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The Tree of Life Weeps: a Week of Terrorism, Anti-Semitism, Race Murder, and Political Violence

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In his book Auschwitz: A New History, Laurence Rees noted something that is important about how human beings act in crisis. After interviewing many of perpetrators, victims, and bystanders who were at Auschwitz and other parts of the Nazi death machine he wrote this:

“…human behavior is fragile and unpredictable and often at the mercy of the situation. Every individual still, of course, has a choice as to how to behave, it’s just that for many people the situation is the key determinate in that choice.”

Yesterday morning, on the Shabbat, the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania was attacked by Rob Bowers, an open and unashamed White Supremacist determined to kill as many Jews as he could. Armed with an AR-15 style assault rifle and two or three semi-automatic pistols he entered the synagogue and opened fire screaming “All Jews must die!”

This is not an isolated incident, although it appears with eleven people killed, the worst single attack on American Jews in our history. While the United States is probably the least anti-Semitic country in the Jewish diaspora, there has always been an undercurrent of anti-Semitism in the United States. Historically this has been mostly relegated to White Supremacist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, the America First movement of the 1930s, and other White Nationalist, or Neo-Nazi groups. The Right Wing, White Nationalist anti-Semitism almost always flows from the deep well of racism. In the various expressions of this ideology, Jews are not White, they are Middle Eastern, and thus foreign. Likewise, to the Right Wing the Jews are conflated with Communism and thus in league with America’s Cold War enemies.

Likewise, there are people on the fringes of the American Left who espouse anti-Semitic beliefs, often in reaction to the policies and actions of Israel. Regardless of where it comes from, anti-Semitic threats, actions, and violence are an expression of evil, just as much as are other forms of racism.

The historical background is important. Recognizing it enables us to put the dramatic rise in documented anti-Semitic attacks or incidents over the past three years https://www.adl.org/resources/reports/2017-audit-of-anti-semitic-incidents in their appropriate context.

The fact is that the rise is significant and coupled with the more open and in your face actions of leading White Supremacists, and their political connections within the Republican Party, and among highly placed officials and advisers to President Trump. GOP Congressman Steve King of Iowa frequently makes common cause with White Nationalists, and he is not alone. When in the President claimed that there “were fine people on both sides” in response to the violence precipitated by White Nationalist, KKK, and neo-Nazis which claimed the lives of a counter protester in Charlottesville, it was a tacit blessing of their movement, and despite the later attempts of the President to walk back the remarks, the damage was done.

Now the terrorist attack was committed by a man who embraced the apocalyptic fear mongering of the President regarding Central American immigrants, did not vote for or approve of the President. Bowers does not believe that the President is a Nationalist and believes that White Supremacists that support him are being foolish.

Bowers, who has posted that “the Jews are the children of Satan…” was particularly incensed by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. The HIAS was founded in 1881 to help the Jewish victims of Russian pogroms find safety. They are the oldest such agency in the United States and now support refugees of every race, color, and creed. Bowers was most angered by its support for Central American refugees. In his rage at refugees Bowers is similar to many of the President’s supporters, except that the rage is directed at Jews who support refugees. He could have targeted any number of Christian or secular organizations that support refugees but he targeted Jews. Over the past few months he has made online threats to HIAS for its sponsorship of a National Refugee Shabbat in which participating congregations dedicated a worship service to the plight of refugees. Just before the attack Bowers posted:

“HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in,”

Bowers’s rational for killing Jews is very much like the German Nazis in regard to German and European Jews. They believed that they were the victims of the Jews, that the Jews were trying to destroy their race, and since they believed that the Jews were a sub-human infestation, had to be exterminated. Just three days ago Bowers posted:

“Daily Reminder: Diversity means chasing down the last white person.”

Bowers was a frequent poster on the Gab social media site which has become a haven for men like him, as an alternative to Twitter or Facebook, however, anti-Semitic posts on Twitter have risen at an alarming rate. About 40% of the anti-Semitic posts on Twitter include the #MAGA and #KAG hashtags of Trump supporters.

Bowers’s violent act was not an isolated incident, but part of a larger pattern of violent racism and racist political extremism. It took place at the end of a week of race and political based violence. First, a rabid Trump supporter, conspiracy theory follower, and anti-Semite was arrested for mailing 13 bombs to political figures, former government officials, and media figures. All of the people targeted had been openly attacked by the President on Twitter or in various speeches. One of his former employers noted that the man said that he wished “to go back to the Hitler days” and that if it was in his power he would “eradicate the Jews” along with lesbians, black people and Hispanic people.

Then there was the was the incident in Louisville, Kentucky where a White man attempted to attack a predominantly Black church, and failing that went to a Kroger supermarket and shot two Black customers in the back, killing them. When confronted by an armed civilian in the parking lot the man said “whites don’t kill whites.” There was no other motive for the killing except the man’s expressed White Supremacism and racism.

These domestic terrorists are all individually responsible for the crimes that they committed and the lives that they have snuffed our. That being said, how they got to the place in their minds where such actions are justified is not hard to explain. They are very similar to others throughout history who have embraced race hatred, including anti-Semitism as a way of life. But, without a belief that violent acts are permissible due to the existential threats promoted by the President, his GOP political allies, the hosts of Right Wing pundits who have poisoned the airwaves and internet for three decades, and the political preachers who justify race and religious based Nationalism, the perpetrators would likely never act.

Last week the President publicly described himself as a Nationalist for the first time. In 2016 Timothy Snyder wrote of President Trump and the contrast between a Nationalist and a Patriot:

“The president is a nationalist, which is not at all the same thing as a patriot. A nationalist encourages us to be our worst, and then tells us that we are the best. A nationalist, “although endlessly brooding on power, victory, defeat, revenge,” wrote Orwell, tends to be “uninterested in what happens in the real world.” Nationalism is relativist, since the only truth is the resentment we feel when we contemplate others. As the novelist Danilo Kiš put it, nationalism “has no universal values, aesthetic or ethical.” A patriot, by contrast, wants the nation to live up to its ideals, which means asking us to be our best selves. A patriot must be concerned with the real world, which is the only place where his country can be loved and sustained. A patriot has universal values, standards by which he judges his nation, always wishing it well—and wishing that it would do better.

The President has stoked the flames or racism, nationalism, and even anti-Semitism sine the day he announced his candidacy. The GOP establishment, even those men and women who before Trump’s nomination opposed and condemned all that he stood for have embraced him, very much as the German conservatives did with Hitler between 1932 and 1936, only much faster.

It is not that Trump is Hitler, at best he is a sorry pretender, not that he isn’t dangerous in his own right. Rather, it is the fact that his former GOP opponents have sold their souls for some kind of political or economic gain to him despite their obvious contempt for him and all that he stood. It is that the reality that the de facto state run media of Fox News sets his agenda on a daily basis. It is the fact that the scions of Evangelicalism who would never have supported a man like him have not only embraced Trump, but have invented supposedly Biblical reasons to support him. It is the fact that millions of people now embrace conspiracy theories because Trump repeats and amplifies them. It is the fact that this maelstrom of madness has opened the floodgates to the violence we have seen over the past week and it was not unbelievable or unsurprising. It was all too predictable. I have been saying so for years.

Timothy Snyder wrote:

“The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. It would serve us well today to understand why.”

We have to understand why or this not be the end. It will continue and it will get worse, regardless of what happens in the mid-term elections unless people stop being bystanders and confront the evil that is before us. The President will not, and neither will the compliant GOP majorities in Congress.

The fact that these men have been emboldened to use race based terrorism and murder, to openly espouse and act on anti-Semitism, and other forms of racism as was the case in Louisville and there is no push back in the Right Wing media while much of the mainstream media continues to give the enablers of such violent people equal time by inviting them to panel discussions where the truth is allowed to be obfuscated in the name of fairness and equal time.

So it will happen again and again. No amount of security can stop it. Unlike the terrorist who attacked on September 11th 2001, these terrorists are born and bred Americans. Two of the three would have attracted any attention, and the one who did was so over the top and open about his beliefs that he was considered to be a loon. They all had a choice as how to behave, and like the murderers of Auschwitz they allowed their situation to determine their choices.

Be assured, these acts will continue to happen. Anti-Semitism didn’t die in the Bunker with Hitler. It has found a comfortable home in the United States and what happened this week at the Tree of Life Synagogue shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, and ethics can collapse.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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A Visit to Lutherstadt Wittenberg

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

For the first time in 22 years during our recent trip to Germany I returned to the city where a little known Augustinian Monk and Professor of Theology, Dr. Martin Luther began the Protestant Reformation and changed the world forever. There had been other revolts against the Catholic Church by various dissenters but none of them had ever found and ear with rulers who by their support could change the status quo and protect them from being tried as heretics.

To be tried as a heretic meant that you were also in violation of the law of the local monarch or the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, and likewise an enemy of the State. Once convicted of heresy the the opponents of the regime were then executed in whatever way the Church and State deemed to be the most effective way of discouraging future dissenters.

Luther was not only a keen theologian, he knew how to gain the support of common people, as well as the princes and other members of the nobility who knew that they were getting screwed by both the Church and the Empire. Thus while his theological motives based on his experience of the grace of God were genuine, he understood the political implications of his theology which broke the chains of Germans Protestants to Rome.

The result would lead Luther’s political supporters into multiple wars against Rome and the Holy Roman Empire, and then against German dissenters who dissented from Luther. It would also set the stage for successful breaks from Rome in England, and in Geneva, where John Calvin proclaimed a harsh and cold version of Protestantism. In many ways Luther never fully rejected parts of Catholic doctrine such as the Eucharist as the Body and Blood of Christ, and the efficacy of Baptism for the forgiveness of sins, despite writing circles around himself to show his differences with Rome. He would never be Protestant enough for Calvin, or Ulrich Zwingli of Zurich, or the later more radical Calvinist separatists in France, Holland, England, and Scotland. Of course none of those were acceptable to the Radical Reformers of the Anabaptist-Mennonite movement in Holland which spread to England in the guise of the early English Baptists, who were simply Anabaptists who had thrown out pacifism.

Luther was a remarkable man with many flaws. His theology led to married clergy, the Bible being translated into German and then many other languages. In fact Luther’s translation of the Bible into German helped birth the modern German language as much as the later King James Bible did for English some 80years later.

Likewise, through his emphasis on the Three Solas, Sola Gratia, Sola Fides, and Sola Scriptura he opened the door for individuals to have more say in their spiritual lives and interpretation of the Christian faith, which led to many more breaks with the Church, his Church within a few years. Luther opened the door to a Christianity which has never stopped splitting, often with ugly consequences, and sometimes reforming for the better. Luther was a huge influence on John Wesley who influenced me like William Wilberforce and John Newton who helped abolish slavery in England and it’s colonies. At the same time one cannot overlook just how Luther’s vehement denunciations and demonizations of the Jews helped set the stage for the German anti-Semitism that brought about the Holocaust.

But all that being said from a theological point of view Luther shattered the theological oneness of the western church. Instead of one Pope, Luther opened the door for everyone to be his own Pope.

His theology also allowed rulers to break from Rome and still support their own State Church. In the various fiefdoms of Germany some went with Luther, others Calvin, and still others Zwingli. In England, Henry VIII took the Church of England out of Rome and that church recognized the English King, or at times the Queen the head of the Church.Without Luther to shatter the barrier between Church and State, there would likely never have been the freedom granted to the great

This when the men who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States wrote those documents they were absolutely opposed to the government of the United States having a State religion or for that matter even endorsing any sect of Christianity. The great Virginia Baptist and friend of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, John Leland wrote:

“The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever. … Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians.”

Luther certainly would not have agreed with that, but he opened the door to it and we should all be grateful that he did. One wishes that the Christian Nationalists of the United States would read their United States history because they are try to establish a particular minority sect of Christianity, a fundamental evangelicalism rooted in the political theology of John Calvin as the official State religion. To do so they are using a man who would shame the Medici Popes in his profound disregard and disrespect of anything resembling the Christian faith; for his carnal indulgence, his wanton greed, vain pomposity, and his narcissism which borders on self-deification. Luther would have recognized him and them as frauds of the most odious kind.

Luther’s flaws are many. He suffered severe, probably clinical depression, and many PTSD from the beatings administered by his father. That was not helped by his understanding as a young man, theology student, and monk of a very punitive and angry God who he could never please. His life crisis came at a time in his life, between 28 and 32 years old, when developmental psychologists tell us that many great thinkers, intellects, and leaders have their breakthroughs.

He was also at times terribly sarcastic, vindictive, and angry. He could turn on friends and former students who broke with him in a visceral manner. He was also beset by an anti-Semitic streak that while it was a part of the times that he lived was used by other German anti-semites, especially Hitler’s Nazis in their persecution, and later extermination of the Jews. He was also prone to see the religious wars of his time, be they against the Turks, the Roman Catholics, or the Radical Reformers, through the lens of an apocalyptic worldview.

Despite all his flaws he is one of the most important men in history. Without his break with Rome and the support of European nobility there probably would have been no Enlightenment as we know it for the great artists, writers, scientists, and others of that period would likely have never had safe places to go beyond the limits of Medieval Scholasticism and Aristotelian philosophy.

Likewise the principle of the Reformation is that Reformation never ends. The Church must continually reform or die. Unfortunately, that is seldom the case, the Christian Church has always been resistant to change and frequently is the last holdout against truly evil movements. Christians, not just in the United States, frequently heed the call of racism, nationalism, and misogyny more than any other group. Of course there are other religions where many of the faithful and their leaders do the same thing, but today’s post is about Luther and the the Christian faith.

Luther understood that the Gospel must speak to the issues of the day. He said: A gospel that doesn’t deal with the issues of the day is not the gospel at all. In our day those issues are ones that I think that had he lived among us that Luther would see and preach about. I could see him boldly condemning the court preachers of Donald Trump, (yes I see the split infinitive and I don’t care – to “boldly go” as someone we’ll know has said). Men like Robert Jeffress, Jerry Falwell Jr., and Franklin Graham wouldn’t stand a chance against the Monk from Wittenberg. Neither would the Medici President and his sycophant supporters who scream in indignation when he or they are exposed for who they are.

So, until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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God’s Not Quite Chosen People: Confederate Christianity and the “Christian” Trump Cult

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Unlike many areas of study, history never goes out of date. While I do not think that history necessarily repeats itself, I do believe that essentially humans never real change. Yes we sometimes do get better, but we often instead of rising to our best, we repeat the errors of those who have gone before us. 

Today I read about President Trump’s closed door meeting with about 100 Trump supporting Evangelical Christian leaders at the White House. As he usually does the President laced his comments with outright lies about laws and legislation that he has supposedly enacted which his cult like supporters fawned over him. It was yet another display of how far those who with one breath claim the name of Christ in the next take Judas’s 30 pieces of silver in order to gain temporal power. But I digress…

But this tendency to do their worst is especially true in he arenas of politics and religion, especially when societies decide to merge the two.

I have written about this good number of times citing contemporary and historical examples, but today I am pulling out yet another section of the chapter of my Civil War and Gettysburg Staff Ride text dealing with how the Southern Confederacy for all practical purposes merged church and state during the Civil War. Now it did not become a full fledged theocracy, but I have no doubt that it would have had the Confederacy succeeded in its quest to become independent. The philosophical and religious thought that undergirded so much of what the Confederacy stood for almost demanded this.

And so today when we look at the fracturing of religion along political and ideological lines political resurgence of the Christian Right in the Republican Party we see many of the themes of the Confederacy being recast and broadcast as what it is to be authentically American and even more dangerously, that only Christians can be real Americans. That it what almost all the current field of Republican candidates cow-tow to the most extreme leaders and spokesmen of the Christian Right, some of whom are openly neo-Confederate in their beliefs and have ties to neo-Confederate and White Supremacist organizations.  

Since those supposedly Christian leaders seek to use their influence to force their religion on others, this subject remains very important. 

Have a great day.

Peace

Padre Steve+

lee-jackson-in-prayer

Perhaps more than anything, the denominational splits helped prepare the Southern people as well as clergy for secession and war. They set precedent by which Southerners left established national organizations. When secession came, “the majority of young Protestant preachers were already primed by their respective church traditions to regard the possibilities of political separation from the United States without undue anxiety.”[1]

One of the most powerful ideological tools since the days of the ancients has been the linkage of religion to the state. While religion has always been a driving force in American life since the days of the Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, especially in the belief about the destiny of the nation as God’s “Chosen People,” it was in the South where the old Puritan beliefs took firm root in culture, society, politics and the ideology which justified slavery and became indelibly linked to Southern nationalism. “Confederate independence, explained a Methodist tract quoting Puritan John Winthrop, was intended to enable the South, “like a city set on a hill’ [to] fulfill her God given mission to exalt in civilization and Christianity the nations of the earth.” [2]

Religion and the churches “supplied the overarching framework for southern nationalism. As Confederates cast themselves as God’s chosen people.” [3] the defense of slavery was a major part of their mission. A group of 154 clergymen calling themselves “The Clergy of the South” “warned the world’s Christians that the North was perpetuating a plot of “interference with the plans of Divine Providence.” [4] A Tennessee pastor bluntly stated in 1861 that “In all contests between nations God espouses the cause of the Righteous and makes it his own….The institution of slavery according to the Bible is right. Therefore in the contest between the North and the South, He will espouse the cause of the South and make it his own.” [5]

The effect of such discourse on leaders as well as individuals was to unify the struggle as something that linked the nation to God, and God’s purposes to the nation identifying both as being the instruments of God’s Will and Divine Providence:

“Sacred and secular history, like religion and politics, had become all but indistinguishable… The analogy between the Confederacy and the chosen Hebrew nation was invoked so often as to be transformed into a figure of everyday speech. Like the United States before it, the Confederacy became a redeemer nation, the new Israel.” [6]

This theology also motivated men like the convinced hard line Calvinist-Presbyterian, General Stonewall Jackson on the battlefield. Jackson’s brutal, Old Testament understanding of the war caused him to murmur: “No quarter to the violators of our homes and firesides,” and when someone deplored the necessity of destroying so many brave men, he exclaimed: “No, shoot them all, I do not wish them to be brave.” [7]

In effect: “Slavery became in secular and religious discourse, the central component of the mission God had designed for the South….The Confederates were fighting a just war not only because they were, in the traditional framework of just war theory, defending themselves against invasion, they were struggling to carry out God’s designs for a heathen race.” [8]

From “the beginning of the war southern churches of all sorts with few exceptions promoted the cause militant” [9] and supported war efforts. The early military victories of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and the victories of Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley   were celebrated as “providential validations of the cause that could not fail…” Texas Methodist minister William Seat wrote: “Never surely since the Wars of God’s ancient people has there been such a remarkable and uniform success against tremendous odds. The explanation is found in the fact that the Lord goes forth to fight against the coercion by foes of his particular people. Thus it has been and thus it will be to the end of the War.” [10]

This brought about a intertwining of church and state authority, a veritable understanding of theocracy as “The need for the southern people to acknowledge God’s authority was bound up with a legitimation of the authority of clerical and civil rulers. Christian humility became identified with social and political deference to both God and Jefferson Davis.” [11]

Jefferson Davis and other leaders helped bolster this belief:

“In his repeated calls for God’s aid and in his declaration of national days of fasting, humiliation, and prayer on nine occasions throughout the war, Jefferson Davis similarly acknowledged the need for a larger scope of legitimization. Nationhood had to be tied to higher ends. The South, it seemed, could not just be politically independent; it wanted to believe it was divinely chosen.” [12]

Davis’s actions likewise bolstered his support and the support for the war among the clergy. A clergyman urged his congregation that the people of the South needed to relearn “the virtue of reverence- and the lesson of respecting, obeying, and honoring authority, for authority’s sake.” [13]

Confederate clergymen not only were spokesmen and supporters of slavery, secession and independence, but many also shed their clerical robes and put on Confederate Gray as soldiers, officers and even generals fighting for the Confederacy. Bishop Leonidas Polk, the Episcopal Bishop of Louisiana, who had been a classmate of Jefferson Davis at West Point was commissioned as a Major General and appointed to command the troops in the Mississippi Valley. Polk did not resign his ecclesiastical office, and “Northerners expressed horror at such sacrilege, but Southerners were delighted with this transfer from the Army of the Lord.” [14] Lee’s chief of Artillery Brigadier General Nelson Pendleton was also an academy graduate and an Episcopal Priest. By its donations of “everything from pew cushions to brass bells, Southern churches gave direct material aid to the cause. Among all the institutions in Southern life, perhaps the church most faithfully served the Confederate Army and nation.” [15] Southern ministers “not only proclaimed the glory of their role in creating the war but also but also went off to battle with the military in an attempt to add to their glory.” [16]

Sadly, the denominational rifts persisted until well into the twentieth century. The Presbyterians and Methodists both eventually reunited but the Baptists did not, and eventually “regional isolation, war bitterness, and differing emphasis in theology created chasms by the end of the century which leaders of an earlier generation could not have contemplated.” [17] The Southern Baptist Convention is now the largest Protestant denomination in the United States and many of its preachers are active in often divisive conservative social and political causes. The denomination that it split from, the American Baptist Convention, though much smaller remains a diverse collection of conservative and progressive local churches. Some of these are still in the forefront of the modern civil rights movement, including voting rights, women’s rights and LGBT issues, all of which find some degree of opposition in the Southern Baptist Convention.

But the religious dimensions were far bigger than denominational disagreements about slavery; religion became one of the bedrocks of Confederate nationalism. The Great Seal of the Confederacy had as its motto the Latin words Deo Vindice which can be translated “With God as our Champion” or “Under God [Our] Vindicator.” The issue was bigger than independence itself; it was intensely theological. Secession “became an act of purification, a separation from the pollutions of decaying northern society, that “monstrous mass of moral disease,” as the Mobile Evening News so vividly described it.” [18]

The arguments found their way into the textbooks used in schools throughout the Confederacy. “The First Reader, For Southern Schools assured its young pupils that “God wills that some men should be slaves, and some masters.” For older children, Mrs. Miranda Moore’s best-selling Geographic Reader included a detailed proslavery history of the United States that explained how northerners had gone “mad” on the subject of abolitionism.” [19] The seeds of future ideological battles were being planted in the hearts of white southern children by radically religious ideologues, just as they are today in the Madrassas of the Middle East.

While the various theological and ideological debates played out and fueled the fires of passion that brought about the war, they also provided great motivation to their advocates. This was true especially to Confederates during the war, that their cause was righteous. While this fueled the passion of the true believers, other very real world decisions and events in terms of politics, law and lawlessness, further inflamed passions.

Notes

[1] Brinsfield, John W. et. al. Editor, Faith in the Fight: Civil War Chaplains Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg PA 2003 p.67

[2] Ibid. Faust The Creation of Confederate Nationalism p.27

[3] Ibid. Gallagher The Confederate War pp.66-67

[4] Ibid. Daly When Slavery Was Called Freedom p.145

[5] Ibid. Daly When Slavery Was Called Freedom p.138

[6] Ibid. Faust The Creation of Confederate Nationalism p.29

[7] Fuller, J.F.C. Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship, Indiana University Press, Bloomington IN 1957

[8] Ibid. Faust, The Creation of Confederate Nationalism: Ideology and Identity in the Civil War South p.60

[9] Ibid. Thomas The Confederate Nation 1861-1865 pp.245-246

[10] Ibid. Daly When Slavery Was Called Freedom pp.145 and 147

[11] Ibid. Faust The Creation of Confederate Nationalism p.26

[12] Ibid. Faust The Creation of Confederate Nationalism p.33

[13] Ibid. Faust The Creation of Confederate Nationalism p.32

[14] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume One: Fort Sumter to Perryville Random House, New York 1963 1958 p.87

[15] Ibid. Thomas The Confederate Nation p.246

[16] Ibid. Daly When Slavery Was Called Freedom p.142

[17] Ibid. McBeth The Baptist Heritage pp.392-393

[18] Ibid. Faust The Creation of Confederate Nationalism p.30

[19] Ibid. Faust The Creation of Confederate Nationalism p.62

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Dealing With “Christian” Political Extremists: My Recent Experience

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Last night I wrote about Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his newly formed Religious Tyranny Task Force. The goal of that task force is to make sure that white conservative Christians can impose their beliefs on other and suffer no recriminations from discriminating against Gays and others that they do not want to serve or care for, even if their religious rights trump the civil rights of others. It is perhaps one of the most incestuous and dangerous displays of marriage of the Church and the police power of the state in the history of the United States.

Likewise, last month I wrote an article about having been accused by a chapel congregation member of conduct unbecoming an officer and contempt towards the President of the United States. I wrote the article after I was cleared of the charges during the preliminary inquiry. But it left me with many questions about the people of my congregation; questions that I have been wrestling for the better part of the month.

Since I am the senior supervisory chaplain on my base and come from a tiny denomination of the Old Catholic tradition that is stuck in the middle between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism I am an odd fit. My denomination is orthodox in its theology of God and Christ but very much a part of the the understandings of the Protestant Social Gospel of the early 1900s, the social teachings that came out of the Roman Catholic Church during Vatican II, and the Civil Rights Movement. I am also informed by being a trained historian.  This includes having a strong understanding of influence of the early Baptists in the United States on religious liberty as it came to be written into the Bill of Rights. The Baptists of that period were highly persecuted, in Europe and in the North American colonies by state churches. As a result they were much more progressive and tolerant of the rights of all religious minorities and even non-believers.

These men included Roger Williams who founded the colony of Rhode Island as a colony with no state religion and Virginia Baptist John Leland who was the inspiration for James Madison drafting the Bill of Rights.

I do my best to support the congregation and my junior chaplains regardless of their theological beliefs or political viewpoints. As such I try to allow my junior chaplains the chance to do good by pastoring the congregation while I support by them substituting every four to six weeks so they can get a full weekend off once in a while. In fact my policy is that I will not police their sermon content or how they do ministry so long as they care about the people, are not abusive, do not violate the rights of others, or commit crimes. So if a congregation member were to complain to me about their sermon I would tell that congregant to talk to them and if they could not work it out to contact that chaplains church or religious organization. I cannot police the beliefs

Since the accusations were leveled and I was told that I was exonerated I have been thinking of how next to approach the congregation, and today I got a copy of the investigation. I was heartened by some of the statements given by members of the congregation, while others troubled me. In the investigation was a copy of the letter the complainant sent to my commander. The difference between his letter and even the even the most prejudiced other congregant was amazing for even those somewhat critical of the sermon admitted their prejudices and gave me some benefit of doubt. In fact his letter was over the top and in opposition to what everyone of the others said that the investigating officer decided not to get a statement from him. But I could never believe that someone could make up such venomous lies in an attempt to destroy my name, reputation and career in such a despicable manner.

My review of the investigation and the statements has made me even more concerned about going before the congregation again. Knowing the attitudes of many it feels like by doing so I will be exposing myself to other charges from people who are little different than the Gestapo, Stasi, and KGB informants who routinely denounced priests and pastors. Sadly, with the Justice Department now behind them such people will have free reign to denounce people simply based on their often quite shallow and narrow theological understandings which are far more informed by their right wing politics than by Scripture, Tradition, or Reason.

So in the next few weeks I have a decision to make on how I will deal with this. I have a few ideas and I discuss them with my Protestant pastors who are much more conservative than me are incredibly supportive. I also am thinking and praying about what to do. Whatever I do I will script my remarks and have at least one of my other chaplains in attendance. I may even record it because I don’t want to give any of these Trump cultists to make up anything that cannot be refuted.

The sad thing is that I even have to be concerned about this. I never in a million years could have imagined being denounced by retired military officer for my sermon content. That gives me pause and frankly makes me very concerned. The experience has embittered me.  Don’t get me wrong. There are a few people in the congregation who have stood behind me and encouraged me, but most have either turned their backs on me or remained bystanders.

So I ask for your prayers, thoughts, encouragement, or wisdom in what I should do next. I am struggling with anger while trying to love and forgive the people who hurt me that God still loves and who Christ died to save.

However, there is one thing that I do know. It is something that both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood. Dr. King said: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”  While Bonhoeffer wrote: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” 

So I know I cannot remain silent because what is happening in the church in the United States not to mention the country is a manifestation of evil.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

 

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Are we All His Accomplices? Acquiescence in the Age of Trump

Edward R. Murrow

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The great American journalist and pioneering radio and television broadcaster Edward R. Murrow said: “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it.” His words are profound. He, along with William Shirer covered the rise of the Nazis and then lived through the height of the Red Scare and the McCarthy era inquisition. Of course he was right, the fact is that it does not matter which party controls the reigns of government or who the President is that principled opposition is not disloyal.

This is an important fact to remember even as the current President of the United States, his accomplices in the world of Fox News and Breitbart, and his fanatical supporters in what is called the Christian Right dare to say. The fact is that for our government to function as the founders intended it is absolutely necessary for the minority party, as well as other minorities be allowed to dissent. When that Constitutional right is abridged in any way it endangers our society and our way of life. In an age where opinions can be picked up cheap on the internet, television, or radio, and where things like courage, fortitude, and real faith are in short supply, we have to acknowledge as Murrow did “that we are living in an age of confusion – a lot of us have traded in our beliefs for bitterness and cynicism or for a heavy package of despair, or even a quivering portion of hysteria.”

We have a President who has spent the year after his election victory demonizing his opponents, be they members of the press, the Democratic Party, or even members of his own Republican Party for infractions that had they happened under any previous American President of any party would have never happened.

Some politicians, pundits, and medical professionals have suggested that the President is either insane or perhaps suffering from the early stages of dementia. Others disagree and believe that he is neither insane or suffering from dementia but that he is a master manipulator who knows exactly what he is doing. His list of actions that would have certainly damned the candidacy of any previous Presidential candidate, or the term of of office of any other President grows with every passing hour. Despite that whatever opposition there is seems to be ineffectual and shunted aside. In normal times the suggestion that the President might be suffering from a type of mental illness or a medical condition that impaired their cognitive ability would be a cause for bi-partisan concern, and to think that the President might be a manipulative prospective tyrant would as it did during Watergate turn his own party against him. Honestly, the thought of an either insane or cognitively impaired President trying to demonize his opposition or one that is bent on crushing them are both bad scenarios. I think that the latter is worse if his own party has surrendered its soul to their ideological goals so much that they are willing to go along with actions and statements that just over a year ago many of them said should disqualify someone from the presidency.

My problem is that I am a historian and that I have studied totalitarian states and the history of how they became such. What I am seeing going on now frightens me. We are moving closer to a totalitarian system of government than I could have ever thought could have happened in this country. I believed that our system of checks and balances coupled with a free press would keep anyone from overthrowing our system of government and establishing a totalitarian state, but we seem to be moving rapidly in that direction.

Historian Timothy Snyder noted in an interview with Sean Illing: “We think that because we’re America, everything will work itself out. This is exactly what the founders refused to believe. They thought human nature is such that you have to constrain it by institutions. They preferred rule of law and checks and balances.”

The rule of law, the Constitutional system of checks and balances, and the underlying premise of the Declaration of Independence cannot be sacrificed for political expediency. The question one has to begin to ask in light of all of the President’s actions and words is: is the President insane, is he impaired, or is he evil and intent on establishing himself as a tyrant? None of those options are good, but if the President’s supporters were principled as was the Republican Party in 1973-74 during Watergate then such actions can be stopped. However, if they are not, and if the leaders of the President’s Party knows or suspects that he is insane, impaired, or evil and acting against the Constitution, but take no action in order to get their agenda passed then they are no better that the non-Nazi German conservatives of 1932-1935 who abandoned all principle because Hitler gave them some of what they wanted.

The same is true of the ruling class of French conservatives who for decades undermined the Third Republic until the German invasion of 1940 left France defeated. William Shier wrote:

“And more and more, as the last years of the Third Republic ticked off, the wealthy found it difficult to put the interest of the nation above that of their class. Faced with specific obligations to the country if the state were not to flounder in a financial morass, they shrank from meeting them. The Republic might go under but their valuables would be preserved. In the meantime they would not help keep it afloat by paying a fair share of the taxes. The tax burden was for others to shoulder. If that were understood by the politicians, the Republic could continue. If not… were there not other forms of government possible which promised more security for entrenched wealth? The thoughts of some of the biggest entrepreneurs began to turn to the Fascist “experiment” in Italy and to the growing success of the Nazi Party in Germany.”

I’m going to stop for now, but remember the questions about the President posed by many other than me that must be answered: is he insane, is he impaired, or is he evil?

Honestly I don’t know. I can speculate, but the questions have to be asked by people in elected or appointed offices established by the Constitution, as well,as the press, and the citizenry if we are to retain our republican system of government. Dissent is not disloyalty. Asking such questions is not treason. Our founders wrestled with this. Thomas Jefferson wrote: “Experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.

The fact that the President’s overtly unconstitutional views of government, his frequent attacks on all opponents, his destruction of longstanding alliances and embrace of tyrants has been normalized by much of the press, media, and populace one cannot hope that things will change for the better anytime soon.

Based on the President’s words and actions I do believe that he will engineer a Reichstag Fire moment in order to gain absolute power in the United States under the pretense of National security. His administration is already physically doing that to immigrants, while using terribly hostile and discriminatory terms against racial or religious minorities, women, gays, the press and political opponents. Sadly, too few people speak up, and fewer take action.

Murrow noted: “No one can terrorize a whole nation unless we are all his accomplices.”

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Trump’s America: Saving the Form but Not the Soul

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In light of how President Trump and many of his advisors and defenders treat the Constitution, the principles, and norms of the American Experiment I went back to re-read British military historian Sir Basil Liddell-Hart’s small but significant work Why Don’t We Learn from History?

In it he makes some observations that are very pertinent to today, in fact very chilling words. He noted:

“What is of value in “England” and “America” and worth defending is its tradition of freedom, the guarantee of its vitality. Our civilization, like the Greek, has, for all its blundering way, taught the value of freedom, of criticism of authority, and of harmonising this with order. Anyone who urges a different system, for efficiency’s sake, is betraying the vital tradition.”

The President is an admirer of dictators and presumes himself to be above the Constitution and the laws that he swore to uphold. He uses the language and tactics of every aspiring despot labeling his critics as “enemies of the state” and uses his position for personal gain even initiates trade wars, alienates allies, praises dictators, and threatens nuclear war.

But his defenders and supporters don’t care. This includes those who are otherwise privately decent and law abiding people with supposedly Christian values tolerate and live their public lives by the code of social Darwinism.

“One can understand the point of view of the man who goes in for unabashed “piracy” and seeks his own profit regardless of others. He may draw his profit, although unconsciously his loss far exceeds it, because he is deadening his own soul.

But one cannot see sense, even of so shortsighted a kind, in those who maintain any standards of decency in private life yet advocate, or at least countenance, the law of the jungle in public and international affairs. More illogical still are those who talk of patriotic self-sacrifice and of its spiritual sublimity while preaching pure selfishness in world affairs.

What is the use of anyone sacrificing himself to preserve the country unless in the hope, and with the idea, of providing a chance to continue its spiritual progress toward becoming a better country? Otherwise he is merely helping to preserve the husk, saving the form but not the soul. Only a perverse patriotism is capable of such hopeless folly.

What is the value of patriotism if it means no more than a cat’s devotion to its own fireside rather than to human beings? And, like the cat, such a “patriot” is apt to get burned when the house catches fire.”

When I observe Trump, his administration, the Republican Congressional leaders, Evangelical Christians, and the Fox Propaganda Network I cannot but think of Liddell-Hart’s words and how relevant they are today.

When I swore my oath as a new Army Second Lieutenant in 1983 I swore that “I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same…” Since then I have served under six Presidents, four Republicans and two Democrats. I have found admirable characteristics in five of them even if I did disagree with all of them on matters of policy or ethics at one point or another. That being said until now never did I believe that a President of the United States posed an imminent threat to the Republic, or that he would be aided and abetted by men that at one time I admired. They are the kind of men that Liddell-Hart described, and they are dangerous.

At the same time I am one of those believe in telling the truth and will continue to speak because my oath to the Constitution still matters.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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“Are We Still of Any Use?” The Horrible Witness of Conservative Christians in the Trump Era

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Over his first year in office President Trump has managed to tell over 2,000 lies. That being said we all expect politicians to lie, it’s part of American life and political discourse. Will Rogers once said “If you ever injected truth into politics you have no politics.” I think that the expectation that elected officials will lie is one reason that Mark Twain quipped: “An honest man in politics shines more there than he would elsewhere.”

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

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

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

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

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

“We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds; we have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretense; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical. Are we still of any use? What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest, and straightforward men. Will our inward power of resistance be strong enough, and our honesty with ourselves remorseless enough, for us to find our way back to simplicity and straightforwardness?”

Please believe me when I say that I am not being an alarmist about this situation. I know too much about history, human nature, and yes the Church not to see the danger.

But that’s part of the problem. The lies and actions of the President and his administration have been cumulative; what was shocking on day one became normalized over the course of the past year. The effect is both numbing and corrosive: first on the President’s defenders who surrender all pretext of moral or religious authority, and on his opponents who gradually are worn down by the barrage of lies and the fact that they are also the minority party, or if the are Republicans, the minority in the President’s party.

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

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

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

Bonhoeffer asked the right question in terms of Christians and their support of morally bankrupt regimes. Are we still of any use?

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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