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 try to 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, 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, Baldwin’s 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 before drifting back to the status quo ante?

All John’s relatives are in some way morally compromised; they are constantly fending off doubts about the efficacy of their salvation and the hypocrisy of the “anointed.” An aunt recalls how Pentecostal preachers where she grew up in the deep South 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 and other characters in Go Tell It have their doubts.

John’s world, though, is one he experiences 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 power 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, Dostoevsky famously asserts: how does one know Christianity is true? Because when the priest proclaims, “Christ is risen,” the peasant masses clamor back in 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 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 a better life. But the North prommised that life “with one hand while taking it away with the other.” Still, John’s extended family 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. Their faith sustains them, and that seems to be enough.

But the novel’s terrain is the human situation, and any novel worth its name is as 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 deforms 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 of sin, it harms a third party as well. How does grace take account of third parties? Or does it?

Here is the conundrum in simplest terms. I as a victim could 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 shame and misery is a god who is effectively telling the child her misery does not matter. Grace has reconciled all harm done: she should 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? Faith and forgetting, as we find out. 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. He has been washed white as snow.

But Gabriel has a secret past, and a sister who has discovered it. As a young man in the South, Gabriel was married to a devout but 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 child later died too. They both simply disappeared from Gabriel’s history, from life itself. Grace, through its purifying power, opened up the space for Gabriel to move on, and this moving on became an irrevocable “fact” in his life history. His life went on as if his mistress and son had never suffered from 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 transformation–prayed over and sweated over by the saints–John is born again. Gabriel physically looms above him now, not just as his earthly stepfather, but 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 shield 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. Those whom faith has told him to blot out.

In believing himself expunged of all sin, Gabriel has swept more under the rug than decency permits. The message Florence threatens to ring forth from a mountaintop turns out not to be the Gospel that the novel’s title suggests, 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 of his youth, 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 demands. 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 pleas for a statue of limitations, protesting that he has long been in a state of grace, Florence fires back 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 kind 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. It still makes a certain kind of sense for the masses to ring out that “Truly Christ is risen.” But look too closely, and grace disintegrates as a worthy moral imperative.

2 thoughts on “James Baldwin and the Problem of Grace

  1. I just read “The Fire Next Time,” the first thing I’ve ever read by James Baldwin. Don’t know how I managed to miss him all these years. I read it in a couple of days–was knocked out by the power and the beauty of it: the writing itself and the ideas. I kept thinking of Dostoevsky as I read. So I googled and found your statement that Baldwin was “an American Dostoevsky.” Dostoevsky is my hero and my idol; I have read all his novels, some many times (esp TBK). I much appreciate this essay. Now I must read more Baldwin. What do you recommend next?

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  2. Hi 4cats4, I’m so glad you enjoyed my review and, more importantly, “The Fire Next Time,” although I’m guessing ‘enjoy’ is a pale word for your experience. It was also the first thing I read by Baldwin, and it was a revelation! His appreciation of death as a gift that focuses us on our most important duties puts him in the first rank of philosophically-minded writers.

    I’m a huge fan of Baldwin but can’t call myself an expert or authority. I don’t think you can miss by reading any of his non-fiction. After Fire, I think Nobody Knows My Name is very good.

    One of the standard criticisms of Baldwin is that his intense involvement in the civil rights movement (although I think for him, it was more like an African American liberation movement) sapped his literary excellence. Although I haven’t read enough of his later novels to appreciate that conclusion, I do have to say that none of them are as good as his first two–Mountain and Giovanni’s Room–in my opinion.

    Baldwin was also a wonderful speaker. In case you haven’t seen it yet, here is a debate he had with William F. Buckley Jr back in the day: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oFeoS41xe7w

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