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Good Friday and the Men Who Wash their Hands Of Responsible for Failing to uphold the Law.

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Today is Good Friday and so unless something really unusual and earth shattering occurs I am going to take the Easter weekend to do some reflection, including on some spiritual topics. In light of that I am simply going to post three of my older fictional accounts of that weekend today, tomorrow and Sunday while I spend most of my time preparing for a talk at Temple Israel in Norfolk next week about bearing witness to the Holocaust even as the last survivors and witnesses pass from their journey on this earth.

There are a number of other articles in the series that cover all of Holy Week. If you want to read them those stories are on the site,

As a genre this series falls in the realm of historical fiction, which means that while they may be set in a historical event, that they are fiction. Likewise, I admit that they and the main character are more a reflection of me, and my journey, and my over-active imagination, than my cursory study of Roman and New Testament History. Likewise, I reject any claim that the Jewish people as a whole were at fault in the death of Jesus the Nazarene. Of the people directly involved on that weekend, there was much blame to be passed around, but to ascribe the ultimate blame to the Jews and justify the persecution of Jewish people two millennia after that weekend is despicable. To label them as “Christ Killers” is only something a Nazi or Christian version of the Taliban would do. So as you read this and the next few articles please keep that in mind. Likewise, keep in mind that political and religious leaders like Herod, Pilate, Caiaphas, soldiers like Longinus and his men, and traitors like Judas are no different than people of any age, people like you and me. That is why whether you are a Christian or not, the narrative of Easter is profoundly human, and points to more things about humanity that we would rather ignore, than to the more positive attributes of humanity. That is why, despite the message of Easter, we have to remember the words of the Jewish Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer:

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

Honestly, that is also the lesson of Good Friday and Easter, regardless of whether you believe or don’t. So if you take the time to read the Passion narrative, remember that we are all possible victims, perpetrators, or bystanders. That being said, have a nice weekend, and if you do it, have a nice Easter. If you don’t do Easter, I wish you well. If you are Jewish have a nice Passover, or if you are something else or an unbeliever, just have a nice weekend.

But please take the time to ponder, whether on Good Friday or in Nazi Germany, would you be a victim, perpetrator, or bystander? Even if the story of Good Friday and Easter is nothing more than a myth there are human lessons to be learned, even for a President, an Attorney General, and their hosts of propagandists and supporters who turn their eyes from injustice and seek vengeance on the innocent.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Longinus had finally decided to try to get a bit of rest. After his rather morose meeting with Flavius and Decius he and Decius went back to check on the preparations for the executions scheduled for the next day. Quentin his Tesserarius had been working with the squad chosen to to conduct the actual crucifixions of the prisoners, Bar-Abbas the insurgent as well as the common criminals and murderers Dismas and Gestas who he had met in the hell hole of a jail in the dungeon of Fortress Antonia after Pilate had assigned him the task of conducting the executions.

Longinus was certain of his unit’s ability to carry out the mission, though he would have rather had a unit from Italy than his unit of Syrian and Samaritan troops. There was one positive aspect, his Samaritans and Syrians had no love for the Jews and would have no qualms whatsoever in disposing of the criminals.

He thought for a moment about the prisoners. That Bar-Abbas fellow, he would be glad that he or any other Roman would have to deal with him again once the crucifixion was over. As for the common criminals he felt that everyone would be better off with Gestus dead although he hoped that Pilate might take pity on the repentant thief named Dismas. However, despite his feelings he also knew that the law was the law and repentant or not that Dismas was guilty of the crimes and the sentence was just. As he had realized earlier in the day while talking with Flavius it was important not to become emotionally involved with the locals, especially prisoners. Maintaining an emotional distance ensured that he would not flinch in times when ice rather than blood needed to flow through one’s veins. He was proud that he could do this but envied the humanity that his comrade and friend Flavius still maintained in spite of everything.

He was just about to prepare for bed when a messenger from Pilate knocked on his door. It was late, too late and Longinus wondered just what was going on.

“Come.” He said, the weariness in his voice obvious in the way he answered.

The messenger, a relatively young Italian soldier assigned to Pilate’s bodyguard entered, came to attention and saluted.

Longinus looked at the young man, like him far from home and asked “what am I needed for now?”

“Centurion, the Governor has requested your presence” the soldier replied.

“May I ask what for?” A now increasingly irritated Longinus asked.

“Sir, I do not have the details but it is a pressing matter regarding the Jews and that Galilean preacher.” The young man was obviously uncomfortable in having to request a career officer like Longinus, a veteran of real battles and campaigns appear before Pilate for what was not much more than a religious dispute among an occupied people.

“Pressing matter?” Asked Longinus.

“Yes Centurion. I was told that it was urgent that you come to Governor Pilate now and alert your unit as at least some of your men may be needed if things get out of hand.”

“Can you please tell me just what is going on?” Longinus asked as he pulled his armored breastplate over his shoulders.

“I’m sorry Centurion, I have no more information. You are to report to the Governor within the half hour. The Governor wants your unit ready within the hour.” When he finished he came to attention, saluted and exited the room.

Longinus hated how leaders sent young men to be their messengers and would not give them all of the relevant information.

He then sat back down in his chair where he had been sitting and discussing the situation with Flavius and Decius. He wondered to himself what could be so pressing that Pilate needed him now.

After briefing Decius and Quentin, instructing them to wake the men and be ready for action Longinus took a squad and went to Pilate’s headquarters. When he arrived Pilate greeted him.

“Centurion, I hate to have bothered you at this hour in light of how busy you and your men will be in the morning but a situation has arisen.” Longinus looked around the room and then heard some commotion on the area called “the Pavement.

“What is happening my Lord?”

“Longinus, these Jews have brought that Jesus fellow here and are accusing him of fomenting a rebellion against the Emperor.”

“A rebellion sir?”

“That is what they say Centurion. They claim that one of his closest associates had turned him in and after a trial of their own that they found him guilty of claiming to be a king and God that will overthrow the Emperor.” Pilate could not hide his discomfort.

“Do you actually believe them sir? After all we had heard this morning that this Judas Iscariot fellow had betrayed him for 30 pieces of silver.”

“I know Centurion, I know.” Pilate looked at Longinus then back out at the crowd gathered outside in the dark. He was afraid and Longinus could sense that fear, fear that if he made the wrong move that a real rebellion could break out and that Pilate as the Governor would take the blame and bear the punishment and wrath of Caesar.

“Centurion, I tried to placate these people be questioning this Jesus fellow myself.” Pilate paused. “I must say that he is a rather unusual man and truthfully I could not find anything that under Roman law that I could find him guilty of doing. Not a thing Centurion, nothing but their leaders kept pressing me.” Pilate’s gaze seemed to be almost pleading with Longinus to help him escape this decision. Longinus knew at that moment that his day was about to get worse. Pilate continued “It seems to be a religious squabble of some kind so in order to deal with it and to try to keep us out of it I sent Jesus to Herod since Herod is the ruler of Galilee.”

“So Herod will certainly deal with the situation, will he not Governor?”

“Centurion, I thought that too. I thought that the corpulent bastard Herod would deal with it but I just got word that Herod too could find no crime. The Jewish leaders and of their Temple Police are supposedly bringing him back to me to render judgment. They are leaving it to me.”

“Judgment for what?”

“Sedition, treason, blasphemy, proclaiming himself a king.” Pilate paused, his face flushed. “My God I’m surprised that they haven’t accused the man of fathering the High Priest’s daughter.” The sarcasm and bitterness was evident in his voice.

“So what do you intend to do.”

“I intend to try to get us out of this with as little trouble or guilt as possible. When they return him to me I will ask a few more questions and set him free as is my prerogative, certainly they wouldn’t want to release a real murderer like Bar-Abbas back into society, I do give them more credit than to stoop that low.”

“I do hope that you are right governor, but from what I understand it seems that they are intent on ridding themselves of the fellow once and for all. I think that their leaders see the Galilean as more of a threat than a man like Bar-Abbas.”

Pilate said nothing and during the silence Longinus’s troops under the direction of Decius entered the perimeter of the court adding an additional security cordon as the crowd grew and got more boisterous. As they took up position the Temple Police and members of the High Priest’s entourage approached the court with the Galilean in custody. Quentin with four soldiers met them and took custody of the obviously tired and already abused man. They delivered Jesus to Pilate and stood back. Longinus watched as it happened. As he did so Flavius entered the room with his servant. The servant appeared unsteady and full of emotion when he saw the man who had healed him two years before. Flavius stood by his face not betraying any feelings except deep-seated rage that was boiling as he saw this travesty of justice take place.

Pilate attempted every trick in the book to garner a way to save the life of the man standing before him. He asked him questions and Jesus clothed in a purple robe that Herod had mockingly placed upon him said nothing. Finally in desperation Pilate asked Jesus if he was a king. The answer both fascinated and terrified Pilate and caused him to wish that he had never come to the city. As he deliberated earlier and debated the members of the Sanhedrin his wife again urged him to “have nothing to do with that innocent man.”

But the answer of Jesus to the question of his kingship troubled Pilate. Had he thought the man insane he would have scourged him, declared him mad and been done with the affair.

“My kingdom is not of this world, if it were my followers would be fighting to ensue that you did not hand me over to the Jewish leaders.” Jesus looked into Pilate’s eyes, the look sent a chill through Pilate’s soul and so he restated the question “so you are a king?”

Jesus replied solemnly “You say I am a king. I was born for this and it is why I came to this world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to me.”

Pilate appeared stunned and both Longinus and Flavius knew that Pilate, the consummate politician and man of intrigue was beaten. They listened as Pilate asked “what is truth?” The question was one of a man who had long ago sold his soul to gain the world, it was the question of a deeply cynical man who had long determined that truth was only in the eye of the beholder and to be used as needed to acquire power. At the same time they could see a touch of genuineness in the question as Pilate, desperate for an answer that would enable him to please everyone and spare the life of the man before him wrestled with the question of truth for the first time in years.

They watched as Pilate attempted to bargain for the life of Jesus only to be shouted down by the increasingly riotous crowd who demanded that Bar-Abbas be released. Again attempting to assuage the mob he had Jesus scourged with a barbed whip. The soldier who did that brutal work was a Syrian, big and burley without a trace of feeling in his eyes or face. The servant of Flavius begged him to intervene but Flavius now knew that the things happening to Jesus could no longer be influenced by sentimentality and stories of the goodness of Jesus. He had seen this type of Justice before, and though he despised it, he earnestly hoped that it would be enough to deliver Jesus.

After the scourging, soldiers assigned to Longinus jammed a crown of thorns down on the blood covered Jesus and placed the purple cloak over him. Jesus’s body trembled. Pilate again approached the mob and tried to decline the odious responsibility thrust into his hands. The mob led by the Chief Priests and joined by man of their rivals, the Pharisees cried out for Jesus to be crucified.

They heard Pilate plead with Jesus, again noting that he had power over the life and death of Jesus to which Jesus replied that Pilate “had no power over him that had not been given by God.” Finally he pleaded with the Jews one more time to take Bar-Abbas for execution and to spare the Galilean. The leaders shouted him down again and cried out that Pilate would be “a traitor to Caesar” if he let a man who claimed to be a king live.

Defeated By the mob and by his own weakness of character Pilate asked for a ceremonial washing basin full of water. When it came in the hands of a court member he placed his hands in it and proclaimed “I am innocent of this man’s blood.” He then ordered the soldiers to take Jesus to be crucified even as the prisoners Dismas and Gestus were led from the dungeon for execution and a profoundly perplexed Bar-Abbas was released by the jailer.

Longinus looked at Flavius and whispered to him “wash my hands of his blood? My God, he knows that he is as guilty as them.” Flavius looked on and simply said, “I know my friend, we all are.”

The small cohort of soldiers assigned to the crucifixion detail were commanded by Quentin, a man who had fought many battles, and like Longinus and Flavius felt that these executions of helpless prisoners were unworthy of soldiers like himself. The soldiers of Flavius’s unit had responsibility for helping to clear a way down the narrow street called by the Romans Via Delarosa, or The street of suffering. It was the street that all the condemned travelled to the hill of execution so fittingly called the place of the Skull. Longinus had seen others walk this path but in the past he had been able to shield his person from their suffering, but today was different.

Longinus’s own execution squad led by Quentin led Jesus and the others along, forcing them to carry their crosses. About halfway down the street Jesus collapsed under the weight if his cross and grabbed a bystander, a man from Cyrene to carry the cross while the soldiers prodded the bloody body of Jesus down the street and out of the city to the place of execution. People jeered at the condemned as they did at very execution as for most this was no different than any other crucifixion and most of those present knew little about any of the condemned men and even those that were familiar with Jesus probably did not recognize the bloody man stumbling down the street. Of course there were others present who did know Jesus and watched in horror as their friend, teacher and for one woman her son struggled to the execution site. Longinus wondered about his own elderly mother and thought of her as he saw the mother of Jesus. He quickly tried to chase her image from his mind, he needed to be strong and hard if he was to keep his objectivity and conduct the mission as distasteful as he found it.

When the macabre parade arrived at the hill, the prisoners were stripped, placed on the crosses and nailed to them. Their screams as Quentin hammered the large iron nails home through their already abused flesh echoed for all to hear. Thankfully Quentin knew what he was doing and this part of the execution process happened quickly. Then the crosses were raised, but just before this a messenger from Pilate arrived with the placards that denoted the charges. He handed them to Longinus who noted what was written on the one for Jesus. It said “The King of the Jews.”

The placards were placed and with a thud the crosses were placed in the holes on the hill. The suffering of the prisoners was great, the crowds jeered and mocked them while those that loved them stood at a distance. Soldiers stood guard to ensure that no one interfered with them in any way. There was a bit of banter between the real criminals one of whom, the unpleasant one named Gestus joined in the mocking of Jesus only to be put in his place by the other one named Dismas.

Longinus, Flavius, Decius and a few other officers watched as their soldiers from the crucifixion detail divided the paltry worldly possession of the men between themselves. The men argued over a one piece tunic worn by Jesus, Not wanting to destroy it they cast lots for it. A trooper from Tyre won the tunic. Longinus and Flavius looked at each other and realized how little most of their men earned and neither begrudged the men the few items that they gathered from the men being executed.

The skies which had began the day with bright sunshine now became dark and foreboding. Lightening appeared in the distance and occasionally Jesus would address his mother or one man, Flavius believed him to be a disciple who stood by the cross. Jesus even promised the Dismas character that “he would be with him in paradise” and told others, Longinus thought the soldiers but he wasn’t sure “forgive them they know not what they do.” As it approached the ninth hour Jesus cried out in Aramaic “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me!”

A cold rain began to fall.

Quentin approached him with a sponge on a pole which was soaked in a sour wine. It touched Jesus’s lips and Jesus said “Father into your hands I commit my spirit” and then “it is finished.”

With that last dying remark the head of Jesus fell to his chest and his body, bloody and mangled hung limp. As the men looked on the ground began to tremble and as the ground shook and the officers looked about amid the gloom and confusion as the onlookers took flight Longinus exclaimed “surely this man was the son of God.” Flavius looked at his fellow Centurion in astonishment. Longinus, the man who had closed his heart in a fortress was echoing what he had believed since Jesus had healed his servant, the young man who was more than a servant to him.

As the crowds dispersed Longinus received the message that the executions had to be concluded before the Jews began their Passover. With that he sent Quentin to break the legs of the prisoners to hasten their deaths. When Quentin reached Jesus he called for Longinus.

“Centurion, I believe that this man is already dead. Do you still want me to break his legs?”

Longinus looked up at the bloody corpse and then at his subordinate and said “no I must do this myself.” He had a soldier bring him his lance, a ceremonial lance that denoted his seniority as the senior Centurion in the Legion. He looked at the lance and plunged it into the side of Jesus into his heart. Jesus did not move but from the wound blood mixed with what looked like water poured out of the wound and down his side.

“Quentin, he is dead, you may take him down.” Other soldiers pulled down the dead bodies of the thieves. As they did this a man approached Longinus and Flavius.

“Gentlemen. I am Joseph, I am a member of the Sanhedrin. I have come to take responsibility for the body of Jesus of Nazareth.”

Longinus replied in a businesslike manner “by whose authority?” He had a hard time believing that a member of the Sanhedrin would claim this body.

With that Joseph produced a letter from Pilate. Longinus looked the letter over and handed it back to Joseph without comment. Joseph then motioned to several men with him to take the body as Longinus, Flavius and the others looked on. Longinus thought to himself that it was good that a man of some means and influence would at least take the time to give this innocent man a decent burial.

As Quentin took charge of the cleanup Longinus instructed Decius to prepare the troops to return to Fortress Antonia. Flavius instructed his optimo to do the same. The last thing that any of them wanted to be was on the streets when the Jews began their Passover, as always they decided that it was unwise to stir up any more animosity than was needed. Today was a near run thing with e demonstration outside Pilate’s headquarters and none of them wanted any more excitement this evening.

When the clean up was completed and the bodies removed Longinus and Flavius ordered their soldiers back to Fortress Antonia. When they arrived the Centurions went to Pilate to inform him that the mission was complete. Pilate was glad the ordeal was over but was obviously still disturbed by the events of the day. Longinus, now exhausted was glad to leave Pilate’s presence. He still loathed politicians and wondered if had Pilate been a soldier if he would have had the courage to tell the leaders of the Sanhedrin to “pound sand” and keep Jesus alive. But then he knew that had Pilate done something that only a diplomat could do, he kept the peace. Had he been in charge the man named Jesus might have lived but hundreds maybe even thousands of others might have died.

After he dismissed his soldiers he went to his room, doffed his gear and went to the tavern in the fortress. Flavius joined him about 15 minutes later. They sat at the table as the barkeeper brought them each an ale. They looked at each other and Flavius asked “What did you mean by surely this man was the son of God?”

Longinus shook his head. “My friend I do not really know.” He paused and took a drink from his cup. “Until today I simply figured that he was a good man, but after today, after what I witnessed I just don’t know.”

“If you ask me my friend I think that he must be a God, if not somehow connected to the greatest of Gods, the God of the Jews.”

“Perhaps Flavius you are right. All I know is that I can no longer see the world, the Empire or my life in the same light as I did just a week ago.”

Flavius nodded his understanding as Decius entered the tavern. The younger officer reported to his seniors. They acknowledged his entrance and Longinus asked the younger officer to sit with them.

“What do you know Decius?”

The younger officer spoke. “Sir, I do not know if you heard the latest about the man that betrayed Jesus.”

Longinus asked sarcastically “did they elect him High Priest?”

The younger man caught the sarcasm and replied “if only that we’re the case. He was found dead, hanging from a tree in the Potter’s Field.”

Flavius answered: “So the traitor couldn’t handle the consequences of his own act of duplicity?”

Longinus replied, “Evidently not, it serves the bastard right.” He took a drink from his cup and motioned for the barkeep to get Decius a cup of ale too. The three men continued to drink silently and wondered what else could happen…

Peace

Padre Steve+

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A Few Thoughts about Life on My 59th Birthday

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Yesterday was my 59th Birthday and I plan on sharing a few bits of wisdom among the events of the day. The great Roman Emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote:

“Perfection of character is this: to live each day as if it were your last, without frenzy, without apathy, without pretence.”

I think that is a good birthday thought. I came across it last nigh before bed and I think that it describes the way that I want to live my life.

My day began with a visit to my doctor to see what is going on with my left hip. On Sunday night when in a deep sleep and not having any of my violent dreams my left hip exploded in pain. I had been previously diagnosed with osteoarthritis in both knees, but I had never been bothered by pain in the left hip. Yesterday I had an appointment scheduled with a doctor different than my primary care manager who called in sick, so I saw my own PCM today, got new x-rays to compare to the last ones, and some medications. They said it would take a couple of days for radiology to read the reports so I won’t know what is going on for a few days. I wonder if the osteoarthritis has gotten worse. It hurts like hell trying to get up and down and walking, stairs are a bitch, even laying down hurts. At least the pharmacy wasn’t crowded and not too stressful. For that I am thankful because usually that pharmacy is so crowed, cramped and slow that I leave with a severe anxiety attack, and yes this particular reaction goes back to a particular incident in Iraq.

Even with that today has been a good day. After the medical appointment I went out with Judy to breakfast, and then did a little shopping with her. Then we went home and hung out with out Papillon babies. I got a call from my mom and brother, those were both nice, and today, in spite of all the turmoil in the country and around the world my soul is at peace. Since being told by my Commanding Officer and Regional Chaplain to take care of all my medical issues and prepare for retirement my blood pressure has gone back down to my normal, 114/68, instead of spiking to 160/100 as was the case just a few weeks ago.

I have received hundreds of well wishes and greetings for my birthday on Facebook, and so far I have made a personal response to each one, though I know that I have more to answer. I’ve had them from the United States and Canada, the U.K., The Netherlands and Germany, Australia and South Korea. I have known some of the people for 50 years or more. Honestly, I think that is the only reason that I stay on Facebook. Every one of them means something to me that is special, and some of us cannot agree on anything anymore in the current political environment but I cannot help but to remember each one with love and appreciation. You see, I don’t have to agree with someone’s politics, ideology, or religious beliefs to still love and appreciate them. At times I haven’t done well in this, but honestly it is my baseline. Some of the most meaningful exchanges today were with friends who we have had it out and disagreed in a most uncourteous manner to each other. That is when you know you have a friend.

I guess that the late Bob Marley was right“The truth is, everyone is going to hurt you. You just got to find the ones worth suffering for.” Likewise when it comes to friendship I cannot help but to remember the quote of General William Tecumseh Sherman about Ulysses Grant. “Grant stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk, and now we stand by each other.” That’s my kind of friend.

Later in the evening we went out and did our usual things. Since Judy will be getting her left knee replaced on April 12th she went to her group of friends to work on her ceramic projects and she dropped me off at Gordon Biersch, where I continued to answer all the well wishes from friends, had some dinner, talked Baseball with the early crowed, soccer with a couple of young guys later, and then spent some time with an active duty service member from a local base who I have started getting to know over the past couple of weeks. He was in Iraq before me and was there during some of the worst of the action. He saw a lot worse than I did and both of us struggle with PTSD and sleep issues. Judy came and got me and we hung out until closing, talking with friends and each other.

It was a good day. We’ll find a time to actually celebrate my birthday in the next week or too, no rush.

But when you start pushing 60 years old memories of the past, worries about the future and visions of mortality begin to intrude on life, that is why I think that what I quoted from Marcus Aurelius is so spot on. The same is true of the German Lutheran theologian Jürgen Moltmann who observed:

“As time goes on we become old, the future contracts, the past expands…But by future we don’t just mean the years ahead; we always mean as well the plenitude of possibilities which challenge our creativity…In confrontation with the future we can become young if we accept the future’s challenges.”

We went to bed late, spent some good time with our three Papillons and then passed out. We spent most of the morning getting our cars serviced and the afternoon with her doing some artwork as I perused the news. We continue to work hard to prepare for her surgery and dealing with what the sports medicine doctor will recommend next week for my right knee. I am doing my best to keep up the physical therapy to at the minimum strengthen myself.

I found out this afternoon that one of my high school friends passed away last week. I just noticed the obituary. He was a good man, a father, pastor, and football coach. I had the opportunity to serve with one of his nephews on the USS HUE CITY. He made a difference in a lot of lives.

It kind of put a damper on the day but then I remembered a quote from the film Star Trek Generations, in which Captain Picard tells Commander Riker:

“Someone once told me that time was a predator that stalked us all our lives. But I rather believe than time is a companion who goes with us on the journey, and reminds us to cherish every moment because they’ll never come again. What we leave behind is not as important how we lived. After all, Number One, we’re only mortal.” 

Today is a new day and the future still awaits, By this time next year, Lord willing and the Creek don’t rise, I will be retired from the Navy and hopefully teaching college history, and humanities in the civilian world, hopefully I’ll be sporting the beard I practiced growing on our last Germany trip.

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Remembering the Four Chaplains Of the Dorchester

four chaplains

The Four Chaplains

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today I am writing a brief remembrance of four men who I never met but whose lives helped guide me into my vocation as a Priest and Chaplain. I think I first read about them in junior high school and at that time I had never thought about becoming a minister, priest, or chaplain. To be sure, ever since I was in early grade school I wanted to be in the military but it would not be until my senior year of high school that I felt a call to become a Navy Chaplain. I’ll come back to that in a moment, but first a brief op-ed on religion in the United states.

In this day and age where fanatical religious extremists of many faiths seek to divide society, launch wars of religion, discriminate against non-believers or even people who believe differently than them, or hold different philosophical or political beliefs, it is important as Americans to find something that holds us together. The fact that our founders were profoundly against establishing or favoring any particular faith or denomination, there are those today who militantly fight to establish an Evangelical Christian theocracy that has no basis for existence based on the testimony of the Founders, and the earliest proponents of religious liberty in the United States including Virginia Baptist John Leland who helped influence James Madison in crafting the First Amendment of the Constitution 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.”

Sadly, men like Franklin Graham, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell Jr., Robert Jeffress, and a host of others use their theocratic political judgments to condemn people of good faith in this life and the next. Aided by men like President Trump they stand in opposition to Leland and the others like him who understood that the American experiment in religious liberty could not be tied to fixed dogma or a particular religion or denomination.

But I digress, you can read previous articles on this site in which I quoted Leland and other defenders of real religious freedom. For me it’s a matter of my Christian faith. So back to the story of the four Chaplains of the U.S. Army Transport Dorchester.

The four men that I never met were Army Chaplains. These are their stories.

George Lansing Fox was a 42 year old Methodist minister from Lewiston, Pennsylvania who had served as a medic in the First World War in which he was awarded the Silver Star, the Purple Heart, and the French Croix De Guerre. Thirty-one year old Reformed Rabbi Alexander Goode of Brooklyn, New York was the son of a Rabbi who before the war had applied but not been accepted as a Navy Chaplain. After Pearl Harbor he volunteered and was commissioned as an Army Chaplain. Clark V. Poling was a Baptist minister serving as pastor of a Reformed Church when the war broke out. His father had served as a Chaplain in the First World War and Poling, the married father of one child became an Army Chaplain in 1941. Father John Patrick Washington of Newark New Jersey was a Roman Catholic Priest who entered active duty in May 1942. The four men attended the Army Chaplain’s School, then at Harvard and were united for the journey across the Atlantic aboard the transport ship SS Dorchester.

U.S. Army Transport Dorchester

On the night of February 3rd 1943 the Dorchester was torpedoed by the German submarine U-223. She went down in 20 minutes, of the 904 men aboard the ship only 230 survived. Despite the fact that the ship’s captain had ordered a high state of readiness and that all hands wear life jackets at all time, “Many soldiers sleeping deep in the ship’s hold disregarded the order because of the engine’s heat. Others ignored it because the life jackets were uncomfortable.”

When the ship was hit by a torpedo power went out and the four chaplains worked amid the chaos to calm the situation and assisted the soldiers, sailors, and merchant mariners aboard the ship as they tried to abandon ship. The four chaplains handed out life jackets until the supply ran out and then gave their own life jackets to soldiers that had none.

In doing so they signed their own death sentence, the water temperature was just 34 degrees, the air temperature was 36 degrees, many who survived the sinking died of exposure within minutes of the sinking, rescue ships found hundreds of bodies floating in the water. As the ship went down they died together, praying with arms linked after giving away their life jackets as the troop transport that they were on sank beneath the waves into the icy depths of the North Atlantic. A survivor wrote:

“As I swam away from the ship, I looked back. The flares had lighted everything. The bow came up high and she slid under. The last thing I saw, the Four Chaplains were up there praying for the safety of the men. They had done everything they could. I did not see them again. They themselves did not have a chance without their life jackets.”

Other survivors reported hearing the prayers of the chaplains in English, Latin, and Hebrew as the ship went down. Their bodies were never recovered. They have been remembered as heroes. In 1960 Congress named February 3rd as Four Chaplains Day. The U.S. Post Office commissioned a stamp in their honor in 1948. The Chapel of the Four Chaplains was dedicated in the basement of Grace Baptist Church in Philadelphia in 1951. President Harry Truman spoke at its dedication noting:

“This interfaith shrine… will stand through long generations to teach Americans that as men can die heroically as brothers so should they live together in mutual faith and goodwill.”

The chapel was moved to Temple University in 1953 and to the former Philadelphia Naval Shipyard in 2001.

 

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Father John Patrick Washington (Top Left), Reverend Clark V. Poling (Top Right), Rabbi Alexander Goode (Bottom Left), and Reverend George Lansing Fox

Of course my journey in finding that call and answering it had a number of detours in which I first rejecting following the call. Instead, when I was in college I simply enlisted in the Army National Guard, entered ROTC and then was commissioned as an Army officer. After a number of incidents on active duty which renewed that sense of call I left active duty to go to seminary, went back into the National Guard and in September of 1992 became an Army National Guard and civilian hospital chaplain.  On February 9th 1999 I resigned my commission as a Major in the Army Chaplain Corps to become a Navy Chaplain, and in the process accepting a reduction in rank.

In the nearly 37 years that I have served in the military of which almost 26 have been spent as a chaplain I have had the privilege of serving with many fine ministers of many denominations, priests, rabbis, and even an imam.  Of course I have served alongside some chaplains who regardless of their faith or denomination were simply assholes, but that being said I truly do appreciate those men and women from so many faiths and denominations who have cared for me. I do think that any of them could have linked arms with me and prayed after doing the last best things that we could do for the soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen who entrust themselves to our care.

Despite what some senior chaplains in both the Army and Navy had done to me at different points; when I think of those men and women who regardless of their beliefs or the beliefs of the religious organizations that endorse them for the chaplaincy, I realize just how blessed that I am.

In the day that we live I can still stand with Harry Truman when he praised these chaplains. Now I am sure that there are quite few people who would say that either Goode, Fox, Poling, or Washington are already in Hell; but I don’t believe that. I understand from Scripture and the teachings of Jesus that God looks on the heart, and that the most important commandments are to love God and love our neighbors. I think that Jesus said that in doing those things that people fulfill the entire law.

Thus I thank God for the Chaplains of various denominations, Mainline Protestants, Evangelicals, Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Anglicans, Mormons, Jews, Buddhists, and Muslims who I would be blessed to link arms with to care for those in our care.

So today, I ask my readers to share this message with others.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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A Lesson to be Learned: I Will Tell the Truth

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Yesterday I wrote about a Code that I live by and how a military officer, and contemporary of me violated that code. Of course I was writing about Michael Flynn in regard to the code of the Military Academy that “a Cadet will Not lie, cheat, or steal, or tolerate those who do.” This is important because it is foundational to how one views the law, ethics, morality, and human rights.

Thus, during my military service I have always tried to tell the truth, even when it was disadvantageous to me, even when remaining silent would have been to my advantage. But I have always tried to tell the truth even when to deny it would have helped my career. That has been my experience, even through this year when I flat out asked a senior officer “do you want me to lie?”, when it came to putting my name on the evaluation of an important contractor at my base.

“Do you want me to lie?”

I don’t know many people who would ask that question to a superior, but I did, and it wasn’t the first time that I did it or I acted in ways that superiors would not do.

That superior officer told me that he did not, so I wrote the evaluation of the contractor and his services, in such a way that the truth was told, but in a manner in which the recipients of the service provided by the contractor were not harmed. I told the truth, fully and completely, even though the contend his supporters, including very high ranking officers have continued to attack me and try to cause me personal harm. Thankfully, my Commander and the commanders over him have seen through the lies and bullshit and have defended me and my staff against the lies and attacks of high ranking Admirals and supporters of my rogue contractor who has yet to admit his complicity in personal and legal attacks on me on my staff.

Frankly, I will go to my grave telling the truth rather than to lie. Call me whatever you want but it all goes back to the simple Cadet Code that I embraced as an ROTC Cadet : “I will Not lie, cheat, or steal, or tolerate those who do.”

The truth matters. Personal integrity matters. Speaking the truth to power even if it is harmful to career ambitions matters.

Tonight I rewatched the films Denial about the libel trial raised by Holocaust denier David Irving against American historian Deborah Lipstadt, and Judgement at Nuremberg, a fictional account of the Judges Trials at Nuremberg.

Lipstadt wrote:

“And therein is a lesson that can be learned by all who fight the purveyors of hatred and lies. Though the battle against our opponents is exceptionally important, the opponents themselves are not. Their arguments make as much sense as flat-earth theory. However, in dramatic contrast to flat-earthers, they can cause tremendous pain and damage. Some of them use violence. Others, as Hajo Funke said in Berlin as we sat in the shadow of the Reichstag, use words that, in turn, encourage others to do harm. It was words that motivated those who blew up the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, dragged an African-American down a logging road to his death, tortured a young homosexual in Wyoming, stabbed a Jewish student to death on the streets of Crown Heights, blew up Israeli families about to celebrate the Passover Seder, and flew planes into the World Trade Center. We must conduct an unrelenting fight against those who encourage—directly or indirectly—others to do these things. But, even as we fight, we must not imbue our opponents with a primordial significance. We certainly must never attribute our existence to their attacks on us or let our battle against them become our raison d’etre. And as we fight them, we must dress them—or force them to dress themselves—in the jester’s costume. Ultimately, our victory comes when, even as we defeat them, we demonstrate not only how irrational, but how absolutely pathetic, they are.”

Speaking the truth to those in power and when it costs us something actually matters. Personal responsibility during war doesn’t begin or end at pulling the trigger at places like Babi Yar, Fort Number Nine, Lidice, or Oradour Sur Glane. It doesn’t begin or end at Nanking, My Lai, or Abu Ghraib. It is something that must be done regardless of whoever is in power or it is not about truth at all.

Truth and integrity matter, and if one is willing to subvert them in order to gain or maintain power, then they are merely a ruse.

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Justice and Life as an Exercise in Exceptions: Faith in the Age of Trump

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The English Mathematician and founder of Process Philosophy, Alfred North Whitehead wrote:

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

I find much truth in Whitehead’s words. Those who follow my writings know how much I struggle with faith and doubt on a daily basis. I believe, but as the man told Jesus when he asked Jesus to heal his child “I believe, help my unbelief.” I no longer believe in the “absolute truths” that I once believed.

Of course to some this makes me a heretic or worse. That being said, as a Christian, I have faith in a God I cannot see or prove. I have faith in a God who Scripture and Tradition clothes himself in human weakness and allows himself to be killed based on the trumped up charges of corrupt and fearful religious leaders aided by fearful politicians. For me this is part of being a theologian of the Cross in a post-Auschwitz world.

Jürgen Moltmann, a German theologian who wrote the book The Crucified God answered a question about believing in God after Auschwitz:

“A shattering expression of the theologia crucis which is suggested in the rabbinic theology of God’s humiliation of himself is to be found in Night, a book written by E. Wiesel, a survivor of Auschwitz:

The SS hanged two Jewish men and a youth in front of the whole camp. The men died quickly, but the death throes of the youth lasted for half an hour. ‘Where is God? Where is he?’ someone asked behind me. As the youth still hung in torment for a long time, I heard the man call again, ‘Where is God now?’ And I heard a voice in myself answer: ‘Where is he? He is here. He is hanging there on the gallows…’

Any other answer would be blasphemy. There cannot be any other Christian answer to the question of this torment. To speak here of a God who could not suffer would make God a demon. To speak here of an absolute God would make God an annihilating nothingness. To speak here of an indifferent God would condemn men to indifference.

(Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, p 273-274)

In answer to the question “How can we believe in God after Auschwitz he responded:

“In whom can we believe after Auschwitz if not God?

Likewise, Rabbi Emil Fackenheim noted:

If we abandoned our faith in God after Auschwitz, we would give Hitler a posthumous victory.

And as long as we know that the ‘Sh’ma Yisrael’ and the ‘Our Father’ prayers were prayed in Auschwitz, we must not give up our faith in God.”

Thus, while I believe, I have a problem with Christians or members of other religions try to use the police power of state to enforce their beliefs on others. In this belief I am much like the great Virginia Baptist leader, John Leland who was a driving force behind the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights who wrote:

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

When it comes to God, I believe, but my doubts are all too real. Frankly I cringe when I hear religious people speaking with absolute certitude about things that they ultimately cannot prove, and that includes the concept of justice, which cannot always be measured in absolutes.

Captain Jean Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) noted in the Star Trek the Next Generation episode Justice: 

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

I have found and learned to accept that life as we know it “is an exercise in exceptions.”  We all make them, and the Bible and the history of the church is full of them. So I have a hard time with people who claim an absolute certitude in beliefs that wish to impose on others.

True believers frequently wrap themselves in the certitude of their faith. They espouse doctrines that are unprovable and then build complex doctrinal systems to prove them, systems that then which must be defended, sometimes to the death. Eric Hoffer wrote:

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

Henri Nouwen, the Priest who wrote the classic book on pastoral care, The Wounded Healer, and many other works wrote:

Theological formation is the gradual and often painful discovery of God’s incomprehensibility. You can be competent in many things, but you cannot be competent in God.” 

No one can be competent in God, I certainly am not. I am sure that even well meaning people who claim to be are hopelessly deluded, and those that those that use their alleged competence in God to prop up evil are far worse, they are evil men masquerading as good.

Those men and women that speak of absolutes and want to use the Bible or any other religious text as some sort of rule book that they alone can interpret need to ask themselves this question, “When has justice ever been as simple as a rulebook?” The Bible is not a rule book, but a story of imperfect people trying to understand and live an experience with a being that they, like us, can only imagine and often misunderstand.

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

It takes true wisdom to know when and how to make these exceptions, wisdom based on reason, grace and mercy. Justice, is to apply the law in fairness and equity, knowing that even our best attempts can be misguided. If instead of reason we appeal to emotion, hatred, prejudice or vengeance and clothe them in the language of righteousness, what we call justice can be more evil than any evil it is supposed to correct, no matter what our motivation.

But we see it all too often, religious people and others misusing faith or ideology to condemn those they do not understand or with whom they disagree. It is happening again.

When such people gain power, especially when the do so supporting a leader who is they tend to expand that power into the realm of theocratic absolutism and despotism. As Captain Jean Luc Picard noted in the Start Trek Next Generation episode The Drumhead: 

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

It is happening, all around the world, and it could easily happen here. Our founders realized how easily it could happen, they warned about it; but they are dead, and neither Trump or his followers give a damn about them or the Constitution that they crafted. In fact, his followers are for more dangerous thanTrump, because they will outlast him by a generation, or more, always waiting for the chance to grab power by any means possible.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

Padre Steve+

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You Have to Make Choices and be Happy with Them

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today was an exhausting day. Last night I found out that one of the military personnel that I had served with in a previous assignment many years ago was in a bad way. It was already well after midnight but since I didn’t have his phone number I sent him a personal message on a social media site. I asked him to call me and gave him my number. I cannot divulge any details but he was struggling and our conversation lasted a long time. I didn’t get to sleep until almost 3 AM. But the good thing is that he is getting help at the VA and I am sure that he will be okay. But his trust in me was a validation of the work that I do, and will continue to do for the people that I have served with for the rest of my life, long after I retire from the Navy next year.

Unfortunately before I went to bed I found my wife’s car keys in my pants. I decided to go hang them on the key rack downstairs. I was tired and wasn’t paying attention, didn’t keep a grip on the railing and slipped on the second or third stair from bottom and jammed my left leg and less badly my right leg. I hurt like a son of a bitch. I ended up getting less than three hours of very uncomfortable sleep and when I swung  my leg out of be was jolted by excruciating pain.

It would be that this morning I had to get up early to cover a number of meetings that lasted until noon. I had to limp to those meetings and in the midst of fighting off the sleep monster and trying to keep myself in a position that my legs didn’t hurt. After my meetings I limped back to my car and the office and handled before driving to the Naval Medical Center ER.

The ER and the radiology techs were great, despite bending me into positions that made me scream. The good thing was that they found no broken bones. I have some bruising on my femur, and have some pulled muscles and sprains and they discovered that I have some arthritis in my knees, hips, and ankles. No doubt from all of my running, athletic injuries, and from lugging around too much gear in criss crossing Al Anbar Province back in 2007-2008, and far too many field exercises in the Army and while serving with the Marines.

That made for a very long day, I left the ER about 5 PM and drove to my favorite local German restaurant, the Bier Garden, in Portsmouth to avoid rush hour and the pain in the ass known getting through the Downtown Tunnel, but I digress…

I usually have the Sauerbraten with a Semmel Knodel and red cabbage or sauerkraut, or sometimes their Bockwurst. Both are great and their rotating beer selections of German, European, and American craft beers is wonderful, But today I had their Ruben on German sourdough bread. I haven’t had that in a long time and and it is still to die for. The wonderful owner and operator of the Bier Garden is a German lady named Hannelore. She is an absolute doll, Judy and I love her to death.

But while I was out I was able to read the comics and check the news only to find that the President had stripped former CIA director’s security clearance and is looking at doing so to others. The interesting thing as that of those he is looking at doing this to none have committed any crimes, they are simply critics. Of course the reason that these men and women retain their clearances is not to give them access to information when they leave the organization, but rather if their expertise is needed that they can be used to help the agencies that they once ran.

The same is true for military personnel who leave the service. It is a pain in the ass to start a new clearance and takes time, that’s why the government allows such men and women to maintain clearances. It was interesting to note that the one person not being looked at to have their clearance revoked was an actual convicted criminal, Trump’s first National Security Advisor, former General Michael Flynn. I find that fascinating, only non-criminal critics are being looked at while an actual criminal is not. This leads me to believe that this unprecedented action was done to silence not just Brennan, but all critics. But then I have recently experienced the kind of fanatical vengeance from a Trump Cultist parishioner that tried to get me tried by court martial for a sermon. So I understand the what John Brennan is going through, but I digress…

Anyway, when I was done with dinner and a couple of marvelous beers, I limped to the car and went home to Judy and the the Papillon puppies and have been binge watching The Blacklist. It may not be much but I am happy. It was a fascinating day,, I got to reflect on the good things that I have been able to do in my career, muse on my current situation, think about what I will say to the congregation that the man who tried to get me tried by court martial this weekend, and be thankful for the people that I now work with, as well as Judy and the our Minnie, Izzy, and Pierre. So I didn’t make Captain or get any of the assignments, except the Staff College that I wanted after I made Commander, but Raymond Reddington once said:

“You can’t do every silly thing you want to in life. You have to make choices and be happy with them.”

I have to say that I am really learning to be happy with those choices, even the ones that were forced upon me and even with the recent experience with my parishioner. So have a great night,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Raymond Reddington, Me, and the Forgiveness of Sins

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In spite of being very busy working in the house and going  back to work to deal with the crisis d’jour I have been very reflective about all I have been through over the past few months. Unlike past times of reflection this has been a rather uplifting experience of grace and not a de-evolution into a morbid state of moroseness.

As I wrote on Saturday I drafted and sent up my retirement letter today for my Commanding Officer’s endorsement. I also let my detailer, the officer who manages officer assignments know that I was putting in my papers so he can plan to replace me. I also let the men and . It was a strange but very freeing. I will have much to do to get ready for that day about a year from now but knowing that I can begin working on everything that I need to accomplish. There is much to do but I am at peace and really looking forward to what comes next, whatever it may be.

Due to a situation dealing with my Catholic congregation  I am having to do a town hall meeting to explain howe things work to all of my faith group leaders and contractors on Sunday afternoon. Thus I will be going in to the chapel on Sunday and I will make an appearance before my Protestant congregation to discuss my feelings about the member that tried to get me sent to court martial. I have finally been able to deal with the anger from that experience but the pain is still there. At least I am in a better place to talk about it and know now that I won’t do anything to blow the situation up.

This experience has taught me something about grace, forgiveness, and trust, but I digress…

The fact is that I have a tremendous ability to dwell upon injustices and I have a terrible time with forgiveness. I do really love the concept and as a Christian I have no idea of how Jesus managed to forgive nor the great saints of every faith who managed to live lives full of grace and forgiveness have managed to do so. It probably goes back to my Irish-Scottish DNA, the DNA that can make one a hilarious hoot one minute and a brooding bore the next regardless of whether or not alcohol is involved.

But there is something that I have learned recently: forgiveness doesn’t require me to be dishonest about how I feel about something. I learned that from Raymond Reddington, and yes I have been binge-watching The Blacklist of late and I find Reddington’s grip on philosophy, religion, and the human condition to be quite fascinating. Reddington observed:

“Sins should be buried like the dead. Not that they may be forgotten but we may them and find our way forward nonetheless.”

Truthfully I don’t believe in the forgive and forget bullshit, it’s a nice thought, but our brains don’t work that way. We can forgive someone every day, but the memories will still be there. That’s what makes it so hard. That is why the Christian understanding of the forgiveness of since is so important and so difficult. It wasn’t meant to be easy or painless, but it might make a difference, as Reddington noted:

“A friend told me recently that forgiveness won’t change the past but could very well change their future. Apparently, everything is forgivable.” 

So that’s all for tonight. Yes I know there are many things going on that I can write about but right now I need to stay in this place for a moment.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

 

 

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