Sunday, July 24, 2016

Finding the Holy One

If you really want to know the divine, try leaving all the words behind. Get outside your houses of worship with their readings, rites and sermons, all the boxes into which we try in vain to fit a domesticated Holy One. Put down all your books with all their purported answers to all life's ultimate questions. 

Leave the words behind. Give the left brain the afternoon off.

Now, go outside.

Take your shoes off. Let the soles of your feet touch the earth itself. Lift your arms, open your hands. Face the sky. Close your eyes. 

Now just listen.

Listen for the presence of the holy in the wind in the trees, the rain dripping down through the leaves, the thunder shaking the very ground on which you stand. Listen for the birds in their branches singing about the glory of Creation. 

Now listen even more closely. Listen for the ruach, Hebrew for air, the very breath of G-d, the very air we breathe, without which we could not live. Listen as it whistles through your nostrils as you draw it in, departing as a soft sigh as you exhale, reminding us that G-d is always as close as the air we breathe. 

Listen a little longer.

And then maybe, just maybe, that soft, still voice will finally come, reminding you that you and all of Creation are infinitely valuable, that you bear the divine image and that you are deeply loved.  And maybe, just maybe, that slow smile, that sheepish grin, will creep over your face reflecting your dawning recognition once again that the Holy One has been there all along, right outside your window, patiently seeking your attention in the din of noise and banality that we call our modern world.

All photos taken by the author at his home, New Coverleigh, in the heart of Orlando

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


Friday, July 22, 2016

Contextual Homophobia: What Comes Out of the Heart

In the days following the Orlando massacre in which 49 persons were slaughtered at the Pulse Nightclub before the shooter was himself finally killed, a number of statements were issued by representatives of faith traditions around the world. Many of us in Orlando could feel the powerful support of the prayers offered on our behalf as we sought to come to grips with the unimaginable, a slaughter in a public venue using weapons of war which indiscriminately took the lives of young and old, gay and straight and persons of all colors alike. 

The bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Central Florida quickly issued a statement which began with a recognition that “Words of condolence have little value in the face of this carnage.” This was a particularly insightful statement that, to his credit, recognized both the enormity of the tragedy at hand as well as the limitations that any words of condolence could offer in the face of that tragedy.

Words are often inadequate when it comes to dealing with occurrences which transcend day-to-day realities, particularly one as horrific as the massacre at Pulse. What people come to recognize immediately in such cases is that symbolic actions become essential, playing roles that are larger than life. Flickering candles, flowers, silent vigils, mournful processions, spontaneous displays of art all play a role in processing a grief that is too deep for words to convey and beginning down the long road to healing. 

When words are spoken in such contexts, they are routinely judged by the actions which occur in the wake of their utterance. Not only do “words of condolence have little value in the face of…carnage,” words generally prove to be pretty cheap when they do not match the actions which ensue.

Words spoken in contexts such as the Orlando Massacre are always subject to high levels of scrutiny and can create liabilities for their speakers should the tenor of their actions fail to match the words they have spoken. To be seen as authentic, all statements must evidence awareness of the context which gave rise to the events that are mourned.

“Homophobic Rage” – Confronting Inner Demons

Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? 18 But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 19 For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20 These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.Matthew 15:17-19

In the days that followed the shooting, most immediate knee jerk assessments of the Orlando shooter constructed him as simply another agent of ISIS terrorism. These assessments, aimed as much at relieving us of looking at this event in all its complexity – much less our own complicity - as solving a crime, have largely come apart. The FBI found Omar Mateen’s connections to ISIS prior to the shooting were largely the stuff of random internet searches. No real contact between ISIS and Mateen was ever established.

What did emerge, however, was the picture of a mentally unstable man with a life history of abuse in a highly pressurized family. Omar was often shamed by his very demanding father using homophobic epithets. No doubt his father intuitively sensed what Omar’s first wife readily reported: Omar was gay. And a number of reports of Mateen’s online search for gay sex and his regular presence at the club he eventually destroyed suggest that Omar Mateen was a rather classic case of internalized homophobia.

His quest to destroy that outside of him which he could not root out within his own being took a deadly form at the Pulse nightclub the night of June 12, 2016. Omar is reported to have been rejected by several Latin men which helped hone his homicidal calculations to be carried out on Latin Night at the club.

From the outside, it’s easy to dismiss this event as a “homophobic rage,” the description used by the bishop in his press release to the Episcopal News Service: “There will be time later raise questions about security, gun violence, and homophobic rage. There is no justification for this atrocity. I categorically condemn what has happened.”

Clearly the events of that night did take the form of a “homophobic rage.” But for Omar Mateen that rage arose in the context of a hellacious life in which the homophobia endured during this young man’s development was ultimately internalized, becoming a silent but deadly cancer of the soul.

Mateen’s actions are highly consistent with a wealth of psychological studies which have found that externalized homophobia often arises from a profound fear on the part of the individual of their own homosexual tendencies. For many homophobic men, it’s easier to confront the homosexuality experienced outside oneself than to deal with the homosexuality within that can never be expressed. The more virulent the homophobia, the greater the internal fear.

Of course, this is hardly difficult for most LBGTQ people to grasp. Many of us, particularly those of us who are in our second half of life, know only too well the soul-draining suffocation of the closet and the exteriorized desire to rid ourselves of those aspects of our very being which made us different and, in a deeply homophobic culture such as our own, unacceptable. Indeed, we know first-hand a bit of what Omar’s rage felt like. In many ways, such rage is little more than the logical extreme to which any internalized homophobia can easily go.

In the wake of the atrocity at the Pulse nightclub, it is hard to imagine what Omar Mateen must have been like as a newborn. My guess is that he was a beautiful baby, full of curiosity and energy, just beginning a far too brief life that would bring him to such an unpredictable blood-drenched ending.

Baby Omar did not come pre-programmed with the homophobia that would ultimately consume him. He learned that from his life context both within his own dysfunctional family and within the broader societal context into which he was born. He grew up in a United States that has long been a deeply homophobic culture, particularly in its more religious sectors. 

In the end, Omar proved an apt pupil.

“Homophobic Rage” – Arising from a Context

I do not fear truth. I welcome it. But I wish all of my facts to be in their proper context. Gordon B. Hinckley

I do not like your Bible verse, It makes no sense, it is too terse, It is devoid of all context, What will your Holy Book say next? I do not like your Bible verse, it seems to go from bad to worse.Niall McAuley

The chief progenitor, promoter and preserver of the common social prejudice of homophobia in the West has historically been the Christian religious tradition. It arose in a first century middle eastern culture in which heteronormative understandings were seen as self-evident and thus provided the worldview which would shape its scripture.

While many critics of Christianity point to the scriptures and the resulting theology as themselves the source of homophobia, it was in fact the latent homophobia as a cultural value held by the writers of scripture which would ultimately express itself in those writings. In this case, the chicken (culture) clearly precedes the egg (scripture).

Indeed, it is hard to imagine how the scriptures could have been written without reflecting the prejudices of its writers any more than any of us writing in our own time could escape our own culture. Historically Christians have been forced to come to begrudging recognitions that the slavery, racism, sexism and a blind anthropocentrism that today threatens G-d’s good creation itself can all be validated through a superficial reading of scripture. Such readings require their readers to uncritically adopt the values of a culture which is not our own.

When those of us who would seriously appropriate scripture are being honest with ourselves, we know that whatever spiritual truths can be found in scripture must be ferreted out through diligent study, critical reason and compassionate application. Intellectual honesty with ourselves and others requires that scripture of any tradition must always be read in context to actually be understood. Of course, this presumes that understanding is our ultimate goal in such reading.

Many Christians rightfully object to being summed up as mere homophobes. As Sister Helen Prejean has so thoughtfully pointed out in her work with the people held in our nation’s human slaughterhouses, none of us can ever be adequately summed up by the worst thing we ever did. Even so, our common social prejudices have consequences in our own lives, the lives of others and our common life together.

There is no shortage of scholarship from rigorous academic work to easily accessible theological writings on how and why this misanthropic cultural value arose, how it is at odds with the spiritual truths of our tradition and how it negatively impacts human beings. It is when such work goes largely unread and unconsidered that we begin to talk about the irrationality that drives the holders of this common prejudice to so tenaciously cling to it. Indeed, it is precisely at that moment that we move from a garden variety heterosexism presuming the dominant experience of the majority to be normative for everyone to a more pathological expression called homophobia.

Religiously driven homophobia finds many creative ways to reveal itself. The same bishop who so candidly recognizes the minimal value of words of condolence in the face of carnage withdraws into a cocoon of brittle legalism when it comes to examination of the subtle homophobia marking much evangelical thought including his own. When asked to reconsider his ban on same sex marriages in parishes wishing to conduct the same within his diocese, the bishop responds “[I]f I felt that the Scriptures gave me permission to take such a stance, I would happily do so.”

Such words echo the even less thoughtful arguments of fundamentalist preacher Ted Swanson at the National Religious Life Conference which several Republican presidential candidates attended seeking support for their candidacies. Dancing across the conference stage, Swanson shouted, “Romans Chapter 1 verse 32 the Apostle Paul does say that homosexuals are worthy of death. His words not mine! And I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ! And I am not ashamed of the truth of the word of God. And I am willing to go to jail…”

In both cases there is an uncritical appropriation of content as well as a rather naive anthropomorphizing of the scriptures. Whatever else the Christian Bible might be, it is not a parental figure who must give human children permission to think. The Bible is a human artifact, crafted by human wordsmiths and reflecting the often unrecognized worldview and values of the culture which produced them. Bibles don’t speak, teach or permit. Those are human activities. And neither St. Paul – much less G-d - are somehow trapped within their pages.

To consistently defer to a selectively superficial reading of scripture outside of any critical context when one is aware of its existence is childish. But to do so with an awareness of its deleterious impact on one’s fellow children of G_d suggests more is going on than a mere naïveté. Such behaviors are neither intellectually honest nor worthy of respect. Indeed, it is simply impossible to reconcile them with the Prime Directive of the Christian tradition: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

Homophobic Rage” – Deadly Subtlety

“It is impossible for a Christian to pray for the salvation of a man's soul and, at the same moment, seek to kill him. This seems obvious. But that which seems so evident in any other context somehow becomes obscured in times of war.” Jeffrey Bryant (American b.1965)

Homophobia does not have to be expressed as rage for it to be deadly. Indeed, it is precisely the subtle expressions of homophobia that set the context for deadly actions which eventually do arise out of rage. Arguments that one has no choice but to hold to homophobic understandings and policies attempt to provide the deniability that all holders of social prejudices wishing to be seen in a positive social light so desperately seek. They also seek to provide a means of avoiding confrontation over those same prejudices, confrontations at which they likely know that their position cannot prevail.

What they cannot provide their makers is honesty with themselves and with others. The reality is that policies which actively discriminate against LBGTQ people not only send a message to those affected by these policies but to the larger culture as well that such discrimination is somehow socially acceptable. It should hardly be surprising when actual expressions of homophobic rage erupt out of such contexts.

Einstein’s observation about war is helpful for understanding the events of Orlando this deadly summer. In the current context, it would seem obvious that it is impossible to continue to hold homophobic understandings and practice homophobic policies and simultaneously prevent harm to those who bear the very image of G-d and discern themselves to be LBGTQ.  Symbolic actions are larger than life. When you plunge down the slippery slope of refusing to recognize the full humanity of another, anything is possible. Indeed, atrocity will always be a possibility.

We are now some six weeks out from the events of the Pulse nightclub. If it is true that “[t]here will be time to later raise questions about security, gun violence, and homophobic rage,” that time has now come. Whether honest discourse will occur remains to be seen. But until we are able to talk about the elephant in the room with us of contextual homophobia, that talk will remain pretty cheap. In the words of the priest leaving the vigil for one of the Pulse  victims at an Episcopal Cathedral which only a year ago initially denied baptism to the child of a married gay couple , “Actions always speak louder than words.”

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, July 20, 2016

The Line that Melania Cut

I find myself troubled by the Melania Trump debacle at the Republican National Convention Monday night. Her speech shamelessly lifted large segments of a speech given by First Lady Michelle Obama at a preceding Democratic National Convention without any attribution. NPR played the two speeches together. They were essentially identical for a couple of minutes in length. 

While party loyalists have suggested this was neither intentional nor serious, this  behavior is consistent with her prior communications on Twitter in which Melania used a quote by Marva Collins (“Trust yourself, think for yourself, act for yourself, speak for yourself. Be yourself!”) without attribution. In one of life's great ironies, the Collins quote ends with the warning “Imitation is suicide.” 

Little wonder poor Melania cut that line.

Finding the Learning Opportunity 

As a teacher, my concern is never that a student has found a great quote to illustrate his or her point. That’s actually the mark of a good student. What troubles me is when students fail to give attribution for the statement they’ve found. 

While I love Maya Angelou, I will never be nearly as lyrical as that absolute master of the English language. If I use her words, I need to note that they are hers, not mine. To do otherwise would perpetrate a fraud on my reader or listener and simultaneously fail to afford the author her due respect.

The other problem students manifest regarding quoted materials is the tendency to string together other people’s words to make their argument rather than illustrating their own original argument with a strategic use of quotes. In addition to failing to offer attribution for her source, Melania engaged in this sophomoric behavior as well.

Of course there are good examples of such behavior everywhere. From fundamentalist preachers who string cite bible verses as if they were self-explanatory and self-interpreting to the cutting and pasting of material from internet sites and posting it elsewhere on the internet without comment, unauthorized use of the intellectual property of others as a means of avoiding the hard work of creating one's own is common place everywhere we look.

Ted Swanson at the National Religious Liberties Conference: 
“Yes, Leviticus 20:13 calls for the death penalty for homosexuals. Yes, Romans chapter 1 verse 32 the Apostle Paul does say that homosexuals are worthy of death. His words not mine!

The troubling aspect of such behaviors is that they serve as a rather tacit admission that one either has nothing of value to say, they are too cowardly to take responsibility for their own ideas or they are simply too lazy to formulate, articulate and support their own arguments. It is, at a basic level, a self-indictment of dishonesty, cowardice, laziness or sheer vapidity.

However, Melania Trump is not just any undergraduate student. For a potential First Lady to engage in such dishonest behavior is disturbing. It’s almost impossible for me to imagine a highly literate First Lady like Jacqueline Kennedy or a devoted librarian like Laura Bush doing something like this. Such behavior sets a very poor example for the nation’s students. And it minimizes the value of academic integrity.

Were Melania in my course, I’d have called her into my office for a discussion. I always give students in such situations an opportunity to be heard before taking action. Depending upon her response, I’d have considered making her rewrite the speech giving attribution, turning it into a learning opportunity. Alternatively, I would have failed her for the assignment and possibly the course and refered her to the academic honesty course as a requirement for graduation.

Truth be told, I think Melania is in way over her head. To begin with, she is not college educatedanother fact about which she has been dishonest. She speaks English as a second language, always a challenge. 

At a very basic level, Melania, Trump’s third wife and former soft porn model, is being used by the Donald in much the way he has used virtually everyone in his life. She is not First Lady material. She is a means to Donald’s ends. And should she fail to satisfy his demands upon her, I have no doubt that, just as he did with the first two Trump-ettes, he will gladly scream at her “You’re fired!”

In the words of a turn of the 20th CE popular song, “She’s more to be pitied than censured.” 

But does the public care?

But this behavior does exemplify the enormous superficiality that has marked the Trump candidacy generally. The ghost writer for Trump’s book The Art of the Deal recently revealed that Trump is incapable of following a serious discussion to any kind of logical conclusion, has probably not read a book in 50 years and willingly took credit for a book he not only did not write even as he was unaware of all of its content. Tony Schwartz expresses deep regret for his role in getting the book to market and says if we were to do it all over again, he’d entitle the book The Sociopath.

There is a brazenness in verbatim theft of other people’s speeches and blatant deceit about one’s academic career. It suggests a belief that either the audience will not catch this sleight of hand or, alternatively, that we will not care. The latter is more troubling because it reflects a belief that the American public is itself rather vapid, a belief that terrifies me in its potential truthfulness.

The Republican National Convention has thus far been a parade of washed up actors, professional wrestlers and fundamentalist preachers. It has also reflected a studious avoidance of the RNC dais of any leader seen by the American public as thoughtful. All of this suggests that Trump is betting that the American people are willing to settle for a reality television presidency and four years of mindless entertainment.

Truth be told, I wake up in cold sweats at night considering the possibility that he just might be right.

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


Thursday, July 14, 2016

Shooting Ourselves in the Foot

I wonder at what point the German people awoke from their Aryan tribal orgy with a pounding hangover and the dawning realization of what they had actually done in placing Hitler in power. By then, of course, it was too late. The frog was already boiled at that point and before it was over most of Europe would be as well.

Leni Riefenstahl, Triumph of the Will (1934)

My guess is that the Brits are about to know that hangover first hand. By the time many voters bothered to briefly interrupt their search for porn and Google what Brexit actually was and what it would mean for Britain, the damage was already done.

I look at the roller coaster poll results in the US after a couple of weeks of a media feeding frenzy hammering at Hillary Clinton over an error in judgment which was serious enough but also common and hardly the stuff of conspiracies spun by infotainment media. I wonder how far removed from the Germans of the 1930s we really are being led around by the nose by sensationalist media. Increasingly, it seems to me that many US voters, like those in Britain, either know better or don’t know much at all but seek ways to rationalize engaging in electoral behaviors driven by spite, much of it inexplicably targeting Hillary Clinton.

We absolutely must beware the halo effect in polling responses this election. Increasingly, voters from California’s Proposition 8 to the Brexit vote last month reveal that they know better than what they’re about to do, giving the socially respectable answer to the pollster, but in the darkness of the voting booth readily engage in their darkest fears and prejudices, to hell with the results.

I get the anger. The completely dysfunctional Congress we have endured for the eight years of TEA Party obstructionism, itself largely a misdirected expression of working class anger manipulated by corporate interests, is maddening. The way that global corporations have run roughshod over all of us but particularly the working class is enraging.

I also understand personally the white hot rage that might promote voting against the establishment. And I understand the absolutely on-target desires to deconstruct our current winner-take-all electoral system with its addiction to money, its ability to effectively shut out whole classes of voters from participation in order to dominate and to seek to replace it with a system that is more than a mere façade of democracy.

What I don’t get is why that anger would take the form of shooting one’s own foot off. Making a statement is perhaps appropriate in evangelical revivals or a town hall meeting. But this election is not about any given individual or group of individuals and the axe they have to grind. It’s about insuring that the possibilities for change will exist – a Congress and SCOTUS not controlled by corporate interests; a US taking responsibilities for its share of climate change which threatens the entire planet; a just economic system in which workers don’t lose their homes or end up slaves to crippling debt simply because they seek to become educated or obtain needed medical treatment.  

That kind of change simply cannot happen under a xenophobic corporate magnate with a lousy record as a businessman and the ethics of a common adder.

Voting one’s angst may be a feel good catharsis. But engaging in behavior that ultimately elects Donald Trump, who is on a good day a “faker,” is little more than cutting one’s nose off to spite one’s face. That kind of self-defeating behavior may be endurable when one is dealing with an actual adolescent child. There is always hope they can grow up. But when that adolescent is the world’s most powerful nation-state, placing a l’enfant terrible at the helm of that power is an incredibly bad idea.

Bernie Sanders, whom I fervently supported in the primaries and continue to admire greatly, was very clear that all revolutions, including his, require long periods of persistent hard work and sacrifice to effectuate the changes they seek. While we well-trained consumers tend to see the world through lenses of instant gratification, changing a 227-year-old system of self-governance simply cannot happen overnight.

We need to be very clear: This election is not the Revolution, capital R. It’s just the first skirmish in a much larger engagement that will take many years and, no doubt, a lot more suffering to play out.

Regrettably, this election simply boils down to damage control and not digging the gaping hole in the US soul any deeper. I wish that were not true. But it simply is the case.

 While my political soul decidedly lies with Jill Stein and the Greens and the big picture suggests that a multi-party system would be a lot healthier than the one we currently endure, I fear that the stakes are simply too high in this turning point election to take a chance on a catastrophic result in order to indulge my individual conscience. 

Those who know me know that I am an idealist to the core and rarely a pragmatist with eyes focused on the ground immediately in front of me. But I have been to enough disaster sites over my life to understand the need for triage. And we should not kid ourselves, America decidedly stands at the brink of a cataclysm in 2016.

There will be days to vent anger and make change but only if we ensure that it will be possible. Those of us who would change what we see as an unacceptable reality in this country that we love must commit ourselves to that process. But the change we would seek will become ever more difficult to effectuate should Americans out of a feel-good expression of anger follow the example of 1930s Germany and elect a loose cannon whose rhetoric echoes of fascism. 

Bear in mind that the Third Reich occurred in a time when the powerful technologies we take for granted today were only in their germinal stages of development. Imagine what the Axis might have done if it had had access to the weaponry and technology the US currently possesses.

My fellow Americans, let’s don’t shoot ourselves in the foot. Let us engage our long term memories long enough to learn from the example of the last unprepared loose cannon we placed in office in 2000. It has taken eight years to repair the enormous damage of that error in judgment. But, have no doubts, making the same error in judgement in this election could well be a lot, lot worse.


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


Monday, July 11, 2016

Black Lives Matter and Beatitudes

This past week the US has been rocked by two new slayings of young black men in police custody and within days the slaying of five police officers at a rally protesting those deaths in apparent retaliation. Social media has been abuzz with energized discussions providing a lot more heat than light, much of it cast in terms of slogans serving as shorthand for the focus of the poster’s concerns. 

The slogan “Black Lives Matter,” which originated in the wake of a rash of deaths of young black men two years ago, has dominated much of the newsfeed. In the resulting discussions, one poster dismissed the BLM slogan as a mere platitude, “a remark or statement, especially one with a moral content, that has been used too often to be interesting or thoughtful.” Others vehemently responded to the BLM slogan with the retort “All Lives Matter!” as if these statements are somehow mutually exclusive. Finally, those outraged by the police slayings in Dallas responded in righteous indignation that “Blue Lives Matter,” again, as if these concerns were mutually exclusive.

Let me state my position on the value of life right up front: Murder is murder.  In the end, it does not matter whether it is a police officer killing a young black man in front of his girlfriend and four-year-old child, a gunman with a weapon of war mowing down police at a rally or patrons at a nightclub, or a state agent pumping lethal chemicals into the veins of a convicted criminal in a padded cell. Any time the choice is made to intentionally cause the death of another human being when life is a realistic option, it is murder, regardless of how the killers may seek to rationalize it. And it is wrong.

In that sense, the assertion that “All Lives Matter” is true, at least in principle if not always in practice. But to understand any text, one must consciously deal with the context in which it arises. And the context of “Black Lives Matter” is deeply troubling.

Getting Away with Murder

The slogan first arose out of the trial of George Zimmerman, a troubled Latino/Anglo man whose frustrated dreams of becoming a cop were played out in becoming a self-appointed armed “neighborhood watch” guard in a gated community in Sanford, FL. The official Neighborhood Watch program’s name reveals its function: Watch for signs of criminal behavior in one’s Neighborhood and report what one sees to law enforcement. It does not involve arming oneself. And it certainly does not involve stalking the offender with a gun.

But that is what George Zimmerman did. And when his prey, a 17-year-old black kid from Miami visiting his father, realized he was being stalked, he hid and then surprised his stalker, beating him with his fists as he angrily demanded why the man was following him. No doubt, the kid was afraid for his very life and with good reason. It was at this point that Zimmerman, whom the kid had gotten the best of, shot and killed him.

The legal response to this event was a shameful farce. The local state attorney initially refused to charge the killer with anything. Florida’s ethically challenged attorney general did nothing, maintaining a deafening silence in the face of a growing call for action. When a special prosecutor was finally appointed, the jury instructions allowed by the court were so narrowly drawn that Zimmerman was able to successfully assert self-defense and was acquitted by a virtually all-white jury. The analogies to the Rodney King trial in Simi Valley in California which set off days of deadly rioting in Los Angeles are unavoidable.

In the end, George Zimmerman got away with murder.  And what became abundantly clear in that trial was that the life of his 17-year-old black male victim was less valuable than that of his Latino/Anglo killer. At least in this case, black lives did not matter.

When this pattern began to be replicated in case after case of killings of black males in police control across the country caught on cell phones and video recordings, the angry counter-assertion that “Black Lives Matter” began to take shape. That is the immediate context. But there is a larger context without which BLM cannot be fully understood.

From Plantation Porches to Racist Closets

These events occur at the end of four centuries of racist culture that began as chattel slavery of African peoples and their descendants which only ended 150 years ago. When one includes colonial history with its brisk trade of human property as the middle passage of triangular trade, America has been a slave culture much longer than not.

With the end of slavery, the trajectory of racism has been one of increasing invisibility but with correspondingly even more power to shape our culture. Slavery quickly evolved into a set of highly discriminatory Jim Crow laws which sought a patina of legitimacy for what was blatantly racist discrimination. It would take another century after the end of slavery for the courts to finally strike these laws down.

The result was to drive this pernicious prejudice increasingly into the closet as overt racism became socially unacceptable for a polite (translated: middle and upper class white) society wishing to deny its past, protect its continued privilege and indulge its ongoing prejudices. But these black holes of closeted racism continue to give birth to a subtle but even more powerful institutional racism which infects every aspect of our culture today. It is always easier to confront overt prejudices. The covert (and often unconscious) versions assert themselves in largely invisible but effective ways.

One of the more pointed ways closet racism has manifest itself  is in the ironically named “war on drugs.” From the beginning, drug laws, enacted largely to protect the profits of the pharmaceutical industry, have punished black drug use and sales more harshly than their white counterparts. The difference in degrees of punishment for crack cocaine, largely used by poor people of color, and powder cocaine, largely used by middle and upper class white people, is but one example. The racial disparity in the demographics of the world’s largest prison gulag and the level of unabashed violence in cocaine cowboy SWAT tactics in impoverished neighborhoods attests to the effectiveness of this form of closet racism.

Another way this powerful closet racism has manifest itself is in the absolute refusal of the US to deal with what is clearly a socially debilitating addiction to firearms that has destabilized both US culture and the world. US gun manufacturers are far and away the greatest suppliers of weaponry, both intentionally and unintentionally, to all kinds to regimes around the world ranging from what became the Taliban and ISIS to the deadly paramilitaries of Central America.

This year, US firearm deaths – which include homicides, suicides and accidental deaths – are poised to surpass automobile deaths as the leading cause of deaths not resulting from illness. US gun policies as well as the associated attitudes about guns in the general public reflect a deeply fearful populace. Much of that fear is based in race.

According to the Pew Research data, support for increased regulation of firearms is found among a wide demographic with a majority among urban and suburban residents, women, those under the age of 50, those making less than $30,000/year, those with no college or college graduates, and registered Democrats and Independents.

Those who say that gun rights are more important than increased control of firearms are fairly narrowly defined: white non-Hispanic men with some college, rural residents, those registered Republican and those over the age of 50. While a clear majority of US citizens support increasing controls over firearms, it is the demands of a powerful minority and the lobbying power of the NRA, heavily financed by firearms corporations, which continues to dictate US gun policy paralyzing all efforts to change the laws even in the face of profoundly disturbing events like the Orlando Pulse massacre.

A Dawning Reality: We’re losing.

In looking at these demographics, the last of the four contextual aspects comes squarely into focus. The 2000 election of Barack Obama, the first mixed race president in US history, a product of a broken home and a beneficiary of affirmative action, and the rejection of the business-as-usual Republican Mitt Romney, the epitome of white privilege, caused the alarms to sound in the snug, safe closets of racism across the US.

The response was fast and furious. The last eight years of US politics has been marked by the resurrection of a Know-Nothing racism in the form of a TEA Party and self-appointed militias along the US border. It has seen the losing Republican Party determine on election night to engage in obstructionism for the duration of the President’s term which has resulted in the least productive Congress in US history and an incomplete divided SCOTUS now largely incapable of rendering majority decisions.

The current presidential nominee of the Republican Party, whose rhetoric is frequently peppered with subtle and not so subtle racist references, embodies the desperation many white non-Hispanic Americans feel. They rightly recognize that the country is changing, that our demographics no longer provide the automatic electoral veto that they have presumed to be their right since the dawn of the nation-state. But despite their attempts to gerrymander Congress and state governments, bar poor people of color from voting and shut down governments when they have not gotten their way, the reality is beginning to dawn on the scions of American white privilege: We are losing.

Given this context, it is not surprising that a rapidly dwindling white non-Hispanic majority, looking about in fear as their presumed entitlements to white privilege are slowly eroding, would resolutely refuse to see the danger persons of color, particularly young black males, currently experience when in the proximity of predominately white male law enforcement. If it’s not happening to them or their own children - at least so far - it’s not a problem.

Dismissal of “Black Lives Matter” as a platitude is but one of many expressions of a defensiveness that is to be expected in the current climate of cultural transition. Because while it is true that All Lives Matter or at least that they should - particularly those who place their lives in danger for the public daily as law enforcement officers - that does not somehow mutually exclude the reality revealing itself nightly on our evening news that Black Lives do not appear to matter as much as others in our country and never really have, a reality which increasingly demands our immediate attention.

Jesus on Lives that Matter

I am trained as a lawyer and an academician whose primary areas of concern have always been ethics and the sociology of religion, law and society. My comments above reflect that background. But I am also an Episcopal priest who studied liberation theology while in seminary, spending a good bit of time in Central America to observe it firsthand. And while I am hardly a theocrat, seeking to impose a form of Christian sharia law on my countrywomen and men as is favored by many religious conservatives, I do think the historical Jesus has something of value to add to this conversation.

There is a teaching in Jesus’ beatitudes which is highly analogous to Black Lives Matter. Considered the core of Jesus’ kingdom of G-d teachings, the Beatitudes are so named because they begin with words of beatification: “Blessed are…”

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus casts his lot with the poor. “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” It’s tempting to blow this assertion off with a patronizing, “Aw, gee, that’s nice, Jesus. You feel sorry for the poor people.” That’s certainly what many of us do. It’s also tempting to avoid this teaching by asserting that “All Lives Matter” to G-d. If G-d is the source, ground and destination of all Creation, clearly they do. But the implications of this statement go much, much deeper than banal theologizing.

When Jesus teaches that the poor are blessed, he does so in the role of the prophet. Most Hebrew prophets, in whose venerable line Jesus clearly stands, begin with the words, “Thus says the Lord…” Though Jesus no doubt did identify with the exploited poor who made up the vast majority of the 1st CE Roman province of Judea, his own family included, he is not speaking for them here. His words are subtle. It is G-d who blesses the poor. Why? Because it is clearly the poor who most need G-d’s blessing.

It is critical to note that this is a complete reversal of the worldview common to his Judean society and to our own. Nothing in the lives of the poor suggested they could be seen as even remotely blessed by G-d. Quite the opposite. If they were not sinners or suffering for someone else’s sin (Who sinned, this man or his parents? JN 9) why would their lives be so miserable? Conversely, the well-to-do Pharisee who stands on the street corner proclaiming “God, I thank you that I am not like other people…" (LK 18) reflects the prevailing view that wealth, power and status all suggested G-d’s favor.

Jesus’ beatitude completely overturns such assumptions.

Where the analogy of this beatitude to Black Lives Matter becomes clear is in the import of his teaching. If Jesus is right and G_d sees the poor as blessed, what does this suggest about the activities and attitudes of those who make and keep them poor? How would a G_d whose blessing rests on the poor feel about efforts to exploit them?

Perhaps most importantly, what does this suggest is the appropriate response for the followers of Jesus who are not poor but whose wealth, power and status are attained at their expense? The answer extends far beyond the knee jerk response of a condescending and patronizing charity exercised out of one’s excess. It is ultimately a question of a just society.

The liberationists called this G-d’s “preferential option for the poor.“ It sees the ongoing exploitation of the poor whom G-d blesses as a sin. And it calls for conversion of those who find themselves in the roles of both exploiters and beneficiaries of that exploitation.

Black Lives Matter is a call to consciousness of the many ways our society communicates to our fellow Americans of color that their lives do not matter, at least not as much as their countrywomen and men. It is a call to recognize all the social contexts in which this devaluation of human beings of color occurs. Most importantly, it is a call to reconsider these attitudes, both conscious and unconscious, and the behaviors which flow from them. The word the gospel writers would have used here is repent.

When Jesus articulated this radical vision of a kingdom of G-d in which the poor were blessed and those who exploited them were called to repentance and change of life, he was rewarded as are most prophets: by quickly being put out of his audience’s misery. It’s always a lot easier to crucify a prophet than to take their prophetic message seriously. Undoubtedly that is as true today as it was in Jesus’ time.

All Lives Matter: More than a Platitude?

The US stands at the crossroads of many changes today, not the least of which is the question of how we will adjust to becoming a minority-majority nation-state in which no racial or ethnic group will predominate and thus presume a privilege to pursue their own interests at the expense of all others. How we respond to that challenge may well define whether this country which prides itself on “liberty and justice for all” – even when that has not always been the case – will survive to “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”  

It is true that all lives matter. They matter to G-d, they matter to a nation-state whose stated ideals recognize the truth that “all men are created equal” to be self-evident and they matter to psychologically healthy human beings. But in a violent racist culture like our own, it is precisely the success of movements like the “Black Lives Matter” that will determine if otherwise empty assertions that “All Lives Matter” ever become more than a mere platitude.

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