Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Back to Kindergarten
Over twenty five years ago Unitarian Universalist minister Robert Fulghum wrote a delightful little book titled, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” Take turns. Don’t be a bully. Don’t shout. Take care of each other. Don’t hit people. Tantrums are not ok. Share. Tell the truth. Whether simplistic or sage, his reflections struck a chord. And today the remembrance of them makes me wonder, “Did much of America skip kindergarten?”
It’s been a long time since I sat in the kindergarten classroom at Holmes School, but I do remember the day our teacher sat us down and told us that Paul Flandreau’s father had died and that Paul wouldn’t be back in school for the rest of the week. Beyond the vague recollection of a sobering silence, I remember very little of how we reacted. But I’m pretty sure we didn’t immediately start arguing over who could have Paul’s crayons. Some things even kindergarteners implicitly understand are disrespectful.
I liked Paul Flandreau a lot more than I liked Justice Antonin Scalia. Scalia’s decisions were often wounding to vulnerable people. He could be disagreeable in his rulings, and his theory of a “dead Constitution” was, I think, a bizarre and dangerous way to read texts whether historical, constitutional, biblical or otherwise. His death does not affect me emotionally in any immediate or intimate way. And yes, I’ll admit that news of his death was pretty quickly followed by thoughts about the new direction this might mean for the Court. But one of the things we hopefully learn in kindergarten is that not every private thought should be spoken, or spoken right away.
I’m not naïve about the fact that this vacancy, and how it will be filled, and by whom, will have enormous implications for future Supreme Court decisions. But I also know that Justice Scalia was a husband, father, grandfather, and friend. People who loved him are grieving. Furthermore, he was a justice of the United States Supreme Court and however you viewed his role on that Court, the office itself deserves respect, and not just by children in kindergarten.
What does it say about all of us that within an hour of the announcement of his death Justice Scalia had been reduced from a person to a vacancy? That would be leaders of the country have demonstrated far more interest in the opportunities and perils his death presents for their personal political agendas than in giving attention to the impact his loss means for his family or to the service he gave to the nation? To paraphrase a question posed to Senator Joseph McCarthy during another demoralizing time in our public life, “have we no sense of decency?”
One of the responsibilities of government, according to the United States Constitution that Justice Scalia spent a career decoding is to “promote the general welfare.” I don’t know what he would have said that meant, exactly, but surely part of the general welfare is the quality and character of public engagement and rhetoric demonstrated and employed by public officials. One of the reasons we esteem Abraham Lincoln as our greatest president is that during the most fractious, ugly, and violent period in American history, his pubic rhetoric and bearing uniformly ennobled our common life with its dignity, its compassion, and its encouragement.
Today our public life is marked by behavior that would never be acceptable in a kindergarten classroom – bullying, shouting, tantrums, lies. It is unacceptable, and it should be unacceptable that we reward it with our laughter, our encouragement, or our resignation. I used to wonder whether the protocols and deference of high public office were just silly, anachronistic artifacts of a long ago era, or maybe even hypocritical masks obscuring real feelings that were often dripping with distain. Perhaps they were. But those protocols and public deference are now looking better and better in the face of today’s political spectacle that’s being likened to a cage fight. At the very least they set some boundaries of public propriety which can remind the rest of us that we ought to try to practice what we learned in kindergarten.
John H. Thomas
February 18, 2016