Monday, December 29, 2014

A Special Ministry of Servanthood Revisited

Winter Solstice (The Feast of St. Thomas) Dec. 21, 2014

Twenty years ago this night, I was ordained deacon in the Diocese of El Camino Real in my home parish of St. Philips, San Jose, CA. In a service that reflected the multicultural parish that had been my spiritual home for four years of seminary, I took the first step toward priesthood that would be completed the following June.

The date was chosen with care. It was the Feast of St. Thomas, often called Doubting Thomas, a feast day traditionally chosen for diaconal ordinations. Transitional deacons are in a period of ongoing development and preparation for their priestly vows. If there are any doubts, that is the time to consider them.

It was also the winter solstice. As the true Celt I am, it seemed the perfect date for an ordination, a time of endings and new beginnings. My days in seminary and the many wonderful classes and trips throughout Latin America were coming to an end. My time as a clergyperson within an institutional church about which I have always been uncertain on a good day how or if I really fit was commencing. New light was beginning to illuminate a dark road ahead. A new life was beginning.

The Charge

Prior to taking my diaconal vows, my bishop, the late Rt. Rev. Richard Shimpfky, read me the following charge from the Ordination of a Deacon rite in our prayer book:

My brother, every Christian is called to follow Jesus Christ, serving God the Father, through the power of the Holy Spirit. God now calls you to a special ministry of servanthood directly under your bishop. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are to serve all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely.

As a deacon in the Church, you are to study the Holy Scriptures, to seek nourishment from them, and to model your life upon them. You are to make Christ and his redemptive love known, by your word and example, to those among whom you live, and work, and worship.

You are to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world. You are to assist the bishop and priests in public worship and in the ministration of God's Word and Sacraments, and you are to carry out other duties assigned to you from time to time. At all times, your life and teaching are to show Christ's people that in serving the helpless they are serving Christ himself.

My brother, do you believe that you are truly called by God and his Church to the life and work of a deacon?

Answer          I believe I am so called.

Life as a Deacon

I was only a deacon for six months. My transitional diaconate concluded with ordination to the priesthood the following June. But the call to diaconal ministry has marked my life both inside and outside the church since my first ordination.

Franciscans are perfect matches for diaconal ministry. Francis himself refused to become ordained a priest. He felt his place was with “the little ones” that Jesus loved who for the most part were found outside the church of his day. And, sadly, in all truthfulness, for the most part they still are.

My life work has long sought to serve “the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely.” The little ones have also been my teachers, reminding me of my own largely unearned privilege. They have taught me what justice means and what injustice looks like. They have reminded me of my own finitude in their illness, their limitations, their weaknesses. They have helped me understand that being fully human means much, much more than amassing degrees, winning awards, attaining a modicum of social status and making a modest income.

The image of G-d shines so brightly on the faces of many of the little ones even as it hides behind distressing disguises of poverty, addictions, criminality and mental illness among others. They are often the ignored and the forgotten in the life of socially respectable churches like the Episcopal Church (once called the Republican Party at prayer).

My diaconal calling to study the scriptures took an unexpected turn shortly after my priestly ordination. I was pretty clear even in seminary that I was probably not cut out to run a parish. Truth be told, I have negative managerial skills and the parish that hired me would have to be crazy. I was told I’d be the priest to the margins at my ordination but Lord knows I had no idea then how far the margins stretched.

Knowing I’d need to make a living at something, I decided to get a doctorate and teach college students. Thus my actual study of scripture proved to be intensive and critical. I learned how scripture was read by Latin American liberationists and critical theorists. I learned how scripture was appropriated and explained through thinkers in sociology, criminology and social psychology. And I learned some Greek and Latin along the way to actually consider the etymology of these words and their historical-cultural context.

Somehow I doubt that’s what the writers of the ordination rite had in mind. But once that cat was out of the bag, it was too late to return to any kind of devotional or dogmatic approaches to scripture.

However, that’s where the last part of the diaconal calling comes in.

Francis often told his friars “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words when necessary.” The Way of Jesus followed by Franciscans is highly incarnational. It sees the image of G-d everywhere it looks. It is precisely what a good deacon should do to “make Christ and his redemptive love known, by your word and example, to those among whom you live, and work, and worship” and, in turn, to "interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world. "

The Rock That Crushes

Just before I began the process of applying to seminaries, knowing I had no diocesan support for ordination but feeling certain I was called there nonetheless,  I accompanied my husband, my parents and my sister and her husband on a trip to Europe. We spent the first four days in Rome. Our hotel was close to the Vatican and I slipped out one night after dinner to go to the colonnaded piazza in front of St. Peter’s Basilica to pray.

“Peter,” I began, “I want to be a part of your rock. I want to serve the church with all of my heart.” 

The presence that came to me that moment was grave though not threatening. “You will be a part of the rock,” Peter said, “and that rock will crush you.”

In the years since my ordination, St. Peter’s rock has indeed proved crushing, a process that has occurred with regularity and a high level of effectiveness. Since leaving my home diocese of El Camino Real in central California in 1995 I was only able to serve briefly as an assistant to the chaplain at the Episcopal chaplaincy at Florida State University during my two years of graduate work there. 

When I left Tallahassee in 1997 I was first hired and almost as quickly fired before I even began a position as a university chaplain in another diocese here in Florida, an encounter marked by major subterfuge, incredible dishonesty and eventually no small amount of slander on the part of the bishop and his staff there. As for my current residence, I have never even considered asking the diocese where I now live to license me given its deeply homophobic policies and virulent history. I may be a glutton for punishment but I'm no masochist.

There was a very long time that the Episcopal Church and I had little to say to one another. I presumed that my time with the church was over, that it had been a wonderful dream briefly realized but not to be held onto for any length of time. About five years ago I began to attend a local parish whose rector is a graduate of the seminary I attended in Berkeley. I came to support her and to bring a legally blind friend to church. Sadly, he now is too infirm to leave his care facility. My attendance is spotty at best but I have come to value the community I experience even as my ability to serve there remains highly marginal.

Twenty Years Later - Still Seeking the Way

As the years have passed, I have found myself less and less concerned about the imperatives of an institutional church from which I am largely estranged. One of the benefits of not serving the institution in any leadership capacity is not having to worry about the things with which all institutions concern themselves – toeing the company line, behaving in ways which meet the expectations of its leadership, meeting the demands of its customers and doing whatever is necessary to maintain - if not grow - the customer base.

In the place of those institutional imperatives, I find myself increasingly seeking to discern who Jesus was, what the Way of Jesus was about and what following that Way means here and now. Increasingly I have come to realize that just as Jesus and Francis found themselves on the margins of the institutional religious bodies of their days, following the Way of Jesus in the manner of Francis not surprisingly results in the same thing today.

There are days that it is simply too painful to sit in the pew and watch others do what I was ordained to do but am barred from doing. I put a lot of time, energy and my heart and soul into becoming an ordained priest. Almost the entire cost of my four years of seminary came out of my own pocket.

I continue to try to make my peace with this reality.

That said, I give thanks for the courage of my bishop in California to ordain me. I know he did so in part to get in the face of the now retired bishop of Central Florida. I also know he did so even as I struggled with authority issues and survived a close encounter with a DUI just before leaving California. Much like the mixed blessing Simeon gave Mary that she would have the joy of bearing a child but it would bring with it a sword to pierce her soul, I have cherished both my diaconal and priestly ordinations even as they regularly prove to be swords ever ready to pierce my own soul.

At the moment of my ordination, my bishop prayed, “Therefore, Father, through Jesus Christ your Son, give your Holy Spirit to Harry; fill him with grace and power, and make him a deacon in your Church.” At the beginning of my 21st year as an ordained Episcopal clergyman who now sits in a pew, I know that my world is changing and that I am being called in new directions that as of this moment are not very clear. The road is once again dark ahead of me as I await the light of a new year and new life. I pray for the grace and power to be led by Spirit to whatever this new calling might be and the courage to say yes when that calling finally manifests itself.   

For this, I believe I am so called.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., M.Div., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Asst. Lecturer: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Osceola Regional Campus, Kissimmee

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

Friday, December 19, 2014

Why I Engage in Social Media

A few years ago, a student said to me, “Dr. Coverston, I want to show you something I created. Do you want to see it?” Of course, I always do. “Great, you have to go to Facebook to see it.” So I did, for the very first time only to find out that what the student wanted me to see was protected behind a wall of membership. I had to get a Facebook account to see it.
And so, against my better judgment, I did get a Facebook account. It was worth the trouble. The students’ art was particularly well done and worth seeing. 

Then the avalanche of requests to be “friends” arrived.

Frankly, the notion of constructing an online friendship with someone you are unlikely to actually see with any kind of regularity struck me as a little bizarre to say the least. Even more bizarre was the idea of creating a friendship with people you’ve never even heard of whose requests for friendship began to arrive immediately after I created my account.

Now four years down the road, I find myself regularly engaged on Facebook. While I am hardly a true believer in social media, I do appreciate the ability to discover what has happened to long lost real friends as well as the ability to begin getting to know people in far away places that I may never actually meet but benefit from their wisdom in socially mediated doses.

So, Why *Am* I Here, Anyway?

This past week I’ve done some reflecting on why I engage in social media and what needs and desires I bring to that process. This is a partial list and a beginning of that reflection process.

1. Information – Between the posts submitted by various “friends” on Facebook and the sites which I have “liked” and thus from whom I receive regular posts, I am made aware of a great deal of news that I otherwise would not know about. Frankly, I’m so completely put off by the largely vapid infotainment that has displaced news and the steady pounding of consumerist advertising one must endure to obtain even nuggets of useful information that I don’t watch much television news anymore.

I don’t need local anchors to tell me how I should respond to a given event through their subtle and not-so-subtle presentations. I am unlikely to be whipped into a frenzy to engage in shopping orgies or to mindlessly support wars in which militarism is confused for patriotism. And while talking heads shows often insist that they are “fair and balanced,” what inevitably follows is anything but.

If I want news, I have to go find it. While Facebook is hardly the only source of news I read, it does provide a number of sources which regularly present challenging ideas, provocative quotes and figures from history. I benefit from considering them and thus that is one of the reasons I come to Facebook.

2. Communication – I not only hear from but I hear about my family, friends, former students and colleagues on Facebook. It has been a joy to watch my former students blossom in their lives, families and careers after graduation. It has also been an unexpected pleasure to hear about and from classmates from public school and my own college days, many of whom I had not thought about in years. I love the pictures of their children and grandchildren, I pray with them as loved ones fall ill and I mourn with them as a loved one dies.  

3. Entertainment –I am not a person who needs to be entertained. I find the world around me fascinating. I am a consummate reader with a whole home library, a former garage, full of books to show for it. I love to watch people and often ponder why they do the things they do. And I can never get enough of the natural world, either digging in my garden or walking by the lake at the top of my street.

I watch some television but I spend more time at my computer either writing or viewing online sites. Facebook provides a hell of a lot of schlock and even more commercial advertising that I have to sift through to get to the funny pictures of cats, the naughty cartoons and the many videos of everything from newly discovered working class people with professional singing voices to clips from Monte Python films. One never knows what they might encounter on Facebook. And to the extent it proves amusing or enriching, I am grateful.

4. Bench, Pulpit and Lectern – I am a lawyer by training and experience. I often use Facebook as a place to advocate ideas and causes I hold dear. I comment on posts from others in the same vein. What is particularly gratifying for this visual learner is the wide array of visual representations of ideas incorporating art, photos and various forms of typography. It’s a wonderful combination of left (ideas, arguments) and right (symbols, images) brain approaches and makes for consideration of ideas at several levels.

I am also an ordained Episcopal priest now approaching 20 years of ordination.  Facebook is a place where I am able to mark the seasons of the church year, to present images and ideas from my own take on the faith tradition (which I readily recognize is but one possibility and hardly normative for everyone else) and to post my occasional sermon by linking it to my blogsite. Facebook is a means of expressing my faith and exercising my ministry and for this priest who has not been allowed to function in a parish for most of his ordained life, that is a privilege.

But most of all, I am a teacher. Fourth generation of educators in my family, great grandchild of progenitors named Reed and Wright, I have either been a student or a teacher (or both) for virtually all of my life. Facebook provides a forum for ideas and I use that forum regularly. My goal in doing so is to try to present ideas for people to consider, hopefully to prompt them to think further and deeper, maybe even to reconsider things they thought they already knew.

As has always been my approach to teaching, I am more concerned that people think than with what they think about. Clearly I am more than willing to argue with people about ideas. 

Remember, I’m a lawyer and was always an argumentative child by nature. My Dad said my third word after Mommy and Daddy was “Why?” He said I almost drove him crazy once I learned that word: “But, why Daddy, why?” Thank G-d for parents able to deal with inquisitive children unwilling to accept common knowledge on its face.

It is my observation that most people are not prone to think about the world around them and even less are prone to reflect on their own understandings of that world. But I agree with Socrates that the unexamined life is not really worth living. Hence, my submissions to Facebook are often provocative in content and presentation. Some readers will simply ignore those posts, others will shut down and default into foregone conclusions, yet others will agree and “Like” my post. While I find it mildly gratifying to have my posts “liked,” (I am a Feeling type on the MBTI) I don’t really post these things in search of affirmation so much as I seek to follow my prime directive as the quintessential teacher – prompting people to think.

Small People Talk About Other People

What I am unwilling to do is argue with contentious people. That is particularly true of those who devolve almost immediately from ideas being presented to character attacks on the individuals involved in the stories themselves or on posters involved in the discussion on Facebook. I think Eleanor Roosevelt was absolutely on target when she said  that great people talk about ideas, mediocre people talk about things while small people talk about other people.

I also find myself increasingly impatient with inveterate stupidity. There is a major difference between ignorance, which can always be cured through learning, and stupidity, which I see as a volitional state. 

I also do not confuse disagreement for stupidity. People will hold various understandings of any given issue and they are entitled to form, hold and articulate them. But the right to an opinion does not include an expectation to have that opinion automatically respected. While the person of the maker of the opinion always must be respected, the opinion itself is respectable or not depending upon its content, its expression and the ability of the offeror of that opinion to adequately support and defend it.  

A couple of years ago I found myself saying “Life is too short to argue with stupid people.” Increasingly I find that to be my modus operandi in dealing with Facebook. I either ignore contentious posts to the extent that I can or I simply delete posts that pursue that pattern. I do that for two reasons. One is to remove postings that reflect poorly on me and could cause people to associate ideas with me that do not reflect who I am. The second is to encourage people to interact with my site, something they are often unwilling to do when they fear being bullied by other posters.

I am unwilling to unfriend people as a matter of principle. I am a believer in hearing a wide range of views. Life within the echo chambers of the like minded is stultifying and  stagnating. We need others to remind us of the breadth and depth of possible understandings of those things we think we know and the weak spots of our own understandings. My friends online reflect my friends in real life, representing a range of philosophical positions.

That doesn’t mean I am willing to endure attacks on my person confused with reasoned discussion. I did not come to Facebook for group therapy or a confessional. I am pretty aware of my shortcomings as a human being and as the psalmist said, “My sins are ever before me.” I also know I have my blind spots like everyone else. But my person or the person of anyone who comes to my site is not an appropriate subject for discussion there. Facebook is simply not the right place to talk about such things. Indeed, it is marginal for discussions of ideas of substance generally as it must compete with all those dancing cats videos and political ads.

 While I may well have been unfriended by people for any number of reasons, I have only unfriended one person in these four years. He was an evangelical Protestant computer science student at Berkeley who had asked me to friend him out of the blue. I agreed and found out a lot about his immigration from South Korea, his marriage and his faith. He was quite an interesting young man.

Sadly, he proved to be one of the many conservative religious people of all traditions who get social prejudices confused with religion. Having dealt with enough homophobia dressed up as Christianity for several lifetimes, I endured a couple of days of diatribes before cutting off that discussion only to find new posts in the same vein being added to my site. After asking him to desist several times to no avail, I finally unfriended him. I still hear about him on LinkedIn but am able to avoid the same kinds of confrontations there that occurred on Facebook.

“Your site, your rules.”

A friend of mine sometimes remarks “Your site, your rules.” While I am not a particularly rule-driven person by any stretch of the imagination, I guess there is some advantage to forming ground rules for any kind of social interaction to allow people to know what is expected of them. I have few rules but here they are:

1. Treat other people with respect. The ideas someone offers are always fair game for critique, the persons of those offerors never are. Remember Eleanor Roosevelt’s maxim.There is a lot to be said for the exercise of common courtesy. Or as my saintly mother would have put it, "Now, don't be ugly." 

2. Don’t confuse critique with bashing. President Obama does a number of things I oppose from the ongoing war in the Middle East to his policies on education even as I continue to support him as president. That doesn’t make him or his family appropriate targets for attacks. Ad hominems, no matter how cleverly disguised, have no place on my site or in civil conversation generally.

 I also adhere to a stream of tradition within the Christian faith. It is quite possible to draw into question tenets of that faith even as one stands within that stream of tradition.  I see few things in black and white, all or nothing terms and generally see such thinking as rather undeveloped. My site will not be used for bashing even as critical discussion is always welcomed. I realize that what constitutes either or both may itself be a point of contention.

3. Speak for yourself. Don’t purport to speak for Americans, for Christians or for G-d. You don’t and you simply can’t. Speaking from one’s own perspective and taking ownership of that perspective keeps us accountable and aware that there are other possible perspectives besides our own.

I think if my “friends” can adhere to just these three rules, our interactions on Facebook will go smoothly. I will make every effort to adhere to my own rules as well. I do not expect this statement to resolve or prevent every possible conflict. But if nothing else it has provided me a reason to begin reflecting on my presence on Facebook and what I seek there.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., M.Div., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Asst. Lecturer: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Osceola Campus, Kissimmee

 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 11, 2014

An Inconvenient Death at the Magic Game

The notice on Facebook said that the demonstration would begin at 5 PM at the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University Law College campus. It was a rally to protest the string of cases of black victims of largely white police brutality.

When I saw the notice I knew I had to go. I simply cannot remain silent in the face of what is beginning to look like an epidemic of police brutality in which black lives are presumed to be less valuable than any others. That sick feeling in my stomach as I watch the reports of deaths coming out of cities like Cleveland, New York and St. Louis cannot be ignored.

America, we have a serious problem. We ignore it at our peril.

Marching in a Sea of Anxiety  

We were taught the chants we were to use in our protest by a young man with a bullhorn as we stood on the corner by the law school. “No justice, no peace.” “Black lives matter.” “Tell me what democracy looks like - *THIS* is what democracy looks like.” “I can’t breathe.” And, then, after a few announcements, we were off to the Amway Center for an encounter with the crowd coming to the Orlando Magic basketball game.

I shared that march with four colleagues from the Philosophy Department. It was good to be with people of intellect, a sense of justice and courage to act on it. Truth be told, we had no idea as we departed the law school campus what we would encounter along the way. For the record, the Orlando Police were orderly, polite, non-interventionist and blocked off the streets along the way to keep protesters and motorists alike safe. To paraphrase our own chant, “*THIS* is what a trustworthy police department looks like.”

But a mere four days prior an unarmed black man in Orlando had been shot dead by this same police department in an impoverished area of town. And the images of militarized police and national guard violently engaging crowds like this one from places across the country were only too fresh in the minds of many in our group of 300 as we marched down Orlando’s main drag, Orange Avenue.

Four helicopters buzzed overhead, supposedly taking aerial photos of the events. Helicopters always make me a little nervous, no doubt a little post traumatic stress from my days as observer in El Salvador. There US supplied helicopters poured napalm from the sky consuming everything below in a rain of fire. They also served as sniper’s nests for marksmen aloft and were sometimes used to toss out rebels who plunged hundreds of feet to their death, this sending a bold message: This is what happens to those who challenge the regime.

Death at a Sporting Event

The scene at the Amway Arena was surreal. It was twilight with the last sunlight a starburst of light at the end of Church Street. At the signal, we all lay down in the street to affect our die-in, remaining lifeless on the cold concrete for 15 minutes to symbolize the number of times Eric Garner had vainly protested “I can’t breathe” to the officer who choked him to death.

Around us, fans streaming to the Orlando Magic game stopped and stared at the incomprehensible sight of 300 people laying lifeless in the street. Many took their cell phones out to snap photos. Booming public announcements reminded patrons that they could not smoke in the arena, that they could not bring in large bags or briefcases and that they might be searched coming into the facility. All of this for their safety, they were assured. 

The juxtaposition of entertainment, security and this reminder of death was jarring.

Some of us had been issued a piece of typing paper with a name printed on it. We would be that person in the die-in. And so I became a young black woman named Shantel Davis, a 23 year old black woman shot by an NYPD officer after she crashed her car following a police chase. I had only briefly heard of this case prior to last night so I came home and looked it up online.

Davis had been accused of attempted murder and kidnapping in a gang-related crime and the car she was driving through red lights was reported stolen. The official version of the story said the unarmed Davis was shot as she resisted arrest in the car. Witnesses say Davis had her hands in the air when she was shot and later bled to death on the streets of Brooklyn.

The officer who killed Davis was also African-American. With over 800 arrests, primarily for narcotics offenses, Phillip Atkins sounds like a hero. That is until you look at the rest of his record: six federal lawsuits for police brutality that has cost the NYPD and the taxpayers of New York a quarter of a million dollars in settlements.

There were no good guys in that encounter as is often the case.

As I lay on the cold concrete last night, Arena patrons sipping cocktails looking down on us from the balconies, news reporters lighting up the bodies in the street with their cameras, helicopters buzzing overhead, stars beginning to come out, I was very aware of the fact that in just 15 minutes I would be getting up and going about my daily life. 

Shantel Davis never had that opportunity.

Justice and Inconvenience

I have largely given up watching televised news these days. It rarely informs me in anything other than a superficial fashion and one has to endure a barrage of consumerist conditioning to get even those little nuggets. Worse yet, under the rubric of entertaining their audience (i.e., the potential customers of the consumer goods being peddled), newscasters engage in some of the most banal and sometimes intellectually insulting chatter that human beings are capable of. These programs rarely inform me and inevitably irritate me.

After being alerted by one of my colleagues that our photos had shown up on a television station’s website, I began to listen to the various newscasts on the protest to hear how they had described the event. What I heard was troubling.

Several stations sought to minimize the turnout, describing the crowd as “dozens” of protesters in their broadcasts even as the printed reports on their sites accurately described the crowd at 300. Why the discrepancy? Is this a strategy to dismiss the protest as trivial?

Most of the newscasts noted the local connection to the protest with the shooting in Pine Hills earlier this week. Here an emerging tactic of propaganda was used. The talking heads repeatedly emphasized that the events of the shooting were “conflicted.” This translates to “anything but the official version is unbelievable,” a tactic in the same category as the use of “controversial” which is increasingly used by talking heads to signal to people “we have to report this but you should ignore it.”  At least “conflicted” refers to something of substance.

What was most interesting in the coverage was the angle used. Almost every local channel focused on the fact that the protest had caused streets to be temporarily blocked (the protest moved through in about 15 minutes), that diners in local restaurants were forced to observe the protest coming by and that fans headed to the Magic game might be late.

Seriously. This was a protest about the loss of human life. It was a protest about the disintegrating relationship of trust between impoverished communities of color and urban police. It was a protest about justice and the reconciliation of American ideals with the attitudes and behaviors of its citizenry.  

Comfort and convenience are pretty shallow concerns in comparison. But increasingly America is revealed as a pretty shallow culture.

For the record, the most thorough and comprehensive coverage came from the local Fox affiliate, Channel 35. It was also the coverage that focused most on the substance of the protest rather than dismissive minimalization and focus on the inconvenience of Magic fans.

It was also the only station with a black talking head.

This is Just the Beginning

At the end of the 15 minute die in, I struggled to get to my feet. “I’m getting too old for this stuff,” I said to the black man about my age next to me. A veteran of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, he said. “I was here before and I’m back again,” continuing  “I’ll keep coming back until there is justice.”

This is the first chapter in a much longer story, I fear. Indeed, as I lay on the concrete, praying, the small, still voice whispered to me, “This is just the beginning.”  

Photos taken from the Orlando Sentinel, WFTV Channel 9 and Fox 35 websites.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., M.Div. Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Asst. Lecturer: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Osceola Campus, Kississimmee

 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. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Gathering Storm Clouds

I awoke to the distant grumbling of thunder Tuesday morning, the harbinger of a string of thunderstorms making their way out of the Gulf of Mexico moving southwest to northeast across the peninsula toward the Atlantic. This storm is the vanguard of a wet, cool and stormy El Niño winter. Before it was over we would get more than three inches of badly needed rain.

As the rain poured down in buckets, turning Roberta Avenue into a river, thunder rumbling outside and lightning periodically lighting up the horizon, my thoughts turned to the events in Ferguson, MO last night. I listened all the way through the rambling preamble by the state prosecutor to what I saw as a foregone conclusion, that the officer in the Michael Brown shooting would not be charged with any wrongdoing. And then I turned out the light and went to bed.

I had a terrible, sick feeling in my stomach. I knew what was next. I’d been there before.

Like Déjà vu All Over Again

The response was not long in coming.  Unable to sleep, I got up to get a drink of water about midnight. CNN was reporting three fires blazing, shots being fired and protests that had spread to several cities coast to coast. This was hardly unpredictable.

Of course, I have the experience of being in a similar situation, having lived in Berkeley when the Rodney King verdicts were handed down by an all-white jury in the  predominately white Los Angeles suburb of Simi Valley. By that afternoon the mood was incredibly tense in Berkeley and the third time I had my race brought to my attention as I walked down the streets, I decided to return to the safe enclave of the seminary atop Holy Hill next to the UC campus.

Safe was a relative term. That night the rage of justice denied exploded all around us. We could hear breaking glass and sirens throughout the night. A number of car windshields along Euclid Avenue were smashed the next morning and several of the seminary’s housing units had rocks thrown through windows. In the depths of the seminary’s fortress-like dormitories, we were protected from the rage on the streets. We had it good, comparatively.

Across the UC campus on Telegraph Avenue, it looked like a war zone the next morning. Smashed windows, looted goods spilled all over the streets. Evidence of fires now extinguished. And everywhere the ubiquitous presence of the National Guard. Berkeley, neighboring Oakland and San Francisco across the Bay would be under martial law for three days.

Of course, our troubles were nothing compared to the destructive rampage that occurred in the southland across the LA basin. The next summer I visited friends in LA and the tell-tale signs of burned out businesses and boarded up stores were still highly evident in many places six months later. Before it was over, 53 human lives would be lost and another 2000 would sustain injuries, some of them life-altering.

Cutting Your Nose Off to Spite Your Face

As I watched the CNN coverage in horror Monday night, I found myself conflicted over what I was seeing. On the one hand, I felt no small amount of frustration over the self-inflicted wounds to the black community in Ferguson. Destroying the businesses in one’s own community means that urban residents, already living in food deserts, must travel even further to find fresh food and fuel for their vehicles. It is, as my saintly mother would say, cutting one’s nose off to spite one’s face.

On the other hand, when one reaches the end of their rope, what other alternatives exist? How is one supposed to respond when they have been smacked in the face one more time? The Ferguson shooting occurs in the context of a wave of black victims of police actions and failures of the legal system to hold their killers accountable. When justice is not attainable through legitimate, sanctioned means, it is hardly surprising that the victims take matters into their own hands. When that happens, revenge rules the day and terror rules the nights.

At some level, this is hardly anything new. Black males have long had a disproportionately greater chance of going to prison than to college. America has a history of slavery, lynching and a criminal justice system that has over time developed a formula for getting away with murder: Be white, kill someone black, have enough money to hire your own attorney.  And if you want to be assured of being smack for America’s addiction to state killing, reverse the formula.

But the events of Ferguson expose much deeper problems in America than the devaluation of young black males. They occur in the context of an election with the lowest turnout in 70 years since the eve of World War II, an election in which predominately elderly white voters put into office a host of reactionary politicians unlikely to heed the gathering storm clouds in America.

They also occur in the context of a host of neo-Jim Crow laws recently enacted that have served to isolate black representation in state and federal governments and repress minority voting. And they occur in a context of an increasingly meaningless electoral politics in which corporate moneys now control the outcomes of elections and thus the governing bodies their corporate interests pick.

From the perspective of an American democratic republic, this is a recipe for disaster.

Distant Rumbles of Thunder

The storm has subsided outside for now and, no doubt, the flames of Ferguson will be extinguished by the end of the week. But the string of El Niño storms headed toward Florida is just beginning. I hear the rumble of thunder in the distance of the next train of thundershowers rumbling in off the Gulf.

Similarly, I fear the events of Ferguson are just the beginning of what could be some very dark days in America. As my flawed hero Thomas Jefferson was wont to say, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever."

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., M.Div., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Asst. Lecturer: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
Osceola Campus, University of Central Florida, Kissimmee

 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. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Ferguson: Unfinished Business, Unrecognized Context

Some friends and I have been discussing an opinion column from the Washington Post on Facebook on the context of the recent events in Ferguson, MO. The author’s argument that racism is the context of the death of young Michael Brown and the grand jury’s absolution of his killer this week seems to this observer to be rather obvious.

And yet, as Gunnar Myrdal observed nearly 70 years ago in his landmark study An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, racism is America’s original sin, an existential stain on our national character and a powerful element in our nation’s psyche. In a nation that prides itself on being the “home of the free and the land of the brave,” racism serves as a limitation if not refutation of our vaunted freedom (with liberty and justice for whom?) and a festering sore of denial that belies our self-congratulatory bravery. 

Many Headed Hydra

Racism is a hydra with many heads. Some of the more obvious ones have been cut off. We don't see signs that read "We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone" in restaurants anymore that were common in my youth in Central Florida, code language for Whites Only. And we don't see white and colored waiting rooms at the bus station and white and colored restrooms and water fountains. Those more obvious manifestations of racism were long ago dealt with through legislation and court decisions.

But the less obvious heads of the hydra are still alive and even more toxic than ever. Our schools are actually more segregated than in the mid-1960s when court ordered desegregation dismantled dual school systems. This de facto resegregation has been accomplished by virtue of the combination of test-driven grading of schools and diversion of public moneys to private and charter schools with selective admissions.

Race also remains the primary correlate to poverty and the determinant of who recovered from the ongoing recession and who got left behind. Race figures largely in voter suppression laws and gerrymandered redistricting effectively shutting people of color out of any meaningful role in electoral politics. This virtually assures explosions of rage like that of Ferguson.

These aspects of race are subtle. They are the refutations of the self-congratulatory persona that Americans wish to maintain that we have somehow dealt with our race problem. They have deep roots that run back 400 years to the Middle Passage and the chattel slavery that awaited those who survived it. And their ongoing presence in our culture is insured largely by the intentional denial of those of us who refuse to recognize racism where it exists and, even more powerfully, in the unconscious racism that virtually all of us are subject to as products of a historically racist culture.

As my classmate from seminary said, "In America, we breathe racist air." We don't have to like that assessment, in fact we shouldn't, but we must make a good faith effort to come to grips with it if we value the ongoing existence of the American experiment.

Unrecognized Racism and the Mixed Race President

The subtleties of racism are particularly difficult to see – and thus the most powerful in effect – in the case of President Obama. The backlash against this mixed race man’s election was fast and furious. It has also largely been both consciously and unconsciously racist.

The ongoing non-controversy about his birth status and his religion were the first indicators of this. Obama wasn’t a true American because his father was Kenyan (and thus, black). Thus he couldn’t have been born in America, he must have been born in Africa (and thus, black). Even the production of his Hawaiian birth certificate failed to end this non-debate, particularly on the infotainment Fox channel and the echo chambers of the Limbaughs and Becks of the right wing bubble. (Besides, we all know Hawaiians aren’t really white).

Moreover, his middle name was Hussein!  That’s a Muslim name (and thus, not white, here conflated with Christian)! Never mind that his church, a UCC congregation in Chicago, is quintessentially American, the progeny of the Puritan colonists of New England. His pastor, outspoken about racism in America, has been branded everything from a communist to a terrorist precisely because he dares to speak pointedly about racism (and he’s black!). Thus, Obama must be a Muslim terrorist by association (and he’s black!).

In all these cases, Americans perhaps unconsciously conflated notions of being American with being white and Christian (more specifically Protestant). But this is only the tip of the iceberg of the many ways race is exploited in talking about Barrack Obama. The most powerful aspect of racism in constructing Obama in the imaginations of white Americans is not who he is (because after all, he’s half white like us) but rather what he represents.

Republican strategies to exploit race in electoral politics have been thinly veiled since Nixon’s Southern Strategy of the 1960s and Reagan’s Welfare Queen of the 1980s. Obama was elected in 2008 on a tide of multicultural and multigenerational diversity. Obama represents the future of an America which will be minority/majority by mid-century (Florida should attain that status next year) and thus an America in which WASP hegemony is no longer the foregone conclusion.

The backlash we saw in the elections the first of this month reflects the fears of a white America that sees its dominance slipping away. That’s who came to the polls, in part because of a highly effective campaign to depress voter turnout in non-white voters through voter repression laws and the most expensive campaign in history which pounded the electorate with negative advertising. It was an election in which the name Obama became an epithet that stood in for Ebola Fever (that African disease) and illegal immigrants (who aren’t white). In effect, for many Americans, “Obama” became the socially respectable shorthand for any number of bogeymen not the least of which was “nigger.”  

Unfinished Business

Of course, it is neither fair nor accurate to suggest that any and all opposition to Barrack Obama is based in racism, either conscious or unconscious. Like all presidents, he has made mistakes and while he has the potential to be a far-sighted visionary, he has too often proven to be a naïve strategist and a lousy politician in a Washington that has devolved into a Machiavellian free-for-all with little time for or interest in the common good (What a quaint notion!). Worse yet, his administration has evinced some of the same suzerainty to Wall Street corporate interests that defined his predecessor.

It is quite possible to oppose the President’s politics and not do so solely or even predominately out of a racist animus, conscious or otherwise. Given the power of the culture industry to construct both people and their politics, Obama is seen by many to be liberal even as many of his policies have proven to be quite conservative (drones pounding countries with which we are not at war, deporter-in-chief of undocumented immigrants, bailout of Wall Street but not Main Street). In an electorate which repeatedly reveals itself to be poorly informed consumers waiting for constructed choices to be provided them rather than well informed responsible citizens actively engaging the electoral process, it’s not hard to see how largely meaningless ideological constructions like this could have staying power.  

On the other hand, the construction of Obama into various caricatures by his opponents has been, from the very beginning, tinged with a palpable racism. The effectiveness of those caricatures and their ability to motivate voters by fear is borne out by the exit polling data of the last election. It is there for those who have ears to hear, eyes to see and the courage to face the reality.

The question is not whether racism continues to play a major role in American politics. Rather it is simply whether we are willing to confront our demons, the sickness of the American soul that Gunnar Myrdal diagnosed seven decades ago.
The events of Ferguson suggest the answer is “Not yet.”

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
Osceola Campus, University of Central Florida, Kissimmee

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