Skip to content

The Radical Theology of James Baldwin


I’ve been reading James Baldwin lately, a popular but often unheard of civil rights leader from the 1960s.  Baldwin grew up in Harlem and began preaching at his church when he was just 14. He was a smart and articulate young man and his talents were seen as supernatural gifts that destined him for ministry. However, he was too smart. He began reading Dostoevsky and other modern critiques of religion during this time. He simultaneously also became disillusioned with the church because of the hypocrisy, cynicism, and corruption he saw among other pastors. Thus, Baldwin wrote, “I was behind the scenes and knew how the illusion was worked…The price one pays for pursuing any profession or calling is an intimate knowledge of its ugly side.” Baldwin’s time in the pulpit was short lived. At 15, just a year after he began preaching, he lost his faith.

From then on, he began to see how the church was an escape for people, how the fervent worship, the sobbing and dancing was all a form of catharsis, especially for an oppressed community like his own. While he was sympathetic for the need of this relief, he was deeply critical of the church and how it hindered the civil rights movement by teaching people to set their eyes on heaven instead of the things of this world – to work for treasures on high rather than social reforms on earth. What I find so compelling about him is how his critique of religion became a model for his political critique. Baldwin saw false gods everywhere and understood that such murderous and oppressive deities must die for people to be liberated. This was his radical theology (for an explanation of what radical theology is, click here).

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

Baldwin clearly understood the human condition and how so much of what drives religion and politics are the same existential crises and our need to find coping mechanisms for death, meaninglessness, and suffering. Here he reveals that gods are everywhere in the culture and not just found in mosques or churches. Such gods must be critiqued and crucified so that another God may be resurrected, a God of love, liberty, and truth.

“I conceive of God, in fact, as a means of liberation, and not a means to control othersIf the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.”

Here he is speaking specifically about the God of religion but elsewhere he expands his idea of God to include any idea that we rely on to hold our world together.

“Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety. And at such a moment, unable to see and not daring to imagine what the future will now bring forth, one clings to what one knew, or dreamed that one possessed. Yet, it is only when a man is able, without bitterness or self-pity, to surrender a dream he has long cherished or a privilege he has long possessed that he is set free — he has set himself free — for higher dreams, for greater privileges.”

These “higher dreams” and “greater privileges” are the virtues of love and justice (for those of you familiar with the work of Tillich, Rollins, and Caputo you’ll see parallels to the “unconditional”). One can only truly be committed to love and justice when there is no God (religious, social, political, economic, or racial) placing conditions on these virtues.

The radical theology of James Baldwin is an important one for our times. Radical theology must not end at the church doors but go out into the world and critique all gods. Consider the unprecedented political upheavals of 2016: Brexit, the election of Trump, All Lives Matter, and the “fake  news” controversy. These events all reveal the power of various deities at work (white privilege, xenophobia, sexism, racism, etc.). These gods keep us deaf and blind to the world, each other, and ourselves. Therefore, they must be critiqued/crucified so that the God of love and justice can be resurrected.

“Your history has led you to this moment, and you can only begin to change yourself by looking at what you are doing in the name of your history, in the name of your gods, in the name of your language. And what has happened is as though I, having always been outside it—more outside it than victimized by it, but mainly outside it—can see it better than you can see it. Because I cannot afford to let you fool me. If I let you fool me, then I die. But I’ve fooled you for a long time. That’s why you keep saying, what does the Negro want? It’s a summation of your own delusions, the lies you’ve told yourself. You know exactly what I want!”




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: