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Character: “The Decisive Factor in the Life of an Individual and of Nations Alike.”

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I teach ethics, and as I observe the words and actions of President Trump and his closest advisors I see a massive attack on facts, truth, reason, intellectualism, and with them, more importantly, on integrity and character. It is actually very disconcerting to see those in power attempting to re-write facts, history, and even their own statements and promises before our eyes, denying truth, subverting facts, and pretending that with the exception of what they say today, there is no truth.

When Sean Spicer praised the February jobs report, a report that he and the President used refer to as “phony” he was asked if President Trump thought that this report was accurate. He grinned and said “They may have been phony in the past, but it’s very real now.”

But then what can be expected from an administration that when contradicted calls the contractions lies, and those who insist on facts to be liars? It has insisted that alone of Federal Government employees that White House staffers don’t need to follow government ethics rules, and removes them from required ethics training. This goes to the heart of the problem with this administration, it does not care for truth and has long given up, if it ever had it. President Trump’s long history of not being an honest businessman, his numerous adulterous affairs during his marriages, and a list of people that he has cheated that runs into the hundreds with thousands of lawsuits against his business practices should have warned us that he would be the same man that he has always has been, and now he is in a position not only to continue to destroy any hint of his own integrity, but that nations as well, and many of his followers do not seem to give a damn.

Ethics do matter and facts do matter. Steven Covey wrote that “Moral authority comes from following universal and timeless principles like honesty, integrity, treating people with respect.” This is sadly lacking in the current administration, and it will be the death of the Republic. When the American President cannot be trusted to tell the truth and when his administration works to shield themselves from the law there will be reverberations. The moral authority of the American nation is at stake, and that matters more than the power of our economy or the military might of the nation. Once that trust, once that moral authority is eroded, the very foundations of the country are undermined, and quite possibly fatally undermined. As Thomas Paine noted: “Character is much easier kept than recovered.”

A nation founded as ours on the proposition that “all men are created equal” which depends on its leaders and citizens caring about their fidelity to the Constitution must understand that its character is linked to how we live up to those great secular scriptures. Character as Theodore Roosevelt noted is “in the long run, is the decisive factor in the life of an individual and of nations alike.” 

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Resisting Authortarianism: Part One


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Tonight, like last night I am posting another thought from B.H. Liddell-Hart’s book Why don’t We Learn from History? 

The book is worth the read for anyone, even though it is written by a military historian and theorist. Liddell-Hart had a keen understanding of the limitations of Democracy, but recognized the inherent evil of the totalitarian or authoritarian state, and such leaders. Thus, when we see a democratically elected leader rapidly move toward authoritarianism, attempting to silence political and press critics, accused the acting head of the Department of Justice of “betrayal,” and attacking the institutions of justice that oppose him, while praising foreign despots, we should be concerned for our liberty. 

Liddell-Hart wrote something very profound that we should all think about: 

What is of value in “England” and “America” and worth defending is its tradition of freedom, the guarantee of its vitality. Our civilization, like the Greek, has, for all its blundering way, taught the value of freedom, of criticism of authority, and of harmonising this with order. Anyone who urges a different system, for efficiency’s sake, is betraying the vital tradition.

He noted:

It is man’s power of thought which has generated the current of human progress through the ages. Thus the thinking man must be against authoritarianism in any form, because it shows its fear of thoughts which do not suit momentary authority.

The power of thought, the unending quest for truth, the questioning of authorities who claim absolute power, are all essential to maintaining human freedom. However, freedom cannot be defended if its defenders have either forgotten how to think critically, or never learned to at all. The latter should be concerning as for years the emphasis of education has been to train people for a job with specific but narrow skills, while critical thinking, based in reason, science, history, philosophy, literature, and the arts has taken a back seat. Giles Lauren who wrote the preface to the latest edition of Why don’t We Learn from History? wrote:

Education, no longer liberal, has largely become a question of training in a skill for gain rather than teaching us how to think so as to find our own way. ‘It is strange how people assume that no training is needed in the pursuit of truth.’ We must learn to test and judge the information that comes before us. After all: ‘Whoever habitually suppresses the truth … will produce a deformity from the womb of his thought.’

This my friends is not comfortable, and neither should it be. But the truth is that most people actually fear truth because it is uncomfortable. Liddell-Hart wrote:

We learn from history that in every age and every clime the majority of people have resented what seems in retrospect to have been purely matter-of-fact comment on their institutions. We learn too that nothing has aided the persistence of falsehood, and the evils resulting from it, more than the unwillingness of good people to admit the truth when it was disturbing to their comfortable assurance. Always the tendency continues to be shocked by natural comment and to hold certain things too “sacred” to think about.

I am watching people, many of them good people, decent people, even brilliant people either openly support the move toward authoritarianism, or remain silent, even when they recognize the truth. In such times it is important to seek the truth, and proclaim the truth, even if it unpopular, and unpleasant. This means that we also have to look inside ourselves, and be honest because we all have the capacity to believe the lie and not to recognize the distinction between fact and fiction. Hannah Arendt wrote in her book The Origins of Totalitarianism:

The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction ( i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false ( i.e ., the standards of thought) no longer exist.

I will continue this tomorrow. Have a great night and sleep well.

Peace

Padre Steve+ 

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The World of Alternative Facts and the Danger to the Republic

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

We have entered a world that our founders never expected to happen but warned us about. Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 1, that the fiercest enemies of the republic were those men who begin “by paying an obsequious court to the people, commencing demagogues and ending tyrants.”

I think that we have entered that era in our history.

Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s embarrassing attack on those who disagreed with the President’s claim that the inauguration of President Trump had the highest attendance in history when every analysis of the crowds revealed to be far smaller than the last few inaugurations was defended by President Trump’s advisor Kellyanne Conway. Conway turned absolutely Orwellian to defend that and a number of other claims that were patently false. She called them Alternative Facts.

Sadly, this has been the modus operandi of Mrs. Conway and the President’s spokespeople since the beginning of his campaign. Rather than admit to a falsehood they reinforce the lie, time after time. The behavior is extraordinary in the American experience but not in history.

I hate to bring up a Nazi example but the the tactic is that of the Nazi, the Soviet, and every other authoritarian and dictatorial propaganda machine. But being a historian who has spent much of my life researching and writing about the Nazi seizure of power I was actually taken aback by her comments and the use of the term “alternative facts.” There are no such thing. John Adams, our second President said it well: “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclination, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” 

But such clarity cannot be found in what Mr. Spicer or Mrs. Conway said. They repeated a lie and then Mrs. Conway called it an “alternative fact.” It was absolutely Orwellian, not that it matters to many of the President’s diehard supporters. He told us during the campaign: “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,” and he was absolutely correct. Hitler told his generals when he was about to stage a propaganda coup to blame Poland for starting the war, “I shall give a propagandist reason for starting the war – never believe if it is plausible or not. The victor will not be asked afterward if he told the truth…” It seems that from day one of his campaign the President has followed a similar course of action to first win the nomination of his party and then the general election. I don’t think that he can stop now that he is office. In his inaugural address the President noted: “America will start winning again, winning like never before.”  Winning at all costs seems to be everything, and nothing will stand in the way, even facts.

The Nazi Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels once said:“It would not be impossible to prove with sufficient repetition and a psychological understanding of the people concerned that a square is in fact a circle. They are mere words, and words can be molded until they clothe ideas and disguise.”

Sadly, this will not be the last of these kind of statements made by Mrs. Conway or Mr. Spicer. We have entered a new era, and while many people think that the Trump administration will sink itself, and that maybe the GOP will revolt, impeach him, and make Mike Pence the President, they are deluded. That will not be allowed to happen by Trump or his supporters. The stream of alternative facts are going to become so commonplace that people will stop noticing them, they will get numb to them.

William Shirer who served as a correspondent in Berlin from 1934 to 1941 wrote in his book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich:

“I myself was to experience how easily one is taken in by a lying and censored press and radio in a totalitarian state. Though unlike most Germans I had daily access to foreign newspapers, especially those of London, Paris and Zurich, which arrived the day after publication, and though I listened regularly to the BBC and other foreign broadcasts, my job necessitated the spending of many hours a day in combing the German press, checking the German radio, conferring with Nazi officials and going to party meetings. It was surprising and sometimes consternating to find that notwithstanding the opportunities I had to learn the facts and despite one’s inherent distrust of what one learned from Nazi sources, a steady diet over the years of falsifications and distortions made a certain impression on one’s mind and often misled it. No one who has not lived for years in a totalitarian land can possibly conceive how difficult it is to escape the dread consequences of a regime’s calculated and incessant propaganda. Often in a German home or office or sometimes in a casual conversation with a stranger in a restaurant, a beer hall, a café, I would meet with the most outlandish assertions from seemingly educated and intelligent persons. It was obvious that they were parroting some piece of nonsense they had heard on the radio or read in the newspapers. Sometimes one was tempted to say as much, but on such occasions one was met with such a stare of incredulity, such a shock of silence, as if one had blasphemed the Almighty, that one realized how useless it was even to try to make contact with a mind which had become warped and for whom the facts of life had become what Hitler and Goebbels, with their cynical disregard for truth, said they were.”

I am sorry, but when it comes to facts and truth, that is the kind of world we on entered on January 20th. Please note I am not saying that President Trump is a Nazi, or commit Nazi style atrocities. I am simply comparing the methods, and the language of his spokespeople to the Goebbels propaganda machine, and I am also calling to mind the words of our founders on the danger of demagogues.

Honestly, I hope that our President governs wisely and gains a sense of humility as he holds in his hands such great power. I want him to succeed for all of us, but this opening weekend has given me much cause for concern and this has less to do with policy than it does the deceptive words that I see coming from those who shape his message.

I know that is a hell of a way to start the week, but this does matter.

Have a great day.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace

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How Despots Gain Power


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today I am traveling back home after a wonderful visit with friends and family in Huntington, West Virginia. The visit was nice, I got a chance to do some serious reflection, especially as I walked about the city and along the Ohio River waterfront, visited the Museum of Art, and walked the entirety of its wonderful Ritter Park. 

I did some writing but spent more time in reading and reflection than anything. I kept up on some of the headlines but didn’t let myself get beaten down by the negativity and cynicism of our time.

Last night I read the short but poignant little but by the British military historian B.H. Liddell-Hart entitled Why Don’t We Learn from History. The book was written in not long before his death in 1970 and it is good quite good. It deals with a number of issues, including the conflict between history and propaganda, or when faith, especially religious faith as treated as historic or scientific fact; especially when propaganda or faith is preached as if it were history, if it were truth. But he also contrasted democracy and totalitarianism. 

Liddell-Hart was a realist, especially about democracy and totalitarianism. While he admitted the inefficiencies of democracy, he realized that it was far less dangerous than the “stupidity” of totalitarianism. In fact it was important for him to note just how this inefficient system was for freedom. He wrote:

What is of value in “England” and “America” and worth defending is its tradition of freedom, the guarantee of its vitality. Our civilization, like the Greek, has, for all its blundering way, taught the value of freedom, of criticism of authority, and of harmonising this with order. Anyone who urges a different system, for efficiency’s sake, is betraying the vital tradition.

There was was much to ponder in his book and I will probably write some more of my thoughts on it, but since I am going to be traveling I will quote what he said about self-made despotic rulers and how they come to power. When I read it I was struck by just how much Liddell-Hart in his description of a despot describes Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump through the his campaign and especially his remarks on immigration hours after returning from a brief meeting with Mexican President Pena Nieto. 

We learn from history that self-made despotic rulers follow a standard pattern. In gaining power: They exploit, consciously or unconsciously, a state of popular dissatisfaction with the existing regime or of hostility between different sections of the people. They attack the existing regime violently and combine their appeal to discontent with unlimited promises (which, if successful, they fulfil only to a limited extent). They claim that they want absolute power for only a short time (but “find” subsequently that the time to relinquish it never comes). They excite popular sympathy by presenting the picture of a conspiracy against them and use this as a lever to gain a firmer hold at some crucial stage.

He wrote about how they behave in power as well, but for now I will close and let you my readers ponder his statement before I follow up with Liddell-Hart’s observations from history on how despots act once they achieve power. 

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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The Truth is Rarely Pure & Never Simple

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When I look at the perfection that imperfect people expect of others I am reminded of something that William Tecumseh Sherman said about his relationship with Ulysses Grant. These were flawed men, but they were in large part responsible for the Union victory in the Civil War. However, to be honest, neither man would never reach the level of command that they rose to in our current military culture, nor would they rise to the top in corporate America. They are too flawed. Sherman said it well, “Grant stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk, and now we stand by each other.”

That is a part of my passion about Gettysburg and my appreciation and admiration of the brave men who fought in that battle. As I continue to write about that battle and about those men I hope that my readers will gain a new appreciation of their complex and contradictory natures, as well as think about what that means to us today, as individuals and as a society, for it is only when we strip away the myth and seek the truth. Marcus Aurelius wrote:

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

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

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

So until tomorrow, have a thoughtful night.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Staying in the Game

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I like hard questions and hard cases. My life has been quite interesting and that includes my faith journey as a Christian and human being. It is funny that in my life I have as I have grown older begun to appreciate those that do not believe and to rather distrust those who proclaim their religious faith with absolute certitude, especially when hard questions are asked. As I get older I realize just how precious the freedom to ask questions, to seek answers and to confront the faithful really is.

Paul Tillich once said “Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful.” 

I get “trolled” a lot and I find it amusing when trolls come by to condemn my “heresy.” When they do I realize that most of them must have some kind of psychological need to be right. I say this because for all of their certitude I sense a deep fear that they might be wrong. I think that is why they must do this.

I think that the quote by the late theologian is quite appropriate to me and the ministry that I find myself. I think it is a ministry pattern quite similar to Jesus in his dealings with the people during his earthly incarnate ministry.

Jesus was always hanging out with the outcasts, whether they be Jewish tax collectors collaborating with the Romans, lepers and other “unclean” types, Gentiles including the hated Roman occupiers, Samaritans and most dangerously, scandalous women. He seemed to reach out to these outcasts while often going out of his way to upset the religious establishment and the “true believers” of his day.

There is even one instance where a Centurion whose servant he healed was most likely involved in a homosexual relationship, based on the writer of the Gospel of Matthew’s use of the Greek word “Pais” which connotes a homosexual servant, instead of the more common “Doulos.” That account is the only time in the New Testament where that distinction is made, and Pais is used throughout Greek literature of the time to denote a homosexual slave or “house boy” relationship. Jesus was so successful at offending the profoundly orthodox of his day that his enemies made sure that they had him killed.

I think that what has brought me to this point is a combination of things but most importantly what happened to me in and after my tour in Iraq. Before I went to Iraq I was certain of about everything that I believed and was quite good at what we theologians and pastors call “apologetics.” My old Chaplain Assistant in the Army, who now recently serves as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army Chaplain Corps called me a “Catholic Rush Limbaugh” back in 1997, and he meant it quite affectionately.

I was so good at it that I was silenced by a former Archbishop in my former church and banned from publishing for about 7 years after writing two articles for a very conservative Roman Catholic journal, the New Oxford Review.

The funny thing is that he, and a number of my closest friends from that denomination are either Roman Catholic priests or priests in the Anglican Ordinariate which came into communion with Rome a couple of years back. Ironically while being “too Catholic” was the reason I was forbidden to write it was because I questioned certain traditions and beliefs of the Church including that I believed that there was a role for women in the ordained ministry, that gays and lesbians could be “saved” and that not all Muslims were bad that got me thrown out in 2010.

However when I returned from Iraq in the midst of a full blown emotional, spiritual and physical collapse from PTSD that certitude disappeared. It took a while before I was able to rediscover faith and life and when I did it wasn’t the same. There was much more mystery to faith as well as reason. I came out of that period with much more empathy for those that either struggle with or reject faith. Thus I tend to hang out at bars and ball games more than church activities or socials, which I find absolutely tedious. I also have little use for clergy than in dysfunctional and broken systems that are rapidly being left behind. I am not speaking about belief here, but rather structure and methodology.

I think that if there is anything that God will judge the American versions of the Christian church is our absolute need for temporal power in the political, economic and social realms and the propagation of religious empires that only enrich the clergy which doing nothing for the least, the lost and the lonely. The fact that the fastest growing religious identification in the United States is “none” or “no preference” is proof of that and that the vast amounts of money needed to sustain these narcissistic religious empires, the mega-churches and “Christian” television industry will be their undoing.  That along with their lack of care for anyone but themselves. Jesus said that his disciples would be known by their love for one another, not the size of their religious empire or temporal power.

The interesting thing is that today I have friends and colleagues that span the theological spectrum. Many of these men even if they do not agree with what I believe trust me to love and care for them, even when those most like them in terms of belief or doctrine, both religious and political treat them like crap. Likewise I attract a lot of people who at one time were either in ministry or preparing for it who were wounded in the process and gave up, even to the point of doubting God’s love and even existence. It is kind of a nice feeling to be there for people because they do not have to agree with me for me to be there for them.

In my darkest times my only spiritual readings were Father Andrew Greeley’s Bishop Blackie Ryan mysteries which I began reading in Iraq to help me get through the nights in between missions in Iraq and through the nights when I returned from them.  In one of those books, the last of the series entitled “The Archbishop goes to Andalusia” the miscreant Auxiliary Bishop to the Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago goes to Seville Spain.  In the novel Bishop Blackie makes a comment after celebrating Mass in the cathedral at Seville. He said “Every sacramental encounter is an evangelical occasion. A smile warm and happy is sufficient. If people return to the pews with a smile, it’s been a good day for them. If the priest smiles after the exchanges of grace, it may be the only good experience of the week.”  (The Archbishop in Andalusia p.77)

In my ministry as a military and a critical care hospital chaplain, I have found that there are many hurting people, people who like me question their faith and even long held beliefs.

I guess that is why I stay in the game.

Peace

Padre Steve

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