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It Fitted In: A Personal Reflection on Propaganda

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

A number of days ago I wrote an article about the dehumanization of people and genocide. Since I am a historian and much of my undergraduate and graduate work focused on German history, particularly that of Imperial Germany after the unification, the Weimar Republic, and the Nazi Reich, I draw a lot of lessons from the period. I also understand how people in this country can fall for the same kind of vitriolic propaganda that the Germans of that era did. I can understand because for years I fell for the lies and propaganda being put out by the politicians, pundits and preachers of the American political right.

One of those lessons is that in times of crisis, that people, no matter what their race, culture, religious belief system, educational, or economic background are still human. Humanity is the one constant in all of history, our prejudices are often ingrained in us during childhood and reinforced by the words of politicians, pundits, and preachers. In times of stress, crisis, and societal change or upheaval even good people, moral people, people of great intellectual, scientific abilities can fall prey to demagogues who preach hate and blame others, usually racial, ethnic, or religious minorities, as well as civil libertarians who champion the rights of those minorities for the problems of the nation.

Shrewd politicians, preachers, and pundits do this well. They demonize the target group or population and then let the hatred of their disaffected followers flow. The leaders need that disaffected and angry base in order to rise to power; such was how Hitler, Stalin, and so many other despots gained power. They took advantage of a climate of fear, and found others to blame. For Hitler it was the Jews; while for Stalin it was various groups like the Ukrainians, or the Poles who were the devil to be feared and destroyed. Timothy Snyder in his book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin wrote:

“Dead human beings provided retrospective arguments for the rectitude of policy. Hitler and Stalin thus shared a certain politics of tyranny: they brought about catastrophes, blamed the enemy of their choice, and then used the death of millions to make the case that their policies were necessary or desirable. Each of them had a transformative utopia, a group to be blamed when its realization proved impossible, and then a policy of mass murder that could be proclaimed as a kind of ersatz victory.”

But that being said, there are a lot of people who from childhood believe the lies about others without question. In good times such people continue on with life as normal, but in crisis those hatreds and prejudices come to the fore. Rudolf Höss, the notorious sociopath who commanded Auschwitz told American Army psychologist Gustave Gilbert about his reaction when ordered to turn the camp into an extermination center. He said that the order “fitted in with all that had been preached to me for years,” and “at the time I didn’t think of it as propaganda, but as something one just had to believe.”

Eugene Davidson in his book on the Nuremberg Trials wrote:

“Every society has in it at all times negative, criminal, sadistic, asocial forces. What holds them in check more than law and police is the consensus of the society – a general belief that despite everything wrong and stupid and muddleheaded in politics, the state is a going concern that will somehow make its way into the future.” (Davidson, The Trial of the Germans p.581)

But when things do not go well, when people do not feel that things will be okay, that the future will be better, and that they have a purpose they look for answers. However, they tend to find their answers in the rantings of demagogues, race baiters, conspiracy theorists, and others who they would tend to dismiss out of hand in good times. In Germany it was the loss of the First World War, the humiliation of Versailles and the economic chaos and social change of the Weimar period which allowed Hitler to gain an audience, then a following, then political power. The demagogues played to what was already in the hearts and minds of the disaffected masses, without that fertile soil, the rantings of Hitler and his propagandists would have never succeeded. Albert Speer wrote:

“As I see it today, Hitler and Goebbels were in fact molded by the mob itself, guided by its yearnings and its daydreams. Of course, Goebbels and Hitler knew how to penetrate through to the instincts of their audiences; but in the deeper sense they derived their whole existence from these audiences. Certainly the masses roared to the beat set by Hitler’s and Goebbels’ baton; yet they were not the true conductors. The mob determined the theme. To compensate for misery, insecurity, unemployment, and hopelessness, this anonymous assemblage wallowed for hours at a time in obsessions, savagery and license. The personal unhappiness caused by the breakdown of the economy was replaced by a frenzy that demanded victims. By lashing out at their opponents and vilifying the Jews, they gave expression and direction to fierce primal passions.”

In a sense a similar thing has happened in the United States which has experienced a series of wars beginning with Vietnam, the shock of the 9-11-2001 attacks, the economic crash of 2007 and 2008 which devastated the savings, home ownership, and investments of many Americans while at the same time benefiting the banking and brokerage houses whose government assisted policies brought about the crash. Of course there are other issues, many religious conservatives hate the progress made by the Women’s and Gay Rights movements, and their leaders play to their fears in apocalyptic terms. I could go on, but I am sure that my readers can identify other issues which demagogues and others use to spread fear and hate to further their goals. The fact is that without the the fertile soil that lays in the hearts of their most fervent followers they would never have a following.

In Weimar Germany hate mongers like Julius Streicher and propagandist Josef Goebbels stuck a chord with disenchanted people who felt that they had lost their country. They were fearful, angry, and desired a leader who would “make Germany great again.” Hitler and his Nazi media sycophants played to that fear, and took advantage of their anger at the existing order. Davidson wrote such people “exist everywhere and in a sick society they can flourish.”

For decades the way has been prepared for true extremists to take advantage of the fears and doubts of people as modern American versions of Streicher and Goebbels have been at work for years. Rush Limbaugh was a modern pioneer of this in the United States, and he has been joined by so many who are even more extreme in their rantings that it is hard to name them all. Likewise, whole media corporations, websites, and political networks spread such fear every minute of the day, claiming that they, and they alone are real Americans. They actively support politicians who condemn, and sometimes even threaten people who oppose them, and all the while claim that “they will make America great again.”

When I was younger I devoured that propaganda, despite all of my learning I followed the rantings of men who I realize today are propagandists who promote the basest of lies, and hatred, often in the name of God. I was changed when I was at war, and when I returned home from Iraq in 2008 I realized through hard experience that I had been lied to, and that as a result that thousands of my brothers and sisters were dead, and tens of thousands shattered in body, mind, and spirit. Likewise I saw the massive destruction levied on Iraq and realized how terrible war really is. That was my epiphany, that is what it took to see how much I had been lied to, and it called me to question everything else that I had so willingly believed, things which had been fed to me by years of indoctrination in church, through the media, and by politicians who I believed were truly Christian. I can understand now how Martin Niemoller felt after the Nazi seizure of power when he said, “I hated the growing atheistic movement, which was fostered and promoted by the Social Democrats and the Communists. Their hostility toward the Church made me pin my hopes on Hitler for a while. I am paying for that mistake now; and not me alone, but thousands of other persons like me.”

There was a time that I hated people who espouse the views that I hold today, the views that I write about so often here on this site. I can remember how angry I would get as I listened to the propaganda being put out by Limbaugh, Hannity, the Fox News Channel and all of the others that I listened to every time that I had the chance. But when I changed after Iraq, I felt the sting of that hatred in very real ways. I remember the day I was called by my bishop in my former church, who told me that I had to leave because my views on women, gays, and Moslems were to use his words were now “too liberal.” After that, many men who I considered to be the best of friends turned their backs on me, some in the most bitter and vindictive of ways.

But I realize now that what they did was because I had in a sense left the cult, and had to be ostracized. I can understand that now, because when I was under the spell I too turned my back on people who had fallen out of favor, or people who had rejected the tenants of the church or the political movement, and those are things that I can never undo. But at the time it made sense, it fitted in with all I had been taught for decades, as Albert Speer wrote of Hitler, “One seldom recognizes the devil when he is putting his hand on your shoulder.”

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, nazi germany, News and current events, Political Commentary

Read, Observe, or Pee on the Electric Fence

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The great American humorist Will Rogers once said, “There are three kinds of men. The one that learns by reading. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.”

I am slowing down my writing for the next few days to spend more time thinking, reflecting, reading and observing. I have been writing a lot on the Civil War, Civil Rights and Reconstruction, and I have been doing some writing on the outbreak of the First World War, I will continue to do that but I am going to slow down a bit, and just post a few short thoughts each day as I do some reading and reflecting on history and the things that we face today.

I do this because as a historian I known that for all of our great advances, especially in the form of technology that the character of people, the nature of humanity remains fairly constant. Technology may change the way we look the world, how we gather information, how and what we produce, how we fight wars, and even how we relate to each other, but humanity remains the same. Our forms of government and even religious faith may evolve, but the character of humanity is the one constant.

There has been a lot going on in this country and around the world and the one thing that I notice is that few seem to be taking the time to observe and seem to be more interested in immediately framing the events of the day into their particular ideology. This tendency is not limited to any one segment the population and goes across ideological divides.  We live in a time of great political and social upheaval and drastic change and if we are to ride out the storm we must continue to learn and not be satisfied with the banal and insipid sound bites that the Unholy Trinity of pundits, politicians and preachers spew out as wisdom.  The pundits, politicians and preachers who cite history usually do so completely out of context and do so in the form of bad analogies rather than by using any semblance of deductive or inductive reasoning.

Our culture has for the most part abandoned any serious attempt at learning. Schools teach to standardized tests, state school boards ensure that textbooks include nothing too controversial; universities sacrifice faculty and academic programs to prop up bloated administration and non-academic programs. We are consumers of corporate owned news networks that consider their programing entertainment and value market share more than truth. American philosopher Eric Hoffer quite rightly said, “In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.” But sadly many people, including learned people who should know better and who have great responsibility in political, economic and even education, are content to live in a world that no longer exists.  

Learning comes from reading, observation and experience. Otto Von Bismarck, one of the most remarkable statesmen that ever lived said, “only a fool learns from his own mistakes, a wise man from the mistakes of others,” while Arthur Wellesley, the First Duke of Wellington and victor of Waterloo wrote, “Wise people learn when they can; fools learn when they must.”

I for one would rather not be one of those that learn by the last named method.  Learning from my mistakes has never been enjoyable and has usually been quite painful, but then as the late Baltimore Orioles Manager Earl Weaver said, “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

While I know I will make mistakes and hope to learn from them when I do I would much rather learn from the mistakes of others. Let’s hope that our leaders decide to actually pay attention and learn instead of making us pay for their mistakes. Sadly, I think that most people, especially those who claim to be leaders would rather pee on the electric fence themselves.

Anyway, it is time to do some reading and reflecting.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, leadership, philosophy, Teaching and education

I Want to Believe this Easter

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“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…” Alfred North Whitehead 

Sometimes Holy Week can be a downer and I can understand why people who doubt, or who have been abused by Christians, either in the church or as outsiders find this to be so. I am a Christian, a priest, a Navy Chaplain. By all estimates I should be on the “inside” so to speak, but in the current religious and political climate I am an outsider. My crime to the “true believers” is that I question their certitude, and I reject the hateful ideas of an American Christian theocracy preached by the politicians, pundits and preachers of the Christian Right.

As for me, this year, Holy Week has been a bit of a downer. I believe, but I don’t. For a while I wondered if it was my post-Iraq agnosticism returning, but after spending some time meditating and thinking on it I realized that was not the case. I do still believe, or at least I want to, but my doubt and unbelief now mainly comes from of my experience with Christians, not so much God.

Truthfully I wonder. I wonder if God is the God whose Son reconciled the world to himself, how those that claim to be his most devout followers seem more intent preaching a message of alienation and rejection rather than reconciliation. I wonder how people who claim to be the disciples of the Prince of Peace seem far more intent on conducting a jihad like culture war than the message of peace and reconciliation. I wonder how such people who claim to be God’s elect and anointed can so maltreat the very people who Jesus would have gone out of his way to care for, and in fact died and rose again in order to save. But I am not alone in this.

Rachel Held Evans wrote in a CNN religion blog yesterday:

“This is the tragic irony of the culture wars: The casualties tend to be the very people Jesus went out of his way to serve: the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the outcasts, the people ostracized and deemed “sinners” by the religious elite. And when the world sees Christians hurting rather than helping such people in the name of political gain, our testimony is profoundly diminished.” 

I fully understand what she is saying. Personally I am tired of the abuse of people who in the name of their culture warrior political Christian elite must resort to the most loathsome methods to demonize people who do not agree with them, including me. Sadly, in addition to people who don’t know me from Adam who do this I have experienced it from so called “Christian” friends. If it wan’t for people, including conservative Christians who have stood by me through thick and thin, even when they disagree with me, I probably would just chuck Christianity and the church.

But I cannot do that if I believe in the message of Jesus. I cannot do that if I actually even somewhat believe message of Jesus. A message that reaches out even to the same people who seem to loath me and others like me with a hate stronger than life itself.

When when a person like me struggles to believe in the first place, and at the same time is rejected by those who loudly proclaim to be the disciples of Jesus it does get old. Way too old.

Since it is Holy Week and I am struggling I have decided to not get involved with any discussions this week with the supposed followers of Jesus on any social media that denigrate those who Jesus died to save. If I am to preserve any sort of faith I have to do this.

Sadly, that can and does include things not even connected with the actual Christian faith, mostly the politics of the supposedly “Christian Right.”  A couple of days ago I dared to state the truth that a certain Republican Presidential candidate espoused the same theocratic views as his Christian Dominionist preacher father. That got me attacked by a number of so called Christians including one whose Facebook avatar picture was a soldier wearing a death’s head mask with a pistol pointed directly at me. That man called me a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” I told that man that I had a feeling that I knew what he would do if he actually met me. I picture is worth a thousand words, especially when it comes to revealing attitudes of the heart.

Personally, between the rejection and abuse I have experienced from Christians that I thought were friends, as well as those who are no better than hateful trolls on social media I am pretty much done with all things remotely considered Christian by most Americans today. I find it no wonder that people are fleeing the church, and have no doubts as to why why every poll and trend shows that people increasingly want nothing to do with the those that call themselves Christian or the church.

But I stay, and the the only reason I remain now I think is that I believe in the Jesus of Good Friday, the Jesus who is rejected by all the theologians of glory and Christian Dominionists, the crucified God. I believe in the Jesus whose death was considered a scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks. If I am to believe this is the Jesus that I have to believe in, not the God of the “theologians of glory” or the Dominionists who seek to establish their kingdom on earth with a thin veneer of faith. It as as Jurgen Moltmann wrote:

“The God of freedom, the true God, is… not recognized by his power and glory in the history of the world, but through his helplessness and his death on the scandal of the cross of Jesus”

Theologian Paul Tillich, who served as a U.S. Army Chaplain wrote “Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful.”  

In light of my belief in the scandal of the Cross, something that certainly is offensive to those that seek the power and glory of God even if it means trampling those that Jesus most identified, is a mission that I can subscribe.  Most of the people I deal with are those marginalized and rejected by the Christian pharisees, or what I call the “Christian Taliban.”  Personally I am tired of being associated with people who treat the poor, the alien, the different, the sinful and the afflicted as less than human, or less than worthy of God’s love and grace.  I am tired of being associated with people who claim to be pro-life so long as it only applies to life in the womb, who have no problem blessing war without end and the merciless killing of innocents abroad. I am tired of people who scream “let them die” at Presidential debates referring of course to the the poor and uninsured being the voice of Christianity in this county. People who have so discredited themselves and the faith as to make no one want to have anything to do with Jesus.

In the movie Joyeux Noel a priest and chaplain serving with a Scottish regiment during the Christmas truce of 1914 tells the Bishop who is sending him home: “I belong with those who are in pain, and who have lost their faith, I belong here.” Of course the bishop is a man who heartily subscribes to a war without mercy, just as so  many who call themselves Christians do today. When the priest questioned the bishop about being relieved of his duties, the bishop, in a manner similar to what I have experienced tells the priest: “You’re not asking the right question. Think on this: are you really suitable to remain with us in the house of Our Lord?”

I have experienced such comments too much. So regardless of the cost, even the cost to myself I will chose to believe and serve the Crucified God, the God who is not the God of the theocrats of the “Christian” right, but the Crucified God who stands against them. The God who in humility and weakness  proclaimed that his kingdom was not of this world and who stands against those who fraudulent attempt to establish their kingdoms in his name. People that often do so upon the bodies of those that they kill, and the lives of those that they despise. If this means that I am not suitable to “remain in the house of the Lord” than I would rather be an outcast on my own Golgotha this Holy Week than in that house.

Frankly, I don’t know what this Holy Week will bring for me. I am struggling. I want to believe, but sometimes I get so discouraged as one of those wounded by such people that I need to create some safe space if I am to find some solace.

I am opposed to the conservative Christian “Culture Wars” that so many of my friends and others have, and sadly still embrace. I see the “”Culture Wars” as antithetical to the Gospel. I see them as vain attempts to establish a state religion, an American Theocracy that would crush and destroy any that dare oppose it.

That being said I want to remain open to any who seek God. Henri Nouwen wrote:

“Ministry means the ongoing attempt to put one’s own search for God, with all the moments of pain and joy, despair and hope, at the disposal of those who want to join this search but do not know how.”

My journey this Holy Week is one of hope. I do want to believe. Jurgen Moltmann wrote:

“Totally without hope one cannot live. To live without hope is to cease to live. Hell is hopelessness. It is no accident that above the entrance to Dante’s hell is the inscription: “Leave behind all hope, you who enter here.”

That is my journey this week, a journey from my own Golgotha to the Easter Alleluia. To do so I cannot give up hope. I probably won’t do very well at it,this week or any other, but that is my journey.

I don’t know if that makes any sense, but somehow, it does make sense to me.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

 

 

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The Winner Takes it All: American Christian Greed

Do you remember that there was a time when Conservative Christian Politicians and preachers actually supported working people and the poor? There was a period where this was true, but with the economic affluence and the political influence that we have enjoyed since the end of the Second World War we have left those days far behind.

I mean really, there was a time when preachers were not just lobbying for tax cuts for the rich in the name of the “Prosperity Gospel” or and extolling the wealthy “job creators” over the people who actually produce or serve products. Late last night I had an interaction on Facebook that was discouraging, wealthy preachers defended the most opulent and extravagant excesses of mega-church pastors. It was disheartening, especially one attacked a man who I went to war with, and who since has endured more trying medical issues than most of us will experience in our lives when he challenged the Episcopal Priest. What I read broke my heart.

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My Church History professor at Southwestern Baptist seminary back in 1988 and 1989 Christian attitudes then that is even more appropriate today. He noted that a:

“reason that many Christians are not servants is more honest: it is that we just don’t want to be servants. We live today in a “winner” society. We value the winners, whether it be in sports, business, or wars….The American Dream is success, climbing to the top of the ladder, making it, winning…. In most metro areas, on most weekends, you can go to a conference in some church where a person (for a fee) will tell you how God wants you rich….This obsession with success, money, and power is the American dream carried to its logical conclusion. It is middle-class Americanism, pure and simple. It is more motivated by greed, selfishness, and pride than by Christ. And in the churches, we have bought it. We want to be “at the top”,” not “at the bottom.”…..We coat our Americanism with a thin veneer of Christianity in an attempt to make it more palatable, but God will not have it. Let’s call this version of the American Dream what it is: selfishness, self-righteousness, and sin.” (Young, Doyle L New Life for Your Church Baker Book House, Grand Rapids Michigan 1989 pp.55-56)

I heard Dr. Young speak about this in class. I was a young Army officer, who had just left active duty to go to seminary. We were in the process of a financial meltdown brought about by the Texas oil bust of the late 1980s and my wife’s illness. We were learning what it was like to be poor. We lost almost everything but ourselves and our dogs during that time. We went to churches where the opulence was over the top, where the pastor drove a Porsche, and not a bottom end or used one. We struggled through seminary and made it, with me working two jobs and being in the National Guard. Most of the time we wondered where the money to get the next meal, tank of gas, prescription medicine, tuition payment or books. When I called the TBN prayer line just for prayer during the darkest days I was told be a “prayer warrior” that “it was obvious that I was not in God’s will because otherwise God would be blessing me.” That angered me and hardened my resolve to get through seminary. There were a good number of people who helped us, some because they felt that god wanted them to help us, others just because they  were compassionate souls. This made me very sensitive to social justice and wary of those who get rich off of God’s people.

It wasn’t always this way.

William Jennings Bryan was one of the most influential politicians of his era. He served as Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson, he was a Senator and three time Presidential Candidate. He was also a very conservative Fundamentalist Christian perhaps most famous, or perhaps infamous now as one of the prosecuting attorneys at the Scopes “Monkey” Trial of 1925. In fact I can find that Bryan’s handling of that case played to the basest religious and social hatred of his day and though “defending” “Biblical” ideas ended up making Christians look but small minded, intolerant and hateful. The movie Inherit the Wind, though a fictional account of that trial show how decent Christians can become consumed with hatred in the name of righteousness, little different than other “sincere believers” that are willing to kill in the name of God.

Whether one agrees on certain points of religious doctrine regarding the creation of the earth or the manner of how God created the earth that he espoused one has to admit that of pre-Great Depression politicians he was quite amazing. This was especially true in how he saw through the Godlessness of unbridled Capitalism.  He saw how workers by were devalued by those who saw them as nothing more than a way to increase their wealth. As an American and a Christian look at the body of work and life of a man. Though I find much fault in Bryan and his supporters in the Scopes Trial, I do not throw out the good things that he did and got right.

I think the apex of Bryan’s political thought is encapsulated in his speech at the Democratic National Convention of 1896, what is now called the Cross of Gold Speech.

When one looks at it now it really is timeless. Bryan saw through the charade that was being played out by politicians and the big money Wall Street types that they represented with great verve. It was a speech that one might have heard come from a prophet in the Old Testament.

I am just going to quote a couple of pertinent sections from the speech to trigger your thoughts, for you will not hear this in the vast majority of conservative Christian churches of all denominations which have been infected with the so called “Prosperity Gospel.”  These churches have thrown their support behind ideas that are nothing more than unvarnished, crude materialism of the worst kind. In fact I believe that it is nothing more than the “baptism” of such thought by Christians are among the biggest reasons for the exodus of people from the churches and the rise of the “Nones,” or those with no religious preference.

Bryan said:

“We say to you that you have made the definition of a business man too limited in its application. The man who is employed for wages is as much a business man as his employer; the attorney in a country town is as much a business man as the corporation counsel in a great metropolis; the merchant at the cross-roads store is as much a business man as the merchant of New York; the farmer who goes forth in the morning and toils all day, who begins in spring and toils all summer, and who by the application of brain and muscle to the natural resources of the country creates wealth, is as much a business man as the man who goes upon the Board of Trade and bets upon the price of grain; the miners who go down a thousand feet into the earth, or climb two thousand feet upon the cliffs, and bring forth from their hiding places the precious metals to be poured into the channels of trade are as much business men as the few financial magnates who, in a back room, corner the money of the world. We come to speak of this broader class of business men.” 

His words are striking in their directness and honesty. They are not only Christian but they are deeply American. He called his Party, which had been as bad as the Republicans during the age of the unregulated Robber Barons who used the Gold Standard to manipulate the markets and eliminate silver as currency to their benefit to be different:

“Upon which side will the Democratic Party fight; upon the side of “the idle holders of idle capital” or upon the side of “the struggling masses”? That is the question which the party must answer first, and then it must be answered by each individual hereafter. The sympathies of the Democratic Party, as shown by the platform, are on the side of the struggling masses, who have ever been the foundation of the Democratic Party.”

He talked about two ideas of government and economics:

“There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that, if you will only legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea, however, has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous, their prosperity will find its way up through every class which rests upon them.”

He concluded his speech with this statement.

“Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests, and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”

When I hear the Unholy Trinity of Politicians, Pundits and Preachers who extol the virtue of Capital over labor and the worship of wealth as the highest good I wish that there would be some that would remember that the people who actually make things, grow things, fix things and maintain things are not just human capital, but people.

That’s enough for today. Expect some more on this and similar topics soon.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, economics and financial policy, faith, History, Political Commentary, Religion

The Only Church that Truly Feeds the Soul

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“The Only church that truly feeds the soul, day-in day-out, is the Church of Baseball” Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) in Bull Durham (MGM 1989)

Tonight I am going to the last home game of the Norfolk Tides. The Tides are our local Triple-A Minor League farm team of the Baltimore Orioles who are now 7 games up on the Yankees in the American League East. I love baseball. For me it is a source of peace, comfort and meaning in the sea of so much hatred, violence, inequity and injustice, angst and despair that fills our world.

Now honestly, while things seem are not good we tend to see life at any given time through they could be worse and certainly could be better they are not nearly as apocalyptic as the bearers of bad news make them out to be. Barbara Tuchman wrote “Disaster is rarely as pervasive as it seems from recorded accounts….The fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five-to tenfold.”

This is especially true for those who follow that loathsome Trinity of Evil, the Politicians, Pundits and Preachers who make their living causing people to be angry, covetous, anxious and on edge.

When I read or hear some of the vile things being said by allegedly conservative Bible believing Christian leaders be they politicians, pundits or preachers, or in the case of Mike Huckabee a despicable combination of all three, I become more convinced that Annie Savoy was right… the only church that truly feeds the soul is baseball.

In fact when I hear the likes of the Partisan Political Parsons, any of the big Mega-Church Pastors or television ministry hosts, or even some Catholic bishops start spouting off I feel like I have left this country and ended up in Medieval Europe or maybe Saudi Arabia. I wonder where the love has gone. When I read the words of men like Pat Robertson, James Robison, James Dobson, Bryan Fischer, Scott Lively, Franklin Graham, Tony Perkins, Gary Bauer and so many others I understand why people are fleeing the church in droves and so many hold the Christian faith, as well as other religions in such disdain.

Jonathan Swift once mused about the religion of his time, “We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough for us to love one another.”   Swift’s words are a perfect description of the American Religious Right as much as they are of non-Christian groups who hate, the Moslem extremists of ISIS, Al Qaeda, Hamas, Boko Haram and the Taliban; the Ultra-Orthodox Jews who think that they are the only acceptable form of Judaism and physically attack other Jews for not being Jewish enough even while persecuting Israeli citizens who are Christian or Moslem; and the Hindu fundamentalists that burn down Christian and Moslem villages in India.

Thankfully, though I am still a Christian and at that a rather miscreant Priest and Chaplain that struggles with faith and belief, I also belong to the Church of Baseball. I am so because I agree with the late Commissioner of Baseball A. Bartlett Giamatti, who said, “there is nothing bad that accrues from baseball.” 

While I am very frustrated at what I see going on in the Christian church as well as in other religions that dominate other countries or cultures, when I think about baseball I know that God still cares. Every time that I look at that beautiful green diamond that sits in the middle of the great cathedrals and parish churches of the Church of Baseball, my sense of hope and faith is renewed.

To true believers, that may seem like heresy. But God even loves heretics and unbelievers. For me baseball speaks to the soul, maybe it is because baseball is more than a game.  Conservative political commentator and long suffering Chicago Cubs fan George Will said “Baseball is only a game. True. And the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona. Not all holes or games are created equal.” 

If that is heresy I don’t care. But then what is heresy? I don’t actually think that Jesus would recognize a lot of what we Christians do today as even being Christian.  I could be wrong but I recall Jesus was really big into the whole “two commandment” “love God with your whole heart and love your neighbor as yourself” way of life; and he wasn’t really cool with pompous religious leaders that give preference to the rich and powerful, and seek their own political power so they can use the state to enforce their religious views on non-believers like we do.

That is why I find something so right about baseball. Unlike the message of the political preachers that specialize in making themselves rich by keeping their followers anxious and angry while preaching the message that “God loved the world so much that he can’t wait to come back, judge and destroy it because of fouled up humanity” especially women and homosexuals; baseball caters to our hopes and dreams while recognizing that none of us, even those who play at the Hall of Fame level are perfect.

Unlike the false religious message preached by so many members of the Trinity of Evil, baseball deals with reality and life so well because of its ebb and flow. It deals with the grind of the long season, the constant demand for excellence and quest for perfection; but there is a realization that most of the time you won’t get there, and if you do, tomorrow you won’t and that is part of life.

Personally I don’t understand why if the Gospel of Jesus and God’s grace and love is actually true that we can’t apply this to our faith. Jesus, at least in the Gospel accounts seemed to accept the imperfections and foul ups of his followers, and not only that seemed to accept the people who the really righteous, religious leaders rejected and treated as less than human.

In fact, my paradigm of understanding the Christian faith comes from baseball. In baseball perfection is illusory and that life is full of times when things don’t go our way. It is much like real life and what is presented in Scripture. Ted Williams, the last player to hit for .400 said “Baseball is the only field of endeavor where a man can succeed three times out of ten and be considered a good performer.”

For some of us it seems like reaching the Mendoza Line* is the best we will ever do, and if we believe in God’s grace, that is probably okay.

Tommy Lasorda the Hall of Fame Los Angeles Dodgers’ manager put things in excellent perspective “No matter how good you are, you’re going to lose one-third of your games.  No matter how bad you are you’re going to win one-third of your games.  It’s the other third that makes the difference.”  That is true in life and faith.

While I am definitely a Christian I struggle and I admit it. I have enough of my own problems to empathize with others that struggle, but who in embracing the wacky formulas offered by greedy self-serving preachers treat Jesus and his message like some sort of magical talisman or good luck charm. But sorry, I agree with what Pedro Cerrano (Dennis Haysbert) said in the movie Major League: “Jesus, I like him very much, but he no help with curveball.”

Thus I have many problems with the perfidious political and prosperity preachers that seem to have forgotten the Gospel, who are basically Elmer Gantry like snake-oil salesmen more attuned to keeping their market share than tending their flock. In fact, I think are actually driving people away from Jesus, and the polls of Barna, the Pew Religious survey, Gallup and others as well as the statistics kept by various denominations say that I am right.

When I watch baseball I feel renewed. As Sharon Olds wrote back in the early 1970s “Baseball is reassuring.  It makes me feel as if the world is not going to blow up.” That my friends is why I agree with Annie Savoy that the only church that truly feeds the soul day in and day out is baseball.

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The late great and legendary Detroit Tigers announcer Ernie Harwell said: “Baseball?  It’s just a game – as simple as a ball and a bat.  Yet, as complex as the American spirit it symbolizes.  It’s a sport, business – and sometimes even religion.”   Yes, for me, the heretic that I am it is the latter, and tonight I am happy to be going to the Church of Baseball, Harbor Park Parish.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

*Mario Mendoza was a Major League Shortstop who played for the Pittsburgh Pirates and other organizations. He was an outstanding defensive player but was not much of a hitter. His career batting average was only .215 but a batting average of .200 is considered the minimum that a player can have to remain at the level that he plays.  I think that my career batting average in both baseball and softball barely clears the Mendoza Line. 

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Conscience and Hard Solid Thinking: Two Things We Lack, A Reminder from Dr Martin Luther King Jr.

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Today I am reminded of the words of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. as he addressed issues prevalent in the 1960s which unfortunately are still with us today. A lot of people today seek to marginalize Dr King’s life and work by simply relegating him to the pages of history. The attitude of such people seems to be that maybe Dr King was important in his day, but that we have advanced to the point that we don’t need to see beyond the King of history. Thus we miss so much of what he still teaches us today.

Dr. King was a man of tremendous personal courage. Nearly every day of his public ministry and advocacy for the rights of African Americans and the poor his life was in danger. Of course he, like so many other men who throughout history understood that those that champion the cause of justice and peace must ask hard questions. They must engage in hard thinking. They must challenge their own beliefs as well as those that they come in contact, and they must do so from the least safe place to do so, the place of conscience which commands us to do what is right.

In 1968 Dr. King said something that should make us all look in the mirror and ask who we really are and what we represent. He noted how cowardice, expediency and vanity all vie with conscience. He said:

“On some positions, Cowardice asks the question, “Is it safe?” Expediency asks the question, “Is it politic?” And Vanity comes along and asks the question, “Is it popular?” But Conscience asks the question “Is it right?” And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because Conscience tells him it is right.” 

If you look closely at what Dr. King said one can almost see every political, business or religious leader make decisions about things which matter to people, but without facing the demands of conscience.

It would be easy just to say this of our leaders. However, it is also true of most of us, for regardless of our protestations most of us follow the demands of cowardice, expediency or vanity rather than conscience. We do it not because we are bad people, but because we fear the potential negative consequences of doing the right thing, we count the cost and decide we cannot pay it.

Every time we make these decisions not to do the right, but to shrink in cowardice, appeal to the calculation of being politic, or choose to go with what is popular, something in us dies.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and martyr wrote about the results of such equivocation from prison:

“We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds: we have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretense; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical. Are we still of any use?”

But to follow the demands of conscience requires us to think, and think critically. Too often we simply do things or support causes because we are comfortable with the ideas, and because we do not want to face inconvenient or uncomfortable ideas. We do not like to be challenged. I think that is why there is such a great appeal to often ignorant loud mouthed politicians, pundits and preachers, the Unholy Trinity, to do our thinking for us. The pundits, preachers and politicians often appeal to the must base human instincts to turn citizens against each other, or to drive up support for their ideology. Such ideas are made more destructive when they appear as “memes” on social media, attached to pictures which are designed to invoke an emotional response of anger, hatred and resentment at person or group being demonized. In following them we can become unthinking fanatics, convinced of our rightness without ever examining examining what we believe to see if it really true.

This is not thinking when we follow the lead of such people, regardless of their ideology. In doing so we give up our right and responsibility to think for ourselves and ask the hard questions. Eric Hofer noted how ideology blinds us:

“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.”

Dr King’s words spoken in 1963 are equally true today:

“Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.”

As we honor the memory of Dr. King this weekend may we do so by not just relegating him to the pages of history, but may we find in his words inspiration to be people of character and conscience today. May we start doing the hard thinking that allows us to follow the demands of conscience and not cowardice, the hard thinking that places justice over popularity and the hard thinking which exposes the emptiness of political calculation.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Trayvon Martin and the Pro-Life Movement: Do the Post-Born Matter at All?

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I am perplexed tonight. I see people, many of whom are friends fight stridently against all abortion. I am not for abortion, but I do not think that it should be banned. That aside what I think the pro-life movement as a whole in the United States has become is simply an anti-abortion movement. Sometimes one where demented individuals in it feel justified in killing people who work in abortion clinics, even murdering them in church.

I am perplexed because I seldom see any of the high level culture warriors that fight the abortion battles ever raise a cry about issues of justice concerning people that are already born.

The Trayvon Martin murder and acquittal of the man that killed him should send a chill down anyones spine. In some places like Florida all someone has to claim is that they “felt threatened” to justify the use of deadly force against unarmed people. That is the law, and if there are no videos of the incident or eyewitnesses willing to lay it all on the line then there is a strong chance that the killer will go free. That is a fact and I will not go deep into the racial component of this but it doesn’t seem to me that we have advanced that much since young Emmett Till was murdered and his murderers also acquitted.

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But going back to my main point I don’t think that we really have a true “pro-life” movement in this country. We have an anti-abortion movement which to some degree say that they are fighting for the lives of unborn babies. One does not have to agree with the theology, philosophy or science that they use, but that certainly has to be considered a part of a comprehensive pro-life ethic, abortion for the sake of eugenics including the selection of the sex of an unborn child or solely as a means of birth control are ethically problematic. That being said there are many times, more so than we would want to admit that abortions are tragically necessitated for the life and health of the mother. Sorry, the woman carrying the child should also have the right to her life.

You see I don’t think that simply being anti-abortion is being pro-life, unless you are willing to apply that right to life to already living people.

I have a hard time with people that claim to be pro-life not fighting against the death penalty, against unjust wars of aggression, against targeted assassinations, against the use of drones to kill supposed militants in the remote parts of Pakistan notwithstanding the fact that many infants and pregnant women carrying unborn babies are killed as well. But then I guess that they are just collateral damage and don’t count. After all they are all Moslems and not Americans.

I have a hard time with those that are anti-abortion who would fight against government programs designed to care for pregnant women such as good pre-natal care for the child and primary care for the medical needs of the mother.  I wonder why they are not fighting for the medical and nutritional needs of babies born to poor people and assist young families from impoverished areas get decent jobs and ensure that affordable child care is available. I wonder why supposedly “pro-life” people are not out marching against gun violence, why many will not lift a finger to help the poor, care for the needy, care for the sick and dying, including the elderly who our society seems to be throwing under the bus in every imaginable way unless they are fabulously well off.

Why does it seem that many pro-life leaders are not concerned about issues that effect the lives of pro-life people who happen to be poor, or members of racial or ethnic minorities? But what seems to be the case is that the most vocal and prominent leaders that call themselves “pro-life” or “family values” conservatives both the preachers and the politicians are more concerned about low taxes for the wealthiest people and corporations than they are about people.

Some conservatives and libertarians will say that these are not government responsibilities but the responsibility of churches and charities. I understand the philosophy and in fact I would love to see more churches doing more to alleviate the need for the government to step in. But by and large churches in general and especially conservative evangelical Christian churches have abdicated this responsibility which is mandated in the Gospels and exemplified in the lives of people like Saint Francis of Assisi and so many others. But now even churches that run hospitals frequently subordinate care to the insurance industry and while considered “not for profit” are as for profit as any non-religious hospital.  If evangelicals put half the money that they did into Sunday morning entertainment sessions masquerading as worship and building massive mega-church, media and television empires dominated by the families and friends of their pastors maybe I would have some faith that they were indeed “pro-life.”

I know that some of my conservative friends will see this as some sort of liberal screed. I get that but please, I ask that if people only want to be anti-abortion and not rest of the pro-life ethic then be honest and say that.

The fact of the matter is we are not a pro-life society now in any way shape or form and from our history including slavery, the genocide committed against native Americans, the exploitation of poor countries for the sake of our economy I have a hard time believing the myth that we ever were such a society.

Trayvon Martin is dead. The Florida law was followed, but justice was not done. A young black man was denied his right to life and it doesn’t seem to matter to the “pro-life” movement as a whole. I can’t wait to hear some of the political preachers and politicians that claim to be pro-life defend this verdict.

I guess that is why I am perplexed. It just doesn’t seem to me that the post-born matter to supposedly pro-life people.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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