Thursday, November 11, 2010


I'm still reading James Baldwin's The Cross of Redemption, and while I think there's a good reason many of these pieces remained uncollected so long -- they're just not his best work -- they still make interesting reading. Take "To Crush a Serpent," published in 1987, the year Baldwin died. It's partly autobiographical, telling of Baldwin's brief career as an adolescent preacher and how it ended. Baldwin is, as usual, reticent about his own desires and loves, writing as one who was acted on rather than one who acted:
My sexuality was on hold, for both women and men had tried to "mess" with me in the summer of my fourteenth year and had frightened me so badly that I found the Lord. The salvation I was preaching to others was fueled by the hope of my own [160].
Reticence, of course, is anyone's right, though as with so many of the openly closeted men of Baldwin's generation, his enemies never respected it while he was alive. By 1987, Baldwin was ready to say that "rather than betray the ministry, I left it" (160).
It can be supposed, then, that I cannot take seriously -- not, at least, as Christian ministers -- the present-day gang that calls itself the Moral Majority or its tongue-speaking relatives, such as follow the Right Reverend Robertson.

They have taken the man from Galilee as hostage. He does not know them and they do not know him [160-161].
Oh, Jimmy, the Moral Majority was like so early Eighties! By the time he wrote this piece, the Reagan administration had already mainstreamed the Christian Right, though Reagan disappointed them as much as his admirer Obama would later disappoint secular liberals. Such is politics in the US of A.

And come on: "taken hostage"? Jesus can't be taken hostage. In the first place, he's dead. If you're one of those people who believe he's still alive, then it's even more obviously impossible to take him hostage. If he's alive, and he objected to the Moral Majority or to Pat Robertson, he should have spoken up. Bart Ehrman had a much better take on Robertson after the latter's offensive remarks about the Haitian earthquake last January: "If that happened to the Haitians because they're so sinful, then why hasn't it happened to him?" Any comment, Mr. Of Nazareth? No? Maybe Jesus liked palling around with Falwell and Robertson. But this is too much like Anne Rice's recent complaint that she wasn't going to call herself a Christian anymore because the bad Christians have roont the name. Which is also like the Christians who say that if Teh Gay are allowed to marry, it'll roon marriage for the Decent People.
Nowhere, in the brief and extraordinary passage of the man known as Jesus Christ, is it recorded that he ever upbraided his disciples concerning their carnality. These were rough, hard-working fishermen on the Sea of Galilee. Their carnality can be taken as a given, and they would never have trusted or followed or loved a man who did not know that they were men and who did not respect their manhood. Jesus ... appears not to have despised Mary Magdalene and to have got on just fine with other ladies, notably Mary and Martha, and with the woman at the well. Not one of the present-day white fundamentalist preachers would have had the humility, the courage, the sheer presence of mind to have said to the mob surrounding the woman taken in adultery, "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone," or the depth of perception that informs "Neither do I condemn thee: Go, and sin no more" [161].
You can tell Baldwin was a preacher, can't you? But this is all bogus. First, it is certainly recorded that Jesus did upbraid his disciples concerning their carnality, a word that Baldwin is using here as a euphemism for sexuality. But there's more to the flesh than copulation or lust. Jesus' disciples are frequently portrayed in the gospels as the Twelve Stooges: squabbling over status, failing utterly to understand his teaching, lacking the faith to drive out a teeny little demon much less to move mountains, saying foolish things out of fear or confusion, falling asleep during his final vigil in Gethsemane, running away in terror when the cops arrive, and denying him three times before his enemies. "The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak," he sighs (Mark 14:38) resignedly as he rouses the dozing Peter one more time.

Second, Jesus frequently (though not, I admit, constantly) fulminates against the flesh. From the Sermon on the Mount:
27“You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY’; 28but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29“If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30“If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell.
Got that? Lust, hellfire -- check. Better to cut off some of your flesh than to burn in hell -- check. Then, on the question of marriage and divorce, Matthew 19:
8He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way. 9“And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
10The disciples said to Him, “If the relationship of the man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry.” 11But He said to them, “Not all men can accept this statement, but only those to whom it has been given. 12“For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it.
There's more, but this gives you some idea what I mean. So, those carnal disciples (some of whom were married, as we know from a reference to Peter's mother-in-law and a complaint of Paul's) said that if you couldn't divorce your wife, it was better not to marry at all, and Jesus didn't argue: he even urged them to become (figuratively, figuratively, we're not literalists here!) eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. I think it's reasonable to say that Jesus was a wee bit ambivalent about carnality, and didn't encourage his male disciples to indulge it.

Third, about the women Baldwin mentions. We don't really know much about Mary Magdalene or the sisters Mary and Martha. Mary Magdalene's reputation as a loose woman is post-biblical legend as far as I know, and Jesus kept her at a safe distance anyway ("Touch me not," he told her after his resurrection at John 20:17, "for I have not ascended to the Father," but he let the boys touch him and stick their fingers in his wounds). I'm not impressed by his attitude toward the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4: her love life was all that seemed to interest him, and rather pruriently at that. As for the woman taken in adultery, the story was probably added to the New Testament about 300 years after the gospels were written, but if it's authentic it's not much comfort. She was still sinning, and she'd better mend her ways, for hellfire awaits.

Baldwin goes on to tell of a threatening encounter, when he was thirteen, with "an aging, gaunt white woman", the only white person in his church, who warned him of "the eternal torment that awaited boys like me" (163). This was because of his close friendship with the son of a deacon whom "the elders of the church" had accused of "walking disorderly" (162). "I was in love with my friend, as boys indeed can be at that age, but hadn't the faintest idea of what to do about it -- not even in my imagination ... perhaps I simply refused to allow my imagination to wander, as it were, below the belt" (163).
But Jesus had nothing to do with it. Jesus would never have done that to me, nor attempted to make my salvation a matter for blackmail. The motive was buried deep within that woman, the decomposing corpse of her human possibilities fouling the air [163].
To analyze everything that is wrong here, the aging Baldwin's ongoing inability to embrace his own human possibilities, would take more energy than I feel like expending right now. But really, that he couldn't accept his own thirteen-year-old's carnality -- had to speak of it so slightingly -- forty years later, is heartbreaking.

For a Christian like Baldwin, the idea that Jesus would forgive him for drinking, smoking, and dancing the hoochie-koo, to say nothing of lying in the gutter with men, was surely reassuring. But why should those things be sins, putting a person in peril of hellfire, in the first place? This is one of the reasons why I don't feel that I'm missing anything by being an atheist. First you have to believe that you're in danger, then you have to believe that someone has the magic formula to get you out of danger. I know very well that this is not all there is to religion, or even just to Christianity, but it's a major element, well supported in Jesus' teachings, and one that is often used in missionary work and revivalism.

At the same time, I want to stress again that I don't blame "religion" or "Christianity" for these distasteful elements: I blame the people who put them and keep them in their faith, and that includes Jesus and the authors of the gospels. Religion is not an alien, autonomous force that makes people believe bad (or good) things: it's a human creation, and if religions are ambivalent about the flesh, as they very often are, it's because human beings are ambivalent about the flesh. Getting rid of religion won't get rid of the ambivalence, it will only displace it. That's where we need to begin -- by facing our ambivalence about having bodies -- if we want a better, more humane ethic of sexuality.

By the way, "To Crush a Serpent" originally appeared in Playboy magazine. I don't know how ironic that is; I leave that to the reader.