We meet the 1st and 3rd Thursdays at St. Gertrude's Ministry Center
(6214 N. Glenwood), beginning at 8:00 p.m. Folks are welcome to join us at anytime.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

times being what they are...

Black Power and the Blessed Meek

Merton leads his essay, “From Nonviolence to Black Power,” with a quote from H. Rap Brown, “violence is as American as cherry pie” (210). These words resurface throughout the essay and lay the groundwork for the theme of racism and violence in America. Merton grapples with the “why” behind the volatile Black Power movement that came on the heels of a Civil Rights movement that worked by the principles of nonviolence. He notes that for many black Americans “Christian nonviolence remained ambiguous. The Negro felt himself imprisoned in the fantasy image of him devised by the white man…subservient, subhuman…there to be beaten over the head” (210). Made in this image, a man or woman practicing nonviolence is compromised. Instead of startling the aggressor this nonviolent man or woman merely reinforces the preconception that he or she is a passive subject primed for domination. The civilly liberated African Americans were left in the lurch. Even the demographic of whites who admired “black dignity at a distance” (211), did little to welcome these dignified persons into their communities. So, the black Americans decided to make themselves heard by speaking what Rap Brown calls “the American language” (211), namely, violence. White America heard and was glad (albeit alarmed); now that they were speaking the same language, white could respond to black in kind, feeling validated in their use of forceful repression as a legitimate response to a threat. In the end, Merton concedes he has no clear, final solution, but he indicates that it is important to recognize and acknowledge the real problem. The problem, he writes, is the system itself, a system of “violence, hatred, poison, cruelty and greed” (216).
Merton’s line about “the Negro” feeling imprisoned in an image which the white man had created for him brought my mind back to an African American Literature class I had in college in which we discussed the concept of “the mask.” The mask was an allusion to a false self that an African American would don in order to be acceptable and understood in white culture, a culture where his true self was bewildering and unwelcome. When reading Merton’s contemplations from other sources about the false/true self, I imagined that discovering the true self could not be done by searching but rather by allowing what already is to simply be. Bringing this back to the context of African Americans, civil rights, and Black Power: what happens when what is, is not allowed to be? Langston Hughes once poetically posed the question, “What happens to a dream deferred?” I think those of the Black Power movement would embrace the poet’s final speculation; it explodes.

In “Blessed are the Meek,” Merton begins by outlining what Christian non-violence is not. Namely, it is not an easy out for a person with an aversion to conflict. Rather, he describes it as, “the most exacting form of struggle” (249). There are a number of reasons for this. Part of the struggle is that with nonviolence you put yourself in a position of vulnerability: emotionally, ideologically, and physically. While the natural reaction of a person in such a position is to become defensive, the nonviolence practitioner does not defend him/her self but stands instead as a voice for that deep truth that is often lost in the cacophony of everyday chatter and loud shouts of greed, anger and despair. The battle of nonviolence is not a fight entered on behalf of oneself or for a particular demographic, it is for everybody. “Us vs. them” disintegrates and there is only “us,” all of us.
This ideal is not easily integrated into the thoughts, feelings, and actions of the average person. Merton is well aware of the challenge and draws not only from his own insight but also from the wisdom and experience of Gandhi. He writes, “Fully consistent practice of nonviolence demands a solid metaphysical basis both in being and in God” (249). For the Christian, Merton asserts, this basis is found in Christ and in obediently acting out his presence in the world. Merton points specifically to the Sermon on the Mount as a detailed description of Christ’s intention for the Kingdom. He continues to emphasize the great significance of humility. This is not a term intended to imply weakness, passivity, or self-effacement. Rather, it is a word for an attitude that is rooted in an awareness of one’s need to trust in God and to measure every thought, word and deed in the light of a reverence for life.
One need not look far to see that nonviolence is more than a tactic, it is a way of being. As I perceive it, the way of nonviolence becomes present in the world through communication. It communicates with words and silence, with action and stillness. The means of communication are as significant as what is being said and are likely more powerful. One of the things that stands out most to me is that true nonviolent communication listens, even, and at times especially, to the “enemy.” “A test of our sincerity…is this: are we willing to learn something from the adversary” (255). It is so important to have such a test. How easy it is to look at our enemy and see only evil, to see oneself as right and the other as wrong, thus deepening the division that we claim we are attempting to mend.

1 comment:

  1. thanks, amy, for this reflection. it's both beautifully-written and incredibly pertinent to the times in which we find ourselves. i really appreciate the thought and faith you put into this reflection!