Tucked into Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead’s newest novel, Nickel Boys, is an absolutely Christian understanding of sin.
Whitehead creates a fictional yet all-too-real world in the Nickel Academy, a reform school for troubled youth in civil-rights–era Florida. He populates the terror-filled environment and diagnoses its malady:
You can change the law but you can’t change people and how they treat each other. Nickel was racist as hell—half the people who worked here probably dressed up like the Klan on weekends—but the way Turner saw it, wickedness went deeper than skin color. It was Spencer. It was Spencer and it was Griff and it was all the parents who let their children wind up here. It was people. (105)
The novel’s main character is a black teenager named Elwood. We see the school through his eyes, and through his wounds. Rapes, brutal physical punishments, and everyday racist offenses fill the narrative like a gas leak: potentially explosive, impossible to contain. Like Whitehead’s previous book The Underground Railroad [read TGC’s review], Nickel Boys shows us how narrative can unmask evil.
The white characters in Nickel Boys are not sympathetic. Caught up in a culture of evil, even most of those who seem dependable, who offer some glimmer of hope for dignity, eventually turn to betrayal. It takes many individuals, and many types, to hold together an unjust system, and this should trouble all of us.
As readers we know that Spencer—the white man who brutalized Elwood’s body upon his arrival at Nickel—is a racist monster. Whitehead makes it clear who is chiefly to blame: white people and white systems. And yet he refuses to be simplistic. As Elwood’s friend Turner observes, the evil at Nickel Academy couldn’t be contained by any one person or set of them. The gas leak was pervasive. “It was people.”
Sin is a vagabond, a vagrant, a squatter living wherever spaces opens up. It will take up residence in laws and systems, in governments and companies. But perhaps its favorite abode is the human heart, and it does not discriminate on the basis of race, creed, color, or anything else. The tragedy of Nickel Boys is the tragedy of the world: that we are not the solution, but part of the problem, because we are so thoroughly tainted by sin.
Making the Leap to Love
What, then, is Whitehead’s answer? As Elwood sits in solitary confinement, punished for a righteous act of truth-telling and exposing evil, he reflects on his hero, Martin Luther King Jr. It was King who inspired Elwood’s courage, and King who, like Elwood, had been imprisoned for refusing to accept a wicked status quo. What would King say? What would he do?
In those long hours, he struggled over Reverend King’s equation. Throw us in jail and we will still love you. . . . But be assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will so appeal to your heart and your conscience that we will win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory. No, [Elwood] could not make the leap to love. He understood neither the impulse of the proposition nor the will to execute it. (196, emphasis original)
Even for those of us who get the diagnosis of sin right, the radical remedy of loving enemies can only take root in a heart that has been confronted by Jesus Christ. Given the bleakness of racial oppression in Elwood’s world, how could he not in his flesh reject love? His human hero proclaimed it, but love made no sense. It makes no sense. After all, sinners never deserve it.
The human heart can resound for justice, and still stop short of love. We don’t need to love in order to know evil should be punished and things should be different. As image-bearers of God, enough of him lingers in each of us to stir up these impulses. Common grace is real. But it cannot save.
The radical remedy of loving enemies can only take root in a heart that has been confronted by Jesus Christ.
The gospel alone is God’s omnipotent power for salvation. Only the triune God can win the double victory. In Whitehead’s world, the black “Nickel boys” do what they can to survive, to right wrongs, to live as normal adolescents—and we know they are the more just. But they cannot love their enemy on their own. They have, and more importantly we have, “neither the impulse of the proposition nor the will to execute it.”
Even as we stir for justice, as we’re pricked with wrongs that didn’t die in the ’60s but linger like zombies even now, we have to remember that common grace is all we have without Christ. It’s not nothing, but it’s not enough. Apart from Christ, we can tell some truth, we can sometimes stand, we can sometimes flee. But we cannot win the double victory of love, for our enemies and for our freedom.
Apart from Christ, we can tell some truth, we can sometimes stand, we can sometimes flee. But we cannot win the double victory of love, for our enemies and for our freedom.
This is not a love that calls evil good, nor a love that shills cheap forgiveness. It’s a love that creates justice. Anything less disfigures the work of Jesus Christ on our behalf. As Paul says in Ephesians 2, Jesus himself is our peace, but it was a bloody peace he won. He shattered the dividing wall of hostility, killing it by being killed, destroying it though being destroyed bodily on the tree.
In Nickel Boys, the beating of Elwood is unjust, and it mirrors millions of real-life injustices that demand restitution. But there is only one historical act of injustice from which true justice could flow. As we read works that expose us to the problem, let’s be sober-minded students, weeping with those who weep, willing to recognize wrong in whatever guise it wears. Let’s thoughtfully support the work of common grace. But let’s also insist on the necessity of Christ and him crucified as the only ultimate solution, and look to God alone for the impulse and will for justice-seeking love.