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.

Klamath Falls UU church building burns

The building of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Klamath County burned on Tuesday. When firefighters arrived on the scene, the building, which was located at 9669 Hwy 140 East, Klamath Falls, Oregon, was fully engulfed by flames. Firefighters were forced to let the fire burn itself out, and the building is a total loss. Photographs of the fire and a brief news story are on television station KDRV’s Web site. A later news story from KDRV states that the cause of the fire was accidental, and the building, valued $142,000 with contents valued at $20,000, was a total loss. As of 20 hours ago, the fire was still smoldering in places. According to the fellowship’s Web site, this Sunday’s service will be held at Fourth and Pine in Klamath Falls. [Update: news stories have been taken down.]

The fellowship is quite small, reporting 20 members (up from 17 members a decade ago). It was organized in 1957 at the height of the fellowship movement, and affiliated with the American Unitarian Association in 1960. The wood frame building, formerly Pine Grove School, was over a hundred years old.

Thanks to Jack O. for the tip.

The essence of congregational growth

Sometimes I tend to get caught up in the details of congregational life: increasing efficiency of administration; figuring out how to get the database to sort the data in useful ways; making sure we have adequate supervision for the children on Sunday mornings; training volunteers; etc.

But I belong to a congregation because I’m a fallible being, I screw up on a regular basis, and I want to be changed for the better. I have rarely been able to change for the better on my own, so I need a community of people to help keep me in touch with something that is larger and better than my self, and to hold me accountable to the highest ideals of humanity.

I also belong to a congregation because when I have been faced with the inevitable pain and unpleasantness that life throws at all of us, I have gotten comfort and support from being a part of a congregation. (Yes, we ministers have to be careful not to exploit the people in our congregations to help us meet our own needs; but ministers can be ministered to by congregations in ways that aren’t exploitative.)

If people aren’t getting transformed and supported by a congregation, trying to achieve growth is a fairly pointless exercise. If, on the other hand, people are being transformed and supported by a congregation, we might wish that the congregation would grow so that more people can be transformed and supported, but growth is less important than the fact that the congregation is doing what it is meant to do.

A musical setting of KJV prose

This is the four hundredth anniversary of the King James Version translation of the Bible (KJV). As one way of honoring this monument of English prose literature, I’ve been composing some a capella four-part musical settings for short excerpts of the KJV. These settings are in the idiom of American singing-school music, an unbroken tradition of composition and performance going back to about 1720, and carried on today by Sacred Harp singers.

So here’s a song for Advent. The text is Mark 1.2-3; although Isaiah 40 might seem to make more sense as a text for Advent, the prose in the KJV translation of Mark 1.2-3 was just too perfect to pass up, and preachers are wont to use bits of Mark 1 as texts during Advent (for churches that use the lectionary, Mark 1.1-8 is the gospel reading for the second Sunday in advent in lectionary year B). As is traditional in this musical idiom, the song is named after a geographical place.

PDF of “San Juan Buatista”

If you know anything about composition, this breaks many standard rules, but it is consistent with the Sacred Harp idiom.

An anecdote

Every Monday night, I sing with a group of people over in Berkeley. We always take a break halfway through the evening, and tonight two of the singers told us how they got held up at gunpoint in front of their house, at 5 in the afternoon, in a good neighborhood in Oakland. They were unharmed, but both of them were quite shaken by the experience. They said that the police told them that the continuing recession has made crime worse.

Happy prime new year

This is going to be a prime year, and by that I don’t mean it’s going to be first-rate (though I don’t rule that out) — rather, 2011 is a prime number.

Since 2011 is a prime number, that means we can look forward to having several dates that consist solely of prime numbers. The first one will be 2/2/2011, and the last 11/29/2011. I leave it as an exercise to the student to determine how many of these dates will occur all year (translation: I’m too lazy to figure it out myself, and I hope someone will post a comment with the answer). *

The last prime number year was 2003, and the next one will be 2017. While searching for lists of primes on the Web, I discovered that 2011 and 2017 are so-called “sexy primes”; that is, they differ by six (“sexy” from the Latin “sex” for six); if they differed by four, they would be cousin primes, and if by two, twin primes. Thus 2011 is a sexy prime number year.

I suspect I am fascinated by prime number years because I was born in the middle of the largest gap in prime number years in the twentieth century (1951 to 1973). I had to wait more than a decade to live in a prime number year; I had a deprived childhood.


* Here’s the list of primes 31 and under: 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, 29, 31. Don’t say I didn’t help you out. Oh, all right, the answer is 52.