The Evolution of Shame and Sexuality for John

In the beginning of the novel, John is consumed with thoughts about his burgeoning sexuality and what this means for his soul. He concludes that it is a sin because even thinking about his own nakedness brought on feelings of “shame and anger” (26). This feeling occurs when he looks at a picture of himself as a baby. Even in the most innocent and natural form, John hopes to hide his body and everything it signifies. At this stage in the novel, John has not yet made his full commitment to Christ in the Church. There is significant external pressure, but no substantive internal drive. (In fact, he would rather wear nice clothes and go to the movies). 

When John has his religious experience on the Threshing Floor, his shame about his sexuality and body seems to lessen while his commitment to the faith grows. During his hours long conversion he thinks about being with Elisha: “In his heart there was a sudden yearning tenderness for holy Elisha” (188) and a desire to “lie where Elisha lay” (188). After these thoughts his mind wanders, from dark places to light. But at the end of it all, the voice of Elisha is the voice that saves him. At the close of his experience it is Elisha who says, “Rise up Johnny” (199). The fact that Elisha is the one guiding him through to salvation says more about the combination of the profane and the sacred. It is John’s love for Elisha, which is sexual desire too, that helps him reach this religious climax. Baldwin seems to be gesturing towards a larger point, that sexuality and religion are not inversely related. 

In the final scene of the text Elisha and John share a kiss: “And he kissed John on the forehead, a holy kiss” (215). Although a kiss like this is often found in religious contexts, this kiss is at once religious and sexual. John noted his desire for Elisha throughout the text and their connection is deeper than just a friendship because of their joint effort to bring John through to the other side of his experience. When John is most holy, then, he is also most outwardly affectionate and comfortable in his sexuality. Perhaps, for Baldwin, this release of sexual shame is what really constitutes a religious experience.