Can We All Get Along? - by Kaji Douša
One of the most powerful tasks we are charged with as a church is to inspire the imaginations of the people we reach. We get to play the profound role of telling the story of God and helping them to know that they are written into that story, too.
As we paint a picture of what God intends for their world to look like, I pray that we are guided by the Holy Spirit and not something else, that we are following Jesus and not someone else, and that we are rooted in the truth of the Scriptures and not some lesser force.
Until All are Free
How then can we faithfully rally our imaginations around unity and oneness as God would fashion them?
I speak from my own personal history as a Black woman in America. But the claims I make are not meant to be exclusive to my communities. Instead, I speak from the presupposition of intersectionality, the idea that all liberation is connected and that one cannot be free unless all are free.
I am reminded that I have given my life to an institutional faith that, for so much of its history, was designed to exclude me from this role … and structured to indemnify my sense of self so that I would not question my lesser place or my restricted access to power … claimed not long ago a good section of my ancestors to be less than human … made ontological arguments to separate my personhood from my call from God … and failed to acknowledge its own role in my community’s daily struggles to live in a hostile environment “under the sentence of death,” as James Cones puts it, even though God has already made a choice in the matter to side with the oppressed.
What I adore about church, though, is this: We give people connections to the holy and oppressed people of Israel for whom God made a way out of no way. Church produces an imagination that remembers the goodness of God even in a dry and arid land, even in a dangerous swamp.
Derangements of Power
The power to shape imaginations is a profound and holy privilege that, unfortunately, has fallen subject to the power of sin throughout the history of the church.
Theologian Emilie Townes writes of the “fantastic hegemonic imagination,” by which a power structure creates fantasies as a means of controlling the world in its own image and keeping structural evil in place.
“It is most important to note that the fantastic hegemonic imagination is in all of us,” she writes in Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006). “It is found in the privileged and the oppressed. … None of us naturally escape it, for it is found in the deep cultural codings we live with and through in US society.”
If this imagination is in all of us, how can church counter it? As we imagine what unity means, have we done the work to undo the hegemonic imagination so that, when we become one, we are One with God, not one with something else, something less? I join Jesus in praying “that they may all be one” (John 17). I also have to agree with liberation theologians who teach that reconciliation will not be possible until we free Christianity itself from satanic forces of oppression. Until the harm against the oppressed has been redressed, until all are protected in Jesus’ name, then, it seems, even Jesus knew that unity wouldn’t happen yet.
This means that we Christians have much more work to do even to understand who the “they” Jesus referred to might be. To anyone who sees God as one who has taken sides in the struggle of the oppressed, the rush to the language of reconciliation can feel akin to a rush to a court settlement to avoid going to trial.
What is Unity, Exactly?
Yes, we gather in the spirit of unity. But questions persist. Who is asking for this unity? Who is initiating the conversation of oneness? What agenda do they serve? What are the norms that define the oneness? Who is strongest in the crowd of many? Who’s accepted and rejected? What is our collective history of “oneness” in the USA? In the “West”? In global Christianity? Do our conversations about “unity” and “reconciliation” reinforce a “generic” Christianity that manages to serve the dominant? Does reconciliation practically mean assimilation? How can the church offer something different? “In Christ there is no east or west” doesn’t mean east and west don’t exist. It means that where we can’t seem to surmount oppression and power perversions, Christ can.
Remember that the church that most of us inherited was one that helped give theological justification for the enslavement of Africans. Changing this required revolution. And even then, through the white version of the abolition movement, there was still no lasting place for my people at their table. Why should liberation be so dangerous? What would it take for liberation to happen in a beautiful, safe meadow? Let’s reach for the power and freedom of reimagining liberation. This is how we subvert the fantastic hegemonic imagination. This is how a faith upturns the tables in the Temple. But this will take some real work. Any church that takes the faith of Jesus Christ seriously will ask: How can we give things up so that this world – this nation, neighborhood, congregation – is safe for anyone who might need to wander inside it?
I title these remarks with the historic 1992 Rodney King case in mind. King was brutally beaten by Los Angeles police after a high-speed chase. Though the beating was caught on video, a white jury soon acquitted the officers. Riots erupted in the wake of the verdict. A shocked nation was forced to confront truths about how dangerous it is to be Black in America, and how our assumptions of justice, law, and order can be quite different depending on our interactions with oppression.
“I just want to say – you know – can we all get along?” King asked out of grief and frustration. Yet even he did not seem to understand the brewing anger, the community hopelessness triggered by yet another familiar example of how “justice” was never designed to include the people rioting. The naïveté of Rodney King’s question holds special resonance in church spaces that push for a unity they have not yet earned.
Listening to Jesus
A famous theological mandate declares, “In essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty, in all things charity.”
If this hopeful declaration is to do more than continue status quo sin and injustice, then we need to redefine how we imagine unity, liberty, and charity. God is counting on us to do better – and build an imagination that holds fast to the eschatological promise of the Oneness God intends for us. What this means is that this Oneness is not going to involve making the dominant more comfortable, in society or in church. It will mean the same kind of radical transformation many of us invite into our lives during, say, Lent, involving prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Freedom from our sin will mean giving up quite a bit while we gain … everything.
Kaji Douša ’06 M.Div. is senior pastor of historic Park Avenue Christian Church in New York City, where she continues a public witness as preacher, writer, and immigration advocate. She serves on the Alumni Board of YDS and on the editorial board for the United Church of Christ’s Stillspeaking Writers’ Group.