The Religious Beliefs in James Baldwin’s the Fire Next Time

In James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain and The Fire Next Time his essay “Down at the Cross- Letter from a Region of my Mind” deals with the relations of race and religion identifying between Baldwin’s experience with the Christian church as a youth and also the Islamic ideals in Harlem. His theological reading depicts white Americans as unfree inside a God-given purity that creates them innocent or ignorant to the instability of racial identities. Although it is ambiguous which Baldwin critiques, the Christian church or the Christian religion, he definitively rejects the Christian religion because it has historically been used to oppress blacks dating back to pre-Emancipation. However, with severed connection to Africa Baldwin additionally rejects the Black Muslim movement for it seeks to reverse the hierarchy instead of abolishing it. Altogether, Baldwin’s experience with the Christian church and also the Nation of Islam leads him to reject faith. Baldwin’s resolution to the redemption of America and also the transcendence of the “Negro Problem” is to abandon the philosophy of the Christian religion; as a result of it not being applied through the act of affection, however, it is a tool for racism to oppress African Americans.

Baldwin highlights an unconventional aspect of religion that seems to have been forgotten. Indeed, the black church plays an enormous role within the widespread account of the civil rights movement significantly through the memory of Martin Luther King Jr.; however, it is equally important to consider how religion has historically served to both inspire and contain the black freedom struggle. Civil rights activists mainstreamed the black church using the concept of peacefulness and agape love to appease white ideology of the black body being unsafe or undermining. Whites “could deal with the Negro as a symbol or a victim but had no sense of him as a man” (Fire Next Time 58). Baldwin depicts a Christianity that compares the black with the polluted even as it paradoxically provides the rhetorical and institutional space for black opposition and black humanity in the face of black anguish.

The role of Martin Luther King Jr. and the southern black church comprises a simplified narrative of the classical phase of the evil rights movement, and overshadows the relationship that Christianity and Islamism had on the black community. Jacquelyn Hall’s “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past” expands our understanding of what she calls the “short” civil rights movement (Hall 2005). She focuses on the intersexuality of race, class, and sexual orientation, while neglecting to mention the significance of religion in the black freedom struggle. The notion of “remembering as a form of forgetting” that Hall brings up captures the dimension of race and religion that seemingly gets left out, although it plays an important role in the direction that the black freedom struggle took. Baldwin positions himself outside the congregation. In grappling with religion in personal terms, he manages not only to grapple with much of what defines racial identity, but to establish the basis for his broader critical analysis of American nationalism.

Baldwin examines his adolescent experience in a black church, which he subsequently rejects for its theology and hypocrisy. “Baldwin depicts black churches as sterile repositories of illusions where ministers preach about a love largely absent from the congregation” (Douglass 68). The religious transformation Baldwin grasped at fourteen he calls a “gimmick.” Baldwin found in the congregation an escape from temptations of lust and danger that filled the streets of Harlem. While taking on the position of a minister, Baldwin admits that “being in the pulpit was like being in the theatre; I was behind the scenes and knew how the illusion was worked” (Fire Next Time 37). He discusses the “secrets” of the church, where pastors get rich, and calling his teenage ministry a deceitful hustle. On the other hand, Baldwin also did not seem to believe what he was preaching. The lessons and philosophy of the Christian religion are commendable, however the application of its concepts between the races are hypocritical. Baldwin concedes, “I taught Sunday school, I felt that I was perpetrating a wrongdoing in discussing the delicate Jesus, in instructing them to accommodate themselves to their wretchedness on earth in order to gain the crown of eternal life” ((Fire Next Time 39). For many black people, religion in Baldwin’s words would seem to operate “as a complete and exquisite fantasy revenge” where white people are punished and black people rewarded” (Hardy 79). Baldwin wondered why the love the church preached was partial and the injunction to love everybody, Baldwin argued, seemed to “apply only to those who believed as we did” (Fire Next Time 40). Religion becomes exclusionary equating the word “religious” with “safety” enabling racial identities in America to be static and love to be nonexistent.

However, the Christian confidence is based on adoration, yet the manner in which white Christians connected the confidence was utilized as a method for radical oppression power, power, and instilling fear and oppression dating back to pre-Emancipation. “Baldwin rejects traditional Christian beliefs and institutions; condemning both a wayward nation and Christianity itself for betraying the sons and daughters of African slaves” (Douglass 66). Enslaved Africans assimilated to white people’s faith and institutions, but it also kept them enslaved. From pre-Emancipation to the civil rights movement white people used the Christian religion to shape black people’s collective aspirations and their connections to the larger society. In James Miller’s “Integration, transformation, and the redemption of America: The Fire Next Time and ‘A Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Miller examines the treatment of the church in both texts as opposing perspectives in the Civil Rights discourse. Whereas, Martin Luther King Jr. calls for his fellow ministers and nonviolent activists to redeem the soul of America, Baldwin urges a broader less religiously-motivated plea for “relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks” to come together “like lovers” to create a new “consciousness” (Fire Next Time 105). Baldwin’s essay takes less of a religious perspective to connect political and sociological implications. Rather than engaging the question of personal faith and Christianity’s tradition of radicalism, Baldwin attacks the “church as a monolithic global organization responsible for giving white supremacy divine sanction” (Miller 254) claiming that “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” (Fire Next Time 47). Baldwin goes beyond the point of doubt about the Christian church and Christian faith to accusing God of being detached from the lives of black people. He seems to accept that the Christian faith is a force to keep black people stagnant in securing more freedom.

Baldwin’s critique of the Black Muslims parallels the critique of his own Christian church experience. Christianity and Islam served as competing religions for the African American masses. However, the Nation of Islam attempts to invert the hierarchy of power by imposing the same subjugation onto white Americans. By reversing that same magnitude of oppression, it perpetuates the same racial history. Baldwin disagreed with the Nation of Islam’s ideology; he believed that to embrace the same hatred and to call for the same separatism that white supremacists advocated would be to learn nothing from the ongoing civil rights movement. Baldwin rejects the Nation of Islam because he claims that African Americans no longer have a connection with Africa nor Islam, so the principles invoked by black Muslims could not fully be implicated in America so that blacks possessed full power over whites. In The Fire Next Time, Baldwin would argue that the Black Muslim’s theology was only a response, a reflected picture of the convictions of racial oppressors.

Baldwin allowed for contemporary anti-Christian dialogue and his candidacy invites younger writers to complete the schism between black identity and black faith. Ta-Nehisi Coates, consciously drawing on Richard Wright, rejects this motion of aligning with the “white norm.” Coates comments on the historiography of the black body and the “heritage” to destroy it. He argues that the loss of the black body also occurs when it tries to assimilate to white culture. Unlike Baldwin, Coates’s upbringing did not consist of a religious faith or religious practices; his parents could not fathom an appeal to the Christian god referred to as the “white god.” He recalls, “I could not retreat into the church and its mysteries… We would not kneel before their God… The meek shall inherit the earth” meant nothing to me” (Coates 10). The historical weight of white supremacy through the institution of the Christian church still did not equate to safety from the destruction of the black body. Coates argues that “The spirit and soul are the body and brain, which are destructible; that is precisely why they are so precious. And the soul did not escape. The spirit did not steal away on gospel wings” (20). Coates deduces that if one did not have the soul, then the body was that remained.

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