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.