With a name that was already known on both sides of the Atlantic, Baldwin arrived
as neither a stranger to travel nor to expectant eyes awaiting his words -- spoken in a voice many heard as a prophetic call to the world to change and to look at itself and its blindness, and in the words of Jesus, "turn to me and be saved."
If you like me are concerned with time, the way it moves, sometimes bending at the will of love and sometimes demanding more of our bodies and hearts than we're willing to give, then you could do as I have done countless times: open up your worn black copy of Baldwin's collected essays edited by Toni Morrison, turn to the chronology and see that this moment is just 94 days after hearing the word his friend Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King had been assassinated, and just 89 days since he saw his friend's body last.
Sometimes the story is told that his presence is only to replace King's absence.
The beige and orange paper guest name badge
, issued by the World Council of Churches Fourth Assembly, reads: "Guest, Fourth Assembly, Mr. James Baldwin, USA." To the left is the Greek word "oikoumene" -- the place inhabited by God's presence and healing. Just five years earlier, he was in a pulpit
in a New Orleans church.
The occasion is not known, at least to the one who stares at the picture taken by American photographer and famed photo documentarian of the Civil Rights Movement, Steve Schapiro. The only words that give a hint to the meaning of this moment is the title which reads
: "James Baldwin, God Is Love, Harlem, 1963."
He has returned to the pulpit again. His sermon? "White Racism or World Community?" His chosen text: Matthew 25. His goal: to set us free.
I have been thinking a lot about this image and the many times I have read this sermon as well as what it means for the listener to see Baldwin return to the pulpit once again. The pulpit, its tragedy and triumph, is woven into Baldwin's own experience and work.
It lingers in my mind because, like Baldwin, I too was raised Pentecostal. I too am a minister
. I too, like so many today, have been baptized in both the beauty and the brutality of the church. And the question that crawls around in my heart and mind as I hear his words is this: what does love demand of us as we live in a country so full of bibles but so empty of love?
What would James Baldwin's Easter sermon be to us?
As a writer and preacher, I have learned to tap into what Dr. Wil Gafney calls "sanctified imagination" -- that creative space where the preacher enters the world of the sacred text, fills in what is missing, and creates a metaphor that comes alive for the listener. I imagine in this moment, Baldwin steadies his eyes as his small body stands erect, and says two words: freedom, and then, love.
"If the concept of God has any validity or any use," he writes in his 1963 work "The Fire Next Time," "it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving." If freedom is not at the root of life, faith and democracy, then love will not be the fruit that makes us better.
"Race and religion, it has been remarked," Baldwin writes
in his 1987 theological response to the Moral Majority, "To Crush A Serpent," "are fearfully entangled in the guts of this nation, so profoundly that to speak of the one is to conjure up the other."
As both the nation and the churches in the nation tried to grapple with the enduring problem of white supremacy and the ongoing battle to imagine a better America, much like our own day, the response is that a better faith and country must be had. "If one believes in the Prince of Peace," he shares in his 1968 address to the World Council of Churches, replacing his dear and dead friend Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, "one must stop committing crimes in the name of the Prince of Peace."
And what was the crime: the church and the country used religion as a tool of power and control rather than an instrument of love and liberation.
Baldwin believed it is not hope if it does not liberate, love, and make whole. When our faith is rooted in fear, it often fails at love. We see faith as wars to be won, not a world to be loved. And too often, as Baldwin would write in his 1949 essay "Everybody's Protest Novel" (later published
in the collection "Notes of a Native Son") speaking of the tragedy of Bigger Thomas, the main character in Richard Wright's 1940 novel "Native Son," too many believe
in a theology that denies us life and embrace a politics that reinforces the power dynamics of oppression -- rather than resisting or changing them.
Baldwin believed the church and the country itself must be saved, liberated from their bondage. One cannot believe that the faith and the country should be free while holding on to the belief that others should be bound.
In my book, "Shoutin' In The Fire: An American Epistle," I write that so many in our moment, as was true in Baldwin's, talk a lot about people leaving churches, giving up on Christianity and rejecting Jesus. For some that is the case, and that is OK.
For those of us who choose to remain, who choose to paint a different story and shout good news from more loving pulpits, we have given up on the brand of Christianity that cares more about power than Jesus, that does not care enough to take either our bodies or our futures seriously. Like James Baldwin, we are holding on to Jesus while also living with our fear, trauma, doubts and hope.
Ultimately Baldwin left the church
because of its inability to love a young, gay, black as himself. Yet, he never stopped journeying toward the gospel of the divine right of his liberation and the sacredness of his humanity.
For Baldwin, love was the key that unlocks the door to a more healing and liberating conception of God and experience of faith. Love rids the believer of the idea that God is only concerned about judgment and that the country must only remain under the sway of those who are straight and white and male and rich. "There is absolutely no salvation without love." Here
one sees Baldwin infused with a theology of self-love and self-acceptance. This, in fact, is what it means to be saved and what the country and the church often refused.
And though Baldwin died in 1987, it is still true that if the church or the country has any hope of bringing things back to life again, then it will be about making the courageous decision and practice of what Baldwins calls in "The Fire Next Time" a "freedom that was so close to love."
In Baldwin's mouth, the sermon feels more like a hug that lightens the shoulders and a choir swaying under the spell of the Spirit, and the organ humming