Category Archives: philosophy

The Witness of History: What is the Worth of Human Life?

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The great Roman philosopher and political theorist Marcus Tullius Cicero wrote, “History is the witness that testifies to the passing of time; it illumines reality, vitalizes memory, provides guidance in daily life and brings us tidings of antiquities.”

Those who follow my writings here on this site know that I am a historian and that much of what I write, even regarding current events, is framed by history and the stories of those who came before us. That is one of my driving passions, a passion for historical truth, and a passion to ensure that the past is not forgotten.

Cicero is an important figure in history. He resisted the moves toward the dictatorship of the Caesars and would die for his belief in the Republic. As such he inspired the founders of the United States, including Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Adams wrote of the Roman:

“As all the ages of the world have not produced a greater statesman and philosopher united than Cicero, his authority should have great weight.”

Sadly, it seems that our society, and even our education system is disconnecting itself from history. We have pretty much stopped teaching history in schools, and often what is taught is myth. As such we have become a society that through its ignorance of the past is ever repeating the worst aspects of our history. As a whole we are ignorant of our past, and that ignorance is demonstrated by many of our political, business, journalism, educational, and military leaders on a daily basis.

Cicero wrote “To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?”

Our lives must be woven together with those who came before us, without that sacred connection to the past, we endanger the future, and doom those who follow us. Cicero wrote, “The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living.” Thus, it is for us the living to remember and never forget those who have gone before. That is why I write.

I will write more on things that Cicero wrote and said, including political and social lessons that are as relevant today as when he wrote them.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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“When Aspiring to the Highest Place” Thoughts on my Third Failure to Select for Promotion to Navy Captain

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Just a short post tonight after a busy day of work and ministry. Not long before I left work I saw an email with a screen shot of the promotion list to Captain in the Navy Chaplain Corps. I was not on it. While I have not seen the promotion listed posted on the Bureau of Naval Personnel website I presume it is accurate and that I was again not selected for promotion.

I am actually relieved this year. Last year I was quite upset at not being selected but this year I rejoice for those men and women who were selected and pray for their success in their higher grade. From the list I saw I have no complaints and after having looked back and reflected over the seven years that I was selected for promotion to the grade of Commander until now I am able to see why I have not been selected for Captain in the Chaplain Corps.

Without going into details part of the problem was me. First I came out as being broken with PTSD and confessing to needing help. One of my former Master Chiefs in the EOD community told me that while it was true that we could be open about needing help, but that if we did we would never get promoted or be assigned to billets that would help us get promoted. He was right.

Secondly, while crashing into the PTSD abyss I never marketed myself to my immediate superiors or the Chaplain Corps of why I should be promoted. From 2010 until 2017 I wrote almost all of my own FITREPS. Since for much of that time I was chronically depressed and often nearly suicidal I wrote reports that were very plain, which basically said that I did my job, whether it was being the Department Head at a Naval Hospital on a major Marine Corps Base or being a professor at a major Joint Staff College. I didn’t try to brag about my accomplishments. Instead I tried to market the successes of my subordinates while trying to find a reason to stay alive. It wasn’t until I left the Joint Forces Staff College and our Commandant, Admiral Jeff Ruth wrote my FITREP did I begin to emerge from the abyss of depression and did I again begin to see that what I did really mattered.

However, what he wrote was not good enough, it was like getting the maximum score in the long program of Olympic figure skating but having fallen on my ass in the short program. That being said I am now quite okay with that. As Cicero said: “When you are aspiring to the highest place, it is honorable to reach the second or even the third rank”

Cicero was right. When I was commissioned as an Army Second Lieutenant in 1983 most of us thought that being about to retire as Major would be successful, a Lieutenant Colonel quite successful, and a Colonel or General officer a superstar. The same was true for my friends who began their careers in the Navy, Marine Corps, or Air Force during that time.

But the cult of success really fucks with peoples minds, and it did mine. Though the number of billets for promotion to Navy Captain, or Colonel in the other services has gone down, along with the chance of selection to Captain, Colonel, Commander, or Lieutenant Colonel the military culture often says that if you don’t make Captain or Colonel you are not successful. Honestly, that is not the case. I know to many men and women who served full careers and ended their careers as Majors or Lieutenant Commanders who were better officers and Chaplains than I will ever be, and I made Major in the Army, as well as Lieutenant Commander and Commander in the Navy.

Regardless of that it really hurts not to be selected. Last year I was so angry and depressed about it that I was practically inconsolable. Later I talked with others who felt the same way after their second non-select and found that they went through the same emotions that I did. All felt that they had been personally assaulted by their non-selection and humiliated, despite having great records of service, education, and training.

Honestly, I think that some of my friends who never made Commander or Lieutenant Colonel were and are every bit more deserving than me. Some of them are the people who helped hold me together after my time in Iraq and when I didn’t know if I would continue living, not just serving. I fully understand the thoughts of Ulysses S. Grant who wrote:

“The friend in my adversity I shall always cherish most. I can better trust those who helped to relieve the gloom of my dark hours than those who are so ready to enjoy with me the sunshine of my prosperity.”

I made Major in the Army and Commander in the Navy. I have done close to two full careers in the military and when I retire in 2020 or 2021 I will have served some 39 or 40 years in the military. Like I said, most of us who entered the military in the early 1980s hoped that after 20 years we would be able to retire as a Major or Lieutenant Colonel (Navy Lieutenant Commander or Commander). I have done both and I want to be there for others who have experienced the ups and downs, the triumphs and tragedies, the victories and defeats of military service. How can I not? As Earl Weaver once quipped “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

That being said I have not stopped learning. I still have two to three years left before I finish my service. In that time much may yet happen because I like you do not fully know of the future, or what it portends. President Trump is not the most stable or honorable or men. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the hero of Little Round Top and Petersburg, a Soldier, philosopher, and theologian like me wrote:

“We know not of the future, and cannot plan for it much. But we can hold our spirits and our bodies so pure and high, we may cherish such thoughts and ideals, and dream such dreams of lofty purpose, that we can determine and know what manner of men we will be whenever and wherever the hour strikes that calls to noble action…, No man becomes suddenly different from his habit and cherished thought.”

So as I close out the night I am incredibly grateful and thankful and I am profoundly grateful for the men and women who have been pillars of strength and inspiration to me over the past 37 years.

During my career I have been a Platoon Leader, Company Commander, a Brigade Staff Officer, as well as a battalion, group, ship, and installation Chaplain, as well as a professor of ethics and military history. I have nothing to be ashamed about.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Past is a Foreign Country: they do Things Differently There”

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

British novelist L.P. Hartley wrote, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there…”

That is true. When we look at or study history it is often hard for us in our time to comprehend how others committed or allowed acts that we find reprehensibly criminal and evil. Since my primary areas of expertise include the American Civil War, including the ante-bellum period and Reconstruction, as Germany from about 1848 through 1945, including Weimar and the Nazi era, I find that I am confronted with these questions almost daily.

One of the hard things for any of us, even historians who want to present a relatively objective view of events, is to try to avoid the assumption that the people who made those decisions operated under our world-view; to assume that they should have known what we know now. But that is not the case.

The historian Richard Evans wrote in his book The Coming of the Third Reich:

“People make their own history, as Karl Marx once memorably observed, but not under conditions of their own choosing. These conditions included not only the historical context in which they lived, but also the way in which they thought, the assumptions they acted upon, and the principles and beliefs that informed their behavior.”

Yet the fact is that these contexts don’t make their history correct. Quite a few people, especially those who subordinate history to ideology and thus pretend to have a key to understanding history. Hannah Arendt noted:

“Caution in handling generally accepted opinions that claim to explain whole trends of history is especially important for the historian of modern times, because the last century has produced an abundance of ideologies that pretend to be keys to history but are actually nothing but desperate efforts to escape responsibility.” 

Such is also our contemporary problem, and future historians and lay-people alike will ask the same questions about us, just as we ask them about those who went before us.

Dr. Timothy Snyder discusses how mythologized history leads to dangerous understandings of politics, which posit theories of inevitability or eternity. According to Snyder inevitability assumes “a sense that the future is just more of the present, that the laws of progress are known, that there are no alternatives, and therefore nothing really to be done.” Such was the view of many Americans and Western Europeans when Communism fell.

Snyder wrote:

“Whereas inevitability promises a better future for everyone, eternity places one nation at the centre of a cyclical story of victimhood. Time is no longer a line into the future, but a circle that endlessly returns the same threats from the past. Within inevitability, no one is responsible because we all know that the details will sort themselves out for the better; within eternity, no one is responsible because we all know that the enemy is coming no matter what we do. Eternity politicians spread the conviction that government cannot aid society as a whole, but can only guard against threats. Progress gives way to doom.”

That is what makes the past so different, and it is why that when I read, study, and write that I try to understand the world-view of those that I study. I try to discover what made them who they were; to see the good and the bad, and attempt to be as fair as possible without falling into the trap of writing history as either inevitable or eternal. I try to emulate Barbara Tuchman who noted:

“What his imagination is to the poet, facts are to the historian. His exercise of judgment comes in their selection, his art in their arrangement.”

Even so I exercise a fair amount of caution when researching and writing about the past, because it truly is a different country.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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“If Only…” Thinking about the Tapestry of Life

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

It is interesting to think about life, what has transpired, and what might have been if only…

Like anyone I wonder about all of the “what ifs” and “might have been” parts of my life. Of course there are many, going back to things that I could not control, such as the choices that my parents made regarding their lives, career, family, and home. Then there are my own choices, choices that I made, some for better, and some maybe for worse. Then there were the choices of men and women in my life and career that impacted my life and the decisions that I made, again for better or worse.

Some of my dreams, and nightmares too, involve those decisions, particularly the ones that I could not control; but then there were those decisions, particularly regarding my military career choices, that come back to haunt my dreams. Those can be troubling; the things that I volunteered to do and the costs of those to Judy as a result of those decisions. Many of those decisions, particularly my decisions to volunteer for certain deployments and operations have come at a great cost to both of us, the struggle with the effects of PTSD even ten years after my return from Iraq is still very real.

But then I am reminded that none of us have a crystal ball that allows us to see what the result of our decisions will be; none of us are God, or some other omniscient being. We make our decisions based on what we know, and what we think might be the outcome of our decisions.

I love the television series Star Trek the Next Generation. One of my favorite episodes is called Tapestry. In the episode Captain Picard is killed. He is then met by the being known as Q, played by John De Lancie for a do-over, a second chance to reverse a choice that he made as a young officer.

On Q’s promise that his choice will not alter history Picard takes the chance and he ends up regretting it. In his second chance to avoid the incident that allowed him to be killed he alienates himself from his friends, and turns him in to a different person, unwilling to take chances and doomed to insignificance. When he returns to his new present he finds himself alive but a different person. Instead of a starship captain is a nondescript lieutenant junior grade doing a job that he hates as an assistant astrophysics officer.

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Distraught Picard complains to Q:

Picard: You having a good laugh now, Q? Does it amuse you to think of me living out the rest of my life as a dreary man in a tedious job?

Q: I gave you something most mortals never experience: a second chance at life. And now all you can do is complain?

Picard: I can’t live out my days as that person. That man is bereft of passion… and imagination! That is not who I am!

Q: Au contraire. He’s the person you wanted to be: one who was less arrogant and undisciplined in his youth, one who was less like me… The Jean-Luc Picard you wanted to be, the one who did not fight the Nausicaan, had quite a different career from the one you remember. That Picard never had a brush with death, never came face to face with his own mortality, never realized how fragile life is or how important each moment must be. So his life never came into focus. He drifted through much of his career, with no plan or agenda, going from one assignment to the next, never seizing the opportunities that presented themselves. He never led the away team on Milika III to save the Ambassador; or take charge of the Stargazer’s bridge when its captain was killed. And no one ever offered him a command. He learned to play it safe – and he never, ever, got noticed by anyone.

It is a fascinating exchange and one that when I wonder about the choices that I have made that I think about; because when all is said and done, my life, like all of ours is a tapestry. On reflection Picard tells Counselor Troi, “There are many parts of my youth that I’m not proud of. There were… loose threads – untidy parts of me that I would like to remove. But when I… pulled on one of those threads – it’d unravel the tapestry of my life.”

I think that I can agree with that. All the things in my life, the good things and the bad, as well as the paths not taken have all been a part of the tapestry of my life. I would not be who I am without them; and that I cannot comprehend. I would rather be the flawed me that is me, than the perfect me that never existed. Thus, all of those threads of my tapestry are in a sense, precious and even holy.

I’ll keep all of them.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Martyrs of Flossenburg: A Lesson for Christians in the Age of Trump

D.Bonhoeffer im Gefaengnis Berlin-Tegel

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Seventy-three years ago at the Flossenburg Concentration Camp near the German-Czech border a pastor, an Admiral, and a General were martyred on the specific order of Adolf Hitler. The pastor was the eminent Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Admiral, Wilhelm Canaris the former head of the German military intelligence service; the Abwehr, the General, Hans Oster, Canaris’s deputy. All three were Christians and all three opponents of Hitler’s regime. Condemned with them were Karl Sack a senior military jurist, retired General Friedrich Von Rabenau who was also a theologian, and several others connected with the Abwehr and the resistance.

I think that in an age where politically conservative Christians have trampled their own faith to support of a leader who makes a mockery of the Christian faith as he blasphemes the very name of Christ and the teachings of Jesus in his words and deeds. While I am not comparing the President to Hitler I am comparing the corrupt and evil Christian leaders and organizations which support him to the German Christians who eagerly supported Hitler and his diabolical regime. Thus the men who lost their lives in the fight against Hitler on April 9th 1945 and their courage need to be remembered and emulated should the Trump administration continue down its path to trample the Constitution and crush civil and human rights, and quite possibly engage in aggressive preemptive wars that would be illegal under the precedents of the Nuremberg Trials; all in the name of Making America Great Again.

But it is Bonhoeffer that I will focus on tonight. As early as 1932 Bonhoeffer realized the menace and evil of Hitler’s growing Nazi Party and movement. In a sermon the recently ordained Bonhoeffer, then only 26 years old noted that danger and the complicity of all Germans in it, especially Christians.  He warned that resistance to it could well involve martyrdom. But he believed that the the evil of the tyrant gave no one the luxury of claiming innocence:

“the blood of martyrs might once again be demanded, but this blood, if we really have the courage and loyalty to shed it, will not be innocent, shining like that of the first witnesses for the faith. On our blood lies heavy guilt, the guilt of the unprofitable servant who is cast into outer darkness” 

On February 1st 1933, two days after Hitler’s accession to power Bonhoeffer was beginning a previously scheduled speech on what was known as the concept known as the Fuhrerprinzep. The speech was not a direct attack on Hitler but a warning of the limits of power. He had barely begun the speech when for unexplained circumstances he was cut off. While there was no proof that this was deliberately done it would not have been unlike the Nazis to engage in such subterfuge. The speech was printed in a non-Nazi conservative newspaper and he was invited to give the speech in early March at the University of Berlin’s college of political science. At the end of the speech, which included no remarks on current events Bonhoeffer criticized the Fuhrerprinzep which he believed could easily become an idolatrous cult. However, Hitler had ridden into power upon upon that concept as people sought a strong leader to bring Germany out of political, social, and economic turmoil.

“The fearful danger of the present time is that above the cry for authority, be it of a Leader or of an office, we forget that man stands alone before the ultimate authority and that anyone who lays violent hands on man here is infringing eternal laws and taking upon himself superhuman authority which will eventually crush him. The eternal law that the individual stands alone before God takes fearful vengeance where it is attacked and distorted. Thus the Leader points to the office, but Leader and office together point to the final authority itself, before which Reich or state are penultimate authorities. Leaders or offices which set themselves up as gods mock God and the individual who stands alone before him, and must perish.”

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At that early stage Hitler whose office was conditional on the support of President Paul Von Hindenburg and headed a cabinet in which his Nazis were a minority partner realized that he had to say the right things to maintain it, he could not appear too radical. One group that he courted were politically conservative German Christians. In a speech delivered the same day as Bonhoeffer’s curtailed speech, Hitler claimed that the Christian faith would serve as “the basis of our collective morality.” It was a lie but it assuaged the fears of Christians in non-Nazi conservative and moderate parties, many who became a part of the Nazi German Christian movement which decidedly in the service of Hitler espousing Nazi racial doctrines and attacks upon the Jews.

As Hitler and the Nazis stepped up their persecution of their political opponents and the Jews based on the emergency provisions of the Reichstag Fire Decree Bonhoeffer both worked and spoke his opposition to the tyranny that was beginning to envelop Germany. In April 1933 while speaking of the responsibility of Christians and the church to stand against injustice he wrote in his essay The Church and the Jewish Question: 

“The church has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community.” and also“We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”

He became a key member of what became known as the Confessing Church and the Pastors Emergency League where he helped draft the Barmen Declaration. He ran an underground seminary to train theology students. He had the chance to remain in the United States in June of 1939 but refused the pleas of his American friends to do so. He explained his position to the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr:

“I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people… Christians in Germany will have to face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose but I cannot make that choice from security.”

On his return to Germany he was forbidden to speak in public, prohibited from publishing and required to report his movements to the police. However he did have friends. His brother in law, the lawyer Hans Dohnányi who was a member of the opposition, recruited Bonhoeffer for the Abwehr the German military service in order to prevent him from being conscripted into the Wehrmacht based on the proposition that his contacts with British and American could prove useful to to German intelligence. While Bonhoeffer remained suspect to Nazi officials the appointment brought him into the orbit of Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, General Hans Oster, and other leaders of the military opposition to Hitler.

From these men he began to comprehend the fulness of the Nazi evil and learned of early plots against Hitler’s life. Bonhoeffer, a pacifist realized that he must become an active part of the resistance and wrote: “the ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation shall continue to live.” By participating in the conspiracy Bonhoeffer can be accused of hypocrisy, and he knew it. He explained his position in a letter to his sister:

“If I sit next to a madman as he drives a car into a group of innocent bystanders, I can’t, as a Christian, simply wait for the catastrophe, then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.”

During his tenure with the Abwehr he served as a courier to make contact with Allied leaders in Switzerland in order to gain support for opposition efforts, attempts that the Allies ignored, even as he wrote his book Ethics. Bonhoeffer worked with Dohnányi and others in the Abwehr to smuggle fourteen Jews out of German to Switzerland along with large sums of currency. However, the Sicherheitsdienst, the intelligence branch of Heinrich Himmler’s SS  became aware of their activities and both were arrested in April 1943, not so much for that but in order to discredit the rival Abwehr. While the Abwehr was able to cover for most of their activities they were charged with breaking the Nazi laws regarding the Jews.

He was imprisoned in Berlin’s Tegel Prison while awaiting trial but during that time he produced many theological writings which were smuggled out of the prison to his student Eberhard Bethage by his fiancé and sympathetic guards. These uncensored works would become the book Letters and Papers from Prison. He expressed no bitterness in his arrest but reflected on what he and others in the resistance had learned, lessons that privileged Christians in the United States who worship the ungodly political, economic, and military power reveled in by President Trump would be wise to heed:

“We in the resistance have learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the excluded, the ill treated, the powerless, the oppressed and despised… so that personal suffering has become a more useful key for understanding the world than personal happiness.”

Documents that exposed Bonhoeffer’s connection to the anti-Hitler plot that resulted in the July 20th 1944 assassination attempt on Hitler by Lieutenant Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg were discovered by the Gestapo in September 1944 and he was moved to the SS Prison at the Reichssicherheitshauptamt, the Reich Security Main Office. When that facility was bombed in February 1945 he was moved to Buchenwald and finally to Flossenburg where he would die.

Two of his writings which he produced while in prison have had a profound impact on my faith.

“During the last year or so I’ve come to know and understand more and more the profound this-worldliness of Christianity.  The Christian is not ahomo religiosus, but simply a man, as Jesus was a man…I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner, or a churchman (a so-called priestly type!) a righteous man or an unrighteous one, a sick man or a healthy one.  By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities.  In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world—watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That, I think, is faith; that is metanoia; and that is how one becomes a man and a Christian.”

“I discovered later, and I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that is it only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world. That, I think, is faith.”

Bonhoeffer’s fate was sealed when on April 4th 1945 Canaris’s secret diaries were found. When Hitler read them he became enraged and demanded that the Abwehr traitors be destroyed. Bonhoeffer and his companions were taken to Flossenburg, but at a stop Bonhoeffer became separated from them and was held with other prisoners in the small town of Schoenberg. While there on Sunday 8 April 1945, Bonhoeffer was asked to conduct a service on the second Sunday of Easter. He had just finished conducting the service at a schoolhouse when plainclothes Gestapo agents arrived to arrest him. British prisoner Payne Best noted that Bonhoeffer:

“spoke to us in a manner which reached the hearts of all, finding just the right words to express the spirit of our imprisonment and the thoughts and resolutions which it had brought.”

As Bonhoeffer was taken he said to another prisoner, “This is the end – but for me, the beginning of life.” He was driven to Flossenburg where he along with the other Abwehr conspirators was condemned at a drumhead trial by SS Judge Sturmbannfuhrer (Major) Otto Thorbeck without witnesses or records of proceedings or defense and hanged the next day, two weeks before American soldiers liberated the camp.

The only account of his death was written by the SS doctor of the camp.

“On the morning of that day between five and six o’clock the prisoners, among them Admiral Canaris, General Oster, General Thomas and Reichgerichtsrat Sack were taken from their cells, and the verdicts of the court martial read out to them. Through the half-open door in one room of the huts I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor praying fervently to his God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Heresies and Drumheads: Evangelicals and Trump through the Lens of Star Trek

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The German theologian, pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

“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”  

There is an episode of Star Trek Voyager called Distant Origin where a scientist of a race in the Delta Quadrant believes that genetic evidence indicated that their race originated on Earth. His thesis is challenged the doctrine of his species and he was accused of “heresy against Doctrine” for positing something different than his people believed. He ends up being persecuted and punished for his beliefs.

Now I want to be diplomatic about this. I am not someone who simply is contrary to established doctrines, be they theological, scientific or even military theories. That being said I think it is only right to question our presuppositions, as Anselm of Canterbury did through faith seeking understanding.

That understanding as a Christian is based on the totality of the message of the Christian faith. Hans Kung said it well:

“Christians are confident that there is a living God and that in the future of this God will also maintain their believing community in life and in truth. Their confidence is based on the promise given with Jesus of Nazareth: he himself is the promise in which God’s fidelity to his people can be read.” 

What we have to admit is that our belief is rooted in our faith, faith which is given to us through the witness of very imperfect people influenced by their own culture, history and traditions. Even scripture does not make the claim to be inerrant, and the Bible cannot be understood like the Koran or other texts which make the claim to be the infallible compendium of faith delivered by an angel or dictated by God himself. It is a Divine-human collaboration so symbolic of the relationship that God has with his people, often confusing and contradictory yet inspiring.

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There is a certain sense of relationship between God and humanity within scripture and that relationship creates certain tensions between God and those people. The interesting thing is that Scripture is a collection of texts which record often in terrible honesty the lack of perfection of both the writers and their subjects. They likewise record the sometimes unpredictable and seemingly contradictory behavior of God toward humanity in the Old Testament. They bear witness to the weaknesses, limitations and lack of understanding of the people of God of the message of God but even in that those limitations and weaknesses that God is still faithful to humanity in the life death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

The real fact of the matter is that fixed doctrines are much more comfortable than difficult questions than honestly examining the contradictions that exist within Scripture, history and tradition. The fact is this makes many people uncomfortable and thus the retreat into the fortress of fixed and immutable doctrine found in the various incarnations of Fundamentalism.

The fact is the world is not a safe place, and our best knowledge is always being challenged by new discoveries many of which make people nervous and uncomfortable, especially people who need the safety of certitude. So in reaction the true believers become even more strident and sometimes, in the case of some forms of Islam and Hinduism violent.

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Christianity cannot get away unscathed by such criticism. At various points in our history we have had individuals, churches and Church controlled governments persecute and kill those that have challenged their particular orthodoxy. Since Christian fundamentalists are human they like others have the capacity for violence if they feel threatened, or the cause is “holy” enough. Our history is full of sordid tales of the ignorance of some Christians masquerading as absolute truth and crushing any opposition. It is as 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.”

This is the magnetic attraction of fundamentalism in all of its forms, not just Christian fundamentalism.  Yet for me there is a comfort in knowing that no matter how hard and fast we want to be certain of our doctrines, that God has the last say in the matter in the beginning and the end. We live in the uncomfortable middle but I have hope in the faith that God was in the beginning. Besides as Bonhoeffer well noted “A God who let us prove his existence would be an idol” 

But there some Christians who now faced with the eloquence of men like Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye who make legitimate challenges respond in the most uncouth and ignorant manners. The sad thing is that their response reveals more about them and their uncertainty than it does the faith that they boldly proclaim.

Our doctrines, the way we interpret Scripture and the way we understand God are limited by our humanity and the fact that no matter how clever we think we are that our doctrines are expressions of faith. This is because we were not in the beginning as was God and we will not be at the end, at least in this state. We live in the uncomfortable middle, faith is not science, nor is it proof, that is why it is called faith, even in our scriptures.

We are to always seek clarity and understanding but know that it is possible that such understanding and the seeking of truth, be it spiritual, historical, scientific or ethical could well upset our doctrines, but not God himself. As Henri 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.” Is that not the point of the various interactions of Jesus with the religious leaders of his day? Men who knew that they knew the truth and even punished people who had been healed by Jesus such as the man born blind in the 9th Chapter of John’s Gospel.

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“You are that man’s disciple; we are disciples of Moses! We know that God spoke to Moses, but we do not know where this one is from.” The man answered and said to them, “This is what is so amazing, that you do not know where he is from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if one is devout and does his will, he listens to him. It is unheard of that anyone ever opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he would not be able to do anything.” They answered and said to him, “You were born totally in sin, and are you trying to teach us?” Then they threw him out.”

The interchange between the religious leaders and the man is not an indictment on Judaism, but rather on religious certitude in any time or place. The fact is that the Pharisees are no different than those who ran the Inquisition, or those who conducted Witch Trials or those who attempt to crush anyone who questions their immutable doctrine no matter what their religion.

They were and many of their theological and ecclesiastical descendants still are true believers. That has been demonstrated over and over again in regards to biblically and theologically challenged yet politically fanatical American Evangelical Christians who have willingly surrendered any pretense of following Christ to paying obeisance to President Trump; a would be dictator who plays to their perpetual sense of victimhood in order to cement his power over them and to use them as his willing foot soldiers.

What Trump has done has turned the Gospel on its head, the Christian faith has become a political bludgeon to support laws and policies that are in diametric opposition to the message of Jesus. Sadly, a large majority of Evangelicals and their leaders have become Trump’s willing accomplices.

In the episode of Star Trek the Next Generation called The Drumhead Captain Picard counsels Lieutenant Worf after their encounter with a retired admiral who turned an investigation involving a Klingon exchange scientist into a witch hunt aboard the Enterprise. That episode is well worth watching especially because it anticipates what is going on in the United States today, where a President, his party, and a reactionary fear filled cabal of religious followers has declared war on all who oppose them.

At the end of the episode Lieutenant  Worf comes to Captain Picard’s office. He is apologetic about having believed and cooperated with the Admiral. The dialogue is striking and should be heeded, especially by Evangelical Christians and others who have with open eyes sacrificed their faith even as they tear up the Constitution thinking that they are defending it.

WORF: Am I bothering you, Captain?
PICARD: No. Please, Mister Worf. Come in.
WORF: It is over. Admiral Henry has called an end to any more hearings on this matter.
PICARD: That’s good.
WORF: Admiral Satie has left the Enterprise.
PICARD: We think we’ve come so far. The torture of heretics, the burning of witches, it’s all ancient history. Then, before you can blink an eye, it suddenly threatens to start all over again.
WORF: I believed her. I helped her. I did not see what she was.
PICARD: Mister Worf, villains who wear twirl their moustaches are easy to spot. Those who clothe themselves in good deeds are well camouflaged.
WORF: I think after yesterday, people will not be as ready to trust her.
PICARD: Maybe. But she, or someone like her, will always be with us, waiting for the right climate in which to flourish, spreading fear in the name of righteousness. Vigilance, Mister Worf, that is the price we have to continually pay.

And that is true and despite the certitude of the true believers that we do live in the uncomfortable middle.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under ethics, faith, News and current events, philosophy, Political Commentary, Religion, star trek

The Most Dangerous Error… Vietnam, Iraq, and Wars to Come

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I mentioned yesterday that I was going to do some more writing about the Iraq War. This article discusses the war in the context of strategy and the fact that Americans seldom learn the lessons of war and repeat our mistakes regularly. I sense that under the leadership of Donald Trump that we will find ourselves in new and vastly more bloody and destructive wars that will make the wars of the past 15 years seem like child’s play.

We need to learn from history and we seldom do, as B. H. Liddell-Hart wrote:

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

In 1986 an Army Major working at the Office of the Secretary of Defense wrote a book about the history of the US Army in the Vietnam War, and it turned out to be a work of military prophecy. The young officer, Andrew Krepinevich wrote in his book, The Army in Vietnam: 

“In the absence of a national security structural framework that address the interdepartmental obligations associated with FID operations, and considering the lack of incentives for organizational change within the Army, it is presumptuous for the political leadership to believe that the Army (or the military) alone will develop the capability to successfully execute U.S. security policy in Third World countries threatened by insurgency. This being the case, America’s Vietnam experience takes on a new and tragic light. For in spite of its anguish in Vietnam, the Army has learned little of value. Yet the nation’s policy makers have endorsed the service’s misconceptions derived from the war while contemplating an increased role in Third World low-intensity conflicts. This represents a very dangerous mixture that in the end may see the Army again attempting to fight a conventional war against a very unconventional enemy.” (The Army in Vietnam, Andrew F Krepinevich Jr., The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, 1986. p.275)

Krepinevich retired from the Army in the 1990s as a Lieutenant Colonel and has been busy in the world of think tanks and national security policy. Unlike his book, which is probably one of the best accounts of the Vietnam War and as I said before a book that is somewhat prophetic his later work has not been as well received. He has his critics. But despite that criticism once cannot deny the accuracy of his predictions concerning the Army’s subsequent operations in low intensity, or counter-insurgency campaigns beginning in Somalia and encompassing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

If Krepinevich had been alone in his criticism, or his book not been widely read one might excuse policy makers of the 1990s and 2000s who sent the Army and the military into counterinsurgency campaigns involving massive numbers of troops and the commitment of blood and treasure that had practically no value to the national security of the United States. Instead thousands of American and Allied lives were sacrificed, tens of thousands wounded and one nation, Iraq that had nothing to do with the attacks of 9-11-2001 left devastated and crippled empowering Iran the sworn enemy of the United States no regional rival. The exhaustion of the war and the subsequent war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria allowed Vladimir Putin’s Russian to become a major player in the Middle East for the first time since the days of the Soviet Union.

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One cannot say that the Iraq war was worth the lives and treasure spent to cover the lies and hubris of the Bush Administration. Nor can one say that the effort to change the tribal structure of the fiercely independent Afghan peoples after driving Al Qaeda from that “Graveyard of Empires” been worth the expenditure of so many American lives and treasure. In fact the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan damaged the United States in more ways than their proponents could every admit. The military, now drained by years of war is hamstrung and will be hard pressed to meet legitimate threats to our national security around the world because of the vast amounts of blood and treasure expended in these wars.

In 1920 T.E. Lawrence wrote about the follies of the British government in Mesopotamia, what is now Iraq. His words could have been written about the Bush Administrations 2003 war in Iraq. Lawrence wrote in a letter to the Sunday Times:

The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Bagdad communiqués are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It is a disgrace to our imperial record, and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are to-day not far from a disaster.”

Krepinevech, like Lawrence before him was right, but he was not the only one. In 1993 Ronald H Spector wrote in his book After Tet:

“Americans dislike problems without solutions. Almost from the beginning of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam they have attempted to find “lessons” in the war. The controversy about the appropriate lessons to be learned continues with the same vigor and lack of coherence as the debates about the war itself.

Lessons are controversial and fleeting but lessons long. The memories of 1968 have remained and served to influence attitudes and expectations well into the 1990s. The ghosts of Vietnam haunted all sides of the recent deliberations about the Gulf War. In the wake of that war, President Bush hastened to announce that “we have kicked the Vietnam syndrome.” 

Doubtless many Americans would like to agree. It is easier to think of the Vietnam War as a strange aberration, a departure from the “normal” kind of war, like World War II and the recent war in the Gulf, where the course of military operations were purposeful and understandable and the results relatively clear cut. Yet the Vietnam War may be less of an aberration than an example of a more common and older type of warfare, reaching back before the Thirty Years’ War and including World War I. A type of warfare in which a decision is long delayed, the purposes of the fighting become unclear, the casualties mount, and the conflict acquires a momentum of its own. In a world which had recently been made safe for conventional, regional and ethnic wars, Vietnam rather than World War II may be the pattern of the future.” (After Tet: The Bloodiest Year in Vietnam, Ronald H Spector Vintage Books, a division of Random House, New York 1993 pp. 315-316

That is certainly the case in the wars that the U.S. has waged since Vietnam, with the exception of the First Iraq War and Operation Desert Storm which was an anomaly. While there is a good chance that such wars will continue, it is also possible that major wars between nuclear armed powers or those armed with other weapons of mass destruction or those using cyber warfare to cause mass casualties and disruption to the world.

After serving in Iraq with the advisors to the Iraqi 7th and 1st Divisions and 2nd Border Brigade in 2007-2008 and seeing the results of the great misadventure brought upon our nation and Iraq by the Bush administration I cannot help but recognize how disastrous the wars unleashed after 9-11-2001 have been. I have lost friends and comrades in them, I have seen the human costs in our Navy hospitals and still deal with men and women whose lives have been turned upside down by war.

I believe that had we actually accomplished anything enduring it would be another matter. But the human, economic, strategic and even more importantly the moral costs of this war have been so disastrous to our nation as to make the loss of the Twin Towers and the victims of 9-11-2001 pale in significance.

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It is tragic that these wars have gone on so long that many of the young Marines and Soldiers fighting them have no understanding of why they deploy and deploy to Iraq and then Afghanistan, and they are far more knowledgeable than the population at large, many of whom are untouched by the personal costs of the war. We as Americans love to say “we support the troops” but most don’t even know one. For the most part big bases from where our troops train and deploy are far from where most Americans live and might as well be on a different planet. We are invisible to most of the country, except when they see a color guard at a sporting event or bump into one of us in uniform at an airport.

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The sad thing is that we don’t learn from history. Krepinevech, Spector and Lawrence could have written what they wrote yesterday. Instead they all wrote many years before the 9-11 attacks and our military response to them. As a historian, a career officer and a chaplain I cannot help but think of the terrible costs of such wars and how they do not do anything to make us more secure. The fact is that we do not learn from history much to our detriment despite the great human, spiritual, moral and economic effects of such wars.

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What is the cost of war? what is the bill? Major General Smedley Butler wrote: “This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all of its attendant miseries. Back -breaking taxation for generations and generations. For a great many years as a soldier I had a suspicion that war was a racket; not only until I retired to civilian life did I fully realize it….”

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, iraq, leadership, Military, national security, philosophy, Political Commentary, vietnam, War on Terrorism