Monday, June 22, 2015

Charleston: Where there is despair, may we sow hope….

I heard the news of the church shooting in Charleston while in France to pray with the community at Taize. It was a particularly bittersweet day.

It had been a breath taking experience with the world at prayer at Taize, 2000 people singing, chanting and praying in their own languages and in four part harmony, the universal language of music. But one of the prayers the community offered that morning was for the victims of the shootings I had learned of just the night before. 

I had found the BBC on the French cable in my hotel room to catch up on the news before beginning my long journey home. The horrific news out of Charleston would make my stomach turn and chill my heart. It would give me the same kind of cognitive dissonance I heard from many Americans living in Europe: I know America is home but do I really want to go back to that place? 

A Calloused Heart

At some level I suppose I have grown callous about these things, like many of my countrymen and women. On the one hand, I respond in horror to the latest atrocity, this one committed in a house of prayer. On the other, I experience a sad resignation to the fact that enduring such atrocities increasingly seem to be the cost one must be willing to pay as a condition of living in America.

I am sure such resignation provides the public relations wing of the world’s largest gun industry a great delight to know their efforts to spin such events as expectable, just the way things are,  have met with such success.

We are an adolescent culture with a teenaged obsession over rights and freedom from any kind of regulation, an adolescence fed by an infantilizing consumerist culture and an opportunistic political culture only too willing to pitch their appeals to our lowest levels of moral reasoning. Our culture has yet to mature into adulthood, accepting the duties to others that come with the exercise of any true rights. When a right is exercised without regard for how it impacts others it is little more than an arbitrary privilege and almost inevitably occurs at the expense of someone else.

“What the Hell is wrong with the Americans?”

The chatter around me in the cafes of Geneva that evening and in the airport restaurant in Montreal the next day during my layover there revealed a decidedly different view of this event. The common theme of the reactions was simply “What in the hell is wrong with the Americans?”

My sense is that America is seen in the parts of Europe I visited (Switzerland, France, Scotland and Britain) with a mixture of admiration and fear. The Europeans have hardly lost sight of America’s role in helping Europe deliver itself from the authoritarian regimes of both the right (Nazi Germany) and the left (Soviet Russia) in the 20th CE. And the products of the American culture industry dominate the European imagination as the huge, inescapable megatron previews of Jurassic World in the Glasgow train station evidenced.

But they also view the world’s only remaining superpower with apprehension, both from the ever tightening grasp of its finance and global corporate talons as well as from an armed forces larger than the next seven nations combined with knee jerk tendencies to employ force as its first response rather than its last resort.

That’s why events like Charleston spook the world outside our borders. How can a nation with such high flung ideals of equality, liberty and justice for all – not to mention so much power -  be the matrix for a relentless parade of xenophobic, hate-fueled events like the slaughter of vulnerable people of faith who accepted their killer into their midst in good faith? And how can any modern nation-state watch this latest incidence of public slaughters occur without the exercise of even a modicum of social responsibility?

When the world’s greatest superpower proves unable or unwilling to protect its own most vulnerable citizens from preventable harm, how can it be trusted with the welfare of the rest of the world it dominates?

Wrestling with our souls

At the early service at my parish Sunday, the priest informed the congregation that the bishop of the diocese had issued a statement on Charleston in conjunction with his fellow bishops in the Episcopal Church. The statement asked parishioners to contact their local AME church to express their sorrow, to remember the dead and their survivors in their personal prayers this week, and finally to use the Prayer Attributed to St. Francis in the worship services of all parishes during the week.

He is to be commended for this forthright response.

Of course, St. Francis himself did not write this famous prayer that often is thought to be his. The prayer dates to an early 20th CE French religious journal but its elements of selfless love of others and its call to work for justice and peace have made it a prayer routinely used by Franciscan orders and evinces the spirit of Francis and Claire.

Sunday those words seemed most appropriate:

Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.

Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.

The events of Charleston have presented us with much hatred to be overcome with love. They reveal long, festering injuries in desperate need of pardon and have caused deep sadness over losses that will never completely heal.

That is why it is important to be intentional about thinking about  these events, naming them for the evils they represent. More importantly, our commitment to be in solidarity with the victims of these events and their survivors charges all of us with the wrestling with our own souls that will be necessary to change the conditions that give rise to this and all the other atrocities that Americans like me have come to take for granted.

There is much darkness to overcome with light indeed. That begins with acknowledging our weariness of this endless parade of senseless violence and the callousness of our own hearts it engenders.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., M.Div., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Professed: Third Order Society of St. Francis (TSSF)
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. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


Irv said...

"When the world’s greatest superpower proves unable or unwilling to protect its own most vulnerable citizens from preventable harm, how can it be trusted with the welfare of the rest of the world it dominates?"

Well, on one hand, I hear about police super powers--turning the country into a police state, over controlled. When something like this latest tragedy happens, we complain because the police weren't there. This may be a poor comparison, but I hear right wingers
saying they don't like to go to such and such a place because there are too many blacks working there. These same people put down people (particularly minorities) who don't work and live on state assistance. This makes me feel as if the people they are so critical about can't win no matter which side they're on--the working or the non-working. Maybe we shouldn't be so down on the police if we want them to protect us from the extremely damaged individuals in our society.

Anonymous said...

The Prayer of St. Francis brings about how all humanity should act. This would bring all of us closer together to become ONENESS with EXISTENCE. There is sorrow for those who have lost their loved ones, but JOY should be felt for those being released from their PHYSICAL BODY and now their SPIRITS may SHINE INFINITELY to ETERNITY !!!