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January 8th, 2017

Arts Festival

bbovenguy in wildgodcomm

Sunday Reading

These days, on Sundays when I'm not singing, I'm reading Thomas Merton's Seeds of Destruction, a series of essays on the social conditions Merton saw around him in the America of the early 1960s. So far, I've read "Letters to a White Liberal" and "The Legend of Tucker Caliban," which both concern the racial situation in America at the time of the Civil Rights Movement. But I've got to tell you - these essays could have been written now, here in the 21st Century. In some ways, things haven't changed very much. The Presidential election has shown us just how little they've changed.

The latter essay, "The Legend of Tucker Caliban," is a commentary on the 1962 novel A Different Drummer by William M. Kelley, a book that is now on my need-to-read list. The aforementioned Tucker Caliban is a black man in a fictional Southern state, the descendant of a family that has served the family of the state's governor since the time they were slaves. After buying a plot of land from the governor's family and farming it for a year, he inexplicably sows it with salt, shoots his mule, burns down his house and then disappears with his family. Then, as the bewildered white residents of the community watch, all the other African-Americans in the state pack up and leave, too. Finally, the only African-American left in the state is a northerner who founded a black racist movement, who has come down to see what's going on. The white characters decide he is to blame for what's happened, and so at the end they drag him off and lynch him.

The way Merton describes this story almost makes it sound like an Existentialist novel. Tucker Caliban destroys everything that defined him under the legacy of slavery. He and the other African-Americans then depart for some unknown land, to define themselves on their own, free of who the white men say they are. As Merton writes, "Their departure is a symbolic statement: it is the final refusal to accept paternalism, tutelage, and all different forms of moral, economic, psychological and social servitude wished on them by the whites."

And the white men, for their part, suddenly find themselves masters in a land where there is no one for them to be masters of. They have no idea what to do with themselves, and so they kill the only black man left because they can't think of any other response. "The white man," Merton writes, "has lost his power to hear any inner voice other than that of his own demon who urges him to preserve the status quo at any price, however desperate, however iniquitous and however cruel."

Sound like the times we're living in? The people who want to "Make America Great Again" have shown us how high, how desperate, how iniquitous and how cruel a price they're willing to pay in order to preserve the "White Christian America" of their nostalgic dreams. Merton was writing about the times before I was born, but he could have been writing about today.

When one group of people forces another group into a specific role, it's really both groups that are enslaved. I noticed that when I was married. My ex-wife tried to fit herself into the gender roles mandated by the Evangelical Christianity we practiced at the time. Her attempt to be a "good Christian wife" pushed me into being a "good Christian husband," whether I liked it or not. (Spoiler alert - I didn't.) Similarly, in a society where white people dominate people of color, both groups are trapped. We white folks need people of color to have their full equality. Otherwise, we ourselves are enslaved by our own inner demons.

America is changing, whether we like it or not. The demographic tide is sweeping us toward a "majority minority" country, and the younger generations are embracing our increased diversity. If we white folks can't be the Masters of America, then who are we? That's not a rhetorical question. It needs a serious answer. Who are we going to be in a land where we are one among equals? The various peoples of color need to come up with their own answers for who they're going to be. We need to come up with our answer for who we're going to be. And then we need to get together and work out who we're all going to be as Americans.

I'd like to think that God wants us to be facing those questions instead of building walls, making religious lists, rounding up people for deportation or any of the other things that have been suggested to Make America Great Again. And I am sure He's ready and willing to help us with the answers, if only we will listen.