Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Images of G-d Amidst a Massacre

[N.B., This post was written as an article solicited for the e-newsletter at my home parish, St. Richard’s Episcopal Church, Winter Park, FL]

“She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him-- that she is a sinner."….. [Jesus said] You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little." Then he said to her, "Your sins are forgiven." But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, "Who is this who even forgives sins?" And he said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace." Luke 7:38-39, 45-50

This past Tuesday I came to the parish to lead Morning Prayer as I usually do. My head was buzzing with the details coming into focus from Sunday’s massacre at the Pulse nightclub not far from my home. My heart was absolutely shattered as I breathlessly waited for city officials to release the names of the 49 victims, feeling enormous relief each time the name did not match that of any of my students or loved ones and simultaneously feeling guilty for that relief. These were someone’s loved ones if not my own, each bearing the image of G-d. 

The discussion after our readings turned almost immediately to the events of the weekend. Amidst the attempts to make sense of two senseless, demonic events in one weekend here in our City Beautiful, the gospel from last Sunday floated back into focus, a portion of which is provided above.

Jesus is the consummate challenger of conventional moral reasoning and the cultural values which inform it. He dines with sinners - including the hated Roman tax collectors - and the ever so self-righteous Pharisees alike. His parables, like the Good Samaritan, have unlikely heroes – the despised people whose religion was seen as lacking in “orthodoxy,” cultural lepers to good Jews. He engages the Syro-phoenician woman at the well, first dismissing her with a condescending but culturally appropriate comment, then allowing his understandings to be drawn into question – by a woman and a pagan no less - and ultimately repents of values he now recognizes as misanthropic.

For Jesus, the ultimate value is neither the tribal values of his culture nor the self-serving piety of his own religion. Jesus sees a bigger picture. His teachings and actions constantly reinforce the demand that his followers must discern the image of G-d on the face of the other - no matter how well hidden behind cultural and religious constructions they may be - and honor them. 

The massacre at the Pulse nightclub brings into focus a whole host of issues and the role our own cultural and religious constructions have played in its occurrence. It is no accident that the site targeted for this slaughter was a community bar which provided a safe place for LBGTQ people, straight people and people of color to gather and socialize. Bear in mind that this is hardly the only time a gay bar has been attacked and its occupants injured and killed. Like the Holocaust coming at the end of a long history Christian anti-semitism, it is simply the latest and, with the rise of ever more efficient technologies of death, the deadliest.

This culminating bloodbath occurs in a historical context of homophobia. And while the Christian tradition is not alone in fomenting and developing that homophobia, it has been the most powerful force in preserving that common social prejudice and legitimating its expression today. Our own tradition has frequently spoken out of both sides of its mouth, regularly affirming the “dignity of every human being” (Baptismal Covenant) even as some of our dioceses bar gay married priests from its altars and same-sex marriages from our parishes. Why is that?

It is also not incidental that the patrons at Pulse that night were a rainbow of humanity that reflects the diverse community metropolitan Orlando has become. Latinos represent about one out of three Orange County residents today. They work and thrive in this welcoming community but frequently come home to nightly doses of anti-immigrant sentiment on their televisions which have come to dominate our current election. No doubt few of them even recognize themselves in the caricatures that are constructed of them in this process. Why is that?

It is also not surprising that the immediate conclusion of so many of us was that somehow the Islamic faith was to blame. Muslims are targets of suspicion and denigration in their daily lives that none of us would ever tolerate. While no one would sum up the entire Christian faith by radicals like the Westboro Baptist Church, which vows to picket the funerals of the Pulse victims here, or murderous zealots who blow up abortion clinics, we Christians have been quick to paint the 30% of our world’s peoples who follow any path of Islam as radicals we must implicitly distrust. Why is that?

Finally, it is hardly a shock that the instrumentality of death early Sunday morning was a weapon of war legally purchased in a country that simply cannot come to grips with its addiction to guns. Automatic and repeatedly firing weapons are simply not the stuff of defense of one’s home or hunting. All or nothing thinking is a common logical fallacy which does not serve us here. But it is the mark of addictive thinking. Like every addiction, our lives have become unmanageable. We have made very limited attempts to curtail our indulgence of this deadly behavior with no success. It just grows stronger. And we are in deep denial about it even as our children are being slaughtered. Why is that?

 All of these aspects of the Pulse shooting raise serious issues about cultural values and religious understandings that no longer serve us. They signal that the time for a very difficult discussion about who we are as a people can no longer be avoided. But more importantly for we who would follow Jesus, they raise the very same question that he raises here: What prevents us from discerning the image of G-d in the face of the other and showing it due reverence?

Recognizing and honoring the image of G-d in the face of the other reflects the Great Commandments to love one’s neighbor as oneself by which we demonstrate our love of the G-d who created us all. When deeply held cultural values or religious beliefs come into conflict with these Great Commandments, Jesus is very clear about which one must prevail.

Are we?

Harry Scott Coverston is an Episcopal priest and Third Order Franciscan. He is a former assistant Public Defender for the 9th Judicial Circuit and just retired from the University of Central Florida where he taught religious studies, interdisciplinary humanities and the philosophy of law. He resumes his teaching as adjunct instructor at Valencia College this fall teaching ethics and critical thinking.

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, June 08, 2016

Kilmer's Lament

I THINK that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

Poet Joyce Kilmer began his famous 1919 paean to “Trees” with these words. I always loved that poem and over the years have often reflected on the nature of all things arboreal.

Some would suggest that trees are mere things to be used as we humans see fit – to build our homes, to heat them in winter and to decorate the yards around them. Indeed, trees are cut down to be processed into paper to provide writing materials for poets like Kilmer.  

But for some of us, trees represent more than mere utility. Aside from their beauty and their graciousness in providing homes for so many animals, trees are primal symbols of life itself, with roots that run deep into the earth and branches that fill the sky reaching toward the sun and swaying with the wind. Virtually all human cultures have a variant of the Tree of Life in its symbol system.

My own relationship to trees runs deep. My father and brother and I cleared the 11 acres of Florida wilderness where we eventually built our family home. In the process, I learned the various types of trees which blanket the Central Florida hills and swamplands. I grew to appreciate their beauty, the coolness of their shade and the protection against frost their branches provided in particularly cold winters. A sprawling live oak of probably 200 years dominated our front yard in what was then still the country outside of Bushnell. Its fern and lichen-covered branches were wide enough that we could walk up and down the branches standing erect as if it were a sidewalk.

BEFORE: Calm before the Storm

The Granddaddy of the Neighborhood

When Andy and I first visited the house that would become our home in downtown Orlando, I immediately fell in love with the place. The house was wonderful – open, inviting, lots of windows. But the yard was spectacular. A 120 year old tree graced the front yard and dominated our corner lot, the Granddaddy of a neighborhood of ancient trees.  In the back yard two equally imposing trees formed a Y, growing apart from each other, the laurel oak arching over the neighbor’s yard, the tall live oak growing straight up, towering a good 120 feet above our house.

It was love at first sight.

Later we would discover that our lovely kitchen with its open range and brick flooring had not been so much a revision of the house as a reconstruction. There had been three large oak trees in the back yard at one time. One had toppled during a severe thunderstorm smashing the kitchen and requiring extensive repairs in the house.

Of course, that did not bother us. What were the chances it could happen again? Our trees looked healthy. Orlando was inland, removed from the coast. Hurricanes that reached our shores lose their punch before they get here. We were safe. Or so we thought.

The limbs of the large tree in our front yard had been cabled. Clearly the former owners had worried about its potential to come down. In the spring of 2004, we had a tree surgeon come look at the tree. We were reassured it was healthy and posed no threat.

The morning of Friday, August 13, 2004, a minimal hurricane named Charley jumped two categories to become a dangerous Category Four storm and shifted directions 90 degrees from its previous path toward the sparsely populated Florida Big Bend making a beeline for the southwest Florida coast, all in a span of about 45 minutes. Workers were sent home in Orlando at noon and by 3 PM Civil Defense was telling people to get off the highways to keep them clear for emergency workers. By 8 PM, a category two Charley began ripping through the Orlando metro area as it diagonally crossed the peninsula from southwest to northeast.

Because of its rapid forward speed of 25 mph, Charley spun off a number of microbursts which functioned like tornadoes with winds approaching category five. It was just such a microburst that would take out the Granddaddy in our front yard.

The tree had three major trunks. Two of them came down into our house. One pierced the roof in my office. The second fell all the way through our living room and into our neighbor’s house behind us. The next day the county would condemn our house and the one across the street from us. Every house on our street suffered damage from Charley and our neighborhood was declared the worst hit in town.

Front yard, New Coverleigh

It would be nearly four years before we could reoccupy our beautiful home. Two different contractors would take our money and leave without finishing the repairs and we would end up pulling the contract ourselves to finish the work needed to pass inspection and get us back into our home. 

In the four years of exile, the water service continued at our house and I slowly regrew my front yard, digging up the stumps of smaller trees cut down to allow bobcats to remove the debris and fertilizing them. Shoots of the original trees sprang to life. New trees came to accompany them. Twelve years later, the front yard is a dense, green jungle once again.

Agonizing Decisions

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earth's flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

It is the resilience of the jungle against the very worst Mother Nature and human workmen can throw at it that gives me some solace this morning as I once again hear the sounds of the saws and grinders in my yard.

Rot at the core of the laurel oak dooms the neighboring live oak

While I was in New Mexico at the Living School last month, one of the two remaining trees in our back yard suddenly toppled over into the neighbor’s yard, barely missing their house and, upon hitting the ground, bursting open to reveal an enormous honey comb in its rotten hollow heart and releasing a host of angry bees. While Florida law does not make homeowners liable for anything that occurs on neighboring property as a result of one’s own trees, our neighbors had been instrumental in helping us recover from Charley and we felt a moral duty to take care of the tree and its apiary occupants.

First, the bee keeper came out and smoked the bees into unconsciousness and vacuumed them out of the tree, wrapping it in a tarp to prevent them from returning. A few days later the tree surgeon came to cut up the tree and to survey the damage.

That’s when we got the bad news: With the roots of the giant live oak exposed from the first tree’s collapse, the live oak would now die. It had suddenly gone from the treasure of the yard to a liability to both our house and the neighbor’s. Worse yet, the big laurel oak by our driveway that we had trimmed six years ago was now rotten and needed to come down as well. Altogether, this would be a $6,400 project.

It did not help that hurricane season began this week. As of June 1, the season’s first official day, there had already been three named storms. This is the earliest arriving storm season on record and a sobering portent for the coming season.

Even so, we agonized over the decision. Removing a tree from your landscape not only changes the complexion of your yard, it changes the microclimate surrounding your home. Our roof will now be exposed to a lot more heat in the summer and tender plants will be much more exposed to cold during the occasional cold snap in the winter. But those are only the immediate effects.

Trees are living communities. They house the many birds that sing to me each morning as I take my walk through my jungle domain. The local ospreys use them for their dining room, eating the fish they have snatched from nearby Lake Underhill and dropping the head and bones into the yard. Owls hoot from their lower branches and wink at the onlooker by evening. My guess is that the raccoons whose mating habits each spring are so loud as to be unavoidable - rendering their human neighbors involuntary voyeurs - will have to find a new boudoir. The possums and squirrels who nest there will also have to find a new home.

Like Kilmer, I feel a spiritual bond to these living beings, some of whose lives long predate my own. The very heart of our beloved jungle is being cut out as I write these words. The hum of saws and grinders is punctuated by periodic thudding of tree trunks crashing to the ground. These are terrible sounds and this is a painful grief to bear, indeed. 

Today will be a very long day.

 AFTER: All that is left of a once mighty live oak

And yet, as my gentle spirited husband quietly observed, “We can’t go through another Charley.” Having your home destroyed and enduring the almost unbearable process of rebuilding it is among the worst traumas human beings can ever know. And so, the trees simply had to go.

Only God can make a tree

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

I console myself with the knowledge that I can grow new trees where these ancient oaks once stood. Once our fence is repaired so that our dogs cannot make their escape to run the neighborhood, I will begin that healing process just as I did after Hurricane Charley in 2004. It was through the regrowing of my jungle that I worked out my grief during those long four years. Most surely the sorrow I feel this day can be transformed into a creative path as well.

Life begins anew amidst the sawdust and the stumps of the fallen giants.

 Front yard, New Coverleigh

Today, within the hum of chain saws, the drone of bobcats and the periodic thuds of falling tree trunks, I give thanks to a generous G-d for these trees who have graced our lives all these years. I will greatly miss them. My life is all the better for having shared their company. With deepest reverence, I offer this prayer:

Great Creator,
Out of chaos you bring order.
Out of nothingness you bring life.

In the middle of all life stands the Tree.
It provides the air that nurtures all of Creation.
Homes for many creatures bearing your image
And shelter for weary human animals in the shade of its branches.

Bless the trees of this world, Holy One
Be present with us as we serve as their caregivers and protectors.
May they be graced with long limbs and long lives.
And may their precious gift of air remind us
That you are always as close to us as our next breath.
(Prayer adapted from Rev. Chuck Currie, “A Prayer for Trees” 2008.)

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


Saturday, June 04, 2016

Appearances of Impropriety

A couple of years ago I attended a graduation for one of my students at the UCF [Your Corporate Logo Here] Arena. The commencement speaker that morning was the Attorney General of the State of Florida, Pam Bondi. Though I did not vote for Ms. Bondi either time she has run, I had hoped for at least a modicum of thoughtfulness from a high profile, highly paid state official that morning.

Alas, my hopes were soon dashed.

Bondi rambled through what quickly revealed itself as a contender for Worst Commencement Speech Ever. It had little recognizable organization and even less original thought, the speaker having opted to string together one quote after another, many without attribution, none with any context or development of the theme of the speech, whatever that might have been.

In religious circles, this would have taken the form of the proof-texting fundamentalist preacher, stringing together one snippet of scripture after another without any sense of context or critical assessment. In the classes I once taught at this very university, an assignment submitted with this kind of string-citations would have at least been returned for a rewrite and the use of unattributed sources might well have earned the student a ticket to a compulsory academic honesty course. 

I came away from that speech with the impression that our Attorney General must have been having a particularly rough morning. The alternative was to assume she was either a bit stupid or incredibly lazy. Indeed, after that performance, I wondered how in the hell she’d gotten through law school in the first place.

Those fears have not been alleviated by Bondi’s performance as AG. Her office’s inaction in the wake of judicial crisis in the Seminole County case of George Zimmerman exacerbated a crisis of legitimacy in the handling of a racially charged murder case of a 17-year-old African-American kid.

Bondi also spent a half million dollars of tax payer money on pointlessly resisting court decisions which ultimately struck down Florida’s discriminatory anti-gay amendments even when the outcome was clearly inevitable and ongoing litigation little more than political grandstanding. Pandering to one’s political base is hardly anything new in American politics. But when such self-interest compromises the interests of the electorate one has been elected to represent, not the least being the taxpayers who must foot the bill for such grandstanding, that behavior escalates from annoying self-focus to ethically problematic.

Campaign Cash and Consistent Vapidity

This past week, criticism of Bondi’s performance as a public servant shifted from the ineptitude and self-serving behavior that has marked her term as AG to more serious concerns for malfeasance and ethical violations.

In 2010, the details of the closing of Trump University, one of many failed business ventures of the current Republican nominee for the presidency, began to be revealed in New York. Trump University was accused in three different states of

"promising, but not delivering access to Trump’s real estate techniques taught by 'hand-picked' professors at an elite 'university,' when in fact Trump was not substantively involved in the Live Events curriculum or selecting the instructors and the New York State Education Department had warned Trump it was unlawful to call it a 'university.'”

Students of the “university” paid as much as $35,000 for “what was purported to be private mentoring with supposed real estate experts — some of whom Trump himself later acknowledged were unqualified.” New York’s Attorney General Eric Schneiderman called it “fraud. ... straight-up fraud…” and quickly filed suit against Trump for deceptive business practices asserting that “[Trump] was clearly in charge of pitching this scam university to people."

Attorneys General in both Texas and Florida, states in which a number of the former students now demanding refunds resided, both signaled their intent to join in the action against Trump University. Texas AG Greg Abbot opened a civil investigation of deceptive trade practices which had cost his fellow Texans almost $3 million only to drop his probe when Trump University agreed to end its operations in Texas. Trump subsequently donated $35,000 to Abbott's successful gubernatorial campaign. Abbot’s defrauded fellow Texans got zip.

Contrary to the popular bumper stickers, if you’ve got enough money and connections, you apparently can mess with Texas.

In Florida, when AG Bondi came into office in 2010, 22 complaints already filed against Trump University from Florida claimants awaited her. After a story in the Orlando Sentinel brought to the public eye the Florida complaints cited by New York AG Schneiderman, a spokeswoman for Bondi announced that the AG’s office intended to “review the allegations.”

Three days later Trump made a $25,000 contribution to a political action committee raising funds for Bondi’s reelection.

Nothing more was heard about the investigation thereafter. A month later, when a representative from Bondi’s office was questioned on its failure to act, Jenn Meale, a spokeswoman for the AG’s office, “suggested no action is necessary because the affected Florida consumers would be compensated if New York wins that case.”

A legal review of the complaints, however, indicated that the Florida complaints name a business entity which is not part of the New York action and thus not liable under New York law. Like their Texas counterparts, Florida victims of the Trump swindle are unlikely to be compensated for their damages by the NY action.

Last March, Bondi endorsed Donald Trump for President after having previously endorsed former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. In announcing her change of allegiance, Bondi said, “You are speaking loud and clear, and Americans are speaking loud and clear,” and, “I always listen to my mom, and my mom is with Donald Trump, and so am I.”

Bondi’s name is now being bandied about by Republican strategists as a possible running mate with Trump. One must give the woman credit for consistency in her vapidity if not her unbounded personal ambition.

Public Perception of Integrity 

Of course, unprincipled political ambition is a phenomenon as old as politics itself. While scholars have debated which presidents have been the most narcissistic residents of the American White House (a contest won by LBJ) it’s probably a good bet that a sense of oneself as larger than life is probably necessary just to survive against the challenges of the Oval Office.

But when political ambition gets in the way of fulfilling the responsibilities to the voters the office holder has voluntarily assumed, the politician has moved from expectable egocentrism into constitutionally problematic irresponsibility. The people of Florida are entitled to rely on a chief law enforcement agent who is more concerned about the injuries they could sustain from corporate predators than her own political future.  

Cases of malfeasance by a constitutional officer become particularly problematic when they involve a member of the Bar. While there are numerous provisions in the Florida and American Bar Associations’ Code of Professional Responsibility regarding protection of the interests of one’s clients (and the people of Florida are ultimately the clients of the state attorney general who acts on their behalf), both codes contain provisions prohibiting public behaviors which draw into question the judicial system’s ability to remain impartial and the ability of legal counsel to remain uncompromised.

Florida’s ethics code charges its judges with not engaging in behaviors which create “an appearance of impropriety,” the key concern being the necessity of the tribunal to maintain the public’s confidence in its impartiality. Lawyers practicing before that tribunal are also bound by several chapters of the Florida Rules of Professional Conduct regarding obligations to clients. Florida courts have ruled that “the public's perception of the integrity of the bar” is a critical factor in determining whether the conduct of any attorney practicing before the Bar constitutes an “appearance of impropriety.” 

More specifically, Rule 4:1-7 prohibits lawyers from professional conduct in which “the lawyer's exercise of independent professional judgment in the representation of that client may be materially limited by the lawyer's responsibilities to another client or to a third person or by the lawyer's own interest.” Rule 4:1-11 prohibits public officers from negotiating “for private employment with any person who is involved as a party or as attorney for a party in a matter in which the lawyer is participating personally and substantially.”

When examined together, the clear intention of the Florida ethics codes is to prevent all participants in the legal system from engaging in behaviors which signal to the citizenry any potential betrayal of public trust. With that concern in mind, let’s look again at the sequence of events involving Florida’s Attorney General:

1.The Florida AG’s office announces that 22 cases of corporate fraud already filed with that office will be investigated but only after a report by the NY Attorney General brings them to light
2.    Three days later, a substantial donation to the AG’s reelection campaign is received from the alleged perpetrator of that fraud
3.    The AG’s office thereafter drops the investigation without notice. Only when pressed by reporters does the office reveal it has ended that investigation with the excuse that litigation in another state will address the losses of Floridians
4.    The NY litigation does not cover the claims of the 22 victims of fraud in Florida, each having lost up to $35,000, and now facing the distinct possibility of no compensation for their losses
5.    The AG then endorses the alleged perpetrator of the fraud in his race for the Presidency
6.    The AG is now being discussed as the alleged perpetrator’s running mate.

How should the public see such a sequence of events?

Inability to Escape Self-Interest and the Public Trust

It is bad enough that an intellectually lazy, self-promoting politician holds the highest law enforcement position in the nation’s third largest state. Her performance as commencement speaker was shameful and embarrassing for any member of the Bar she personally and professionally represented that day. And her performance as state attorney general has been an ongoing study of mediocrity on a good day.

But when the chief law enforcement agent in a major state engages in behavior that suggests she is unable to escape her own political self-interests long enough to do her job and that those interests may, indeed, influence her judgment on how her job is performed, a larger concern than mere politics arises. An appearance of impropriety by the top law enforcement agent of a state is not a small concern. Indeed, it ultimately raises a fundamental question regarding the very legitimacy of the legal system that agent ostensibly serves.

That said, I do not expect this woman to come to her senses, recognize the gravity of her behavior and either rectify this questionable behavior or resign. I also do not anticipate any kind of legal or constitutional action to remove her from office in an age where corporate cronyism has become an expectable part of governance in a state whose public officials earned a D- on accountability and transparency last year by the Center for Public Integrity. But, even if their own judgment in returning this woman to office two years ago in a tidal wave of Teapot voters may in retrospect appear to be highly questionable, the people of Florida deserve better.

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