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Freedom of Religion and the Yuck Factor: American Religious Theocrats

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The distinguished British Mathematician and Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote:

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

I fully agree with him based on my knowledge of human history and behavior. I strongly support religious freedom, so long as it is not abused by people to harm others. I get sick of religious liberty hyperbole when it is used by theocrats of all religious stripes. I am kind of like James Spader’s character, Alan Shore in Boston Legal; but then, maybe there is a valid reason that my seminary classmates at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary asked me why I wasn’t in law school. They did not mean it as a compliment.

During one episode dealing with a case regarding religious liberties Spader’s character (Whose God is it Anyway, Season Three Episode 5) said:

“I don’t know about you but I’m getting a little tired of the religious freedom thing. When did religion get such a good name anyway. Be it the Crusades, the reformation genocides, the troubles in Northern Ireland, the Middle East, mass slaughters in the name of Allah, the obligatory reciprocal retributions. Hundreds of millions have died in religious conflicts. Hitler did his business in the name of his creator. Religious extremism, it’s our greatest threat today, a holy jihad. If we’re not ready to strip religion of its sacred cow status, how about we at least scale back on the Constitutional dogma exalting it as all get out….

Everyone should get to believe in his God, pray to his God, worship his God of course. But to impose him on others, to victimize others in his name?  The founding fathers set out to prevent persecution, not license it…

At a certain point we have to say “enough with this freedom of religion crap. Yuck, yuck, yuck. I know, I’ll get letters….” 

At this time though I am doing my best to fight budget cuts that could harm the rights of Navy and Marine Corps personnel of their rights to practice their religion in base chapels, cuts that will harm the religious rights of the most vulnerable service members and their families. I don’t have to agree with their religion, politics or theology, but I follow the Constitution, and legal precedent, not my own opinions on faith.

Let me explain.

Those who follow my writings know how much I struggle with faith and doubt on a daily basis. I believe, but as the man told Jesus when he asked Jesus to heal his child “I believe, help my unbelief.” I no longer believe in the “absolute truths” that I once believed. Of course to some this makes me a heretic or worse. That being said, I have faith in a God I cannot see. I have faith in a God who clothes himself in human weakness and allows himself to be killed as a state criminal.

That being said I see many of my fellow Christians, not to mention those of other faiths who attempt to use their interpretation of what they believe are absolute truths and attempt to impose them on others. Using their houses of worship they indoctrinate believers into believing the “truth” including the judgment on non-believers.

I remember going through classes in my previous denomination which were entitled “The Government of God” and utilized Robert Bork’s book Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline as its primary text. Obviously the class had little to do with faith, but was a tool by which we were indoctrinated to believe the political-religious ideology of our church leaders. There were several more texts, which basically echoed Bork’s thought, but they were taught in a manner is if they were as important as the often contradictory Biblical tests or the writings of the church Fathers, the great saints, scholastics or Protestant Reformers. It was an exercise in political indoctrination based on religious ideology. At the time I had no idea that what the church leaders were appealing to was nothing more than a variation on Christian Dominionism. I will not mention it’s name because most of those who taught this are not alive to defend themselves, and one, though I disagreed with his theology, I knew that he really did love people.

However, such ideology is incredibly dangerous, even when it is taught by well meaning people, because when people in power take it to heart and act upon it, all pretense of fairness, justice and integrity is lost. Those who are simply different are persecuted, those who do not tow a particular party or religious line are suspect, and the innocent are presumed guilty. It has happened throughout human history in every corner of the world, and it still goes on today.

I ended up rejecting that view of faith and life after coming home from Iraq, and for voicing my disagreement on a number of issues was asked to leave that denomination in 2010.

I believe again, but my doubts are real. But even more I have a belief in justice, and I believe that that justice itself cannot be built on absolutes. As Captain Jean Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) noted in the Star Trek the Next Generation episode Justice: 

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

I have found that as Picard said, “that life itself is an exercise in exceptions.”  We all make them, and the Bible and the history of the church is full of them. So I have a hard time with those who claim an absolute certitude in beliefs that are built on faith and treat them as fact, despite the fact that they are not provable. Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted the problem well when he talked of this problem and described the dilemma of so many believers:

“Man no longer lives in the beginning–he has lost the beginning. Now he finds he is in the middle, knowing neither the end nor the beginning, and yet knowing that he is in the middle, coming from the beginning and going towards the end. He sees that his life is determined by these two facets, of which he knows only that he does not know them”

Even so believers of all faiths wrap themselves in the certitude of their faith. They espouse doctrines that at best are humanity’s best attempts to describe a God that is infinitely bigger and more complex than they believe. The contest then becomes not about God himself, but the manner that the human being who interprets God espouses as incontrovertible doctrine. Eric Hoffer wrote:

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

That certitude and the belief that we absolutely know the mind of a God who claims that we cannot know is the height of arrogance and it ensures that when we speak in terms of absolutes that we do not understand God, nor do we believe in justice, because as Captain Picard so wisely noted “life itself is an exercise in exceptions.” Even the most devout of believers make exceptions, simply because they are human and can’t avoid it, unless they are sociopaths.

Henri Nouwen wrote something very profound that all who claim to know God’s absolute will or truth need to consider. Nouwen wrote: “Theological formation is the gradual and often painful discovery of God’s incomprehensibility. You can be competent in many things, but you cannot be competent in God.”

The fact is that no one can be competent in God, and that those who claim to are either hopelessly deluded b their ignorance, or worse, are evil men masquerading as good. Those who pro port to know absolutes and want to use the Bible or any other religious text as some sort of rule book that they alone can interpret need to ask themselves this question, posed by Commander Riker to Captain Picard when he talked about absolutes and life: “When has justice ever been as simple as a rulebook?” 

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

Thus our human justice, as feeble as it often is must take this into account: It takes true wisdom to know when and how to make these exceptions, wisdom based on reason, grace and mercy. Justice, is to apply the law in fairness and equity, knowing that even our best attempts can be misguided and if based on emotion, hatred, racism or vengeance all clothed in the language of righteousness can be more evil than any evil it is supposed to correct.

Does it matter if we are doing it the sake of law and order, or for love of country, or to defend the faith; if at the heart of it what we call justice, or moral absolutes is nothing more than the implementation of an agenda to crush the powerless under our heel and promote even more injustice? If we lean toward the view that we are implementing the absolute law and will of God then we had better be sure, as Nouwen so well noted we can be competent in many things, but we cannot, as much as we deceive ourselves, be competent in God.

But we see it all too often, religious people and others misusing faith to condemn those they do not understand or with whom they disagree. As Patrick Stewart playing Captain Jean Luc Picard noted in the Start Trek Next Generation episode The Drumhead:

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

Believe me, American religious theocrats, who have the ear of President Trump are using those rights to persecute and restrict the liberties of fellow citizens. That I cannot abide, because last year I was on the receiving end of it. I try not to go there because it brings up so many unpleasant memories, but I was reminded of them as I wrote this post. I will not revisit them as I wrote about them last July after I had been exonerated of the false charges.

But I will not stop fighting for the religious liberties of all, including the rights of non-believers. I admire the work of Mikey Weinstein and the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. Despite how they are characterized by many Christian theocrats, they supported me when I was under attack and well over 90% of their clients are Christians.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, civil rights, faith, History, laws and legislation, leadership, LGBT issues, Military, philosophy, Religion, star trek

And Then there Were None: The Doolittle Raid 77 Years Later

Lieutenant Colonel Dick Cole

Today marks the 77th anniversary of the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo. 80 US Army Air Corps flyers manning 16 B-25 Mitchell bombers conducted a mission from the deck of the USS Hornet CV-8 which though it caused little damage changed the course of World War Two in the Pacific.

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Orders in hand, Capt. Marc A. Mitscher, U.S.N., skipper of the U.S.S. Hornet (CU-8) chats with Maj. Gen. James Doolittle, U.S. Army. Some of the 80 Army fliers who took part in the historic Japanese raid are pictured with the two fliers.

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Doolittle and his Airmen with Hornet’s C.O. Captain Marc Mitscher 

The genus of the strike came from the desire of President Franklin Roosevelt to bomb Japan as soon as possible during a meeting just prior to Christmas 1941. Various aircraft types were considered and in the end the military chose the B-25 because it had the requisite range and had the best characteristics. Aircraft and their crews from the 17th Bomb Group which had the most experience with the aircraft were modified to meet the mission requirements. Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle was selected to lead the mission.

Once the aircraft were ready they and their crews reported to Eglin Field for an intensive three week period of training. Supervised by a Navy pilot the crews practiced simulated carrier take offs, low level flying and bombing, night flying and over water navigation. When the training was complete the aircraft and crews and support personnel flew to McClellan Field for final modifications and then to NAS Alameda California where they were embarked on the Hornet Hornet’s air group had to be stowed on the ships hanger deck since the 16 B-25s had to remain of the flight deck. Each bomber was loaded with 4 specially modified 500 lb. bombs, three high explosive and one incendiary.

Departing Alameda on April 2nd the Hornet and her escorts, Hornet’s Task Force 18 rendezvoused with the Admiral William “Bull” Halsey’s Task Force 16 built around the USS Enterprise CV-6. task Force 16 provided escort and air cover during the mission. The carriers, escorted by 4 cruisers, 8 destroyers and accompanied by two oilers hoped to get close enough to the Japanese home islands so that the raiders could reach bases in allied China.

Hornet in Heavy Seas while launching the Raiders

The destroyers and slow oilers broke off on the evening of the 17th after refueling the carriers and cruisers. The two carriers and the cruisers then commenced a high speed run to get into range. However early in the morning of April 18th the ships were sighted by a Japanese patrol boat, the #23 Nitto Maru which was quickly sunk by the USS Nashville but not before it got off a radio message alerting the Japanese command. However the Japanese knowing that carrier aircraft had a relatively short range did not expect an attack. However, realizing the danger that the sighting brought, Mitscher elected to launch immediately, even though it meant that bombers would have to ditch their aircraft or attempt to land well short of the friendly Chinese airfields. The launch was 10 hours earlier and about 170 miles farther out from the Chinese bases than planned.

B-25 Launching from Hornet

Flying in groups of two to four aircraft the raiders struck the Japanese cities of Tokyo, Yokohama, Yokosuka, Nagoya, Kobe and Osaka. Minimal damage was done and only one aircraft was damaged. However they needed to fly nearly 1500 more miles to get to areas of China unoccupied by Japanese forces. Miraculously most of the aircraft and crews managed to find refuge in China. 69 of the 80 pilots and crew members avoided death or capture. Two flyers drowned, one died when parachuting from his aircraft. Eight men were captured. Of those captured by the Japanese three, Lieutenants William Farrow, Dean Hallmark and Corporal Harold Spatz were tried and executed for “war crimes” on October 15th 1942.

Many of the surviving flyers continued to serve in China while others continued to serve in North Africa and Europe, another 11 died in action following the raid. Doolittle felt that with the loss of all aircraft and no appreciable damage that he would be tried by courts-martial. Instead since the raid had so bolstered American morale he was awarded the Medal of Honor, promoted to Brigadier General and would go on to command the 12th Air Force, the 15th Air Force and finally the 8th Air Force.

The raid shook the Japanese, especially the leadership of the Imperial Navy who had allowed American aircraft to strike the Japanese homeland. The attack helped convince Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto that an attack on Midway was needed in order to destroy the American Carriers and the threat to the home islands.

When asked by a reporter about where the attack was launched from, President Roosevelt quipped “Shangri-La” the fictional location of perpetual youth in the Himalayas’ made famous in the popular book and movie Lost Horizon.

The raid in terms of actual damage and losses to the attacking forces was a failure, but in terms of its impact a major victory of the United States. The attack was psychologically devastating to Japanese leaders, including Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, whose personal aircraft was nearly hit by one of the raiders and Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who felt personally humiliated and dishonored by the fact that bombers launched from American carriers.

Likewise the raid gave the people of the United States a huge morale boost at a time when very little was going right. It forced the Japanese Navy to launch the attack on Midway that turned out to be a disaster, decimating the best of the Japanese Naval Air Forces and the loss of four aircraft carriers and enabled the US Navy to take the offensive two months later at Guadalcanal.

Franklin Roosevelt Awards Medal of Honor to Jimmy Doolittle 

In the years after the war the survivors would meet to toast each other and to reminisce about their experiences. Those meetings stopped several years ago and in 2017 LTC Dick Cole was the last of Doolittle’s raiders still alive. He passed away just over a week ago on April 9th in San Antonio. A memorial service will be held for him there on Thursday the 18th Of April. He will be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Now that he and the rest of the Doolittle Raiders have passed away it is up to us to never forget the heroism, sacrifice and service in a mission the likes of which had never before been attempted, and which would in its own way help change the course of the Second World War.

Since most of us have never had to make that choice, and our President dodged the draft under the unusual circumstances often given to the children of the wealthy, we should ask what we would do if we were in Dick Cole’s shoes, or for that matter any of the men involved in the Doolittle Raid.

Since I have been serving as a volunteer since 1981 with multiple combat deployments to my name, and I. All of which I put my life on the line unarmed, and I still serve, so I know what I would do. However, that being said I really do have to wonder about most Americans, including those of my own generation who claim to support the troops without ever serving a day in uniform or even volunteering in the Peace Corps, Americorps, or even with the Red Cross.

The devotion of these men is seldom seen today. Our President routinely mocks those killed, wounded, or taken prisoner in war as “losers” and on the Howard Stern Radio program described avoiding sexually transmitted diseases in the 1980s as his “personal Vietnam.”

But I digress… the Greatest Generation is passing away. They fought fascism, the Nazis, and the Japanese Empire, and then many continued to serve during the Cold War, and in Korea, and some up to Vietnam. It is up to us the living to not disgrace their memory by forgetting them, or even worse, pretending that avoiding STDs is the equivalent of serving in harms way.

I think of the words of the character played by Jose Ferrer in the novel and movie written by Herman Wouk, The Caine Mutiny:

So until tomorrow, either put up, or shut up, especially if you wear the Red MAGA hat. Being a true American Patriot is not based on political ideology, Party, race, or religion. It is all about upholding the foundational principle of the Declaration: “We believe that all men are created equal, and are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, among them being life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

After all, that is the foundational principal of the United States. It is true for all of us, or none of us, for once those rights are denied to anyone, the precedent can be used against any of us. To fall back on a quote from Captain Jean Luc Picard in the Star Trek the Next Generation episode The Drumhead:

“You know, there are some words I’ve known since I was a schoolboy: “With the first link, the chain is forged. The first speech censured, the first thought forbidden, the first freedom denied, chains us all irrevocably.” Those words were uttered by Judge Aaron Satie, as wisdom and warning. The first time any man’s freedom is trodden on, we’re all damaged. I fear that today…”

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under aircraft, History, Military, national security, News and current events, Political Commentary, US Army Air Corps, US Navy, World War II at Sea

Heresies and Drumheads: Evangelicals and Trump through the Lens of Star Trek

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The German theologian, pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

“Man no longer lives in the beginning–he has lost the beginning. Now he finds he is in the middle, knowing neither the end nor the beginning, and yet knowing that he is in the middle, coming from the beginning and going towards the end. He sees that his life is determined by these two facets, of which he knows only that he does not know them”  

There is an episode of Star Trek Voyager called Distant Origin where a scientist of a race in the Delta Quadrant believes that genetic evidence indicated that their race originated on Earth. His thesis is challenged the doctrine of his species and he was accused of “heresy against Doctrine” for positing something different than his people believed. He ends up being persecuted and punished for his beliefs.

Now I want to be diplomatic about this. I am not someone who simply is contrary to established doctrines, be they theological, scientific or even military theories. That being said I think it is only right to question our presuppositions, as Anselm of Canterbury did through faith seeking understanding.

That understanding as a Christian is based on the totality of the message of the Christian faith. Hans Kung said it well:

“Christians are confident that there is a living God and that in the future of this God will also maintain their believing community in life and in truth. Their confidence is based on the promise given with Jesus of Nazareth: he himself is the promise in which God’s fidelity to his people can be read.” 

What we have to admit is that our belief is rooted in our faith, faith which is given to us through the witness of very imperfect people influenced by their own culture, history and traditions. Even scripture does not make the claim to be inerrant, and the Bible cannot be understood like the Koran or other texts which make the claim to be the infallible compendium of faith delivered by an angel or dictated by God himself. It is a Divine-human collaboration so symbolic of the relationship that God has with his people, often confusing and contradictory yet inspiring.

themiddle

There is a certain sense of relationship between God and humanity within scripture and that relationship creates certain tensions between God and those people. The interesting thing is that Scripture is a collection of texts which record often in terrible honesty the lack of perfection of both the writers and their subjects. They likewise record the sometimes unpredictable and seemingly contradictory behavior of God toward humanity in the Old Testament. They bear witness to the weaknesses, limitations and lack of understanding of the people of God of the message of God but even in that those limitations and weaknesses that God is still faithful to humanity in the life death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

The real fact of the matter is that fixed doctrines are much more comfortable than difficult questions than honestly examining the contradictions that exist within Scripture, history and tradition. The fact is this makes many people uncomfortable and thus the retreat into the fortress of fixed and immutable doctrine found in the various incarnations of Fundamentalism.

The fact is the world is not a safe place, and our best knowledge is always being challenged by new discoveries many of which make people nervous and uncomfortable, especially people who need the safety of certitude. So in reaction the true believers become even more strident and sometimes, in the case of some forms of Islam and Hinduism violent.

Picard

Christianity cannot get away unscathed by such criticism. At various points in our history we have had individuals, churches and Church controlled governments persecute and kill those that have challenged their particular orthodoxy. Since Christian fundamentalists are human they like others have the capacity for violence if they feel threatened, or the cause is “holy” enough. Our history is full of sordid tales of the ignorance of some Christians masquerading as absolute truth and crushing any opposition. It is as Eric Hoffer wrote:

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

This is the magnetic attraction of fundamentalism in all of its forms, not just Christian fundamentalism.  Yet for me there is a comfort in knowing that no matter how hard and fast we want to be certain of our doctrines, that God has the last say in the matter in the beginning and the end. We live in the uncomfortable middle but I have hope in the faith that God was in the beginning. Besides as Bonhoeffer well noted “A God who let us prove his existence would be an idol” 

But there some Christians who now faced with the eloquence of men like Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye who make legitimate challenges respond in the most uncouth and ignorant manners. The sad thing is that their response reveals more about them and their uncertainty than it does the faith that they boldly proclaim.

Our doctrines, the way we interpret Scripture and the way we understand God are limited by our humanity and the fact that no matter how clever we think we are that our doctrines are expressions of faith. This is because we were not in the beginning as was God and we will not be at the end, at least in this state. We live in the uncomfortable middle, faith is not science, nor is it proof, that is why it is called faith, even in our scriptures.

We are to always seek clarity and understanding but know that it is possible that such understanding and the seeking of truth, be it spiritual, historical, scientific or ethical could well upset our doctrines, but not God himself. As Henri Nouwen wrote: “Theological formation is the gradual and often painful discovery of God’s incomprehensibility. You can be competent in many things, but you cannot be competent in God.” Is that not the point of the various interactions of Jesus with the religious leaders of his day? Men who knew that they knew the truth and even punished people who had been healed by Jesus such as the man born blind in the 9th Chapter of John’s Gospel.

vasily-surikov-christ-healing-the-man-born-blind

“You are that man’s disciple; we are disciples of Moses! We know that God spoke to Moses, but we do not know where this one is from.” The man answered and said to them, “This is what is so amazing, that you do not know where he is from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if one is devout and does his will, he listens to him. It is unheard of that anyone ever opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he would not be able to do anything.” They answered and said to him, “You were born totally in sin, and are you trying to teach us?” Then they threw him out.”

The interchange between the religious leaders and the man is not an indictment on Judaism, but rather on religious certitude in any time or place. The fact is that the Pharisees are no different than those who ran the Inquisition, or those who conducted Witch Trials or those who attempt to crush anyone who questions their immutable doctrine no matter what their religion.

They were and many of their theological and ecclesiastical descendants still are true believers. That has been demonstrated over and over again in regards to biblically and theologically challenged yet politically fanatical American Evangelical Christians who have willingly surrendered any pretense of following Christ to paying obeisance to President Trump; a would be dictator who plays to their perpetual sense of victimhood in order to cement his power over them and to use them as his willing foot soldiers.

What Trump has done has turned the Gospel on its head, the Christian faith has become a political bludgeon to support laws and policies that are in diametric opposition to the message of Jesus. Sadly, a large majority of Evangelicals and their leaders have become Trump’s willing accomplices.

In the episode of Star Trek the Next Generation called The Drumhead Captain Picard counsels Lieutenant Worf after their encounter with a retired admiral who turned an investigation involving a Klingon exchange scientist into a witch hunt aboard the Enterprise. That episode is well worth watching especially because it anticipates what is going on in the United States today, where a President, his party, and a reactionary fear filled cabal of religious followers has declared war on all who oppose them.

At the end of the episode Lieutenant  Worf comes to Captain Picard’s office. He is apologetic about having believed and cooperated with the Admiral. The dialogue is striking and should be heeded, especially by Evangelical Christians and others who have with open eyes sacrificed their faith even as they tear up the Constitution thinking that they are defending it.

WORF: Am I bothering you, Captain?
PICARD: No. Please, Mister Worf. Come in.
WORF: It is over. Admiral Henry has called an end to any more hearings on this matter.
PICARD: That’s good.
WORF: Admiral Satie has left the Enterprise.
PICARD: We think we’ve come so far. The torture of heretics, the burning of witches, it’s all ancient history. Then, before you can blink an eye, it suddenly threatens to start all over again.
WORF: I believed her. I helped her. I did not see what she was.
PICARD: Mister Worf, villains who wear twirl their moustaches are easy to spot. Those who clothe themselves in good deeds are well camouflaged.
WORF: I think after yesterday, people will not be as ready to trust her.
PICARD: Maybe. But she, or someone like her, will always be with us, waiting for the right climate in which to flourish, spreading fear in the name of righteousness. Vigilance, Mister Worf, that is the price we have to continually pay.

And that is true and despite the certitude of the true believers that we do live in the uncomfortable middle.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under ethics, faith, News and current events, philosophy, Political Commentary, Religion, star trek

“I Have the Most Loyal People” Trump and Those Who Believe Anything

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The late and great American philosopher Eric Hoffer wrote:

“Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all the unifying agents. Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without a belief in a devil.” 

Hatred is an amazing emotion to which demagogues seem most adept at tapping into and harnessing.  Such leaders and propagandists channel the anger and hatred of their followers by identifying enemies and then with every statement, speech, or tweet reinforcing those beliefs, even if their claims are devoid of logic or substance.

Over the past week the language of NRA leaders Wayne Lapierre and Dana Loesch does much to incite anger and potential violence against their mostly imagined political and ideological enemies. The unmitigated volcanic reaction of Lapierre and Loesch, as well as others who share their views about socialists attempting to destroy the Second Amendment in order to overthrow the Constitution and destroy “freedom” were turned with a vengeance against anyone proposing any kind of restriction on weapons which are based on well proven military rifles of the M-16 family. In response, President Trump reaffirmed his support and admiration for Lapierre and the NRA agenda.

The invective of the NRA was profoundly disturbing especially when Right Wing bloggers, meme generators, “news” sites, and politicians attacked the students that spoke out after the Parkland attacks, calling them “crisis actors” and labeling the massacre as a “false flag” attack engineered by the “deep state” in order to take do away with the Second Amendment and take people’s guns away. This is nothing new, the NRA and its allies have done so after every mass killing. The young people who spoke out and continue to do so, as well as their families, and law enforcement are the “the devil.” 

Truth does not matter to the people who need scapegoats, or who need a “devil” in order to have meaning for themselves and the movements that they find their salvation in.  Hoffer was quite correct in his words that “Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without a belief in a devil.” The really successful leaders of such movements in history understood this, as do Lapierre and President Trump. The President does this by labeling his opponents “enemies” as he does with the free press, and his political opponents outside and inside the Republican Party, but he is not the first to do so.

For Hitler it was the Jews and other untermenschen. For American Southerners of the Lost Cause following the Civil War and Reconstruction it was the Blacks and their white supporters. For the “Know Nothings” of the 1840s and 1850s it was immigrants, especially Irish and Germans who were Roman Catholic. For the leaders of the Islamic State and others like them, it is Jews, Shi’ite Moslems, less than “faithful” Sunnis, Christians and well for that matter anyone who does not line up one hundred percent with them on every issue. For Stalin it was anyone who opposed his Sovietization of life and society. These examples are just the tip of the iceberg and they are not limited to the past, they are happening today in Poland, Hungary, Russia, Turkey, and gaining traction in other western European countries; including Britain, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, and yes, the United States where President Trump is leading the parade, or possibly is being led by the people at Fox News.

President Trump has managed to demonize and dehumanize more people and groups than I had thought possible for an American political leader of any party or persuasion. I honestly believe that we have reached a tipping point where any severe crisis, one Reichstag Fire moment, one major terrorist attack, or war from pogroms, ethnic or religious cleansing, mass imprisonments, or even genocide. The words and actions of many of his followers and allies, including Lapierre, Loesch, and so many others reinforces that belief on a daily basis. They are taking advantage of political and social tumult to increase the fear and anxiety of all of us, their supporters and opponents alike.

 

I think a lot of this situation is because humanity is not nearly as advanced as most of us would like to presume. In times of crisis human beings are particularly susceptible to believing the unbelievable. The perpetual unsettledness that people like Trump, Lapierre, Loesch, Sean Hannity, and the people at Fox and Friends thrive on concocting helps prepare people for believing the unbelievable and for later doing what would have been unimaginable to them at one time. Hannah Arendt noted in her book The Origins of Totalitarianism:

“In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true. … Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.” 

No wonder then candidate Trump observed:

“You know what else they say about my people? The polls, they say I have the most loyal people. Did you ever see that? Where I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, okay? It’s like incredible.” 

He understands his followers and since his election they have proven to be quite loyal even when his policies and programs work to their detriment.

Those that follow my writings on this site know how much I love the various Star Trek television series and movies. There is an episode (The Siege of AR-558) of Star Trek Deep Space Nine where the Ferengi bartender Quark, makes a truly astute observation about humanity during a battle for survival at an isolated outpost:

“Let me tell you something about Hew-mons, Nephew. They’re a wonderful, friendly people, as long as their bellies are full and their holosuites are working. But take away their creature comforts, deprive them of food, sleep, sonic showers, put their lives in jeopardy over an extended period of time and those same friendly, intelligent, wonderful people… will become as nasty and as violent as the most bloodthirsty Klingon. You don’t believe me? Look at those faces. Look in their eyes.”

Quark’s words remind me of those of Dr. Timothy Snyder who noted:

“The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. It would serve us well today to understand why.”

I don’t think that we are too far from some tipping point where the Trinity of Evil, the politicians, pundits and preachers, especially of the political right and the media whores at Fox News who are more concerned about market share than truth, decide that their “devils” must be exterminated. Of course when they will do they will claim a higher moral, religious, or racial, purpose for their actions. The President’s CPAC speech, which I just re-read was full of such references.

Sadly in past few years, and especially since President Trump took office, many of those ruthless and often racist ideologies have seen a resurgence in many parts of the world, including in Europe and the United States. While these movements have existed  underground for years they have seen a dramatic resurgence following the election of President Trump, for whom many of their leaders credit with their rise; regardless of whether the President actually holds those views or not. The scary thing is that such groups count him as being an inspiration to them.

That being said the President routinely talks about crushing, eliminating, or destroying his political opponents as well as the racial, ethnic, and religious groups that he uses as straw men and declares to be enemies; enemies who must be sought out.

In a Star Trek the Next Generation episode, one called The Drumhead Captain Picard has to warn his security officer, Lt Worf about the dangers of rampant paranoia. Worf starts: “Sir, the Federation does have enemies. We must seek them out.”

Picard pauses and then notes:

“Oh, yes. That’s how it starts. But the road from legitimate suspicion to rampant paranoia is very much shorter than we think. Something is wrong here, Mister Worf. I don’t like what we have become.”

To claim Picard’s words for myself I have to admit that I don’t like what we have become either, and that thought frightens me; especially when the the followers of the President behave exactly how he said that they would.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Survival as What?

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

The events, including the executive orders and actions of President Trump on a number of subject over the past few days have given me cause for much concern. Likewise, seeing the comments of people that I know personally doing backflips to justify actions that had they been done by any other President leave me dumbfounded. I have Muslim friends, including friends who are Naval officers with distinguished careers of service to this country whose families now live in fear because of what has been unleashed. People I know are being threatened by people who don’t just want political power to enact tax cuts, repeal the ACA, or reduce regulations, but who want to crush and destroy their opposition. Some of the memes that I have seen on Facebook and Twitter are to be kind, little better than Julius Streicher and Joseph Goebbel’s Nazi murder inducing racist pornography of the Third Reich. If you have never been physically threatened by such people you have no idea, I have been threatened more times than I can count going back to 2010, well before the advent of President Trump.

In the television series Star Trek the Next Generation there is an episode called The Drumhead. In it there is a dialogue between Captain Picard and his Chief of Security, Lieutenant Worf. It sums up what I am feeling regarding the events of the last week.

Lieutenant Worf: “Sir, the Federation does have enemies. We must seek them out.”


Captain Jean-Luc Picard: “Oh, yes. That’s how it starts. But the road from legitimate suspicion to rampant paranoia is very much shorter than we think. Something is wrong here, Mister Worf. I don’t like what we have become.”

I do not like what we have become.

For me this is not about political party, though I did have a number of people suggest this. My political beliefs, while liberal and progressive are founded on the premise in the proposition of the preamble of the Declaration of Independence, which was reiterated by Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address, that “all men are created equal.”

Those who have read my writings for any length of time have heard me talk about that time after time, whether it be in the words of Jefferson, Madison, Virginia Baptist leader John Leland, and of course Lincoln himself. What the Trump administration is doing today is destroying that proposition before our eyes in the name of the false god of security, flamed by fear, suspicion, hatred, and ignorance. He promises a utopia where he will “make America great again,” but to quote Spencer Tracy’s character in the film Inherit the Wind: As long as the prerequisite for that shining paradise is ignorance, bigotry and hate, I say the hell with it.”

If followed to their logical end, it will be then end of the proposition that is the spiritual heart of the United States of America. It is the one proposition that set us apart, even when imperfectly done, that set us apart from every nation on earth. It is the one thing that most Americans ancestors came to this country to enjoy; the proposition that “we hold these truth to be self evident, that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…”  

Charles Morgan Jr. who I have written about before, wrote these haunting words after the bombing the the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham by members of the Ku Klux Klan in 1964:

“It is not by great acts but by small failures that freedom dies. . . . Justice and liberty die quietly, because men first learn to ignore injustice and then no longer recognize it.”

That my friends is happening today before our very eyes. Judge Learned Hand, perhaps the best qualified man ever to not serve on the Supreme Court wrote,

“Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. The spirit of Liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of Liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of Liberty is that which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias.” 

During the climax of The Drumhead, Captain Picard tells his inquisitor, “With the first link, the chain is forged. The first speech censured, the first thought forbidden, the first freedom denied, chains us all irrevocably.”

The question is: Will we sell the very proposition that sets us apart from all other nations for the false god of security? of survival? If so, we have to answer the question: “survival as what?”

That is the question my friends that I leave you with to start this week. Survival as what?

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Stuck in the Middle: A Lenten Meditation

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Man no longer lives in the beginning–he has lost the beginning. Now he finds he is in the middle, knowing neither the end nor the beginning, and yet knowing that he is in the middle, coming from the beginning and going towards the end. He sees that his life is determined by these two facets, of which he knows only that he does not know them” 

I have had a number of instances recently where I have brushed off some rather rude comments of Fundamentalist Christians on both my Facebook and Twitter accounts. I am always amazed with the certitude of how they judge those with whom they disagree. Such certitude mystifies me because it is usually based on some form of circular logic about the Bible, an example being “the Bible is true because God said it is, and God said it in the Bible, thus it is true. It is a fallacious argument, but one that is very commonly held in Fundamentalist Christian circles but also in other religions and sometimes even in Atheism. What is funny, for the most intensely fundamentalist people is the amount they have to choose to disbelieve in order to believe in what they say. Eric Hoffer noted: “It is startling to realize how much unbelief is necessary to make belief possible.”

There is an episode of Star Trek Voyager called Distant Origin where this topic is explored. A scientist of a race in the Delta Quadrant believes that genetic evidence indicated that their race originated on Earth. His thesis is challenged the doctrine of his species and he was accused of “heresy against Doctrine” for positing something different than his people believed. He ends up being persecuted and punished for his beliefs.

Now I want to be diplomatic about this. I am not someone who simply is contrary to established doctrines, be they theological, scientific or even military theories. That being said I think it is only right to question our presuppositions, as Anselm of Canterbury did through faith seeking understanding.

That understanding as a Christian is based on the totality of the message of the Christian faith. Hans Kung said it well:

“Christians are confident that there is a living God and that in the future of this God will also maintain their believing community in life and in truth. Their confidence is based on the promise given with Jesus of Nazareth: he himself is the promise in which God’s fidelity to his people can be read.” 

What we have to admit is that our belief is rooted in our faith, faith which is given to us through the witness of very imperfect people influenced by their own culture, history and traditions. Even scripture does not make the claim to be inerrant, and the Bible cannot be understood like the Koran or other texts which make the claim to be the infallible compendium of faith delivered by an angel or dictated by God himself. It is a Divine-human collaboration so symbolic of the relationship that God has with his people, often confusing and contradictory yet inspiring.

There is a certain sense of relationship between God and humanity within scripture and that relationship creates certain tensions between God and those people. The interesting thing is that Scripture is a collection of texts which record often in terrible honesty the lack of perfection of both the writers and their subjects. They likewise record the sometimes unpredictable and seemingly contradictory behavior of God toward humanity in the Old Testament. They bear witness to the weaknesses, limitations and lack of understanding of the people of God of the message of God but even in that those limitations and weaknesses that God is still faithful to humanity in the life death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

The real fact of the matter is that fixed doctrines are much more comfortable than difficult questions than honestly examining the contradictions that exist within Scripture, history and tradition. The fact is this makes many people uncomfortable and thus the retreat into the fortress of fixed and immutable doctrine found in the various incarnations of Fundamentalism.

The fact is the world is not a safe place, and our best knowledge is always being challenged by new discoveries many of which make people nervous and uncomfortable, especially people who need the safety of certitude. So in reaction the true believers become even more strident and sometimes, in the case of some forms of Islam and Hinduism violent.

Christianity cannot get away unscathed by such criticism. At various points in our history we have had individuals, churches and Church controlled governments persecute and kill those that have challenged their particular orthodoxy. Since Christian fundamentalists are human they like others have the capacity for violence if they feel threatened, or the cause is “holy” enough. Our history is full of sordid tales of the ignorance of some Christians masquerading as absolute truth and crushing any opposition. It is as Eric Hoffer wrote:

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

This is the magnetic attraction of fundamentalism in all of its forms, not just Christian fundamentalism.  Yet for me there is a comfort in knowing that no matter how hard and fast we want to be certain of our doctrines, that God has the last say in the matter in the beginning and the end. We live in the uncomfortable middle but I have hope in the faith that God was in the beginning. Besides as Bonhoeffer well noted “A God who let us prove his existence would be an idol” 

But there some Christians who now faced with the eloquence of men like Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye who make legitimate challenges respond in the most uncouth and ignorant manners. The sad thing is that their response reveals more about them and their uncertainty than it does the faith that they boldly proclaim. As Hoffer wrote: “We can be absolutely certain only about things we do not understand.”

Our doctrines, the way we interpret Scripture and the way we understand God are limited by our humanity and the fact that no matter how clever we think we are that our doctrines are expressions of faith. This is because we were not in the beginning as was God and we will not be at the end, at least in this state. We live in the uncomfortable middle, faith is not science, nor is it proof, that is why it is called faith, even in our scriptures.

We are to always seek clarity and understanding but know that it is possible that such understanding and the seeking of truth, be it spiritual, historical, scientific or ethical could well upset our doctrines, but not God himself. As Henri Nouwen wrote: “Theological formation is the gradual and often painful discovery of God’s incomprehensibility. You can be competent in many things, but you cannot be competent in God.” Is that not the point of the various interactions of Jesus with the religious leaders of his day? Men who knew that they knew the truth and even punished people who had been healed by Jesus such as the man born blind in the 9th Chapter of John’s Gospel.

“You are that man’s disciple; we are disciples of Moses! We know that God spoke to Moses, but we do not know where this one is from.” The man answered and said to them, “This is what is so amazing, that you do not know where he is from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if one is devout and does his will, he listens to him. It is unheard of that anyone ever opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he would not be able to do anything.” They answered and said to him, “You were born totally in sin, and are you trying to teach us?” Then they threw him out.”

The interchange between the religious leaders and the man is not an indictment on Judaism, but rather on religious certitude in any time or place. The fact is that the Pharisees are no different than those who ran the Inquisition, or those who conducted Witch Trials or those who attempt to crush anyone who questions their immutable doctrine no matter what their religion. They were and are true believers.

In the episode of Star Trek the Next Generation called The Drumhead Captain Picard counsels Lieutenant Worf after their encounter with a special investigator who turned an investigation into a witch hunt on the Enterprise. Picard told Worf, who had initially been taken in by the investigator:

“But she, or someone like her, will always be with us, waiting for the right climate in which to flourish, spreading fear in the name of righteousness. Vigilance, Mister Worf – that is the price we have to continually pay.”

And that is true.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Justice & Faith

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

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

I find much truth in Whitehead’s words. Those who follow my writings know how much I struggle with faith and doubt on a daily basis. I believe, but as the man told Jesus when he asked Jesus to heal his child “I believe, help my unbelief.” I no longer believe in the “absolute truths” that I once believed. Of course to some this makes me a heretic or worse. That being said, I have faith in a God I cannot see. I have faith in a God who clothes himself in human weakness and allows himself to be killed based on the trumped up charges of corrupt and fearful religious leaders. Thus I have a problem with Christians or members of other religions try to use the police power of state to enforce their beliefs on others.

I believe, but my doubts are all too real. Frankly I cringe when I hear religious people speaking with absolute certitude about things that they ultimately cannot prove, and that includes the concept of justice, which cannot always be measured in absolutes. Captain Jean Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) noted in the Star Trek the Next Generation episode Justice: 

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

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

True believers frequently wrap themselves in the certitude of their faith. They espouse doctrines that are unprovable and then build complex doctrinal systems to prove them, systems that then which must be defended, sometimes to the death. Eric Hoffer wrote: “A doctrine insulates the devout not only against the realities around them but also against their own selves. The fanatical believer is not conscious of his envy, malice, pettiness and dishonesty. There is a wall of words between his consciousness and his real self.”

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

No one can be competent in God, and that those who claim to be are either hopelessly deluded, or worse, are evil men masquerading as good. Those that speak of absolutes and want to use the Bible or any other religious text as some sort of rule book that they alone can interpret need to ask themselves this question, “When has justice ever been as simple as a rulebook?” 

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

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

But we see it all too often, religious people and others misusing faith or ideology to condemn those they do not understand or with whom they disagree. When such people gain power they tend to expand that power into the realm of theocratic absolutism and despotism. As Captain Jean Luc Picard noted in the Start Trek Next Generation episode The Drumhead:

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

Peace

Padre Steve+

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