A Secular Pilgrimage with James Baldwin

A Secular Pilgrimage with James Baldwin July 12, 2018

Editor’s Note: This careful reading of a famous 20thcentury social critic’s words makes a strong case for his posthumous nomination to a very elite 21stcentury group.  /Linda LaScola, Editor


By Chris Highland

My wife Carol and I made a secular pilgrimage through the South this summer.  For us, a secular pilgrimage is an educational mixture of Nature, Civil War, Civil Rights and local brews.  It can be both delightful and disorienting—a creatively disturbing combination.

You may be familiar with some of the places we visited: Chattanooga’s Lookout Mountain and Dayton in Tennessee, Birmingham and Montgomery in Alabama, and Atlanta and Stone Mountain in Georgia.

Each city was like walking through history, and much of that history is terrible and terrorizing.  A war over slavery is still being fought.  Huge rebel flags along the highway, Trumperstickers and “heritage” spots keeping the “lost cause” alive with gray Reb caps and Jeff Davis figurines. Of course, all these are framed by General Jesus, leading the battle cry of secession.

This all holds a certain fascination, but thankfully there are rest stops for Reason all along the way.  The Civil Rights Institute (CRI) in Birmingham tells the powerful stories of the struggle for basic human dignity.  Situated across from the 16th Street Baptist church where four young black girls were murdered by a bomb in 1963, within view of Ingram Park where non-violent marchers were met with violent resistance, the Institute is an open classroom for anyone to face the disgraceful and cheer the courageous.

The CRI has an original steel door from the jail where Martin Luther King, Jr. was thrown for agitation and disruption.  We stopped over at the site where he wrote his famous “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” in 1963, an epistle I’ve always thought prophetically biblical.

I bought a copy of James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time” (1962) at the Civil Rights Institute.  His writing immediately fired up my attention in the context of all we were learning about America’s “race problem,” especially linked to the country’s “religion problem.”

 “Perhaps the whole root of our trouble,” Baldwin writes, “the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses … steeples … races … flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have.”

He is stunningly truthful in his eloquent honesty. We can suppose that being black, gay and secular constrained his story.  As he perceptively observes in the essay, “Stranger in the Village” (Notes of a Native Son,1955):

“People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction.”

This is true, it could be said, for both color and creed.

Baldwin tells of the religious crisis of his youth with three years as a preacher in Harlem.  He was raised to suppose that God existed “only within the walls of a church—in fact, of our church” and that “His blazing Hell” was ever to be feared and avoided.

In fact, his fears, amplified by the dangers—real or imagined—on nearly every corner,

“…rose up like a wall between the world and me, and drove me into the church.”

Yet, after a short time as a youth minister (apparently more effective than his preacher father), he became deeply troubled by what he saw.  There followed “a slow crumbling of my faith.”

 “Being in the pulpit was like being in the theater; I was behind the scenes and knew how the illusion was worked.”

What Clergy Project member couldn’t relate to that? Or, hear this confession:

“When I faced the congregation, it began to take all the strength I had not to stammer, not to curse, not to tell them to throw away their Bibles and get off their knees and go home and organize, for example, a rent strike.”

Though his religious faith had become a “gimmick,” Baldwin still found some good in the old gospel temples and their mission to the streets:

“Perhaps we were, all of us—pimps, whores, racketeers, church members, and children—bound together by the nature of our oppression.”

He watched as the lost souls around him found a variety of ways out of the ghetto.

 “Many of my friends fled into the service … others fled to other states and cities—that is, to other ghettoes.  Some went on wine, whiskey or the needle, and are still on it.  And others, like me, fled into the church.”

Eventually he left the church.  The fearful lack of love was too much.

“Neither civilized reason nor Christian love would cause any of those people to treat you as they presumably wanted to be treated.”

He was determined “…never to make my peace with the ghetto but to die and go to Hell….” before he would be mistreated by anyone.

The image of descending to the hell of the ghetto recalled the way it felt as I slowly walked down into the Peace and Justice Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama under row after row of hanging columns, each with the names of lynching victims, black and white, county by county across the country.  The stark inhumanity is nearly unbearable—something never to make peace with.

What Baldwin observes about the Black and White divide, though written over a half-century ago, has too many ringing truths for our time.

This statement may serve to summarize his indictment:

 “In any case, white people, who had robbed black people of their liberty and who profited by this theft every hour that they lived, had no moral ground on which to stand.”

Each awful truth about race in America comes tangled in our religion.  Baldwin deftly gazes at this knotted mess, attempts an unraveling and somehow finds a guarded hopefulness flagged with questions.

If this precarious, incendiary situation is

“…the best that God can do … then it is time to replace Him—replace Him with what?”

Should African Americans accept a Caucasian-constructed reality and society or stop to ask themselves,

“Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?”

In Baldwin’s secular vision, white liberation will only come via black liberation and this will only happen when all ethnicities come to understand that we

“…deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation—if we are really, that is, to achieve our identity, our maturity, as men and women.”

Ironically, I presume, Baldwin employs the image of Noah’s flood, and the promise of the rainbow, to suggest humanity must learn to live together or perish in “the fire next time.”

Except in this vision, it appears God is not the issue.

“Everything now is in our hands.”

This could be a call to pilgrims, secular or spiritual, on the via de la verdad (the pilgrim-way toward truth).

Given his powerful testimony concerning race and religion, including his profound exodus from the slavery of loveless spirituality, I suggest we welcome James Baldwin as an honorary member of The Clergy Project.


Bio: Chris Highland was a minister and chaplain for many years in the SF Bay Area.  Now teaching courses on Freethought in Asheville, North Carolina, he writes a weekly “Highland Views” column for the Citizen-Times.  His new book, A Freethinker’s Gospel, will be released in October, 2018.  Chris has been a member of The Clergy Project since 2012. To learn more see www.chighland.com.

>> Photo credits: James Baldwin, By Allan warren – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69961794 Personal photos by Chris Highland

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  • carolyntclark

    Thank you for sharing your wonderful pilgrimage to the South and reminding us of the history. The graphic design of the Peace & Justice Memorial in Montgomery is chilling.
    And yes, TCP members can connect with Baldwin’s “Being in the pulpit was like being in the theater; I was behind the scenes and knew how the illusion was worked.”

  • FreshLA

    Excellent article! Thank you so much for sharing!

  • ElizabetB.

    Ditto!! Can hardly wait for A Freethinker’s Gospel!!!!! Thank you so much for working/thinking that gospel through!!!

    • Thank you, Elizabeth. We have a great deal of “good news” to “evangelize” with, all based on natural reason, compassion and goodness.

      • ElizabetB.

        Yes! — I keep looking for “inclusive” words & phrases that can carry the depths of impact that the traditional ones do. Thanks to FreshLA’s mention, I’ve listened to a few podcasts from Gretta Vosper’s West Hill congregation, and one thing I especially like is their saying, after each reading from many different traditions and books: “Offered as wisdom for the journey.”

        That’s very different from what I hear on Sunday mornings — “This is the Word of God for us, the people of God…. ‘The grass withers and the flowers fade, but the Word of our God shall stand forever!’ ” For some of the timeless wisdom included, this is fine, but some of the readings this follows don’t sound very godly! So I look forward to your work very much! Thanks again

        ps I was wondering whether you were going to mention stopping at the Southern Poverty Law Center, and its Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery…. (they’re some of my contemporary heroes!)

        • Yes, thanks for the reminder, Elizabeth. The educational exhibits at the SPLC were exceptional. They do great work. Also, tracing some of the path of the March from Selma to Montgomery was powerful, especially seeing that route passed through neighborhoods still sunk in poverty. The work is far from over.

      • mason
    • mason
      • ElizabetB.

        I’d say the Kelly one is more gospel; this one more exhortation : )
        Thanks, Mason!

        • mason

          astute observation 🙂

          • ElizabetB.

            Not so astute as hewn out of experience. I grew up in gospel-as-exhortation: “Believe in Jesus and be saved” — salvation by works — by believing, which I couldn’t do and worried a lot about. I wondered, “So am I in hell?”

            What I liked about the Lutheran sem I attended was that gospel was “the gift — God loves you no matter what.” Then that love just spontaneously flows out to other people, to creation, etc.
            It’s very distressing to read now Luther’s later writing about Jews.

            Anyhow, “back in the day” I would have figured “Demand Evidence; Think Critically” was a gospel statement. Today I think it’s great exhortation!!!!! & thanks for it!

          • ctcss

            I would have figured “Demand Evidence; Think Critically” was a gospel statement.

            It largely is. Jesus demanded that his followers understand, practice, and demonstrate. “By their fruits ye shall know them” applies to how to discern hypocritical actors as well as how to identify to sincere and dedicated followers. Mason’s laments about religion reflects his critique of approaches to religion that encourage blind belief, tribal identification, and hypocritical actions rather than discernment, understanding, and commensurate loving works towards one’s fellow beings.

        • ctcss

          I’d say the Kelly one is more gospel

          Except that the Kelly one is largely a one-sided, rose-colored glasses approach. It sounds lovely until one realizes that it leaves out the problematic and horrific areas of life such as disease, accidents, natural destruction of all sorts, famine, human cruelty, human indifference, etc.

          I am quite certain that Freethinkers can be quite nice people, but they are, for all intents and purposes, worshipers of matter. And like it or not, one has to take the good with the bad of one’s chosen object of veneration. It would be one thing if humans were masters of all that they survey (and thus Kelly’s beautiful description were all that one would encounter in life), but being limited, flawed, and fragile creatures, humans have to deal with the simple fact that like it or not, the material world (including the humans within the world) will do to humans what it will. And that very much includes what Kelly left out.

          Not trying to be a downer here, just trying to supply some honesty.

          • Linda_LaScola

            ctcss – I don’t think you have provided honesty about Freethinkers, except that some of us can be quite nice people — which can be said of most groups of people.

            We do not worship matter. Speaking for myself, I don’t “worship” anything. To me it’s part of a very outmoded master/slave, strong/weak arrangement found in ancient stories and unhealthy relationships.

          • ElizabetB.

            Well, a gospel is the good part — the “good news” — the gift….

            Could you say that one “gospel” is that “one does not have to suffer from matter”? And then the exhortation would follow: “Demand Evidence; Think Critically”?

          • mason

            “Freethinkers can be quite nice people, but they are, for all intents and purposes, worshipers of matter.”

            Yep, went to the Freethinker Temple today and we had an amazing sermon exhorting us to love and worship matter with all our material selves! Many worshipers went forward and rededicated their lives to matter worship. As the Right Reverend said, “In conclusion, never lose sight of the light the reveals all that matters is matter.”

            What you completely miss ctcss it that Kelly is answering the absurd accusation of believers that skeptics are left with nothing but a “dull, cold, scientific world” … she’s is not addressing the subject of how cruel, unfair, painful, violent living on this planet can be.

  • Mark Rutledge

    Got my vote. So do you–thanks for so eloquently sharing this perspective.

  • mason

    Chris, Thanks for sharing your very inspiring Secular Pilgrimage and the quotes and life insights about Baldwin. I remember, when I was on the other team, hearing James speak and not at all liking what he had to say just as I also thought what Madalyn Murray O’Hair was a terrible disgusting human on her way to hell. People can and do change.

    … “he became deeply troubled by what he saw. There followed “a slow crumbling of my faith.”
    “Being in the pulpit was like being in the theater; I was behind the scenes and knew how the illusion was worked.” All of us former clergy can remember when we started realizing we’d been gaslighted and fallen, and bullied into, a false dilemma.

    “I suggest we welcome James Baldwin as an honorary member of The Clergy Project.” I second that motion.

    • Here, here!

      • carolyntclark

        Chris, you have a PM on TCP

  • ctcss

    Chris, thanks for the very interesting information about Baldwin, as well as ideas about areas of exploration. I don’t get down south very much, but I am intrigued by these long-time-in-coming monuments to people’s struggles to be free of tyranny and injustice.

    However, I do have a quibble about the following statement.

    his powerful testimony concerning race and religion, including his
    profound exodus from the slavery of loveless spirituality

    Whatever discordant and unkind experiences James Baldwin may have encountered, somehow I do not think that the God-like ideals that Jesus taught and acted upon were ones he would have considered to be embodying “loveless spirituality”. Rather, I think that Jesus would have considered such actions to be the height of hypocrisy. The complaint to be issued, therefore, is not so much about religion, but about the sad fact that humans can engage in very bad approaches to the various areas of life they engage in, no matter what honorable labels people attach to them

    Christianity without the spirit of the Christ to form and guide it would most definitely leave a great deal lacking, at least IMO. And if that lack is all that Baldwin (or anyone else) encounters when they think of religion or seek it out, then perhaps we believers really need to reconsider what concept of God we are worshiping and attempting to follow.

    Religion is supposed to lovingly redeem, transform, and to bring healing to troubling human situations. Anything less is not worth following.

    My 2 cents.

    • mason

      I, per usual, have a quibble with your cherry picking of the mythical Bible God Zeus and son Horus, I mean Jehovah-Yahweh & Jesus. 🙂 Incidentally, “loveless spirituality” has always been the the hallmark of Christianity. The Christ character called for the sword and imperialism, and the followers spread Christianity via the sword for many centuries; the record of history is clear.

      ctcss, you wrote, “the God-like ideals that Jesus taught and acted upon” … you mean like this loving statement? … “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a “Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. -Jesus character, Matthew 10:34 and regarding the plethora of immoral genocidal atrocities committed or ordered by Jehovah God we must remember they were also committed by the Jesus character e.g. … “I and the Father are one.” John 10:30 (Thank goodness Jehovah & Jesus are mythical Hebrew characters)

      “Religion is supposed to lovingly redeem, transform, and to bring healing to troubling human situations.” Really? Supposed to be according to who? Certainly not the biblical Jehovah or Jesus. Remember it was Jesus who committed the religious genocide thousands of innocent children in Egypt. (again, I realize it’s the stories are just ancient Hebrew spin, hype, and myth) https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/65726d11c8cd3dd3be167e62649ba4f5476615bbfa5da6fb282b5a15d9803558.jpg

    • carolyntclark

      True, it isn’t Christianity without Christ, but that spirit of “…lovingly redeem, transform, and to bring healing to troubling human situations”, does not need a Christ or any divinity.
      The philosophical ideal is embodied in the more ancient, all encompassing Golden Rule. Long before the sermons and metaphors of the NT, it called on the fullness of our innate better angels to practice generosity, compassion and empathy, without connecting goodness to silly doctrines, superstition, and fanciful nonsense.

    • Suggestion: read Baldwin and, if possible, learn from his experiences.

  • ElizabetB.

    — ” ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’… an epistle I’ve always thought prophetically biblical.” —

    Did you hear that the PCUSA proposes to add that to its Book of Confessions? : ) I was surprised! I haven’t re-read it recently… but I have thought that King’s Riverside Sermon belongs there, with its analysis of militarism, racism, and extreme materialism.

    Thank you again for the pilgrimage!

    • I suppose that would be nice to add it to confessions. Maybe then a Book of Actions could follow?

      • ElizabetB.

        Preach it! : )