Thursday, December 20, 2007

William Penn: The heart from which all Scriptures come

From today's daily online quote service, Words of Wisdom, comes this quote: "There is something nearer to us than Scriptures, to wit, the Word in the heart from which all Scriptures come." -William Penn (1644-1718)

I've always liked Penn. I admire his idealism and the colony he founded on that idealism. Through the portals of the city of brotherly love poured thousands of European colonists who would not have been welcome in most other American colonies primarily because of their religious beliefs. They included a number of my own emigrant ancestors.

The Quakers held a number of beliefs seen as odd by their fellow Anglican, Puritan and Catholic countrymen and women. They believed that everyone had a spark of the divine in them and that worship did not involve the set liturgies of the Catholics and Anglicans or the extended guilt-driven preaching of the Calvinists but rather sitting in silence, waiting for the divine within to quake, moving the individual to speak what was on their heart. They also reasserted the wisdom of the early Christian movement that following Jesus essentially ruled out military service and the state killing we attempt to euphemistically rationalize as capital punishment. Penn's jails were true penitentiaries, solitary confinement for the purpose of repentance, reconsidering one's life with the goal of social reassimilation at the end of that experience.

Penn's Quakers were quickly outnumbered and eventually overwhelmed. But the matrix of religious freedom and the refusal to couple absolute religious certitude with temporal power resulted in a creative mix in Philadelphia in the heart of Penn's Woods that would ultimately give birth to a new nation "conceived in liberty," as Lincoln would describe it a century later at Gettysburg, today a short drive away from Philadelphia. We are in William Penn's debt for his vision, without which, as the Proverbs writer observed, we would surely have perished.

What synchronicity that this quote arrives two days after my minor eruption over the barely implicit literalism in the statement of Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. (see previous blog entry) Penn's words reflect two major influences on my spiritual development. The first is Francis of Assisi's focus on compassion driven praxis: "Preach the good news at all times, use words when necessary." For Francis, written words on a good day reflected the compassionate life one was living which treated all of creation, particularly its most vulnerable members, with respect. On other days, they merely got in the way of the compassionate life of service to the poor.

The second is the wisdom of Jerry Drino, my rector and mentor at St. Philip's Episcopal Church in San Jose, CA. A fellow of the Four Spring Seminar which uses a Jungian depth analysis to consider the Christian faith, Jerry was wont to pose this question: "Is it true because Jesus said it, or did Jesus say it because it was true." The first time I heard that question I found it disquieting to say the least. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized it was an important question, a question I continue to pose to my students today.

Scripture is always at most a secondary product of a primary experience of the divine. Rudolph Otto's The Idea of the Holy called the experience of the divine the mysterium tremendum, an awe inspiring event (both in the sense of terror and wonder) which poorly lent itself to words. For virtually all of us, any scripture seen holy today is the product of centuries of transmission of first oral and later written tradition resulting in our receiving a product that is many years and countless generations of transmission removed from the experience which gave rise to it. Thus to conform one's own spiritual life to scripture, as the archbishop was suggesting, is essentially to buy into someone else's experience of the divine. At a very basic level, it is potentially a betrayal of one's own calling to an authentic life of spirit.

As I said in my rant on Rowan's ramblings, I hardly could be seen as one who does not value scripture. I find scripture highly useful and worth serious consideration. I quote it in my teaching, my writing (as alluded to above) and my conversations with others. Scripture is a valuable beginning place for the consideration of one's own spiritual life. But is but a beginning place, the first word, not the final. Hence, notions of conforming to scripture, obedience to official dogmatic understandings of that scripture or testing one's own spiritual experiences against others' understandings of that scripture for validity (whatever that could possibly mean) runs a major risk of truncated spiritual lives even as they provide the basis for the belief systems approved by conventional religious authorities.

Penn's formula provides one powerful corrective to this truncating tendency: what does one's heart say to you? How does your own experience of the divine inform your understanding? What might one's very spirit sense about what the spirit is saying to you, to the world? These are important dimensions to any spiritual life of integrity. Without them, our religion does not belong to us. As I teach my students, the most brittle religious constructs in the world are those we inherit from respected others and simply accept without question, much less reflection. It's precisely those inherited religions that are most vulnerable to the simple question "Why do you believe that?" And it is the consideration of that question that often induces painful feelings of betrayal of one's authority figures and cognitive dissonance in recognizing the fragility and often the superficiality - sometimes even the indefensibility - of inherited and unreflective belief systems.

While Penn has located the personal and affective dimension of believing, I would suggest there is yet another important question one must ask about one's own religious construct and the way scripture is appropriated within that construct: How does one's religion impact the world around us? It is, of course, very Franciscan to look around the Creation and see the image of the divine imprinted on every aspect of the created universe. And that's a good starting place. But it's only the starting place.

It is very easy for first world peoples in a consumer-driven society to appropriate scripture such as the Genesis passage instructing human beings to take dominion of the earth and use it to their heart's content without regard for impact on others. It is easy for people living in atomized first world nations marked by hypercompetiveness to rationalize the practice of state killing or economically driven invasions of other countries with selective appropriation of scripture. Conversely, it ought to be no surprise that a selective literalist appropriation of the Quran was on the lips of the pilots of highjacked airliners as they collided with the Twin Towers in New York. As Mark Twain said, even the devil can quote scripture. And as feminist scholars have long noted, any text without a context (or consciousness of implicit subtexts) is almost always a pretext.

Demands for conformity to an authorized vision of scripture almost always signal a number of things: the combination of some form of power with an absolute conviction of the rectitude of a given course of action which scripture has been marshaled to legitimize. Clearly, such a combination can on the rare occasion be salvific, i.e., it can bring health and wholeness to its adherents and those whose lives they touch sometimes in the face of extreme adversity, such as the confessing church movement in Nazi Germany. But more often the combination of power, absolute certitude of one's rectitude and the use of legitimizing scripture is anything but healthy, as the example of George Bush's invasion of Iraq because, according to him, G-d had instructed him to do so suggests.

The question of "What does the Bible say?" is too rarely accompanied by the more important questions of "What does it mean?," "What might the divine be saying to me and to the world in this?" and "How does that understanding impact my own life, the lives of others and the world around us?" And when we neglect the elements of head, heart and relationality to the world around us, buying into the understandings of others without reflection, we have virtually guaranteed that our own spiritual lives will be stunted and set the stage for religious tyranny.


The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.

Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church, Dio. of El Camino Real, CA (inactive status)
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.

Monday, December 17, 2007

"It's Bib-i-cal" - Of Power, History and Stuffed Purple Shirts

If I have ever felt that I am a stranger to the Anglican expression of the Christian tradition which I once pledged my life to serve "as priest in the order of Melchizedek forever," it is certainly upon reading the Advent Letter from the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. I have to confess I did not get far into the letter before becoming so nauseous I had to stop reading. Here are two points that caught me:

The Communion is a voluntary association of provinces and dioceses; and so its unity depends not on a canon law that can be enforced but on the ability of each part of the family to recognise that other local churches have received the same faith from the apostles and are faithfully holding to it in loyalty to the One Lord incarnate who speaks in Scripture and bestows his grace in the sacraments.

Of course, one of the great beauties of the Anglican Communion has been its refusal to be bound by the hierarchical, patriarchal structure of the Roman expression of catholicism. I observe that the British Isles' expression of Christianity has long demonstrated that resistance. It is evident in the community-based Celtic Church prior to the Council of Whitby at which Roman rule was imposed. It was also evident in the Pelagianism native to Anglican thought which refused to buy into Augustinian constructs of conditionality of G-d's love and the requirement of obedience to an institution and its dogma as a condition of salvation.

Clearly, the Communion is one of voluntary affiliation. The reality of that existence in itself ought to guarantee healthy disagreement and discussion about matters of faith as a matter of course. Attempts to impose a single vision on that ongoing discourse as a condition of belonging is a betrayal of the tradition. Indeed, it would be an abandonment of the Communion as it has historically existed.

What I found most alien in this statement was the notion of a single received tradition, "the same faith from the apostles" which true members of the communion are "faithfully holding…in loyalty to the One Lord incarnate who speaks in Scripture…" Of course, much of that is the boiler plate theobabble one would expect from an Archbishop of Canterbury. What is troubling is its lack of any semblance of historicity.

The reality is that the understanding in this letter is hardly "the same faith from the apostles." While it goes without saying that Jesus would probably not recognize himself in much of the religion which bears his name, the same can undoubtedly be said for his earliest followers and interpreters. Indeed, the notion of a single faith held by the various parties within what became the Christian faith is simply irreconcilable with the extant voices of that early tradition. What is observable from those voices is multiplicity of understandings, not a univocal tradition. The history of the stream of faith that came to be called Christianity more readily justifies a description of the same as Christianities, not a single Christian faith. The notion of a Golden Age in which everyone got along and believed the same things - located prior to the corruptions of Rome in the Protestant mythmaking or in an unbroken chain of sharers of the same vision dating back to St. Peter and hammered out in councils and succeeding magisterium in the Roman Catholic version of the myth - is simply the stuff of wishful thinking.

But here is the part that stopped me dead in my tracks -

So a full relationship of communion will mean:

The common acknowledgment that we stand under the authority of Scripture as 'the rule and ultimate standard of faith', in the words of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral; as the gift shaped by the Holy Spirit which decisively interprets God to the community of believers and the community of believers to itself and opens our hearts to the living and eternal Word that is Christ. Our obedience to the call of Christ the Word Incarnate is drawn out first and foremost by our listening to the Bible and conforming our lives to what God both offers and requires of us through the words and narratives of the Bible. We recognise each other in one fellowship when we see one another 'standing under' the word of Scripture.

Perhaps it is the "authority of scripture" passage, the code language of biblical literalists, that first stuck in my craw. Or perhaps it was the language about obedience, again a cardinal value of conservative worldviews befitting parent/child relationships but not those of mature adults. Or perhaps it was the "'standing under' the word of Scripture, again, an essentially fundamentalist construction. I read and reread this paragraph and thought to myself, what is this? What do I recognize in this writing of my own religious history or my current understandings?

What finally gave me a place to begin was the reference to the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral Statement of 1866, one of the many documents found at the rear of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer under the heading "Historical Documents." Long known by many Episcopalians as boring sermon relief, the documents are marked more by their antiquity and curiosity than anything informing the faith of Episcopalians today. Williams' letter called the Statement "the rule and ultimate standard of faith." In fact, what that statement lays out are four "principles of unity…which we believe to be the substantial deposit of Christian faith..." Among these four "inherent parts of this sacred deposit," the statement lists scripture first. But it hardly refers to it as "the rule and ultimate standard of faith," an assertion which would promote it to an exclusive, superior status, a theological trump card over the remaining three principles. Nor does its inclusion in that list exhaust the faith, according to the Statement, only a "substantial deposit" of it.

Indeed, rules are by definition statements mandating specific behaviors and thus at a lower level of authority than overarching principles which underlie rules and thus are broader and more open to interpretation and application. Rules are the stuff of parent/child relations. Principles are made for adult believers capable of reason, reflection, deliberation and prayerful application. Think state laws (rules) and Constitutional provisions like Due Process (principles). At least in theory in Anglo-American jurisprudence, when lower level rules come into conflict with higher level principles, it is the latter which must take precedence every time.

Rowan increasingly sounds like a power-driven fundamentalist. And to the extent he actually speaks for Anglicanism, he speaks about a religion I do not recognize. But what troubles me most about this statement is not its betrayal of Anglicanism or its revelation of Rowan's devolution from thoughtful theologian, albeit a theologian generally isolated from reality, to a stuffed purple shirt spouting mindless theology unbefitting a man of his intellect and educational attainment. What troubles me most is that increasingly I find myself looking on from outside at a religion I no longer recognize devolving into a form that I despise and, like Rip Van Winkle, wonder how long I've been asleep.

Increasingly I find generalized references to "the Bible" in conversation to be signals to tune out. I find myself making the very ungracious presumption that whatever follows will be uncritical - if not mindless - theobabble. Sadly, that presumption has proven to be true more often than not. I also find myself replying to assertions about what "the Bible says…" with comments like "Bibles don't speak. Their readers do." And I find myself assessing religious constructs which describe themselves in terms such as "bible centered" or "bible based" as essentially practicing an idolatry of bible worship I find completely alien. It would be easy to slide into an ungenerous pattern of prejudice here, a proclivity of which I remain on guard in my dealings with others, particularly my students.

I also increasingly find my understanding of G_d to fit very uneasily with the descriptions of G-d found in Hebrew Scripture or the New Testament. I don't doubt the validity of the descriptions found there, whatever notions of validity might mean in such cases. I simply presume that while they may well describe the experience of ancient peoples of the divine, those experiences and resulting descriptions may or may not be particularly compelling for people of good faith here and now.

Perhaps the most troubling realization in all this is simply that the Bible per se does not form the basis of my faith. It does strongly inform it. And I value its wisdom even as I recognize its human imperfections and its captivity to cultural assumptions people in the 21st CE West no longer share. But my notion of the divine has grown over the years as I have grown. And a god who can be confined to any book, even a book as divinely inspired as the Judeo-Christian scriptures, is not a god worth worshipping. Conversely, a religion which purports to be devoted to the worship of a G-d who is the ground and source of all being cannot be relegated to, much less based exclusively in, any single account of that G-d.

And so I find myself looking from the outside in at a leader I once admired of a faith tradition I no longer recognize and wonder how I ended up here. I find myself essentially in theological free fall, awash in a sea of cognitive dissonance. But I also recognize that the genie cannot go back into the bottle again. I cannot "fake it till I make it," per the disingenuousness of 12 Steps thinking. I was not ordained to be dishonest with myself or others. I’m not sure I ever really believed what Rowan Williams is talking about here. But I am sure I don't believe it now and the chances are, I never will. Indeed, I think people of critical reflection and good conscience probably can't.

This past week on a prison visitation I engage annually with people of faith I found myself describing my religious orientation as post-Christian recovering Episcopalian. Ironically I came home from death row of our state prison to find this letter from Rowan Williams, an obituary for the faith I once held in the Anglican Communion. Whither goeth the Episcopal Church in the wake of this devolution of Anglicanism is yet unclear. So, what does it mean to be a priest of a tradition whose leader speaks in a language you find foreign? What does it mean to defend a faith increasingly cast in terms you find untenable? What can be salvaged of a faith which once burned brightly and hopefully and now sputters and dies?

There are no easy answers tonight, perhaps no answers at all. Tonight there is but grieving for a once proud tradition that has fallen into decay and anxious pondering of a faith journey which once seemed so promising and now has vanished into a fog of zero visibility.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA, inactive status)
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.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Where's the Adult?

A couple of days have passed since the firestorm erupted over the Andrew Meyers event at the University of Florida. At the UF Accent program which brings public speakers to campus featuring former Democratic presidential nominee and US Sen. John Kerry, Meyers, a UF senior, dove into an impassioned diatribe about Kerry's behavior in the 2004 election and ended his one and a half minute speech with a question about Kerry's involvement with the Skull and Bones Society at Yale. Though the student's style was confrontational, his delivery impassioned and his question coming at the end of a long series of proclamations of revealed truth, Kerry repeatedly indicated he wished to answer the student's question.

We know about what happened next from the YouTube video Meyers had a fellow student make. In the video, as Meyers ranted some students are seen rolling their eyes, others listening in rapt attention. But the student head of the Accent program, a position historically occupied by future politicos in training, was not amused. First he had the student's microphone cut off. Then he told university police to arrest Meyers.

Not surprisingly, Meyer's did not react well to being manhandled by university police. His repeated response was "I didn't do anything wrong." Reports that the student was being "escorted from the building" are at best kind if not outright spin. This young man was dragged from the microphone, his shirt partially ripped off his body, and ultimately was thrown to the floor by several officers. It was at that point, with the young man clearly under the control of several physically superior officers, that they used a taser to electrically shock the student despite his now famous plea, "Don't tase me, bro." The sound of the student screaming still echoes in my head.

As the details of this young man's life have emerged, it has become clear he is a publicity seeker. His website includes a number of videos of himself seeking attention through stunts. His comments in the police car enroute to the jail (he was arrested for resisting arrest and inciting a riot) suggest that he did not blame the police for their conduct. In the meantime, the university has suspended the officers in question and ordered an investigation of the event.

Perhaps it is because this is my alma mater, the school at which my parents met, the school at which I spent six years of my life as an adult and many years as a child on campus for football games and a summer at the university lab school, that I feel such embarrassment about this event. I was so upset on Tuesday I could not think straight and got little done on the day I reserve for grading and class prep. But it has been the reactions of many I love and whose opinions I trust that has upset me even further.

I think it way too easy to buy into blame the victim and simply brush off this event as the result of a publicity stunt gone awry. Even more disturbing is the clear tendency among many to suggest the student got what he deserved. No one deserves to be electrically shocked. Even if we decide that tasing someone is the lesser evil than having them continue destructive behavior, it nonetheless remains evil. People have died from being tasered. It is a form of coercive force that should ALWAYS be used as a last resort, never the first. Andrew Meyer is no angel. But he is a human being worthy of having his person respected regardless of his conduct. And it is precisely when concerns for order and security presumptively outweigh the duty to honor human dignity that the society in question reveals its potential for tyranny.

In my discussions with one friend, I referred to events such as this in Berkeley, where I spent four years of my life while in seminary and grad school, in which prophets with messages from various gods wandered in off the streets and proclaimed revealed truth, sometimes for many more minutes than Andrew Meyer used in his comparatively short diatribe. While such events almost always managed to annoy the gathered participants of the events, the self-appointed prophets were usually indulged, endured but rarely removed and never physically accosted. It seems to me that public events require a wide berth for people like Andrew Meyer. Annoyance at inconsiderate speakers does not rise to the level of threats to security, the only time when coercive force should ever be seen as justifiable.

The First Amendment's protections of free expression were designed for publicity seekers and impassioned prophetic speakers like Andrew Meyers. It's precisely unpopular speech that is protected by the amendment, not everyone's speech. Popular speech needs no protections - it pleases the majority and thereby runs no risk of having the majority use its power to squelch unpopular speech, the tyranny of the majority.

A family member repeated the Fox "News" mantra that Meyers had "refused a lawful order." I guess I'd question whether the order was lawful. As Meyers said, "I didn't do anything wrong" and other than annoying some of the audience and the Accent staff, I observed no laws being broken. If one is not engaged in wrongdoing, how could the order to desist be lawful? Because the Accent director said so? Case law has repeatedly affirmed that people have a right to resist unlawful detention. But, beyond legal considerations, this line of argument does reveal the parent/child construction of citizen v. government power that lies at the heart of my disturbance over this event. It leads me to ask where the adult was in this case.

Universities are places of learning. As I observed in northern California, patient endurance of blowhards in public meetings serves to respect both the dignity of the individual involved (even when they have been inconsiderate of the dignity of the other individuals present) as well as teaching the lesson that, while democracy is inevitably messy, a little patience and an awful lot of forebearance is the best way to insure that democracy can work. What lesson was taught at UF Monday? Sadly, that impatience backed by the use of coercive force is the way we conduct our business at the University of Florida. Now, apply that lesson to Iran and its hesitation to negotiate about nuclear power plants. Or a political prisoner who's not providing the information an interrogator seeks. Or the homeless person frightening tourists in downtown nightclub districts by his mere presence.

For those who would avoid social responsibility, exonerating armed police officers who manhandle pests at public events by locating all responsibility in the individual, there is a slight problem. Such an analysis presumes a fact not in evidence - that a level playing field exists. But the parties here are nowhere close to equal. Andrew Meyers was armed with a microphone and an inordinate amount of chutzpah. The UPD officers were armed with guns, tasers and the color of law providing them the authority and implicit approval for their actions from the public they are sworn to protect. While the UPD charged the student with inciting a riot, the only real energy in that auditorium emerged at the point the officers had manhandled and tased a fellow student. How was the public protected here?

I do expect college students to behave in less than an adult manner from time to time. I certainly did and I sometimes console myself on the other side of the lectern at the university after a day of rudeness from my students with the notion of my karma catching up with me. But I do expect university personnel to behave in an adult manner. I expect universities to model behavior it would want at least its own students if not the rest of the society it serves to emulate. And I expect those entrusted with authority, power and lethal force to use it judiciously and, in the case of coercive force, only as a last resort, not as a fairly immediate response to irritation. In short, if we are going to cast university v. students and government v. citizens in parent/child relational terms, we must demand that the parent behave as an adult. That didn't happen at the University of Florida Monday as a wide variety of observers have noted, including today's Orlando Sentinel editorial.

I agree with the UF Independent Alligator's take on this: the kid was a jerk, the arrest was at best questionable, but the use of force including a taser was unwarranted. The university owes this student - and the general public the university serves - an apology.

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.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Independence Day?

It was July 4, 2007, America's Independence Day. Behind the guest services counter at the Best Western Hotel in San Jose, an American flag covered the wall. On our pillows in our room we found a small chocolate wrapped in red, white and blue cellophane with a small note attached reading "Happy 4th of July!"

All of this would seem rather ordinary under most occasions. But this was not San Jose, California. It was San Jose, Costa Rica. For only the second time in my life, I found myself thinking of home, of America on its birthday, from a foreign country.

On the television, the smarmy twang of country music confusing militarism with patriotism provided this musical reminder of the day:

And I’m proud to be an American where at least I know I’m free.
And I won’t forget the men who died, who gave that right to me.
And I’d gladly stand up next to you and defend her still today.
‘Cause there ain’t no doubt I love this land - God bless the U.S.A.
- Lee Greenwood, God Bless the USA (1984)

I think it would be easier to be proud to be an American if I didn't actually love my country. I've always found some wisdom in the worn maxim that we like people because, we love people in spite of. I think that is true about father or motherlands as well.

But America is giving us much to love it in spite of these days. The week preceding Independence Day, George the Unready commuted the sentence of Scooter Libby, convicted of lying repeatedly to a grand jury about the leak of the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame as a means of getting back at her husband, Joe Wilson for refuting the lie about Iraq and nuclear capability as a pretext for the invasion. There will be no penalty for the abuse of power that could have cost Ms. Plame her life, a crime that no doubt originated at the top of the White House food chain. As usual, there will be no accountability for this administration whose hollow use of "the rule of law" when convenient has provided a moral lesson in hypocrisy.

Earlier in the week, the Bush packed Supreme Court handed down three rulings that ought to make even the most moss backed conservative nervous. In a case originating out of Alaska, the Supremes ruled that a sign held by students off campus at a public but not school sponsored event reading "Bong Hits for Jesus" could be the basis for disciplinary action by the school because the message advocated drug use. This is a Court that has lost sight of the very purpose of the First Amendment - the protection of unpopular expression from what DeTocqueville rightly recognized as the ever present potential for the "tyranny of the majority."

Previous courts have readily recognized exigent circumstances as grounds for curtailing expression - clear and present danger, defamatory potential, fighting words. But few have ever set themselves up to judge the content of speech as the grounds for failing to protect it. Were the Supremes particularly candid (and the Bush v. Gore case suggests that is NOT the case) they might have admitted to allowing the troubling religious content to have impacted their vote. Or they might have admitted that the drug element points to a serious problem in our society, a reflection of who we are rather than an invitation to behavior for which we have already demonstrated no need of invitation to engage. Instead, what we get is a blow to individual expression, albeit offensive expression, with a lame excuse that the banner somehow ran afoul of the "war on drugs." Please.

The second and third rulings essentially confirmed the court's complete sell-out to business interests. The first rejected the right of tax payers to challenge administration awarding of contracts to "faith based" organizations to provide social services. Groups like the Salvation Army, whose services to the homeless are often overshadowed by its manipulative evangelistic tactics in providing those services and by its homophobic hiring practices, can now receive tax moneys with impunity. The second ruling struck down the limitations on campaign spending by corporations and unions with so-called "issue ads," little more than thinly veiled partisan attacks. Elections can now function as auctions to the highest bidders with impunity.

There is a name for a governmental system which goes out of its way to protect the rights of its artificial persons, i.e., corporations, at the same time it represses the rights of its natural persons, i.e., human beings. Mussolini called his version "corporatism" but most people of his time simply called by its common name - fascism.

The lead story on the July 4 morning news on CNN, provided on the local cable system, was the winner of the Nathan's hot dog eating contest in Coney Island, NY. The obviously ill young man managed a wan smile when it was announced he had stuffed 66 hotdogs down his gullet in 12 minutes, a new world's record. Fortunately we were spared the inevitable regurgitation that would surely follow.

The second story alluded to the terrorist plots, both aborted and successful, in the United Kingdom and then jumped into the Chamber of Commerce required notice that no terrorist activities had been detected in the US, our terror alert had not been heightened, and thus it was OK to go spend money at the malls, American flag festooned car lots and fireworks stands.

The third story focused on the speeding stop of Albert Gore, Jr., the former vice-president's son, and the variety of prescription drugs found in the vehicle. The story began with his arrest photo, mentioned previous entanglements with the law and treatment for drugs and ended with the note that the Gore son had not yet hired an attorney. Another celebrity life available for the feeding frenzy of a bored people demanding passive entertainment.

Earlier in the day, ESPN had been touting a golf tournament sponsored by Tiger Woods in honor of the military, an interesting event considering Tiger's non-existent career in the service, a privilege available to him as a man of color as the exception to the rule in America. A spokeswoman for the tournament recited a rather mindless statement about how freedom is never free and must be defended by our military. Of course, if one's military were not so busy defending protecting corporate interests and their exploitative economic relationships with most of the world, perhaps it would not find freedom in such need of defense. Indeed, perhaps it's not freedom that's being defended at all.

This is what Costa Ricans - and much of the world - saw of America July 4, 2007. What a wonderful face my country provided the world on its birthday celebration - gluttony celebrated as accomplishment, a never ending fear of the possibility of terrorism its own actions has inflamed, a culture so unhappy with its life that it feels the constant need to escape it through drugs and alcohol. G-d bless the USA!

If one didn't love their country, it would be easy to be proud to be an American, as Greenwood suggests. But the reality is that we're hardly free even if we delude ourselves with that notion. We are slaves to a materialism that expresses itself in many pathological ways ranging from our addiction to petrochemicals to an epidemic of obesity. We are prisoners of fear which at heart implicitly recognizes that our relationship to much of the world has been exploitative at best, destructive at worst. But most of all, we are unable to escape the unhappiness that our materialistic, militaristic culture causes us even as we continue to buy into the messages of our culture industry that we are supposed to be happy.

Three days after Independence Day, I mulled over all these things as I flew back to Miami International. I found myself excited about being home, about having my aging dachshund and two cats greet me, about seeing friends and family and being in my chosen hometown. But I simultaneously found myself strangely ambivalent about coming back to a United States that six weeks in Latin America had given me some distance from and some trepidations about my return to it.

We are a good people. We are creative, ingenious, compassionate. We have the capacity for great nobility when we strive for the ideals our great documents such as the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights and "I have a dream" speech represent. We know how to be a just nation. But we also have the capacity to elect presidents with little capacity for handling such responsibilities, deluding ourselves that his mediocrity (not to mention mendacity and mean-spiritedness) somehow makes him one of us. We are all too readily manipulated by fear which allows for unjust and often inhumane treatment rivaling that of history's greatest despots to prevail. And we fail to demand from our media that the whole truth be told, preferring to be entertained with half-truths, banal sit-coms and staged "reality shows."

To which America have I come home? Where is the country that I have loved and served these 52 years? And where is it going? May G-d bless the USA with a wakeup call soon.

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.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Last night I saw something amazing.

Birthday parties are nothing unusual even when they are for the dreaded #30 after which no one under 30 can trust you anymore according to the wisdom of the 60s. But this party was unusual. First, the young man celebrating his passage into his 30s threw the party for himself. At church. He enlisted the help of the parish and they generously provided a beautiful spread of food, drink and decorations. He created a theme - shady ladies - and asked people to wear shades. They did, ranging from the oversized sunglasses from the Rocky Horror Picture Show to Minnie and Mickey Disney shades to lamp shades. It was a hoot.

But that was just the beginning. The party was designed as a fund raiser for an international AIDS ministry. An Episcopal priest who serves that ministry came to speak to the party, this just days out of open heart surgery. What he said took me by surprise.

He began by congratulating St. Richard's parish for its willingness to open its doors, its ministries and its hearts to all people, regardless of whom they love. Around the room a number of gay and lesbian parishioners nodded their heads in agreement, including the young man celebrating his birthday. In a room filled with well over 100 people, most of them St. Richard's parishioners, the truth of Fr. Freu's observations was apparent. He reminded the parish of the obvious - they offer an important ministry in a diocese which is often hostile to and judgmental of the very people St. Richard's welcomes. That witness is a light in what is often a very dark and cold diocese. And it occurs by swimming upstream against the dominant vision of the diocese and its leadership. It is a courageous witness, indeed.

He went on to offer some of the sanest theology I've heard in this diocese in a long time: "On the seventh day, G-d looked at all he had created and he said, 'It is good.' And that's all you have to know. And anyone who would tell you the world is evil is simply wrong." I looked around the parish hall and the faces of those present - white, black, Latino, Asian, old, young, straight, gay - presented a snapshot of what Archbishop Desmond Tutu has called G-d's Rainbow People. That sight brought tears to my eyes. Because, as G-d has assessed it, it is very good. Indeed, it was quite beautiful.

There are days when I catch a brief glimpse of the Episcopal Church I joined so many years ago. It was a church that valued head and heart, that entertained questions rather than insisting upon simplistic answers. It was a church that truly did believe that there would be no outcasts. It was a church whose people prayed together as a starting place for serving G_d's world. Last night, for a brief moment, I saw that old Episcopal Church. It was truly wonderful to see it in this diocese where I became an Episcopalian some 30 years ago last January, a diocese which long ago lost its way. As I said to my gentle spirited partner who attended the party with me, "Now, *this* is the church I joined" and he smiled and nodded his head in agreement.

I am grateful to Marc Guttierez for his untiring service to his parish and this diocese, to St. Richard's for its courageous witness and for folks like Fr. Rand Freu who continue to toil away at making the kingdom of G-d just one small step closer to reality every day. Most of all, I am grateful for this glimpse of the Episcopal Church I once knew and loved, if ever so fleeting. I thank all of you who were part of this wonderful evening. And I pray for the day when this vision of church will once more become the norm and not the exception in this place where I have chosen to live the rest of my life.

Happy Birthday, Marc. And thank you for the present you gave to all of us last night.

Preach the Gospel at all times; use words when necessary. Francis of Assisi

Harry S. Coverston, Ph.D., J.D.

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.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Fixing G-d's Mistakes

In today's email I came across two statements from religious conservatives that simply stopped me dead in my tracks. The first was from the Rev. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., who on March 2 asserted in his blog that he favored prenatal procedures to essentially undo sexual orientation in fetuses who would otherwise be born gay or lesbian.

His comment is stunning in a couple of ways. First, it essentially admits what everyone already knows - that sexual orientation is not a matter of choice, and thus not a matter of sin. While Mohler still hedged his bets by saying that there is "no incontrovertible or widely accepted proof," (it's always hard to admit that one has been dead wrong for several decades in the face of scientific evidence to the contrary although that's a lot shorter turnaround time than the Vatican required for dealing with Galileo) his admission that "the direction of the research points in this direction" along with his willingness to urge prenatal sexual orientation selection suggests that he knows the truth and probably has for awhile - sexual orientation is not a choice, regardless of what Baptist theology teaches.

Second, it no doubt unconsciously asserts that somehow Baptists know better than the G-d they allege they serve when it comes to human sexuality. There is no small amount of hubris in an assertion that we have to fix sexual orientation "mistakes" before babies are born, such mistakes ostensibly the work of the G-d whom even Baptists recognize is the author of all creation.

What could give rise to such a statement? Does the Dr. Mohler not recognize the enormous amount of hubris that such an assertion implicitly evidences? Perhaps the second statement gives us some hints.

Stand Firm is an organization of conservative Episcopalians who have self-servingly dubbed themselves "orthodox Anglicans" (as if such designations really mean anything of substance). Their website (as of today's date) features a column by an Episcopal priest, Matthew Kennedy, interestingly entitled "Embracing Pelagius." Kennedy raises some provocative points about the modern/traditional conflict through connecting them to Augustine of Hippo and his favorite whipping boy, Pelagius of Britain, the latter ultimately the loser in the battle for the minds - and ultimately the control - of Western Christendom.

But it's Kennedy's comments on the culture war over sexual orientation that stopped me cold:

"For the most part we’ve been willing grant the “scientific” evidence and admit the very real possibility (though the jury is still out) that homosexual orientation may well arise from inborn genetic or biological conditions. And because we have been able to admit this, many revisionists are slowly coming to the realization that what looked like ace is maybe a two. In fact, were a conclusive study demonstrating the inherent nature of homosexual desire to be published tomorrow, it would have absolutely no effect on the orthodox argument. Rather, in some sense, the orthodox argument would be strengthened because biblical faith and classic Christian doctrine assumes that human nature is itself fallen. We are, therefore, necessarily born with disordered desires"

I suppose such a convoluted argument makes sense to its maker. Again, I have to marvel at the hubris that this evidences - even in the face of science which demonstrates that sexual orientation is not a choice and therefore not capable of being a sinful choice, the "orthodox argument" is unfazed - human nature itself is sinful.

Of course, if the problem is "human nature" with its "disordered desires," such an affliction would apply to all human beings regardless of sexual orientation. And it's precisely the identification of only homosexual orientation as somehow the evidence of fallen human nature and disordered desires that reveals the real agenda here: the legitimation of homophobia.

In the past couple of months, I've been working on an application of Jean-Paul Sartre's concept of "bad faith" regarding arguments made in public discourse. Sartre's definition of bad faith is lying to oneself first and thereafter lying to others. This is not the same as being a generally deceitful actor. Rather, one lies to deny an unpleasant fact or to assert and thereafter affirm a pleasant falsehood in light of the facts to the contrary.

As Sartre says in The Problem of Nothingness,

"The essence of the lie implies in fact that the liar actually is in complete possession of the truth which he is hiding. A man does not lie about what is ignorant of; he does no lie when he spreads an error of which he himself is the dupe; he does not lie when he is mistaken. The ideal description of the liar would be a cynical consciousness, affirming truth within himself, denying it in his words and denying that negation as such."

The notion of cynical consciousness is helpful in understanding the two statements above. My mother was prone to add to her always gentle but firm criticism of wrongdoers that "they know better." And that is what makes the comments of the two speakers above not only reprehensible, it also makes it impossible to take their arguments made in bad faith seriously. They know better.

In the 1995 film Priest, a film about homophobia within Roman Catholicism and its destructive effects on a young gay priest in England, a wizened old parish priest remarks in his homily that when we fail to respect the good Creation that G-d has created, we spit in the eye of G-d. The assertion that we know better than G-d what sexual orientation a child should bear and that we should fix G-d's mistake in utero is an astonishing statement, and a rather large wad of phlegm hurled toward the eye of our Maker. The assertion that human nature is fallen and our desires disordered but only when they are homosexual in orientation is not only not only deeply homophobic, it ultimately asserts that what G-d has created can only be honored when it is just like us - the ultimate statement of self-idolatry.

There are many days I wish I could simply tune out statements like these made, no doubt, in sincerity and with the greatest of passion but ultimately lacking in respectability. I do not begrudge folks their beliefs even when they are simply untenable for people with even a modicum of intellectual honesty. But so long as the Baptists and self-proclaimed orthodox Anglicans of the world have any ability to influence public policy generally not to mention within those institutions of which I, as an Episcopal priest, am part, we do not have the luxury of ignoring these kinds of statements and hoping their makers will simply go away.

Clearly, time is not on their side. Ultimately, homophobia will not carry the day. But until that day, those of us who would fight the forces of ignorance, prejudice and the destructiveness those forces engender have no choice but to continue confronting the Mohlers and Kennedys of the world with a gentle but firm response: You know better. We all do.

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.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Tanzania and the Anglican Communion:
On Learning to Deal with an Abusive Parent

As I have watched the spectacle unfolding in Tanzania this past week of the meeting of the primates of the Anglican Communion, the world's Anglicans holding their breath to see if the good ole boys would deign to show common courtesy to the new woman Presiding Bishop of the American church, much less join her in communion, I tried to sit with my reactions to that spectacle to try to find something about it that made sense. I monitored my deep disappointment in my classmate from seminary, Katherine Jefferts-Schori, who represented me and many other Episcopalians at the summit, maintaining silence indicating acquiescence to the communiqu├ęs of the primates setting deadlines for compliance with homophobic mandates. I noted my sense of complete estrangement from the third world bishops, men of incredibly limited vision and narrow theologies more befitting Southern Baptists than Anglicans, who seek to create an Anglican version of the very Roman hierarchy from which Anglicanism once revolted. And I felt the slightest ache of a heart which was once profoundly devoted to the Episcopal Church and the larger Anglican tradition but today senses there is little more than a history in common with those entities remaining.

What dawned on me as I checked my heart, my gut, my thoughts and my soul was that my inability or at least unwillingness to divorce myself from the Episcopal Church and the orders of priesthood I continue to hold there even in the face of yet one more round of denigration, discrimination and dehumanization by the church really bears the mark of an abusive parent/child relationship. The Episcopal Church consistently displays the double bind of dysfunctional parenting. It passes noble resolutions of inclusiveness and proclaiming "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You" out front its churches. Simultaneously the church seeks to appease the philistines of the third world and their intent to impose a fundamentalist, homophobic agenda on the worldwide communion as the bottom line of its doctrine and praxis, agreeing to not ordain gay bishops or authorize rites for LBGT unions. Sadly, there are many Episcopalians and Anglicans worldwide who know better than this but are willing to sacrifice their LBGT fellow parishioners and clergy - along with their own integrity - to the idol of unity.

Many children in abusive parent/child relationships feel unable to completely sever the bonds to the parents they are, according to common human wisdom, supposed to love. As children, they have little recourse but to endure the abuse and the double binds that are inflicted upon them. As adults, many experience profound conflict between the feelings of love and sometimes compassion they feel for parents who were, after all, very human, and the needs to respect their own dignity and protect it from the potential for abuse they always face when dealing with their parent.

Of course, not all parents remain trapped in their patterns of abuse. Parents can grow up, recognize the pain they have caused their children, repent from their abusive patterns and seek to reconcile with their children. Sadly, this is probably the exception to the rule. But it does happen. I know.

My entire life changed at six years of age when my father felt compelled to leave his job at an insurance agency in Tampa Bay to return to teaching. The only slots open midyear in 1959 in Florida were in Steinhatchee, a tiny fishing community in the Big Bend region of north Florida's west coast, or in Bushnell, a small farming community in Central Florida, ironically where my father had been born and raised. Even at 6, I knew my life had changed and not for the better as we rolled into Bushnell with its nearby state historical site of a major massacre of white soldiers that began the Second Seminole War.

It was not until I became an adult and worked through years of therapy that I began to realize why my father's attitude of me changed with that move. The town was full of his classmates and teachers, people who had known the grandmother I never met and the grandfather I barely remembered. It must have been hard for a father who had left town at the death of his mother at 14, served the country in the Navy during the second world war, and earned a master's degree to come home where everyone remembered him as little Sammy, the kid they remembered from his childhood. And it must have been even more difficult to deal with the dawning realization that his oldest child was gay and would never live into the values that little town which had produced him saw as non-negotiable.

My Dad was highly demanding as a parent. When I made all As, he responded with "Good. Next time maybe you can make all A+s." And in retrospect, he probably suffered no small amount of humiliation as his sissy but brainy kid excelled in journalism, science fairs and marching band while floundering as an athlete and a future farmer despite his best efforts.

When I most needed my Dad in that rocky 11 and a half years in public schools in Bushnell, he was rarely there. Perhaps he felt he couldn’t be. And so I suffered in silence. I built a half acre rock garden to work out the sorrow of realizing that I was not valued in that small town. I rode my bicycle all over town and read every science fiction book in the local public library seeking to escape the bucolic prison in which I languished. I applied for national science foundation grants to spend summers in accelerated high school programs at large universities. And I plotted my escape, something I managed to accomplish the very day after my graduation from high school, moving to the closest small city for community college.

But some parents change. When I graduated from undergraduate with my degree in history and secondary ed, I set out to change the world through teaching (no small amount of hubris there!). My father knew some people in the county adjacent to where I grew up and I landed a job teaching middle school English and social studies. What I did not know was that people in rapidly changing areas tend to be contentious and defensive. When I blew into town espousing equal rights for women and people of color, I quickly found myself on the outside of the little town I had come to save. And when I came to the defense of a colleague the school system sought to dismiss because she was lesbian, I became a marked man. Late night threatening phone calls ensued and children began to accost me in the supermarket.

I'm not sure what my father had heard. But whatever it was, it alarmed him enough to come rescue his first born child. He arrived with his pick-up truck one morning with the simple statement, "I've come to get your first load of furniture." There was no arguing with him. And in hindsight, he probably saved my life. If the people of the town had not killed me (and already they were stopping their trucks in front of my house late at night with guns pointed out the windows), I no doubt would have drunk myself to death.

The magnitude of his change became apparent to me years later when I had graduated from seminary and been ordained a priest. When I told him I did not plan to return to Central Florida because I could not function as a priest there (a good example of the Yiddish proverb about making G-d laugh by telling him your plans), he asked why not. "Because I’m gay, Daddy." To which he simply responded, "But why not?"

The healing and reconciliation with my father over time has been one of the greatest joys of my life. My Dad still does not understand my life or why I have to live it as I do. But I think he always loved me. And ultimately, that love and his desire to have his family intact and together proved the more important value to him and to all of us.

The Episcopal Church could learn something from my father. It need not understand the experience of its LBGT members. Indeed, it need not even trouble itself about whether it should accept them because ultimately it is not their place to do so. All it must do is simply treat them with the same respect it demands for everyone else. In other words, it simply needs to practice the Golden Rule.

There are moments when it seems the church is poised to finally grow up, to deal with its LBGT members as adults, to recognize the image of G_d all children of G-d carry and to respect the human dignity such recognition demands. And then there are moments like the past week in Tanzania, where integrity is sacrificed to the false god of unity, where the perceived need for affirmation of one's peers marking conventional reasoning supplants the drive for just relations marking post-conventional reasoning, the reason exhibited by Jesus.

So, how to deal with this abusive parent, with the interminable double binds, with the periods of maturity punctuated by regressions into those primitive, fear and power driven moments of abuse? At least for this Episcopalian, the answer is simply to adopt a detached, arms length tentativeness.

At some level, the church will always be my mother. She has shaped me, forged many of my values and given name to some of the deepest achings of my heart and soul. I see the world in large part through the lenses of mother church. I could no more divorce myself from that history and its internalization in my life experience than I could surgically remove one of my own vital organs. Like my biological parents, the church's DNA is encoded into my very being.

At the same time, the church has been an abusive parent. It devalues my experience as a gay man, it prevents me from living out my vocation as priest in this diocese in which darkness has fallen. At the same time it speaks of justice for LBGT persons in the wider society, it discriminates against its own queer people and has sold its very soul of justice and integrity for the affirmation of an Anglican Communion now driven by its philistine wing.

So how to deal? I think it looks like this. Family gatherings at holidays are expected and often simply endured because it is the right thing to do. Funerals and weddings are often unavoidable. Adult abused children often attend such events knowing the potential to be abused but also knowing that it is only for a short while after which they can again escape into the arms length safety of detachment. As for the abusive parent church, attendance at Christmas and Easter are probably expectable. And there might be visits on special occasions or times when the ache of absence is too great to ignore. But a regular engagement of this abusive parent is probably not possible. And, sadly, this situation is probably a fact of life for the duration of my lifetime.

I do not like this arrangement, this keeping one foot inside the door with the rest of my body - and soul - elsewhere. As I age I find myself craving community, connectedness, a spiritual grounding. But I have also resigned myself to finding it where it can be found, to meeting those needs in a variety of places, persons and groups. As I often told my juvenile clients on the way into the courtroom, "We don't get to choose our facts, but we do have to deal with them."

And so I value the many things mother church has given me and thank her for the deep impact she has made on my life. And I visit on holidays and occasionally just because I've missed her too much to stay away. I never give up hope that the church I once vowed to serve as priest will finally mature into the kind of healthy institution it has always had the potential to become. But I'm not holding my breath. And I cannot waste any more of my remaining time and energies engaging an institution in denial, the abusive parent unwilling to grow up. I admire those who feel called to that task. And I wish them luck.

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.