Open Letter to the Born Again

Open Letter to the Born Again

Sometimes, our best efforts at peace are betrayed.


American novelist James Baldwin sits in front of his typewriter in the study of his home in St. Paul de Vence, in southern France, on March 21, 1983. (AP Photo)

The article originally appeared in the September 29, 1979, issue of The Nation.

I met Martin Luther King Jr. before I met Andrew Young. I know that Andy and I met only because of Martin. Andy was, in my mind, and not because he ever so described himself, Martin’s “right-hand man.” He was present—absolutely present. He saw what was happening. He took upon himself his responsibility for knowing’ what he knew, and for seeing what he saw. I have heard Andy attempt to describe himself only once: when he was trying to clarify something about me, to someone else. So, I learned, one particular evening, what his Christian ministry meant to him. Let me spell that out a little.

The text comes from the New Testament, Matthew 25:40: Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

I am in the strenuous and far from dull position of having news to deliver to the Western world—for example: black is not a synonym for slave. Do not, I counsel you, attempt to defend yourselves against this stunning, unwieldy and undesired message. You will hear it again: indeed, this is the only message the Western world is likely to be hearing from here on out.

I put it in this somewhat astringent fashion because it is necessary, and because I speak, now, as the grandson of a slave, a direct descendant of a born-again Christian. My conversion, as Countee Cullen puts it, came high-priced / I belong to Jesus Christ. I am also speaking as an ex-minister of the Gospel, and therefore, as one of the born again. I was instructed to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit those in prison. I am far indeed from my youth, and from my father’s house, but I have not forgotten these instructions, and I pray upon my soul that I never will. The people who call themselves “born again” today have simply become members of the richest, most exclusive private club in the world, a club that the man from Galilee could not possibly hope—or wish—to enter.

Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. That is a hard saying. It is hard to live with that. It is a merciless description of our responsibility for one another. It is that hard light under which one makes the moral choice. That the Western world has forgotten that such a thing as the moral choice exists, my history, my flesh, and my soul bear witiness. So, if I may say so, does the predicament into which the world’s most celebrated born-again Christian has managed to hurl Mr. Andrew Young.

Let us not belabor the obvious truth that what the Western world calls an “energy” crisis ineptly disguises what happens when you can no longer control markets, are chained to your colonies (instead of vice versa), are running out of slaves (and can’t trust those you think you still have), can’t, upon rigorously sober reflection, really send the Marines, or the Royal Navy, anywhere, or risk a global war, have no alIies—only business partners, or “satellites”—and have broken every promise you ever made, anywhere, to anyone. I know what I am talking about: my grandfather never got the promised “forty acres, and a mule,” the Indians who survived that holocaust are either on reservations or dying in the streets, and not a single treaty between the United States and the Indian was ever honored. That is quite a record.

Jews and Palestinians know of broken promises. From the time of the Balfour Declaration (during World War I) Palestine was under five British mandates, and England promised the land back and forth to the Arabs or the Jews, depending on which horse seemed to be in the lead. The Zionists—as distinguished from the people known as Jews—using, as someone put it, the “available political machinery,’’ i.e., colonialism, e.g., the British Empire—promised the British that, if the territory were given to them, the British Empire would be safe forever.

But absolutely no one cared about the Jews, and it is worth observing that non-Jewish Zionists are very frequently anti-Semitic. The white Americans responsible for sending black slaves to Liberia (where they are still slaving for the Firestone Rubber Plantation) did not do this to set them free. They despised them, and they wanted to get rid of them. Lincoln’s intention was not to “free” the slaves but to “destabilize” the Confederate Government by giving their slaves reason to “defect.” The Emancipation Proclamation freed, precisely, those slaves who were not under the authority of the President of what could not yet be insured as a Union.

It has always astounded me that no one appears to be able to make the connection between Franco’s Spain, for example, and the Spanish Inquisition; the role of the Christian church or—to be brutally precise, the Catholic Church—in the history of Europe, and the fate of the Jews; and the role of the Jews in Christendom and the discovery of America. For the discovery of America coincided with the Inquisition, and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. Does no one see the connection between The Merchant of Venice and The Pawnbroker? In both of these works, as though no time had passed, the Jew is portrayed as doing the Christian’s usurious dirty work. The first white man I ever saw was the Jewish manager who arrived to collect the rent, and he collected the rent because he did not own the building. I never, in fact, saw any of the people who owned any of the buildings in which we scrubbed and suffered for so long, until I was a grown man and famous. None of them were Jews.

And I was not stupid: the grocer and the druggist were Jews, for example, and they were very very nice to me, and to us. The cops were white. The city was white. The threat was white, and God was white, Not for even a single split second in my life did the despicable, utterly cowardly accusation that “the Jews killed Christ’’ reverberate. I knew a murderer when I saw one, and the people who were trying to kilI me were not Jews.

But the state of Israel was not created for the salvation of the Jews; it was created for the salvation of the Western interests. This is what is becoming clear (I must say that it was always clear to me). The Palestinians have been paying for the British colonial policy of “divide and rule” and for Europe’s guilty Christian conscience for more than thirty years.

Finally: there is absolutely—repeat: absolutely—no hope of establishing peace in what Europe so arrogantly calls the Middle East (how in the world would Europe know? having so dismally failed to find a passage to India) without dealing with the Palestinians. The collapse of the Shah of Iran not only revealed the depth of the pious Carter’s concern for “human rights,” it also revealed who supplied oil to Israel, and to whom Israel supplied arms. It happened to be, to spell it out, white South Africa.

Well. The Jew, in America, is a white man. He has to be, since I am a black man, and, as he supposes, his only protection against the fate which drove him to America. But he is still doing the Christian’s dirty work, and black men know it.

My friend, Mr. Andrew Young, out of tremendous love and courage, and with a silent, irreproachable, indescribable nobility, has attempted to ward off a holocaust, and I proclaim him a hero, betrayed by cowards.

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