In “Down at the Cross,” James Baldwin describes his experience preaching to children, saying, “When I watched all the children, their copper, brown, and beige faces staring up at me 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. Were only Negroes to gain this crown? Was Heaven, then, to be merely another ghetto?” (309). In this quote, Baldwin criticizes acceptance of present suffering in the hope of reward in the next life. His critique appears to hint at the way white Christians used this same tactic to discourage slave insurrection and revolt in the antebellum South (Field, 445). However, Douglass Field writes that Baldwin felt a similar disdain toward the black church, which fostered “a tendency towards passivity” (446).
Over the past week, I have thought a lot about Martin Luther King Jr. and his call for love of white people, a call Baldwin similarly emphasizes in his relationships with religion. King seems to emphasize the love of Christ, rather than the fear of eternal damnation in his speeches, living out the kind of Christianity Baldwin appreciates. Yet, eventually, King’s emphasis on love, which is both active in its confrontational nature and passive in its disdain for violence, falls out of favor in the civil rights movement, replaced by a more militant approach to equality. I wonder how Baldwin views this shift. If love is the right path toward civil rights and equality, it seemingly requires a reciprocal reaction from the oppressing group, which could take a long time if it ever comes at all. Thus, the turn away from love, or at least from unconditional love, makes sense since African-Americans should not have to wait to receive the rights that fundamentally belong to them. To me, unconditional love and the fight for civil rights remain in an uneasy union and I look forward to seeing how Baldwin’s writings on the civil rights movement accept or nuance his emphasis on love shown here.