BY MATTHEW HERBERT
James Baldwin’s 1963 essay “The Fire Next Time” is one of the greatest essays in the history of American letters. Long before the New York Times‘s “1619 Project,” Baldwin argued with electrifying power that America’s racial reckoning could only be achieved through courageous introspection and extensive public education. Americans are “still trapped,” Baldwin wrote, “in a history which they do not understand.” And only when a large majority of them stopped believing the lies and omissions that made up their country’s founding story could our national life be made sane and decent.
One big lie was this: The European colonization of America was a fundamentally good start at building a democratic republic. Although the project has required modifications over the years, the basic approach was sound.
A related omission was this: In the beginning, there were only freedom-seeking settlers, striving alone by the sweat of their brows to tame a wild land. Okay, there were Indians, too, who helped the settlers, but the enslavement of African people came later, as America’s economy expanded. The “peculiar institution” became a tragic subplot to our founding narrative, which anyway was made negligible by the passage of the 13th Amendment.
The day may come when I try to write an essay about all the big reasons why “The Fire Next Time” is so great. It clearly evinces what we would today call a strong “through-line,” describing what it means to be black (and white, and other colors) in America. I have already written a little bit here celebrating the moral clarity of Baldwin’s writing. I find his essays comparable with Orwell’s and Camus’s; the beauty of Baldwin’s writing shines with unmatched beauty in “The Fire Next Time.”
But every time I read Baldwin’s greatest essay, I get caught up in the trenchancy of its individual sentences and paragraphs. I can’t take the whole thing in. Today is such a day.
Before Baldwin became a writer, he was a preacher. His first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (which I reviewed here), is a fictionalized account of how this happened and how he lost his religion in relatively short order.
The stumbling block, as we learn in “The Fire Next Time,” is that Baldwin, in the maturity of his thought came to believe that, “If the concept of God has any validity or use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this,” he writes, “then it is time we got rid of Him.” In the end, Baldwin rejected not only his own charismatic-Christian version of theism, but indeed the whole idea of being tyrannized by a heavenly father.
As I picked up “The Fire Next Time” recently and read (again) about Baldwin’s path out of religion, it occurred to me that his key turns of mind are like stations of the cross. They guide reflection. Although Baldwin’s prose is incisive in this passage, which spans barely three pages, each crisis of faith he describes broadens out into an expansive critique of theism as a whole. These are the stations in Baldwin’s path of liberation:
- Notice that large groups of sane people believe differently than you. Most of Baldwin’s high school peers were Jews, he recalls, and they evinced no compunction whatsoever in ignoring the Christian Gospels. This came as a shock to the young Baldwin, who grew up believing you either had to accept Christianity or consciously reject it. He did not know that simply ignoring it was an option. Interesting news indeed.
- Accept the human authorship of the Gospel texts. Baldwin’s Jewish friends pointed out to him something he hadn’t learned in church–that the Biblical texts he thought of as divine were in fact written by ordinary men long after the reported events occurred. Although many Christians eventually come to accept the textuality of the Gospels, this topic tends not to be discussed early on in one’s “faith journey.” Blind, passionate belief is a more effective starting point for religion.
- Read the Gospel message for what it says. Jolted out of complacency by his friends’ disbelief, Baldwin reads with new eyes the pamphlets he’d brought to school in search of converts. Repent! they said. Be washed in the blood of the Lamb and win eternal life! “[T]hey were indeed,” he wrote, “unless one believed their message already, impossible to believe. I remember feeling dimly that there was a kind of blackmail in it.” Believe what I say based on faith, or go to hell: blackmail doesn’t come any starker than that.
- Question the genuineness of “divine inspiration.” Christian faith, for many people, is primarily a system of defense mechanisms against doubt, and Baldwin had one such tactic at the ready when confronted with the human authorship of the Gospels–namely, that the authors of the Gospel texts were “divinely inspired.” Well, as an anointed preacher, Baldwin knew something about this kind of confidence trick: he was, as he put it, “behind the curtain.” “I knew,” he reflects, “how I worked myself up into my own visions, . . . .” Divine inspiration is really just human flimflammery baldly asserted as authority, and Baldwin knew it.
- Reject the very idea of thought crime. As a born-again convert and later, as a preacher, Baldwin says, “I spent most of my time in a state of repentance for things I had vividly desired to do but had not done.” I know what he means. I was a teenager once too. The idea that an all-seeing God can convict someone for thoughts arising in the privacy of one’s own minds is morally repugnant. All modern dictators aspire to it.
- Reject the Biblical doctrines of race and slavery. The authors of the Gospel texts were not merely human, Baldwin realized; they were white. Unsurprisingly, they encoded a racial hierarchy of white supremacy in their sacred texts, which Baldwin experienced as a concrete reality. He reflects, “I knew that, according to many Christians, I was a descendant of Ham, who had been cursed, and that I was therefore predestined to be a slave.” When Baldwin witnessed Catholic priests blessing young Italian men in New York leaving to go fight for Mussolini and fascism in Ethiopia, he could not fail to appreciate that the church’s racial hierarchy was still very much alive. Indeed it was demonstrably sadistic in its desire to kill and subjugate black Africans.
- Give no one a religious pass for their cruelty. Baldwin’s father, who was also a preacher, abused him physically and psychologically. Naturally, Baldwin hated him; they were locked in a lifelong grip of fearful hostility. Both were intensely pious, but what good had it done them?–The very center of their lives was a jagged, painful ruin. One of the last times Baldwin’s father struck him, knocking him across the room, Baldwin realized that “all the hatred and all the fear, and the depth of a merciless resolve to kill my father rather than allow my father to kill me–I knew that all those sermons and tears and all that repentance and rejoicing had changed nothing.” The saving power of the Gospel is said to be able to redeem a whole world of lost sinners, but it couldn’t even help two of its most ardent believers stuck in a small apartment together in Harlem.
- Follow the money. Baldwin learned early on that the church–any church–is a money-making racket. There may be fine talk and rousing songs there about saving your soul, but it’s your dollars they really want. “I knew how to work on a congregation,” Baldwin recalls, “until the last dime was surrendered–it was not very hard to do–and I knew where the money for ‘the Lord’s work’ went.” His senior pastor owned a Cadillac. The congregants owned next to nothing and were constantly on the verge of starving.
- Reject the learned masochism that the church demands. The worst part of the idea of an almighty God is not his ability to convict one of thought crime, although that is repellent enough. The ghastliest evil of the Gospels is that God commands the faithful to rejoice in all the tyranny, crime, outrage and tragedy he is pleased to visit on them. Heaven will balance these debts, says the church, so just bear up, like Job. As Baldwin instructed the youth in his congregation, their “copper, brown, and beige faces” staring up at his, he said he felt he was “committing a crime in talking about the gentle Jesus, in telling them to reconcile themselves to their misery on earth in order to win the crown of eternal life.” And this is merely the most common social expression of God’s demand for abasement. On an individual level, it is far worse: God creates us sick, the theory goes, and commands us to be well–and to love him for it. This is pure, sadistic evil. If you poisoned your own child with an illness, commanded him to heal himself and then sat back to observe his tears and pain–all the while demanding an endless string of apologies and “I love yous,” you would be guilty of several real and heinous crimes. But God gets a pass. Go figure.
- The church is a mask of self-delusion. “When we were told [in church] to love everybody,” Baldwin writes, “I thought that that meant everybody.” But then the pastor told the congregants they should never, under any circumstances yield their bus seats to white people, even a the old or infirm. Although Baldwin appreciated the political salience of this rule, he wondered how it had managed to vanquish the Gospel’s doctrine of radical, transformative love. “What was the point, the purpose of my salvation if it did not permit me to behave with love toward others, no matter how they behaved toward me?” Baldwin asked. The church’s official promotion of selfless love was really a smokescreen for tribal animosity, Baldwin came to understand–“It was a mask for hatred and self-hatred and despair.”
- Religion is an instrument of political power. “The spreading of the Gospel . . . was an absolutely indispensable justification for the planting of the flag,” Baldwin writes. “Priests and nuns and schoolteachers helped to protect and sanctify the power that was so ruthlessly being used by people who were indeed seeking a city, but not one in the heavens, and one to be made, very definitely, by captive hands.” Questioning the authority of the ruling religious ideology by anyone, Baldwin observes, “contests the right of the nations that hold this faith to rule over him.” Challenge the faith, and the state will most certainly come down on you.
- Christian civilization has proven to be suicidal. Baldwin shuddered at the horror of the Holocaust, less than a decade gone by when he traveled to Europe to seek a new home in 1950. “Millions of people in the middle of the twentieth century, and in the heart of Europe–God’s citadel–were sent to a death so calculated, so hideous, so prolonged that no age before this enlightened one had been able to imagine it . . . .” But that was not the breaking point for Baldwin. It was the nuclear moment that he said changed “the nature of reality and [brought] into devastating question the true meaning of man’s history.” Christendom was the Leitkultur that produced nuclear weapons as man’s crowning glory. “We have taken this journey, . . . to the threat of universal extinction hanging over all of the world,” Baldwin writes, “and arrived at this place in God’s name.” What kind of God was that to crown mankind in this way?
So there are only 12 stations of the cross, not 14, in my re-reading of Baldwin’s path to liberation. So be it. Two more might weary the point.
And what is the point? That you cannot pattern your life on any of the frauds perpetrated in holy books–that you are much better off trying to make your own way even if you feel unmoored from tradition and set off alone from the people around you.
In another essay, “In Search of a Majority,” Baldwin showed, however, that he had not entirely dropped the concept of God despite his very public renunciation of Christianity. But he qualified that the idea needed to be made bigger. He wrote:
To be with God is really to be involved with some enormous, overwhelming desire, and joy, and power which you cannot control, which controls you. I conceive of my own life as a journey toward something I do not understand, in which the going toward, makes me better. I conceive of God, in fact, as a means of liberation and not a means to control others.
Something I do not understand, in which the going toward, makes me better. Amen.