Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Eulogy for a Once Noble Institution

This week an essay by Garrett Epps, professor of constitutional law at the University of Baltimore, appeared in Atlantic Magazine. In it Epps lays out a very compelling argument that the politicization of the federal court system has reached its apotheosis in the confirmation of a Federalist Society ideologue with a history as a mean drunk and possibly of sexual abuse. I highly commend the essay to you as it provides a contextual history of the Kavanaugh debacle without which it is largely incomprehensible.

Epps’ recitation of the history of a once noble institution eroded away by partisan politics is thorough and convincing. But it is his sense of personal loss in the death of a childhood dream that spoke to me.

I, too, mourn the death of an institution I once believed was the redeeming feature of American federal government and pledged my life to serve. Here I offer my eulogy for that now vanished dream.

A SCOTUS Which Struck Blows for Justice

Like the author, I grew up in a segregated South increasingly uncomfortable with the knowledge that its days of unchallenged white dominance were numbered. My school was desegregated – at court order – at the end of my elementary school years. Long running “traditions” and legal structures that served to suck the very life blood out of people whose skins were darker than my own in service of an unearned white privilege were being challenged.

The world was changing. And the Supreme Court was one of the engines driving those changes. America was being brought along into the 20th Century, sometimes kicking and screaming, as the “Impeach Earl Warren” billboard on I-75 near my home would evidence.

I watched as the Supreme Court ruled that children could not be forced to pray in public schools. It was a great relief for children like me who, though Christian, recognized innately the injustice of forcing religious behaviors on those who may not share those beliefs. 

I watched as the Supreme Court ruled that schools could not use coercive powers under the rubric of in loco parentis to stifle their students’ opposition to the Vietnam War, a war that loomed like a hungry mouth ready to consume a whole generation of young male Americans like myself. “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” the Court said in Tinker v. Des Moines Schools.

Tinkering with the Machinery of Death

Even the ultimate power of the state – the power to legally kill people - was being challenged in those days. In Furman v. Georgia, the SCOTUS recognized the inherent racist bias in the largely Southern states’ laws which made rape a capital crime. Some black men had actually been convicted of “rape by leering” at white women. Initially striking down all state killing laws, SCOTUS would quickly backtrack a few years later in approving a murder-only state killing plan which the Florida legislature would go into special session days after the court’s opinion to be the first to enact.

Two decades later, Justice Harry Blackmun would renounce his vote on the Gregg v. Georgia case which once again authorized states to kill their resident offenders saying:

From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death. For more than 20 years, I have endeavored - indeed, I have struggled - along with a majority of this Court, to develop procedural and substantive rules that would lend more than the mere appearance of fairness to the death penalty endeavor. Rather than continue to coddle the Court's delusion that the desired level of fairness has been achieved and the need for regulation eviscerated, I feel morally and intellectually obligated simply to concede that the death penalty experiment has failed. [Dissent from the denial of certiori, Callins v. James, 510 U.S. 1141 (1994)]

What I observed in this process was something admirable, something beyond the rough and tumble of politics and its increasingly shrill tribalism that has now consumed our nation. What I observed was the only institution on the horizon that could even consider the possibilities of doing the right thing rather than the expedient. What I observed was an institution that had the potential to be an agent of justice. And by the time I had reached undergraduate, I had determined to pledge my life serving that institution.

Poisoned by a Toxic Presumption

Clearly I have always been an idealist. My MBTI profile shows a heavily iNtuitive and Perceiving personality type. My concerns have always been about the big picture, about context, focused on a vision for the future rather than an obsession with the past or the details of the present. For me justice is not just an ideal, it is an imperative to be sought at all times, particularly by those in positions to challenge the arbitrary use of power.

Somehow I managed to miss Plato and his Republic until 1991 when I had fled the practice of law to attend seminary. While Plato’s notion of philosopher-kings governing the republic based upon reason struck me as somewhat unlikely if not elitist, I saw an analogy in an impartial court system.

It was an ideal that I felt needed to be protected and fostered. While reason alone does not guarantee justice, it does provide the tools to critically assess the interests brought to bear in any given case including those of the enactors of the law itself. What seemed clear to me was that justice was a lot more likely when philosopher-judges presided over the highest courts in our lands than when partisan ideologues donned black robes.

Even so, it is important to note that I never romanticized the legal system. Indeed, I have long been acutely aware of the destructive power of courts. And there is a reason for that.

The default philosophical preference in American jurisprudence is legal positivism, an approach heavily focused on the letter of the law and the legality of its enactment while avoiding consideration of the impact of the decision-making. When legality – and not results -  is the exclusive concern of a court and all concerns for justice are bracketed in the process, judicial decision making becomes largely a question of power. The ultimate winners are always those with the power to make the laws in the first place.

That’s how you get away with murder in places like Sanford, Florida.

There jury instructions required the jury to completely ignore the context in which George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin, stalking him with a gun in the dark for several minutes before shooting him when he fought back, behaviors that in any other situation would have been seen as evidence of criminal intent. The judge required the jury to follow the “Stand Your Ground Law” written by the American Legislative Exchange Council whose money insured its passage in Florida and many other states. The uncritical application of this law allowed a murderer of a young black man to go free simply because the letter of a law - legally enacted by a legislature dominated by corporate money - said so.

There, as in many other cases, the ultimate question was power, not justice.

And this is hardly the only case.

During my sophomore year in college at Lake-Sumter Community College I watched in horror as Willis McCall, sheriff of Lake County, ran for reelection even as he was on trial for murder. McCall was accused of kicking a black inmate to death in his jail cell in Tavares but an all-white jury in neighboring Marion County would refuse to convict him of the same.  Bear in mind, they were legally chosen from a voir dire that excluded most blacks because they were not voters, this in a state with a history of Jim Crow voter repression. Like the Zimmerman trial, McCall’s acquittal was clearly legal but hardly just. 

Finally, bear in mind that had the Allied Forces who convened the Nuremberg Court at the conclusion of World War II operated out of the American default presumption of legal positivism, none of the judges, doctors or governmental officials convicted there could have been found guilty. Positivism precludes considerations of justice – results and impacts – focusing instead on the legality of the behaviors in question. In fact, not only were the acts carried out in the Third Reich’s Final Solution legal, the agents who were later convicted of “crimes against humanity” - which then did not exist anywhere on the books - were actually following the law.

Ultimately the Court there chose to punish law followers, not law breakers, in the name of justice. Sometimes the concern for justice does prevail.

 “I’m Here to Help Change the World…”

Despite the failings of the legal system, by the time I reached undergraduate, I was clear that I was called to be a lawyer. In my naïve, if not somewhat presumptuous, manner, I took seriously the banner that greeted me my first day of college: “Hello. I’m here to help change the world.” And, at least at that point, I felt what better way to be a part of that change than working as a lawyer for justice.

My calling was reinforced by the political science and history courses I took. It was there I learned the history of caselaw that had moved America closer to a truly democratic state.

It was also reinforced by a SCOTUS willing to require a corrupt president to turn over his tapes containing evidence of his criminal behaviors surrounding the Watergate scandal. Shortly thereafter, Richard Nixon resigned, this occurring my junior year at UF.

In 1979, after three years of teaching special education kids, I knew my time in public schools was over. I felt the courts were the place I could do the most good for people like them. a place where I could be a part of something larger than myself, a project whose arc ultimately bent in the direction of justice.

That dream was not easily realized. I did not do as well on the LSAT the first time when I had to leave in the middle of the exam because of diarrhea and was not savvy enough to cancel my score. (Perhaps I should have listened to my body at that point!) On my second attempt I scored high enough to get me into all the law schools I applied to. But my scores were averaged and so I had to apply twice before being accepted into my first choice law school at the University of Florida. I persisted and on the second round my efforts were rewarded. My dream had been realized. 

It was during my junior year in law school that I first knew the dream was in trouble. That was the year the world shifted. The night Ronald Reagan was elected, I told anyone who would listen, “You don’t understand. Everything has changed as of tonight.”

And it had.

I had no idea then of the Powell Memorandum whose cabal of corporate elites pledged themselves to a complete takeover of American society and then set about funding the organizations and foot soldiers to carry out their slow-motion coup d’états. I had only vaguely heard of a Federalist Society who would groom a cohort of ideologues to place on the federal and state judiciaries. I had no way of knowing how effectively they would validate the evisceration of democratic process in America and insure the domination of their oligarch suzerains within a mere four decades of the launching of this agenda.

What I did know intuitively was that the agenda that an avuncular former actor and his band of ideologues articulated represented a clear and present danger to an independent judiciary. And now, 38 years later, that agenda has reached its apotheosis.

Long before then my own career in law would be one of its casualties. After five years struggling to defend juveniles in the courts in Central Florida, it was clear to me that the decks were completely stacked against them and their defenders. The notion of rehabilitation was clearly a second thought in a system arresting kids in schools in front of their teachers and classmates and railroading them into an adult criminal system increasingly privatized for profit.

One day I decided that I was part of the problem. I was making a decent living as an attorney. But the level of frustration I dealt with daily was making my life miserable. I fought like hell for kids in a system that was largely unresponsive on a good day, decidedly punitive on most. If I was going to be an agent for change, it would have to come from outside the system.

And so I left to attend seminary and later graduate school. There I found the analytical and expressive skills I had developed as an attorney came in very handy. More importantly, the insights I developed in the belly of the juvenile system beast and the stories of the human beings it devoured have repeatedly proven essential to my teaching, preaching and writing.

For me, the fight for justice continues, even as the venue has changed.

That said, I have nothing but admiration for those who remain in the practice. Truth be told, they are better human beings than me. And they serve desperate human beings who rely on their patience, their hard work and their skills to represent them in a system stacked against them.

G-dspeed to them all.

Stark Contrasts

Perhaps the saddest aspects of the Kavanaugh debacle was observing how the decline of this once noble institution is so readily reflected in the mediocrity of its appointees. Certainly there are still flashes of brilliance among the justices, most notably its female members. But the decline of quality justices which hopefully has reached its nadir in Kavanaugh had been apparent since at least the last debacle involving sexual abuse, the confirmation of Clarence Thomas in 1991.

There have been times in history when Plato’s ideal of a philosopher-judge court were close to reality. Names like Holmes, Brandeis and Marshall remind us of the potential for that court to draw brilliant jurists to its service. And they remind us of the court’s potential to be an impartial body devoted to the interests of the entire nation, not just the tribe currently in power. 

Ironically, they also remind us of how far removed our current SCOTUS is from this potential. That is particularly sad given the ability of the Courts alone to retain the trust of the American people as reported by consistent polling data even as the other two branches of the government have long since lost their capacity to do so.

These figures from our history provide a stark contrast to the mediocrity of character and fitness of the ideologue dominated SCOTUS we now must endure for at least a generation. It is a nightmare for all of us who once dreamed of working for justice in a court system in which that seemed a distinct possibility.

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)

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 Jewish Sages (1993)

 © Harry Coverston 2018

Friday, October 05, 2018

A Fitting End to a Slow-Motion Coup d’états

I have avoided the media coverage of the ongoing debacle that is the Kavanaugh confirmation process this week. I am not one of those who are drawn to train wrecks, unable to avert my eyes as its horror unfolds. But the implications of the actions in Washington go well beyond my personal anguish and the only ways I have ever known to work out my grief are to garden and to write.

A Coronation, Not an Investigation

What has become clear this week is that any hopes still held out for an independent, impartial judiciary at a time when a divided nation most desperately needs it are going to be dashed. The supposed investigation ordered last week in the wake of the Ford testimony before the Senate judiciary committee has proven to be a sham. Dr. Ford was not interviewed nor was the third alleged victim of sexual impropriety along with the bulk of the witnesses offered as corroboration.

This was not an investigation. It was a coronation at the end of a foregone conclusion. It was a means for cowardly senators to rationalize conduct for which they know better. It was a means to rationalize advancing party interests over those of the country, bearing in mind that a perceived need to rationalize one’s thoughts, words and behaviors carries with it an implicit recognition that the same are not reasonable.

All of this occurs in the face of an unprecedented firestorm of opposition from the legal community itself, The ABA withdrew its earlier endorsement demanding a full investigation and a letter signed by 2400 law professors (including at least seven of Kavanaugh’s own Yale Law School) urged his rejection. It was also the rare occasion when a former SCOTUS justice weighs in on a confirmation process, also urging the Senate not confirm the nominee.

All of this ignored.

Sadly, in the process, the last remaining branch of the national government that our citizens report actually trusting has now gone the way of a Congress dominated by ideologues and a White House in which resides a classic demagogue. Less than a majority of those polled report being able to trust either one.

It is also the final conclusion to a long running subversion of what was at one time a nation promising to live into its own highest ideals. Robert Reich describes this entire process as a slow motion coup d’états. The drive to dominate every branch and every level of government was the ultimate goal of the Powell Memorandum of the mid 1970s and the resulting Reagan Devolution beginning in 1980. After nearly four decades, the coup d’etat is now bearing fruit.

The window for reversing this domination is fleeting. If this November’s election does not at least put a roadblock in this juggernaut's path, there will be little more to talk about thereafter.

A Sense of Urgency

At a very fundamental level, the gutting of the Constitution and the corruption of its prescribed processes that we have seen up close the past two weeks are the product of a will to power that has come to take on a sense of urgency. That urgency is driven by three factors.

The most immediate is the demographics change. In a truly democratic republic, a population that is no longer WASP dominant (as is already the case in several states and by 2040 nationally) can elect people who look like the electorate and reflect their interests. Not only is the power to dominate lost in that shift but the loss of the expectable entitlement of those who have historically dominated without challenge creates a sense of urgency.

The median range factor is the ongoing decline of American empire both economically and militarily. Increasingly the US ' ability to control and exploit the natural resources of the planet at will is in question. The cost for a global military to insure corporate plundering has become prohibitive and is likely to become more so. 

The insanity of fighting two losing and interminable foreign wars halfway round the globe has depleted both our national morale and our finances. Hence you will see increasing plundering of the public realm (social security, EPA, national parks, spending on public education and health, et al) to both pay for the cost of what is increasingly a mercenary fighting force (think Blackwater) and to enrich the oligarchs fleeing the sinking ship.

The long-range factor is the coming ravages of climate change. The potential ill effects of this factor, which will begin to be felt with a vengeance by mid-century if not before, include disruption of food supplies and resulting waves of climate refugees (already a major factor in the Syrian/Iraq conflicts); the displacement of nearly 2 of 3 of the world's inhabitants from coastal urban centers affected by sea level rise; the badlands created by chemical and nuclear sites abandoned to rising seas; the extinctions of larger and larger swaths of the planetary flora and fauna and the migration of those that survive to cooler climes bringing with them diseases and pests not previously known.

While I don't give the WASP oligarchs much credit for insight, I do think they at least intuitively recognize that the world which brought them to dominance is threatened. Hence the desperate measures we see.

In the Spokes of a Turning Wheel

That said, their vision is incredibly myopic. Such is hardly surprising. A sense of entitlement tends to orient one to self-interest and to the immediate, to what can be taken without much concern for what impact those behaviors have on others. There is little sense of big picture notions like legitimacy of institutions or integrity of its actors in such views. But the fact the context is ignored does not simply make it go away.

John Kennedy brilliantly observed over 50 years ago that those who do make peaceful revolutions impossible make violent revolutions inevitable. The changes that our nation and our world are being called to make will come. The only questions is how that process will occur and what the result will be on the other end of it.

Resisting the turning of the wheel only tends to result in being pounded by its spokes. Brett Kavanaugh warned us during his testimony that we would “reap the whirlwind” of this conflict. Of all the things the man said, I would point to that observation as not only unquestionably true but potentially prescient.

And Yet I Continue to Hope

Finally, I know this sounds bleak and I do not offer it to depress people. Despite appearances here, I am not a doom and gloom prophet, it's simply the big picture that I currently see.

I do continue to hold out hope for a New America rising from the ashes of Trumpland. And I do continue to hold out hope for a planet whose peoples come to consciousness, recognize the existential threat they face and work together to meet those challenges. But much will need to change from where I sit this day before either of those things can happen.

There can be no rainbow without a cloud and a storm. - John Heyl Vincent


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)

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 Jewish Sages (1993)

 © Harry Coverston 2018


Tuesday, September 25, 2018

The Gospel According to Bus 104

For the last couple of years of my supposed retirement I have taught ethics as an adjunct at the local state (née community) college. Truth be told, my business with teaching simply was not finished in 2015 even as I had felt the need to escape the university with my sanity and what was left of my dignity. I had come to the university from the Osceola Campus of Valencia in 2001. At a very basic level, it was like coming home to return to teaching there. 

Transit Trade-offs

After my first few weeks as an adjunct commuting to work, I calculated that between my planning time, grading time and commute time - in addition to my actual time on campus -  I was making just above minimum wage. Between tolls and mileage to the Osceola Campus alone, I was paying nearly $17 each way just to get there. 

So I began riding the local transit system bus to work. It was a long ride, about an hour and 10 minutes on a good day, one way, this after a 15 minute drive to the bus stop along the route to the college, catching the bus in front of a grocery store where I left my car each morning.

It was a hassle on a good day. The bus was as often late as not. Because it only ran every hour, I always gave myself plenty of leave time prior to scheduled departure. That meant I waited most mornings 10-15 minutes. But it also gave me some breathing room when the bus ran late so I wasn’t late to my class. Some days it rained and at my stop – like most stops - there was not even a bench to sit on, much less a shelter.

So, who really cares about working class people, anyway, right?

But the bus ride allowed me time on the way down to the college to catch up on the news, to check to see if it would be raining when it came time to catch the bus home that afternoon or to read the latest dystopian science fiction novel on my Kindle. I used the time on the way home each evening to grade papers.

The second year of my commute, the bus became free for college students and staff. I could hardly get a better deal. No one was going to pay me to ride.

While the use of local transit came at a cost of time and convenience, it had other payoffs which are hard to reduce to the dollars and cents that market fundamentalism insists that all aspects of life in a consumerist culture be measured in. My car was not adding one more vehicle to overcrowded local highways. It was not adding one more car’s worth of demands for carbon fuels or dumping one more car’s worth of carbon exhaust into our atmosphere.  

There was much less wear and tear on my aging Prius, a car this retiree hopes will last me indefinitely. I didn’t have to worry about traffic along the way – much of which is under construction - or parking once I arrived. Thus, I inevitably arrived a lot less stressed than before.

Then there were the educational aspects.

Some days I simply sat on the bus and watched the parade of humanity that passed by my seat. It was never dull. Living in a majority/minority metropolitan area, the first thing one learns is that they can never presume the person sitting next to them speaks English as their first language. Then there was the lesson I learned as a professional middle class man, that my life circumstances were rarely shared by the majority of the people I encountered.

I called it the Margaret Mead Express. Because whatever else you might say about that long ride, it was never dull. And it was always informative. 

Aware of My Privilege

The morning She appeared I found myself just sitting, looking around the crowd. The bus was about half full and, as is often the case at that late morning hour, fairly quiet. I noted that, as usual, many riders wore the required polyester corporate uniforms enroute to or from work.

It was one of many moments that I was consciously aware of my own privilege.

Perhaps it was the fact I had the luxury of spending my transit time checking for last minute student messages on my course site using my iPad which in turn had access to the bus’ wifi system. Or maybe it was the fact I had a thermos of coffee I’d made at home with my favorite Cuban coffee beans and soy milk from which I periodically took a clandestine swig (you’re not supposed to eat or drink on the bus, for good reasons).

Then there was the fact my polo bore no corporate logo declaring that the garment – if not the very soul of its bearer – were ultimately the property of some  corporate chain restaurant, hotel or managed health care system.

Like many who sat around me, I, too, would be paid no benefits nor a living wage by an employer who relied on part-time, minimally paid workers to continue operating. But, unlike any of them, I had a meager state pension paying me enough to keep the lights on and the beans on the table. And I had a husband whose medical coverage through the same college toward which I was headed to work which ensured treatment should I become injured or ill.  Adjunct teaching for me was at some level a luxury I could engage or not as I chose.

Few people on the bus that morning could make any of those claims.

Because I had nothing pressing that morning, I was able to stare out the windows at scenes of life passing outside my window. These were working class neighborhoods with exotic sounding names: Sky Lake, Meadow Wood Estates, Buenaventura Lakes. I would never live in neighborhoods like those, I simply passed through them twice daily enroute to and from my job as a college professor and wondered to myself what life was like in such a place.

(Brief Excursus: I love community/state colleges. Every teacher is called “professor” there out of respect - including adjuncts like myself. Neither the students nor the staff have the time or the need to play the inflated ego games of hierarchy or status that is second nature at universities. If you’re standing in front of the class, your title is professor.)

She Looked Exhausted

This day promised to be challenging at the college. It was the day we covered the ethics of punishment. Who punishes whom and why was one topic that always managed to engage students, some of whom would have already experienced the “justice system” first hand. I sat pondering how I would try to explain concepts like deterrence theory and its many failings and restorative justice and its largely unrealized promise.

That was the moment She came staggering down the aisle. And at that moment, the world seemed to grind to a complete halt.

She was a middle aged African-American woman. Overweight. Graying hair flowing loose, unkempt. She looked exhausted, her eyes opened just enough to negotiate her way down the aisle and up the stairs to the back of the bus. Indeed, her appearance suggested that today was not an exception for her, she had probably led a difficult life.

In another life she might have been a pillar of her community, a respected source of wisdom at her local church and a valued voice in its choir, famous for her chicken and dumplings at the Sunday potluck. This day she wore the flimsiest of worn rubber thong sandals on her dirty feet. Her dress was so sheer as to be diaphanous, more like ragged bed clothing than daily public wear. Periodically her garments gaped open revealing large swollen breasts which threatened to spill out unimpeded.

As she passed without making eye contact with any of us that morning, I almost lost my breath. This was not the ordinary denizen of Bus 104. She fell into her seat at the very rear of the bus with a loud sigh, dropping into a semi-coma almost immediately.

As I looked around me, for at least a brief moment, everyone there seemed to recognize that something unusual had just happened. Then, just as quickly, they went back to their previous activities.

Perhaps some of them wondered about her as I did. What had brought this woman to this place this day in this condition? Had she had a long night? Was she running from abuse? Had she just scored whatever cheap street drug that was available to temporarily escape the hell that was her life? Was she mentally well? How in the world did she end up here, looking like this?

Heaven only knew. And this morning, heaven wasn’t about to tell.

Just Trying to Get By

But she didn’t care. Soon loudly snoring, she was oblivious to the fact she was nearly exposed here amidst a group of strangers. Fortunately for her, few of them paid much attention.

Indeed, a number of them, too, were dead tired. Some were coming off night shifts at hotels, restaurants, hospitals, their bodies and dirty clothing smelling of a long hard day of labor, perhaps at more than one job site connected by even more bus rides.

Some listened to i-pods or distracted themselves with games on their cells. Some surreptitiously gobbled down cold remnants of their daily fast food meal, looking around to see if anyone noticed they were breaking the rules regarding food and beverages on the bus. Truth be told, no one really cared.

Others took clandestine swigs from cans of malt liquor poorly disguised by the tan paper bags issued them with the beer at the convenience store. For most of us, this would be the middle of an ordinary work day, hardly the time to be swilling down booze. But for these folks it was the end of their shifts and they were determined to take the edge off their bodily – if not existential - pain at the end of a long day.

It was a bus full of souls just trying to get by.

Not everyone was exhausted. Some wearing freshly washed clothes and plastic name tags simply sat quietly awaiting their stops at the Walmart, restaurants and convenience stores where they would spend their day. Some elderly men with oversized fountain drinks from corner filling stations carried on animated discussions in Spanish with people they knew sitting several rows of seats away. Here and there students used the time on the bus to get in last minute cramming before the algebra and biology tests they faced upon arrival at the same destination I awaited.

Then there was the occasional professional middle class worker like myself, a professor reading the last minute excuses from students who would be avoiding that day’s classes. My guess is that most of my fellow passengers figured I was there due to a DUI and suspension of my driving privileges. Neither was true but I didn’t really care.

And neither did She.

In the back of the bus where I always sat, the snoring had tapered off to a low hum. For a moment, she was at peace.

And Yet the Image Shines Through

Years ago, Joan Osborne made a hit record raising a provocative question:

Just a slob like one of us.
Just a stranger on the bus trying to make his way home….”

(Joan Osborne, 1995)

What indeed.

As I observed this exhausted woman, her large breasts spilling out of her sheer garment and heaving with each breath, collapsed now across two seats, head against the rear window, calloused feet dangling into the aisle, a sudden revelation came to me:

“Here is the image of G-d.”



Socially unacceptable.

But nonetheless the divine image, shining brightly through what Mother Theresa called “the distressing disguise of poverty,” for those willing to look long enough to see it.  Here was one of the “little ones” that Jesus loved, one of the poor that Jesus said G-d sees as blessed.

And for just that brief moment, I realized what an incredible privilege I had been afforded to be present for that revelation.

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)

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 Jewish Sages (1993)

 © Harry Coverston 2018

Friday, September 21, 2018

Tribal Gods and The Prejudices That No Longer Serve Us

Jim Meisner, Jr.’s essay on “Biblical Sexism and Modern Rape Culture” is provocative and well worth your five minutes to read. It prompted me to reflect on the relationship between religions generally and the socially constructed systems of deprecation and discrimination that have haunted human societies historically and today serve as the crux of the culture wars.

For far too many years far too many people within the world’s religions have conflated common social constructions of human beings and human relationships that proclaim who can be valued in that society and who must not be with what they purport to be revelations of the divine. In an early Iron Age culture with its warrior sky gods rapidly displacing agrarian female deities, it would hardly be surprising to see the tribal values of the socially dominant – patriarchy in all its hydra heads (sexism, homophobia) and racism – accepted as simply part of the natural order. 

Correspondingly, over time, those understandings which were produced through social construction would no doubt be attributed to the tribal deity. Thus, sexism, homophobia and racism came to be seen as reflecting the mind of their god.

I doubt such tribal gods ever fully served all the people of G_d. It was undoubtedly a question of where one fell in the cultural hierarchy. If one was male and straight in patriarchal cultures and white in racist cultures, the tribal gods who reflected and validated their privilege was a great deal. If you were wealthy, divine affirmation reflected your privilege. If you lacked one or more of those qualities, this was a lousy deal even as your socially constructed misfortune was generally interpreted as the result of divine judgment and thus your fate.

There was a reason that Jesus of Nazareth consistently spoke out on behalf of the anawim, the little ones, whom he declared G-d favored. In a culture which proclaimed by word and deed that G-d did not value them, statements like “Blessed are the poor...those who mourn...the meek..,” i.e., the opposite of those exercised power and enjoyed privilege in his culture, were words of resistance - if not defiance.

The holders of arbitrary, socially constructed privilege and virulent social prejudices at some level inevitably recognize how arbitrary and thus how fragile their positions are. Most come to feel the need for legitimation for the same. The common sources of such legitimation tend to be nature, tradition and religion. But regardless of how legitimate these understandings may come to be seen, at heart they always remain social constructions, subject to deconstruction by critical consideration and reconstruction in ways less exploitative and injurious to others. 

To the degree they impact the lives of targeted groups of people negatively today, they must be seen as what they are - common social prejudices, NOT the respectable tenets of a venerable religious tradition. Those traditions may well hold a number of tenets worthy of respect (and it is neither fair nor intellectually honest to sum up entire traditions based upon their worst features). But the conflation of common social prejudices and socially constructed privilege with the mind or will of the deity is not among them.  

Insisting that the deity demands such understandings in the face of modern scientific knowledge about sex, gender, sexual orientations, race and the creation and distribution of wealth no doubt requires increasing levels of denial among even minimally conscious human beings. Notions of a deity who is seen as the source of all goodness are simply impossible to reconcile with corrosive prejudices which causes observable harm to human beings and to the planet we share with all other living beings.

A thoughtful believer today might begin to ask him/herself whether their construct of deity needs reconsideration. A god who ordains male privilege within families, who excuses egregious male abuse of women and children, who is homophobic and/or racist, or who blesses the amassing of enormous amounts of wealth at the expense of the rest of the population and the good Creation itself, is not a god worth worshipping by thoughtful people regardless of the tradition in which that construct is found.

Whatever else that construct might be, it does not point toward the Creator of the Universe, the G-d who is Source and Ground of All Being.

As for those who continue to foster such impoverished and ultimately pathological understandings without further consideration, they reveal themselves as holding a vision of religion not worthy of respect even as their persons and the image of G_d they bear must always be respected by those who would draw them into question. Clearly, many will find it difficult to make that distinction. But it is there and it can be and must be made.

As always, we can do better. 


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)

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 ShapiroWisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993) 

 © Harry Coverston 2018