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The War on Christmas

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

This time of year as the war on Christmas heats up I am reminded of the immortal words of Doctor Seuss:

“The Grinch hated Christmas! The whole Christmas season!

Now, please don’t ask why. No one quite knows the reason.

It could be his head wasn’t screwed on just right.

It could be, perhaps, that his shoes were too tight.

But I think that the most likely reason of all

May have been that his heart was two sizes too small…”

Dr Seuss How the Grinch Stole Christmas

 

Yes my friends I hate to admit it there is a war on Christmas. However unlike those that want to blame it on all of those Godless types, I have to say that some Christians have waged a real war on Christmas for centuries.

Now I have to be fair. There are some people in the secularist camp who file lawsuits against municipalities that have Christmas displays on public property and even some who will push those lawsuits to exhibits on private property.  However, despite the media attention these are nothing in comparison to what the Christian Grinches have done over centuries. So despite the efforts of some I do not fear for Christmas because the celebration of Christ’s Incarnation and Nativity has survived far worse even from those within the faith.

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Puritan Anti-Christmas Laws

Now let me be fair here. Some of the things that the Christian Grinches have protested are frivolous and not very spiritual. But that tends not to be the case today. Today’s Christians seem perfectly at home with the crass materialism and consumerism of our modern Christmas celebrations even within the walls of Christian churches. It seems that as long as we are willing to put a nativity scene made by Third World slave laborers in the middle of an otherwise completely capitalistic consumer orgy we don’t care. But God forbid an Atheist object or a member of a minority religion demand equal time and space for their display in the otherwise crassly materialistic celebration, those things are a declaration of war against the very holiday that we as Christians wantonly desecrate.

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The Puritans hated Christmas…

Let us go back and look at some history. Not the kind of “history” promoted by David Barton and Glenn Beck, but real history. You know, stuff that actually happened and that we have documentary evidence to support, not stuff that we pull out of thin air.

Back in the 1600s a Christian group that was tremendously influential in our nation’s early development hated the celebration of Christmas. I am not kidding. These were the Puritans.

The Puritans believed that they were the “elect” based on their theology. The Calvinist doctrine of double predestination ensured that they as the elect knew they knew they were right. For those that do not understand this doctrine, let me explain. The Puritans and other strict Calvinists believed that they were the elect. They believed that they were pre-ordained by God before the foundation of the world to go to heaven, and the rest of us were created to live and die, and then go to Hell because God decided so before the creation of the world.

But that is not all. The Puritans also believed that as the elect that they had a “Biblical Mandate” to rule for God on earth and as such they established a theocracy in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. If the Puritans had simply died out and gone away this might not be an issue. However, their theology has continued and their modern successors in the modern Christian Dominion or 7 Mountains Theology movements believe the same thing. They believed that sine it was God’s will that they rule that whatever they said that others needed to obey, after all God put them in charge.

The Puritans came out of the Protestant Reformation in England. Unlike the Englishmen of today, the English of that period took their religion pretty seriously.  Now despite the cultured accent that we hear on the BBC or CNN World the English religionists of that day were actually more like unruly football fans only worse. When it came to matters of religious tolerance and loving their neighbors they were rather un-Christian.

English Protestants of the non-monarchical Reformation type like the Puritans did their best to rid the Church of England of anything that appeared to even look Catholic, especially anything to do with Christmas. Of course this cleansing of the church often included killing real people including the few remaining stick in the mud Roman Catholics as well as Anglicans who still liked Catholic stuff.

But to be fair to the Puritans back then the English of all Christian denominations tended to be a bit intolerant. They would lop off the heads, burn at the stake, or crush with heavy stones anyone that deviated from their beliefs. They killed first first and asked questions later. It was kind of like the fans of the Premier League only without professional officials to regulate the game.

Early in their history the Puritans were a persecuted group. They were militant, intolerant and exclusive, so who could not find reasons not to like them? But when the Puritans took power after Oliver Cromwell overthrew the monarchy they took their revenge with great gusto. They didn’t just decide to lop, crush and burn their opponents of all denominations, but they also decided to outlaw the celebration of Christmas.

Of course they did so for the noble reason of purifying England of heresy. In fact if you want to compare them to a modern religious group, they would be pretty similar to the Taliban. When the Puritans took over the government they did their best to ensure that everyone was as miserable as them. This included banning the celebration of Christmas.

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Wassailers 

The Puritans were not content with inflicting their beliefs on church going people, they inflicted them on the majority of the people who simply wanted some relief for the drudgery of daily life in 17th Century England. The Puritans even banned the poor from the tradition of Wassailing. Wassailing was a custom in which the rather pungent poor would go from house to house, begging for treats in exchange for drinking a toast to the family.  The drink they called wassail was a hot-spiced wine.  Now this was not a vintage Napa Valley or French wine but a rather pungent and rancid English wine, thus the need for spices and heat.

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Mob Football

Wassailing sometimes ended up with episodes of drunken revelry, much like current English Football match celebrations, which is why the Puritans objected so strenuously. They didn’t like football either. No kidding, then it was called “Mob Football” and it didn’t have very many rules. Since it was particularly popular at Christmas, the Puritans suspected that it must have been from the Devil.

The Puritans had no sense of fun as we know it. They viewed any religious practice that might include something that might be fun harmful, as such anything fun needed to be completely removed from public life.

Oliver Cromwell by Samuel Cooper

Oliver Cromwell

This miserable situation lasted until 1660; a year after the Lord Protector and head of the army and police Oliver Cromwell kicked the bucket. The anti-Christmas laws were quickly overturned and everyone was happy. Well sort of, the populace went back to simply lopping, burning and crushing heretics, especially Roman Catholics. That being said, people were so happy to bring Christmas back that the new rulers in England exhumed Cromwell’s body from Westminster Abbey and executed him posthumously. Since decorating was allowed these rulers lopped off Cromwell’s head and displayed it outside Westminster Hall for about four years. A popular verse of the time said:

Now thanks to God for Charles’ return,

Whose absence made old Christmas mourn;

For then we scarcely did it know,

Whether it Christmas were or no.

Not to be outdone the Puritan colonists in the Massachusetts Bay Colony decided that what was going on in their homeland was not to their taste. So in 1659 under Governor Sir Edmund Andros they enacted laws like those of Cromwell. The laws remained on the books until 1681. During the time that the laws were in force everyone had a grand time. To keep the festivities going the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony banned the celebration of Christmas and other such holidays at the same time it banned gambling and other lawless behavior.

Grouping all such behaviors together the court placed a fine of five shillings on anyone caught feasting or celebrating the holiday in a manner that might be construed as fun. Things like taking time off from work, feasting, partying, wassailing, playing Mob Football, or anything else that might be construed as fun were criminalized. The law stated:

“For preventing disorders, arising in several places within this jurisdiction by reason of some still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other communities, to the great dishonor of God and offense of others: it is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shilling as a fine to the county.”

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That sounds lovely doesn’t it? To their credit the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony didn’t go lopping, burning or crushing heretics with heavy stones unless they were proven to be a Christmas celebrating witch.

Christmas law 1658

Unlike England where the lifting of the ban was celebrated with the aplomb given to a World Cup championship the Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and their descendants frowned upon the celebration of Christmas until the 1820s. That was when enough Irish showed up in Boston to turn the place around and make it the fun town that it is now.  Coincidently the last State Church in the United States was the Congregational Church in Massachusetts. It wasn’t disestablished until 1833.

So the next time you hear about the war on Christmas, remember that a lot of the people ranting about the supposed “war on Christmas” actually want to re-establish a very harsh and sterile Puritan view of faith that led to the celebration of Christmas being criminalized in England and in Massachusetts. Of course they would have a hard time doing that now since they so connected to the corporations and retailers who make big time bucks off of Christmas.

Thankfully for now we only have to suffer from the yearly rants of the fun deprived army of Christian Grinches, who without the religious flair of the Puritans attempt to crush the spirit of Christmas. Thankfully, today, more people like all the tinsel, bells, lights, decorations, the presents and time off regardless of their religion or lack thereof to want to abolish Christmas. So the Christmas celebration as we know it will survive, at least until next year. One can always hope.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Tragedy in Kunduz: Mistake, Accident or War Crime?

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I have been troubled by the disaster at the Doctor’s Without Borders in Kunduz Afghanistan, a disaster that appears to be linked to the actions of U.S. and or NATO, Coalition, and Afghan forces as well as the Taliban who had taken control of that city a few days before the attack.

There are so many things about this incident that trouble me, but truthfully I, like almost everyone, know very little about it, other than the fact that too many innocent people died as a result of what appears to be a prolonged air strike against what should have been a known hospital. Now, truthfully, none of us knows enough about the incident to declare it a justified act, a tragic mistake, or a war crime, and there are people who without full knowledge of the facts are arguing for each of these positions. However, that has not stopped the speculation about the circumstances concerning the incident. Today the American command released a statement saying that Afghan forces requested the air strikes.

The fact is that the circumstances are unclear, and in the fog of war we may never know the truth about what happened. I do not pretend to think that the Taliban are entirely without blame, nor is the incredibly corrupt Afghan government and military; and most importantly are American, NATO and other non-Afghan coalition forces.

I do caution anyone who attempts to place the blame for what happened on any one group in this conflict, and I think that it was irresponsible for people in the United Nations to declare that this could be a war crime without knowing all the facts.

That being said I believe, as a career military officer, that we as Americans need to hold ourselves, and our military to a higher standard than our enemies and even our coalition partners. Sadly, we have not always done this and sometimes we have not only committed war crimes, but also we often hold ourselves above international sanction and law when our forces are suspected of committing war crimes. Even more importantly we ignore the words of a man who acting as an agent of the United States, and the United Nations set the standard for prosecuting war criminals. I am talking about Supreme Court Associate Justice Robert Jackson, who organized the trials of the major Nazi War Criminals at Nuremburg.

When the trials were being organized Justice Jackson set down a rule of conduct for his American, and allied colleagues from Britain, the Soviet Union and France. Sadly, we Americans have failed to heed his words on many occasions. Jackson noted:

“If certain acts of violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them, and we are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us.” Justice Robert Jackson International Conference on Military Trials, London, 1945, Dept. of State Pub.No. 3080 (1949), p.330.

Now personally I hope that this is a tragic accident brought about by a confused tactical situation that was worsened by the fog of war. Truthful that does not lessen the pain and tragedy of what happened in Kunduz, but it is far better than the alternative; that American forces ignored warnings and intelligence that this was a hospital and kept attacking even after being told that it was a hospital. If the latter is the case the charge that this could be a war crime cannot be ignored.

As a veteran of Iraq and a career officer who knows the terrible horrors of war first hand, as well as being a historian and theologian I am especially sensitive to the nuances of such events and know that many times that what happens is difficult to fully understand or comprehend. I can only hope that Secretary of Defense Carter and President Obama will ensure that an investigation, coordinated with the U.N. and our coalition partners fully explores what happened, and if American forces acted improperly, or even in a criminal manner take the moral high ground and assume responsibility.

We cannot ignore the precedent that we ourselves set when we tried the surviving leaders of the Nazi regime at Nuremburg. War crimes are war crimes no matter what people commit them, and we must hold ourselves to this higher standard. But then we must also realize as Hannah Arendt noted “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

Likewise there are people, like a younger me, who agree with Commodore Stephen Decatur who declare “my country right or wrong” and then ignore any possible evils committed by the United States. I love and serve my country, but if we are complicit in war crimes then what have we become? Are we willing to throw away our ideals, our ethics, our humanity to ensure our survival?

Personally, even if the worst outcome is true, I cannot imagine that those involved meant to commit a war crime, but that being said there is a rationalization that even good people make during war, that their actions, or the actions of their nation are excused by necessity. I am reminded of the words of Spencer Tracy in the movie Judgment at Nuremburg when he said:

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.”

At Kunduz over twenty medical personnel at the Doctors Without Borders died, another three dozen were wounded when American, or other coalition aircraft responded to the call of Afghan ground forces for air support against the Taliban. Regardless of if the Taliban were taking advantage of the hospital to engage the Afghan troops, the location of the hospital was known to coalition forces, it had been there and in operation for four years.

Please do not get me wrong, I want my country to always be in the right. For over 30 years I have sworn an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States and followed what I believe is a call to uphold the best that our country has to offer. I do not support the Taliban or any other group that would seek to impose a theocracy on their people, but at the same time how can I countenance the support of a discredited, unethical and corrupt regime that has squandered the lives and trust of its own people while at the same time taking advantage of American and NATO forces, our military and intelligence support as well our massive economic support without which they could not remain in power?

When I see what the U.S. backed governments in Afghanistan, not to mention Iraq have done to their people with our support I feel much like T.E. Lawrence who wrote of the British administration in 1920 Iraq:

“The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Bagdad communiqués are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It is a disgrace to our imperial record, and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are to-day not far from a disaster.”

Like about everyone I do not pretend to know everything that happened in this incident. But that being said; of we as Americans cannot uphold and subject ourselves to the same standards that we have imposed on others, then what does that say about us? I wonder what our response will be and I am troubled, because I think that we will not hold ourselves to the standards that we ourselves claim to uphold. I say this because we have not done so since Nuremberg.

If we fail in this task, the task to embody the truth of what is in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution, to embody the spirit of the city set upon a hill that inspired so many before we were ever a military power to come here, to believe that the principles that we stood for were better than their own countries;  it will not matter how many Taliban we kill for we will have lost thawed and in the process our collective soul. As Lawrence wrote in 1920 “We are to-day not far from a disaster.”

Praying for Peace and Justice,

Padre Steve+

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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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Right Wing Christian Political Correctness

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“religions give people identity by positing a basic distinction between believers and non-believers, between a superior in-group and a different and inferior out-group.”

There is an epidemic of political correctness in the United States today.

Of course if you listen to Fox News, most Evangelical preachers, or conservative pundits that is always blamed on secularists or liberals who are almost universally defamed by such critics. They are accused of being communists, fascists, atheists and even worse for simply positing that they don’t believe, that they might have doubts, or that like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison or the early Virginia Baptist leader and friend of both Madison and Jefferson, John Leland argued that no religion should have the franchise on or control of the government.

For this they are accused of being politically correct, or enforcing political correctness, when in fact they are actually politically incorrect, because they dare question the minority of people who have the real political and economic power in this country, Conservative Christians.

I have run into this political correctness, that of Christian political correctness. Dare come to the defense of the civil rights of Gays or Lesbians and see what happens. Defend someone who questions the faith, see what happens. Defend the rights of non-Christian minorities and see what happens. If you do you will be attacked, condemned, and defamed. You will be called all matters of things, and if you are a member of such a church you will be expelled. I know, because I was.

You see for me I am an American and I will defend the rights of all Americans to their beliefs so long as they do not try to use the police power of the government to shove those beliefs down my throat. Equity is for all. I have served for over 33 years in the military alongside Americans of every race, creed, political belief and ideology, and yes even sexual preference. I have seen people excel, I have seen people promote the rights of others, and I have seen witch hunts done not in the name of the law, or any real American principle, but on the basis of conservative Christian religious beliefs being sold as the only true American beliefs.

That my friends is the ultimate political correctness. It is the political correctness that has to defend itself by invoking the wrath of the Almighty against unbelievers. It is that of the Inquisitors, the Crusaders, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, Calvin’s Geneva, Zwingli’s Zurich, Cromwell’s England, Orthodox Russia and a host of other theologically based “government.”

That kind of government is called “theocracy.” It is what many of those who came to this country sought to flee, except that some like the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony decided to use their new freedom away from the Church of England to persecute Baptists, Quakers and others, especially women who they accused of witchcraft. It as as Robert Heinlein said: “Almost any sect, cult, or religion will legislate its creed into law if it acquires the political power to do so.”

I have seen the results of such religious hatred in the Balkans and the Middle East. I will fight to make sure that it doesn’t happen here, even if that means that fellow Christians condemn me and dare to say that I am not a Christian. I will be politically incorrect, the real kind of political incorrectness that is the most unsettling to “true believers,” that of the questioning believer who defends unbelievers.

Like Eric Hoffer, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and so many others I recognize the danger posed by those who believe that they are God’s chosen people destined to carry out their understanding of God’s will on earth.

As Jefferson said:

“I know it will give great offense to the clergy, but the advocate of religious freedom is to expect neither peace nor forgiveness from them.” 

I expect neither, and I will advice for all, inspire of the Right Wing Christian Political Correctness that dominates in this country. The people that Eric Hoffer called “true Believers.” people who are likely to see themselves  “as one of the chosen, the salt of the earth, the light of the world, a prince disguised in meekness, who is destined to inherit the earth and the kingdom of heaven too. He who is not of his faith is evil; he who will not listen will perish.”

Just read the people who write and espouse Dominionist or Seven Mountains theology. They are the ones running the asylum of the Christian Right today. Look it up, or look at any of the articles that I have written about them. They are not the fringe anymore, they run the Republican Party and almost every one of the potential Republican Presidential Candidates espouse those views, or are afraid to stand up to them. Likewise most of the mainstream media gives them a pass, because they too are afraid of them, they are afraid of being called “politically correct.”

Barry Goldwater, the progenitor of the modern conservative movement warned us about them: He said in 1994:

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

I am no longer afraid, because I have nothing to lose besides my soul, at least that’s what I am told. Frankly I would rather be [part of the inferior “out group” than any part of this supposedly superior “in group.” 

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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A Difference of Degree: Thoughts on Discimination and Xenophobia

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Flag of the Know Nothing Party

“The segregation laws in your country and the anti-Semitic laws in mine, are they not just a difference of degree? Herman Goering (Brian Cox) to Captain Gustave Gilbert (Matt Craven) in the Miniseries “Nuremberg

Today a rather short post as I had a rough night sleeping and in the midst of a nightmare screamed and threw a body block into the bookcase that serves as my nightstand. You will be happy to know that though I woke up my wife, my trusty dog slept comfortably through the episode. But I digress….

Tonight I am taking a break from writing about the rise of the Islamic State and our war against it. Instead I am going back to a favorite subject of mine; that of civil rights and liberties. I find it strange that there are a host of people, mostly on the political right that are doing their best in their local communities, state legislatures and even Congress to roll back civil liberties for various groups of people. This includes the outright disenfranchisement being legislated in several states to roll back voting days and hours that disproportionally affect African Americans, students and the poor.

Likewise there are numerous attempts to roll back the rights of women, especially working women; the use of the legislature by religious conservatives to place limits on the reproductive rights of women, holding them to the standard of a religion that they do not practice. There are numerous attempts to curb any civil rights, including the right to marriage or civil unions of the LGBT community. There is also a certain amount of xenophobia in regard to immigrants of all types, especially those with darker skin white Americans, but some of the worst is reserved for Arabs and other Middle-Easterners, even Arab Christians who are presumed as all Middle Easterners are to be Moslem terrorists, even those who have been here decades and hold respectable places in their communities.

See what bothers me about all this is not that it is new, but rather these are a new twist on old formerly acceptable means of discrimination. The proponents just clothe them in new terminology and play on fear to rile up support for their policies. Their words and actions are actually very similar to the virulently anti-emigrant (especially toward the Irish), anti-Catholic and anti-Black groups known collectively as the Know Nothings. While I would not call them a new incarnation of the Know Nothings, I have to notice the similarities in their message and the way that they push their agenda. The late Spencer Perkins who worked to reconcile whites and blacks in Mississippi noted: “They saw no contradictions in how they treated me and Christianity.”

Abraham Lincoln wrote to Joshua Speed about the Know Nothing Party:

“I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor or degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy [sic].”

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Likewise it is a very similar spirit that existed in many European countries in the years leading up to the First World War which was magnified, especially in Germany, Austria and Eastern Europe following that war, a spirit which animated the National Socialist movement in Germany, a movement which carried such intolerance toward those deemed racially inferior to an extent unimagined by a supposedly civilized “Christian” country. There is a great scene at the end of the movie Judgment at Nuremberg where Burt Lancaster plays a jurist who served the Nazi regime, a jurist who before the Nazis was considered to be one of the best legal minds not only in Germany but in Europe. In the film the character played by Lancaster, Ernst Janning discussed who he and others like him ended up doing what they did. It is a penetrating look at how people justified their actions.

“There was a fever over the land. A fever of disgrace, of indignity, of hunger. We had a democracy, yes, but it was torn by elements within. Above all, there was fear. Fear of today, fear of tomorrow, fear of our neighbors, and fear of ourselves. Only when you understand that – can you understand what Hitler meant to us. Because he said to us: ‘Lift your heads! Be proud to be German! There are devils among us. Communists, Liberals, Jews, Gypsies! Once these devils will be destroyed, your misery will be destroyed.’. It was the old, old story of the sacrificial lamb. What about those of us who knew better? We who knew the words were lies and worse than lies? Why did we sit silent? Why did we take part? Because we loved our country! What difference does it make if a few political extremists lose their rights? What difference does it make if a few racial minorities lose their rights? It is only a passing phase. It is only a stage we are going through. It will be discarded sooner or later. Hitler himself will be discarded… sooner or later. The country is in danger. We will march out of the shadows. We will go forward. Forward is the great password. And history tells how well we succeeded, your honor. We succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. The very elements of hate and power about Hitler that mesmerized Germany, mesmerized the world! We found ourselves with sudden powerful allies. Things that had been denied to us as a democracy were open to us now…”

Likewise, those with a more religious view who attempt to enact laws specifically designed to give their religion more protections, and allow discrimination based on religious preference are startlingly similar to the Taliban and other extremist groups that use religion to limit the rights of people that do not agree with their interpretation of Islam, including other Moslems.

There is a remarkable scene in the 2001 movie Nuremberg which is about the major war crimes trials following the Second World War. There is a scene where the American Army psychologist assigned to the confined war criminals goes to Herman Goering after he hears the testimony of and then questions the commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp. The climax of that scene involves Goering dressing down the psychologist in words that make one think, and I have included a link to that scene below.

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WjbsD-TYi3s

Unfortunately this is what happens when people or groups, be they political or religious are more committed to their ideology than they are to their fellow citizens. It matters not if they are Christians, Moslems, Jews, Hindus, secularists, or others that hold the purity of their political, social, ideological, racial or economic theories as more important than people. It occurs when old prejudices are used under the banner of patriotism and nativism to confront real or imagined danger.

My comparison to the Taliban and the Know Nothings while I am sure that it is offensive to some is fitting. Because the spirit of such beliefs is the same, even if they differ in the degree in which people will go to enforce them. Like Hermann Goering’s comments at Nuremberg to Gustav Gilbert the difference between the ideology and actions of the Taliban, or the Know Nothings or the authors of the Jim Crow Laws as opposed to militant Christians and others, who attempt to use the power of the State to suppress, control and persecute those that they find offensive is only a matter of degree.

That may not seem important to some. But it is the difference between a divided society that can agree to disagree respecting the differences within it, and one for which factions attempt to use the police power of the State and the law of the land to persecute those that are different.

Goering in his critique of America in the 1930s and 1940s was correct; what we as a society enshrined in law and in our culture to discriminate against others differed little from what the Nazis did, only in the matter of degree. The sad thing is there are those today that work tirelessly to bring about a return to such practices.

It is something for us all to think about.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under civil rights, film, laws and legislation, Political Commentary

Thoughts on the Bowe Bergdahl Controversy

bergdahl-300x270Sgt Bowe Bergdahl as a Private First Class

The case of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl troubles me on a number of levels. Over the past few weeks, I like the majority of Americans have been subjected to the incessant media blitz regarding Bergdahl. As someone who has served in combat in very isolated areas of Iraq I have conflicting opinions. One is about his actions that led to him being held captive by the Taliban. The fact is that no matter what the reason he left his base he put himself and his comrades in danger. The second is that we don’t know all the facts and his return is being used by the very people who pressed hardest for it as a political issue. Finally, I am concerned for the safety of Bergdahl and his family which in the course of the mostly right wing media blitz attacks probably are in some kind of danger, especially due to the vehemence that the campaign has been waged.

While I am glad that have him back and that he is safe I am of two minds on what needs to happen.

First Bergdahl needs all the medical and psychological care he can get and once he is deemed fit to question about the incident and his captivity then that needs to happen.

Second a new 15-6 investigation needs to be started by the Army. Should that investigation provide evidence that Bergdahl deserted or collaborated with the enemy or committed treason, Court Martial proceedings should be initiated, beginning with the Article 32 hearing, the equivalent of a Grand Jury determine there is sufficient merit to bring him to trial than a trial should take place and if convicted Bergdahl should be sentenced accordingly. If there is a conviction then if need be the judge and jury should take into account whatever happened to Bergdahl at the hands of the Taliban during sentencing.

Since I have given many sentences during Article 15 hearings as a company commander, assisted in the investigation of criminal cases as a personnel officer, sent soldiers to General Court Martial proceedings and testified for both the prosecution and defense in different court-martial and administrative hearings I do have some sense of justice. I am not blind.

All of that being said, my career military opinion being taken into consideration, the fact is, no matter what has been presented in the media, we don’t know the whole story. Please know I am not defending Bergdahl here, but there is something called due process, which he is not getting in the media, especially the politically motivated vultures at Foc News.

This is unfortunate and is a terrible example of “yellow journalism.” Marcus Luttrell, the “Lone Survivor” of the SEALS says that Bergdahl no matter what the outcome is “branded for life.” Luttrell is no “bleeding heart.” He knows life and death and combat, and he lost friends fighting the Taliban.

The initial 15-6 investigation was never completed because the investigating officer did not have access to Bergdahl. As far of the men from his unit who blame Bergdahl for every death that their unit experienced after his disappearance, that is understandable. It is a reasonable reaction of men who feel that they and their comrades may have been betrayed. It is something that has occurred throughout military history as soldiers seek to find an answer to battlefield misfortune and the loss of friends. One only has to look at the “Lost Cause” in the historical myth of the American South and the Civil War to see that even normal, rational and decent people can assign blame to others for defeat or the loss of friends.

This issue is important for we do know that the unit took casualties after Bergdahl disappeared, but it doesn’t look like any died actually looking for him, in fact some were killed inside their combat outposts. It does not appear that there is a direct connection between Bergdahl’s disappearance and the loss of six other American soldiers. The province where this happned was one of the most hotly contested areas of Afghanistan, when the Taliban, including the Haqqani network poured fighters into the area even before Bergdahl and his unit arrived at their combat outpost. However, that being said, if I lost friends after a soldier disappeared I might want to find a causal link between the situations.

Unfortunately, for years Congress, especially the Republicans castigating Obama now hammered him to do “all he could to secure the release of Bergdahl.” I guarantee that if President Bush, or a President McCain or Romney secured the release with the same process there would be no backlash right now. Any of them would be hailed as heroes who secured the life of an American soldier by the partisans attack President Obama.

As far the “released” Taliban, they in custody in Qatar and you can bet that the CIA is monitoring every breath they take. They were not set free, they are in Qatari custody and the government of Qatar does not want to screw this up. They want to increase their international status and influence outside of the oil markets. However, despite claims the claims of some that these five men are “the worst of the worst” the fact is they only killed Americans after we invaded their country and toppled the government and military that they were a part. Yes, they were bad guys, even potential war criminals when it came to killing Shi’ite Afghans, but they were not Al Qaeda, and President Bush released over 500 like them before he left office.The proper course wold have been to send those of killing their own people to the International Criminal Court in the Hague, and treat those accused of purely military crimes against Americans as Prisoners of War, especially those who were acting in  official capacities in the military of Afghanistan.

Retired Marine Corps General Mattis, and former Commander of the US Central Command said that the exchange of those Taliban for Bergdahl was actually beneficial to the United States forces in Afghanistan. Mattis told the Military Times http://www.militarytimes.com/article/20140609/NEWS/306090040/Mattis-Bergdahl-release-makes-Taliban-vulnerable  that: “We no longer have that concern that they have this pawn they can then play against us,…. So there‘s also a military vulnerability that the Haqqanis now face, that Taliban now faces because they no longer hold one of our U.S. soldiers in captivity. So, there’s also a freedom to operate against them that perhaps we didn’t fully enjoy so long as they held Bowe as a prisoner.” 

Mattis is absolutely right. We no longer have to worry about the Taliban using him for propaganda purposes, or staging a public execution of him to try to embarrass us. Likewise we no longer have to endanger others trying to find him and this gives us room to more forcefully response against them as we depart the country.

As far as Bergdahl’s situation, the Army needs to conduct a new investigation, if it appears that he did desert or collaborate with the enemy he should be put on trial and if found guilty be appropriately punished.

But from my perspective there are a lot of other big questions, including what was going on in his unit in the weeks before he disappeared, which from a leadership perspective are really troubling to me as a military professional. His unit was troubled, it had a bad reputation and some of what are alleged against its members is that some members might have engaged in war crimes against Afghan civilians. I suspect that some of Bergdahl’s accusers could be covering up their own incompetence and possible crimes and using him as a scapegoat, and even if Bergdahl is guilty of what they accuse him of that behavior is inexcusable.

To add to his accusers conundrum is that all of those that have come forward to condemn Bergdahl have done so on behest of Republican political operatives, including former Bush administration staffers. Ironically, one of Bergdahl’s most forceful accusers was discharged from the army with an “Other Than Honorable” discharge. That says something about his potential creditability.

The late Michael Hastings wrote in a 2010 report in the Rolling Stone about that unit. Hastings’ article is insightful because it shows the extent of the problems going one and provides reasons why Bergdahl might have left his post. That article is linked here: http://www.rollingstone.com/…/americas-last-prisoner-of…  Now I do not believe that anything excuses desertion in war, but what if there were other extenuating factors? If his accusers are to be believed, as some say that Bergdahl to be showing indications of mental instability or possible indications that he was about to defect they should have either taken action to get him treatment or to ensure that he could not do so. They did not do this. To me their allegations are factors that good leaders would have noticed and taken precautions to prevent. Believe me, had any competent leader been in charge of that platoon this wouldn’t have happened.

Again none of what I say here excuses desertion or collaboration with the enemy. If Bergdahl did either and is convicted them he should spend as much time in prison as convicted criminal and retired Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North did for his actions of lying to Congress and being involved in a weapons exchange with the government of Iran for the release of American hostages in Lebanon. North wrote of President Reagan’s knowledge of that crime saying: “Ronald Reagan knew of and approved a great deal of what went on with both the Iranian initiative and private efforts on behalf of the contras and he received regular, detailed briefings on both…I have no doubt that he was told about the use of residuals for the Contras, and that he approved it. Enthusiastically.”

Since North has been one of Bergdahl and President Obama’s most viscous attackers, that would be just. But wait… North didn’t spend a day in jail because his conviction was overturned with the help of those “Anti-American Commies” from the ACLU. Mind you this was not because he wasn’t guilty, but because jury members might have been influenced by North’s televised but immunized and highly incriminating testimony before Congress. Another person raising hell is Senator John McCain, who along with the other US POWs in Vietnam was exchanged for Viet Cong and North Vietnamese POWs at the end of that war. Likewise, after his release McCain was accused of aiding the enemy, including some of the same people that now attack Bergdahl.  That too is ironic.

I love the irony and I am disgusted by the actions of those that seek to destroy Bergdahl before the facts are fully known and before he has a chance to defend himself. But then maybe due process of law is only applicable if you are a “conservative” accused of treason and aiding and supporting avowed enemies.

But all this being said, there is much more to know. So before we go destroying the life of an American soldier who was held for 5 years by the Taliban, as well as his family, let us get the facts right and not use them as a political bludgeon against the President for purely political reasons. Please don’t tell me that Obama broke the law because he didn’t give warning to Congress regarding the release into the custody of Qatar of the Taliban prisoners who were exchanged for Bergdahl, that was done in 2012.

All of this troubles me, and it should trouble any person that cares about due process of law and the rights of the accused in court. What has been happening in the media, particularly on Fox News in relation to Bergdahl is nothing short of scandalous and politics at its very worst. The precedent being set is terrible and those “conservatives” that attack Bergdahl and Obama should realize that what they do sets precedent and probably will be used against them and their heroes in the future.

I want justice, including for the men who might have died because Bergdahl went missing. If he actually deserted, committed treason and collaborated with the enemy he needs to be punished. But that has to happen through the process of law and not through character assassination and political posturing in the media.

The proper course right now is to get the facts straight, ensure that Bergdahl gets whatever assistance that he needs to recover, stop the political posturing and seek true justice. If we cannot do that we have disgraced ourselves as a people and as a nation far more than a guilty Bowe Bergdahl ever could.

Of course what I say will make very few happy, but it is a proper response because it weighs the best knowledge of the facts, with the actions of Bergdahl and responsibility for the lives lost. It is something that I believe is important, the qualities of truth, justice and mercy. Unfortunately, that message will probably go unheeded.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under iraq,afghanistan, News and current events, Political Commentary

A Matter of Degree: The Taliban, Kansas, Jim Crow and Nuremberg

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“The segregation laws in your country and the anti-semitic laws in mine, are they not just a difference of degree? Herman Goering (Brian Cox) to Captain Gustav Gilbert (Matt Craven) in the film Nuremberg)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WjbsD-TYi3s

Over the weekend I posted a link to an article about the attempt by the Kansas State of Representatives to pass a law entitled the “Religious Liberties Protection Act.” The Bill, which seems innocuous was actually a law written to enshrine the discrimination against Gays in the public and private sectors by anyone claiming that serving them would infringe upon their “sincerely held religious beliefs.”

The law was held up in the State Senate, and today the Bill was shelved, but it’s author Representative Charles Macheers, insisted that in order to protect Christians and other religious people that anyone claiming that their religious beliefs were infringed upon should be legally able to discriminate against others.  Though specifically directed against Gays it would have set a terrible legal precedent.

I posted a link to an article about the Bill on my Facebook page. Most people, even many of my more conservative Evangelical Christian friends, who are not big fans of Gay rights or Marriage Equity, to their credit were appalled by the law and by the attitude of my former colleague.

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When someone asked me about it on my page, I made a comment that the law was a product of “the Kansas Taliban.” The comment was deliberately designed to be provocative. It was loaded and it did what I intended.

I honestly believe that there is little difference between the religious zealots of the Taliban and those that introduce such religiously based laws here. Such laws enshrine discrimination and differ from the Sharia of the Taliban only in a matter of degree. The attitude exhibited by such zealots, be they Christian, Moslem or any other religion is so strikingly similar it is frightening.

My comment elucidated a response from a man who I had worked with years ago at a Evangelical Christian television ministry. The head of that ministry has become one of the leading figures in the politically active Christian Right and is quite active politically, especially in Texas. The man who jumped in on my conversation has been working for that ministry for over 20 years.

His comments were so hateful, disrespectful and ignorant that my friends, who range from very conservative Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christians to devoted secularists, Gays and Lesbians and even an Atheist jumped in to defend me and what I said. The fact that my friends really know me and understand me, and even if they disagree with me they are willing to defend me. That is remarkable tribute to American values. It was a testament to the good nature of most Americans, as well as Brits who commented on the post. The fact is I would do the same for them.

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My comment about the “Kansas Taliban” was not about religious people who despite their strongly held beliefs are respectful of others and hold the rights of people who believe differently than them to matter. It was directed at those who use fear and hate to promote an agenda that vilifies and demonizes others based on their religious or ideological beliefs. The fact that the people promoting the Kansas law were conservative Christians is only important as it demonstrates that some Christians can be just as brutal and thoughtless as the Taliban.

That is a nuance that people driven totally by ideology miss. Some might think I am attacking Christians. That is not the case. The attack is on any group that would attempt to enforce their religious beliefs on others through the police power of the state.

The real fact of the matter is that the Mullahs of the Taliban have much in common with Christians and others who desire to impose their beliefs by the law of the state on those that do not agree with them, be it in religious beliefs, political ideology or racial, ethnic, cultural or linguistic differences.

My former colleague called me many things before he dropped me as a Facebook friend. He made himself look foolish. It was his loss. I would have been willing to listen, care for and respect his views had he not resorted to name calling and character assassination in his attempt to shame and silence me. Anyone who really knows me knows that for me life is more about caring for and having relationships with people, even if we differ in our beliefs than attempting to argue them into my position or abandon a relationship with them because they do not agree with me.

Sadly for him my former colleague did not understand that. It was a loss that he brought about, and in that sense it is his loss, because I actually do care for him and remember him fondly from when I knew him 20 years ago; but in the end of the day it is probably a loss for both of us.

Unfortunately that is the cost of those more committed to their ideology than they are to people. It matters not if they are Christians, Moslems, Jews, Hindus, secularists, or others that hold the purity of their political, social, ideological, racial or economic theories as more important than people.

My comment about the Kansas Taliban was fitting, and like Hermann Goering’s comments at Nuremberg to Gustav Gilbert the difference between the ideology and actions of the Taliban as opposed to militant Christians who attempt to use the power of the State to suppress, control and persecute those that they find offensive is only a matter of degree.

That may not seem important to some. But it is the difference between a divided society that can agree to disagree respecting the differences within it, and one for which factions attempt to use the police power of the State and the law of the land to persecute those that are different.

Goering in his critique of America in the 1930s and 1940s was correct; what we as a society enshrined in law and in our culture to discriminate against others differed little from what the Nazis did, only in the matter of degree.

It is something for us all to think about.

Peace

Padre Steve+

1 Comment

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