Today we invite you to explore how James Baldwin interprets God’s covenant with Noah; engage with the U.S. bishops’ letter on racism, and its shortcomings; and embody the difficult racial honesty that religious communities need to embrace in an age of overt inequity and violence.
Editors’ Note: The U.S. lectionary uses Genesis 2:7-9; 3:1-7 for the first reading, i.e. the Temptation of Eve. So many harmful interpretations have come from this reading that we look to another Genesis story – that of Noah and the Rainbow. This story is similar to the story of the forbidden fruit in that it addresses humanity’s failures, but the story of the Ark better links our failures with God’s covenant. Read below Eric Martin’s reflection on Genesis 9.
God said to Noah and his family,
“I hereby establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you,
and with every living creature that is with you – birds, cattle, and the earth’s wildlife –
everything that came out of the ark, everything that lives on the earth.
I hereby establish my covenant with you:
All flesh will never again be swept away by the waters of the flood;
never again will a flood destroy all the earth.”
“Here is the sign of the covenant between me and you
and every living creature for ageless generations:
I set my bow in the clouds, and it will be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.
When I bring clouds over the earth, my bow will appear in the clouds.
Then I will remember the covenant that is between me and you and every kind of living creature,
and never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all flesh.
Whenever my bow appears in the clouds I will see it, and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature on the earth.”
God said to Noah,
“This is the sign of the covenant that I have established
between me and all living things on the earth.”
Response: Have mercy on me, O God, in Your goodness.
Have mercy on me, O God, in Your goodness,
In Your great tenderness wipe away my faults;
Wash me clean of my guilt, / purify me from my sin.
R: Have mercy on me, O God, in Your goodness.
For I am well aware of my faults, / I have my sin constantly in mind.
Having sinned against none other than You, / having done what You regard as wrong.
R: Have mercy on me, O God, in Your goodness.
God, create a clean heart in me, / put into me a new and constant spirit,
Do not banish me from Your presence, / do not deprive me of Your Holy Spirit.
R: Have mercy on me, O God, in Your goodness.
Be my savior again, renew my joy, / keep my spirit steady and willing;
Open my lips, and my mouth will speak out Your praise.
R: Have mercy on me, O God, in Your goodness.
Therefore, sin entered the world through the first humans,
and through sin, death —
and in this way death has spread through the whole human race,
because all have sinned.
Sin existed in the world long before the Law was given,
even though it is not called “sin” when there is no law.
Even so, yet death reigned over all who lived from our first parents until Moses,
even though their sin — unlike that of our first parents — was not a matter of breaking a law.
But the gift is not like the offense.
For if by the offense of one couple all died,
how much more did the grace of God
— and the gracious gift of the One Jesus Christ — abound for all!
The gift that came to us is not at all like what come through the ones who sinned.
In the one case, the sentence followed upon one offense and brought condemnation;
in the other, the free gift came after many offenses and brought complete acquittal.
If death began its reign through one person because of an offense,
so much more will those who receive the overflowing grace and gift of justice
live and reign through the One Jesus Christ.
To sum up, then:
just as a single offense brought condemnation to all,
a single righteous act brought all acquittal and life.
Just as through one person’s disobedience, all became sinners,
so through one person’s obedience, all will become just.
Then Jesus was led into the desert by the Spirit, to be tempted by the Devil.
After fasting for forty days and forty nights, Jesus was hungry.
The tempter approached and said,
“If you are the Only Begotten, command these stones to turn into bread.”
“Scripture has it, ‘We live not on bread alone
but on every utterance that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”
Next the Devil took Jesus to the Holy City,
set him on the parapet of the Temple, and said,
“If you are the Only Begotten, throw yourself down.
Scripture has it, ‘God will tell the angels to take care of you;
with their hands they will support you
that you may never stumble on a stone.’”
“Scripture also says, ‘Do not put God to the test.’ ”
The Devil then took Jesus up a very high mountain
and displayed all the dominions of the world in their magnificence,
promising, “All these will I give you if you fall down and worship me.”
At this, Jesus said to the Devil,
“Away with you, Satan!
Scripture says ‘You will worship the Most High God; God alone will you adore.’ ”
At that the Devil left, and angels came and attended Jesus.
The Inclusive Lectionary © 2022 FutureChurch. All rights reserved.
The inclusive language psalms:
Leach, Maureen, O.S.F. and Schreck, Nancy, O.S.F., Psalms Anew: A Non-sexist Edition
(Dubuque, IA: The Sisters of St. Francis, 1984).
Used with permission.
When writer and social critic James Baldwin wrote The Fire Next Time in 1963, he made the very first and last words of the book a stanza from a song of the enslaved: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water, the fire next time!” Through this framing of today’s reading from Genesis, Baldwin reflected on love, the racial calamity of Jim Crow America, and Christianity’s role in creating and – possibly – remedying the situation.
Baldwin begins with his childhood, when, in response to the limited options presented to a Black boy in Harlem, he put his energies into church. After rising quickly in his community, and becoming an exceptionally young preacher who rivaled his own father’s preaching skills, he became jaded about the compromises involved in being a pastor of an institutional church. He sensed himself a hypocrite, as if he were leading people into a religious stupor that prevented racial and economic justice. He wanted,
…to tell them to throw away their Bibles and get off their knees and go home and organize, for example, a rent strike. When I watched all the children, their copper, brown, and, beige faces staring up at me as I taught Sunday school, I felt that I was committing a crime in talking about the gentle Jesus, in telling them to reconcile themselves to their misery on earth in order to gain the crown of eternal life (39).
The faith that he began to move on from, that he thinks all Christians must move on from, was based on the idea that down at the cross one finds salvation in willful ignorance. He talks about communing as a teen with Jesus, “my dearest Friend, who would never fail me, who knew all the secrets of my heart. Perhaps He did, but I didn’t, and the bargain we struck, actually, down there at the foot of the cross, was that He would never let me find out” (34). This is salvation in not-knowing, and Baldwin thinks purposeful oblivion is part of the root of the racial catastrophe of white supremacy – that the problem is not just that white people generally don’t know Black people, but don’t want to. It’s not just that they don’t know the havoc they wreak on Black communities, but that they actively avoid finding out. Baldwin links this problem to an immature understanding of Jesus, the cross, and salvation. Salvation is ignorance in the imagination of so many white Christians because they seek being saved, not from their sins, but from the discomfort their sins would cause them if confronted.
Baldwin’s solution was a kind of love that embraces this confrontation. “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within,” he wrote (95). The only kind of liberation available to white people, nervous about what may happen without racial justice, but horrified by what will happen if it is achieved, is liberation for Black people. Those of both races who are conscious of this, “must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of others” (105).
Baldwin identified Christianity as the chief roadblock to this kind of love. The transition from Jesus’ teachings to the rise of institutional Christendom, and its embrace of state power, paved the way for the kind of white Christianity in America that burned crosses and preached about heaven while making life hell for Black people. “The energy that was buried with the rise of Christian nations must come back into the world; nothing can prevent it,” he wrote (44). This entails self-examination; a return of Christianity to the “sunbaked Hebrew” put to death by the government; and discarding what now seems sacred. Short of that, he implies that we can no longer depend on God’s patience. We may experience as divine wrath the undoing of what was preserved in the Noah story. Baldwin concludes with, perhaps as an apocalyptic warning, the ominous words of the prophetic spiritual that might be upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water, the fire next time!
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) published a pastoral letter in 2018 called “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love.” Like Baldwin’s writings in response to 1960s Jim Crow, the bishops were responding to signs of white supremacy, increasingly visible to those who previously ignored it. Events from Ferguson and Flint to Standing Rock and ICE detention centers framed its context, but church accounts said what spurred it most strongly was the Unite the Right riot in Charlottesville, Virginia. The bishops aimed to teach the faithful on matters of racism.
However, the resulting document reveals what Catholic social teaching has to learn from antiracist movements, rather than its own wisdom on the matter. The letter treats racism mostly as an interpersonal issue. While they note intermittently that, “racism can also be institutional,” both the diagnosis and remedy rely on an incomplete vision of racism residing mostly in the human heart (5). This leads to the general understanding that every race is equally responsible for its existence and frees the bishops to blandly state, “All of us are in need of personal, ongoing conversion,” a statement that assumes equal responsibility from, say, Indigenous and white folk alike for “racism” (7).
The bishops tend toward vague admissions of historical racial guilt and hyper-specific claims to have done well on race. They usually shy away from identifying racist perpetrators by using the passive voice, so one can read that “Native Americans experienced deep wounds” during colonization (11). Who inflicted these wounds seems a mystery, and with a sleight of hand the bishops try to distract attention from that issue when they add: “Although not all encounters with missionaries were benign, a number of missionaries heroically defended Native Americans as they sought to bring the Good News of Christ to many who had yet to hear it” (12). The claim is typical in that it treats history as a heresy rather than an open record in need of examining in a time of racist terrorism.
The letter does acknowledge that some clergy enslaved Black people and does own up to “acts of racism” (22). But it immediately tries to hand-wave them by quoting St. Augustine, saying that when the church confesses sins, “the wrinkles are smoothed away and the blemishes washed clean.” This is a stunning refusal to engage in the kind of introspection Baldwin claimed is necessary. The bishops even voted not to condemn swastikas, nooses, and Confederate flags. While they do condemn violence against police, they do not do so with police violence against Black people (5). It is essentially a Blue Lives Matter document that can’t say the words “white supremacy,” masquerading as a worthy teaching on “racism.” This kind of love literally won’t confront the Confederacy or assert that Black Lives Matter. The letter is an instance in which Catholic social teaching failed spectacularly to say a gospel word in a continuing Kairos moment.
We invite you to pray with Baldwin’s assertion that real love in times of racist oppression demands examining oneself, religious community, and nation, as well as his claim that “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.”
Allow yourself a few moments to sit with the ways in which our communities are capacious enough for beauty and goodness on the one hand, as well as complicity in structural sin on the other. Acknowledging both, shift your focus to the ways they fail to engage the racist signs of the times. Since we so often cling to our group’s virtues, press past the urge to justify what we fail to do by invoking what we do. This can be difficult. It is hard to critique ourselves or the ones we love, so let us embrace that love, and desire for everyone’s full flourishing. With the wisdom of Baldwin, let us name that that part of this love means doing the difficult deed of calling ourselves to account, of confronting our indifference or sloth when the times call for immediate attention. Try, if you can, to recount the brutal litany of the names of Black people needlessly slain: Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Atatiana Jefferson, Tyre Nichols. Imagine them asking your community of worship what you are doing to resist the racist police state. How do you answer?
Reverend Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou, more commonly known as Rev. Sekou, is a public theologian, musician, activist, and author who has engaged the public on white supremacy in a more instructive way than the USCCB. Educated and given his name by civil rights activist and pan-Africanist Kwame Ture, Sekou served as Scholar in Residence at Stanford’s Martin Luther King Education and Research Institute. He went to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, not to witness conditions, but to dig latrines. “There is something deeply theological about shoveling shit,” he said in his book Gods, Gays, and Guns (114). Haiti “is not a test of our faith but a test of your grace,” he said to God, “Show yourself…” (118).
Sekou’s words could apply to the U.S. today in its racist backlash to Black liberation. Just as the spiritual Baldwin invoked (God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water, the fire next time!) had a different idea than comfortable white onlookers did about what a covenant might look like, so Sekou offers a different vision of God’s grace than the U.S. bishops. This became even more clear in 2017 when Sekou showed up to lead nonviolence trainings for clergy in Charlottesville, before the largest (overtly) white supremacist gathering in generations, the Unite the Right riot. For a month, he trained Jews, Muslims, and Protestants, though no Catholic clergy joined in to confront the white supremacists. Sekou is currently Theologian-in-Residence at a church in Seattle, writing his dissertation on a liberation theology of Ferguson.