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James Baldwin was a preacher. This historical fact must be taken seriously if we are to understand his work, which in turn can help Christians understand their own work today. Of course, Baldwin was also a gay, African-American writer who became a major spokesperson for civil rights until his death in 1987. Even though Baldwin ultimately left the institutional forms of the holiness-pentecostal movement,  telling Desmond Tutu that he was no longer “a churchgoing man,” he never really broke with the ethos of the movement or its religiosity. Instead, Baldwin’s critical remarks about holiness reveal the theological and spiritual tension in the movement itself—its emphasis on an ecstatic encounter with love and its promotion of a rigorous morality as the manifestation of this love.

The dominant metaphor of fire, prevalent within holiness circles, can be taken in either direction—it can be the fiery passion of ecstasy or fiery judgment. Much of the time it is both, as Baldwin illustrates quite powerfully in Go Tell it On the Mountain. One finds both expressed through the book’s two primary characters Elisha and John and their spiritual experiences at their church, the Temple of the Fire-Baptized. The young Elisha receives his Spirit baptism when he speaks in a tongue of fire under the power while John must “go through this fire, and into this night” as part of his spiritual encounter on the threshing floor. For one, fire symbolizes the ecstasy of tongues and for the other the agonizing dread accompanying the internal battle with death and judgment.

This tension resolves itself in the novel through the words and actions of Elisha toward John. As though interpreting John’s spiritual experience for him, Elisha remarks “Ain’t nothing but the love of God can make the darkness light.” Elisha’s remark harkens back to the moment John saw the Lord, heard the saints singing around him, and, then, found himself “anchored in the love of God.” Baldwin summarizes what had objectively occurred: “The light and the darkness had kissed each other, and were married now, forever, in the life and the vision of John’s soul.” 

For Baldwin, there was no separation between love, community, and communion with the divine. They were all part of the same fabric. In an essay Baldwin wrote the year of his death, he summarized his own stance on the relationship between holiness and ecstatic love: “Salvation is not flight from the wrath of God; it is accepting and reciprocating the love of God. Salvation is not separation. It is the beginning of union with all that is or has been or will ever be. . .There is absolutely no salvation without love.” For Baldwin, terror, self-hatred, condemnation—these divide souls from one another. They form the ground of racialized and sexualized interpretations of the other. Love, however, means union, a togetherness born from an openness to the world.

His relentless criticism of holiness was in reality an indictment of the holiness code of behavior that had evolved over the years. The purpose of the code had been to protect from the antinomian tendencies that such ecstatic encounters could produce. One thinks of Paul’s wrestling with the many issues of Corinth. Instead, it created barriers precisely because it conflated morality with social mores so that the latter (dress, speech, etc.) provided a bulwark for the former. This created an impossible ideal while also calling into question the moral center of the faith because of its relationship to the mores practiced by Christians.

Baldwin had witnessed the distance between the code and the actual behavior of holiness people, especially ministers. He concluded that there was no love in the church, by which he meant that “the transfiguring power of the Holy Ghost ended when the service ended.” The ecstatic love of encounter should translate into a love of the other, but Baldwin found that the passion for God increased fear and distrust of outsiders, which he in turn saw as being reinforced by self-hatred. This was the heart of racism for Baldwin.

When he reflected back on his experiences in Mother Rosa Horn’s Mount Calvary Pentecostal Faith Church (the church went through several names) in 1930s Harlem, Baldwin fondly recalled that “there is still, for me, no pathos quite like that pathos of those multicolored, worn, somehow triumphant and transfigured faces, speaking from the depths of a visible, tangible, continuing despair of the goodness of the Lord. I have never seen anything to equal the fire and excitement that sometimes, without warning, fill a church, causing the church, as Leadbelly and so many others have testified, to ‘rock.’” He noted that at times in preaching he had a strong sense of connection and communion with the congregation as they ebbed and flowed together with the Word.

Baldwin tried over and over to re-create this union of love in and through his literary works in an effort to fuse the ecstatic and erotic sides of his personality. It is what drew him to literary realists like Henry James upon whom he partly modeled his own understanding of the integrity of the artist. Speaking for many realists, William Dean Howells noted that realism tried to extend the bounds of sympathy through a fidelity to experience; or, as Henry James put it, the literary realist must convert “the very pulses of the air into revelations.” For Baldwin the artist creates order out of life’s chaos through a relentless analysis of his own experience.

It is this union with life through love that Baldwin ultimately has Margaret Alexander embrace in the play The Amen Corner. He called it sensual, by which he meant “to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread.” Modeled on Mother Horn, Margaret must lose everything before she gives up the quest for power and control and realizes that loving God involves loving everyone. The kingdom Margaret gains is a kingdom of love. She learns to translate the sensuality of ecstasy into social holiness.

All forms of Wesleyanism live in the tension between the freedom of love and the concern that such love not devolve into antinomianism. One might even suggest that the current debate within the United Methodist Church reveals how deep this tension is within the Wesleyan psyche. How far does one push the dynamic of love before one enters a land in which religious experience (or any experience) becomes divorced from the moral framework of the community? The UMC is debating that question right now. Wesleyans would do well to pay attention to Baldwin’s struggles because it forces us to recover the fusion between encounter, personal holiness, and social holiness. We must learn how to translate the Augustinian dictum “love God and do what you want” into a Wesleyan idiom so that love does not devolve into a freedom in which there is nothing left to lose or a self-righteousness that denies the communion with humanity love for God creates. This is the start—only the start—of that conversation.

More on: Holiness, Religion

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