Part of a nearby Baptist church memorial to multiple African Americans
whose lives have been taken in recent years.
In preparation for leading an online course on respected spiritual author Henri Nouwen, I am reading my own 2002 book of 100 meditations on his life and writings to remind myself of things I might say and stories I might tell. I found “Day Seventy-Two: The Crisis of Racism” particularly pertinent to today’s happenings and offer it in support of Black Lives Matter.
Henri wrote in a posthumously published book of his participation in a well-known Alabama protest march:
It seemed as if nobody could party better than these oppressed people. The flush of victory seemed to have them in its grasp, combined with the certainty that they would lose. … [Alabama Governor] George Wallace cannot be converted.
-Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Road to Peace, p 82.
Why does racism have such a grip on us? Why do its relentless talons press into our culture’s mind and heart so deep that we hardly recognize its power even now, almost forty years* after Henri wrote these words about the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, with Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965? Forty years—we should be at the Promised Land by now. Did our grumbling en route bring us yet another forty years as punishment?
What strikes me as I finally read Henri’s previously unavailable essays about the Selma march and King’s death in 1968 in The Road to Peace is the unambivalent clarity with which he describes good and evil, what is just and what is unjust. It’s like the realism of his writings about Central and South America: there’s a hardness and a leanness to his writing that is less enchanting than gripping.
If he had “swung” that way, he would have made a strong politically prophetic figure. This book’s editor John Dear points out that Henri did not want to be arrested in U.S. protests because, in doing so, he risked being deported as an “alien.” But I think it was something deeper in his nature that shunned political drama for spiritual drama, the larger playing field in his mind.
“Fixing” something politically was important; but addressing it spiritually was even more so. And he realized that “being right” politically did not mean “being right” spiritually; that, as we try to take the beam out of the world’s eye we must be watchful of a myriad of splinters in our own, to reverse Jesus’ metaphor.
Which brings us back to the talons of racism that grip our culture. At heart it is a spiritual crisis underlying the political crisis. That’s why the Reverend King could draw Henri from his studies at the Menninger Clinic in Kansas into a march by calling the religious community for support after marchers earlier suffered violence on the Edmund Pettis bridge just outside Selma.
Henri wrestled long and hard about whether or not to go. That, to me, suggests Henri was not meeting the demands of ego or self-righteousness but meeting the demands of humility and justice. When you’d rather not, but you’re there anyway, you know it’s not about you.
His recognition that “nobody could party better than these oppressed people” foreshadowed similar experiences with the poor in Latin America and the severely disabled of L’Arche. Feeling momentarily powerful and victorious while facing certain defeat is a dynamic understood by any who have advocated “lost” causes.
And yet, ironically, the “defeat” that “George Wallace cannot be converted,” is controverted as early as five years later in an essay Henri wrote about Dr. King’s assassination, quoting the Alabama governor declaring it “a senseless and useless act.” Since then, of course, Wallace asked forgiveness for his support of segregation, probably not unrelated to his own crippling wound in an attempt on his life.
Though [truth’s] portion be the scaffold
And upon the throne be wrong,
Yet that scaffold sways the future…
From the hymn, “Once to Every One and Nation” by James Russell Lowell.
* Remember, my book was published in 2002.
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Copyright © 2002 and 2020 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author, blogsite and book title, Henri’s Mantle: 100 Meditations on Nouwen’s Legacy.