Sanctified Imagination: Part 4 – Imagination as Resistance

In the last post in this series on Sanctified Imagination, I shared the story of how a sanctified imagination allowed an old friend of mine to see a different story for herself than the one she had been taught and had been living out, a new story which allowed her to receive the grace of God and move on with her life. In this way imagination can be an act of resistance. This is the theme I’d like to explore more thoroughly today.

Imagination, at its most powerful, is an act of resistance. It looks into the dark abyss of what is and says, “Things can be different.” On this point, Wilkie Au and Noreen Cannon Au have written,

When an attitude of ‘that’s the way things are’ dominates our consciousness, we can find ourselves stuck in painful and unsatisfying situations. Apathy results from feeling that nothing in our situation can be changed …. [A]n impoverished imagination leaves us stranded and stuck. (The Discerning Heart, 93)

Jean-Paul Sartre — hardly a ray of philosophical sunshine — agreed: “It is on the day that we can conceive of a different state affairs that a new light falls on our troubles and our suffering and that we decide that they are unbearable” (Being and Nothingness).

This power of imagination to resist and oppose the status quo has been embraced nowhere more than it has in Black Christianity. Here, imagination comes out of the mystical margins of the Western Church and into the light as a centerpiece of Black hermeneutics, theology, and preaching. A very brief survey of diverse voices within Black theology produces the following statements about the importance of imagination:

  • “Imagination helps us to see and to say what often lies dormant within us;” and “it is coauthor … It creates and calls forth” (Dr. Cleophus LaRue, I Believe I’ll Testify, 72f)
  • The sanctified imagination is “the fertile creative space where the preacher-interpreter enters the text…”(Dr. Wilda C. Gafney, Womanist Midrash, 3).
  • Imagination is the place where “God’s living solidarity can transform ugliness … into beauty, into God’s liberating presence” (Dr. James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree).

In all of these voices we see the centering of the imagination in a faithful life, and specifically a faithful life lived in the midst of distress and oppression. This theme came home over and over again to me in my posts on Black theology this Spring: the persistence of the imagination of the Black community and its stubborn refusal to stop imagining alternative ways of thinking and being in the world, and better futures.

The most famous example of this is Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. This is deservedly one of the best known pieces of oratory in the world. And while it has been sadly whitewashed in popular media, it is still worth hearing:

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” […]

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”

Note how the use of imagination as resistance is not just subtext here, but is overt. “Let us not wallow in despair,” but let us dream instead. Drawing on the powerful language of the prophets, Dr. King dreams of a future where his country would live up to its stated values of equality and justice.

Decades later, Dr. James H. Cone wrote in his seminal The Cross and the Lynching Tree of “the powerful imagination of faith” being the place where the cross of Jesus and the lynching tree can both be transformed “into beauty, into God’s liberating presence.” This requires  imagination simply because those places of state- and church-sponsored violence are so ugly and terrifying. It takes imagination to see them as places of God’s solidarity with the oppressed instead of as places of divine abandonment.

For both of these men, imagination was the antidote for despair. If they simply looked at the history of their people or their present circumstances, there would be no reason for hope. But they found their hope in imaginatively appropriating the stories of Scripture to frame their situation, and most importantly to offer a hope-filled vision of a better day.

This is by no means a new tactic. Imaginative recastings of Biblical narratives as a source of strength and resistance in the midst of oppression are an ancient tradition. They pick up on the tradition of Jewish apocalyptic, which became the dominant form of Jewish religious literature from the Hellenistic period through the Rome’s destruction of the Temple in 70AD, and remained part of Christian literary tradition for a few decades longer. This genre used vivid, sometimes shocking, imagery to remind the faithful that no matter how dire things seemed, God had not abandoned them, and there would be a day of justice. A major subset of apocalyptic writing picked up on the stories of biblical figures — a kind of biblical fan fiction — to root this message of resistance and hope in the deep resources of the Jewish tradition.

I don’t need to tell you that the world is not as it should be. If we were going to be ‘fundamentalist realists’ we would be left with little but Lamentation. If we are to have hope for the world or for ourselves, we need a sanctified imagination to give us a glimpse into the world as it could be. In the midst of a broken world, we need to dream. We dream and we imagine and we fantasize. And then we act, in whatever small way we can to live that dream into reality.

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