Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Images of G-d Amidst a Massacre

[N.B., This post was written as an article solicited for the e-newsletter at my home parish, St. Richard’s Episcopal Church, Winter Park, FL]

“She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him-- that she is a sinner."….. [Jesus said] You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little." Then he said to her, "Your sins are forgiven." But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, "Who is this who even forgives sins?" And he said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace." Luke 7:38-39, 45-50

This past Tuesday I came to the parish to lead Morning Prayer as I usually do. My head was buzzing with the details coming into focus from Sunday’s massacre at the Pulse nightclub not far from my home. My heart was absolutely shattered as I breathlessly waited for city officials to release the names of the 49 victims, feeling enormous relief each time the name did not match that of any of my students or loved ones and simultaneously feeling guilty for that relief. These were someone’s loved ones if not my own, each bearing the image of G-d. 

The discussion after our readings turned almost immediately to the events of the weekend. Amidst the attempts to make sense of two senseless, demonic events in one weekend here in our City Beautiful, the gospel from last Sunday floated back into focus, a portion of which is provided above.

Jesus is the consummate challenger of conventional moral reasoning and the cultural values which inform it. He dines with sinners - including the hated Roman tax collectors - and the ever so self-righteous Pharisees alike. His parables, like the Good Samaritan, have unlikely heroes – the despised people whose religion was seen as lacking in “orthodoxy,” cultural lepers to good Jews. He engages the Syro-phoenician woman at the well, first dismissing her with a condescending but culturally appropriate comment, then allowing his understandings to be drawn into question – by a woman and a pagan no less - and ultimately repents of values he now recognizes as misanthropic.

For Jesus, the ultimate value is neither the tribal values of his culture nor the self-serving piety of his own religion. Jesus sees a bigger picture. His teachings and actions constantly reinforce the demand that his followers must discern the image of G-d on the face of the other - no matter how well hidden behind cultural and religious constructions they may be - and honor them. 

The massacre at the Pulse nightclub brings into focus a whole host of issues and the role our own cultural and religious constructions have played in its occurrence. It is no accident that the site targeted for this slaughter was a community bar which provided a safe place for LBGTQ people, straight people and people of color to gather and socialize. Bear in mind that this is hardly the only time a gay bar has been attacked and its occupants injured and killed. Like the Holocaust coming at the end of a long history Christian anti-semitism, it is simply the latest and, with the rise of ever more efficient technologies of death, the deadliest.

This culminating bloodbath occurs in a historical context of homophobia. And while the Christian tradition is not alone in fomenting and developing that homophobia, it has been the most powerful force in preserving that common social prejudice and legitimating its expression today. Our own tradition has frequently spoken out of both sides of its mouth, regularly affirming the “dignity of every human being” (Baptismal Covenant) even as some of our dioceses bar gay married priests from its altars and same-sex marriages from our parishes. Why is that?

It is also not incidental that the patrons at Pulse that night were a rainbow of humanity that reflects the diverse community metropolitan Orlando has become. Latinos represent about one out of three Orange County residents today. They work and thrive in this welcoming community but frequently come home to nightly doses of anti-immigrant sentiment on their televisions which have come to dominate our current election. No doubt few of them even recognize themselves in the caricatures that are constructed of them in this process. Why is that?

It is also not surprising that the immediate conclusion of so many of us was that somehow the Islamic faith was to blame. Muslims are targets of suspicion and denigration in their daily lives that none of us would ever tolerate. While no one would sum up the entire Christian faith by radicals like the Westboro Baptist Church, which vows to picket the funerals of the Pulse victims here, or murderous zealots who blow up abortion clinics, we Christians have been quick to paint the 30% of our world’s peoples who follow any path of Islam as radicals we must implicitly distrust. Why is that?

Finally, it is hardly a shock that the instrumentality of death early Sunday morning was a weapon of war legally purchased in a country that simply cannot come to grips with its addiction to guns. Automatic and repeatedly firing weapons are simply not the stuff of defense of one’s home or hunting. All or nothing thinking is a common logical fallacy which does not serve us here. But it is the mark of addictive thinking. Like every addiction, our lives have become unmanageable. We have made very limited attempts to curtail our indulgence of this deadly behavior with no success. It just grows stronger. And we are in deep denial about it even as our children are being slaughtered. Why is that?

 All of these aspects of the Pulse shooting raise serious issues about cultural values and religious understandings that no longer serve us. They signal that the time for a very difficult discussion about who we are as a people can no longer be avoided. But more importantly for we who would follow Jesus, they raise the very same question that he raises here: What prevents us from discerning the image of G-d in the face of the other and showing it due reverence?

Recognizing and honoring the image of G-d in the face of the other reflects the Great Commandments to love one’s neighbor as oneself by which we demonstrate our love of the G-d who created us all. When deeply held cultural values or religious beliefs come into conflict with these Great Commandments, Jesus is very clear about which one must prevail.

Are we?

Harry Scott Coverston is an Episcopal priest and Third Order Franciscan. He is a former assistant Public Defender for the 9th Judicial Circuit and just retired from the University of Central Florida where he taught religious studies, interdisciplinary humanities and the philosophy of law. He resumes his teaching as adjunct instructor at Valencia College this fall teaching ethics and critical thinking.

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.

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 Ages, Commentary on Micah 6:8


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