South to Death

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South to Death

by Earl Higgins
Southern Cultures, Vol. 11, No. 1: Spring 2005

"Those who are given the power by law to exercise mercy become too intoxicated, overwhelmed by the power to end life; they can no longer grant the mercy advocated by the scriptural teachings they purport to follow. Matthew 5:7, for example, instructs, 'Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.'"

Driving across the South, Virginia to Texas, periodically tapping the search function on the radio, one hears a continual message of God. The music is about God: country, gospel, Christian contemporary, blues. The talk is of God. God is witnessed to and proclaimed by the preachers and the musicians and the call-in talkers, with messages both soft and hard. The old roads of the South, not the Interstate Highways, those most homogeneous and homogenizing engines of American culture, are full of churches, churches that only occasionally have names like St. Cecilia’s or Trinity Episcopal. The Southern Baptist affiliation boasts large numbers but is aggressively challenged by the independent evangelicals, the Pentecostals, the Holiness people. The radio preachers, Christians all who confess belief in repentance, redemption, and the salvific power of Jesus, speak as frequently of God’s power to punish as of Christ’s mission to forgive. In tones darker than those used to proclaim the Gospel, the good news of the New Testament, they invoke the exacting, death-demanding God of Leviticus as often as the forgiving, redeeming Jesus of Nazareth. There are no subtle signals in The Word as preached with high energy on the southern radio. The Bible is cited and quoted; there is life and death, redemption and damnation, punishment and retribution. With paradox and fire, God is to the South as capsicum is to cayenne.