Marilynne Robinson has called writing a “testimony.” For her work—six books of dense and fiery nonfiction, and five novels—“testimony” is a suitably multifarious word. It can refer to speech under oath, the Ten Commandments (in one translation, “the two tables of testimony”) and the Protestant practice of public confession about the experience of belief. That last version of testimony flays. It attempts honesty that moves toward truth, however painful the progress. It is an act of metaphysical witness—and a communal reckoning: there can be no testimony absent an audience. As a singular narrative constellates across a room, it demands that the scrutiny applied to one life extend to all—a form of provocation. “Testimony” was also once “an expression or declaration of disapproval or condemnation of error,” a sense still operative in the substance of what’s testified in church or court. In her four novels set in the fictional town of Gilead, Iowa, Robinson traces the occasional accomplishment and rampant failure that characterizes the white American church’s approach to racial justice. The novels provoke hard questions about goodness, racial justice and the church. And they offer that old version of testimony too.
Although some scholars and critics have engaged this element in her work, Robinson is not widely known as a writer on race in America. Because her novels are resonant chambers that allow scraps of language and thought to jostle and harmonize—an echoic rather than escalating structure—it seems dishonest to claim any stream as primary. But by placing an interracial love affair at the center of her latest novel, Jack, Robinson should make it impossible to elide the way that slavery, its abolition, the Civil War’s aftermath and the dereliction of the church converge to shape the Gilead novels. While Jack may treat race most explicitly, it is an outgrowth of Robinson’s thinking, not an aberration. Gilead’s narrator, John Ames, dwells on his grandfather, a passionately abolitionist preacher who fought in the Union Army. In his old age, the grandfather suffers from “the tremors of pent grief” over the incomplete fulfillment of the war’s goals. When he eventually abandons his family to roam and die in his old battlefields, he leaves a terse note: “No good has come, no evil is ended. That is your peace. Without vision the people perish.” Testimony. His words reverberate through the novels as a necessary rupture, a conclusion that could become genesis.
“Without vision the people perish.” The old man is quoting Proverbs 29:18, but his note also echoes Isaiah 5 and Jeremiah 8. Quotation is more than an aesthetic gesture. Robinson is famously not just a Christian but a Calvinist, a word with vague but mostly negative connotations in popular imagination. She is a member of the Congregationalist church, the oldest Protestant denomination in the United States. She has spent thousands of words countering the reputation of the Puritans, especially Jonathan Edwards, as prim and punitive. She loves the Old Testament and argues compellingly for a reading that eschews the binary of Old Testament justice versus New Testament mercy. Religion, she told the Paris Review, “is a framing mechanism.” A telling phrase that shows how vital Christianity is to her work, surrounding and structuring everything.
But Robinson’s Christianity manifests as more than a formal approach to experience—the particulars of her belief do matter, and they serve as a foundation for the representation of American racism in the Gilead novels. With John Calvin, she shares the conviction that there is “a visionary quality to all experience” and that God animates, at every moment, all of creation. This endows that creation with immanence and revelatory potential. She believes in the existence of souls, mysterious and unaccountable and equal, which profoundly influences how she engages the material reality of racist institutions and social practices. She believes, like Calvin and the contemporary Black theologian Reggie L. Williams, that each encounter with another person is an encounter with an image of God, in effect God himself, thus placing an immense weight on the treatment of others, surpassing even the Golden Rule. Even if a man is trying to kill you, “you owe him everything.” As Calvin does, she believes that each encounter with another person is a question that God is asking of you. In a recent lecture, she described one of God’s goals for creation—which, by implication, should be a human goal—as “human flourishing.” “Flourishing” is a startling word. Its pursuit demands far more than tolerance, or even civic equality: it demands a passionate devotion to others, regardless of your connections through family, country, race or religion. For her, good and evil are relational, social—not solely internal matters. Christianity, she has said, is an ethic, not an identity.
Still, she writes realist novels that do not culminate in didactic perorations, nor telegraph which characters should be applauded and which condemned. The complexity of this “cosmic realism,” as she has called it, leads to frequent misinterpretation, as some fail to differentiate her theology from that of her characters, or to perceive the salutary irony that permeates (without governing) the Gilead novels. Robinson writes that the Old Testament contains “a great realism” as it “looks with a clear eye, and, often, with a broken heart at the agonies of history” and “insists on wresting them into a frame of meaning.” She could be characterizing her own work. As in scripture, the prescriptive elements mingle—at times uneasily, bewilderingly—with descriptive stories of a fallen world.
Robinson’s writerly gifts mean that you do not have to be a Christian to appreciate her fiction. But a reasonably comprehensive survey makes me think that secular criticism of her work broadly suffers from a failure to acknowledge a disjunction in frame, as if nonbelief is a neutral vantage point. I have heard people say that they love her novels and dislike her essays, which suggests discomfort with her ideas when not cloaked in character. Reviews mention “grace” as if it exists without “depravity,” or a God to endow those words with meaning. Christianity becomes synonymized with something like “gentility” or “kindness,” religion a pastel wash, and Robinson’s depraved (in the Calvinist sense), grace-full world reemerges as a Thomas Kinkade painting.
This squeamishness stems, I suspect, from an unwillingness to confront potential, severe disagreements; better to enjoy the language and talk generally about “family” and “redemption” (from what? to what?). Squeamishness also means that discussions of race in the Gilead novels are relatively few. (A. O. Scott, Patricia Lynn Brown and Lee Spinks have written insightfully.) Jack, of course, makes race unignorable, though thus far the critical considerations lack depth, perhaps because it may also be Robinson’s most difficult book. It rewards—even requires—the kind of reading you would give a poem, or scripture, since the story moves via allusion, ironies and paradox. Its commitment to paradox, especially, forces it into the space of the unresolved and irresolvable: the lovers, white Jack Boughton and Black Della Miles, overcome, and are overcome by, a racist society.
This permanent state of tension, in which true resolution exists outside the story and perhaps outside this world, makes sense in Robinson’s frame. The language of Christianity is the language of paradox. What is a soul? It is what Robinson hypothesizes as “that unaccountable capacity for self-awareness”; it is something we cannot begin to fathom. What is God? Fully human, fully divine. What is this you place in my mouth? The body of Christ, and a cracker. Love your enemy. Do good to those who hate you. Et cetera. Such persistent contradiction captures that, in Robinson’s words, “we inhabit … a reality for which explanation is much too poor and small.” History, too, thwarts explanation and, often, justification.
In Jack, Jack and Della form a companionship of souls, which, Della says, have “no history among the things of this world.” We know, from the other novels, that their association will include much separation and pain. Over their shared (if modest) lovers’ dreaming hangs what Jack tells Ames in Gilead: “In the eyes of God we have been man and wife for about eight years. We have lived as man and wife a total of seventeen months, two weeks, and a day.” Divided by financial difficulties, by Jim Crow laws and prohibitions against interracial marriage, by bigotry, by whatever other troubles remain private. Perhaps Della has suffered what Jack fears for her early in their relationship: the world’s “relentless, punitive scorn,” which wears away “at a soul until it recedes into wordless loneliness.” The last glimpse of them, chronologically, occurs at the end of Home, when Della arrives in Gilead just a few days after Jack has gone, no one knows where.
Jack begins in St. Louis circa 1946-47, about ten years before the events of Gilead and Home, in which Jack also appears. (It’s roughly concurrent with Lila, which depicts Ames’s similarly unexpected, upending love story.) He has always been a trial, a beloved son who makes himself a stranger to his family and a wound to his father, the Presbyterian reverend Robert Boughton, Ames’s lifelong best friend. Jack, officially John Ames Boughton, has never respected “the sense of mine and thine.” Even as a child, he commits strange thefts, usually of insignificant objects valuable only to their owners.
His greatest theft, though, is of innocence: when he’s in college, he seduces a teenage girl (her age is left unstated) who is vulnerable because she is young, poor and uneducated. She gets pregnant, and it’s this crime against innocence—not the fact of fornication—that breaks Jack’s father’s heart. Jack departs Gilead as escapee and exile. The Boughtons try to care for the girl and her daughter, though her family rejects most of their attempts at redress. When Jack’s daughter is a few years old, she dies of an infection. Her mother runs away to Chicago, leaving Gilead with a small grave and the Boughton family with an incurable guilt.
This makes Jack sound cruel, heartless, indifferent to consequences. Perhaps, once, he was, but I doubt his soul was ever untroubled. There are hints that some fundamental estrangement from the world makes him unable to follow custom; he is not, to paraphrase his sister Glory, native to his life. She observes that “in him the skeletal machinery of conventional behavior, the extension and contraction of the pulleys of muscle and sinew was all exposed.” By the time we meet him in adulthood, he is an “unshielded nerve,” a man whose agonized awareness of his capacity to harm dictates the architecture of his miserable life.
In Jack, we learn that Jack once went to Chicago searching for the mother of his child. He carries some money (his father’s) and an apology letter, “a disappointing piece of work,” though he knows his task is basically impossible—he doesn’t even remember her last name. He gets drunk at a bar, then finds himself cast out on the sidewalk. His wallet, hotel key and the letter are missing. He spends the night in the street, unable to sleep, wearing the “perfervid, sulfurous” yellow college sweater that he’d once worn on drives with the girl:
Then it was that he had first realized what an exquisite thing harmlessness must be, what an absolute courtesy to things seen and unseen, to the bruised reed and the smoldering wick. If he could not achieve harmlessness, his very failures would give him much to consider. He would abandon all casuistry, surrender all thought of greater and lesser where transgressions were concerned, even drop the distinction between accident and intention. He was struggling in a web of interrelation, setting off consequences in every direction that he could not predict or control or even imagine with any hope of approaching the truth of a matter.
He commits himself to “utter harmlessness,” for which he claims to have “no real aptitude.” It’s an apophatic goodness, an ethic of withdrawal from human relations because the potential to do harm—which, Robinson said in a conversation with Ayana Mathis, seems a “pretty thoughtful definition” of sin—in deed or word is too great as soon as another person is involved. Consequence, or the anticipation of it, reigns. Only in John Grimes, the boy at the center of James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, have I seen another character so acutely conscious of the self’s boundless—and, crucially, unwitting—capacity for evil. The obsessiveness of Jack’s self-interrogation can make for discomfiting reading. The third-person narration sticks us so close to his mind, or soul, that it sometimes feels claustrophobic—like a strong testimony in that it conjures your own soul’s hidden and exhausting potential as well.
Della is the break in Jack’s isolation, the newest—and greatest—opportunity for harm. Accident introduces them: just released after two years in prison (ironically, for a theft he didn’t commit), Jack is wearing a black suit purchased for his mother’s funeral, which he doesn’t attend, because returning home “would confront him with the meaning of his life, which had no meaning at all but was terrible in its consequences.” In the dark suit he has a preacherly mien, and when he helps Della gather some papers scattered by the wind, she calls him “Reverend.” A preacher’s daughter herself, she invites him for tea “in her parlor with Jesus looking on,” where they talk about poetry. He steals two books from her out of instinct, or out of the desire to preserve some shred of this beautiful meeting, for him an experience of grace, or out of the wish to puncture her illusion—probably all three.
She soon learns the truth, and after a disastrous date refuses to see him again. A year later, they meet again by accident: in Bellefontaine, St. Louis’s white cemetery, where he is spending the night for private purgatorial reasons and she is inadvertently trapped, not realizing that the cemetery gates are locked at sunset. For the next seventy pages, the novel’s longest single scene, they form a fragile entente, talking about Hamlet, Paradise Lost, whether souls exist—and revealing things they would not usually tell anyone. Jack speaks aloud one of his private jokes, calling himself the “Prince of Darkness.” (Della contradicts, “No, you’re a talkative man with holes in his socks.”) She confesses that while she has always been “a perfect Christian lady,” “I actually am full of rage. Wrath. I think I feel a little like God must feel the second before He just gives up and rains brimstone. I’ve heard people blame Him for that! I don’t blame Him. I can imagine the satisfaction.” Her wrath aligns her with Glory Boughton and Lila Ames, the other major women of the Gilead novels. Della, however, is more talkative than the others, freer with her opinions, at least to Jack—perhaps Jack’s raw candor invites candor in return, or perhaps the social gap between them removes threat from revelation.
At dawn they wash their faces like Dante “getting ready to enter Purgatory.” Afterward, the plot moves as if by a magnet, a pendular swing between attraction and repulsion, as they fall in love while trying many times to separate themselves. Others also try to separate them. All attempts fail because, as Della later tells Jack, “Once in a lifetime, maybe, you look at a stranger and you see a soul, a glorious presence out of place in the world. And if you love God, every choice is made for you. There is no turning away.” Some might find this an insufficient explanation for commitment to interracial love in a hostile environment; it does overwhelm, deliberately, materiality. But, as Lila and Gilead also show, Robinson’s vision of love is of recognition beyond reason; love “makes no sense at all because it is the eternal breaking in on the temporal.”
Despite that communion of souls, Jack is dogged by his “Jackness, Jackitude, Jackicity.” He is poor, indebted, only occasionally employed, and when he drinks, he overdoes it. Courteousness is endemic, but because he is so aware of the fact that all action is performance, his manners sometimes anger people; they sense deliberation, and interpret it as mockery. A compulsive observer, he’s tremendously attentive to surfaces: an expression that reveals disdain, a patched pocket that shows dignity in destitution, a violet left on a sill—unknowing invitation to a thief. The attention is at least partially self-protective, since his own gentlemanly accoutrements are attempts to conceal the central problem: himself. He wishes he were “just a suit of clothes and a decent shave. Uninhabited, so to speak.”
While he spends a lot of time imagining the tortuous ways things can go wrong, humiliations and harms find ways to surprise. But he never surprises himself: “He had dressed for church that morning, but tilt his hat a little, hang a cigarette from his lip and he was Slick. Who was he kidding, he was always Slick.”
Jack nicknames his “carnal self” “Snowflake,” for his body’s “intractable whiteness.” Yet Della sums him up accurately when she says, “I have never heard of a white man who got so little good out of being a white man.”
Many of Robinson’s readers would disagree with her belief in predestination, but let’s consider predestination, for a moment, beyond its theological purview. At risk of heresy, I’ll define predestination broadly as a constraint of choice that happens outside time. Wherever you stand on the theology of free will, it would be facile to suggest that within time there is much, if any, purely free choice; material and social structures constrain in myriad ways. Race constrains choice by shaping perceptions, access, generational wealth, interactions with the carceral state, likelihood of contracting the coronavirus, etc. One of Jack’s concerns is that constraint and the way souls interact with the racialized structures of society. Jack repeatedly tries to break things off with Della because they are “caught in a great web that made every choice impossible”—at least in this world.
That night in the cemetery, Della says, “It just seems to me sometimes as though—if we were the only ones left after the world ended, and we made the rules—they might work just as well—.” Her tentative hypothetical becomes their relationship’s salvific metaphor, one they refer to repeatedly in the purgatorial daylight: the world ends, they can recreate it, they “don’t have to be loyal to the way things were before.” Neither mentions racism or racial prohibitions specifically, dwelling instead on whether the Ten Commandments would remain relevant, like the preachers’ children they are. But their hypothetical recalls W. E. B. Du Bois’s short story “The Comet,” a speculative fiction published in 1920, in which a comet passing over earth releases toxic gases that kill everyone in New York City aside from Jim Davis, a working-class Black man, and Julia, a wealthy white woman. (Jack and Della also imagine that a “meteor” is responsible for the end of their world.) Jim and Julia reluctantly join forces and, eventually, imagine themselves out of their racialized social positions. In language mirroring Robinson’s, Du Bois writes that “silently, immovably, they saw each other face to face—eye to eye. Their souls lay naked to the night.” Du Bois’s vision of the circumstances that permit interracial love ends in defeat. Other survivors appear. Immediately the old order of race and class presses, complete with white men calling for Jim’s lynching. His wife, “brown, small, and toil-worn,” survives, but their child lies dead in her arms, emblematic of the harms done to Black women and motherhood by white supremacist society. In Jack, the primal couple flips: a white man with a Black woman, invested with the maternal potential denied in “The Comet.” By novel’s end, Della is pregnant with the son we meet in Home.
It’s telling that Jack and Della turn to the post-apocalyptic. The constraint—the predestination—is so strong that it requires ending everything to envision a new way of relating. To see each other’s souls, that miracle that leaves the world but not the seer untouched, they must commit an act of imagined violence: de-create to create. Their erasure of old rules also echoes Isaiah 65:17—“For behold, I create a new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind”—and Paradise Lost, a book that figures prominently in Jack’s mind. These progenitors of a new world are a new Adam and Eve, and Jack concludes with a Miltonic departure: Jack and Della board a bus from Memphis to St. Louis, seated in separate sections per Jim Crow regulations. Jack edits Milton, musing that “the world was all before them, such as it was.” (The original: “the world was all before them, where to choose / Their place of rest…”)
As at the end of Paradise Lost, this line functions with exquisite, heartbreaking irony: they have the world, they have lost Eden. And, in Jack as in Paradise Lost, human love alleviates what Jack calls “the primal catastrophe”—but only alleviates. It is impossible, by human reasoning, to believe that Jack and Della should be together; the book makes that clear. The union will mar, perhaps ruin, both their lives. Jack can see himself “as a thief sneaking off with an inestimable wealth.” He can also see them as co-conspirators in a private apocalypse, in a “loyalty that always restored them both, just like grace.”
For Jack to truly meet Della, he must be cast as far out of the privileges of whiteness as possible. He must make himself a stranger, and be made a stranger, to the white world. The facts of him must offend instead of ingratiate, and they do, over and over, as his haplessness and poverty and self-consciousness trouble white people until they act cruelly—because they sense that these problems are, perhaps on a level so deep as to be hardly classifiable as willpower, chosen. Jack is self-orphaned of his family and self-orphaned of the advantages of his whiteness. Insofar as one can be. Whiteness is, of course, unavoidably in him. When he’s told by a Black pastor that even if he were “the most impeccable white gentleman on earth,” Della’s respectable, Garveyite family would not accept him, “it surprised Jack to realize that, in some part of his mind, he aspired to being an impeccable white gentleman … This might be a wholly groundless pretense, but he couldn’t stop pretending. It was this or dissolution.” The part of Jack that maintains this aspiration is the same part that fantasizes about fulfilling his father’s dream that Jack will “come into himself,” stepping “like Lazarus back into his own life”—stepping, too, into whiteness as a birthright. He imagines that “some morning” he “might wake up a new man.” Then he disillusions himself.
I couldn’t help thinking of the “new white man” that Toni Morrison discusses in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. She describes the creation of this “new white man”—individualistic, aggressive, made free by contrast with the enslaved or oppressed—as one of the major projects of white American literature, an indispensable national legend constructed through the erasure or objectification of Black people. Harry Morgan, protagonist of Ernest Hemingway’s novel To Have and Have Not, is a representative example, per Morrison, defined through a racist confrontation with a Black man and the sexual degradation of a Black woman. Morgan is a man “so righteous and guiltless in his evaluation of himself that it seems a shame to question or challenge it.”
In a way, Robinson offers a photonegative, a new white man for a less duplicitous America. Jack is utterly unlike Morgan, apart from a solitude that in Jack’s case is a deadly loneliness. This quintessential white man is not the coolly acerbic and competent lone ranger, but the “unaccommodated man” of King Lear.
In the cemetery, Jack slips off his shoes and holey socks to reveal the “dim lunar pallor” of his feet. He thinks then, as he often does, of “the naked man who lived in his clothes, that bare, forked animal,” almost exactly echoing Lear, who, going mad in the wilderness, cries, “Is man no more than this?” The unaccommodated man is man stripped of moral sense, of language, of soul. Jack’s painstaking disguise comes up short when Della’s sister visits and, in an effort to convince Della to break it off with him, says, “Just look at him!” Suddenly, even meticulously maintained secondhand clothes are “a false but telling testimony against himself.” He realizes that “there was no John Ames Boughton to step out of this disguise, this carapace. There was hardly even a Jack Boughton.” This new white man is not naked; he’s nothingness. In Jack’s words, “Nothing, with a body.”
While Della sees Jack’s soul, her sister sees a dilapidated, ne’er-do-well white man. They are both right. Paradox pervades: Robinson explores the corruption of Jack’s whiteness, which is the most fundamental harm he can do Della—her romantic association with him will estrange her from her friends, family and community; get her fired from her job as an English teacher; risk landing them both in prison; and burden her with an immeasurably more difficult life—even as he tentatively creates a new and mysterious loyalty, a new and mysterious world, with her. Reflecting on his historical tendency toward harm, Jack imagines answering “Why did you do this?” with “I am at the center of a certain turbulence.” This formulation is characteristically Jack, in its union of grandiosity, irony, vulnerability—and truth. He is “a destructive man in a world where everything can be ruined or broken.” Call that brokenness, present, past and potential, “a certain turbulence.” Who is the center? The white man, old and new.
In the early 1960s, St. Louis demolished Mill Creek Valley, a section of the city where over twenty thousand people, mostly Black, lived, using “eminent domain” to tear down houses, businesses and churches to make room for new development that didn’t materialize. (The desolate clearing became known as “Hiroshima Flats.”) This radical displacement had been planned for decades, and it shows up in Jack as potentiality: decided, not yet enacted. Jack has repeated visions of the destruction of Black St. Louis. Once, angry at the Black preacher with whom he develops a complicated and semi-filial relationship, he pictures a wrecking ball hitting the preacher’s church, a fantasy that fills him with shame. Jack has long understood that any move can cause a dangerous displacement, that even “recommending a book of poetry” can convert “itself in midair into malice or stupidity,” but here he realizes that extends farther than he guessed:
He recognized the fantasy he had allowed himself was actually identical with the desolation intended for this swath of city. He was a man of no influence, and he took comfort from the fact. But what if the particulars of his life were only flotsam, so to speak, drowned necktie, drowned wing tips, and he was sunk in that dark flood of unstoppable harm, somehow adding to its appalling weight, lost in it, even while its great shoulder pressed into the age-brittled side of that old sanctuary, that tabernacle raised to the glory of God Almighty, for heaven’s sake? … He had made an outcast of himself, yet he now knew he was not only a part of society, he was its essence, its epitome.
Meanings double: the physical and social dimensions of Jack, and the human nature of Jack, which, like all human natures, can and does cause harm because, just because. For Della, Jack prays, “Ah, Jesus … keep her safe. Keep her safe from me.” Within the frame of these novels, this is the truest prayer anyone can pray for anyone else, acknowledging as it does the sacred existence of the other, the interrelationship of human beings and the potential to do harm, perhaps against the will. Neither love nor loyalty guarantees harmlessness.
Recently, a few essays have derided contemporary fiction that cares about goodness, or being “a good person.” The underlying complaint, I think, is that this is, fatally for fiction, boring. But these critiques conflate the fictionalized search for goodness with the performance of what Robinson would call “priggishness,” which is “highly predictable because it is nothing else than a consuming loyalty to ideals and beliefs which are in general so widely shared that the spectacle of zealous adherence to them is reassuring.” Robinson’s conception of goodness is, by contrast, a mature one: it is often difficult, conflicting with self-interest or desire; it is “a covenant with oneself, which can only be imposed and enforced by oneself.” Jack does not imagine himself capable of goodness, so he substitutes “harmlessness.” But the Gilead novels as a whole portray the search for a goodness that appears in relationship, not removal from it.
“Ames is that rarity in fiction, a thoroughly good man,” wrote one reviewer of Gilead. An understandable misreading, given Ames’s graceful self-scrutiny, but a misreading nonetheless. In the Gilead novels, no one is “thoroughly” good, and the mysteries and challenges of goodness are particularly evident when it comes to race. White characters—especially Ames, but also Jack’s father, and the wider community—repeatedly and sometimes egregiously fail to pursue, much less embody, goodness, as they are shown to be complicit in the erasure of racist realities, historical and ongoing. I am not trying to stage an exposé of the “real” John Ames. Rather, the real John Ames is already there on the page, and all the more remarkable as a fictional achievement because he is so human: so flawed, so harmful—and yet capable of moments of grace. We, too, can see Ames with the aforementioned “clear eye” and “broken heart” by returning to those foundational convictions that the world is numinous, animated in every particular by the divine; that every soul is the image of God; that Christians should strive for universal human flourishing; that Christianity is an ethic, not an identity. If we consider the implications for the characters, it’s apparent that the Gilead novels offer a chronicle of white Christian failure, novelistic tracery or fictional historiography, with Jack as the trigger of recollection, if not complete reckoning. When he reappears, he brings the social context, and history, that Gilead has shut out in favor of “dreaming out its curse of sameness, somnolence.”
Jack reflects that he is “named for a man who was named for a man remembered, if he was, for antique passions and heroics involving gunfire.” The original John Ames functions as the novels’ lurking conscience: a comrade of John Brown who preached sermons with a gun in his belt and fought in both the Civil War and “Bleeding Kansas,” five years of violent clashes in the 1850s between pro- and anti-slavery groups in the Kansas Territory and Missouri. (Iowa, a free state, often served as refuge and base for abolitionists, including Brown.) Those “antique passions” were the abolition of slavery and the drive toward full equality. Though the novels take place long after his grandfather’s death, Ames remains disquieted by his namesake, admitting to thinking that he was a bit ridiculous, while simultaneously holding him in awe. He knows that all his “reasonableness” and “good intentions” were “trivial by [his grandfather’s] lights.” Ames uses almost identical language to describe his grandfather and Jack; both can “see right through you.” The disappointed legacy of the first Ames typifies the disappointing history of the white American church’s commitment, or lack thereof, to racial justice. In Gilead, Ames describes his grandfather as “unreposeful,” a man “everlastingly struck by lightning.” Like John Brown, he had visions. As a young man, he saw Jesus in chains “rankled right down to His bones.” Later, Ames writes, he “preached his people into the war, saying while there was slavery there was no peace, but only a war of the armed and powerful against the captive and defenseless. He would say, Peace will come only when that war ends, so the God of peace calls upon us to end it.” (This rhetoric is historically grounded; Brown said almost exactly this.)
In one essay, Robinson describes abolition as a success that “so very much” resembles failure, and what ensued as a freedom that “very much” resembles bondage. For the first John Ames, the war didn’t end; “peace” is not peace because the problems are not fully resolved, the emancipation partial. He hated “the forgetfulness that had settled over everything” and feuded, in a pious Midwestern way, with his own son, who experienced the war as grief and trauma. His son considered peace “its own justification” and the conflict “best forgotten”—and, as the present-day Ames notes, it has been. It’s 1956, a lot has happened in a century, and “it’s hard to find time to think about Kansas.” “Kansas” could be a metonym for every racial problem the white church ignores in favor of issues that cost less in memory, imagination and action.
“Gilead,” too, archives a complicated history: the “balm of Gilead” that appears in a nineteenth-century African American spiritual; the “League of Gileadites,” an anti-slavery coalition founded by Brown; and its Biblical meaning, sometimes translated as “stones of testimony.” The fictional Gilead was founded as an abolitionist settlement and place of retreat for Brown, Jim Lane and others fighting in Kansas. According to Jack’s father, the town was afflicted with “fanaticism” until the original settlers “began to realize that the world had changed and maybe they should reconsider a few things.” By the novels’ present, things have been thoroughly reconsidered in Gilead, where “complacency” is “consistent with the customs and manners” and is “therefore assumed to be justified in every case.” And where there are no longer any Black residents. This somnolent Gilead is also the Gilead that Della enters “as if it were a foreign and a hostile country.”
The first John Ames abandoned his family, returning to Kansas shortly after a fire at Gilead’s Black church—now a soda fountain. The fire, says the younger Ames, “wasn’t a big fire—someone heaped brush against the back wall and put a match to it, and someone else saw the smoke and put the flames out with a shovel.” Still, someone in Gilead set the fire, and any fire summons the long, horrible history of Black churches burned by white supremacists—most recently in Louisiana in 2019. The fire comes up multiple times in Gilead and Home—once, when Jack mentions it, Ames dismisses it as a “little nuisance fire”—and the repetition begins to seem like rhyme, with each diminution of the fire’s significance a way of emphasizing its centrality. When recounting the sale of the Black church and its congregants’ emigration, Ames has little to say. His summary: “I didn’t know the Negro pastor well myself, but he said his father knew my grandfather.” Where there was once some kind of interracial fellowship, now remains only disunion—a condition that Ames doesn’t see as necessary to address. He has never been troubled by visions of Christ in chains, nor has he truly dealt with the questions that divided his father and grandfather: When is injustice so great that violence is justifiable, if ever? What is the correct white Christian response to racial injustice?
Jack, however, is troubled by visions that, by the time he returns to Gilead, are informed by life. In Jack, Della asks what his father would think of their association. Jack answers confidently, “He’d say, Thank God he’s not alone. He’d thank Jesus with his eyes closed.” Almost a decade later, he is more cautious, home to gauge whether it might be a place he could bring his Black family and subtly testing those around him. It’s typical of Robinson that the most pain comes from those who want least to cause it, that “guilt and disappointment … batten on love”: Jack’s father longs for his son to feel at home, but it is his father who fails the test most egregiously, embodying the tortuously reasoned, racist theology that equates good with peace, peace with civility. When the television news shows police turning dogs and firehoses on Black protesters, Jack exclaims “Jesus Christ!” His father objects to his language, not the violence, then speaks in favor of the need to “enforce the law.” He even draws on a quote from the Apostle Paul for support. (Paul’s writing in particular has often been used to buttress Christian pro-slavery doctrine.)
This redirection is typical of one variety of white Christianity, which fixates on a thing like blasphemy in order to avoid addressing a greater wrong. In another horrifying scene, Jack’s father says that the protesters “appear to me to be creating problems and obstacles for themselves with all this—commotion.” His father then misremembers Emmett Till’s murder as being a lawful execution justified by a real attack. “There was a trial,” he insists. When Jack, doubtless thinking of his Black son, tells him, “He was murdered. He was a child, and they murdered him,” his father says that it’s “upsetting.” He concludes, “I had another memory of it.”
The way Jack’s father distorts the memory of Till’s lynching is a fictional embodiment, small-scale, of the way the white church writ large has dismissed the murder of Black people as merely “upsetting.” Like Reverend Boughton, there are many who reshape the narrative until injustice becomes justice. The failure of the white church’s goodness is so acute that it can safely be called evil. And the harm extends to everyone involved; Robinson’s fiction illustrates Baldwin’s claim that “Neither of us, truly, can live without the other: a statement which would not sound so banal if one were not endlessly compelled to repeat it, and, further, believe it, and act on that belief.” In failing their encounters with the other—here the racial other—white Christians, like Ames and Boughton, fail God. It would mortify their souls, if they could really see it. I think Robinson does see it. Her focus on this abolitionist lineage is not meant to obscure enthusiastic Christian participation in white supremacy before, during and after the Civil War. Rather, the presence of the old men with their visions and conviction that “being blessed meant being bloodied” intensifies the tragedy of the church’s missed potential to be radically otherwise. The Gilead novels depict, subtly but unwaveringly, a strain of Christian white supremacy that cloaks itself, an evil that exists amid goodness.
“Apart from us, [our ancestors] should not be made perfect.” I am ripping this, the last verse of Hebrews 11, from context, but for good reason: it is a profound statement on how we interact with the past. It says that it is up to us to redeem it. Or, said another way by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a theologian Robinson admires, “History lives between promise and fulfillment.” Ames himself, at the end of his life, seems to cling to this possibility of redemption, telling his son, “I’ll pray that you grow up a brave man in a brave country. I will pray you find a way to be useful.” Useful is a word that otherwise appears only in relation to the first John Ames and his cohort of unreposeful abolitionists.
The story of American Protestantism is sometimes told as a series of awakenings, and the Second Great Awakening, from roughly the late eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century, formed many abolitionists. John Brown was a passionate—some say fanatical—believer. Oddly enough, while writing this I’ve dreamed repeatedly of Brown, a contested figure who still levies a provocation to white Christians. One of his oft-repeated verses was Hebrews 13:3: “Remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them; and them which suffer adversity, as being yourselves also in the body” (italics mine). Like many scriptural commands, it seems nearly, if not entirely, impossible to accomplish. And yet. To Du Bois, Brown came close to fulfilling the command; he truly “loved his neighbor as himself.” Frederick Douglass said, “if we could reduce all the religions of the world to one essence we could find in it nothing more divine” than Brown’s commitment to a liberty that had nothing to do with his own. He took the Bible literally (though differently from today’s fundamentalists) and he worked out the implications. This is an extraordinary fealty.
I don’t mind Brown visiting my dreams. I am not a theologian, nor a scholar of religion, but until college, I lived in a world of Christian belief, fervently and effortfully maintained. I’ve left behind the strongmen of the Evangelical church that defined my childhood, but I still act according to an ethic formed by Christianity. Since I was very young, I’ve been terrified of my own potential to do evil. No vision or dream taught me. From experience, I recognized that people, like things, are fragile; that they are endlessly imbricated; that intention and effect often have no relation; that I, insofar as I knew myself, contained malice, and that other people did too, because I’d suffered theirs. (Reading Jack is meeting myself.) At a young age, I vowed to be “unselfish,” my version of harm being equated with the primacy of the self. I’ve developed a more sophisticated morality, but that vow is deeply embedded. I do, in fact, seek to be good, despite the inevitability of failure. I don’t think this is just a hangover of childhood habit; in the Bible I have found truth as well as beauty, and in theologians like James Cone and Howard Thurman, among many others, I have found a vision of Christianity written by and for the oppressed.
Having spent a lot of time around white Christians, inside and outside the sanctuary, I am not optimistic about the prospect of an anti-racist awakening. I do tend to agree with Baldwin, who in 1969 wrote that “the bulk of this country’s white population impresses me … as being beyond any conceivable hope of moral rehabilitation. They have been white, if I may so put it, too long.” For the most part, the white church has put Hebrews 13:3 far out of mind. It has turned away from pursuing the “costly grace” of Bonhoeffer, which requires action, “for faith is only real when there is obedience, never without it, and faith only becomes faith in the act of obedience.” In Bonhoeffer’s case, obedience required opposing the Nazis. They murdered him. Yet the people who taught child-me to revere Bonhoeffer would never give their lives for racial justice. But because history does exist in a state of ongoingness, I’ve settled into a kind of hopeful hopelessness, a dismal yearning to see a church that with its whole self lives up to its most beautiful theologies, knows Jesus isn’t white, grasps the twinned nature of the cross and the lynching tree.
Robinson’s depiction of the church acts, or ought to act, as testimony. From delicate prose comes tremendous implication. Can the idea of belonging, to a church or to Gilead or to whiteness, be abandoned in favor of solidarity, a loyalty that does not depend on identity? Can the church reimagine community as Robinson does in an essay: “imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly”? Such “imaginative love” exceeds empathy because it does not require comprehension of the other. It is, rather, acknowledging, with awe, the mystery of each soul. It is honoring the other, including the racial other, as the image of God, with all that entails. It is a discipline of remembering and reckoning in order to “make perfect” our ancestors.
I repeat Du Bois’s question: “Was John Brown simply an episode, or was he an eternal truth?” This is no longer a dilemma only of violence versus nonviolence, but of how, once one commits to action, to reconcile the passion of sacrificial agency with the mundane work of living together—to bring about a universal human flourishing. To recreate a world without depending on apocalypse first. I’ve long been fascinated by the metaphor of awakening, with its suggestion that humanity’s conscious condition allies with the divine. When placed alongside the doctrine of human fallenness, “awakening” becomes a paradox that makes it a useful metaphor. To awaken would be to see the world as God does. The world would be all before us, such as it is and as it could become.
“Without vision the people perish.” Ames thinks that his namesake may have had “far too narrow an idea of what a vision might be … too dazzled by the great light of his experience to realize that an impressive sun shines on us all.” In a way, I agree—we can’t all be prophets in the classic sense, nor will a transformation ever occur if that’s what’s required. Ames correctly elevates the numinous ordinary, but fails, at least mostly, to work out the implications of a reality resolved, Robinson writes elsewhere, “at every moment into holiness, whether honored or offended against.” A question that the Gilead novels raise implacably, if quietly, is whether the vision of that sun shining on us all can rescue the church from the forgetfulness that has settled over everything, forgetfulness that enables an “intractable whiteness.” Do you see God everywhere? Now what will you do?
Art credits: Bo Bartlett, “The Flood,” oil on linen, 82 × 100 in. (208.3 × 54 cm), MMG#29836, 2018. “Freedom,” oil on linen, 82 × 100 in. (208.3 × 254 cm). MMG#30929. All images courtesy of the artist and Miles McEnery Gallery, New York, NY.