It’s Independence Day in the United States of America. In years past, this was the day for chasing greased pigs in the local park, for eating watermelon in abundance and lots of fried chicken. It’s a day when every flag dealer in the world (including the factories in China which make most of them these days) would have a big day as flags are waved from holiday celebrations to national monuments to used car lots.
If history is any guide to this day in Central Florida, before the day is over we will have a thunderstorm, its cloud-to-ground lightning a prelude to evening pyrotechnics which will light up our skies - and frighten our dogs and our veterans suffering from PTSD. My guess is that history will repeat itself today, perhaps minus the grease if the pig is lucky.
“What in the hell is wrong with America?”
I have just returned to this country I have called home for nearly 62 years after a three week sojourn through parts of western Europe and Canada. I was in the middle of France awaiting my engagement with the Taize community when I saw television news for the first time in nearly three weeks. The BBC was reporting on a shooting at a church in Charleston. Eight people were dead and a young white shooter who had been welcomed into their midst for a prayer meeting was being intensively sought. The next day the Taize monks would pray for the people of Charleston and for America as it sought to find its way out of the darkness of violence.
As I began my long journey home, from Taize to Geneva, Switzerland by bus and train and then my 18 hour flight from Geneva to Orlando with a three hour layover in Montreal, again and again I heard discussions of the events of Charleston. Virtually all of them focused around the pointed question, “What in the hell is wrong with America?”
This was my fourth trip to Europe over my lifetime. I love Europe. Each country has its own charms from the warmth and wines of Italia to the collected brain power and vibrant culture in Geneva to the rocky pastures full of beautiful sheep and the dry humor of Scotland. There is much in Europe that America could learn from beginning with sane policies regulating the weapons of war in their societies whose low gun mortality rate reflect those policies.
It is tempting to dream of what it would be like to leave behind an America whose electoral politics have devolved into an auction to the highest moneyed bidder, whose criminal system insists upon locking up inordinate proportions of its population, particularly its young men of color. Europe has found a way to end its “tinker(ing) with the machinery of death” as our own Supreme Court Justice Blackmun once described our bloody system of state killing in which the chances are one in 10 that an innocent human being will be murdered.
It is tempting to leave behind a failing educational system whose public schools test our children to death destroying their love of learning in the process and whose higher education has largely become mass production factories which stamp out worker drones with a modicum of vocational training but limited capacities for critical thought. Most of Europe’s elementary and secondary international test scores surpass those of their American counterparts and many universities, while selectively admitting students, provide tuition-free higher educations to them. Their graduates do not emerge from four years of largely vocational training saddled in crippling debt.
Of course Europe has its own problems. It faces the same surge of increasingly desperate immigrants seeking to escape a southern hemisphere cursed with natural resources and cannibalized by voracious northern hemisphere consumers. The news in Italy last summer was full of accounts of flimsy boats packed with human cargo disintegrating within sight of European shores, their occupants suddenly finding themselves in sea water but unable to swim even that short distance to the coast.
Europe’s monetary problems are also well known here in the US where corporate media are more than willing to report stories of austerity measures and resistance in places like Greece and Spain if for no other reason than to bolster consumer confidence in our own floundering and increasingly inequitable system. In some places like the UK, the corporatization of higher education and the consumerization of their student bodies increasingly mimic American practice. And ancient and even more recent class distinctions still hold European society within their grasp making social mobility largely impossible in many aspects of life there.
A Prescient Framer
Over the past few years as I have struggled to decide what I should do with what remains of my life, I have often dreamed of escaping to Europe. Geneva is a hub of international work on concerns I have served all my life: education, justice, religion. It is a vibrant city largely dominated by international banking with an exorbitant cost of living but whose side benefits are the ability to speak with people on the city buses in a wide range of languages about a wide range of subjects. What might a man with graduate degrees in law, religion and a doctorate combining the two who has varying degrees of proficiency in several languages find to do there?
And yet it is in the street cafés of Geneva where between my tortured French and the occasional bursts of Spanish and English I can more readily comprehend that I heard that question: “What in the hell is wrong with America?” It is a question that haunts me.
It is also a fair question. While Europeans may well pose it rhetorically out of a sense of cultural superiority, the context of the question – the shootings in Charleston of people at worship in a church – makes it impossible for this American and any of my countrymen and women who truly care about our country to ignore it. Churches have long been places of asylum. Their very precincts are seen as sacred. To turn such holy ground into a human slaughterhouse is truly an abomination.
The events in Charleston reveal two of a number of malignancies within the American soul today: the cancer of racism and the cancer of gun violence. These two realities belie the many ideals that we as Americans celebrate this day. The former reminds us that while “liberty and justice for all” are our stated ideals, their achievement still lies in the future. The latter reminds us that we remain an adolescent society, focused on rights while ignoring the duties to others that flow from them. It reminds us that an individualism pursued at the expense of community can only result in isolation and atomization, a gaping hole in the soul that no amount of consumer goods can ever fill.
James Madison’s Preamble has proven prescient as it spoke of our duty as Americans to pursue “a more perfect union.” On the one hand he was humble enough to reject the unlimited optimism of his own Enlightenment culture which suggested perfection was within the grasp of reason-driven human beings. On the other hand, he did not lapse into a determinism that let his countrymen and women off the hook for its imperfections as simply “the way things are.” While we may never achieve perfection in the pursuit of ideals we say we hold –a just society which promotes the general welfare of all of us and not the interests of the few at the expense of the many – we are always charged with the ongoing responsibility of seeking it.
Pursuing a More Perfect Union
As I sat in the café in Geneva nursing my beer bought with the last of my Swiss francs, I thought about my country and my place in it. I have long operated out of the maxim that we like people because but we love people in spite of. And some give us a lot to work with in that latter category. The same is true of America.
For better or worse, it is my homeland and I love it. I never fail to get a lump in my throat when passing by the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor and it is always a joyous moment for me when our flight touches down on American soil. But I think the Europeans are raising an important question: “What is wrong with America?” And that question contains a second, more immediate question: “And what are you going to do about it?”
As I approach the next phase of my life, those are important questions. And, frankly, they should be for all Americans. While we have nothing to prove to anyone outside our borders, we are indicted by our own ideals as a people when our actions fall short within those borders.
Those indictments cannot be met by America’s sons and daughters fleeing to more sanguine shores to wait out a potential apocalypse. They also cannot be met by blustering rhetoric which demands Americans join in a mindless mantra of “We’re Number One!” when everything around us suggests just the opposite. Patriotism means the love of one’s country, with all its warts, not the indulgence of a feel good denial. The demands of our homeland seeking the achievement of a more perfect union call us. And as life-long beneficiaries of its goodness and bounty, it is our duty to respond.
For those of us born amidst a Cold War in the shadows of WWII, a world where American dominance was countered by Soviet might, the world we encounter today is a new and strange place. Our military, largest in the world by far, flounders in quagmires in the middle east and central Asia, places our school children and most of their parents cannot locate on a map. Our sons and daughters are returning to our midst from these places with overwhelming physical and mental wounds unheard of in previous conflicts to poorly funded public medical facilities long since overtaxed in their abilities to meet these new demands.
Around the world our economic might meets new challengers from a European Union and from increasingly powerful Asian giants. Within our nation we see signs of disintegration from the abandonment of social responsibility to public institutions to talk of secession not heard in a century and a half. And on our city streets, gang violence thriving on a failed drug policy encounters an increasingly militarized police in highly publicized exchanges. Here the cancers of racism and the dangers of a society armed to the teeth and worked into a fearful frenzy by sensationalist media are exposed in their rawness.
We have our work cut out for us if we wish to remain “One nation… with liberty and justice for all.” G-d will not save us from ourselves. And our problems, unlike our teeth, will not go away if we ignore them.
This day I express my gratitude for the country which has provided me with a standard of living that is unheard of by the vast majority of our planet’s populations. Even as I say this I am not unmindful of those around the world at whose expense that privilege has come. I give thanks to my teachers who taught me the ideals of my native land and for those few responsible leaders who continue to call us to meet them.
This day, I once again pledge myself to the calling of making America what it says it is, a land of liberty and justice for all. I once again enjoin the pursuit of a more perfect union and call my fellow Americans to join me in that endeavor. Let us remember that as Americans, we are called to nothing less.
Happy Birthday, America.
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.
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