When Thomas Paine wrote, “These are the times that try men’s souls,” the outcome of the American Revolution was by no means certain. While I do not have many points of theological agreement with Paine, a thoroughgoing Deist, I nonetheless find myself returning to his words in these latter days. Paine’s pamphlet, with its famous opening line, posits that choosing one political path over another will reveal whether one’s soul is in the right place.
Was Paine right?
Nearly 250 years later, we find ourselves similarly engaged in national soul-searching.
Whether one voted for Trump eagerly, or while holding one’s nose, or not at all, his ascendancy to the most powerful job in the world, and the degree to which American Christians supported his election, has rightly prompted a renewed consideration of how people of faith should and do live out their beliefs in the polling booths.
For those of us who are Christians and also teach, that question means that this moment is ripe for meaningful conversations with our students.
As a professor of American literature at a large Baptist university on the West Coast, I have a somewhat unique position in that discussions about the intersection of faith and politics are intimately connected to my discipline. Such concerns infuse American literature, and part of my job is to integrate faith and learning, helping my students (most of whom identify as Christian) make sense of how their belief systems do and should shape their academic pursuits.
Within this context, wherein both personally and professionally I interact primarily with other professing Christians, I have been considering my role and responsibility to my students in helping them (and me) make sense of the election and subsequent policymaking of Donald Trump within the larger narrative of American literature and history.
This effort is no small task.
As a Christian who did not vote for Donald Trump, I am inclined to respond to the administration’s dysfunction by wagging an “I-told-you-so” finger at those Americans who enabled this presidency, with an especially vigorous shake for my fellow Christians who supported him. (I try not to do so. I probably don’t succeed.)
Or, alternately, I want to retreat into English professor mode, recognizing and highlighting the roots of this present moment in America’s history and literature, drawing connections for my students. (For example, we might see this president’s refugee ban — rooted in a fear of the potentially dangerous Other desiring to hurt Americans — as an outgrowth of the words and ideas of another president, Thomas Jefferson, who in Notes on the State of Virginia defended slavery on the grounds that “Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.”)
Or, yet again, I want to keep mum, biting my tongue so I don’t alienate friends, family, students, colleagues — those who relish, or at least tolerate, this president’s penchant for “telling it like it is.” (I want them to like me. I want good student evaluations.)
Or, instead, I want to find common ground while retaining the courage of my convictions.
What might that look like?
Lessons from Baldwin
Each spring as part of the post-Civil War survey of American literature course, I teach James Baldwin’s short story “Going to Meet the Man” (1965). I do so with some trepidation. The story is told from the perspective of Jesse, a white racist sheriff during the Civil Rights era, who, among other things, uses racial slurs, rapes black women he arrests, and is aroused by torturing a college student he jailed for attempting to register black voters. Baldwin highlights how Jesse was “trained” to be a racist by his parents, who took him as an eight-year-old to a “picnic” where they knew a black man would be lynched for “knocking down old Miss Standish,” a white woman. After Jesse and his parents watch the man being dismembered and burned alive, Jesse, who watched the lynching while seated on his father’s shoulders, reflects that he now “loved his father more than he had ever loved him.”
Certainly it would be easier not to teach this story. I have to spend a lot of time laying the groundwork for my students about why we need to read such stories, vivid in their depiction of brokenness. As part of the discussion, I ask students to ponder Baldwin’s decision to put his readers into the head of a vicious, unrepentant white racist.
Are we supposed to hate Jesse?
The challenge of “Going to Meet the Man” is whether we dehumanize the dehumanizer. The temptation to despise Jesse is oh-so-strong — and feels good. We take comfort in our recognition of our own virtue. We would never act like Jesse. And Jesse’s actions certainly merit our harshest criticism as does the fact that they are carried out with impunity.
Indeed, Baldwin pulls no punches in this story. Even as he reveals the roots of Jesse’s racism, he shows that there is little that is redeemable about Jesse, who is not the slightest bit remorseful for any of his abhorrent actions towards African Americans. Yet Baldwin does something that should give us pause before we would launch into full-throated condemnation of Jesse.
After the lynching, Jesse’s father exclaims, “Well, I told you…you wasn’t never going to forget this picnic.” Jesse, writes Baldwin, feels his father “had revealed a great secret that would be the key to his life forever.” What is the secret? Jesse’s next words are telling: responding to his father, he simply replies, “I reckon...I reckon.”
We might overlook this phrase as a Southern idiom, merely a commonplace uttered as Jesse acknowledges the important role this “picnic” will play in stitching white supremacy into the fabric of his being. But I think Baldwin also wants us to glimpse the theological import of those words: to reckon, in that sense, is to judge in a God-like fashion, having the power to condemn or save people, thereby controlling them body and soul.
Jesse, within a white supremacist context, becomes a reckoner. He abuses African Americans wantonly, repeatedly, brutally. His power is unchecked. He orchestrates Days of Reckoning for those who cross him by defying white supremacy. Yet, even as Baldwin and we decry his dehumanization of black folk, Baldwin implicitly warns against doing likewise to Jesse.
On March 7, 1965, in The New York Times, Baldwin published “The American Dream and the American Negro,” wherein he “suggest[s] that what has happened to the white Southerner is in some ways much worse than what has happened to the Negroes there.” As evidence, he discusses Jim Clark, the sheriff infamously known for squelching black voter registration drives as well as arresting protestors during 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery: “Sheriff Clark in Selma, Ala., cannot be dismissed as a total monster; I am sure he loves his wife and children and likes to get drunk. One has to assume that he is a man like me. But he does not know what drives him to use the club, to menace with the gun and to use the cattle prod. Something awful must have happened to a human being to be able to put a cattle prod against a woman's breasts. What happens to the woman is ghastly. What happens to the man who does it is in some ways much, much worse. Their moral lives have been destroyed by the plague called color.”
Sheriff Clark, upon whom Baldwin models Jesse, is no two-dimensional villain. Baldwin’s conception of his sheriffs, whether fictional or factual, is strikingly theological. He refuses to dismiss them as monsters, as pure evil. In this respect, we can see their racism as part and parcel of original sin, at odds with the Judeo-Christian belief that all humans are created good, as imagebearers of God (imago Dei) and at odds with the notion that all racial groups are equally fallen. Baldwin highlights that racial equality is possible only within a system that sees this reality of humans as created-good-yet-fallen as applying equally to people of all races.
Writes Baldwin in “The American Dream and the American Negro,” “One of things the white world does not know, but I think I know, is that black people are just like everybody else. We are also mercenaries, dictators, murderers, liars. We are human, too. Unless we can establish some kind of dialogue between those people who enjoy the American dream and those people who have not achieved it, we will be in terrible trouble. This is what concerns me most.”
Engaging the Questions
How does James Baldwin speak to our present moment?
As I have pondering how to navigate these troubled waters of the United States during the Trump presidency, I have been reminded first of the power of seeing those with whom I disagree as imagebearers of God. I am convicted by James Baldwin’s insistence that Sheriff Clark (or his fictional analog Jesse) is not a monster. We gain little by repaying hatred with hatred, disdain with disdain. This acknowledgement means, even in my dismay at many of his policies, I try to see Donald Trump as created in God’s image. It also means I protest when he uses fearmongering and insults that negate the imago Dei in others.
For, as Baldwin reminds us to see others — even the most depraved villains — as broken yet three-dimensional humans, he also is steadfast in calling out their abuses of power and injustices towards others. Matthew 25.40 issues a clarion call: “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to [Jesus].” Christ followers are to aid the opioid addict, the Syrian refugee, the military widow, the HIV-infected orphan, the homeless waif. To the extent that our government impedes this call or crafts policies antithetical to it, we should work to serve our fellow imagebearers.
In the classroom, as part of my quest to illuminate the different pulls of “American” vs. “Christian” on our actions, I have been focusing on the “big questions” of American literature: What is an American? What is a Christian nation? (Is there such a thing?) How should or do politics intersect with religious belief? What is patriotism? Is dissent unpatriotic? Should Americans stand for the national anthem? How should Americans express disagreement with one another? How should Christians engage politically? How would recognizing others as imagebearers of Christ shape the nature and trajectory of our politics as well as the quality of our political discussions?
The challenge, for many of us, is to seek the truth amidst the bluster and noise of an administration seemingly run amok — but to do so with humility. As disheartening as I find many of the edicts and tweets coming out of the Trump White House, I know that I see through a glass dimly, and a sovereign God is still in charge, even if I don’t understand Trump’s role in his plan.
As Marilyn Chandler McEntyre puts it in Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, “We must listen [for truth] with all our might, with all our will to discern, laying aside our very human desire to be right with a prayer that we may be faithful” (59).
May we be equipped to do the work God calls us to.