Why Now, and What Now? A Theological Reflection on the Fire of the Current Moment
“If not us, then who?
If not now, then when?”
God gave Noah the rainbow sign
‘No more water but fire next time.
– Negro Spiritual, O Mary Don’t You Weep, used in James Baldwin’s seminal essay, The Fire Next Time
Last week Smith released its plan, accompanied by a letter from Kathy McCartney and Floyd Cheung, outlining the College’s plan to address racial justice. Given the Center for Religious and Spiritual Life’s location as part of the larger OEI team, my colleagues and I are honored to have been involved in the drafting of this plan, along with the many committees, constituents, and voices who have been working so hard on this issue in recent months and years.
The intention was for the plan to be rolled out over time; but this summer Smith has accelerated its release in response to the lynching of George Floyd and to the most recent murders of Black people–by law enforcement in the case of Breonna Taylor in March and Tony McDade in May, and by vigilantes in the case of Ahmaud Arbery. The ensuing surge of activity in the movement for Black lives, manifesting in protests, rallies, and calls for new legislation across the United States, has made our mission more urgent.
As we worked with the Office of Equity and Inclusion to prepare for the release of this plan, amidst heartfelt and passionate discussions, a Black colleague, wondering to herself, asked us to consider why now? Indeed, though I am white, and cannot see these events through the same lens as my colleague, the question resonated powerfully with me.
Smith College has been grappling with structural racism both as part of a larger society and on its own campus for decades. We have undertaken this action with the integration of earlier and ongoing efforts, and a renewed recognition of past harms. We have had countless panels, programs, initiatives, and we have had the profound and deeply meaningful contributions of the Cromwell Day event over the years. All have been progressive.
Yet is there reason to believe that decisive action at this historical moment will lead to a more significant shift than the moments that have come before it?
As Professor of Classics and of African American Studies at Yale University Emily Greenwood says, we engage in the periodic ritual of being surprised by the deadly force of racism when it has been with us all along. Perhaps the sentiment helps describe why, while we arrive at it from distinct vantage points, my Black colleague and I have parallel questions. It is a repetition of what Emily Greenwood calls “another of the intermittent occasions when we have the stomach to talk and speak openly about the scourge of racism, its logic and effects.” https://yalealumnimagazine.com/articles/5180-rewriting-the-end
There have been so many natural moments in the last decade–only talking about recent history— such as Eric Garner’s murder in Staten Island in 2014, or Philando Castile’s murder in St. Anthony, Minnesota in 2016, both of which went viral and became national news: weren’t these cases sufficiently outrageous to have catalyzed society?
How are we to believe that this time will be any different when it comes to dismantling racism? How are we as a staff to expect students and alumni to believe it? And by extension–how are we to act to bring these changes into being; until we understand the why now?
There is a phenomenon in mental health called the kindling effect, which provides a metaphor to help answer this question. It is a more nuanced way of describing the “tipping point,” or the phenomenon or the “last straw” which leads to decisive action, dramatic change, and, ultimately, a paradigm shift.
Kindling effect theory posits that a large sturdy log which cannot catch fire on its own is finally ignited by the small accumulation of pieces of kindling. It is the log that will sustain the fire, but it is only the most easily flammable materials that serve as the “last straws” which lead to ignition. The intersecting crises of climate change, the tenuousness of our democratic institutions, the U.S. economy, the plight of refugees and asylum seekers all over the world, as well as the Covid-19 crisis, have been kindling for the “moment” of racial justice.
Most of all though, the pandemic, while it disproportionately affects Black, brown, and poor people, has dramatically increased our sense of vulnerability. Ironically, the Covid-19 pandemic may be in itself a vaccine against the relentless course of U.S. anti-black racism. White people’s increased sense of vulnerability has provided for a more sympathetic understanding of what it might be like to live under the constant threat of violence or even annihilation.
This is not to say that the pandemic is not breeding more hate and fear; indeed it is. But the arc of the universe, bending towards justice, is moving fast, and there is less room for stagnation, rigidity, and passivity.
The intersecting crises, with Covid-19 as the igniting factor, is our why now. The what now is about keeping the fire burning.
The fire is not an eruption of chaos but in an explosion of justice.
The writer of the book of Ephesians in the Christian scripture speaks of the fullness of time. The book of Corinthians refers to the acceptable time. Decisive moments happen only because of the countless moments before them. Their unfolding takes not only steadfast commitment, but a tolerance of setbacks. Like so many stories of despair turned to hope, of sin turning to redemption, in the spiritual traditions a moment of crisis has kindled our hearts. Let this be the fire this time.
(Matilda Cantwell is the Director of Religious and Spiritual Life and College Chaplain.)