Sunday, August 09, 2015

The Gospel of Thomas (Merton)

Insofar as you did it to the least of one of these my brothers, you did it unto me. Mt. 25:40

Three Greek words: Theodicy; Kairos; and metanoia.

The same day on which we acknowledged the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima ( an example of theodicy that is particularly horrendous) having been done by our own country, in our own or our parents’ lifetimes, we also bid farewell to the Jon Stewart show, a kind of news/humor-cast which many progressives freely admit was their only link to sanity for many of these past sixteen years.

As Jon lamented upon hearing of Fox news’ lineup and plans for the “debate” held the same night, things have gotten demonstrably worse!  Did I cause this? “Have my efforts of sixteen years been in vain?”

I, too, as have many of my colleagues, wondered aloud and alone whether our writings, preachings, and marchings and rantings have helped in any way. We don’t doubt that our care and companioning have done some good.
But it is hard, sometimes, to look at the world and ask whether we have progressed, and whether our liberal religious movement has done what it can or should, or done it boldly enough, and yet, we must ask.

I’ve talked about Thomas Merton before. I had a chance, this past month, to attend a discussion group at the Episcopal church in Lexington based upon his late writings on violence, race and Christianity. (Faith and Violence)

This reading, musing, and discussing was intermingled with reading Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, TaNeHisi Coates’ Between the World and Me; Charles Blow’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones; and several other sources about local and regional history of African Americans and the Civil War.

Holy Rosary, the African American Catholic Church in Springfield, KY

The latter were part of a project I’ve begun, something I committed to almost 2 years ago, that has finally come to fruition, a storytelling journey of the Black residents of Springfield, KY, a small city of about 2,500, geographically isolated enough that almost all of the African Americans (22%) are direct descendants of the slaves held by the ancestors of the present day white residents. The town is segregated, albeit de facto, and although it appears bucolic and serene, there is a rage and a fury not far beneath the surface built of decades of injuries. The project will, I hope, grow to incorporate the Sisters of St. Catharine & Loretto, the Wendell Berry Farming Academy, the college, and (eventually) the white citizens, although right now, it’s top secret.I'm not doing this project alone. The only reason I am able to do this is that a woman who is part of the community invited me, and has been a vital component. It is our project, hers as much as mine.

I think many of us, UUs as well as other liberal and progressive people of faith and people of conscience, have watched and witnessed the unfolding of events this past year with a growing conundrum: What can we do? And what should we do?
We may have been rebuffed when we attempt to take part in Black-led movements for justice in the past, or we may have gotten the message that white liberals were no longer welcome with open arms.

Merton addressed this almost 50 years ago, as he wrote about the tumultuous times he was living through, shortly before his untimely death in Bangkok.

The prescience of his writings is almost alarming when we consider the events of the past year, and realize that nearly fifty years have passed since he wrote them.
Most intriguing is the way in which he connected the violence against/by POC with the violence in the world in general.

The Hot Summer of Sixty Seven

"It also seems to me that the gradual, irreversible escalation in Vietnam has a lot to do with the violence at home." Merton, Faith and Violence, 166

"The problem of racial conflict is part and parcel of the whole problem of human violence…. The problem is in ourselves. It’s everybody’s problem."  167

"This is not a campaign for civil rights, it is in effect a kind of declaration of war. The (Negroes) are saying, on various different levels, that white American society is so unjust, so corrupt, so hopeless, so tied up in its own inner contradictions that it deserves to be attacked and even, if possible, destroyed. The end justifies the means… Every form of trickery and violence has been used against them and they intend to return the compliment."  168

"The riots are manifestation of the new interpretation of reality: White society has been judged and found wanting, it has been consistently cruel, hypocritical, unjust, inhuman. The day of retribution has come. …no white man can be trusted…." 170

From Non Violence to Black Power

It is perfectly logical that the America of LBJ should be at once the America of the Vietnam War and the Detroit Riots. It’s the same America, the same slice of Mother’s cherry pie.

(H Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael: “Black people often question whether or not they are equal to whites because every time they start to do something, white people are around showing them how to do it.” 125'

“The job of the white Christian is then partly a job of diagnosis and criticism, a prophetic task of finding and identifying the injustice which is the cause of all that which keeps war going in order that some might make money out of it.” 129


·      War on Drugs
·      Iraq War
·      Afghanistan

Religion and Race in the United States

The question of Kairos: the time of urgent and providential decision.

"The problem of American racism turned out to be far deeper, far more stubborn, infinitely more complex. It is also part of a much greater problem: one that divides the whole world into what may one day turn into a huge revolutionary interracial war of two camps: the affluent whites and the impoverished non-whites.
What is to be wondered at is not the occasional mass demonstrations and rioting, not the juvenile delinquency, and not the more and more deliberate excursions of small violent groups into other areas of the city to beat up white people and rob them. What is to be wondered at is the persistence of courage, irony, humor, patience and hope in Harlem."

I witnessed each of these qualities as I undertook the work of my project. There was not a person’s home at which I was not greeted warmly, welcomed and invited kindly, offered a comfortable seat and something to drink, even though they didn’t fully understand nor could I explain what my “project” was. The best I could do was tell them that we would at the least get the truth set down somewhere in some kind of way… which is a great deal more than is done now.

grave of LaBryant Poole, a promising and wonderful young man, killed in a car accident at age 15 twenty-seven years ago. His parents divorced soon after. Both are still devastated by his loss.

And I came to see that as a Minister, as a Yankee, a person of means & connections, I did have something to offer them, even if I couldn’t promise anything regarding their challenges or difficulties. My being there and listening, recording their stories for posterity and affirming their value, tells them they matter.  To me at any rate. And curiously, they know they do. It is something they receive from their churches, their faith, and their community, the professions of faith they repeat to one another, over and over, throughout their conversations.

God is good.
I’m allright though.
I’ll make it through.
I can wait on the Lord.
In God’s time.
I’m okay with God.
I ain’t mad.
Ain’t it the truth?

And there was never a time in which laughter was absent, and indeed almost every hour I spent with people who started out as strangers ended with both laughter and tears. And sometimes, even hugs.

Kairos. Urgent and providential decision. Merton, writing about this in 1968 asks:
Has the time passed? “Non-violence is not simply a matter of marching with signs and placards under the eyes of unfriendly policemen…the problem is to eradicate unjustice from white society. Can it be done? How?" 144

Events and Pseudo Events

When I left here in early July, I was still wrestling with questions about how our community and I myself could best respond to the current crises in the country as a UU, and a religious liberal. I felt that we were being called to step up our response to issues of racial injustice, and I also believed strongly that these issues were not divorced from others we are all concerned about: climate change; campaign reform; environmental damage; nuclear power; Middle East peace; wars throughout the world; on and on. Indeed the chilling conclusion of Coates’ book brilliantly ties a rather grim and yet undeniable bow around these intersecting oppressions and exploitations:

the damming of seas for voltage, the extraction of coal, the transmuting of oil into food, have enabled an expansion in plunder with no known precedent. And this has freed the dreamers to plunder not just the bodies of humans but the bodies of earth itself. The earth is not our creation. It has no use for us. And its vengeance is not the fire in the cities but the fire in the sky. Something more fierce than Marcus Garvey is riding on the whirlwind. Something more awful than all our African ancestors is rising with the seas.

And still I urge you to struggle. Coates, 151.

But it was actually during the reading of Coates and Harper Lee that it began to come clear to me that I was not only a minister of a UU congregation, here in a particular place, in a time, with a limited time on earth, but that I had an obligation to figure out what I could do best and be about doing it. That, and a promise I had made, was what gave me the courage to start my project. Kairos.

And metanoia. Which is not merely repentance, or a changing of one's mind.

So when I say “courage to start,” I do not mean that in any way, I was afraid of The African American people of Springfield. I was only afraid of looking or sounding stupid; saying something offensive; fearful because I am painfully shy; and, perhaps worst of all, fearful that my intrusions might imply that that i was promising more of a solution than ultimately the project would bring.

That’s where metanoia comes in. It is often translated as repentance or “change of heart,” but Episcopal priest, writer, and mystic Cynthia Bourgeault calls it a widening of the mind, going beyond the small, narrow,  mind or the duality to the unity. It is really the experience of unity.

Or, as Merton wrote:
“We must continue to treat our (Negro) friends as persons and as friends, not as members of hostile and incomprehensible species, and it is to be hoped they will do us the same honor… (It is) our duty to be authentic Christians to the (Negro) whether he likes us or not…” (170)

I found that when I became clear that what I was doing was not for me but for and with them and maybe, with some luck, it would even help improve things, help other whites change attitudes, and that by not trying we would never know, and that indeed the whole project had a sense of inevitability about it.
But that’s another story for another day.

As Merton Wrote:
If there is a Kairos, and perhaps there still is, it is not a “time” in which once again we will convince the world we are right, but perhaps rather a time when the crisis of man will teach us to see a few sobering truths about our own calling and our own place in the world – a place no longer exalted and mighty, or perhaps even influential.
What if it could be? Amen.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Why It's Even More Distressing if Sandra Bland Committed Suicide.....

... and in no way relieves the police, jail, or other law enforcement officials who handled/mishandled and unlawfully stopped and arrested her from responsibility for her death. 

A colleague writes: I am haunted by the death of Sandra Bland.

I am haunted, and, is this the part where we are not supposed to say anything?

I think this haunting comes from our acknowledgment that this entire situation is a snapshot, a microcosm of the tragedy facing people of color, especially women of color.

Her life, of which we know the scantest outline: she went to school, went to college. She worked. She may/may not have had issues with depression. She was en route to a new job. She was attractive, and she was informed about police misconduct, and had even been actively opposed to it. She was not going to allow herself to be arrested for no reason.

And yet....

My mind went back this morning to years ago, when I was a La Leche leader. We had, in all seven years that I led these groups of moms, one mother who was a person of color. I remember her well. Her name was Iris, and her son was Alex. We puzzled over why more women of color did not attend, and indeed, did not breastfeed.But this was not unconnected with the reasons that many people of color did not go to the doctor, get regular breast exams (my friend Louise/ see "SCHOOLED" set me straight on this), did not have PCs at first, and in very many cases "appear" to have made decisions or failed to have taken actions which have led to their own demise or early deaths. 


We (being the collective white culture, which, "racist" or not, we can not divorce ourselves from) have treated them like neglected and unwanted step-children at best, and wonder why they have internalized the hate, the scorn for their bodies and their lives. NO! 

For me, it doesn't matter whether she committed suicide. In fact, that scenario, in my mind, is even worse. that means that, rather than go down fighting, that sassy, sure-of-herself woman who stood up to that cop, or tried to, she was broken down, who knows how... deprived of medicine, her cigarettes, her pride, her clothes, probably about to lose the job she'd come to start, plunged into some hideous despair born of everything that was engineered to deprive her of her dignity, her spirit, her self.

I am reminded of Tyisha Miller, the young Black woman in Riverside, California, shot to death while sitting in a car, unconscious, when they believed she "reached for a gun." She was tried, convicted, and found guilty... then executed, before she even woke up. We, the clergy, and the citizens, fought for justice for her. That was 15 years ago.

There is now a website. A hashtag. #sayhername. Tyisha's not there. But I am still haunted by Tyisha, who'd be in her late thirties now.

And I am broken-hearted at how women of color have been killed and have been mistreated, not only as individuals, but as an entirety. And, not just by white men, not just by law enforcement. By music, by women, by literature, by TV and films, so frequently and so blatantly, that it is those that survive that we actually notice.

won't you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.

Lucille Clifton

Thursday, July 23, 2015


My world. Kentucky

Mr. Coates:

Now that I have finished Between the World and Me, I am not the same person I was when I began reading it just three days ago. It's not a long book, and I could have read it in one sitting. I didn't take notes, and I didn't underline or highlight. I felt from the beginning that I was entering into some sacred, hallowed space, this letter that you had written to your son. I know you said in an interview that it was a literary device, and, being a writer, I get that.

But I also believe that your words came from the deepest, most honest and unabashed place in your soul.

You tell us what no black man has really told in quite this lyrical and personal way, at least in this time: what it means and what it feels like to be a boy and a man in the body of one who is born in America an African American.

But you do so much more than that. You will not allow us to look away from what we (those who are white, or as you say, believe we are white) have constructed for ourselves, a world that feels somehow safe, free, secure, assured, and predictable, in ways that your life, your sons life, and no person of color's life... even if he becomes President of the United States... will ever really feel.

I went, last night, to a discussion at an Episcopal Church in Lexington, KY. We were meant to discuss Thomas Merton's book, Faith and Violence, and his very late in life writings on Vietnam and on racism in America. Writing in 1967 and 1968, the year he died, Merton, like you, was brutally frank about why the "Negro" had every right to be angry, as he understood Malcom X, H. Rap Brown, and Stokely Carmichael to have been. He understood the agenda of the Black Panthers, and anti-white agenda. He didn't offer, as you do not, a solution, other than to suggest that "we must continue to treat our Negro friends as persons and as friends,... and it is to be hoped they will do us the same honor..... and we must continue to do all that we can ... to see that his human rights are guaranteed to him even when he may seem to be acting in such a way as to forfeit them in the eyes of a truculent and critical white society." It is remarkable that Merton wrote these words after the summer of 1968, a summer of uprisings and violence in the cities of America. (179)

But he did. And then he wrote: If Christianity is being discredited in the eyes of the Negro, that does not dispense us of our duty to be authentic Christians toward the Negro whether he likes us or not. (179)

I found, in these fifty year old radical proclamations, a partial answer. And in this discussion, with a mostly white group of educated, progressive if not liberal folks, we talked about Merton, and we agreed that his words rang true today.

Then one man said to the Rector who led the discussion, Please tell us where we go from here. I don't know where to go.

I think this is the absolute place your book leaves thinking Americans. Not only "white" America, but people of color who have become advantaged and have not given thought to the systemic issues that plague and perpetuate white privilege. It leaves us stripped of all of the masks shields, shelters and places to hide. It robs us of what you call "the mettle it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces turned into armies, from the long war against the black body...." (Coates, 98) It strips from anyone who reads it with an open and honest heart, who reads it with God as their witness (even though you say you do not believe in God, you tell the truth, which plenty of people who say they believe don't, so.. you have integrity) "the forgetting.." the worst thing we participated in, the most horrible piece of this Dream, "because to remember would tumble them out of the Dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the world....I am convinced the Dreamers... would rather live white than live free." (143)

And then you tell your son that he won't have to be the one to to fix it because Something more awful than all our African ancestors is rising with the sea. (151)

It is here, in these closing pages, where I see and feel, not only the interconnected nature of all the oppressions, but the addictive nature of them as well. I see, too, that for those who listen, and feel this horrible emptiness, this guilt of ages of plunder and pillage that weighs upon us, and this choked cry: But tell me what can I do to fix it?

...the answer is, the same answer given to an addict who arrives at the place called "Surrender." The place where you are on your knees, because there is nothing you can do now. You have done enough. It's time to pray.

I don't feel sad. I feel sadly joyful. I feel elated to live in the world with you, and I pray that this new Gospel of truth will be heard. For like the Prophets of old, you are simply telling us what is to come.

Your friend, whether you want me to be or not,