Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Mourning in America - Preface: An Extended Reflection on the Death of a Beloved Homeland

In the Hebrew tradition, burial of the dead takes place as quickly as possible after death, often within the next day. In the week that follows, a ritual unfolds in the home of the deceased where mourners are cared for by relatives and friends. Mourners refrain from work of any kind and sit as low to the earth as possible to indicate reverence for the dead.

It serves as a sign of humility, a word that in English shares the same root as the word for earth. In Hebrew, it is the word for humanity, adam, that shares the same root as the word for earth. 

Finitude and humility are essential to the very meaning of being human. 

This funereal practice is called “sitting Shiva” (the Hebrew word for seven) and is dutifully observed for a week after the death of the loved one. Thereafter, mourners are able to return to some daily life activities including work but for Shloshim, (Hebrew for 30) the first full month after the death of the loved one, they refrain from socializing.

Death of a People on a Chilling Anniversary 

This series of essays began to be written at the end of observance of a month of Shloshim. It was my experience - and based on the comments of many others, hardly mine alone -  that the morning of November 9, 2016 represented a death of sorts for our beloved homeland. 

We were a nation that dared to call itself the United States of America despite great differences in size, ways of living and demographics among the states that had been there from the very beginning. Despite our differences, we chose to be a single people,  venerating sweeping ideals that required us to see all of those states and their residents as fellow Americans who merited our respect and our loyalty. We expressed that respect in many ways beginning with recognition of their civil and political rights. 

It was always an imperfect expression, a work in progress with many chapters of abject failure. But a more perfect union was always our stated goal. And many of us, perhaps most Americans, took that goal very seriously. 
The death of that America did not occur suddenly or, in hindsight, unexpectedly. For the last couple of years those understandings had been chronically ill. In the run-up to the election we watched the functions of government grind to a halt and endured a growing hurricane of negative propaganda as politicians achieved personal and political gain by driving wedges between us. 

On the morning of November 9 it all proved more than the poor old Lady Liberty could take. In the end, both the United States of America and the people who had called themselves Americans would succumb to self-inflicted wounds to the head, the heart and the soul.

Time of death, 2:40 AM Wednesday, November 9, 2016. 

The America I knew and loved would die on the 77th anniversary of the rise of fascism in Germany, a violent night of broken windows in storefronts and synagogues that would come to be called Kristallnacht. And like that ill-fated Third Reich, with the death of America, a mean-spirited, bellicose country led by a demagogue would rise in its place. Its name, for lack of any better, was simply Trumpland.
The lines drawn between the factions of the electorate in the process of Trumpland’s ascension have required us to drop any lingering pretenses that we continue to be a single people. Our warring factions now huddle in mutual fear and loathing. An electoral minority exercises power from the broad rural and suburban red sea of predominately angry white residents forming the core of Trumpland. That sea laps at the shores of mostly urban blue islands where widely diverse populations of cultural creatives – the actual winners of the popular vote in the election - now live essentially as resident legal aliens.  

It is critical to recognize that this was not a mere election with a winner and a loser and only the most superficial of readings could see it as such. Rather, this was a day which marked the death of a way of being a people and a nation-state and the rise of a new country with two peoples who largely see each other as anathema. The vaulted ideals of the Framers born in the heart of a Philadelphia which even then was highly diverse and cosmopolitan would die in the fear and loathing of its white suburbs, its ravaged industrial wastelands and the increasingly deserted ranch and farm lands beyond them that election night.

Working Through Grief 

For a person as deeply devoted to the ideals of my homeland, ideals that I have spent a lifetime expressing in the form of selfless service, the death of America has shattered my very soul. I had grown up loving an America I always knew was deeply flawed but whose ideals always held its citizens accountable for those flaws, however imperfectly and inconsistently. 

I had spent a lifetime serving my country in roles that ranged from the Cub Scouts (On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country) to the halls of power in Washington as a Congressional intern to a Fulbright scholar representing our nation and our people in Brasil for a summer.  And I had grown up serving the people I always believed were my fellow Americans as their teacher, attorney and priest. 

I was a true believer when it came to the ideals of my homeland and the value of its people. 

But the election results reported November 9, 2016 did not reflect that America. It embodied its absolute antithesis. And, given the grip on power that solidified that night in the hands of angry straight, white male power holders whose behaviors had just driven a stake through the heart of that America, sitting Shiva for a week and observing the month long Shloshim period of withdrawal from the outside world seemed an appropriate response.

I am indebted to Judaism for this structured means of processing my grief. 

Prompting People to Think

On a more personal level, it is always my way of dealing with losses to withdraw from the social world to work through my heart break. In the wake of life tragedies I have always chosen to spend time alone. Like Voltaire’s Candide, I retreat to my sanctuary to tend my garden, quite literally. I read a lot and conduct research on a wide range of subjects seeking insights that might help me come to grips with my grief and find a way to move forward. 

When I come up for air once again, I process that grief through writing. 

The following essays are attempts on my part to come to grips with what I see as the death of my beloved homeland and the rise of Trumpland. I write these essays in part for the sake of my own mental health but also to offer whatever insights might have arisen from my processing of these events for others to consider as they see fit. 

I am very clear that my observations here are premature at best. The leader of Trumpland will not be officially crowned for another couple of weeks.  While the run-up to that coronation is already taking on a very ominous appearance with the building of a corporatist, racist and fundamentalist Cabinet, I am a strong believer in the rabbinical wisdom that if you want to make G-d laugh, tell G-d your plans. 

That includes self-serving demagogues like Trump. It includes those who would presume to invoke G-d’s name in creating an authoritarian society like his vice-president. And it includes people like me who would presume to look into the future and discuss its possibilities with any degree of certitude. 

What I offer here is not revealed wisdom, it is merely my best understanding of what I see as our self-inflicted injuries to the body politic and what I envision as possible results of that enormous error in judgment on election day. If there is anything I am not it is a determinist of any sort. These observations are inscribed in Jello, not Quick-Crete. 

But as a history major who has seen patterns like these before, it’s hard to watch an advancing tsunami and not feel the need to sound an alarm. And, yes, I am more than aware of the occupational hazards that attend following in the footsteps of the Cassandras and Jeremiahs of our world.  

My goal here is NOT to incite anger, fear or hostility even as I realize some may well be offended by what I have to say. Truth be told, this election required the people of the late America to endure far more of that fare than is healthy for any human being or culture. Many of us already bore the scars of that war upon our souls long before the election. The last thing I want to do is cause any more harm to those already suffering.

My goal is also not to demonize people even as their attitudes and behaviors are fair game for criticism. I do not confuse the humanity of any given individual with whatever understandings they espouse. None of us are reducible to our thoughts, words or even deeds. At the end of the day, even the people with whom I disagree most vehemently still bear the image of G-d the same as I do and I will do all within my power to respect that image.  

So, if you find something in this series of blog entries to consider further, great. That is my goal. If you think I’m wrong, it would hardly be the first time or the last. My students will tell you I am prone to remark “But I could be wrong.” 

Please do not feel compelled to set me straight. I am simply offering my thoughts here for consideration, NOT confrontation. Bear in mind, you could be wrong, too. 

If you think I’m right on, bless you. But remember: Most Anglican preachers do not require an Amen to preach whatever they observe to be worthy of others’ consideration. I need no one’s permission or validation to offer my views as I see them. 

Most of all, please DO NOT for one second view this set of essays in which I dare to think out loud, baring my soul in working through my sorrow, as an invitation to engage in any mean-spirited, poorly informed or ill-considered political diatribes. My soul is only now recovering from the septic typhoon that was the past election. 

I am unwilling to deal with personal attacks, shallow sound bites, talking points or the poorly reasoned ideological blindsides that passed for discourse during the election cycle. I will not allow my blogsite or facebook accounts to be sites for nasty bickering or ad hominem attacks. If you are unable to honor my desires, I will simply not publish them on my blogsite and delete them from Facebook.

A Labor of Love, not a Polemics of Politics

As always, my goal in writing these blog entries and engaging the social media in which they are published is to prompt people to think, not to tell them what to think. I presume people can think for themselves even as they often demonstrate to me and to others that they are not willing to do so, the past election being a textbook example. 

I do not anticipate that everyone will read all of these entries and I am fine with that. I can be long-winded. But I see these as important issues which merit the time and attention to develop them fully. Consider what you will, ignore what you choose. I am honored when you take the time to read and think about any of the points I raise here. 

One last thought in this opening, a word that reflects the mind, heart and spirit of its offeror. Please know that these words are not offered in any kind of hasty, thoughtless or – to the degree I can be conscious of it – ideologically driven manner. I serve no agenda here. My thoughts are my own and these have been very deliberately considered, articulated and revised multiple times before appearing here.

They reflect an unusual life of now 63 years duration which has been intentionally developed through ongoing education on four different continents among a wide range of cultures and “all sorts and conditions of men (and women),” as the Book of Common Prayer puts it. My words reflect both the sometimes impatient observations of the head as well as the impassioned utterings of a compassionate heart. Above all, they reflect a deep life of Spirit prayerfully engaged every single day.  

In the end, this is a labor of love, not a polemic of politics. I only ask that you consider what I offer here in that sense. And now, to the first installment.

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.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

© Harry Coverston, 2016

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