The Gospel According to Ta-Nehisi Coates: Part 1, Between the World and Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates, national correspondent for The Atlantic, is one of the most prophetic, insightful and unsettling voices on the subject of race in American society. We are still talking about Coates's award-winning essay "The Case for Reparations," which has become required reading in many college classrooms. Consequently, I was looking forward to reading Coates's new book Between the World and Me.

Written as a letter to his son about how to live with a black body in American society--"[Y]ou are the bearer of a body more fragile than any other in this country" (p. 137)--Between the World and Me is powerful, moving, difficult and convicting. The book is required reading for anyone, and this should include every Christian, interested in coming to terms with race in America. 

I'd like to devote a series of posts to Between the World and Me under the title "The Gospel According to Ta-Nehisi Coates." I have three goals for these posts.

The first is personal. I need to process Between the World and Me, intellectually and emotionally. As regular readers know, I blog through books and ideas when I want to work through something.

Second, I'd like Christians, especially white Christians, to read and discuss Between the World and Me and I hope this series of posts makes them curious and interested in picking up the book.

Finally, I'd like to explore theological connections with Between the World and Me. And this bit might need some explaining.

Most of my reading about race in America, though not all, has been from within the Christian tradition and, thus, governed by the Christian imagination. From Martin Luther King, Jr. to Cornel West to James Cone.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is different. Coates is an atheist and he finds himself, as he discusses in Between the World and Me, unmoved by and often disconnected from the consolations of black Christianity, and faith generally. This gives Between the World and Me a grim, existential texture which, I fear, many Christians might struggle with.

To give three examples.

First, Coates doesn't share the Christian eschatological imagination, the hope that "the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice." According to Coates, that hope might not be realized. There are no guarantees. History might just as likely end up converging on injustice as opposed to justice (p. 28): "My understanding of the universe was physical, and its moral arc bent toward chaos then concluded in a box."

Consequently, with no assurance of victory or triumph or Happy Ending all that is left is the struggle itself. Thus, over and over in Between the World and Me Coates encourages his son to find meaning in the struggle itself (p. 107): "The struggle is really all I have for you because it is the only portion of this world under your control."

Second, there are no odes to peace, love and reconciliation in Between the World and Me. Some of this is due to the familial frame of the book, a black father writing to his son, but that in and of itself is a part of the message. As a Black person Coates can't change white America, but he's obligated to protect his son.

America is broken, Coates tells his son, but it's not his job, or black America's job, to fix it. Because black America didn't break it. In addition, even if black America felt some responsibility to repair things they lack the power to do so. Consequently, in the final paragraphs of the book Coates writes (p. 151):
I do not believe we can stop them, Samori, because they must ultimately stop themselves...[D]o no struggle for the Dreamers. Hope for them. Pray for them, if you are so moved. But do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves...
And finally, given his atheism--"But some time ago I rejected magic in all its forms." (p.12)--Coates rejects any appeals to the spirit or soul that minimize the preciousness of the human body. Without eschatological consolation all we have is this one body and this one life. Thus any metaphysical speculation (e.g., going to heaven) that minimizes the inviolable nature of the body is vigorously rejected by Coates (p. 103):
There is no uplifting way to say this. I have no praise anthem, nor old Negro spirituals. The spirit and the soul are the body and brain, which are destructible--that is precisely why they are so precious. And the soul did not escape. The spirit did not steal away on gospel wings.
Because of passages like these I fear many Christians might struggle with Between the World and Me, causing them to put the book down or miss its many important messages. So I'd like to use these posts to explore theological connections with Between the World and Me to facilitate Christian conversation and interaction with the book.

And yet, given Coates's atheism my entitling this series "The Gospel According to Ta-Nehisi Coates" might cause some heartburn. It doesn't seem like there is a lot of "good news" in Between the World and Me. And it might also be a worry that my reading "gospel" into the book is an attempt to tame, tone down or co-opt its message. So let me conclude this first post to explain my use of the word "gospel," especially for readers unfamiliar with Christian theology, and liberation theology in particular.

In the New Testament gospel accounts Jesus of Nazareth comes as an oppressed person to an oppressed people, to Jews living under the oppressions of Imperial Rome. A parallel between Rome and America is made in Between the World and Me (p. 144).

And stepping into this oppressed context Jesus comes proclaiming "the gospel" that "the kingdom of God is at hand." And importantly for our purposes, Jesus's "good news" of the kingdom wasn't an other-worldly realm the Jews would fly off to. The Kingdom, Jesus said, was here, in this world, "in our midst."

And while there will not be complete agreement between Coates and Jesus on the nature of the kingdom there are, in the midst of many differences that shouldn't be ignored on either side, points of connection. And I'd like to use these posts to sketch out some of those connections.

Part 2

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