One striking facet of the discussion surrounding Ta-Nehisi Coates' new book, Between The World And Me is its unexpected religious dimension. I've long admired Coates as a writer, and view his work for The Atlantic is one of the few reasons the magazine is still worth getting (particularly his piece on reparations, which is required reading for, well everyone). And prior to the release of this book, I knew nothing about his religious point of view. Now that I know he's an atheist, it gives the moral urgency of his writing a great deal more salience.
This is accentuated in a piece today by Greg Epstein at Salon.com. Epstein is a chaplain to atheist and secular students at Harvard and other schools, and yet felt as though Coates had framed the discussion in a new and revelatory way for him. He writes:
But Coates’ new book is also, boldly, about atheism. It is even more so about humanism. Crafting a powerful narrative about white Americans — or, as he says, those of us who need to think we are white — who are living The Dream — Coates makes a profound statement of what is, and is not, good, with or without god. Coates refers not to Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream, not quite even to the “American Dream,” but rather to The Dream in which we forget our history, our identity and much of our nation’s prosperity is built on the foundation of the suffering of people of color in general and black people in particular. The Dream, in other words, is not a state in which only Fox News Watchers find themselves. It is a state that can cancel out the very best of white, liberal, humanist intentions.
Epstein points out that, in the face of injustice and repression, often all that sustains members of minority communities is their religious identities. This is a fact that has often been remarked on with respect to the African American community, and the centrality of church to the African American experience.
Yet because Coates is an unapologetic atheist, much of the rhetoric of hope that pervades the religious end of the civil rights community rings hollow for him. If there is no God, the moral arc of the universe does not tend toward justice, as Martin Luther King claimed; it tends towards death and dissolution. It is then incumbent on us as morally responsible human beings to wrest the arc of history in the direction of justice, since it won't go that way on its own. And for those African Americans who have died at the hands of police, or as the result of systemic and particular racism, their arcs are simply ended. There is no hope for them. And there is no justice for them.
Read this way, religion is not an impetus toward justice, or that which sustains the community in the midst of the long struggle to achieve a better society, but in the classically marxist sense, the opiate of the masses, both in the sense that it masks the pain of living in conditions of oppression and exploitation, and in the sense that, by dulling the pain, it also renders us lethargic. If justice will triumph eventually then it matters less that we do what we can to ensure that it triumphs now. And now is when we need justice. Not tomorrow, and not in a century. For most of those who have suffered because of the legacy of slavery and racism in the United States, it's already too late for justice.
This represents an intense moral challenge for progressive religious communities who claim to stand for social justice. If we affirm, as we claim, that our religious convictions impel us to fight against racism, sexism, and social and economic inequalities of every kind, then we need to recognize that this is a call for here and now. The eschatological hope that justice and peace will prevail eventually cannot be an excuse not to expend every effort that is in us to ensure that it will prevail, to the maximum degree possible within history, in the midst of our current situation.
It's worth noting that King himself was aware of this tension, which is one reason why his final book was entitled Why We Can't Wait. Hope for the future cannot become an excuse for failure to act in the present. As he wrote:
Time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to work to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.
Coates sees Christian hope as enervating the need to struggle in the present, while his atheism gives his own struggle the urgency required to make those demands here and now. On the other hand, other movements that have combined the demand for justice with the denial of religious hope have had to find other ways to hunker down for the long struggle. This was why Communism had to put its faith in History writ large, in the knowledge that the class struggle could not be won in a year, or ten years, and that in the process of the struggle, many of those who struggled would inevitably die, and in the mean time, the conditions of oppression would remain. Hope then comes to be embodied in other forms, because without some avenue for hope in the long term, the desire for social justice, and the recognition that it is not completely attainable, at least within our own lifetimes, can lead only to despair.
But all of that cannot obviate the need for Christians and other religious progressives to do more -- to do everything possible -- to achieve social justice here and now. My own perspective leads me to recognize that even the greatest realizations of justice in society are echoes of the greater hope that I hold in the Kingdom of God. But it also leads me to recognize that I have an obligation to anticipate that Kingdom here and now, and fight to overcome injustice here and now. It is not a recipe for passivity, but a call to action, particularly in view of the recognition of human suffering that is at the heart of Christian faith, and embodied in its central symbol of the cross.
We who follow a crucified God have no basis to absent ourselves from the struggle of the day, to say that God will fix it eventually or that it's not our problem. We have the unconditional obligation to involve ourselves in the struggle with every ounce of vigor that is in us. And we should take Coates' challenge to heart, because if we cannot justify our hope in terms of concrete action for justice in the present, then his skepticism is well-justified, and religion will really have no moral claim to be anything other than an impediment to the creation of a better world, rather than its catalyst.