Hope in the Midst of Hurt: A Critique of Between the World and Me
“The Lord works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed.”
As a preface to this article, I would like to comment on the topic of racial justice generally. I am a White man. More, I am a White man writing about a Black man’s experience with racism in America. I fully understand that many people would call me unqualified to write about such a thing. I would respond that in representing the Black experience in America, I have attempted as best I can to write solely about the author’s own descriptions and sentiments concerning Black life in America. But what is important to realize for the sake of this article is that what I critique is neither the Black experience nor the author’s descriptions of it. To the contrary, I affirm this experience and instead center my critique on the worldview that the author develops as a result of his experience. More specifically, my hope is that this critique will point to the conclusion that only the Christocentric worldview can adequately explain suffering– including racial injustice– in this world while at the same time offering both a temporal and eternal answer to that suffering. In a word, when Christ came, “God [reconciled] the world to himself ”.
Ta-Nehisi Coates has been labeled this generation’s flagbearer for social justice and chief warrior against anti-Black racism. The son of a Black Panther and a teacher, Coates grew up on the precarious and unforgiving streets of a racially charged and crack-consumed neighborhood of Baltimore, Maryland. Early on, he was exposed to the literature and writing that would eventually propel him to a national stage. His father was the founder of a publishing company that focused on Black authors and titles, further exposing Coates to Black thought and intellectual culture. He followed his father to Howard University, the historically Black university in Washington, D.C., where he immersed himself in Black life to a level that he had previously experienced only in glimpses. In living and learning with the country’s sharpest Black minds, both past and present, Coates spent hours in the library and with other students and professors, soaking in all that he could about Black history, Black culture, and Black status. After leaving Howard to embark on his journalistic endeavors, Coates spent time at various publications before landing at The Atlantic, where he writes now. While at The Atlantic he has published numerous significant pieces, the most noteworthy of which has been “The Case for Reparations” from June 2014, which argued that both the ongoing and historical nature of oppression and discrimination against Blacks warrants justice in the form of racial apportionment by the country as a whole. That piece brings us now to his most recent book, Between the World and Me. Besides winning the National Book Award for Non-Fiction in 2015, the book’s impact has caused ripples in disparate circles throughout the country and has attempted to bring to the forefront of national consciousness a critical look at the status of Black people relative to the prevailing American culture.
Throughout his work, Coates repeatedly stresses a Dream by which he and other Blacks are excluded from mainstream America. While never explicitly defining the Dream, he alludes on numerous occasions to the idea that the Dream is the very system of American life created and reinforced by and to the benefit of Whites. In a sense, the Dream is the majoritarian culture of yesterday, today, and presumably tomorrow–but all of which is White. Interestingly, Whiteness to Coates means less about skin color or familial history than it does about the mindset of individuals. Specifically, those who ‘think that they are White’ stands in for the White person. And those who think that they are White (which includes physically White people) actively oppress and subjugate ‘Black bodies’ today, just as they have since before this nation was pieced together. Found stitched into the fabric of the country, the Dream bears its teeth in the way we interact with each other, the inherent biases found in our institutions, our assumptions about assimilation, and our very definition of success. At first glance, the book is a seeming manifesto for a new Black power movement with its pointed and incriminating descriptions and its fondness of Malcolm X. Between the World and Me, though, is nothing of the sort. A call for renewed Black struggle, perhaps, but something very different than a manifesto. Between the World and Me is a letter to Samori Coates, Ta-Nehisi’s son. As such, it takes on seriously different implications regarding both Coates’s worldview and his vision for Blacks. And more importantly, without Coates realizing it, the letter draws attention to the very structural and intrinsic problems that God Himself, in the form of Christ, came to remedy.
As a commentary on American life, the book narrates the racial history of the United States. Coates understands the domination of Whites over and against Blacks as the primary narrator and determiner of American culture. From slavery to the sharecropping system to segregation to mass incarceration and housing discrimination, the American experience has been anti-Black by its very nature. The “masters of the galaxy” (read White Dreamers), have forced Blacks to be “born into chains [for] whole generations” and to be “transfigured…into tobacco, cotton, and gold”. More than simply transgressions against a group of people or an arrogant presumption of superiority, the Dream preys on the body, work, and family of the Black person. In a word, the Dream attacks on every level the freedom of the Black individual in America. Indeed, Blacks are captive even in the land of the free.
This entire thesis, however, hinges very dependently on Coates’s understanding of personhood. To Ta-Nehisi Coates, to be a person means to have a body and nothing more. Conversely, he implies that to have a body means to be wholly a person. In other words, the body is the most precious, and in fact the only thing that an individual possesses. He remarks that “my soul is the voltage conducted through neurons and nerves…my spirit is my flesh”. Such a saying carries very serious implications. Notably, it implies that the body ought to be valued more than any other thing: physical, spiritual, psychological, or otherwise. And not only that, but the attack on, enslavement of or possession of the bodies of one group of people by another group is a crime more severe than most, and therefore requires action. Here we arrive at the gravity of Coates’s work and the spiritual ramifications it creates. As a summation of Coates’s work, we find that “the god of history is an atheist, and nothing about this world is meant to be… These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.” The Dreamers run this Universe. But despite all of this, the Black person must fight back, as he implores his son Samori: “… you are the bearer of a body more fragile than any other in this country. What I want you to know is that this is not your fault, even if it is your ultimate responsibility…because you are surrounded by the Dreamers.”
If such a grim picture about the universe and its nonexistent god is truly reality, then we have much about which to lament that we cannot at the same time affect. And if such a grim picture is truly reality, then we must as a country do everything and more to remedy the ailments Coates diagnoses about American culture, but, Coates implies, we must do so without having a single incentive other than pure altruism.
Thankfully, Coates is wrong. Instead, with Christ we find the truest reality of the universe.
To be fair, much of his book is spot on in its diagnoses, misgivings, and descriptions about American life and the Dream. But as a worldview, it has serious shortcomings. As with the majority of humanity, the lens with which Ta-Nehisi Coates views the world around him has been colored by the bitter and hardening power of experience. Experience with oppression, experience with brokenness, experience with injustice—as the Christian would understand it, experience with sin and its effects. But to cut off the story there would be a mistake. As a purely physical (dealing with things only in the world) evaluation of America and its culture of materialism, Coates is correct. If, however, we admit that there are things that influence us (meaning both us as individuals and the collective us as the country) that aren’t defined by solely physical considerations, we allow ourselves to understand more completely the problems that undergird historical and current oppression and ways to combat them. In other words, when we account for the possibility that humans have souls in addition to, and more accurately together with, bodies, we find a dramatically more hopeful view of how to deal with injustice. To move beyond Coates’s secular and materialistic worldview and into a Christian worldview requires less compromise on the identification of evil than Coates implies. In other words, the rejection of the Christian worldview simply because it acknowledges the existence of a transcendent hope (that is God) doesn’t give Christianity credit for what its doctrine conveys regarding injustice and oppression.
Furthermore, Coates does not have a monopoly on the criticism of the religion of American hyper-exceptionalism. The deification of this nation and its attributes, whether those be politicians, ideals, a flag, etc., is an unmistakably prominent theme when reading the history of our country. Eventually, a flawed type of American civic religion emerged that equated patriotism with being a good Christian. Choosing to take more out of Christianity than patriotism, this religion has made itself into a near litmus test for being a true American and Christian: to be a good citizen is to be a good Christian. This, of course, is antithetical to a religion based on the life of a man who cared more that we are born again, love God, and love others, than he did that we own the most red, white, and blue. Simply put, biblical Christianity finds much of modern American culture quite problematic.
This begs the question, then, where does the Christian’s view of American culture departs from Coates’s? Many of Coates’s observations about the inherent prejudices in America’s institutions and the twisted definitions of success and freedom are deeply felt and indeed very profound. The problem is, his reasoning stops short of adequately accounting for the immense complexity of our world and its problems. Whereas many approaches to life take one step toward a solution, that by being a virtuous person one can overcome the vices of the material world, Christianity takes a different step, revealing to us a God who speaks before, into, during, around, and after these struggles, thereby simultaneously acknowledging and dealing with the brokenness of the world by giving us His Son to redeem us and His Holy Spirit to comfort and protect us.
Ultimately, Between the World and Me is a plea to Samori Coates about a dark world with little mercy. As Christians, we affirm this truth about the world. It is about an America that values the wrong things and worships itself. As Christians, we agree with this evaluation of the country. It is about a brokenness that is grafted into our very fabric and that is in a sense inescapable. As Christians, we concur and add that sin affects every part of the world. The Bible takes what Coates argues and adds to it context, reason, and most importantly hope. It’s not enough to be an emotional crutch or societal refuge, as Coates implies the church to be throughout the book. Christianity must be explanatory. And it must be explanatory in a way that doesn’t indiscriminately speak overly sentimental love and mercy into everything, as if everything of the world is a real manifestation of God. God is omniscient and omnipresent and omnipotent and in all and with all and through all, but He is not all. There are things of this world that are not of Him. This is the paradoxically beautiful relationship between God and man, that to commune with His creation He gave free will and that free will rebelled, rebels, and will rebel against Him. And this is the Christian narrative of human existence; it’s how one group of people defined by a certain pigment in their skin can brutally and mercilessly destroy an entire race of their brothers and sisters. But it’s also how both of those groups of people can be shown appropriate justice and yet at the same time be redeemed. And while Coates prefers to look at the individual as a member of a collection of bodies—be it Black, Muslim, or otherwise—, Christianity refuses to understand people as simply members of a group. With an understanding of the church, Christ’s bride, made up of God’s people throughout the ages, we can see Christianity as being simultaneously collective and individual; God calls the individual but saves the church. With this context, we can have hope that God works through all human beings and groups as a whole, that He can save even the most dominating of oppressors (whether the Dreamers or not), and that He will not forsake even the most wretchedly beaten down sufferers.
Throughout the Bible, we hear about how the world in which we live is a fundamentally broken and hurting place. We find that “the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth” (Rom 8:22), and that “our outer self is wasting away” (John 16:33). But the story does not end here. While we may not experience it now, we know that our struggles and pains and hurts are “preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17) since God will, at the end of time, “wipe away every tear from our eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev 21:4). This is difficult to see in the midst of suffering, but when we choose to embrace a view of humanity that moves beyond the purely physical, we find the whole, rich truth of our existence in the context of our brokenness but in the presence of our Creator. In our struggle against the oppression to which Coates calls our attention, we seek justice in the hope of a God who bends the arc of history not toward death, but toward Himself. And here we find Christ Himself, His glory and efficacy and love and joy. Not in the place of, but amidst our suffering, brokenness, oppression, and desert. This is where Coates gets it wrong; it’s not that Christians pretend the things he talks about don’t exist, they simply understand the ultimate reasoning behind their existence. The oppression and injustice that we still experience on this earth are evidence of a broken and sinful world. But Christ refused and refuses to let this oppression and injustice triumph. By dying His sacrificial and redemptive death, He at once defeated the eternal impact and existence of injustice. He then gives us His Spirit of peace and security that promises to keep us until the day He finally redeems creation at the end of time. Through this Spirit we can see a church that fights for justice and proclaims a Gospel that speaks freedom and love into a dark, dark world. In short, Christianity informs the struggle and the suffering by giving us the grim reality of a despicable world covered up by the glorious and immediate reality of a Savior who has for us an eternal home. As the revered author C.S. Lewis has been quoted many times for saying, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”
1 2 Corinthians 5:19, ESV
2 Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015. Print.
3 Ibid., 7
5 Ibid, 70
6 Ibid, 79
7 Ibid, 137
8 Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity. New York: MacMillan Pub., 1952. Print.
Image: Not by Sight from The Yale Logos.Tags: Black Lives Matter, church, CS Lewis, history, Howard University, justice, Malcolm X, materialism, paradox, race, racism, resurrection, slavery, social justice, Ta-Nehisi Coates