Suicide Prevention, Part II: Encouraging People to Live May be a Form of Suicide Prevention

Usually, a person who wants to commit suicide is not thinking rationally, clearly; his or her mind is clouded by emotional distress. The reason is that it is instinctive, even unconsciously rational, for the human creature to want to live, to gravitate toward being. That is why, according Viktor Frankl, the eminent psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, there is no good reason to end one’s life.

Suicide is a negative act that ends the possibility all positive acts. It is the wrong answer that ends any right answers to a problem. It is the ultimate choice against ending all choices. It is an act against oneself, because true self-love will always care for the self it loves. Frankl writes,

“[I]t is our duty to convince the would-be suicide that taking one’s own life is categorically contrary to reason.”

If a person is in despair, contemplating suicide, not knowing why he or she should stay alive, then that person needs to be given reasons to live, to be reminded constantly that life, despite the emotional distress of the present, is a great good to be cherished and preserved. There are, for instance, other persons to encounter in love and service. There are also projects to complete and possibilities to actualize in the future, even if a person does not clearly recognize them in the present. There are, in fact, always good reasons for a person to live, even if he or she, at the moment, may not recognize them.

At the end of virtually everyone of my university classes I have taught in the greater Philadelphia area for almost 20 years, I constantly remind my students to choose life over death; “to say ‘yes’ to life, in spite of everything,” to borrow a phrase from Dr. Frankl. I do that by enthusiastically saying to them two words: ‘Stay alive!’ To be, to stay alive, to exist, is, in the final analysis, as Frankl says, “nothing other than a decision.”

Suicide Prevention, Part I: Applying Logotherapeutic Principles to Suicide Prevention

Viktor E. Frankl, Psychiatrist and Holocaust Survivor

The Meaning of Logotherapy

 Viktor E. Frankl, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, worked with countless patients who were in despair and attempted suicide. From his work, he developed a school of psychotherapy, which is called “Logotherapy.” It literally means “healing through meaning.” In other words, if a person has meaning, that is, a reason to live; if he or she faces life with a goal or purpose, it is psychologically healthy. It helps a person stay alive.

The Existential Vacuum

According to Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning (Simon and Schuster, 1984), one possible reason a person may commit suicide is the “existential vacuum,” which is “the experience of a total lack, or loss, of an ultimate meaning to one’s existence that would make life worthwhile.” If the vacuum goes unfilled, if one does not see any meaning to life, nor find any reason to live, then he or she may commit suicide or live in despair, which can lead to suicide.

Means without Meaning

In his book The Unheard Cry for Meaning (Washington Square Press, 1985), Frankl says that many suicidal persons “have good jobs and are successful but want to kill themselves because they find life meaningless.” They may also kill themselves even if they are well-educated and “on good terms with their family and friends.”

Even successful people, those who “have it all” or everything they could possibly want, commit suicide. When they finally achieve success, they ask themselves: “What has all my success been for?” They experience, in Frankl’s words, “means without meaning.”

The Uniqueness of Meaning

In Psychotherapy and Existentialism (Simon and Schuster, 1967), Frankl explains why a person should go on living, no matter what crisis he or she may be facing. He says that every person is unique and has “has a unique mission to carry out.” Thus, a human being is “neither expendable nor replaceable.” In other words, every individual “experiences a unique historical context in a world which has special opportunities and obligations reserved for him [or her] alone.”

Finding a Reason to Live

According to Frankl, it is up to each person to discover his or her reason for being alive. Frankl would maintain that even if an individual does not yet know his or her meaning, nevertheless, it can begin right now by reaching out to others in love, dedicating oneself to a worthwhile cause, serving others and having faith in God.

For Whom are You Voting in November, 2020?

Vote in 2020

Today, my neighbor asked me, “Tim, for whom are you voting in November?” I told her, ‘Ultimately, I will know in November.’ It was, admittedly, an evasive answer. The reason is that it is really not anyone’s business for whom I am voting. That is a private matter and, therefore, it is between a person and his or her conscience; or, if someone is a person of faith, between him or her and God.

While persons associated with different political parties have the right to encourage and tell me, “Vote Democrat,” “Vote Republican” or “Vote Libertarian,” my right to vote is still a voluntary act, which is from the Latin word voluntas, meaning “will.” I have, therefore, the right to vote as I choose. Using tactics or forms of manipulation to have people vote in a certain way is just as wrong as using religious forms of manipulation to “convert” a person, say, to Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

Politically, since 1979, I have been a registered Independent. The reason is that I am more concerned about the person running for an office than his or her political party. On election day, for example, I never tell my students, ‘Vote Republican’ or ‘Vote Democrat.’ I simply tell them, ‘Go, and vote; let your vote be an expression of your conscience and values.”

Politically, I am neither on the Far Right nor the Far Left. I am a centrist. To me, being on the Far Right is just as misguided as being on the Far Left. Similarly, I am neither a Republican nor a Democrat. I try to see the value of opposing political viewpoints, bring them into a synthesis and make an informed decision, to the best of my ability, about a candidate running for office. If I believe that a Democrat is the best candidate for a particular office, I vote for him or her. Conversely, if I am convinced that a Republican is the best candidate, I vote for that person.

I hope that you will vote in November! I will vote as an expression of my conscience and religious faith. But for whom you are voting is none of my business. However, if you wish to make it someone else’s business, well, then, that is your business!

The Theological Personalism of Martin Luther King, Jr.

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(An excerpt from a lecture on Religions in America, which I taught in the Fall Semester, 2018.)

The Theological Basis for King’s Personalism: The Human Person as the Imago Dei

One of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s primary concerns is for “the Negro who has been robbed of his personhood [and] stripped of his sense of dignity.”1 For King (Ph.D.), the Baptist Minister and Civil Rights leader, persons, regardless of their color, matter more than anything in all creation. He would, for example, often say, “Every man is somebody because he is a child of God.”2 Dr. King, by the phrase “child of God,” means human beings are “made in His image, and therefore must be respected as such.”3

The Brotherhood of Man

King’s theological personalism is the basis for viewing all members of the human race as one human family, as brothers and sisters, sharing the same nature, namely, a human nature. Because all human beings are made in the “image of God,” King could say,

“God is not interested merely in freeing [from racial inequality] black men and brown men and yellow men, but God is interested in freeing the whole human race. We must work with determination to create a society … in which all men will live together as brothers and respect the dignity and worth of human personality.”4

Elsewhere, King makes the same point even more forcefully, saying, “even though there may be political and ideological between us, the Vietnamese are our brothers, the Russians are our brothers, the Chinese are our brothers; and one day we’ve got to sit down at the table of brotherhood.”5 On a strictly natural or human level, then, all human beings are brothers and sisters, originating from a common source, namely, God. In that sense, there is a “fatherhood of God and … brotherhood of man.”6

King teaches that there is a natural moral law or a law that is built into the moral order of the universe, which is that “all men must respect the dignity and worth of human personality.”7 However, when a nation or government consistently violates human rights, when it does not pay heed to the cries of its oppressed citizens, it will, sooner or later, be removed from power and replaced by a more just government. Hence, For King, those who break the natural moral law will, in the end, be broken by that law, because human beings are meant or, in his words, “made to live together as brothers.”8

The “Thingification” of the Human Person

King is critical of any society in which persons are viewed as things among other things. That is especially true of America and its view of the Negro or, as King says, “A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will ‘thingify’ them and make them things.”9 By “thingify,” King is saying that it is wrong to reduce persons to the level or status of things. It is, philosophically, an ontological error, a distorted sense of the hierarchy of being, to confuse persons with things. Such confusion results in a distorted sense of human worth. King writes,

“[W]e see people as entities or merely as things. Too seldom do we see people in their true humanness. A spiritual myopia limits our vision to external accidents. We see men as Jews or Gentiles, Catholics or Protestants, Chinese or American, Negroes or whites. We fail to think of them as fellow human beings made from the same basic stuff as we, molded in the same divine image.”10

For King, then, persons are always, and infinitely, more important than things, such as material possessions and property. He says, “A [human] life is sacred. Property is intended to serve life, and no matter how much we surround it with rights and respect, it has no personal being. It is part of the earth man walks on; it is not man.”11 In other words, property is a material thing, being derived from the earth and, as such, property is not as important as a human person, a divine-like being; one who is made in the image of God.

Thus, King criticizes a capitalist economy on personalist grounds, stressing the primacy of persons over things. Such an economy places more value on property-rights than basic humans rights, such as the rights of a man, woman or family to have food and shelter, which are basic necessities for life. Therefore, according to King, persons are not meant to serve things; rather, things are meant to serve persons, their well-being; because in the hierarchy of value, the lower serves the higher being.

Human Exploitation

True to the Christian personalist tradition, Dr. King teaches that it is wrong to use and abuse other human beings. His objection to such treatment is rooted in the biblical teaching that humans are the imago Dei, the “image of God.” King writes, “when we truly believe in the sacredness of human personality, we won’t exploit people, we won’t trample over people with the iron feet of oppression.”12

Human exploitation, then, which is unjustly taking advantage of human persons, is using them as merely a means to an end. For King, it is wrong, because it treats persons as if they were only tools or instruments in the “hands” of others, especially economically and politically powerful men and women.

Discrimination and Segregation

According to King, segregation is to treat human beings, whose human nature is equal, unequally. For instance, to tell a human being who is black, “Sit in the back of the bus,” is to discriminate against him or her, to treat him or her unequally, that is, unjustly or unfairly, simply because of the color of his or her skin. Segregation, then, regards Negroes or humans of color as inferior or sub-human beings.

Again, to tell a human who is black, “You cannot eat at the front counter of a restaurant, because that is reserved for ‘whites only,’ is to say, in effect, to him or her, “You are not as good as, as high a being as, a human who is white.” Hence, segregation regards humans as though they were not-quite human, as if they were not fully members of the human race.

Martin Buber’s Personalist Phraseology

Borrowing from the phraseology of Martin Buber, the eminent Jewish philosopher, Dr. King insists that segregation substitutes “an ‘I-it’ relationship for the ‘I-thou’ relationship and relegates persons to the status of things.”13 According to the Buber, there are, in general, two fundamental ways in which human beings relate to each other. The first relation is called “I-It;” the second is “I-Thou.”14 The I-It is “a relation of a person to thing, of subject to object, involving some form of utilization, domination, or control.”15 For King, then, segregation strips “Negro people of their sense of dignity,”16 gives them “a sense of inferiority,”17 robs “them of their birthright of freedom”18 and “personhood.”19 In short, segregation is the dehumanizing or depersonalizing treatment of human persons, specifically, men, women and children of color.

Vilifying and Demonizing the “White Man”

Even in his struggle for civil rights and his opposition to segregation and discrimination instituted in American culture by white men and women, King refused to label all white people as “racists.” In fact, he says,

“In using the term ‘white man,’ I am seeking to describe in general terms the Negro’s adversary. It is not meant to encompass all white people. There are millions who have morally risen above prevailing prejudices. They are willing to share power and to accept structural alterations of society, even at the cost of traditional privilege. … It is not the race per say that we fight but the policies and ideology that leaders of that race have formulated to perpetuate oppression.”20

Elsewhere, King writes, “We are out to defeat injustice and not white persons who may be unjust.”21 Hence, King does not teach his followers to hate white men and women. Nor does he seek to vilify and demonize them in less-than-human terms. To King, white racists are seriously misguided, morally blind. Nevertheless, he teaches that they are persons.

Not Mere Sentimentality

King’s personalism is not a form of sentimentality, a feeling of “love,” say, for racists. He, being a Christian, follows the simple, but extremely difficult, command of Jesus, namely, “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44, NIV). Lest Jesus’ imperative be misunderstood, King explains what Jesus does not mean, saying,

“He didn’t say, ‘Like your enemies,” because there are some people that I find it pretty difficult to like. Liking is an affectionate emotion, and I can’t like anybody who would bomb my home. I can’t like anybody who would exploit me. I can’t like anybody who would trample over me with injustices. … I can’t like anybody who threatens to kill me day in and day out. But Jesus reminds us that love is greater than liking.”22

The reason “love is greater than liking” is that love is a commitment, an act of the will, not to hate one’s enemies. It is a choice to love the unlovable. That requires moral strength, which develops over time by resisting the “natural” inclination to attack one’s enemies. After all, they are, for King, the imago Dei or “image of God.” In other words, they are subjects, not objects. In short, they are persons.

Society of Persons

For Dr. King, a human being is not merely a “drop of water” in the vast ocean of humankind. According to King, the modern world has become increasingly impersonal. Thus, many people feel as though their humanity were reducible to a number, such as statistical data for government records or a Social Security number.

Particularly, King is concerned about an impersonal, dehumanized American culture in which “machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people.”23 At its best, community or society, for King, is a society of persons. That is why he says, “We must rapidly begin … the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society.”24 For King, then, abstract, collective humanity is reducible to concrete, particular, here-and-now human persons, entering into dialogue or interpersonal relationships.

Self-Reflexive Moral Acts

To the extent that human beings are living in community, they fulfill or complete their lives. That is why, for King, hatred is personally degrading, because it “wounds” the community of persons, but even more than that, hatred degrades oneself. As he says, “If I meet hate with hate, I become depersonalized, because creation is so designed that my personality can only be fulfilled in the context of community.”25 Moral acts, then, are self-reflexive, coming back, as it were, and going into the one who commits them. In King’s words, “To the degree that I harm my brother, … I am harming myself.”26 In short, “If you harm me,” King says, “ you harm yourself.”27

King’s Objection to Statism or Communism

Dr. King objects to the political view, which he calls “communism,” of the person existing for the sake of the state. His or her freedom exists for the good of the state, the government. If personal freedom gets in the way of the “good” of the government, then that freedom is either restricted or denied. The government, then, can revoke or deny a person’s freedom to vote for a president, censor what a person writes, watches on television or reads and determine the wages or income from his or her place of employment. For King, “Man becomes hardly more, in communism, than a depersonalized cog in the turning wheel of the state.”28

King’s personalist opposition to communism is based a religious principle, which bears some similarity to Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative. King says,

“[M]an is an end because he is a child of God. Man is not made for the state; the state is made for man. To deprive man of freedom is to relegate him to the status of a thing, rather than elevate him to the status of a person. Man must never be treated as means to the end of the state; but always as an end within himself.”29

In other words, because a human being is a “child of God,” that is, made in God’s image, a human is a person, not a thing; a subject, not an object; a “someone” to be respected, not a “something” to be used and abused by a government.

The Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968

In March, 1968, Dr. King flew to Memphis, TN., to call attention to the 1,300 black sanitation workers who had gone on strike, because they wanted safer better working conditions and a “living wage,” that is, an income to support their families, because many of them were on welfare and received food stamps. In the last speech before his assassination, King explains why, on personalist grounds, the workers went on strike:

“We are saying that we are determined to be men. We are determined to be people. We are saying … that we are God’s children.”30 In other words, to insult human beings is also to insult the sacredness of human persons, divine image-bearers, who should have, at the very least, a right to ear a wage that is befitting of human dignity.31

Application of King’s Personalism to the 21st Century

King reminds the Negro of his inestimable value as a human being, encouraging him to affirm his value, saying, “I am somebody. I am a person. I am a man with dignity and honor.”32 Similarly, the sanitation workers took to the streets of Memphis in protest, wearing a placard which said, “I AM A MAN.” That, in a nutshell, is personalism! Today, the placard is equivalent to saying, “I AM A PERSON.”

When a human, then, is dehumanized or depersonalized, when others fail to recognize the humanity of another human being, they need to be reminded that all humans beings – regardless of their race, color, nationality, language, gender, sexual inclination, politics or ideology – are persons and should be respected and treated as such. Not only that, but personhood is to be ascribed to them, whether they worthy or deserving of it or not. That is the application of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s personalism to human beings in the 21st century.

Endnotes

  1. Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love (Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2010), p. 24.
  2. ———-, “A Christmas Sermon on Peace,” in The Trumpet of Conscience (Boston, MA.: Beacon Press, 1967), p. 74. The book consists of five talks, during November and December, 1967. They were made public by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as the Seventh Annual Series of the Massey Lectures, which were in honor of the Right Honorable Vincent Massey, former Governor General of Canada., ibid., p. v. “A Christmas Sermon on Peace” was delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia, 24 December 1967. It was the last of King’s Massey Lectures, which was made public by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on 24 December 1967, ibid., p. 69. Note: For King, the word “man” was an inclusive noun, referring to both men and women. Hence, during the time in which King lived, preached and wrote, “man” was not meant to exclude women. Today’s equivalent to “man” would be “humankind.”
  3. Ibid., p. 74.
  4. ———-, “Give us the Ballot,” Delivered at the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, Washington, D.C., 17 May 1957, in A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., eds. Clayborne Carson and Kris Shepard (New York, N.Y.: Warner Books, Inc., 2001), p. 53. I have taken the editorial liberty of deleting the remarks from King’s audience, such as “Yes” and “All right,” so as not to interrupt the flow of his words.
  5. ———-, “A Christmas Sermon on Peace,” in The Trumpet of Conscience, op. cit., p. 74.
  6. ———-, “The Birth of a New Nation,” Delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama, 7 April 1957, in A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., op. cit., p. 41. However, as a Christian theologian, I cannot conclude from King’s words that all human beings, by virtue of being human, are regenerate, that is, “born again” or Christian brothers and sisters.
  7. Ibid., p. 38. Cf. pp. 39-40.
  8. Ibid., p. 41.
  9. ———-, “Where Do We Go from Here,” Delivered at the Eleventh Annual Convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Atlanta, Georgia, 16 August 1967, in ibid., p. 195.
  10. ———-, Strength to Love, op. cit., p. 24. Italics are the publisher’s.
  11. ———-, “Nonviolence and Social Change,” in The Trumpet of Conscience, p. 58.
  12. ———-, “A Christmas Sermon on Peace,” in ibid., p. 74.
  13. ———-, Strength to Love, p. 149.
  14. Francis J. Lescoe, Existentialism with or without God (Staten Island, N.Y.: Alba House, 1974), p. 158.
  15. Martin Buber, The Writings of Martin Buber, ed. Will Herberg (Cleveland, OH.: The World Publishing Company, 1956, 7th printing November 1963), p. 14, quoted in Francis J. Lescoe, Existentialism with or without God, p. 158. Cf. Will Herberg, Martin Buber: Personalist Philosopher in an Age of Depersonalization, in McAuley Lecture Series: Lecture 15 (West Hartford, CT.: Saint Joseph College, 1972), p. 3.
  16. Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love, p. 29.
  17. Ibid., p. 113.
  18. Ibid., p. 29.
  19. Ibid., p. 113.
  20. ———-, “Impasse in Race Relations,” in The Trumpet of Conscience, p. 9.
  21. ———-, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (New York, N.Y.: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1958), p. 103.
  22. ———-, “A Christmas Sermon on Peace,” in The Trumpet of Conscience, pp. 75-76.
  23. ———-, “Beyond Vietnam,” Delivered at Riverside Church, New York, New York, 4 April 1967, in A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther KingJr., p. 157.
  24. Ibid.
  25. ———-, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, op. cit., p. 106.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Ibid., p. 93.
  29. Ibid.
  30. ———-, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” Delivered at Bishop Charles Mason Temple, Memphis, Tennessee, 3 April 1968, in A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., p. 210.
  31. Ibid.
  32. ———-, “Where Do We Go from Here,” in ibid., p. 184.

Soren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855): On the Paradoxical Nature of Human Love

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What is it that makes a person great, admired by creation,
well pleasing in the eyes of God?
Love.
What is it that makes a person strong,
stronger than the whole world?
Love.
What is it that makes a person weak,
weaker than a child?
Love.
What is it that makes a person unwavering,
more unwavering than a rock?
Love.
What is it that makes him soft,
softer than wax?
Love.
What is it that is old,
older than everything and everyone?
Love.
What is it that is new,
always up-to-date, relevant?
Love.
What is it that never dies,
outlasting everything?
Love.
What is it that perseveres,
when everything falls away?
Love.
What is it that comforts,
when all comfort fails?
Love.
What is it that endures,
when everything else changes?
Love.

Adapted, abridged and paraphrased from Soren Kierkegaard, “Love Will Hide a Multitude of Sins” (1843), in Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses.

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Doctrine of Civil Disobedience and Peaceful Protests in America

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Martin Luther King, Jr.: Arrested for Civil Disobedience

(An excerpt from a lecture on Encountering Ethics, which I taught in the Fall Semester, 2019.)

Introduction

A nation without law becomes chaotic, even unlivable, with citizens having their rights violated and they, in turn, violating the rights of others. One of the functions of law is to create peace, which is the tranquility of an ordered society. That is why America is a nation governed by law.

The Moral Presupposition of Civil Disobedience

However, there are some laws which a person cannot, in good conscience, obey, because they contradict what he or she believes. To follow such laws would mean that a person is not being true to himself or herself, that is, his or her deepest beliefs and values.

Obedience, then, is limited by the very fact that a human being has a conscience. Civil disobedience presupposes that one cannot obey a law, because it is unjust, not morally right. Martin Luther King, Jr., referring to Augustine of Hippo, writes, “‘an unjust law is no law at all.’”

King believes that laws permitting segregation and discrimination are wrong and, as such, not valid laws. Therefore, they are not morally binding. In other words, a person has no obligation, in conscience, to obey such laws.

The Civil Rights Movement

Such reasoning is behind the protests of the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1950s and 1960s. In Birmingham, Alabama, Martin Luther King, Jr. led a public demonstration, protesting policies of segregation and discrimination in that State. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” King defends his doctrine of civil disobedience, saying, “I can urge men to disobey segregation ordinances because they are morally wrong.”

The laws in Alabama promoted discrimination and segregation. But King would not accept the simplistic notion that law, by virtue of the authority of those who made it, was morally right. He writes, “We can never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’” and that “It was ‘illegal’ to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany.” Hence, legally, discrimination and segregation were right but, morally, they were wrong.

The Non-Violent Approach to Civil Disobedience

Civil disobedience is most effective, gains the attention of civil authorities, when it is peaceful or non-violent. Men and women should do everything within their power to resolve a conflict peacefully. Nevertheless, as citizens of the United States, they have the right to criticize local, state and federal branches of government. As Abe Fortas, former Supreme Court Justice, says,

“From our earliest history, we have insisted that each of us is and must be free to criticize the government, however brashly; even to advocate overthrow of the government itself. We have insisted upon freedom of speech and of the press and, as the First Amendment to the Constitution puts it, upon ‘the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.’”

Accepting the Consequences of Civil Disobedience

Since King went to jail for civil disobedience, his words are especially meaningful, because he wrote in the Birmingham jail itself, “One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.” There is, then, a legal penalty for civil disobedience and those who break the law must be willing to accept its consequences, such as being arrested and going to jail.

What Civil Disobedience Does Not Mean

Civil disobedience does not mean immediately rushing out into the public and protesting a law, because a person or group disagrees with it. There is a political process leading up to civil disobedience and protesters should not attempt to circumvent it. Democracy in the United States presupposes that rational men women will use words (hence, freedom of speech and the press), not resort to violence, to change unjust laws. Violence as a method of civil disobedience begets counter-violence, resulting in social chaos. Therefore, there is neither philosophical nor moral support from Dr. King’s doctrine of civil disobedience and peaceful protests for violent protests and the destruction of property. In reality, such acts are distractions, undermining the legitimate reasons for the public protests themselves.

Endnote

Abe Fortas, Concerning Dissent and Civil Disobedience (New American Library, New York, N.Y.: 1968), p. 24.

 

Some Clarifications about Racism and Hate in America

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Racism is Still Racism

Racism is still racism,
whether it comes from white or black persons.
It is equally wrong for whites and blacks.
No exceptions!
Racism is still racism,
whether is directed at white or black persons.
It is equally wrong for persons of every color.
No exceptions!
Ultimately, racism is rooted in the human heart,
not in a person’s color.
The heart, not a person’s color, needs purification.
Nationalism is still nationalism,
whether its advocates are white or black.
It is equally wrong for whites and blacks.
No exceptions!
Ultimately, nationalism is rooted in the human heart,
not in a person’s color.
The heart, not a person’s color, needs purification.
Hate is still hate,
whether whites hate blacks or blacks hate whites.
It is equally wrong for whites and blacks.
No exceptions!
Ultimately, hate is rooted in the human heart,
not in a person’s color.
The heart, not a person’s color, needs purification.
Neither politics nor government can purify the heart.
Only love can do that,
the love of God and neighbor:
To purify the heart is to “see” black and white persons
with new eyes, the eyes of love.
To purify the heart is to “see” black and white persons
with new eyes, the eyes of human equality.
“Create in me a pure heart, O God.”

Creating God in the Image of Human Beings in the Election Year of 2020: A Tribute to Armand Nicholi

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A Photo of Psychiatrist Armand Nicholi

For the following article, I am indebted to the insights of The Question of God, by psychiatrist Armand Nicholi (1927 – 2017).

Using the Church for Political Purposes

In Christian theology, the church is both human and divine. It is, of course, an empirical truth that the church is a human institution. As such, she takes on certain cultural dimensions, depending on where she exists. The church also transcends all cultures, because she is a divine, spiritual organism. Therefore, because the church is both in culture and beyond it, the church cannot and should not officially align herself with only one political party.

Using God for Political Purposes

However, Christians, who are members of the church, can and, at times, do politicize God. In other words, because they are staunchly devoted to a particular political and governmental perspective, they are inclined to absolutize it, making it equivalent to God’s will for humanity. That is to say, they project their political views on God. So, for example, if they are socialists, they want to make God into a socialist. Similarly, if they are communists, then God must also be bound up with their commitment. Likewise, if they are committed to capitalism, then God must also be a capitalist.

Because God, the Supreme Being, is infinite, without human limitations; transcendent, not confined to creation, and eternal, not bound by time, he cannot be completely identified with any national, political and ideological perspective. It follows, then, that God is neither a cosmic capitalist nor a cosmic communist; he is neither a cosmic republican nor a cosmic democratic. Nor does God belong only to the people of the United States of America, as if the Supreme Being were a cosmic nationalist and imperialist, favoring America over all nations.

Using Jesus for Political Purposes

The same principle of politicizing is at work when it comes to Jesus of Nazareth. This happens, for example, when communist Christians interpret the Bible from a communist perspective, thus, making Jesus into a champion of communion. But it also happens when capitalist Christians interpret the Scriptures from a capitalist perspective, thus, making Jesus into a champion of capitalism. Both approaches are misguided and so are their respective interpretations. Both commit the hermeneutical error of eisegesis, which is “reading into” the New Testament a meaning that is not intended by the sacred authors.

The Remaking of God

In the Jewish Scriptures, there is a passage in which the Lord rebukes his people for creating him in their image, saying, “You thought that I was just like you” (Psalm 50:21, NASB). While humans do, in fact, form their image of God, there are instances in which that can be dangerous. Psychiatrist Armand Nicholi rightly observes,

“Our tendency to distort and create our own God, sometimes a God not of love but of hate, may explain why, over the centuries, people have committed, and continue to commit, ungodly acts – even acts of terrorism – in the name of God.”1

In other words, finite human beings cannot put the infinite “God in a box” and make him into what they want him to be. According to Nicholi, a person who believes or even does not believe in God, should be careful that his or her concept of the Supreme Being is not a “distortion of Him.”2

Application to Other Religions

I have applied the notion of politicizing God to my religion, which is Christianity, but it can just as easily be applied to other religions, such as Judaism and Islam. My main point, then, is this: Religious people can and, at times, do use God to advance their political interests, thus, creating the Supreme Being in their image.

Endnotes

  1. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr., The Question of God: C. S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex and the Meaning of Life (New York, N.Y.: Free Press/ Simon and Schuster, Inc., 2002), p. 244.
  2. Ibid., p. 243.

Minute Meditation on Youth and Aging from the Book of Ecclesiastes

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“You who are young, be happy while you are young, and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth” (Ecclesiastes 11:9a, NIV). In read that text in my class; the students rejoiced at the sacred author’s words. However, I went on to point out that the author also reminds his readers that “youth and vigor are fleeting” (Ecclesiastes 11:10b, BSB). In other words, from the moment a human being is conceived and born, he or she is constantly changing, in the process of becoming older. Once the process has begun, the only way it comes to an end is in death.

Every human being, then, is inexorably aging. Younger people should keep that in mind, because unless their lives are cut short by some kind of tragedy or illness, they, too, will become old. One day, they will long for the respect from the young, just as the older generation now yearns for respect from the younger generation. Thus, whether young or old, human beings, in general, want to be respected and acknowledged as persons.

Wisdom: Knowing When and How to Speak

proverbs-series

How to Acquire Wisdom

Wisdom is learned or acquired, primarily, from three sources of information: First, from God; specifically, studying the spiritual and moral instructions of his word; second, from prayer, talking to God, seeking his guidance about how to live well with and among other human beings; and, third, from experience, life itself, learning one’s strengths and weaknesses. In particular, a wise person seeks to be an effective communicator, knowing what to say, where to say it, when to say it, how to say it and when to remain silent.

Content of Communication:
Knowing What to Say

The sage or author of Proverbs teaches that it takes wisdom to choose the right words in communicating with someone. As the sage writes, “The heart of the righteous weighs its answers, but the mouth of the wicked gushes evil” (Proverbs 15:28, NIV). The Hebrew word (yehgeh) translated “weighs” may also be translated “considers,” “muses,” “meditates” or even “studies.”1

Impulsivity: Not Thinking before Speaking

It is unwise, being relatively easy, to blurt out words freely, unthinkingly and carelessly. Instead, a person’s words should be filtered through his or her brain. As another sage or wise person, Sirach, who lived in the second century B. C., says,

“Oh for a guard (NRSV) to be placed over my mouth
and a seal of discretion to close my lips,
to keep them from being my downfall,
and to keep my tongue from causing my ruin!
Lord, Father and Master (NRSV) of my life,
do not abandon me to the tongue’s control,
or, because of it (Paraphrase), allow me to fall”
(Ecclesiasticus 22:27-23:1, NEB; cf. 1:29b).

Similarly, Sirach writes, “Be quick to listen, but take time over your answer” (Ecclesiasticus 5:1, NEB). “Knowing what to say” is the content of communication, using the right words to express clearly one’s thoughts or ideas. Listen, first, non-defensively to understand what the other person is saying, not with the intention to debate, proving that he or she is wrong. Then, after an understanding what has been said, a reply or response may be given to him or her. Therefore, a wise person thinks before speaking, choosing his or her words carefully in communicating with others.

There is another reason for wanting wisdom to know what to say, which is “He who guards his mouth and his tongue keep himself from calamity” (Proverbs 21:23, NIV, 1984 ed.). Likewise, Sirach writes, “Honour or shame can come through speaking, and a man’s tongue may be his downfall” (Ecclesiasticus 5:13, NEB). It is not wise, then, to be too wordy, speaking too freely and unthinkingly around others.2 Thus, a person should use words cautiously or carefully, even guardedly, watching out for what he or she says, because those who are listening might use with the speaker’s words against him or her.

Location or Situation of Communication:
Knowing Where to Say It

Knowing where to speak relates to the right place or context for communicating with someone. For example, when the religious leaders discover a woman in the act of adultery and bring her before a crowd to punish her, Jesus waits until the crowd disperses; then, in private, he admonishes her to stop her behavior (cf. John 8:1-11). Saying something to a person in the wrong place, say, around other people, may embarrass or even humiliate him or her, resulting in a failure to communicate with him or her.

Timing of Communication:
Knowing When to Say It

The sage teaches that it requires wisdom, which is the proper insight into a person’s situation or need, to speak the right words at the appropriate or right time, saying, “A person finds joy in giving an apt reply – and how good is a timely word!” (Proverbs 15:23, NIV; cf. 10:32). A similar proverb says, “A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver” (Proverbs 25:11, NIV, 1984 ed.). Speaking the right words at the right time is satisfying, both to the speaker and the person to whom they are spoken.3

Likewise, Sirach writes, “The wise man is silent until the right moment, but a swaggering fool is always speaking out of turn” (Ecclesiasticus 20:7, NEB). Therefore, it requires wisdom to know when to speak words that are fitting to a person’s situation or problem.

The Manner of Communication:
Knowing How to Say It

Knowing how to speak refers to the right manner of delivery, that is, the way a person comes across in communicating with to others, being, for example, respectful and gentle, as opposed to, say, being condescending and angry. The apostle Peter, for example, instructs believers on how to communicate with others, namely, “with gentleness and respect” (I Peter 3:15, NIV). Similarly, the apostle Paul refers another manner of communication, which is “speaking the truth in love” Ephesians 4:15, NIV).

Knowing How to Answer an Angry Person

The sage teaches that arguing or yelling at a person that is already mad is the wrong way to address him or her, saying, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1, NIV). The wise person learns not only to control his or her passions or desires but also his or her mouth. For instance, in a moment of anger, being offended or hurt by someone’s comment or action, a person should not speak. Rather, he or she should, first, wait for the emotion to subside, becoming calm; then he or she can think rationally or clearly to communicate with the offender.

In Proverbs 15:1, the Hebrew word translated “harsh” literally means “hurtful.”4 Responding to an angry person with offensive, hurtful words, evokes or provokes him or her, adding, as it were, “fuel to the fire,” making his or her anger even worse and prolonging it. In a similar proverb, the author writes, “A hot-tempered person stirs up conflict, but the one who is patient calms a quarrel (Proverbs 15:18, NIV). It takes wisdom, then, to know how to answer or address a person.5

The Silence of Communication:
Knowing When to Refrain from Saying It

The author of Proverbs teaches that it is wise to refrain from speaking, especially when an “argument” or disagreement becomes “heated,” highly charged emotionally, saying, “When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise” (Proverbs 10:19, NIV, 1984 ed.). In a similar proverb, the wise person author writes, “Whoever belittles his neighbor lacks sense, but a man of understanding remains silent” (Proverbs 11:12, ESV). Still another proverb says, “It is to one’s honor to avoid strife, but every fool is quick to quarrel” (Proverbs 20:3, NIV).

Sirach writes, “Answer a man if you know what to say, but if not hold your tongue“ (Ecclesiasticus 5:12, NEB). Similarly, the sage says, “A reproof may be untimely, and silence may show a man’s good sense” (Ecclesiasticus 20:1, NEB). Silence “speaks!” In other words, not saying anything is “saying” something; no communication is communication; or no response is a response, namely, a non-verbal response. It takes wisdom to know when to remain silent.

A prayer to communicate wisely might be as follows:

Lord,
Grant me the wisdom to know
what to say,
where to say it,
when to say it,
how to say it,
and when to remain silent,
which itself is a form of communication.
Amen.

Endnotes

  1. Allen P. Ross et al. “Proverbs,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 5: Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 1991), p. 1000. Also, to convey the wrong words to someone prevents communication from occurring. They “shut down” the conversation, with the him or her refusing to listen any further.
  2. John G. Snaith, The Cambridge Bible Commentary on the New English Bible: Ecclesiasticus, eds. P. R. Ackroyd, A. R. C. Leaney, et al. (New York, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press, 1975), p. 69.
  3. Allen P. Ross et al. “Proverbs,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 5, op. cit., p. 998.
  4. Sid S. Buzzell, “Proverbs,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament, eds. John F. Walvoord, Roy B. Zuck et al. (USA, Canada and England: Victor Books, 1985, 5th printing 1988), p. 937.
  5. Allen P. Ross et al. “Proverbs,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 5, pp. 992, 997.