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A Person among Persons

Speaking to the young graduates of Harvard’s Divinity School in 1838, Emerson said this of Jesus: “One man was true to what is in you and me.”  However, he also lamented that because Jesus was seen as the Christ, one of the three persons of the Trinity, his portrait grew to be as “the vulgar draw it.”  He wanted the young graduates to themselves come alive fully as persons.  “Always the seer is a sayer,” he said, and that, “only he [or she] can give who has.”

Emerson wanted the clergy to be wholly alive, not for themselves alone, but in and for the larger community.  When we lose the sense of sacrality in community, “… all things go to decay.  Genius leaves the temple to haunt the senate or the market… Science is cold… Society lives to trifles.”  Finally, “we get wide of God” and each other.  A chasm yawns and we fail to see anything in us that is divine.

America gradually has tried to craft a system where the divine is brought down to earth in practical form.  No longer does the pope or the king own God, for we each are discovering what is holy and masterful in our own sovereign personhood, fully and freely living in such a way as to allow other sovereigns to incarnate their unique personhood too.  What is it to be a person among persons?

Poppa Neutrino seemed a full person.  After hanging out with the beat poets, being a pastor, and founding the First Church of Fulfillment (the only church in history that didn’t know the way) he lashed together some harbor debris and plastic bottles into a raft that he then sailed from Provincetown to Ireland in a 60-day crossing.  He said, “I’ve had experiences that not even the wealthiest of us can imagine.”  He died with $4.44 in his bank account, happy.

Something in us resonates with his story.  We want our own lives.  We want each other to each have his or her own life.  The “live and let live” spirit in America would have us all have that, but it’s been a long time coming.  The earliest citizens of the United States were wealthy, white men.  Negroes were not considered to be persons, but objects, property to be bought, used, and sold.  Women weren’t included either, at least initially.  Animals had it even worse.  They were whipped and shot, used for work and sport.  The lovely Carolina Parakeet and the Carrier Pigeon were both gunned into extinction.  So were the native buffalo.  Of the ten million that used to cover this continent, only 23 survived at one point.

I include animals in our consideration of personhood because some philosophers assert that they are persons.  Get to know a pet and you get to know a kind of person.  It has a certain character, needs, enjoyments and a sense of connection, both dependent and loyal.  Know an animal well enough, give it a name, see it care about its life, and you’ll see how some could call them persons.

Lately, we’re told corporations are persons.  This seems odd.  Corporations used to be abstract legal entities granted existence by the crown or state.  They were revocable.  Back near the time when the Supreme Court declared Negroes were not persons and had no rights, but the property of someone else, a sneaky court reporter, who otherwise worked for the railroad, slipped a fabricated idea into the title of a Supreme Court decision that corporations are persons entitled to rights.  This tricky lie took root though, and following the 1987 Court decision that money is a form of free speech, it opened the way in 2010 for the Supreme Court to give any corporation, no matter how big, ruthless, and exploitative, the status of legal personhood, protected with First Amendment rights.

This is a big change with profound impacts in our society.  Corporations larger and more powerful than our states, who exist only to generate profits to shareholders, can secretly sway our elections with unlimited speech and money.  Back in 1938 corporations were barred from contributing any money for any election, punishable by 1 – 5 years in prison and the corporation’s being dissolved.  But even then, Justice Hugo Black noted only ½ of 1% of its cases was concerning protecting Negroes, while about 50% had to do with protecting and strengthening corporations.  Corporations can contribute to elections and sway our entire society, but churches can’t.  Churches can’t contribute to campaigns or even directly advise on political campaigns.  Their power of prophesy has been neutered in addressing America’s sacred cow – the power of profits.

I checked the dictionary, and all but two of the fifteen definitions of person had to do with being human.  One exception was the “juristic person” I lament here.  The other had to do with the Trinity, you know, three persons, all somehow also each other.  Emerson bemoaned that too.  He accused the church of dwelling “with noxious exaggeration” on the person of Jesus, so much so that “the friend of man is made the injurer of man.”  Call Jesus a mere man and you’re in for trouble.  Instead of seeing the sort of person Jesus actually was – kind, honest, brave – they impose his portrait “as the vulgar draw it.”  It is not us who are fallen, as Christianity teaches, but Christianity itself, Emerson said to the shocked.  Instead, he advised “that is always best which gives me to myself.”  More than that, he dared to call us to our sovereign incarnation: “Obey thyself.”

But what is “thyself?”  Psychologist Carl Jung would have us make a distinction between our self and our persona.  Persona meant the mask, the part we show the world.  That’s OK, but identify too much with it and we’re holding our faces unnaturally, wearing the approved style of the day, saying the things we’re supposed to say.  Ministers especially can get caught in this – putting on the feigned smile, not speaking from his or her honest depth.  “The village blasphemer,” said Emerson, “sees fear in the face, form and gait of the minister.” So how do we be persons rather than personas?

J. Krisnamurti, Eckhart Tole, and other spiritual teachers would have us remember that who we are and what and how we think is largely made up of the past.  We’re taught certain things.  We get stuck in habitual thoughts and behaviors.  We go along on momentum, rarely really new.  Our person can be external to our self, lost out there in automatic habit, weariness and cynicism, barely real.  To obey the self that has been herded into a persona is to succumb to what we think we should think or that we always think.  This is obeying the past, not the self, unconscious passengers of our own automatic momentum, subjects, not sovereigns.

We want to be authentic and sovereign, but economic and political conditions have us feeling scared and slavish.  We’re used to progress, not decline.  We have fewer jobs now than when the planes hit the towers.  We avenged 3,000 deaths with 6,000 more of our mostly poor soldiers even as another 125,000 Iraqi’s also died needlessly.  The Iraqi’s and Afghan’s who suffer the most are barely mentioned.  They make for numbers, not persons.  The corporate “persons” who helped lay waste to their society have profited mightily.  All this cost a trillion dollars, which will grow to 2.5 trillion because it wasn’t paid for.  Those who rushed us to war now want us to “not dwell on the past.”

Compared to the GDP, our personal salaries are at a 50 year low, while profits to large corporations stuff their offshore accounts.  J.P. Morgan Chase estimates that 75% of those profits come directly from the shrinkage of our wages and benefits.  In the 1950’s Washington collected 30% of its revenue from business taxes.  Last year, it was 9%.  The half-million jobs created by multinationals really reflect some two and a half million jobs dropped here and three million created offshore.  Offshore, as in where huge multinationals house their mere mailboxes, avoiding paying any taxes to the desperate and declining society that generated their enormous wealth.

The words in the Constitution “to promote the general welfare” are being mocked.  We’re feeling scarce, but told the reason why is taxes.  The Bush tax cuts have cost us three trillion dollars.  If they continue, it will be five trillion.  If we could just shrink our government to a size we could drown in a bathtub, we’d be better off.  Or so we’re repeatedly told.  Problem is, that baby in the bath is us, and we’re being drowned in debt.

Minister-turned-journalist, Bill Moyers says

…at least Norquist says what he means and means what he says.  The [Bush] White House pursues the same homicidal dream without saying so.  Instead of shrinking down the government, they’re filling the bathtub with so much debt that it floods the house, waterlogs the economy, and washes away services for decades that have lifted millions of Americans out of destitution and into the middle class.  And what happens once the public’s property has been flooded?  Privatize it.   Sell it at a discounted rate to the corporations.  It is the most radical assault on the notion of one nation, indivisible, that has occurred in our lifetime.

E Pluribus Unim, many uniting into one, has become , Canis Canem Edit, dog eat dog.  All this is against an even larger and more ominous backdrop of global climate change, bound to negatively impact our entire planet with needless stress, scarcity, and strife.

So while corporate personhood is an entrenched problem that wears and wearies us, our own personhood is loaded with worry and want.  We could easily grow cynical and join in all the callous contempt and angry sniping so prevalent these days.  Righteous ire feels fun, even though it wears down our hearts with cortisol.  Or we could realize we live in a difficult time where revered institutions have grown corrupt.  Congress, regulatory agencies, and lobbyists travel well-paid, well-worn paths to and from the altar of Mammon.  The Jesus the corporate war machine fosters would mount a war in the holy land.  The Jesus Jefferson and Emerson valued would overturn their tables.

Emerson once complained (in The American Scholar), “The mind of this country, taught to aim at low objects, eats upon itself.”  He said, “You must take the whole society to find the whole man.”  But we don’t have a whole society; we have a fragmented one, a lopsided one, one led my mean people with narrow minds.  In the degenerate state,” Emerson went on, “when the victim of society, he tends to become a mere thinker, or still worse, the parrot of other men’s thinking.“   However, when we make life our dictionary, such a man or woman is the world’s eye, the world’s heart.  Then, “he [or she] learns that in going down into the secrets of his own mind [she or] he has descended into the secrets of all minds.”  “The world is his who can see through its pretension… See it to be a lie, and you have already dealt it its mortal blow.”  Plant yourself on your instincts, he taught, and the whole world comes round.  A nation of whole persons will for the first time exist, because each is inspired by the divine soul that inspires all.

So how do we become a whole person among whole persons in a time when sensitive persons are being worn down?  A century and a half after Emerson, Eckhart Tolle joins Wendell Berry in decrying the flagrant egos of corporations with an “insane and rapacious need for more.”  He says, “Their only blind aim is profit.  They pursue that aim with absolute ruthlessness.  Nature, animals, people, even their own employees, are no more than digits on a balance sheet, lifeless objects to be used, then discarded.

But don’t get caught in reactivity to these external conditions, for it is in our own internal ones that we really live.  It helps to know we aren’t alone in the declining conditions that beset us.  Beneath the practical solutions we need ride the spiritual ones we live in.  Tolle asks us, “if you don’t mind being unhappy, what happens to the unhappiness?”  He goes on, “You can’t argue with what is.  Well, you can, but if you do, you suffer.  Krishamurti was asked why he seems so pleased and content.  He replied, “I don’t mind what happens.”  Our real person lies beneath our identity, beliefs, and reactions.  Through allowing, you become what you are: vast, spacious.  You become whole.”  Be you, not your beliefs, not your bemoaning.  Tolle’s advice in being a whole person: nonresistance, nonjudgment, and nonattachment.  This leads to: acceptance, enjoyment, and enthusiasm.

I’m not saying we should remain so detached from our difficulties in democracy that we become passive, indifferent, and inert.  Rather, we simply see the injustice and cruelty inherent in a society abandoning the many to over-fund the rich and we have compassion for both the poor and the rich and concerned creativity in remedying the systemic injustice between them.  We see how the media has portrayed the free market as our salvation when it has largely been our undoing.  We do something to right the wrongs.  But we don’t let our weary despair and anger dominate us or drag us down.  We move in, closer to our being, and we move out, more effective than ever.

I opened with an image of a character floating his raft across the Atlantic.  Gutsy, but we’re not isolated persons.  We live in community.  Babies who are fed but not cuddled simply wither and die.  We all need that touch, that company.  We come here to fellowship on Sundays to find and give it.  We come here to learn and practice how to be whole and free together.  We can be whole, sovereign persons, but we do that with each other, not at the expense of each other.  To me, the inner essence of our Unitarian Universalism is that we affirm, protect, and celebrate our unique and precious individual persons even as we grant and support that in everyone.  We are universal ones among the oneness that we also are.

Reverend Brad Carrier

For the Unitarian Universalists of Grants Pass

© September 18, 2010

Byron has been using his writing and public speaking to engage, challenge and inspire audiences for over 40 years. Reverend Carrier's mission is to rescue and revive our earthly Eden, including our human worth and potential. If you enjoy his work, consider supporting him with Patreon.

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