The sanctity of life

With non-white family separations and mass shootings and escalated police violence in the news — does it even matter which week you read this? — the sanctity of life is not one of our country’s strengths.

It’s not a lot of countries’ strengths right now.

I appreciated the comments of the new Spanish prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, at a summit in late June. He was trying to convince his cohorts in the European Union to work together to meet migrant and refugee needs, without borders. Italy and Malta had recently turned away 630 people on a rescue ship. A member of the Italian government referred to refugees as a cargo of “human flesh.”

Sánchez said his policies came about because of a majority-female cabinet, which was created after a March strike in Spain “when society came out against gender-based violence and in favor of pay and work equality for women.”

I also recently read the comments of a Minneapolis-based feminist man who said: “The trouble with our government is that it is a government of men, by men, and for men, with the result that it is not so much human as masculine. What is our country without the influence of woman stamped upon it?”

That feminist man was John Dietrich — who made his comment 100 years ago. He was in support of women getting the right to vote, which happened two years later. The country’s founding Humanist minister, he was based at First Unitarian Society (now housed near Walker Art Center) and worked toward building a human-centered, not God-centered, Sunday community.

Dietrich’s weekly addresses sometimes filled a 1,700-seat theater downtown; 5,000 copies of his talks were delivered globally. Albert Einstein, H.G. Wells, and others wrote him fan letters.

I recently finished a grant project, thanks to the Minnesota Historical Society, that enabled me to read hundreds of Dietrich’s talks — given from 1916 to his retirement in 1938 — to create a digital finding aid to his one-hour addresses.

Ahead of his time

Dietrich was ahead of his time in many ways. He talked about labor rights, the myth of a superior race and the merits of atheism. In the 1920s, he suggested that birth control be given to every married couple and that divorce be accepted “as an entirely respectable procedure.”

About morality: “We condemn the man who steals a loaf of bread while we pay honor to the man who steals a million dollars.”

Dietrich talked about “brain plasticity” and restorative justice. He said research indicated prison made sense if the goal was vengeance. If the goal was to reduce crime, it did not. “I believe an offender should be detained … for only one reason: to restore him to physical, mental, and moral health.”

Those with terminal illness should be allowed to die: “We may not wish to die with our boots on, but we may well prefer to die with our brains on.”

In one of his last talks, he warned that when progressives create a vision, they tend to leave behind the majority. “If this continues we shall find our future society ruled by ignorance and crudeness, intolerance and incompetence. For if the demagogue and the bigot, the narrow-visioned politician, can gain control through appeals to the mediocre masses, our cultural doom is sealed.”

Dietrich’s hope was that ordinary citizens — using stories and consumer demand — would eventually lead us to recognize “the essential unity of mankind. We would realize that there flows through the whole human race, from the lowest to the highest, one life and one blood.”

Vision for the future

Shortly before his death in 1957, Dietrich was working on a manuscript called “Thoughts on God.” After a lifetime promoting the need for humankind to solve its own problems — not look to afterlife salvation — he had realized there was a flaw in man’s propensity to see itself as the supreme force. He wrote: “It is high time to realize that the man-society relationship is not enough, but in order to save our civilization we need to restore the man-universe relationship.”

Earlier in his career Dietrich had described what that might mean:“We often speak as if there were two worlds, a natural world and a human world, but humanity is only a wrinkle — or a smile — upon the rugged face of Mother Nature. … God and nature are one, we are children of the living universe.”

Dietrich continued: “It does not frighten me to know that the universe has made me a part of its teeming, abundant life; that the same power that is breaking the lilacs into leaf is breaking me into a fuller flower of personality. … It does not sadden me to realize that for a little while the cosmic urge voices itself in this strange community of busy particles which I call myself. In me, in you, the Universe has spoken.”

If Dietrich was with us today, I believe he would remind us why we need sanctity for all life, not simply that which looks and talks like us.


Mikki Morrissette is owner/editor of Minnesota Women’s Press. She recently gave a talk at First Unitarian Society about Dietrich’s insights. This is part of her series exploring how we might build stronger communities.