Ordained to Write
For Leigha Cohen’s video of the ordination service, click here.
Thirty years ago I stood in a church in Albany, N.Y., with my father, a Presbyterian minister. I had graduated from Harvard Divinity School and had purchased a one-way ticket to El Salvador, where the military government, backed by the United States, was slaughtering between 700 and 1,000 people a month.
I had decided, as George Orwell and James Baldwin did earlier, to use my writing as a weapon. I would stand with the oppressed. I would give them a voice. I would describe their suffering and their hopes. And I would name the injustices being done to them. It was a decision that would send me to war for two decades, to experience the worst of human evil, to taste too much of my own fear and to confront the reality of violence and random death.
But going to El Salvador as a reporter was not something the Presbyterian Church at the time recognized as a valid ministry, and a committee rejected my “call.” I told my father, who was waiting outside the meeting room, that I was not to be ordained. It must have been hard for him to see his son come so close to ordination, only to have it slip away, and hard to know that his son was leaving for a conflict in which journalists had been killed and would be killed. What the church would not validate he did. “You,” he said, “are ordained to write.”
James Baldwin, the son of a preacher and for a time a preacher himself, said he left the pulpit to preach the Gospel. Baldwin saw how the institutional church was often the enemy of mercy and justice. He saw how it too easily devolved into a sanctimonious club whose members glorified themselves at the expense of others. Baldwin, who was gay and black, was not interested in subjugating justice and love to the restrictions imposed by any institution, least of all the church. And that is why there is more Gospel, true Gospel, in Baldwin than in the writings of nearly all the theologians and preachers who were his contemporaries. His essays are sermons — among them “Princes and Powers,” “Down at the Cross,” “The Devil Finds Work,” “Sermons and Blues” and “History as Nightmare.”
Baldwin deplored the self-love in American society — he counted white churches as being in the vanguard of self-love — and denounced what he called “the lie of their pretended humanism.” In his essay “Down at the Cross” he wrote: “… there was not love in the church. It was a mask for hatred and self-hatred and despair. The transfiguring power of the Holy Ghost ended when the service ended, and salvation stopped at the church door. When we were told to love everybody, I had thought that meant everybody. But no. It applied only to those who believed as we did, and it did not apply to white people at all.” He went on: “If 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.”
Baldwin, like Orwell, named truths that few others had the courage to name. He condemned evils that were held up as virtues by the powerful and the pious. And in this Baldwin was true to a spirit and power beyond his control. He was, in religious language, possessed. And he knew it.
“The artist and the revolutionary function as they function,” Baldwin wrote, “and pay whatever dues they must pay behind it because they are both possessed by a vision, and they do not so much follow this vision as find themselves driven by it. Otherwise, they could never endure, much less embrace, the lives they are compelled to lead.”
This was a sentiment understood by Orwell, who fought against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War and lived with tramps in Paris and London, as well as with impoverished coal miners in the north of England.
“My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice,” Orwell wrote. “When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.”
Orwell, like Baldwin, disdained the hypocrisy of the institutional church. He acidly observed that pious Christian capitalists “do not seem to be perceptibly different” from other capitalists. “Religious belief,” he wrote, “is frequently a psychological device to avoid repentance.” Moses, the pet raven in his “Animal Farm,” is used to pacify the other animals, telling them they will all go to an animal paradise called “Sugarcandy Mountain” once their days of labor and suffering come to an end.
“As long as supernatural beliefs persist, men can be exploited by cunning priests and oligarchs, and the technical progress which is the prerequisite of a just society cannot be achieved,” Orwell wrote.
And yet, like Baldwin, Orwell feared the sanctification of state power and the rise of the manufactured idols that took the place of God, those who promised an earthly rather than heavenly paradise. Orwell struggled throughout his life to find a belief system strong enough to oppose it. “If our civilization does not regenerate itself, it is likely to perish,” he wrote shortly before publishing “Animal Farm.” That regeneration, at least in Europe, he said, would have to draw on a moral code “based on Christian principles.”In “The Fire Next Time” Baldwin wrote: “Life is tragic simply because the earth turns, and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. 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. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death — ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life.”
On Sunday, Oct. 5, after several years of volunteering as a teacher in the New Jersey prison system, I entered into the formal embrace of the church to continue my work with the incarcerated. But in my own mind, and in the mind of my father, I was ordained long ago. I was possessed by a vision, a call, to tell the truth, which is different from reporting the news, and to stand with those who suffered, from Central America to Gaza to Iraq to Sarajevo to the United States’ vast archipelago of prisons. “You are not really a journalist,” my friend and fellow reporter Stephen Kinzer once told me, “you are a minister pretending to be a journalist.”
Life is a circle. We return to our origins. We become who we were created to be. And my ordination, at which the radical theologian the Rev. Dr. James Cone preached and Cornel West spoke and the Michael Packer Blues Band played, makes that circle complete. It was an affirmation of an inner reality, one that Baldwin and Orwell understood. My wife, Eunice Wong, who teaches poetry in a super-max prison, read a poem called “Gone” by Tairahaan Mallard, one of her students. Mallard woke up one morning when he was in the fifth grade and found his mother had abandoned him and his younger siblings. She never came back.
I awaken on my own. Strange. Mommy normally wakes me up. Us, rather. My three brothers and baby sister. But not today. Today I awake on my own. Why? Where’s mommy. I’m the only one awake. Five children, one pull-out bed. In the living room. Where’s mommy? I walk towards the bathroom. Cold, wooden floors, squeaking with every step. Nobody. Nobody’s in there. Where’s mommy? She’s got to be in her room. Must be. No place else she could be. No one. Nothing but empty beer bottles And cigarette butts. Party time’s over. But, where’s mommy? Gone. Not only is she gone, but where? Gone is her security. Gone is my innocence. Gone is my childhood. Ushering in responsibility. Prematurely. Gone is a mother’s love for her children. Gone is her protection. Gone. But where? Will she come back. I don’t know. But if she ever does, I will have already been gone.
Relatives of some of my imprisoned students were at the ordination, held at an inner-city church in Elizabeth, N.J. It was as much their day as mine. Cone and West spoke to their pain, despair and abandonment. Cone told the congregation:
WAIT, BEFORE YOU GO…
The conviction that we are not what the world says about us but rather what God created us to be is what compelled me to respond to the call to become a minister and theologian. The great black writer James Baldwin wrote about his Harlem junior high school principal who told him that he “didn’t have to be entirely defined by [his] circumstances,” that he could rise above them and become the writer he dreamed about becoming. “She was living proof,” Baldwin said, “that I was not necessarily what the country said I was.”
My mother and father told me the same thing when I was just a child. It did not matter what white people said about us, they told my brothers and me. “Don’t believe them. You don’t have to be defined by what others say about you or by the limits others try to place on you.” I also heard the same message every Sunday at Macedonia A.M.E. Church. “You may be poor,” Reverend Hunter proclaimed from the pulpit, “you may be black, you may be in prison, it doesn’t matter, you are still God’s child, God’s gift to the world. Now go out of this place and show the world that you are just as important and smart as anybody. With God, anything is possible!” That was the message my parents and black church community gave to me. It was a message I read in the Bible. And I believed it. …
Jesus was crucified on a cross as an insurrectionist because he bore witness to the divine Truth that no one has to be defined by their circumstances. Liberation from oppression is God’s gift to the powerless in society. Freedom is Jesus’ gift to all who believe. And when one accepts this liberating Gospel and makes the decision to follow Jesus, you must be prepared to go to the cross in service to others—the least of these in society.
Because the Gospel begins and ends with God’s solidarity with the poor and weak, ministers who preach that Gospel will inevitably disturb the peace wherever there is injustice. Jesus was a disturber of the peace, a troublemaker. That is why he said: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father and a daughter against her mother. … Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; … Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life shall lose it and those who lose their life for my sake shall find it” (Matthew 10:34). Jesus’ presence creates division and conflict, even in families and among friends and especially among religious leaders and rulers in government. That was why the Roman state crucified him, lynched him on Golgotha hill, placing his exposed, wounded body high and lifted up on a cross for all to see and learn what will happen to others who choose to follow the man from Nazareth. Now if we Christians today are going to follow this Jesus and become ordained as one of his ministers, we too must become disturbers of the peace and run the risk being lynched just like Jesus.
The great theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said: “If a gospel is preached without opposition, it is simply not the gospel which resulted in the cross.” It is in short not Jesus’ gospel.
The love that informs the long struggle for justice, that directs us to stand with the crucified, the love that defines the lives and words of a Baldwin or an Orwell, that defines the lives and words of James Cone and Cornel West, is the most powerful force on earth. It does not mean we will be spared pain or suffering. It does not mean we will escape death. But it gives us the strength to confront evil, even when it seems certain that evil will triumph. That love is not a means to an end. It is the end itself. That is the secret of its omnipotence. That is why it will never be conquered.
“So that kingdom of God we have the audacity to ally ourselves with,” West told those at the ordination, “if that kingdom of God is within you, then everywhere you go you ought to leave a little heaven behind. The master charge is how much heaven are you going to leave behind in your short move from your mama’s womb to tomb. … How much will all of us leave behind? More to come. But in the end, Samuel Beckett is right. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. When they put us in the grave, even following the charge, we are still a relative failure, because we fell on our faces. But most importantly we bounced back because we wanted to be part of that love train, that quest for the Kingdom of God, that humility that our dear brother professor James Cone was talking about at the center of the Gospel, which is inseparable from memory and inseparable from tenacity. The charge in each one of us is how do we learn to love our crooked neighbors with our crooked hearts. Grace. Amazing Grace.”
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