Questions of Monk and Martyr: Race, Religion and Social Justice in the South

chris-new-southerner2KAIROS AND CRISIS

Contributing Editor

In his essay “”Religion and Race in the United States”” (Faith and Violence, 1968), Thomas Merton defined kairos as ““the time of urgent and providential decision.”” I would venture to define crisis as the result of such a time coming and going with hardly anyone paying it attention, much less acting upon its urgency. Crisis, then, follows the refusal of kairos, whether such refusal is deliberate or maintained in ignorance.

Under Martin Luther King Jr. and nonviolent resistance, Merton wrote that “the kairos, “the ‘’providential time,’’ met with a courageous and enlightened response”” that enabled the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Merton went on to call this response, under King, “”the greatest example of Christian faith in action in the social history of the United States.””

Thomas Merton defined kairos as “the time of urgent and providential decision,” a time that involves the risk of crisis. This sense of kairos, particularly here in the South, has much if not everything to do with race and religion. These things are bound to our identities as Southerners, whether accurately or stereotypically. They have been wellsprings of goodness and grace, and they have suffered as objects of hatred and ignorance. Always they have required response. Kairos and Crisis hopes to be one such response, seeking nothing less than healing for our places, our neighbors and ourselves.

Crisis came, however, when it became clear that this legislation, significant as it was and hard earned as it had been, was merely paper. “”The non-violent struggle for integration was won on the law books——and lost in fact,”” writes Merton in another essay in Faith and Violence, “”From Non-Violence to Black Power.”” For an example of this claim, Merton discusses the Northern white liberals who admired the Civil Rights Movement from a distance but were adamantly opposed to things such as fair housing, along with others who believed that black people had the right to march and not be beaten by police, only without practical claim to the rights for which they marched.

Our times are different, of course. Many people today insist that racism does not exist, or that it is not a real problem if it does. Many today, in fact, claim that they “don’t see race at all” though some of the worst of our problems are undeniably racial, thus suggesting that blindness is a better alternative to bad vision. And just as many people today, it seems, claim that religion—even the religion enacted by King and written about by Merton—is of no consequence.

By failing to acknowledge race and religion—the goodness and beauty of both and the abuses endured by both—we fail to allow room for healing of our wounds, individual and societal. In closing the essay that I opened with here, “Religion and Race in the United States,” Merton writes:

The partial failure of liberal non-violence has brought out the stark reality that our society itself is radically violent and that violence is built into its very structure. We live in a society which, while appealing to Christian ethical ideals, violently negates its Christian pretensions …. The problem is to eradicate this basic violence and unjustice from white society. Can it be done? How?

It can’t be done, for sure, by ignoring it. Our time and our South and our country may not be in so obvious a crucible as the time and the South and the country of King and Merton, but in certain respects the coldness of our time may be more menacing and therefore more challenging.

Whatever the case, it is my purpose in these blog entries to show instances of violence—whether physical, spiritual, or, more often than not, both—built into the structure of our society and ways we might eradicate it, with a particular emphasis on race and religion in the South, always with a heart for social justice.

Ultimately, race and religion must be approached with the same creativity and love as some are now approaching other Southern structures. A short line connects mountaintop removal to mass incarceration, or the poisons of industrial agriculture to the poisons flowing from many pulpits. At the same time, just as short a line, or a shorter one, connects an unspoiled mountain to a sermon by Martin Luther King, or slow food to religious tradition.

There is much to be encouraged by here in the South, from the movements for local- and self-sufficiency to a heightened awareness of the necessity of ecological stewardship; and yet all is not encouraging. The temptation here is to end on a positive note, to perhaps invoke King’s vision for a “Beloved Community” or to suggest that we are somehow headed in the right direction. I do very much believe in the Beloved Community, and I do believe in the possibility for shifts in our collective conscience, and I am hopeful. But I am not optimistic. In my home state of Georgia, for example, the powers that be are set to execute a man with an intellectual disability in a little over a week, and the Ku Klux Klan is looking to adopt a highway in a county not too far from my own. In light of things such as these, and many others about which I will write throughout the duration of this blog, it is only questions—King’s “Where do we go from here?” and Merton’s “Can it be done? How?”—that make a fitting conclusion now.

New Southerner contributing editor Christopher Martin lives his wife and their children in the northwest Georgia piedmont, where he studies creative writing at Kennesaw State University and edits the online journal Flycatcher. Chris is author of the poetry chapbook A Conference of Birds, and his work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous places, such as Shambhala Sun, Still: The Journal, Drafthorse, Poecology, Ruminate Magazine and The Southern Poetry Anthology, Volume V: Georgia.

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1 comment

  1. Chris,
    This is a fine delineation of what work we have,and as you point up – we are passing through the time in which it must be done. I would skip Merton’s “Can it be done? because I do not wish to consider that, but rephrase King’s “Where do we go from here?” and How?” as “what do we need?”

    To me, the first need is the end of what you point out. “Many people today insist that racism does not exist, or that it is not a real problem if it does.” This wall of denial must fall, and trumpeting the truth of our collective violent and immoral actions -such as the planned execution of Warren Hill- may bring a resonance of reason which can crack that blindness. The light of your and the linked article’s words illuminates the fact that we are proposing to take a man’s life without any evidence that he is mentally competent, against the desire of his victims family and even the intentions of some of his jurors. What evil has control of our collective self, in the form of our state government, such that we pursue this?

    What we need are words of ” creativity and love” such as you have written here and I look forward to more. Thank you.

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