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.
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↩
Terry Eagleton, Why Marx Was Right, 1.↩
Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press, 2012.↩
Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1969.↩
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.↩