with those who claim an absolute certitude in beliefs that are built on faith and treat them as fact, despite the fact that they are not provable. Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted the problem well when he talked of this problem and described the dilemma of so many believers:

“Man no longer lives in the beginning–he has lost the beginning. Now he finds he is in the middle, knowing neither the end nor the beginning, and yet knowing that he is in the middle, coming from the beginning and going towards the end. He sees that his life is determined by these two facets, of which he knows only that he does not know them”

Even so believers of all faiths wrap themselves in the certitude of their faith. They espouse doctrines that at best are humanity’s best attempts to describe a God that is infinitely bigger and more complex than they believe. The contest then becomes not about God himself, but the manner that the human being who interprets God espouses as incontrovertible doctrine. Eric Hoffer wrote:

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

That certitude and the belief that we absolutely know the mind of a God who claims that we cannot know is the height of arrogance and it ensures that when we speak in terms of absolutes that we do not understand God, nor do we believe in justice, because as Captain Picard so wisely noted “life itself is an exercise in exceptions.” Even the most devout of believers make exceptions, simply because they are human and can’t avoid it, unless they are sociopaths.

Henri Nouwen wrote something very profound that all who claim to know God’s absolute will or truth need to consider. Nouwen wrote: “Theological formation is the gradual and often painful discovery of God’s incomprehensibility. You can be competent in many things, but you cannot be competent in God.”

The fact is that no one can be competent in God, and that those who claim to are either hopelessly deluded b their ignorance, or worse, are evil men masquerading as good. Those who pro port to know absolutes and want to use the Bible or any other religious text as some sort of rule book that they alone can interpret need to ask themselves this question, posed by Commander Riker to Captain Picard when he talked about absolutes and life: “When has justice ever been as simple as a rulebook?” 

Sadly too many people, Christians, Moslems, Jews, Hindus, and others apply their own misconceptions and prejudices to their scriptures and use them as a weapon of temporal and divine judgement on all who they oppose. However, as history, life and even our scriptures testify, that none of us can absolutely claim to know the absolutes of God. As Captain Picard noted “life itself is an exercise in exceptions.” 

Thus our human justice, as feeble as it often is must take this into account: It takes true wisdom to know when and how to make these exceptions, wisdom based on reason, grace and mercy. Justice, is to apply the law in fairness and equity, knowing that even our best attempts can be misguided and if based on emotion, hatred, racism or vengeance all clothed in the language of righteousness can be more evil than any evil it is supposed to correct.

Does it matter if we are doing it the sake of law and order, or for love of country, or to defend the faith; if at the heart of it what we call justice, or moral absolutes is nothing more than the implementation of an agenda to crush the powerless under our heel and promote even more injustice? If we lean toward the view that we are implementing the absolute law and will of God then we had better be sure, as Nouwen so well noted we can be competent in many things, but we cannot, as much as we deceive ourselves, be competent in God.

But we see it all too often, religious people and others misusing faith to condemn those they do not understand or with whom they disagree. As Patrick Stewart playing Captain Jean Luc Picard noted in the Start Trek Next Generation episode The Drumhead:

“We think we’ve come so far. Torture of heretics, burning of witches it’s all ancient history. Then – before you can blink an eye – suddenly it threatens to start all over again.”

Believe me, American religious theocrats, who have the ear of President Trump are using those rights to persecute and restrict the liberties of fellow citizens. That I cannot abide, because last year I was on the receiving end of it. I try not to go there because it brings up so many unpleasant memories, but I was reminded of them as I wrote this post. I will not revisit them as I wrote about them last July after I had been exonerated of the false charges.

But I will not stop fighting for the religious liberties of all, including the rights of non-believers. I admire the work of Mikey Weinstein and the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. Despite how they are characterized by many Christian theocrats, they supported me when I was under attack and well over 90% of their clients are Christians.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, civil rights, faith, History, laws and legislation, leadership, LGBT issues, Military, philosophy, Religion, star trek