The task of prophetic communities shaped by God’s love and justice, according to Walter Brueggemann, is to nourish and evoke an “alternative consciousness,” one that is not confined by the measures of what’s possible but is shaped instead by the freedom and power of God to make a new world out of the dry bones of the old one. This kind of prophetic work requires imagination:
“How can we have enough freedom to imagine and articulate a real historical newness in our situation? That is not to ask, as [the Bible’s prophets never] asked, if this freedom is realistic or politically practical or economically viable. To begin with such questions is to concede everything to the royal consciousness even before we begin. We need to ask not whether it is realistic or practical or viable but whether it is imaginable. We need to ask if our consciousness and imagination have been so assaulted and co-opted by [the status quo] that we have been robbed of the courage or power to think an alternative thought” (Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination).
Prophets encourage the collective imagination beyond what’s right in front of us. They help us see what cannot be seen. A world without war? Teach conflict mediation as diplomacy and pound swords into farming implements (see Isaiah 2, for example).
One of these prophetic movements is the movement for the abolition of institutions that perpetuate violence and white supremacy. In the U.S. it began with the abolition of slavery and manifested in the abolition of Jim Crow segregation. More recently, movement leaders have focused their energies on the abolition of prisons, in part due to the disproportionate incarceration of black and brown people in the U.S.
In a short manifesto called Are Prisons Obsolete?, Angela Davis makes the same point about the power of imagination. She writes about the ubiquity of prisons in our mental landscape. Incarceration is an assumed feature of life in the U.S. today; it permeates our social imaginations. “Break the law, go to jail” is a truism (despite the irony of frequent exceptions for so-called white collar crime). So she writes,
“We do not question whether it [prison] should exist. It has become so much a part of our lives that it requires a great feat of the imagination to envision life beyond the prison. … It may help us gain perspective on the prison if we try to imagine how strange and discomforting the debates about the obsolescence of slavery must have been to those who took the ‘peculiar institution’ for granted–and especially to those who reaped direct benefits from this dreadful system of racist exploitation.”
The current reality is always so normal that it feels impossible to organize things differently. But the testimony of the prophets, under the influence of the power and Spirit of God, is that different is possible.
Over the past two weeks the energies of today’s abolition prophets have focused on policing. #DefundThePolice is trending across the world. It’s a prophetic movement that is helping us imagine a world where police are not necessary, sparked by the justified outrage of black communities that have experienced oppressive policing for generations. The vision emerging from their grief and rage is a gift to all of us. It is a gift in line with the biblical prophets’ call to disarmament and with Jesus’ vision of a social order defined by mutual interdependence rather than fear or suspicion of the other. What if we shared resources equally and then trusted communities with monitoring their own well-being? What if the U.S. wasn’t based on a system of armed occupation of black communities, immigrant neighborhoods, and sovereign Native American territories? What if…?
Abolition & the church
I think the church has a role to play in shaping this prophetic vision. (The church has certainly played a role in creating and maintaining the unjust status quo, so challenging it is the least we can do). In the late 17th century the growing English colonies in America were saturated with the institutions premised on the enslavement of black human beings. Even among those who recognized its evils, calls for outright abolition were practically unheard of. It just wasn’t thinkable in the political imagination of the day, as Angela Davis indicates in the quote above. But in 1688, a Quaker group in Germantown, Pennsylvania – which included a number of Mennonites – presented “the first written protest against slavery” in the Americas. Wikipedia calls it “the first American document of its kind that made a plea for equal rights for everyone.”
(Be wary of over-celebrating the presence of Mennonites in this story. They, and to some extent their Quaker community in Germantown, were the exception among Anabaptists and not the norm. They were, after all, the exception to all white norms at the time).
The anti-slavery document was a vision of a world without slavery. It was based on a simple reading of Matthew 7:12, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” The Germantown Quakers said it like this:
“There is a saying that we shall do to all [people] like as we will be done ourselves; making no difference of what generation, descent or color they are. And those who steal or rob [people], and those who buy or purchase them, are they not all alike? Here is liberty of conscience which is right and reasonable; here ought to be liberty of the body…. But to bring [people] hither, or to rob and sell them against their will, we stand against.”
The outcry against abolition in 1688 had all the same arguments it always does: But the economic impracticality! But the resulting social anarchy! Yet at least a few convicted Jesus-followers challenged that vision with one in which the lives of their fellow humans are respected at least as much as their own.
My last point is to urge caution that we do not valorize even these clear-minded white Quakers of 1688. Their prophetic word was only a dim reflection of the prophetic imaginations of enslaved black people who have never stopped bearing witness to a better world, one without slavery and its ongoing legacies.
As black people around the country organize for the abolition of prisons and police, I believe Jesus is calling us to follow. Imagine that.