Happy Martin Luther King, Jr., Day.

All the prophets seem to get sanitized. Take, for example, the ancient Hebrew prophet Amos, whom I have recently been re-reading. It was Amos, of course, whom Martin Luther King, Jr., quoted in the famous “I Have a Dream” speech:— “let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.” Amos looked around at his society and saw that those in power trod upon the poor, and took from them “burdens of wheat”; he heard wailing in the streets; and he made violent-sounding protests against the injustice he witnessed.

Amos gets sanitized just like Martin Luther King, Jr. Orthodox Christians manage to turn Amos’s prophecies into some kind of call for personal salvation; atheists mock him for his belief in God but don’t go any further than that; and religious liberals simply ignore him. All these groups seem to ignore the fact that Amos was writing powerful protest literature that was designed to make us feel horribly uncomfortable about the way we treat other people, especially those who have less power than we do.

It’s not too far-fetched to think of Martin Luther King, Jr., as a sort of lesser Amos: someone who set out to afflict the comfortable, a troublemaker who wanted true justice for all persons, a somewhat cantankerous and definitely edgy kind of a guy. And like Amos, King gets bowdlerized: used to promote self-esteem or to keep kids from fighting; mocked for his very real character flaws; or simply ignored. In celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, it’s worth quoting some more of that famous quotation from Amos, to learn how it is that Amos thinks his God will make justice roll down like waters:

Woe unto you that desire the day of the Lord!
   to what end is it for you? the day of the Lord
   is darkness, and not light.
As if a man did flee from a lion, and a bear met
   him; or went into the house, and leaned his
   hand on the wall, and a serpent bit him.
Shall not the day of the Lord be darkness, and
   not light? even very dark, and no brightness
   in it?
I hate, I despise your feast days, and I will not
   smell in your solemn assemblies.
Though ye offer me burnt offerings and your
   meat offerings, I will not accept them: neither
   will I regard the peace offerings of your fat
   beasts.
Take thou away from me the noise of thy songs;
   for I will not hear the melody of thy viols.
But let judgment run down as waters, and
   righteousness as a mighty stream.
   — Amos 5.18-24, KJV

Happy birthday to Martin Luther King, Jr.:— a preacher, a prophet, someone who took Amos’s God very seriously.

Mental illness, civility, and violence

Buried in yesterday’s huge volume of news stories on the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords, I came across an article that interviewed several experts who specialize in mental illness:

Details about Mr. Loughner are still emerging, and only an examining doctor will be able to make a definitive diagnosis. But the writings and comments attributed to him point strongly to the kind of delusional thinking that is common in schizophrenia.

“I’d say the chances are 99 percent that he has schizophrenia,” said Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, the founder of the Treatment Advocacy Center in ARlington, Va., which advocates stronger laws to require treatment for people with mental illnesses. “He was together enough to take courses, and people with untreated schizophrenia can function very well for periods. But when you see these rambling, incoherent writings and comments, there is almost no other disorder where this is a prominent symptom.”

Many of Mr. Loughner’s reported comments — about currency and government — also suggest a growing paranoia….

“Red Flags at a College, but Tied Hands,” By Benedict Carey, New York Times, 11 January 2011, pr. A18.

Did the current political climate and heated partisan rhetoric have any effect on Loughner? The experts interviewed by the New York Times disagreed. One expert said it was possible that a psychosis could pick up on “the grand themes of the day,” while Dr. Torrey argued that “It’s not political thinking, it’s psychotic thinking.”

Either way, I think that’s not what’s important. Quite a few people have been arguing that various politicians who use inflamatory rhetoric can create a climate that could incite people like Loughner to violence, but I’m not convinced that’s a productive argument to be having right now. From my perch on the far left of the American political spectrum, I’d have to say that the political rhetoric among both liberals and conservatives has been, and continues to be, uncivil, nasty, threatening, and/or mean-spirited. It’s gotten to the point where I feel like I’m in a preschool classroom filled with children who are misbehaving, and who all need a good, long time out.

I have no interest in blaming conservative politicians for Loughner’s behavior, becuase I believe we should be having two other far more productive conversations right now. The first productive conversation we should be having is how we as a society deal with people who have serious mental illness. Speaking as someone who has had relatives with serious mental illness, our society needs to talk more openly about what mental illnesses look like, who has them, and how to deal with them. The second productive conversation we should be having is how we can be a more civil society. Whether or not the inflammatory rhetoric used by today’s politicians did or didn’t incite Loughner to violence, we all need to stop acting like misbehaving preschool children, and start treating all persons the way we ourselves would like to be treated.

You could sum it all up quite simply — it’s all about the Golden Rule.

8 comments lost

Emerson and race

A couple of weeks ago on the Christian Century Web site, Edwin Blum reviewed a new book, The History of White People, by Nell Irvin Painter (Norton, March, 2010). In the review, Blum says:

In the United States, slavery helped define whiteness. In this case, the white race was linked to freedom, whereas blackness was tied to enslavement. Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Waldo Emerson gravitated to the idea that Anglo-Saxons were at the top of the human pyramid. Jefferson admired the myth of Saxon love for liberty and of Americans as the true heirs of the Saxons’ political virtue. He admired it so much, in fact, that his University of Virginia had classes in the Anglo-Saxon language. Emerson, according to Painter, became the “philosopher king of American white race theory” because of his undying love for Anglo-Saxonism. Emerson saluted the Saxons for em bodying manliness, beauty, liberty and individualism.

Now Unitarian Universalists claim both Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Waldo Emerson as our co-religionists, and we tend to claim them as thinkers who continue to inspire us, and who are central to our Unitarian intellectual heritage. Some of us have been critical of Jefferson’s actions as a slaveholder, but in general we have been content to adopt both Jefferson’s and Emerson’s theories of individual liberty and freedom without much in the way of critical reflection about what, exactly, they meant by liberty and freedom for individuals.

This is analogous to what happened in the House of Representatives recently. House Republicans, under the influence of a theory that we should follow the U.S. Constitution exactly as it was originally written, decided that they would read the U.S. Constitution in its entirety at the opening of the current session. Except that they left out all the bits about slavery and slaves being equivalent to three fifths of a human being. This is disingenuous of them, because when you read the original U.S. Constitution, you become quite clear that uncritical acceptance is not an option.

I’m not particularly well-read in Emerson, and can’t comment intelligently on his racial attitudes. But I am pretty well-read in his disciple Henry David Thoreau, and Thoreau is quite sure that white people like him are superior to, e.g., Irish, French Canadians, and working class people of the same narrow ethnic background as himself. If you indulge in an uncritical acceptance of Thoreau’s individualistic mystic theology and his philosophy of government, which is also highly individualistic, you’re going to indulge in a tendency to cover over how both his theology and philosophy are grounded in a hierarchical theory of race. And I’m pretty sure that I’d find similar problems in Emerson’s philosophy and theology.

I don’t mean to imply that we should discard Emerson and Jefferson; they are too central to our intellectual heritage to discard. But I do want to suggest that it’s past time for a serious revision of our understanding of Emersonian and Jeffersonian individualism within a Unitarian Universalist context.