In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, I spent a night watching protests on television—buildings and police cars ablaze, protesters fleeing tear gas and rubber bullets. The next morning, I turned to James Baldwin’s 1963 nonfiction landmark, The Fire Next Time. Baldwin opens with a letter to his nephew on the centennial anniversary of emancipation (“You know, and I know, that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon”). He follows with “Down at the Cross,” a long essay which details his briefly intense religious adolescence and ultimate rejection of the church before describing his meeting with Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam. (Baldwin ultimately rejects Muhammad’s ideas as well.) In different ways, each part of The Fire Next Time allows Baldwin to reflect on the destructive tendency of white Americans—perhaps white American Christians most of all—to avoid self-scrutiny. That morning, the book helped me more clearly see this tendency in myself; it warned of complicity and complacency.
In Baldwin’s letter to his nephew, he accuses his countrymen of an unforgivable crime: “they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.” For Baldwin, the injustice of racism isn’t simply the carnage it’s caused, but also that its perpetrators and beneficiaries remain willfully ignorant: “it is not permissible that the authors of destruction should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.” White Americans, watching protests from our homes, may consider ourselves innocent bystanders to this country’s racial injustices—but to believe in our own innocence is itself destructive. “Whatever white people do not know about Negroes,” Baldwin argues, “reveals precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.” In other words, white racism is a dangerous, collective form of self-delusion.
Baldwin’s reflections on religion make clear that this delusion is a particular affliction in the white church, visible in the failure of white Christians to live by the “Christian virtues” they espouse: justice, mercy, love of neighbor. Damningly, he argues that “those virtues preached but not practiced by the white world [are] merely another means of holding Negroes in subjection.” Christianity, in Baldwin’s view, whatever the intentions of some of its individual practitioners, has over history ultimately acted as a vehicle to maintain power and subjugate others: “Priests and nuns and school-teachers 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.”
By now, more than fifty years after Baldwin wrote these words, we who call ourselves Christians are all too familiar with this argument about the Church. But perhaps we still secretly think of ourselves as innocent bystanders. After all, we’re not the flawed institution; we’re individuals. But Baldwin’s critique isn’t just about institutions. It’s about individual Christians who profess to believe something they don’t act on: “How can one respect, let alone adopt, the values of a people who do not, on any level whatever, live the way they say they do, or the way they say they should?” This discrepancy between our values and our lives is, in Baldwin’s view, another example of our dangerous tendency toward self-deception.