James Baldwin and the unraveling of our time

The 1961 Interview

In 1961 Baldwin was interviewed by another American icon, “Studs” Terkel (1912-1987) a broadcaster and oral historian of 20th century. Terkel asked him about his self-understanding as an American playwright living in Paris. Baldwin described Paris as a refuge from all he’d experienced as a “Negro” in America. The advantage of another country and a different people was that he could watch what was happening to African Americans back home. He talked about how he’d brought to Paris the habits of being a “Negro” in Harlem only to realize he didn’t need them there. Though living in a place where those defaults no longer made sense, it took a long time for him to figure out how to function in that new place. While this frightened him a lot, it also helped him see what was happening in the West in the early 60s. In terms of my own musings around our own unraveling Baldwin’s words reminded me that leaders caught up in the unraveling of their church systems cannot address their malaise from within them. They have to step outside to find safe spaces where defences and defaults can be dropped before they will see where to find hope.

In much of the literature about that period, the 60s are presented as this amazing moment of transformation and renewal, the emergence of a new age (Aquarius). It marked, most argued, a turning point, a liberation of the human spirit, the ushering in of an age of progress and enlightenment. Baldwin didn’t read it that way. As far back as 1961 Baldwin stated: “I began to see that the West – the entire West is changing, is breaking up; and that its power over me, and Africans, was gone. And would never come again”.[1] His observation gives perspective on our questions of how to address the unraveling today. In the early 60s Baldwin saw the unraveling as few others did and recognized it wasn’t about any particular element of the West; the whole undergirding was breaking up. This clarity came because Baldwin saw the West as a “Negro”, through the history of slavery and the reality of colonization. More than half a century ago, Baldwin saw how the experience of power and technocratic rationality at the heart of the Western imagination were starting to unravel with its attendant loss of faith in the structures and systems of the modern West.

What does this mean?

In terms of questions about how the churches address the unraveling what is critical to recognize is it’s not specific to or even about the Euro-tribal churches even though it is now their experience. They are only part of a greater unraveling that is about the meaning of the power that has undergirded the modern West. Willie Jennings has written “that Christianity in the Western world lives and moves within a diseased social imagination”[2] that extends far beyond the narrow limits of the churches themselves. Wherever I go two questions obsess churches: “What happened?” and “What should we do?”. Part of the answers are:

These churches should stop being preoccupied by their “crises” and “anxieties”. What’s at stake is far bigger than their own malaise.

They were formed within and have embraced a modernity of power and technocratic rationality that is less and less viable for increasing numbers of people. It’s not just an ecclesial unraveling but a whole way of life across the west.

Move attention from ecclesial questions to this broader context to discern what the Spirit is saying.

Discernment requires the churches to attend to the voices of those most affected by this colonizing power and its technocratic elites rather than continue an internal conversation with other Euro-tribal ecclesial leaders about identity.

Attend/Listen with the other

Baldwin argued the West’s self-understanding of this power remained hidden to it. We remain largely unaware of its effects on those colonized and, therefore, he said, on ourselves even when the unraveling. Default systems of believing we can fix our situation and that we have technocratic methods to do this are deeply embedded in our collective imagination. For Baldwin the result has been the locating of the other outside and away from ourselves as Euro-tribals. This is expressed as power over the other (whether the “other” is, for example, First Nations people or the environment). For Baldwin, when a people live inside this colonizing, technocratic power that marginalizes others it also is lost to itself as the colonizer. In response to the question “What do we do about this?” Baldwin talked about slavery (the same realities exist in relation to First Nations peoples) and said: “in order to learn your name, you are going to have to learn mine. In a way, the American Negro is the key figure in this country; and if you don’t face him, you will never face anything”.[3]

To discern how to join with God in its unraveling, Euro-tribal churches must turn from ecclesiocentric preoccupations to a listening to and with the other.

“In that rubble”: Tradition and Inevitability in the Modern West

In his 1961 interview Baldwin reflected on the effects of colonialism on slavery and the African experience stating it was “almost impossible to assess what was lost”.[4] He went on:

… the colonial experience destroyed so much, blasted so much, and, of course, changed the African personality. One does not know what the reality was on the other side of the Flood. It will take generations before that past can be reestablished and, in fact, used… In all the things that were destroyed by Europe, which will never be put in place again, still, in that rubble, there is something of very, very great value, not only for the Africans but for all if us…We are living at a moment like that moment when Constantine became Christian. All of the standards for which the Western world has lived so long are in the process of breaking down and revision; and the kind of passion, and beauty, and joy, which was in the world before the breakdown has been buried so long, has got to come back.[5]

Baldwin’s perspective opens windows on the Euro-tribal churches can come to terms with the West’s unraveling.  Part of it requires them to address the question of what has been lost in their almost compete embrace of technocratic power as elites in control of methods. In the rubble of a West which tore apart all tradition in the name of progress lies the possibility of re-entering those traditions to find in them directions for reshaping Christian life. Rather than looking for new methods, new ways of being adaptive or innovative or managing change, the deeper vocation is that of recovery in the rubble. The recovery of the kingdom for these churches is not wrapped in these methods located elsewhere.

What is unraveling are forms of power and technocratic rationality that became all pervasive and over the past decades became sedimented into a neoliberal capitalism and self-focused consumerism. This modernity of management and control has shaped these churches and their leaders. Since the 60s it became both more embedded in our cultural imagination and is now patently incapable of addressing the unraveling. This is part of the confusion affecting these churches. Leaders seem unable to place into a broader frame what has been happening since the late 60s (a kingdom theology of God’s agency). Obsessive anxieties over their irrelevance drives them to still focus on getting definitions of “church” right so they can fix themselves with technocratic methods.

Answers lie elsewhere. Baldwin’s reflections on the “rubble” came from his experience of growing up poor as a “Negro” in Harlem. Being “Negro” meant being part of a people ripped from their story so that it was almost lost. It’s worth restating his observation: “… colonial experience destroyed so much, blasted so much, and, of course, changed forever the African…the kind of passion, and beauty, and joy, which was in the world before the breakdown has been buried so long, has got to come back.” Modernity rips apart traditions to the point where they are all but forgotten. This ripping away changes a people’s character. Traditions that might carry people through this unraveling are all but lost.

Our own malaise as churches confronts us, therefore, as if it is the only story available, an inevitability, as if we are condemned inside this story. This explains the continuing attempts of the Euro-tribal churches to fix. This is why it seems so difficult for Euro-tribals to grasp what, for example, First Nations people see so well – there is another tradition that came before this that was ripped away but is retrievable. First Nations people see this because they are the colonized, “Negroes” can see this because of slavery, but Euro-tribals fail to grasp this because they feel unable to step outside the inevitability of the picture that holds them captive.

But its not working! We got to this place because we bought the myth of being superior, of being in control, of having the right techniques to make it all work for us. In that process, Baldwin would tell us, we lost our story and this modern story became our inevitability. We don’t know that we’ve sent God away; that we have no real need for God. Even as we use God’s name, we continue looking for means of control – or so the picture in our minds tells us. Baldwin put it this way: “They did it. Inch by inch, stone by stone, decree by decree. Now their kids are deeply lost and they can’t even blame it now on the nigger… It’s the only hope the world has, that the notion of the supremacy of Western hegemony and civilization will be constrained.”[6] In this apparently bleak assessment lie seeds of hope and resurgence. Baldwin saw that:

No true account, really, of black life can be held, can be contained in the American vocabulary. As it is, the only way that you can deal with it is by doing great violence to the assumptions on which that vocabulary is based…you can’t do anything with America unless you are willing to dissect it. You certainly cannot hope to fit yourself into it; nothing fits into it, not your past, not your present…[7]

In the 1961 interview, Baldwin observed: “It’s a great shock to realize that you’ve been so divorced…from who you think you are – from who you really are. Who you think you are, you’re not at all.”[8] Euro-tribal Christians will engage this great unraveling when they recognize that no true account of Christian life can be held in this modern vocabulary of colonizing power, technocratic rationality, management and control without doing itself great violence. Our vocation is to re-enter traditions from before the breaking apart and the “inevitabilities” of our modern moment to attend to the ways God’s Spirit is forming the kingdom in the rubble. A good part of this will mean discerning how we join with God ahead of us in our communities.

We’re working at these questions/issues with congregations and church systems across North America. Out of these ongoing partnerships have come a series of resources such as https://joininggod.org/ as well as a forthcoming series of articles summarizing what we are learning about congregations and joining God. Our partnerships are shaped by a commitment to share ways of taking this journey.


[1] See James Baldwin: The Last Interview and Other Conversations (Brooklyn, NY: Melville House Publishing, 2014), p. 20.

[2] Willie James Jennings, Christian Imagination: The Theology and Origins of Race (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010) page 6.

[3] 22

[4] 23

[5] 24-27

[6] 116-117

[7] 107

[8] 87

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