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.