Slavery was called the South’s “peculiar institution.” If you’re like me, then you hear the word “peculiar” and think “strange,” or “weird,” or “ridiculous” in the very worst way. When I hear that slavery was called a “peculiar institution” that makes sense: it was a very strange, a very creepy and an ominous organization that charted the course of our culture into deep darkness, a darkness that continues to cast a shadow over our society. I’d always imagined that the term “peculiar institution” was coined by the Abolitionists or others who opposed slavery. I learned last night that I was wrong. Though you may find it peculiar in an odd sort of way, let me tell you that it was actually Southern thinkers and politicians who first talked about, yes even praised and exalted their peculiar institution.
I’ve been listening to a series of lectures on American bestsellers. It’s less about literature and more about the history that shaped the literature — and the ways in which that popular literature then turned around and shaped American history. It was the discussion of Uncle Tom’s Cabin that brought up the term “peculiar institution.” Southerners first used the term to defend slavery and their Southern society that was supported by it. They used the word “peculiar” because back in that day, the word had a different nuance. It meant something more akin to “special.” The peculiar institution then was not peculiar because it was weird or bad, it was peculiar because it was good, because it defined Southern culture as uniquely set apart, superior.
But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light; Which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God: which had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy. – 1 Peter 2
You and I think to ourselves, “Peculiar institution. Yeah. It’s peculiar because it sucks to enslave human beings. It’s peculiar to think so fucking highly of yourselves that you’d be willing to sacrifice others to sustain your superiority.” It excites us in an indignant way, or at least it should.
A Southerner, though, would have been equally excited and indignant, though for very different reason. They would think to themselves, “Peculiar instution. Here, here! We are peculiar because we are alone in our defense of a god-ordained way of life. While others compromise the Bible and the Christian faith, we alone hold fast!” And they would be indignant at those who would seek to snuff out the light by their own ignorant, godless ideas. Over time, this perspective became so entrenched and the indignation became connected with a host of other tension points with the North, and it took a Civil War, a blood bath of suffering.
There’s always been that tension in Christianity, though, as illustrated in one of the day’s readings. “Ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people.” If you would indulge me, dear reader, I would suggest that the thinking goes a little something like this: you’ve been given the gift of seeing the truth, the gift of liberation and freedom, and this makes you special because most every other chap you know doesn’t have this freedom, so don’t just sit there, go out and let every one know! Take this seriously, because others who have the same knowledge don’t. You are of the light, so for god’s sake, don’t let those in darkness snuff out the light.
It’s a tension in Christianity because you aren’t supossed to be exalting yourself. Those who exalt themselves, the biblical prophets say, will be brought down low, yea verily. But this isn’t just a problem that I have seen in Christianity, it’s in every other religion I know of. It’s also a tension I’ve seen in every other form of spirituality, spirituality that isn’t necessarily connected to a divine being, like Buddhist spirituality or New Age teachers. There might be no god, but the message is similar: You’ve found the path to enlightenment, and others haven’t. You’re special. Etc.
To make matters worse, unless I miss my guess, one can find the same problem even in non-religious and non-spiritual perspectives as well. It can be especially strong there, because if you are a person who is a complete naturalists, atheists, and don’t have a spiritual bone in your body, then you’re a very small minority in the global picture, and because you’re a minority, you’ll probably be more likely to see yourself as privileged in your perspective. After all, it was the rationalists of the modern era, in their attempt to strip away the religious and spiritual, who used the term “Enlightenment” to describe their superior point of view.
I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that this same problem is inherent in the idea of American Exceptionalism, maybe of America itself. America, so it goes, is here by God’s divine purpose, to make the world a better place, to spread freedom and democracy, and to shine the light of Christian faith around the world. Since we are special, it just follows that if someone strikes us, the whole turn-the-other-cheek things doesn’t apply. Drop a few of our towers in NYC and we’ll spend a decade or so bombing the shit out of the rest of the world.
Maybe I’m being too simplistic. Maybe I’m being too cynical. Or maybe the point that’s emerging in my writing this morning is that we’re all in the same boat, suffering from the same affliction. Scratch the surface and it won’t be too long before some sense of superiority shows up. And maybe it’s because we are all in the same boat that we keep fighting each other. From my days of working on boats, I can tell you that it isn’t easy to get along with others when the you have to spend a day (or a week) confined together on the open ocean.
Let’s cut through the crap, shall we? I think that’s something Jesus might say. It was certain something Jesus did, and there’s a sentence of Jesus’ that conveniently showed up in today’s daily readings that provides a bit of a counter point to our tendency to get carried away with ourselves. Whatever your special purpose, however wise you are in your enlightened point of view, however holy you may be, just remember this: “many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first.” (Matthew 19) It was paradoxes like this that always seemed to make Jesus the most peculiar chap of the whole lot. Peculiar, that is, in a way that was, perhaps, genuinely good…if such a thing is possible.