[ (St. Bernard) points out that such a soul is inevitably subject to insecurity and fear. And fear is the “color” which darkens the soul and obscures the divine image, distorting it into an idol and a caricature. Fear is the “impurity” of the soul that aspires to be omnipotent.
Fallen man, then, is one in whom the Divine Image, or free-will, has become a slave to itself by making itself its own idol. The image of God is distorted by “unlikeness.” Under the tyranny of such an idol, freedom itself becomes a kind
of slavery, in which man drives himself wild trying to will what is impossible, trying to verify and prove his impossible claim to be a “god”.]
I’m reading Thomas Merton’s “The Silent Life”, one of his explorations of monastic life. On the whole I’m surprised at the remarkable amount of common ground I’m finding with him theologically, considering not just the differences in our callings and backgrounds but our profound fundamental differences in Christian lenses (classical theology for him, anti-capitalist body-positive feminism aiming at intersectionality for me).
BUT dealing with classical theology always involves rooting out violence, imperialism and sinfulness embedded in it. And here’s an example.
This quote is partway through a point he’s making, but the preceding context doesn’t matter much here. Suffice to say he’s discussing some specific impurities and sins of the soul. Then here comes this metaphor. Color itself equals fear. Color obscures the divine image. Color is impurity. Color is sin.
You don’t have to look far to see darkness equated with sin in a Christian context. Darkness and light imagery is used a lot to talk about spiritual matters in general. I have a growing distaste for this, though that’s not a common opinion it seems. But here, the problems some folks find in the rhetorical denigration of darkness are even clearer, it seems to me. Because It’s not even just darkness, it’s all color that’s denigrated here. Color is fear — which is contrasted in Christian scripture against love, so color is the opposite of love. “Love casts out color”, so to speak. Color = impurity, thereby centralizing not just light but whiteness as pure and holy. Color is sin. Nonwhiteness is made a sin.
Is the metaphor still harmless?
Let’s look at where it goes next. Let’s proceed to the very next paragraph, where this soul of color has *chosen* SLAVERY through their sinful actions.
This certainly isn’t an isolated incident. Merton didn’t make this up himself. As I said, it’s embedded in classical Christian theology, forged as it was in and by Empire, wounding the heart of the gospel.
But white Christians, liberals included right along with every other political stripe, need to be very clear just how deeply white supremacy is rooted in the history of our faith. We need to be clear how much is still there. Thomas Merton is elevating something from our history that has directly allowed for the murder of Michael Brown and countless other people of color.
Look here to read more about chromophobia and colonialism, and here is a look at the chromophobia tag from medievalpoc. These are not harmless metaphors. The history of denigration of color in art is fundamentally related to the rhetorical denigration of darkness. And these ideas grew with and made possible a long history of colonialism and violence enacted on dark bodies and bodies of color, violence still happening today. These things are related, profoundly.