I have to go soon, I don’t have much time. This is my last class teaching at Notre Dame. Have I found the voice with which I sing? Have I found the voice with which I preach?
I stand here before you, Dr. King, fifty years to the day from your death,
the words of your letter from Birmingham Jail taped up to my office door.
I wretch myself through theological mores,
Push and struggle against the boundaries of the discipline,
Feel myself dashed against the floor of history and inevitability.
How has it come that universities
conflate profit and wealth to such a degree that
students are guided away from pursuing graduate studies?
How has it come that I am still the first to teach my students
about theology’s complicit history of slavery and colonialism?
How has it come that God’s name most holy is still used
to defend racism, slavery, oppression, violence, war, hatred, injustice, misogyny?
I wrestle with theology itself.
Of all the lessons I am continuing to learn from Dr. King, I struggle most with the idea of imagination. It is simultaneously the most childlike and most advanced theological hypothesis.
Every child imagines. Every child can wish, create, dream. As we grow from toddlers into teenagers, one of the central joys of learning to read is that we imagine different universes, become different people, envision new futures, and embrace untold possibilities of life.
But then we grow up. We face demons and tragedies, witness horrors and brokenness and sadness and fear. I do not need to link to news articles here, we all know the world of which I write.
If we are not careful, we grownups, our imaginations become the first to go as we cast overboard anything resembling humanity in a futile effort to save the innocence of youth. There, we say, life is easier now that I do not have to hope.
What we then call imagination becomes but a shadow of the joyful exercise of youth. Instead of imagining worlds and futures not our own, we imagine temporary jaunts of pleasure and relaxation, a place to escape the dullness and pain of everyday life. The child is gone now, dreams cast aside as pointless fantasies in a grownup world.
But not all grownups lose their childlike faith. Faced with the continued pain, displacement, struggle, constant threats to himself and his family, Dr. King found a holy imagination alive and well. He had a dream and had the courage to preach that dream, knowing it would likely get him killed. Which it did, of course, fifty years ago today.
This semester I am teaching a class on the effects of racism on theological ideas of humanity. It is a very difficult and very rewarding class to teach. And as I read theologian after theologian after theologian, they all seem to agree on one thing: in order to human and free, one must be able to imagine hope.
If we are to break through the death, writes James Cone, we must be able to imagine life. If we are to see wholeness of the body, writes Shawn Copeland, we must be able to imagine a world where bodies are mended and spirits are free. If we are to find an ethic of anti-racism, writes Bryan Massingale, we must imagine a life where racism does not exist. If we are to find a way past hatred, writes Howard Thurman, we must hold on to our dignity with love, hope, and a vivid imagination of a holier tomorrow.
If such esteemed theologians can continue to wrestle with imagination and love,
Concepts that feel to me abstract one day, real the next, false the day beyond,
Who am I to lose hope?
So, Dr. King, as this white boy writes in your shadow fifty years down the line,
I will not give up today, even though Stephon Clark was shot for
holding a cellphone.
Even though you were shot for preaching the Gospel
and you did not come back to life.
If you kept pushing,
And if all these great women and men keep preaching and imagining and
I, too, will decide
If this is not faith, what is?