Holiness vs. Goodness

In “Down at the Cross,” the part where James Baldwin tells his father that his Jewish friend “is a better Christian than you are” really stuck with me during my initial reading (CE 308). I feel like there are a lot of people who identify themselves as Christian but fail to recognize what is one of the most important principles of Christianity: to “love thy neighbor.” This brings to mind the difference between following the letter of the law (taking what is written in the Bible literally) and following the spirit of the law (working to understand the underlying messages in the Bible). I would guess that David Baldwin was much more of a “letter of the law” kind of man based on how James Baldwin wrote the character of Gabriel in Go Tell It on the Mountain. Gabriel (David) seems to care a lot about his image in the church and about doing whatever will make him appear to be a holy man, but the lack of love and kindness he has for his son, whether that be because of John’s (James’s) sexuality, his intellect, his illegitimacy, his friendships with white people, or a combination of these and other factors, shows just how much he does not understand the most basic tenet of Christianity. David cannot get over his own pride and anger, so he takes it out on others instead of treating them with the love and compassion that the Bible demands of Christians. I think David Baldwin needed a reality check in that just because he considers himself a “holy man,” this does not make him a good person; one does not have to belong to a certain religion or claim a specific identity in order to live a good and virtuous life. She can still attempt to “love her neighbor” even without thinking about it from a Christian perspective, and I think that the effort and actions matter more in this case than the specific reasoning for that effort.

2 thoughts on “Holiness vs. Goodness”

  1. Your belief that “the effort and actions matter more” is something I totally agree with, and is something that is preached constantly in the Bible as well. In the Epistle of James, Chapter 2: “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” and “faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” While I think that Gabriel was at first somewhat forced into a position of “holiness” and religious authority, he definitely grew into it as a form of superiority over others, especially over his family.

  2. This was something I was considering while reading as well. I always had a hard time seeing Gabriel as a good father or as a Christian due to his lake of love. I call it religion vs relationship. Religion is just going through the motions. Relationship is actually being changed by God and having a true relationship which is shown by love. Gabriel is definitely on the religious side of things and uses words to validate his salvation rather than his works. I agree that claiming to be holy does not make you holy.

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