Updated: Aug 18
Summer 2020 exploded into turbulence as the pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the ongoing racist brutality of American police led to widespread and continuing protests. It is a moment of unrest and, perhaps, also a moment of renewal. As many have noted, the pressures of this year are functioning apocalyptically, revealing deep-seated inequities that have been invisible too long. As these inequities are revealed, how will we respond?
I am a prison abolitionist and a Christian. What I have learned from the organizers and activists who came before me is that systemic change will not necessarily develop from unrest unless we guide it, imagining what could be from clear discernment of the specifics of the current reality we fight. And what my faith teaches me is that the Christian story and the hope of the coming kingdom of God, made present in Word and Sacrament, offers a profound basis for such revolutionary work. But too often that potential is squandered as the church shies away from specifics in moral reasoning and radical imagination in sacramental practice. In this moment of tumult, I call upon the church to respond in a way that only the church can: by using Word and Sacrament to witness to and practice a revolutionary specificity that will support and expand our moral imagination and our work of radical solidarity.
Abolition requires new moral imagination. The reality of abolition is that it requires not only that we build power to dismantle unjust structures and develop alternatives, but that we cultivate an imagination expansive enough not to recreate the problems we are trying to solve. Organizer Mariame Kaba says that the cops are “in our heads and in our hearts” and we must remove them from our imagination of what’s possible before we can undo our reliance on policing, prisons, and carceral structures in our society. Dr. Ruth Wilson Gilmore puts it this way: “Abolition requires that we change only one thing, which is everything.” In my own abolitionist work, I have learned that the conceptual gap is as difficult to confront as the organized resistance. I educate about abolition from a Christian standpoint for the church—and I am heartbroken every day by how far we have to go, and by the paucity of our imagination as a church when it comes to the matters of justice: Which is, as Cornel West says, “what love looks like in public.”
What do I mean by the paucity of our imagination? I mean that almost no churches are willing to make a pledge not to call the police. I mean that our response to unhoused people living on our property is too often to put up security cameras, to fear for our property over their lives, to prioritize the safety of other stakeholders who use our campuses through “official” channels over the dignity of the most marginalized. I mean that our responses to abuse and misconduct in the church rely heavily on mandated reporting to civil authorities and thereby on cooperation with the carceral state and its death-dealing powers. I mean that I have learned far more about accountability, including how I take accountability for doing harm myself, from secular practitioners of transformative justice than I have ever heard preached in church. I mean that our understanding of our community ministries is still bound up in outdated conceptions of “outreach” whereby we (presumed rich) provide for those who are “less fortunate,” rather than by understanding our work in the community as grounded in our mutual need for one another and building new forms of mutual aid with ultimately revolutionary aim.
I mean that we claim to be able to imagine the coming of the kingdom of God—but we don’t seem to be able to imagine that justice doesn’t have to involve punishment or that we have the capacity to care for one another without reliance on violent state systems.
The ethical role of the church is to develop moral imagination. The church exists as the first frontier of the kingdom of God, at the boundary between the coming kingdom and the world under the sway of the powers of death. As an outpost of the inbreaking reign of God, the Church’s role is to interpret to the world the new life of grace, the new way of being in freedom, the ultimate liberation of the cosmos. This has aspects beyond the ethical, but on the ethical level, this ultimacy of freedom looses our imagination for new possibilities. To do Christian ethics is precisely to do imaginative ethics, to let the newness and absurdity of the gospel break down the walls in our thinking and nourish new possibilities of love and divine freedom.
We develop and practice such imagination in our life together through Word and Sacrament.
The word of God, applied to our material circumstances, offers a radical resource for developing a revolutionary moral imagination. But for the word to do its work of expanding our moral imagination requires specificity. Our imagination expands in the places where our values, put into action and applied to specific situations, challenge the status quo. The call to “love our neighbor as ourselves,” without specificity, is inspiring, but the call to apply it to our particular neighbors and to material systems of oppression is where we find growth in imagination.
What does the Great Commandment say about my responsibility to an unhoused person sleeping in the alley behind my house—not about the need to “find solutions to homelessness” in general, but about what I do in that moment for that individual, knowing that I am housed and they are not? What does it say about my responsibility to avoid calling the police on someone if that might risk their life? What does it say about my individual, personal responsibility to support systemic change through mass decarceration in a time of dangerous pandemic, remembering those in prison as if in prison with them (Heb. 13:3)?
The new life of the reign of God is constantly breaking into our reality in concrete and specific ways. To develop a new moral imagination through the word requires that we name those specifics prophetically and hopefully, identifying where the newness of God is already present in works of resistance and naming as deadly the specific ways of the status quo that we have too long accepted. To learn such specificity requires that we look to the work of marginalized activists and follow the lead of those most directly affected by systems of oppression, building true relationships of proximity and mutuality (in the eloquent language of attorney Bryan Stevenson and Fr. Greg Boyle).
I believe there is a desire in the church for ethical specificity. Episcopalians famously, and frustratingly, tend to base all ethical reasoning on one vow from the baptismal vows in the Book of Common Prayer: “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” (p. 305). I say frustratingly, because on its own, this vow is not specific enough to guide every ethical decision—and yet, at the same time, the current Baptismal Covenant was written to expand, in specific terms, on the traditional vows to renounce the powers of evil and follow Christ as Lord and Savior. Perhaps the reason the most modern of our baptismal vows is the most frequently-referenced one is that it meets a real felt need for specificity in ethical guidance.
And yet, continuing to develop such ethical specificity remains a struggle. We name the need to love our neighbor; we name the need to fight against racism; we name the need to resist mass incarceration, but we do not want to be so explicit as to say, over and over, in every congregation, that fighting racism means defunding the police, because it requires following the lead of local activists who are most directly affected, and making the same radical demands they are making. Resisting mass incarceration, as followers of the one who came to set the prisoners free (Luke 4:18) means naming abolition as our goal—not naming vague “reform” in order to leave an out for those who want to maintain a retributive, carceral system for those it’s easiest to hate. We are willing to say with Jesus, that you cannot serve God and Mammon only because of the distance imposed by the archaic language, which provides safety in vagueness. We won’t go as far as to translate it into modern terms and modern material conditions, to say: “You cannot follow Jesus and support capitalism.”
Our lack of specificity means that our ethical witness grinds to a halt at the lowest common denominator, as we offer unobjectionable consensus statements in place of specific applications of the Word of God. And our specificity means that we are not pushing each other, in our lives together in the church, to expand and deepen and challenge our moral imagination. Broad stroke statements allow each of us to find a place of agreement within our current understanding; but removing the cops from our heads and our hearts, building a moral imagination that truly follows Jesus on the “narrow way” that leads to life, requires that we name our goals, our values, and the radical way of love in specific, challenging, and controversial terms. “Whoever has two cloaks must give to one who has none.” What do we ever say today that is equally clear, equally specific, or equally difficult?
Specificity is also cultivated symbolically. Our sacramental life provides another locus for expanding and enacting our moral imagination as the new life in Christ collides with the present reality—but only if we let the specifics of material realities affect how we imagine our sacraments in life-giving ways.
At the same time as the pandemic has revealed the underlying inequities of our society in bright-line color, the necessity of social distancing threw our liturgical and sacramental symbols into question. As we are forced to rethink what our sacramental symbols look like, how can we take this opportunity to let our creative moral imagination—nurtured by specific calls to justice, and in specific contexts—reform our sacramental practice?
The beauty of sacraments is that they not only speak but also act directly through their form and practice. As William Cavanaugh writes, the Eucharist is not primarily a way of symbolizing political meanings but a counter-politics that makes us “engaged in a direct confrontation with the politics of the world.” The sacraments let us grope and fumble toward making real what we envision with our expanded moral imagination: what Gilmore calls “rehearsing the revolution” again and again. But for our sacraments to be an effective rehearsal of the revolution and an effective counter-politics requires that they be grounded in the imaginative ethics born out of specific contexts and commitments.
Remote distribution of communion during this pandemic—through (safe and socially-distanced) eucharistic visitation or other means—offers such a visible reimagining of sacramental practice, emphasizing as it does the ways in which absence is always inherent in a sacrament that presents Christ at the moment of his abandonment by God in solidarity with what Ignacio Ellacuría calls “the crucified peoples of the world.” As Jesus says right after instituting the Eucharist, “You will all become deserters because of me this night; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered” (Mt. 26:31). Our dispersion, perhaps, brings us closer to Jesus and the earliest Eucharistic practice than our triumphant gatherings do, as it forces us to experience concrete solidarity with those absent because of inaccessibility or oppression. Communion-in-dispersion helps us to imagine our communities as transcending those able to gather in worship, and shows us Christ’s body as he is really present in those marginalized and excluded to the same extent as in the bread and wine.
But for such a sacramental practice to form a meaningful counter-politics in our current context, it must also be grounded in acts of concrete solidarity with those who are marginalized and excluded. The specificity of the Word, calling us to radical ethical action, empowers our practice of the sacraments to enact a counter-politics of solidarity. The specifics of the context and the radical call to action in the wider community provide the foundation for the symbolic practice of sacraments.
Another example comes from disability theology. Nancy Eiesland writes that “the eucharistic practices of the church must make real our remembrance of the disabled God by making good on body practices of access and inclusion.” Our practice of Eucharist in a time of pandemic requires us to first be open to such access and inclusion with (for those of us who are abled, new and too long in coming) fresh urgency. We must investigate and meet the access needs of those in our communities—both accessibility for disabled people, and access to the technology which mediates our current forms of worship. A Eucharist grounded in such specific practices of accessibility becomes a work of imaginative solidarity.
At this time of upheaval, then, the question posed to our preaching of the word is: how do we imagine, in the specific commitments we make to those around us, the inbreaking dawn of the reign of God in the midst of systems of oppression and death? The question posed to our practices of Sacraments is: having imagined the just kingdom to come, how do we begin to enact it? The work of the church is to let the specifics of concrete solidarity develop our moral imagination, and then let our creative imagination reshape our sacramental practice into an effective counter-politics, a first-fruits of radical action. We imagine, we rehearse—and so God brings about the revolution.
Los Angeles, CA