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The Fire Next Time

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In “Down at the Cross”, from The Fire Next Time James Baldwin presents a disturbingly convincing argument that religion as an institution is faulty with respect to black/white relations in the United States.  Words such as “blasphemy” and “heresy” come to mind upon the first reading, and there is a temptation to close the book –- and the mind.  The Fire Next TimeBut Baldwin’s message dares the reader to do that.  After all, his premise is that religion encourages just such resistance to opposing views in a way that is deviously self-serving.

Baldwin admits that the religious “conversion” he experienced during the summer he turned fourteen resulted from fear.  As he looked around the ghetto in which he lived, he saw much to arouse fear, certainly.  As his body changed in ways that were, to him, mysterious, fear derived from inside as well as without.  And the church represented a refuge against all these frightening changes, for “God and safety were synonymous”.  This reader must agree with this argument.

Based on this ever-growing fear, Baldwin became not just a participant, but a leader in the church.  He preached, and enjoyed prestige and privilege as a result.

Rather than the Faith, Hope, and Charity so often claimed, Baldwin recognized that Blindness, Loneliness, and Terror were the guiding principles of the church.  Blindness was cultivated as a way to avoid the other two.  Even black ministers encouraged their black congregations to “bear up” against the injustice and cruelty that were part of their everyday experience, with the promise of a reward in the hereafter.  What a clever ploy this is — “Don’t expect anything here and now, but boy, things are gonna be great in the hereafter!”  Surely, this is the ultimate psychological and spiritual manipulation, and Baldwin realized this fact early on.

It is vain to think that one’s own faith is the only “true faith.”  Baldwin asserts this belief even-handedly when he criticizes the Black Muslim movement as harshly as he does the Christian faith.  “God is black.  All black men belong to Islam; they have been chosen. And Islam shall rule the world”.  These are the basic tenets of the movement.  But as Baldwin points out, “The dream, the sentiment is old; only the color is new”.  So, again, religion does not serve to promote healthy black/white interaction or communion, much less love that overflows racial boundaries.  Black Muslims teach that every white person is a devil, an abomination before God.  How can such rhetoric create anything but more division?

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