Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me | Ta-Nehisi CoatesTa-Nehisi Coates has written a book that is beautiful, tender, and painful. Readers will wince for reasons that will depend on how they’ve experienced this country’s obsession with race. Between the World and Me ought to solidify Coates’ as our generation’s James Baldwin, something I’ve been saying for a couple of years though that comparison is way more credible coming from Toni Morrison. The book comes out tomorrow and there are already many thoughtful reviews; don’t be fooled by how many of them are glowing, bordering on fawning. Critical hyperbole aside, it’s simply a book that deserves many reflective readers.

One of the interesting things about Coates is his complete lack of religious faith. He was raised outside any faith tradition; Afrocentrism was the closest thing to religion given to him by his family. In this way he differs from Baldwin who grew up with a mean preacher as a father and who could engage with Christianity and its racist American expressions from firsthand experience, if from an agnostic’s distance. Because Coates writes comfortably within his atheistic vantage point there are natural points of reasonable confusion when he considers Christianity. Take, for example, his reaction in New York Magazine to the public offers of forgiveness offered by members of the murdered church members in Charleston to their loved ones’ killer. “Even the public forgiving, so soon after the slaughter, seemed unreal. ‘Is that real? Coates said, watching the service. ‘I question the realness of that.’”

Coates’ question about the authenticity of this forgiveness is understandable and he seems to wonder about it sympathetically. He’s not angry at these grieving families, just confused about their motives and intentions. In the same interview the author contrasts President Obama’s eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney and its push toward grace with Coates’ own, less hopeful, outlook.

Coates’s writing takes an almost opposite position: that religion is blindness, and that if you strip away the talk of hope and dreams and faith and progress, what you see are enduring structures of white supremacy and no great reason to conclude that the future will be better than the past.

James BaldwinHere Coates begins to sound very much like Baldwin, whose fatigue with American Christianity was on full display in his 1962 New Yorker article, “Letter from a Region of my Mind.”

Thus, in the realm of morals the role of Christianity has been, at best, ambivalent. Even leaving out of account the remarkable arrogance that assumed that the ways and morals of others were inferior to those of Christians, and that they therefore had every right, and could use any means, to change them, the collision between cultures—and the schizophrenia in the mind of Christendom—had rendered the domain of morals as chartless as the sea once was, and as treacherous as the sea still is. It is not too much to say that whoever wishes to become a truly moral human being (and let us not ask whether or not this is possible; I think we must believe that it is possible) must first divorce himself from all the prohibitions, crimes, and hypocrisies of the Christian church. If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.

The confusion and disinterest Coates’ shows toward religion generally and Christianity particularly can be chalked up to his distance from it, though I imagine he’s had more than enough exposure to America’s versions of Christianity. Baldwin is harder for Christians to explain away because his knowledge was personal. He wrote with an insider’s knowledge and what he’d seen wasn’t pretty.

There are many reasons to read Between the World and Me and probably even more to dig deeply into the Baldwin canon. But for Christians of all races these authors need to be listened to especially closely for the precise ways they reveal our deficiencies. What sort of deficiencies? Broadly speaking we might read these non-believing prophets for their ability to spot our hypocrisy. But we already expect this, don’t we? Perhaps more helpfully is how Baldwin and Coates reveal the weakness of our supposedly supernatural faith. Forgiveness and hope are central to Christian faith- there is no Christianity without divine forgiveness and eschatological hope. Yet for Coates, and undoubtedly many, many others, the beliefs that appear so radically central within Christianity have been displayed to those outside the Faith as little more than coping mechanisms, excuses to avoid dealing with the real world.

So which are they? Life-altering beliefs about the universe and its Lord or spiritual distractions to make a difficult life slightly more tolerable?

Christians, most of us anyway, want to believe the former but Coates and Baldwin won’t let us off so easily. I’m thankful for this. Their criticism is an invitation to a faith that is deeper and more true than what has often been expressed in this christianized and racialized country.

“…we will be sitting on a powder keg all summer.”

James Baldwin’s report on the “occupied territory” of Harlem in 1966 came to mind tonight as I read the reports from Baltimore.

The children, having seen the spectacular defeat of their fathers—having seen what happens to any bad nigger and, still more, what happens to the good ones—cannot listen to their fathers and certainly will not listen to the society which is responsible for their orphaned condition. What to do in the face of this deep and dangerous estrangement? It seemed to me—I would say, sipping coffee and trying to be calm—that the principle of what had to be done was extremely simple; but before anything could be done, the principle had to be grasped. The principle on which one had to operate was that the government which can force me to pay my taxes and force me to fight in its defense anywhere in the world does not have the authority to say that it cannot protect my right to vote or my right to earn a living or my right to live anywhere I choose. Furthermore, no nation, wishing to call itself free, can possibly survive so massive a defection. What to do? Well, there is a real estate lobby in Albany, for example, and this lobby, which was able to rebuild all of New York, downtown, and for money, in less than twenty years, is also responsible for Harlem and the condition of the people there, and the condition of the schools there, and the future of the children there. What to do? Why is it not possible to attack the power of this lobby? Are their profits more important than the health of our children? What to do? Are textbooks printed in order to teach children, or are the contents of these textbooks to be controlled by the Southern oligarchy and the commercial health of publishing houses? What to do? Why are Negroes and Puerto Ricans virtually the only people pushing trucks in the garment center, and what union has the right to trap and victimize Negroes and Puerto Ricans in this way? None of these things (I would say) could possibly be done without the consent, in fact, of the government, and we in Harlem know this even if some of you profess not to know how such a hideous state of affairs came about. If some of these things are not begun—I would say—then, of course, we will be sitting on a powder keg all summer. Of course, the powder keg may blow up; it will be a miracle if it doesn’t.

Life in the City: Why not Give Up?

A lot of people were shot to death in Chicago this holiday weekend. A whole lot more were shot and survived. I won’t mention how many suffered because the numbers are obscene and the individuals who died deserve more than our passing obsession. Even a city that is accustomed to violence and death feels this weight. I sat in two different rooms yesterday with veteran community leaders who have lived with death for a long time. These women and men whom I respect and look to for direction sighed heavily and paused longer than normal as they mentioned the weekend’s shame.

There’s a question that comes up during these moments, sometimes spoken and often implied: Why not give up? The pastors, organizers, and neighborhood leaders I spend time with don’t have to give themselves to this work of compassion and justice. They could do other things. They could pursue jobs with observable metrics of success.

I don’t know how most of these folks would answer the question, but it’s been important that I have a way to answer- something that makes sense of these heavy and sad days while providing the rationale to stay present in the city.

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State St & 35th St, looking south.

In The Meaning of the City (1970) Jaques Ellul makes the theological point that the city is the systematized and entrenched sin and rebellion humanity experiences on an individual level. That is, the curse of sin that we each know is writ large in the city, something to which we contribute and by which we are destroyed. We may search for solutions for the city’s problems but, “while the search is going on, the vampire does its work and calls for more fresh blood. And new throngs of men take up residence under the rule of the curse.”

There has recently been a return to American cities by young people – white, mostly – who are reversing the migrations of their parents and grandparents. They are, as best I can tell, interested in what the city has to offer by way of experience and opportunity. The Christians among them often want to show compassion to those on the margins of the city. Both groups, according to Ellul, misread the city and its designs. The city is not neutral. “[W]e must admit that the city is not just a collection of houses with ramparts, but also a spiritual power.” The new urban dwellers can miss how cities intend to (de)form them.

Some of Ellul’s readers mistake him for being a pessimist, but that’s incorrect. Toward the end of the book, after showing again and again how the city opposes God’s intentions for the flourishing of all people, Ellul reminds the reader that the Bible ends not with a return to a garden in Eden but in a city.

God involves himself in an adventure completely different, for from this very city he is going to make the new Jerusalem. Thus we can observe God’s strange progress: Jerusalem becomes Babylon, Babel is restored to the status of a simple city, and this city becomes the city of the the living God. [Emphasis mine.]

This is, of course, the Gospel: rather than requiring humanity’s return to Eden, God inhabits our systems of rebellion and allows them to run their natural and violent course over his sinless body. His sacrifice makes real a future where our embodied collusion against God becomes God’s dwelling and ours.

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Mural across from Reavis Elementary School.

Why not give up? Depending on one’s starting point, the question may not make much sense. For the person who came to the city for an urban experience or to make a noticeable difference the question and its variants will eventually become unavoidable. It will also become increasing difficult to answer with anything resembling joy. But Ellul – for whom humor is one of the evidences of the Christian’s presence in the city – proposes a different vocation for the urban Christian. Our call is simply to represent Christ “in the heart of the city.” We are not builders and we do not judge our success by the work of our hands. We bear witness to the crucified and resurrected Christ who will one day make the city his home.

Would we consider giving up our witness to Christ? For this is what the city-dwelling Christian is called to.

There is freedom here from the city’s tyranny. First, we are free from they tyranny of success. Among people who only affirm that which is measurable, Christians can remain present in the city regardless of perceived successes. Success for us has only to do with our faithful witness to Jesus, a work that is, by its very nature, impossible and dripping with grace because of its impossibility. We succeed in this witness-bearing vocation inasmuch as we confess our failure at it. Second, we are free from the tyranny of time. The Christian holds together the seemingly opposite convictions that the city is beyond our abilities to save and will one day become the symbol of God’s salvation. Yet this is no reason for isolating resignation. Worshipping a God beyond time inculcates us with humility about the ways we bear witness to Jesus in the city. We can remain faithfully present, submitted to God’s presence, without the need to judge the efficiency of our presence. Rather, we admit our ultimate inability to judge such efficiency.

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Promontory Point, looking north.

In his essay, The Harlem Ghetto (1949), James Baldwin wrote about the Biblical passages that oriented his father, a pastor, in a city that was bent on his destruction. “The favorite text of my father, among the most earnest of ministers, was not ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what the do,’ but ‘How can I sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?'” Baldwin’s father was echoing the question of Psalm 137 asked by a people in exile. The Christian who abides in the city who has not asked this question is, we can assume, still enchanted by the city’s many idols. But for those with eyes to see and to those who are the city’s special focus of destruction the question is inevitable. God, Ellul writes, has an answer to this question found in Jeremiah 29. “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you find your welfare…”

In these ways – simple but never simplistic and certainly never naive – we bear witness to Jesus in the city. We can speak truthfully of the city’s many horrors without being overcome. Though mobility is a societal value that can hardly be questioned, the Christian can and does question it, choosing to remain in this particular city unless the Spirit of God scatters us elsewhere- a call, we can assume, that will never be about our personal convenience though it will never be without joy.

“…we receive a very definite thrill of virtue…”

The “protest ” novel, so far from being disturbing, is an accepted and comforting aspect of the American scene, ramifying that framework we believe to be so necessary. Whatever unsettling questions are raised are evanescent, titillating; remote, for this has nothing to do with us, it is safely ensconced in the social arena, where, indeed, it has nothing to do with anyone, so that finally we receive a very definite thrill of virtue from the fact that we are reading such a book at all. This report from the pit reassures us of its reality and its darkness and of our own salvation; and “As long as such books are being published,” and American liberal once said to me, “everything will be all right.”

– James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son (1949).

Baldwin is my teacher this summer. In this essay he has in mind books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin- what they are meant to do and what they actually do for their readers. The section above reminded me of the recent collective reaction to Donald Sterling. For Baldwin it was a certain kind of book that provided the progressive citizen with the “thrill of virtue.” We are more likely to derive such assurance from the public figure’s racist comment or outdated assumptions about the world. I doubt Baldwin would be any more impressed with our tame outrage than he was by those taking solace in their enlightened literature.