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“It Can’t Happen Here” but it is Happening Before Our Eyes

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In 1935 the American writer Sinclair Lewis wrote a novel called It Can’t Happen Here. It was a semi-satirical novel about a Fascist state coming to power in the United States. In it Lewis wrote these words:

“A country that tolerates evil means- evil manners, standards of ethics-for a generation, will be so poisoned that it never will have any good end.”

I believe that we are seeing that happen before our eyes. That being said I realized from the beginning of the Trump campaign that it would to this at home and abroad. I was looking back at my archives going even back to 2012 after President Obama’s re-election and found that I had written about Trump’s maniacal desire to upend defy political and social norms and demonstrate his contempt for the Constitution and our laws. When he announced his campaign he began by appealing to nationalism and racism and he never stopped.

On December 15th 2015 I wrote these words in an article entitled The Mob Determined the Theme. Some people thought that I was writing about the Mafia or gangs, but I was talking about mob rule. Those words are here:

“When Albert Speer discussed the ability of Adolf Hitler to captivate the German people he noted something important. He discussed how Hitler and his minions played to them set by the disgruntled and angry German population. Speer wrote, “The mob determined the theme. To compensate for misery, insecurity, unemployment, and hopelessness, this anonymous assemblage wallowed for hours at a time in obsessions, savagery and license. The personal unhappiness caused by the breakdown of the economy was replaced by a frenzy that demanded victims. By lashing out at their opponents and vilifying the Jews, they gave expression and direction to fierce primal passions.”

Hitler played to that misery, insecurity and the obsessions of the politically and economically disaffected “conservative base” that no longer trusted the party establishments of the old-line conservative parties. He also played to the deep-rooted racism and anti-Semitism of those people. Hitler was an outsider, he was not indebted to any traditional party hierarchy and as such was able to throw away convention and play to the fear and anger of many Germans.

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Donald Trump is doing today and he is running circles around the traditional politicians of the Republican Party. Every time trump says something that would have gotten himself blown out of the race twenty years ago had he said such things, today his poll numbers keep going up. He is now trending around 35% in most polls of GOP voters and my guess is that those numbers are low, as some supporters may not be willing to tell a pollster that they are for Trump, at least yet. My guess is that Trump’s support in the GOP is probably higher than 40% and won’t go down much. The party hierarchy and most of Trump’s primary rivals consistently criticize Trump, but most say that they will back him if he is the nominee. I cannot imagine that being the case twenty years ago when both the party establishment and the voters would have dumped him in a New York minute.

Aug. 21. 2015 Mobile, AL, Trump supporters at his campaign pep rally in Ladd Peebles Stadium. These women are all party of the Republican Party and plan to vote for Trump.  Over 20 thousand came to the Ladd-Peebles Stadium to attend Trumps campaign pep rally. 40,000 were expected to come.

Trump understands the mood of much of the traditionally conservative public better than his Republican establishment competitors. Trump is not stupid, unlike Hitler who actually believed in his message, Trump is not a radical, he cannot be, he has too much invested in the system. Instead, he is a street smart and pragmatic businessman who is exploiting the situation on the ground to his advantage. His opponents and the GOP establishment are frightened, but like the hidebound conservatives of the Weimar Republic who either dismissed or Hitler or thought that they could contain him are not willing to make a stand. As a result, Trump is able to play to the mood of the base and to coin a phrase, to “trump the establishment” by channeling the deepest anger, fear, hatred, xenophobia, and racism that the GOP establishment refuses to acknowledge. When there is a push back by the establishment it further angers the base, and Trump, quite adroitly threatens to leave the party; something which would doom the GOP in the 2016 general election, and possibly shatter the party.

Trump’s GOP opponents should not underestimate him and neither should establishment Democrats. Trump is using his celebrity bombast and the democratic process to take control of a major political party, and he is a lot smarter than most political analysts give him credit. As such, as a non-establishment outsider, Trump has a chance at taking over a major political party, something that has never before happened in the United States.

If he succeeds in his takeover bid, it will forever change American politics, especially if he is able to ride the fear, hatred, and fear to the White House. I don’t think the latter will happen, but I would not exclude it from the realm of the possible. To paraphrase Speer’s words about Hitler and Goebbels: By lashing out at their opponents and vilifying the Muslims and immigrants, Trump gave expression and direction to fierce primal passions of a disaffected GOP base.”

That was in 2015.

On July 22nd 2017 I wrote I Alone Can Fix It: Trump’s Dictatorial Message as I observed the new GOP nominee at the GOP National Convention. Five months later I wrote on December 27th 2016 I wrote Freedom is Never More than a Generation from Extinction. On March 22nd of this year I wrote Trump’s America: Saving the Form But not the Soul. I could go on and link many other articles but I will not, I have incriminated myself enough tonight.

Now that Donald Trump is in power he has used the Department of Homeland Security through a militarized ICE using mass incarcerations, expulsions, separating children from their families, and operating prison facilities from which people who are not with any crime charged are held indefinitely without legal representation. He has opening given support to White Supremacists including Neo-Nazis. He continues to threaten the Press, the political opposition, and long time allies using his Twitter account and his sycophants at Fox News and a multitude of Right Wing propaganda outlets to peddle lies as truth label those who tell the truth as liars and peddlers of Fake News.

He shows no interest in Civil Rights except support measures at the Federal, State, and local levels to roll back civil rights for ethnic, racial, and religious minorities, women, and LGBTQ people. His economic and social policies are designed to benefit his allies, especially the top 1% and politically reliable Evangelical Christians while impoverishing and disenfranchising all others. He labels all who oppose or criticize him and his policies as enemies of the state and traitors.

In terms of foreign policy he has during the course of his presidency personally undermined and now destroyed alliances and treaties that Presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Barak Obama worked to sustain. Those Presidents who included Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan helped build those alliances and forge those treaties for our good and the good of our allies and those who we welcomed into the fold of democratic ideals. Instead he makes diplomatic war on our allies while openly praising dictators abroad and carrying out the dictates of Vladimir Putin.

This brings me back to his attacks on the American Justice system of which almost all are tied to his, his family’s, and his advisor’s connection with Russia attempts to undermine American elections and the military attack and occupation of parts of the Ukraine, which during his campaign he supported by saying that the conquered Ukrainian regions “probably preferred Russian rule.” Neither before or after his election did he, his aides ever condemn the shoot-down of a commercial airliner by Russian forces near the Russian-Ukrainian border. The actions in the Ukraine led the G-7 to expel Russia. This weekend the President proposed reinstating the Russians despite the fact that they are still actively working against the United States and our Allies.

He is launching a trade war with our allies and leading trading partners which will be disastrous to most Americans.

Later today he will attempt to “negotiate a deal” with the North Korean dictator Kim Jung Un while admitting that he has done no preparation for it. I would hope for a lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula but I believe that the President will either come back with a deal that works to the advantage of the North Koreans or which will fail and bring about war in Northeast Asia. If he does come up with a deal it is very possible that he will use it as a means to go to war against Iran which will result in an apocalyptic conflagration in the Middle-East.

As he does all of this he surrounds himself with terrified yes men who are too afraid of him to tell the truth while increasing his attacks on the law, the Constitution, and people that he sees as his personal enemies at home and abroad. As I watch him and read what he writes I am reminded of Winston Churchill’s who wrote:

“You see these dictators on their pedestals, surrounded by the bayonets of their soldiers and the truncheons of their police … yet in their hearts there is unspoken fear. They are afraid of words and thoughts: words spoken abroad, thoughts stirring at home — all the more powerful because forbidden — terrify them. A little mouse of thought appears in the room, and even the mightiest potentates are thrown into panic.” 

The President’s aggressiveness is not brought about by confidence, it is brought about by his fear, he cannot abide criticism of any kind, thus he must crush it.

I fear for what is coming and I am not sure if our institutions, laws, or Constitution will survive in any recognizable form. I want them to, but right now I do not see light at the end of this tunnel, and I would much rather be wrong than right.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Filed under civil rights, ethics, Foreign Policy, History, laws and legislation, leadership, News and current events, Political Commentary

Adjusting to the Worship of Power: Evangelicalism in 2018

Dietrich Bonhoeffer 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

One of the most frightening things to me as a historian who happens of claim to be a Christian is the propensity for the Church and its leaders to be attracted to the worship of power and all of its folly. This has been the case since Constantine made Christianity the State religion of the Roman Empire. Leaders of the church in every place and clime as well as almost every denomination have cozied up to rulers in the pursuit of power almost always to the detriment the Church and sometimes their nation. The hierarchies of different churches were in the forefront of the extermination of supposed “heretics,” the persecution of non-state favored religions, the slave trade, the conquest, subjugation, and extermination of indigenous peoples in the Americas, Africa, parts of Asia; they were often the supporters of disastrous wars, and at home used their place of power to wealthy beyond all measure.

Conversely, on the occasions where the Church and its leaders have advocated for the poor, the marginalized, and others who had no earthly power it lead to advances in human rights and liberty. The abolition of slavery in Great Britain was led by William Wilberforce against heated opposition in Parliament and even the Church of England that spanned decades. During the period of the Industrial Revolution, some churches and Christians made a determined effort to end child labor, support workers’ rights, and advocate for the poor, but many others feasted upon the wealth that their rich benefactors lavished upon them and remained silent. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other African American church leaders helped lead the Civil Rights movement and were joined by some white religious leaders, but many others, including men who were early leaders of the Christian Right opposed the Civil rights movement and used their pulpits to advocate for segregation. Many other just remained silent, just as their forbears had from Constantine one. Silence and the acquiescence to injustice has been a hallmark of the Christian church.

The German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw the disastrous effects of the German church’s subservience to the Nazi regime and before that to the Kaiser. He wrote:

“Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear rather than too much. Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more, than they are doing now. Christian should take a stronger stand in favor of the weak rather than considering first the possible right of the strong.”

Sophie Scholl (Center)

Bonhoeffer spoke those words in a 1934 sermon, just a bit over a year following the Nazi takeover as Hitler was still consolidating his power and before he and his regime began their war of conquest and extermination. Some German Christians did take the chance to stand up for those oppressed by the Nazis, both in Germany in in the areas the Nazis conquered. Many of those who did would pay for their opposition with either their freedom or their lives, but most of the church was silent. One of the young Christians who opposed the Nazis was Sophie Scholl, a 22 year old student at the University of Munich. She and a number of fellow students formed a group called the White Rose to distribute anti-Nazi materials and to speak out against the crimes of the regime. She wanted those Christians of her day that silence was not an option. She wrote:

“The real damage is done by those millions who want to ‘survive.’ The honest men who just want to be left in peace. Those who don’t want their little lives disturbed by anything bigger than themselves. Those with no sides and no causes. Those who won’t take measure of their own strength, for fear of antagonizing their own weakness. Those who don’t like to make waves—or enemies. Those for whom freedom, honor, truth, and principles are only literature. Those who live small, mate small, die small. It’s the reductionist approach to life: if you keep it small, you’ll keep it under control. If you don’t make any noise, the bogeyman won’t find you. But it’s all an illusion, because they die too, those people who roll up their spirits into tiny little balls so as to be safe. Safe?! From what? Life is always on the edge of death; narrow streets lead to the same place as wide avenues, and a little candle burns itself out just like a flaming torch does. I choose my own way to burn.”

The same is true today in the United States. The vast majority of Evangelical Christians who support the policies of the Trump presidency in order to be at the table of temporal power have cast the church into the pigsty of lies. Likewise they vocally support polices that crush the lives of people who have no power and in doing so mock the words of Jesus. I can only shake my head that it has come to this.

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There is a choice to be made by anyone who claims the mantle of Jesus the Christ or claims to follow him. Will we do better than our ancestors or will we to silently slide down the road to perdition?

Sadly, I think that most Evangelical Christians have made that choice and that it is not the one that Bonhoeffer and Scholl made.

With that I will end for the day. Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, civil rights, ethics, faith, History, News and current events, philosophy, Political Commentary, Religion

“In the Kingdom of the Blind, the One Eyed Man is the King” Musings of a Flawed Man

 

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Over the past year or so this site has picked up a good number of new subscribers and sadly most of us will never get a chance to sit back and enjoy good intellectual conversation over a good craft or German beer or a nice bottle of wine. So if you would sit back and over whatever your favorite beverage may be take the time to let me wax eloquently about how the writer that you follow here got to be what he is.

I think my favorite character on television is Raymond “Red” Reddington, played by James Spader on the shoe The Blacklist. He is a very complex and troubling character, and the thing is I can understand him. His is a world of gray where he sometimes does the right thing for wrong reasons as well as the wrong thing for right reasons. His loyalties are personal and not ideological, he is a man of contradictions, as am I. Raymond Reddington one said, “Cultural peculiarities notwithstanding, I find cock fighting to be abominable. However, truth be told, I do love fried chicken.” I totally agree with that, sorry Vegan friends.

My regular readers know that I am a complex person as well. I am a Christian, a priest at that, who often doubts. I am also a career military officer who has been to war, come back from war different and hates it. But I also realize that as much of an evil as war is, that there are sometimes worse evils than war itself.  That being said I find the thought of someone, perhaps like President Trump launching the world into a nuclear war with North Korea to be opposed at all costs by anyone with at least half of a functioning brain. My loyalty to the Constitution and the American people far outweigh any need that I might have to ingratiate myself to any would be tyrant.

Likewise I am very liberal and progressive in my political and social beliefs, but I serve in a profoundly conservative institution that is not always welcoming to my beliefs. I wasn’t always this way but it was my experience in Iraq that turned the tide and turned me into a progressive. Usually people get more conservative as they get older, that’s not me. I got liberal, started caring about civil rights for everyone, the growing economic inequity between the richest and everyone else, and rejected the theocratic leanings of some leaders of my former church. At a point in my life where I should by all means have become even more conservative based on my social status, education, and income, I went the opposite direction. I am not alone, I read an article that Tom Ricks wrote in 2014 in which he said very similar things to me. I personally know others who have made the same journey.

But that being said, even though I am a liberal and progressive at heart, my education as a historian and my life experience mitigates against me becoming an ideologue or zealot, and I am certainly not a revolutionary. Thus unlike zealots who I might agree with I tend take the time to wrestle with the issue and not react out of emotion or illogic. Even if I agree with someone I hate it when they through emotion or illogic make stupid arguments that are all to easy to dissect or discredit; not because they are wrong on the issue but because they don’t argue their point well. Let me explain.

I tend to be able to see and appreciate arguments of multiple points of view on almost every issue, and I wrestle with them, doing the best I can to do the right thing. Whether it is for the right reason or not, I don’t pretend to know because I make no pretense of being a saint. Maybe that is one reason I have friends on all sides of the political, religious, and ideological debates that rage about this country and in the world. I live in a world of shades of gray.

I love trying to understand all sides of a position which of course makes me a terrible ideologue, and even worse I love the thrill when I embarrass an ideologue of any kind using reason, logic, and throwing in the appropriate emotional twist to make it sweet. I discovered this as a short, introverted, history nerd in high school and college. I found that in debate classes I could take the opposite side of what I really believed and shred the person advocating for the exact position that I really believed due to my then rather fundamentalist Christian worldview; like my support of pro-life position of being against abortion and for the death penalty at the same time. It was in arguing the opposite side that I discovered how intellectually incoherent those positions were. When I got to seminary after my first active duty tour in the Army I continued my antics in arguing against positions that I actually at the time believed in, with similar results. In fact a number of my fellow students asked me why I wasn’t in law school and it wasn’t a compliment; nonetheless I relished it.

But as always I digress…

In the last episode of season three of The Blacklist, Reddington tells an assistant FBI director who he has been helping solve crimes, “I know so many zealots, men and women, who choose a side, an ideology by which to interpret the world. But, to get up every single day and do the hard work of deciding what to believe. What’s right, today? When to stand up or stand down. That’s courage.” From my experience I believe that to be the truth, and truthfully, I would rather deal with people that wrestle with this difficult world than rather than those whose beliefs are shaped by their ideology first, regardless of facts, divergence of opinions, history, science, reality, and experience.

But what bothers me in what I see going on in this country and around the world is that mass movements of ideologues and zealots of every persuasion, political and religious, those that have seized or are trying to seize power in many nations, and foment revolution. Captivated by ideological purity, they are unwilling to compromise and frequently label anyone that disagrees with them or the leader of their movement, even in the slightest manner as traitors or evil. Many times the zealots take no time to evaluate the quality of the merits of their movement or those that oppose them, their cause is right, their opponents are evil and need to be destroyed. I think the most distressing case is where the Nazis and German Communists worked together to destroy the Weimar Republic in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Eric Hoffer wrote,  “The quality of ideas seems to play a minor role in mass movement leadership. What counts is the arrogant gesture, the complete disregard of the opinion of others, the singlehanded defiance of the world.” Likewise, Hoffer noted something that I observe almost every day, that the zealots and ideologues of mass movements use anger and hatred to unify their followers. Hoffer noted, “Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all the unifying agents. Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without a belief in a devil.” Believe, me, ask any ideologue of any type, and he or she will tell you who their devil is. But sadly history demonstrates that a mass movements of any type, political, ideological, or religious has achieved power, all opponents, especially those closest to them ideologically or religiously are the enemy, or to use Hoffer’s words “a devil.” The opponents closest to the ideologues ideology have to be destroyed or discredited first, before they can move on to battle their real opposites. Just look at history.

The ideologue cannot lose because he already knows his answer, the classic fundamentalist Christian quote, God said it, I believe it, that settles it”  is very much descriptive of other ideologically driven mass movements be they conservative or liberal. The ideologue’s attitudes are derived from their ideology and are often not subject to facts. I see it every day, especially on social media where partisans of evil persuasion fire broadside after broadside at all opponents, regardless of the facts, or even the fact that there may be more than one equally valid viewpoint on a subject. But then I tend to see everything in various shades of gray and not in black and white absolutes, and ideologues of all types frighten me, even those whose unbending beliefs are sugarcoated with millennial or utopian sentiments of the perfect world that will follow their victory. I know from history that such is not the case, in far too many instances first thing that radical, or self-proclaimed revolutionaries do after achieving absolute power is to kill.

Now as far as the President is concerned he is not a populist, nor an ideologue, and certainly not a revolutionary in the traditional understanding of the term.  The only thing that he believes in is himself; he is certainly a narcissist and he demonstrates daily that he is a paranoid sociopath. His bottom line is himself, everything and everyone else is fungible. He is intellectually lazy and the only time he tells the truth is when he inadvertently reveals who he really is in his Twitter meltdowns.

His most prominent supporters tend to be people who know the truth about the man but through a combination of a lust for temporal power, his conservative Christian base; or greed, the Ayn Rand type libertarian-conservatives whose social-Darwinian greed makes them use him to enrich themselves. The former believe that Trump will help them usher in a theocracy; the latter believe that he will give the government over to them in order to help their profit margin. None of them have any principles and are committed to their respective ideologies as contradictory as they may be. None of them have any courage, and none of them will ever stand for anything.

Maybe that is why I like Raymond Reddington. He’s flawed and so am I. He does bad things. He is a manipulator; but he recognizes his moral and ethical shortcomings and wrestles with his  own shortcomings. He is not always successful but he does make the attempt. I look at his character and I realize that in a different world or maybe an alternate universe I could be him.

All that being said, I really do think that real courage is to wrestle with reality every day and do the hard work of deciding what to believe; and today that may be different then tomorrow, but it will be based on reality and tempered by my often contradictory beliefs. Of course a true political ideologue or religious fundamentalist will condemn me to their version of hell for being that honest, but it is true. That is my uncomfortable reality, it may not be right, and my vision may be skewed and distorted, but it is what it is; and as Reddington said, “In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.”

As for you my readers I do thank you and hope that one day we may sit back and enjoy a drink together, possibly even toasting the “Immortal Lord Nelson.” But until that time thank you for taking time out of your day to read what I write and for your comments.

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Déjà Vu All Over Again: Are We Sleepwalking into 2018?

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The late great Yogi Berra once said “Déjà vu all over again, and as I wrap up the year and reflect on a number of things, I keep thinking about how much history can teach us about our own time, should we just pay attention to it. I have been continuing to do research and work on my future book “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: Race, Religion, Ideology, and Politics in the Civil War Era” as well as my Gettysburg and Civil War text, and that continues to lead me to pure gold in the pursuit for truth, historical truth that is as relevant today as it was when it happened over a century and a half ago. Likewise I have increased my study of totalitarian leaders and movements as well as the military, political, social, and economic effects of entering into unadvised, aggressive wars.

The former, that is studying and writing about the Civil War era is something that I have been doing for a few years, but the latter: the study of authoritarian leaders and of ill advised wars of aggression is something that I have renewed beginning in 2016 with the emergence of Donald Trump, his followers, and the rapid decline of the Republican Party as anything other than a shill for the extremely wealthy and a convenient cover for white nationalists and other assorted enemies of the American Constitution and ideals forged over a period of more than two centuries of conflict and compromise, as well as assorted attempts to help the country meet those ideals in order to form “a more perfect Union.”

Sadly, the same issues that dominated America in the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s and later following Reconstruction still dominate so much of our social, political and religious debate. Whether it is the voting franchise which many on the political right seek to restrict, the rights of women, blacks and other minorities, immigrants and the LGBT community, to any semblance of political, economic equality or social justice very little has changed. Not only that there are some political, media and religious leaders who argue for the unabashed imperialism of Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism.

As it was then, much of this can be laid squarely at the feet of Evangelical Protestant and other conservative Christian leaders. A century and a half ago men who claimed to be Christian leaders led the efforts to support slavery, discriminate against women, persecute gays and promote imperialistic policies that would have embarrassed the founders of the United States. After the defeat of the Confederacy most of the same people used the same theology to disenfranchise and discriminate against African Americans through Jim Crow laws, as well as discriminate against minorities, women and gays all the while claiming to be the victims of persecution.

Before the Civil War many Protestant ministers, intellectuals, and theologians, not only Southerners, but men like “Princeton’s venerable theologian Charles B. Hodge – supported the institution of slavery on biblical grounds, often dismissing abolitionists as liberal progressives who did not take the Bible seriously.”  This leaves a troubling question over those who claim to oppose other issues on supposedly Biblical grounds. Conservative Anglican theologian Alistair McGrath asks, “Might not the same mistakes be made all over again, this time over another issue?”

But moving on from the issues of economic inequity, intolerance for minorities, and racism that still permeate there is the very real threat of war. When I speak about war I do not mean the never ending small wars of empire that the United States has been involved with since September 11th 2001, I mean massive, destructive, and bloody wars the likes that have not been seen since the Second World War. Unfortunately the leaders of nations, especially President Trump and Kim Jong Un seem to be a prisoners of their preconceived ideas and are sleepwalking into war, each acting as if the forces of destiny were controlling them and placing, as Christopher Clark wrote in his book about the outbreak of the First World War The Sleepwalkers:

“Here again is the tendency we can discern in the reasoning of so many of the actors in this crisis, to perceive oneself as operating under irresistible external constraints while placing the responsibility for deciding between peace and war firmly on the shoulders of the opponent.” 

As I watch events unfold and comment just how real that I believe the the threat of war is I am often met with disbelief. I really want to be wrong but I don’t think that I am, and the possibility that Trump, Kim Jong Un, or another actor whether intentionally or unintentionally bringing about such a war is all too real, and all of them are too blind to the horror that they will unleash. Clark wrote:

“the protagonists of 1914 were sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world.”

The question is will we learn from history or make the same mistakes all over again? That is something to ask ourselves as we leave 2017 behind and enter 2018, a year that promises to be tumultuous and eventful, but which the history of is yet to be written. The That my friends is important, and why all of us must be engaged and not remain silent, there is too much at stake.

As a side note I want to I thank all of those who subscribe to this site, as well as those who follow my writings through Twitter or Facebook. The fact that so many people are doing this humbles me, thank you.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Loose thoughts and musings, News and current events, Political Commentary, Religion

Christmas Eve 2017: Light, Life, and Love in Hell, Kurt Reuber and the Madonna of Stalingrad

Bundeswehr zeigt "Stalingrad"-Ausstellung

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It is late on Christmas Eve and I am reflecting about the true meaning of Christmas in a world where hope seems to be dying before our eyes. This morning I preached in my Chapel from the Christmas story in the Gospel of St. Luke, the same passage I preached on a week or so ago with the German NATO contingent. The story of the incarnation, of God coming in the weakness of a tiny baby who would grow up and be crucified not far from where he was born is of profound importance for my faith, because it is not a pie in the sky promise of prosperity and power, but God who can be present in midst of the human made hell of war.

In such an environment I reflect on men who lived in a human made hell, a hell made by hate filled ideologues who launched the world into its bloodiest war, and I wonder, could it happen again? A decade ago I would have said it never could again happen. In December of 2016 after the election of Donald Trump I began to hedge my bets, but a year later I do believe that it can, and very well may happen again. So in such a world I must try to find hope wherever I can find it, especially as I seen the pattern of a descent into authoritarianism which has been so much a part of 20th Century European history developing in the United States. I worry about that because I can see nothing good coming of it, and notice friends, including Christian clergy openly advocating against the safeguards, the checks and balances put forth in our Constitution and laws to ensure that the President has unchecked power; and that means the power to plunge the nation into war.

I think most of my readers know that I am a career military officer and have served in peace and war as a chaplain. That service includes a tour in Iraq, a war, which by almost any standard would have been considered unjust and illegal, yet I served there, and came back a changed man. As such the stories of those who served in war, especially those who serve in hopeless battles, and even in evil causes during Christmas have a special place in my heart. One of those men was a German pastor and medical doctor named Kurt Reuber.

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As I said, Reuber was a theologian, pastor and medical doctor, likewise he was an accomplished artist and used that medium to convey his own faith, and doubts. He was a friend of Albert Schweitzer and in 1939 he was conscripted to serve as a physician in the Germany Army. By November 1942 he was a seasoned military physician serving with the 16th Panzer Division, part of the German 6th Army, which had been fighting in the hell of Stalingrad. When his division along with most of 6th Army was surrounded by the Soviets, cut off from most supply and without real hope of relief, he like other physicians continued to serve the soldiers committed to his care.

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However, unlike most physicians, the care Reuber offered care included spiritual matters, as he sought to help his soldiers deal with the hopelessness of their situation. As Reuber reflected on the desperation of the German soldiers in the Stalingrad pocket. He wrote to his family.

“I wondered for a long while what I should paint, and in the end I decided on a Madonna, or mother and child. I have turned my hole in the frozen mud into a studio. The space is too small for me to be able to see the picture properly, so I climb on to a stool and look down at it from above, to get the perspective right. Everything is repeatedly knocked over, and my pencils vanish into the mud. There is nothing to lean my big picture of the Madonna against, except a sloping, home-made table past which I can just manage to squeeze. There are no proper materials and I have used a Russian map for paper. But I wish I could tell you how absorbed I have been painting my Madonna, and how much it means to me.”

“The picture looks like this: the mother’s head and the child’s lean toward each other, and a large cloak enfolds them both. It is intended to symbolize ‘security’ and ‘mother love.’ I remembered the words of St. John: light, life, and love. What more can I add? I wanted to suggest these three things in the homely and common vision of a mother with her child and the security that they represent.”

The picture was drawn on the back of a captured Soviet map and when he finished it he displayed it in his bunker, which became something of a shrine. Reuber wrote:

“When according to ancient custom I opened the Christmas door, the slatted door of our bunker, and the comrades went in, they stood as if entranced, devout and too moved to speak in front of the picture on the clay wall…The entire celebration took place under the influence of the picture, and they thoughtfully read the words: light, life, love…Whether commander or simple soldier, the Madonna was always an object of outward and inward contemplation.”

drkrop

As the brutal siege continued men came to the bunker for both medical care and spiritual solace.  On Christmas Eve Reuber found himself treating a number of men wounded by bombs outside the bunker. Another soldier lay dying, just minutes before the soldier had been in the bunker singing the Christmas hymn O Du Froehliche.  Reuber wrote:

“I spent Christmas evening with the other doctors and the sick. The Commanding Officer had presented the letter with his last bottle of Champagne. We raised our mugs and drank to those we love, but before we had had a chance to taste the wine we had to throw ourselves flat on the ground as a stick of bombs fell outside. I seized my doctor’s bag and ran to the scene of the explosions, where there were dead and wounded. My shelter with its lovely Christmas decorations became a dressing station. One of the dying men had been hit in the head and there was nothing more I could do for him. He had been with us at our celebration, and had only that moment left to go on duty, but before he went he had said: ‘I’ll finish the carol with first. O du Frohliche!” A few moments later he was dead. There was plenty of hard and sad work to do in our Christmas shelter. It is late now, but it is Christmas night still. And so much sadness everywhere.”

On January 9th 1943 with all hope of escape or reinforcement gone Reuber gave the picture to the battalion commander as the officer was too ill to carry on and was one of the last soldiers to be evacuated from the pocket. Reuber’s commander carried the Madonna out of the pocket and returned it delivered it to Reuber’s family, preserving it for all.

Reuber was taken prisoner and survived the harrowing winter march to the Yelabuga prison camp. In late 1943 Reuber wrote his Christmas Letter to a German Wife and Mother – Advent 1943. It was a spiritual reflection but also a reflection on the hope for life after the war, when the Nazi regime would be defeated, and Germany given a new birth.

Reuber wrote:

“The concatenation of guilt and fate has opened our eyes wide to the guilt. You know, perhaps we will be grateful at the end of our present difficult path yet once again that we will be granted true salvation and liberation of the individual and the nation by apparent disappointment of our “anticipation of Advent”, by all of the suffering of last year’s as well as this year’s Christmas. According to ancient tradition, the Advent season is simultaneously the season of self-reflection. So at the very end, facing ruin, in death’s grip – what a revaluation of values has taken place in us! We thus want to use this period of waiting as inner preparation for a meaningful new existence and enterprise in our family, in our vocation, in the nation. The Christmas light of joy is already shining in the midst of our Advent path of death as a celebration of the birth of a new age in which – as hard as it may also be – we want to prove ourselves worthy of the newly given life.”  (Erich Wiegand in Kurt Reuber, Pastor, Physician, Painter, Evangelischer Medienverb. Kassel 2004. )

prisoner's madonna

Reuber did not live to see that day. He died of Typhus on January 20th 1944, not long after writing this and just a few weeks after painting another portrait of the Madonna, this one entitled The Prisoner’s Madonna. He was not alone, of the approximately 95,000 German POWs taken at Stalingrad only about 6,000 returned home.

His paintings survived the war and his family gave The Madonna of Stalingrad to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin after it was restored as a symbol of hope and reconciliation. Copies are also displayed in Coventry Cathedral and the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Volgograd, the former Stalingrad. A copy of The Prisoner’s Madonna is now displayed at the Church of the Resurrection in Kassel.

I have a print of the Madonna of Stalingrad in my office. It has become one of the most meaningful pictures I have since I returned from Iraq in 2008. To me they are symbols of God’s presence when God seems entirely absent.

I praying for an end to war and likewise that the United States will not fall victim to a lawless authoritarian leader who seems intent on stoking the fires of more wars.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Trump’s Hatchet Men: Christian Pastors Who Should Know Better

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Just a brief thought to start out the week. Since the beginning of the Trump Campaign his most vocal supporters other that the Alt-Right crowd and people like Roger Stone have been Christian pastors. This really bothered me all weekend so I need to get it off my chest early so I can go on to better things.

To me this has been one of the most perplexing things of the past two years. I wonder how men and women who castigated Democrats, and even some moderate Republicans with epithets often too vile to print ended up supporting a man who exhibits no trace at all of a genuine Christian faith. How they not only support but defend a man whose life if nothing else epitomizes everything that Jesus preached against, even threatening the wrath of God on Trump’s opponents.

I am not alone. Conservative columnist Erick Erickson, who is a Christian by the way noted in a column last week:

“Watergate may have turned Charles Colson from hatchet man to pastor, but defense of President Trump is turning a lot of pastors into hatchet men. Few people come away from Trump’s orbit without compromising their characters.”

Admittedly some of Trump’s big time clerical supports had little in the way of character to begin with, fleecing their flocks and often being caught doing so by law enforcement, some like Jim Bakker even going to jail. However, it is scary that quite a few who even if you disagreed with their politics, theology, or social views, still showed a modicum of Christian character have thrown it away to defend the indefensible. These hatchet men are truly dangerous because they poison the souls of their flocks and in the process demean the entirety of the Gospel message of reconciliation and peace.

But this is nothing new. Ever since Constantine various clerics and preachers have cozied up to rulers in order to gain temporal power for their part of the church. These American preachers today do not believe in the equality of human beings, they delight in condemning people, and frequently use the legislative process to impinge upon or limit the rights of others. Although they said they loved the Constitution when Barak Obama was in office their actions show that they despise it as well as the Preamble of the Declaration of Independence. Their attitudes towards the heart of American democracy are much like the Southern planters and slaveowners. One of them, George Fitzhugh of Virginia wrote in 1850:

“We must combat the doctrines of natural liberty and human equality, and the social contract as taught by Locke and the American sages of 1776. Under the spell of Locke and the Enlightenment, Jefferson and other misguided patriots ruined the splendid political edifice they erected by espousing dangerous abstractions – the crazy notions of liberty and equality that they wrote into the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Bill of Rights. No wonder the abolitionists loved to quote the Declaration of Independence! Its precepts are wholly at war with slavery and equally at war with all government, all subordination, all order. It is full if mendacity and error. Consider its verbose, newborn, false and unmeaning preamble…. There is, finally, no such thing as inalienable rights. Life and liberty are not inalienable…. Jefferson in sum, was the architect of ruin, the inaugurator of anarchy. As his Declaration of Independence Stands, it deserves the appropriate epithets which Major Lee somewhere applies to the thought of Mr. Jefferson, it is “exuberantly false, and absurdly fallacious.”

Southern preachers condemned opponents of slavery in the abolition movement, including fellow evangelicals as “atheists, infidels, communists, free-lovers, Bible-haters, and anti-Christian levelers.”  Like the Southern preachers of the ante-bellum era the political pastors of today stand against the weak, the outcast, the poor, and the alien. Instead of standing for the weak, these preachers lead their congregations to despise them as they accommodate themselves to the service of the powerful represented by President Trump. Dietrich Bonhoeffer summed it up well when wrote about the “German Christians” who followed Hitler:

“Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear rather than too much. Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more, than they are doing now. Christian should take a stronger stand in favor of the weak rather than considering first the possible right of the strong.”

The sad thing is that the so-called Christianity of our day is not far removed from that of the ante-bellum South or that of Nazi Germany. It worships power and riches and the only rights that it desires to protect are its own. Led by the hatchet men in the pulpits this church have soiled themselves with a stain that they will never shed, and they will stand condemned even more than the man that they support, because unlike him, they know better, or at least they should. 

Conservative scion Barry Goldwater warned us about them in 1994: 

“Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the [Republican] party, and they’re sure trying to do so, it’s going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise. I know, I’ve tried to deal with them.”

But Goldwater also knew that the leaders of the Christian Right who now are solidly behind Trump were easily manipulated by the hard right. In 1981 he told an interviewer:

“I don’t want to see religious bigotry in any form. It would disturb me if there was a wedding between the religious fundamentalists and the political right. The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it.”

Donald Trump is manipulating the hell out of them, speaking to their deepest fears and promising them that they will be the ones that come out on top in his America. He has cultivated that by signing executive orders designed to cater to their every desire in exchange for their fealty which they readily give him. He is a nearly cult like messiah figure to many of them and their preachers bask in the favor he shows them without thinking twice about the true cost both to their faith, and the freedom of all people in the United States. 

Charles Morgan Jr., a lawyer in Birmingham Alabama wrote after the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church by Ku Klux Klansmen who claimed to be Christians and by the Christian preachers who over the course of decades had given them sanction:

“It is not by great acts but by small failures that freedom dies. . . . Justice and liberty die quietly, because men first learn to ignore injustice and then no longer recognize it.”

He was right, as was Bonhoeffer.  So anyway, that’s a hell of a way to start the week.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Same Mistakes?

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I am wrapping up the year and reflecting on a number of things, thinking about how much history can teach us about our own time, should we just pay attention to it. I have been continuing to do research and work on my Gettysburg and Civil War text, and that continues to lead me to pure gold in the pursuit for truth, historical truth that is as relevant today as it was when it happened over a century and a half ago.

Sadly, the same issues that dominated America in the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s and later following Reconstruction still dominate so much of our social, political and religious debate. Whether it is the voting franchise which many on the political right seek to restrict, the rights of women, blacks and other minorities, immigrants and the LGBT community, to any semblance of political, economic equality or social justice very little has changed. Not only that there are some political, media and religious leaders who argue for the unabashed imperialism of Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism.

As it was then, much of this can be laid squarely at the feet of Evangelical Protestant and other conservative Christian leaders. A century and a half ago men who claimed to be Christian leaders led the efforts to support slavery, discriminate against women, persecute gays and promote imperialistic policies that would have embarrassed the founders of the United States. After the defeat of the Confederacy most of the same people used the same theology to disenfranchise and discriminate against African Americans through Jim Crow laws, as well as discriminate against minorities, women and gays all the while claiming to be the victims of persecution.

Before the Civil War many Protestant ministers, intellectuals, and theologians, not only Southerners, but men like “Princeton’s venerable theologian Charles B. Hodge – supported the institution of slavery on biblical grounds, often dismissing abolitionists as liberal progressives who did not take the Bible seriously.”  This leaves a troubling question over those who claim to oppose other issues on supposedly Biblical grounds. Conservative Anglican theologian Alistair McGrath asks, “Might not the same mistakes be made all over again, this time over another issue?”

The question is will we learn from history or make the same mistakes all over again? That is something to ask ourselves as we leave 2015 behind and begin 2016, a year that promises to be tumultuous and eventful, but which the history of is yet to be written. That my friends is important, and why all of us must be engaged.

I thank all of those who subscribe to this site, as well as those who follow my writings through Twitter or Facebook. The fact that so many people are doing this humbles me, and to repeat what Yogi Berra said, “it’s not the heat, it’s the humility.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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