Monday, December 24, 2012

Monsters, Demons and School Children

Exploiting Tragedy for Political Gain

I have to admit I did not make it all the way through Wayne LaPierre’s statement Friday. The head of NRA spoke for about 15 minutes from a prepared text and was twice interrupted by angry demonstrators who demanded the head of the National Rifle Association “Stop killing our children!” From LaPierre’s statement, it appears he is both a very good strategist but, sadly, a man who is either incapable of or simply unwilling to engage in an honest, critical examination of the crisis in America arising from the guns his organization would protect.

What was apparent from the beginning in his statement was that any discussion of a failed public policy surrounding guns was off the table. LaPierre began by decrying those who would “exploit tragedy for political gain,” assuring America that his organization’s primary concern was “the safety of our nation's children.” So far, so good.

However, the focus on children was short-lived.

The pattern of NRA response historically in the wake of mass-shootings has been to initially issue a statement of condolences to those who have lost family members but to quickly follow that with an assertion that “now is not the time” to discuss the policy implications of that carnage. Of course, as in the popular song from the 1940s, MaƱana, somehow the time for that discussion never seems to come, thus revealing this as a thinly disguised defense strategy to protect privilege through utilizing delay.

A second defense strategy the NRA has used historically has been the use of diversionary tactics often involving scapegoats. And one didn’t have to wait long Friday to hear that number warming up.

Monsters Driven by Demons

LaPierre identified his targets in striking terms:

“The truth is that our society is populated by an unknown number of genuine monsters — people so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no sane person can possibly ever comprehend them. They walk among us every day.”

Indeed, they do, Mr. LaPierre. One wonders what kind of demons drive the vision of gun advocates like yourself who appear incapable of even considering the possibility that it might be their own attitudes and behaviors which create the carnage we all abhor. One wonders what kind of monster would take a podium in the face of the mass murders of 20 children and six of their teachers and argue that the unlimited privilege which gun owners have enjoyed and presume to be their right, rooted in a public policy which has clearly failed with catastrophic results, does not urgently require reconsideration. 

At the point LaPierre made that statement I found myself angrily screaming at my television, “YOU are the monster!” And yet it’s precisely at times like these that I realize that all of us have the potential to kill another human being out of anger. As Alexander Solzhenitzyn has so aptly observed, “[T]he line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either -- but right through every human heart -- and through all human hearts.” Had Mr. LaPierre been present in my living room I no doubt would have attempted to strangle him myself.

And that was the point I stopped listening.

Anthropologies of Depravity

In all fairness I did come back to read the rest of his statement. It is infinitely easier to deal with the words themselves without having to watch them being delivered by a smug, angry white man observably fearful of losing his unearned privilege. It seems clear to me that the policies he advocates are, indeed, monstrous in their deadly results. But I also believe there is more to this man than that. It’s not terribly credible to presume that Wayne LaPierre gets up every morning and asks himself, “What monstrous things can I say and do today?” even as that might be the end result of what he ends up saying and doing.

His comments about being “possessed by voices and driven by demons” are very telling. Many gun owners operate out of a negative philosophical anthropology which presumes human beings to be dangerous, untrustworthy, perhaps even demonic. It is not a coincidence that many of these folks are also members of sectarian-spirited evangelical Protestant traditions, descendants of John Calvin and company. This religious vision has long focused on the radical individual before an angry, punishing deity and a human nature rendered utterly depraved by archetypal events in the Garden of Eden. When one begins from such a negative starting place, it’s not terribly surprising that everyone can and, from this theological perspective, should be seen as a potential enemy.

But fear tends to immobilize rational thinking. It also tends to neutralize the human heart, immobilizing any semblance of empathy for others. In all honesty, I saw little genuine concern for the children of Newtown in LaPierre’s words or affect Friday. Instead, what I observed was a white hot rage over the withering attacks his organization had sustained this past week and an overpowering fear. That rage was only slightly cooler but still palpable in the text itself as I read it this morning. The fear absolutely leaps from the pages.

Fear, False Dichotomies and Sophomoric Thinking

Mr. LaPierre has proved himself to be a master strategist in defending an organization that represents just over 1 out every 100 Americans but successfully advances its interests at the expense of the rest of the population at large. For that, he must be duly credited if for nothing else than the efficaciousness of his methods.

But his thinking evidences a pronounced myopia that appears to make it difficult – perhaps impossible - for him to even consider the possibility that the interests he advances might ultimately prove destructive to others. Such a reality would thus reveal himself as the actual monster driven by demons of fear and his statement Friday an unconscious - and no doubt unintentional - revelation of his own frightened inner state. Projection always tends to be at least as revelatory of the projector as his targets.

There is also a decided brittleness in LaPierre’s thinking which is readily revealed in statements like these:

“The only way to stop a monster from killing our kids is to be personally involved and invested in a plan of absolute protection. The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. ”

In introductory logic courses we teach our students about a wide range of logical fallacies. A very common fallacy is the false dichotomy: Either X or Y. Such arguments often reveal either limitations of conceptual awareness of other possibilities or, more often, the simple refusal to consider them. They also evidence a tendency toward simplistic thinking. We all want things to be as simple as possible, as Einstein noted. But as he also insisted, our considerations should not require a subject to be seen in a simpler manner than is possible. Beyond simple lies simplistic.

We expect some level of simplistic thinking from college undergrads, hence the description of such fallacious thinking as sophomoric. But when we begin to see an ongoing pattern of such thought in adults, stubbornly resistant to all attempts to consider other possibilities than one’s foregone conclusion and willing to actively ignore all evidence or arguments to the contrary, we begin to suspect this might be a deeper problem.

William Perry, a scholar of cognitive function, observed a pattern of developmental tendencies in human thinking capacities. He noted that the structure of arguments advanced often revealed the given developmental point from which they were being made. Perry found that the tendency to engage in black and white, dualistic thinking is common to all human beings at very early stages of our cognitive development. But as human beings mature and become better educated, our thinking tends to become more complex, nuanced, attentive to contextual considerations.

While confronting black and white choices offered in simple terms remains comforting to all of us, most of recognize fairly early on that most things in life just aren’t that simple, particularly hotly debated issues of policy. We also know deep in the back of our minds that even as we would reduce complex issues to simplistic terms, we tend to sacrifice intellectual honesty and ethical integrity for the comfort of an artificial certainty. This, in turn, necessitates the operation of repression to push such awareness from our conscious minds. The first person we lie to is our self. 

Complexity and Intellectual Courage

To his credit, LaPierre did point toward some of the complexity in this crisis yesterday when he spoke of the lack of mental health treatment in America (thank you, Mr. Reagan). He also pinpointed the feeding frenzy surrounding these issues practiced by a mass media which has learned that stimulating fear also stimulates viewership and thus exposure to the consumer advertising of corporate sponsors. And he noted the normalization of violence which feeds into this problem through entertainment media from video games to the carnage which nightly presents itself as regular television programming.

These are all aspects of the problem America must solve. And LaPierre is correct when he points to them as facets of a deep-seated problem. But where his arguments fail is the reduction of the options available to address our national crisis to either providing armed guards in schools or not. Not only is this a false dichotomy, it also evidences the intellectual dishonesty of refusing to identify the elephant in the room – the failure of the very gun policies which LaPierre is defending.

The reality is that we simply cannot deal with this crisis until we recognize all the factors which have given rise to it. And in our discussions of them, all the bluster of self-righteous indignation in the world cannot overcome fundamental problems of intellectual dishonesty and intellectual cowardice. If Wayne LaPierre wants to have any real intellectual or ethical credibility, he will have to come clean with his fellow Americans about the role that unlimited access to guns and the failure of a policy which has put them into the hands of two out of three Americans plays in this crisis. Until then, he is relegated to seeing the monsters driven by demons  in the other that so clearly appear to haunt his own soul.

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. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Things that make you go Hmmmm (Dec. 24, 2012)

A couple of weekends ago I was invited to go to Seaworld along with my husband and our niece. Our friend, Bill,  receives day passes to the theme park as a result of participation in the VA equivalent of the United Way. It’s a yearly event and I look forward to what is inevitably a long but enjoyable day at the park.

Truth be told, my favorite attraction is the underwater dolphin viewing room, complete with its plate glass windows providing front row seats to the dolphins swimming and playing in the artificial lagoon above it. Every time we go there I tell Andy that I want to live there though I’d guess that I’d find that space pretty confining after awhile.

At some level I feel the entire premise of Seaworld is cruel, cramming all those wild animals into confined spaces for the purposes of entertainment of the human animals. No doubt, the dolphins are simply biding their time before they are transported up to the waiting space ships and will tell us "So long. Thanks for the fish" enroute to their new homes. But I am always thankful for the opportunity to see animals up close that I would probably not have a chance to see otherwise and to engage in an intentional appreciation of the beauty of the good Creation for a day. And I assuage my guilty conscience with the belief that Seaworld generally has a reputation of taking good care of their animals and occasionally rescuing injured or sick animals as well.

My 13 year old niece, Grace, is quite the marine biologist. She has two 55 gallon tanks in her bedroom and is a walking Wikipedia when it comes to these fish. As we were walking through the Shark Encounter, the long plexiglass tube which allows people to observe a wide variety of sharks and other large fish, the father of the family ahead of us pointed to a given shark and identified it as a Mako Shark. Misidentified it, actually. Grace immediately piped up and said, “No, that’s not a Mako Shark, it’s a Blue Shark. And there’s a Hammerhead. And over there’s a Tiger Shark.”

Suddenly I realized that it had gotten pretty quiet in the Shark Encounter. Everyone in the tube had stopped talking and had turned around to listen to my little niece who had outed herself as a bit of an expert on marine biology at 13 years of age. That’s my niece, I thought, as I smiled to myself.

Then I noticed that not everyone had been taken in by Grace’s spell. A boy who appeared to be about 16 was with the family in front of us whose comments had set off the impromptu marine biology lesson. He held an iPhone and was furiously texting away. At first I thought perhaps he was texting a friend to share what he was seeing and hearing. But as I watched him move through the remainder of the tunnel and out into the park, I realized he wasn’t seeing or hearing much of anything, he was simply glued to his iPhone.

So here’s this family, all the way from Kalamazoo (or wherever else they had travelled from) here to see one of the world’s greatest marine life parks, surrounded by sharks and other sea animals that most of us will probably never get another opportunity to see. And their kid, whom they’ve paid $91 to get into the park this day, is so busy playing with his electronic toys, his weapons of mass distraction, that he cannot even benefit from being there.


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, December 20, 2012

*This* is the church I joined

You’re studying too hard…

In 1973, I was a junior at the University of Florida. I had transferred there from a community college where I had been a big fish in a little pond. At UF, I had become merely one of the cast of thousands, 27,000 to be precise, and quickly came to feel pretty lost.

I had been raised in the Methodist Church, a refuge of sanity in a small town where Southern Baptists were dominant and where fundamentalist churches such as the Primitive Baptists and the Church of Christ were their main competitors. The Methodist Church was the place where most of the teachers in the local high school (like my Dad) attended.  There was a modicum of social consciousness there. And while it was hardly a paragon of depth or critical thought, it was certainly better than any of the alternatives.

The Methodists maintained a chaplaincy on the edge of the UF campus. It offered a limited refuge each week from the dorm room I shared with a nasty, stinky kid from New Jersey and a drug dealer from Lakeland. I came home from class one afternoon to find the latter sitting with his supplier, a gun in his face, being threatened with being “blown away” if he ever “held out on” on his dealer again.  

In all honesty, I was pretty depressed by the end of that first semester, not the least of which came from dealing with my first round of attempts to come to grips with my sexual orientation. I could often hear the yellow jackets of suicide buzzing around my ears those days awaiting opportunities to light and sting. My wrists still bear the scars of those painful though fortunately not fatal stings.

Desperate for some direction, I sought out the pastor at the Methodist chaplaincy. I began to tell him how frightened I was, how lonely I felt and how confused I was about where I was going. The man listened with patience saying little. And then I dropped the bomb about my confusion over my sexual orientation.

At that point, the man’s face changed visibly, drained of all its color. He turned away from me to his desk. Without even looking at me he said, “I think you’ve been studying too hard. Why don’t you go home and get some rest and come back and we’ll talk in January.”  I had no idea what to say except, “OK. Thank you” and I got up to leave.

What I hold in my memory to this day is the image of the exterior of that office door as I closed it behind me. I stood and looked at it for a full minute or so. It was full of dings and thumb tack holes as well as a few errant pieces of Scotch tape which had all been clumsily painted over with a bright red enamel. And I remember thinking as I stood there that I was closing the door to a chapter of my life that day. From that day forward, I would never again be a Methodist.

It felt like a holy place.

I survived the semester, moved across campus to another residential housing dorm with two other roommates for the Spring. The following fall I would move to my father’s fraternity house which had just reopened its chapter at UF where I would meet my future husband. 

For a couple of years I simply forgot about church. I knew the Methodist Church had no room for me anymore. But I had no alternatives in mind. In Fall of 1975, I moved to a duplex across town in Gainesville with my big brother in the fraternity who would later become my partner and then husband.  Away from campus and the fraternity, I had the space to think once again about my spiritual life.

Right down the street from our apartment was the main Episcopal Church in Gainesville. I walked by the church by accident one day and decided to poke my head in the door. It was a century old building, full of stained glass and carved wood. The place wreaked of incense and candle wax of liturgies past. It was dark inside with colored pools of light pouring through the windows, puddling on dark, heavily oiled hard wood floors between the rows of pews. There was a deep, meditative feeling about that space. It felt like a holy place. And I had a strange feeling as I sat in the pew that day, praying for guidance, that perhaps I had found the place I needed to be.

The first night I attended a Sunday evening service there (because I was inevitably too hung over Sunday mornings from Saturday night parties to get up and go to church) a few things struck me immediately. The first was that the priest’s sermon was fairly intellectual. He used multi-syllable words and didn’t start off with some version of “Hi, y’all!” Clearly, this was not your mother’s Methodist Church.

The second thing that struck me was that the priest was black. I’d never seen a black minister of any tradition in any church I’d ever attended. Indeed, I could probably count on one hand the black people I’d ever seen in church, period. I felt a sense of cognitive dissonance as I watched this young priest preach and celebrate the communion at the altar. It was a strange thing but I felt deep down that it was also a good thing.

A lot of things were changing….

But this was 1975 and many things were changing. The Episcopal Church was in the midst of changing its prayer book from the 1929 version with its chopped up, muddled liturgies to a more lyrical modern version which spoke of “this fragile earth, our island home.” The new BCP would relegate most of its self-deprecating theology such as the prayer of humble (humiliating?) access (We are not worth so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table – Really? Even ants can do that!) to a Rite I that would find a home at early services with elderly parishioners. It would incarnate the Anglican via media by placing both old and new liturgical forms within one book offering a choice to those who would use it.

Perhaps more revolutionary was the change taking place in its leadership. Women were being ordained priest in the Episcopal Church even as its boys club clergy  had to be brought kicking and screaming into that new reality. And white Episcopal priests who had been strongly involved in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s were now embodying the equality for which they struggled, opening  pulpits and altars to people of color.

I looked around the church that night, pondering the provocative sermon I had heard about social responsibilities, feeling strangely at home in that place of stained glass, lyrical liturgies, incense and flickering candles, rejoicing that this church was actually embodying its principles in its own leadership. And I thought, maybe this church has a place for me. 

Two years later I would be confirmed as an Episcopalian.

A chaplain to the margins

That seems like a long time ago now and a lot has happened in my life and in my relationship with the Episcopal Church in the meantime. It would take another 15 years but I finally came to grips with my sexuality, a Kinsey 4 just to the gay side of center. I would get involved with the Episcopal Church’s struggle for justice within its own membership over LGBT first class citizenship, a struggle which is only just now coming to fruition.

After a brief period studying in the local diocesan seminary for deacons, I would leave my law practice behind and move across the country to embrace a totally unforeseen role of seminarian studying for the Episcopal priesthood. I would become a member of a very dynamic multi-cultural parish in San Jose, CA which, in turn, would launch a 20 year period of traveling and studying all over Latin America. 

Eventually, I would be ordained priest in 1995, a chaplain to those “at the margins” I was told. But I knew even then that I would not be able to make my living in parish ministry. And so I would return home to Florida to complete my education in a doctoral program in religion and society to teach at the university level.

The “margins” have always proven much further flung than I had originally envisioned.  By moving home and returning to a diocese with an officially homophobic stance,  my function as a priest was relegated to occasionally celebrating for Integrity, the LBGT fellowship of the church, for the third order Franciscans and in the occasional invitation to pulpits and altars I have received over the years. And at least for the time being, connection to parish ministry in any kind of regular form is probably out of the question.

But the margins have proved far broader than an institution whose control issues too often play out in a confusion of moralism with religion. As the chaplain to the margins, I have celebrated any number of weddings, unions and officiated at more funerals than I’d like to imagine, all of them outside the auspices of the church. I’ve blessed any number of homes and I have offered prayers at any number of interfaith functions. I was privileged to baptize both of my sister’s babies, preside over my mother’s graveside service and I led a religious community of exiles from a wide range of traditions who met weekly in my home over a 13 year period.

None-of-the-Above with spiritual needs

What none of us had foreseen in 1995 when the Episcopal Church made me a priest “to the margins” was the great diaspora from organized religion that was coming. The ranks of the unaffiliated have mushroomed over the past two decades and now a full 1 in 5 Americans report no affiliation with a religious body. And yet, they remain human beings with spiritual needs, needs for rites of passage at the deaths of their loved ones, needs for counseling when confused or frightened, needs for space to voice their anger at the harm done to them by their former religious affiliations even as they speak of the need for Spirit in their lives. 

I have to doubt the Episcopal Church recognized how prescient its ordination of a priest to serve as chaplain to the margins would actually become. In all fairness, it is a chaplaincy that has more often played out in those margins than inside the church. And yet, my heart – and at least a portion of my soul - remains Episcopalian.

Latter day epiphanies…

The history I lay out above seems like several lifetimes ago. Life is largely up in the air for me these days as I struggle to decide what the next step in my professional life will be. After a long hiatus from any kind of regular connection with the Episcopal Church, I find myself back in the pew, occasionally in the pulpit and at the altar. I have learned to be content to watch others do what I am ordained to do. And I am happy to have some semblance of spiritual community and connection to my chosen religious tradition again.

This past Sunday, I found myself having yet another moment of epiphany that took me back to that night 37 years ago in Gainesville, this time in the parish I have recently come to call home, St. Richards, Winter Park. I looked at the altar and it suddenly dawned on me that standing there was a gay priest, a black priest and a woman priest. Kneeling at the altar rail and ringing the sanctus bells was a middle aged man with Downs Syndrome.

In the congregation around me sat two retired priests, white, male, straight, with their families. Next to them sat lesbian couples, a gay couple with their adopted son who also served as acolyte, and a number of families of color from all over the Caribbean. Over 20 children from the parish ran to the altar steps when it was time for the children’s sermon and the sea of gray heads, my own included, nodded and smiled at their energetic time together.  

It was a little glimpse of the kingdom of G-d.

The main sermon was provocative, theological but also with calls to social responsibility in the wake of this week’s massacre of the children and their teachers in Newtown, CT. Indeed, the service began with five minutes of silence in their memory which ended with 27 peels of the bells for each child of G-d whose lives had ended so abruptly and so brutally.  And as I looked around the parish that morning, there were many eyes brimming with tears, my own included.

This is a parish working hard at being the church in which "there are no outcasts," to quote its former presiding bishop, where all the children of G-d have a place at the table; a church which recognizes that faith without works is dead and calls it to action, avoiding the trap of becoming a mere exercise in spiritual escapism;  a church which nourishes the right brain with robust symbols, beautiful music and good liturgy; a church which does not require checking your brain in at the door; a church which works hard at embodying community and hospitality. And to the degree that this parish reflects the larger tradition of which it is a part, this is a church worth serious consideration by people seeking Spirit in all the many forms it takes.

As I walked from church Sunday, making the sign of the cross with holy water and shaking hands with the three priests lined up outside the door, I thought to myself, “Now, this is the church I joined so many years ago.” Deo gratias.

O G-d in whom we live, move and have our being:
We pray for your holy Catholic Church. May it be filled 
with all truth, in all truth with all peace. Where it is corrupt,
help us to purify it; where it is in error, open our hearts and minds 
to your guidance; where in anything it is amiss,
help us find the courage to reform it. Where it is right,
may we ever strengthen it; where it is in want, 
help us find the will to provide for it; and where it is divided,
be with us in our work to reunite it.

We ask all this in the name of Jesus called the Christ,
our Brother and your Son, whose way we would ever followAmen.
(Prayer for the Church, Book of Common Prayer, 1979, adapted)

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, December 15, 2012

Holy Innocents Transposed: Rachel is weeping for her children…. (Part II)


Two predictable – but inadequate - responses

Already two predictable responses have emerged from the massacre at Newtown. The first is the knee jerk, brainless but particularly heartless responses from the addicts themselves. A classmate from high school posted a poster with the inevitable mantra from the NRA which read “More Guns. Less Crime.” Of course, the data show exactly the opposite to be true not only worldwide but also within the US between jurisdictions restricting guns and those which do not. Arguing that more guns are the solution to a gun saturated culture which routinely massacres its school children is a bit like saying the solution to a forest fire is for fire fighters to dump kerosene on it.

Of course, this is where the marks of addiction begin to reveal themselves. Addictions are marked by certain characteristics:

-       Continued behavior despite adverse consequences
-        impaired control over said behavior
-       denial regarding the problematic nature of the behavior
-       adaptation to the behavior and its negative consequences thus requiring ever increasing engagement of said behavior to achieve the original effects of its engagement
-       with physical and psychological symptoms experienced when reduction of the behavior is considered or attempted
-       resulting in anxiety, irritability, intense cravings, hallucinations. [i]

Now, consider the pattern of behavior surrounding America’s love affair with guns that we have observed over the past 30 years. Every single one of those aspects are observable in our national culture.

America, we’ve got a problem.

(Photo from Huffington Post site) 

Empty Gestures

The second predictable response was in evidence before the night was over. Teary-eyed mourners filled churches to hear words of hope in the face of despair while others stood outside the site of the massacre to light candles. Notes and flowers punctuated with children’s toys and photos will soon adorn the chain link fence outside this school as a makeshift wailing wall will unfold for mourners.

As an Episcopal priest I am catholic in my theology and liturgical in my practice to the core of my being. As a mystic who finds truth in all spiritual traditions, I honor spiritual images and objects from sacred stones pointing the four directions to inscriptions from the Quran and at altars throughout my home. I routinely offer up my prayers as I burn incense in pots before sculptures of Francis of Assisi, the Guadalupana and Kwan Yin the bodhisattva of compassion which dot the jungle outside my home.

From a very functional perspective, this is how I live my spirituality. My prayers are focused by the flickering of candles and I am reminded to pray by the smell of incense. These prayers require no jealous institutional sponsors for validation. They are simply directed to Spirit in all the forms it takes through the world’s many spiritual traditions. Indeed, on days like yesterday, lighting incense from a candle burning before a holy image, bowing my head and saying my prayers is ALL I know to do in the face of meaningless tragedies like that of Newtown. So I understand the impulse that results in the makeshift wailing walls and the candle-lit memorial services.

(Photo from Huffington Post Site)

But, I also know that this alone is simply not enough. The leaving of candles, photos, saccharine notes and stuffed bears may staunch our pain, perhaps even assuage our guilt, but it certainly cannot bring back our children, much less prevent future massacres. Yellow ribbons tied around trees cannot bring back dead soldiers even as they command us to remember them without considering the senseless waste of those young lives by ill-considered public policy. The deities we beseech to save us from ourselves between sobs simply never appear. Indeed, in many ways, these activities, which at best are designed to salve our wounds, often become forms of avoiding looking at our national addiction to the weapons of war. Too often our rites of public grieving have devolved into disingenuous, hollow forms of denial that we have a serious problem. 

For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. 17 The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.(Psalm 51) 

Contrary to what deluded souls like Mike Hukabee would have us believe, G-d is not going to save us from ourselves. Indeed, G-d never does even if we erect 10 Commandments in every courthouse and require every public school kid to pray interminable ad hoc evangelical Protestant prayers each morning. Time and again, desperate prayers have followed irresponsible behaviors which ignored prophetic warnings of disaster without a changed course. And time and again, those prayers have been followed by the very disaster of which the prophets so urgently warned. It is time for G-d’s children to become adults, to take responsibility for our lives together, to take this beast of addiction to the instrumentalities of death by the horns and to wrestle it into submission.

I will with G-d’s help?

The Baptismal Covenant of the Episcopal Church provides a healthy way of approaching this task for people of faith. To the series of promises posed the parents of newly baptized children or adults who are being confirmed, the response is always two part in nature: I will ….with G-d’s help.

If America is to come to grips with its addiction to the ubiquitous means of death, destruction and demoralization of our children, we must first admit we have a problem, like with all addictions. And then we must confront it. No doubt we will need G-d’s help in confronting this beast but the effort must always begin with us. We also need to dissuade ourselves of the simplistic theology of the 12 Steps. The truth is, we are not powerless over this addiction.  It is the work of our hands. We constructed our society in this destructive manner, and we can also construct it differently. That it is difficult does not mean we are excused from confronting our problem.
It is time for America to grow up if for no other reason than it is getting harder and harder to engage in denial after events like those of Newtown yesterday. We must allow the incredible pain from the Newtowns and Virginia Techs and Columbines to be experienced, to break our hearts leaving them contrite. Unlike the cheap grace of coerced public prayers or imposed religious monuments, that is the sacrifice G-d requires. Pious words from pulpits and stuffed bears left in front of flickering candles at a massacre site alone amount to little more than a morbid, empty dramaturgy. Before we can act, we must end our denials and allow the pain to break our hearts. 

And then we must act.

(Giotto's Feast of the Holy Innocents found 
at Magdalene Sisters site) 

Honoring Holy Innocents

The Feast of the Holy Innocents commemorates an event reported in Matthew’s Gospel in which King Herod seeks to destroy a potential rival in the baby Jesus and orders the killing of all Judea’s children under the age of 2. It is unclear whether this was a historical event. Indeed, little evidence suggests that is so. It is more likely a recasting of Hebrew Scriptural motifs from Jeremiah’s lamentations over the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians or perhaps even the killing of the first born sons of Egypt on the night of the Passover.

What’s important about this narrative is that it embodies the deadliness of a callous public policy which proves destructive to the most innocent members of a society, its children. It is precisely that pattern we are seeing play out in America as it refuses to come to grips with its addiction to the weapons of war.

It is time to pray, America. And then it is time to act.

           Collect appointed for the Feast of the Holy Innocents (Dec. 28)

We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

But perhaps more importantly….

           From Eucharistic Prayer C, Rite II, Book of Common Prayer

Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal. Let the grace of this Holy Communion make us one body, one spirit in Christ, that we may worthily serve the world in his name.

           And from Post-Communion Prayer, Rite II, Book of Common Prayer

Send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you (through loving and serving our neighbors) with gladness and singleness of heart; through Christ our Lord. Amen.


As I have sought to work through my own grief by writing these words this day, news is filtering in from Birmingham, Alabama, of a shooting in a hospital. Three were wounded before the gunman was shot and killed by police. The predatory sickness that is America’s addiction to firearms has now degenerated to its lowest level of victimhood – from defenseless children who can only run from their assailants in a hail of bullets to the sick and injured who can’t even run away.

Dear Lord.

Have we no sense of decency, America, at long last?
Have we really no sense of decency?

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. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Sources for addiction characteristics 

[i] ·  ^ Angres DH, Bettinardi-Angres K (October 2008).
·                 "The disease of addiction: origins, treatment, and recovery". Dis Mon 54 (10): 696–721.       doi:10.1016/j.disamonth.2008.07.002. PMID 18790142.
·  ^ American Society for Addiction Medicine (2012). Definition of Addiction.
·  ^ Morse RM, Flavin DK (August 1992). "The definition of alcoholism. The Joint Committee of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence and the American Society of Addiction Medicine to Study the Definition and Criteria for the Diagnosis of Alcoholism". JAMA 268 (8): 1012–4. doi:10.1001/jama.1992.03490080086030. PMID 1501306.
·  ^ Marlatt GA, Baer JS, Donovan DM, Kivlahan DR (1988). "Addictive behaviors: etiology and treatment". Annu Rev Psychol 39: 223–52. doi:10.1146/ PMID 3278676.
·  ^ Torres G, Horowitz JM (1999). "Drugs of abuse and brain gene expression". Psychosom Med 61 (5): 630–50. PMID 10511013.