Symposium Introduction

Why Be a Theologian in Lockdown America?

As I write this, eight persons await their executions in Arkansas, who has not held an execution in the last 12 years. Their execution dates are being accelerated by the state because – of all things – expiration dates on lethal injection drugs.1 The unprecedented cruelty and brutality of the plan – to execute eight persons in ten days starting April 17, 2017 – matches the Zeitgeist of our time: hatred, fear, and death-dealing, all of which has been commercialized by the private prison industry and incentivized by the current president’s dog-whistling call for “law and order.” This is what a terrorizing theatric of the state looks like.

It is in this context that we return to the second and revised edition of Mark Lewis Taylor’s celebrated book The Executed God. Published originally in 1999, it has been updated and expanded to engage more directly and clearly with the challenges of our time: the militarization of police forces, the racial caste system perpetuated by mass incarceration, and the state-sponsored industry of prisons and executions.

I am sure it is not comforting or pleasing to Taylor that The Executed God needed such a timely revision. British cultural critic Terry Eagleton once quipped that Marxists wish that Marxism was as unnecessary as their critics often suggest:

That Marxism is finished would be music to the ears of Marxists everywhere. They could pack in their marching and picketing, return to the bosom of their grieving families and enjoy an evening at home instead of yet another committee meeting… The task of political radicals… is to get to the point where they would no longer be necessary because their goals would have been accomplished.2

In the same way, I am sure that Mark would prefer that this book would not have required a second version. I am sure that Mark wishes that the book is no longer necessary, that the first edition would have been sufficient, that Christian communities were already hard at work at “the way of the cross” in their social world. The fact that this book remains so timely, that we (especially “the gilded theologians” among us) so badly need to read its pages again and anew, is without a doubt a sobering reminder that we as theologians are not doing our work well – that we have not been successful enough at bridging the gap between Christians and the demands of Christianity.

I read the first version of Mark Lewis Taylor’s The Executed God in late 2004, in the shadow of 9/11 and the resultant invasion of Iraq. We were well into the U.S. “war on terror,” and the investigations into the use of torture by U.S. military and intelligence personnel, use of rendition and ‘black’ illegal CIA sites had just begun. Questions swirled about whether intelligence reports about the imminent threated posed by the Hussein regime in Iraq were manipulated and exaggerated by political hawks eager for war, well-funded by war profiteers and defense contractors. As a seminary student studying theology in this context, I was disturbed by the seeming approval of political violence, silence about racist systems, and warmongering among the Christian communities with whom I had previously identified, all of whom claimed that values of human life and dignity were essential to what their faith looked like when it went public. All of this seemed to run counter to the biblical accounts of Jesus’ life and death that centered on his tireless advocacy, not only for the poor and orphaned, but for the anawim: the despised, the disposed, the redundant who were cast out beyond the gates of the city and abandoned by legal and religious authorities alike. To me, it was obvious who the anawin were in my social world. It was the racial and religious other: the Somali Muslim refugee, the black middle-aged custodial worker cleaning up after my crumbs in the library, the incarcerated 21-year-old victim of mandatory minimum sentencing and the racist “war on drugs.” But my faith community had little, if anything, to say about any of them, much less willing to include and learn from them – to hear their stories and count them as their own. If communities of faith are unwilling to take all this on, I thought, then what good is our theology? Why be a theologian?

The book marked a significant transition in my own reading of Christianity – that whatever God might mean for our world must come through what Taylor calls the “imperial politics of execution.” The key lesson that Taylor’s book taught me then – and that I have tried to teach my own students ever since – is that to be Christian is to follow in “the way of the cross,” and the contours, the practical shape, of this way is both a political life of resistance against state terror and an active solidarity – a way of com-passion (‘suffering with’) – with those who this state has deemed redundant, disposable, and so has rejected, abandoned, despised, and killed. Perhaps it is easy to see why (some) Christians speak of God’s care for the poor or orphaned, all the while demonizing Black Lives Matter protesters as “terrorists.” But why is it so hard for Christians see the link between the forces and reasons behind Jesus’ death, as well as the manner and means of his execution, and the elements at work in what Taylor has called ‘Lockdown America’?

Syndicate is most honored to welcome Professor Michelle Alexander, celebrated legal scholar and author of the groundbreaking The New Jim Crow.3 Her work has played a major role in turning the attention of the academic humanities to the dire problem of mass incarceration and the intersecting complicities involved in its enduring power in American social life, not just for racial minorities.  Her essay links Taylor’s work to that of Howard Thurman, whose Jesus and the Disinherited remains one of the most important books ever written on theology and race.4 Feminist theologian Marit Trelstad comments on Taylor’s Christology, asking what connections exist between his “Christology of remembrance” and other work done along the same vein, specifically feminist, womanist and Asian-feminist theologies. In some cases, this work would have directly challenged Taylor’s points, and so more discussion is needed, particularly about atonement.

Davina Lopez asks to what extent the biblical religion of Jesus can be a “usable past” that models both resistance to the power of imperial state and the making of alternative forms of life. Her questions are about history and politics, but also about the politics of hermeneutics, especially when it comes to the Pauline writings. This analysis is even more important, given the recent “turn to Paul” by political theorists and philosophers (often on the European Left) eager to find something of a militant, subversive hero.5

Terms like “resistance” and “solidarity” appear all over theological work these days, particularly work that understands itself to be political. And yet this work often does not pay enough attention to the real religious source of political power: the god of capital and its interests. Joerg Rieger calls for Taylor to pay more attention to capital, and the role it plays in class struggle in the U.S., especially if solidarity rooted in struggle is to become the watchword of Christian resistance.

A personal word (if I may): so much of my own work – both in writing and in the classroom – has been informed and animated by these five authors. I know their work well and have both taught and learned from it for many years now. I am quite proud to bring their perspectives on Taylor’s new version of his celebrated book to your attention, in the hope that it causes us all to return to it again and to bring its work and words back to our communities – be they activist, ecclesial, institutional, or academic – with a new and fresh intensity.


  1. Matthew Haag and Richard Fausset, “Arkansas Rushes to Execute 8 Men in the Space of 10 Days,” New York Times (March 03, 2017): https://syndicate.network.nytimes.com/2017/03/03/us/arkansas-death-penalty-drug.html?_r=0

  2. Terry Eagleton, Why Marx Was Right, 1.

  3. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press, 2012.

  4. Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1969.

  5. For examples of this, see John D. Caputo, and Linda Alcoff. St. Paul Among the Philosophers. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2009.; Douglas Harink, ed. Paul, Philosophy, and the Theopolitical Vision: Critical Engagements with Agamben, Badiou, Žižek, and Others. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2010.

Michelle Alexander

Response

The Executed God: Good News for the Disinherited?

The Executed God is a breath of fresh air. As a civil rights lawyer and advocate, I have long hoped that people of faith might come to see the moral and spiritual dimensions of our criminal injustice system and feel called to bold action in solidarity with those who have been locked up and locked out. I am delighted that Taylor goes even further, declaring that “Christian resistance to Lockdown America needs to be construed as constituting what it means to be a Jesus-follower” (204).

The book is a powerful indictment of what its author, Mark Lewis Taylor, describes as the “triadic structure of police violence, mass incarceration and the death penalty.” It offers a guiding vision for moral and political practices that Taylor believes Christians in the United States ought to undertake in resistance to state violence in all its forms. Taylor challenges readers to reconsider the crucifixion story within its historical and political context, an approach that is intended to open the door to spiritually-grounded adversarial politics, dramatic actions, and organizing movements that “catalyze the power we need to go through Lockdown America” (33, 323).

According to Taylor, Christians have strayed from their revolutionary origins and long-term mission by “over-spiritualizing” Jesus’ crucifixion and accepting the false narrative that Jesus was the ultimate scapegoat for our sins. Jesus’ death was not a transcendent moment of atonement, but a horrific killing by the Roman empire. And Jesus’ disciples—by declaring Jesus to be their Lord and forming communities of worship—were not simply following Jesus’ spiritual teachings, but voluntarily placing themselves in adversarial relationship to empire, casting their lot with those who were the most marginalized and deemed criminal. Taylor asserts that Christians, to be true to their faith, must locate themselves “on the suffering side of empire,” put their “bodies on the line” in the struggle for liberation, and embrace a “politics of remembrance” (322). By remembering the historical life of Jesus, he says, Christians will see that “to embrace and love the executed God is to be in resistance to empire” (33). At this moment in our nation’s history, that means building people’s movements against criminal injustice, as well as engaging in dramatic, creative actions that will capture the public’s imagination and force a national reckoning.

Just a few pages into the book, I wanted to cry out: This book is good news for the poor! For a fleeting moment, I allowed myself to imagine that Christianity might be rescued from doctrines that often seem to encourage passive complicity with injustice and isolated acts of charity rather than organized, courageous resistance and movement-building in solidarity with the least advantaged. And yet, as I continued, I found myself surprisingly conflicted and began wondering whether it was even appropriate for me to comment on a text so deeply committed to resurrecting a Christian theology of radical, adversarial resistance to empire. Who am I to offer useful reflection on what the cross ought to mean to Christians in these times? I am not a theologian. I don’t even call myself a Christian, because over the centuries that term has been used and abused and distorted beyond any meaningful recognition for me.

I know why I was asked to comment. Several years ago, I published a book called The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, which helped to frame a national conversation about race and justice in America. In that book and numerous speeches, I argued that all those who claim to be committed to justice must get serious about building a bold and courageous multiracial, multiethnic, interfaith movement to end mass incarceration. Taylor’s call for movement-building and his analysis of the political dynamics that birthed mass incarceration are similar, in many respects, to my own. But I did not cite theologians in my work or view religion as a useful resource. The reason is simple. Back when I was working as a civil rights lawyer and advocate in the 1990s and early 2000s, it often seemed that churches were reluctant allies at best, or obstacles to be overcome at worst. Black faith leaders were no exception; in fact, they were often the most problematic in their rhetoric and politics. It was not uncommon to see black male preachers strutting back and forth on a stage or pounding a podium while loudly condemning black youth for their sagging pants and their many failures: dropping out of school, getting locked up, having babies out of wedlock, selling drugs and destroying their own communities. It seemed the only answers Christianity had to offer black youth were shame, blame, condemnation, and vindictive anger wrapped in a form of self-aggrandizing righteousness. When I decided to write The New Jim Crow, it did not occur to me that religion or theology might be of any use to me at all.

That changed when I read Jesus and the Disinherited (1949), by Howard Thurman. That book has haunted me, challenging me to consider whether my preoccupation with advocacy, protest, and organizing might have blinded me to an inconvenient truth: if we fail to acknowledge the deeply personal and spiritual dimensions of individual and collective liberation, all our movement-building efforts may be in vain.

I could not stop thinking about Thurman while reading The Executed God. It seemed Thurman was speaking to my heart and Taylor was trying to speak to my head. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Thurman seemed to speak directly to the hearts of the disinherited, while Taylor seemed to be making a logical argument addressed to an academic audience. Both posed questions about how best to resist American empire.

Thurman said the “urgent question” was: “What must be the attitude toward the rulers, the controllers of political, social and economic life? This is the question of the Negro in American life.”

Taylor, for his part, asked his audience to consider what is required of all Christians in the era of mass incarceration, given that Jesus and his disciples modeled a way of the cross firmly rooted in adversarial politics, community organizing and theatrical resistance to empire (322).

Both Thurman and Taylor agree that nonresistance offers no hope for liberation. Yet Thurman situates the most important site of struggle as being within the hearts and minds of the disinherited. He repeatedly brings the focus back to the existential pain and anguish of the oppressed, and the necessity of the disinherited developing a relationship with (and an understanding of) God that makes principled resistance possible. In his words:

It is a man’s reaction to things that determines [the oppressor’s] ability to exercise power over him. . . . The awareness that a man is the child of the God of religion, who is at one and the same time the God of life, creates a profound faith that nothing can destroy. . . . To be assured [of God’s love] becomes the answer to the threat of violence—yea, to violence itself. To the degree to which a man knows this, he is unconquerable from within and without. (emphasis in original)

Not including the foreword, Thurman’s song of freedom addressed to the disinherited runs less than one hundred pages.

By stark contrast, Taylor spends nearly five hundred pages outlining and justifying adversarial forms of resistance to empire that ought to be pursued by all Christians, no matter what their status. His argument is rooted in historical evidence, some of which is conflicting. He has relatively little to say about the emotional territory of the disinherited or the psychological terrain of his own audience. When he does touch briefly on the realities of shame and guilt, he does so in the context of rejecting “the age-old atonement sacrifice idea” which he traces to the false notion that human beings have an existential need to be saved from sins and “delivered from guilt-consciousness.” He writes:

This book presupposes that any deliverance from guilt occurs not by way of the traditionally projected divine scenarios—usually declaring that “Jesus paid it all” and so now the guilt just falls away. While guilt, along with shame, are real burdens one feels as we participate in life as violated and violators, the remedy for this is not declarations of forgiveness. The best response amid guilt and shame is participation in the liberating political cultures of insurrection that resist the systems that violate.” (284, emphasis in original)

This statement is remarkable not only because it is offered without any explanation regarding how, exactly, participating in dramatic actions or movement-building addresses feelings of guilt or shame, but also because it seems to minimize the depth of those feelings among the “violated and violators.” In my experience, people cycling in and out of prison and their families experience profound shame and guilt, as well as trauma that requires forms of healing typically not offered by collective political action. Reconciliation within families is often difficult without pathways to forgiveness, and the same might be said of society as a whole. While I am skeptical of Christian notions of forgiveness – as they often seem rooted in some kind of duty on the part of those who have been violated to suffer quietly without anger or protest or reparations – I found myself unsettled by Taylor’s insistence that forgiveness has no role to play at all.

The underlying premise of the growing restorative justice movement is that victims of violence often want answers, healing, and reparation far more than retribution, and that forgiveness (when properly understood as not excusing or minimizing the harm) can help to free both victims and offenders from forms of suffering that serve only the interests of a system that thrives on shaming, blaming and unrelenting punitiveness.

Perhaps Taylor can make the case that forgiveness ought to be replaced entirely with political insurrection. What was notable to me is that he does not even try. The emotional landscape of those struggling to heal psychological wounds and make meaning of their lives in Lockdown America is not his primary concern. He does not suggest that a personal relationship with God is necessary or even important. And he says next to nothing about whether Christians have an obligation to help people meet their basic survival needs. Thurman, on the other hand, believed in the centrality of one’s personal relationship with God, and emphasized that unless and until the emotional and physical survival needs of the disinherited are meaningfully addressed, large-scale resistance to the status quo will be impossible.

How might I reconcile Taylor and Thurman? Is it even necessary or worthwhile to understand them in relationship to each other? As I wrestled with those questions, I found myself thinking about formerly incarcerated advocates, such as Susan Burton (founder of A New Way of Life in Los Angles), who have dedicated their lives to meeting the survival needs of people returning home from prison, as well as healing trauma in families shattered by drug addiction and incarceration. Most are serious about their personal relationship with God, but much less serious about religion or church doctrine. Many of them have managed to do their healing and service work while also building radical movements for prison abolition and the restoration of basic civil and human rights. Have they, in their own lives, built a bridge between Thurman and Taylor? A passionate argument began stirring within me as I turned the pages, a dispute that I could not name and still cannot describe.

When I reached the final page of The Executed God, I wanted to hand the book to fellow advocates and activists and get their take, but I decided against it. When I read Jesus and the Disinherited, I shared the book with numerous friends and allies, including formerly incarcerated folks, and had equally meaningful—but wildly different—conversations with each of them. I wouldn’t hand The Executed God to those same people and expect to have similar experiences. That isn’t a critique of the book. It’s simply an observation that the book reads and feels like an academic argument written for theologians, not for people outside the academy.

To be clear, I do not fault Taylor for writing an academic book for other theologians. That’s what academics generally do: write books for each other. But I do worry about the lack of translators today—people who are willing and able to make theology meaningful and relevant for the rest of us. Once upon a time, that was the job of clergy. But as people continue to leave churches in droves, and few clergy seem inclined to grapple with the urgent questions raised by The Executed God, the need for books that speak directly to ordinary folks about what—if anything—religion can offer us has never been greater. Jesus spoke directly to ordinary folks. I hope more theologians who care deeply about the struggle for liberation in the age of mass incarceration will choose to do so as well.

  • Mark Lewis Taylor

    Mark Lewis Taylor

    Reply

    Response to Alexander: “On God”

    Note: In all my responses, numbers given in parentheses are to pages in The Executed God (EG), unless otherwise specified.

    Yes, the law professor and activist Michelle Alexander puts the question to me most directly about God, indeed the importance of a “personal God.” I am greatly honored that Alexander took the care to read the book and offer such quality comments. Moreover, even though Alexander does not self-identify as Christian, she certainly knows when Christians are or are not taking the most important steps for resisting the brutal ways of lockdown America. Moreover, as I stressed in EG, Christians will not alone make the difference amid and against lockdown America without working with secular and other faith traditions (xi, xxvi). So, I consider Alexander’s voice essential.

    I think I can respond to most of the issues Alexander raises by beginning with one of her major concerns. My book she writes “does not suggest that a personal relationship with God is necessary or even important.” Citing Howard Thurman’s book Jesus and the Disinherited, she observes that for those struggling to survive lockdown America, each needs awareness that they are “the child of the God of religion, who is at one and the same time the God of life.” This “creates a profound faith that nothing can destroy.” This, Alexander writes following Thurman, is what makes the disinherited “unconquerable from within and without” (Thurman, 56). She contrasts Thurman’s writing for the disinherited with my book, which she sees as seeking to be “for all Christians” and largely in an academic mode. My book misses “the necessity of the disinherited developing a relationship with (and an understanding of) God that makes principled resistance possible.”

    I too reference Thurman, in fact leading off my very important part 2 of EG (195) with a quote from the same Thurman book. Here was the quote:

    The basic fact is that Christianity as it was born in the mind of this Jewish teacher and thinker appears as a technique for the oppressed. . . . It was upon the anvil of the Jewish community’s relations with Rome that Jesus hammered out the vital content of his concept of love for one’s enemy. (Thurman, 29, 91)

    This inaugurates my task all across part 2 of showing how I understand a “technique of the oppressed” to have been “hammered out” by Jesus on “the anvil of the Jewish community’s relations with Rome,” which has as its “vital content” the “concept of love for one’s enemy.” This vital content leads to my understanding of the way of the cross—what Thurman would call “the religion of Jesus”—as being, in my terms, an adversarial politics (ch. 3), creative dramatic action (ch. 4) and building of peoples’ movements (chs. 5 and 6).

    I acknowledge that Alexander is correct to note that I do not sufficiently acknowledge the power of Thurman’s point that “the disinherited” need to know, in their innermost being, how each is “a child of God” in order to “stabilize the ego” against fear, thus to stand with courage and power against repressive violence (Thurman, 50). Of course, all this—and maybe here comes the all-too-academic theologian in me again—depends upon what we mean as Christians, or anyone else, when talking about “God” (if we are Christians who talk about God). As I read the entirety of Jesus and the Disinherited, Thurman’s sense of being a child of God, in one’s innermost being even, is a result of a common life, of a “first step toward love” that is “a common sharing of a sense of mutual worth and value” (Thurman, 98). So, it is not surprising that the “inner” fearlessness Thurman describes as coming from knowledge that one is a child of God is mediated by a community, notably for Thurman from influence by a grandmother who reassured him constantly, and who herself cited her minister’s address to communal gatherings: “You—You are not slaves. You are God’s children” (50). Note the plural forms here. It is this communally shared word, and words-shared-in-relation that establish “the ground of personal dignity, so that a profound sense of personal worth could absorb the fear reaction.” There might be in Thurman a strong “personalism” and sense of “inner piety” that the social thinker in me might contest, but overall, Thurman at his best and most complex seems to respect this social and communal condition for achieving freedom from individual fear against oppression. One is freed as a child of God by participating in being “God’s children,” part of God’s collective body. This collective being in God, by the way, results for Thurman not from the typical atonement scenario where God’s son is sent to die, making salvation and declaring forgiveness for all sinners. This scenario is what I was responding to when I wrote, in the passage Alexander finds so puzzling, that “the best response amid guilt and shame is participation in the liberating political cultures of insurrection that resist the systems that violate” (EG, 284).

    When writing that sentence, which I admit I could have clarified better, I was trusting that readers knew that “political cultures of insurrection” were, according to my book’s logic, nothing less than experiencing the collective rising power we call “God.” Those political cultures are important not just for achieving personal fearlessness, but also for transforming the world in which people live.

    Alexander asks further, though, does being in such liberating political cultures really help “people cycling in and out of prison and their families,” those who “experience shame and guilt, as well as trauma . . . ?” I think movements can and often do precisely such work. The examples I gave immediately after my puzzling sentence were from Guatemala, Peru, and South Africa, where popular movements pressed for “Truth and Reconciliation Commissions.” For all their imperfections, these commissions became public events that often “galvanized survivors and victims’ families” for catharsis on many personal and political levels (284 and 284n40; see also the film about Peru’s Commission, State of Fear). Maybe it is okay for Christians by the hundreds to march into prisons as they do today with talk of a God who forgives prisoners of guilt and accepts their shamed selves. But I was writing with the sense that we need a Christianity, a “religion of Jesus” that is about more than that—about being in collective movements that provide ways for us all to be caught up in something bigger than the guilt and shame we carry individually as a result of society’s and religion’s judgmental schemas. The social and political task of movement work builds community in which we learn that we “have each other’s back,” and are “up against the powers together.” The “restorative justice” movements at their best, I think, work not just because they address issues of shame and guilt between individual offenders and victims, but because they create communities around the various parties involved. Am I overconfident in the power of such a movement matrix to redress the travail of guilt and shame individuals carry? Perhaps. But creating them seems necessary for building the comprehensive social transformation for which Alexander has so eloquently called for throughout her writings.

    Let me reemphasize that from the beginning of my book, I am explicating a movement work that I interpret as a power of “God.” In the very beginning of the book I stress that this is not so much a “higher power” often invoked by many, but more a “greater power,” one that I further develop as “deeper power” and “wider power.” Countervailing power working in these ways is what I propose as resource for building movements against “lockdown America” and against the US corporate and imperial structures in which it is embedded. Deeper power brings a certain confidence that the earth and reverence for material bodies of the earth help to sustain our very human struggles for justice. As Pueblo-Laguna writer Leslie Marmon Silko wrote, the earth, land is “the protagonist” in US history and peoples’ struggle (308–9). Wider power, then, is the coalition-building work that is also necessary for rivaling imperial and corporatist powers of lockdown America, collective forces that constitute what Dussel and others have termed that “bloc from below” of peoples’ movements.

    I give numerous examples of peoples’ senses of deeper and wider power, drawing from movements throughout the nation and world (US political prisoners’ writings, Maya people’s struggle, Bolivia’s “earth politics,” Haitian resistance and Palestinian practices of defiance and uprising, and more). What comes from deeper and wider power is not so much a declaration of forgiveness from guilt and shame but more a resilience to withstand what repressive power ruthlessly and constantly produces. For Jesus-followers, it is a remembering of the politically crucified figure of Jesus that forms resilient communities that, paradoxically, makes them life-giving “crucified peoples” who contribute to the larger movements we need (331–34).

    Is the book too academic? Maybe. I have taught and discussed it with the imprisoned—inside and outside the prisons, and with many from various walks of life. I am always amazed that they have found ways to engage it. Moreover, in content, as when I wrote about the importance of thinking about dramatic action, I presented artful drama as a way to respect disinherited peoples’ own strategies of resistance, using imaginative modes of action (265–66). Perhaps it is too bad that a book that in its first edition won “Best General Interest Book Award” from the American Theological Booksellers now has taken an academic turn. I admit that the new section for “professional theologians” (16–31) and the discussions in the newly added chapter 6 gave it a more academic feel, perhaps especially when taking up literary theorist Walter Benjamin and philosopher Jacques Derrida (410–14 and 416–29). But I thought I had broken down their points for my book in “oh-so-clear” language. Perhaps not. It is also true that the hermeneutical discussions of biblical interpretation and of the notion of “God” quickly become academic. When one like me does not believe in what most people call their “personal God” and when I believe also that the Bible can never be read just as “the text” without a host of interpretive difficulties—well, then, it’s hard not to get academic. As Alexander muses, perhaps we await some better translators.

    One of the factors at work in rewriting the book for its second edition was my sense that academic theologians had largely ignored the book’s first edition, at least as a work that should impact reigning Christology. It was seen, I thought, as a book for activists, for people interested in causes. I had many discussions with prisoners themselves and prison activists, and was hosted at Catholic Worker houses in several cities. But it didn’t seem to touch the heart of professional interpreters of Christian faith and doctrine. This is unfortunate since the way the US theological academy trains pastors and preachers shapes the wider public’s sense of what Christianity is, what the “religion of Jesus” is. So, since I work in one of these citadels of theological and religious knowledge I tried to engage some parts of that citadel. In the second edition, I was striving to pull in such academic readers as those. Whether I succeeded in doing so, I do not know. Aside from my own limitations in writing and thinking, there are obstacles posed by the theological academy itself. For that academy, especially when formulating its core doctrines defining Christian faith, simply to write about important justice concerns and movement politics just does not look “theological” to theologians. So, in that respect, the task may be difficult. If my book causes only a few academic theologians, as well as Christians, to start doing what barely has been done—to respond theologically from the heart of Christian faith, in a critical way, to lockdown America—well, we’ll all be better served.

    • Mark Lewis Taylor

      Mark Lewis Taylor

      Reply

      On “the Emotional Terrain of the Disinherited”

      Allow me a note regarding Michelle Alexander’s cogent challenge regarding my book’s relative silence about what she termed “the emotional territory of the disinherited.”

      I accept that I, and we in communities of “privilege” (set by reigning powers and norms of class, race and gender/sexuality) need to listen to those who speak, cry out and demand from the resonant emotional terrains of their disinheriting. There are more opportunities for empathy and deep listening than we often dare dream. I also have to stress that as white man and scholar I should not presume to speak from or for “the “disinherited” who are working through the deep places of their emotional suffering and their struggle to survive, resist and flourish.

      Nevertheless, in this book I see myself as working toward a possible, partial engagement with that emotional terrain, especially in my chapter on “The Way of the Cross as Dramatic Action.” Recall, I engaged James Baldwin’s reflections (265-66) about the nonwhite child’s facing with fear the “bottomless cruelty” of white racism as it looms early in the spoken and unspoken tenor of parents’ and families’ love and struggle. Baldwin was striking to me in his insistence in The Fire Next Time that the black child needs some creative gesture, even “a thing, a gimmick, to lift him out, to start him on his way. And it does not matter what the gimmick is” (265, I preserved italics from the original). Here amid fear and structural violence against the vulnerable surges in the child a gesture, a creativity for survival, eventually a whole artful rendering of emotional pain and rage in ways that become “weapons of the weak” in James Scott’s phrasing. Paradoxically this creativity can render disinherited peoples not weak, but abundant in “theatrical imperatives” by which they perform transformations of self, community and political systems (267). I extended this via Angela Davis’ notion of “aesthetics of resistance” and by reference to the concrete histories (“geographies of liberation,” in the words of Alex Lubin), which are often at work in Afro-Arab, Afro-Asian, Asian/Asian-American and Afro-Latin groups (266) and also in white dissident culture too (307).

      Across my chapter 4 I sought to show how the arts born of the complex emotional terrain of the dispossessed rose to challenge their daily repression. With Walter Mosley, I tried to show how peoples in resistance strive to fight off US entertainment industry’s coopting of their arts of resistance into spectacles (268-69), how protesting peoples fend off the daily terror in the gut through their bodily organizing activities (295-96), how hope is fostered and futures “tasted” in rendering emotional pain into art (300-301), how prisoners yoked their hearts’ “black rage” to the powers of nature expressed in poem and song (305-307), how the powers of life could make Mumia Abu-Jamal feel, even when alone in his death row cell, that he would prevail (309-310), how creative imagination in Palestinian sumud (Arabic for “steadfast perseverance”) mobilizes emotional, imaginative and political resolve in victims of torture (316-17), and so on.

      Perhaps all this – admittedly – is not to go deep enough into the emotional terrain of the disinherited. I could have approached this in greater depth, extant and clarity. I appreciate Alexander’s claim that I did not do this well enough. Perhaps I took missteps in ways I engaged and interpreted that emotional world. But the book sought to respect that emotional terrain, and more importantly to meet the disinherited in the worlds of art and political action, worlds in which there pulses a shared calling, one born of a collective emotion that drives for justice and liberation.

    • Mark Lewis Taylor

      Mark Lewis Taylor

      Reply

      On “the Psychological Terrain of My Own Audience” – Fighting for Our Own Humanity

      One of the most powerful dimensions of Michelle Alexander’s own book, The New Jim Crow is the way she courageously presents her own journey toward recognition of the enormity of US mass incarceration as plague, and with it the brutal lockdown of our new racial caste system (Alexander 59-96). By recounting her own journey (Alexander, 1-8), she powerfully pulls in an audience and a readership that can identify with her, thus to feel more strongly the urgency of mass incarceration’s and white racism’s blight upon us all.

      So, I very much respect her challenge to me that I am relatively unreflective about my own “psychological terrain” and that of my audience. Admittedly, The Executed God would have benefitted by more extensive treatment of this at the beginning of the book.  I had done this  better in a previous book, Remembering Esperanza: A Cultural-Political Theology for North American Praxis (1-22), and even in a later book by exploring a brief and significant personal vignette from my early work in the Virginia State Penitentiary in The Theological and the Political: On the Weight of the World (35-39).

      Is The Executed God completely missing this reflection on the “psychological terrain of my own audience?” Let me call readers’ attention to two important sections of the book. First, in ending the new “Preface to the Second Edition” I tried to pull in my audience by refering to my own psychological affect while writing the book, what I called “the affective weight of this task” (xxi). I wrote, “I don’t know how one can be anything but sleepless – with lament, rage, and consternation – by the enormity of the devastation wrought by the building, maintenance and toleration of Lockdown America today, with its triad of police violence, mass incarceration and the death penalty” (xxi).

      I went on in this new Preface to acknowledge a certain emotional and psychic instability I feel when writing about these matters. As I put it, “I also must confess to a certain vertigo when gazing into the abyss of our prisons and Lockdown America.” Further, thinking of Lockdown America as presenting a psychically destabilizing abyss, I recalled Nietzsche’s warning in Beyond Good and Evil (aphorism 146) that “when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you” (EG xxi-xxii).

      These words of my new Preface were an attempt to present the psychological terrain of my own psychic distress (as well as political lament and rage) as a way to appeal to and maybe catalyze any psychic distress of my potential readers.

      Second, I think I most directly, and in a sustained way, address the psychic terrain of my audience at an important pivot place of my book. I am referring to the ending of chapter 1 on “Lockdown America: A Theater of Terror.” I entitled that chapter’s conclusion, “Lockdown America as Threat to All.” I began the conclusion with a direct question to readers: “Why should any of ‘us’ care about Lockdown America and state terror?” I even shared a story about a colleague at my ivy league theological institution who posed rhetorically the query, “Why should I care at all, when [the system] serves many of us so well?” Knowing that I was probably writing for and from a protected mainly affluent, white professional community of scholars, I had to foreground such questions (136). Here my book tries to engage an audience often prone to psychic denial. I am thinking of that audience that prefers to think that only “other” people are vulnerable to Lockdown America. Thus I go on through to the end of my 8-page conclusion to show how even the supposedly more protected white elites are not as far removed from suffering the worst of lockdown America as we may think. We are all, I argued, suspended in a web of social discipline and surveillance, and also vulnerable to the tentacles of corporatized bureaucracies and their war economies. We live in a kind of “outer prison,” I wrote. Thus “certain life crises, key traumas, can catapult us into the real prison of razor wire, Plexiglas, steel and guards. Sometimes it is poor health, a divorce or family violence, a lost job, or a series of lost paychecks that bring out the mix of desperation and marginalization that easily allow us to run afoul of a state that increasingly is ready to fill its prison warehouses with new bodies” (141).

      But even if – conceivably – some of “us” are protected and are safer from the vicissitudes of Lockdown America than are the black, brown and poor, I posed the further question: how can we live with ourselves psychically? How can we tolerate the ways lockdown America destroys the whole fabric of our human co-belonging one to another (137)? And on the same page I affirmed the eloquent outburst of Columbia law professor Robert Ferguson in his book Inferno: “The horrors in American prisons cannot be avoided. They are a blight on national integrity and shame every citizen who knows about them and then ignores them (Ferguson, 213).

      More than once I have been asked to put my signature to a reader’s copy of my book and directly on page 137 where I continue about my own political/psychological disturbance:

      To my mind, the terrors meted out by lockdown America are a violation of my dignity, even though I am a relatively affluent Anglo-Norwegian benefitting from the entitlements of being a white male in the US. To have my position and bodily safety dependent upon a system of domination . . . is an affront to human dignity. I prefer that my place and position, whatever it is, be a function of mutual give-and-take between myself and all others, where love and justice are both given and received among us, where opportunities and resources are shared. Because now this does not exist, there must be a reckoning, a revolutionary set of practices for those whose lives for decades – and really for centuries of colonialism – have been mired in forced dispossession (137).

      I even acknowledge that many readers in my audience will not share my psychic (dis)stress. They will feel themselves to be justifiably protected by police and surveillance in their righteous and respectable worlds. To them I can only say, as I do across the conclusion’s final pages: We who believe this are not as safe as we think in the US carceral state (138-44).

      I and my reading audience often accept a bitter choice: either become ever more a part of a brutal overseer culture for the US carceral state, or become ourselves a new age slave captured by it. My book declares a plague on the houses built on either option. The way forward is to take up the practices of liberation, participation in a counter-theatric to state terror that refuses to settle into or compromise with lockdown America. There is along this way also, to be sure, a certain stress and distress, but at least one can utter a No to the present brutal system, and begin to feel the coming, to-be-sure unsettling liberation.

    • Michelle Alexander

      Michelle Alexander

      Reply

      What Is Required Beyond Political Insurrection in These Times?

      Let me offer a brief response to Professor Taylor’s thoughtful and detailed replies to my review. I must confess that I was conflicted about whether to submit my review because I feared it might be misinterpreted as criticism. And I worried that, as someone who is not a theologian and who doesn’t identify as Christian, I would not be able to appreciate fully the nature of the contribution that has been made to Christian theology by the Executed God.

      It seems my fears have been realized to a large extent. As I read Taylor’s replies, I sensed that he interpreted me as criticizing him for not being more like Howard Thurman. But that was not my intent at all.  My goal was to contrast two radically different approaches to a similar set of questions. To be clear, I did not suggest that the psychological terrain of Taylor’s audience was “completely missing” from his analysis or that the Executed God had erroneously neglected the emotional territory of the disinherited. Instead, I pointed out — what seems obvious to me — that Thurman, in Jesus and the Disinherited, was overwhelmingly concerned with what is necessary on a personal level for the disinherited to resist empire and achieve liberation, while Taylor, in The Executed God, seemed primarily concerned with persuading Christians that the historical facts of Jesus’ life compel a commitment to political insurrection and movement-building against empire. I wanted to draw attention to the fact that Taylor and Thurman have drastically different approaches and points of emphasis. I also noted that the books seemed to be written for different audiences.

      I tried to be clear that I wasn’t endorsing one approach or the other. I didn’t accuse either of them of error.  Both books challenged me and raised profound questions.  As I explained toward the end of the review: “A passionate argument began stirring within me as I turned the pages, a dispute that I could not name and still cannot describe.”

      Perhaps Taylor imagined that I was endorsing Thurman’s approach because I said that I began my journey toward theology after reading Jesus and the Disinherited and that I couldn’t stop thinking about that book while reading The Executed God. I can see how that piece of personal history might create the impression that I was faulting Taylor for not being more like Thurman in his approach or that I was endorsing Thurman’s conception of a personal God. The truth is that I am still struggling to figure out what I believe about the nature of God and what it means to say that anyone has a “personal relationship” with God. I am just beginning my journey with theology, and therefore I have mostly questions — not answers or critiques.

      What I do know is that I can no longer proceed as though mass incarceration is a purely political or legal problem that can be solved through forms of organizing, advocacy, movement-building and protest that lack a strong moral and spiritual foundation. The fact that Taylor offers a rigorous argument for spiritually-grounded actions that will force a national reckoning with our criminal injustice system is a cause for celebration. I wholeheartedly agree with him that political organizing and movement-building among faith communities is essential, and I also agree that political insurrection can be healing and transformative for those who have been traumatized, abused, and violated.

      But here’s the rub.  Political insurrection is not always healing or transformative, just as declarations of forgiveness are not necessarily liberating. Years of advocacy and activism have taught me that many organizing spaces are spiritually and morally impoverished in ways that we cannot afford to ignore. I have found myself asking: what is required beyond political insurrection in these times?  Or, perhaps more to the point, how do we approach political insurrection in a manner that ensures that it will be healing and transformative and not a miniature mirror of power games played by empire?  These strike me as important spiritual and theological questions, as well as practical ones. They are among the questions that recently led me to a seminary.

      I believe both Thurman and Taylor offer important clues to the answers. Taylor points to the historical life of Jesus and the courageous work of his followers as a model for what forms of political organizing, resistance, and insurrection are necessary in these times. Thurman can be read as describing what may be required, on a deeply personal level, for the disinherited to muster the courage, stamina, and moral integrity to do the important political work outlined by Taylor. Thurman also reminds us that basic survival needs of the disinherited — emotional, spiritual, and physical — must be understood and meaningfully addressed. As I noted at the end of my review, many activists seem to be building a bridge between Thurman and Taylor in their own lives and work. Yet, for me at least, important questions and tensions remain. Hopefully, as I get further along in my journey with theology I’ll be able to name them with greater precision and insight than I was able to muster here.

      I am beyond grateful for the contribution Mark Lewis Taylor has made by writing The Executed God.  The testimony of Silas Morgan, who was awakened as a seminary student by the book, speaks volumes about the potentially transformative impact of the book in seminaries. I recently spoke with Rev. Janet Wolff who told me that she has been teaching this book with great success inside prisons where students have found its core message deeply meaningful. I hope the book reaches a wide audience and spawns a wave of writing by theologians who are willing — as Taylor does so powerfully — to define resistance to Lockdown America  “as constituting what it means to be a Jesus-follower.”

Marit Trelstad

Response

Clear Vision and the Way of Christ

At the heart of Christianity, there are many crosses with almost limitless meanings. The significance of the cross is symbolic, theological and descriptive of “the Way” of Christian discipleship. As a sheer symbol, the cross has been used as a military symbol and in racist hate crimes; it graces jewelry and bumper stickers. In tattoos, the cross may represent faith convictions, white supremacy, or prison sentences served. According to the website HotNewHipHop, gang members frequently choose tattoos of “the crucified Christ, as inmates often draw comparison between their own experience and the oppression of Jesus.”1 In theology the cross symbolizes numerous understandings of atonement, focusing on the discussion of where and how God and human relations are set aright. Indeed, the subject of the cross is a theological tangle where all areas of theology intersect and where one’s convictions about the Divine/God, Jesus Christ, human nature, and ethics all are thoroughly mixed. Mark Taylor’s book primarily addresses the third dominant way the cross is meaningful for Christians: the “Way of the Cross.” While the Way holds various meanings, depending on the theologian, it always refers to a calling and path for Christian life and ethics. Separating out these various meanings of the cross becomes almost impossible and complicates both discussion and praxis.

But it is precisely this confuscation surrounding the cross that Mark Lewis Taylor rejects in his book The Executed God: The Way of the Cross in Lockdown America. He asserts that abstract thought surrounding the cross continues to dazzle everyday Christians and good theologians such that they miss the most obvious and pressing meaning of the cross: Christians follow Jesus, a first-century Jew who was imprisoned, tortured, and publicly executed by the state. Taylor proposes that Jesus’ death is neither necessary nor salvific and Jesus is not a prototype to follow, a moral example of self-sacrificial love. He did not set out to be tortured. He set out to oppose Rome and creatively, radically challenge the system of fear and intimidation that supported perpetual militarized terror of the poor and oppressed. It was not an act to save individual souls. Rather, Jesus’ staged, dramatic political resistance to the oppressive Roman empire provided a social catalyst that formed a movement to address injustices done to the poor. Unfortunately, Christians joined empire rather than following Jesus’ path. Continuing the expanse of Roman power through fear and oppression, Constantine fused empire and Christianity in the fourth century; this led to a support of exploitative violence that Christianity does not seem to be able to shake. Taylor’s first edition was part of the new wave of scholarship on empire—helping us to understand the meaning of the cross in light of this history and its legacy today. Critique of empire has, in fact, been central to historical Jesus and Christian theologies in the last fifteen years or more.

Drawing connections to today, Taylor moves beyond tattoos and draws direct connections between Rome’s power-hungry oppression of the marginalized to the current United State’s “incarceration state” which protects the white privileged people through the creation of a state of fear, through intimidation, incarceration, torture and death penalty—all primarily aimed at minorities. This profit-making, white supremacist, hyper-masculine system involves an increasingly militarized police force. Thus, United States Christians today should see, name and resist torture, imprisonment and execution of our family and neighbors and cooperate with secular people’s movements in doing so. In addition, Christian liturgy should involve creative, dramatic rebellion against the excessively violent penal system of today. Resisting detention and torture of immigrants and citizens alike should be forefront, according to Taylor, to Christian conscience and political activism rather than seen as “outside” the scope of the heart of the Christian message. Thus the “way of the cross” of Taylor’s book title refers to Christians following Christ’s path of resistance to violent nationalist forces that create a state of fear, torture and death that disproportionately impacts racial minorities and the poor.

This perspective in The Executed God is echoed in his chapter in my volume Cross Examinations when he states: “Passion week is understood best, I suggest, as a deliverance of a people, of their bodies, as well as hearts and minds and souls—their fullness of being—from the social, political, and physical cruelties of domination. . . . What kind of sociality marks the body of Christ? It is a sociality of deliverance, of integral liberation for those in need.”2 Taylor calls on Christians to have rituals of remembrance to expose wrongs today and encourage communal activism. In particular, “the eucharistic practice of the body of Christ can be seen as the collective performative force of Christians, moving and on the move, to provide succor and strength to those under repression who are cut off from the social flourishing of soul and body that mark life in the Spirit.”3

Four avenues of response emerge for me in the process of reading the revised edition of Taylor’s book. These center on: feminist and womanist theologies of the cross, the Way of Christ versus the Way of the Cross, the secular power of Christ, and the irreducible complexity of the cross.

Feminist and Womanist Theologies and the Cross

In 1990, the art installation the Silent Witness National Initiative was started. The goal of the project initially was to raise awareness of domestic violence and protest the death of twenty-six women in Minnesota who had been killed in one year by a husband, ex-husband, acquaintance or partner. Life-sized red wooden cutouts with gold breastplates were stationed in the room. One walked among the dead, reading the plates that held each woman’s name, occupation, date of death, and suspected murderer. Almost all the deaths had been left legally unresolved but the women were brought back from the dead, through art, to protest their deaths and attest to the pervasiveness of domestic violence. It was hauntingly effective. Since then, the Silent Witness project has been performed in many states, schools, government buildings and various public arenas to draw attention to the death of women through domestic violence. Like the incarceration state, to which Taylor refers, women continue to be oppressed by a hyper-masculinity identified with control through intimidation, debasement, fear and violence. Instead of being located in prisons or the city streets, this oppression makes home one of the most dangerous places for women. The creative resistance and protest the project literally embodies is similar to the actions of remembrance Taylor proposes against Lock-Down America.

Womanist and feminist theologians have likewise engaged the meaning of Jesus’ death on the cross. In particular, they have connected and critiqued theologies of sacrifice and suffering directly to violence against women. It is interesting, however, that the revised edition of Taylor’s work does not engage the deep resources of feminist, womanist and Asian-feminist theological work precisely on the significance of the cross that have burgeoned in the last two decades. Clearly, one cannot cover everything and Taylor’s book already references work by women and has an extremely extensive agenda for one book; it includes biblical studies, theology, political theory, liturgical practices, contemporary research on the death penalty, incarceration, terrorism, racism, and social movements that oppose them. He also incorporates the theological work of black theologian James Cone who connects the lynching tree and the cross, a seminal work that emerged since the first publication of Taylor’s book.4 Nonetheless, he has many allies in Asian feminist, womanist and feminist theology whose work would be compelling to incorporate because their work directly correlates to his own: examining systemic violence, oppression, and the cross today.

For example, womanist theologian Joanne Marie Terrell agrees with Taylor about the importance of Christian ritual and sacrament as remembering injustice and invigorating social change. She differs from Taylor because she proposes that even wrongful death itself may be considered salvific if it sparks revolution and resistance to oppression. She cites the murders of Emmett Till, whose 1955 murder was an early impetus for the civil rights movement, and her own mother, whose death was the result of domestic violence combined with the social sins of racism and sexism. She writes that such death can become “saving” if it is remembered and spurs social action. Taylor rejects that the cross is the point of salvation and my own work on the cross concurs with this. Taylor also states that the concept of sacrifice tends to lead theologians down the wrong path, abstracting the meaning of the cross while inadvertently justifying execution and torture as a means toward greater justice.

Nonetheless, Terrell and Taylor share deep similarities when it comes to how they understand the Christian community’s act of remembrance and resistance as the most powerful embodiment of the cross’s legacy today. In “Our Mother’s Garden: Rethinking Sacrifice,” Terrell engages the work of womanist theologians on the meaning of Jesus’ death and the cross, namely Kelly Brown Douglas, Jacquelyn Grant, and Delores Williams. Terrell clarifies that God does not sanction violence. Furthermore, “sacrifice understood as the surrender or destruction of something prized or desirable for the sake of something considered as having a higher or more pressing claim”5 must involve individual choice or agency in order for it to be liberative. Terrell claims that a sacramental understanding of sacrifice calls on the community to tend, to remember, and to learn how to overturn the powers of crucifixion still at work. Like Taylor, she marks Jesus’ death as an outrage and posits that “Jesus’ sacrificial act was not the objective. Rather, it was the tragic, if foreseeable, result of his confrontation with evil. This bespeaks a view of Jesus and the martyrs as empowered, sacramental, witnesses, not as victims who passively acquiesced to evil.”6 Taylor also agrees that the cross was the result of Jesus’ active, deliberate confrontation with violent empire and encourages Christian liturgical and sacramental remembrance of contemporary evil to encourage activism.

Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker’s field-defining work on the topic of empire, oppression and the cross shares even more commonality with Taylor’s proposals. Brock and Parker firmly insist that Christians, following Jesus, work on behalf of liberation for all. One may or may not be called upon to sacrifice on the path to that goal, but sacrifice itself is a misguided objective. Sacrifice also has particularly destructive consequences for women and economically or racially oppressed people. In this way, they are closer to the work of Taylor than James Cone’s. Like Taylor, Brock and Parker deeply promote the perspective of Jesus as anti-empire on behalf of the poor and hence Christians also must oppose patriarchal, racist, heteronormative, economic systems of power. Their books Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire (2008) and their 2002 book Proverbs of Ashes thoroughly develop critiques of atonement theologies which valorize power while justifying violence and sacrifice. I cannot help but think that a thorough engagement of their work or other womanist and feminist theologians on the cross would have been a rich support and maybe even challenge for Taylor’s own proposals. Their work is indispensible for contemporary theologies on the cross and social protest.

The Way of the Cross & the Way of Christ

In Mary Solberg’s book Compelling Knowledge: A Feminist Proposal for an Epistemology of the Cross,7 she describes her own experience of living in El Salvador during the time of government oppression when dissidents were “disappearing,” taken by the government and paramilitary organizations for torture and murder. She describes her own initial refusal to believe that her own government was complicit with the repressive regime; it was inconceivable. But then she describes the scales falling from her eyes, of seeing reality fully for the first time, and how this both demanded and compelled her into ethical and political action. Likewise, many years ago in my pastoral care and counseling course, Christie Cozad Neuger asked her students to try to understand that some people will honestly report that they did not see abuse in their homes, even if it happened right before their eyes. This cannot be dismissed as a lie automatically because we have powerful mental blocking mechanisms that serve to “protect” us from what we refuse to accept as true. Nevertheless, honest seeing is the start of ethics.

Taylor is correct in his assessment that Americans do not want to look at our abusive “correctional” system too closely. In Germany last year, I learned that citizens around Sachsenhausen concentration camp were likewise shielded from active torture and killing of Jews, Poles and Russians while being assured that it was a correctional and reeducation facility for people who were a danger to society. Taylor’s book is an indispensible resource for information on the fear, torture and suffering in our own incarceration state that surrounds us with jails and immigration detention centers. The rationale is that this incarceration protects society and that “those” people must deserve this type of treatment. Taylor states that less than 30 percent of those imprisoned have committed the types of violent crimes that people typically think justifies such harsh conditions. White, economically privileged communities are, for the most part, the “society” that is protected from the life-disabling impact of incarceration and a militarized police force. Predominantly black and Latino communities continue to bear the perpetual weight, cost and scars of the system. Certainly the recent exposure of police brutality against black people, through Black Lives Matter and other groups, attests to the veracity and imminent need of Taylor’s analysis.

Throughout his work, Taylor is making visible the torture, death and crosses around us—calling us to see what we would rather render invisible—and to respond in resistance and reformation. In my own theology, I concur that Christians are called to “surround the crosses of the world and insist that they stop.”8 I would suggest, however, that Taylor is not actually supporting a “way of the cross,” as that language implies a sanctified bearing of crosses and inevitable end point at the cross. I would argue that he is proposing a Way of Christ that has resonances with Lutheran epistemologies of the cross (such as Solberg’s) and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ethics of Christ the Center. Both call Christians into active political resistance in response to abuse and oppression. In my own Lutheran tradition, there are those who lift up what they term Luther’s “theology of the cross” in a manner similar to a “way of the cross.” I have repeatedly argued that this valorizes or justifies suffering, intentionally or unintentionally. The goal and center of grounding for action becomes the cross and suffering rather than Christ or his life in resistance to oppression. Luther does not develop a full theology of the cross but rather an epistemology of the cross where he states that God is known in real life, even in the presence of deep sins, dark moments and shames. He certainly affirms that God is also known in creation, sacraments, intimate love, the birth of Jesus, scripture and other parts of life as well. Nonetheless, Luther’s epistemology of the cross affirms that God does not belong to the powerful and intellectual.

Solberg’s Lutheran epistemology of the cross provides additional theological basis for much of what Taylor proposes in his work. Even the worst realities, ones we would rather not see, are not beyond the love and scope of God so we can delve into even the worst situations with our eyes wide open. One is accompanied by what Taylor calls “a deeper power . . . Life’s own vital forces—flowing through bodies, land, wind and all creation” and how this may be a resource “for catalyzing political efforts” (14). For Solberg, the cross is evoked not as a necessary tool of salvation but the reality of the deep pain and suffering around us, especially the crosses we intentionally or unintentionally enable. Seeing these crosses, we are convicted in our complicity and simultaneously called to respond in everyday personal and social action. Taylor also writes that seeing or vision is also involved in addressing violence and oppression. Christian ability to imagine the basileia tou theou, the commonwealth of God, emerges from a vision of love and justice offered by Jesus’ love in direct confrontation with the repressive vision of the Roman Empire. Taylor describes Christian creative struggle against oppression as grounded in our ability “to think an ‘unthinkable’ power” (304). An emphasis on being people of the Way, the Way of Christ, better captures the path Taylor advocates in his book and this will be further evident in the next section on the secular Christ.

The Secular Christ: Christ the Center Arising from the Factory Floor

In Nazi Germany, theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer challenges the Christ that seemed to be worshipped in churches by the wealthy and powerful, the “bourgeois.” He argues that the socialist worker, fighting for change to an oppressive system, has every reason to distrust the God and Jesus touted by the church. “The church is all one with the fossilized sanctions of the capitalist system. But at this very point, the working class may distinguish between Jesus and his church; he is not the guilty party.”9 Bonhoeffer argues that Jesus is more genuinely followed by the socialist worker who simply claims he is a good man rather than the church that says he is God. He writes, “But Jesus can be present on the factory floor as the socialist, in politics as the idealist, in the workers’ own world as the good man. He fights in their ranks against the enemy, capitalism.”10 John B. Cobb’s Christology in Christ in a Pluralistic Age (1975) also seeks to describe Christ as the power of creative transformation that is present beyond the church in any architecture, art, loving acts, etc., that embodies courageous work for Life.11

Likewise, Taylor also says that his theology seeks to embody the “deeper power” and God’s common vision of peace, justice and love for all in every and any venue where it may appear. It can be religious movements and liturgy but it also may be embodied in the natural world or other religious and secular movements for justice. As a Christian theologian, he is willing to support the power of life anywhere it emerges. Bonhoeffer’s theology offers that the ability to follow this vision comes from holding “Christ the Center.” Bonhoeffer’s Christ is not found in simple black-and-white answers but is followed through one’s constant meditation and grounding in the Way of Christ in relation to world events. This Way may be revealed in scripture, Christian community, and prayer. But it may also emerge in loving, brave acts of people beyond the scope of Christianity. Based on Bonhoeffer’s insistence that Christians must bear the cross on behalf of the neighbor, one could argue that the Way of Christ may involve sacrifice and crosses, but it may not. The focus and center is on following Jesus. On the path, one is called to resist all that opposes the Christic vision and living presence at the center of Christian life. In my mind, this more accurately reflects what Taylor is conveying in his book rather than a “Way of the Cross.” It is certainly the basis of my own theology and social action in the world.

My own perspective on the cross in relation to various forms of violence and oppression today also supports some of Taylor’s work in his book. He and I agree that violent death is not the locus of Christian understandings of salvation, but rather salvation emerges from Christ’s love and his resistance to powers of hate and oppression. Thus, Christians are called to follow the way of Christ, insisting on love in the face of systems of power that demean, abuse and kill. Taylor applies this directly to Lock-down America in a way that is surprisingly unique, considering that Jesus is executed by the empire of his day. And Taylor’s emphasis on Jesus as a victim of an empire’s system of torture, incarceration and the death penalty is, shockingly, nearly absent from theological reflection on the cross. Therefore it is an invaluable contribution that keeps Christian feet on the ground, facing our own systems of violence today.

The Irreducible Complexity of the Cross

After decades of engaging the symbol of the cross, various atonement theologies, and perspectives on the Way of Christ, I have reluctantly come to accept what theologian Susan Nelson told me years ago. The meaning of the cross is beyond my control. I can add one interpretation to the conversation and plead for certain ideas to be questioned as damaging or oppressive. I can offer arguments for what I think reflects Jesus’ vision more vividly. But, despite my best thinking, Christian interpretation of the cross will evade me. It is necessarily complex and multivalent and perhaps that is for the best; it is not mine to control. As a person of strong convictions and decades of thought on these matters, this is not easy for me. But there is another conviction I hold that assists my acceptance of this. I believe that we become closer to what is true and of God when we argue vigorously and respectfully from different perspectives. Much like the process of studying Talmud, where the conversation between diverse scriptural interpretations leads the community in its own search for truth and ethics. Along with arguing steadfastly for his perspective, I wonder if Taylor may join with me in considering what it means to posit a single interpretation of the cross as the “best” in light of irreducible complexity. He argues that theology on the cross often gets overwrought in complexity, abstraction, and naval gazing to the detriment of the world’s real issues. If we never get down to what really matters, then what is the point? I couldn’t agree more. And yet, reducing the meaning of the cross to a singular, correct, and applied interpretation also strikes me as limited. Would he join me in thinking about how the Christian community may embrace both multiplicity of perspectives on the cross without losing the wisdom and prophetic call he offers throughout this significant book? Can we see Jesus directly as a tortured victim of the state and, at the same time, affirm some more spiritualized interpretations of his presence today? There is no doubt that Jesus performed acts of resistance and rebellion. I would offer, for the sake of conversation, that he did not interpret them through a single lens. That is the beauty of creative enactments of protest. They are necessarily open to interpretation and application by followers who seek truth, love, and justice in Jesus’ wake.


  1. Nikita Rathod, “Hip Hop Ink: Gang Tattoos Explained,” posted March 20, 2014, http://home/163979.cloudwaysapps.com/esbfrbwtsm/public_html.hotnewhiphop.com/hip-hop-ink-gang-tattoos-explained-news.9791.html.

  2. Mark Lewis Taylor, “American Torture and the Body of Christ: Making and Remaking Worlds,” in Cross Examinations: Readings on the Meaning of the Cross Today, ed. Marit Trelstad (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006), 278.

  3. Ibid., 279.

  4. James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2011).

  5. Joanne Marie Terrell, “Our Mother’s Garden: Rethinking Sacrifice,” in Cross Examinations: Readings on the Meaning of the Cross Today, ed. Marit Trelstad (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006), 45.

  6. Ibid., 48.

  7. Mary Solberg, Compelling Knowledge: A Feminist Proposal for an Epistemology of the Cross (New York: SUNY, 1997).

  8. Marit Trelstad, “Lavish Love: A Covenantal Ontology,” in Cross Examinations: Readings on the Meaning of the Cross Today (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006), 124.

  9. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Christ the Center,” in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. Robert Coles (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1998), 50.

  10. Ibid.

  11. John B. Cobb Jr., Christ in a Pluralistic Age (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1975).

  • Mark Lewis Taylor

    Mark Lewis Taylor

    Reply

    Response to Marit Trelstad: “On the Cross”

    Marit Trelstad is surely correct that among the three meanings of the cross in Christianity and Christian-influenced cultures—(a) the symbolic/ornamental, (b) the theological/atonement meanings, and (c) the “way of the cross” one—my book falls closer to the latter, referring to the cross as “a calling and path for Christian life and ethics.”

    I might tweak that categorization just a bit and say, though, that my book strives to present this “way of the cross” approach to be a viable theological one, even if it is a theology not subsumed by a Christology of atonement. Why cannot the EG be itself also theology, even Christology, a “Christology of remembrance” as I put it (EG, 16–31). My theological project, even if not the “guild theology” that I have criticized elsewhere (The Theological and the Political, 44–65), even can have reinterpretations of passion week and the Eucharist. I appreciated Trelstad’s recollection of this, in my contribution to her edited book Cross Examinations. I also made a similar move in Remembering Esperanza: A Cultural-Political Theology for North American Praxis in its section “Christic Material Practice and Sacramental Practice” (237–41).

    Each of Trelstad’s “four avenues of response” to my book are deeply appreciated and warrant response. I can only begin to do them justice here.

    First, Trelstad is right to question why in this edition I didn’t open up dialogue with “the feminist, womanist and Asian-feminist” theological work done on the cross and its interpretation, especially through the key works of Joanne Marie Terrell’s essays (and I presume also her well-regarded Power in the Blood? The Cross in African American Experience, and also Rita Nakashima Brock’s and Rebecca Parker’s work (especially Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire). I teach these books in my classes (and Brock’s early work was important to the 1990 Remembering Esperanza). I agree with their trenchant criticisms of atonement theology and their valuable constructive revisions in theology. So why didn’t they make it into this book.

    Except in my own theological institution, I too easily assume, perhaps, that these fine criticisms of atonement theory and their reconstructing of beliefs about the cross have now won general acceptance in theology. I presumed they needed continual teaching in my seminary without being referenced in my own published work for the wider theological readership. But I can also acknowledge that this was probably a mistake. As Trelstad no doubt senses, a more careful working through of Terrell’s book would have been a great way to meet Alexander’s concern that I have given short shrift to how the cross is invoked in the daily struggles of the disinherited themselves. Terrell is especially important here, surveying theologies of the cross amid African American suffering (in slave religion, black radicalism and the Black Church, but also in thinkers like Martin Luther King Jr., Albert B. Cleage Jr., and James Cone, also Jacquelyn Grant, Kelly Brown Douglas, Delores Williams and others). Her book Power in the Blood? is also poignant and powerful in referring to her own experience of her mother’s murder. At those points in EG where I accent the disproportionate growth of imprisoned black women, and women’s suffering and resistance to imprisonment (88–87, 198–200), I especially should have attended to womanist and diverse feminist approaches to the cross. I did acknowledge (20–21) that my entire book was dependent upon these and many other liberation theological scholars, but a closer attention to those works was needed.

    Similarly, Brock’s and Parker’s Saving Paradise would have challenged and enriched many of the points I made. Indeed, they share many of the criticisms I make of atonement theology, and with even greater historical detail they show how Anselmian notions of the cross as necessary sacrifice actually foster greater suffering and systems of militarized death as well as domestic abuse. In some ways they really seal the argument on these points better than I do, especially in Saving Paradise (254–78).

    Brock and Parker also share the emphasis I give to the role of lament over Jesus’ body and of his killing by the imperial state, and they emphasize as I do also that these rituals of lament “allowed to break free, the life of ethical grace, the life of paradise on earth” (Saving Paradise, 53). I treated this by way of Kathleen Corley whose studies emphasize that largely women-led communities of the poor in Mediterranean settings, offered up stories of lament that even may have constituted first oral traditions predating written gospels (336–44). There persists a difference between our approaches I think, because I want to tarry more with the enraging and lamentable event of state terror. With Brock and Parker I would not want to do this to sacralize that suffering or to birth another atonement theology. As I show, though, the early Jesus communities (even if not having crucifix art until much later, as Brock and Parker show) could not have helped being marked as followers of a seditious and shamed crucified figure, Jesus. They were marked as “crucified peoples” and with all the opprobrium that entailed.

    The reason I think I went to Cone’s work was that he struck the analogy between the crosses of Rome and lynching in the US context. This meant that he was starting with the historical politics of the cross as dominating power’s (Rome’s and the United States’) way of using imperial torture and death to enforce rule by the powerful. Especially with the US context in mind—and Cone has that to the fore when discussing the cross—I wanted to go more deeply into how it is that remembrance of state terror enabled something life-giving, if not earthly paradise (something hard for me to see) then at least a resilience for living that is wrung from remembrance of what the terror of state violence creates. Achieving such a resilience, even if far short of a sense of paradise, is no small thing.

    In light of this all-too-brief engagement with feminist and womanist traditions, I can treat Trelstad’s other three responses more quickly—alas, all too briefly.

    Trelstad’s second response suggests intriguingly that I am not actually supporting a way of the cross, which implies a “sanctified bearing of crosses and inevitable end point at the cross.” Instead, Trelstad sees me “proposing a Way of Christ that has resonances with Lutheran epistemologies of the cross, such as Mary Sollberg’s and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ethics of Christ the Center. I am not averse to this reading. But I have some hesitance in accepting it. In the first place, the “way of the cross” for me is not just about burden-bearing, and certainly according to my reconstruction in EG, this way does not have its “end point in the cross.” In contrast, it is a mode of lamenting, and remembering that breeds resilient life, resistance and communal celebration (even “festivals of resistance,” 464–71). Therefore, I rarely speak of “bearing the cross,” and more about “wielding the cross” (50, 194). This is a “wielding” of life-making remembrance of the cross, involving lament and grief, but also rage and resistance. It springs from and promotes the “deeper power” and “wider power” that I suggest be named “God.”

    To engage Trelstad’s fine third point on “the secular Christ,” I would say that indeed something like this cross-wielding is at work in secular activists of conscience. It is at work, for one example, amid “socialist worker” movements (Bonhoeffer). I would add that there are analogous practices at work in community organizers of many stripes, in the hunger-strikers of US prisons, the efforts of political prisoners and whistleblowers who challenge the US imperial state today, in those who remember the names of Latin America’s poor with names on white crosses of those slain by US-backed militaries. Yes, also, a tremendous example of the way of the cross in lockdown America is displayed by women’s groups, whether “religious” or “secular,” which move against hegemonic masculinism and its lethal body/soul-killing at work in domestic abuse and other violence against women. I am grateful to Trelstad here in holding up the Silent Witness National Initiative that exemplifies many of the dynamics of mobilization I highlight in EG. I should have mentioned this Initiative—dating back to 1990 as it does! It is also important in Lockdown America since many women are in prison having had to defend themselves against male violence in its many forms (86–87).

    I need to also respond to Trelstad’s important last point, which takes the form of a question: “Can we see Jesus directly as a tortured victim of the state and, at the same time, affirm some more spiritualized interpretations of his presence today?” Trelstad no doubt senses rightly how difficult it is for me to say “yes” to this question. Is there not, she poses, an “Irreducible Complexity of the Cross” that includes the spiritualized versions?” I guess I would say yes, I have to acknowledge this, at least as a phenomenon amid the history and present of Christian belief. More importantly, the “spiritualized views” are living options for those who are most vulnerable and on the front lines of suffering inside our prisons and at lockdown America’s many sites of suffering. I know this from discussing the strengths and weaknesses of my book with Christians and religious folk of many backgrounds who are suffering in prison. Yet, when it is the political meanings of the cross that are so often left out, not treated especially by dominant minds in the hegemonic centers of theological teaching in the United States, and then also rarely conjoined with a need to resist the US killing state—well, then, I find it harder to hold to my yes, and to affirm “irreducible complexity” here. Most of that complexity is due to either not knowing about alternative political interpretations, or still more likely, an unwillingness among elites to embrace a Christian interpretation of Jesus’ death that would undermine the power of the current US imperial killing state. So, for me there are limits to this “complexity.” The case of lynching is enlightening. There are many ways to interpret lynching, some even seeing, as Cone does, a “terrible” or “tragic” beauty here (Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, 162–63). But neither Cone nor others who know what lynching was gloss the fact that it was an act of racial and political violence, one intended to reinforce white rule in a capitalist and imperial US state. So the complexity that must remain is not without limits, especially if it avoids accenting the cross as a tool of state terror.

    • Mark Lewis Taylor

      Mark Lewis Taylor

      Reply

      Remembering the Cross of Jesus – More on “Christ,” “God” and “Spirit”

      Trelstad’s discerning query about whether my “way of the cross” could instead be viewed as a “way of Christ” invites another kind of response. Perhaps it is even more important than the response I already offered in my first Reply to her.

      A revision whereby I would use “way of the cross” and “way of Christ” interchangeably, or embrace the second phrase instead of the first, would render in overly doctrinal terms what I see to be the most effective counter-vailing forces against lockdown America (what I have termed the “deeper” and “wider” powers of resistance and liberation). Embracing the “way of Christ” discourse would risk swinging into place the much-propagated notion of “salvation” that deploys the hermeneutics of expectation-and-fulfilment relating to a Messiah (Christos). This has been part of the “salvation history” beating at the heart of much “orthodox” Christology. And in spite of the fine safeguards that Trelstad – as well as Terrell and Brock and Parker – have placed on abusive forms of Christology, it would then easily be possible for many to read-in the kind of “divine scenarios” wherein a God is said to send “His” (sic) “son” (sic) to die on the cross to make new life for all, to be the Christ/Messiah who fulfills the desire of all nations. This works a kind of triumphalism, maybe even a supersessionism of Judaism, even if it is stressed that this Jesus as Christ is a servant and self-giving. I make it clear throughout EG that this salvation history Christology is not what I am about in this book. Thus, I have had intense conversations with seminary students over the years about my rather direct statement in EG that “Jesus’ execution was not a salvific event, and I have not presented it as such in this book” (282, 1st edition: 108).

      As I say in a section of the new edition (21-25), this is a “Christology of remembrance” of Jesus’ execution, a torture death (like a lynching, as James Cone stresses) amidst a Roman religio-imperial regime and certain powers of an exploitative temple-state system. This is a re-membering, a reconstituting of bodies for the present. It re-imagines and catalyzes past memories and meanings of Jesus’ death, as a re-membering I offer to help foster Jesus-followers today as they seek participation in political communities of resistance to lockdown America and to the current imperial, corporatist and white supremacist USA. I actually began developing this notion of remembrance in Remembering Esperanza (1990, 4-15). If one wishes to use the word “salvific” for this re-membering, as I grant one might (EG, 282), then my book suggests one must look for the “salvific” not as outcome of a divine transcendental scenario (e.g. a god sending a son to die). Rather, it is found in a historical politics of liberation that involves three interactive dimensions formed in the wake of Jesus’ death and in our reconstructive remembering: adversarial politics, dramatic action and the building of peoples’ movements (chapters 3-6)

      The power of this re-membering was more theoretically unpacked in my book, The Theological and the Political. There I discussed this re-membering as working through wounded bodies’ personal/social performance and practice, generating a politically revitalizing naturalism and anamnestic solidarity (2011, 199-220).

      I further want to state that if I were to deploy the “way of Christ” instead of the “way of the cross” phrasing, I would also risk inviting readers to import Christian theology’s long tradition of identifying “Christ” with “God,” and also Jesus with God. In both editions – and I think readers often missed this – any “God” that I discuss in the book “cannot be identical with the discrete ego or historical person of Jesus of Nazareth” (15) even if Jesus is baptized with the messianic “Christ” title. The God of this book is not “one with” Jesus’ individual body and life, with Jesus’ discrete figure. Instead this God is given within the whole set of dynamics involved in remembering Jesus and his death then and now, and in all its existential, political and historical dimensions. The “spiritual,” recall, is not just one more among these several dimensions of the set; it is pervasive of all of them. This whole set of dynamics is the greater power of spirit that challenges a Pax Romana or a Pax Americana and other oppressive formations. This greater power, again, is what I unpack in the book as “deeper power” (a revitalizing naturalist sense-ability), and “wider power” (a forming of blocs of resistant and transforming movement coalitions).

      Jesus rendered as “God in Christ” usually means projecting Jesus’ most significant meanings “upward” or “outward” from the moral worlds of historical and political practices (even if this means coming back into the world to discipline those practices). “God” then becomes what Judith Butler has called “the metaphysical reduction” of life’s complexity (Butler, Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism, 2012, 22). The problem with this kind of faith in Jesus is that potentially liberating power is looked for first of all in the abstract “high” places above history’s domain. In fact, looking for God in the “high places” (in transcendent “supernature” for example) often leads to unquestioned allegiance to higher powers in history. Recall, for example, the many invocations of God in the ideologies of racial capitalism in US history. Routinely, these invocations of a religiously sovereign God – even if presented as a self-giving divine in a sacrificial Jesus – have functioned to anchor politically a US global sovereignty. So, again, when I use the notion of God in this book it refers to the more effective resistance of “deep” and “wide” powers in earth, world and social history. To turn the political and historical dynamics of the cross into a site of “God in Christ” risks a turn away from these powers of earth, politics and history, and worse it often leads to a reinforcement of history’s deadly sovereign forms. Even if one adds, “Well this God is “incarnate,” enfleshed in this Jesus” – even then, the site of enfleshment one refers to is only one of many sites and figures in the power matrix of resistance that is necessary for liberation from the forces of exploitation, occupation and lockdown – whether Roman, US-American or some other systemic repression.

      I end by recalling again Michelle Alexander’s seeking of a “stronger moral and spiritual foundation for politics.” Recall that I do discuss the functioning of these deeper and wider powers of my book as “spirit” and also as creative of a “liberating material spirituality,” one that re-members Jesus’ death through rituals of lamentation and memory (336-39). It is precisely from this mode of remembrance that there emerges the power of “impious Galileans” and their counter-imperial faith, a kind of “renegade will” for vision and resistance to US domination and expansive reach (330-35).

      “Material spirit” is an oxymoron to many. It need not be seen as such, however, if one recalls the notion of breath and breathing from which the term “spirit” derives (Latin, spirare). The breath is that of bodies of earth and society. Breath is a fragile power yes, but it is also as intrepid and resilient as the breath that fights for the next breath. Such a struggle to breathe often finds itself strengthened in the arts of collective movement struggle and its relentlessly organizing practices (346-47).

      So, not only am I not inclined to substitute “the way of the Christ” for “the way of the cross,” I also am not inclined to offer more in the way of what Alexander thinks I need as supplement: “a strong moral or spiritual foundation” or a “spiritually-grounded politics” (see her second Reply above). Maybe it seems too fine a point, but these notions of “foundation” and “grounding,” invoked in this way, often presume that morality and spirit are not always already pervasive of and at work in political movements. The crucial questions are what kind of morality and spirituality are already in the political movements, and then which moral and spiritual practices make for liberating life under conditions of current oppression and exclusion?

      Especially the politics I have offered in the structure of The Executed God is not a thin insurrectionism. It may feature “political cultures of insurrection” (284) as Alexander rightly picks up; but as I have constructed these cultures they already are a guiding vision for moral as well as political practice (21). They already are a concrete spiritual configuration – one that seeks to be a “liberating material spirituality.”

Davina Lopez

Response

Re-membering Humanity

What a distinct pleasure, and a no less distinct urgency, to be invited to think with and engage the issues and questions raised in the second edition of Mark Lewis Taylor’s The Executed God: The Way of the Cross in Lockdown America. I say “pleasure” because I have long appreciated Taylor’s efforts to bring politics, activism, theory, and autobiography to bear on the categories and procedures ordinarily associated with the disciplinary modality called “Theology.” And I say “urgency” because mass incarceration and what Taylor has termed “Lockdown America,” in my view, must make its way into as many conversations and deliberations of ethics, justice, theology, and humanity as possible. With Taylor, I would say that it is not possible to “do theology” or “do religion” without sustained attention to the material circumstances shaping and circumscribing that “doing.” I appreciate the opportunity to think about these matters alongside such a distinguished group of colleagues in the Syndicate forum. In what follows I will briefly reflect on how this work might intersect with that of recent scholarship and pedagogy on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the Roman empire, which is accented as part of Taylor’s rhetorical strategy toward recontextualizing contemporary Christian living as a “counter-theatrics” to state terror.

The reissue of Taylor’s book is quite timely. The human toll taken by the criminal justice system in this country is too much to bear, and the collusion between religious institutions and relations of power made manifest through the institution of mass incarceration continues to be inexplicable and inexcusable. It is also the case, as Taylor notes, that many types of Christian churches tend to be complicit in “Lockdown America,” a stance which has produced skepticism about whether there can truly be an authentic Christian resistance to empire. In light of such long-standing collusion, combined with basic religious illiteracy about what goes on in various traditions and communities, it is understandable that some Americans may not seek affiliation with Christianity or Christian theology. And frankly, we live in a situation that Robert P. Jones, the CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, has called “the end of White Christian America,” wherein the very institution that has shaped the ethos and ideological configuration of the United States—American Protestantism in its mainline and evangelical forms—is no longer that which holds considerable sway among “ordinary Americans.”1 Given that a number of Americans are wary of Christianity, Christian theology, and Christian practice in their late-capitalist institutional forms, given the attention to religious diversity and pluralism as a strength rather than a hindrance, and given the attention (hype, even) that the so-called religious “Nones” and “Dones” are receiving for their disidentification from Christian living from professional polling to popular media, it stands to reason that a reimagination, redefinition, and revolution concerning Christianity, and especially Christian subjectivity, are in order. Such reimagination, redefinition, and revolutionary conscience, and consciousness, are, as I see it, at the heart of the project that Taylor outlines in The Executed God. This is a project with which I resonate. Herein several basic questions can be posed: what would it take to disentangle Christian living from imperial designs, to live as Jesus-followers in right-relationship with humanity and the earth, in mutually and socially transformative and healing ways? Is that even possible? And what would it take to overcome deep suspicion about Christianity so that solidarity and justice might be more fully realized? Can we, and should we, reclaim and reframe the (Christian) theological task so that it is more squarely focused on justice? Taylor’s assessment is not only “yes,” but that this kind of “yes” to resistance and transformation is actually at the original core of the Christian tradition.

I come to the questions raised by this conversation primarily as a socially engaged scholar of the New Testament, Christian origins, and early Christianities. Ostensibly, it is my job to figure out the contours of this original ancient core, trace its development into the institutional church and creed, unlock its meaning through exegetical practice, and provide resources for contemporary theological and ethical reflection. However, as a biblical critic, I find it more productive to conduct work that focuses methodologically, in some way, on the ethical imperative I think all scholars of the humanities share: that of understanding humanity through understanding the various products of human hands, across time and cultures. This is messy, as all exegetical work should be. As Bruno Latour has put it, the task of the critic is to reveal the human origins of all ideological stances, particularly those making claims to a kind of truth that lies beyond space and time.2 This is especially tricky in the study of religion, for religion is precisely that which humans consistently maintain is beyond human reach and created outside of human touch—what Bruce Lincoln has called the contingent masquerading as the universal.3 As far as the study of biblical literature is concerned, the task of the critic means in part to maintain a rigorous insistence that texts and traditions enjoy “sacred” (universal) status on account of human (contingent) activity. That is, what matters is not what sacred texts do to people “from outside,” but what and how people do sacredness and meaning-making with texts—inside and outside of institutional religious contexts and situations usually bounded around traditional theological and dogmatic questions. What people do with sacred texts, and how they do it, will be dependent on their historical and social situatedness.

Moreover, in my view, every encounter with biblical literature ultimately is an encounter with ourselves as human beings struggling in the present. That is, there is no unmediated access to the ancients, as much as some would desire for that to be so, and these texts are more rhetorical than historical. By “rhetorical,” I mean that the texts are not necessarily transparent windows onto a fixed and stable ancient reality that is already “back there”; rather, the texts in some sense construct ancient realities. For those biblical interpreters and other readers with interests in the ancient world, this means that the ancient world(s) that we bring to foreground in our attempts to understand the texts—Jewish backgrounds, Greek backgrounds, and Roman imperial backgrounds—assist us in constructing what I would call a useful past, in that it is a past that is usable in the present for imagining different futures.

What Taylor appears to be doing in The Executed God, and particularly through chapters 3 (“Way of the Cross as Adversarial Politics”) and 4 (“Stealing the Show: Way of the Cross as Dramatic Action”), is identifying with an original Christian past that is characterized by resistance to the Roman empire and the creation of alternative communities. This resistance is manifest in Jesus’ adversarial life (especially as narrated in the Gospel of Mark) as well as the orientation and activities of the Apostle Paul. For those interested in looking for resources to validate what Dorothee Soelle called “creative disobedience” in our world, this reading of the New Testament and reconstruction of Christian origins can serve as a past that is incredibly useful. Indeed, for contemporary marginalized peoples, activists, and other justice-seekers, the idea that a Christian counter-narrative to the status quo could have deep, ancient historical dimensions—that resistance and revolution could be built into the beginning—is alluring, not to mention affirming. “My way has always been there and your way is a deviation” as a justification for a position taken in the present is a very convincing argument, in both its dominant and subversive articulations, for multiple audiences. In fact, perhaps this kind of argument accounts for why the recent scholarship on the relationship between the New Testament and the Roman empire—or, as I might call it, between Christian myth-making and politics—has gained traction in theological studies.

Let me give an example from scholarship about Paul and empire that some interpreters have found useful. Herein the Roman empire is taken as the political background—the “state” and/or “governing authorities”—in the Pauline correspondence. The main question hinges on whether and how Paul negotiated the Roman imperial power structures in which he was situated, or whether and how Paul’s life and work in the ancient world can be interpreted as having political intentions, inclinations, and consequences for contemporary readers, particularly those invested in Paul’s writings as a scriptural resource.4 There could be a variety of possible responses to the question of Paul’s relationship with the Roman empire, as well as examinations of how such a relationship is expressed in the vocabulary and themes of the epistles and the portions of Acts narrating Paul’s words and deeds. Debates about Paul’s possible political inclinations are a priority in discussion about Paul and empire, and these tend to focus on the characterization of the apostle as “pro-imperial” or “anti-imperial,” along with the implications of such portraits for contemporary ethics and theologies.

I detect two major patterns in “Paul and empire” studies that concentrate on locating politics in the text as well as the politics of interpretation itself. One interpretive pattern aims to reread Pauline literature in light of political issues, and addresses the question of how, or to what degree, one can claim Paul is enmeshed in colonial and imperial contexts. Taking a cue from the “New Perspective on Paul,” some scholars have contended that readings of Paul have traditionally been more heavily indebted to Protestant church dogma than historical analysis, and have begun in earnest to work on understanding the Roman empire as the landscape in which Paul dwells. Highlighting the relationship between Paul and empire, this strand of scholarship takes seriously the idea that the apostle’s writings can be read as responding to Roman imperial ideology, military intervention, and material presence. Expanding the semantic range of “political” terminology, studies in this area have focused on the “submerged,” “forgotten,” and/or “ignored” resonances between Paul and his Roman imperial context, noting what Adolf Deissmann, nearly a century ago, called a “polemical parallelism” between the New Testament and Roman imperial culture. And when Paul is cast in this way, it is very tempting to read him as an “anti-imperial hero” that reinforces a version of history that is fixated on “great men” and their deeds, even if those deeds are revolutionary. Since Paul has been used to justify all kinds of modern systemic oppression from slavery to patriarchy, some might be anxious that constructing Paul as a “heroic” figure would hide this history and undermine liberatory projects in the present. In other words, Paul and empire scholarship might just lead toward a reification of Paul as a “mansplainer.” Fair enough.

In light of such complex and landmine-laden territory, I find that Taylor (understandably) gives Paul a relatively gingerly treatment, perhaps so as to avoid falling into the “heroic Paul” trap. It is the case that Paul’s legacies, embedded as they are in patterns of domination and subordination, are difficult to navigate. Following some scholars critical of the “anti-imperial hero” pattern, it would be easy to ask why we should not just ignore or get rid of Paul and find some other ancient conversation partners, such as the people who may or may not have been in Paul’s “alternative communities.” In the service of extending the search for a past that is usable in understanding and transforming “Lockdown America,” though, I would propose a subversive move and strengthen, rather than weaken, the resonance between the ancient apostle’s rhetorical subjectivity and that of modern incarcerated persons toward the redefinition of humanity and justice.

The key aspect of Paul that I would highlight for such a usable past is his radically conscious humanity. Perhaps we are so used to characterizing Paul as an elite dogmatic theologian whose greatest contribution is articulating the finer points of justification by faith that we have been unable or unwilling to see what, as he might say, is “before our very eyes.” That, however, is about us. If we take Paul’s own self-construction seriously, what we can see there is a portrait of a man who put others in harm’s way, who used violence to solve his problems, and who deployed a kind of vigilante justice that he thought would get him ahead in life. And, at some point, he needs his audiences to know that he had an experience of identification with the executed Jesus, commonly called “conversion,” that showed him that his violent ways were actually propping up a violent imperial system. Paul went away to reflect on that, and gave up his actions and life. Now, this Paul could be characterized rather unheroically as someone who used violence and then “reformed” himself, not unlike a convict. And also not unlike a convict, his reintegration into local communities is narrated as being fraught with difficulty, as it seems that very few people want to trust that he has changed or that he is different. No wonder, then, that Paul constantly appears to be on the defensive, constantly trying to convince people of his altered consciousness, that he won’t kill them or drag them off by their hair as he formerly did. No wonder that he is a suspect individual among strangers and authorities. It is this basic, radical, vulnerable humanity—which, as I have argued elsewhere, at times presents in gendered and sexualized discourse—that makes Paul, at least to me, an exemplary (but certainly not “heroic”) figure with whom to think about what it means to be human. Paul’s performance of humanity could be a potent counter-theatrics in its own right.

Why should an unheroic characterization of Paul matter? I am a biblical scholar who is also a teacher of undergraduates in a small liberal arts college setting. I teach biblical studies and religious studies in a humanities-focused program, rather than in a seminary or theological school. That is, I participate in the project of teaching about, rather than for or of, religion. Although I do not necessarily subscribe to a notion that theological and religious studies are opposites, I will say that in a humanities framework religion is not a “given” but a site of contestation. That said, there is much misunderstanding and mapping onto the study of religion that primarily takes the form of confusing understanding for advocacy. As a teacher of biblical literature in this context, I view the Bible as a potent arena where identities and power relationships are negotiated. Sometimes these identities and power relationships are part of religious affiliation, and most of the time this is not so. Nevertheless, as I usually stress in my courses, one need not have a certain relationship with biblical literature to understand and think with it. Engaging the Bible is a matter of being an educated citizen. In this context, narratives about Jesus or Paul are reframed as resources for reflection on humanity and justice. When we take the humanity of Paul seriously, a different set of questions can come out of his letters: can we sit at the table with our enemies, some of whom may be criminals? Can we care for the poorest among us while challenging the conditions that create poverty? Can we give up our own privileges in the service of being “reborn” as different human beings? If the answer to all of those questions is an easy “yes,” then what are we doing to live into that?

This past semester, I taught The Executed God as the culminating text in an upper-level religion course called “Sacred Texts and Social Justice,” and I thank the students who thought together with me: Allison Devine, Jeni Hollander, Thatch Mulcahy, Annelies Schellingerhoudt, Ali Solomon, and Carly Zahniser each made significant contributions to our learning community. In this course, we started with a twofold assumption that many of my students hold: first, that we know what “social justice” is and what it looks like, and second, that the Bible has nothing to do with social justice. After all, this collection of ancient sacred texts has been used so often to further oppression, violence, and empire, rather than liberation, peace, and democracy. In our course we asked, though: is it really that simple? Are sacred texts and social justice to be best understood as contradictory to one another? We spent the semester examining the intersection of sacred texts and social justice as a matter of methodological interest and an energetic space wherein critical questions could be posed. We engaged the uses of biblical texts in historic and contemporary social justice movements, and considered modern abolitionist, Marxist, anti-racist, postcolonial, feminist, queer, and pacifist interpretational paradigms. We tried to understand sacred texts as responses to the world in which they originated, as modes of religious and social criticism in ancient contexts of imperial domination and injustice. And we explored the various uses of biblical texts in contemporary religious traditions, public debates, and popular culture, with attention to movements and impulses toward social criticism and justice. Race, class, gender, sexuality, and geography were important categories of analysis. We expanded our understanding of both how biblical texts are used and what social justice might look like in various contexts, ancient and modern.

What I want to end with, here, is a series of questions born of conversations with my students. So: why should we rethink Christianity? Who does that benefit, and who does it exclude? Does a focus on counter-theatrics reinforce a binary between oppressor and oppressed? Is there room for restorative justice in this formulation of Christian living? What about when resistance movements become branded in late capitalism and/or become part of the dominant culture—or, what about when the counter-theatrics get appropriated and repackaged for consumption by “Lockdown America?” All of this is to say that Taylor should be commended for entering into the messy business of reconceptualizing what it means to be human, and for taking a step back to reconsider what justice means and could mean in a world where that term is thrown around all too glibly. As we are all implicated in what Michel Foucault (in)famously termed “the carceral,” the task to resist easy categorization and binary/dichotomous thinking and action, as Taylor performs herein, is itself a counter-theatrics worth deep consideration. It is a task that re-members the human, then and now, despite systemic efforts to erase humanity at every turn.


  1. See Robert P. Jones, The End of White Christian America (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016). Jones is by no means the first observer of such decline in Christian identification in the United States. However, his focus on the anxieties among dominant-culture citizens produced by such issues as the election of a black president, same-sex marriage, and the criminal justice system merit attention.

  2. See Bruno Latour, On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods (Science and Cultural Theory; Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 71. For a discussion of the task of the biblical critic as an ethical matter, see Todd Penner and Davina C. Lopez, De-Introducing the New Testament: Texts, Worlds, Methods, Stories (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015).

  3. See Bruce Lincoln, “Theses on Method,” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 8 (1996) 225–27.

  4. For an appraisal of “Paul and empire” scholarship, see Davina C. Lopez and Todd Penner, “Paul and Politics,” in The Oxford Handbook of Pauline Studies, ed. R. B. Matlock (New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

  • Mark Lewis Taylor

    Mark Lewis Taylor

    Reply

    Response to Lopez: “On a Usable Past”

    As with all the respondents in this forum, I have used Davina Lopez’s works in my classes, especially her book on Paul, Apostle to the Conquered: Reimagining Paul’s Mission. I deeply appreciate the way she engages scholarship in New Testament, early Christianity and Roman empire within what she calls an “ethical imperative” of “scholars of the humanities.”

    Indeed, even though I am seeking to rethink “the religion of Jesus,” I am working perhaps more from a Humanities viewpoint than only as a formulator of Christian images and thinking. As I say from the very beginning, any redress of the problems of lockdown America require more than a Christian frame, one that is in the United States also interfaith and secular (xi, xxvi). And the arguments we make, therefore, do well to root themselves in claims that can be warranted by scholarship as well as by resonance with marginalized and repressed peoples in struggle.

    I read Lopez’s challenging questions to me as helpfully raising issues about the interpretive process of engaging texts of the Christian past in relation to human beings’ struggling in the present—in the case of my book, in “lockdown America.” I want to respond to her thoughtful comments about the notion of a “usable past,” and on how my book seeks to construct such a “past” in and for our present human struggle. To my knowledge, Lopez’s term, “usable past,” is one referenced by many who know the past is always something under hermeneutical (re)construction. I think I am in full agreement with Lopez’s emphasis and use of this important notion.

    In EG, the way of the cross in lockdown America, as Lopez notes, seeks to claim consonance with “an original Christian past that is characterized by resistance to the Roman empire and the creation of alternative communities.” I also agree with Lopez that this “original Christian past” is in many ways “beyond human reach,” something constructed, and that there is, as Lopez reminds us, “no unmediated access to the ancients.” Indeed, I hold this to be true about any reading of ancient or biblical (or theological texts), even if disciplines of historical research and study are also necessary. (My own fullest statement on hermeneutics, on interpretation from and for political struggle is my essay “Reading from an Indigenous Place,” in Fernando F. Segovia, Teaching the Bible: The Discourses and Politics of Biblical Pedagogy (117–36).

    As EG presents Jesus’ or Paul’s adversarial politics, dramatic action, or social and political movement-building, I am aware that there are materials “there” in the ancient texts that aid me, but also that I am, as I emphasized in EG, constructing, reimagining and reconstructing (21–25). Most assuredly I do not believe that my interpretive moves are “built into the beginning” such that I could say, “My way has always been there and your way is a deviation.” I do emphasize at some points in EG that from the perspective of an empire-critical reading of the texts, a counter-imperial view can emerge as arguably Christian, such that US Christian imperialist and nationalist readings are acts of “betrayal” of the gospel tradition  (204, 451).

    The hermeneutic that I see as operative throughout my book, I unpacked in relation to a Walter Benjamin quote, from his essay “Literary History and the Study of Literature,” which I place at the heart of the 2nd edition’s new section for “professional theologians” (16–31). I believe it is important enough that I repeat it here:

    What is at stake is not to portray literary works in the context of their age, but to represent the age that perceives them—our age—in the age during which they arose. It is this that makes literature into an organon of history; and to achieve this, and not to reduce literature to the material of history, is the task of the literary historian. (22)

    Of the many rich elements of this passage I would mention two. First it respects and calls for disciplined analysis of literary texts that do not reduce the texts to material history. The “material history” is there, of course—i.e., Jesus and Paul under historical conditions of Roman imperial life—but it is a history that is unlocked by reading events and strategies in the present, “materialized” in a time of “the now,” as Benjamin would put it, a now when we interpreters represent “our age” in “the age during which they [the literary texts] arose.” This is what I am doing in EG when I identify the struggles to resist lockdown America today with struggles of Jesus followers under imperial domination. The material history of the past is open, and doesn’t receive a definitiveness until tentatively completed in our present reading.

    The second point in the Benjamin citation I want to highlight is his notion of an “organon of history,” which I read as the breaking in of past “material history” into the present so as to form a material power in our time. Depending upon Benjamin again in EG, I suggested that our readings can become “interpreted text(s) with a historically forceful social logic and meaning” (EG, 22). The texts become an “organon,” in the sense of an instrument for doing work in history.

    Overall, I value the way Lopez’s response to my work keeps me honest, respectful of the full complexity of this quote from Benjamin. Who better to do this than Lopez, a scholar whose job it is, as she says, to explore “the contours of the original ancient core” and who yet also emphasizes that current interpreters always read while “dependent upon their historical and social situatedness.” Lopez’s several comments function to me as warnings of points where perhaps I either risk in my writing, or risk being read, in ways that fail to recognize the hermeneutically complex operations of my book. (Indeed, both Alexander’s and Trelstad’s comments can be understood as pointing out ways that my own “situatedness” led me to inadequately treat key issues, like the discourses of the disinherited themselves (Alexander) and of feminist and womanist writers (Trelstad).

    But Lopez herself takes my own analysis and carries it forward I think with even more boldness, again without sacrificing hermeneutical complexity. She notes that I give a relatively “gingerly treatment” to Paul’s writings for developing a counter-imperial faith, and she is right that I was wary of reifying a “heroic Paul” about which I had warned readers throughout EG. She suggests acknowledging Paul’s very unheroic humanity, as one who before his “conversion” was a leader of vigilante justice against Jesus followers, such that, as Lopez puts it, “his violent ways were actually propping up a violent imperial system.” After his conversion he had to engage suspicious communities of Jesus-followers with a “radical, vulnerable humanity,” writes Lopez, a kind of “potent counter-theatrics in its own right.” So the notion of the unheroic exemplar can have great force. In reminding me of this, and in advancing her own version of a figure who is subversive of imperial formation, she has yet again kept before me both the perils and possibilities when constructing a “usable past.”

    • Davina Lopez

      Davina Lopez

      Reply

      Transformed – by the Renewal of Our Minds

      The documentary film Concrete, Steel, and Paint1 depicts inmates at the maximum-security Graterford State Prison, and victims of violent crime, working together to design and paint a mural for the city of Philadelphia as part of its mural arts program. The film is raw and stunning in its honest portrayal of what can happen when those who have taken human life and those who have had human life taken from them must work together toward a common end. Both groups appear to be from completely different worlds. Both participate in stereotyping and accusations about the other. Both are desperate for healing and understanding, albeit in different ways. Both groups find themselves having to work through significant anger, resentment, and distrust in order to stay in the same room, let alone paint together. During the year-long process, the project nearly falls to pieces several times. And yet, in the end, the humanity of both victims and perpetrators results in recognition and some measure of empathy, if ever so briefly. The resulting two murals, one painted by inmates and one by victims, are near each other on Germantown Avenue in Philadelphia. Called “The Healing Walls,” together these striking images tell stories of victimization, broken systems, and possibilities for reconciliation.

      To me, the moments shown in Concrete, Steel, and Paint exhibit a part of what Taylor calls “counter-theatrics.” “Lockdown America” depends in part on the physical and mental separation and mutual dehumanization of inmates and victims. The act of meeting each other and talking at the prison seems so simple, but this act may actually be a complex act of resistance with significant consequences for each group. As a long-term strategy, such a counter-theatrical maneuver is aimed at undermining dehumanizing grand narratives about the past and present and cultivating the imagination toward different futures. Moreover, that victims and inmates could be present enough to one another to see something of themselves in the other is what I would call something of a Pauline move. Whatever we make of Paul, the letters attributed to him in the New Testament construct multiple scenarios wherein groups who are thought to be opposites, or enemies, are asked to be with one another and “stick with the program.” Jew and Greek, slave and free, weak and strong, male and female are at the same table, asked not to “bite and devour” one another, asked to wait for each other, and asked to imagine themselves as “one” despite all kinds of ideological and institutional machinery that would suggest otherwise.

      The connection between “Lockdown America” and the Pauline imagination is resonant when we think critically about how we construct and deploy our ancient pasts. That this is difficult (and here I am writing with a broader audience than this panel conversation in mind) points to a series of live and unsettled issues in biblical interpretation generally, and in interpretation of the apostle Paul’s life and letters in particular. For me, raising these unsettled issues is worth doing at every possible opportunity, especially in connection with justice concerns. In my view, it is important not to simply dismiss Paul as too much of a jerk, Pauline traditions as too hegemonic, and Pauline studies as too antiquarian. Rather, it is important to acknowledge that Paul has endured innumerable afterlives and appropriations within and beyond organized religious institutions and communities, as well as the guilds of biblical scholars and theologians. Each of these appropriations and interpretive trends is necessarily located in space and time, and each reflects something of the concerns of that context more than the historical realities of the ancient apostle’s world (if we can ultimately know much about that world).

      Admittedly, Paul’s letters might seem relatively alien and opaque to contemporary readers, and we cannot know for certain some details of the apostle’s life. These and other issues make Pauline interpretation a bit of a challenge at times, even for biblical scholars, and perhaps especially for people who want to mine Christian traditions for resources toward alternative narratives to those perpetuated by the status quo. Nevertheless, the presence of Pauline correspondence in the New Testament canon signifies that this literature enjoys the status of “scriptures” for Christian communities. It is also the case that no one is neutral about Paul, regardless of whether they have a scriptural relationship with his letters, and his canonical presence has enabled him to function as a cultural touchstone and site for articulations of identity formation, critical reflection, and social ordering and critique. Paul’s so-called “binary” discourses of contrast (Jew/Greek, slave/free, male/female, insider/outsider) and his insistence on the passing away of “this age” in favor of a “new creation” throughout his letters have served as primary reference points, for example, for reformations and revolutions—from the ancients to Martin Luther to modern civil rights movements. Readers have deployed Paul’s words to both maintain and overturn trenchant social hierarchies. In this way, “Paul” has served as a resource for many interlocutors who desire change and who occupy dominant and not-so-dominant social positions. In my view, responsible Paul scholarship considers such engagements as part of the interpretive enterprise.

      As has been noted, one recent series of engagements with Paul that has garnered attention is not going on in Pauline studies at all, but has taken place among continental philosophers such as Jakob Taubes, Alain Badiou, Giorgio Agamben, Stanislas Breton, and Slavoj Žižek. While the details of each philosopher’s interpretation of Paul might differ, the “Paul and the Philosophers” conversations share several aspects. First, these interpreters appear to find Paul useful as a political, rather than theological, figure. Herein Paul is a resource for a radical, even “revolutionary,” subjectivity and call to action in the face of a contemporary world characterized by oppressive economic and geopolitical realities. In this respect the philosophers are consistent with a tradition in modern Pauline studies that can be traced back at least to the 19th century, a scholarly tradition that sought to move Pauline interpretation beyond exclusively theological frameworks. It is also the case that modern philosophical engagement with Paul is not a recent phenomenon, but can be observed in the work of Fredrich Nietzsche. Second, the identification of a political/theological divide in Pauline interpretation is linked to philosophers’ attempts to highlight Pauline binaries as a mode of dialectical criticism. And third, philosophers’ appropriations of Paul reflect the apostle’s status as an ancient radical thinker in the history of ideas, as well as an ancient figure who provides a set of ideas with which contemporary radicals can think without the constraints of institutional regimes.

      The “political Paul” of the philosophers is not the “historical Paul” of Pauline studies, which has provoked some criticism among biblical scholars. Nor is this the “revolutionary Paul,” though, of social movements. It should be noted that the “Paul and the Philosophers” deployment of Paul depends on the assumed binaries in Paul’s work, binaries that New Testament scholars have long worked to expose as modern constructions rather than ancient rhetoric, and in the past several decades Paul’s binaries have largely been sidelined in historical scholarship. Thus, the “Paul and the Philosophers” interpretive trend should be understood as a deliberately ahistorical approach to Pauline thought, one that needs to maintain modern binary fictions in order to make its arguments, and one that is—despite appearances to the contrary—fairly difficult to appropriate in modern counter-theatrical project. However, the “theological Paul” of Christian communities is not necessarily an “historical Paul” either. That said, modern readers tend to draw boundaries around “theological,” “political,” “historical,” and “revolutionary” that ancients like Paul probably did not share. For example, Paul never uses the term “Christian” to describe himself, his addressees, or his project in his letters, and it is difficult to ascertain if his rhetoric is “theological” or “political” in the modern sense.

      The “Paul and the Philosophers” conversations constitute one interpretive site that raises important methodological issues for all readers to consider. Even if Paul is most well-known as an important figure for theological/religious (Christian) discourses, that does not mean that he is always only to be understood within Christian frameworks, by Christian readers. Perhaps the “Christian” Paul is too limiting. Ultimately, one might say that a key aspect of Paul’s legacy lies in the apostle’s enduring capacity to escape neat categorization, stability, and finitude, which is itself a reflection of the complexity and contingency of biblical literature as a product of human experience and culture. And to me, at least, such instability aligns well with counter-theatrics, toward performances of the possible, toward spaces where inmates and victims might meet, be transformed by the renewal of their minds, and spread that transformation far and wide. May those performances continue.

       


      1. Dir. T. Heriza and C.L. Burstein. United States of America. New Day Films, 2009.

    • Mark Lewis Taylor

      Mark Lewis Taylor

      Reply

      Disentangling Christian Living From Empire: Should We Even Try?

      Davina Lopez’s comments were so helpful on a number of levels. I cannot address them all, but allow me to respond to just one more set of issues. Actually, these are carried in a set of questions that all are variations on the theme: Why should we engage Christianity at all in our attempts to forge a “usable past” for today amid Lockdown America? Her several questions are worth lifting out and grouping together here:

      What would it take to disentangle Christian living from imperial designs, to live as Jesus-followers in right-relationship with humanity and the earth . . .
      And what would it take to overcome deep suspicion about Christianity . . .
      Can we, and should we, reclaim and reframe the (Christian) theological task so that it is more squarely focused on justice? . . . So: why should we rethink Christianity? Who does that benefit, and who does it exclude? Does a focus on counter-theatrics reinforce a binary between oppressor and oppressed? . . . What about when resistance movements become branded in late capitalism and/or become part of the dominant culture—or, what about when the counter-theatrics get appropriated and repackaged for consumption by “Lockdown America?”

      I have to begin a response by saying that I hold all these questions within myself too. In fact, I have carried them and agonized over them from the beginning of my writing the first edition of The Executed God in 2001 and when revising it for 2016. For this Reply I distill all the questions down to essentially one as in my title above for this Reply: “Disentangling Christian Living from Empire – Should We Even Try?” I offer two reasons for answering in the affirmative.

      My first reason is in part autobiographical. Across the 1980s and 1990s I found myself engaged in political activism, anti-death penalty work and advocacy for Mumia Abu-Jamal and other US political prisoners, as well as supporting anti-war work that the US promoted overtly or covertly in Central America, Iraq, and after 2001 in Afghanistan and Iraq. I would occasionally see US Christians in these movements, but not often and rarely in their forefront. Certainly I could not see that the discourse holding the movements together was being vigorously affirmed by Christian faith-language.

      Because of this I found myself asking, “How could this be? The founding figure of Christianity, Jesus of Nazareth met a political death amid an imperial regime in Pax Romana. Why are there not followers of that Jesus to the fore now with a language of critique, resistance and liberation in Pax America today?” In spite of relishing connections to a few key Christian leaders and movement activists, I asked myself this question often during movement work.

      The easy explanation I could offer myself was that the relevance of an imperially-executed, tortured and “lynched” Jesus was left behind with the rise of an imperial Constantinian Christianity and the different forms of Christian imperialism of later centuries. Christianity quickly became a system of doctrine that often was deployed to legitimize crusades, empires and colonization in the name of Christianizing “civilization.” This long, post-fourth century Christianity hid, and often crushed, a vital story of Jesus-movements that sought to resist and challenge imperial formations. In scholarship, the field of “empire critical studies” was just coming to my attention in the early 1990s also.

      The 2001 book, then, was my attempt to deploy a language from the pre-Constantinian, sometimes “counter-imperial” traditions in order to provide contemporary Jesus-followers a discourse for movement work. There was, then, a practical end to the book’s writing. My task was not to “missionize” the movement of very diverse groups and people, but to motivate Jesus-followers to see movement work against imperial designs as integral to its core meanings of faith in Jesus of Nazareth. This meant developing a logic of faith that stayed closer to the ground, to worlds of politics and history, not taking flight into the scenarios of a God sending a savior/son figure to rescue humanity in general by dying on the cross. Centuries of Christianity had uprooted the cross from its political history, away from its pertinence to an imperial milieu. It had been made into a general message about sin and salvation that rarely, if ever, touched on the comprehensive and deadly politics of empire in Jesus’ time or our own. As political prisoner and revolutionary journalist Abu-Jamal put it in one of his meditations in Death Blossoms (page 39), isn’t it odd “that the majority of [Christianity’s] adherents strenuously support the State’s execution of thousands of imprisoned citizens” and still “claim to be followers of the fettered, spat-upon, naked God?” (discussed in EG, xxiii-iv).

      Thus, a faith language was needed, practically, so that Jesus-followers would understand going up against empire as, in fact, a way of following Jesus. Hence I sought to unpack the “way of the cross” I saw in the gospel narratives in order to promote participation in contemporary political movements against police violence, mass incarceration and the US killing state (EG, Part II).

      A second reason may be still more important, even undergirding the first reason with a perhaps deeper pragmatic concern. This concern begins with the claim that in the United States, in spite of its tremendous religious diversity and the spreading of the “Nones” and “Dones,” Christianity remains as Judith Butler book it “the legitimate religion.” By this she means that even for secular publics Christianity still holds a status that sets “the cultural preconditions of the public.” It provides a pervasive structure of feeling establishing “whose symbols circulate freely within the public” and whose by contrast are assumed “to threaten the foundation of secular life . . . considered ostentatious or threatening to democracy itself” (Butler, Parting Ways, 115).

      In other words, drawing from Marxist language Christian faith and theology exercise a strong ideological function in US society. At this ideological level that reinforces imperial and repressive political relations, “Christianity is there.” It is powerful. Eighty-one percent of white evangelical Christians voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential elections. Even though white evangelicals are only 26% of the electorate, 81 percent of them voted for Trump and that high percentage yielded nearly 65% of Trump’s total predominantly white voting bloc. Even voters who voted against Trump did so often from motivations linked to other modes of Christian faith.

      My point here is that Christianity’s persistence as powerful public phenomenon in the US makes contesting for its meanings a battle worth having. How Jesus is understood as a challenge to empire, and what a following of him in that regard might mean, partly shapes the way politics and culture develop in the USA. All of us, whether Christian or not have a stake in whether or not the powerful group of US Christians will ever find their way toward a counter-imperial faith. Who then does this benefit? Conceivably any and all who care about liberation from today’s structural violence. Who does it exclude? Only those who insist on sitting in the seats of the few who dominate the many. They must take their seats among the many.

      Yes, it is possible to construct counter-imperial faith in a simplistic “binary” way. That indeed would be a problem. I criticized it as the logic of “revolutionary oppositionalism” (EG, 43-7).  One can, though, theorize the persistence and value of oppressor/oppressed distinctions while still honoring and theorizing complexity. Antonio Gramsci’s work is still exemplary here, stressing the way “consent” of the dominated, for example, is often one part of the hegemony maintained by dominator classes (see EG, 62, and Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (170-71, 182-83). To be sure, too, the capitalist and consumerist milieu will always try to tame any opposition that we formulate, even if we do this with complexity and nuance. Powerful systems will try and often succeed in repackaging and co-opting resistance for their own ends. But then, people of counter-imperial faith face the task of rising again to reforge the resistance.

      The example that Lopez portrayed from the film, Concrete, Steel and Paint was moving indeed. I do of course see it as “part of the counter-theatric” I was envisioning, testifying to the powers of the art form when catalyzed in a practical activity of this sort. I was not familiar with it so am grateful to her for lifting it up. What I especially like about this example is that it shows the violated and violators working through the adversarial tensions between them, and the art project, evidently, being a powerful if slow way of working through. I believe this is the kind of restorative justice work, addressing issues of shame and guilt that Michelle Alexander was pressing to see more refereinced in my work. I thus appreciate this film reference.

      Obviously, the other “part(s) of the counter-theatric” that are not at play in the film example are those parts that are necessary for mobilizing our adversarial politics vis-à-vis the US killing state, a state that incarcerates many for crimes they have not committed, or mainly because of economic dispossession and political repression involving dynamics of white racism and gender/sexuality. Most of the examples of creative drama and the arts I referenced were deployed for this scene of conflict and adversity.

      It remains only to say that I am deeply in debt to Lopez for her further reflections on the usefulness of the Pauline imagination – or creative uses made of Pauline texts – for justice concerns of many sorts. I especially appreciated her admonition “not to just dismiss Paul as too much of a jerk.” I greeted this with a smile, since at times I am myself so tempted in spite of my use of him. It is understatement to say that Paul remains scripture for so many Christians. He thus cannot be ignored.

      Morevover as Lopez so well summarizes, there is a “philosophical Paul” that is also a “political Paul,” both being discussed in political philosophy in fresh ways. These can often fruitfully be thought in juxtaposition to the “Christian Paul” that theologians discuss. All of these provide conceptual and hermeneutical retrievals that we will want to consider when reading Pauline materials in our current age (philosopher Agamben did make a brief appearance in The Executed God’s treatment of Paul, in a footnote (238n110). Both Agamben and Badiou receive more attention in my book The Theological and the Political: On the Weight of the World (xii, 10-11, 20-22, 29-30), . Agamben’s reflections on the Messianic in Paul are challenging, and Alain Badiou’s affirmation of Paul’s “militant subjectivity” which he affirms while “caring nothing for Paul’s gospel” are intriguing. Using the writings by both Agamben and Badiou in my doctoral seminars has made for some interesting – if often tumultuous – conversations in a theological seminary. Lopez has suggested ways forward for any of us who take up such conversations and I am grateful for her reflections on the way forward for reworking Pauline imagination.

      In the meantime, in addition to thanking Lopez for her work again, I simply end by posing for future conversation a question about a most interesting move that Agamben makes in The Time that Remains: A Commentary on the Letters to the Romans (Trans. Patricia Dailey, Stanford University Press, 2005). He writes “It is as if, for Paul, there is no space between Jesus and Messiah for the copulative ‘is’; I Corinthians 2:2 is typical: ‘For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Messiah’.” (127). I ask, as one who in my book was imaginatively retrieving notions of a political crucifixion, is there a reason – textually or due to Agamben’s own literary imagination – that he leaves off the last phrase of that quoted verse,
      “. . . and him crucified?”

Joerg Rieger

Response

On Solidarity in Lockdown America

Complexity is one of the mantras of our time. Academics tend to embrace it because they are concerned that easy answers fail to do justice to the diversity manifest in the world. Liberals embrace it because they are concerned with the kind of black-and-white thinking that is a trademark of conservative discourse. Even people of faith sometimes embrace notions of complexity because they feel they should be “all things to all people” (1 Cor 9:21). Much could be said about the value of complexity and the need for complex thinking, but certain realities of our times provide other perspectives.

What is now called “Lockdown America” presents one of these perspectives. The walls of our exponentially growing number of prisons provide clear divides between inside and outside, jailed and unjailed. This does not mean that all unjailed are free, but it reminds us of the predicament of the growing number of those who find themselves incarcerated. A great deal of research has been done on that predicament, and Mark Tailor’s book The Executed God: The Way of the Cross in Lockdown America (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015; 2nd revised and expanded ed.), has made substantial contributions, beginning with its first publication in 2001 to its substantially revised and expanded version in 2015.

There is growing awareness of the fact that the number of prisons and of inmates has increased tremendously over the past several decades, although the sheer numbers are still stunning: between 1970 and 2015, the number of US prisons and the corresponding populations have grown by 700 percent and the number of people imprisoned is now between 2.2 and 2.3 million people. No other country confines a larger percentage of its citizens. In addition, over 60 percent of those in US prisons are members of racial and ethnic minority groups, 40 percent are African American and 19 percent Latinos (69, 91).

In light of those realities, the truisms that we are all free and unfree, oppressors and oppressed, victims and victimizers, and so on, will have to be rethought. What has to be rethought also are notions of solidarity, and here is where Taylor’s book makes some important contributions but also leaves a good deal of room for further work to be done.

What Are We Up Against?

Several factors have contributed to this enormous growth of what some have called the prison-industrial complex. As with many other developments, the interests of big business are a major factor. In 1999, the cost of maintaining prisons was between $20 and $35 billion a year; in 2012, the cost had risen to over $60 billion. Already in 1999 the prison industry employed more full-time workers than any Fortune 500 company, with the exception of General Motors (74). As prisons have turned into business opportunities, a growing number of prisons are now managed by private corporations, which are actively promoting the growth of the prison industry in other countries, including Western Europe (75).

Another factor of the growth of prison populations has to do with the need to control growing parts of the population that are considered “surplus” in neoliberal capitalism. As Taylor notes, “our present system of punishment” is “related to the production of economic wealth in the recent history of the United States” (147). What needs to be controlled here are possible reactions to the growing divide of wealth both in the United States and globally, keeping in mind that in the last two decades of the twentieth century wage inequality grew more in the United States than in any other country (160). In the contemporary United States today, more than one-third of the population lives in poverty or near-poverty (161).

Order is maintained by increased imprisonment of people who would be disillusioned, either by the lack of jobs that is amplified by factors like race and ethnicity, or (a factor not discussed by Taylor) by the lack of decent jobs and the opportunity to move up the ladder of success. Add to that the fact (also not discussed by Taylor) that prison populations provide extremely cheap labor, and the interest of capitalism in the building up of prisons becomes even clearer.

In his descriptions of Lockdown America, Taylor notes several times that we find ourselves in a situation where the binaries of oppressors and oppressed are not as outdated as the advocates of complexity continue to maintain.1 While in this book Taylor is in conversation with many projects and authors, it is surprising that he makes no mention of the growing body of work done on class and religion. No doubt, this takes some nerve in the current academic, cultural, and religious climate, which explains why Taylor throughout the book makes an effort to argue with potential distractors.

Taylor’s solutions, which make up more than half of the book, are worth considering. What is surprising, however, are two major blind spots that ultimately jeopardize Taylor’s solutions. In the following, I will address them not in order to dwell on where Taylor might be going wrong but in the hope that these comments will allow us to move forward together.

What Does It All Mean?

The biggest surprise is that, despite an analysis that is aware of capitalist interests, in the second part of the book all efforts of resistance and rebellion are directed against the state. This is the first blind spot. While I do not doubt that Taylor is aware whose handmaiden the state is, this is rarely addressed in the second part, leaving the reader with the impression that if only we were able to defeat the repressive functions of the state, life would be better for all.

In other words, what is missing here is a sustained awareness that we cannot have a transformed political system without a transformed economic system. Even socialism, a term that pops up a few times, seems to be a matter of politics rather than economics for Taylor, something along the lines of “a decision of the public for a government whose primary concern would be the social well-being of all its citizens” (179).

This approach picks up on a popular American concern about governments that overstep their boundaries, which is significant, and there is no doubt in my mind that this needs to be developed in many of the directions that Taylor suggests. However, without a clearer understanding of how politics, state, and government are beholden to the economic powers that be, the project may fail to develop the reach it deserves. This failure has several dimensions.

While a theatrics of the cross and thus a politics of the cross is crucial, an economics of the cross would provide not merely an ally but a necessary component without which liberation is hard to imagine and without which an important aspect of the work of Jesus and Paul—traditions that are crucial to Taylor’s argument—goes missing. What is also missing in Taylor’s argument is a sense of how resistance in the broad realm of economics could be a crucial factor in the liberation process that he envisions: not surprisingly, the work of labor unions and many other grassroots organizations that deal with the particular matters of economics and labor that are fundamental to lockdown America is rarely mentioned.2

The second blind spot has to do with the role of those who are privileged to some degree but who do not belong to the 1 percent. Taylor states: “I include within the culture of the economic elite those other groups who live dependent upon, or in proximity to, this largely white overclass” (180). Unfortunately, this move is not argued and it is never again mentioned in a text that tends to repeat its key claims and statements often for emphasis.

One reason for including people who enjoy certain privileges with the ruling class (a term that may be more helpful than “overclass” because it describes the function of this class) might be that there is indeed a connection. The middle class, broadly conceived, often assumes that it has more in common with the ruling class than with any other class because it enjoys some privileges, like homeownership, reliable transportation, or retirement funds. In addition, academics, pastors, and artists (important groups that Taylor seeks to address) sometimes enjoy the patronage of donors from the ruling class.

What this approach overlooks, however, is the difference between the middle class and the ruling class, which is crucial for the production of solidarity, as we shall see. The most obvious of these differences, but also perhaps the more difficult one to see, has to do with power. The power of the middle class is rather limited: even a powerful pastor of a wealthy church is not in a position to say things that major donors would not want to hear, and many academics and artists are in similar positions even if they may have somewhat more leeway. The differences can be seen more easily in terms of income, as an upper-middle-class family earning $200,000 a year is still closer to the one earning $20,000 a year than the one earning $500,000 a year (a number where the 1 percent barely begins) or much more.

When compared to prison inmates, of course, even those earning $25,000 a year are still free. If our earlier analysis is correct, however, we must keep in mind that capitalism’s tireless efforts to increase its revenue and to control people also affects them. By extension, it also affects the middle class, whose reach is shrinking, with increasing uncertainty about jobs, retirement, health care, and the uncertain futures of both the younger and the older generations.

What to Do?

At this point in the argument it should be clear that we are up against a set of formidable problems. The reminder of the Paul of Ephesians sums it up in the language of an earlier time: “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 5:12). Politics, state, economics, culture, and even religion are working hand in hand to promote and build a status quo that renders millions of people dispensable and that destroys the lives of millions more, reaching all the way into the middle class.

As a result, the response to the problem needs to go just as deep. Including for instance religion in this argument is, thus, not just talking about a random component but about the fundamental question of what religion is and whether it will be part of the problem or of the solution. Taylor’s arguments along those lines are right on the money, pointing out the consequences for Christianity in particular: is it a way of life that is liberating, loving, and just—following Jesus and Paul—or is it condemned to remain an essential component of the status quo of lockdown America?

No one can go this alone, as Taylor notes frequently. This is an important reminder especially for people of the Christian persuasion, who have a history of trying to do just that. But this is also an important reminder for all other organizations, foremost for those who belong to what might be called the NGO-industrial complex and who are being seduced by the worlds of the media and the funders.

The crucial question, of course, is what brings and holds us together? Moral commitment alone will not do it, as Taylor notes, but his suggestion of “shared delight” (313) may not be quite strong enough either. I would argue that we also need to develop a sense of shared pressures and of a shared struggle that affects all of us. This is why a deeper analysis of economics, labor, and class is indispensable. When the proverbial 99 percent understand that they are not benefiting from the system as much as they tend to assume, even though some are better off than others, a new understanding of what brings us together emerges. This is what some of my coauthors and I have called “deep solidarity.”3 Note that at one point, Taylor talks about the need “to strike a deeper solidarity with politicized prisoners, because they challenge the carceral state and not just its prisons” (383, emphasis mine). This goes in the right direction, although I am not sure whether Taylor is considering the pressures that we share in common. Conversely, neglecting or even erasing the difference between the ruling class and the rest of us prevents deep solidarity.

This kind of solidarity does not require leveling or ignoring differences; to the contrary, it provides a framework in which we can put our differences to use constructively. And if Paul is right that “if one member suffers, all suffer together with it” (1 Cor 12:26), direction and insight for all is generated in places of suffering, particularly where the suffering is greatest. In lockdown America, prisoners are part of that.

It is only towards the very end of the book that Taylor develops some more sustained reflections on what might bring us together, producing what I am tempted to call “Derridean solidarity.” Walter Benjamin’s concept of the “great criminal” is also used in instructive fashion along these lines. While there is no room to comment further on these dynamics here, I would like to note that deeper reflections on both race and class might be required: One reason why Americans may ultimately not be able to identify with Mumia Abu-Jamal as much as Taylor hopes has to with deeply engrained racism, which blocks the two necessary elements of empathy for and fascination with the “great criminal.” Moreover, unless there is some minimal class consciousness, at least in the form of a rudimentary sense of not being a member of the ruling class, mistaken assumptions about class privilege will continue to block the path towards solidarity.

Conclusions

If readers come away from this conversation with a sense that it is time to take sides, Taylor’s work and my engagement of it have been worthwhile. In situations of great pressure and imbalance of power staying neutral is never an option. Even the state needs to learn how to take sides, and so do people of faith, as many of our traditions have modeled.

Moreover, if readers come away from this discussion with a sense that we are up against deeply structural problems, we have succeeded to some degree. However, this is the point where we need to do more work. Too many progressives these days agree on the structural nature of problems without developing deeper understandings of these structures: how exactly are racism, sexism, ableism, and ageism structural, for instance? What about class? Starting with the latter, condemning “avarice and greed” as Taylor does at one point (406) is not only insufficient, it is potentially misleading. The same would be true for an understanding of racism (which I do not believe Taylor ascribes to) that holds that it is merely a form of aggregated prejudice.

In sum, we need to continue to dig deeper in our investigations of the structures that hold in place the maladies of lockdown America and all the other evils that are destroying life on the planet today, both human and nonhuman. In the process, we need to initiate fresh conversations about the intersectionality of all of the factors involved in ways that are not merely additive. Conversations such as the ones that Taylor has started in this book have the potential to take us there part of the way. After all, the prison system, not unlike the system of labor, is a microcosm of intersectionality.


  1. It is interesting that he develops this insight in relation to military power and a brief mention of “a dominant class governed by corporate interest,” an observation that, unfortunately, does not play much of a role in the book (35, 164).

  2. When Taylor talks about coalitions that actually include labor, for instance in his discussion of Decarcerate-PA, labor is not even mentioned as a category in his classification of groups. This in spite of the fact that two of six reasons for “no more prisons” developed by D-PA explicitly mention work and labor (383–85). At one point, Taylor even mentions state violence against organized labor (“the other civil war,” Howard Zinn) without a word about corporations (407).

  3. See Joerg Rieger and Kwok-Pui lan, Occupy Religion: Theology of the Multitude (Harrisburg, PA: Rowman & Littlefield, 2012). Joerg Rieger and Rosemarie Henkel-Rieger, Unified We Are a Force: How Faith and Labor Can Overcome America’s Inequalities (St. Louis, MO: Chalice, 2016).

  • Mark Lewis Taylor

    Mark Lewis Taylor

    Reply

    Response to Rieger: “On Capital and the US State”

    I welcome especially Joerg Rieger’s recognition of a point I developed several times (258–59), i.e., that academics and others often fetishize “complexity,” thus glossing the brutal political oppositions worked by corporate elites and other repressive powers as just so many “simplistic binaries.” That he would affirm this is one sign of the great kinship I feel with him and his theological project. (Rieger’s books are often staples in my courses.)

    Rieger suggests I show two “blindspots” in EG. The first one he states in various ways: I am preoccupied with politics over economics, with resisting the state instead of “capitalist interests,” thus lacking “understanding of how politics, state and government are beholden to the economic power.” Rieger notes that I must be aware of “whose handmaiden the state is” (yes, answer: capital’s). He might also have cited the equally famous dictum from The Communist Manifesto (247) that “the executive of the modern State is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”

    I suggest that I am working more from a Marx who himself complicated this notion, explaining that the state at times gains some independence within capitalism, at times serving, at other times disrupting capitalist interests (The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 48–49). It is clear in my book, I think, that we cannot simply choose whether the state or capital is in ascendance, and hence whether one or the other warrants our greater resistance, especially in facing the US carceral state, lockdown America.

    In the important introduction to part 1 of EG (53–63) I clarified my understanding of “the state” in relation to both transnational capital and “lockdown America.” That clarification serves as the template for how the overall book and its analyses should be read. That introduction also indicates how other powers of domination are working in US state capitalism, powers that Rieger treats as the “intersectionality” of “racism, sexism, ableism and ageism.”

    Part 1’s introduction situates the US carceral state in the overlap of international and national spheres. Internationally, the US “nation-state” with its carceral powers is always dynamically related to powers of “a transnational corporate elite that structures the global, inter-state economic and political system” (57). Often I cite this as “neoliberalism,” following David Harvey’s discussion of “capitalist imperialism” (147–48).

    Nationally, the internal dynamics in the United States have to be understood in relation to this international interplay of state and capital. The international elite, while managing the world’s poor, also structure poverty and dispossession within the United States. I cited on this point the recent comprehensive work The Routledge Handbook of Poverty in the US (57). The carceral state is crucial here, not only orchestrating the transnationally-global and US-based corporate interests to one another, but also articulating these nationally with white racism, hegemonic nationalism, nationalist chauvinism (58–59). White racism and hegemonic masculinism are given their own subsequent treatment—yes, as related structural problems—in separate sections of the first chapter (89–101 and 101–10). Lockdown America thus is a dynamic amalgam of both state and capital, interacting within the United States and also transnationally.

    Yes, in the United States there is a “ruling class,” or “class rule” as I said at points. While I did speak of “class rule,” Rieger prefers “ruling class” over a term I used at other times, “overclass.” I like the latter term because it includes the notion of rule, ruling over, while also reminding of the “overseer,” a notion from the institution of slavery where slave-labor in the fields drove the world cotton industry so crucial to capitalism’s rise (152–53, 407).

    I do not see how capitalism is slighted in the book. In fact, in chapters 1 and 2 I even led with analyses of class dynamics in the carceral state (68–79 and 147–65), naming problems Rieger says I neglect, “unemployment” and “lack of decent jobs.” My extensively used notion of “surplus populations” is indebted to Marx’s notion of the unemployed and “the half-employed” in Marx’s Capital, vol. 1, on “the industrial reserve army.” These are, following Marx again “the lever of capitalist accumulation” (167–68). Then major sections in chapter 2 explicate the penal state managing surplus populations for economic powers (176–83), showing how the state serves international capitalist imperialism for a most “destructive synergy” of prison- and military-industrial complexes (183–94). In short, the book seeks precisely that “deeper analysis of economics, labor and class” that Rieger sees as “indispensable,” but I do so by explicating the deep and tangled matrix where capital and state (and other modes of domination) are at work. I don’t think that religion or theology can bracket out capital and economics for exclusive focus, least of all when analyzing the US carceral state.

    Perhaps, as Rieger suggests, the problem is more with my part 2. There I am retrieving and reconstructing gospels and Pauline letters for Christian resistance to the carceral state. I stress that part 2 depends upon part 1’s introduction and all chapters in part 1 that show the interplay of class and state. But even within part 2, I foreground dynamics of labor and wealth. Chapter 3 presents Jesus’ adversarial politics by interpreting the Galilean context of Jesus’ life and ministry, wherein Jesus is shown encountering the poor’s deprivation, dispossession from land and exploitation (209–11). In Paul’s letters I exposit an adversarial politics of Christian solidarity with the crucified Jesus who as crucified marks the space of the poor, as well as that of political rebels, the shamed, the terrorized. When I turn to Mark’s gospel as resource for adversarial politics I also position Jesus’ life and teachings as those of a prophetic Jew on Palestinian land who opposed a “temple state system’s” religious, political and economic exploitation. Chapter 4 focused “dramatic action” of Jesus’ life and teachings in the politically and economically stratified regions of the Galilee and Judea. These I presented as resources for actions amid today’s neoliberalism and its “free market” strategies of globalization (313–24). Chapters 5 and 6 build on Paul’s rechanneling flows of wealth in regions of Roman empire, directing them more horizontally between Christian communities and thus against the “vertical path of tribute extracted from poor laboring classes” (240–41). This qualifies it seems to me as part of what Rieger seeks, “an economics of the cross.” But recall such an economics cannot be divorced from resisting the politics of an imperial state. Moreover, the contemporary organizations I select as exemplary for a counter-theatric to state terror in part 2 are almost always those that challenge “carceral neoliberalism.” Examples would be the Mexico Solidarity Organization (self-avowedly “anti-capitalist,” 364) and CAAAV—Organizing Asian Communities in its focus on unfair labor conditions (367).

    Granted, I could have given more attention to labor unions and movements (although they are not completely absent)—and here is where we indeed could work together more. But the matters of economics, class, capitalism, labor are extensively treated in the book, central as they are to the carceral state.

    Rieger makes claims that there are a number of other issues missing in my book, which I guess I must contest. He says that I am “without a word on corporations” when referring to state violence against organized labor (407). But this obfuscates the fact that the whole context for this page is about the structural violence of “corporatization” that dispossesses the working poor and others, thus making them increasingly vulnerable to imprisonment and the death penalty (400–408). The section also relates the death penalty both to white racism and also to “class rule” (405). I also discuss corporations—as profiteers in private, state, federal and immigration prison facilities—all through chapter 1 on lockdown America and elsewhere in the book. Finally a brief note: my reference to “shared delight” in political struggle (313) hardly means I trust to that delight for forging solidarity, as will become evident below.

    The “second blind spot” emerges for Rieger with this particular sentence of mine (180): “I include within the culture of the economic elite those other groups who live dependent upon, or in proximity to, this largely white overclass.” Rieger’s worry is that I not only don’t argue the point well enough, but that my claim here also masks “the difference between the middle class and the ruling class” which is crucial for spawning “deep solidarity” between the middle and lower classes within the 99 percent. I would first respond by reminding that the context of this sentence was discussion of “carceral state terror” and of ways the culture of the economic elite overlaps with the carceral state (wherein both the politics of class and state interact dynamically). Given this interaction, members of any “culture of the economic elite” are not only those in the top 1 percent but also those outside the top 1 percent who are integral to the politics of state. Across earlier sections of the book (e.g., 34) I showed how dominate corporate classes often maintain rule by providing a larger matrix of social life for many others not in the tight 1 percent. Even individuals from exploited groups can access the benefits of privilege systems spawned by the ruling class. Especially those with higher incomes in white dominant institutions gain such access.

    I respond, second, by reminding us that the 99 percent includes upper income level earners who enjoy access to the 1 percent’s sphere of positive influence, not often available to “the lower 99%.” Those enjoying such access cannot easily claim solidarity with middle and lower classes. Especially the upper 6–8 percent—which to my knowledge begins at about the $200,000 income level—can participate in the culture of the economic elite without actually being the ruling 1 percent or less. It is thus difficult for these to claim shared vulnerability or “solidarity” with those making $20,000 (near the poverty level for a single-parent/two-child household) who often do not have access to the spin-off benefits of the 1 percent. True, in terms of income level, the $200,000 income earning may be, as Rieger says, “closer to the one earning $20,000 a year than to the one earning “$500,00 a year (a number where the 1 percent barely begins) or much more.” The trouble with this kind of economic “solidarity” within the 99 percent is that it ignores how the upper 6–8 percent often live off the fat of proximity to the 1 percent. I have in mind this group’s access to health insurance and pension plans, often depending on employers’ corporate investments in the stock market. There are also the benefits of dependency provided by the police (unless you are black and brown even in high income groups). The US military services the nation’s upper class and by extension many others outside the 1 percent. Especially white supremacism gives upper income level families special access to these advantages. Just because they are not in the 1 percent doesn’t meant they can claim solidarity with the larger groups of the poor in the 99 percent (unless they betray the kind of privilege the 1 percent often gives them).

    My book’s alternative way of going for a “deep solidarity” among class and other groups in today’s carceral state lies in the concluding section of chapter 1, “Lockdown America as Threat to All” (136–44). I detail there how many of us are joined together not just by economic vulnerability (shared distance from the 1 percent), but by the politics of state that guard the present stratification of wealth. I referred to our shared vulnerability to surveillance technology, to modes of disciplining our society from preschools to higher education, in the workplace, in governance over social mores about sexuality and marriage, in zoning laws, mass media corporatization—all of these permeated of course by an insidious white supremacy and masculinist hegemony (139). As I stressed, we are all—unless in the economic elite’s center of the 1 percent, often just a life-crisis away from dispossession. Our shared vulnerability, maybe our “deep solidarity,” requires thinking not only the politics of class, but the politics of the state that guard processes of class exploitation.

    • Joerg Rieger

      Joerg Rieger

      Reply

      Response to Taylor: Let’s Talk Solidarity!

      First, let me state how much I appreciate this opportunity to be in conversation with Mark Taylor, whose work I have appreciated beginning with his book Remembering Esperanza (1990). In my response to him, I would like to focus on our shared concern for solidarity.

      As Taylor’s response argues, it is necessary to keep together capitalism and the state. To be sure, I did not accuse him of failing to analyze the role of economics in Lockdown America. What I was arguing for, however, is for the further development of the difference that an awareness of the flow of power in capitalism can make in the struggle. Socialism, in this context, would mean not only alternative political arrangements but also alternative economic ones as well. In his response, Taylor points out how this is already part of his argument in his interpretation of the apostle Paul, and I appreciate the reminder.
      It is safe to assume that Taylor and I are agreed that political democracy and economic democracy need to go hand in hand. What I am concerned about, however, is that there is not yet a widespread understanding of this connection in the United States. While political democracy is commonly discussed, economic democracy is not. Discussions of social class, labor, and labor unions are not well established in the academy, particularly in theological and religious studies, and pushback is real. I would venture a guess that this is part of the reason that academics tend to overlook brutal oppositions and are attracted to complexity instead, a point on which Taylor and I strongly agree.

      My question is, therefore, what it might mean to give more space to such conversations, without neglecting the political realities. Part of the reason is also, as I have pointed out in my reflections, that the economic component is already an important part of the struggles as they are being waged on the ground (see, for instance, the Platform of the Black Lives Matter Movement). Taylor is generally aware of this (and I know he has his earned his stripes in matters of work and labor); the point of my argument is to push for more explicit reflections.

      As I have pointed out on numerous occasions, class is a matter of relationship rather than of mere stratification (see, for instance, Rieger, ed., Religion, Theology, and Class, 2013). This means that we need to develop greater clarity on all parties involved. More work has been done on one side of the spectrum than on the other. Taylor’s book is no exception. While he is clearer on how capitalism affects working people and the poor, there is not much reflection on how it affects the ruling class and, a key target of my argument, the middle class. In his response, Taylor clarifies some of this and adds some helpful reflections on the upper 6-8 percent of the population in the United States.

      His argument that the upper 6-8 percent are particularly beholden to the 1 percent (and benefit from them) is important, but it still does not address the rest of the middle class which, as I have argued repeatedly, does not have as much to gain from the status quo as it is led to believe. Recognizing this would lead to a deepening sense of solidarity with working people in general as well as to a renewed sense of agency, the two topics at the heart of my argument. This agency, to be sure, is both political and economic, hence the importance of organizing labor (which is, as I mentioned briefly, also one of the prime locations of intersectionality).

      Taylor is right, of course, that the upper 6-8 percent cannot easily claim “shared vulnerability” with those who are struggling. While there is some vulnerability (whatever resources this group enjoys are also quite finite, sometimes mere pay checks away from catastrophe), the bigger question is agency and whose power this group embodies. If it were understood that this power is not necessarily identical with the power of the 1 percent (or the 0.1 percent), different forms of solidarity and agency might emerge, at least in some cases. This leads to an important reversal that is counter to common conversations on minority and majority: in capitalism, the exploited are not the minority but the majority, which has tremendous implications for how we think about alternatives and resistance.

      It is now clearer why the racism on which much of Lockdown America is built is so important for maintaining dominant power. Racism in the United States blinds white people both to the fact of class divisions as well as to solidarity along the lines of class, and religion has too often only added to the confusion. My point is not that one needs to choose between political and economic action, as Taylor seems to interpret my reflections; my point is that a deeper awareness of class among those who belong to the working majority in the United States, including the middle class (99 percent of us have to work for a living), might lead us to the next steps in whatever we do—and even in whatever we believe, for God is somewhere in the struggle.

    • Mark Lewis Taylor

      Mark Lewis Taylor

      Reply

      Solidarity Among the 99%

      Rieger appropriately rallies us to “talk solidarity!” Indeed, we must. I will relish many future talks with him. Here I begin by stressing again the complexity of forging solidarity.

      It is not an easy task. Social media debates about “white and affluent allies” working with peoples of color in street actions remind us of just some of the ways solidarities often fail.

      Especially those of us in the 99% who are able to work in US universities will find solidarity with the whole 99% in the US to be no easy thing. As Rieger knows also, university worlds have often been places where progressives talk radical change, maybe theorize “liberation,” but fail in, and are hardly rewarded for, challenging the corporate powers that enable their lives in neoliberal universities. I treated this as “the dilemma of the entitled advocate” in an essay, Subalternity and Advocacy as Kairos for Theology” that appeared in a book edited by Rieger in 2003. But solidarity’s failure is not only “dilemma,” it is also a failure of courage by intellectuals not wanting, as Edward Said observed “. . . to appear too political; you are afraid of seeming too controversial; you want to keep a reputation for being balanced, objective, moderate . . . “(Said, Representations of the Intellectuals, 1994, page 143).

      Solidarity is so difficult a thing to forge not only because would-be advocates of solidarity share near routinized complicities in dominant systems, but also because it is also a genuinely difficult challenge to navigate the many and deep-running differences of social and political experience. I have always appreciated anthropologist Diane M. Nelson’s coining of the term “fluidarity” to mark her growing awareness of solidarity’s fraught terrain, especially as she interpreted her own research as an anthropologist, a white “Gringa” working alongside and amidst Guatemala’s Maya people in struggle. She realized a need “to escape the self-righteous binary of clean versus co-opted” (Nelson, Finger in the Wound, University of California Press, 1999, 73). “Solidarity,” as we activists often say, is an aligning of ourselves with those who go up “against the state.” But activists and the state are both changed if that struggle is really enjoined and if it is long-term. The “solid” lines between advocate and advocated, or supporter and supported easily become blurred. Eventually advocates face finding themselves sharing in a whole “wounded bodies politic” in which participants play many different often contradictory roles. Thus Nelson writes of solidarity become “fluidarity,” an experience in which – and here she deploys language from Diana Fuss’s book, Identity Papers – we must recognize “the sacrifices, reversals, and reparations involved in every imaginary identity formation” (Fuss, 7).

      So, with the above words I’ve drenched solidarity in a certain complexity! Have I made it too complex, in an obfuscating way? Where’s the radical activists’ leverage for revolutionary solidarity against the brutal and systemic domination(s) of our time?”

      It is precisely in answering such a question that the agreements and also the slight difference between Rieger and myself come clearer. We are agreed on the importance of theorizing and resisting both the US politics of class and the US politics of state, i.e. both economic exploitation and state repression. Perhaps the difference between us is that I do not see economic exploitation (the “class” issues) or state repression (the “political” issues) as simply in need of combining, as a type of “both/and” maneuver. Instead, I see the two as already bound together by a US imperial apparatus. It is this imperial apparatus that orchestrates insidious forms of economic exploitation with terrorizing state repression, often using both to buttress one another. Moreover, the US imperial apparatus orchestrates these through the various comings-and-goings of many peoples, to and from the theaters of war and war economies, a field of action and flow of peoples between the United States and countries across all continents.

      In such a context, the 99% in the US – “us who have to work for a living” writes Rieger –cannot only invoke a group solidarity of class. I have already pointed out that there are significant barriers posed by income levels’ and the different proximities they offer to the privileges of the largely white ruling class. There are also the barriers created by white supremacist and corporate elites’ “divide and conquer” strategies. These strategies continually pit different racialized and minoritized groups against one another and submit them, at different times and ways, to the ravages of war and economic misery.

      I suggest that if we are led toward a new “solidarity” it will be with movements among the 99% that expose and resist the U.S. imperial state apparatus that continually orchestrates economic exploitation with state repression. The importance of this apparatus explains why I placed my first discussion of “lockdown America” in an early chapter of The Executed God that focused on the the “US-led imperium.” This imperium, in turn, I set in the historical context of European modernity’s colonization, white supremacism and settler colonialism (EG 145-47) that routinely sacrificed bodies and expropriated lands en masse across nearly all the continents, taking land and resources, destroying indigenous peoples, and working enslaved African bodies for an economic empire ( “the empire of cotton”) that depended upon and expanded through the political “intimacies of four continents” (See Lisa Lowe, The Intimacies of Four Continents, Duke U.P. 2015, 20-39). This history of intertwining imperial violence is what has rooted, and still roots and holds together today’s economic exploitation and state repression through the US imperial apparatus.

      As just one sign of the extent and power of this apparatus today recall the five US military command centers for global military domination, the US “commanders-in-chief” (CINCs) who are, as former CIA historian Chalmers Johnson put it, “comparable to Roman proconsuls.” They often work “outside either the civilian or the military chains of command” (Johnson, Sorrows of Empire, 121, 123-24).

      The persistence of the US imperial as orchestrating power of economic exploitation and state repression is why I sought throughout my book to stress that mass incarceration (the “prison industrial complex”) will not be ended as long as we do not take on the US “military industrial complex” (183-92). Nor will police violence against black and brown bodies be ended without knowing how police actions are enabled by the US military. Recall city police forces’ Department of Defense-provided attire and equipment (EG 355-56) and the way police cooperate to enforce “(cr)immigration” law (356-69) through militarized I.C.E. personnel and continued killing of American Indians by police. Moreover, capital punishment as a judicial ritual of killing by the US government will not be ended until we challenge the US state’s continual founding of itself in global militarized violence (398-410).

      What we are up against, in short, is a “neoliberal capitalism,” which means not just the latest form of capitalism, nor just a new more intense “liberalism” after the “classic liberalism” of eighteenth century European modernity. We are up against, as Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval argue in The New Way of the World: On Neoliberal Society (Verso 2013, 61-4) a post-WWII form of global economic management and discipline, a new proactive and interventionist global state for a “new way of the world” that is maintained by an apparatus of ruthless imperial power. The US provides the bulk of militarized violence needed for maintaining this apparatus at home and abroad. We must think resistance and solidarity within but also outside the US national frame.

      This solidarity forged by challenging the US imperial apparatus that undergirds this neoliberal “way of the world” is a solidarity I think I share with Rieger. We can work further toward it in the coming days. In the meantime, allow me to conclude with final notes on the solidarity I revere as resource for revolutionary change.

      A counter-vailing solidarity – or resistant and revolutionary “fluidarity” – will be birthed by a remembering and lamenting-with-rage. It will be a mourning of all the world’s bodies taken from us by the US-led imperium. Concerning Christians, or Jesus-followers, the challenge is to remember the cross as a site where precisely counter-imperial resistance is suffered and resisted. To mourn the imperial dead today – from black, brown and red bodies in North America to those of all “the darker nations – is to declare one’s belonging to a Jesus of Nazareth who along with thousands more also knew imperial crucifixion under Roman empire.

      This radical and politically active lament and remembrance is already underway. We all sense it growing from today’s numerous and routine murders of black, brown, red youth – and often Asian and Latinx ones, too. On a more personal note, I might mention that I am not writing here and calling for some textbook lamentation and remembrance. I carry in me – even if only in the form of directly received testimonies – too many stories and accountings of US violence relayed to me at home and abroad. They form a kind of terrible and tormenting knowledge. As well as the bloody witness offered up by families of today’s US prisons and policing, I recall the senseless slaughter of the Vietnam dead. In the 1980s and 1990s I sat in place to hear stories from families of the slain and tortured in such sites as Peru, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Mexico and also in Palestine under illegal occupation and devastation – all of these dead ensnared in the brutal imperial interventions of the US killing state. Then add Iraq sanctions policies of the 1990s, the bombing and invasions of Panama (1989), Afghanistan (2001), of Iraq (2003), of Libya (2011), of Syria, of . . . – what’s next? Well . . . we’re back to “terrible and tormenting knowledge.”

      The cross intersects the grief and rage of those carrying remembrance of such terrible knowledge, a “haunting” we often say. In a more activist vein, though, the cross is about re-membering as a historical and political force. It re-figures the “members,” we might say, the appendages and forms of bodies and peoples destroyed by the imperial state (recall too that the crucified were often also dismembered after crucifixion by the birds and beasts of prey, EG 20, 236, 379). The cross is a re-membering that also reconstitutes memory, a holding dear, often in creative lamentation and articulated rage the names and bodies taken from us. Recurrent re-membering is, as I showed, that which generates resilience and life for resistance and transformation (EG, 332-39). In counter-imperial faith and practice, our collective remembering catalyzes – or is catalyzed by – the “deeper power” residing in our bodies’ connections within and to the earth and its matrix. This remembering also invokes– or is invoked by – that “wider power” of the people which catches us up in coalescing blocs of social movements against imperial power.

      In short, I have been reconstructing the “religion of Jesus” as a disloyalty to US national and imperial violence in all its forms, a disloyalty necessary for forging a life and world alternative to the US imperial state.

      Which side are we on? Ultimately my book is a challenge to Christians, and to myself, about where our loyalties lie. Are we on the side of the crucified, executed and lynched Jesus, or on the side of the US imperial military and policing power? Many US Christians try to serve both. If, though, the finding of life comes through re-membering Jesus of Nazareth and all the dead of imperial violence, and if the imperial US killing state is still in 2017 the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” among “arch anti-revolutionaries” as Martin Luther King Jr. intoned 50 years ago this month at his 1967 Riverside Church address – then, Jesus followers in the United States today have a hard choice to make.

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