Category Archives: spirituality

Theirs is the Highest and Purest Democracy: Rabbi Roland Gittlesohn’s Eulogy at Iwo Jima

 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,,

This is an article I wrote for our workforce at the Naval Shipyard where I am honored to serve at as the Chaplain. I officially retire on August 1st but have been selected to remain in a retired and retained status until the end of the year, due to the COVID19 Pandemic. The shipyard which employs over 13,000 sailors, Navy civilians, and contractors is a key strategic asset for the country. It did not have an assigned chaplain for over a decade until due to medical issues which delayed my voluntary retirement last year, evolved into mistakes in how the retirements branch calculated my date for statutory retirement left me “homeless” so to speak as my relief was already in place.

So, the Naval region decided to put me at the shipyard where unlike my last assignment I was given a mission totally suited to me and how I do ministry, in which I have tremendous support, and made me far busier and gain fully employed. I am really happy to serve in such a diverse place in which about we have members of many religious , as well Atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers, from about every race and ethic group found in America. My job is to care for them, not convert them. It is also to inspire and encourage by my example. Since it is hard to get to know people who work multiple shifts 24/7 in person I mix inspirational messages which I work hard to craft to hopefully be able to reach all members of the workforce, not simply Christians. My basic thought is if they either wear the uniform of the country, or have sworn an oath to the Constitution, they have every right for me to care about all of them, without cramming My faith, religion in general, or the Bible down their throats. In fact that is the mission of a Chaplain, Chaplains are only employed by the government to protect people’s Constitutional right of “free exercise of religion, without violating the establishment clause.” I care for their spiritual, emotional, and a host of other concerns, and when I unable to perform the service or sacrament they need to help them find someone who can, while letting them know that I will do all I can to support them. I do my best to follow up later to ensure that they are getting the assistance they need, be it religious or secular, and if need be there to advocate for them.

The assignment at the shipyard has revived my faith and calling, which had taken a severe beating at my last assignment. Had I retired from there I would have probably retired bitter and angry. Instead, I have in a sense been reborn. Despite the danger of COVID19, the daily inane babbling of the malignantly narcissistic and sociopathic President, and all we are terrible things we are doing dealing with, I know I am where I am supposed to be, and I am doing what I am bound by both duty and love to do. I am happy and truly blessed. As Lou Gehrig said “I am the luckiest man alive”

But I digress…

This is my Memorial Day message To them, and also to you  for our COVID19 era. It involves a Navy Chaplain, and Rabbi, who served with the 5th Marine Division at Iwo Jima. Though I never met him, I would have loved to work with him, because he demonstrated what I think are the highest virtues of a Chaplain. His sermon has burned an imprint on my heart. I hope that it finds a home in your heart too. 

Peace,

Padre Steve+ 

Theirs is the Highest and Purest Democracy: Rabbi Roland Gittlesohn’s Eulogy at the Dedication of the 5th Marine Division Cemetery on Iwo Jima. 

Memorial Day is one of the most solemn days in our national calendar. It is a true holiday, for by observing it we take the time to remember, reflect, and hold the lives of those who gave the last full measure of devotion of duty to our country as holy. It is as sacred as an secular holiday can be.

As such I want to share the words of Navy Chaplain and Rabbi Roland Gittelsohn, who served with the 5th Marine Division at Iwo Jima. Rabbi Gittelsohn was the son of a Rabbi from Cleveland, Ohio. He was a pacifist before the war, but believing it to be a just war he volunteered to serve as a Navy Chaplain with the Marine Corps and was assigned to the 5thMarine Division.

With the Division he landed at Iwo Jima, taking part in every day of the operation, ministering to the wounded and dying regardless of their faith, and helping the Navy Corpsmen and Doctors in the gruesome task of saving lives. During the battle over 26,000 Marines and Sailors serving alongside them were killed or wounded. Even before the battle was over, Admiral Chester Nimitz uttered the immortal words “Among the Americans who served… uncommon valor was a common virtue.” When the battle was over, the Marines recovered their dead from temporary graves and made a proper cemetery.

The Division’s Senior Protestant Chaplain, Warren Cuthriel, ordered Gittelsohn to lead an ecumenical memorial service and dedication of the cemetery. Sadly, reflecting the prejudices of the day, many Protestant and Catholic Chaplains objected to a Rabbi leading a service at a cemetery where mostly Christian Marines and Sailors were interred. Others objected to any ecumenical service no-matter who led it. Gittelsohn decided not to add fuel to the fire, so with Chaplain Cuthriel’s permission, he attended the main service and then conducted a separate service for the fallen Jewish personnel. After the service Chaplain Cuthriel obtained a copy of it and forwarded it to more receptive members of the chain of command. It spread like wildfire when it got to the United States. Pastors read it in their churches, newspapers printed it in its entirety, and radio commentators repeated it. Eventually it was read into the Congressional record.

The words invoke the ideals of an America and a Constitution that we all swear to support and defend. The sermon has a feeling like that of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and looked forward to a time when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would preach that one day people would be judged by the “content of their character.” Rabbi Gittelsohn’s words were revolutionary for their day, and ours alike. But they call us to aspire to all be better Americans. So this weekend we remember all of our fallen, from the Revolution until today, who died to preserve freedom and defend our nation. Their sacred task has been passed to us, as Lincoln noted at Gettysburg: “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Gittelsohn remained active in ministry and an advocate for civil rights until his death in 1995. His service and dedication as a Navy and Marine Corps Chaplain challenge me to be a better servant of God, our shipyard family, and country as we face our current crisis.

Here is his sermon.

This is perhaps the grimmest, and surely the holiest task we have faced since D-Day. Here before us lie the bodies of comrades and friends. Men who until yesterday or last week laughed with us, joked with us, trained with us. Men who were on the same ships with us, and went over the sides with us, as we prepared to hit the beaches of this island. Men who fought with us and feared with us. Somewhere in this plot of ground there may lie the individual who could have discovered the cure for cancer. Under one of these Christian crosses, or beneath a Jewish Star of David, there may rest now an individual who was destined to be a great prophet to find the way, perhaps, for all to live in plenty, with poverty and hardship for none. Now they lie here silently in this sacred soil, and we gather to consecrate this earth in their memory.

It is not easy to do so. Some of us have buried our closest friends here. We saw these men killed before our very eyes. Any one of us might have died in their places. Indeed, some of us are alive and breathing at this very moment only because men who lie here beneath us, had the courage and strength to give their lives for ours. To speak in memory of such men as these is not easy. Of them, too, can it be said with utter truth: “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here. It can never forget what they did here.”

No, our poor power of speech can add nothing to what these men and the other dead of our division who are not here have already done. All that we can even hope to do is follow their example. To show the same selfless courage in peace that they did in war. To swear that, by the grace of God and the stubborn strength and power of human will, their sons and ours shall never suffer these pains again. These men have done their job well. They have paid the ghastly price of freedom. If that freedom be once again lost, as it was after the last war, the unforgivable blame will be ours, not theirs. So it be the living who are here to be dedicated and consecrated.

We dedicate ourselves, first, to live together in peace the way they fought and are buried in war. Here lie men who loved America because their ancestors, generations ago helped in her founding, and other men who loved her with equal passion because they themselves or their own fathers escaped from oppression to her blessed shores. Here lie officers and [privates], [Blacks] and whites, rich and poor…together. Here are Protestants, Catholics, and Jews…together. Here no man prefers another because of his faith or despises him because of his color. Here there are no quotas of how many from each group are admitted or allowed. Among these men there is no discrimination. No prejudice. No hatred. Theirs is the highest and purest democracy.

 Anyone among us the living who fails to understand that, will thereby betray those who lie here. Whoever of us lifts his hand in hate against another or thinks himself superior to those who happen to be in the minority, makes of this ceremony and of the bloody sacrifice it commemorates, an empty, hollow mockery. To this, then, as our solemn, sacred duty, do we the living now dedicate ourselves: to the right of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, of all races alike, to enjoy the democracy for which all of them have here paid the price.

 To one thing more do we consecrate ourselves in memory of those who sleep beneath these crosses and stars. We shall not foolishly suppose, as did the last generation of America’s fighting, that victory on the battlefield will automatically guarantee the triumph of democracy at home. This war, with all its frightful heartache and suffering, is but the beginning of our generation’s struggle for democracy. When the last battle has been won, there will be those at home, as there were last time, who will want us to turn our backs in selfish isolation on the rest of organized humanity, and thus to sabotage the very peace for which we fight. We promise you who lie here; we will not do that. We will join hands with Britain, China, Russia—in peace, even as we have in war, to build the kind of world for which you died.

When the last shot has been fired, there will still be those eyes that are turned backward not forward, who will be satisfied with those wide extremes of poverty and wealth in which the seeds of another war can breed. We promise you, our departed comrades: this, too, we will not permit. This war has been fought by the common man; its fruits of peace must be enjoyed by the common man. We promise, by all that is sacred and holy, that your sons, the sons of miners and millers, the sons of farmers and workers—will inherit from your death the right to a living that is decent and secure.

When the final cross has been placed in the last cemetery, once again there will be those to whom profit is more important than peace, who will insist with the voice of sweet reasonableness and appeasement that it is better to trade with the enemies of mankind than, by crushing them, to lose their profit. To you who sleep here silently, we give our promise: we will not listen: We will not forget that some of you were burnt with oil that came from American wells, that many of you were killed by shells fashioned from American steel. We promise that when once again people seek profit at your expense, we shall remember how you looked when we placed you reverently, lovingly, in the ground.

Thus do we memorialize those who, having ceased living with us, now live within us. Thus do we consecrate ourselves, the living, to carry on the struggle they began. Too much blood has gone into this soil for us to let it lie barren. Too much pain and heartache have fertilized the earth on which we stand. We here solemnly swear: this shall not be in vain. Out of this, and from the suffering and sorrow of those who mourn this, will come—we promise—the birth of a new freedom for all humanity everywhere. And let us say…Amen 

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“We are All Americans” Reflection on Appomattox during The COVID-19 Pandemic

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Joshua Chamberlain Receives the Surrender of John Gordon at Appomattox

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It has been a difficult, tiring, and yet extraordinary week. I have had little sleep, and did all that I could do to be with and among the people I serve. Of course I always wear a high quality face mask when outside the confines of my very isolated cubicle so I can be out and among them. Unfortunately, technology, the unpreparedness of our nation and military for the novel Coronavirus pandemic, and my own medical needs made yesterday very exhausting and frustrating. I haven’t published anything here since 7 April, which is unusual for me, as I seldom miss a day without writing something. Over the past couple of days I have been working on a different article which will be later today or early tomorrow. I just thought that this was more timely.

So now I am publishing a highly edited and revised post about the surrender of General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia to the Armies commanded by Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox.

That event is something that all Americans should still celebrate today, because it was a moral and patriotic act of surrendering individual agendas for the sake of the Union, reconciliation, and equality. I hope that we can learn from it today.

Until tomorrow or whenever,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

One hundred and fifty-five years ago on the 9th and 10th of April 1865, four men, Ulysses S Grant, Robert E. Lee, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and Ely Parker, taught succeeding generations of Americans the value of mutual respect and reconciliation.

The four men were all very different. The very thought that they would do so after a bitter and bloody war that had cost the lives of close to three quarters of a million Americans which had left hundreds of thousands others maimed, shattered or without a place to live, and who had seen vast swaths of the country ravaged by war and its attendant plagues is quite remarkable.

The differences in the men, their upbringing, and their views about life seemed to be insurmountable. The Confederate commander, General Robert E. Lee was the epitome of a Southern aristocrat and career army officer.

Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, like Lee was a West Point graduate and veteran of the War with Mexico, but there the similarities ended. Grant was an officer of humble means who had struggled with alcoholism and failed in his civilian life after he left the army, before returning to it as a volunteer when war began.

Major General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain had been a professor of rhetoric and natural and revealed religion from Bowdoin College until 1862 when he volunteered to serve in the Army against the wishes of his wife. He was one of the heroes of Little Round Top at the Battle of Gettysburg, who helped exemplify the importance of citizen soldiers, and military professionals in peace and war.

Finally there was Colonel Ely Parker, a full-blooded Seneca Indian.  Parker was professional engineer by trade, but was barred from being an attorney because as a Native American he was never considered an American citizen. At the beginning of the war Parker was rejected from serving in the army for the same reason, but his friend Grant obtained him an officer’s commission and kept him on his staff for the entirety of the war.

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General Ulysses S. Grant

On 5 April 1865 the Confederate line around the fortress of Petersburg was shattered at the battle of Five Forks. To save the last vestiges of his army Lee attempted to withdraw to the west. Within a few days the once magnificent Army of Northern Virginia was trapped near the town of Appomattox. On the morning of April 9th 1865 Lee replied to an entreaty of Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant requesting that he and his Army of Northern Virginia be allowed to surrender. Lee wrote to Grant:

HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF NORTHERN VIRGINIA, APRIL 9, 1865

Lieut. Gen. U.S. GRANT:

I received your note of this morning on the picket-line, whither I had come to meet you and ascertain definitely what terms were embraced in your proposal of yesterday with reference to the surrender of this army. I now ask an interview in accordance with the offer contained in your letter of yesterday for that purpose.

R.E. LEE, General.

The once mighty Army of Northern Virginia, which had won many victories, but more defeats, and in almost every battle except Fredericksburg and Cold Harbor, lost as a higher percentage of casualties that they could not replace, as compared to their foes in the Army of the Potomac. At its peak strength during the Gettysburg campaign, Lee’s Army numbered nearly 80,000 men, but less than two years later it was now a haggard and emaciated, but still proud force of about 15,000 soldiers. For Lee to continue the war now would mean that they would have to face even more hopeless odds against a vastly superior enemy. Grant recognized this and wrote Lee:

I am equally anxious for peace with yourself, and the whole North entertains the same feeling. The terms upon which peace can be had are well understood. By the South laying down their arms they will hasten that most desirable event, save thousands of human lives, and hundreds of millions of property not yet destroyed. Seriously hoping that all our difficulties may be set-tied without the loss of another life, I subscribe myself, &c.,

Since the high water mark at Gettysburg, Lee’s army had been on the defensive. Lee’s ill-fated offensive into Pennsylvania was one of the two climactic events that sealed the doom of the Confederacy. The other was Grant’s victory at Vicksburg, Mississippi, which surrendered to him a day after Pickett’s Charge. That day became known as The Most Glorious Fourth, because the dual defeats coincided with the 87th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. But it was Grant’s victory which cut the Confederacy in half, and was the true beginning of the end of the Confederacy.

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General Robert E. Lee

However, those disastrous defeats did not end the war. Lee conducted a bloody and ultimately doomed defensive struggle that lasted through 1864 as Grant bled the Confederates dry during the Overland Campaign, leading to the long siege of Petersburg. Likewise the armies of William Tecumseh Sherman cut a swath through the Deep South, captured Atlanta, the true industrial and economic hub of the Confederacy. Grant forced Lee into a protracted siege at Petersburg, while Sherman cut a swath across Georgia and the Carolinas, capturing Charleston, South Carolina, the ideological heart of the Confederate cause, South Carolina’s Capital of Columbia, and Wilmington, North Carolina, the last of the major Confederate seaports.

With each battle that followed Gettysburg, the Army of Northern Virginia became weaker, and finally after the nine month long siege of Petersburg ended with a Union victory there was little else to do. Lee wanted to continue the war but his beloved shatter shell of an Army was trapped. On the morning of April 9th a final attempt to break through the Union lines by Major General John Gordon’s division was turned back by vastly superior Union forces.

But, two days before, on April 7th Grant wrote a letter to Lee, which began the process of ending the war in Virginia. He wrote:

General R. E. LEE:

The result of the last week must convince you of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia in this struggle. I feel that it is so, and regard it as my duty to shift from myself the responsibility of any further effusion of blood, by asking of you the surrender of that portion of the C. S. Army known as the Army of Northern Virginia.

U.S. GRANT, Lieutenant-General

Lee was hesitant to surrender knowing Grant’s reputation for insisting on unconditional surrender, terms that Lee could not yet bring himself to accept. Lee replied to Grant’s offer with this message:

HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF NORTHERN VIRGINIA, APRIL 7, 1865 Lieut. Gen. U.S. GRANT:

I have received your note of this date. Though not entertaining the opinion you express on the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia, I reciprocate your desire to avoid useless effusion of blood, and therefore, before considering your proposition, ask the terms you will offer on condition of its surrender.

R.E. LEE, General.

The correspondence continued over the next day even as the Confederates hoped to fight their way out of the trap that they were in. But now Robert E. Lee, who had through his efforts extended the war for at least six months, knew that he could no longer continue. Even so, some of Lee’s younger subordinates wanted to continue the fight. When his artillery chief Porter Alexander recommended that the Army be released he recommended that the soldiers of the Army, “take to the woods and report to their state governors.”

Lee knew that such action would bring about even more death and destruction.

“We have simply now to face the fact that the Confederacy has failed. And as Christian men, Gen. Alexander, you & I have no right to think for one moment of our personal feelings or affairs. We must consider only the effect which our action will have upon the country at large.”

Lee continued:

“Already [the country] is demoralized by the four years of war. If I took your advice, the men would be without rations and under no control of their officers. They would be compelled to rob and steal in order to live…. We would bring on a state of affairs it would take the country years to recover from… You young fellows might go bushwhacking, but the only dignified course for me would be to go to General Grant and surrender myself and take the consequences of my acts.”

Alexander was so humbled at Lee’s reply he later wrote “I was so ashamed of having proposed such a foolish and wild cat scheme that I felt like begging him to forget he had ever heard it.” When Alexander saw the gracious terms of the surrender he was particularly impressed with how non-vindictive the terms were, especially in terms of parole and amnesty for the surrendered soldiers.

Abraham Lincoln had already set the tone for the surrender in his Second Inaugural Address given just over a month before the surrender of Lee’s army. Lincoln closed that speech with these words of reconciliation.

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

appomattox surrender

Lee met Grant at the house of Wilmer McLean, who had moved to Appomattox in 1861 after his home near Manassas had been used as a Confederate headquarters and was damaged by artillery fire. Lee was dressed in his finest uniform complete with sash, while Grant was dressed in a mud splattered uniform and overcoat only distinguished from his soldiers by the three stars on his shoulder boards. Grant’s dress uniforms were far to the rear in the baggage trains, and Grant was afraid that his slovenly appearance would insult Lee, but it did not. It was a friendly meeting. Before getting down to business the two reminisced about the Mexican War in which they had both served and first met. At that time Lee was one of the rising stars of the Army, and Grant a mere Lieutenant.

Grant provided his vanquished foe very generous surrender terms:

“In accordance with the substance of my letter to you of the 8th inst., I propose to receive the surrender of the Army of N. Va. on the following terms, to wit: Rolls of all the officers and men to be made in duplicate. One copy to be given to an officer designated by me, the other to be retained by such officer or officers as you may designate. The officers to give their individual paroles not to take up arms against the Government of the United States until properly exchanged, and each company or regimental commander sign a like parole for the men of their commands. The arms, artillery and public property to be parked and stacked, and turned over to the officer appointed by me to receive them. This will not embrace the side-arms of the officers, nor their private horses or baggage. This done, each officer and man will be allowed to return to their homes, not to be disturbed by United States authority so long as they observe their paroles and the laws in force where they may reside.”

When Lee left the building Federal troops began cheering in jubilation, but Grant ordered them to stop. He did not want to personally humiliate Lee anymore than the reality of defeat and surrender already done.  Afterward, Grant felt a sense of melancholy and wrote “I felt…sad and depressed, at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people has fought.” He later noted: “The Confederates were now our countrymen, and we did not want to exult over their downfall.”

In the hours before and after the signing of the surrender documents old friends and West Point classmates, separated by four long years of war gathered on the porch or around the house. Grant and others were gracious to their now defeated friends and the bitterness of war began to melt away. Some Union officers offered money to help their Confederate friends get through the coming months. It was an emotional reunion, especially for the former West Point classmates gathered there.

“It had never been in their hearts to hate the classmates they were fighting. Their lives and affections for one another had been indelibly framed and inextricably intertwined in their academy days. No adversity, war, killing, or political estrangement could undo that. Now, meeting together when the guns were quiet, they yearned to know that they would never hear their thunder or be ordered to take up arms against one another again.”

Grant also ordered that 25,000 rations be transported to the starving Confederate army waiting to surrender. The gesture meant much to the defeated Confederate soldiers who had had little to eat ever since the retreat from Petersburg began.

The surrender itself was accomplished with a recognition that only soldiers who have given the full measure of devotion can know when confronting a defeated and humiliated enemy who before had been their countrymen. Major General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the heroic victor of Little Round Top was directed by Grant to receive the final surrender of the defeated Confederate infantry divisions on the morning of April 12th 1865.

The morning dawned rainy and the beaten Confederates marched to the surrender grounds. As first division in the column, that of John Gordon passed, Chamberlain was so moved by emotion he ordered his soldiers to salute the defeated enemy for whose cause he had no sympathy. Chamberlain honored the defeated Rebel army by bringing his division to present arms.

Gordon, was “riding with heavy spirit and downcast face,” looked up, surveyed the scene, wheeled about on his horse, and “with profound salutation returned the gesture by lowering his saber to the toe of his boot. The Georgian then ordered each following brigade to carry arms as they passed third brigade, “honor answering honor.”

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Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

Chamberlain was not just a soldier, but before the war had been Professor of Natural and Revealed Religions at Bowdoin College, and a student of theology before the war. Chamberlain, a citizen soldier could not help to see the significance of the occasion. He understood that some people would criticize him for saluting the surrendered enemy.

However, Chamberlain, unlike others, understood the value of reconciliation, and at his heart was a Christian, and theologian, as well a staunch abolitionist and Unionist, who had nearly died on more than one occasion fighting the defeated Confederate Army. However, unlike many hardline politicians and ideologues, Chamberlain understood that the achievement of equality for all, the freedom, enfranchisement, and integration of African Americans into society, and true Union could be achieved unless the enemies became reconciled to one another. At that point the men of the Army of Northern Virginia knew that they were defeated and at the mercy of those who vanquished them.

Chamberlain noted that his reasons for doing what he did afterward.

“The momentous meaning of this occasion impressed me deeply. I resolved to mark it by some token of recognition, which could be no other than a salute of arms. Well aware of the responsibility assumed, and of the criticisms that would follow, as the sequel proved, nothing of that kind could move me in the least. The act could be defended, if needful, by the suggestion that such a salute was not to the cause for which the flag of the Confederacy stood, but to its going down before the flag of the Union. My main reason, however, was one for which I sought no authority nor asked forgiveness. Before us in proud humiliation stood the embodiment of manhood: men whom neither toils and sufferings, nor the fact of death, nor disaster, nor hopelessness could bend from their resolve; standing before us now, thin, worn, and famished, but erect, and with eyes looking level into ours, waking memories that bound us together as no other bond;—was not such manhood to be welcomed back into a Union so tested and assured? Instructions had been given; and when the head of each division column comes opposite our group, our bugle sounds the signal and instantly our whole line from right to left, regiment by regiment in succession, gives the soldier’s salutation, from the “order arms” to the old “carry”—the marching salute. Gordon at the head of the column, riding with heavy spirit and downcast face, catches the sound of shifting arms, looks up, and, taking the meaning, wheels superbly, making with himself and his horse one uplifted figure, with profound salutation as he drops the point of his sword to the boot toe; then facing to his own command, gives word for his successive brigades to pass us with the same position of the manual,—honor answering honor. On our part not a sound of trumpet more, nor roll of drum; not a cheer, nor word nor whisper of vain-glorying, nor motion of man standing again at the order, but an awed stillness rather, and breath-holding, as if it were the passing of the dead!”

The next day Robert E Lee addressed his soldiers for the last time. Lee’s final order to his loyal troops was published the day after the surrender. It was a gracious letter of thanks to men that had served their beloved commander well in the course of the three years since he assumed command of them outside Richmond in 1862.

General Order
No. 9

After four years of arduous service marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources.

I need not tell the survivors of so many hard fought battles, who have remained steadfast to the last, that I have consented to the result from no distrust of them.

But feeling that valour and devotion could accomplish nothing that could compensate for the loss that must have attended the continuance of the contest, I have determined to avoid the useless sacrifice of those whose past services have endeared them to their countrymen.

By the terms of the agreement, officers and men can return to their homes and remain until exchanged. You will take with you the satisfaction that proceeds from the consciousness of duty faithfully performed, and I earnestly pray that a merciful God will extend to you his blessing and protection.

With an unceasing admiration of your constancy and devotion to your Country, and a grateful remembrance of your kind and generous consideration for myself, I bid you an affectionate farewell. — R. E. Lee, General

Sadly, Lee failed to acknowledge his role in bringing the Confederacy to complete destruction by not telling his Commander in Chief, President Jefferson Davis that the war was lost when Atlanta fell. For all his virtues, he could not overcome his innate racism, and lack of moral courage to confront an arrogant superior that the war could not be won and the Confederacy surrender. Only Lee could have done so, Davis would not listen to anyone else, as no one had Lee’s stature and respect among Southerners. But he did not do that until his army was for all intents and purposes destroyed. If effect he continued to fight when there was no human, or Christian purpose to do so. With the fall of Atlanta he knew that there was no political, economic, diplomatic, or military reason to continue the war, but he did so anyway.

But Appomattox was the beginning of the end of the end. The war had really been lost at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July 1863, and was certainly lost when Sherman captured Atlanta and began his march across Georgia, which ensured that the Confederates would have to deal with Abraham Lincoln and not the Northern Peace Democrats or Copperheads, who were willing to let the Confederacy live than to continue a war that was being won on all fronts. Other Confederate forces continued to resist for several weeks, but with the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, led by the man that nearly all Southerners saw as the embodiment of their nation the war was effectively over.

Lee had fought hard and after the war was still under the charge of treason, but he understood the significance of defeat and the necessity of moving forward as one nation. In August 1865 Lee wrote to the trustees of Washington College of which he was now President:

“I think it is the duty of every citizen, in the present condition of the Country, to do all in his power to aid the restoration of peace and harmony… It is particularly incumbent upon those charged with the instruction of the young to set them an example of submission to authority.

Unfortunately, by that time, despite his remaining prejudice and failure to acknowledge the evil of the cause for which he had fought, offered words which should have been heeded by every man and woman in the former Confederacy.

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Brigadier General Ely Parker

Lee’s words, do offer a lesson for all of us in our terribly divided land need to learn regardless of or political affiliation or ideology in the midst of a global pandemic that pays no respect to the lives of anyone, that knows no border, race, creed, nation, or religion.

After he had signed the surrender document, Lee learned that Grant’s Aide-de-Camp Colonel Ely Parker, was a full-blooded Seneca Indian. He stared at Parker’s dark features and said: “It is good to have one real American here.”

Parker, a man whose people had known the brutality of the White man, as well as a man who was not considered a citizen and would never gain the right to vote in his lifetime, replied, “Sir, we are all Americans.”

That afternoon Parker would receive a commission as a Brevet Brigadier General of Volunteers, making him the first Native American to hold that rank in the United States Army. He would later be made a Brigadier General in the Regular Army.

I don’t know what Lee thought of that. His reaction is not recorded and he never wrote about it after the war, but it might have been in some way led to Lee’s letter to the trustees of Washington College. I think with our land so divided, ands that is time again that we learn the lessons so evidenced in the actions and words of Ely Parker, Ulysses Grant, Robert E. Lee and Joshua Chamberlain, for we are all Americans.

Sadly, I think that there is a portion of the American population who will not heed these words and will continue to agitate for policies and laws similar to those that led to the Civil War, and which those that could not reconcile defeat, and almost immediately put into place laws that made newly freed slaves, into slaves by another name again during the Post-Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras. For me such behavior and attitudes are incompressible, but they are all too real, and all too present in our divided nation.

But I still maintain hope that in spite of everything that divides us, in spite of the intolerance and hatred of some, that we can overcome. I think that the magnanimity of Grant in victory, the humility of Lee in defeat, the graciousness of Chamberlain in honoring the defeated foe, and the stark bluntness of Parker, the Native American, in reminding Lee, that “we are all Americans,” is something that is worth remembering, and yes, even emulating today.

But even more so we need to remember the words of the only man whose DNA and genealogy did not make him a European transplant, the man who Lee refereed to as the only true American at Appomattox, General Ely Parker, the Native American who fought for a nation that not acknowledge him as a citizen until long after he was dead.

In the perverted, unrequited racist age of President Donald Trump we have to stop the bullshit, and take to heart the words of Ely Parker. “We are all Americans.” If we don’t get that there is no hope for our country. No amount of military or economic might can save us if we cannot understand Parker’s words, or the words of the Declaration: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal…” Really, it does not matter if our relatives were second sons of European Gentry, religious dissidents, refugees of repressive regimes, African Slaves, Asians seeking a new life in a new country, or Mexican citizens who turned on their own country to become citizens of a new Republic, men like Mariano Vallejo, the Mexican governor of El Norte and one of the First U.S. Senators from California.

Let us never forget Ely Parker’ words at Appomattox, “We are all Americans.”

Sadly, there are not just more than a few Americans, and many with no familial or other connection to the Confederacy and the South than deeply held racism who would rather see another bloody civil war because they hate the equality of Blacks, Women, immigrants, and LGBTQ Americans more than they love the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.

That is why Parker’s words to Lee still matter so much and why we must never give up the fight for equality for all Americans. Likewise, whether one likes it or not, Robert E. Lee broke his sacred oath to the Constitution as a commissioned officer, and refused to free the slaves entrusted to his care by his Father in Law in 1859, who also refused to support his Confederate President’s plan to emancipate and free African American slaves who were willing to fight for the Confederacy until February 1865.

Lee the Myth is still greater than Lee the man in much of this country. Lee the man is responsible for the deaths for more Americans than the leaders of Imperial Germany, Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, or any other foreign power. He even cast aside such loyalists as George Pickett, whose division he destroyed in a suicidal attack at Gettysburg on July 3rd 1863, and then continued to damn Pickett for mistakes which were his own until the end of the war.

Both sides of my family fought for the Confederacy as officers and members of the 8th Virginia Cavalry. Most reconciled, but others didn’t, including the patriarch of my paternal side of the family. His decision ended up costing the family millions of dollars in the following years. The maternal side was smart enough to reconcile after the war and to later engage in the profoundly libertarian practice of bootlegging until the end of prohibition. I don’t know if any members of either side of my family were KKK supporters, but if they were I wouldn’t be surprised.  They lost almost all they had during the war by fighting on the wrong side and when their rebellion ended in defeat many refused to reconcile with the United States, or head the words of Robert E. Lee, and they deserved it.

But, despite his words Robert E. Lee refused to completely admit his crime of treason. He used the language of reconciliation without fully embracing it.

So for me April 9th is very personal. I have served my country for nearly 38 and a half years, and in the midst of a pandemic I continue to serve while wondering if the grim necessity of the times keep me from retiring.

That being said, I cannot abide men and women who treat the men and women that I have served with in the defense of this county as less than human or fully entitled to the rights that are mine, more to my birth and race than today than any of my inherent talents or abilities. That includes my ancestors who fought for the Confederacy on both sides of my family. Ancestors or not, they were traitors to everything that I believe in and hold dear.

As for me, principles and equality trump all forms of racism, racist ideology, and injustice, even when the President himself advocates for them. I am a Union man, despite my Southern ancestry, and I will support the rights of people my ancestors would never support, Blacks, Hispanics, Women, LTBTQ, and other racial, religious, or gender minorities.

So I am a Unionist and a continuing abolitionist when it comes to protecting and advancing the rights of those whose rights continue to be trumped by prejudice. So I am a supporter of Equal rights for African Americans, immigrants of all races, nationalities, and religions. Likewise, I am a women’s rights advocate, including their reproductive rights, and a supporter of LGBTQ people and their rights, most of which are opposed by the Evangelical Christians who I grew up with. I also will not hesitate to criticize the elected President of the United States when he pisses on the preface of the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and attacks the bedrock principles of the Bill of Rights.

How can I be silent? I know that I cannot be a bystander, Even when in the midst of a pandemic these same people are not only being victimized by the Coronavirus pandemic, but by the government that should be doing it can to protect and defend the lives and livelihoods of all of us, citizens, those on the way to citizenship, or those who simply hope and long to be free by leaving their homelands to become truly free.

So I will stand fast on this anniversary of Appomattox and echo the words of Eli Parker to all, no-matter their status or unforgiving ideology that stand against them:  “Sir, we are all Americans.” Such people, who represent the most extreme and ideological pillars of the political Right and Left, may not understand this, but I certainly do.

The failure to work towards reconciliation and equality on both sides of the ideological spectrum will doom us all, and destroy the Republic and the ideals that were planted in the Declaration, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution, the XIII, XIV, XV, and XIX Amendments, the Civil Rights Act of 1965, the Voting Rights Act of 1964, the end of DOMA, and the yesterday to be ratified Women’s Rights Act. The reversal of any of these achievements places us on a trail that only leads to an imperfect and imagined past which is often overplayed with myth and ideology to create a nation where diversity is the enemy, where race and religion matter more than the simple understanding that “all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights…” 

 

 

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Faith, Doubt, and the Little Things: Thoughts at the End of a Long but Good Week


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It has been a long, tiring, yet very good week. For those who have followed me on this blog for so long, I want to say thank you. I left my last assignment broken, dispirited, struggling with my faith and calling, but as a result of a series of events regarding my retirement, my faith has been renewed and my sense of calling and joy to serve as a Priest restored. That doesn’t mean that I don’t experience doubts, or question doctrine, or even wonder about the existence of God. I wish that I can say that that wasn’t the case, but the fact is that all of us, believers or unbelievers alike live in what the German Pastor, theologian, resistier and martyr to Adolf Hitler said:

“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”  

Whether we believe or don’t believe; are fixed in our religious doctrine or non-religious ideology, or doubt as I so frequently do, the fact is that we live in the uncomfortable middle. Truthfully, we come from a beginning that we can only only make ultimately unprovable theological or scientific theories of origins; and move to an end, that while it certainly will happen, either in apocalyptic fury, or where either we ourselves will destroy most of the life of the planet, save the Cockroaches, or the Sun goes supernova and consumes the Earth and the rest of our pitiful solar system, unless the dreams of Gene Roddenberry come true. Truthfully, I have learned in my almost sixty years of earthly existence to be okay with that. Others religious and non-believers alike aren’t okay with that, simply because they require certitude.

The seeds of this idea were planted over 25 years ago during my Clinical Pastoral Education Residency, at Parkland Memorial Hospital confronted me about my “illusion of control” after a case conference. He was frustrated with me, and for him it was a throw away comment, but is penetrated the armored belt that I had surrounded my heart, soul, and intellect with for years, even before I became an Army officer in 1983.

I mentioned a lot of the week last night. I have felt a renewal of faith and call; a joy in ministry and caring for people that I haven’t experienced since my time in Iraq, which was quite literally, “the best of times and the worst of times. At the same time, while I believe, I doubt. As Father Andrew Greeley wrote in his novel The Bishop and the Beggar Girl of St. Germain: 

“Do you exist? I think not. I have never seen you or touched you or felt you. Well, sometimes I think you’re present but that may be wish fulfillment. Intellectually, I have no reason to believe. Yet much of the time I act like I do believe …. Only when I have time to reflect do I feel doubts, and then after the doubts certainty that the universe is cold and lonely. I know that I am a hypocrite and a fool. Then I preside over the Eucharist in my unsteady bumbling way and I know that you are. I don’t believe but I know.”

The words reflected what I was going through. I believed, but I didn’t. Of course that would not only continue as my tour in Iraq progressed but got worse after I returned from Iraq. However, I discovered, much to my surprise that I was not alone. That there were a number of other very good, caring Chaplains, Priests and ministers going through similar doubts, fears and pain.

The irrepressible Bishop Blackie continued:

“Most priests, if they have any sense or any imagination, wonder if they truly believe all the things they preach. Like Jean-Claude they both believe and not believe at the same time.”

The words were and still remain an epiphany to me. Belief and unbelief co-existing simultaneously, yet in a way strangely congruent with the testimony of scripture, the anguished words of a man whose son was possessed by an evil spirit confessing to Jesus: “I believe, help my unbelief.” Maybe that is why in the Liturgy of the Eucharist we proclaim the mystery of faith, or as it is translated from Latin into German Geheimnis des Glaubens. That mystery, is that Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. That really is the mystery of what Christians call faith

We can be reasonably certain from non-Christian sources like the Jewish historian Josephus, and the Roman Letter to Trajan, written by Pliny the Younger, that there was a man name Jesus who was crucified by the Romans, and whose followers believed that he had died, been buried, had risen from the dead. Likewise, It was the testimony of those early believers in Scripture and non-canonical writings, that he would come again. Pliny described them as model citizens whose only fault, was that they would not burn incense and proclaim that Caesar was Lord, and sought the advice of Emperor Trajan on what to do with them. Before and after that many gave their lives peacefully as martyrs for this crucified man named Jesus.

That is why as strongly, or as doubtfully we believe as Christians, what we believe is based upon faith, mixed with fact, which until those words become reality, cannot be proven. Which is why some priests, like the fictional Jean Paul in Greeley’s novel and me “ both believe and not believe at the same time.”

I don’t know if that makes any sense, but in this season of Lent where Christians are called to draw near to God in order to be transformed by God’s love, and share it with others through their lives and actions, not just words, platitudes, and certitudes, but being humble servants of others we come to experience a renewal of life which can only be described as mysterious.

So that is it for the night and I hope that no matter what you believe that you experience joy, love, and even come to revel in the mystery that we call life and faith, and share that love, human, and or divine with others. After all, a smile, a friendly greeting, an expression of care from a friend or stranger, looking into someone’s eyes with care and concern, may be the only good thing that a person living a lonely, sad, and anxiety filled life, might experience that day. As my one of my football coaches in high school, Duke Pasquini told me “it’s the little things that count.” 

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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“But what is the good of a man being honest in his worship of dishonesty?” Spirituality and Faith in the Trump Era


Father Brown

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Just a short thought tonight at the close of Ash Wednesday, or actually deep into the night after Ash Wednesday. Yesterday was a wonderful day, in which I began to really experience a certain joy in faith, of course as always tempered by reason, and the ministry of caring for a diverse workforce. It was probably the busiest and most meaningful Ash Wednesday I have ever experienced in close to 28 years of Chaplain ministry, which include two years where I was for all intents and purposes an agnostic hoping that God still existed after my return from Iraq, followed by another decade of of doubt, depression, and despondency regarding life, and ministry.

However, since November of last year when I was assigned to my final active duty post, that faith has began to return, as well as a renewal of my calling as a Priest and Chaplain. Likewise, Ash Wednesday became a joyous rather than an onerous observance. I was busy all day with walking about caring for people, conducting the first Ash Wednesday service in over a decade at the shipyard and being out and about responding to people who for whatever reason could not attend the service by still wanted to receive the sign of the cross marked in ash upon their foreheads. It was a day of wonderful surprises as instead of saddling people with strict dietary regulations and fretting over what they were going to have to give up I asked them to really experience God’s love by simply accepting the proposition that God loved them, accepted them, and wanted them to do the same to others.

Of course I followed the liturgy for the day, and read the designated scriptures. I did not hammer the points from the Biblical readings home as hard as I once might have been tempted to do. Nor did I try to use my position to convince people to see things my way, as I admitted, I don’t pretend to give God religious instruction, and instead decided to let the Scriptures do the preaching themselves, instead of me since they were so contrary to our materialistic American culture, and the last time I did so a parishioner attempted to have me charged and tried by Court Martial, I didn’t need to hammer home points but let the Holy Spirit of God do his or her job; with the exception of Jesus I do not ascribe gender to the Trinity. My purpose was to invite people to renewing their faith in Jesus through the confession of their sins without condemning them, and in addition make sure than whenever they come to me in whatever capacity, that I greet them and care for them with love and personal care.  I am reminded of the words of Bishop Blackie in The Archbishop Goes to Andalusia, the miscreant Auxiliary Bishop to the Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago goes to Seville Spain.

In the novel Bishop Blackie makes a comment after celebrating Mass in the cathedral at Seville. He said “Every sacramental encounter is an evangelical occasion. A smile warm and happy is sufficient. If people return to the pews with a smile, it’s been a good day for them. If the priest smiles after the exchanges of grace, it may be the only good experience of the week.”  (The Archbishop in Andalusia p.77) Honestly, I think that should be the place of the Priest  in every encounter, even those that are not sacramental. It should be an everyday part of our lives. That being said there are times that a Priest, Minister, Rabbi, Imam, or other clergy person can be beaten down by life, and even by the leaders of the institutions that they serve. I such cases it is often hard to smile or be compassionate to others because we, at that point are empty vessels, at best hoping and praying that we will again find meaning and joy in our vocations, or succumbing to the pain of rejection and evil committed by clerical leaders in the name of God.

Instead of preaching for people to obey rules, I asked them to consider showing love and care to the poor, the lost, the weak, and the lonely, and not be an ass about it by acting arrogant and brag publicly about their allegedly superior spiritual position. I noted, with quite a bit of honesty that when it came to being a Priest, Chaplain, and Husband I have barely stayed at the Mendoza Line, which is basically hitting for a batting average of about .200. This might keep me in the game due to certain skills, but it will not get me to the hall of fame.

In light of that I hardly have the right to preach to people about how they should live their lives, and follow rules that I struggle with; but instead encourage them to seek God’s love, to be honest about their lives, their strengths, and weaknesses; their successes, and failures, and then allow God to work in and through them as instruments of God’s grace and love.

When I was going through my most difficult times of doubt after Iraq it was Father Andrew Greeley’s Bishop Blackie Ryan mysteries that kept a spark of hope and faith alive in my life. In his novel The Bishop and the Beggar Girl of St. Germain, Bishop Blackie noted “Most priests, if they have any sense or any imagination, wonder if they truly believe all the things they preach. Like Jean-Claude they both believe and not believe at the same time.” I can say truthfully that I know what that is like.

More recently we have discovered the latest BBC series based on G.K. Chesterton’s “Father Brown” mysteries. Now that I have seen the series and am watching it a second time, with the addition of previously unaired episodes on Netflix, I am becoming interested in reading Chesterton’s novels, but I digress.

Today was another exceptionally busy day of ministry beginning with an employee who decided to decided to trust me with his marital and spiritual issues based on my Klingon Valentine’s Day article, which I sent out through our Public Affairs Officer to all hands note in a truncated form. He appreciated my openness, and willingness to share my failings as a husband, Priest, and human being in a way that most ministers won’t. It was a long session and I believe that we have built a relationship that will either help save his marriage, or set the stage for a divorce with a soft landing. Sometimes, and sadly, because of how embittered relationship can become, that is the most Christian thing that will happen. I hope we can work to bring reconciliation to this couple. However, I cannot predict what will happen, but promised that I would walk with them through this terrible time.

But just before the appointment I was called because one of our civilian administrative assistants died unexpectedly before work this morning. She was beloved, and what some people don’t realize, that in places like the Naval Shipyard, our civilian employees are like family to each other. They work with each other for decades, it’s not like the active duty military where we transfer every few years. In the case of the shipyard, which is the oldest in the Western Hemisphere, many employees have family connections going back generations to it. So I spent about half of my day with those employees doing grief counseling, and since I hung around to get to know people I ended up answering other people’s questions about faith, religion, and church history. It was wonderful. I didn’t push anything on them, and explained the differences in what different Christian denominations believe without condemning any of them. Of course that is a significant part of my spiritual “Long Strange Trip.” Because of that I am willing to appreciate the differences of different denominations, even as I am able to explain how they differ with other Christian denominations, without condemning them.

So it was a wonderful day, but it was exhausting, as at my heart I am an introvert who chooses to push my boundaries and at work function as an extrovert. Of course that means that when I come home I often withdraw into my emotional bucket in order to regenerated so I can do the next day. By the way that is a Star Trek Deep Space Nice reference. Google it if you must, but for practical purposes I am an emotional changeling, like DS 9’s Chief of Security, Odo, after so long I have to revert to my emotional introvert gelatinous state in order to regenerate at function in the military and the church. That is an odd comparison, but it is the best I can do.

But, where was I?

Oh that’s right, Ash Wednesday ministry; ministry the day following, Father Brown, and Bishop Blackie Ryan, are my inspiration. It is true that they are fictional characters, but the men who wrote their stories were not, they were very real, and their fictional characters have helped me continue to believe, Even when the Bible didn’t,  and likewise brought  a reality and joy to ministry that I didn’t know; even when I knew it all. But, as the late MLB Hall of Fame Baltimore Orioles manager, Earl Weaver noted “it’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” That is quite true of my spiritual life.

Likewise, there are people who use the Bible as a weapon, in order to justify their misdeeds and hatred for others. It can be a terrible thing. In one of the Father Brown mysteries, Chesterton, writing as his character Father Brown, wrote:

“Sir Arthur St. Clare, as I have already said, was a man who read his Bible. That was what was the matter with him…. Of course, he read the Old Testament rather than the New. Of course, he found in the Old Testament anything that he wanted—lust, tyranny, treason. Oh, I dare say he was honest, as you call it. But what is the good of a man being honest in his worship of dishonesty?”

The problem is, that people of every faith tend to use select parts of their Holy Scriptures as weapons against people who they deem unworthy of the love of God. They are honest people, but as Father Brown noted: But what is the good of a man being honest in his worship of dishonesty?” Sadly, that is all too true of too much of the Christian Church, as well as the clergy of other religions.

Until tomorrow, Peace

Peace,

Padre Steve+

 

 

 

 

 

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Intellectual, Political, and Theological Integrity in the Time of the Iowa Caucuses, the State of the Union, and Ideological Conformity

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Just a quick note for today as it will be an eventful week; the Iowa Caucuses on Monday, the State of the Union Address on Tuesday, and the acquittal without an actual trial with witnesses or new evidence on Wednesday, or Thursday at the lastest.

Since the first will be disputed because of irregularities, hacking, and political manipulation in the caucuses which will sow discord in the Democratic Party; the second, the State of the Union which will be President Trump’s preludes to his acquittal by the Senate; and the last a charade which will destroy the checks and balances intended by our Founders, and solidify an authoritarian government, led by the Executive Branch regardless of who is President or which party they represent. The guardrails that secured our republic and its Constitution have been damaged beyond repair. Humanity, the one constant in recorded history will see to that.

So what I am going to to do, at least until I retire from the military is post articles that the discerning reader will understand are due to prudence over propaganda, and enlightening people by sometimes indirect means that to bludgeon my way through issues. This is because while I am a liberal, progressive, or whatever label you want to put on me I am a historian and a realist.

I will be bold when I need to be, but it may be through the lives and words of others, people who living or dead I support and admire. Sometimes it will be my own words, but sadly, my words and wisdom often pale to those who have often paid with their lives for their opposition to the status quo. Truthfully, being a former conservative who now is a bit further to the left than the center left., but certainly not an extremist in any way. My pragmatism and study of history prevents that, as does my Oath of Office to the Constitution which rises beyond political party or religious denomination’s beliefs.

That might confuse true believers and ideologues regardless of their place on the political and ideological chasm. Thus my posts will reflect my position on the political and theological left, without    compromise, but while doing my best to maintain intellectual, theological, political, and historical integrity. So you can expect more articles from history, with appropriate political or theological commentary thrown in as needed. Likewise, though I am a Democrat I will try to refrain from intra-Party fratricide because of the broader issues at hand. The political fight among Democrats must not become a Democratic version of the Trump Cult where one candidate is not to be criticized or their lives, records, and actions submitted to scrutiny. I refuse to exchange one version of tyranny for another.

I will now quote from one of my favorite episodes of Star Trek the Next Generation called The Drumhead uttered by Jean Luc Picard:

“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.”

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

 

 

 

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It Will Happen Again: The Holocaust and Trump’s “Christian” Supporters


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Robert Heinlein wrote:

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

Today I received a forwarded email from a well known Jewish friend who represents the religious rights of many, mostly Christians in the military. It was one of the most despicable Anti-Semitic, racist, and Nazi-like screeds that I have read in a long time. He gets hundreds like it daily. It used the language of Joseph Goebbels and other Nazis referring to his “Jewish looks,” other blatantly racist and religious comments that might appear in Julius Streicher’s Der Stürmer, nearly pornographic. Whoever wrote the email also included some very disturbing theocratic Christian views and referred to my friend as a Christ Killer and member of the Tribe, both terms used widely among the Nazis.

The historian 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 sad thing is that many of the most active Anti-Semites are Christians, or people who label themselves as Christians, who often echo the words and Tweets of President Trump and many of his conservative Christian supporters. Such people people beat their chest and loudly proclaim their support for the State of Israel, but such support is only to usher in Armageddon, the annihilation of two thirds of living Jews, and the conversion of the survivors to Christianity. It is a theology of genocide. It is a theology that has allowed Christians since the time of Constantine to use the police power of the state and its military organizations to exterminate Jews, or any sect that opposes them to commit great acts of systematic murder in the name of Jesus.

It is no wonder to me that a man like my friend who actually stands for the principles of the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the actual beliefs of the Founders who did not create a “Christian nation,”  is targeted by such people.  The great Virginia Baptist, John Leland, who was in large part responsible for the Bill of Rights, and the religious liberty clause of the First Amendment wrote:

“Is conformity of sentiments in matters of religion essential to the happiness of civil government? Not at all. Government has no more to do with the religious opinions of men than it has with the principles of mathematics. Let every man speak freely without fear–maintain the principles that he believes–worship according to his own faith, either one God, three Gods, no God, or twenty Gods; and let government protect him in so doing, i.e., see that he meets with no personal abuse or loss of property for his religious opinions. Instead of discouraging him with proscriptions, fines, confiscation or death, let him be encouraged, as a free man, to bring forth his arguments and maintain his points with all boldness; then if his doctrine is false it will be confuted, and if it is true (though ever so novel) let others credit it. When every man has this liberty what can he wish for more? A liberal man asks for nothing more of government.”

My friend is constantly threatened by supposed Christians, who are no doubt more nationalist and members of the Trump Cult than they are Christians, as were the German Christians, the official Christianity of Naziism.

But the Nazis weren’t the only ones to have such visions of religious superiority aided by the police power of the state.

Gary North, one of the most eloquent expositors of the Christian Dominionist movement and a long time adviser to Ron and Rand Paul and other conservative Christian politicians wrote:

“The long-term goal of Christians in politics should be to gain exclusive control over the franchise. Those who refuse to submit publicly to the eternal sanctions of God by submitting to His Church’s public marks of the covenant–baptism and holy communion–must be denied citizenship, just as they were in ancient Israel.

That is not a criticism of the President, he is an opportunist who understands the insatiable needs of his supporters better than they do. The President really doesn’t believe a word of Christian doctrine, or exhibit one iota of Christian morality or ethics, as a businessman he just realizes an easy mark, a gullible customer, willing to believe whatever he says because he tickles their ears with what they want to hear. He is being what he is, while they are denying their faith and God, while at the same time aiding and abetting the persecution of American Jews.

It is late, I am tired, but believe me, the Anti-Semitism of the Holocaust was not an abnormality, but an ever present reality, even and maybe especially in the United States and Europe because we so easily forget and believe the lies of Holocaust deniers. Oh, I forget to mention, as Yehuda Bauer did. so well, that these people not only despise Jews, they are equal opportunity haters, willing to exterminate anyone who does not agree with them, including Christians. Please don’t blame the President for a more than a millennium of Anti-Semitism and alleged hatred and persecution of supposed heretics by Christians who wield the sword of the state in one hand and their particular versions of the Bible in the other. He’s just shrewd enough of a con-man to scam religious con-men.  If the stakes weren’t freedom and life itself I would think it amusing. But hopefully they will turn on each other before they can destroy the ever expanding idea of liberty that our flawed founders believed in.

So, until tomorrow, I wish you the best,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Joyeux Noel: the Christmas Truce of 1914, and the Personal Reflections of an Old Chaplain

palmer

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was reminded of that last night and today as the now Impeached President called upon and received the fealty and obedience of his Imperial Court Clergy, and the ever faithful cult of conservative and Evangelical Christians while pledging to destroy his enemies. In such a time I cannot

The Bishop who relieved Father Palmer went on to preach a sermon to newly arrived troops.

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

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

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

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

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

When I left Iraq the new incoming senior Chaplain refused to take my replacement leaving our advisers without dedicated support. He then slandered me behind my back because what I was doing was not how he would do things and because I and my relief were under someone else’s operational control. It is funny how word gets back to you when people talk behind your back. Thankfully he is now retired from the Navy and I feel for any ministers of his denomination under his “spiritual” care. So I cannot forget those days and every time I think about them, especially around Christmas I am somewhat melancholy and why I can relate so much to Father Palmer in the movie. While I cannot prove it I do believe, and have heard from others who used to work at the Chief of Chaplains office that I have been shunned and punished by past and present leaders of the Chaplain Corps because of my witness in being open about my struggles with faith and PTSD. A can recount a number of incidents that would be of circumstantial evidence, but I digress. That being said I am much better off for that experience than I would be had it not occurred.

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

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

Now that faith is different and I have become much more skeptical of the motivations of religious leaders, especially those that demonize and dehumanize those that do not believe like them or fully support their cause or agenda. Unfortunately there are far too many men and women who will use religion to do that, far too many. Unlike a few years ago they now occupy the seat of political power as sycophants of the President, offering no prophetic voice but speaking the words of death covered in the veneer of the Christian faith.

As for me I had the floor kicked from out from under me in the summer of 2014 and it has been a hard fight and while I am beginning to get back to some sense of normal it is a day to day thing. I still suffer the effects of the PTSD, especially the insomnia, nightmares and the nightmares which came back with a vengeance that summer. I also still have the anxiety in crowded places and bad traffic, but working with my new therapist I am coming up with some effective coping mechanisms. As for faith, I do believe again, more often than not, though at the same time I doubt. Though I believe I think I still consider myself to be a Christian Agnostic who echoes the cry of the man who cried out to Jesus, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief!” I believe and yet, I don’t and I don’t think that is a bad thing, I think it helps me understand those who no longer believe, those that struggle, and those who raised as Christians have left the faith.

Like the Priest in Joyeux Noel I know that my place is with those who are “in pain, and who have lost their faith.” For me this may no longer be on the battlefield as I will retire from the Navy in a few years, unless as I expect a major war breaks out with North Korea, and maybe China, and Iran too.

However, that being said I will strive to be there for those that struggle with faith and believe, especially those who struggle because of what they saw and experienced during war and when they returned home. Two years ago I hosted the NATO contingent at my former chapel, and had the honor of preaching an Advent message in German.

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I expect that in the final months of my service before I retire in August of 2020, I will do my best to speak truth to those in power and those whose faithfulness is more a product of their comfort with the God that they create in their own mind rather than the Crucified God wise death on the Cross s a scandal. For many Christians the scandal of the cross is too easy to avoid by surrounding ourselves with pet theologies that appeal to our pride, prejudice and power. The kind of malevolent power represented by the bishop in Joyeux Noel as well as the leaders of the so called “Conservative Evangelicals” who support a President who says “Merry Christmas” even as he defecates on all who believe in the God who became incarnate as a helpless babe in a manger and who died on a cross.  In fact I saw a mocking meme of Trump saying “Merry Christmas” as he holds a bigger than life Bible to his chest from a very conservative evangelical friend on Facebook, it was blasphemous. Those people remind me of the hate filled nationalist British Bishop.

The French mystic Simone Weil said “He who has not God in himself cannot feel His absence.” I think that sums up the President and his ardent Evangelical supporters. I don’t think they would recognize Christ if he walked among them and would have been among those shouting “Crucify him!” but of course I could be wrong in some individual cases.

So, this Christmas, like the theologian Paul Tillich I have come to believe  that “Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful.”  In other words I am going to be faithful to the Crucified Christ and remain a complete pain in the ass to them until the day that I die. Likewise I will do what I can to be a vessel of God’s love to all that I serve, many of whom have not seen a chaplain of any kind in their work areas for over a decade.

I am watching that film again tonight, and praying for the peace that it hopes will become real. It is hard to stop the tears as I watch it.

So until tomorrow,

Praying for Peace this Christmas,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, faith, film, History, Military, Political Commentary, spirituality, Tour in Iraq, world war one

A Day to Disconnect: Friends, Family History, and a Walk up a Mountain and Through the Forest

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I kind of disconnected from most American media today to spend time with our German friends in the countryside of Hessen; to visit the county seat, Weilburg, that my wife’s father’s family left in the 1700s to go to the Volga region of Russia at the invitation of Catherine the Great before coming to the United States after the failed 1905 revolution as the Russian Government had continually reneged on its promises to the German settlers, who had been basically sold a bill of good by unscrupulous agents acting in the name of the Russian government.

I pride myself on being informed and trying the best I can to write about life, history, faith, religion and politics, with a keen eye. But there are times for one’s sanity that we have to take a break. The world and its problems will more than likely be here tomorrow, and to paraphrase Dietrich Bonhoeffer, we were not here at the beginning of creation, we won’t be here when it ends, we live in the uncomfortable middle.

With that in mind is important to take a break once in a while.

Following breakfast and our visit to Weilburg we had lunch with our friend Gottfried before visiting a Kloster just down the road. We got home about 2:30 PM or so and after a while I decided to make my annual pilgrimage up the highest mountain in the area and visit to old Jewish Cemetery which has been preserved with care by the town following the Holocaust. There is a memorial on the city hall to the Jews of the town who were sent East, at least one survived and she was invited to dedicate the memorial on the city hall in 1991. The gravestones at the cemetery date to the 1800s and early 1900s.

I ended up doing a power walk up, down, and around the mountain before ending up back at our friends after a two hour walk of just over eight miles, for a day long total of about ten and a half miles.

Then we went out with Gottfried’s wife Hannelore to an Italian Restaurant, and upon our return Gottfried to me to to meet some of his friends in the next town over. On our return we talked and watched TV together before heading up to bed, where I am writing this. Tomorrow will be a full day. We will take a two hour train ride to Fulda, visit there for a few hours then return home. That should be an interesting trip. I have been to Fulda a number of times, Judy never has. It was a key city in Cold War planning, and the old city and Cathedral are magnificent. My first trip there was a tour of the old inter-German Border between West and East Germany in 1984. I made a couple of other trips related to our potential mission to fight the Soviets if they attacked, and then after the Wall fell I visited the old city and Cathedral in late 1996. The fact that we are taking the train and not having to drive is very nice, since we will be driving Sunday to see friends near Karlsruhe on the Rhein River.

It is interesting that although I have kept myself apprised of the latest events in the United States I have disconnected enough to keep my sanity, even when occasionally checking my Twitter feed and Facebook page. The walk up the mountain and through the forest was good for me, it was not only a good workout but put me in touch with nature and history. John Muir said, “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.” 

That happened to me today.

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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