“It is important to note that God’s forgiveness does not mean Christians are free to run amuck.”

By the time I was in high school I had seen “amok” in print, had thought it was a very peculiar spelling, had looked it up, and had then used it myself from time to time.  The OED lists a number of spellings for this term—amuck, a muck, amocke, amock, amok, amoke. Webster’s, the only spelling resource I used in my youth, goes with amok, noting that amuck is a variant. I read that it was originally applied to “a frenzied Malay” (the word is from the Malay, and an English citation from the 1600s gives it as a noun, amoco, meaning “frenzied Javanese mass killer.” Nothing to do with oil companies, by the way.)

Possibly it’s describing a person in the same kind of exalted violent frenzy as the Berzerkers, who gave us “berzerk,” but that has nothing to do with what my student wrote, even though it has momentarily dashed to the forefront of my brain.

The main adjectival sense used by other Englishmen in the 1600s and forward is “engaging furiously in battle, attacking with desperate resolution, rushing in a desperate frenzy to the commission of indiscriminate murder.”  Marvell in 1672 wrote of someone, “Like a raging Indian he runs a mucke (as they call it there) stabbing every man he meets.” The OED notes that the adjective is rarely used with any verb other than “run.” The OED also provides the aspect that fits the context in which I first encountered “amok”: “applied to any animal in a state of vicious rage.” I read it in connection with elephants…and, I believe, sex.

However you spell it, it’s a great phrase, “to run amok” (especially if you don’t think only Malays, Javanese, and “Indians” do it). I read it in a story set during the British Raj, and to me it has a distinctly British tone and attitude.

My student was writing about the Christian Bible and Jesus’ emphasis on a forgiving God. I like that he realized Jesus wasn’t giving blanket permission to sin one’s brains out. But “important to note,” with its scholarly overtones, and the churchy “God’s forgiveness” lead so madly into those potentially wild-eyed and murderous Christians and the pursed lips of onlooking disapproval in “run amok.” Presumably if we don’t note that God is not giving free license to Christians we might imagine, or join, stampeding congregations bent on murder and mayhem on a vast scale. And if the reader is Yours Truly, those Christians all look a bit like elephants.

One Christian does run a-muck in a way, actually, and that’s Christian, protagonist of John Bunyan’s 1678 allegory Pilgrim’s Progress. Resolved to leave his home in the City of Destruction and travel to the Celestial City, he’s only a short distance out of town when he falls into the Slough of Despond (one of the great place-names in literature!). It’s so mucky in there that he can’t really climb out by himself, let alone run; he needs the help of, guess who, Help. He is not bent on death and destruction, either: in fact, that’s what he’s trying to avoid. Nevertheless, he gets himself mixed up in my student’s sentence, in my imagination, by association with that “amuck.” My student had no thought for the Slough of Despond; that’s Brit Lit II, not World Lit I.

So, technically, no errors here. Just a funny sentence. And the better-read you are, the funnier it is.

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

14 responses to ““It is important to note that God’s forgiveness does not mean Christians are free to run amuck.”

  • Peter Edwards

    Fifth paragraph gave me big problems as I’d just taken a mouthful of tea which subsequently became difficult to swallow. Kept it off my keyboard, just.

    Could we use ‘running amok’ to describe Christ’s chastisement of the money lenders?

    There’s a Frank Zappa track called ‘Tink Walks Amok.’ I always envisioned walking amok as doing all the same things you do when running amok, except slowly and deliberately. More menacing.

  • RAB

    So glad you enjoyed it–sorry about your tea.
    If Christ HAD run amok with the moneylenders, full-out, we might have been spared their descendants, predatory bankers….now that’s a nice fantasy.
    Thanks for the Zappa title. It isn’t one I know, but if it’s on iTunes I will listen to it today. I agree: Walking amok evokes a pretty scary picture. Stalking amok.

  • kokkieh

    That is so interesting! We also use the word “amok” in Afrikaans, my home language. It’s usually used in the context of causing trouble. I don’t have a comprehensive dictionary in Afrikaans but I’ll be looking up its Afrikaans meaning as soon as I can.

    • RAB

      And THAT’s interesting! Do you think the Dutch carried it from Indonesia to South Africa?

      • kokkieh

        The early settlers made extensive use of Malay slaves on farms in the Cape area. Many of their words made it into the Afrikaans language and many of their dishes are considered traditional by white Afrikaans-speaking people today.

        • RAB

          Ah. I keep forgetting that people were lugged around, not just language. Is Bobotie one of those dishes? My sister brought that recipe home with her from her stay in South Africa, and she marked it “traditional Malay.”

        • kokkieh

          That it is. One of my favourites.

      • kokkieh

        You might also be interested to know that the descendants of those Malay slaves are today mostly Afrikaans-speaking and in fact makes up the larger proportion of Afrikaans South Africans as opposed to white Afrikaans speakers. As a whole they are really a wonderful people.

  • Morton Tenzer

    Americans used “run amok”frequently in connection with the attacks of the Filipino resistance during the war that subdued the Philippines circa 1900.

  • RAB

    kokkieh: It’s one of ours, too. Perfect choice for small dinner with friends!

  • Mary Jane Schaefer

    God’s forgiveness actually obliges us to be MORE careful of our
    behavior. Not that He won’t forgive us ever again if we mess up.
    But forgiveness depends upon firm purpose of amendment.
    (The scent of Catholic high school being given out?)

    Now, to college. Catholic college. (not my idea) One of the studiously virtuous co-eds was sleeping with the sexiest guy on campus. Repeatedly. But not on Saturday nights.
    On Sat. she went to confession. And on Sunday she received communion;
    so Saturday night’s date was always chaste. My friend, the sexiest guy
    on campus, told me (and he really shouldn’t have!) how he confronted his love with the problem of forgiveness and repentance. He said to her, “Look,
    if you know we’re just going to do it again, your confession’s no good.
    You’re not really being forgiven.” And she wept bitterly. So he decided to
    just let the matter drop.

    Rather sad, actually, don’t you think?

    • RAB

      QUITE sad. But he was right. My understanding, gleaned in Confirmation Class (not Catholic, by the way), was that God forgave our sins but repentance had to be followed with a sincere effort to reform!

  • Morgan

    Entirely True…just as a child is not free to do whatever he/she wants without concern for rules, boundaries and limitations simply because his/her parent(s) love .

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