The Fire Next Time includes many religious images concerning race, ethnicity and culture. The first essay, My Dungeon Shook, is a letter from James Baldwin to his nephew, in an attempt to “strengthen [him] against the loveless world. ” The second, Down at the Cross, explores the background experiences that shaped his view of the world and allowed him to give the advice in the previous essay.
Throughout Down at the Cross, Baldwin examines the “white God” of his Christian youth, and the “black God” preached by Elijah Mohammed and the Nation of Islam. Although Baldwin acknowledges both groups’ achievements, he is ultimately critical of their ideologies. Baldwin becomes disillusioned with his church; he feels the “slow crumbling of my faith, the pulverization of my fortress” after practicing as a preacher for 3 years. Similarly, he rejects the Nation of Islam’s ideology that God is solely for the black community, and that “the white man […] is a devil. Baldwin uses religious imagery to advocate a policy of acceptance, of love between black and white. He argues that by making God colour-conscious, and by belonging exclusively to one race, each group is guilty of legitimizing and strengthening the racial hatred and discrimination of the time. Baldwin makes it perfectly clear that he values the church. He describes his childhood, in which it saved him from the sordid drugs, prostitution and gambling on the street. He describes his time in the pulpit as “very exciting,” and confesses that nothing else in his life could “equal the power and the glory” that he felt while leading a congregation.
The language he uses to describe the fervor, the experience, of his sermons is remarkably literary. His personal feelings are clearly being recalled here, as he allows himself to be swept up in the “fire and excitement that [would] sometimes, without warning, fill a church, causing it […] to ‘rock. ’” This imagery is very visual, as Baldwin allows the reader into his personal view of the church. This strengthens his argument, as it gives it authenticity. However, this does not show the full picture. The Church and the street are linked by Baldwin later in the essay when he asks whether heaven is “merely another ghetto. This could be seen to be a reference to New York’s status as a ‘safe haven,’ away from the lynching and segregation in the Southern states, however in reality New York was crowded and dangerous. It could also be a reference to how the Church itself is not able to help the black population. It connects the Church and the street, and to some extent brings the dangers of the street into the church itself, something that is expanded upon later when Baldwin complains of the “ugly and unctuous flirtatiousness” that he experienced in his Church. This sentence defines the Church, with how it promises much but delivers so little.
Baldwin understands what he is arguing against, as he spent 3 years of his childhood totally immersed in its ideologies, and it is only now that he can pick apart its restrictions and failures. `It is these restrictions and failures that cause Baldwin to reject his faith. He comes to realize that “there was no love in the church. It was a mask for hatred and self-hatred and despair. ” He starts to see that instead of practicing a message that God loves everybody, the Christian church protects and loves only those that believe the same thing as them. What he found most disturbing was that this love “did not apply to white people at all. This split between believers and non-believers did not fit with Baldwin’s theory of acceptance and integration, as he saw is as an example of hypocrisy at the heart of the church. This imagery can be seen to mirror that of segregated America, except it is whites who are marginalized and discriminated against. It perpetuates the notion that black and white are different, and cannot co-operate together. Baldwin fears that it is these teachings – that the black community should not attempt to reconcile with the whites, but should exclude and dislike them – that is the first roadblock on the journey to racial equality.
He believes that “we cannot be free until they are,” as it is black people who must learn to love those that do not show them love in return before the white oppressors will come to realize, and therefore be free of, their crimes. Baldwin uses religious imagery to reveal the hypocritical behavior of his fellow preachers. He says that he “knew where the money for ‘The Lord’s work’ went,” indicating not only that he realized that church money was being stolen and spent by preachers on themselves, but also the use of inverted commas reveals that Baldwin is rejecting that Church work really helps people at all.
It gives it an element of sarcasm, by subverting the framework that he used to preach and turning it into a comment on the failure of the Church’s ability to help, Baldwin shows the depth of his disillusionment. Baldwin’s time in the church also helped him come to realize that racism exists even at the heart of Christianity. He states: “I realized the Bible had been written by white men. I knew that, according to many Christians, I was a descendant of Ham, who had been cursed, and I was therefore predestined to be a slave. […] My fate had been sealed forever. …] It seemed, when one looked out over Christendom, that this was what Christendom effectively believed. ” Baldwin uses Christian imagery in order to highlight its flaws. He reveals an institution that offered nothing more than a vengeful God, who did nothing to help build constructive relations between black and white people. The refusal to accept white and black together reveals an institution that is bound by parochialism. As B. Pakrasi has said before, “Baldwin sees the seeds of hatred and acrimony embedded in the dogma of Christianity perpetuating the belief of a white God”.
Another facet of religious imagery that Baldwin critiques are the notion that there is a ‘black God. ’ This is part of the ideology of the Nation of Islam, a group led by Elijah Mohammed, but also closely associated with the radical activist Malcolm X. Baldwin expressly praises the Nation of Islam, as he believes they have succeeded where Christianity failed. Mohammed was able to “heal and redeem drunkards and junkies, to convert people who have come out of prison and keep them out, to make men chaste and women virtuous,” however Baldwin disagrees with one crucial aspect. The Nation of Islam allows for no integration between black and white.
Mohammed sees the white population as “devils,” and links them to be sinners. Baldwin contends this, as he argues that if one is to adopt the theory that all white people are sinners, they open themselves to the “gates of paranoia,” as they become incapable of distinguishing between an actual threat and an imagined one. In a society that was so hostile towards blacks, Baldwin admits that this is an extremely hard trap to avoid, but he maintains it is necessary to try, because otherwise they will see all whites as an enemy, and will never integrate and build better relationships.
Baldwin makes it clear to Mohammed that he has no intention of overthrowing the white population. He says to the table that given the choice between dying with his white and black friends, and living but at their expense, he would choose death. He thinks to himself “I love a few people and they love me, and some of them are white and isn’t love more important than color? ” Again, Baldwin is using the religious imagery of the devil, the sinners and above all the black God to highlight the weaknesses and hypocrisies in the Nation of Islam’s ideologies.
He is pushing forward his own courses of conduct; love and integration with both white and black. He sees no reason why there should not be a black God, but he believes that when a group attaches Him solely to their race, it becomes something else. It gives God a new meaning, as it encourages His followers to hate the opposing race. He finds this on both sides, both with Christianity and Islam, and is ultimately unable to accept either doctrine. Baldwin sees a mirror image in the Nation of Islam’s treatment of white people, and their treatment of blacks. Harvey G.
Simmons sees this, saying that Baldwin rejected the Nation of Islam because “its methods are infused with the same fanaticism and hatred that the Negro faces in white society. ” James Baldwin uses religious imagery in The Fire Next Time in order to critique both the Christian church and the Nation of Islam. He finds them both lacking, as he comes to the conclusion that neither advocates a policy that allows for an increase in co-operation between black and white people. Instead, they are insular, only caring for themselves and are unwilling to truly share the love of God with everyone, black or white.
This is what Baldwin wants. He articulates his message in his letter to his nephew, saying that “you must accept them and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. ” He is using these essays to attempt to speak to the American public, to urge them to take a stand and speak out against the discrimination. My Dungeon Shook James uses the personal form of “I,” giving his letter personal emotional ties.
It also makes his message more human and helps establish empathy before his appeal in Down at the Cross. Down at the Cross uses terms such as ‘we Americans’ repeatedly, which shows that Baldwin is attempting to unite everyone, both black and white. For him, religion is short-sighted and controlling, it doesn’t follow through with its promise that God loves everybody, because as Baldwin points out; “If His love was so great, and if He loved all his children, then where we, the blacks, cast down so far?