Emerson’s Illumination on Luke 10:25-37

“In this refulgent summer” – well, actually, hot as hell, but those first words of his Divinity School Address (DSA) so fully enthrall, after all these years, and summon up that first love experience so many of us felt when we read the DSA for our first time. Yes, figuring a summer must always be refulgent if one is spending it with Emerson, I turned myself yet again to reading his better-known essay “Self-Reliance”. It might well be the most beloved thing written by an American since The Declaration of Independence. Over and over, I see it cited by freedom fighters, artists, community activists from parts of the world I never would have expected. It’s gotten so familiar that I believe it falls to us, the clergy group to which he belonged, to subject his text to the same types of analysis we apply to scriptures of other religions.

This is not the first time I have started “Self-Reliance,” but the first sections always stop me before I get too far. A brief scan of other scholars confirms these negative impressions:

Too masculine, taking no regard of the wife’s work to maintain the home while a man is out pursuing his so-called genius;

  • Too individualistic, dismissing the benefits of covenants embodied in organized religion and traditional family;
  • Too privileged, overlooking the gift of inherited wealth (from his first wife’s premature death) as the foundation of his own opportunity to seek both higher calling and innovative covenants.

Let me start by admitting that I have read relatively little scholarship about the man; he shows up usually as a player in other folks about whom I am reading. And I’ve participated in countless conversations about him, mostly with other Unitarian Universalist clergy. (By “relatively little” I mean, according to academic standards; for an average person, it has been respectable and consistent.) My main guide into “Self-Reliance,” by far, was the late C. Conrad Wright, Professor of American Religious History at the Harvard Divinity School. This is too bad for RWE, because Conrad hated the way Emerson derided pastoral covenants and parish ministry. Secondly, Conrad scorned RWE because at least one parishioner had claimed the man was not capable of meaningful pastoral care when it was needed.

What called me to this effort was the discovery of a moment when RWE, with no public fanfare, exerted himself to support a ministerial and social justice colleague and resolve the parish conflict which threatened that colleague’s important station on the Underground Railroad. And, I defy any religion and any congregation to show me a cleric whose pastoral care satisfies every supplicant. Still, Conrad was right on the first point. “Self-Reliance” includes this quote: “I will have no covenants but proximities.” What does that mean?

What jumped out at me in this summer’s reading is its comment on his era’s debate – still relevant today — on Luke 10:25-37, The Parable of the Good Samaritan. As in our own era, traditional institutions of care and order were overwhelmed by changes in both the quantity and quality of population, technology, and economic power. People of all faiths were uniting across congregational lines to form philanthropic societies. These forerunners of today’s 501(c)3s attempted to provide services far beyond the reach of traditional Town Meeting arrangements. Some deliberately erased religious, ethnic, or racial divisions to assist folks simply on the basis of need. The Good Samaritan was the guiding passage of Christian scripture, then as now. I doubt I need to summarize it here, for even today, it motivates many folks who otherwise claim no Christian affinity at all.

So why was Reverend Emerson objecting to a culture of Good Samaritans?

“Do not tell me, as a good man did to-day, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent, I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong. There is a class of persons to whom  by all spiritual affinity I am bought and sold; for them I will go to prison, if need be; but your miscellaneous popular charities; the education at college of fools; the building of meeting-houses to the vain end to which many now stand; alms to sots; and the thousandfold Relief Societies; — though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.”

Several years ago, I began feeling in this passage less of a rebuttal to The Good Samaritan and more of a contradiction to the assertion of C. Conrad Wright that Emerson had neither heart nor talent for pastoral care. In this paragraph I see a pastoral approach to social justice:

  • Emerson here rejects the use of categories of need, in favor of seeing everyone as individuals.
  • He derided the indirect goal of legislative redress, in favor of providing personal assistance.
  • Even more impersonal, to RWE, was donating to funds for ameliorative relief, rather than personally undertaking a relational empowerment of the object of one’s concern.

Reverend Emerson excelled in Christian scholarship, so his rebuttal stood on solid scriptural ground. In Matthew 26:6-10, The Woman Who Anoints Jesus with Oil, the disciples deride a poor woman for selling a precious object to buy oil to place on Jesus. The disciples’ criticism is that “She could have given that money to the poor.” Jesus dismisses that concern, saying, “The poor you have always with you, but you will not always have me with you. She is preparing my body for burial.”

Usually people cite this passage as a cynical excuse to avoid giving money to charitable causes. By no measure could Reverend Emerson be called callous, selfish, insensitive. He provided financial assistance to friends whose eccentric brilliance cast their families into constant poverty. He helped organize and fund radical measures for freeing African-Americans. In so doing, he used a standard he called “The Law of Consciousness.” He did not seek covenants of heritage, but assembled kindred spirits into enough cultural presence to form a critical mass that attracted others. The Transcendentalist community at Concord, Massachusetts was the both the tangible evidence of his generosity and the enduring evidence of his method. Find your own genius and then seek others who share it. Indeed the Parable of the Good Samaritan begins with just that criterion: “A man was journeying along the road to Jericho.” Emerson might be referring to that phrase – usually such a throwaway line – when he says charity begins not with the suffering of another person, but in choosing one’s path in life. It is natural, in concern for that road, to address any crisis affecting a person who shares it with you. It takes courage – for which  Emerson openly still prays – to accept the callous consequence of this criterion, which is to overlook the suffering of strangers within what other’s consider one’s own community.

“Know yourself,” is considered the takeaway of “Self-Reliance”, just as “Know God” is the catchphrase of “The Divinity School Address”. In our pressured era, most of us are wondering how to set criteria for donating our too-few dollars, hours, tears. Emerson’s “The Law of Consciousness” says, “Don’t ask your television. Don’t even get it from your congregational Social Justice network. Do what promotes the calling you follow, and if you know yourself truly, work with concentration, people of all descriptions will happily do it with you. You will naturally help each other, not as charity, but as part of working together toward some difficult dream.

Can personal interests really lay a path to diversity when we live today in such a socially segregated culture? It depends on how we define what we are doing, stepping back from social justice and pursuing what I here call Radical Proximity? The social justice workers of PICO – following on The Highlander Center – have found it useful in what they call the One-on-One technique. And in our house, yesterday, I tried it for myself. Instead of demonstrating in memory of Trayvon Martin, Lynne and I listened on C-Span to a panel of geeky African American social historians talking about the history of medical injustice for African Americans. Later we headed out to a meeting for caregivers like myself to obtain a union. In a room of about twenty, our family of three were the only non-Nepalis; the translator was for us, not for others. These are folks I see in our neighborhood every day, walking, chatting, catching the bus; I sometimes even shop in the local Nepali market. But it was only in sharing our stories, baring our needs, that we quit passing each other and joined on a road to Jericho. Reverend Emerson would be forgiven for gloating, in whatever Heaven he inhabits, when I conclude from this little experiment that focusing selfishly on my own interests guided me toward other covenants and reduced the tensions inherent in unfamiliar proximity.


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