Saturday, December 15, 2012

Holy Innocents Transposed: Rachel is weeping for her children…. (Part II)


Two predictable – but inadequate - responses

Already two predictable responses have emerged from the massacre at Newtown. The first is the knee jerk, brainless but particularly heartless responses from the addicts themselves. A classmate from high school posted a poster with the inevitable mantra from the NRA which read “More Guns. Less Crime.” Of course, the data show exactly the opposite to be true not only worldwide but also within the US between jurisdictions restricting guns and those which do not. Arguing that more guns are the solution to a gun saturated culture which routinely massacres its school children is a bit like saying the solution to a forest fire is for fire fighters to dump kerosene on it.

Of course, this is where the marks of addiction begin to reveal themselves. Addictions are marked by certain characteristics:

-       Continued behavior despite adverse consequences
-        impaired control over said behavior
-       denial regarding the problematic nature of the behavior
-       adaptation to the behavior and its negative consequences thus requiring ever increasing engagement of said behavior to achieve the original effects of its engagement
-       with physical and psychological symptoms experienced when reduction of the behavior is considered or attempted
-       resulting in anxiety, irritability, intense cravings, hallucinations. [i]

Now, consider the pattern of behavior surrounding America’s love affair with guns that we have observed over the past 30 years. Every single one of those aspects are observable in our national culture.

America, we’ve got a problem.

(Photo from Huffington Post site) 

Empty Gestures

The second predictable response was in evidence before the night was over. Teary-eyed mourners filled churches to hear words of hope in the face of despair while others stood outside the site of the massacre to light candles. Notes and flowers punctuated with children’s toys and photos will soon adorn the chain link fence outside this school as a makeshift wailing wall will unfold for mourners.

As an Episcopal priest I am catholic in my theology and liturgical in my practice to the core of my being. As a mystic who finds truth in all spiritual traditions, I honor spiritual images and objects from sacred stones pointing the four directions to inscriptions from the Quran and at altars throughout my home. I routinely offer up my prayers as I burn incense in pots before sculptures of Francis of Assisi, the Guadalupana and Kwan Yin the bodhisattva of compassion which dot the jungle outside my home.

From a very functional perspective, this is how I live my spirituality. My prayers are focused by the flickering of candles and I am reminded to pray by the smell of incense. These prayers require no jealous institutional sponsors for validation. They are simply directed to Spirit in all the forms it takes through the world’s many spiritual traditions. Indeed, on days like yesterday, lighting incense from a candle burning before a holy image, bowing my head and saying my prayers is ALL I know to do in the face of meaningless tragedies like that of Newtown. So I understand the impulse that results in the makeshift wailing walls and the candle-lit memorial services.

(Photo from Huffington Post Site)

But, I also know that this alone is simply not enough. The leaving of candles, photos, saccharine notes and stuffed bears may staunch our pain, perhaps even assuage our guilt, but it certainly cannot bring back our children, much less prevent future massacres. Yellow ribbons tied around trees cannot bring back dead soldiers even as they command us to remember them without considering the senseless waste of those young lives by ill-considered public policy. The deities we beseech to save us from ourselves between sobs simply never appear. Indeed, in many ways, these activities, which at best are designed to salve our wounds, often become forms of avoiding looking at our national addiction to the weapons of war. Too often our rites of public grieving have devolved into disingenuous, hollow forms of denial that we have a serious problem. 

For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. 17 The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.(Psalm 51) 

Contrary to what deluded souls like Mike Hukabee would have us believe, G-d is not going to save us from ourselves. Indeed, G-d never does even if we erect 10 Commandments in every courthouse and require every public school kid to pray interminable ad hoc evangelical Protestant prayers each morning. Time and again, desperate prayers have followed irresponsible behaviors which ignored prophetic warnings of disaster without a changed course. And time and again, those prayers have been followed by the very disaster of which the prophets so urgently warned. It is time for G-d’s children to become adults, to take responsibility for our lives together, to take this beast of addiction to the instrumentalities of death by the horns and to wrestle it into submission.

I will with G-d’s help?

The Baptismal Covenant of the Episcopal Church provides a healthy way of approaching this task for people of faith. To the series of promises posed the parents of newly baptized children or adults who are being confirmed, the response is always two part in nature: I will ….with G-d’s help.

If America is to come to grips with its addiction to the ubiquitous means of death, destruction and demoralization of our children, we must first admit we have a problem, like with all addictions. And then we must confront it. No doubt we will need G-d’s help in confronting this beast but the effort must always begin with us. We also need to dissuade ourselves of the simplistic theology of the 12 Steps. The truth is, we are not powerless over this addiction.  It is the work of our hands. We constructed our society in this destructive manner, and we can also construct it differently. That it is difficult does not mean we are excused from confronting our problem.
It is time for America to grow up if for no other reason than it is getting harder and harder to engage in denial after events like those of Newtown yesterday. We must allow the incredible pain from the Newtowns and Virginia Techs and Columbines to be experienced, to break our hearts leaving them contrite. Unlike the cheap grace of coerced public prayers or imposed religious monuments, that is the sacrifice G-d requires. Pious words from pulpits and stuffed bears left in front of flickering candles at a massacre site alone amount to little more than a morbid, empty dramaturgy. Before we can act, we must end our denials and allow the pain to break our hearts. 

And then we must act.

(Giotto's Feast of the Holy Innocents found 
at Magdalene Sisters site) 

Honoring Holy Innocents

The Feast of the Holy Innocents commemorates an event reported in Matthew’s Gospel in which King Herod seeks to destroy a potential rival in the baby Jesus and orders the killing of all Judea’s children under the age of 2. It is unclear whether this was a historical event. Indeed, little evidence suggests that is so. It is more likely a recasting of Hebrew Scriptural motifs from Jeremiah’s lamentations over the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians or perhaps even the killing of the first born sons of Egypt on the night of the Passover.

What’s important about this narrative is that it embodies the deadliness of a callous public policy which proves destructive to the most innocent members of a society, its children. It is precisely that pattern we are seeing play out in America as it refuses to come to grips with its addiction to the weapons of war.

It is time to pray, America. And then it is time to act.

           Collect appointed for the Feast of the Holy Innocents (Dec. 28)

We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

But perhaps more importantly….

           From Eucharistic Prayer C, Rite II, Book of Common Prayer

Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal. Let the grace of this Holy Communion make us one body, one spirit in Christ, that we may worthily serve the world in his name.

           And from Post-Communion Prayer, Rite II, Book of Common Prayer

Send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you (through loving and serving our neighbors) with gladness and singleness of heart; through Christ our Lord. Amen.


As I have sought to work through my own grief by writing these words this day, news is filtering in from Birmingham, Alabama, of a shooting in a hospital. Three were wounded before the gunman was shot and killed by police. The predatory sickness that is America’s addiction to firearms has now degenerated to its lowest level of victimhood – from defenseless children who can only run from their assailants in a hail of bullets to the sick and injured who can’t even run away.

Dear Lord.

Have we no sense of decency, America, at long last?
Have we really no sense of decency?

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.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Sources for addiction characteristics 

[i] ·  ^ Angres DH, Bettinardi-Angres K (October 2008).
·                 "The disease of addiction: origins, treatment, and recovery". Dis Mon 54 (10): 696–721.       doi:10.1016/j.disamonth.2008.07.002. PMID 18790142.
·  ^ American Society for Addiction Medicine (2012). Definition of Addiction.
·  ^ Morse RM, Flavin DK (August 1992). "The definition of alcoholism. The Joint Committee of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence and the American Society of Addiction Medicine to Study the Definition and Criteria for the Diagnosis of Alcoholism". JAMA 268 (8): 1012–4. doi:10.1001/jama.1992.03490080086030. PMID 1501306.
·  ^ Marlatt GA, Baer JS, Donovan DM, Kivlahan DR (1988). "Addictive behaviors: etiology and treatment". Annu Rev Psychol 39: 223–52. doi:10.1146/ PMID 3278676.
·  ^ Torres G, Horowitz JM (1999). "Drugs of abuse and brain gene expression". Psychosom Med 61 (5): 630–50. PMID 10511013.

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