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Be Careful What You Vote Against

Friends of Padre Steve’s Worl

Since the Illinois and Missouri primary results will not be settled before I pass out tonight I will save my article about the results of what happened last night until tomorrow. As such I see no reason to do much commentary other than to note that Missouri is going to be close in both the Republican and Democratic races. 

Because of that  I am republishing an article that I wrote almost four years ago. Truthfully, no matter what your political leanings are I think that is important and well worth the read. I find that too many people don’t take the time to examine the second, third, and fourth order consequences of their actions, and that includes the action of casting a vote. Far to many votes are cast out of emotions, especially those of fear and anger, and without thought of the long term consequences. That was the case in less than a century ago in Germany. 

was reminded oft his article when a friend of mine remembered it and posted a link to it on Facebook a couple of days ago. In his note about it he noted that I was well ahead of the media. I hate it when that happens, but such is the danger of being a historian who has the capacity of self-reflection. The article is here in its entirety. I have not updated it with any references to Donald Trump or the violence that is occurring with startling regularity on the campaign trail. Even so it is decidedly uncomfortable reading, especially when I see quite a few Evangelical leaders, including pastors, and media pundits endorsing Trump. 

Peace

Padre Steve+

German Pastor Martin Niemoller wrote: “I hated the growing atheistic movement, which was fostered and promoted by the Social Democrats and the Communists. Their hostility toward the Church made me pin my hopes on Hitler for a while. I am paying for that mistake now; and not me alone, but thousands of other persons like me.” 

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Martin Niemöller

Martin Niemöller was a war hero. He had served on U-Boats during the First World War and commanded a U-Boat in 1918 sinking a number of ships. After the war he resigned his commission in the Navy in opposition to the Weimar Republic and briefly was a commander in a local Freikorps unit. His book Vom U-Boot zur Kanzel (From U-boat to Pulpit) traced his journey from the Navy to the pastorate. He became a Pastor and as a Christian opposed what he believed to be the evils of Godless Communism and Socialism. This placed him in the very conservative camp in the years of the Weimar Republic and he rose in the ranks of the United Evangelical Church of the Old Prussian Union. Active in conservative politics, Niemöller initially support the appointment of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor.

However, he quickly soured on Hitler due to his insistence on the state taking precedence over the Church. Niemöller was typical of many Germans of his era and harbored ant-Semitic sentiments that he only completely abandoned his anti-Semitic views until after he was imprisoned. He would spend 8 years as a prisoner of the Nazis a period hat he said changed him including his views about Jews, Communists and Socialists. Niemöller was one of the founding members of the Pfarrernotbund (Pastor’s Emergency Federation) and later the Confessing Church. He was tried and imprisoned in concentration camps due to his now outspoken criticism of the Hitler regime.

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Herman Maas

Herman Maas was another Evangelical Pastor. Unlike Niemöller, Maas was a active participant in the ecumenical movement, built bridges to the Jewish community and defended the rights of Jews as German citizens. He received a fair amount of criticism for his attendance of Reichspräsident Friedrich Ebert’s funeral. Ebert was both a Socialist and avowed atheist. Maas too was active in the Pfarrernotbund and the Confessing church, and unlike Niemöller maintained his opposition to anti-Semitism and the Nazi policies against the Jews. He would help draft the Barmen declaration. He too would be imprisoned and survive the war. Maas was the first non-Jewish German to be officially invited to the newly formed state of Israelin 1950. In July 1964 Yad Vashem recognized the Maas as one of the Righteous Among the Nations.

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer a young Pastor and theologian would also step up to oppose the Nazis and offer support for the Jews. He helped draft the Bethel Confession which among other things rejected “every attempt to establish a visible theocracy on earth by the church as a infraction in the order of secular authority. This makes the gospel into a law. The church cannot protect or sustain life on earth. This remains the office of secular authority.” He also helped draft the Barmen declaration which opposed and condemned Nazi Christianity. Bonhoeffer would eventually along with members of his family take an active role in the anti-Nazi resistance as a double agent for Admiral Canaris’ Abwehr. For this he would be executed after his final sermon in the concentration camp at Flossenburg just a month prior to the end of the war. Bonhoeffer wrote “If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the other direction.”

Another opponent of the Nazis in the Confessing Church was Swiss-German theologian Karl Barth. Barth went into exile as a Swiss citizen but remained active in the criticism of the Nazi regime.

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Bernard Lichtenberg

Catholic Bishop Galen of Münster and others including Father Rupert Meyer in Munich who opposed Hitler in the early 1920s would also oppose the Nazi policies toward the Church and the Jews. Some like Meyer would end up in concentrations camps with some like Canon Bernard Lichtenberg of Berlin dying at the hands of the Nazis.

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Rupert Meyer

All these men took risks to defend the Jews who were religious minority group that had been traditionally discriminated against in Germany. They opposed the Nazi policies which were widely supported by much of the German populace making them unpopular in their own churches as among the traditionally conservative supporters of the Evangelical and Catholic Churches. The Jews were not simply discriminated against as a racial or religious group but also identified with the political left, especially the Social Democrats, Independent Socialists, Communists and the Spartacists.

Since the Independent Socialists, Communists and Spartacists were all involved in attempts to create a Soviet state during the early tumultuous years of Weimar and been involved in many acts of violence against traditional German institutions and the state, they were viewed by Hitler and others as part of the Bolshevik-Jewish threat to Germany. A sentiment harbored by many non-Nazi conservatives and Christians.

Karl Liebnicht and Rosa Luxembourg were among the high profile leaders of this movement in Germany and both were Jewish. The fact that many in the leadership of the Bolshevik movement in theSoviet Union were Jewish added fuel to the fire that the Nazis stoked in Germany. Hitler and the Nazis played on the historic, but muted prejudice against German Jews who in many cases were more secular and German than religious and had assimilated well in Germany. Hitler’s rhetoric as well as that of other Nazis and Nazi publications helped identify the Jews as part of the “Stab in the back” myth that was commonly used by the German right to explain the defeat in the First World War. Thus they were painted as a political and social threat to Germany.

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Nazi Political and Religious Opponents in Concentration Camps

When Hitler took power persecution of the Jews began in earnest. Jews were along with Communists, Trade Unions and Socialists enemies of the state. They were banned from the military, civil service and other government employment, professional associations and forced to wear a gold Star of David on their clothing. Their property was seized, many were abused by SA men acting as deputized auxiliary police and many times their businesses, Synagogues and homes were vandalized, burned or seized by the state. Many would be forced to flee in order not to be sent to ghettos and concentration camps. Even those leaving only escaped with the minimum of their possessions as the Nazi regime extorted anything of value from them as they left Germany. This was all done because Hitler and those like him portrayed the Jews as not only an inferior race, but enemies of the state and the German people.

Hitler portrayed himself and his movement as defenders of Christianity. He was not the first or last to do so but his speech of February 1st 1933, the day after he was appointed Chancellor by President Hindenburg made it abundantly clear that he was bent on securing the support of Christians to solidify his grip on power: “The National Government will regard it as its first and foremost duty to revive in the nation the spirit of unity and co-operation. It will preserve and defend those basic principles on which our nation has been built. It regards Christianity as the foundation of our national morality, and the family as the basis of national life. . . .”

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The Sturmabteilung (SA) at Church

Churches became sponsors of Nazi meetings, the Swastika banner hung in the sanctuaries of churches throughout the Reich and Bishops, Priests and Pastors joined Nazi organizations and gave the Nazi salute. They had sold their soul to Hitler and the Nazis out of fear of the Communists, Socialists, Jews and Slavs.

Eric Hoffer noted that “It is when power is wedded to chronic fear that it becomes formidable.” Hitler and his enablers spread fear and took advantage of it to bring those fearful of the left to his support.

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Hitler leaving a Church

Today we face a similar phenomena in conservative circles in the United States. This time it is not the Jews but Moslems, Gays, immigrants and racial minorities who are the targets of the xenophobic rage by many influential members of the “conservative” media including Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and numerous others. Their popularity in voicing support for “Christian morale values” such as being against abortion has ingratiated them with conservative Christians. It is so bad that that many “conservative” Christians cannot differentiate between their vitriolic and un-Christian rage against Moslems, Gays and Lesbians, trade unionists, Democrats or anyone else portrayed by the big media talkers and the Gospel.

It is if they have become an appendage to Republican or “conservative” politicians rather than a Christian church. It is not uncommon to see Christians on the web or on the call in talk radio programs identify lock stock and barrel with Limbaugh and others identifying the crass materialism and social Darwinism of “pure” Capitalism and the anti-Christian policy of pre-emptive war. That may seem harsh, but many of these people in the “Conservative Bible project” seek to re-translate the Bible into their own political, social and economic policies even seeking to change or minimize any Scripture that might be equated with the “Social Gospel.” Unfortunately many Christians and others have jumped in on the anti-Moslem and anti-immigrant crusades and anti-Gay launched by those on the far right.

There are those on the far right that advocate eliminating all Moslems from the military, government, security intelligence and police forces and even universities. Similar threats are made against non-European immigrants, legal and illegal alike especially those from Mexico or Latin America. I have a friend; a Navy Officer who served a year in Iraq that was confronted by a member of the “Minutemen” in Texas to show his Green Card and threatened simply because he is Mexican. Others especially conservative Christians suggest criminalizing homosexuality, jailing homosexuals or putting them in concentration camps, deporting them or even punishing gays with the death penalty.

This is so similar to the Nuremberg Laws and the Aryan Paragraph issued by the Nazis that it is scary. Likewise the threats to American Moslems or Gays of placing them “behind razor wire” as we did to American Japanese citizens in World War II are chilling. I wonder how Christians would react if an atheist or someone on the political left suggested all conservative Christians or members of pro-Life groups be imprisoned for the actions of Christians or pro-Life movement members like Scott Roeder or Eric Rudolph who killed to stop abortion or Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church?

This new found militancy has swept up the “Christian right” and others since 9-11 and has reached proportions that I could never have imagined. After my tour in Iraq I realized that much of what these people were saying was not Christian at all and when taken to their logical conclusion would be a police state in which anyone who opposed them would be persecuted. I question the motivations of the leaders of the movement but believe that most of the Christian conservatives have been caught up in the anger and the emotion of the times versus being true believers in what these men say. That being said, you don’t have to be a true believer to be a willing accomplice in actions that first are not Christian and second trample on the Constitutional rights of American citizens.

I could keep citing examples but if someone can show me where this is condoned in the Gospels I would like to know. The fact is that Christians are to place God first and defend the rights of others, even non-believers. This is found not only in Scripture but runs through the Christian tradition across the denominational spectrum.

The persecution of American Moslems, minorities, Gays and others is dangerous, not just for those minorities but ultimately for Christians who endorse and advocate against those groups. American and English law is based on legal precedence. Once something has been determined to be legal, or constitutional it is considered by the law to be settled law. This is a point made by Chief Justice Roberts regarding Roe v. Wade at his confirmation hearings. If Christians want to use the law against Moslems or for that matter any other minority be it religious or political they tread on very dangerous ground. Not only do they make a mockery of the Gospel command to love our neighbors, care for the foreigners among us and to be a witness to non-Christians support policies or laws that if enacted could and very well would be used against them by their opponents.

During the Republican Presidential primaries major leaders of the Evangelical movement and churches did all that they could to paint Mitt Romney as a religious cultist because he is Mormon. When Romney secured the nomination those same people started backtracking and committing their support to him because they believe that President Obama is an enemy of the country. They don’t like Romney, they are just against Obama. Romney will remember what they called him and their tepid support. If he becomes President he will not be beholden to them and will govern as he desires. Laws and Executive orders that give expanded power to the Executive Branch will not be overturned and if Evangelicals decide that they don’t like what he is doing and act toward him as they have President Obama they could find themselves on the outside and abandoned by the man that they supported.

Law is all about precedent and if such laws were enacted and upheld by the courts they would be settled law that could be used against anyone. What these dear brothers and sisters fail to realize is that such laws can be turned against them if the state should ever decided based on the statements of actions of some that the Christian community is a threat to state security of the public welfare. With the actions of some radical Christians who have committed murder and violence against political, social and religious opponents it would not be hard for the government to label whole churches as enemies of the state. The law is a two edged sword and those who want to use it to have the state enforce their religious, social, ideological or political beliefs on others need to remember what comes around goes around.

The Confessing church understood this and many were imprisoned, exiled or killed for this belief. The founding fathers of this country understood this too, that is why there is the Constitutional protection of Religion in the First Amendment. This was put in because Virginia Baptists who had been persecuted by Anglicans lobbied James Madison for the amendment in the Bill of Rights threatening to withdraw their support for his candidacy if he did not. Niemöller would discover the depths of his earlier folly in prison telling one interviewer after the war:

“I find myself wondering about that too. I wonder about it as much as I regret it. Still, it is true that Hitler betrayed me. I had an audience with him, as a representative of the Protestant Church, shortly before he became Chancellor, in 1932. Hitler promised me on his word of honor, to protect the Church, and not to issue any anti-Church laws. He also agreed not to allow pogroms against the Jews, assuring me as follows: ‘There will be restrictions against the Jews, but there will be no ghettos, no pogroms, in Germany. I really believed given the widespread anti-Semitism in Germany, at that time—that Jews should avoid aspiring to Government positions or seats in the Reichstag. There were many Jews, especially among the Zionists, who took a similar stand. Hitler’s assurance satisfied me at the time. On the other hand, I hated the growing atheistic movement, which was fostered and promoted by the Social Democrats and the Communists. Their hostility toward the Church made me pin my hopes on Hitler for a while. I am paying for that mistake now; and not me alone, but thousands of other persons like me.”

It is easy for well meaning people Niemöller to be bought with promises of support by politicians and media types who speak the words they want to hear in difficult times. So today I suggest the formation of an ecumenical Pastor’s Emergency League which will not be bought by the empty and godless promises of hate mongers on the right or the left. Such a group of men and women spanning the breadth of the Christian tradition and others that see the danger of extremism of all types is becoming necessary. Such a step is becoming necessary due to the militancy of the Christian right as well as the militancy of atheist groups who lobby against all public religious expression by any religion. Such a League would respect the various creeds and statements of faith of each member’s denomination. The movement of the right has set a dangerous course fraught with perils that they do not comprehend.

We have entered a dangerous phase of American history. These movements have the potential not only to oppress law-abiding and patriotic Americans of all faiths and to crush the religious freedoms of all in this county. Suggesting that American citizens, including those who serve the county in the military or government of entire religious, ethnic, political, religious affiliation or sexual preference be jailed, banned from office or fired is totalitarian and dare I say Nazi like.

Niemöller would say it well in this poem:

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak out for me.

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Padre Steve Plays Devil’s Advocate: The Complex and Often Confusing Issue of Religious Liberty

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“Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The First Amendment of the US Constitution

Religious freedom is a central tenant of the Bill of Rights and has been a central facet of American life since our inception as a country, in fact pre-dating our founding in some of the original 13 colonies most notably Rhode Island and Pennsylvania. Now before anyone gets the idea that I am about to write something in favor of limiting the freedom to worship or for that matter any limitation on religious practices I am not in fact I am a stalwart supporter of religion in the Public Square and not just mine. You see I am a bit of a purest about this and my view is as long as the religious practice is not harming anyone who cares?

I believe like Thomas Jefferson who wrote in the 1779 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom:

“no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”

Some might take me to task for that as a Christian, but my point is not to argue for the Christian faith in this article. Instead my intent is to point out some of the inconsistencies of those who proclaim their rights also seek to limit the religious and even the civil rights of others based on their religious beliefs.

What I will do in this essay is to play the “Devil’s advocate” in the matter of the free exercise of religion as it currently exists in the United States.

This has to be done because of the number of laws being passed by various states which are labeled as acts to protect religious liberty. Unfortunately the reality is that these laws grant license for the Christian majority in those states to discriminate against others on the basis of their religious beliefs. These individuals and religious organizations loudly proclaim their defense of the right to free exercise, but it is more their free exercise rights that they are defending than the rights of others.

In fact those that shout the loudest are also those who seek to limit the religious rights of others using the laws of the Federal Government and the various States and Commonwealths that make up the United States. Since law in the United States is based on legal precedence everything that goes to court on matters of religious liberty as well as the actions of various legislatures matters. Precedent matters and once legal precedent has been established it is very hard to change. Thus each decision sets a precedent and these precedents can effect decisions in entirely unrelated matters.

Our First Amendment Rights are marvels which are envied by the citizens of most of the rest of the world and why shouldn’t they be?

In many nations simply being born as a member of a minority religion, or other hated minority group is enough to ensure that you will never have full legal rights and may even face persecution and death at the hands of those in power. The list is long. Some of the countries include Sudan, Kosovo, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Indonesia, Russia, Pakistan, India, Uganda, Nigeria, the Congo, and the Central African Republic. Of course there are many more but those are just some of the places where members of minority religious face discrimination, persecution and even death.

The rights we have as Americans provided the opportunity for churches that were suppressed on the European continent and elsewhere to thrive free of government persecution. The Baptists are a good example. In the early 1600’s the first Baptists, English Baptists were persecuted, imprisoned and even killed for their beliefs by the English Crown in particular by King James who despite authorizing the Bible given his name and loved by many Baptists as the “only” valid English translation was a notorious homosexual, not that there is anything wrong with that, hated those early Baptists and persecuted them throughout the land.

On the continent itself the Anabaptists and Mennonites as well as others referred to as “enthusiasts,” the forerunners of the Pentecostal movements of the 20th Century were brutally suppressed in many European lands. The example of the siege and destruction of Munster Germany by combined Catholic and Lutheran forces after “enthusiasts” seized power is just one example.

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The Jews were persecuted often brutally almost everywhere in Europe for centuries. They were the “Christ killers” and that was even enshrined in the liturgies of churches. But the Jews had a surprising amount of freedom and influence in the Ottoman Empire where in places like Baghdad they composed a rather sizable part of the population and were quite prominent in the Empire.

Catholics were heavily persecuted in England and could not hold public office for many years following the English Reformation. Hundreds of Catholics martyred for simply practicing their religion in private, simply celebrating Mass could get them a death sentence.

Then there were the Huguenots in France. They were French Protestants who had gained a great deal of influence and power that were brutally suppressed and many killed by the French Crown and the Catholic Church.

The Lutherans were not big fans of other religions in Germany and worked with their archrival Roman Catholics to kill off the Anabaptists and the Enthusiasts.

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Spain was another brutal place for religious liberty. Even some Roman Catholics now canonized as Saints such as Ignatius of Loyola and Teresa of Avila were brought before the Inquisition. Protestants, Jews, Moslems were all persecuted in Spain, and Spain was equally repressive of native religions in the lands that it colonized in the “New World.”

The Russian Empire was known for its toleration of Catholics, Protestants and Jews especially in the equal treatment given to them in various Pogroms conducted by the government and the Orthodox Church.

The Ottoman Empire had a limited amount of religious toleration so long as you didn’t make trouble and paid your taxes. One cannot really call it liberty for the Empire and persecuted anyone equally that threatened the Caliphate or that they thought were heretical. These included the tribes of the Arabian Peninsula.

Then along came the United States where our forefathers ensured religious liberty in our Bill of Rights along with freedom of speech, assembly and the press. It is a wonderful thing, but we have not always done well with it and there are always those trying to carve out addition “rights” for themselves or their faith communities. Sometimes the more religious people have had a negative influence in this experiment, often being involved with acts of religious and civil intolerance worthy of our European ancestors.

That being said many religious people, particularly Christians and churches have done many good things in promoting human rights, religious rights and the civil rights of all in our country.

In Colonial America most of the colonies had official state religions. In Massachusetts that was the Congregationalist Church and it conducted many of the witch trials and the persecution of people deemed heretic including Quakers and Baptists.

dyer-hanging1Hanging the Quakers in Massachusetts

While Christians were in the forefront of the Abolitionist movement whole denominations split on the issue of Slavery. These denominations included the Southern Baptists, the Methodists and the Presbyterians. Curiously neither the Episcopalians nor the Catholics split over the issues although the war found them heavily engaged on both sides of the conflict.

After the war many American Christians worked for the rights of workers, the abolition of child labor and even something that I oppose, Prohibition. Some Christians and churches advocated for the full civil rights of African Americans though few spoke up for rights of the Native Americans and the Chinese immigrants to California who were frequently mistreated and worked for almost nothing on the most demanding jobs like building the trans-continental railroad, mining gold and building stone walls for ranchers.

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While enshrining the right to the free exercise of religion the Founding Fathers kind of ignored the human rights of a whole class of people, African American slaves. They allowed the practice of slavery counting Blacks as 3/5ths of a person, which 3/5ths I don’t know but nonetheless only 60% of a full human being. my own family owned slaves and the family patriarch who fought as a Confederate officer in the American Civil War and after the defeat of the Confederacy refused to sign the loyalty oath, which good honorable men like Robert E Lee did and lost the family lands to the Federal Government.

We drove the Native Americans off of their lands, hunted them down and confined them to reservations all while ignoring the treaties that we made with the various Indian Nations. This practice was actually recently defended by the faux “historian” of the Christian Right, David Barton.

If we believe Barton’s “history” the vast majority of the people perpetuating these acts were solid Bible Believing Christians. But then how do we reconcile these crimes against humanity, even crimes against fellow Christians with the Christian faith? If you are Barton you assume that what happened was due to the sin of the Native Americans who had to be subjugated by Christians.

Likewise nearly every ethnic group that immigrated to the United States has experienced some form of discrimination, often religious from the good citizens of this land. It turns out that throughout history we have had some problems in the matter of religious liberty and toleration, especially of those whose customs, language, culture and religion are different than our own.

But the crux of all of this comes down to religious liberty which as Americans we hold dear, at least our own religious liberty. The problem is that those who fight the hardest for their religious liberty frequently want to deny the rights that they have to others that they disagree with in belief, practice or even politics.

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Now everyone is for religious liberty in the Public Square until a loathsome man like Fred Phelps and his family owned and operated “Westboro Baptist Church” shows up to protest and hurl vile epithets at those grieving the loss of family members killed in war, taunting these people in the most abhorrent of ways.

However, as grievous as these people are they do this under the right to the free exercise of religion. Some Fundamentalist Moslems have as a stated goal of instating Sharia Law in this land, at least for Moslems. This they proclaim under the banner of religious liberty, however the imposition of Sharia Law on Moslems in the name of their religion also takes away their civil rights under the Constitution and the various laws of the Federal Government of the States that make up our fair land.

The Roman Catholic Church at the direction of the Vatican has attempted rather successfully until a recent Supreme Court ruling to shield Bishops that were complicit in personnel moves and cover ups regarding Priests accused or convicted of sexual misconduct and the sexual abuse of minors from criminal prosecution and civil suits under the guise of diplomatic immunity as the Vatican is a nation state. Could any other religious organization shield its clergy from the laws of the land that any other citizen would be subject to? Not on your or my life, but in the past the Vatican has blatantly done so and hopefully under Pope Francis this too will change.

One of the key issues of religious liberty is the right of those of various beliefs and practices that use television, radio and the internet to espouse hatred and violence in the name of their religious beliefs and under the banner of religious liberty? I may not agree with what they broadcast but they have the right to do it.

Many Conservative Christians, especially Evangelicals and Roman Catholics are keen to support their rights to publicly exercise their religion, even in the government. But they are not good when it comes to other branches of Christianity or non-Christian religions.

The Metropolitan Community Church comes to mind. It is a predominantly Homosexual Christian church many of whose members were driven from their home churches due to their sexuality. Many, except for being gay are very conservative in their theological beliefs. That church has been in the forefront of the fight for marriage equity as well as the right for homosexuals to serve openly in the Military.

The part about marriage is particularly fraught with peril because both the Church and the State have interests in marriage. For many marriage is primarily a religious act with civil overtones, in fact ministers of all denominations are licensed by the state to perform marriages on behalf of the State becoming in effect de-facto officers of the courts and at the same time most states deny homosexual couples the right to marry, regardless of one’s position on the legitimacy of such unions who could say that it is right for the states to approve and license the clergy of almost every religious tradition to conduct weddings that have the full civil effect, including tax breaks for all but a certain group? We have this enshrined in our culture but would deny it to the Metropolitan Community Church to perform weddings for its members. What if someone said that any other minister could not marry members of their own church under their church laws, ordinances and beliefs? There would be a public outcry, but not for the Metropolitan Community Church or other denominations that sanction Gay marriage.

There are so many issues regarding religious liberty. What about adherents of Wicca and other Earth based religions or Native American religions? Some of their practices would not be welcomed by those of many Christian denominations as well as secularists and atheists but if they are not hurting anyone else why should others object?

Likewise why should people object if a religious symbol is displayed on private property or on state property where it has been displayed for decades or longer? Is it hurting anyone? Not really but hurt feelings and being offended count as much as real injury to the litigiously minded. Usually these cases are long, expensive and divisive court proceedings that have served little purpose. I am not in favor of government using such symbols to advance the rights of any given religion, even Christianity. But that being said there are times where religious symbols are part of our American culture where we have memorialized our war dead without the intent of promoting a religious cause. However, if one symbol is present we should not object to others.

Likewise there are those that would attempt to limit the free speech rights and religious rights of Christians and others that protest the practice of abortion using civil disobedience to do so. Some in polite and well-mannered but others are pretty unseemly. That being said I do not think that the religious beliefs of anti-abortion people should be the law for unbelievers or for that matter a believer with different views on abortion.

The problem is that many who call themselves “pro-life” are not pro-life at all but simply anti-abortion. Many Christians who call themselves “pro-life” bless and baptize practices condemned by the same Church Fathers and Biblical writers who they use to support the rights of the unborn. They support the death penalty despite the aversion and opposition to it by the Early Church a and the evidence that in many states that the practice is abused and sentences often wrong. Many advocate for harsh treatment of aliens and exhibit a xenophobic attitude towards some immigrant groups, especially those that are not Christian. Likewise the belief that the economic Social Darwinism of unfettered Capitalism is not only Biblical but God’s best ordained economic system is promoted as the Gospel. The same people often treat the poor and the elderly with distain and treat their political opponents as agents of the Devil rather than people that God might actually care about.

Local governments and even home owners associations have acted to quash home churches and Bible studies. Some have acted to zone land so that the construction of religious buildings, edifices or displays is illegal all of which have been protested and fought in the courts by the groups involved particularly Evangelical Christians of various denominations. Even churches that neighbors have deemed to be too loud in their expression of worship have been penalized by local governments and courts.

Yet many Christians had little problem with using the government to suppression other religious or splinter groups. The tragic example of the Branch Davidians at their Waco compound looms large. David Koresh was a labeled as a “dangerous” cult leader. Nor do many Conservative Christians have a problem in limiting the rights of American Moslems and protest if a Moslem clergyman becomes a military Chaplain or if Moslems want to build a Mosque in their neighborhood. I think that religious intolerance is often in the eye of the beholder. As David Barton the President of “Wallbuilders” an organization that seeks to promote America’s “Christian heritage” quoted William Penn “Whatever is Christian is legal; whatever is not is illegal.”

Barton’s friend and ally Gary North wrote:

“We must use the doctrine of religious liberty to gain independence for Christian schools until we train up a generation of people who know that there is no religious neutrality, no neutral law, no neutral education, and no neutral civil government. Then they will get busy in constructing a Bible-based social, political and religious order which finally denies the religious liberty of the enemies of God.”

So as you can see the subject of religious liberty and the freedom to practice our religions is one that is not as clear cut as we would like to admit.

To play the Devil’s advocate here let me ask this question: “Should we limit the rights to the free exercise of religion for any group?” If we do so where do we draw the line? If we say “everything goes” does this mean for everyone or just us? Could it be that in the enshrining of this right that the Founders actually meant the expression of rational and enlightened religion and not religious expression that limits the rights of other groups or supports the abolition of others Constitutional Rights? Those are all hard questions. As you can see there are a tremendous amount of issues at play when we attempt to legislate or regulate religious practice.

I think that our religious liberty is something to be cherished. But I can see times and places where there would be a need for the community or state to limit such expression. This would not be to take it away but to ensure that such expression is not used as a weapon against others, just as religious beliefs have been used in the past and present by people and governments around the world.

You see the lawyer that dwells deep within my heart that my fellow seminarians saw could argue the point for any position in this debate, which I guess kind of, makes me a bit of a prostitute. But still there are valid points to be made on all sides of this issue and to the extenuating civil, social and even economic and national security concerns that the absolute right to the freedom of religious expression impacts.

The waters get pretty muddy and my concern is that those on various sides of this issue are more about promoting their agenda, be it religious or secular. As I said at the beginning of this essay the issue is about legal precedence and sometimes the unintended consequences of decisions reached hastily when those on the various sides of an issue go to court or establish a new law which enshrines any group with the ability to discriminate against others based on the majority’s religious beliefs.

The question of religious liberty and the tension between competing Free Exercise rights and concerns about the “excessive entanglement” of religion in government will be with us for a long time. I think the result of the heated and often litigious nature of the debate will actually turn people away from the Christian faith and will actually do great damage to the First Amendment protections that we all enjoy.

This causes me great concern as I value the right to the free exercise of religious expression and the right of others not to have the religious views of any group made the law of the land.

Religion can and often has been abused and used by the faithful as a dictatorial bludgeon and those who now advocate so stridently for their faith to be made the law of the land should well remember the words of James Madison:

“Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other sects?”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Hate Never Wins: Fred Phelps Dying and Excommunicated by the Very Monster He Created

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“Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” Blaise Pascal

It appears that the Reverend Fred Phelps, the infamous leader of the Westboro Baptist “God Hates Fags” Church is dying. Apparently he is dying alone in hospice care, excommunicated by the members of the church that he led and isolated from family members who had left that church.

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The 84 year old Phelps, a self described “Old School Baptist” whose “church” was not affiliated with any Baptist denomination brought his tiny congregation to prominence through its outlandish and hate filled protests at the funerals of anyone, especially homosexuals who they deem as damned by God. Bearing placards proclaiming the message “God hates fags” he and his church members made their presence known in every state, bringing controversy and filing legal challenges against their opponents. In 2010 Phelps won a case overturning a judgement against him and Westboro Baptist (Snyder vs Phelps) on appeal to the Supreme Court.

Phelps’ motivation for what he did sprang from his hyper-Calvinist religious beliefs, beliefs that led him to condemn even Billy Graham as a “false prophet.” His actions were motivated by a religious belief that is all consuming. Those beliefs, though protected by the Constitution have been used for decades to vilify anyone that he disagrees with and opposes.

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Though homosexuals are the most visible targets of his church’s rage, they are not alone. Jews, Moslems, Hindus, Catholics, Mormons and most other Christians are condemned by Westboro and Phelps. He and his flock launched vicious attacks on the United States and, picketed the funerals of soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and even the victims of 9-11-2001. I am quite sure as a progressive Christian, and military Chaplain had I been killed in action in Iraq that his minions would have spread their hatred at my funeral.

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Reactions to Phelps being on his deathbed have been varied. Many of those that he vilified, attacked and tormented are overjoyed, and to a certain extent I think I can understand. Through much of his life he has been nothing more than a man driven by hate and intolerance and a pathological need to torment others in their time of grief and loss. Likewise a number of his children have recounted the extreme abuse that they suffered at his hands.

Phelps and his clan are people that I have little sympathy for and who by their actions have angered me countless times. They take their freedom and use it to bludgeon others, usually when they are most vulnerable. When I heard that he was dying I mused about him going to a Southpark type Hell where he would celebrate Christmas in Hell with Satan, Hitler and Saddam Hussein, and wondering if he needed asbestos water skis for his vacation on the Lake of Fire.

That being said I can take no joy in his death or his excommunication from the church that he led. I have to agree with George Takei who said: “I take no solace or joy in this man’s passing. We will not dance upon his grave, nor stand vigil at his funeral holding “God Hates Freds” signs, tempting as it may be. He was a tormented soul, who tormented so many. Hate never wins out in the end. It instead goes always to its lonely, dusty end.”

But there is nothing to celebrate in his death. He has caused too much pain and suffering to too many people, including some of his children and grandchildren. A cruel and unforgiving man is dying alone and abandoned by the flock that he groomed to hate and reject all others. It seems a fitting epitaph and the ultimate form of irony.

His estranged son Nathan Phelps remarked: “I’m not sure how I feel about this. Terribly ironic that his devotion to his god ends this way. Destroyed by the monster he made…”

May God have more mercy on the soul of Fred Phelps than he ever showed to others.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Everyone Dies…But Not Everyone Lives: Thoughts on Life, Death, Faith and Community

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“Whether it’s the best of times or the worst of times, it’s the only time we’ve got. ~Art Buchwald”

I had an epiphany during my post Iraq PTSD crash….“Everybody dies, but not everybody lives.” I actually think that I remembered a similar quote from the movie Braveheart but whether it was a real epiphany or simply an errant movie quote that resonated in my badly shaken brain it really doesn’t matter.

The value of living life to the fullest really came to me then. Now I admit, though I discovered that truth, it was often difficult to make real in my life. That being said, living every day matters to me and doing so in community with others, people who have an important part in my life.

To get to this point has not been easy. I have seen a lot of death and destruction in my life: I’ve experienced trauma, had people shoot at me, been robbed at gunpoint, been on aircraft with mechanical problems, narrowly missed terrorist bombs and a lot of other rather “sporty” events.  Likewise I have seen death and trauma up close and personal.  Babies born too early to live, elderly people passing away after long lives, young men killed and maimed by war, children and the elderly maimed, cities and villages devastated.  I’ve seen people of all ages whose lives have ended suddenly either to disease or trauma and seen people suffer long and painful deaths which can only be described as excruciating.

In all of this though I have also found life in people who no matter what their circumstance choose to live and often seen the grace of God in the midst of great suffering. It is as Anglican theologian Alister McGrath says: “Life under the Cross.” I had one of those experiences with a Navy widow when I was serving as the ICU chaplain at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth back in 2009. The woman in her dying moments continued to look after those around her, thanking people, blessing people, laughing, joking, crying and praying.  I had the privilege of conducting her funeral, she was a saint.

I know that death is a reality, those who seek to deny it only deceive themselves. Even Jesus died, there is no resurrection without death first. There is almost a death denying cult in the western world. Many doctors cannot look someone in the eye who has a terminal illness and tell them that the illness or something related to it will kill them.  We often rely on machines to extend life well after they serve any purpose in bringing healing to the patient forgetting that the patient is a person with hopes, dreams and wishes. Everybody dies…but how do we live?

I also know that there is injustice and poverty in the world, even in our country. I know that innocents suffer because of the choices of powerful nations and individuals, politicians, businessmen, dictators and even religious leaders.  There are times when we have to stand up to injustice. In fact that should be a normal part of life and faith. But when we do stand up against injustice we must be in the business of reconciliation and not revenge while we advocate for the least, the lost and the lonely, those who have no one to speak for them.

I know people who for whatever reason cannot seem to enjoy life or find happiness. I know people who cannot enjoy friendship with people who are not like them and I am sad for them. It almost seems that for them the glass is neither half full or half empty; but rather that there is a flaw in the glass that will cause it to explode and send a shard of glass into their eye. Mark Twain said that “the fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”

There are also people of faith, or at least people that believe that they are people of faith who dehumanize others who don’t believe like them or live by the tenants of their particular faith. Some of these people actually kill in the name of their God and I am not simply talking about radical Islamic terrorists. There are plenty of examples of this among the Christian, Jewish and Hindu faiths throughout history.

There are plenty of others from every faith tradition who dehumanize other people. The members of the Westboro Baptist “God hates Fags” crowd who disrupt funerals of fallen US Servicemen and women saying that their death is God’s judgment on them for serving the United States. They despise the nation and the sacrifices of those that they mock while enjoying the freedom that both give them.

There are people in every religion who do this sort of thing, they dehumanize the people that God has created in his image. That being said I have seen others who have no faith who mock those who have strong religious faith and seek to deny them their rights. Both religious and secular radicals are often willing to use the power of government to silence  or even persecute those that they disagree with. Somehow I don’t think that this kind of life is what God intended, and certainly not by the men that wrote our Bill of Rights.

My Clinical Pastoral Education supervisor during my hospital chaplain residency said something to me that resonated then, and still does today. He told me that I had to stop living my life expecting failure and heartache. He said that I could actually write much of my own future by how I look at life and chose to live in faith, hope and dreams, to believe in a good future while remaining grounded in reality.  He opened the future to me, a future full of possibility,exploration and adventure.  A future of hope, friendship and faith.

I’ve learned, and it has been an often painful learning curve, to live and appreciate life and the great gifts that God has given me.  I’ve learned to laugh and live with people and to have friendships beyond what would have been my comfort zone even a few years back.

I have also learned that even if I believe something with all my heart it doesn’t necessarily mean that God agrees with me. I had to learn to turn off the incessant voices in the media that seek to divide and destroy their opponents, who belittle, silence, attack, dehumanize and quite often demonize those who disagree with them.  This doesn’t mean that legitimate differences should be pushed aside, but it is a call to civility especially for people that are entrusted with reconciling the world to God.

For me life has come to mean community and friendship, finding commonality while recognizing differences. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me, but that’s okay, it is a free country.  I’ll agree to disagree but do my best to remain respectful and not become enemies just because of a difference of views. I have chosen to live in this reality but unfortunately I don’t always live up to my own expectations.

As I look forward to another year of writing on Padre Steve’s World I hope that what I do in thought, word and deed is to live and to help others to live. There is far too much death, trauma and hatred in this country and the world not to attempt to do so.

Thank you for following this site and blessings,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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God and Gun Violence: Mike Huckabee and Bryan Fischer Mock the Gospel in Comments about the Newtown Massacre

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I am still trying to comprehend the massacre in Newtown Connecticut. It seems to be an evil committed by a young man who was quite possibly mentally ill. He used an arsenal of weapons kept by his mother, a woman who ensured that he was able to handle weapons, and who he killed before he went on his rampage. He may have been evil. He may have been mentally ill. He may very well have been both, but more importantly he was well trained in the use of firearms and very well armed.

This is not an article about gun control. However after seeing the effects of these types of weapons on civilians in this country and US military personnel and Iraqi civilians in Iraq I wonder about the wisdom of allowing just anyone to own a military grade assault weapon and enough ammunition to lay waste to a town. No, this is my criticism of fellow “Christian” ministers that attempt to reduce all the ills of our society and crimes of individuals to the lack of government enforcement of their religious views in public schools.

In the wake of the massacre certain religious-political leaders on the political right. Former Arkansas Governor and current Fox News commentator Mike Huckabee, who dropped out of the seminary that I graduated made this comment:

“We ask why there is violence in our schools, but we have systematically removed God from our schools…Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage?”

Not to be outdone failed former pastor Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association said on his radio program:

“The question is going to come up, where was God? I though God cared about the little children. God protects the little children. Where was God when all this went down. Here’s the bottom line, God is not going to go where he is not wanted….God would say to us, ‘Hey, I’ll be glad to protect your children, but you’ve got to invite me back into your world first. I’m not going to go where I’m not wanted. I am a gentlemen.”

Personally I think that the comments by both men do a grave disservice to God and God’s people. Men like these and their political hack allies use such language to attempt to blame everyone but the culture of death that their worldview helps promote. A culture that makes it easier and cheaper to obtain a military grade assault weapon than health care, that glorifies a perplexing blend of vigilantism and militarism mixed with apocalyptic religious views is not healthy. It is not Christian. It is not Pro-life. Of course the people of Newtown will also have to deal with the cultists of radical hate, Westboro Baptist Church as those professional religious hate spewers attempt to protest the funerals of the victims.

The fact is that there is little linkage to what these men preach and the facts. If there was such a direct correlation one would think that the liberal-secular humanist countries of Western Europe would have astronomically high rates of gun violence. You would think that the same would be true of other countries as well. But the fact is that the United States has one of the highest gun violence and deaths per 100,000 of any country in the world. In fact our rates of death by guns dwarf those of any Western European countries, most Asian countries and are only exceeded by countries of Central America that are wracked by drug violence, much of which is enabled by the consumption of drugs by Americans, or countries wracked by full scale civil war. The fact is that in most instances you seldom see school shoots and mass murder on a scale seen in this country in Western Europe, most of Eastern Europe, Japan, Korea or other industrialized societies, most of which are far more secular than the United States.

If we want to look at history we can find that in almost any era, even in the days where American Christians dominated the political and moral landscape of the country that we were a country in love with guns and enamored with gun violence. The big difference now is the amount of firepower easily available to anyone that can afford it, or in the case of the latest maniac took from the mother that he murdered with her own weapons.

To be so crass as the seminary dropout turned political hack Huckabee and the professional hate monger Fischer to blame this on the lack of prayer in schools, or that “God will not go where he is not wanted” is nothing more than worst kind of religious abuse. It is shameful and it makes a mockery of the Gospel. God goes exactly where he is not wanted, and died on a Cross for it. In the midst of Good Friday and for that matter all Good Friday experiences, especially that horrible Friday in Newtown, God is there, not in power but in suffering, his name Emmanuel, “God with us.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Be Careful of What you Vote Against: A Warning from History

“I hated the growing atheistic movement, which was fostered and promoted by the Social Democrats and the Communists. Their hostility toward the Church made me pin my hopes on Hitler for a while. I am paying for that mistake now; and not me alone, but thousands of other persons like me.” Martin Niemöller

Martin Niemöller

Martin Niemöller was a war hero.  He had served on U-Boats during the First World War and commanded a U-Boat in 1918 sinking a number of ships.  After the war he resigned his commission in the Navy in opposition to the Weimar Republic and briefly was a commander in a local Freikorps unit. His book Vom U-Boot zur Kanzel (From U-boat to Pulpit) traced his journey from the Navy to the pastorate. He became a Pastor and as a Christian opposed what he believed to be the evils of Godless Communism and Socialism.  This placed him in the very conservative camp in the years of the Weimar Republic and he rose in the ranks of the United Evangelical Church of the Old Prussian Union.  Active in conservative politics, Niemöller initially support the appointment of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor.

However, he quickly soured on Hitler due to his insistence on the state taking precedence over the Church.  Niemöller was typical of many Germans of his era and harbored ant-Semitic sentiments that he only completely abandoned his anti-Semitic views until after he was imprisoned.  He would spend 8 years as a prisoner of the Nazis a period hat he said changed him including his views about Jews, Communists and Socialists.  Niemöller was one of the founding members of the Pfarrernotbund (Pastor’s Emergency Federation) and later the Confessing Church. He was tried and imprisoned in concentration camps due to his now outspoken criticism of the Hitler regime.

Herman Maas

Herman Maas was another Evangelical Pastor.  Unlike Niemöller, Maas was a active participant in the ecumenical movement, built bridges to the Jewish community and defended the rights of Jews as German citizens.  He received a fair amount of criticism for his attendance of Reichspräsident Friedrich Ebert’s funeral.  Ebert was both a Socialist and avowed atheist.  Maas too was active in the Pfarrernotbund and the Confessing church, and unlike Niemöller maintained his opposition to anti-Semitism and the Nazi policies against the Jews. He would help draft the Barmen declaration.  He too would be imprisoned and survive the war.  Maas was the first non-Jewish German to be officially invited to the newly formed state of Israelin 1950. In July 1964 Yad Vashem recognized the Maas as one of the Righteous Among the Nations.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer a young Pastor and theologian would also step up to oppose the Nazis and offer support for the Jews.  He helped draft the Bethel Confession which among other things rejected “every attempt to establish a visible theocracy on earth by the church as a infraction in the order of secular authority. This makes the gospel into a law. The church cannot protect or sustain life on earth. This remains the office of secular authority.”  He also helped draft the Barmen declaration which opposed and condemned Nazi Christianity.  Bonhoeffer would eventually along with members of his family take an active role in the anti-Nazi resistance as a double agent for Admiral Canaris’ Abwehr.  For this he would be executed after his final sermon in the concentration camp at Flossenburg just a month prior to the end of the war. Bonhoeffer wrote “If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the other direction.” 

Another opponent of the Nazis in the Confessing Church was Swiss-German theologian Karl Barth.  Barth went into exile as a Swiss citizen but remained active in the criticism of the Nazi regime.

Bernard Lichtenberg

Catholic Bishop Galen of Münster and others including Father Rupert Meyer in Munich who opposed Hitler in the early 1920s would also oppose the Nazi policies toward the Church and the Jews.  Some like Meyer would end up in concentrations camps with some like Canon Bernard Lichtenberg of Berlin dying at the hands of the Nazis.

Rupert Meyer

All these men took risks to defend the Jews who were religious minority group that had been traditionally discriminated against in Germany.  They opposed the Nazi policies which were widely supported by much of the German populace making them unpopular in their own churches as among the traditionally conservative supporters of the Evangelical and Catholic Churches.  The Jews were not simply discriminated against as a racial or religious group but also identified with the political left, especially the Social Democrats, Independent Socialists, Communists and the Spartacists.

Since the Independent Socialists, Communists and Spartacists were all involved in attempts to create a Soviet state during the early tumultuous years of Weimar and been involved in many acts of violence against traditional German institutions and the state, they were viewed by Hitler and others as part of the Bolshevik-Jewish threat to Germany.  A sentiment harbored by many non-Nazi conservatives and Christians.

Karl Liebnicht and Rosa Luxembourg were among the high profile leaders of this movement in Germany and both were Jewish.  The fact that many in the leadership of the Bolshevik movement in theSoviet Union were Jewish added fuel to the fire that the Nazis stoked in Germany.  Hitler and the Nazis played on the historic, but muted prejudice against German Jews who in many cases were more secular and German than religious and had assimilated well in Germany.  Hitler’s rhetoric as well as that of other Nazis and Nazi publications helped identify the Jews as part of the “Stab in the back” myth that was commonly used by the German right to explain the defeat in the First World War.  Thus they were painted as a political and social threat to Germany.

Nazi Political and Religious Opponents in Concentration Camps

When Hitler took power persecution of the Jews began in earnest.  Jews were along with Communists, Trade Unions and Socialists enemies of the state.  They were banned from the military, civil service and other government employment, professional associations and forced to wear a gold Star of David on their clothing.  Their property was seized, many were abused by SA men acting as deputized auxiliary police and many times their businesses, Synagogues and homes were vandalized, burned or seized by the state.  Many would be forced to flee in order not to be sent to ghettos and concentration camps.  Even those leaving only escaped with the minimum of their possessions as the Nazi regime extorted anything of value from them as they left Germany.  This was all done because Hitler and those like him portrayed the Jews as not only an inferior race, but enemies of the state and the German people.

Hitler portrayed himself and his movement as defenders of Christianity. He was not the first or last to do so but his speech of February 1st 1933, the day after he was appointed Chancellor by President Hindenburg made it abundantly clear that he was bent on securing the support of Christians to solidify his grip on power: “The National Government will regard it as its first and foremost duty to revive in the nation the spirit of unity and co-operation. It will preserve and defend those basic principles on which our nation has been built. It regards Christianity as the foundation of our national morality, and the family as the basis of national life. . . .”

The Sturmabteilung (SA) at Church

Churches became sponsors of Nazi meetings, the Swastika banner hung in the sanctuaries of churches throughout the Reich and Bishops, Priests and Pastors joined Nazi organizations and gave the Nazi salute. They had sold their soul to Hitler and the Nazis out of fear of the Communists, Socialists, Jews and Slavs.

Eric Hoffer noted that “It is when power is wedded to chronic fear that it becomes formidable.” Hitler and his enablers spread fear and took advantage of it to bring those fearful of the left to his support.

Hitler leaving a Church

Today we face a similar phenomena in conservative circles in the United States.  This time it is not the Jews but Moslems, Gays, immigrants and racial minorities who are the targets of the xenophobic rage by many influential members of the “conservative” media including Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and numerous others.  Their popularity in voicing support for “Christian morale values” such as being against abortion has ingratiated them with conservative Christians.  It is so bad that that many “conservative” Christians cannot differentiate between their vitriolic and un-Christian rage against Moslems, Gays and Lesbians, trade unionists, Democrats or anyone else portrayed by the big media talkers and the Gospel.

It is if they have become an appendage to Republican or “conservative” politicians rather than a Christian church.  It is not uncommon to see Christians on the web or on the call in talk radio programs identify lock stock and barrel with Limbaugh and others identifying the crass materialism and social Darwinism of “pure” Capitalism and the anti-Christian policy of pre-emptive war.   That may seem harsh, but many of these people in the “Conservative Bible project” seek to re-translate the Bible into their own political, social and economic policies even seeking to change or minimize any Scripture that might be equated with the “Social Gospel.”  Unfortunately many Christians and others have jumped in on the anti-Moslem and anti-immigrant crusades and anti-Gay launched by those on the far right.

There are those on the far right that advocate eliminating all Moslems from the military, government, security intelligence and police forces and even universities. Similar threats are made against non-European immigrants, legal and illegal alike especially those from Mexico or Latin America.  I have a friend; a Navy Officer who served a year in Iraq that was confronted by a member of the “Minutemen” in Texas to show his Green Card and threatened simply because he is Mexican.  Others especially conservative Christians suggest criminalizing homosexuality, jailing homosexuals or putting them in concentration camps, deporting them or even punishing gays with the death penalty.

This is so similar to the Nuremberg Laws and the Aryan Paragraph issued by the Nazis that it is scary.  Likewise the threats to American Moslems or Gays of placing them “behind razor wire” as we did to American Japanese citizens in World War II are chilling.  I wonder how Christians would react if an atheist or someone on the political left suggested all conservative Christians or members of pro-Life groups be imprisoned for the actions of Christians or pro-Life movement members like Scott Roeder or Eric Rudolph who killed to stop abortion or Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church?

This new found militancy has swept up the “Christian right” and others since 9-11 and has reached proportions that I could never have imagined. After my tour in Iraq I realized that much of what these people were saying was not Christian at all and when taken to their logical conclusion would be a police state in which anyone who opposed them would be persecuted.  I question the motivations of the leaders of the movement but believe that most of the Christian conservatives have been caught up in the anger and the emotion of the times versus being true believers in what these men say.  That being said, you don’t have to be a true believer to be a willing accomplice in actions that first are not Christian and second trample on the Constitutional rights of American citizens.

I could keep citing examples but if someone can show me where this is condoned in the Gospels I would like to know.  The fact is that Christians are to place God first and defend the rights of others, even non-believers.  This is found not only in Scripture but runs through the Christian tradition across the denominational spectrum.

The persecution of American Moslems, minorities, Gays and others is dangerous, not just for those minorities but ultimately for Christians who endorse and advocate against those groups.  American and English law is based on legal precedence.  Once something has been determined to be legal, or constitutional it is considered by the law to be settled law.  This is a point made by Chief Justice Roberts regarding Roe v. Wade at his confirmation hearings.  If Christians want to use the law against Moslems or for that matter any other minority be it religious or political they tread on very dangerous ground.  Not only do they make a mockery of the Gospel command to love our neighbors, care for the foreigners among us and to be a witness to non-Christians support policies or laws that if enacted could and very well would be used against them by their opponents.

During the Republican Presidential primaries major leaders of the Evangelical movement and churches did all that they could to paint Mitt Romney as a religious cultist because he is Mormon. When Romney secured the nomination those same people started backtracking and committing their support to him because they believe that President Obama is an enemy of the country. They don’t like Romney, they are just against Obama. Romney will remember what they called him and their tepid support. If he becomes President he will not be beholden to them and will govern as he desires. Laws and Executive orders that give expanded power to the Executive Branch will not be overturned and if Evangelicals decide that they don’t like what he is doing and act toward him as they have President Obama they could find themselves on the outside and abandoned by the man that they supported.

Law is all about precedent and if such laws were enacted and upheld by the courts they would be settled law that could be used against anyone.   What these dear brothers and sisters fail to realize is that such laws can be turned against them if the state should ever decided based on the statements of actions of some that the Christian community is a threat to state security of the public welfare.  With the actions of some radical Christians who have committed murder and violence against political, social and religious opponents it would not be hard for the government to label whole churches as enemies of the state.  The law is a two edged sword and those who want to use it to have the state enforce their religious, social, ideological or political beliefs on others need to remember what comes around goes around.

The Confessing church understood this and many were imprisoned, exiled or killed for this belief.  The founding fathers of this country understood this too, that is why there is the Constitutional protection of Religion in the First Amendment.  This was put in because Virginia Baptists who had been persecuted by Anglicans lobbied James Madison for the amendment in the Bill of Rights threatening to withdraw their support for his candidacy if he did not.  Niemöller would discover the depths of his earlier folly in prison telling one interviewer after the war:

“I find myself wondering about that too. I wonder about it as much as I regret it. Still, it is true that Hitler betrayed me. I had an audience with him, as a representative of the Protestant Church, shortly before he became Chancellor, in 1932. Hitler promised me on his word of honor, to protect the Church, and not to issue any anti-Church laws. He also agreed not to allow pogroms against the Jews, assuring me as follows: ‘There will be restrictions against the Jews, but there will be no ghettos, no pogroms, in Germany. I really believed given the widespread anti-Semitism in Germany, at that time—that Jews should avoid aspiring to Government positions or seats in the Reichstag. There were many Jews, especially among the Zionists, who took a similar stand. Hitler’s assurance satisfied me at the time. On the other hand, I hated the growing atheistic movement, which was fostered and promoted by the Social Democrats and the Communists. Their hostility toward the Church made me pin my hopes on Hitler for a while. I am paying for that mistake now; and not me alone, but thousands of other persons like me.”

It is easy for well meaning people Niemöller to be bought with promises of support by politicians and media types who speak the words they want to hear in difficult times.  So today I suggest the formation of an ecumenical Pastor’s Emergency League which will not be bought by the empty and godless promises of hate mongers on the right or the left.  Such a group of men and women spanning the breadth of the Christian tradition and others that see the danger of extremism of all types is becoming necessary.  Such a step is becoming necessary due to the militancy of the Christian right as well as the militancy of atheist groups who lobby against all public religious expression by any religion.  Such a League would respect the various creeds and statements of faith of each member’s denomination.  The movement of the right has set a dangerous course fraught with perils that they do not comprehend.

We have entered a dangerous phase of American history.  These movements have the potential not only to oppress law-abiding and patriotic Americans of all faiths and to crush the religious freedoms of all in this county. Suggesting that American citizens, including those who serve the county in the military or government of entire religious, ethnic, political, religious affiliation or sexual preference be jailed, banned from office or fired is totalitarian and dare I say Nazi like.

Niemöller would say it well in this poem:

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak out for me.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Loose thoughts and musings, nazi germany, News and current events, Political Commentary, pro-life anti-abortion, Religion

Darkness into Light: Turning Systematized Hatred in the Name of God into Reconciliation

I was reading news and saw yet another incident of religious hatred and violence this morning.  This time it was a Hasidic Jew in Brooklyn who decided to pour beer on the head of a recently married neighbor calling her an “Arab terrorist” and beating her husband. The couple was relatively new immigrants from Turkey that had recently moved into the heavily Jewish neighborhood.  To quote a police spokesman the man identified as Simchon Schwartz attacked the woman screaming  “F—ing Arabs! F—ing terrorists!” as he grabbed his neighbor, 27 year old Selda Turan. He shoved her against her car and poured beer on her head. After the attack Schwartz “keyed” the Turan’s car before fleeing to a nearby synagogue.  When apprehended he fought the police and kicked out a window in a police cruiser. As he was doing this his wife told the Turans that “This is a majority Jewish neighborhood. We’re going to get you back.” 

Now this is just the latest. We can list similar crimes committed by people of many religions against others who they view as enemies of God and true believers those of different religions, competing sects of their own religion different sects of their religion or those fallen away from the faith.  Of course I am leaving out those crimes committed that are more influenced by race than religion or those perpetrated against women or other minorities.

There are radical Moslems who persecute and kill Christians, Jews, Hindus and Moslems of different sects. These tend to get the bulk of the media attention in the West because of the 9-11 attacks even though they are committed by a minority of radicals.  Of course there are Islamic countries where much of the population is becoming radicalized so this could grow.  In the United States we have seen a number of Moslems recently arrested for plotting attacks on U.S. Military installations in the United States, and times where Moslem men have committed “honor killings.” Across the globe there are many Moslem nations who either official sanction or tolerate the persecution and killing people of different beliefs sometimes in pretty gruesome ways, and forget freedom of religion, choice conscience or even basic human rights guaranteed by the United Nations Charter.  Just this week the Taliban gave an unwitting 8 year old girl a sack with a bomb in it which they detonated killing her and those in the target zone.

Of course there are some Jews, admittedly the more hyper-orthodox types who believe that non-Jews, secularized Jews and women are somewhat less than human. Of course this is interesting in light of the Holocaust when the Nazis deemed Jews as sub-human.  There are places in Israel where these hyper-Orthodox faithful even attack and stone other less observant Jews, not to mention wayward Arab Christians or Moslems that are Israeli citizens.

There are fundamentalist Hindus in India who burn down Christian villages and persecute Moslems, Moslems, Christians and Animists in Africa who depending on what trine they are from use their religion to persecute neighbors from different tries and religions.  This happens all the time in Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya and the Congo but probably the worst of this type of violence was performed by Hutu and Tutsi Christians in Rwanda and Burundi who killed upwards of a million people back in 1994.

Then there are Christians, or those that claim to be of various varieties that see their specific sect as the elect and all others as bound for the Lake of Fire and fully worthy of God’s judgment in this life and the next.  One immediately thinks of the Westboro Baptist Church” and the Fred Phelps clan but there are others even those that have twisted the Christian faith into model of racial purity in particular various White Supremacist groups.  The Westboro bunch does not commit acts of violence but they do attempt to use legal means, the courts and the media to ensure that their message of hate is carried far and wide, using the right of religious expression to impinge on the rights and dignity of others.  Now these groups all don’t amount to a hill of beans but they tend to become the poster children for this type of crime.

However the more subtle and socially acceptable people of this variety are those that use the imagery of war against God’s enemies to promote hate and forge political power. They are those that preach and promote theocracy where their particular understanding of religion will dominate politics and where their religion becomes the law of the land. Somehow people like David Barton, Bryan Fischer, Joseph Farah and a host of others manage to find in the Scriptures and the Constitution new and interesting ways to demonstrate that a Fundamentalist Protestant theocracy is what the founders of the nation intended to establish.  They won’t say it this way; they will say that we were founded as a “Christian” nation. However most of the prominent leaders of the revolution and writers of the Constitution were Deists, Masons and even some non-believers.  Jefferson, Madison, Adams and Franklin all held a cautious view of religion and saw from Europe’s history that the state endorsement of any religion as the law of the land was fraught with danger. Madison said it so well: “The purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe with blood for centuries.”

I don’t even want to go into Europe’s religious wars, pogroms and crusades.

So while what happened in New York was an isolated incident it is also indicative of a bigger problem facing the country as an already divided and bitter population starts to use religion as a weapon in their political and moral crusades. Now some of this is “payback” for real or perceived encroachments on religious freedom by some secularists, but I don’t remember Jesus telling us to pay anyone back in kind when they persecute us.  In fact didn’t Jesus tell us to “forgive those that sin against us” and on the cross offer forgiveness to those that crucified him?  Maybe this is not a part of some religions but it is a central part of the practice of authentic Christian faith.

As a Christian I can see faults in other religions but I am most keenly aware of when I see people that call themselves Christians arming themselves for war, sometimes literally against those that they believe are God’s enemies. Madison alluded to this when he said “It was the belief of all sects at one time that the establishment of Religion by law was right and necessary; that the true religion ought to be established in exclusion of every other; and that the only question to be decided was, which was the true religion.”

Congressman Todd Akin went so far in his comments to say that “the heart of liberalism really is a hatred for God.” Now when anyone says such things it should send up an alarm for Christians because it is the antithesis of the message of reconciliation that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation.” (2 Cor 5:19 NLT)

Andrew Greeley made a comment about Christians and the Catholic Church before Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire which bears repeating. “People came into the Church in the Roman Empire because the Church was so good. Catholics were so good to one another and they were so good to pagans too.”

While my understanding is a Christian one which recognizes that like the early church we live in world that turning non-Christians into our enemies and thereby God’s enemies that we take a look at how the poor and persecuted church of the first three centuries of the Common Era responded to those that oppressed them or those that they disagreed.  I wonder if Christians decided to approach others in this manner rather than attempting to institute a theocracy in name or practice if maybe the tenor of our national discourse would change.  I also know that there are traditions of tolerance and mercy in every religion, unfortunately they often are persecuted minorities in their own religions.

As for others maybe they like the people in the Roman Empire of other religions would recognize something different, something amazing, refreshing and redeeming in us. However as it stands today I simply expect people of all religions to continue the bloodshed.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, faith, philosophy, Religion