Friday, May 28, 2021

When Insurrection Is Seen As Preferable to Change


This past week I was introduced to John Archibald Campbell through a quote he made over a century and a half ago. He is a fascinating figure from our nation’s history, born in Georgia and serving on the U.S. Supreme Court prior to the Civil War. At 41 years of age with no judicial experience he was appointed to the court by President Franklin Pierce as an attempt to appease the South and prevent what seemed like an imminent insurrection. Because Northern Democrats believed he would be a moderate whose appointment would put a limit on growing sectionalism, his nomination was confirmed in just three days.


Dred Scott

 But those hopes were short lived. Campbell voted with the majority in the Dred Scott v. Sanford decision in 1857 which ruled that blacks were not citizens and struck down the Missouri Compromise limiting the expansion of slavery into western states. That decision would prove to be a direct contributing factor to the Civil War that broke out just three years later. So much for avoiding insurrections.  

To his credit, Campbell sought to prevent the outbreak of the Civil War by representing Southern interests in talks with the Lincoln administration regarding the garrison at Ft. Sumter in Charleston harbor. He was initially assured by Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Seward that the federal troops would withdraw from the island fort but Lincoln later reversed course and chose to reinforce that post. Days later the attack on Ft. Sumter would ignite the Civil War.


Prison barracks, Ft. Pulaski, GA

 Lincoln would later reveal that he had become aware of treasonous communications between Campbell and Confederate States President Jefferson Davis. At that point, Campbell resigned from the U.S. Supreme Court and was soon appointed Confederate Secretary of War by Davis. Campbell would join two other Confederate mediators who met with Lincoln and Seward in an unsuccessful attempt to negotiate an end to the Civil War just before its conclusion weeks later at Appomattox. With the assassination of Lincoln days after the end of the war, Campbell was suspected of complicity and was remanded to custody in a federal prison in Pulaski, GA. Only after two of his former Supreme Court colleagues intervened on his behalf was he released.

 (Source: Wikipedia)

A Deep Loathing Against People of Color 

Initially prevented from practicing law, his petition to rejoin the Bar along with that of many other Southern attorneys was granted in 1866. His most noteworthy case thereafter would be the Slaughterhouse Cases arising out of New Orleans butchers’ guild. On its face, the case sought to address insider deals that had led to the pollution of New Orleans’ water supply by the offal of the slaughterhouse industries near the Mississippi. At a deeper level, the objections of the plaintiffs were rooted in the opening of the industry to all butchers regardless of race. And for all of his nobler aspects, this case revealed the true Campbell.

Campbell had settled in New Orleans having left federal prison with a deep resentment against Reconstruction and an even deeper loathing of people of color. He wrote to his daughter, “We have Africans in place all around us. They are jurors, post-office clerks, custom house officers, and day by day they barter away their obligations and duties.” The depth of his rage over Reconstruction’s de facto integration of Southern society is revealed in his later comment that “white ‘insurrection’ would be preferable to Reconstruction.”

(Source: Charles Lane, The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction (NY: Henry Holt, 2008), pp. 117-118)

I cannot remember the program on which I heard those final words quoted last week but I knew the minute I heard them and wrote down his name and his quote that I needed to research their source. I was struck by his reference to white insurrection and its similarity to what occurred January 6, 2021 at our Capitol. That analogy became even more disturbing as I uncovered the history of the quote and the analysis of the actual insurrection inflicted upon our Capitol.


In an initial analysis by the Chicago Project on Security and Threats at the University of Chicago, the backgrounds of 377 of the then identified participants in last January’s assault on the Capitol revealed a disturbing but familiar pattern.  Like Campbell, the vast majority of the participants were white, male and professional class.


Perhaps counterintuitively, they did not come from deep red counties where unchallenged group think might well have devolved into true believers being radicalized into violence, as Harvard Law Professor Cass Sunstein’s Going to Extremes would have suggested. Rather, they came from blue and purple counties where the candidate whose Big Lie they served either came close to losing or, in the case of 52% of them, actually lost. In short, they were surrounded by people who did not unquestioningly share their ideological perspectives.

But here’s the finding that really jumps off the page and ties it to a racist ideologue of 150 years ago:

By far the most interesting characteristic common to the insurrectionists’ backgrounds has to do with changes in their local demographics: Counties with the most significant declines in the non-Hispanic White population are the most likely to produce insurrectionists who now face charges.


(Source: Robert A. Pape, Ph.D., “What an analysis of 377 Americans arrested or charged in the Capitol insurrection tells us,” Washington Post,  (April 6, 2021) found at )

No doubt in these counties with changing demographics, people who are other than non-Hispanic white in ethnicity have begun to take their rightful places as members of juries, serving in post-offices and governmental agencies. Not only were the January 6  assailants from places with diverse thinking, many of the people who surrounded them in their daily lives were different from them.


Clearly, that is deeply disturbing to white males who presume an entitlement to continue dominating those communities simply based upon their sex and race (noting that this does not speak for all white males, the author of this blogpost included). What is even more disturbing is the realization that a century and a half later, the open wound from chattel slavery and its ill-begotten descendants of Jim Crow and segregation continues to fester in our nation’s soul.

John Archibald Campbell lives.

 Will January 6 Prove a Mere Opening Act? 

The insurrection of January 6, 2021 took many of us by surprise. Perhaps that simply shows how out of touch some of us in our safe blue urban islands are with what’s going on in our own communities, much less in the angry red seas that surround us.


The truth is our nation has not done the hard work to come to grips with our past. We have not faced the demons that lurk in our Shadow just waiting for the opportune moment when the tranquil conscious surface is disturbed to leap into action, encouraged by the siren song of the opportunistic amoral demagogue. And until we do, the events of January 6, 2021 could prove but an opening act.


The level of energized vitriol that has poured out of state legislatures across the country since the election of 2020 provides a real insight into the state of America’s soul. These laws that seek to wholesale disenfranchise voters and to prevent the teaching of American history in any form other than chamber of commerce superficiality really evidence a level of urgency if not despair.

They also reveal the clear preference of many for authoritarian approaches to government rather than democratic. We should not presume that our fellow countrymen believe in and value democracy. When your ultimate concern is domination, democracy is a liability, not a strength.

We can only hope that this eruption of violence in our national capitol and the assault on human rights in our state capitols is the final act in a long tragedy, a tragedy that has come at the cost of millions of lives of those whose humanity has been reduced to instrumental terms:

You’re either a means to our ends (chattel slavery) or an obstacle (indigenous genocide).

But one thing we can be very sure of is this: Those who retain a white-knuckled hold on power and privilege in this changing country will not release that hold willingly. Our nation’s martyred prophet Martin Luther King, Jr recognized that early in his leadership of the Civil Rights Movement. In his 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail he observed that

“Freedom is never given voluntarily by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”.

The traitors who participated in the Insurrection and the traitors who have sought to legitimate it ever since have told us first by their words and now by their deeds that they would rather fight than deal with the changes that they can no longer forestall. We need not shy away from strong terms because they unsettle us. Just like the Confederates whom I claim as part of my ancestry, we need to call their thinking and behavior what it was - treason. And after January 6, 2021, we have no reason not to take them deadly seriously.

We are a good nation with a rich history mixed with great nobility and deep depravity. This reflects a good people marked by incredible creativity in meeting the challenges that our history has presented us over four centuries as well as utter moral failures in our challenge to mature sufficiently to value the rich diverse populace which has assembled on our shores.


How we as a people respond to this crisis will no doubt determine if the America we say we love survives. Owning all of who we are is a first step toward attaining the true greatness we have always proclaimed of ourselves. And it is the only way we can ever be true patriots, loving our country with all of its warts.

 I am certain we are capable of doing exactly that. The question is whether we will muster the will. Even so, this day I remain hopeful.  



 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.

 Those who believe religion and politics aren't connected don't understand either. – Mahatma Gandhi

 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, 2021


Monday, May 10, 2021

Abide in My Love


“As the Father loved me, so I have loved you. Abide in my love.” (John 15:9-17)

May I speak to you in the name of the [+] Goodness of the Father, the Wisdom of the Mother, and the Light and the Grace which is blessed love. AMEN.

The trinitarian formula I use this morning to open my sermon may not be familiar to you but it comes from a venerable source, Julian of Norwich, the mystic who is also the patron saint of cats and cat lovers. She, along with the nature mystic Hildegard of Bingen, another deeply spiritual woman, wrote of G-d as our Mother in the early 15th CE. And so I begin this morning with gratitude for the wisdom of all those who have served as mothers to us in our lifetimes on this day on which we celebrate mothers.


Our Gospel this morning comes in the middle of an extended going away sermon covering five chapters that the writers of John’s Gospel place in the mouth of Jesus. These words are being spoken just hours before his brutal execution by the Romans. Truth be told, scholars find it somewhat doubtful that this is the historical Jesus speaking to us. But it does reflect the understanding of Jesus held by the Johanine community of Jesus followers near the turn of the first century. From their experience, the essence of the Jesus movement and its fundamental values is reflected here.

These words are lyrical, warm, fuzzy. The word “love” appears eight times in these two paragraphs. Love is seen here as a commandment, an understanding that clearly spoke to the Hebrew heritage of these followers of Jesus. In John’s understanding, love informs a way of life – “Abide in my love.” And that love is seen as possibly demanding everything, even laying down one’s life for a friend, a clear reference to the crucifixion of Jesus. 

But how does one abide in the love of G-d that is revealed in the person of Jesus? What might that mean to those of us in this faith community today?

As I was wrestling with these ideas this week, trying to figure out how to tackle such an amorphous subject, I came across an interview on NPR of our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry. Among the things he discussed was his recent book, Love is the Way: Holding onto Hope in Troubling Times.* And so I bought the book and read it over the weekend. As I had hoped, our presiding bishop has a lot to offer us on this topic and I will quote from it extensively.

First, Curry recognizes that knowing how to abide in the love of G-d revealed in Jesus is difficult. He notes up front that the purpose of his book is 

 “to explain what the way of love looks like even as we walk it in a world that feels at times closer to a nightmare than a dream. The way of love is how we stay decent during indecent times. It’s for all of us who are sitting, looking around at the world, at our leaders, saying, ‘Something has gone very wrong….” It’s for those who are fighting hard for a better world and feeling very tired.”

I don’t know about you but at the moment I read those words, I felt Michael Curry was speaking directly to me. After a long pandemic and a stormy election, it does feel like something has gone very wrong when I look around to encounter a world I don’t even recognize anymore. My response has been to hole up in my beloved Jungle in the heart of Orlando, avoiding any contact with the outside world as much as possible. 

 And yet, as Michael Curry observes, we don’t get to stop engaging others in love or fighting hard for a better world even when we are feeling very tired. Abiding in love is a way of life, not a belief to be held or a task to be accomplished. We don’t get to let ourselves off the hook when the going gets tough. And it can prove quite costly.

 Curry sees the criteria for living this Way of Love to which Jesus calls his followers as other-focused love. He calls it God’s GPS. He says, “To switch on God’s GPS, simply ask yourself a question:


Is this all about me or is it about we? Does this decision serve only my unenlightened self-interest, or does it somehow serve the greater good? If the answer is me, me, me and only me, you don’t do it.”  

Of course, that sounds odd to those of us who live in a consumerist culture. We hear from a million different sources each day the siren song that “It’s all about you.” Curry notes that 

“If love looks outward to the good of the other, then its opposite isn’t hate. It’s opposite is selfishness…a life completely centered on the self.” 

Curry cites Martin Luther King, Jr. who saw self-focus to the exclusion of others as a “’reverse Copernican revolution.’ To be selfish is to put yourself in the place of the sun, the whole universe revolving around you.”

Abiding in love means more than mere intellectual assent to an idea whose appeal is hard to deny. By definition it implies action that flows from that love. As Curry puts it


“When Jesus talked about love, he was talking about a commitment and a way of life. Emotions come and go. But when Jesus of Nazareth tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, the love he’s demonstrating is a determination and commitment to do what is best and right and good….” Curry continues, “Jesus didn’t say ‘like your enemies.’ Because you don’t have to like them, you only have to love them. You’ve got to keep to your commitment to seek the common good and figure out what ‘good’ looks like for each relationship, even the ones with people you’d rather not have over for dinner.”


Of course, trying to live in a counter-cultural manner has never been easy. As the late Bishop Barbara Harris often observed, “They didn’t crucify Jesus simply for asking the little children to come to him.” If we are to live in the way of love to which Jesus calls us, it is important to find communities in which we are embraced for all of who we are, to which we can offer our gifts and whose perspectives may augment, sometimes challenge and even prompt us to change our own.

 Curry notes that joining a faith community


seems like an easy answer. But that’s not the case. You can go there but you still got to do love. You put yourself out there, with all the vulnerability that requires. You need help, you ask for it. When someone asks you for help, you give it freely.”


Bearing in mind that this is coming from the presiding bishop of a venerable religious body, Curry displays a broadness of understanding in noting that “You don’t have to be in a faith community to do those things – but it takes a lot more bravery to do it anywhere, anytime.”

But while others find their comfort in deeper truths that love is all around us, “
in nature – the oceans, the trees, the sky, the mountains, all of it… connecting to God’s presence in nature isn’t passive either. It requires active presence.”


 It is my observation that this faith community works very hard at living into the way of love to which Jesus calls us. Recently one of our parishioners posted a meme on Facebook which read “Church is not an organization that you join. It is a family where you belong, a home where you are loved, a hospital where you find healing.” In the comments accompanying the meme, our parishioner wrote, “This is so very true where I go to worship. I know everyone thinks highly of their church but this one is truly exceptional. Love is St. Richard's Episcopal church.” It is my observation that she is right and I thank G-d for her witness and for this faith community every day.


But there is another aspect of abiding in love. Jesus says “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Clearly, most of us are not going to be called to die as the price of living the Way of Love to which Jesus calls us. And thank G-d for that. But there are a thousand tiny deaths we die when we find ourselves faced with choices on how to respond in love to the demands with which the world confronts us.


C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock

One of the first casualties is our consumerist expectation of constant comfort. Curry notes 


There will be a time when God’s GPS points you in a direction that makes people uncomfortable. It may make you uncomfortable. The evolution of long-held beliefs can be a spiritual earthquake, the ground beneath us shaking, the very fault lines of our identity shifting and seeking to resettle. But if we can make it through we find the reward: not an easy journey but a share of what the Bible calls ‘peace that passes all understanding,’ the peace of knowing we are living love’s way, without contradiction.


Moreover, the scope of the way of love we are called to follow does not end at our parish doors. Curry says


Love is a commitment to seek the good and to work for the good and welfare of others. It doesn’t stop at our front door or our neighborhood, our religion, or race, or our state’s or your country’s borders. This one great fellowship of love throughout the whole world…often calls us to step outside of what we thought our boundaries were, or what others expect of us. It calls us to sacrifice, not because doing so feels good, but because it’s the right thing to do.


 So how do we abide in love as the Jesus envisioned by the Johanine community calls us to do? We begin by asking ourselves whether our thoughts, words and deeds are based in love. As Michael Curry says, “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God….If bigotry is your game, Jesus is not the name.”


Then we ask ourselves whether that love is primarily self-focused or whether it extends to others. We recognize that love is a verb requiring action. And we realize its limits extend well beyond ourselves, our families, our tribe, even our nation, to the good Creation itself. Finally, we acknowledge that the Way of Love can prove costly even as we know that its greatest expressions often take the form of self-sacrificial acts.

I end my remarks with a list of things for which I am grateful, beginning again with thanks this Mother’s Day for the many women who have been mothers to us offering us their wisdom. I am also grateful for the wisdom of our presiding bishop, Michael Curry, for a thoughtful book which provided a number points of entry into our gospel today. I am grateful to serve as priest in a national church with the foresight to choose leaders with the kind of spiritual wisdom he provides us. And like our fellow parishioner posting on Facebook, I am grateful for this exceptional faith community in which I, as you, seek to live in the Way of Love to which Jesus calls us.

 Given that gratitude, let us close with a prayer of thanksgiving from our Prayer Book often used for grace before meals. It truly seems to fit this day. So let us pray:

For these and for all thy many other blessings, may G-d’s holy name [+] be praised through Jesus the Christ, our Lord. AMEN.”  


Sermon preached at St. Richard’s Episcopal Church, Winter Park, FL, Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year B; You can watch the sermon preached live at this link beginning at 36:00 into the video:

 * SOURCE: Michael Curry, Love Is the Way: Holding on to Hope in Troubling Times (NY: Penguin Publishing, 2000) is available at book sellers everywhere 


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.

Those who believe religion and politics aren't connected don't understand either. – Mahatma Gandhi

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, 2021