by Rev. Dr. Jay Emerson Johnson
Political chaos, racial hostility and violence, severe economic disparities, a rapidly unfolding ecological catastrophe—these are just some of the symptoms of a social disease we have been living with for a long time. Today, the process of recovery toward health needs greater diagnostic precision in our efforts for social transformation. More than this, the diagnosis must inform sustained habits of healing.
Images of sickness and health can clarify the urgent need for theological education in a world of broken systems. This need has been occurring to me in fresh ways at PSR’s Ignite Institute and in the programs we’re creating for new audiences, from healthcare workers and municipal governments to the high-tech world of Silicon Valley.
Theological questions and theological insights surface frequently in those diverse contexts, even when no one uses the word “theology.” I am reminded often, for example, of Walter Wink’s description of “empire,” not only as the indispensable context for reading biblical texts but also for “diagnosing” today’s socio-political climate.
Wink refers to imperial forces as the “Domination System,” characterized by “unjust economic relations, oppressive political relations, biased race relations, patriarchal gender relations, hierarchical power relations, and the use of violence to maintain them all” (The Powers that Be).
From ancient empires to modern nation-states, the Domination System continually dissolves social bonds and fragments communities. This System wounds everyone, training us to map our self-worth to the color of our skin, how much money we make, the kind of work we do, whom we love, the genders we manifest, the number of degrees we’ve earned, if any. Few of us have any idea who we even are apart from this “imperial branding.”
These imperial wounds fester; left untended, they infect the organizations we create and populate, where the wounding continues from one generation to the next. To break this cycle, sustainable social change must include deliberate attention to healing, because wounded people make broken and harmful systems.
Cynthia Moe-Lobeda (Resisting Structural Evil) recommends a three-part “critical mystical vision” on a path toward health and wholeness, a path of seeing clearly what is, and then what could be, and finally what will one day come. Hope animates this process with the belief that genuine alternatives to the structures of evil are not only possible but are actually emerging even now.
“Mystical,” for Moe-Lobeda, refers to the abiding conviction that we are not alone in our efforts for social change. The “life-giving and life-saving Source of the cosmos” accompanies us, equips us, and leads us toward a world of flourishing life for all. This conviction is generated and sustained by communities rooted in the enduring love of God, the ground and source of our resistance to the systems that divide us.
William T. Cavanaugh encourages a similar approach with his searing analysis of the modern nation-state and its totalizing effects (Theopolitical Imagination and Migrations of the Holy). The State, he argues, accrues power to itself by severing our attachments to each other. This renders the need for “church” with fresh urgency, especially as a physical location and an embodied practice to re-member us into a social body. As M. Shawn Copeland insists, Christian worship in a society of patriarchal white supremacy demands a sustained practice of “Eucharistic solidarity” (Enfleshing Freedom).
What could “Eucharist” mean for a wider world of social changemaking? Beneath the layers of institutional religion, the roots of Eucharist remain planted in the radical (I would call it “queer”) table fellowship of Jesus. Constantly in trouble for eating with the “wrong people,” Jesus tossed aside the food-sharing rules that classified and divided his society. Gathering with him at table, those wounded by empire found healing for their own fragmented self and their splintered community.
Martin Luther King, Jr., translated these religious insights into his world-changing vision of the Beloved Community. As I prepare to teach a new course this fall on the sources and legacy of that vision, I am mindful of King’s challenging insistence that oppressor and oppressed alike must come together in a “shared destiny.” I cannot imagine such a destiny apart from sustained habits of deep healing.
This is precisely what Copeland urges us to see in Eucharistic practice, regardless of the form it takes and no matter its location: “a new way of being in relation to God, to others, to self.” That new way of being was modeled by Jesus at the Table. There the Domination System is not overthrown with retribution or violence; the System’s wounds are instead healed with the solidarity of love. •
Cavanaugh, William T. Theopolitical Imagination. London: T & T Clark, 2002.
Copeland, M Shawn. Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being. Innovations. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010.
Moe-Lobeda, Cynthia D. Resisting Structural Evil: Love as Ecological and Economic Transformation. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013.
Wink, Walter. The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium. New York: Doubleday, 1998.