Signs of Basilea in a Sea of Fearful Portents
The smoke has cleared from elections 2010 and I would guess most Americans are feeling a bit fatigued from this latest assault on our senses - and our good sense. I feel no small amount of gratitude that the assault has ended. This past campaign was marked by a decided misanthropy. Beginning with all the ad hominem advertising, the tendency to demonize designated scapegoats was particularly pronounced.
Immigrants provided an easy target for many candidates. But the adherents of Islam were particularly targeted by pundit and candidate alike. In the heat of the campaign, Time Magazine asked Americans if we are Islamophobic. And for good reason.
One of the darkest moments of this campaign came when PBS reporter Juan Williams remarked that seeing people dressed in Muslim garb at airports made him nervous prompting PBS to fire him and Fox to just as quickly offer him a job. In all honesty, many of us might be willing to admit to the same sort of unbidden nervousness that Williams spoke of. It’s hard to erase the programming that our media has implanted in our minds equating Islam with terrorism, particularly in the post 9-11 context of airplanes.
But for most of us, repressing irrational phobic responses to the other is something we’ve learned to do as adults. And most of us are capable of quickly engaging in the real life calculus that reminds us that the odds are that the Muslim in line in front of us is about as likely to be a terrorist as we are.
It was into this twilight moment of suspended rationality surrounding William’s firing by PBS that Bill O’Reilly interjected a comment that would make my blood run cold: “The world has a Muslim problem.” You see, calling an entire group of people a “problem” has a pedigree. It was a trick that Joseph Goebbels and his Third Reich propaganda apparatus used to perfection. When human beings are problems, the only rational response is to solve that problem. In Goebbel’s case, it was the Final Solution. Clearly this insanity did not go away with the Nuremberg Trials.
As I recoiled from my computer screen after reading O’Reilly’s comments, I thought of my Muslim students at the university. I thought of their aspirations, their talent, their dreams. I thought of how much they had taught me in the process of teaching them. I did not sleep well that night.
This misanthropic rhetoric is a good example of a phenomenon Harvard law and ethics professor Cass Sunstein details in his recent book Going to Extremes. Sunstein observes that when groups of people already inclined in a particular ideological direction circle their wagons, speak only to each other and shut out all competing understandings, the tendency is for their views and thus their rhetoric to become increasingly extreme in tenor. That is particularly true in an age of internet which allows a tailoring of one’s sources of information and feedback.
Those who know me well will readily say that my generally progressive leanings are rarely disguised. I tend to be up front with my biases with others, particularly my students. This is a function of my pedagogical philosophy that acknowledging one’s biases (and thus disabusing oneself of the inevitably self-serving belief that an entirely objective approach is possible for anyone) allows others to account for them. I see that as an exercise in intellectual honesty.
I am also clear that students need not share my leanings to learn in my classes though, in all fairness, some who find their own understandings drawn into question often experience it that way. I try to make it clear to them that it is often from hearing from those with whom we disagree that the nuances – and sometimes fallacies – of our own beliefs come into focus. We all need each other fully present for learning to occur.
One of my acknowledged biases is my appreciation of racially and ethnically diverse settings and, correspondingly, my aversion to being in all white - particularly all white upper middle class -settings. The gated communities of suburbia constitute one of the rings of hell for this Dante. The striving, the need to validate oneself through incessant – and often cut-throat – competition, the smarmy sentimentality, the superficiality and the sense of entitlement that marks this existence drives me nuts.
Ironically, it is precisely the white professional middle class which I represent. And yet, I find myself most drawn to the majority-minority realities of the Bay Area in California and now parts of Florida. In these new realities, whites do not make up the majority of the population. The demographic tapestry combines strands of a rainbow of human faces accompanying my own white, male face. I experience life in such Technicolor settings as much richer, deeper and ultimately more fully human than the black and white realities of my childhood.
I acknowledge other biases emerging from my spiritual journey. Two of the remaining vestiges of what was once a fairly vibrant Christian faith are the image of G-d and the kingdom of G-d. The former comes from Judaism and the Hebrew Scriptures and charges all human beings with the duty to recognize the image of G-d residing on the face of human beings. My Franciscan lens reminds me that I am not relieved of the obligation to seek out that image even – perhaps especially – when it is hidden beneath the distressing disguises of poverty and disease. Francis also reminds me that the image of G-d is not relegated to human animals, and that all of creation bears the image – if not the glory – of G-d.
The other vestige of a faith that once sought to embrace the world with the Good News of Jesus is his teaching of basilea, a Kingdom of G_d, a realm in which the poor are blessed, the captives freed and the little ones are assured of having what they need. This is a kingdom in sharp contrast with empires whose currencies are power and privilege - empires which manifest themselves in exploitative relationships between those with power and privilege and those exploited to obtain and maintain it, empires like Caesars in Jesus’ time and the global corporate realm of Citizens United in our own time.
The basilea of G_d calls human beings to their highest potential. The image of G-d is recognized and honored. Right relations between human beings are driven by respect for the humanity of the other and play out in fair, honest dealings. Citizens of the basilea recognize their duties to others as well as themselves. They stand in stark contrast to the grasping, atomistic and never satisfied consumers of empire whose only pertinent inquiry is “What’s in it for me?”
The Kingdom of G-d did not occur in Jesus’ lifetime nor is it likely to ever be fully realized in ours. It is always already here yet still coming. But occasionally one gets glimpses of it. In the past month, I have seen two.
Last week I attended a Japan Festival in a development south of town. It was a celebration of Japanese culture complete with dance, music, lectures and food. Clearly, it was an opportunity for Japanese restaurants to market their wares and perhaps gain some customers. But the parade of young Japanese children and their proud adult mentors onto the stage to demonstrate the culture of a Japan far away both in distance and time was amazing.
As I looked around me in the audience of about 1000, I saw many Asian spectators including my friend from Taiwan who had invited us to the event. But I also saw the diversity that has become Orange County – white, Hispanic, black, Caribbean. Here was assembled a cross-section of this community - and ultimately of the world’s people’s – to learn and appreciate the culture of one of those peoples. The embrace of the other that cool, sunny afternoon provided just a peek at a basilea in which there truly is neither Greek nor Jew, slave nor free. It warmed my heart.
The other glimpse of the kingdom came two weeks ago in perhaps an unlikely setting. One of the many hats I wear is soccer uncle. My nephew, Cary, plays on a soccer team which is largely Hispanic and my husband and I often attend his games. After an early Saturday morning game here in Orlando, I went with my sister and nephews to a Burger King for breakfast.
My nephew had two of his teammates with him, Garren, a young African-American boy, and Victor, a child of Mexican heritage. Of course, the boys wanted to eat at their own table and so I sat with my sister and her older boy at another table.
At one point, the giggling at the other table had gotten particularly boisterous and I turned to see what they were up to. There was my nephew, his arm around the shoulder of each of his friends, laughing, a beautiful blue eyed white face framed by two beautiful children of color, a miniature of Central Florida diversity and a stunning rejection of the misanthropy of their elders this election season. There was no fear of the other in the horseplay of these young boys, just sheer joy. It took my breath away.
These are the moments that I dare to hope for our world. These are the glimpses of the basilea of which Jesus spoke that reminds me of my debt to seminary and to the Christian tradition from which I come. These are snapshots of life that I find myself treasuring, smiling and telling myself that perhaps the O’Reillys and Williams of the world will not have the last word.
There are the days that the kingdom of G-d comes just a tiny step closer to reality. And for that, this weary heart is truly grateful.
The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
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