The gospel according to Ta-Nehisi Coates

Struggle, love and the Kingdom of God

Aug 18, 2015 by

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This is the final post of a six-part series examining theology through the lens of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, Between the World and Me. See the other parts here.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, Between the World and Me, doesn’t sing a song of hope. Nor does it paint of picture of peace, harmony and racial reconciliation.

indexSome of this pessimism has to do with metaphysics, Coates’s atheism. But most of the pessimism (and/or realism) is rooted in Coates’ skepticism about white America’s ability to wake up from the Dream. This is coupled with Coates’ reluctance to waste black bodies and lives, as was done the the American civil rights movement, to rouse the compassion or prick the conscience of America. Which leaves us in a pretty dark and pessimistic place. No spoilers, but Between the World and Me ends on a somber note. There’s no rainbow at the end.

So where’s the good news?

If there is a “positive” message in Between the World and Me, it can be found in two lessons Coates tries to communicate to his son, themes he returns to over and over.

These lessons are struggle and love.

In the first post I mentioned the focus on struggle. Without a clear and hopeful vision of the future, and no good options to make it all come out right, over and over in the book the consolation Coates comes back to is the consolation of the struggle itself:

“[T]he struggle, in and of itself, has meaning” (69).

“Perhaps struggle is all we have because the god of history is an atheist, and nothing about this world is meant to be” (71).

“You are called to struggle, not because it assures you victory but because it assures you an honorable and sane life” (97).

“The struggle is all I have for you because it is the only portion of this world under your control” (p. 107).

This focus on the intrinsic meaningfulness of the struggle — “The struggle, in and of itself, has meaning” — gives Between the World and Me an existential texture. It reminded me a great deal of Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus.

The difference is that with Coates there is more in Between the World and Me than the solitary consolation of the struggle. There is also community, solidarity and love. As Coates writes, “I didn’t always have things, but I had people — I always had people” (88, emphasis in original).

Coates describes finding community and love in many places in Between the World and Me. The most obvious place is the love he has for his son. If God shows up anywhere for Coates in Between the World and Me, it’s with the birth of his son (67): “There was before you, and there was after, and in this after, you were the God I’d never had.”

Beyond family and the community he experienced in college, Coates also describes the community and solidarity blacks naturally share. Coates rejects the belief that race has any biological meaning. There is no such thing as race, only superior versus subordinate power relationships.

And yet, Coates notes that America did, in fact, create a race. America created the race we call “black.” But it’s not a race rooted in biology. It was a tribe bonded together through a shared experience of suffering. A race of the oppressed. To identify as “black” is to say nothing about biology but to place oneself within a specific history and legacy of shared suffering.

Describing this, Coates writes about bumping into a younger black man at an airport (p. 119-120):

I bumped into a young black man and said, “My bad.” Without even looking up he said, “You straight.” And in that exchange there was so much private rapport that can only exist between two particular strangers in this tribe that we call black. . . . I saw that what divided me from the world was not anything intrinsic to us but the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named us matters more than anything we could ever actually do. In America, the injury is not in being born with darker skin, with fuller lips, with a broader nose, but in everything that happens after. In that single exchange with that young man, I was speaking the personal language of my people. It was the briefest intimacy, but it captured the beauty of my black world.

And there is more here than a feeling of solidarity and kinship. Coates describes the vulnerability of black bodies, how society is so organized to expose black bodies to greater harm, violence and risk of death. In the face of this exposure Coates describes how, at various times in his life, he was cared for by others, how his body was protected by others with acts of care and kindness. If only for a moment.

Coates shares a story of when he was in college and got very sick. A female friend noticed and took care of him, nursing him through the day. In describing the lessons his friend taught him that day Coates writes (60-61): “She taught me to love in new ways . . . that soft or hard, love was an act of heroism.”

I love that line. Love is an act of heroism.

With all this in front of us, I want to end by making some comparisons with the “good news” that Jesus proclaims in the gospels regarding the kingdom of God.

Recall, Jesus was an oppressed person speaking to an oppressed people, to a people living under the power of Imperial Rome. Jesus comes to his oppressed people and proclaims to them “good news” that “the kingdom of God is in your midst.”

What was Jesus talking about?

To start, Jesus’s kingdom was for the most oppressed and marginalized in his society, aimed at the most fragile bodies in the Empire. Where Coates speaks about the struggle, liberation theologians would speak of a preferential option for fragile bodies.

So, what was Jesus saying would be “good news” for fragile bodies?

Well, Jesus didn’t lead everyone out into the desert to wait upon God to swoop down from heaven to save them. Some self-proclaimed Messiahs did that. Jesus didn’t.

Nor did Jesus tell his people to waste their precious bodies in fighting against or protesting against the abuses of Rome. That was what some self-proclaimed Messiah and the zealots wanted to do. Jesus didn’t.

I don’t know how much Ta-Nehisi Coates would agree with Jesus on the whole “turn the other cheek” thing, but I’d like to argue that they both seem interested in the same outcome: protecting precious bodies from the violence of Empire.

Specifically, Jesus’ teachings about nonviolence weren’t aimed at activists leading protests. Sorry Gandhi and MLK. Jesus’ teachings were aimed at regular people who, in going about their day, would be suddenly confronted with Imperial power. Akin to, say, a police officer pulling over a black driver. And one could make the argument that Jesus’ teachings were less about morality than helping that man or woman survive the encounter, how to protect the body from the violence of Empire.

So if the kingdom wasn’t looking for a rescue from heaven or throwing the body into the maw of Imperial power by protesting and fighting, what did Jesus’s kingdom look like?

It looked a lot like how the Pharisees were trying to live within the Empire, but with a critical difference. The Pharisees created communities centered around the synagogue and the teaching of Torah. Carving out of Empire space for a Torah-observant and Levitically “pure” community.

Jesus, by contrast, created communities centered around giving care to the most vulnerable in his society. Jesus carved out of Empire space that protected and cared for the most fragile bodies. That’s what Jesus did as he moved from town to town, he created a community where the most oppressed and marginalized were welcomed and cared for. Communities of care that were open to agents of Empire, tax collectors and Roman soldiers, who were willing to work to buffer fragile bodies.

And this is what the early church did as well. The church carved out of Empire communities of care. Imperial Rome knew Christianity to be a religion popular with women and slaves because of how these communities buffered their fragile bodies from the ravages of Empire.

To my eye, these communities of care carved out of Empire are what Jesus meant when he said “the kingdom of God is in your midst.”

The kingdom of God is found in communities of care who struggle to carve out space in the midst of Empire to embrace, care for and protect the most fragile bodies.

And if there is such a thing as “the gospel according to Ta-Nehisi Coates” to be found in Between the World and Me here is where I think we might find it.

Richard Beck is professor and department chair of psychology at Abilene Christian University. He is the author of Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality and MortalityHe’s interested in the interface of Christian theology and psychology, with a particular focus on how existential issues affect Christian belief and practice. He blogs at Experimental Theology, where this post, the final post of a six-part series on Between the World and Me, originally appeared. 

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