Finding the Holy One

If you really want to know the divine, try leaving all the words behind. Get outside your houses of worship with their readings, rites and sermons, all the boxes into which we try in vain to fit a domesticated Holy One. Put down all your books with all their purported answers to all life’s ultimate questions.

Leave the words behind. Give the left brain the afternoon off.

Now, go outside.

Path

Take your shoes off. Let the soles of your feet touch the earth itself. Lift your arms, open your hands. Face the sky. Close your eyes.

Now just listen.

Listen for the presence of the holy in the wind in the trees, the rain dripping down through the leaves, the thunder shaking the very ground on which you stand. Listen for the birds in their branches singing about the glory of Creation.

Now listen even more closely. Listen for the ruach, Hebrew for air, the very breath of G-d, the very air we breathe, without which we could not live. Listen as it whistles through your nostrils as you draw it in, departing as a soft sigh as you exhale, reminding us that G-d is always as close as the air we breathe.

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Listen a little longer.

And then maybe, just maybe, that soft, still voice will finally come, reminding you that you and all of Creation are infinitely valuable, that you bear the divine image and that you are deeply loved.  And maybe, just maybe, that slow smile, that sheepish grin, will creep over your face reflecting your dawning recognition once again that the Holy One has been there all along, right outside your window, patiently seeking your attention in the din of noise and banality that we call our modern world.

Bedroom view

All photos taken by the author at his home, New Coverleigh, in the heart of Orlando.

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Harry Scott Coverston

Orlando, Florida

frharry@cfl.rr.com

harry.coverston@knights.ucf.edu

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. – Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Ages, Commentary on Micah 6:8

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Melania’s Debacle

I find myself troubled by the Melania Trump debacle at the Republican National Convention Monday night. Her speech shamelessly lifted large segments of a speech given by First Lady Michelle Obama at a preceding Democratic National Convention without any attribution.

While party loyalists have suggested this was neither intentional nor serious, this  behavior is consistent with her prior communications on Twitter in which Melania used a quote by Marva Collins (“Trust yourself, think for yourself, act for yourself, speak for yourself. Be yourself!”) without attribution. In one of life’s great ironies, the Collins quote ends with the warning “Imitation is suicide.”

Melania.speech

Little wonder poor Melania cut that line.

As a teacher, my concern is never that a student has found a great quote to illustrate his or her point. That’s actually the mark of a good student. What troubles me is when students fail to give attribution for the statement they’ve found. While I love Maya Angelou, I will never be nearly as lyrical as that absolute master of the English language. If I use her words, I need to note that they are hers, not mine. To do otherwise would perpetrate a fraud on my reader or listener and simultaneously fail to afford the author her due respect.

The other problem students manifest regarding quoted materials is the tendency to string together other people’s words to make their own argument rather than illustrating their own original argument with a strategic use of quotes. In addition to failing to offer attribution for her source, Melania engaged in this sophomoric behavior as well.

 

Of course there are good examples of such behavior everywhere. From fundamentalist preachers string citing bible verses as if they were self-explanatory and self-interpreting to the cutting and pasting of material from internet sites and posting it elsewhere on the internet without comment, unauthorized use of the intellectual property of others as a means of avoiding the hard work of creating one’s own is common place everywhere we look.

Swanson2

Ted Swanson at the National Religious Liberties Conference:

“Yes, Leviticus 20:13 calls for the death penalty for homosexuals. Yes, Romans chapter 1 verse 32 the Apostle Paul does say that homosexuals are worthy of death. His words not mine! 

The troubling aspect of such behaviors is that they serve as a rather tacit admission that one either has nothing of value to say, they are too cowardly to take responsibility for their own ideas or they are simply too lazy to formulate, articulate and support their own arguments. It is, at a basic level, a self-indictment of cowardice, laziness or sheer vapidity.

However, Melania Trump is not just any undergraduate student. For a potential First Lady to engage in such dishonest behavior is disturbing. It’s almost impossible for me to imagine a highly literate First Lady like Jacqueline Kennedy or a devoted librarian like Laura Bush doing something like this. Such behavior sets a very poor example for the nation’s students. And it minimizes the value of academic integrity.

Were Melania in my course, I’d have called her into my office for a discussion. I always give students in such situations an opportunity to be heard before taking action. Depending upon her response, I’d have considered making her rewrite the speech giving attribution, turning it into a learning opportunity. Alternatively, I would have failed her for the assignment and possibly the course and refered her to the academic honesty course as a requirement for graduation.

Melania.1

Truth be told, I think Melania is in way over her head. To begin with, she is not college educated, another fact about which she has been dishonest. She speaks English as a second language, always a challenge. At a very basic level, Melania, Trump’s third wife and former soft porn model, is being used by the Donald in much the way he has used virtually everyone in his life. She is not First Lady material. She is a means to Donald’s ends. And should she fail to satisfy his demands upon her, I have no doubt that, just as he did with the first two Trump-ettes, he will gladly scream at her “You’re fired!”

In the words of a turn of the 20th CE popular song, “She’s more to be pitied than censured.”

But this behavior does exemplify the enormous superficiality that has marked the Trump candidacy generally. The ghost writer for Trump’s book The Art of the Deal recently revealed that Trump is incapable of following a serious discussion to any kind of logical conclusion, has probably not read a book in 50 years and willingly took credit for a book he not only did not write even as he was unaware of all of its content. Tony Schwartz expresses deep regret for his role in getting the book to market and says if we were to do it all over again, he’d entitle the book The Sociopath.

There is a brazenness in verbatim theft of other people’s speeches and blatant deceit about one’s academic career. It suggests a belief that either the audience will not catch this sleight of hand or, alternatively, that we will not care. The latter is more troubling because it reflects a belief that the American public is itself rather vapid, a belief that terrifies me in its potential truthfulness.

Trump.Youre.Fired

The Republican National Convention has thus far been a parade of washed up actors, professional wrestlers and fundamentalist preachers. It has also reflected a studious avoidance of the RNC dais of any leader seen by the American public as thoughtful. All of this suggests that Trump is betting that the American people are willing to settle for a reality television presidency, four years of mindless entertainment.

But truth be told, I wake up in cold sweats at night considering the possibility that he just might be right.

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Harry Scott Coverston

Orlando, Florida

frharry@cfl.rr.com

harry.coverston@knights.ucf.edu

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. – Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Ages, Commentary on Micah 6:8

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Shooting Ourselves in the Foot

I wonder at what point the German people awoke from their Aryan tribal orgy with a pounding hangover and the dawning realization of what they had actually done in placing Hitler in power. By then, of course, it was too late. The frog was already boiled at that point and before it was over most of Europe would be as well.

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Leni Riefenstahl, Triumph of the Will (1934)

My guess is that the Brits are about to know that hangover first hand. By the time many voters bothered to briefly interrupt their search for porn and Google what Brexit actually was and what it would mean for Britain, the damage was already done.

I look at the roller coaster poll results in the US after a couple of weeks of a media feeding frenzy hammering at Hillary Clinton over an error in judgment which was serious enough but also common and hardly the stuff of conspiracies spun by infotainment media. I wonder how far removed from the Germans of the 1930s we really are being led around by the nose by sensationalist media. Increasingly, it seems to me that many US voters, like those in Britain, either know better or don’t know much at all but seek ways to rationalize engaging in electoral behaviors driven by spite, much of it inexplicably targeting Hillary Clinton.

We absolutely must beware the halo effect in polling responses this election. Increasingly, voters from California’s Proposition 8 to the Brexit vote last month reveal that they know better than what they’re about to do, giving the socially respectable answer to the pollster, but in the darkness of the voting booth readily engage in their darkest fears and prejudices, to hell with the results.

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I get the anger. The completely dysfunctional Congress we have endured for the eight years of TEA Party obstructionism, itself largely a misdirected expression of working class anger manipulated by corporate interests, is maddening. The way that global corporations have run roughshod over all of us but particularly the working class is enraging.

I also understand personally the white hot rage that might promote voting against the establishment. And I understand the absolutely on-target desires to deconstruct our current winner-take-all electoral system with its addiction to money, its ability to effectively shut out whole classes of voters from participation in order to dominate and to seek to replace it with a system that is more than a mere façade of democracy.

Tea Potty

What I don’t get is why that anger would take the form of shooting one’s own foot off. Making a statement is perhaps appropriate in evangelical revivals or a town hall meeting. But this election is not about any given individual or group of individuals and the axe they have to grind. It’s about insuring that the possibilities for change will exist – a Congress and SCOTUS not controlled by corporate interests; a US taking responsibilities for its share of climate change which threatens the entire planet; a just economic system in which workers don’t lose their homes or end up slaves to crippling debt simply because they seek to become educated or obtain needed medical treatment.

That kind of change simply cannot happen under a xenophobic corporate magnate with a lousy record as a businessman and the ethics of a common adder.

Fucking.Trump

Voting one’s angst may be a feel good catharsis. But engaging in behavior that ultimately elects Donald Trump, who is on a good day a “faker,” is little more than cutting one’s nose off to spite one’s face. That kind of self-defeating behavior may be endurable when one is dealing with an actual adolescent child. There is always hope they can grow up. But when that adolescent is the world’s most powerful nation-state, placing a l’enfant terrible at the helm of that power is an incredibly bad idea.

Bernie Sanders, whom I fervently supported in the primaries and continue to admire greatly, was very clear that all revolutions, including his, require long periods of persistent hard work and sacrifice to effectuate the changes they seek. While we well-trained consumers tend to see the world through lenses of instant gratification, changing a 227-year-old system of self-governance simply cannot happen overnight.

We need to be very clear: This election is not the Revolution, capital R. It’s just the first skirmish in a much larger engagement that will take many years and, no doubt, a lot more suffering to play out.

Regrettably, this election simply boils down to damage control and not digging the gaping hole in the US soul any deeper. I wish that were not true. But it simply is the case.

Greens

While my political soul decidedly lies with Jill Stein and the Greens and the big picture suggests that a multi-party system would be a lot healthier than the one we currently endure, I fear that the stakes are simply too high in this turning point election to take a chance on a catastrophic result in order to indulge my individual conscience.

Those who know me know that I am an idealist to the core and rarely a pragmatist with eyes focused on the ground immediately in front of me. But I have been to enough disaster sites over my life to understand the need for triage. And we should not kid ourselves, America decidedly stands at the brink of a cataclysm in 2016.

Attack on the World Trade Center, September 11, 2001
Attack on the World Trade Center, view from Two World Financial Center, firefighters George Johnson, Dan McWilliams and Billy Eisengrein raising the American flag at Ground Zero, New York City, New York, USA, September 11, 2001

There will be days to vent anger and make change but only if we ensure that it will be possible. Those of us who would change what we see as an unacceptable reality in this country that we love must commit ourselves to that process. But the change we would seek will become ever more difficult to effectuate should Americans out of a feel-good expression of anger follow the example of 1930s Germany and elect a loose cannon whose rhetoric echoes of fascism.

Bear in mind that the Third Reich occurred in a time when the powerful technologies we take for granted today were only in their germinal stages of development. Imagine what the Axis might have done if it had had access to the weaponry and technology the US currently possesses.

My fellow Americans, let’s don’t shoot ourselves in the foot. Let us engage our long term memories long enough to learn from the example of the last unprepared loose cannon we placed in office in 2000. It has taken eight years to repair the enormous damage of that error in judgment. But, have no doubts, making the same error in judgement in this election could well be a lot, lot worse.

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Harry Scott Coverston

Orlando, Florida

frharry@cfl.rr.com

harry.coverston@knights.ucf.edu

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. – Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Ages, Commentary on Micah 6:8

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Black Lives Matter and Beatitudes

This past week the US has been rocked by two new slayings of young black men in police custody and within days the slaying of five police officers at a rally protesting those deaths in apparent retaliation. Social media has been abuzz with energized discussions providing a lot more heat than light, much of it cast in terms of slogans serving as shorthand for the focus of the poster’s concerns.

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The slogan “Black Lives Matter,” which originated in the wake of a rash of deaths of young black men two years ago, has dominated much of the newsfeed. In the resulting discussions, one poster dismissed the BLM slogan as a mere platitude, “a remark or statement, especially one with a moral content, that has been used too often to be interesting or thoughtful.” Others vehemently responded to the BLM slogan with the retort “All Lives Matter!” as if these statements are somehow mutually exclusive. Finally, those outraged by the police slayings in Dallas responded in righteous indignation that “Blue Lives Matter,” again, as if these concerns were mutually exclusive.

Let me state my position on the value of life right up front: Murder is murder.  In the end, it does not matter whether it is a police officer killing a young black man in front of his girlfriend and four-year-old child, a gunman with a weapon of war mowing down police at a rally or patrons at a nightclub, or a state agent pumping lethal chemicals into the veins of a convicted criminal in a padded cell. Any time the choice is made to intentionally cause the death of another human being when life is a realistic option, it is murder, regardless of how the killers may seek to rationalize it. And it is wrong.

In that sense, the assertion that “All Lives Matter” is true, at least in principle if not always in practice. But to understand any text, one must consciously deal with the context in which it arises. And the context of “Black Lives Matter” is deeply troubling.

Getting Away with Murder

BLM.Trayvon

The slogan first arose out of the trial of George Zimmerman, a troubled Latino/Anglo man whose frustrated dreams of becoming a cop were played out in becoming a self-appointed armed “neighborhood watch” guard in a gated community in Sanford, FL. The official Neighborhood Watch program’s name reveals its function: Watch for signs of criminal behavior in one’s Neighborhood and report what one sees to law enforcement. It does not involve arming oneself. And it certainly does not involve stalking the offender with a gun.

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But that is what George Zimmerman did. And when his prey, a 17-year-old black kid from Miami visiting his father, realized he was being stalked, he hid and then surprised his stalker, beating him with his fists as he angrily demanded why the man was following him. No doubt, the kid was afraid for his very life and with good reason. It was at this point that Zimmerman, whom the kid had gotten the best of, shot and killed him.

The legal response to this event was a shameful farce. The local state attorney initially refused to charge the killer with anything. Florida’s ethically challenged attorney general did nothing, maintaining a deafening silence in the face of a growing call for action. When a special prosecutor was finally appointed, the jury instructions allowed by the court were so narrowly drawn that Zimmerman was able to successfully assert self-defense and was acquitted by a virtually all-white jury. The analogies to the Rodney King trial in Simi Valley in California which set off days of deadly rioting in Los Angeles are unavoidable.

In the end, George Zimmerman got away with murder.  And what became abundantly clear in that trial was that the life of his 17-year-old black male victim was less valuable than that of his Latino/Anglo killer. At least in this case, black lives did not matter.

When this pattern began to be replicated in case after case of killings of black males in police control across the country caught on cell phones and video recordings, the angry counter-assertion that “Black Lives Matter” began to take shape. That is the immediate context. But there is a larger context without which BLM cannot be fully understood.

From Plantation Porches to Racist Closets

These events occur at the end of four centuries of racist culture that began as chattel slavery of African peoples and their descendants which only ended 150 years ago. When one includes colonial history with its brisk trade of human property as the middle passage of triangular trade, America has been a slave culture much longer than not.

BLM.Water.Fountains

With the end of slavery, the trajectory of racism has been one of increasing invisibility but with correspondingly even more power to shape our culture. Slavery quickly evolved into a set of highly discriminatory Jim Crow laws which sought a patina of legitimacy for what was blatantly racist discrimination. It would take another century after the end of slavery for the courts to finally strike these laws down.

The result was to drive this pernicious prejudice increasingly into the closet as overt racism became socially unacceptable for a polite (translated: middle and upper class white) society wishing to deny its past, protect its continued privilege and indulge its ongoing prejudices. But these black holes of closeted racism continue to give birth to a subtle but even more powerful institutional racism which infects every aspect of our culture today. It is always easier to confront overt prejudices. The covert (and often unconscious) versions assert themselves in largely invisible but effective ways.

One of the more pointed ways closet racism has manifest itself  is in the ironically named “war on drugs.” From the beginning, drug laws, enacted largely to protect the profits of the pharmaceutical industry, have punished black drug use and sales more harshly than their white counterparts. The difference in degrees of punishment for crack cocaine, largely used by poor people of color, and powder cocaine, largely used by middle and upper class white people, is but one example. The racial disparity in the demographics of the world’s largest prison gulag and the level of unabashed violence in cocaine cowboy SWAT tactics in impoverished neighborhoods attests to the effectiveness of this form of closet racism.

Another way this powerful closet racism has manifest itself is in the absolute refusal of the US to deal with what is clearly a socially debilitating addiction to firearms that has destabilized both US culture and the world. US gun manufacturers are far and away the greatest suppliers of weaponry, both intentionally and unintentionally, to all kinds to regimes around the world ranging from what became the Taliban and ISIS to the deadly paramilitaries of Central America.

This year, US firearm deaths – which include homicides, suicides and accidental deaths – are poised to surpass automobile deaths as the leading cause of deaths not caused by illness. US gun policies as well as the associated attitudes about guns in the general public reflect a deeply fearful populace. Much of that fear is based in race.

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According to the Pew Research data, support for increased regulation of firearms is found among a wide demographic with a majority among urban and suburban residents, women, those under the age of 50, those making less than $30,000/year, those with no college or college graduates, and registered Democrats and Independents.

Those who say that gun rights are more important than increased control of firearms are fairly narrowly defined: white non-Hispanic men with some college, rural residents, those registered Republican and those over the age of 50. While a clear majority of US citizens support increasing controls over firearms, it is the demands of a powerful minority and the lobbying power of the NRA, heavily financed by firearms corporations, which continues to dictate US gun policy paralyzing all efforts to change the laws even in the face of profoundly disturbing events like the Orlando Pulse massacre.

 

 

A Dawning Reality: We’re losing.

In looking at these demographics, the last of the four contextual aspects comes squarely into focus. The 2000 election of Barack Obama, the first mixed race president in US history, a product of a broken home and a beneficiary of affirmative action, and the rejection of the business-as-usual Republican Mitt Romney, the epitome of white privilege, caused the alarms to sound in the snug, safe closets of racism across the US.

The response was fast and furious. The last eight years of US politics has been marked by the resurrection of a Know-Nothing racism in the form of a TEA Party and self-appointed militias along the US border. It has seen the losing Republican Party determine on election night to engage in obstructionism for the duration of the President’s term which has resulted in the least productive Congress in US history and an incomplete divided SCOTUS now largely incapable of rendering majority decisions.

The current presidential nominee of the Republican Party, whose rhetoric is frequently peppered with subtle and not so subtle racist references, embodies the desperation many white non-Hispanic Americans feel. They rightly recognize that the country is changing, that our demographics no longer provide the automatic electoral veto that they have presumed to be their right since the dawn of the nation-state. But despite their attempts to gerrymander Congress and state governments, bar poor people of color from voting and shut down governments when they have not gotten their way, the reality is beginning to dawn on the scions of American white privilege: We are losing.

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Given this context, it is not surprising that a rapidly dwindling white non-Hispanic majority, looking about in fear as their presumed entitlements to white privilege are slowly eroding, would resolutely refuse to see the danger persons of color, particularly young black males, currently experience when in the proximity of predominately white male law enforcement. If it’s not happening to them or their own children – at least so far – it’s not a problem.

Dismissal of “Black Lives Matter” as a platitude is but one of many expressions of a defensiveness that is to be expected in the current climate of cultural transition. Because while it is true that All Lives Matter or at least that they should – particularly those who place their lives in danger for the public daily as law enforcement officers – that does not somehow mutually exclude the reality revealing itself nightly on our evening news that Black Lives do not appear to matter as much as others in our country and never really have, a reality which increasingly demands our immediate attention.

Jesus on Lives that Matter

I am trained as a lawyer and an academician whose primary areas of concern have always been ethics and the sociology of religion, law and society. My comments above reflect that background. But I am also an Episcopal priest who studied liberation theology while in seminary, spending a good bit of time in Central America to observe it firsthand. And while I am hardly a theocrat, seeking to impose a form of Christian sharia law on my countrywomen and men as is favored by many religious conservatives, I do think the historical Jesus has something of value to add to this conversation.

There is a teaching in Jesus’ beatitudes which is highly analogous to Black Lives Matter. Considered the core of Jesus’ kingdom of G-d teachings, the Beatitudes are so named because they begin with words of beatification: “Blessed are…”

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In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus casts his lot with the poor. “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” It’s tempting to blow this assertion off with a patronizing, “Aw, gee, that’s nice, Jesus. You feel sorry for the poor people.” That’s certainly what many of us do. It’s also tempting to avoid this teaching by asserting that “All Lives Matter” to G-d. If G-d is the source, ground and destination of all Creation, clearly they do. But the implications of this statement go much, much deeper than banal theologizing.

When Jesus teaches that the poor are blessed, he does so in the role of the prophet. Most Hebrew prophets, in whose venerable line Jesus clearly stands, begin with the words, “Thus says the Lord…” Though Jesus no doubt did identify with the exploited poor who made up the vast majority of the 1st CE Roman province of Judea, his own family included, he is not speaking for them here. His words are subtle. It is G-d who blesses the poor. Why? Because it is clearly the poor who most need G-d’s blessing.

It is critical to note that this is a complete reversal of the worldview common to his Judean society and to our own. Nothing in the lives of the poor suggested they could be seen as even remotely blessed by G-d. Quite the opposite. If they were not sinners or suffering for someone else’s sin (Who sinned, this man or his parents? JN 9) why would their lives be so miserable? Conversely, the well-to-do Pharisee who stands on the street corner proclaiming “God, I thank you that I am not like other people…” (LK 18) reflects the prevailing view that wealth, power and status all suggested G-d’s favor.

Jesus’ beatitude completely overturns such assumptions.

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Where the analogy of this beatitude to Black Lives Matter becomes clear is in the import of his teaching. If Jesus is right and G_d sees the poor as blessed, what does this suggest about the activities and attitudes of those who make and keep them poor? How would a G_d whose blessing rests on the poor feel about efforts to exploit them?

Perhaps most importantly, what does this suggest is the appropriate response for the followers of Jesus who are not poor but whose wealth, power and status are attained at their expense? The answer extends far beyond the knee jerk response of a condescending and patronizing charity exercised out of one’s excess. It is ultimately a question of a just society.

The liberationists called this G-d’s “preferential option for the poor.“ It sees the ongoing exploitation of the poor whom G-d blesses as a sin. And it calls for conversion of those who find themselves in the roles of both exploiters and beneficiaries of that exploitation.

Black Lives Matter is a call to consciousness of the many ways our society communicates to our fellow Americans of color that their lives do not matter, at least not as much as their countrywomen and men. It is a call to recognize all the social contexts in which this devaluation of human beings of color occurs. Most importantly, it is a call to reconsider these attitudes, both conscious and unconscious, and the behaviors which flow from them. The word the gospel writers would have used here is repent.

When Jesus articulated this radical vision of a kingdom of G-d in which the poor were blessed and those who exploited them were called to repentance and change of life, he was rewarded as are most prophets: by quickly being put out of his audience’s misery. It’s always a lot easier to crucify a prophet than to take their prophetic message seriously. Undoubtedly that is as true today as it was in Jesus’ time.

All Lives Matter: More than a Platitude?

The US stands at the crossroads of many changes today, not the least of which is the question of how we will adjust to becoming a minority-majority nation-state in which no racial or ethnic group will predominate and thus presume a privilege to pursue their own interests at the expense of all others. How we respond to that challenge may well define whether this country which prides itself on “liberty and justice for all” – even when that has not always been the case – will survive to “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

BLM.Do.all.lives.really.matter

It is true that all lives matter. They matter to G-d, they matter to a nation-state whose stated ideals recognize the truth that “all men are created equal” to be self-evident and they matter to psychologically healthy human beings. But in a violent racist culture like our own, it is precisely the success of movements like the “Black Lives Matter” that will determine if otherwise empty assertions that “All Lives Matter” ever become more than a mere platitude.

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Harry Scott Coverston

Orlando, Florida

frharry@cfl.rr.com

harry.coverston@knights.ucf.edu

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. – Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Ages, Commentary on Micah 6:8

 

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Images of G-d Amidst a Massacre

[N.B., This post was written as an article solicited for the e-newsletter at my home parish, St. Richard’s Episcopal Church, Winter Park, FL]

Orlando.mourning.Dr.Phllips.vigil

“She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him– that she is a sinner.”….. [Jesus said] You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” Luke 7:38-39, 45-50

This past Tuesday I came to the parish to lead Morning Prayer as I usually do. My head was buzzing with the details coming into focus from Sunday’s massacre at the Pulse nightclub not far from my home. My heart was absolutely shattered as I breathlessly waited for city officials to release the names of the 49 victims, feeling enormous relief each time the name did not match that of any of my students or loved ones and simultaneously feeling guilty for that relief. These were someone’s loved ones if not my own, each bearing the image of G-d.

The discussion after our readings turned almost immediately to the events of the weekend. Amidst the attempts to make sense of two senseless, demonic events in one weekend here in our City Beautiful, the gospel from last Sunday floated back into focus, a portion of which is provided above.

Jesus is the consummate challenger of conventional moral reasoning and the cultural values which inform it. He dines with sinners – including the hated Roman tax collectors – and the ever so self-righteous Pharisees alike. His parables, like the Good Samaritan, have unlikely heroes – the despised people whose religion was seen as lacking in “orthodoxy,” cultural lepers to good Jews. He engages the Syro-phoenician woman at the well, first dismissing her with a condescending but culturally appropriate comment, then allowing his understandings to be drawn into question – by a woman and a pagan no less – and ultimately repents of values he now recognizes as misanthropic.

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For Jesus, the ultimate value is neither the tribal values of his culture nor the self-serving piety of his own religion. Jesus sees a bigger picture. His teachings and actions constantly reinforce the demand that his followers must discern the image of G-d on the face of the other – no matter how well hidden behind cultural and religious constructions they may be – and honor them.

The massacre at the Pulse nightclub brings into focus a whole host of issues and the role our own cultural and religious constructions have played in its occurrence. It is no accident that the site targeted for this slaughter was a community bar which provided a safe place for LBGTQ people, straight people and people of color to gather and socialize. Bear in mind that this is hardly the only time a gay bar has been attacked and its occupants injured and killed. Like the Holocaust coming at the end of a long history Christian anti-semitism, it is simply the latest and, with the rise of ever more efficient technologies of death, the deadliest. Orlando.mourning.couple

This culminating bloodbath occurs in a historical context of homophobia. And while the Christian tradition is not alone in fomenting and developing that homophobia, it has been the most powerful force in preserving that common social prejudice and legitimating its expression today. Our own tradition has frequently spoken out of both sides of its mouth, regularly affirming the “dignity of every human being” (Baptismal Covenant) even as some of our dioceses bar gay married priests from its altars and same-sex marriages from our parishes. Why is that?

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It is also not incidental that the patrons at Pulse that night were a rainbow of humanity that reflects the diverse community metropolitan Orlando has become. Latinos represent about one out of three Orange County residents today. They work and thrive in this welcoming community but frequently come home to nightly doses of anti-immigrant sentiment on their televisions which have come to dominate our current election. No doubt few of them even recognize themselves in the caricatures that are constructed of them in this process. Why is that?

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It is also not surprising that the immediate conclusion of so many of us was that somehow the Islamic faith was to blame. Muslims are targets of suspicion and denigration in their daily lives that none of us would ever tolerate. While no one would sum up the entire Christian faith by radicals like the Westboro Baptist Church, which vows to picket the funerals of the Pulse victims here, or murderous zealots who blow up abortion clinics, we Christians have been quick to paint the 30% of our world’s peoples who follow any path of Islam as radicals we must implicitly distrust. Why is that?

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Finally, it is hardly a shock that the instrumentality of death early Sunday morning was a weapon of war legally purchased in a country that simply cannot come to grips with its addiction to guns. Automatic and repeatedly firing weapons are simply not the stuff of defense of one’s home or hunting. All or nothing thinking is a common logical fallacy which does not serve us here. But it is the mark of addictive thinking. Like every addiction, our lives have become unmanageable. We have made very limited attempts to curtail our indulgence of this deadly behavior with no success. It just grows stronger. And we are in deep denial about it even as our children are being slaughtered. Why is that?

All of these aspects of the Pulse shooting raise serious issues about cultural values and religious understandings that no longer serve us. They signal that the time for a very difficult discussion about who we are as a people can no longer be avoided. But more importantly for we who would follow Jesus, they raise the very same question that he raises here: What prevents us from discerning the image of G-d in the face of the other and showing it due reverence?

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Recognizing and honoring the image of G-d in the face of the other reflects the Great Commandments to love one’s neighbor as oneself by which we demonstrate our love of the G-d who created us all. When deeply held cultural values or religious beliefs come into conflict with these Great Commandments, Jesus is very clear about which one must prevail.

Are we?

Harry Scott Coverston is an Episcopal priest and Third Order Franciscan. He is a former assistant Public Defender for the 9th Judicial Circuit and just retired from the University of Central Florida where he taught religious studies, interdisciplinary humanities and the philosophy of law. He resumes his teaching as adjunct instructor at Valencia College this fall teaching ethics and critical thinking.

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Harry Scott Coverston

Orlando, Florida

frharry@cfl.rr.com

harry.coverston@knights.ucf.edu

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. – Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Ages, Commentary on Micah 6:8

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Kilmer’s Lament

I THINK that I shall never see

A poem lovely as a tree.

Poet Joyce Kilmer began his famous 1919 paean to “Trees” with these words. I always loved that poem and over the years have often reflected on the nature of all things arboreal.

Some would suggest that trees are mere things to be used as we humans see fit – to build our homes, to heat them in winter and to decorate the yards around them. Indeed, trees are cut down to be processed into paper to provide writing materials for poets like Kilmer.

But for some of us, trees represent more than mere utility. Aside from their beauty and their graciousness in providing homes for so many animals, trees are primal symbols of life itself, with roots that run deep into the earth and branches that fill the sky reaching toward the sun and swaying with the wind. Virtually all human cultures have a variant of the Tree of Life in its symbol system.

My own relationship to trees runs deep. My father and brother and I cleared the 11 acres of Florida wilderness where we eventually built our family home. In the process, I learned the various types of trees which blanket the Central Florida hills and swamplands. I grew to appreciate their beauty, the coolness of their shade and the protection against frost their branches provided in particularly cold winters. A sprawling live oak of probably 200 years dominated our front yard in what was then still the country outside of Bushnell. Its fern and lichen-covered branches were wide enough that we could walk up and down the branches standing erect as if it were a sidewalk.

post-trees.5.JPGBEFORE: Calm before the Storm

The Granddaddy of the Neighborhood

When Andy and I first visited the house that would become our home in downtown Orlando, I immediately fell in love with the place. The house was wonderful – open, inviting, lots of windows. But the yard was spectacular. A 120 year old tree graced the front yard and dominated our corner lot, the Granddaddy of a neighborhood of ancient trees.  In the back yard two equally imposing trees formed a Y, growing apart from each other, the laurel oak arching over the neighbor’s yard, the tall live oak growing straight up, towering a good 120 feet above our house.

It was love at first sight.

Later we would discover that our lovely kitchen with its open range and brick flooring had not been so much a revision of the house as a reconstruction. There had been three large oak trees in the back yard at one time. One had toppled during a severe thunderstorm smashing the kitchen and requiring extensive repairs in the house.

Of course, that did not bother us. What were the chances it could happen again? Our trees looked healthy. Orlando was inland, removed from the coast. Hurricanes that reached our shores lose their punch before they get here. We were safe. Or so we thought.

The limbs of the large tree in our front yard had been cabled. Clearly the former owners had worried about its potential to come down. In the spring of 2004, we had a tree surgeon come look at the tree. We were reassured it was healthy and posed no threat.

The morning of Friday, August 13, 2004, a minimal hurricane named Charley jumped two categories to become a dangerous Category Four storm and shifted directions 90 degrees from its previous path toward the sparsely populated Florida Big Bend making a beeline for the southwest Florida coast, all in a span of about 45 minutes. Workers were sent home in Orlando at noon and by 3 PM Civil Defense was telling people to get off the highways to keep them clear for emergency workers. By 8 PM, a category two Charley began ripping through the Orlando metro area as it diagonally crossed the peninsula from southwest to northeast.

Because of its rapid forward speed of 25 mph, Charley spun off a number of microbursts which functioned like tornadoes with winds approaching category five. It was just such a microburst that would take out the Granddaddy in our front yard.

The tree had three major trunks. Two of them came down into our house. One pierced the roof in my office. The second fell all the way through our living room and into our neighbor’s house behind us. The next day the county would condemn our house and the one across the street from us. Every house on our street suffered damage from Charley and our neighborhood was declared the worst hit in town.

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Front yard, New Coverleigh

It would be nearly four years before we could reoccupy our beautiful home. Two different contractors would take our money and leave without finishing the repairs and we would end up pulling the contract ourselves to finish the work needed to pass inspection and get us back into our home.

In the four years of exile, the water service continued at our house and I slowly regrew my front yard, digging up the stumps of smaller trees cut down to allow bobcats to remove the debris and fertilizing them. Shoots of the original trees sprang to life. New trees came to accompany them. Twelve years later, the front yard is a dense, green jungle once again.

Agonizing Decisions

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest

Against the sweet earth’s flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,

And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in summer wear

A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;

Who intimately lives with rain.

It is the resilience of the jungle against the very worst Mother Nature and human workmen can throw at it that gives me some solace this morning as I one again hear the sounds of the saws and grinders in my yard.

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Rot at the core of the laurel oak dooms the neighboring live oak

While I was in New Mexico at the Living School last month, one of the two remaining trees in our back yard suddenly toppled over into the neighbor’s yard, barely missing their house and, upon hitting the ground, bursting open to reveal an enormous honey comb in its rotten hollow heart and releasing a host of angry bees. While Florida law does not make homeowners liable for anything that occurs on neighboring property as a result of one’s own trees, our neighbors had been instrumental in helping us recover from Charley and we felt a moral duty to take care of the tree and its apiary occupants.

First, the bee keeper came out and smoked the bees into unconsciousness and vacuumed them out of the tree, wrapping it in a tarp to prevent them from returning. A few days later the tree surgeon came to cut up the tree and to survey the damage.

That’s when we got the bad news: With the roots of the giant live oak exposed from the first tree’s collapse, the live oak would now die. It had suddenly gone from the treasure of the yard to a liability to both our house and the neighbor’s. Worse yet, the big laurel oak by our driveway that we had trimmed six years ago was now rotten and needed to come down as well. Altogether, this would be a $6,400 project.

It did not help that hurricane season began this week. As of June 1, the season’s first official day, there had already been three named storms. This is the earliest arriving storm season on record and a sobering portent for the coming season.

Even so, we agonized over the decision. Removing a tree from your landscape not only changes the complexion of your yard, it changes the microclimate surrounding your home. Our roof will now be exposed to a lot more heat in the summer and tender plants will be much more exposed to cold during the occasional cold snap in the winter. But those are only the immediate effects.

Trees are living communities. They house the many birds that sing to me each morning as I take my walk through my jungle domain. The local ospreys use them for their dining room, eating the fish they have snatched from nearby Lake Underhill and dropping the head and bones into the yard. Owls hoot from their lower branches and wink at the onlooker by evening. My guess is that the raccoons whose mating habits each spring are so loud as to be unavoidable – rendering their human neighbors involuntary voyeurs – will have to find a new boudoir. The possums and squirrels who nest there will also have to find a new home.

Like Kilmer, I feel a spiritual bond to these living beings, some of whose lives long predate my own. The very heart of our beloved jungle is being cut out as I write these words. The hum of saws and grinders is punctuated by periodic thudding of tree trunks crashing to the ground. These are terrible sounds and this is a painful grief to bear, indeed.

Today will be a very long day.

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AFTER: All that is left of a once might live oak

And yet, as my gentle spirited husband quietly observed, “We can’t go through another Charley.” Having your home destroyed and enduring the almost unbearable process of rebuilding it is among the worst traumas human beings can ever know. And so, the trees simply had to go.

Only God can make a tree

Poems are made by fools like me,

But only God can make a tree.

I console myself with the knowledge that I can grow new trees where these ancient oaks once stood. Once our fence is repaired so that our dogs cannot make their escape to run the neighborhood, I will begin that healing process just as I did after Hurricane Charley in 2004. It was through the regrowing of my jungle that I worked out my grief during those long four years. Most surely the sorrow I feel this day can be transformed into a creative path as well.

Life begins anew amidst the sawdust and the stumps of the fallen giants.

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Front yard, New Coverleigh

Today, within the hum of chain saws, the drone of bobcats and the periodic thuds of falling tree trunks, I give thanks to a generous G-d for these trees who have shared our lives all these years. I will greatly miss them. My life is all the better for having shared their company. With deepest reverence, I offer this prayer:

Great Creator,

Out of chaos you bring order.

Out of nothingness you bring life.

 

In the middle of all life stands the Tree.

It provides the air that nurtures all of Creation.

Homes for many creatures bearing your image

And shelter for weary human animals in the shade of its branches.

 

Bless the trees of this world, Holy One

Be present with us as we serve as their caregivers and protectors.

May they be graced with long limbs and long lives.

And may their precious gift of air remind us

That you are always as close to us as our next breath.

(Prayer adapted from Rev. Chuck Currie, “A Prayer for Trees” 2008.)

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Harry Scott Coverston

Orlando, Florida

frharry@cfl.rr.com

harry.coverston@knights.ucf.edu

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. – Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Ages, Commentary on Micah 6:8

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Appearances of Impropriety

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A couple of years ago I attended a graduation for one of my students at the UCF [Your Corporate Logo Here] Arena. The commencement speaker that morning was the Attorney General of the State of Florida, Pam Bondi. Though I did not vote for Ms. Bondi either time she has run, I had hoped for at least a modicum of thoughtfulness from a high profile, highly paid state official that morning.

Alas, my hopes were soon dashed.

Bondi rambled through what quickly revealed itself as a contender for Worst Commencement Speech Ever. It had little recognizable organization and even less original thought, the speaker having opted to string together one quote after another, many without attribution, none with any context or development of the theme of the speech, whatever that might have been.

In religious circles, this would have taken the form of the proof-texting fundamentalist preacher, stringing together one snippet of scripture after another without any sense of context or critical assessment. In the classes I once taught at this very university, an assignment submitted with this kind of string-citations would have at least been returned for a rewrite and the use of unattributed sources might well have earned the student a ticket to a compulsory academic honesty course.

I came away from that speech with the impression that our Attorney General must have been having a particularly rough morning. The alternative was to assume she was either a bit stupid or incredibly lazy. Indeed, after that performance, I wondered how in the hell she’d gotten through law school in the first place.

Those fears have not been alleviated by Bondi’s performance as AG. Her office’s inaction in the wake of judicial crisis in the Seminole County case of George Zimmerman exacerbated a crisis of legitimacy in the handling of a racially charged murder case of a 17-year-old African-American kid.

Bondi also spent a half million dollars of tax payer money on pointlessly resisting court decisions which ultimately struck down Florida’s discriminatory anti-gay amendments even when the outcome was clearly inevitable and ongoing litigation little more than political grandstanding. Pandering to one’s political base is hardly anything new in American politics. But when such self-interest compromises the interests of the electorate one has been elected to represent, not the least being the taxpayers who must foot the bill for such grandstanding, that behavior escalates from annoying self-focus to ethically problematic.

Campaign Cash and Consistent Vapidity

This past week, criticism of Bondi’s performance as a public servant shifted from the ineptitude and self-serving behavior that has marked her term as AG to more serious concerns for malfeasance and ethical violations.

In 2010, the details of the closing of Trump University, one of many failed business ventures of the current Republican nominee for the presidency, began to be revealed in New York. Trump University was accused in three different states of

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promising, but not delivering access to Trump’s real estate techniques taught by ‘hand-picked’ professors at an elite ‘university,’ when in fact Trump was not substantively involved in the Live Events curriculum or selecting the instructors and the New York State Education Department had warned Trump it was unlawful to call it a ‘university.’”

 

Students of the “university” paid as much as $35,000 for “what was purported to be private mentoring with supposed real estate experts — some of whom Trump himself later acknowledged were unqualified.” New York’s Attorney General Eric Schneiderman called it “fraud. … straight-up fraud…” and quickly filed suit against Trump for deceptive business practices asserting that “[Trump] was clearly in charge of pitching this scam university to people.”

Attorneys General in both Texas and Florida, states in which a number of the former students now demanding refunds resided, both signaled their intent to join in the action against Trump University. Texas AG Greg Abbot opened a civil investigation of deceptive trade practices which had cost his fellow Texans almost $3 million only to drop his probe when Trump University agreed to end its operations in Texas. Trump subsequently donated $35,000 to Abbott’s successful gubernatorial campaign. Abbot’s defrauded fellow Texans got zip.

Contrary to the popular bumper stickers, if you’ve got enough money and connections, you apparently can mess with Texas.

In Florida, when AG Bondi came into office in 2010, 22 complaints already filed against Trump University from Florida claimants awaited her. After a story in the Orlando Sentinel brought to the public eye the Florida complaints cited by New York AG Schneiderman, a spokeswoman for Bondi announced that the AG’s office intended to “review the allegations.”

Three days later Trump made a $25,000 contribution to a political action committee raising funds for Bondi’s reelection.

Nothing more was heard about the investigation thereafter. A month later, when a representative from Bondi’s office was questioned on its failure to act, Jenn Meale, a spokeswoman for the AG’s office, “suggested no action is necessary because the affected Florida consumers would be compensated if New York wins that case.”

A legal review of the complaints, however, indicated that the Florida complaints name a business entity which is not part of the New York action and thus not liable under New York law. Like their Texas counterparts, Florida victims of the Trump swindle are unlikely to be compensated for their damages by the NY action.

Last March, Bondi endorsed Donald Trump for President after having previously endorsed former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. In announcing her change of allegiance, Bondi said, “You are speaking loud and clear, and Americans are speaking loud and clear,” and, “I always listen to my mom, and my mom is with Donald Trump, and so am I.”

Bondi’s name is now being bandied about by Republican strategists as a possible running mate with Trump. One must give the woman credit for consistency in her vapidity if not her unbounded personal ambition.

Public Perception of Integrity 

Of course, unprincipled political ambition is a phenomenon as old as politics itself. While scholars have debated which presidents have been the most narcissistic residents of the American White House (a contest won by LBJ) it’s probably a good bet that a sense of oneself as larger than life is probably necessary just to survive against the challenges of the Oval Office.

But when political ambition gets in the way of fulfilling the responsibilities to the voters the office holder has voluntarily assumed, the politician has moved from expectable egocentrism into constitutionally problematic irresponsibility. The people of Florida are entitled to rely on a chief law enforcement agent who is more concerned about the injuries they could sustain from corporate predators than her own political future.

Cases of malfeasance by a constitutional officer become particularly problematic when they involve a member of the Bar. While there are numerous provisions in the Florida and American Bar Associations’ Code of Professional Responsibility regarding protection of the interests of one’s clients (and the people of Florida are ultimately the clients of the state attorney general who acts on their behalf), both codes contain provisions prohibiting public behaviors which draw into question the judicial system’s ability to remain impartial and the ability of legal counsel to remain uncompromised.

Florida’s ethics code charges its judges with not engaging in behaviors which create “an appearance of impropriety,” the key concern being the necessity of the tribunal to maintain the public’s confidence in its impartiality. Lawyers practicing before that tribunal are also bound by several chapters of the Florida Rules of Professional Conduct regarding obligations to clients. Florida courts have ruled that “the public’s perception of the integrity of the bar” is a critical factor in determining whether the conduct of any attorney practicing before the Bar constitutes an “appearance of impropriety.”

More specifically, Rule 4:1-7 prohibits lawyers from professional conduct in which “the lawyer’s exercise of independent professional judgment in the representation of that client may be materially limited by the lawyer’s responsibilities to another client or to a third person or by the lawyer’s own interest.” Rule 4:1-11 prohibits public officers from negotiating “for private employment with any person who is involved as a party or as attorney for a party in a matter in which the lawyer is participating personally and substantially.”

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When examined together, the clear intention of the Florida ethics codes is to prevent all participants in the legal system from engaging in behaviors which signal to the citizenry any potential betrayal of public trust. With that concern in mind, let’s look again at the sequence of events involving Florida’s Attorney General:

1.The Florida AG’s office announces that 22 cases of corporate fraud already filed with that office will be investigated but only after a report by the NY Attorney General brings them to light

  1. Three days later, a substantial donation to the AG’s reelection campaign is received from the alleged perpetrator of that fraud
  2. The AG’s office thereafter drops the investigation without notice. Only when pressed by reporters does the office reveal it has ended that investigation with the excuse that litigation in another state will address the losses of Floridians
  3. The NY litigation does not cover the claims of the 22 victims of fraud in Florida, each having lost up to $35,000, and now facing the distinct possibility of no compensation for their losses
  4. The AG then endorses the alleged perpetrator of the fraud in his race for the Presidency
  5. The AG is now being discussed as the alleged perpetrator’s running mate.

How should the public see such a sequence of events?

Inability to Escape Self-Interest and the Public Trust

It is bad enough that an intellectually lazy, self-promoting politician holds the highest law enforcement position in the nation’s third largest state. Her performance as commencement speaker was shameful and embarrassing for any member of the Bar she personally and professionally represented that day. And her performance as state attorney general has been an ongoing study of mediocrity on a good day.

But when the chief law enforcement agent in a major state engages in behavior that suggests she is unable to escape her own political self-interests long enough to do her job and that those interests may, indeed, influence her judgment on how her job is performed, a larger concern than mere politics arises. An appearance of impropriety by the top law enforcement agent of a state is not a small concern. Indeed, it ultimately raises a fundamental question regarding the very legitimacy of the legal system that agent ostensibly serves.

That said, I do not expect this woman to come to her senses, recognize the gravity of her behavior and either rectify this questionable behavior or resign. I also do not anticipate any kind of legal or constitutional action to remove her from office in an age where corporate cronyism has become an expectable part of governance in a state whose public officials earned a D- on accountability and transparency last year by the Center for Public Integrity. But, even if their own judgment in returning this woman to office two years ago in a tidal wave of Teapot voters may in retrospect appear to be highly questionable, the people of Florida deserve better.

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Harry Scott Coverston

Orlando, Florida

frharry@cfl.rr.com

harry.coverston@knights.ucf.edu

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. – Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Ages, Commentary on Micah 6:8

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Remembering the Fallen

This weekend, America celebrates Memorial Day. This last Monday in May has come to mean a number of things; the end of the school year and the commencement of summer vacation. For those of us living along the Atlantic Seaboard, Memorial Day marks the beginning of beach season as well as the time we begin casting a leary eye to the tropics as the six months long hurricane season begins June 1.

This weekend our airwaves and internet screens will pound us with non-stop commercials. Everything from furniture to clothes to cars will be on sale under banners of red, white and blue. American flags will make their appearances on front porches and mailboxes this weekend. This salute to nationalism will build to a crescendo on the Fourth of July weekend, with its own round of sales and a barrage of fireworks that will keep our dogs and cats on edge into the wee hours all weekend. The message from this juxtaposition of nationalism with an orgy of materialism could not be any clearer: Do your patriotic duty, be a good consumer. 

Lost in this tsunami of commercial advertising, flag waving, beach trips, barbeques and beer is the actual reason for Memorial Day. There is no small amount of irony in this celebration of unabashed consumerism and vacation season that Memorial Day is ultimately a day of mourning, of remembering the dead from the near continual wars America has fought since its founding. It is not about freedom (that’s Independence Day) and it’s certainly not about consumerism (that’s the Christian holiday which formerly celebrated the birth of Jesus).

It’s about the fallen.

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Paying the Ultimate Price

Memorial Day is designed to recall the human costs of war in a very intentional manner. In American terms (counting only American casualties, excluding those of allies and foes), that number is currently 1.1 million.

The American Civil War, which Memorial Day first commemorated, was the costliest military engagement with a half million American soldiers killed in that five year internecine struggle to the death. World War I would be sold to the Americans as “the war to end wars” but the just over 100,000 American casualties in that event would pale in comparison to those of the World War II which arose out of the failures of WWI to resolve the issues which gave rise to it. The two world wars together would equal the Civil War in casualties.

Since WWII, about 160,000 American soldiers have lost their lives in places as far flung as Southeast Asia, Central Asia and the Persian Gulf. But while WWI ostensibly was fought to end wars and WWII to save the world from totalitarianism, the goals of wars since the middle of the 20th CE have been far less clear.

These latter day wars were initially sold to the American public under urgent imperatives of halting a red menace, protecting nations from toppling like dominos to godless communism. More recently wars have been sold as “defending freedom” against a vague foe of terrorism. While the actual threat to American interests from these highly caricaturized bogeymen has been at best mixed, what is clear in retrospect is that the global corporations who benefited from these wars, particularly petrochemical and military-industrial interests, appear to have set the agenda for American foreign policy.

It has proven to be an agenda paid for with the blood of working class American kids. They were dispatched into harm’s way by power holders whose own children have been exempted from an innocuous sounding “volunteer” army whose “volunteers” were actually driven there by the desperation of a poverty draft. Indeed, the vast majority of those authorizing these ongoing invasions and occupations themselves found ways to dodge the mandatory draft that the children of the working and middle classes faced during the Vietnam era of the 1960s and 70s.

It’s always easy to send someone else’s kid to war.

Roots of a Commemoration

It is unclear where the practice of honoring the war dead on a particular day began. Decoration of the graves of war dead predates the Civil War but there is no indication it ever occurred in a routine practice until that time.

One of the more interesting roots of Memorial Day arose during Reconstruction in Charleston, SC. David Bight of the Teaching A People’s History program provides this account:

After a long siege…the beautiful port city of Charleston, South Carolina, where the war had begun in April, 1861, lay in ruin by the spring of 1865. The city was largely abandoned by white residents by late February….

Charleston

1865 view of the Union soldiers graves at Washington Racecourse. Library of Congress.

Thousands of black Charlestonians, most former slaves, remained in the city and conducted a series of commemorations to declare their sense of the meaning of the war. The largest of these events…took place on May 1, 1865. During the final year of the war, the Confederates had converted the planters’ horse track, the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, into an outdoor prison. Union soldiers were kept in horrible conditions in the interior of the track; at least 257 died of exposure and disease and were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand. Some twenty-eight black workmen went to the site, re-buried the Union dead properly, and built a high fence around the cemetery. They whitewashed the fence and built an archway over an entrance on which they inscribed the words, “Martyrs of the Race Course.” 

Then, black Charlestonians in cooperation with white missionaries and teachers, staged an unforgettable parade of 10,000 people on the slaveholders’ race course. The symbolic power of the low-country planter aristocracy’s horse track (where they had displayed their wealth, leisure, and influence) was not lost on the freed people.”

The first annual commemorations of the Civil War dead were observed at various times of the year in numerous cities in the north and the south many of which lay claim to being the birthplace of this rite of remembrance. Initially celebrated as holidays by the various states, by the turn of the 20th CE, Memorial Day was celebrated nation-wide on May 30.  After WWI, the commemoration of war dead was extended to all who had died in the armed services of the United States and in 1971 Congress made the last Monday of May a national holiday on which Memorial Day was to be celebrated.

 The Bivouac of the Dead

Historically there have been two major means of socially constructing American wars. The first tends to construct war in the abstract, not only minimizing the suffering of those required to fight it but often erasing from recorded memory those impacted by it:

  • The soldiers themselves, whose flag draped coffins returning from battlefields across the globe today are rarely permitted to be photographed by news media;
  • The families on both sides of the war who are left behind, anxiously awaiting news of their loved ones, some never to know their fate;
  • The general populace of conflicted nations, their elderly and children alike, now targets of hostilities which over the last century inexorably shifted from battlefields intentionally located outside settlements to the cities themselves. The total wars of the 20th CE would now target homes, businesses and places of worship, stripping their slain inhabitants of their very humanity in accounting for their deaths as “collateral damage.”

In such constructions, spun by governments and willingly propagated up by a media more often serving as cheerleader than critic, war is always self-evident, obvious, the only possible choice. It is inevitably spun in heroic terms as serving national interests if not larger than life heroic concerns for democracy and freedom themselves.

The run-up to war is marked by excitement, effusive displays of militarism conflated with nationalism such that any opposition to war is routinely seen as unpatriotic. Appeals to the manhood of the young human grist for the mill of death are relentless and highly effective. Erich Remarque offers a classic depiction of this seductive call of Thanatos in All Quiet on the Western Front, seen here, in which a teacher entrusted with the well-being of young students actually serves as the recruitment agent for the armed forces.

Ironically, it is always the writers, the artists, the poets, the song writers and film makers who offer the alternative constructions of war, visions which largely serve to deconstruct the first. They tell the stories of death and suffering, stripping away facades of nobility, honor and heroism. In a society heavily invested in death-denial and more than willing to buy into guilt assuaging self-deceptions, these are the bold truth tellers. They do not worship at the altar of Thanatos; they lament war and mourn its sacrificial victims.

At the Veterans’ Administration website which provides a limited history of Memorial Day, a poem by a former Confederate officer in the Civil War reflects the somber tone of Memorial Day remembrances of the fallen:

Bivouac of the Dead

THE MUFFLED drum’s sad roll has beat, The soldier’s last tattoo; No more on Life’s parade shall meet. That brave and fallen few. On Fame’s eternal camping-ground Their silent tents are spread, And Glory guards, with solemn round, The bivouac of the dead. – Theodore O’Hara, “Bivouac Of The Dead”

The poet struggles here to afford dignity to the victims of tribal egos gone mad. It is an unenviable burden that the witness to carnage must shoulder, returning with a glimmer of truth that those who have not been to war desperately seek to avoid. At the end of Remarque’s work, his depiction of Paul, the former student returning from the Western Front, seen here, is a classic vision of the prophet bearing bad news and the proclivity of his seduced countrymen to shoot the messenger rather than countenance his message.

Paul.All.Quiet
But not all will return.

Wilfred Owens poem “Dulce et Decorum” speaks the horror of seeing one’s comrades die before them, his own in the gas-filled trenches of Europe during WWI. Owens, like Remarque’s Paul, wants nothing to do with the heroic spin that accompanied him and others into the hell holes of war, concluding his classic poem with these words:

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud 

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est

Pro patria mori. (Lat. It is sweet and right to die for one’s country)

A half century later, veteran and poet Randall Jarrell would refrain this sentiment with his WWII era poem, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner”

Ball.turrent.gunner.jpg

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,

And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.

Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,

I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.

When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

It is artists like Maya Lin who have provided Americans the sanctuaries we need to pour out our grief. Stark, angular grey granite walls bearing the inscribed names of the dead which glint in sunlight compose her Vietnam Memorial.

Vietnam.wall

I have always felt it my duty to come to this memorial, bearing the names of so many of my peers who disappeared into the jungles of Southeast Asia, whenever I visit our nation’s capital. As I survey the impromptu shrines of dog tags, handwritten notes and flowers those paying their respects have left, there has never been a time when I did not find myself overcome with grief.

And I have never wept alone.

vietnam-memorial-wall

It is songwriters such as Paul Hardcastle whose hit song “19” was released on the eve of Memorial Day in 1985, who remind us that of those who did come home, many returned very different human beings from those to whom we said goodbye at the train stations. Beginning with the observation that “In World War II the average age of the combat soldier was 26, In Vietnam he was 19,” Hardcastle notes that

Many vets complain of alienation, rage, or guilt

Some succumb to suicidal thoughts

Eight to Ten years after coming home almost eight-hundred-thousand men are

still fighting the Vietnam War

Vietnam.sacrifice

Requiem for a Soldier

In thinking about Memorial Day, a day to remember the dead and the walking wounded, a day of mourning, to feel the sorrow for young lives ended prematurely, I have found one tribute to the fallen which rises above the others.

In 2001 HBO created a 10 episode miniseries about a parachute regiment during WWII entitled “Band of Brothers,” taking its title from a speech by Henry V to his troops in Shakespeare’s play with the same name. What makes this series remarkable is its very real depiction of the soldiers therein. They face dangers, endure horrendous conditions, all the while exhibiting the loyalty to their comrades, a true brotherhood that so many will miss upon making the return home.

band.of.brothers

But it is the care with which directors Stephen Spielburg and Tom Hanks craft their humanity that makes them real. There is no militaristic flag waving accompanied by smarmy country songs. There are no parades or fireworks. These soldiers suffer. They weep. They laugh. They celebrate. They mourn. They are not larger than life.

They are very human.

Each episode in the series opens with a film montage of these very human beings accompanied by one of the most haunting songs I have ever heard. Entitled Amici Forever, Requiem for a Soldier, it is dignified, poignant, a fitting tribute to the dead and to those who survived.

This Memorial Day, take the two and a half minutes to watch this beautiful homage to the fallen soldiers we are called to remember this weekend. For just a moment, forget the sales, the beach, the barbeque. Just be present for a moment with the suffering, the dying, those who survived and all those they left behind.

Be present with them.

Weep with them.

Weep with me.

And then offer your prayer for lives so abruptly ended and lives that wars inevitably change forever.

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Harry Scott Coverston

Orlando, Florida

frharry@cfl.rr.com

harry.coverston@knights.ucf.edu

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. – Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Ages, Commentary on Micah 6:8

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Bait and Switch Under the Ivy

“So what happens when well-trained consumers – reasonably expecting that they are entitled to comfort, convenience and instant gratification at institutions which advertise themselves as universities of comfort and fun – encounter the actual demands of higher education? What happens when they encounter educators who demand that they actually perform academically in their classes or face the possibility of being assigned grades which reflect their failures to do so?

Might it be that universities are engaging in a form of bait and switch here? Can they in good faith recruit customers and reinforce consumerist values through their institutional practice and then turn around and say to them “But you are students here with adult responsibilities that you must live into?”

You are invited to read the remainder of my latest blog entry at the link provided below. As always, thoughtful responses are welcomed.

frharry

Grades

Consideration One:

May 2016 -This month is finals time at colleges and universities across the country. In the midst of grading, an instructor at a university posts a note to Facebook lamenting the receipt of the first of possibly several emails pleading “but if I don’t pass this class, I’ll lose my financial aid.’

A flurry of empathetic responses immediately appears from academics around the country.

One describes an incident in which the student said that if she didn’t pass the class, she couldn’t graduate, which meant she couldn’t get a divorce from her “horrible husband.” Another instructor spoke of bracing for a meeting with a student coming in to plead for a mercy grade who had actually engaged in plagiarism during the term. Yet another had just concluded a meeting in which the student begged for a grade saying that if he didn’t pass the class, he’d lose his…

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