Based on some online comments, I expected to see a film where “white guilt” was pushed by excessive imagery of ethnic (racial) conflict and confrontation, punctuated with very brash and emotional statements about racism. I must also mention that I was not very familiar with James Baldwin previous to hearing about this film.
I Am Not Your Negro is a story that focuses on the narration of James Baldwin’s experiences from the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, Malcolm X along with a few others. It is a story in which key points from his interviews and lectures are punctuated with useful and gruesome images balancing the mystery of peace and reality, past and present.
How Can You Not Be Moved?
After watching the documentary, I experienced an incredible hopelessness when focusing on how much has not changed. The marginalized ask, will things ever get better? When will they change? What can I do?
The oppressors (intentionally or by association) may think this documentary is pointless and divisive, or simply a guilt-trip. Others may empathize and ask similar questions: will things ever get better? How can I change? What can I do?
Regardless of the questions you ask or conclusions you form, how can you not be moved by the documentary’s imagery? Not just those from featured movie scenes but those from reality? The beatings, the shootings, the rape, the exploitation of not just the marginalized people, but people alike?
As believers, God’s word instructs us to love each other (John 15:12). God’s instructs us to rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep and to live in harmony with one another (Romans 12:15-16). How can we not be moved by the images and attitudes that encourage the opposite? How can we claim to love God and act and think in hateful ways (1 John 3:15)?
Equality is Not God
In the midst of that deep feeling of hopelessness, I realized that as the marginalized or their allies, we can often unintentionally worship at the idol of equality. Let me be clear: I am not advocating for inactivity in working towards racial reconciliation. I am only saying the failures and lack of progress can reveal when our hope in ethnic reconciliation and equality becomes greater than our hope in God.
In the same breath, we must acknowledge that God commands us to change for His glory. It is our unity that presents a strong witness to this world of its inevitable destruction and of our unwavering hope in Christ (Phil. 1:27-28). It is not our segregation. It is not our attempts to exploit or vilify each other, but a humility that counts others more significant than “me” and “my ethnic people” that exemplifies Christ’s sacrifice (Phil. 2:3-7).
Baldwin and the Church
In his response to why he chooses to concentrate on color, even though struggles in life are common to all, Baldwin explains, “I don’t know what most white people in this country feel, but I can only conclude what they feel from the state of their institutions. I don’t know if white Christians hate Negroes or not, but I know we have a Christian church that is white and a Christian church that is black. I know, as Malcolm X once put it, the most segregated hour in American life is high noon on Sunday. That says a great deal for me about a Christian nation. It means I can’t afford to trust most white Christians, and I certainly cannot trust the Christian church.”
He speaks of more institutions in his answer, but addresses the church first. To clarify, as believers, we know, the church is not an institution per say, but God’s people, the body of Christ. However, is His body still segregated? Has this changed? To some degree it has, and to a larger degree it has not.
Firstly, my little family and I are thankful that the churches we have attended (and do attend) have been multicultural or welcoming, though we are often the minority. We are thankful that many are working at not only being multicultural in congregations, but reflective of different cultures in the worship and leadership. We are thankful that skills, giftings and callings are not disregarded because of ethnicity. We are ultimately thankful God desires that his body would reflect people from every tribe, language, nation and tongue (Rev. 5:9), not just when He returns but now.
While I will acknowledge that not every area in which we live is multicultural, as a black woman, in a black family in the reformed church, I’ve often felt this way, especially when visiting other churches.
We’ve visited churches where we were the only black family and it is not because Toronto lacks multiculturalism. This is not just a cultural or theology issue. We’ve visited big and small churches that have good theology, but are filled with black people or white people but not both. Maybe, if you’re lucky, there is a sprinkling. We’ve visited churches that lack diversity in their leadership, even though it was quite evident in the congregation. To be clear, I am not advocating for unqualified people to lead simply to fill a minority quota.
The witness of the Church in America, from Baldwin’s perspective, has already been greatly hindered by racial strife and injustice: “and I certainly cannot trust the Christian church.”
We must change. God will help. The gospel is at stake. In the mission to make disciples for God’s glory, His people must be intentional in fostering deeply honest relationships with our blood-bought brothers and sisters across ethnic lines that are not easily stifled by pride and offense. His people must be intentional about acknowledging the past and guarding against ethnic marginalization in the future. The elimination of racism is not the end; Christ-like unity is the goal (John 17:22-23).