James Baldwin and the Problem of Grace

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

James Baldwin is an American Dostoevsky. Practically everything he wrote touches on the undying quarrel between faith and reason. For Baldwin, as for Dostoevsky, the essential question was, does religion—Christianity in particular—tell literal truths that guide the individual soul to salvation, or does it merely create values, rituals and myths that enhance group identity and strengthen feelings of community? In other words, is religion an instance of metaphysics or culture?

One can, of course, have it both ways. There is nothing that says religion abandons its metaphysical claims (e.g. God exists) just because it also creates cultural artifacts. But in both Baldwin and Dostoevsky we see the persistent theme that people can believe quite strongly in religion’s cultural manifestations while harboring deep, even lifelong, painful doubts about its metaphysical claims.

go-tell-itThis tension is the main theme of Baldwin’s partially autobiographical novel Go Tell It on the Mountain. The protagonist, John, is a 14-year-old boy growing up in a Pentacostal family in 1930s Harlem. He is destined to become a preacher, his parents say. The story comes to a climax as John undergoes a transformative religious experience, rolling in a feverish trance on the floor of his father’s church, being prayed and sung over by the “saints” of the congregation for several hours. It seems, in the novel’s final pages, that John will live up to his Biblical name and become a preacher of the Gospel.

Or will he? Leading up to the climax, the novel probes the back stories of all John’s family members, and it echoes with a deep ambiguity about the questionable power of religious transformation in their lives. Are people actually and truly born again, or do they merely experience the subjective, hopeful flush of the promise of a new life? And might that be enough?

All John’s relatives are in some way morally compromised, constantly fending off doubts about the efficacy of their salvation and the hypocrisy of the “annointed.” An aunt recalls how Pentacostal preachers in the deep South, where she grew up, routinely kept concubines. The preachers found a way “to do their dirt,” as she put it, while calling their flocks to the purity of Jesus and the abstemiousness of Paul. If God’s ordained messengers hadn’t truly been transformed by grace, and indeed led secret lives of constant sinfulness, what hope was there for the mere flocks? John has his doubts.

John’s world, though, is one rendered and experienced overwhelmingly in Biblical terms. The Gospel can’t be hollow, we gather, when we witness the pervasiveness of its message in everyday life and the strength of the fellowship bonds it builds among the people around John. For all of them, hope, joy, longing, forbearance—in fact, all the moral emotions—are sanctified by the promise of Christianity’s summum bonum, eternal life in heaven. It is this endpoint that keeps John’s friends and family oriented to the cardinal Christian virtues.

Baldwin’s writing about the social function of Christianity is very much akin to Dostoevsky’s. For Dostoevsky, one of Christianity’s greatest glories was its ability to sustain Russian peasants through the crushing hardships of feudal life on the Steppe. Russia’s peasants were utterly uneducated, nightmarishly poor, and, most importantly, politically weak—completely deprived of the power to act on or even assert their grievances. They were slaves. But the promise and solace of Christianity got them through. In The Bothers Karamazov, Dostoevky famously asserts: how does one know Christianity is true? Because when the priest proclaims, “Christ is risen,” the peasant masses clamor back, in mighty unison, “Truly He is risen.”

And so it is for Baldwin’s characters, more or less. Religion is a promise of justice in the form of a much better life to come. In Go Tell It on the Mountain, all the adult characters grew up in the Reconstruction South, menaced and terrorized by Jim Crow violence. They moved northward to big cities that promised the good life “with one hand while taking it away with the other.” But they kept their hope and dignity, because they believed, as steadfastly as Dostoevsky’s peasants, that truly Christ was risen.

Dostoevsky has been accused of giving the devil all the best parts in his novels despite maintaining his belief in the Gospel. Baldwin comes off as doing just the opposite. He is secular but gives all the best parts to the faithful. When his devout characters pray, suffer and commune with one another in Christian love, they do so with a beautiful lyricism and without a touch of irony.

But the novel’s terrain is the human situation, and any novel worth its name is as deeply ambiguous as life itself. Baldwin’s Christians shine a beautiful light, but there is a hidden darkness behind them. What Baldwin cannot square, and what remains in the shadows for him, is the Christian doctrine of grace. When a sin is committed, it mars the sinner’s character and traduces a law of God, but these two harms are not the end of the story, are they? In almost every case, sin harms a third party as well. How does grace take account of them? Or does it at all?

Here is the conundrum in simplest terms. I can forgive someone for harming me—that is clearly within the scope of my moral authority—but by what expansion of moral authority could I forgive someone for harming someone else? Wouldn’t that someone else have a say in whether forgiveness ought to happen? In fact, doesn’t the harmed party have the only say worth voicing? A god who could, for example, forgive a child abuser even as the abused child walks the earth in misery is a god capable of telling the child her misery does not matter. Gace has reconciled all harm done: be at peace.

John’s stepfather, Gabriel, is a preacher, stern in manner, demanding of others’ piety and deference. He beats John. He controls his subservient wife; he expects to be called reverend even by his family members. What has produced such arrogance? Put simply, it is a matter of faith and forgetting. Gabriel is so confident the sins of his youth have been washed away, he comports himself as if they had no existence whatsoever, even on the historical record. And why not? Grace tells him this is so.

But Gabriel has a secret past, and a sister who has found out about it. As a young man in the South, Gabriel was married to a devout but dour, ugly woman he did not love. He had an adulterous affair with a younger, more nubile girl, who became pregnant. Gabriel secretly sent the girl north, where she died alone, birthing his child. The son later died too. They both simply disappeared from Gabriel’s history, from life itself. Grace, through its purifying power, had opened up the space for Gabriel to move on, irrevocably. He was washed white as snow, and life went on as if his mistress and son had never suffered his cruelty or even existed.

baldwin-and-coffeeOften the most interesting thing about a novel is what it does not say. Not once is the hymn “Go Tell It on the Mountain” sung in Baldwin’s novel of the same name; nor do its words appear in any epigram. Why not? We don’t know until the closing pages. Emerging from the haze of his religious ordeal, John is born again. Gabriel looms above him, not just as his earthly stepfather, but now as his spiritual master, a saint and a prophet in the very church John will serve. It doesn’t seem John’s rebirth in Christ will save him from the tyranny and brutality of his stepfather.

Then there is a twist. Florence, Gabriel’s sister, threatens to tell secrets that would expose Gabriel’s past and give names and faces to those he wishes to stay forgotten–those unrepresented in the court of Grace long ago in his youth.

In believing himself expunged of all sin, Gabriel has swept more under the rug than any decent person ought to be allowed to. The message Florence threatens to ring forth from a mountaintop turns out not to be the Gospel, but havoc and scandal. She would have Gabriel’s story told, and along with it, the story of those he harmed so callously. In his view, Gabriel sowed his wild oats, repented, and had his name written in the “Book of Life.” Then he moved on without a look back. That is what his whole facade of piety depends on. But others were involved in his past, Florence reminds him, others whose very identities seem to have been obliterated in the act of grace.  Gabriel’s mistress was named Esther:

“You ain’t forgotten her name,” [Florence] said. “You can’t tell me you done forgot her name. Is you going to look on her face, too [in heaven]? Is her name written in the Book of Life? . . . I’m going to find some way—some way, I don’t know how—to rise up and tell it, tell everybody, about the blood the Lord’s anointed is got on his hands.”

So this is the message that threatens to ring forth from the mountain: there are more claimants on Gabriel’s transgressions than himself and his God. Esther has a claim. Their dead son Royal has a claim. Were their interests represented when God washed Gabriel white as snow? When Gabriel protests that he has long been in a state of grace, Florence protests that a two-party process of redemption is tragically incomplete:

“If you done caused souls right and left to stumble and fall, and lose their happiness, and lose their souls? What then, prophet? What then, the Lord’s anointed? Ain’t no reckoning going to be called of you?”

At the end of Go Tell It on the Mountain, we don’t know which message will ring forth from the mountaintop—the Gospel, or the secret, scandalous flaw at the heart of grace. John may fulfill his appointed mission to go forth and baptize the fallen, or he may flee the cynical brand of holiness purveyed by his stepfather. But no matter what, for Baldwin, the social power of the Gospel persists. If the flock does not trouble itself with whys and wherefores; if it keeps today as the horizon of its moral calculations, it can carry on. Proclaiming “Truly Christ is risen” still rings forth as an intelligible response to what Camus called the “vast, indifferent sky.”

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