Tag Archives: oscar wilde

“The First Duty of Every Officer is to the Truth”

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Most of my readers know that in addition to being a Priest and Navy Chaplain that I am a historian and have taught both ethics and Gettysburg as a faculty member at a Staff College. Many of the men and women that I taught will lead our military as commanders, planners and staff officers. I stay in contact with a number of my former students, including two from South Korea. Now I still write even as I lead the staff at one of the Navy’s largest and most active Chapel programs.

Since I figure that this will be my last duty station before I retire my goal is to help guide those who work with me to success in the military and set them up for success when they leave the military. They are a great group, I could not ask for better and when I have a bad day or seem to be off in some way I have given them permission to ask how I am doing and to ask me hard questions. I give them permission to tell me the truth. A lot of leaders won’t do that, but I try to be transparent and honest with them because I know that they have my back and we do a pretty good job at caring for people and doing the right thing.

As such my first duty, whether it is in teaching, writing or in ministry is to the truth. In fact I quoted Captain Jean Luc Picard, played by Sir Patrick Stewart in Star Trek the Next Generation: “the first duty of every Starfleet officer is to the truth, whether it’s scientific truth, historical truth or personnel truth…” I am not a Starfleet Officer but as an officer nonetheless I have always believed that the truth matters, but sadly I, like so many of us have turned the other way and not spoken out. But the older I get the more I realize that I cannot be silent about subjects that at one time I turned a blind eye to because they were uncomfortable, unpopular or might hurt my career either in the church or in the military.

I have been writing a lot over the past few months about subjects that many people are controversial and as such many people are uncomfortable with those topics. Whether the issue is civil rights, racism, Gay rights and marriage equality, voting rights, religious freedom and religious intolerance, and even xenophobia, or the connection of symbols such as the Confederate Battle Flag to a heritage that goes to a hatred that extends far beyond the battlefields of the Civil War; I am speaking out. Now I am fully aware of that many of these subjects are controversial. I have been asked in comments on this site and on my various social media accounts, particularly Facebook, why I keep bringing up the uncomfortable past. But I have to, I have a duty to the truth and as Oscar Wilde noted “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

The late Howard Zinn, a brilliant historian whose work at one time I discounted, said: “But I suppose the most revolutionary act one can engage in is… to tell the truth.” Who would think that telling the truth could or would be a revolutionary act? However, when one lives in a society where the truth is bent, run over and shredded by politicians, preachers and pundits, what I call the Trinity of Evil; when state school boards whitewash history and force their religious views on children in public schools; where corporations and advertisers use the most crass means to deceive customers; and where established science is not met with denial under the guise of “skepticism;” telling the truth is a revolutionary affair.

The honest truth is that I never expected to be a revolutionary in terms of what so much of society, especially the conservative Christian movement that I spent much of my life in expects. Truthfully, upholding tradition, and for that matter defending myth, is much easier when backed by the certitude of an unbending theology and political is much easier than asking the hard questions. Barbara Tuchman once wrote: “The reality of a question is inevitably more complicated than we would like to suppose.” I guess that is why so many people would rather be content with myth than to ask the really hard questions; be they about history, religion, and science or for that matter anything. One of the must uncomfortable things to admit is that truth is always evolving as we learn more, it is dynamic, not static and to attempt to force people to live by the “truth” of our ancestors is disingenuous, dishonest and denies the reality of the universe that we live. Thomas Jefferson recognized this and wrote:

“I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.” 

So why do I write? I write so that we never forget or push aside the great evils that human beings are capable of committing: The Holocaust, slavery and Jim Crow, the extermination of Native Americans by the millions in the name of God and Manifest Destiny, the enslavement, exploitation, and sometimes the extermination of whole peoples by colonialism; the witch trials, the religious wars of the Reformation, the Inquisition, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Stalin’s purges, the Tuskegee experiments, the Japanese barbarity in the Rape of Nanking and other places in Asia, the Srebrenica genocide and the Rwandan genocide, just to name a few.

All too often the perpetrators of those events and their descendants as all too willing to last the past lie dormant. But at what cost do we do so? Do we sacrifice justice on the altar of prosperity and peace; do we sacrifice uncomfortable truth in order to remain undisturbed and comforted by myth? Do we condemn our descendants to live under the myths of our ancestors? Would we sacrifice the truth and justice in order to ensure obedience? Howard Zinn correctly observed, “Historically, the most terrible things – war, genocide, and slavery – have resulted not from disobedience, but from obedience.”

President John F Kennedy spoke these words at Yale in 1962: “The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie–deliberate, contrived and dishonest–but the myth–persistent, persuasive and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the cliches of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”

Personally I would rather ask the questions and confront the past so we might have a better future, because though I am a realist, I also believe in my heart that humanity is capable of overcoming hatred, prejudice and ignorance. The problem is that times get difficult those attitudes can overcome our better nature. As Spencer Tracy’s character in the movie Judgment at Nuremberg said:

“But this trial has shown that under a national crisis, ordinary – even able and extraordinary – men can delude themselves into the commission of crimes so vast and heinous that they beggar the imagination. No one who has sat through the trial can ever forget them: men sterilized because of political belief; a mockery made of friendship and faith; the murder of children. How easily it can happen. There are those in our own country too who today speak of the “protection of country” – of ‘survival’. A decision must be made in the life of every nation at the very moment when the grasp of the enemy is at its throat. Then, it seems that the only way to survive is to use the means of the enemy, to rest survival upon what is expedient – to look the other way. Well, the answer to that is ‘survival as what’? A country isn’t a rock. It’s not an extension of one’s self. It’s what it stands for. It’s what it stands for when standing for something is the most difficult! Before the people of the world, let it now be noted that here, in our decision, this is what we stand for: justice, truth, and the value of a single human being.”

That my friends, is why I write: for justice, truth, and the value of a single human life.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under ethics, faith, film, History, News and current events, Political Commentary

The First Duty: Speaking Truth in “Post-Truth” Trump Era

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

For me the past month has been one of constant amazement. I am not speeaking about politics, but what matters more than any political ideology, the very idea of truth. Because of this I write using history and as best as I can objective and indisputable fact as my guide.

Most of my readers know that in addition to being a Priest and Navy Chaplain that I am a historian and teach both ethics and about Gettysburg as a faculty member at a Staff College. Many of the men and women that I teach will lead our military as commanders, planners and staff officers. I will transfer in the spring but even so, as a chaplain, officer, and educator I cannot be silent.

Thus it is my first duty, whether it is in teaching, writing or in ministry is to the truth, politicans and pundits be damned to hell. I believe the words spoken by Captain Jean Luc Picard, played by Sir Patrick Stewart in Star Trek the Next Generation: “the first duty of every Starfleet officer is to the truth, whether it’s scientific truth, historical truth or personnel truth…”

I am not a Starfleet Officer, but a Navy officer and I have always believed that the truth matters, but sadly, I, like so many of us have turned the other way and not spoken out too many times in my life. That changed during my combat tor in Iraq, and now the older I get the more I realize that I cannot be silent about subjects that at one time I turned a blind eye to because they were uncomfortable, unpopular or might hurt my career either in the church or in the military, so when I see people in power and who are close to power saying that truth and objective fact no longer matters I become fearful, because I know that the path that denying facts and truth leads.

Throughout the campaign Trump and his campaign surrogates not only twisted truth, but lied so many times that fact checkers could hardly keep up with their untruths. After the election, Trump surroget Scottie Nell Hughes told Diane Rehm of NRP: “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore, of facts,” she continued,“Mr. Trump’s tweet, amongst a certain crowd, a large — a large part of the population, are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some — in his — amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say that those are lies, and there’s no facts to back it up.”

Her words, as well as those of former Trump campaign director and CNN talking head, Corey Lewindowski, and Newt Gingrinch have maintained that truth does not matter, only what people believe does. The fact that so many of Trump’s supporters don’t seem to care about facts, bodes ill for our country.

As such I have continued to write about subjects that many people are controversial and as such many people are uncomfortable with those topics. Whether the issue is civil rights, racism, Gay rights and marriage equality, voting rights, religious freedom and religious intolerance, and even xenophobia, or the connection of symbols such as the Confederate Battle Flag to a heritage that goes to a hatred that extends far beyond the battlefields of the Civil War; I am speaking out.

I am fully aware of that many of these subjects are controversial and are now targeted by Trump’s supporters, Congressional Repiublicans, and GOP legislators in every state. I have been asked in comments on this site and on my various social media accounts, particularly Facebook, why I keep bringing up the uncomfortable past. But I have to, I have a duty to the truth, and as Oscar Wilde noted “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

The late Howard Zinn, a brilliant historian whose work at one time I discounted, said: “But I suppose the most revolutionary act one can engage in is… to tell the truth.” Who would think that telling the truth could or would be a revolutionary act? However, when one lives in a society where the truth is bent, run over and shredded by politicians, preachers and pundits, what I call the Trinity of Evil; when state school boards whitewash history and force their religious views on children in public schools; where corporations and advertisers use the most crass means to deceive customers; and where established science is not met with denial under the guise of “skepticism;” telling the truth is a revolutionary affair.

In 1943, George Orwell, wrote about the Spanish Civil War how the German and Italian propaganda about it had been accepted without question by most people in westren democracies. His words echo my feelings about the incoming administration:

“This kind of thing is frightening to me, because it often gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. After all, the chances are that those lies, or at any rate similar lies, will pass into history. How will the history of the Spanish war be written? If Franco remains in power his nominees will write the history books, and (to stick to my chosen point) that Russian army which never existed will become historical fact, and schoolchildren will learn about it generations hence. But suppose Fascism is finally defeated and some kind of democratic government restored in Spain in the fairly near future; even then, how is the history of the war to be written? What kind of records will Franco have left behind him? Suppose even that the records kept on the Government side are recoverable — even so, how is a true history of the war to be written? For, as I have pointed out already, the Government, also dealt extensively in lies. From the anti-Fascist angle one could write a broadly truthful history of the war, but it would be a partisan history, unreliable on every minor point. Yet, after all, some kind of history will be written, and after those who actually remember the war are dead, it will be universally accepted. So for all practical purposes the lie will have become truth. 

In spite of everything going on I will continue to speak the truth, which will likely will be called radical, revolutionary, and unpatriotic. That has happened over the past few years and I expect that it will happen on a more frequent basis, but I do not want the lie to become truth.

The honest truth is that I never expected to be a revolutionary in terms of defending civil rights. Truthfully, believing what authority figures, be they political, or religious say is much easier than asking the hard questions. Barbara Tuchman once wrote: “The reality of a question is inevitably more complicated than we would like to suppose.” I guess that is why so many people would rather be content with obvious lies than to ask the really hard questions; be they about history, religion, and science or for that matter anything. One of the must uncomfortable things to admit is that truth is always evolving as we learn more, it is dynamic, not static and to attempt to force people to live by the “truth” of our ancestors is disingenuous, dishonest and denies the reality of the universe that we live. Thomas Jefferson recognized this and wrote:

“I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.” 

So why I continue to write? I will write so that we never forget or push aside the great evils that human beings are capable of committing: The Holocaust, slavery and Jim Crow, the extermination of Native Americans by the millions in the name of God and Manifest Destiny, the enslavement, exploitation, and sometimes the extermination of whole peoples by colonialism; the witch trials, the religious wars of the Reformation, the Inquisition, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Stalin’s purges, the Tuskegee experiments, the Japanese barbarity in the Rape of Nanking and other places in Asia, the Srebrenica genocide and the Rwandan genocide, the inhumanity of the so-called Islamic State, just to name a few; and add to that whatever happens in the next few years that will be aided and abbetted by men and women who overthrow democracy by the democratic process, using people’s fear to establish authoritatian or totalitarian states.

All too often the perpetrators of those events and their descendants as all too willing to last the past lie dormant and allow present wrongs to persist and look the other way.

But at what cost do we do so? Do we sacrifice justice on the altar of prosperity and peace; do we sacrifice uncomfortable truth in order to remain undisturbed and comforted by myth? Do we condemn our descendants to live under the myths of our ancestors? Would we sacrifice the truth and justice in order to ensure obedience? Howard Zinn correctly observed, “Historically, the most terrible things – war, genocide, and slavery – have resulted not from disobedience, but from obedience.”

President John F. Kennedy spoke these words at Yale in 1962: “The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie–deliberate, contrived and dishonest–but the myth–persistent, persuasive and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the cliches of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”

Personally I would rather ask the questions and confront the past so we might have a better future, because though I am a realist, I also believe in my heart that humanity is capable of overcoming hatred, prejudice and ignorance. The problem is that times get difficult those attitudes can overcome our better nature. As Spencer Tracy’s character in the movie Judgment at Nuremberg said:

“But this trial has shown that under a national crisis, ordinary – even able and extraordinary – men can delude themselves into the commission of crimes so vast and heinous that they beggar the imagination. No one who has sat through the trial can ever forget them: men sterilized because of political belief; a mockery made of friendship and faith; the murder of children. How easily it can happen. There are those in our own country too who today speak of the “protection of country” – of ‘survival’. A decision must be made in the life of every nation at the very moment when the grasp of the enemy is at its throat. Then, it seems that the only way to survive is to use the means of the enemy, to rest survival upon what is expedient – to look the other way. Well, the answer to that is ‘survival as what’? A country isn’t a rock. It’s not an extension of one’s self. It’s what it stands for. It’s what it stands for when standing for something is the most difficult! Before the people of the world, let it now be noted that here, in our decision, this is what we stand for: justice, truth, and the value of a single human being.”

That my friends, is why I write: for justice, truth, and the value of a single human life, even if that means being considered unpatriotic.

Peace

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Filed under ethics, History, News and current events, philosophy, Political Commentary

The Truth is Rarely Pure & Never Simple

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The past few days I have posted short articles about some very personal things dealing with life and relationships. In a sense that continues today as I prepare for another “Staff Ride” with my students to Gettysburg. This trip will be interesting because over half of the students attending the staff ride will be officers from South Korea. Over the past couple of weeks I have been working on major revisions and additions to another chapter of my Gettysburg text and I hope to share that before the coming week is out.

I have a passion for truth, especially in the realm of historical thought, in fact over the past few years this passion has deepened to a level of profoundness that I never dreamed. In fact for me this passion has become a duty, a duty to truth; an un-sanitized, warts and all examination of subjects attempting to strip away the veneer of myth in order to find truth. This is not easy, but it is what my life has become, knowing that in the long run I will not discover all truth, but hopefully point others to examine history, the sciences, philosophy and even theology to find truth. The process can be uncomfortable, especially when confronted by facts, documents, scientific and archeological data which shows what we used to think was truth, as either incomplete, romantic myth, or even complete lies, untruths and fabrication. Oscar Wilde once wrote,“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

Barbara Tuchman once wrote: “The reality of a question is inevitably more complicated than we would like to suppose.” That is the nature of truth. It does not matter if it is truth about history, biography, philosophy and religion, science, politics, economics or any part of life. To actively seek truth means that one must open up themselves to the possibility of doubting, as Rene Descartes wrote: “If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.” I admit that this is not comfortable, but it is necessary.

As a historian I have a tremendous passion for truth, and for unsanitized history and for me this means looking at what we know with a critical eye, to compare and examine sources to question what we or others knew before. Far too often what we believe about our own history is often more preserving myth more than by asking hard questions and applying reasoned critical study. To do this is dangerous, because to do so we have to admit that what we know today could be proven wrong at some time in the future when new facts, documents, archeological finds or other historical or scientific are discovered. To those content with half-truth, partial truth or even myth this is disconcerting, and those of us who attempt to unravel myth from fact and present things in a new way are called “revisionists” as if that is somehow a bad thing. The sad thing is we are having to revise in many cases, supposed history that was revised by people who needed to propagate myth, such as with those who promoted the myth of the Lost Cause, the romantic, noble Confederacy which for well over a half century was propagated as historical truth. This myth was sold to the American public in such in film, television and books, fiction and non-fiction alike, to the point that much of white America, even outside the South accepted the myth of the Lost Cause as truth. Films like Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind and even Disney’s Song of the South, helped ingrain the myth as truth, and even today when so much more is known, many people hold on to the myth and attack those who differ.

A lot of my readers may wonder why I write so much about the American Civil War as well as the ante-bellum and Reconstruction eras of American history. For me they are very important for a couple of reasons; first they are eras, that for good and bad define us as a nation and people. Second, they still have relevance to what happens today, especially in the understanding of liberty, civil rights and race relations.

I have a passion for this. The American Civil War and the Battle of Gettysburg are intrinsic parts of who we are as Americans today. The events of that war and this battle continue to reverberate in many aspects of our political, social and national life. Thus for me teaching about this event and what happened on the “hallowed ground” of Gettysburg, as Abraham Lincoln called it, and even 150 years later it matters far more than most of us realize.

Civil War hero Joshua Chamberlain is an icon of the Civil War and American history. A professor of Rhetoric and Natural and Revealed Religions at Bowdoin College he volunteered to serve with the 20th Maine Infantry, his military career in the Civil War has been depicted in movies such as Gettysburg and Gods and Generals and written about in biographies and even historical fiction. Chamberlain was one of the heroes of Gettysburg, and his story has a myth like quality, but he too was a complex, contradictory and sometimes flawed character. However, Chamberlain attached a great importance to passing down the stories of people who did noble deeds and who lived exemplary lives. He wrote, “The power of noble deeds is to be preserved and passed on to the future.”

I sincerely believe what Chamberlain said and I am getting ready to lead another Staff Ride for students from our Staff College to Gettysburg this week. I do beleive that the power of noble deeds needs to be preserved and passed on to the future. Even the deeds of less than perfect, often contradictory and sometimes even scandalous individuals. That is part of the task of the historian. I do this in what I teach and what I write, both in the academic setting as well as on this website.

We live in a time of great cynicism, some of which I can understand. We also live in a time where many people and our institutions operate in a “zero defect” culture, those who fail in any way are shunted aside, punished or even chastised or ostracized. However, when I look at the men who fought at Gettysburg, or for that matter almost any individual who has accomplished great things, none are perfect people and many have great flaws in character, or supported causes or ideologies that were evil. That being said, even less than perfect people can rise to do great deeds, deeds that need to be remembered, passed down and told to succeeding generations.

Many great leaders, or other men and women that we consider today to be great, influential or important were or are quite fallible. Even those who did great things often made gross mistakes, had great flaws in their character, and some lived scandalous lives. Such deeds may tarnish their legacy or take some of the luster away from their accomplishments. But I think that these flaws are often as important as their successes for they demonstrate the amazing capacity of imperfect people to accomplish great things, as well as the incredible complexity of who we are as people. No one is perfect. There are degrees of goodness and even evil in all of us. It is part of the human condition. That is the beauty of un-sanitized history, that is the beauty of stripping away myth to discover the humanity of people, and to recognize who they are, who we are, the good, the bad and even the ugly.

When I look at the perfection that imperfect people expect of others I am reminded of something that William Tecumseh Sherman said about his relationship with Ulysses Grant. These were flawed men, but they were in large part responsible for the Union victory in the Civil War. However, to be honest, neither man would never reach the level of command that they rose to in our current military culture, nor would they rise to the top in corporate America. They are too flawed. Sherman said it well, “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 is a part of my passion about Gettysburg and my appreciation and admiration of the brave men who fought in that battle. As I continue to write about that battle and about those men I hope that my readers will gain a new appreciation of their complex and contradictory natures, as well as think about what that means to us today, as individuals and as a society, for it is only when we strip away the myth and seek the truth. Marcus Aurelius wrote:

“If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.”

Those truths can be scientific, they can be historical or literary, and quite often the truth can also be quite personal.

As John F Kennedy said at Yale in 1962: “The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie–deliberate, contrived and dishonest–but the myth–persistent, persuasive and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the cliches of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”

So until tomorrow, have a thoughtful night.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Revolutionary Truth Telling & the Discomfort of Thought

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Most of my readers know that in addition to being a Priest and Navy Chaplain that I am a historian and teach both ethics and about Gettysburg as a faculty member at a Staff College. Many of the men and women that I teach will lead our military as commanders, planners and staff officers. As such as I mentioned at beginning of the year my first duty, whether it is in teaching, writing or in ministry is to the truth. In fact I quoted Captain Jean Luc Picard, played by Sir Patrick Stewart in Star Trek the Next Generation: “the first duty of every Starfleet officer is to the truth, whether it’s scientific truth, historical truth or personnel truth…” I am not a Starfleet Officer but as an officer nonetheless I have always believed that the truth matters, but sadly I, like so many of us have turned the other way and not spoken out. But the older I get the more I realize that I cannot be silent about subjects that at one time I turned a blind eye to because they were uncomfortable, unpopular or might hurt my career either in the church or in the military.

I have been writing a lot over the past few months about subjects that many people are controversial and as such many people are uncomfortable with those topics. Whether the issue is civil rights, racism, Gay rights and marriage equality, voting rights, religious freedom and religious intolerance, and even xenophobia, or the connection of symbols such as the Confederate Battle Flag to a heritage that goes to a hatred that extends far beyond the battlefields of the Civil War; I am speaking out. Now I am fully aware of that many of these subjects are controversial. I have been asked in comments on this site and on my various social media accounts, particularly Facebook, why I keep bringing up the uncomfortable past. But I have to, I have a duty to the truth and as Oscar Wilde noted “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

The late Howard Zinn, a brilliant historian whose work at one time I discounted, said: “But I suppose the most revolutionary act one can engage in is… to tell the truth.” Who would think that telling the truth could or would be a revolutionary act? However, when one lives in a society where the truth is bent, run over and shredded by politicians, preachers and pundits, what I call the Trinity of Evil; when state school boards whitewash history and force their religious views on children in public schools; where corporations and advertisers use the most crass means to deceive customers; and where established science is not met with denial under the guise of “skepticism;” telling the truth is a revolutionary affair.

The honest truth is that I never expected to be a revolutionary in terms of what so much of society, especially the conservative Christian movement that I spent much of my life in expects. Truthfully, upholding tradition, and for that matter defending myth, is much easier when backed by the certitude of an unbending theology and political is much easier than asking the hard questions. Barbara Tuchman once wrote: “The reality of a question is inevitably more complicated than we would like to suppose.” I guess that is why so many people would rather be content with myth than to ask the really hard questions; be they about history, religion, and science or for that matter anything. One of the must uncomfortable things to admit is that truth is always evolving as we learn more, it is dynamic, not static and to attempt to force people to live by the “truth” of our ancestors is disingenuous, dishonest and denies the reality of the universe that we live. Thomas Jefferson recognized this and wrote:

“I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.” 

So why do I write? I write so that we never forget or push aside the great evils that human beings are capable of committing: The Holocaust, slavery and Jim Crow, the extermination of Native Americans by the millions in the name of God and Manifest Destiny, the enslavement, exploitation, and sometimes the extermination of whole peoples by colonialism; the witch trials, the religious wars of the Reformation, the Inquisition, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Stalin’s purges, the Tuskegee experiments, the Japanese barbarity in the Rape of Nanking and other places in Asia, the Srebrenica genocide and the Rwandan genocide, just to name a few.

All too often the perpetrators of those events and their descendants as all too willing to last the past lie dormant. But at what cost do we do so? Do we sacrifice justice on the altar of prosperity and peace; do we sacrifice uncomfortable truth in order to remain undisturbed and comforted by myth? Do we condemn our descendants to live under the myths of our ancestors? Would we sacrifice the truth and justice in order to ensure obedience? Howard Zinn correctly observed, “Historically, the most terrible things – war, genocide, and slavery – have resulted not from disobedience, but from obedience.”

President John F Kennedy spoke these words at Yale in 1962: “The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie–deliberate, contrived and dishonest–but the myth–persistent, persuasive and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the cliches of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”

Personally I would rather ask the questions and confront the past so we might have a better future, because though I am a realist, I also believe in my heart that humanity is capable of overcoming hatred, prejudice and ignorance. The problem is that times get difficult those attitudes can overcome our better nature. As Spencer Tracy’s character in the movie Judgment at Nuremberg said:

“But this trial has shown that under a national crisis, ordinary – even able and extraordinary – men can delude themselves into the commission of crimes so vast and heinous that they beggar the imagination. No one who has sat through the trial can ever forget them: men sterilized because of political belief; a mockery made of friendship and faith; the murder of children. How easily it can happen. There are those in our own country too who today speak of the “protection of country” – of ‘survival’. A decision must be made in the life of every nation at the very moment when the grasp of the enemy is at its throat. Then, it seems that the only way to survive is to use the means of the enemy, to rest survival upon what is expedient – to look the other way. Well, the answer to that is ‘survival as what’? A country isn’t a rock. It’s not an extension of one’s self. It’s what it stands for. It’s what it stands for when standing for something is the most difficult! Before the people of the world, let it now be noted that here, in our decision, this is what we stand for: justice, truth, and the value of a single human being.”

That my friends, is why I write: for justice, truth, and the value of a single human life.

Peace

 

Padre Steve+

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Filed under ethics, faith, film, History, News and current events, philosophy

Truth and Un-sanitized History

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I have spent the last couple of days introducing to new readers to things that I have come to believe. Since I am a historian I will continue to do that today.

I have a passion for truth, especially in the realm of historical thought, in fact over the past few years this passion has deepened to a level of profoundness that I never dreamed. In fact for me this passion has become a duty, a duty to truth; an un-sanitized, warts and all examination of subjects attempting to strip away the veneer of myth in order to find truth. This is not easy, but it is what my life has become, knowing that in the long run I will not discover all truth, but hopefully point others to examine history, the sciences, philosophy and even theology to find truth. The process can be uncomfortable, especially when confronted by facts, documents, scientific and archeological data which shows what we used to think was truth, as either incomplete, romantic myth, or even complete lies, untruths and fabrication. Oscar Wilde once wrote,“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

Barbara Tuchman once wrote: “The reality of a question is inevitably more complicated than we would like to suppose.” That is the nature of truth. It does not matter if it is truth about history, biography, philosophy and religion, science, politics, economics or any part of life. To actively seek truth means that one must open up themselves to the possibility of doubting, as Rene Descartes wrote: “If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.” I admit that this is not comfortable, but it is necessary.

As a historian I have a tremendous passion for truth, and for unsanitized history and for me this means looking at what we know with a critical eye, to compare and examine sources to question what we or others knew before. Far too often what we believe about our own history is often more preserving myth more than by asking hard questions and applying reasoned critical study. To do this is dangerous, because to do so we have to admit that what we know today could be proven wrong at some time in the future when new facts, documents, archeological finds or other historical or scientific are discovered. To those content with half-truth, partial truth or even myth this is disconcerting, and those of us who attempt to unravel myth from fact and present things in a new way are called “revisionists” as if that is somehow a bad thing. The sad thing is we are having to revise in many cases, supposed history that was revised by people who needed to propagate myth, such as with those who promoted the myth of the Lost Cause, the romantic, noble Confederacy which for well over a half century was propagated as historical truth. This myth was sold to the American public in such in film, television and books, fiction and non-fiction alike, to the point that much of white America, even outside the South accepted the myth of the Lost Cause as truth. Films like Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind and even Disney’s Song of the South, helped ingrain the myth as truth, and even today when so much more is known, many people hold on to the myth and attack those who differ. 

A lot of my readers may wonder why I write so much about the American Civil War as well as the ante-bellum and Reconstruction eras of American history. For me they are very important for a couple of reasons; first they are eras, that for good and bad define us as a nation and people. Second, they still have relevance to what happens today, especially in the understanding of liberty, civil rights and race relations.

I have a passion for this. The American Civil War and the Battle of Gettysburg are intrinsic parts of who we are as Americans today. The events of that war and this battle continue to reverberate in many aspects of our political, social and national life. Thus for me teaching about this event and what happened on the “hallowed ground” of Gettysburg, as Abraham Lincoln called it, and even 150 years later it matters far more than most of us realize.

Civil War hero Joshua Chamberlain is an icon of the Civil War and American history. A professor of Rhetoric and Natural and Revealed Religions at Bowdoin College he volunteered to serve with the 20th Maine Infantry, his military career in the Civil War has been depicted in movies such as Gettysburg and Gods and Generals and written about in biographies and even historical fiction. Chamberlain was one of the heroes of Gettysburg, and his story has a myth like quality, but he too was a complex, contradictory and sometimes flawed character. However, Chamberlain attached a great importance to passing down the stories of people who did noble deeds and who lived exemplary lives. He wrote, “The power of noble deeds is to be preserved and passed on to the future.”

I sincerely believe what Chamberlain said and I am getting ready to lead another Staff Ride for students from our Staff College to Gettysburg next month.  I do beleive that the power of noble deeds needs to be preserved and passed on to the future.  Even the deeds of less than perfect, often contradictory and sometimes even scandalous  individuals. That is part of the task of the historian. I do this in what I teach and what I write, both in the academic setting as well as on this website.

We live in a time of great cynicism, some of which I can understand. We also live in a time where many people and our institutions operate in a “zero defect” culture, those who fail in any way are shunted aside, punished or even chastised or ostracized. However, when I look at the men who fought at Gettysburg, or for that matter almost any individual who has accomplished great things, none are perfect people and many have great flaws in character, or supported causes or ideologies that were evil. That being said, even less than perfect people can rise to do great deeds, deeds that need to be remembered, passed down and told to succeeding generations.

Many great leaders, or other men and women that we consider today to be great, influential or important were or are quite fallible. Even those who did great things often made gross mistakes, had great flaws in their character, and some lived scandalous lives. Such deeds may tarnish their legacy or take some of the luster away from their accomplishments. But I think that these flaws are often as important as their successes for they demonstrate the amazing capacity of imperfect people to accomplish great things, as well as the incredible complexity of who we are as people. No one is perfect. There are degrees of goodness and even evil in all of us. It is part of the human condition. That is the beauty of un-sanitized history, that is the beauty of stripping away myth to discover the humanity of people, and to recognize who they are, who we are, the good, the bad and even the ugly.

When I look at the perfection that imperfect people expect of others I am reminded of something that William Tecumseh Sherman said about his relationship with Ulysses Grant. These were flawed men, but they were in large part responsible for the Union victory in the Civil War. However, to be honest, neither man would never reach the level of command that they rose to in our current military culture, nor would they rise to the top in corporate America. They are too flawed. Sherman said it well, “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 is a part of my passion about Gettysburg and my appreciation and admiration of the brave men who fought in that battle. As I continue to write about that battle and about those men I hope that my readers will gain a new appreciation of their complex and contradictory natures, as well as think about what that means to us today, as individuals and as a society, for it is only when we strip away the myth and seek the truth. Marcus Aurelius wrote:

“If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.”

Those truths can be scientific, they can be historical or literary, and quite often the truth can also be quite personal.

As John F Kennedy said at Yale in 1962: “The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie–deliberate, contrived and dishonest–but the myth–persistent, persuasive and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the cliches of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”

So until tomorrow, have a thoughtful night.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Traumatic Truths

motivational pictures

A few years ago I attended a conference about spirituality and trauma conducted by Dr. Robert Grant. I highly recommend his book The Way of the Wound if you have either been affected by trauma in any way, or if you deal as a professional counselor, therapist, or pastoral care giver. The fact is that we all experience difficult times and very often trauma is at the heart of them.

During that seminar he went through a number of things and going back through my notes I decided to pull some of them out, you can note some of my dark humor and sarcasm, not that there is anything wrong with that…. But really all kidding aside these are abiding truths and they can be both uncomfortable and comforting at the same time. To me they actually help make sense of the world.

Back when I was in seminary and in  my early years of ministry, in fact up until the time I landing in Iraq, I was filled with a lot of certitude. I can’t say that now, I have faith but I doubt at least as much as I believe. As baseball great Earl Weaver said: “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” 

So here are some truths, and as Oscar Wilde noted “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

Everyone Dies…. We can’t get around this one a recent study said that 96% of Americans will die someday.

Despite my snarkey comment the fact is that we live in a culture that denies death, while death is such an integral part of life.

No Guarantees…. We are not guaranteed anything in this life. You can live right, maintain good health, treat others right but still can meet with tragedy, betrayal and abandonment. 

We all know people, very good people who do all the right things and despite that still experience trauma and tragedy.

No one can cover all contingencies…. No matter how well we plan there will be unanticipated events in life that shred our plans.  The old saying that “no plan ever survives contact with the enemy” is true.

Now be assured I do believe in planning, including thinking about contingencies, and I do this pretty well. That being said there is seldom a week that goes by where I do not experience something that gums up my plans.

The things that we sometimes believe are solid and long lasting are often transitory in nature…. Even things that we think are solid and will last to the end of time change, deteriorate or dissolve over time.

Need I say more about this?

We and our world are finite…. We have a beginning and an end and our finiteness is sandwiched between the creation and the consummation. Dietrich Bonhoeffer talked about “living in the uncomfortable middle.” Bonhoeffer was right, we don’t know the beginning because we were not there and we do not know the end because it has not yet happened.

This thought by Bonhoeffer one drives a lot of people crazy, especially religious people who have to try to prove things that they cannot prove.

Evil and malevolence exists in individuals, organizations and systems, even those that we esteem highly…. One only has to look at the number of trusted people and organizations that have perpetrated and covered up their own evil acts to know the truth of this. 

I believe in the goodness of most people, but I am also a realist, evil and malevolence is all too real and all to much a part of our world. Until we get that, we will never understand those that commit evil, especially those that do so in the name of God.

So anyway, since we are getting ready for another big winter storm I will close for the day. Tomorrow we’ll see what I put out, until then I think that I just might drink beer instead.

Peace and blessings

Padre Steve+

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The First Duty is to Truth: Midweek Musings

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“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” Oscar Wilde 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World, I have been busily working this past week oThe n a major revision to a chapter of my Gettysburg text about Colonel Strong Vincent and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Part of that appeared here last week. However, as I continued to do more research I realized that what I wrote was not nearly enough, not in terms of words, but in terms of truth. There is much more to the story, especially concerning the relationship of Joshua Chamberlain and his wife Fannie.

There are times when one seeks truth that the timeless truths of the subject matter have to be taken to heart. Truth does matter to me, even when it is uncomfortable, not just for others but for me as well. As I have written before, that in this I am reminded of a quote from Star Trek the Next Generation. It is from an episode called “The First Duty.” In it the seasoned Captain Jean Luc Picard confronts his young protege Wesley Crusher after a disastrous accident that leaves a Star Fleet Academy cadet dead. Picard tells the young Crusher that “the first duty of every Starfleet officer is to the truth, whether it’s scientific truth, historical truth or personnel truth…

Truth is difficult, especially when one builds their belief on myths, be they of their own or others making. For me the study of the Battle of Gettysburg for my work has become a quest for truth. Not so much about the truth of specific incidents on the battlefield but of the great truths that go beyond the battlefield, the enduring truths about human nature, about relationships and about war and peace. In a sense the story of the battle of Gettysburg and those men who fought on it, has become a palette from which I am drawing truths about the human condition as well as my own terribly flawed condition, and in the process busting myths, my own included.

Barbara Tuchman once wrote: “The reality of a question is inevitably more complicated than we would like to suppose.” That is truth, it is truth with battles, politics, and in fact all of life, but many would rather rest content in myth. Thus as Rene Descartes wrote: “If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.”

I doubt a lot. I question a lot more and sometimes that leads to facing things that are uncomfortable. Thus, I will be putting up the redone version of that last article in the next day or two, as well as others where my study is leading me to deeper truths.

My big task now is editing and reorganizing the nearly 450 pages of text that I have written into the past year into a form that I can market to a publisher. I do have a couple of final chapters to write from scratch but hopefully by early spring I will ready to have it complete enough to submit for publication.

In the mean time I will continue to write about other subjects, including some military, some political, some social and some about current events, music, and life in general. There are couple of articles I want to write about some naval battles that have fascinated me for decades as well as more on the inhumanity of the Holocaust, the past and current struggles for civil rights in America and many other subjects.

That being said, you as my readers will get my new insights on Gettysburg, both new and revised articles which reflect that search for truth. I do hope that you find them as something more than simply accounts of the battle, but on the deeper truths of the nature and character of humanity, the nature and character of the conflict that we call war, with all its attendant maladies, but more importantly as a mirror for ourselves. My study of Joshua Chamberlain has resulted in having to face uncomfortable but strangely liberating truths about me and the way I live my life.

This is part of my journey, a journey into truth that goes beyond the mere reporting of facts, facts which often are as subject to interpretation, disputation and change as more “facts” are discovered. The truth is that we have to be able to accept new discoveries once they are determined to be true, or at least at the point that they can be posited as reasonable and worthy of acceptance, no matter how badly they challenge our deep held beliefs, even those about ourselves.  Sadly the lies we believe and persist in telling, and the myths that we believe without question, are much more dangerous than  any new truth that offends us.

I have to agree with Marcus Aurelius who wrote:

“If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.”

Those truths can be scientific, they can be historical or literary, and quite often the truth can also be quite personal.

As John F Kennedy said at Yale in 1962: “The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie–deliberate, contrived and dishonest–but the myth–persistent, persuasive and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the cliches of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” 

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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