Bursting the Boundaries of Budget Cuts: The Virtue of Imagination

Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and former High Commissioner for Human Rights at the UN, spoke at Loyola University Chicago’s Climate Justice conference recently to address our global ecological crisis. Her motivating question was: now that the United States is no longer leading the world in addressing climate justice, who do we look to? Pres. Robinson’s message of challenge and hope gave me pause and reminded me of Dorothee Sölle’s theology of creativity.

As we face tragic budget cuts threatening almost every facet of our society, despair comes easily. It feels like standing in quicksand watching the Trump Administration attempts to slash 31% of funds from the Environmental Protection Agency, 18% from the Department of Health and Human Services and 14% from the Education Department. Not only do we mourn the loss of funding for these important sectors, we grieve the continued militarization of our nation as funds for the Department of Homeland Security and the Defense Department grow.

From an ecological standpoint, these cuts signal dark times. But, listening to Mary Robinson speak quenched my thirst for hope. She reinforced her belief that addressing climate change is a “battle of minds and hearts that we simply cannot lose!” Indeed, from a federal standpoint, the outlook is bleak. But, we must make visible the efforts that are working for the good, she reminded her audience. She encouraged us to concentrate on the city, state, university and business levels and highlight courageous work being done on these planes. She further cited the city of Chicago as an example, which is one of the C40 cities that has joined hundreds of cities around the world in committing to C40 standards for ecological and economic development.  She gave us a shout out at LUC, which is the seventh greenest campus in the United States. And, she spotlighted the 127 corporations that have fought the oppressive travel ban.

Making positive efforts like these visible and joining forces with them is a promise we must all make if we are going to peak global greenhouse emissions by 2020. We can do this, Pres. Robinson noted, as long as we continue to allow the important voices to be heard, especially those of grassroots women’s groups.

The hope Mary Robinson incited in her address reminds me of the theology of Dorothee Sölle, a German theologian who wrote much of her theology in reaction to the history of fascism in her own country and around the world. I think Sölle provides a key to unlocking and animating the hope inflamed by Mary Robinson.

This key takes the shape of imagination. For Dorothee Sölle, imagination is a virtue whose corresponding vice is obedience. Sölle maintains that Jesus’ message was not one of self-denial and obedience, but rather, self-realization and imagination. Sölle reads Jesus’ ministry as one that aimed to make people whole so that they are able to re-imagine their own situations and the situations of others surrounding them, since “wholeness leads to imagination.” (1) Too often, Christians sacrifice the potential of imagination for  obedience. When Christianity over-emphasizes obedience as a virtue, it tends to sustain the established order and it loses all resemblance of the life-style Jesus portrayed. Christians tend to follow blindly, closing their eyes to the realities around them. But Jesus awakened his followers imaginations—even uneducated fishermen became itinerant preachers!

Sölle contends that we often view imagination as something for children, and then as we grow older, your imagination fades. This slow loss of imagination is often labeled “maturity” by conventional standards. Sölle sees it the other way around, however. For Sölle, the death of imagination impoverishes one’s life. Actually, humans have the potential to become more and more imaginative throughout their life. A fulfilled life is one that never stops conceiving of new possibilities in light of social injustice. Sölle calls this the potential to “burst the boundaries” that limit so many people who suffer.

We experience God, then, when we come upon boundaries and imagine new possibilities and then act creatively out of these imaginings. This is the faith life envisioned by Dorothee Sölle. Spontaneous, creative imagination brings forth a new ethical system that upholds the virtues of “tolerance and humor, righteous anger and empathy, initiative and the cultivation of a productive power of imagination” (2).

Budget cuts would build harmful boundaries. They have the potential to limit many people from accessing resources, and, they pose a severe threat to our environment. But what if we took Dorothee Sölle’s theology and Pres. Robinson’s challenge seriously  this Lent and reimagined alternative outcomes–and then acted on them? As Dorothee Sölle says, “hope requires participants, not spectators.”




  1. Dorothee Sölle, Creative Disobedience, 52.
  2. Ibid., 63.