Monday, October 28, 2019

The Don(ald) Meets Dante

In Dante’s vision of the afterlife detailed in The Divine Comedy, Hell did not get hotter as one descended into its depths, it got colder. The transition from hotter to colder reflects the nature of the sinners who sins consigned them there.

The hot sins, often committed in the heat of passion – lust, gluttony, greed – were near the top of the Inferno. While most religions and the laws they have been allowed to shape historically have obsessed on those hot sins, the graver sins of violence, fraud and treachery fell near the bottom of the Inferno.

Even today, “white collar crimes” of the elite which entail all of the colder sins are largely not prosecuted or punished at nearly the rates of the “common crimes” nvolving mainly the working poor. Ironically, white collar crimes inevitably are more costly in terms of property, injuries and human lives than all of the common crimes collectively. It's a reminder that law and justice are often not the same thing. Law is inevitably about power and the question we must always consider is who makes the law, for whose interests and at whose expense

With his gradient of sins which increased in gravity as one declined into the Inferno, Dante was demonstrating that it is with ever increasing coldness of heart that depravity is measured. The bottom of Dante’s Hell was ice. The ninth ring (of nine) was the place where those who had betrayed others were punished.

As with all of Dante’s system, it was their own sins which punished them. The coldness of their calculated deeds – from the betrayal of family to nation-state – punished them, freezing them into place for eternity, there watched over by the great Satan, the father of lies, the prince of darkness.

Presuming Guilt

I’ve always been taken by Dante’s work and the way he categorically deals with human failings. But his system has been on my mind a lot lately as I have watched the painful but inevitable fall of Trumpland and the long overdue exposure of its depravities.

As a defense attorney, I have always been insistent upon the presumption of innocence, a presumption that in my observation has always been much more of a theory than an actual practice. Truth is, most of us confuse accusations regarding crimes as proof in themselves that the crimes occurred and that the persons accused perpetrated them.

We are a people of instant gratification. We want to resolve any matters which cause us dis-ease quickly so we do not have to worry about them. In the case of accusations of wrongdoing, whether the persons accused actually are guilty of what they are accused of doing is beside the point. Our peace of mind, which is revealed here as largely superficial, is the most important concern.

We want to reassure ourselves that we are safe, even if that safety is merely ephemeral. And in our consumerist culture we presume an entitlement to feel comfort. Worrying about crimes makes us uncomfortable. Best to make quick judgments and return to binge watching streaming programming and social media.

Thank G_d They’re Not My Clients

So I have resisted presuming the guilt of the Trumpland cartel (and increasingly, the machinations of Trumpland do reveal themselves to be the version of the Mafia that James Comey, a longtime organized crime prosecutor, observed them to be in his book, A Higher Loyalty). But I have also said to myself all along that I would never want to represent any of these people for a number of reasons.

The first is that they cannot keep their mouths shut. The most precious right of any criminal defendant is to be silent, to require the state to prove the case against them without any coerced statements from the defendant. Virtually every one of the cartel – Pompeo, Giuliani, Barr, Pence – all of whom take their marching orders from their Don(ald)  - have found it impossible to resist the temptation to play the press and the waves of the internet in talking about their misdeeds. And in virtually every case, they have dug the hole in which they found themselves even deeper.

They are a criminal defense attorney’s nightmare.

The second is the character issue. The criminal law requires specific acts to be proven before punishment is merited and the Constitution (remember that thing?) requires high crimes and misdemeanors be proven before impeachment is merited. It never helps a case when some of the key players in your accused deeds have already been convicted of criminal acts or are in the process of being tried for the same.

That includes patterns of business dealings with organized crime syndicates in other countries. While character is never officially on trial, there is something to be said for birds of a feather flocking together.

The third is that the cases against these targets of inquiry continue to build. While the proof of their misdoing must be proven before both any punishment is merited, a good attorney would already be advising such clients of the precarious nature of their cases. This is often the point in case developments where plea bargaining begins to be a part of the discussion.
And that points toward the fourth reason I would not want to represent such clients. Their behaviors routinely have indicated a desire to stonewall, to coverup, to spin when challenged for evidence. It’s one thing to remain silent. It’s quite another to actively seek to prevent evidence and testimony from being taken.

Such behaviors have a common description: coverup. They also have another more criminal description: obstruction of justice. If the accused who protest the investigations of their behaviors as public officials with words like “witch hunt” and “lynching” (this, ironically coming from the child of a Ku Klux Klan affiliate) are so innocent, the vociferousness with which they have resisted producing any of the evidence they are legally and constitutionally compelled to provide, much of it under subpoena, itself suggests otherwise.
What I observe is that at least in the case against the Don(ald), the evidence is there for both constitutional and criminal infractions. The question now is less whether the man has violated the law and the Constitution but whether the courts and the Congress will act responsibly in light of those violations.
I wish I were more confident that would, in fact, happen. But a judiciary increasingly stacked with Federalist Society ideologues, some of whom have never even practiced law, and the best Senate corporate moneys could buy (several of the members of whom appear to be involved in their own potentially criminal behaviors) makes that less than assured.
Contempt for Sacred Writ
In all truthfulness, as a recovering defense attorney I find it strange to find myself thinking like a prosecutor. What has prompted that view says more about me than them.

From the beginning in law school I saw the Constitution and the interpretations thereof as the most important aspects of the law. I excelled in Con Law courses and won honors in an appellate advocacy competition involving a constitutional question regarding special education. My practice as a juvenile defense attorney routinely involved the protections of the Constitution. And I taught the Constitution in classes at two different community colleges and in my Philosophy of Law course at the university.
For me the Constitution is a sacred document much like the holy scriptures of a religion. But like any sacred document, it is not well served by engaging in any form of fundamentalism regarding its provisions, least of all a brittle form of "originalism" which ultimately is revealed to be little more than conservative ideology in colonial drag.
I admire the Framers and their document cobbled together by deeply flawed human beings that has only been amended 27 times in its 230 year history. And I have always recognized that the ideals in the Constitution (and the other documents that form the corpus of holy writ for our civil religion such as the Declaration of Independence and Gettysburg Address), however imperfectly realized over history, represent an eruption of post-conventional moral reasoning that supersedes any personal, partisan or even nationalistic urges. Little wonder those peering through tribal conventional lenses rarely see those ideals, much less those who see through pre-conventional, self-interested lenses like the Don(ald).
It has been painful to me to watch the Constitution be so routinely ignored if not deliberately contravened all of these years. But that slide down a slippery slope has reached an apotheosis in Trumpland.

I have found the erosion of Constitutional restrictions of executive behaviors and the unwillingness of Congress and now the Courts to enforce the same troubling since the days of Ronald Reagan deeply troubling. The “Great Communicator” got away with direct violations of the federal law in the Iran-Contra scandal that ended up destroying much of Central America and setting the stage for the current flood of refugees to our border.  
While Bill Clinton was impeached for lying under oath about having oral sex with an aide, a behavior completely unrelated to the matter the special prosecutor was charged with investigating and thus an abuse of his delegated power, that was never the kind of “high crime” or misdemeanor that impeachment was designed to correct. That, however, never justifies the willingness of any witness to lie under oath. And the slide into the moral sewer accelerated under George W. Bush whose appointed Attorney General was willing to pimp the Constitution to rationalize his administration’s violation of human rights and torture. 
But the flood of constitutionally repugnant behaviors that has been building for four decades now have come to a crest in a Don who clearly has either not read the Constitution, does not understand it, or, more likely, simply does not believe he is bound by it.

With his army of cronies who have abused the law and procedures of the federal government with regularity, Trumpland has become a case of impunity unrivaled in its own modern history though comparable to authoritarian states from Russia to Turkey to the Philippines. Not surprisingly, the leaders of all those states are admired – and increasingly imitated - by the Don.
Deep Betrayals, Constitutional Contempt
I do not by nature have a punitive soul. If anything I am a believer in restorative justice, a justice process designed ultimately to heal injured communities and restore to full membership those who have caused it harm.
But my love for the Constitution and the ideals of the Framers which animate it suggest to me that, like Dante’s Inferno, these are matters that transcend the usual hot sins over which our breaking news and crime porn shows obsess. Dante would have not trouble recognizing the obvious here: These are sins of betrayal.

That betrayal takes two forms.
The first is the betrayal of the Constitution that the ongoing violations of the emoluments clause were designed to prevent. While the Don recently withdrew his plans to house an international conference in one of his hotels in Miami, in fact US representatives and soldiers have routinely been housed in Trump properties around the world. The purpose of the clause is to prevent the very situation which is occurring currently: a president who uses his office for self-enrichment.
The Constitution is also violated by the stonewalling and obstructions of the Congressional attempts to investigate everything from tax returns to unedited copies of the Mueller report. It is violated by the prevention of witnesses from appearing before Congressional committees. 
The Framers intended for Congress to be the preeminent branch of the government. The argument that executive privilege prevents them from engaging in their lawful, constitutional duties was not true when Richard Nixon sought to prevent his own crimes from being uncovered and it is not true now.
But the second betrayal is graver. From the beginning the Don has shown an inordinate interest in and willingness to cater to the interests of the Russians. What the Mueller Report actually showed was that while conspiracy was not readily provable from the facts of the case, his collusion (secret cooperation with others in order to cheat or deceive others, elements of the definition of collusion) with competitors if not enemies of this country, was in fact readily demonstrated despite the Twit-in-Chief’s midnight mutterings.

Nowhere was the betrayal of our nation more evident than having the man holding the Presidency of our country stand on the stage with Vladimir Putin - a leader known for his corruption, his abuse of the law to punish critics and his willingness to do anything to return to prominence on the world stage - and there deny the credibility of his own intelligence agencies. Worse yet, he did so to exonerate a Russian regime which Mueller had decidedly shown had tampered in the last election.
Attacking the electoral process of our country makes one an enemy by definition. And while that betrayal in itself broke no laws, it broke the hearts of many of us who love this country.
Challenging Impunity, Preserving Legitimacy 

We have no rings of Hell to which the Trumpland gang can be confined. And punishment of finite human misdeeds with infinite punishment is ethically if not theologically problematic. If nothing else, substantive Due Process and our 8th Amendment’s prohibition of Cruel and Unusual Punishment would rule that out.
But crimes against the people and the nation cannot go unpunished if our law is to have any legitimacy at all. And the violation of the Constitution with impunity with no response to that violation reveals it to be empty.
Terre Haute Federal Correctional Institute is the prison where serious offenders in our federal system have been sentenced. Timothy McVeigh, who blew up the federal courthouse in Oklahoma City, was housed there before he the federal government killed him on site. I propose that a wing of the prison be designated for the Trumpland gang. I propose that the sentences to imprisonment be moderate, enough time for these offenders of the nation, its people and its Constitution to actually consider their deeds before release. And perhaps enough proximity to one another that at some point they might ask one another, "What were we thinking?"
I take no delight in saying any of this. My defense attorney sentiments strongly incline me against punitiveness as a rule. And my empath heart always feels the pain of the other, even pain that, like Dante’s Inferno, their own actions have caused them.
But my love for my country and its Constitution are greater than my aversion to punishment. We live in a time when our very ongoing existence as a democratic-republic under law and Constitution are in question. We are in a profound existential crisis as a nation. And if Dante has any parting advice to us, it is this: “The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of crisis.”

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.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

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 Jewish Sages (1993)

 © Harry Coverston 2019

Thursday, October 17, 2019

So Why Celebrate St. Francis?

[N.B., A sermon delivered at St. Richard’s Episcopal parish, Winter Park, FL, Oct. 6, 2019 on celebration of The Feast of St. Francis and Animal Blessing]

Cross in San Damiano Chapel which spoke to Francis: "Rebuild my church."

“Both here and in all your churches around the world, we adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your holy cross [+] you have redeemed the world.” (Traditional Franciscan prayer upon entering and departing a church) AMEN.

Blessed Feast of St. Francis, everyone! This is a special day on the church’s calendar and a special day in the life of our parish. It is a day I, as a third order Franciscan, look forward to each year.

But why do we celebrate this day on which Francis of Assisi died? What is so special about Francis? I think that with the exception of this particular feast day, this parish follows the church calendar devotedly. While we may celebrate the feast days of other saints at our morning and evening prayer services, our Taize services, and the special services we hold throughout the year, this is the only main Sunday service of which I am aware that we deviate from the Church Calendar to celebrate a saint. For the record, this would ordinarily be the 17th Sunday after Pentecost.

So why Francis? What is so special about this feast day?

 The life of Francis offers us some clues. He was a man of privilege who gave it all up to serve the poor and the sick. A real hell raiser in his younger life, he was called the Prince of Fools by his drinking buddies who often drank on Francis’ dime. But after being captured during one of the ongoing wars against nearby city-state Perugia, Francis spent a year in a dungeon awaiting his ransom. There he had time to reflect. And when he came home to Assisi, he was a different man.

One of the changes in Francis was a newfound compassion for the poor, especially the lepers. A man born into a life of leisure, he had come face to face with the disturbing lesson that many of us must come to grips with: lives of privilege often come at the expense of the poor. As the prophet Jeremiah says in today’s lesson: “Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice; who makes his neighbours work for nothing, and does not give them their wages…” Jeremiah says the just king is he who is conscious of “the cause of the poor and needy.”  

Francis would devote the rest of his life to working with the many impoverished people who lived in the shadows of the prosperous city-states like Assisi.

So the first reason we celebrate the Feast of St. Francis is that he is a living example of human transformation, of redemption, and of ongoing human development ever more into the likeness of G-d.  If Francis can grow and change, so can we.

Another change in Francis was a shift of his attentions from the transitory pleasures gained from his own 13th CE version of a consumerist society to the immense treasures of the natural world all around him. In doing so, Francis rejected the fearful vision of the medieval church that saw the world as fallen, sinful and full of evil just waiting for an opportunity to spring itself on unwitting victims. The psalm for today reflects a bit of the vision that Francis saw: “Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars; Wild beasts and all cattle, creeping things and winged birds; Fire and hail, snow and fog, [even] tempestuous wind, [all] doing his will…”

Where the medieval church looked around the world and saw sinfulness, evil and danger in every direction, Francis’ vision saw beauty, goodness, joy. Everywhere Francis looked, he saw the image of the Holy One.

So the second reason we celebrate the Feast of St. Francis is that he lifts up our gaze from our own transitory, consumerist lives and redirects them to the beauty of the natural world around us. And in a time when “this fragile earth, our island home” is in serious need of our attention, the wisdom of Francis’s vision is surely needed.   

 Along with the natural world, Francis’ understanding of the goodness of creation decidedly included us human animals. He held an exalted vision of human nature and an accompanying appreciation for the human body. This was a clear departure from and a badly needed corrective to the fearful visions of the human body that informed the medieval church and still informs the vision of many religious conservatives today.

There are many humanities scholars who believe this new appreciation for the human body was one of the causes of the Renaissance which would sweep Francis’ Italy a mere two centuries later. Indeed, in the Basillica in Assisi which bears Francis’ body, a number of frescoes depicting the life of Francis by artists with names like Giotto and Cimabue would demonstrate the first stirrings of the great gift to the world of the Renaissance – the use of perspective in art.

Similarly there are scholars in the social sciences who trace some of the roots of notions of human rights to Francis’ insistence upon respect for the image of G-d borne by every human being, beginning with those for whom his own society held little regard. Matthew’s Gospel today reports Jesus speaking to the little ones of his own time whom he loved. “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to these little ones, for Father, such was your gracious will.”  

The cherishing of the little ones, the least of those in his own society, strongly informed Francis’ insistence that underneath the veneers of poverty and illness, the image of G-d was present on every human face, whether we could see it or not. Mother Theresa would later echo Francis’ vision in her work with the dying in inner city Calcutta whose divine image she insisted hid beneath “the distressing disguise of the poor.”
In today’s Epistle St. Paul speaks of his “carrying the marks of Jesus branded on my body.” Francis’ extensive work with lepers may well explain the famous stigmata that he bore as well as the loss of his vision as he neared a premature death at the age of 45. In his dying words, Francis said that if he had to do anything differently he would have been kinder to Brother Ass, his name for his own body. Not surprisingly, one of the many legacies of the Franciscan movement is the string of hospitals that his order operates around the world.

So a third reason we celebrate St. Francis this day is that he has called us to value our Selves, our bodies and all other human beings as very good creations of G-d.

Finally, the legacy of Francis offers us a positive vision of our relationship with G_d, Creation and the Afterlife. While Franciscans have not been known for their scholarship, St. Bonaventure, a peer of Saint Thomas Aquinas at the University of Paris, would articulate an alternative orthodoxy from the Augustinian vision that had dominated western Christianity.

Bonaventure envisioned a G-d whose relationship to human beings begins at our creation, continues throughout our lives and ends with our reunion with G-d. He insisted that our connection to G-d is inseverable, even by human sin, even by our decision to ignore or reject that connection.

 Thus, for Bonaventure, it seemed obvious that we come from G-d, we find our existence in G-d and ultimately we return to G-d. I have to say as a Franciscan that I find that understanding much more compelling than any of the theologies which speak of separation from G-d and any conditionality of G-d’s relationship to us. My guess is that many of you do as well.

So a final reason we celebrate Francis and his Franciscan legacy this day is because he offers us a theology of hope, of connectedness, of divine presence, that is not conditioned upon anything. That, in my view, points toward a G-d worth worshipping and a saint worth venerating.

 So why celebrate St. Francis? He is a saint who models for us the possibilities of redemption, of transformation, of ongoing development ever more into the likeness of G-d. He is a saint who call us to cherish the natural world we have been given to lovingly maintain, where the goodness of G-d can be seen everywhere we look. He is a saint who calls us to value our own lives and our bodies, just as they are, and to see the image of G_d in every child of G_d, the image that is always there even when it is buried beneath the distressing disguises of poverty, disease, addiction, and, yes, even the political ideologies with which we violently disagree. Finally, he is a saint who reassures us we can trust G-d with our very lives, both in this world and the next.

This is a saint worth breaking out of our Sunday calendar to revere. For me and for many, Francis models a spiritual path worth following. And for all of us, to the degree that path incarnates the Way of Jesus, it is a yoke that is easy and a burden that is light. 

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.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

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 Jewish Sages (1993)

 © Harry Coverston 2019