(A Poem)

On Sunday mornings in Appalachia

Christians practice the peculiar custom

of bearing serpents into their sanctuaries.

They lift the snakes from their cages

and take them in their hands and

raise them high, and cuddle them.

To us tamer Christians this custom is beyond the pale,

even though it may have its advantages—

who would fall asleep in such an andrenalinized liturgy?

And is not faith, of a sort, truly tested by

a snake writhing around your fingers, in your face?

Still, we the tame point out, the custom arises

from a specious text that does not

really belong at the end of the Gospel of Mark.

The grasping of serpents, we say,

is a kind of eschatological grasping,

grabbing and claiming too much, too soon.


But lay down the literal snake,

with its scales and dripping fangs,

lay it down.

Consider the Junior King

who marched on Selma and Montgomery

and Chicago and Washington.

Consider the venom he faced

every day for two decades.

Consider the curled-rattlesnake danger he and his followers

aroused and confronted almost daily.

And consider that King did so on

the basis of his hope,

an eschatological hope,

that something resembling justice and peace

might be brought to bear in this world, now.

Isn’t the world a little bit better place

because the serpent of bigotry was lifted from its cage,

borne into the churches, confronted with love and determination?

Before we dismiss the practice altogether, then,

we should remember

King the preacher,

King the activist,

King the peacemaker,

King the snakehandler.