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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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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