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

Sunday, November 23, 2014

No Courage Without a Crisis

The Ethics and Critical Thinking course that Valencia College provides me each semester is a real joy to teach. It truly is doing ethics at the United Nations. The varied cultural backgrounds of the students makes the discussions of ethical theory and the deliberations over ethical dilemmas vibrant and energized. These are for the most part thoughtful people, most of whom come to me at the end of long work days and remain present and engaged for three hours. I admire them and I consider this class a major gift in my life for which I am thankful, indeed.

The curriculum for the course begins with the various ethical theories starting with egoism and ending with feminist ethical theory. The second half of the course examines ethical applications from economic considerations to questions of why and how we punish people. The final application each semester is on the environment. The chapter raises questions of climate change, despoliation of nature and examines them through the narrow lens of anthropocentrism versus the broader lens of biocentrism.

The New Battle of Midway

I begin this unit each semester with a trailer from a film released last year called Midway. It is set at the atoll midway across the Pacific from the Americas to Asia famed for its ferocious fighting during World War II. But Midway is the front for a new war being waged these days and the outcome of that war is much more precarious and ultimately much greater in its impact than the pitched battles of the Allies and Axis forces in the mid-20th CE.

Midway is the home for many oceanic birds and is located in some of the richer marine life preserves on the planet. The filmmakers begin with a look at the beauty of those animals and the seemingly unlimited supply of the same. But all is not well in Eden. Many of the birds are sick and dying. Their stomachs prove to be full of plastic, Styrofoam and other human generated flotsam which has made its way over 2000 nautical miles from the closest points of human settlement to this island. 

The scenes of dead and dying birds serves as the springboard for our discussions. Midway is in the middle of the ocean. What other animals have encountered this flow of human refuse along the way? With what results? What implications for human behavior does this raise? What are the ethical and critical thinking issues raised?

The trailer provides a very fertile ground for discussion of anthropocentrism v. biocentrism. But what always strikes me when I show this excerpt of film is the response my students inevitably have. They fall silent. Dead silent. And the discussion of the film that follows inevitably evidences no small amount of anguish.

Do We Have the Courage?

At the end of the excerpt, the narrator reads a question posed to the viewer in the film:

Do we have the courage to face the realities of our time and allow ourselves to feel deeply enough that it transforms us and our future?”

It is a powerful question posed at the end of a disturbing video with a lot of implications for a generation poised on the edge of inheriting the world. And so when one of the students asked whether they had to answer that question, I decided to see what this rising cohort of heirs to a world in crisis might have to say.


The results were disturbing. Of the 20 students responding, only three of them offered even a remotely affirmative answer to the question.

One couched a response in theoretical terms: “Ideally, if we would all unite and be consistent and do the same thing we would resolve some major life-threatening issues - to conserve nature, our environment, our world. But for all to find the courage is a challenge in itself.”

Another drew a distinction between the few and the many: “I believe many people are able to do so but most people don’t. We are quick to point the finger at the next man or woman and blame them but we don’t take a look at ourselves and what we are doing. A few people may be proactive on these situations but there is not enough of them to really bring change when the many are still repeating their negative ways.”

A third student offered a sanguine view of human history in making changes when needed saying, “I think we do have the courage because so many positive changes have been made throughout the years. So we can make a better change for our future.”


Bear in mind these are the more optimistic voices. Of the remaining 17 students, their responses fell into several perhaps predictable categories.

Individually Overwhelming

Not surprisingly, many recognized the enormous scope of the problems of climate change and wondered what they alone could do about it:
  • I can’t speak for everyone in the room but me, personally, I can‘t. I feel that with everything that is wrong in our time, I don’t have enough heart or courage to face it. I care enough to do something about it but not all.
  •  We are quick to point the finger at the next man or woman and blame them but we don’t take a look at ourselves and what we are doing. A few people may be proactive on these situations but there are not enough of them to really bring change when the many are still repeating their negative ways.

Hitting Home

Several students noted that courage to change is rarely summoned until people begin to feel the effects of a crisis themselves. To wit:
  •         I do not think people may look at something as a major problem until it actually hits home. Some people are not willing enough to feel deeply enough that it transforms us and their future. It may be too much of a distraction for them. For instance, the seagulls. People may think, “Why are they necessary? What will be the difference without them?”
  •          [We will care] only when that reality begins to affect our very being. When the Industrial Revolution began, few cared about where the mass of pollution went. In the case of caring for the poor, unless you are actually poor, you turn a blind eye and ignore the problem even though it is right there.
  •          I feel as though a lot of us don’t have that courage simply because there hasn’t been a significant enough change for us to point to that courage. Now we definitely should strive for that courage because it’s worth it.


A couple of students noted that most human beings operate out of the anthropocentric presumption that we are the center of the universe. They said:

·         Some do not want to face the reality because it is not the norm; it requires a lot of energy and work to give to an inferior species.

·         As humans we tend to not care what we do to others and let alone the earth.

Resistance to Change

A related response was the recognition that human beings often tend to be resistant to change:

·         As a society I don’t think we are capable of letting ourselves feel deeply enough that it transforms us. Change scares us, which is why I don’t think we are all capable of facing the realities of our time.

·         It’s not until things get worse that we try to change these realities for the better and not just worse but significantly worse. Otherwise people just think that the problems don’t exist or will just get better on their own.

And The Winners Are….

Two themes marked the most frequently cited reasons that this class believed we humans will not find the courage to face the pending realities of climate change. The first is the admission that whatever else we residents of the post-modern era might be, we are, in fact, well trained consumers. The second is the recognition that the primary force preventing any attempt to face the realities of our time is denial that they exist.

Consumers Uber Alles

The consummate consumerist values of convenience, comfort and the fetishized understandings of choice are evident in these comments:

  •       Most of us choose comfort and convenience over the difficult tasks of changing and facing what we do to take responsibility for our actions.
  •            It takes not only courage but a willingness to change. Most people will not go out of their way unless they will see a benefit from their actions now. They live in the now and for today, not for the future. In order to do this people would have to leave their comfort zone and it would be uncomfortable and inconvenient.
  •          As a people we do not have the courage because we choose personal profit and gain over what could benefit our future generations.
  •          A lot of people don’t want change. Less time in the shower, always recycling, carpooling or other conservationist methods require change. For a lot of people these things could be uncomfortable and hard, two things they don’t want.
  •          People are lazy and do not want to use critical thinking skills. People want to do what is fast and easy

Denial Is Not a River in Egypt

The first step in solving any problem is admitting it exists. In a culture where ideology is readily substituted for fact and confirmation bias can be readily achieved through selective infotainment, it is not surprising that American denial of the impending climate remains the primary obstacle in tackling this problem. Several responses reflected this:

  •          The mass public does not want to face reality. They would rather watch the cute polar bears play in the snow rather than face  the truth. We know it goes on yet we don’t face it because it shows the monstrous side of the human race.
  •         As humans we hide from the truth. We truly can never accept our realities. If someone tries to tell us we tend to make excuses or attempt to not listen to them. At the end we are all scared to face our realities. No one really has the courage to face realities and to allow ourselves to feel deeply enough.
  •          I feel many people live with the “out of sight out of mind” mentality. If it doesn’t affect their life on a personal level people tend to choose ignorance. I know personally just to live a happy life I worry about my stresses and don’t look into the problems surrounding me. Probably because I think it has nothing to do with me and I’ll die someday anyway.
  •          I do not think that we have the courage to face the realities of our time and change our ways because in light of all the harm humans are doing to the environment and our resources we continue down our destructive path because it is easy. A scary thing is that even though something may shock us or be wrong to us eventually we overlook it or ignore and go back to live our normal lives.
  •          Many of us do not have the courage because we are scared of what it will do to us. It might make us go through a lot of negative things before it gets better. This is why many of us try to ignore reality and avoid facing it.

Ignoring the Prophets

In my recent blog entries I have observed the frightening prospects of the perfect storm of urgent crises facing an American people who have just this month responded by electing governments guaranteed to refuse to deal with those crises. Some of you have described those views as pessimistic. If so, I am clearly not alone in my pessimism. And bear in mind, this is the generation that will be faced with addressing these crises.

The students lay it out well here. Perhaps it is because we feel personally overwhelmed by the challenges we face, preferring to escape into the shallow, immediate but temporary pleasures of consumerism. Perhaps it is because we recognize the implications of these challenges and the reality that most of them are the result of our voracious self-indulgence and the resulting destructive behaviors. It’s hardly surprising we don’t like the picture that paints of us. Perhaps it is because we relinquish the belief we are the center of the universe reluctantly even as we recognize the deleterious effects of this egocentric  belief on all that we touch. Or perhaps it is because our myopic desire for immediate gratification leaves us willing to leverage our future by denying the challenges we already know exist but are unwilling to confront.

The narrator of Midway has his finger on the pulse of our culture: “Do we have the courage to face the realities of our time and allow ourselves to feel deeply enough that it transforms us and our future?Like my students, I fear the answer is probably not. And like my students, I believe this probably assures that whatever changes do occur will be the result of the coming of crises we can no longer delay or deny.

But this is not the voice of a pessimist. It is the response of a watchful observer of culture who still dares to be hopeful even as that hope grows ever fainter.

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

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Remembering True Martyrs

Today thousands of peacemakers will gather in Columbus, GA outside the gates of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation at Fort Benning. With “Cooperation” on the end of this title, this “institute” sounds positively civilized. 

But the history of this agency is anything but civilized. This is simply a new name for an actual terrorist organization once named the School of the Americas. Often referred to as the School of the Assassins in Latin America, the School has trained members of the military and paramilitary all over Latin America in methods of terrorism designed to combat popular uprisings in Central and South America since 1946.

Under the rubric of anti-communism, students, clergy, unions, media and farmers have been targeted for kidnappings, torture, murder and mutilation. Like ISIS, the mutilated bodies were often left in high visibility locations such as highways and garbage dumps where they could send very clear messages to the population at large: Do not challenge the regime. We will crush you. 

Your Tax Money at Work

Today’s commemoration has particular significance. It is the 25th anniversary of the murder of six Jesuit professors at the University of Central America in San Salvador along with their housekeeper and her daughter. These brutal murders were carried out by the Atlacatl Battalion, a self-described counter-insurgency military unit trained, armed and largely directed by the US Army’s School of the Americas then headquartered in Panama.

The Battalion was responsible for a high profile act of genocide in the northeastern village of Mozote in which the more than 700 residents were rounded up, tortured, raped, killed, their mutilated bodies hung from trees and burned in the rubble of their village.

The very clear goal of all these highly public acts of brutality was obvious: to terrorize the population and frighten the people into submission. It was a brutal terrorism taught these Latin American soldiers by agents trained in America and paid for with American taxpayers’ money. 

ISIS has got nothing on us. 

I visited this place of death on a peaceful university campus during my first trip to El Salvador in 1993. It was a very difficult time to be in that country, then under a cease fire monitored by the UN with no accord yet in place to prevent a resumption of the bloody civil war that had been raging there for 13 years. Through the aegis of the Episcopal Diocese of El Salvador and the World Council of Churches, our small group of seminarians was able to serve as international monitors of the cease fire for the week we were there.

The civil war was predominately funded and largely directed by the American military and the CIA. The uprising of campesinos who had taken over many less than fully productive farms owned by Salvador’s famed Fourteen Families had brought the US into this conflict. Our government sought to protect American business interests in Salvador and to prevent the successful Sandinista leftist revolution in Nicaragua from spreading to its neighbor to the north. Under the rubric of fighting communism - whether it actually was present or not - the US became embroiled in wars up and down Central America and generated some of the more brutal acts of terrorism known to humanity.

We Were Not the Good Guys…

One memory of that visit occurred at the base community of campesinos who had overtaken a large cattle farm in the country. The leader of the community said to us, “You may think we live like animals because we live in cattle stalls. But this is the first roof I’ve ever had over my head in 30 years.” About this time a group of children with distended bellies came up to our group and the leader continued, “We have had two children die in our community in the last week from hunger. The oldest one was 10. He was my son.”

That visit also included meeting victims of napalm dropped from US helicopters onto villages. One of the survivors bore horrendous scarring from his encounter with death which rained from the skies. As we spoke with him, the charred barren hillsides around the base community in which he and other burn victims lived still bore witness to that deadly encounter years after its occurrence. In some places the landscape was charred right down to the stone.

Napalm is a terrible thing.

When we asked the man how he had managed to survive, he quickly responded, “It was the Cuban doctors who helped us.” Suddenly I found myself reeling from cognitive dissonance. A child of the Cuban missile crisis in Florida, Castro’s Cuba represented all that was evil in my childhood. The reality I encountered that day in the countryside of El Salvador was a complete reversal of roles. Here it was America who was the author of evil. And it was Castro’s Cuba whose policies were life giving.

As I watch the waves of children coming to our border from El Salvador, I do not have to wonder what would prompt their desperate parents to send them on such dangerous journeys in the hopes of new lives. I’ve seen where they come from. And I know what happened there. At a very basic level, these children are coming to reclaim the lives that were stolen from them.

This is what happens when you use your brains….

The afternoon we visited the university was the occasion of the third anniversary of the massacre at UCA. We got there early enough to see the actual site of the killing which was now a museum. The victims were taken from their dormitory at UCA into a rose garden and shot point blank. To make their point, their assassins used their rifle butts to beat the brains out of the heads of some of the professors. Their point was pretty clear:

This is what happens when you use your brains to challenge the regime.    

These killings occurred nine years after Archbishop Oscar Romero was gunned down at the altar of a convent in the middle of mass. Romero had long predicted his death: “If they kill me, I shall arise in the Salvadoran people. If the threats come to be fulfilled, from this moment I offer my blood to God.”  Romero was also prone to cite Tertullian’s maxim that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” I have stood in that very spot and felt the palpable chill of death.

There was never a shortage of martyrs in El Salvador.

Latin Americans tend to be pretty graphic with their depiction of horror and somewhat literal in their appropriation of religious symbols. When the bodies of the Jesuits were discovered, some of the people scraped the brains beaten from their heads into glass jars and saved them. They are currently on display in the museum, a sight which prompted me to go running from the museum to the rose garden where they had died to vomit between sobs.

The chapel at UCA contains a set of unbelievably graphic scenes of tortured campesinos that serves as the Stations of the Cross. They are powerful in their witness to the terror systematically generated in El Salvador during the civil war to coerce the populace into control. They are also powerful voices of protest against this brutality and insisting that this violence end.

That evening we attended an outdoor mass on the UCA campus. Under the gaze of the ubiquitous military guards with their automatic weapons, we entered into what was an incredibly joyful rite of remembrance, resistance and hope for reconciliation. It was my first encounter with the Misa Campesina, the liberationist eucharist that arose out of the struggles of Central America. It closed with a rousing hymn:

Cuando el pobre crea en el pobre             When the poor believe in themselves
Ya podremos cantar libertad                      Then we will sing liberty
Cuando el pobre crea en el pobre             When the poor believe in themselves
Construiremos la fraternidad                      We will build a brotherhood.

This would be the first of two trips to El Salvador. The second I would serve as an international election monitor for the 1994 election in the country. I would watch illiterate peasants standing in the tropical sun for hours to dip their thumbs into purple ink and mark their ballots under the photos of the candidates. It provided a stark contrast to the recent shameful elections in America where about a third of the electorate bothered to show up, our worst participation rate since the Great Depression.

An Obligation to Bear Witness

My time in El Salvador changed me forever. I no longer had the luxury of naïveté in looking at my country’s foreign policy through the lens of generosity. I had seen too much. I also came away with a decided admiration for the tenacity, the generosity and the hopefulness of the poor despite the unbearable hardships they bear daily just to survive and the demonization they endure which threatens to take away their remaining dignity.

I promised myself that I would return to America to tell what I had seen and experienced there. Sadly, I cannot be present in Columbus this day. I have a funeral of a long time friend to attend. But a candle burns before my Guadalupe shrine this morning and my prayers ascend to heaven along with a curl of frankincense smoke in memory of the many martyrs of El Salvador. My heart and my spirit are with the protesters who stand at the gates of the sanitized School of the Assassins this day even as my body is not. And I join them in solidarity as they make their demands:

No more terrorism! No more war! Not in my name and not with my tax money!  

Today I give thanks for the lives of true martyrs, those who died fighting for human dignity, those who understood that the right to life is broader, deeper and much more involved than the shallow politics of abortion. As a follower in the Way of Jesus, I give thanks for those who recognize that the good news of Jesus means nothing so long as it remains silent in the face of ongoing degradation and demonization of the little ones that Jesus loved.  

The poster for the third anniversary commemoration I brought back from El Salvador contains a quote from Salvadoreño writer Rafael Rodriguez Diaz. Speaking on behalf of the martyred Jesuits, he believes they would stand in the face of death again and say:

We want to say for the record that if we were given new life to decide again what to do, they would again find us dying for this town and its people.

Martyrs of El Salvador!


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)
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.
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