James Baldwin, the Church, and Injustice

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.

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SOURCE: The Front Porch
Theon Hill