Monday, May 30, 2016

Remembering the Fallen

This weekend, America celebrates Memorial Day. This last Monday in May has come to mean a number of things; the end of the school year and the commencement of summer vacation. For those of us living along the Atlantic Seaboard, Memorial Day marks the beginning of beach season as well as the time we begin casting a leary eye to the tropics as the six months long hurricane season begins June 1.

This weekend our airwaves and internet screens will pound us with non-stop commercials. Everything from furniture to clothes to cars will be on sale under banners of red, white and blue. American flags will make their appearances on front porches and mailboxes this weekend. This salute to nationalism will build to a crescendo on the Fourth of July weekend, with its own round of sales and a barrage of fireworks that will keep our dogs and cats on edge into the wee hours all weekend. The message from this juxtaposition of nationalism with an orgy of materialism could not be any clearer: Do your patriotic duty, be a good consumer. 

Lost in this tsunami of commercial advertising, flag waving, beach trips, barbeques and beer is the actual reason for Memorial Day. There is no small amount of irony in this celebration of unabashed consumerism and vacation season that Memorial Day is ultimately a day of mourning, of remembering the dead from the near continual wars America has fought since its founding. It is not about freedom (that’s Independence Day) and it’s certainly not about consumerism (that’s the Christian holiday which formerly celebrated the birth of Jesus).

It’s about the fallen.

Paying the Ultimate Price

Memorial Day is designed to recall the human costs of war in a very intentional manner. In American terms (counting only American casualties, excluding those of allies and foes), that number is currently 1.1 million.

The American Civil War, which Memorial Day first commemorated, was the costliest military engagement with a half million American soldiers killed in that five year internecine struggle to the death. World War I would be sold to the Americans as “the war to end wars” but the just over 100,000 American casualties in that event would pale in comparison to those of the World War II which arose out of the failures of WWI to resolve the issues which gave rise to it. The two world wars together would equal the Civil War in casualties.

Since WWII, about 160,000 American soldiers have lost their lives in places as far flung as Southeast Asia, Central Asia and the Persian Gulf. But while WWI ostensibly was fought to end wars and WWII to save the world from totalitarianism, the goals of wars since the middle of the 20th CE have been far less clear.

These latter day wars were initially sold to the American public under urgent imperatives of halting a red menace, protecting nations from toppling like dominos to godless communism. More recently wars have been sold as “defending freedom” against a vague foe of terrorism. While the actual threat to American interests from these highly caricaturized bogeymen has been at best mixed, what is clear in retrospect is that the global corporations who benefited from these wars, particularly petrochemical and military-industrial interests, appear to have set the agenda for American foreign policy.

It has proven to be an agenda paid for with the blood of working class American kids. They were dispatched into harm’s way by power holders whose own children have been exempted from an innocuous sounding “volunteer” army whose “volunteers” were actually driven there by the desperation of a poverty draft. Indeed, the vast majority of those authorizing these ongoing invasions and occupations themselves found ways to dodge the mandatory draft that the children of the working and middle classes faced during the Vietnam era of the 1960s and 70s.

It’s always easy to send someone else’s kid to war.

Roots of a Commemoration

It is unclear where the practice of honoring the war dead on a particular day began. Decoration of the graves of war dead predates the Civil War but there is no indication it ever occurred in a routine practice until that time.

One of the more interesting roots of Memorial Day arose during Reconstruction in Charleston, SC. David Bight of the Teaching A People’s History program provides this account:

After a long siege…the beautiful port city of Charleston, South Carolina, where the war had begun in April, 1861, lay in ruin by the spring of 1865. The city was largely abandoned by white residents by late February….

1865 view of the Union soldiers graves at Washington Racecourse. Library of Congress.

Thousands of black Charlestonians, most former slaves, remained in the city and conducted a series of commemorations to declare their sense of the meaning of the war. The largest of these events…took place on May 1, 1865. During the final year of the war, the Confederates had converted the planters’ horse track, the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, into an outdoor prison. Union soldiers were kept in horrible conditions in the interior of the track; at least 257 died of exposure and disease and were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand. Some twenty-eight black workmen went to the site, re-buried the Union dead properly, and built a high fence around the cemetery. They whitewashed the fence and built an archway over an entrance on which they inscribed the words, “Martyrs of the Race Course.” 

Then, black Charlestonians in cooperation with white missionaries and teachers, staged an unforgettable parade of 10,000 people on the slaveholders’ race course. The symbolic power of the low-country planter aristocracy’s horse track (where they had displayed their wealth, leisure, and influence) was not lost on the freed people.”

The first annual commemorations of the Civil War dead were observed at various times of the year in numerous cities in the north and the south many of which lay claim to being the birthplace of this rite of remembrance. Initially celebrated as holidays by the various states, by the turn of the 20th CE, Memorial Day was celebrated nation-wide on May 30.  After WWI, the commemoration of war dead was extended to all who had died in the armed services of the United States and in 1971 Congress made the last Monday of May a national holiday on which Memorial Day was to be celebrated.

The Bivouac of the Dead

Historically there have been two major means of socially constructing American wars. The first tends to construct war in the abstract, not only minimizing the suffering of those required to fight it but often erasing from recorded memory those impacted by it:

·         The soldiers themselves, whose flag draped coffins returning from battlefields across the globe today are rarely permitted to be photographed by news media;
·         The families on both sides of the war who are left behind, anxiously awaiting news of their loved ones, some never to know their fate;
·         The general populace of conflicted nations, their elderly and children alike, now targets of hostilities which over the last century inexorably shifted from battlefields intentionally located outside settlements to the cities themselves. The total wars of the 20th CE would now target homes, businesses and places of worship, stripping their slain inhabitants of their very humanity in accounting for their deaths as “collateral damage.”

In such constructions, spun by governments and willingly propagated up by a media more often serving as cheerleader than critic, war is always self-evident, obvious, the only possible choice. It is inevitably spun in heroic terms as serving national interests if not larger than life heroic concerns for democracy and freedom themselves.

The run-up to war is marked by excitement, effusive displays of militarism conflated with nationalism such that any opposition to war is routinely seen as unpatriotic. Appeals to the manhood of the young human grist for the mill of death are relentless and highly effective. Erich Remarque offers a classic depiction of this seductive call of Thanatos in All Quiet on the Western Front, seen here, in which a teacher entrusted with the well-being of young students actually serves as the recruitment agent for the armed forces.

Ironically, it is always the writers, the artists, the poets, the song writers and film makers who offer the alternative constructions of war, visions which largely serve to deconstruct the first. They tell the stories of death and suffering, stripping away facades of nobility, honor and heroism. In a society heavily invested in death-denial and more than willing to buy into guilt assuaging self-deceptions, these are the bold truth tellers. They do not worship at the altar of Thanatos; they lament war and mourn its sacrificial victims. 

At the Veterans’ Administration website which provides a limited history of Memorial Day, a poem by a former Confederate officer in the Civil War reflects the somber tone of Memorial Day remembrances of the fallen:

THE MUFFLED drum's sad roll has beat, The soldier's last tattoo; No more on Life's parade shall meet. That brave and fallen few. On Fame's eternal camping-ground Their silent tents are spread, And Glory guards, with solemn round, The bivouac of the dead. – Theodore O'Hara, “Bivouac Of The Dead” 

The poet struggles here to afford dignity to the victims of tribal egos gone mad. It is an unenviable burden that the witness to carnage must shoulder, returning with a glimmer of truth that those who have not been to war desperately seek to avoid. At the end of Remarque’s work, his depiction of Paul, the former student returning from the Western Front, seen here, is a classic vision of the prophet bearing bad news and the proclivity of his seduced countrymen to shoot the messenger rather than countenance his message.

But not all will return.

Wilfred Owens poem “Dulce et Decorum” speaks the horror of seeing one’s comrades die before them, his own in the gas-filled trenches of Europe during WWI. Owens, like Remarque’s Paul, wants nothing to do with the heroic spin that accompanied him and others into the hell holes of war, concluding his classic poem with these words:

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud 
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori. (Lat. It is sweet and right to die for one’s country)

A half century later, veteran and poet Randall Jarrell would refrain this sentiment with his WWII era poem, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner”

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

It is artists like Maya Lin who have provided Americans the sanctuaries we need to pour out our grief. Stark, angular grey granite walls bearing the inscribed names of the dead which glint in sunlight compose her Vietnam Memorial. I have always felt it my duty to come to this memorial, bearing the names of so many of my peers who disappeared into the jungles of Southeast Asia, whenever I visit our nation’s capital. As I survey the impromptu shrines of dog tags, handwritten notes and flowers those paying their respects have left, there has never been a time when I did not find myself overcome with grief.

And I have never wept alone.

It is songwriters such as Paul Hardcastle whose hit song “19” was released on the eve of Memorial Day in 1985, who remind us that of those who did come home, many returned very different human beings from those to whom we said goodbye at the train stations. Beginning with the observation that “In World War II the average age of the combat soldier was 26, In Vietnam he was 19,” Hardcastle notes that

Many vets complain of alienation, rage, or guilt
Some succumb to suicidal thoughts
Eight to Ten years after coming home almost eight-hundred-thousand men are
still fighting the Vietnam War

Requiem for a Soldier

In thinking about Memorial Day, a day to remember the dead and the walking wounded, a day of mourning, to feel the sorrow for young lives ended prematurely, I have found one tribute to the fallen which rises above the others.

In 2001 HBO created a 10 episode miniseries about a parachute regiment during WWII entitled “Band of Brothers,” taking its title from a speech by Henry V to his troops in Shakespeare’s play with the same name. What makes this series remarkable is its very real depiction of the soldiers therein. They face dangers, endure horrendous conditions, all the while exhibiting the loyalty to their comrades, a true brotherhood, that so many will miss upon making the return home.

But it is the care with which directors Stephen Spielburg and Tom Hanks craft their humanity that makes them real. There is no militaristic flag waving accompanied by smarmy country songs. There are no parades or fireworks. These soldiers suffer. They weep. They laugh. They celebrate. They mourn. They are not larger than life. 

They are very human.

Each episode in the series opens with a film montage of these very human beings accompanied by one of the most haunting songs I have ever heard. Entitled Amici Forever, Requiem for a Soldier, it is dignified, poignant, a fitting tribute to the dead and to those who survived.

This Memorial Day, take the two and a half minutes to watch this beautiful homage to the fallen soldiers we are called to remember this weekend. For just a moment, forget the sales, the beach, the barbeque. Just be present for a moment with the suffering, the dying, those who survived and all those they left behind.

Be present with them.

Weep with them.

Weep with me.

And then offer your prayer for lives so abruptly ended and lives that wars inevitably change forever.

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Ages, Commentary on Micah 6:8


Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Bait and Switch Under the Ivy

Consideration One:

May 2016 -This month is finals time at colleges and universities across the country. In the midst of grading, an instructor at a university posts a note to Facebook lamenting the receipt of the first of possibly several emails pleading “but if I don't pass this class, I'll lose my financial aid.’

A flurry of empathetic responses immediately appears from academics around the country.

One describes an incident in which the student said that if she didn't pass the class, she couldn't graduate, which meant she couldn't get a divorce from her “horrible husband.” Another instructor spoke of bracing for a meeting with a student coming in to plead for a mercy grade who had actually engaged in plagiarism during the term. Yet another had just concluded a meeting in which the student begged for a grade saying that if he didn’t pass the class, he’d lose his visa.

Rumbling around in the background of the discussion are the cases of students hacking into college computer systems to change grades already recorded.

Consideration Two:  

From May 5, 2016  Insider Higher Education:

“Looking for a Lifestyle - Most branding experts will say that a degree is an emotional purchase. During the college search, prospective students are told to walk the campus, to stay overnight with a current student, to really get a feel for the place. They are asked: What does your gut say? Does it feel like this place really fits?

Savvy marketing is a big part of that feeling. But too often, colleges’ branding experts look to other colleges for inspiration, and similar ideas take hold across institutions, said Darryl Cilli, founding partner at the branding agency 160over90. “When you’re a prospective college student, you’re looking for an education and you’re looking for a lifestyle,” he said. “You want something that is completely customized to you.”

A few years ago, 160over90 published a book on the clich├ęs that plague higher education marketing, called Three and a Tree. A college suffers from Three and a Tree (or TAAT) when its brochures feature pictures of “three students of varying ethnicities and gender, dressed head to toe in college-branded merchandise.” Then there are the worst cases, which suffer from TAATPTDPF: Three and a Tree plus Two Dudes Playing Frisbee.

Consideration Three: 

April 2015 -  At my Sister’s request, I accompany my Nephew on the prospective student tour of the university where I then worked:

The high school seniors follow the tour guide wearing the university brand polo shirt. The group stops periodically at various sites the guide deems important. “This is the largest Starbucks on any college campus in America…This is one of the three Subway restaurants on campus…This is the Student Union where you can get free printing and there are all kinds of electronic games in the restaurant here…Here is where you can buy your tee-shirts and rent DVDs, oh, and you can also buy your textbooks here….”

The potential customers listen carefully as the guide shows off the dormitory (“This one is called the Club Med dorm”) and reminds them several times of the tailgating parties before the games in the campus green space. Not once is class attendance mentioned and the only time study is mentioned is in a promise that if students will join SG sponsored study groups, they can raise their final grade an average of one letter grade.

The tour was concluded with the invitation to “Get ready for the best four years of your life.” As we walked back to the Union to meet my sister, I ask my Nephew what he thought of the campus: “Looks like some great parties at that dorm back there.”

The brand the university would use in a commercial during one of its televised football games that fall would assert that “UCF stands for the University of Comfort and Fun!”

Grandparents’ Genocide Month

The original comment and the responses from academics around the country suggest that manipulative behavior surrounding grades is fairly endemic to college undergraduates today. Indeed, my guess is that all of us who have taught in higher education in the past two decades know these sob stories and dishonest behaviors personally. This is hardly to say all undergrads today engage in these behaviors, but it has become reasonable to anticipate them every semester.

I used to remind my students two weeks ahead of finals that we were entering Grandparent Genocide Month. I told them that statistically speaking, if a grandparent is going to die, it will happen in the weeks before and during finals, a pattern observed by Mike Adams in a satirical “study reported in the Annals of Improbable Research. Adams found that “A student’s grandmother is far more likely to die suddenly just before the student takes an exam, than at any other time of year.” Even more incredibly, the same grandparents reappear to die every semester about the same time.

Clearly, Lazarus has got nothing on these octogenarians.

Of course, the chances of that actually happening are non-existent even as the chance that a loved one might actually die during finals remains a remote possibility. My point in bringing Grandparents’ Genocide Month to the attention of my students was always to remind them of two facts: 1. that their teacher’s understanding had limits and, 2. that their class performance – and thus their grades - remained their responsibility.

But aside from snarky pseudo-studies about grandparent death rates during finals and the raw appeals to guilt trips designed to ostensibly save a student’s entire career, I wonder if there aren’t some underlying substantive issues here that merit more than our usual cynicism.  

It seems clear to me that at some level these students are behaving in the manner we have taught them is appropriate. Though they were on their way to understanding themselves as well-trained consumers long before they arrived at our doorsteps, they did not come to us fully formed. The particular attitudes, values and behaviors they exhibit once here all arose in a context. I would argue that the entitled consumers we face are exactly what we have created them to be.

How so?

So what is being sold?

Today’s imitative and incredibly costly use of marketing by cash-starved institutions of higher education is, like all advertising, designed to create a false sense of need in those they see as potential customers. It seeks to manipulate raw human desires and provide the means to rationalize the desired responses.

Actual students rarely come to a university to serve or even to purchase a brand. They attend universities to become educated human beings, taking seriously the opportunity institutions of higher education actually provide them.  A university or college offering a quality educational experience will speak for itself. But in an age of cuts to education which must be made up for somehow by cash starved colleges and universities, the tidal wave of marketing to attract potential customers which has ensued would suggest that higher education is ultimately not what is being sold here.

So what is being sold?

The advertising of UCF as “the university of comfort and fun” is very telling as to how it is selling its “brand.” Add to that the official campus tours which never mention academics because they are too busy marketing consumer goods (the largest Starbucks on a public university campus in America) and partying (this is where the tailgating happens, the best four years of your life) to potential customers and the message is pretty clear: You are the consumer. This is all about you.

And UCF is hardly alone in this pitch.

The consummate values of consumerism in a 21st CE technological age are comfort, convenience and instant gratification. The wide spread use of online classes serves as a good example. They largely serve financial demands of administratively bloated, fiscally challenged universities which are thereby relieved of the obligations to provide clean, climate controlled classroom meeting space and can maintain huge online sections run by poorly paid adjuncts.

It’s a good deal for someone.

But these classes are inevitably sold to students in consumerist terms. Official sales pitches for online courses and programs always use minimalist language: “just… as little as… only...”  The omnipresent sales pitch is that “You can even take your classes from the comfort of your home in your pajamas if you want.”  In short, don’t worry, this won’t take you outside of your comfort zone.

The consumerist value of comfort can also be seen in the demands for intellectual climate control on many campuses today. These take the shape of the landmines of micro-aggressions, perceived slights by faculty often unrealized until they detonate in upheavals that sometimes result in discipline if not termination. While universities are supposedly places of learning, there are rarely second chances for those who wander into the unmarked minefields of the culture wars.

They also appear in the designation of campus free speech zones which by implication suggests that in the remaining campus spaces free speech is not permitted. Similarly, they appear in the avoidance of controversial speakers of all political stripes who might somehow tarnish the brand of the university, causing waves in the university’s comfort-driven consumer base as well as among alumni and potential donors.

At the heart of all such concerns is often the stated desire to maintain campuses as safe places for students, a noble goal which actually serves free expression. But safety is never the same thing as comfort, and their conflation often arises from a consumerist presumption that one should never be confronted with discomforting ideas with their potential cognitive dissonance that one does not wish to consider. When constant comfort is the expectation by which one has been recruited, is it not reasonable that customers would insist that the terms of that bargain be lived into by universities? 

Which flavor did you like best?

Students come to universities feeling entitled to demand that the consummate values of consumerism - comfort, convenience and instant gratification – be honored in their increasingly costly engagement of higher education. But those attitudes are decidedly reinforced in the university’s response to their customers once on campus in the form of end of term surveys. Instructor evaluations may have begun with the good intentions of providing needed feedback to teachers from their students but they have long since devolved into often unconscionable exercises in consumer satisfaction.

Surveys that inquire of consumers “What did you like best? What did you like least?” (actual questions) certainly have a place at chain restaurants or ice cream parlors featuring multiple flavors. Such feedback from paying customers can readily help providers of goods and services hone their products to meet the demands of consumers whose ongoing patronage is the business’ primary concern.

But students are not customers. They are not buying education. Indeed, they couldn’t if they wanted to. Contrary to the promises of the technotopians and the corporate interests they serve, learning cannot simply be “delivered,” either online or in person.

Students pay for an opportunity to engage a process that can possibly lead to their becoming educated depending upon how seriously they take it. If they do not engage that process, education simply does not happen. And they cannot do it alone. They must rely on the expertise of those they have paid to direct them in that process.

And here is where the rub comes. Students do not come to classes knowing what they need to learn nor do they arrive with expertise regarding how the learning process should occur. That is what their payment for the expertise of already educated and, in most cases, experienced teachers, provides them.

This is hardly to suggest that students do not have valuable feedback to offer teachers about how that process has occurred and should occur in the future. In fact, they do. But to procure valuable feedback, students must be asked questions they actually have the expertise to answer (e.g., How much of the reading did you actually complete and what was your experience of it? How frequently did you attend class and what was your experience of those you attended? Explain). More importantly, they should not be asked questions which suggest they have the ability, much less the right, to somehow direct the content of the course or the methods by which it is taught.

Students are not only not consumers, they are also not instructors.

Students’ educational needs and consumerist concerns are rarely the same thing. When those two disparate drives are deliberately confused, as they are in most end of term surveys, two things occur. First, the surveys provide feedback that is largely useless in pedagogical terms and potentially injurious to instructors when such statistically dubious feedback (response rates rarely approach 60% participation) is used by administrators who know better for purposes of hiring, firing and promotions. But second and far more importantly, they reinforce the tendencies of students to see their experience at the university in consumerist terms. 

It is simply not reasonable to expect that a student who has been recruited to their university on consumerist terms and reinforced in consumerist behaviors once on campus will not come to think of themselves in consumerist terms. They are, after all, simply relying upon the promises made to them in the recruitment process and emulating the behaviors modeled for them once on campus.

Bait and Switch?

So what happens when well-trained consumers - reasonably expecting that they are entitled to comfort, convenience and instant gratification at institutions which advertise themselves as universities of comfort and fun - encounter the actual demands of higher education? What happens when they encounter educators who demand that they actually perform academically in their classes or face the possibility of being assigned grades which reflect their failures to do so?

Might it be that universities are engaging in a form of bait and switch here? Can they in good faith recruit customers and reinforce consumerist values through their institutional practice and then turn around and say to them “But you are students here with adult responsibilities that you must live into?”

Might the objection of the consumer who has arrived expecting comfort, convenience and instant gratification - which clearly cannot be realized by being required to invest time and energy in studying for comprehensive exams or writing major papers – be on target here? Would we not find the objection of a purchaser of a costly BMW whose repayment will stretch indefinitely into to the future - sold on promises of ready-made long afternoon drives with the convertible top down but who instead receives a box of parts and instructions on how to assemble it - to be well founded?

It would be easy to dismiss such objections by resorting to common arguments that students fresh out of high school are adults – they aren’t, they’re late adolescents learning how to be adults – and that they know coming in that they will have to actually work once here. Clearly they should.

But, if that is so, why do universities spend millions of dollars in advertising which rarely if ever mention that work or the adult expectations that will be made of those who are the targets of their marketing? If we really believe that the targets of our recruitment efforts can see through our efforts to entice and retain them, that what we will expect from them is very different from what we are promising them, have we not just wasted millions of already scarce dollars?

Of course, student resorts to guilt-tripping, plagiarism and cheating are all issues of maturity if not character. Such behaviors speak volumes about the individuals who engage in them even as most of their peers may not. But all behaviors occur in contexts. And to the degree that a student has devolved into a well-trained consumer, willing to do whatever it takes to procure the biggest bang for their buck, s/he reflects the context we have created for them and the values they now emulate.


In the interest of truth in advertising, I feel the need to add the following. Anyone who has known me for any length of time knows that my times in undergraduate education at the University of Florida were marked as much by industrial strength partying as by regular class attendance and intense studying. Nothing in any of the comments I have made above should suggest that I do not think college should be an enjoyable experience. While universities may not be sources of constant comfort, there is absolutely no reason the college experience cannot be fun.

But selling a college education as a four year party, “the best four years of your life,” is profoundly misguided. Indeed, discovering how to balance study with fun is an essential part of the learning process as any freshman facing the weekly French quiz at 8 AM Friday after nickel beer night at the Rathskellar the night before knows only too well. The key word here is balance.

Consumerist recruiting which focuses on comfort, convenience and instant gratification by definition undermines an academic process which demands engagement, seriousness and, yes, sobriety in all senses of that word, at appropriate times. If we do not want our children to take their educational opportunities lightly and seek to compensate for their failings therein by deception and intellectual shortcuts, we need to stop sending them these at best mixed messages. Otherwise, we, like the consumers we have created, will simply end up getting what we, too, have paid for.

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. – Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Ages, Commentary on Micah 6:8

Walking Away with the Wesleys

“The distinguishing marks of a Methodist are not his opinions of any sort. His assenting to this or that scheme of Religion, his embracing any particular set of notions, his espousing the judgment of one man or of another, are all quite wide of the point. Whosoever therefore imagines, that a Methodist is a man of such or such an opinion, is grossly ignorant of the whole affair; he mistakes the truth totally…[A]s to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think.”The Rev. John Wesley, "The Character of a Methodist" (1739)

The United Methodist Church is holding its General Conference, the denomination-wide assembly that meets every four years to make decisions about church policies, practices and worship. This year’s Conference of this Protestant body of 12.5 million members worldwide - 7 million of which are located in the United States - faces a wide range of concerns. But the elephant in the room, as it has been for all expressions of the Christian faith tradition in the past couple of decades, is the issue of how to treat LBGT people within the church.

The Conference is considering 100 plus resolutions regarding human sexuality ranging from deleting its Book of Discipline’s assertion that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching” to allowing local churches to choose whether or not to celebrate same-sex unions and ordain and call non-celibate gay clergy to its congregations. A report from the evangelical Protestant magazine Christianity Today Monday predicts that any measure to change the UMC’s anti-gay policies is likely to fail. 

A procedural vote to place all these measures directly before the assembly rather than having them tailored by select committees prior to a final vote failed last week. The vote appears to have largely split along ideological lines with opponents of policy changes also opposing changes in the procedures to consider them. Change in Methodist policy, challenged in each of the preceding 10 conferences, appears once again unlikely this conference. 

While almost all of the resolutions for changes in policy have come from American congregations among whom less than half of the membership actively favor retaining the current discriminatory policies, conservative American Methodists have found reliable allies among the 40% of Methodist faithful found outside the US, three fourths of whom are located in Africa. This has, in turn, led 750 American congregations to form the Reconciling Ministries Network to oppose their national body, standing with LBGT clergy who have come out of the closet and calling upon their international body to change its discriminatory policies.  

Nones, Dones and a Ditch to Die In

From a distance, the movement for change appears to be a losing proposition. The conservative propensity to baptize a common social prejudice as an article of faith is tenacious. It continues its hold over many Christian bodies from Roman Catholicism to the sea of independent Protestant bodies which broke away from their mother church beginning 600 years ago. 

While a number of mainstream traditions such as Lutherans and Episcopalians have managed to relax their grip on medieval understandings of human sexuality arising out of ancient cosmologies, the core of church loyalists in many traditions today tend to be conservative and thus resistant to changes in long-held understandings regardless of how indefensible they may have become in light of modern science. This core includes the bulk of the very conservative Christians in the world outside North America and Europe. 

Few expressions of colonialism are more tenacious than religious understandings from the mother country. The visions of 19th CE European and American evangelical missionaries continue to be guarded as revealed truth by their 21st CE descendants. Loyalty to those founding visions is seen as sacrosanct, particularly by those who have not worked or studied outside their developing world contexts in which the largely unquestioned conflation of homophobia and religion takes on an appearance of self-evidence. 

But even as third world coreligionists have hunkered down to protect constructs of sanctified homophobia, many first world Christians have responded by simply walking away. The fastest growing self-identification of religious affiliation in the US over the past decade is “none of the above,” often reduced to “Nones” (or sometimes “Dones”).  Today one in five Americans reports being non-affiliated. 

Many of the non-affiliated are found in the Millennial cohort where those reporting no religious affiliation has climbed to one in three. Millennial Nones are clear in their reasons for abandoning religious institutions as reported in Putnam and Campbell’s study of American religion in the second decade of the 21st CE, American Grace: “[M]any young Americans [have come] to view religion as “judgmental, homophobic, hypocritical, and too political.”

While conservative religion continues to thrive in the developing world, churches in the northern hemisphere are increasingly observing a depressing paradigm playing out with regularity: graying, declining congregations desperately clinging to cherished beliefs seen as untenable by younger family members who are walking away from institutional religion in disgust.

As my liturgy professor from seminary was prone to remark, this appears to be the ditch the church has chosen to die in. 

Walking Away 

At some level, what happens among the Methodists today is largely irrelevant to my life. I am, after all, an Episcopal priest whose tradition has largely chosen to change its policies to reflect a 21st CE cosmology, albeit with a handful of exceptions such as the local diocese which has proven unwilling to shake off its death grip on a homophobia confused with religion and wrapped in denial. 

Ironically, it was the same issues with which the Methodists struggle today that prompted me to walk away from them 43 years ago. I was not always an Episcopalian. Indeed, my faith journey began in a church which had only recently stopped calling itself the Methodist Episcopal Church in my childhood and which during my teenage years merged with several Brethren traditions to become the United Methodist Church. 

In the small town where I grew up, the Methodists were the best thing going. It was the only Protestant alternative to the plethora of expressions of the Baptist tradition (including Primitive Baptists which always evoked images of the Flintstones when I saw the sign out front of their modest structure) as well as a host of Churches of God, Christ and tiny churches with “independent” in their titles. The Methodist Church was the home to most of my small town’s college educated people, many of them colleagues of my father who taught high school in the same two story brick building where he had himself attended school as a child. 

I was a loyal Methodist, serving as usher and acolyte, spending many happy hours on Sunday nights at MYF, the Methodist Youth Fellowship. I developed a deep appreciation for the Wesley brothers in my Sunday School classes. Though I was not from a working class family, their concern for the spiritual welfare of the coal miners and the factory workers of 18th CE England was admirable. We heard their thought from our pulpit and sang their hymns from our pews. 

To this day I believe the Anglican Church made a major mistake in simply letting the Methodists walk away. The result was a class-based imbalance in both traditions, the Anglicans focused almost exclusively on the upper classes with their condescension and the Methodists affirming the working classes and their resentments.

During my Methodist childhood, I developed a strong social consciousness that is the mark of Methodism. In its healthy expression, it focuses the Methodist on the outer world, concerned with issues of justice and poverty. In its shadow expression, social consciousness takes a much more immediate expression with competitive middle class concerns for status and the marks of privilege - clothing, cars, homes and contributions to the perennial covered dish luncheons. Both can be found in any given Methodist Church today.

Truth be told, while I was a loyal Methodist right into high school, I was always fascinated by the Episcopal Church. Its liturgies were somewhat familiar, the Methodist rites being an adaptation of the Book of Common Prayer. Its love of mystery, color, symbols and beautiful language were an intriguing improvement over the whitewashed Methodist hymn sandwiches (hymn, reading, sermon, hymn) to which I was accustomed. But it was two failings on the part of the Methodist Church that would ultimately propel me into the arms of Anglicanism, following the Wesley brothers, Anglican priests until the day they died, back home.

By the end of my time in high school, I was already beginning to be disenchanted with the Methodist Church. By 1970, when I began my senior year, the world was on fire with uprisings in the streets over a deadly and morally unsupportable war in Vietnam, a war people like my next door neighbor vanished into and emerged mere shadows of who they had once been. America’s cities burned with the rage of justice denied as a once peaceful civil rights movement descended into conflict. 

I kept waiting for our pastor to talk about what was happening in our world, happenings that involved young people like myself very directly and immediately. Instead we heard banal references to cigarette commercials then playing on America’s airwaves (“I believe the gentleman will offer the lady a tiparillo”) and safe abstract theological assertions that flew around the sanctuary and out the window without ever lighting on anything concrete. My Mother told me I had the choice of whether I would continue to attend church with her once I reached high school and increasingly my choice was to worship at the altar of my pillow on Sunday morning. 

By the time I reached the University of Florida as a junior in 1973, my life was in turmoil. I was just beginning to deal with my sexual orientation. I was deeply depressed, abusing alcohol regularly and pondering suicide. More than once I climbed the stairs to the third floor of Little Hall near my dormitory to throw myself off the balcony to the concrete plaza below, each time chickening out at the last minute even as I sat on the concrete ledge, legs dangling into the thin air just below. 

Desperate, I sought out the Methodist chaplain at the church across University Avenue from campus. I wanted to be reassured that G-d loved me, that G-d *could* love me. It was just before Christmas break and I needed some direction before returning home to family and girlfriend eagerly awaiting my homecoming. I told the middle aged pastor I was depressed.

He asked me what was wrong. “I think I may be gay,” I said. 

What happened next would change my life.

Abruptly the pastor turned away from me to stare at the papers on the desk immediately below him. “You’re working too hard,” he said in almost a whisper, continuing “Go home and get some rest and then come back and see me when the spring term begins.” 

I was stunned. I felt the tears rising to my eyes and knew I needed to leave before I dissolved in his presence. “Thank you,” I gulped. I got up to leave. He never looked in my direction again. 

As I closed his office door behind me, I stood for a moment, examining in detail the texture of the door’s exterior, a coat of red paint covering but not obscuring years of thumb tack holes and staples from which important notices, no doubt, had long since been removed. After a minute there I softly said, “Goodbye.” At that moment I knew I was closing the door to my life as a Methodist. 

And then I walked away. 

Casting Their Lots 

I do not expect the Methodists to change course in their General Conference meeting nor is it my place to suggest they do so. While I am grateful for what the church taught me and how it formed me, it has been a long time since I thought of myself as a Methodist even as my sister and her family continue in that tradition. 

The decisions the General Conference is making take place in a much larger context that is largely invisible to its participants and most people outside of it. Many scholars of religion have observed that humanity is on the cusp of a second axial age, a time of major change when world religions as we have known them will evolve into something as of yet unknowable. At the very least, a second Reformation of western Christianity appears to be underway. In either case the demands of a world in which science has revealed a new cosmology and in which humanity must now find meaning will play a large role in determining what proves to be credible. 

A church which fails to meet such a challenge will probably not decline and die overnight. But as once broad denominations devolve more and more into sectarian bodies, defining their faith by antiquated socially constructed morality and talking more and more among themselves but rarely with those outside their circled wagons, they will have little to offer the world around them. Ironically, that will prove to be a betrayal of Wesley’s call to his fellow Methodist Anglicans to “Think and let think” and the ultimate betrayal of a once admirable Methodist calling to save the world. 

John, Charles and Samuel Wesley all, no doubt, weep. 

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. – Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Ages, Commentary on Micah 6:8