Friday, June 14, 2024

By the Books: ‘The Fire Next Time’ exposes U.S. treatment of religion, race

By Mahpharah Khan

Religion has become performative. God is used as a weapon to demonize others who do not blindly submit to racist, sexist and misogynistic ideologies.

“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.”

James Baldwin thoroughly understood this, as he describes his religious crisis he had at the age of 14 in his essay collection, “The Fire Next Time.”

In his essay, “Down at the Cross,” he discusses how he started preaching at 14-years old, and explains his leaving of the church due to the hypocrisy he saw too often. Hate and hypocrisy have almost become synonymous with Christianity — in other words, the performative nature of Christianity has been perpetuated by Donald Trump and his cult followers. The image that comes to mind is one last from this past June: protestors tear-gassed in D.C. so Trump could safely make his way through the crowd to have a photo-op with his bible in front of a church.

If God is supposed to love everyone, why does Trump show that his love is exclusive?

Baldwin specifically discusses the relationship between religion and race, and how it has created a lethal spiritual environment in the United States.

“As I taught Sunday school, I felt that I was committing a crime in talking about the gentle Jesus, in telling them to reconcile themselves to their misery on earth in order to gain the crown of eternal life,” Baldwin said. “I really mean that there was no love in the church. It was a mask for hatred, and self-hatred and despair.”

Hatred is often veiled by fake declarations of love and sympathy by churches, which is a problem that is more dangerous than it first seems to be. This is especially dangerous, because Christianity has a history of being used as a tool by white supremacists to perpetuate their harmful ideologies. Baldwin conveys that religion taught the black community that their suffering was somehow warranted in order to get into heaven, that suffering is a means to be rewarded later on, and that the racial power dynamic in America is somehow justified.

Sara Schaff is an English writing professor at SUNY Plattsburgh. She describes Baldwin’s writing as a meshing between beauty and seriousness — the beauty of his writing and the seriousness of his topics. Schaff says that his presence is still felt in modern day situations, even though he died decades ago.

“I feel like when I’m reading him, I’m hearing his voice,” Schaff said. “He died in the 80s but it still feels like he’s talking to us right now.  I think he would be incredibly angry with us that we let this keep happening. I feel like he’s with us and urging us to do differently, to be better.”

Baldwin describes his religious and political experiences while also speaking directly to the reader. The urgency in his writing disrupts the false peace that America has so comfortably associated itself with.

“The glorification of one race and the consequent debasement of another – or others – always has been and always will be a recipe for murder. Whoever debases another is debasing himself,” Baldwin said. “That is not a mystical statement but a most realistic one.”

It seems that the white man does not understand or believe this. White people ask, “But why must you make everything about race?”

White people love to forget their own history!

Rather, they refuse to learn it. The white man made everything about race the second he bound the black man and woman by shackles, and set them off for Europe and the Americas. Ignorance becomes a choice at a certain point; it is our responsibility to educate ourselves of our history. This means going outside of the classroom: reading, watching and researching beyond what the American education system refuses to discuss.

Race in America goes beyond the discussion of slavery and the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s. It is immersed in religion and politics, a.k.a. the foundations of the U.S.

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