Fifty-one years ago, dynamite rocked Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Four girls were killed, and the face of a stained-glass Jesus was blown to pieces. The event, like that going on in Ferguson right now, left Americans and communities throughout the world wondering what to do with regard to issues of race and violence. Then, in New York City, two of America’s best-known thinkers debated what it meant for the white Jesus of a black church to have his face blown out and how to handle the tragedy of these deaths. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and novelist and essayist James Baldwin addressed this question: “Does the missing face on this stained-glass window which survived the bombing suggest a meaning?” Their answers and their tone suggested that both then and now, we need much more of Baldwin and much less of Niebuhr.
In 1963, the inability of whites to respect human rights left Niebuhr frustrated. He had spent his career as a pastor, writer, and professor grappling with the ethical dilemmas of modern society. He had become one of the nation’s most popular theologians, providing guidance to Americans high and low. Powerful politicians sought his insights, while recovering alcoholics prayed his prayers as they took their twelve steps. But Niebuhr had little to offer now. The faceless white Christ meant that the white church had lost face. “As far as the church is concerned, it represents a failure,” Niebuhr sighed. He found light a scarce resource in those dark days, and neither the serenity prayer nor the ethical understanding of moral men living in an immoral society seemed to bring him comfort.
By contrast, Baldwin was more positive. The author of The Fire Next Time, whose anger toward white supremacy burned so hot that he had invoked God’s words to Noah that the flood was merely a prelude and that the next judgment would be with fire, found a spark of hope in the tragedy. “The absence of the face is something of an achievement,” Baldwin suggested, “since we have been victimized so long by an alabaster Christ.” Where others saw meaninglessness, Baldwin found possibility. It was another chance to make life where death had reigned. “If Christ has no face,” then we must give “him a new face. Give him a new consciousness. And make the whole ideal, the whole hope, of Christian love a reality. As far as I can tell, that has never really been a reality in the two thousand years since his assassination.” Baldwin then called for a boycott of Christmas. True believers could avoid the material celebration of Christ’s birth to use economic might to make moral right.
Today, as the events of Ferguson unfold, we need less Niebuhr and more Baldwin. We need fewer sighs and more plans; we need less complacency of an immoral world and more actions of moral women and men. If we don’t, then we won’t have “the fire next time.” We’ll have the fire right now.
(Pieces of this essay taken from The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America (2012)