Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Bible and Weasel Words

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve had several occasions to encounter religious arguments that have utilized what I call weasel words.  The Wikipedia entry for this term notes that weasel words refer to “anonymous authority” and are “aimed at creating an impression that a specific or meaningful statement has been made, when instead only a vague or ambiguous claim has actually been communicated.”

The entry goes on to say that “Weasel words can be used in advertising and in political statements, where it can be advantageous to cause the audience to develop a misleading impression.” My observation is that they are often used in discussions of Christian thought, a practice that I admit to finding maddening.

It’s Biblical…

The weasel word I encountered this past week was the term “biblical.” In an online discussion site, one of the discussants argued that all Christians must be subject to a “biblical perspective” without any further clarification. Meaning what? In a Facebook posting, a poster made reference to “biblical” understandings being beyond question, again with no further clarification. Meaning? And in yet another instance, the bishop of the diocese where I currently reside sent to the vestry of my parish a chapter from a book in which its author argued that homosexual acts were sinful, this being offered from a “biblical perspective,” as if this were the beginning and ending of the discussion.

Clearly this is a common pattern of argument among religious conservatives. It finds its roots in the premise of sola scriptura of Luther and his descendants in the Protestant Reformation, a premise that sadly devolved fairly quickly into a rather uncritical fundamentalism by the end of the 19th CE.

Asserting that any given idea must be seen from “a biblical perspective” begins with this presumption that the Christian faith is somehow defined by the contents of its sacred scriptures. That’s a Protestant presumption which served an agenda to distinguish a mythical “early church,” where everyone held the same opinions and loved one another without exception, from a later Roman Catholic Church whose self-serving teachings corrupted the faith. The Reformers believed they had a self-appointed mission to scrape away those later encrustations and return to a pristine primordial Christianity which, not surprisingly, was identical to the understandings they held.

Of course, there is little to support this version of the golden age myth pattern in which a once perfect world devolves into the chaotic reality currently experienced. Even a casual read of Paul’s epistles and those written by later authors and attributed to him reveals that the early Jesus movement was marked more by conflict than harmony. St. Paul spends an awful lot of his time in those epistles telling his co-religionists to stop fighting and at least act like they like one another.

Indeed, in reading the Epistles one could well imagine that the players and actions described could be an account of modern day culture wars. The warriors in these struggles often bear little more in common than the name of the broad stream of tradition of which their tribe is but one of many possibilities but presumes the right to speak normatively for all of them.

The presumption that true Christian attitudes, statements and actions – indeed, true Christianity itself -   are somehow determined with reference to the Bible is problematic on a good day. At the very best it is ahistorical.

A Cast of Thousands

It is important to remember here that the church is not the Bible’s institution, the Bible is the institution’s book. Without a church to decide what was included in - and to determine the many writings which were eventually excluded from - its contents, there would be no Bible. And while the ongoing theological interpretations of that Bible would eventually come to form the basis of doctrine and dogma which would shape the church thereafter, for the first four to five centuries, there simply is no “Bible” as we know it to defer to, much less to tell us what we must believe.

It’s also important to remember that the canonization process is a milepost occurring near the mid-point of the life history of the Bible. Prior to that point, starting with the eye witnesses to the events described, there were countless transmitters of oral traditions. There were transcribers reducing the oral traditions to writing and copiers who produced the raw material with which the canonization process – itself several centuries in length – wrestled. By the 5th CE, when a consensus of church authorities had been reached about the writings that most versions of the Bible today contain, the next step was the suppression of all the unsuccessful contenders, many of them bearing the title Gospel.

After the canonization process, a whole host of new transmitters come into the picture -  copiers and editors of scripture in manuscript forms. It is not until the first printing press, a device already in use for many centuries in China by the time it was devised by Gutenberg in Europe in the 15th CE, that a single version of the scriptures began to be read by large numbers of people. Prior to that, the few who could read had only manuscripts carefully copied by monks for centuries to read, none of them identical to the next.

King James and the translation team for the Authorized Version

With the widespread dissemination of scriptures post-Gutenberg, a whole new set of players came into the picture. Round after round of interpretive efforts would produce hundreds of versions of the Bible, each with their own angle and their own advocates for their version being the correct version. Even with the hundreds of versions already in existence, that interpretive process continues today.

What is critical at this juncture is to step back and consider all the human agents who have been involved in this process: eyewitnesses to the events reported, transmitters of what was essentially hearsay about those events by those who preserved the oral tradition, transcribers of oral tradition into written form, editors and copiers, publishers and interpreters.

There is a virtual cast of thousands involved in the process of producing any given version of scripture one might hold in their hands today. For those of us who value the scriptures their efforts produced, we are in their debt.

But this is precisely the point that the problem of asserting a “biblical perspective” reveals itself.  And there are several problems with such assertions.

The first is that it serves to anthropomorphize the Bible. Bibles don’t speak. Bibles don’t teach. Bibles don’t permit or prohibit given behaviors. Bibles don’t believe. Those are all human activities. 

The Bible is not a human being, it is a human artifact, i.e., anything that is made by human creativity and labor. As such, the Bible, like all human artifacts, reflects the understandings of the human beings and the cultures out of which they arose.

And herein rises the second concern. The anthropomorphizing of the Bible so as to provide it a “perspective” essentially erases the perspectives of all the human agents who actually played indispensable roles in its production and preservation. The notion that this cast of thousands had no impact on the contents of scripture that were preserved for posterity is little more than magical thinking.

Divine Inspiration, not Dictation

Of course, for people of faith, the scriptures are not merely human artifacts. They are not mere writings among millions of other written texts. Christians see their scriptures as indispensable in informing their beliefs and their lives. What makes the scriptures different, they say, is their divine inspiration.

Here, then, is a major point of contention. What does it mean for scripture to be divinely inspired?

For conservatives, it has meant varying degrees of divine dictation. Fundamentalists have argued that every syllable of scripture is dictated by G-d and often cite a verse from that dictation in support of their position: “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” 2 Timothy 3:16.

Of course, the problem with such “proof” is that it cites the very source it claims to be divinely dictated to prove that source is divinely dictated. That’s a circular argument on a good day. One can see the problem instantly when applied to any other text: “The Wizard of Oz is a historical account because on page 89 it says that all the words in this book are historically true.”

Assertion of a “biblical perspective” requires ignoring all the agents of production of scripture from the ancient sources to the modern-day interpreters. It requires ignoring the context of those agents, the cultural understandings which informed their worldviews, as well as the subtext of their endeavors. That the scriptures reflect the agendas of those who produced them is not a question. The only question is whether we are able and willing to see them.

Some are fairly transparent. The Gospel of Luke begins with a preface which reveals the agenda of the Lukan endeavor:

Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.

In other words, the Greek speaking G-d lover (Theo-philus) is being provided what the author(s) argue to be the best account of several possibilities. The clear goal of the gospel writer(s) here is that the reader ultimately comes to share their perspectives. 

Some are less transparent but equally powerful. Franciscan scholar Richard Rohr has long argued that Jesus himself was a critically selective appropriator of the Hebrew Scripture available to him. Undoubtedly much of that was only available as oral tradition in a pre-literate society. Even so, the hermeneutic of Jesus, as Rohr calls it, is discernable:

Jesus did teach us in practice how to use the word of God, what to emphasize and what not to emphasize. It is rather clear in Jesus’ usage that not all scriptures are created equal. He consistently ignored or even denied exclusionary, punitive, and triumphalist texts in his own Jewish scriptures in favor of passages that emphasized inclusion, mercy, and honesty. Check it out for yourself. He knew what passages were creating a highway for God and which passages were merely cultural, self-serving, paranoid, tribal, and legalistic additions. Jesus read his own inspired scriptures in a spiritual and highly selective way, which is why he was accused of “teaching with authority and not like our scribes” (Matthew 7:29). He even told the fervent and pious “teachers of the law” that they had entirely missed the point: “You understand neither the scriptures nor the power of God” (Mark 12:24).

Jesus recognized that within the scriptures of his time there were elements of thinking that transcend ordinary human understandings. This transcendent voice of G_d is discernable among the many other voices which crowd these writings. But it requires a critical mind, a broad vision and a compassionate heart to recognize them and a willingness to endure the pressures from conventional authority to selectively ignore the rest.

Intellectual Laziness, Honesty, Courage 

It is at this point that the real problems with references to “the biblical perspective” arise. To recognize and honor the many perspectives of the agents who brought us the scriptures and to hear the divine inspiration in their midst requires the willingness to engage scripture with a critical mind, broad vision and compassionate heart as Jesus did.

At their most fundamental levels, references to “the biblical perspective” reflects an intellectual laziness in refusing to engage the scripture on its own terms. It’s a lot easier to simply project our own understandings onto scripture and “discover” what we brought to the process of reading it than to expend the time, energy and devotion to discern the divine amidst all the other voices.

The logical extension of such intellectual laziness is the anthropomorphizing of scripture that somehow comes to have a perspective of its own. In the process, “the word of God” comes to be contained in the scripture quite literally and the G-d whose words appear there becomes confined to a box of our own making.

As writer Annie Lamott so poignantly puts it, “You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out he hates all the same people you do.”

At a very basic level, making an argument under the proviso that it somehow reflects “the biblical perspective” is an attempt to avoid responsibility for the content of one’s argument. To the degree that the maker of such arguments is aware of this, it is fair to note that they are engaging in intellectual dishonesty.

So, how to avoid that? Speaking for one’s own understanding is always the most intellectually honest practice assuming one actually believes what they say. Whether that view is seen as persuasive turns on whether it can be successfully defended with reasoned arguments. Repeating an understanding articulated by a council or a theologian can also be intellectually honest when sources are cited. Whether those views are seen as persuasive turns on the quality of the arguments they have made. Councils and theologians can be wrong.

But simply declaring one’s view “the biblical perspective” seeks to engage in an end run around the burden of persuasion that the maker of any theological argument must carry. As Wikipedia notes, this use of weasel words is “aimed at creating an impression that a specific or meaningful statement has been made, when instead only a vague or ambiguous claim has actually been communicated.”

There is nothing intellectually honest about such practices. And when such arguments are made as an attempt to reassure oneself and others that one holds the theological views demanded by one’s coreligionists, such affirmation seeking amounts to little more than intellectual cowardice.

Over the centuries, many people have sought to speak for the Christian tradition if not for G-d Himself (sic). There is no small amount of hubris in such an undertaking. There has never been a single normative understanding of this stream of tradition from its beginnings and the estimated 43,000 denominations worldwide today reveals that its original diversity of understandings has only increased over time. Presuming to speak normatively for such a diverse stream of tradition is problematic on a good day.

Hermeneutics of Generosity and Suspicion

So how do we talk about the Bible, then? 

On the one hand, the hermeneutic of generosity suggests that those of us who are the inheritors of the tradition from 2000 years of progenitors should consider that tradition with open minds and gratitude for their hard work. We owe an awful lot to unsung -  indeed, mostly unknown -  heroes and heroines whose hard work and diligence ensured that the scriptures we cherish made their way to our hands. 

On the other hand, the notion that any given understanding of a spiritual reality that eludes definition on a good day must be seen as normative for everyone - and accepted without question as “received tradition” - must be viewed through the hermeneutic of suspicion by anyone with a critical mind, a broad vision and a compassionate heart.

In other words, people who would actually seek to follow Jesus.  

References to “the biblical perspective” may play well within the tribe whose own perspectives ultimately define that “biblical perspective.” No doubt such tribe-speak will be seen there as self-evident and obvious, no explanation needed. But outside the circled wagons of the true believers, such assertions are hardly obvious and they readily appear to outsiders as self-serving, sectarian and far too often, smug.

As the Jesus who drew into question the “biblical perspectives” of his own day would often say, “Let those with ears hear.

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

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.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d?
 (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

© Harry Coverston 2017


Thursday, January 26, 2017

…and then he was gone.

Daddy had been hoping to come home from the hospital last Friday. The discharge staff at Shands thought he needed a blood transfusion. His body didn’t react well. His vitals dropped to frightening levels, he became disoriented and distraught. He spent the next two days in intensive care.

In retrospect, that was the day he gave up. There would be no further resistance of Sister Death’s looming embrace.

Starry Skies Above an Empty Home

When he finally was released from the hospital Tuesday, he just wanted to go home.

And he got awfully close.

Periodically on the transport from Gainesville to Bushnell, he would awaken and ask my Sister where they were. “SR 326, just north of Ocala, Daddy.” “Good,” he would respond. Later he whispered, “Are we to Belleview yet?” “Almost, Daddy.” “Good, we’re almost there.”   

But when the transport arrived in Bushnell, it drove past his home to a facilty just a half mile down the road, wedged between a Winn Dixie plaza and a rental storage facility. Osprey Point had been willing to receive him in their rehabilitation sector and Shands had agree to discharge him there. We had hoped this would be the transition to get him home.

But it was not to be.

Daddy had made us promise we would not deposit him in an assisted living facility for his final days. He didn’t want all of the inheritance he had so carefully crafted to go to us to be eaten up by nursing home charges. More importantly, he did not want to die in “one of those places.” He wanted to die at home.

After finally getting Daddy into bed at the facility Tuesday night, I chose to spend the night at our family home just up the road so I could check on him in the morning before heading back to Orlando to teach my long day at Valencia.

As I got out of my car, I instinctively looked up. The number of stars one can see in the woods, particularly on a cool winter night, is amazing. The night sky always captivated me as a child. I’ve almost forgottten what it looks like. It is one of the things I miss most about living in a city.

I lived in our family home for seven years before leaving for college and have stayed there with my folks many times since. I readily slip back into my patterns of life there, going to sleep to the nearby freight train, awakening to the sun pouring through its eastern fronting windows. But this night the house I knew and loved seemed different.

It was so empty.

I kept thinking I’d hear my Dad come stumbling around the corner to ask if I wanted some cheese or an ice cream sandwich. “There are diet sodas in there if you want one, Son” he’d say over the ominpresent hum of Fox on the television. But all I heard that long night of broken sleep was the cracking and popping of 50 year old wooden floors and the periodic punctation of acorns falling on the tin roof.

The vibrant life energy that had surrounded my wonderful Daddy was just no longer there.

Time to Let Go

I brought him some azaleas I picked from his yard this morning. They are just starting to bloom. During my childhood we worked hard together at planting about 300 azaleas in our yard and each spring they are absolutely glorious. This year’s display promises to be no exception.

He squinted at the azaleas and a look of sadness crossed his face: “I want to go home,” he said. “Daddy, we’re working at getting you there as quickly as we can.” “No,” he said, “I want to go home. NOW!”

Ironically, I left the facility soon thereafter a bit more hopeful. His vehement insistence about going home immediately was a little spark of the Sam Coverston I had known, admired and loved for 63 years, hiding in a pallid shell of a body in that bed. Maybe he would perk up enough to come home after all.

Wednesday is my long day of classes at Valencia. I teach three classes starting at 1:30 and ending at 8:45. That requres me to leave home by about noon to get to Kissimmee and get into my classroom. Arriving home from Bushnell, I had just enough time for a shower and printing out of the dilemma for my ethics classes before heading south to Kissimmee.

The discussion of that dilemma, a question involving HMOs and voiceboxes for stroke patients, had my night class at fever pitch when I finally cut off the discussion at 8:45 to collect their papers. By 9:30 I had just arrived home from my classes and sat down to read my email. The gong on my cell phone alerted me to an incoming message.

“Come now!” my Sister’s IM said.

I had already made that 100 mile round-trip from Orlando in the last 24 hours and a 50 mile round-trip to Kissimmee this afternoon. But there was no question about the urgency of this message. I pulled on a sweater and jumped in the car. An hour later I was back in Bushnell.

The face of the nurse’s aide told me the answer to my question before I asked it. He had been gone about a half hour when I arrived, his hand still warm when I took it in mine. His face bore no sign of struggle or discomfort. My sister said he had gone very peacefully. She had been holding one of his hands, her son, Scott, Daddy’s beloved grandson, holding the other.

Just 47 days shy of his 90th birthday, Daddy had simply let go.

Now it is our turn.

The Memories Are Dying

On the long drive home, I eschewed the busy turnpike and expressway for the old route to Orlando across SR 50. I was afraid I was not alert enough to be in heavy traffic. And at midnight, it’s actually humanly possible to get home on 50 without taking your life into your hands.

In years past it was the only way to get to Orlando from the west coast. SR 50 passes through once small citrus towns now bedroom communities named Mascotte, Groveland, Clermont, Oakland, Winter Garden and Ocoee. The fragrant citrus groves through which my Dad once navigated a two lane highway to get his two boys to orthodontist and dentist appointments in Orlando are long gone. A continuous swath of apartment complexes, gated communities and strip shopping malls have long since sprouted to take their place. Lakes Sherwood and Lotta, which once swallowed up SR 50 requiring a detour through the orange groves after Hurricane Donna dumped a couple of feet of water on Central Florida in 1960, are now nearly dry gulches on either side of the highway.  

The giant plaster statue of the mini-skirted woman holding a tire in the air a lá Statue of Liberty no longer graces the front of the Winter Garden auto repair shop. G-d only knows where that girl has gotten off to and She ain’t tellin’.

Closer to town, the Royal Castle in Pine Hills at whose counter my Dad used to brag to the wait staff about how many of those nasty little hamburgers with grilled onions his boys could eat is in its umpteenth incarnation, this time as an Asian noodle house. Nearing the downtown, the Western Way shopping center cowboy no longer twirls his sparkling neon lariat over his head. His figure on a dented metal sign with chipping paint still towering over the parking lot is all that’s left, a hollow specter of glory days.

The memories of those long drives to Orlando all through the 1960s with my Dad and my little brother, happy visits to the big city in a hot car with windows wide open in days before air conditioning, come pouring back to me this night. But I simultaneously realize that I have fewer and fewer physical reminders to trigger them. These treasures of my childhood are dying along with those who created them. As of tonight, I have become one of only two Keepers of The Remaining Sacred Memories I now carry in my heart.

Saying Goodbye

Before I departed from the room where my Father had left behind his body this night, I leaned down kissed his gray forehead, made the sign of the cross there with my thumb and whispered a line adapted from the commendatory prayer of the Book of Common Prayer: O God,  [+] into your arms we commend a child of your own creation, a sheep of your own fold, a sinner of your own redeeming. Amen.

Daddy wasn’t much for religion. And he has made us promise there will be no funeral. But he was always proud of his kid who had become an Episcopal priest. Tonight that priest said goodbye to his Father with a prayer through his tears.

Rest in peace, Daddy. We love you.

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

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.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

© Harry Coverston 2017


Thursday, January 19, 2017

Mourning in America – Part XI: How to Respond: Rebirth

Under the operation of that policy, that agitation has not only not ceased, but has constantly augmented. In my opinion, it will not cease, until a crisis shall have been reached, and passed.

"A house divided against itself cannot stand."

            - Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, 1863

Trumpland was born in the context of a house divided. America was more divided right before the 2016 election than it has been since the American Civil War whose destructiveness Lincoln had come to mourn at Gettysburg 153 years ago. And it remains deeply divided in this run up to the inauguration with no healing of divisions on the horizon.

Whatever else the new czar of Trumpland might be, he’s not a healer. 

Quoting the words of a Jesus of Nazareth in a highly polarized 1st CE Judea occupied by Romans, Lincoln presciently observed that the antagonistic divisions of any country cannot continue indefinitely. Houses divided against themselves inevitably fall even as they tell themselves their reigns will continue indefinitely. His own Judea would eventually be sent into exile by the Romans. And the divisions of the Lincoln’s time would be resolved in America’s bloodiest war. 

The same is true today. Trumpland is a brittle construct. Its tendencies toward authoritarianism are pronounced. The sense of its legitimacy among the general populace is limited at best. The mutual antagonism whipped up by a demagogue enroute to Trumpland’s rise to power contains the seeds of its own destruction. 

The phenomenon of a descent into chaos and conflict prior to the rise of a new incarnation of the American republic is hardly without precedent. Social historians William Strauss and Neil Howe have observed the same pattern, a Fourth Turning as they called it, cyclically recurring in US history all the way back to its beginning. 

The last Fourth Turning prior to this one began with the fall of the NYSE in 1928, escalated through a Great Depression and concluded with a second world war. The Fourth Turning before that began with the Dred Scott Decision, escalated with the election of Lincoln and ended with the Civil War. In each case, a new America arose from the ashes of the old, yet another First Turning.  

Strauss and Howe believed that the current Fourth Turning began with the twin disasters of the Bush era -   the invasions of two Arab countries - which promptly imploded into ongoing civil wars - followed by a virtual depression at home. The Fourth Turning escalated with the election of its first non-white president bringing  a pernicious racism to the surface that had largely laid dormant for about four decades. This misanthropy has since played out in a number of directions with multiple candidates for scapegoats for America's woes . 

Where it will go from here is unknown but history suggests a grim period lies ahead for all of us. Indeed, as the authors warn us in The Fourth Turning, “the darkest hour is just before dawn.” 

Was Trumpland inevitable?

Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable. – John F. Kennedy, Address on the first Anniversary of the Alliance for Progress (1962)

From a long range perspective, the rise of Trumpland may ultimately come to be seen as inevitable. The rate of demographic change which marked the electoral success of Barack Obama has frightened many white Americans who had presumed that their white privilege was always going to be a given. 

The failures of American foreign policy in both Iraq and Afghanistan with protracted armed occupations have served to incite terrorist atrocities around the world. The inability of the American fighting machine to clearly and convincingly win wars it has repeatedly sold the public called upon to fight them on any number of scurrilous grounds has deeply disturbed the soul of its people. We are accustomed to making vague but passionate assertions that our nation state is Number One even as we selectively ignore the growing number of aspects which fall far from that standard. 

Pre-Trump America was being pressured to evolve in a number of ways. Its economic system had largely proven to be a failure, an extractive economy which has resulted in modern history’s highest levels of inequalities. An entire generation is entering our work force with crippling debt from student loans and salaries that are 10% lower as a whole than those their parents made at a similar point in their lives. All of this is thanks to the ability of the business quadrant to stack the deck of everyday business dealings through its control of the political quadrant and the internalization of this state by most Americans as expectable if not normal. Habermas’ grim vision of the colonization of the lifeworld is realized.

One the eve of the election, relations between police and working poor communities of color were turbulent and the sense of legitimacy of America’s justice system was at an all time low. No doubt trust will be at a premium in the daily lives of residents of Trumpland.

The federal government whose lofty goals are listed in the Preamble has proven almost catatonic for the last half decade. For the last two years, the least productive Congress in history has done nothing but obstruct its President whose hopeful agenda for change went largely onto the cutting room floor. A seat on the US Supreme Court went unfilled for a year as a Republican Senate refused to live into its Constitutional duties to advise and consent in that process. 

The FBI director, our nation's chief law enforcement officer, engaged in a blatantly political and legally questionable intervention into the election. This occurred even as the agency ignored the warnings of the CIA that Russian hackers had intervened into that election on behalf of a monster they felt more accommodating to Russian imperatives. In the days of my childhood with its ongoing Red Scare, this would have readily been seen as the stuff of treason. 

 At the state level, governors and legislatures continued the cannibalizing of state and local public education and health programs and the implementation of barriers to voting disproportionately impacting the working poor. The operation of prisons and schools began to be sold to the highest corporate bidders shutting out public input into that process entirely. And state after state sought to pass laws targeting LBGTQ people and immigrants creating a climate of fear driven persecution in those jurisdictions. 

Giving Birth to a New America

At a very basic level these are the death throes of an old America about to give up the ghost. But amidst the wailing of lamentation for the passing of the old, if we listen closely we will also hear the birth pains of a New America already beginning to comeinto existence. 

The old ways of being America with its shining, noble ideals and the glaring contradictions of its behaviors can no longer work. The late America had already begun to realize it no longer had the luxury of denial regarding those contradictions. We knew that the “evolving standards of decency” articulated by Justices Brennan and Marshall in striking down the practices of state killing in 1976 had a wide application to virtually every aspect of our collective lives together.

Ironically, while we Baby Boomers were the first to see and articulate this vision in the 1960s - drawing America’s social, economic and political ills into critical focus -  our generation has ultimately become one of the chief obstacles to that evolution. The lures of mammon proved too strong. With the remnants of our parent’s era and a substantial portion of the Gen X cohort we helped spawn, a slim majority of Boomers joined in leading the Trump charge this past election. 

In short, many of us sold out. 

No doubt the late Tom Hayden is weeping in heaven.

The Millennials now see that vision and can readily articulate the critique of the Boomers from a new perspective. But this new cohort must overcome its own handicaps - notions of instant gratification and entitlement and a naïve if not cynical tendency to disregard all that has come before them - in order to engage the challenges their generation will yet face in building a New America. 

The first step in that battle will be rejecting the constant distractions of social media and cell technologies to be fully present. It will be tough. The poisoned kool-aid of a mindless consumerism is often quite sweet. 

Those of us who voted for Bernie Sanders had hoped a peaceful revolution was possible. Bernie articulated a vision of America’s growing edges while appealing to our most noble values. But America was not ready for a peaceful revolution and when that did not happen, many of us sought to bite the bullet, vote for Hillary Clinton and avoid digging the wounds on our national soul any deeper, buying ourselves some more time for that evolution to occur peacefully. 

But that was not to be. 

Even so, those changes are coming. 

I am not a psychic but I sense that the evolutionary pressures on America on the eve of the 2016 election have only begun. But they will not come fully to the fore until the current period of Kali Yuga that is Trumpland has run its course. Like a healthy tree, the old leaves must die, fall and be raked away before the new can begin growing.  

What will emerge on the other side is unclear. If the collapse of Trumpland is as severe as I believe it could be, there could be a great deal of destruction and death in its path. Moreover, I have no great amount of confidence that the New America arising from the ashes of Trumpland will be the same as the America which predated it. 

For a long time I have had the sense that Americans no longer saw themselves as a single people. The polarization of red and blue America is so intense now that families would rather their children marry a member of a different race or religion - historical barriers to marriages in America - than a member of another political party. It seems entirely possible that the New America might well resemble post-partition India with its Muslim realms to either side and its Hindus sandwiched between the two. 

In all truthfulness, that vision breaks my heart. I do not wish to see my former country rent asunder even as I recognize it has been so on a de facto basis for awhile now. It also keeps me up at night to imagine a Texas which has inherited the nuclear arsenals of the former United States. Whatever coastal blue New America that might emerge in such a context would be born into a matrix of existential danger. 

Challenges for a New America

The New America will have a number of challenges in front of it. If democracy is to continue to be the root of its self-governance, the following must be dealt with: 

- The right to vote must be a given. Voting must be seen as a right, not a privilege, and access to the ballot must be universal and unquestionable for all of its citizens every time. Anything less will continue to be exploitative and cannot meet the demands of true democracy. 

- Multi-parties must be made possible. This will mean opening primary elections or perhaps going to non-partisan races or alternative (second choice) voting. It must mean national debates with all parties represented. It must mean universal ballots open to all candidates and parties. The days of two party domination have failed us. This must end. 

- Big Money must be eliminated. The results of Citizens United clearly show that the role of unlimited dark money on the electoral process has been profoundly pernicious. A tsunami of negative ads not only prevents an accurate picture of candidates and their positions from being apprehended by the electorate, it also dampens voter participation and ultimately draws the legitimacy of elections into question. Publicly funded elections may not be the only possible solution but they have a proven track record in many democratic societies who simply do not tolerate the sewer of negativity that the 2016 election proved to be. However it happens, the gathering of the candidates at the trough of corporate moneys must end.

- Campaigns must be shortened. Most democratic societies limit their elections to between six weeks and a couple of months. There is a good reason for this. On the one hand, demanding the undiverted attention of the electorate over an extended period of time is an unattainable goal in a constantly distracted culture. Hearing ideas being discussed in an intentional manner over a brief period allows for thoughtful comparison of ideas and informed voting. Extended, media-driven campaigns complete with the flood of dark money advertising creates a carnival of grotesque caricatures of candidates and a confused electorate. Elections must never be seen as means of entertainment. Their results are far too important for such a superficial approach. 

- Electoral College must be changed.  Perhaps ended. The elitist concerns of Framers protecting their own interests three centuries ago reveals one of the shortcomings in the creation of their otherwise post-conventional moral reasoning Constitution. But the Electoral College demonstrably fails to serve the common good. It has not protected the rural majority from the tyranny of the urban elite. In an age where most Americans live in cities or suburbs, it facilitates the tyranny of a rural plurality over the larger urban minority. Indeed, it has allowed the loser of the actual democratic process to accede to power twice within two decades. If democratic self-governance is to be assured, the people must be able to decide who their leaders will be. All of them. 

- National office of elections.  The past half century has seen the rise and fall of legislation and court oversight to insure equal access to the voting process. It has now run athwart of a new set of state restrictions designed to suppress minority voting. A national office of elections is needed to insure universal voting, to prevent gerrymandered Congressional districts from producing leadership which does not reflect the electorate, and to insure that the process of voting and its results are certifiably valid. The current handling of all of those duties by the states has simply proven to be a failure. 

That’s just the self-governance piece of the challenge. The government of a New America will face a number of challenges that begin with adequate responses to climate change that threatens to make us extinct and the resulting waves of refugees it will produce. The coming flood of immigrants will no doubt make dealing with the current trickle of human beings we mistakenly call “illegals” seem like a picnic. 

The New America must find a way to give birth to a new form of public education that is capable of insuring a united citizenry critically aware of its history and committed to the common good. Schools must be dedicated to the developmental needs of every student, not the instrumental imperatives of the business world. And they must develop the means of fostering care for our earth, an awareness of the natural realm, from which we get our food, and the cost to the earth and its living beings our lifestyles impose upon it.

The New America must find ways to accommodate a multi-religious population and religious bodies competing for souls as well as control of the society in which they live. It must find ways to use technology in life-giving ways and reject its atomizing distractions. And it must find ways to insure that those who prepare themselves and work hard will receive a living wage and that medical and legal care will be available to all when they need it. 

These are no small challenges. But the success of a New America in meeting them will likely determine whether or not this experiment in “government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

The New America is already being born

“And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away…” The Apocalypse of St. John 21

The New America that is coming will have to rise in the face of overwhelming challenges and crises. It is my hope and my prayer that its creators will find the courage to meet those challenges, withstand the crises and the wisdom to respond productively just as its predecessor Americas did in Fourth Turnings past.  And I have no small amount of hope that will happen. 

Here is why.

For the past three years I have taught as an adjunct at the Osceola Campus of Valencia College. Formerly a two year community college, Osceola-Valencia serves a predominately working class community which serves the attractions to our west. 

I believe the New America is already being born there. It is a minority-majority campus much like the county in which it is located in a state demographically headed for the same. When I toss out ethical dilemmas to my students, much as I have done in this series of blog posts, I am amazed at how seriously they take them and how creatively they respond to them. When there is no common sense to defer to, the creativity and wisdom that can be evoked from a group of thoughtful people seeking the common good is endless.

My students give me hope for a New America - a new heaven and a new earth – in my own lifetime. I pray that I will be permitted the privilege of playing some role in the midwifery process of this New America. And I hope that my words here have provided my readers with some considerations of what their own role and responses will be when the time comes for them to act. 

Let us mourn the America we have lost, survive the monster to whom we have given power and resist the regime he will lead that bodes ill for the whole world. And then let us build a New America together in which “liberty and justice for all” will mean more than a mere perfunctory ritual. I wish you well in that struggle and I pray we will meet on the other side of it as we work together to reclaim a dream squandered and rebuild a nation lost.

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

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.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

© Harry Coverston, 2016