Thursday, December 19, 2019

Unwitting Revelations: The Disconfirming Other

One of the most insightful books I read during my graduate work at Florida State was Richard Rubenstein and John Roth’s seminal work on the Holocaust, Approaches to Auschwitz.  Amidst the many provocative understandings offered by these authors was the concept of “the disconfirming other.”

According to the authors, the Jews were seen as embodying an ongoing disconfirmation of the ultimate truth of the Christian religion simply by their continued presence and practice. But while that understanding came into its sharpest contrast in the events of the Holocaust that these scholars were analyzing, to put it into perspective one needs to consider the roots of the Holocaust.

Practicing a “Sharp Mercy“

Martin Luther had optimistically predicted at the beginning of what would become the Protestant Reformation that now that the Catholic accretions to what he saw as “the one true faith” had been dispelled, the Jews, the other children of Abraham, would come streaming to the light - and into the doors of the reformed churches. Several years later when that had not happened, Luther would become deadly in his rage, publishing a screed entitled “On the Jews and Their Lies” which essentially argued for ethnic cleansing.

Among his other fulminations, Luther would exhort his fellow Germans as follows:

What shall we Christians do with this rejected and condemned people, the Jews? Since they live among us, we dare not tolerate their conduct, now that we are aware of their lying and reviling and blaspheming. If we do, we become sharers in their lies, cursing and blasphemy. Thus we cannot extinguish the unquenchable fire of divine wrath, of which the prophets speak, nor can we convert the Jews. With prayer and the fear of God we must practice a sharp mercy to see whether we might save at least a few from the glowing flames….

First to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them.

[Consider Hitler’s erasure of the Warsaw ghetto which included removing Jewish gravestone from cemeteries to be used for paving stones in the street]

Luther continues:

Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed. For they pursue in them the same aims as in their synagogues…. Fifth, I advise that safe­ conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews….. This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians….

Judensau (Jewish pig) relief sculpture,
Luther's chapel, Wittenberg
Luther would stop just short of advocating genocide. Four centuries later, his German successors would feel no such constraints. But even in Luther’s time, without homes to live in and the ability to safely travel, the well-being of the Jews surely would have been in doubt. Moreover, for a people who defined their religion by praxis, the prohibition of its expression would render them as a people effectively erased.

There is always more than one way to kill a people. (Think forced conversions. Think Reservation Schools. Think “reparative therapy.”)

While the Reformation era, the wars of religion in western Europe and the pogroms of Eastern Europe that followed would prove deadly for Jews, they would persist. By the time of the Third Reich, their ongoing existence would be constructed as a “problem” to which the Nazi regime would seek to provide a “Final Solution.”

Rubenstein and Roth spoke of the very presence of the Jews as a problem for insecure Christians. Their distinctive dress, their persistence in lighting of candles on Sabbath eve, their observations of the Passover Seder, their use of Yiddish all spoke a tacit but powerful message of rejection:

You have not converted us. You have not erased us. We are still here. And we are still Jews.

The Jews by their very presence were seen by their Christian fellow residents as the disconfirming other, those whose very lives came to be seen as an ongoing refutation of the only true religion, Christianity. As a result, they became the targets of attacks designed to put their antagonists out of their own misery.

Coming to a Country Near You

The phenomenon of attacks on the disconfirming other by those unable to handle that which they find existentially threatening is hardly a mere historical phenomenon. Indeed, it is perhaps more observable today than ever before.

The stock in trade of the rise of Trumpland has been the use of a strategy featuring an exaggerated forced dichotomy of us and them, the elect and the damned, patriots and enemies, fostered first by the candidate and later the electoral college victor himself. The campaign was marked by pugilistic exchanges at rallies on the floors of convention centers and auditoriums, many encouraged by the candidate himself, once offering to pay the bail for those who beat up protesters.

But it was the subtext of the campaign rhetoric that signaled to authoritarians everywhere that the Shadow heretofore concealed in polite company had been given permission, indeed, encouragement, to come out and play.

And come out and play it has.

Antisemitic attacks on Jewish institutions were 99% higher in 2018 than in 2015, the year Trump began his campaign for the White House. That included deadly attacks on the Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles and on a synagogue in Pittsburgh.

While attacks on the Muslim community were already occurring prior to the rise of the Trump candidacy, those attacks skyrocketed with the election in 2016 ranging from legislation singling out Islam to opposition to Muslim community centers to arson committed against mosques.

On our southern borders, the children of asylum-seeking immigrants separated from their parents and placed into cages are dying. They are the collateral damage (in what ethical world are children collateral to any concern of merit?) of a Know-Nothing style of anti-immigrant fervor which has played out in draconian policies on the border.  At the same time, across the nation, crimes targeting Latinos has soared, rising 21% from 2017 to 2018.

Executive orders ending protections for transgendered persons in the armed forces were announced shortly after the rise of Trumpland to power. This coincided with a skyrocketing increase in attacks on transgendered persons, many resulting in fatalities.

The climate for this rise in hate crimes was set by a campaign which featured attacks on immigrants (“they’re not sending us their best…”), women (“I like to grab them by the pussy…”), and mimicking of a disabled man from the stage of a political rally. Once in the White House, that pattern of self-aggrandizement through the deprecation of others continued with a non-response to a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in which one woman was killed (“There were some good people there…”). One could almost hear the call from our childhood games of those who hid in the game of hide and seek, “Ollie Ollie Oxen free….”

With the exception of Trumpland’s cherished base of oil barons, businessmen, white evangelicals and Know-Nothing style anti-immigrants, Trumpland has been an ongoing display of equal opportunity misanthropy. It has set a climate that has emboldened those willing to move from hateful words to destructive acts aimed at a plethora of targeted disconfirming others. Im Trumpland, our culture’s Shadow has been called out to play and its bearers have responded with gleeful abandon.

The Disconfirming Other at the Big Game

One of the more ironic recent expressions of violence toward the disconfirming other occurred at a recent football game in Alabama. A grudge match between Southeastern Conference behemoths Alabama and L.S.U., the winner of this matchup was fairly assured of winning one of the four coveted slots in the national football championship playoffs.

But there would be an unexpected attendee at this year’s game at Tuscaloosa.

A group of Trumpland resisters would be picketing the game complete with their own version of the Baby Trump balloon. The balloon has become a fixture around the world at rallies and marches. Its penetration into the very heart of Dixie, as Alabama has long described itself (though one wonders what the marchers on the Pettis Bridge in Selma in 1965 might say about that), suggests how deep the resistance to a Trumpland increasingly looking at the very real possibility of impeachment has become.

The appearance of Baby Trump marked the third time in as many weeks that the demagogue who inspired it had faced conspicuous opposition at a sporting event. At the initial game of the World Series eventually won by the host Washington Nationals, Trump was booed and endured chants of “lock him up,” an ironic reversal of the chants directed at Hillary Clinton that he had led at campaign rallies. A similar response occurred the following week at Madison Square Garden in NYC at an Ultimate Fight Championship martial arts competition.

These had been seen as safe venues for a Trump regime fighting for its life in an impeachment investigation which reached a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives this week. Yet protesters raised the $4000 needed to rent one of the four balloons from Baby Trump Tours to make that appearance at the game. At a very basic level, this reveals the dissatisfaction with Trumpland for those outside the Fox bubble.

But Baby Trump would have a rough day in Tuscaloosa.

According to a Washington Post reporter, “’The event had been going smoothly before the balloon slasher arrived,’ Robert Kennedy, one of the organizers, told the Associated Press. Some people shouted ‘Trump 2020,’ he said, while others posed for selfies. Then the balloon was slit open.” Kennedy added that he had accompanied Baby Trump to other events and has never seen anyone attack it before.

“It is rare to get that kind of anger,” he said.

Hoyt Hutchinson, a 32-year-old self-described bricklayer from Tuscaloosa, told reporters that he bought a red Alabama tee shirt to appear to be one of the attendees of the game to allow him proximity to the balloon. At that point he whipped out a knife and slashed the balloon. Hutchinson would later tell a talk radio station “It comes a point when you gotta take a stand" adding that he would “do it again if given the opportunity.”

Charged with a Class C Felony under Alabama’s criminal code, Hutchinson immediately appealed to the Trumpland echo chamber on social media, creating a GoFundMe account to pay for his legal fees. Within hours he had raised $40,000, well beyond the $6000 goal he initially set, promising to donate the remainder to the Republican Party, a party that increasingly demonstrates its willingness to affiliate with those involved in criminal activities in this country and outside it.

Of course, it’s not difficult to style oneself as a hero - if not a martyr - when you remain with the confines of a tightly controlled ideological bubble. Hutchinson said he watches Fox nightly. “I see this stuff going on out west and up north and all other places. I get so mad about people not taking a stand.”

It’s also not difficult to see how such delusional thinking exchanged only between fellow true believers with no countervailing voices could erupt into attempts to rub out the disconfirming other. Best to simply rid oneself of the one who serves as living evidence that one’s ideological inclinations are not the only possible understanding, that everyone does not worship the  tribal god: “The left wants to kind of use religion against you like you shouldn’t act like this and stuff, but I’ll tell you this — the Devil knows the Bible as good as we do.”

When the only voices you hear reaffirm your foregone conclusions and the gods themselves are seen as sanctioning your aggression, it’s not hard to imagine how such violence occurs. It’s also not difficult to see how readily it can escalate from individual acts to its logical conclusion in genocide when given power.

Ironic Self-Revelation

Gainesville Pastor Terry Jones burns copies of the Koran (July, 2013)

In my years as a college instructor, when my classes would discuss Luther’s vitriolic screed against the Jews or the Inquisition or even events closer to home such as the Wounded Knee Massacre, my line of questioning with my students was always this:

If one truly believes their understandings of the world are superior, why the need to shut down the disconfirming other? Does such violence not inadvertently reveal doubt - not confidence - about one’s position? If it cannot even countenance the very presence of holders of contrary views, do not these views ultimately reveal themselves to be rather brittle and weak, perhaps even indefensible?

Hoyt Hutchinson’s misdeeds reveal him to be a rather pathetic man. He appears to have limited intellectual capacities, poor impulse control and a great need for affirmation of his manhood from his tribe. As an isolated case, he is more to be pitied than censured.

But the pattern of attacking the disconfirming other has a bloody history of marshalling the intellectual and cultural power of a dominant group within societies. Consider the Holy (sic) Office of the Inquisition within the Roman Catholic hierarchy. Consider the House UnAmerican Activities Committee of the paranoid ideologue Joseph McCarthy. Now consider that far too often this pattern makes itself known by virtue of the legal and coercive power fearful ideologues are able to muster within those societies they come to dominate. At that point the disconfirming other comes to be in mortal peril.

For thoughtful human beings, the recognition of a rage strong enough to erupt into physical attack against others simply because their very presence draws your beliefs into doubt ought to signal a need to look at oneself and one’s beliefs. The tagline I have used for my blog for several years makes that assertion:

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

Our Shadow is often easy to recognize by the level of energy we feel around our own responses to the other. Actually looking at that Shadow, on the other hand, is much more difficult. “What in myself am I reacting to here?” is a question rarely asked by any of us and when it is, it most often is answered with projection: “He made me do it. She deserved it. I had no other choice.”

Few of us are conscious enough to recognize - and even fewer willing to confront - our Shadow content. It’s a lot easier to project our Shadow than to own it. Consider the qualities of your worst enemy. Then take a hard look at yourself.

If I am being honest with myself, I will readily admit that I am quite capable of being sarcastic, condescending and childish, even a little paranoid at times, much like Baby Trump. And I can recall that there have been more times than I would like to remember that I have treated others without respect, manipulated others for self-gain and lied to save my own hide, just like the Donald and his minions.

I am working very hard at owning my Shadow and integrating into my Self. To say it is a work in progress is an understatement.

On the other hand, I do not consciously embrace my individual and collective Shadow qualities and engage them with abandon, as this long nightmare of Trumpland has sanctioned. Even so, that does not mean they have gone away or could not reveal themselves without warning. One of my favorite maxims from the 12 Step Movement is “Instant Asshole. Just add alcohol.” 

If the Alabama justice system is finally willing to do its job (and, again, the events on the Pettis Bridge make that questionable) Hoyt Hutchinson is about to learn a hard lesson about projection. But the more important question here is whether we as a people are willing to learn from this example.

Medicine Man, Wounded Knee, South Dakota, 1890

The Disconfirming Other is always in the greatest danger when power comes into the equation. A virulently xenophobic tribe possessed of brittle, self-serving beliefs, self-assured of its exclusive claims to righteousness and divine favor, talking only to those within the circled wagons, almost always proves deadly, even genocidal, when it gains power.

Ask those accused of witchcraft in Salem. Ask the Gypsies in the Third Reich. Ask the Tutsis in Rwanda. Ask the Lakota at Wounded Knee. Ask any Transgendered anywhere in Trumpland.

We all have the luxury of shaking our heads over the Hoyt Hutchinsons of the world. At some level, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel.

But we must remember that the Shadow which may seem so obvious to us is also borne by each one of us. Even as we gaze into the darkened mirror of critical self-reflection to discern what it is we see in the other that we find so unacceptable in ourselves, we must always be aware of how disconfirming others from religious minorities to sexual minorities to immigrant minorities come to be seen as fair game for violence.  

A mature, ethically responsible people simply do not have the luxury of simply looking away from this picture, disturbing as it may be.

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

Monday, December 16, 2019

Gaudete Sunday: Waiting for the god with the Magic Wand

[A sermon preached on the third Sunday of Advent, 2019, St. Richard’s Church, Winter Park, FL]

Today is the third Sunday in Advent. This morning we light the Shepherd’s Candle symbolizing Joy.  Hence this Sunday is called Gaudete Sunday, the Latin word for rejoice. In contrast to the somber Sarum blue candles of the other Sundays, today’s candle is a rose-colored candle to reflect the theme of Joy.

As of today, we are halfway through this four-week period of silent, mindful watching and waiting called Advent. Virtually every culture around the world has a ritual commemoration that falls on or near the winter solstice, the time when the shortening days begin to lengthen again and the light begins to return to the darkened world. Among these many commemorations, Jesus is our reason for the season.

There is something very powerful about watching and waiting in darkness for the coming of new light, new life, new ways of being human. Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us that 

New life starts in the dark, whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.”

A Counter-Cultural Season

Yet, truth be told, Advent runs completely counter to the consumerist culture in which we live. Advent places value on quietude, self-reflection, patient waiting and joyful expectancy. They are the antitheses of the values of market fundamentalist consumerism with its presumption of entitlement to constant comfort, its call to constant distraction which assures no serious reflection will ever occur, and its unceasing demand for instant gratification. 

In a consumerist culture, not only are we told that money can buy our love, we come to believe that our happiness is impossible without the goods and services we are told we cannot live without. 

And yet, our lessons today exhort us to take Advent seriously. The writer of the Epistle to James tells his flock to “be patient… until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient.” He ends by urging them to “Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.”

There are three elements in this short passage, attributed to the brother of Jesus, that bear attention. The first is the theme of Advent: patient waiting. The second is the need for strength. The third is the hopeful expectancy of the coming of the Holy One. 

Our collect today reflects the need for strength in this time of patient and expectant waiting. The collect begins with the words “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us.” The collect continues to note why we need the Holy One to come among us with power: “[B]ecause we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us.”

In M. Scott Peck’s book The Road Less Traveled, he talks about the potential that every human being has to defy our innate tendencies toward entropy, to simply sink to our lowest levels of functioning. According to Peck, all of us are born bearing the image of G-d and all of us have the ability to grow ever more into the divine likeness, thereby living into our highest potential as human beings. 

So why don’t we?

Because it requires sustained effort, the willingness to endure the pain that all growth entails and the willingness to delay gratification along the way – all things we well-trained consumers are loathe to do.  As our collect puts it, “we are (indeed) sorely hindered by our sins.” We need the empowering presence of the Holy One if we are to even have a chance of becoming fully human and to do our part in building the Kingdom of G-d.

The God With the Magic Wand

So we are being called during Advent to be patient, to wait silently, expecting to be empowered by the coming of the Holy One among us. Indeed, in December 2019, perched on the eve of an election year that promises to be brutal, we are going to need all the patience and strength we can get just to survive.

But what is it we are waiting for? And how will we know?

If we are being honest with ourselves, many of us would love to simply wait for G-d to come and save us from ourselves. We’ll provide the thoughts and prayers. But let G-d take care of climate change and school shootings. Let G-d save the immigrant children dying in cages on our borders. Let G-d step in to staunch the hemorrhaging in our nation’s soul whose despair reveals itself in the waves of addictions and suicides we are seeing sweep across our nation.

If we are being honest, we will admit that most of us don’t want to be bothered with reflection on our own lives either individually or collectively. We don’t want to consider what our own role in these problems we face may be.  We want a Messiah who will come and save us from ourselves. And we want to buy into theologies that assure us that we ultimately have nothing to do but wait and, of course, buy into the right theology. G-d will do the rest. 
No muss, no fuss.

I wonder if we can hear the entitlement in that approach. We are, indeed, well-trained consumers.

When the Holy One is Among Us

But we are hardly alone in that. Today’s Gospel depicts a worried John the Baptist writing from Herod’s prison, facing his own mortality. One has to imagine that the prophet is engaging in second thoughts, wondering if everything his life ministry was about is coming to a bitter end. All of his hopes and dreams for the redemption of the people of Judah appear on the verge of being dashed. Matthew’s Gospel has him wondering out loud:  

“Are you the one to come or are we to wait for another?       

The writers of Matthew’s Gospel place the words of the Prophet Isaiah in Jesus’ mouth in response: “Go report to John what you have heard and seen: The blind see again and the lame walk; lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised and the poor have good news preached to them.” This list of achievements is taken nearly verbatim from the Book of Isaiah, the source from the Hebrew Scripture used more frequently than any other in the Gospel writers’ portrayals of Jesus.

The use of prophetic materials here is important. How would these ancient peoples know that their Messiah has come? Because the suffering peoples in Judean society find their lives improved and their dignity restored. And it is important to note that none of that happens because G-d swoops down and waves a magic wand. It happens because the people of Israel have lived into their part of their Covenant with G-d.

In our Gospel reading, the presence of the Holy One becomes manifest in the very human work of healing and encouraging those who suffer, all of which results from the coming of Jesus. And when Jesus departs, he will call those who follow him in every age to continue that same work.

So if this scripture were being written today, it might read something like this:
In response to John the Baptizer’s question “How can we know that the Holy One has come among us?” we might answer this way:

·         People who disagree on the way the world should be find ways to see past political ideologies and religious beliefs to recognize the image of G_d on the face of the other and embrace them as fellow children of G-d. The blind see again. The deaf hear.

·         People struggling with disabilities - whether physical, mental, psychological, political, socio-economic - are provided the means and encouragement to fully participate in the society that everyone else takes for granted. The lame walk.

·         People with diseases once seen as morally reproachable from HIV to addictions to mental illnesses are embraced and helped to heal. The lepers are cleansed.

·         Children in cages on our borders are reunited with their families. People of color find they can trust law enforcement to respect their dignity. Debt laden graduates of our colleges are freed of their debt slavery to pursue the lives that we, their parent’s generation, always took for granted. The poor receive good news.

How we get there is another story. That is why we need this period of Advent to consider carefully our lives, our worldviews, our values in the silence of these shortening days in which we wait for the return of the light. It is why the G_d who is always present with us must discernably come among us and stir up the power we will need to make hard decisions and then bring them to fruition. It is why we need the scriptures that remind us that we, in all our shortcomings, are not terribly different from all of the other people of G-d historically and yet, G-d has always been present with us and continues to call us to lives of compassion and loving service.

So let us rejoice this Gaudete Sunday with the hopeful expectation that the Holy One will indeed come and dwell among us. Let us take this period of Advent seriously as we quietly, patiently consider what our own role may be in the coming of G-d’s Kingdom. Most importantly, let us be patient with ourselves, recognizing that we are called only to do what is ours to do. And knowing we cannot do any of this alone, let us turn humbly to the Holy One who is always with us, guiding us, strengthening us, and ever willing to forgive us when we go wrong. 

Let us pray: Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

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