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“You’re Worse… You Went Along With it All, Even Though You Knew…” Loyal Servants of Evil Regimes

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

One of the more sobering war movies that I have ever watched is the film Stalingrad. Released in 1993 it is the story of four soldiers of a platoon of soldiers of the 336th Pioneer Battalion. The Pioneers were the equivalent of American Combat Engineers. It is a sobering film to watch. In a way it is much like the film Platoon. Director Joseph Vilsmaier made the battle and the human suffering come alive with realism. There is no happy ending and there are few if any heroes. The men see, protest, are punished, and then are ordered to participate in war crimes.

The battle of Stalingrad was one of the turning points of the Second World War, over a million Russian, German, Romanian, and Italian Soldiers died in the battle. Of the 260,000 soldiers of the German Sixth Army which led the attack in Stalingrad and then were surrounded by the Soviet counter-offensive, very few survived. Some escaped because they were evacuated by transport planes, but most perished. Of the approximately 91,000 German soldiers that surrendered only about 6,000 returned home.

I’ll write about that battle again around Christmas and on the anniversary of its surrender at the end of January, but there are two sequences of dialogue that stood out to me. The first is at the beginning of the battle where a German Chaplain exhorts the soldier to fight against the “Godless Bolsheviks” because the Germans believed in God and the officially Atheistic Soviet Union and its people did not. In his exhortation the Chaplain calls attentional the belt buckles worn by every soldier in the Wehrmacht, which were embossed with the words Gott mit Uns, or God is with us.

I am a a military Chaplain. I have been one since 1992, and the older I get the more distrustful I am of men who place a veneer of region over the most ungodly and unjust wars. For me that was frightening because I do know from experience that the temptation to do such things when in uniform is all too great, but how can anyone exhort people to acts of criminality in the name of God? I know that it is done far too often and I hate to admit I personally know, or know of American military chaplains who would say the same thing as the German Chaplain depicted in the film. Back in the Cold War while serving as an officer before I became a Chaplain I used to talk about the Godless Communists.

The second question is also difficult. I have been in the military for about thirty-seven plus years. Truthfully I am a dinosaur. I am the second most senior and the oldest sailor on my base. I have served during the Cold War as a company commander, was mobilized as a chaplain to support the Bosnia operation in 1996, I have served in the Korean DMZ, at sea during Operation Enduring Freedom and Southern Watch, and with American advisors to the Iraqi Army, Police, and Border troops in Al Anbar Province. I have seen too much of war but even though I could retire from the military today I still believe that I am called to serve and care for the men and women who will go into harm’s way.

That being said those who have read my writings on this site for years know just how anti-war I have become and why this dialogue hits so hard. Some of the members of the platoon are accused of cowardice and sent to a penal company in order to redeem themselves. The commander of the unit, a Captain who hold the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross is confronted by one of the men.

Otto: You know we don’t stand a chance. Why not surrender?

Captain Hermann Musk: You know what would happen if we do.

Otto: Do we deserve any better?

Captain Hermann Musk: Otto, I’m not a Nazi.

Otto: No, you’re worse. Lousy officers. You went along with it all, even though you knew who was in charge.

That is something that bothers me even today. I wonder about the men who go along with wars which cannot be classified as anything other than war crimes based on the precedents set by Americans at Nuremberg, and I am not without my own guilt. In 2003 I had my own misgivings about the invasion of Iraq, but I wholeheartedly supported it and volunteered to go there.

I was all too much like the German Captain. I went along with it despite my doubts. As a voter I could have cast my vote for John Kerry in 2004, but I didn’t. Instead I supported a President who launched a war of aggression that by every definition fits the charges leveled against the leaders of the Nazi state at Nuremberg. When I was in Iraq I saw things that changed me and I have written in much detail about them on this site, but I supported that invasion.

Now as a nation we are in a place where a man who openly advocates breaking the Geneva and Hague Conventions, supports the use of torture, and who both beats the drums of war, to the extent of appointing one of the most strident proponents of the invasion of Iraq as his National Security Advisor. Likewise, he holds the professional military in contempt appears to be angling for war in the Middle East against Iran even as he excuses the criminal actions of Saudi Arabia in Yemen and against American residents.

I have no doubt that unless something changes that a terrible war is coming and that our President will be a catalyst for it. But for the next nine months before I retire, I will remain in the military to care for the sailors, soldiers, marines, and airmen who will have to go to war and perhaps fight and die.

The thought haunts me and makes it hard for me to sleep at night and I do my best to speak up and be truthful in fulfillment of my priestly vows and my oath of office. Today, unlike my younger years; one thing for me is true: I will never tell any military member that God is with us in the sense that all too many Christian nationalists have done in the past.

I don’t actually think that I ever said the words “God is with us” in regards to advocating war in my career as a Chaplain, but I am sure that my words, and public prayers could have been interpreted in that way when I was younger, especially in the traumatic days after September 11th, 2001.

Likewise, I did go along with the war in Iraq even though I understood what it meant! and what the men and women who engineered it wanted when they took us to war. Sadly, I trusted my leaders too much, especially when Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke before the United Nations to prove the case against Iraq just before the invasion.

Supreme Justice Robert Jackson, who served as the Chief American Prosecutor at Nuremberg stated in the London Agreement:

“If certain acts of violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them, and we are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us.”

Now we live in a world where nationalism, ethnic, racial, and religious hatred are rising, and our own President seems to be abandoning the democratic and pluralistic ideas of or founders, while praising and tacitly supporting authoritarian and Fascist rulers around the world. Honestly, I dread what may befall us if he remains in power.

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Faith and Politics

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The American patriot Samuel Adams once remarked: “If ever a time should come, when vain and aspiring men shall possess the highest seats in Government, our country will stand in need of its experienced patriots to prevent its ruin.”

My friends, that time has arrived. As I wrote a few days ago, Patriotism is distinctly different than nationalism and the President, the Vice President, and many of their most strident followers, especially so-called “conservative Christians” are not patriots but nationalists who in their stridency would co-opt God into their battle with their political opponents. The German Catholic theologian of the Second Vatican Council, and student of Martin Luther, Hans Kung wrote words that are quite applicable today: “Religion often is misused for purely power-political goals, including war.”

Really, what else could motivate Trump’s followers on the Christian Right to not only defend him but in doing so toss their belief in the Crucified God to the curb for the crass cause of gaining political power?

Somehow the old motto of the Wehrmacht and the Imperial German Army before seems to suit them Gott mit Uns or God is with us. Sadly, while a Christian who believes in the incarnation of Christ as a man, born of a woman may take comfort in the belief that God shares our humanity, the concept of Gott mit Uns is the understanding of nationalism and imperialism bent on the domination of other people and other countries is foreign to the ministry of Jesus and the early leaders of the church. Sadly, in our day, the Imperial Church has found a new savior, President Donald Trump and unless one is taking a knee for the National Anthem, one better be ready to bow their knee to this President or face the wrath of both the State and God, at least say the self-anointed prophets and priests like Robert Jeffress, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell Jr., and Franklin Graham, who demand that people, even non-Christians follow their lead and obey the President.

Despite the best attempts of the Imperial Church beginning with the Emperor Constantine who cemented the alliance of the Church and Empire to secure his kingdom, and for that matter every empire that followed, has been resisted by people of conscience. The fact is that this Imperial Church concept is not only foreign to the Gospel but also to the founders of our country who resisted every attempt to to impose a state sponsored religion on the people. But neither do the most strident supporters of the President on the Christian seem to think that is important. Likewise these “disciples” neither think of the future of generations to come and their responsibility for perpetuating the Christian faith. Instead they sell their birthright for an illusion of political power that will fade as quickly as the grass in winter.

Future Christians as well as non-Christians who care about this world will look at them and wonder how they could support a man so opposed in almost every conceivable way to the faith of Jesus the Christ. The same Jesus who became incarnate, was born of a woman, who hung out and ministered to the very people who the current “faithful” despise. This is the Jesus who suffered under the scourging of Roman soldiers, was abandoned by his own people, died on a cross as a criminal, and was buried in a borrowed tomb. According to scripture he rose again from the dead bearing all the marks of his humanity, including his scars.

This is what Martin Luther called “the theology of the Cross” and one cannot understand the Christian faith, and I do say faith, without at least trying to comprehend, for it flies in the face of those who desire an earthly kingdom where alleged Christians dominate the government in the perpetually vain attempt to establish the kingdom of Christ on the earth. The best modern exponent of the theology of the Cross, German Lutheran theologian Juergen Moltmann wrote:

“When God becomes man in Jesus of Nazareth, he not only enters into the finitude of man, but in his death on the cross also enters into the situation of man’s godforsakenness. In Jesus he does not die the natural death of a finite being, but the violent death of the criminal on the cross, the death of complete abandonment by God. The suffering in the passion of Jesus is abandonment, rejection by God, his Father. God does not become a religion, so that man participates in him by corresponding religious thoughts and feelings. God does not become a law, so that man participates in him through obedience to a law. God does not become an ideal, so that man achieves community with him through constant striving. He humbles himself and takes upon himself the eternal death of the godless and the godforsaken, so that all the godless and the godforsaken can experience communion with him.”

Why do I say this today? Well actually I began this article a couple of days ago with a different concept in mind, but I basically had writers block. But meditating on it as I walked today I was reminded of just why I stand so strongly against what the President has been doing and how the allegedly Christian Right has sold its soul to him. I cannot look at scripture, profess my belief in Jesus and reconcile that belief with a sham Gospel that despises the poor and values earthly power and prosperity.

Sadly today I had a Facebook follower, a man who I do not know, but who is a Byzantine Catholic Priest tell me that he would no longer follow me because of my “constant anti-Trump rants.” That didn’t bother me at all. I don’t know the man and everything I see that he posts, including his pictures shows me that his faith is more concerned with power, both ecclesiastical and political than the theology of the Cross.

So when you read my criticisms of the President, please know that much of my political beliefs are formed by my faith, a faith that I struggle with on a daily basis since my deployment to Iraq in 2007-2008. For me this is important, because though I believe I still doubt. But there is something that I don’t doubt and that are the words of the Declaration of Independence, the preamble to the Constitution of the United States, and the First Amendment and that means that I cannot abide a President who flaunts all of these things and supposed Christians who sell their souls to defend him. I just can’t go there. I heartily agree with John Leland, the Virginia Baptist pastor who fought to ensure religious liberty for all when his fellow Virginian Anglicans tried to establish a state church after the colonies has secured their independence from England. Leland worked with James Madison to craft the Bill of Rights, especially the First Amendment which both President Trump and his Christian supporters seem to want to destroy.

We are in a terrible time of testing. The German pastor, theologian, and martyr during the Nazi Era, Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” 

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, faith, History, News and current events, Political Commentary

God With Us? The Misuse of God’s Promise by Political Partisans

barmherzigkeit

It is one of the most amazing stories of salvation history. The Incarnation of God in Jesus the Christ. Matthew’s Gospel (Ch 1 v.24), referring back to the words of Isaiah delivers the message in words which find their way into our culture every Christmas through Georg Friedrich Handel’s Messiah: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, ‘God with us.’”

That message, which lays at the heart of the Christian Gospel is really amazing.  It is a message that points to a Gospel meant for all people and not any particular nation, nor any political, racial, or ethnic group that wishes to appropriate it for themselves alone.

It is the message of the humility and grace of God.  It is the message God humbling himself to become incarnate and not only live among his creation, but to suffer and die for the salvation of it. All of it. As Paul wrote so well in his epistle to the Philippians:

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross.” (Phil 2:5-7)

Unfortunately that message is all too often appropriated and twisted into something unrecognizable by those who seek to use it to bolster their particular ideology, nationalism or even racism. In practice, human beings are much more likely to claim this message to bolster their own hatred and intolerance or justify their nation’s desire for conquest. It matters not if the a Christian in any sense of the word or not. One sees the same idea floated by zealots of almost every major religion. The appeal to being on the same side of God trumps all other arguments.

As a historian I have studied this often. In the United States it is encompassed in the idea of Manifest Destiny; but can be seen in the life and history of many nations who in their belief that God was on their side have slaughtered hundreds of millions of people. One does not have to look far to see leaders of nations, political factions, ideologues or other fanatics appropriate God as the trump card of their message. However, it is not just a matter for history. It happens every day, and it is not pretty. Many use it to justify the most reprehensible crimes, persecution, ethnic cleansing and even genocide. They do so all in the name of God, preaching that God is with them, and not those who they despise.

god-government-77-cover-photo

Today I saw a blog on a service that I use to promote my website. The author of the blog promotes an extremely conservative political ideology with most of his posts being directed with some vehemence, often colored by blatant racism at President Obama and others that he does not agree with. Usually his posts are filled with such hyperbole and nonsense that I simply ignore them. However, today he posted something that as a Christian really bothered me. His post was titled Do Not Fear, God is With Us, and it featured the picture shown above. When I saw it, I felt a chill run down my spine. It was as if I was envisioning the virulent hatred of other races, creeds and nations exhibited by those who have claimed that mantle before. I can see it now, a belt-buckle with a Swastika, ringed in the words “Gott Mit Uns.” 

gottMitUns

The sad thing is that the Christians who claim this mantle misuse scripture and twist it to justify their hatred of all that they disagree with, have lost sight of the Gospel. Instead they have allowed their passionate hatred and prejudice to hijack the message of the Gospel to promote political partisanship, hyper nationalism and xenophobia. This can hardly be called Christian. If such ideas were was limited to the fringe of society it would not be so concerning. However, this blogger represents a significant portion of the American electorate; and his comments are echoed by the very powerful, and allegedly Christian leaders of partisan political organizations, as well as pundits, politicians and preachers. If you do not agree with them you are not a real American.

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Cartoon from the Nazi Der Sturmer linking the Nazi Movement to Christ, with the Jew being the villain 

Instead of seeing the message of God’s grace, love and mercy for all people, we see triumphalist Christians that claim that God is with them. In their zeal they ride roughshod over others, and despise all who disagree with or oppose them. Their opponents are painted as being in league with the Devil, modern Judas Iscariots. In their lives and ideology many Christians follow leaders who espouse brutal doctrines of Social Darwinism and sell their birthright for a pittance. They attempt to use of the police power of government at every level against those that they disapprove, in matters of faith, lifestyle or politics. Likewise they have no compunction about using the military and economic power of the nation to crush weaker nations, all because they believe that they and their country have God on their side.

But do such sentiments have any place in the message of Christians? I think not. As Paul the Apostle notes: if in Christ “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28) Or as Paul writes in 2 Corinthians “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” (2 Cor 5: 19)

The Gospel is not about God being on the side of any nation or political ideology. Such ideas always end in disaster for those that believe them, and who use God to justify their actions.

0725-Morgan-McNaughton-one-nation-550x358

McNoughton’s “One Nation under God”

The picture on the website that triggered this little article is one by a Mormon artist, John McNoughton. McNoughton has frequently blended the image of Jesus with the most banal appeal to American “patriotism” and crude attacks on President Obama. In this picture as well as others the artist has Jesus holding a copy of the Constitution of the United States in his right hand, with his friends on that side, and his foes, including judges, others viewed as liberals and women. In his more crass attacks on the President in other paintings he shows Obama trampling the Constitution while white people are bound in chains. All of these show up with startling frequency on supposedly Christian websites.

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US Political Cartoon from 1896

The sad truth is that McNoughton is not the first to practice this crude form of xenophobic patriotism, which appeals to God in order to vilify the opponents of their ideology. It has been used in this country before, as well as in Europe to vilify Jews, racial minorities and political opponents.

Yes, I do believe that God is with us, however, that is not confused with appeals to my patriotism, which is real and has led me to serve this nation for over 30 years in the military including two combat tours in the Middle East. Nor does it add or detract from my support of our Constitution, why does not mention God once, despite its guarantee of religious freedom for all, not just Christians. It is an amazing document, one that I will die to defend, but it is not handed down by God, and Jesus never referred to it.

Instead, my belief that God is with us flows from the mystery of the Incarnation, that miracle of salvation history.  I believe in the message wonderfully referred to in the liturgy as the “mystery of faith,” that Christ has died, Christ is risen and Christ will come again. My belief flows from the simple message that for God so loved the world… and not that God so established this or any other nation or political ideology as his own.

I understand the fear that drives men like the blogger who posted the article I saw, as well as men like McNoughton. Their fear of the other allows them to use these images to promote their hopelessly confused faith and ideology. Dietrich Bonhoeffer who saw the same fear and hatred present among his fellow Germans, especially German Christians wrote:

“The Christian must treat his enemy as a brother, and requite his hostility with love. His behavior must be determined not by the way others treat him, but by the treatment he himself receives from Jesus; it has only one source, and that is the will of Jesus.”

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What I see from the present political ideologues has nothing to do with love of God or our neighbor, but their efforts to protect their status in society, their political power and subject all others to their will.

God is with us indeed, in the humility of a borrowed manger, on the gibbet of a Roman cross, and in shame of a borrowed tomb. God is really present with us in the the bread and wine, in the word, and in the lives of his people; especially the least, the lost and the lonely. To attempt to crudely use God to buttress any earthy power is heresy. Those that use it in such a manner, though proclaiming their fealty to Christ, or any other God, willingly trample the message of the God who humbled himself, even to death on a cross.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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