Reprinted from truthdig.com
For Leigha Cohen's video of the ordination service, click here.
Thirty years ago I stood in a church in Albany, N.Y., with my father, a Presbyterian minister. I had graduated from Harvard Divinity School and had purchased a one-way ticket to El Salvador, where the military government, backed by the United States, was slaughtering between 700 and 1,000 people a month.
I had decided, as George Orwell and James Baldwin did earlier, to use my writing as a weapon. I would stand with the oppressed. I would give them a voice. I would describe their suffering and their hopes. And I would name the injustices being done to them. It was a decision that would send me to war for two decades, to experience the worst of human evil, to taste too much of my own fear and to confront the reality of violence and random death.
But going to El Salvador as a reporter was not something the Presbyterian Church at the time recognized as a valid ministry, and a committee rejected my "call." I told my father, who was waiting outside the meeting room, that I was not to be ordained. It must have been hard for him to see his son come so close to ordination, only to have it slip away, and hard to know that his son was leaving for a conflict in which journalists had been killed and would be killed. What the church would not validate he did. "You," he said, "are ordained to write."
James Baldwin, the son of a preacher and for a time a preacher himself, said he left the pulpit to preach the Gospel. Baldwin saw how the institutional church was often the enemy of mercy and justice. He saw how it too easily devolved into a sanctimonious club whose members glorified themselves at the expense of others. Baldwin, who was gay and black, was not interested in subjugating justice and love to the restrictions imposed by any institution, least of all the church. And that is why there is more Gospel, true Gospel, in Baldwin than in the writings of nearly all the theologians and preachers who were his contemporaries. His essays are sermons--among them "Princes and Powers," "Down at the Cross," "The Devil Finds Work," "Sermons and Blues" and "History as Nightmare."
Baldwin deplored the self-love in American society--he counted white churches as being in the vanguard of self-love--and denounced what he called "the lie of their pretended humanism." In his essay "Down at the Cross" he wrote: "" there was not love in the church. It was a mask for hatred and self-hatred and despair. The transfiguring power of the Holy Ghost ended when the service ended, and salvation stopped at the church door. When we were told to love everybody, I had thought that meant everybody. But no. It applied only to those who believed as we did, and it did not apply to white people at all." He went on: "If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him."
Baldwin, like Orwell, named truths that few others had the courage to name. He condemned evils that were held up as virtues by the powerful and the pious. And in this Baldwin was true to a spirit and power beyond his control. He was, in religious language, possessed. And he knew it.
"The artist and the revolutionary function as they function," Baldwin wrote, "and pay whatever dues they must pay behind it because they are both possessed by a vision, and they do not so much follow this vision as find themselves driven by it. Otherwise, they could never endure, much less embrace, the lives they are compelled to lead."
This was a sentiment understood by Orwell, who fought against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War and lived with tramps in Paris and London, as well as with impoverished coal miners in the north of England.
"My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice," Orwell wrote. "When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, 'I am going to produce a work of art.' I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing."
Orwell, like Baldwin, disdained the hypocrisy of the institutional church. He acidly observed that pious Christian capitalists "do not seem to be perceptibly different" from other capitalists. "Religious belief," he wrote, "is frequently a psychological device to avoid repentance." Moses, the pet raven in his "Animal Farm," is used to pacify the other animals, telling them they will all go to an animal paradise called "Sugarcandy Mountain" once their days of labor and suffering come to an end.
"As long as supernatural beliefs persist, men can be exploited by cunning priests and oligarchs, and the technical progress which is the prerequisite of a just society cannot be achieved," Orwell wrote.
And yet, like Baldwin, Orwell feared the sanctification of state power and the rise of the manufactured idols that took the place of God, those who promised an earthly rather than heavenly paradise. Orwell struggled throughout his life to find a belief system strong enough to oppose it. "If our civilization does not regenerate itself, it is likely to perish," he wrote shortly before publishing "Animal Farm." That regeneration, at least in Europe, he said, would have to draw on a moral code "based on Christian principles."
In "The Fire Next Time" Baldwin wrote: "Life is tragic simply because the earth turns, and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death--ought to decide, indeed, to earn one's death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life."