02.03.17

Remembering James Baldwin

On February 3, 2017, Raoul Peck’s critically acclaimed documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” will debut in theaters across the nation, introducing a new generation to the prophetic voice of James Baldwin. The film considers American race relations through the lens of Baldwin’s unfinished novel “Remember This House.”

Raised in Harlem, Baldwin cemented his legacy as one of the most important voices of the Civil Rights Movement with works like the semi-autobiographical novel Go Tell It On the Mountain and the soul-piercing essays of The Fire Next Time and Notes of a Native Son. His influence endures in the work of writers like Toni Morrison and Ta-Nehisi Coates who point to him as inspiration for their work. However, as Damaso Reyes observes in The Root, “The beauty and sadness of Baldwin’s writing is that he could be speaking about today.”

The American Christian has largely neglected his literary genius in favor of more “conventional” voices on race like Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and Malcolm X. While Baldwin’s sexuality, socialism and religious skepticism make him an unlikely teacher for the Church, his writings provide a powerful critique of American Christianity’s failure to model or advocate for racial equality. His essays, especially in The Fire Next Time, balance the love ethic of King with the prophetic denunciations of X.

In The Fire Next Time, Baldwin identifies a disconnect between theology and practice. For him, it raises questions concerning the authenticity of the Christian faith. He writes, “If the concept of God has any use, it is to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God can’t do that, it’s time we got rid of him.” The Church, as Baldwin understands it, must be engaged with eternal and temporal concerns for it loses legitimacy when its commitment to Biblical principles like the Golden Rule are not reflected in its concern for racial justice.

Of course, many contemporary churches across the nation have evidenced desires to be agents of racial reconciliation. However, the language of racial reconciliation often obscures the ways racist practices persist in the present. Congregations emphasize themes like racial unity, but fail to seriously engage or combat pervasive forms of systemic racism that permeate American culture beyond acknowledging their existence.

The Church needs leaders and congregations willing to live out the theological and practical implications of their faith in the area of race. Apart from a serious attempt to address systemic racism, efforts for racial reconciliation stand as cheap substitutes for true racial unity. None of these realities deny the positive changes along racial lines that have occurred since the days of slavery and segregation, but as Malcolm X was fond of saying, “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress.”

In an age where people of color face unequal treatment in the criminal justice system, greater barriers to employment, and a president who routinely stokes racial fears against them for political power, more is expected of the Church. Christianity may not be the primary culprit of racial discrimination in society, but it cannot be an innocent bystander either. As Baldwin observes, either the church actively works to combat all forms of racism and racial discrimination in society or it becomes complicit with them:

This is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it…. But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.

Baldwin’s point resonates with the familiar biblical story of the Good Samaritan (). In this narrative, the priest and the Levite who failed to help the beaten man were not innocent bystanders, they were sinfully negligent. They failed to meet the demands of Christian love to their brother who was in need.

Like the Levite or the priest, many Christians fail to involve themselves in this matter because they are not directly impacted by racism. Naturally, we think of many disengaged white brothers and sisters with this point. But this is also often true of many upper and middle class blacks. Separated from the daily trauma, pain, and heartache of white supremacy, the urgency of the situation escapes them. Yet, for youth of color, this trauma often fosters a constant pursuit of assimilation and acceptance by majority culture. Speaking to his nephew, Baldwin pushed him to resist these urges:

There is no reason for you to try to become like white people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them. And I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men. Many of them, indeed, know better, but, as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know.

According to Baldwin, racism harms the individual regardless of his or her racial identity. Racism, as he defines it, robs people of an accurate worldview and sense of humanity. As Christians, we might say it robs us of a proper perspective of the imago dei.

If we regard racism to be sin, then we must devote ourselves to fighting it, individually and systemically—wherever and however it surfaces. Healthy lives, churches, and societies depend upon our response to sin, which is why Jesus called us to be salt and light. We do this by holding it up in front of our congregations as sin in preaching and addressing it whenever it surfaces in our churches or communities.

At a time of heightened racial tensions in American culture, we cannot abdicate the responsibility to be a prophetic voice in a society that has tolerated racial injustice since its inception. Instead, we must be unrelenting in our pursuit to be true to the gospel of Jesus Christ. When the Church adopts prophetic stances in response to injustice, we give society a small glimpse into the heart of God. We reveal a God who hates oppression, who cares for the refugee and the immigrant, who is concerned for the widow and the orphan, and who views all people as equal regardless of their ethnicity or gender. This God desires for “justice to roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

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Did you enjoy this article? Want more? We’ll consider issues of justice and faith at our first conference: JUST Gospel. Registration is now open! Come join us on the porch! 

25 And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” 27 And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”

29 But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. 34 He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.” (ESV)

Theon Hill
Theon E. Hill is an assistant professor of Communication at Wheaton College (Ill.). His research examines the intersections of race, religion, and politics.

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  • Profd evans

    I’ve been wrestling with these ideas for sometime…both in and out of the church. Man is such a hateful creature. Such potential for love, but, in his natural state, a beast! If this man does submit to the will of God (the true God of the bible) change for the better is inevitable. However, as I see it, the change is the fruit of the conversion. And that fruit is impossible without the root being first changed. Racial reconciliation, is fruit. And no matter how emotional our plea as we yell and complain about the fruit, it will not come to sweetness without the root first being addressed. THAT, is where a true church teaching true knowledge will create true christians that represent the true and living God. Then, we will have all the fruit we will ever need.

    • BronzeLincolns

      While it is true that man does all sorts of evil things because he is a fallen sinful creature in Adam, We have things in place such as law enforcement and prison in order to deter people from committing crimes against others. What I believe this site would seek is that justice would be served to all people in the way of making sure that those who commit crimes against others are punished by the justice system we have in place for the protection of the person harmed as well as for others in discouraging further behavior towards others.

  • A.A.Ron

    I enjoyed reading this and it has prompted me to pick up James Baldwin and thoughtfully read. I particularly liked the Good Samaritan reference, because it is a specific, visible, tangible even, example. I would like that specific, tangible example to be brought home to us – the Church – today.
    I’ve read similar such commentary, and while I wholeheartedly agree with the content, and the beautiful, lofty language, it’s missing the real connection — what we call in the tech/telephony world as “the last mile”…that bit of cable that brings it into the home. I view this excellent commentary as just the preface. Now we need the application; we need to bring it _into_ the home.
    What are the specific, visible and tangible (I’m purposefully leaving out ‘audible’), things not just the Church, but actual churches, can do? What do the churches that meet in the middle class neighborhoods, with middle class members do to reach the victims…and not just talk in middle (or upper) class “prophetic” language that identifies the problem, identifies a desired future state and how we’re not getting there, tells about a solution to get to that desired state in somewhat nebulous verbiage, but not ways to implement the solution.
    I am not trying to just be critical of the author’s good work here. I want to begin the discussion of what to actually do next.
    How do churches directly, personally engage with refugees, with immigrants, with the poor, the homeless? Do we knock on a stranger’s door and invite them to our home or church? Do we offer church or work or daycare shuttle service to the lower class? How do we invite in the homeless? How about churches combine forces to fund a whole house through Habitat for Humanity and then build it? How do we mobilize our church after a tornado or flood? What can churches do after we read about shootings — pray (more than just once or twice on a Sunday morning), reach out to those affected? How do we engage in prison ministry, to those in prison and their families? How do we incorporate multiple languages in our services, instead of having entirely separate services? How does a predominantly white or black or asian or other church become multi-ethnic; should and how far should we take these efforts without losing the beautiful expressions of our cultural heritages, which are so different from one another? (In other words, how does any particular church “globalize” without merely watering down the varied ethnic heritages of its members? I’ve veered a bit into multi-ethnic churches here, and maybe that’s wrong or maybe it’s part of the solution.)
    Churches are so often so consumed with their own social network and culture — their small groups or Bible studies, mens/womens groups, alter guild, whatever the good and essential initiative may be — that I fear the churches may not know how to reach out and “cold call” those in need; who don’t ask for help (for any number of reasons); or even those not in need, but in another non-diverse church (oops, I’ve come back to diversity again here).
    There are so many “last mile” things we need to begin discussing and writing about and doing in order to complete these wonderful Prefaces (like this article here) by making the “prophetic” a present, real-time reality — the true Body of the work!