When reading Go Tell It On the Mountain, I could not help but make comparisons that John makes between his father Gabriel and how he views God as the Eternal Father. John’s world is steeped in shame and hatred, and the force that holds these two emotions together in John’s heart is intricately tied up with his perception of his father and the Father. Every time someone praises John, his mind immediately goes to his father — of Gabriel beating him, belittling him, calling him ugly — as if he subconsciously thinks of his father in moments of praise to humble himself in some sick way. This is much like how church teachings would encourage God’s servants to humble themselves, especially when doing God’s work.
One could infer that John cannot feel God’s presence (or even refuses to) because his perception of God as a vengeful, unforgiving, unyielding being converges with how he views his own father, Gabriel: “John’s heart was hardened against the Lord… John could not bow before the throne of grace without first kneeling to his father.” (19) This comparison is deepened by the language people would use to describe familial relationships: “your Daddy beats you… because he loves you” (21) is akin to the trials and tribulations that God would bestow upon his subjects and servants, most prominently in the Book of Job. John lives in constant fear of his father and of God, and he is unable to understand what love would look like from either of them since he is only taught to obey and endure, and this battle of what he feels and what he ought to feel remains the driving force for the tension within Baldwin’s writings.
3 thoughts on “The father and The Father”
Lan Anh, thanks for this post! It’s a powerful insight to note the connection between John’s relationship with his father and his relationship with God. Your post makes me think of Elizabeth Johnson, a theologian who writes that our image of God functions, whether positively or negatively: the language and images we’re given to relate to God can either help us to love more deeply, or trap/oppress us. Clearly, John has not been given images that can help him transcend an environment of shame and hate. Not only is the paternal & judgmental imagery of God unhelpful on John’s journey, but it also seems probable—given what Baldwin shares about his own experiences of religion in “Down at the Cross”—that John might understand God as white. I’m curious if this theme will recur in Baldwin’s later work, and if the tension you describe will reach any resolution.
I’m really interested in this post because of how it centers the concept of “fear” of one’s Earthly father / Heavenly Father. Although I no longer identify as Catholic, I have attended Catholic schools for my whole life. Growing up, my theology teachers often twisted those pesky passages about fearing God (such as these https://bible.knowing-jesus.com/topics/Fear-Of-God,-Results-Of ) as “you should fear being WITHOUT God! God loves you so much that he wants you to fear being separated from him!” Such an explanation is nice and comforting to children, but it does not change the fact that Christian churches have historically used and continue to use a different kind of fear: one that criticizes the individual and condemns her to Hell.
I definitely agree with this post. I feel the way James learned how to be Christian is the way he learned what it means to be Black. A life surrounded by punishment, fear, and pain. Christianity is so important to him because the form of Christianity he was taught was so intertwined with his race. The tenets of Black Chrisitianity correlate with how black people were treated in America. The idea of God being a punisher made sense because if Black people stepped out of line, their lives could be lost.
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