The COVID-19 pandemic is provoking more and more people to rethink their lives, vocations, and the underlying norms and structures of a healthy society. How might we explore these questions together—with vision and Christian hope?
Breaking Ground officially launched on Thursday evening, June 4 with a kick-off event at 7:00 p.m. featuring renowned philosopher Candace Vogler of the University of Chicago, Pancho Argüelles of the Living Hope Wheelchair Association, and writer and speaker Danté Stewart. Breaking Ground’s founder, Anne Snyder, moderated the event.
Anne Snyder: Good evening and welcome to Breaking Ground. I wish I could see all of you out there, not least in this moment of profound reckoning, grief, righteous anger, weariness, shock, conviction, fear, impatience, loss, and so many more emotions and head spaces all jostling in a big vat of a year we’ll probably just always remember as 2020. But we are separated by this screen and actually hidden from each other in all of our particularities. Different life experiences, cultural backgrounds, dispositions and personalities, callings, loyalties, geography, material wants and needs or a lack thereof, health conditions, wounds. The list goes on and on. It is precisely in this separated, multi-webbed chasm of at once wonderful difference and tragic fracture that I want to invite you to pause. To look with courage down into the very real rivets that exist between each of us, to try to notice and take stock of the weeds growing there, some of which are choking us, and to bend down, identify them, pluck them up, and toss them away. And then having done that, to look up at one another standing around the cleared space, able to till the soil and discuss and debate what we should plant and build. Hopefully together.
Breaking Ground and this very first event is first and foremost an act of hope. In the midst of all that has disrupted the world this year due to COVID-19 and in the midst of all that’s gathered steam in the wake of George Floyd’s death last week, much of it’s simply a mass exclamation point on a cancerous root of a lie that has spread for centuries, namely that one race is superior to another and that human value can somehow be measured along a manmade hierarchy. In the swirl of all of this, we are here to take stock, to try to see as clearly as we can, to learn from one another, to listen and to share, to stake a claim on the good and the true and the beautiful, and to try to build something different than what we’ve had yet together. A society that might order its loves a little differently than the consumeristic individualism so many of us are tired of. A society that understands fundamentally that not only does every person matter, which is actually a bit of a low bar, but that we need each other, each one of us, existentially.
The community is going to be the content over the next year, which is not to say we don’t hope to inspire top-notch ideas or show-stopping arguments. Quite the contrary. But I’ve come to believe that persons have to precede policies. Souls just have to precede dogma. Men and women, thinkers and doers, children, and all the things that hold us together peaceably don’t exist first as words on a page. They exist first in relation to one another. Person to person. I and thou. Here at Breaking Ground, we believe that the neighborly ground of reality is founded on the preceding biblical commandment, love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself. And that these two loves are mysteriously in a dance that gets better and richer the more you choose to submit to it.
Part of this dance we hope to illuminate in the year ahead through Breaking Ground’s content and events – much of it commissioned, some of it curated, and part of it, we simply just want to embody. This project has already been strengthened from the beginning by a collaborative spirit. My own Comment Magazine founded by Cardus, a Canadian think tank committed to sowing the conditions for a flourishing society illuminated by rigorous research and 2000 years of Christian social thought, is honored to be linking arms with the widely beloved Plough Quarterly of the Bruderhof and the intellectually robust Davenant Institute and now also nearly a dozen new affiliates whose names you’ll find on our site just launched an hour ago.
I am personally experiencing the joy of working with a new colleague, the brilliant and passionate Susannah Black, who keeps me on my toes and challenges my inchoate instincts, as well as Brian Brown of the Anselm Society. Heidi Deddens comes with me from Comment, our renaissance managing editor, and she has brought endless energy and detailed good cheer to the site we’ve unveiled just literally in the last hour. I want to thank all of them, and you’ll hear more from them directly in the future. We welcome more collaborators and affiliates, and we’ll be establishing a process in the next week that allows for regular communication and editorial input. The hope is to swell into a multi-part choir whose song may at times sound tense and discordant, especially as the church herself is no stranger to the fractures of our broader society, but at other times reconciled, I hope, into layered harmony – moving everyone watching to tears maybe, then to their feet, and then to walking and serving and building.
So, now, let me get to the real reason you’re here. Our starting community. Candace Vogler, Dante Stewart, and Pancho Arguellas are three very different people in some senses and did not know each other before a week ago. Candace comes to us from the philosophy department at the University of Chicago and is a renowned ethicist and committed teacher. Dante is a budding writer and speaker whose own intellectual and theological journey is a road punctuated by discernment, honesty, and courage. And Pancho is a friend whose work alongside men and women that have immigrated to the U.S. and experienced spinal cord injuries is daily, sensitive, spiritually alive, and committed to accompanying those who suffer often out of view. I’ve asked each of them to share of themselves in this brief hour and help define what is at stake as we navigate this unusually uncertain time of COVID-19, of the pain of this last week, so that Breaking Ground might begin from a place of realism, even if partial.
So, let’s begin. We’re going to have about a half hour of discussion, panelist to panelist, and then open this up to questions from the audience, which you can feel free to drop in the chat. Susannah will select a healthy sampling for me to ask them.
So, Pancho, Candace, and Dante, hi and thank you again for coming. On the one hand, this pandemic and then the events of the last 10 days suggest a country plunged into crisis. At the same time, it’s become increasingly clear that COVID-19 has revealed more than it’s catalyzed, as has the video capturing George Floyd’s death and the uprising and leadership choices since just in the last week. And so far as every crisis presents an opportunity, how would you articulate the opportunity in this one, layered and complicated though it is? What is the core nature of it? The hope of it, even? I’ll ask you, Candace, to begin.
Candace Vogler: Thank you, Anne, and thank you very much for inviting me to be part of your inaugural event. The thing that has been most striking to me about the protests, the peaceable and not so peaceable protests, over the past several days has been that it’s allowed us to open up discussion of common good and egalitarianism in a way I don’t remember ever happening before. I think that, in my community at least, people have been willing to treat occasional sporadic violence, some damage to some shops, and some broken windows as a distraction from an actually shared and emerging and newly-articulated commitment to a broad understanding of justice and civil rights. I’ve never seen anything like that. It looks to me like there is such broadly based willingness to open a discussion about the place of race in the United States at least, and not just in the United States. I mean, Matt Hancock ended his COVID-19 update in the UK with the words, “black lives matter.” We haven’t paid sufficiently close attention to that after revealing the incredible statistics on coronavirus infections and mortality in the UK, which, like here, show a racial divide right at the heart of the pandemic as it’s been experienced there.
To be able to use these terrible scenes of violence and injustice as a way of opening a broad discussion about systematic racialized injustice is incredibly powerful. And the fact that there’s a core understanding that we have to be about a common good that actually can be shared across very many differences and across political parties and across other things… It’s like the first really powerful and self-consciously collective moment I’ve seen since the lockdown started a number of weeks ago. I mean, sporadic help, sporadic checking in, sporadic attempts to be with neighbors as best we can with physical distancing – to not let physical distancing mean social distancing – I’ve seen that. But to actually see this groundswell of feeling not just here but in places like Berlin and London and Paris and Australia and New Zealand, where people are willing to take up the awful intolerable treatment of black people… I mean, the police brutality towards black people in the United States as an occasion to bring it to their places and to open up discussions about the shape those challenges take in their places… That’s unbelievable. It allows for a discussion of common good that I would not have anticipated.
The fact that there’s a core understanding that we have to be about a common good that actually can be shared across very many differences and across political parties and across other things… It’s like the first really powerful and self-consciously collective moment I’ve seen since the lockdown started a number of weeks ago.
I think even when people have dramatically different takes on what’s occurring, what you hear is very different understandings of the goods that are at stake at this particular moment. And the fact that even the harsh, critical, awful ones calling for law and order are at least trying to see a social good somewhere comes closer to producing the possibility of common ground than I’ve seen in a very long time. So, I’m actually very hopeful that this hideous sin at the core of culture in this part of the world at least and many parts of the world could actually be articulated and produce the possibility of building a sustainable and sustaining community in a way that we haven’t seen.
Anne Snyder: Thank you, Candace. Dante, I’m going to hand you the mic.
Dante Stewart: In some sense, what opportunity do I see in this moment? I guess the most important thing is to navigate the social location that I’m coming from, being a black millennial in America. One of the things that I’m seeing right now that’s an opportunity is… I want to piggyback on Professor Vogler where she said in some sense, revolutionary spirit is becoming widespread. I think, as many people saw in the ’70s, there is this kind of practice of solidarity that is, in some sense, changing. I don’t even know in recent times if we’ve seen this sense of global solidarity on such a global scale. Now, in the past, many of the global protests were, in some sense, a kind of question of America and American dominance and the loss of a type of global community and multilateralism and a retreat to a certain type of politics that is nationalist in its orientation. Right now, what’s in some sense surprising is that it is not simply a protest of America, but it’s particularly a protest for black lives. Right now, there is a global proclamation that black lives matter.
As I think about this moment, particularly being a young black millennial, part of me would say, I don’t know if I’m necessarily hopeful in this moment. Or in some sense, I would reimagine the language of hope. Maybe for white people in this society, there is a hopeful nature of this moment because many white people in this society are getting it. Or they’re willing, in some sense, to use the language of Paul Tillich … they’re having the courage to be in this moment. To be and to risk. But being black in this moment makes me ask the question of, how does one become so hopeful in a society that’s so anti-black? And so, reimagining the language of hope in this moment in an anti-black world, in some sense, forces me to realize that if there is the language of hope for this moment, then the hope is not in the dream. The hope is in the struggle.
If there is the language of hope for this moment, then the hope is not in the dream. The hope is in the struggle.
As I think about the last three years of Martin Luther King’s life and ask where do we go from here, I think if hope is in the struggle, then the hope lies in this collective ethic of a revolution of value. In this American society, people are now realizing that black lives in America are worth loving and worth fighting for. But we’re also seeing how deeply steep this white supremacist understanding of logic, of value is. This distinction of value in a society where a white person could, in some sense, swing weapons at a cop, but a black person simply by being has the life sucked out of them in very public ways. And so, if I had to communicate the revolution that’s happening right now as any sense of hope, it’s the hope that the voice of black rage is finally moving into the mainstream rather than being seen as a radical alternative that must be suppressed.
Hope lies in this collective ethic of a revolution of value.
Particularly to the millennial and Gen Z reality, I am incredibly proud of this courageous nature to put one’s body, life, credibility, ideology, and one’s vision of what the future should look like down the line. As one of my friends would say, “We out here.” We young people are out here. We are on the streets. We’re in politics. We’re in religion. We’re writing. We are preaching. We are protesting. We’re doing everything in hopes of us having a better world than that came before us. To finally realize that love, power, and justice can be a shaping reality.
Anne Snyder: Thank you. Pancho, what do you think? Hope in the struggle?
Pancho Argüelles: Well, amen.
Anne Snyder: Look at Living Hope behind you.
Pancho Argüelles: Yes. Yes, those were powerful words from my brother and my sister there. Yeah, hope is a central element of the everyday work I do with the organization I work with, Living Hope Wheelchair Association, which is for immigrants who suffer spinal cord injuries and other kinds of illnesses. Most of them are undocumented immigrants who face daily these messages from our society that tells them that if your body is broken, if you cannot produce for me anymore, then your pain, your life is not really valuable to me.
In the larger immigrant community, this notion that a lot of what we were living and what was normal included elements that became more democratically distributed with the pandemic. That notion of being afraid of going out in the street, which is an experience that people of color – black people, Latinos, Native Americans – experience every day. If I go to the store and I find the wrong police, the one bad apple, I might not make it back, or I will be deported. This experience of greeting from afar, of knowing your mom or your grandma is dying and you cannot be there to hug her, is an everyday reality for immigrants and undocumented immigrants. Of refugees.
I think that parallel we’re experiencing is this collective vulnerability that can be a door to fear and to let our lesser brain take over. We know that our democracy has devolved into a kind of lesser brain democracy in the past few years. There is a science to activate that part of the brain that is all about fear and survival and to deactivate the parts that have to do with empathy, compassion, and rationality. We are risking our life as democracy, but even as a species worldwide, because we have let our democracies devolve into these kind of lesser brains based on fear.
So, hope is a powerful word that I get the privilege of learning and relearning every day with my compañeros and compañeras from Living Hope. They confirm something that I learned when I worked in Chiapas in southern Mexico with Guatemalan refugees who survived the genocide that the Guatemalan army supported by the US government conducted there in the ’70s and ’80s. Or in Nicaragua through the war, or in different moments when I have been facing these kind of disastrous conditions that our not natural but are common. They confirm the notion that hope is a function of memory. We can have hope because we can remember. We can put together those notions that help us get through the big trials and tribulations.
Hope is a function of memory. We have hope because we can remember.
One thing that we were saying in a recent conversation with immigrant rights organizations around the southern states was trying to make sense of this time and exploring possibilities for mutual aid. We need to take a deep breath and not be overwhelmed. We need to remember and connect to hope and to remember that it’s not our first apocalypse. It’s not the first time that a big event has revealed the truth of the system and also revealed the truth about us. Another way to put it is, this is not the first desert we crossed, but we have never crossed a desert quite like this. For immigrants, that’s actually literal. For the Central American migrants who cross Mexico and then walk through the desert, they know what it is to have God’s presence in your life holding your hand as you are navigating that line of life and death.
This is not the first desert we crossed, but we have never crossed a desert quite like this.
For me, a great opportunity in these times is for the communities of faith and societies in general to open ourselves to really be taught the truth of the gospel from those who have this powerful experience of God being close to them in their suffering. Black people who have been facing this brutal violence and the small and big ways of racism, those kids who are at the break in the police line and putting their bodies between them and the police… this social conversion, this opportunity to have a conversion that is humbling, that is transformative. It’s an opportunity for a way of healing that is centered on reconciliation and reparations of damage. Not this fluffy healing that politicians start throwing around after a mass shooting happens, but a healing that is centered on what I learned from Cassandra Thomas.
A great opportunity in these times is for the communities of faith and societies in general to open ourselves to really be taught the truth of the gospel from those who have this powerful experience of God being close to them in their suffering.
Healing is recovered in power and control. We as a society can try to recover power and control over those feelings of fear and distrust and rage and superiority. If this country is going to heal, it’s going to have to really get head on with white supremacy. How do you heal from white supremacy? From the dehumanization and alienation of the other? Of immigrants? Violence against women? That has to do with recovering power and control. Not just the oppressor on their capacity to do damage, but the people suffering and our capacity to uphold our dignity in community.
Anne Snyder: Any of you can answer this, but I’ll direct to you first, Pancho. And, in some ways, it’s embedded in what each of you has said. I’ve lived in DC off and on for the last 15 years, and it’s a city that has a lot of prognosticators and pundits and a lot of people diagnosing problems from on high. And so we have a lot of “isms” floating around. Fragmentation. Tribalism. These sort of words get thrown around – in my view, sometimes vaguely and often misused or not specified. I’m curious if you could locate one core idea that kind of lies at what we might even call the rot of our society at this moment, or the sickness or the malaise. How would you articulate that? I would say it’s probably a false idea that’s causing that, but I don’t want to put words in your mouth. I’m just curious how you would name that.
Pancho Argüelles: It’s all related. If I have to choose one, I would say white supremacy. The centrality of the value of white lives over other lives expressed, for instance, in the absurdity of counting Americans who died in Iraq. We know that when mainstream voices say American, they mean white. We count how many Americans die in Iraq, but we don’t count how many Iraqi civilians in the hundreds of thousands die. What would also apply here is this notion of what is valuable. What is urgent when showing up to an emergency room? But there are others that are based in our capacity to ignore things.
We know that when mainstream voices say American, they mean white.
Anne Snyder: Dante, coming off of that, another way I would articulate that is to sort of reference something you said. This revolution of value. Another way of articulating white supremacy is just this false notion, this hierarchy of human value that puts some on top of others. It has been, certainly in the U.S., from the beginning and I would argue, as Candace said, has happened in different ways all over the world and is a timeless human sin. Deep sin. And it’s had a particular vengeance here. Could you articulate a principle or even a poem or embodied action that you have seen or that has been a part of your own experience that could serve as a key to help a community of people strip away and repent some of these false ideas? Release some of their power? How would you describe what that key is?
Dante Stewart: I want to go back to what Pancho said. I think Brother Pancho is actually hitting on something that’s actually incredibly important as we even navigate this society. This kind of, as he says, this apocalyptic moment right now. This idea of what Eddie Glaude, who’s a professor of African American Studies in the religion department at Princeton University, would call the value gap in his book, Democracy in Black. What he says is, when many people try and understand this language of white supremacy, many of them think that it’s “you will not replace us” in Charlottesville or militia with AR-15s or et cetera, et cetera.. And, yes, that is indeed. That one could be white and male with an AR-15 and protest in very public ways not only in front of the law but actually against the law and not receive any type of repercussions, but be rewarded by embodying this narrative of difference. They’re rewarded as good people, but you’ve got protestors who are Black and, in some sense, protesting for their value in a very collective, progressive, democratic grassroots coalition of multi-racial people and they get called thugs.
And so right now, for me at least, we have to navigate this society in a public sphere asking this question. And I think this is a very important question for us to be navigating in public. Is America a country with racism or is America fundamentally a racist country? As I think about this kind of navigation of race in America and white supremacy and the value gap, we have to, I think, navigate that race in this world has been a defining and dehumanizing and destructive and deadly reality. And so as we think about this moment, is this moment simply saying you have individual acts of racism, of public bigotry, as many people have thought? Or is this society in its structures, in its policies, in its practices, what and whom it chooses to value – is it a fundamentally racist nation? I would say that it is. And so what we need right now is not simply this principle of a fetishized Martin Luther King many people are calling for … We need to come together and have unity [on this recognition]: America, we don’t have a reconciliation problem; America, we have a racist problem. A racist problem that has racial habits deeply embedded into our society that values white lives over black lives.
Is America a country with racism or is America fundamentally a racist country?
And so I would say for this moment that being black in an anti-black world today becomes the greatest moral, political, and social task … this kind of navigation of black rage becomes the greatest spiritual virtue and moral obligation and political practice. Because rage as it relates to us as black people in this society has oftentimes been seen as radical. And indeed it is. The calls for black rage and black power in this moment is opposite from a society that calls for white power and white supremacy. White power wants dominance. Black power and black rage want dignity. And so right now, rage for me has been a spiritual virtue that wakes us up out of our illusion that this society is the way that it should be. It wakes us up out of this illusion that black lives don’t matter.
America, we don’t have a reconciliation problem; America, we have a racist problem. A racist problem that has racial habits deeply embedded into our society that values white lives over black lives.
And so when we see the globe stand in solidarity in this moment saying that black lives matter, we can say that that is a public expression of a theological commitment and truth that black lives matter to God. And so as I think about this moment, as a writer and a preacher communicating the legitimacy of a black rage that wakes us up out of our illusion and communicates a vision of revolution of value, as Martin Luther King would say, from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society that, like I said earlier, believes Black people are worth fighting for and loving and that we as Black people are not second-class citizens. We don’t need a society where we are exploited or disrespected, but we need a society where black power becomes a living reality.
Many people have thought that revolution of value is a point. It is not a point. A revolution of value that is guided by a certain type of black rage communicated through a long history of the black freedom struggle as it was rooted in political philosophy, moral vision, and this kind of spiritual communication… This language, in some sense, bridges our ideals of what should be and a practice of a type of embodied hope of what we can become. And so now in this moment, one of the most important principles is asking ourselves how to respond to black rage in a society that justifies and rewards Black death.
White power wants dominance. Black power and black rage want dignity.
Anne Snyder: Thank you. Candace, you’ve thought a lot about virtue in your life and in your work. I’m curious if you could respond both to the broader context of how these virtues and behaviors get shaped and expressed right now. And so far as Breaking Ground, the hope is to try to re-narrate a better common life together. That can happen in sometimes very fractious and sometimes that can happen… There can be… “resolution” may be the wrong word, but a common life together ideally is deeply honest.
As a teacher in a classroom for many years now and as someone who’s been all over the world, who has studied philosophers throughout the Western canon and beyond, I’m curious if you could help us get a little more practical when it comes to what you see as the institutions, if we’re going to use that word, or forms and mediums. Right now, in the middle of COVID, we have two main ways, it seems like, of expressing ourselves. One is on streets and one is through a screen or through a media platform. Those are powerful, but there are also a lot of other ways. And so I’m just curious as you think about performative versus formative, some thoughts on models of engagement that you have found to be productive in a pluralistic, diverse society.
Candace Vogler: One of the biggest learning experiences for me was volunteering for very many years with an organization here on the south side of Chicago under the leadership of people who had come up through the Black Panther Party. One of the most important aspects of the experience was to be under the leadership of these people. Not to be going into the neighborhood with some idea that I knew what people needed, but going into the neighborhood with some sense of the kind of resources I might have that they might lack, and asking how those could be put to use in a powerful and helpful way.
Back when I started the work, one of the things that was clear was that almost every family had legal trouble. They all had relatives in prison. Often, they were people who shouldn’t have been in prison at all. I’m not in favor of putting [people] in cages generally. I had access to this amazing law library at the university, and I had access to these reference librarians. I could just walk in there and say, “Here’s a problem. How can you use the legal system to try to address it?” And I could use those resources that I had in virtue of being at the University of Chicago on the faculty. Similarly, University of Chicago letterhead. I could get people to actually meet with their constituents by writing letter after letter after letter on university letterhead. People like elected officials who were avoiding their own constituents were actually phoning me at my home and saying, “Who the hell are you writing to me like this?”
For me, as a white person trying to live in solidarity with other people, to have an opportunity to learn from those people is to have an opportunity to unlearn all of the habits – the deep, cultural, and other habits that are part of internalized whiteness and that make me ashamed of being white a lot of the time. I think that’s just empirical. If you look at what happens when we show up somewhere, terrible things happen when we show up someplace. People suffer. People are exploited. People die. That’s what it’s like when people who look like me show up someplace where there haven’t been people like me before, historically. To be aware and alive to that history, to realize that I can’t know what it’s like to be on the other side of that history… but I have opportunities these days to actually listen and learn from people who are on the other side, to take direction and to take leadership.
For me, as a white person trying to live in solidarity with other people, to have an opportunity to learn from those people is to have an opportunity to unlearn all of the habits – the deep, cultural, and other habits that are part of internalized whiteness and that make me ashamed of being white a lot of the time.
And so, for me, part of the real potency of black rage is the potency to both carry that experience and articulate that experience and help figure out how to combine resources in a way that does things large and small. I think white supremacy isn’t the name of a belief or an attitude. It’s the name of a whole cultural way of life. The problem is figuring out how to break that. For me, the thing that’s tremendously important is to realize that people who aren’t on the suffering edge of that don’t even recognize the kinds of things that they can simply take for granted. To learn how to dismantle some of the attitudes is to learn a different way of being with your neighbors. It’s to actually recognize who your neighbors are. Your neighbors are people who are bringing you a kind of experience that you don’t have, and a kind of pain and sometimes cynicism. I use the language of hope, but I’ve also read a lot of history. [I’ve read] enough to know that what you should experience and expect is another long, hard slog to just try to get very basic things in place. Something as basic as no more choke holds way before you get to maybe we shouldn’t be putting humans in cages.
White supremacy isn’t the name of a belief or an attitude. It’s the name of a whole cultural way of life. The problem is figuring out how to break that.
So, for me, as both a teacher and a learner, one of the most important things is to figure out how to make the space to hear other voices enough so that your own way of recognizing the patterns around you can actually be disrupted. You can learn to pay attention to different things. You can learn to take different things as the most important things around you and gradually, gradually, try to remove some of the stain that comes with having skin like ours.
To learn how to dismantle some of the attitudes is to learn a different way of being with your neighbors. It’s to actually recognize who your neighbors are. Your neighbors are people who are bringing you a kind of experience that you don’t have, and a kind of pain and sometimes cynicism.
Anne Snyder: Thank you. Dante and Pancho, I want to give you a chance to respond to that. Either of you.
For me, as both a teacher and a learner, one of the most important things is to figure out how to make the space to hear other voices enough so that your own way of recognizing the patterns around you can actually be disrupted. You can learn to pay attention to different things.
Pancho Argüelles: This is so good. I wish we could just camp here and stay for a while. I think we are living in a time of acknowledgment and recognition which are, in some ways, learning new ways to express what conversion is. Because I think that we got to this crisis in part because of our very limited democracy. A lot of people have never really had access to democracy, which is another pernicious idea that I think does a lot of damage to the United States. This idea of American exceptionalism and the fact that this real democracy, this shining city on a hill for some is the post-apocalyptic reality for Native Americans. We have to develop cognitive mechanisms to ignore all those things. The more privilege I have, the more I have to develop mechanisms to ignore reality. Like me as a male, I have to develop mechanisms to ignore the way patriarchy really serves to propel me and oppresses women around me. That’s essential to the system, and it’s really entrenched with white supremacy. The way that males, we also have privilege and oppress others. So, coming back to the spiritual thinking or looking into this time from a spiritual point of view, we are experiencing this collective vulnerability, which… I’m not a theologian, but… I’m an empirical theologian. This notion of kenosis, of self-emptying of our own will to become completely receptive to God’s divine will.
The more privilege I have, the more I have to develop mechanisms to ignore reality.
Kenosis has always fascinated me, and I really got into that after I was in Chiapas accompanying communities after the massacre of Acteal. I saw the grace of God coming through and accompanying the people who survived a massacre. I saw this brazen strength coming through that pain and suffering and, really, vulnerability that seemed to be a weakness and turned out to be the greatest of strength that connected faith with the power of the state. I think we are in one of those moments when this kenosis shows the presence of God among his/her people facing this brutal state. These scenes we have seen of people standing with someone pointing a gun to their faces.
There’s a mystery there that can speak to us. But for us, the challenge is, how are we going to let that push us out of the comfort zone and see what things we need to stop ignoring, what things we need to start acknowledging? There’s a big difference between knowing and acknowledging. We all know the numbers of racial inequality, social inequality, all these indicators of poverty, wealth accumulation. We know that. But we need to acknowledge that and then recognize, which means really change some connections in our brain to see things differently. From a theological point of view, I think that means also we heal and regain power and control so we can surrender ourselves to the will of God, which means do justice. Love your brother and sister. Recognize them as your brothers and sisters. As a surrender.
Anne Snyder: I’m going to jump off of that. Dante, are you leaning it? Did you want to say something?
Dante Stewart: Yeah, very quickly. I think for this moment that we’re in, as we’re talking about this society and societal challenges across various spheres, we have to reimagine how one communicates good news and the good life in this society. The questions that I have right now that I’m wrestling with is kind of like James Cohen. The Detroit uprising happened, and Cohen was teaching at this majority white university. He says his people was in the street. Just like James Baldwin. James Baldwin was in… I think was in France. And he was like, man, I couldn’t deal with what happening over in… I couldn’t deal with what was happening in America and stay comfortable in France. And so Cohen, like Baldwin, said… I have to get out of Babylon. That I must, in some sense, get out of Babylon, go on this courageous journey to venture back to my people, to bring the experience of love, power, justice, and liberation. And so Cohen said that he had to learn how to communicate a faith that was one, accountable to black people, and two, accountable to their struggle for black freedom and black dignity and hope in a society.
We have to reimagine how one communicates good news and the good life in this society.
And so we need to reimagine the language of faith that will really courageously face the question: How does one communicate good news when someone’s foot is on your neck and you publicly are executed by a certain type of state power? State-sanctioned crucifixion like that of Jesus? How does one communicate a certain type of good news in the face of black death? How does one communicate faith when you are faced with the tragic conditions of oppression? I resonate deeply with black liberation theology. Because black liberation theology has given me a way of imagining the world that black people are in the future and not simply extinguished by this society but we are, in some sense, the liberators that we have been looking for. That we are the perfectors of democracy in connection with progressive and democratic grassroots coalitions of many people from various backgrounds working for a more loving and just world. We have to reimagine how does one communicate good news and a good life.
How does one communicate a certain type of good news in the face of black death?
Anne Snyder: Thank you. I agree with you, Pancho. I wish this could keep going and going. But there’s a question here. Questions are coming in. Thank you all out there for asking all these questions. We’re not going to be able to get, unfortunately, to even probably a quarter of them. But this one from Andrew. He said, “Arguelles’ quotes defining healing as regaining power and control is provocative. In a society that conceives of power and control in manipulative and domineering terms, how do we build toward truly human understandings of power and control centered in love and authentic solidarity?” Pancho, that was addressed to you.
Pancho Argüelles: Yes, the notion of recovering power and control. We need to think about it from the perspective of acknowledging that there are millions of people over the world who don’t have power and control over their bodies. Women, immigrant workers, people with disabilities who are also pushed out of spaces where there’s accessibility and inclusion to them. But even that worker who has to work three jobs just to get enough money to eat and survive has no power and control over their own body. You just have sell your labor force. That’s another pernicious idea: this notion that markets are free. They are not free. They are organized around whoever has the most power.
So, I think that if we have a wide and deep lens that has to do with postcolonial or colonial realities that entire people lost power and control over their own bodies, their territories, their theologies, their land, their culture, their overall existence, when they were colonized and looted. We want to talk about looting? We need to ask the masters of looting. That’s real looting. That’s nothing, man. Anyway, I’m digressing. Recovering power and control is, again, at the very personal level, is how you relate to your own emotions, your body, your thoughts, your actions. The capacity to do what you want to and navigate your own feelings. There is a relational way that we build in community and from a faith perspective, it’s also how you recover power and control so that you surrender that your community and your God.
One last thing I want to say. I want to say his name. George Floyd. We should take the time to say all their names, but I know I didn’t say his name. George Floyd is one of the reasons why we feel raw enough to speak truth and maybe make people uncomfortable. Because we are pushed to this time when we just witnessed a public lynching in slow motion. We can say his name. Recovering power and control is to eliminate the possibility of institutions to cause that kind of pain.
Anne Snyder: Thank you. So, someone asks, “This meeting has understandably centered on one facet of societal illness that recent events have apocalypse – I don’t know if I’m saying that right – namely racial justice. What other lies or diseases have you seen unveiled in recent events, particularly through the pandemic’s onset?” I’ll open the floor to any one of you. Candace, go ahead. Why don’t you if you have a thought?
Candace Vogler: One of the things that’s become really clear is the kind of damage we’re doing to the environment. Just the sudden shift under lockdowns in air quality, in water quality, in the lives of nonhuman animals, these kinds of things. The rot that is part of our wanton destruction of the world that we all share is something that I think has also come to light in a completely different way. Through things like the return of birds, that sort of thing. And the bizarre aspects of a global world, which some people are treating as – look, we’re all in the same boat – but we’re obviously not all in the same boat. It’s just that we all happen to be vulnerable at the same time to this particular problem without a clear or obvious solution. How it plays out in different places is different, of course. Massively different. But the sort of lie that we can imagine that we’re separate and that national spaces can be distinctive and isolated spaces with something that goes everywhere is, I think, really powerful. And that, if we stopped, the earth can exhale for a few minutes… also huge.
Anne Snyder: Okay. This is a big one, and I’m looking at the clock here, so actually maybe a really nice one for you guys to think about as some conclusion, which I realize we’ve barely even put a dent in the pie here. But this person is asking, “How does one separate, discern between, and search for the true core of good at the heart of this movement from the violence and self-interest? Personally, I have noticed a great deal of fracturing. A sort of “us versus them” when it comes to recent events. One cannot understand the suffering of black people in this country if one is not black, just as non-Jews cannot completely understand the suffering of the Holocaust. But how does one make the most of this from a Christian lens? How can one affirm this movement from a Christian lens?”
Dante Stewart: I guess I can take a stab at that one.
Anne Snyder: Go for it.
Dante Stewart: This is kind of leaning into the previous question. We talked about racial injustice, racial terror, violence, and this white supremacy logic. I think this question actually leans into that. And I think that’s why it’s so important to communicate black people’s struggle in America as the guiding logic of our social criticism and analysis. Because as I think Kimberly Crenshaw would say, when one sees black women particularly and black people in general, one sees these various intersections of the diseased soil to which one has to live in. You see the environmental injustice that’s happening. You see the crisis of moral leadership. You see the crisis of public policy to take into account the various lives that black people live and creating a world in which, as Pancho would say, a healed world in which dignity, power, and agency in the political, social, religious, and cultural process becomes a guiding reality.
And so I think as we communicate in this moment a certain type of good, you have to analyze, in some sense, to communicate the story of the Bible in reflecting the story that we live today. As Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, would say – when we enter the Bible, we enter a story where those ancient peoples are much like us. In some sense, their stories are our stories. Our stories and theirs intersect in hopes that a better story may be told. And so as I think about communicating the good in this society, particularly as the questioner wondered, I look at stories of various injustice and the good is in the protest of evil. The protest of difference.
Oftentimes in society it has been white people’s privilege to be able to philosophize the good rather than pursue it. And so we need to even reimagine how one thinks about the good of being a philosophy to being actually a practice that one embodies in community. And so this is kind of leaning back to the language of reimagining faith. The good is, in some sense, wherever we protest death and are pursuing common life. That is the good. Wherever there is violence and we are pursuing healing and hope. That is the good. Wherever there is a narrative of difference and experience of terror and we bring truth to power, protesting that particular narrative and trying to produce a life together. That is the good. Even something as simple as being aware of the very struggles that we are facing in society is pursuit of the good. This might be dangerous language to speak as a theologian in some sense. A theological language. I don’t even know if the good is the most important question as much as the good life is the question that we should be pursuing. I don’t know if that helps. That’s just kind of my raw thoughts of thinking about that. The good not as a point to achieve, but a practice to actualize.
Anne Snyder: Well, there is a saying. The way, the truth, and the life and sometimes the way and the life get ignored. The embodied. Pancho or Candace?
Pancho Argüelles: I do want to say that we need to be very intentional with our questions. Because they all can be good questions, but I think at this point, there are questions that might be more urgent. There is no purity in any movement. There’s no purity. If we’re looking for purity, we’re going to sit back and wait for it. I think there is an urgency for solidarity. Messy, working together, stepping on each other’s toes, making us trip and fall, but working together. That’s at the center of accompaniment that I learned working in Chiapas, Nicaragua, Guatemala, taught by people who were risking their lives and some of whom actually gave their lives. Pastoral workers died during the repression in the ’80s. Señor Romero and many others who gave their lives not because it was clear. It wasn’t because it was clear. It was because what their God was demanding of them or us was working with the poor, the suffering, and learn and accompany them in that journey. Because there is an urgency in solidarity. Solidarity is always intentional. It’s never accidental. I might hurt and oppress somebody by accident, but I can only show solidarity with intentionality.
There is no purity in any movement. If we’re looking for purity, we’re going to sit back and wait for it. There is an urgency in solidarity: Messy, working together, stepping on each other’s toes, making us trip and fall, but working together. Solidarity is always intentional. It’s never accidental. I might hurt and oppress somebody by accident, but I can only show solidarity with intentionality.
For me, that will be the final thing. What are we healing from? From this alienation from our own humanity and from our own faith. The way we have allowed to separate our faith, the presence of God in our lives, from our political choices. From our actions. From our opinions on social media. We eliminate. We separate that. I think we’re healing a lot from that and connecting it to others and feel things more transformative than that solidarity. When we recognize the presence of God in history, in the actions and the ways of those who are suffering and are resisting with joy, with hope, with power, with rage, and with dignity.
What are we healing from? From this alienation, from our own humanity, and from our own faith. The way we have allowed to separate our faith and the presence of God in our lives from our political choices. From our actions. From our opinions on social media. …When we recognize the presence of God in history, in the actions and the ways of those who are suffering and are resisting with joy, with hope, with power, with rage, and with dignity.
Anne Snyder: Thank you. Candace? Somehow the lady went last on this one. Go ahead.
Candace Vogler: I just want to thank Pancho and Dante. That’s really, really helpful and powerful. I agree that the thing we can do is work in solidarity with one another. It’s messy and sloppy, but it’s intentional and it’s from God. God is in solidarity with all of us. If you want to walk with each other, you got a good model.
Anne Snyder: On that note, I just want to thank each of you, Pancho, Dante, and Candace, for helping me. I was writing many things down, actually, in an old devotional that happens to have a bunch of Bible verses in it. With just a million questions, really, more than anything that I really hope that this particular little platform has a chance to explore in ways like this, on the written page, and other ways. And hopefully eventually very much off the page. So, I just thank you for your presence, and we hope to see you again.
For all of you out there watching, obviously, this was very short to discuss a very raw current moment as well as the complexities and intricacies of this deeper sense that the world is very much shifting. We hope you’ll come back and check out Breaking Ground. We just launched an hour ago as I said. You can find us at www.breakinground.us, and I would just encourage each of you watching to check out Candace and Pancho’s and Dante’s work there and their bios there, which they’ll trace to the witness of their lives, writings, and organizations they serve.
Now, I am going to be a little bit maybe overly earnest. I just want to leave everyone watching with a passage from John O’Donohue, which has been sitting on my desk for some time, but it’s become very much alive in recent days. It just goes like this. “The Greeks believed that time had a secret structure. There was the moment of epiphany, when time suddenly opened and something was revealed in luminous clarity. There was the moment of krisis…” krisis, with a K, “…when time got entangled and directions became confused and contradictory. There was also the moment of kairos. This was the propitious moment. Time opened up in kindness and promise. All energies cohered to offer a fecund occasion of initiative, creativity, and promise. Part of the art of living wisely is to learn, to recognize, and attend to such profound openings in one’s life.” And the only thing I would add to that quote is in one’s society and times.
I hope that in this particularly wild moment of crisis that there might also be a chance of kairos. That moment in our own lives, in our relationships one to another, in our much broader systems and institutions and habits and cultural norms, as Candace in particular invoked, reckoning and reimagining and that you’ll come along with us at Breaking Ground to get ideas, to be encouraged, to be challenged and encounter people and ideas you might not have otherwise and to resource you and to resource all of us, really, to dig deep and imagine what could come next.
Our trust is that somehow with a bit of providence and a whole lot of collaborative magic that this unwieldy platform could cohere and covert us into living by a noticeably different narrative on the other side. A narrative founded on a better common life in real time, not just as an idea. And I guess I would just say that I hope and pray that God grants us each grace… each one of you watching the peace that surpasses understanding and the hope that God’s love still alive, moving through us, revealing, and renewing all things. Thank you very much and goodnight.
Candace Vogler is the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy and Professor in the College at the University of Chicago, and principal investigator on “Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life,” a project funded by the John Templeton Foundation. She has authored two books, John Stuart Mill’s Deliberative Landscape: An Essay in Moral Psychology (Routledge, 2001) and Reasonably Vicious (Harvard University Press, 2002), and essays in ethics, social and political philosophy, philosophy and literature, cinema, psychoanalysis, gender studies, sexuality studies, and other areas. Her research interests are in practical philosophy (particularly the strand of work in moral philosophy indebted to Elizabeth Anscombe), practical reason, Kant’s ethics, Marx, and neo-Aristotelian naturalism.
Danté Stewart is a writer and speaker whose writings have been featured in publications such as Christianity Today, Comment magazine, Sojourners, The Witness: A Black Christian Collective, and more. Danté received his B.A. in Sociology from Clemson University where he was also a student athlete. He is currently pursuing his Master of Divinity at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Danté and his wife Jasamine currently live in Augusta, Georgia, with their two children.
Francisco Argüelles Paz y Puente (a.k.a. Pancho) was born in Mexico City and has lived in the United States since 1997. For more than thirty years he has worked on human rights issues in Mexico, Central America, and the United States. He lives in Houston, Texas, with his wife, son, and daughter and serves as executive director of the Living Hope Wheelchair Association, a community-based organization of migrants with spinal cord injuries. Through PazyPuente, LLC, he provides training and consulting services to social and racial justice organizations across the country.