Tuesday, September 15, 2020


James Baldwin

Together these two conclusions acknowledge YHWH as creator and redeemer, the one who presides over the order of the cosmos and the one who intervenes in the processes of history. (Brueggemann, Walter. A Glad Obedience: Why and What We Sing, (19).
Creator and Redeemer-- that pretty much summarizes what God does and explains the human predicament.  We live on a planet ideally suited for life, the work of a savvy Creator. We also fail to respect both the planet and its citizens, so we are in need of transformation. That is where the redeemer comes in.  God teaches us how to survive and love our fellow creatures.

Redemption is the part that escapes us.  We imagine we are self-sufficient, resourceful, exceptional enough to redeem ourselves.   Like the poet we declare, "I thank whatever gods may be for my unconquerable soul." Or we set some on a pedestal-- Donald Trump, John Lewis, Oprah Winfrey--and imagine they will redeem us with their leadership and example. Or we believe our institutions--democracy, family, schools-- will redeem us.

Then comes the invisible, intractable foe--racism--and we are struggling with something larger and uncontrollable than legislation or intellect can resolve.  Some of us deny that we live in a country dominated by racism. We have the Emancipation Proclamation and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and a Black President, so how could we be racist? Or we insist it is only a few individuals-- the "bad apple" theory, a theory advocated by the President.  The rest of us are respectable and law-abiding citizens who don't see color at all.

Then comes someone claiming racism is larger than we suppose--it is "systemic." It is as pervasive as the air we breathe and the water we drink. It is an underlying disposition, something we are born into. It is more than good behavior.  We are asked to admit to something we cannot quantify or legislate.  We can not claim innocence, because no one can claim innocence.

Eddie Glaude makes this claim in his critical biography of James Baldwin Begin Again.  He says we live in a "value gap" where no one is equal to our white race or social group, however we define it. He says our society is poisoned by "the lie," a complex of stereotypes and misinformation about Black people that lowers them unconsciously in our eyes.  We act out "the lie" in a dozen ways every day without noticing our offenses. White people give subtle signals that they are superior, and Black people receive message.

So how do you manage a systemic virus that has resisted the antidotes of nonviolent protest, legislation, schooling and the honoring of human rights heroes?  White people cry, What do you want from us? Black people answer, Respect, Equality, Justice.  And we realize we are at the end of our management skills.

James Baldwin hit the wall many times in his struggle to reconcile Black and White, and he chronicles his recovery over and over again in books and articles he wrote from 1954 to 1987.  Eddie Glaude wanted to show Baldwin's great resilience in an extended relationship with the Civil Rights Movement with a tribute to Baldwin, Begin Again.

At the end of his life Baldwin wrote an essay published by Playboy, January 1987.
Salvation is not flight from the wrath of God, it is accepting and reciprocating the love of God. Salvation is not separation. It is the beginning of union with all that is or has been or ever will be . . . . Salvation connects   . . . . It keeps the channel open between oneself and however one wished to name That which is greater than oneself. It has nothing to do with one's fortunes or one's circumstances in one's passage through this world. It is a mighty fortress, even in ruin or at the gates of death. (Glaude, E. Begin Again, 213).
We have reached the place where we must be redeemed in order to be reconciled.We know God is prepared to redeem us, because that has been God's role from the Exodus to the present day. Yet we must first admit our limitations and appeal to a merciful God.

James Baldwin was not a church-goer or a righteous crusader. He was a gay Black man wrestling with his own prejudice and anger. Yet his understanding of redemption was well-aligned with the prayer of the Psalmist. It is a prayer of humility and desire to change. A prayer we need today.
But who can detect their errors?
Clear me from hidden faults
Keep back your servant also from the insolent;
do not let them have dominion over me.
Then I shall be innocent of great transgression.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart.
be acceptable to you,
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. (Psalms 19:12-14)

Bill Tucker
photo by Allan Warren

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