Aiming the World Toward Hope

Willie James Jennings

Political elections are about our imagination. They are less about our real life in the world and much more about our perception of our life in the world. In a democracy, they provide astounding moments of creativity that get used in ways both breathtaking and disturbing.

Elections in America always construct and stagemanage a world where people are either friends or enemies, partners or competitors. American political theater has expanded in recent decades to cover the entire American social landscape: It has become almost impossible for us to imagine political and social worlds beyond the categories of right and left.

Public Fictions

These categories of left and right have never done any real analytical work in the United States. Their work is profoundly novelistic – they plot individuals and groups in narratives that minimize or dismiss the importance of their specific ideas, and they invite us to fantasize about a center that we might finally inhabit if we can get both sides to compromise. The journey toward that center is a fictitious journey, because all three positions – left, right, center, and anything in-between – are public fictions.

Many people insist on envisioning life inside the template of right-center-left, but historically a more fundamental set of conditions shapes American life and still drives our political rhetoric – the divide between those who imagine shared life and those who desire segregated existence. The root of that imagination in America is race, more specifically whiteness. When W. E. B. Du Bois used the powerful metaphor of the color line more than 100 years ago, he captured both the colonial past and a future that extended through him to us in the 21st century. We yet live the color line, and it profoundly informs our social and political imagination.

The color line has always involved more than the interactions and struggles between white and black people, and between those of European descent and non-Europeans. It has been most centrally about how white Americans daily configure their space and imagine their future. The tragedy at play in American politics today is the power of the racial imagination to construct fear and let it dictate the future.

That fear has always been a byproduct of whiteness. It reaches back to the first encounters of proto- Europeans with the peoples of the world outside old Europe. It was refined through centuries of murder, theft, and conquest. It also caused white fear of retribution and revenge to grow with each generation, settling like a virus within the guilt-inducing maintenance of their power and privilege. Whiteness is not a given, it is a choice. Whiteness is not the equal and opposite of blackness. It is a way of imagining oneself as the organizing reality of the world. It is an interpretative principle that narrates, sustains, and makes sense of the world. The fear that dogs whiteness circles around loss – a looming loss of possession, loss of control, and loss of the power to narrate the future of others. The focus of that fear has most often been nonwhite bodies.

Changing our politics for the better requires that people learn how to imagine better. Here churches and religious communities have a crucial task – to challenge the racial imagination by showing us how to reconfigure a space of hope. We should think of this new space both geographically and existentially, aesthetically and intellectually. Up to now, the work of racial configuration in the US has been painfully, unrelentingly segregationist. And this election cycle, like every election cycle before it, exposes the always fomenting racial imagination at work to reinforce the habits and patterns of segregation.

At the Site of Threat

How do we learn to imagine life freed from the power of fear and aimed toward a life-joining hope? In truth, no religious community has mastered this work. Christianity, like other faiths, has struggled with fear. Indeed Christianity was progenitor of the whiteness that shapes modern ecologies of social control. Out of the rich soil of theologies of divine vengeance and wrath, it nurtured the white fear of divine punishment for sin, promoting a vision where everything could fall apart at any moment unless we exercise relentless surveillance of ourselves and others. Fear has been a marvelously seductive technology for religions.

Christian faith at its best, however, always disarms fear. Such faith forms in the space that God creates, a space that distances us from fear. Fear is not God’s weapon of choice. The care and attention that God intends for the ecology of life ought to draw us toward each other in mutual concern and longing for the well-being of all creation.

But are there not real dangers in this world, dangers that get highlighted during elections? Of course there are. Yet Christian faith places us inside the actions of a God who faces our dangers and yet refuses to yield to fear. God offers the divine life at the site of threat and invites us to gather courage there, making it a place where God creates community. Yielding to fear destroys community: In the face of danger, we imagine ourselves separate and displaced from our surroundings, thrown back on our own individual efforts to save ourselves from harm. Yet Christian faith claims the power of life together precisely at the site of threat and fear.

A New Calculus

Such an invitation to life together may seem ridiculous in face of the brutal operations of statecraft, where threat and counter-threat are the shared currency of nations and groups. What we need now, however, is a different calculus of the imagination. Configuring a space of hope has real-world consequences. It begins with people who acknowledge the strong connections of whiteness and fear and who renounce the seductive power of fear to achieve desired ends.

This election cycle has shown our politics severely straining under the weight of the racial imagination. We need relief from this crushing weight. Ironically, people have yet to be convinced that this burden is something they need not carry.

A capacity to dream a world where my hope is aimed at life with people very different from me – and with whom my life and identity expand outwardly in new ways – is more than a political hope. It is fundamentally a religious one. Such hope opens the possibility of a politics that finds the latest election season less a time of cynicism and despair and much more a time to imagine and work toward the good.

What has always undergirded the right to vote, like a mother supporting her child, is the capacity to imagine changed conditions for a better life. Without dreaming, even holy dreaming, voting loses its compass and can be driven by anxiety, anger, or the desire to harm others. Such holy dreaming is not utopian – it is absolutely crucial to civic action that resists the powers of death.

People of faith should remind everyone that they vote not simply to elect officials but to aim a world toward hope. The most important test of an election season should always be: Do the candidates, the proposed policies, the platform agendas, the bonds or propositions all promote a shared life, or do they draw us toward segregationist ways of living and thinking?

The best politics invites us to dream our hopes and hope through our dreams, and bring both to the ballot box.

Willie James Jennings came to YDS last year as Associate Professor of Systematic Theology and Africana Studies. His book The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (Yale, 2010) has won awards from the American Academy of Religion and from the Grawemeyer Awards. He is at work on a commentary on the Book of Acts for Westminster John Knox. An ordained Baptist minister, Jennings is a Calvin College graduate, receiving his M.Div. from Fuller Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in religion and ethics from Duke.