Practicality and imagination don’t have to be in opposition with one another

A dialogue about climate change

Christians have the opportunity to imagine a world that doesn’t seem possible, while also holding a body together to take practical steps toward that vision. It’s a challenge to do both of these things, but they are actually in harmony.

Last night during my cell meeting was an example. My friend Jeremy, a passive-housing architect (whose firm recently won an award), who says he is being discipled by the watershed, was the host of an Ask Me Anything. And so my cell, full of thirteen Zoom screens, was firing questions at him. He had a lot to say about how Jesus disciples us to care about creation, to love all of creation. He’s convinced that the way we’ve abused the land is not of God. And he was imagining a way for the world to live that was in harmony with creation, instead of in opposition to it. It was a beautiful way to describe what our life could be like.

Of course, his vision for the world required a sort of transformation that made it seem rather distant. The issue, though, is that our environmental catastrophe is much less distant than the required transformation is, and so we are stuck. We are faced with an urgent problem, more urgent than even this pandemic that again has us locked down, but the prophetic vision for a confrontation to it seems out of reach. And so we’re stuck in a difficult place. What practical steps can we take to fight a climate catastrophe, and how do we not allow our practicality to limit our imaginations. Jeremy’s vision for a carbon-neutral world isn’t just important because it helps slow down climate change, but rather because it helps us to live in harmony with one another and the earth. I think that’s what Christian stewardship of creation looks like.

I asked Jeremy what are the most practical things we can do about climate change today, as individuals and within the current political economy, despite his vision for the world. He spoke to a carbon tax and personal conservation (especially surrounding using automobiles and how we take care of our buildings). I appreciate the practical things that we can do to help the cause, because it seems like our heavenly aspirations are too unapproachable to be immediately useful. But, as Christians, we cannot lose heart for the grand vision that God has given the church. We can’t allow current political and circumstantial limitations limit our faith. But we also mustn’t let those practical limitations temper our faith either. We need to hold both in tension, both what’s practical in this environment, and the imagination that God has given us.

Imagining a world without police

The other night, we had a church-wide discussion about actions against police violence that three of our compassion teams were leading us in. When it comes to racialized police violence, most of us agree that it is reprehensible, and something needs to be done to stop it. The reason we agree that it’s wrong is because Jesus has provided a peaceful and loving vision for the world. Christians have been given an imagination for a world that allows for our communities to be kept safe without violence, without death, and without racism. Peacemaking Christians envision a world without violence, with their communities leading it by example.

Because we have this vision, it is not uncommon for some us to take up slogans about defunding the police, or abolishing the police. We can imagine a different world, and if there are some secular allies we can join to bring about that vision, many of us would gladly join them. I think it’s great to make these alliances and allow these radical voices room at the table. We shouldn’t stunt our imaginations because it seems like our radicality is too much to implement. In fact, if we did, I think a lot of Christian movements surrounding things like abolition, suffrage, and Civil Rights wouldn’t have been possible. Imagination is fuel for prophecy and action. Furthermore, if we really pray for the Father’s will to be done “on earth as it is in heaven,” than we need to imagine a world without racialized violence—and not just from police, from any group.

However, the fact is that building a movement to actually dismantle these oppressive systems is much easier said than done. Organizers and activists know that they need more than just the right imagination to accomplish their goals. They need to have prudence, shrewdness, and wisdom for us to take steps toward making our imaginations possible. That means we need to use the tools we have, with the people we have, to actually get something done. That means we probably will need to make compromises along the way, and use language that is appealing to our constituencies and to the public, even. And the fact is that often the language of radical ideologues just seems like too much for many people. We can shame people for their reticence, and though that might make us feel morally superior, I don’t think it does much in the way of combating racialized police brutality.

Holding the practical and the prophetic together

Even among communities of color, it doesn’t appear like “defunding the police” is very popular. That seems about right to me because, largely speaking, people don’t want a radical change. And so how we deal with their limitations even as we envision a way forward? Being gracious with people is essential, especially if they aren’t initiated in the Way of Jesus. For many people, the idea that we’ll have no more police or no more cars, for example, is terrifying. These things have become a part of our civilization in a way that makes removing them damaging to how our whole society functions. And to their credit, if we eliminated both of those institutions today, I’m not sure if our society would function tomorrow.

And so while we accommodate these practical matters, they can never dull our prophetic imagination. We must be able to do practical things to advance the cause of Christ, while also holding on to the eschatological hope that the God offers us through God’s revelation in the Bible.

The Bible writers give us very many examples of how Christian community can subvert the way of the world. The Church in Jerusalem shared all things in common, for example. Right before Jesus succumbs to state violence in his crucifixion, he warns Peter, who has his sword drawn, that “for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” The Psalmist describes a vision for trusting God and not in military might. Paul in Romans tells us to overcome evil with good. In Ephesians, Paul makes Jesus’ mission to preach peace manifest. He’ll go on to say our fight is against the powers and principalities of this world. The writer of Hebrews says that our peaceful holiness will let people know Jesus. All of these passages are speaking of a completely different way of doing this.

And so for us today, we need to allow these visions for the world and for the church to motivate our action. Let’s not be dismayed. Another world is possible, and the church can be an example of it. With that said, let’s be prudent about what is practical, as well as inclusive about how we form a body that is committed to this prophetic imagination.

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