Spoken at Monday Means Community by Emergent Savannah
May 8, 2017
The question Emergent Savannah is asking tonight is: "What does Detroit have to do with Savannah?"
While with the people of the Boggs Center in Detroit I learned to see differently.
Sociologist Matt Birkhold, along with others, helped us to see that our great grandmother’s stories and landscape have direct ties with our current story and landscape. When we think even further back, we might see that our world’s colonialist history lands us in our modern day mess. The issues we face today are a direct product of Western imperialism and disconnection from the land, each other, and a sense of community.
Birkhold taught us that, thanks to the mindset of Western imperialists, we’ve come to believe the earth is something to be traversed and exploited, that people are workers to be moved and exploited, that women are second-class childbearers to be exploited. The by-products of this paradigm shift are racism, capitalism, classism, militarism, sexism and extreme materialism, the issues of today. Let me emphasize that all this began in the minds of people, their imaginations were primed to see land as property, people as slaves, and women as the “second sex” childbearers.
In other words, the vision for the so-called “New World” rests upon a certain dominating way of seeing. It starts in the colonialists minds, their Christian minds wedded to empire. When colonialists traveled the seven seas from Europe, they landed in what became known as the Americas, Africa and Asia with something in mind.
When the colonial ships from Europe came ashore, there were three types of people who got off the boats and met with the indigenous peoples: the merchants, the soldiers, and the missionaries.
The merchants, with profit on their minds, introduced alcohol and guns and the marketplace, a spot where people could be traded for guns and booze. Demand grew and supply of people grew. European territories grew as the slave trade grew. Markets grew and so did the mental game that made it all seem normal.
The military “kept the peace.” Any dissent towards this new way of seeing brought punishment and death. The militias ensured that there would be no rebellious thinking, both during colonization and industrialization.
The missionaries, armed with their bibles and sermons, wove the imaginative framework.
Imaginative frameworks powered the normalization of these systems. The Christian aesthetic and worldview became the lynchpin that held these systems in place. Preachers made it seem normal to enslave people. Preachers made it seem normal to own and steal land, in stead of seeing it as a family member and extension of ourselves. Preachers made is seem normal to subjugate women. Preachers made it seem normal to instill a sense of “hard work” onto the work force, and to treat efficiency and production as the highest good one can attain. Preachers called anyone who refused this way of thinking a “criminal.” Policing kept rebellion to a minimum and kept the trades booming. In other words, policing and preaching kept our minds from seeing a different reality.
Creating new wants and desires was important, too, and aesthetics played a huge role in that. The merchant kept creating desires for guns, steel and profit, among other things. We thought the lives of the rich and powerful were glamorous and worth imitating, thus perpetuating cycles in which the working poor’s substandard living conditions support luxurious lifestyles of those they idolize. If the wealthy, glamorous life is what’s desirable, the goal, then who would challenge the system?
It’s as that famous lines says: “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we [the Africans] had the land. They said ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land.”
Without that imaginative framework, that way of seeing, then it would’ve fallen flat. We often think of creativity as a positive force, or at least neutral. But I think we learned in Detroit that creativity mixed with greed, military power and merchant opportunism is a dangerous concoction.
Birkhold reminded us that before wage labor and big business, there was subsistence farming and nomadic living, both in Europe and in the so-called New World.
The common people knew how to make a life, providing for their own needs in smaller villages. But over the 400-year period of colonialism, slavery and then wage labor, the colonists created a reality where only specialists could provide for one’s needs. No longer did people barter amongst community members in “the commons.” Instead, they came to the marketplace with their hard-earned coins in exchange for food, shelter and entertainment.
Fast forward to post-WWII Detroit, and we see people working alienating jobs as a mass labor force without an alternative to provide for themselves, producing cars for big businesses. They became people completely dependent upon the robber-barons of Ford, GM, and Chrysler among others.
Nowadays, robots have taken the jobs and left the people in Detroit desolate. The city -- once the 6th largest in the U.S. -- is now a shell of its former industry, a canary in the industrial coal mine. A land of empty promises run dry. Detroit is a place where we can see how the mighty have fallen.
Those with guns and money and power played the long game, creating systems of dependence and segregation. Whites and blacks saw the other as enemy, rich and poor saw each other as the enemy, North and South saw each other as enemy, men and women saw each other as necessary enemy, and so on. As long as there are enemies in the world, there could be no collaboration outside of the marketplace, the simple exchange of goods and services.
That’s what the robber-barons wanted, a system in which the only interaction between people was that which was necessary to feed the economic machine. No collaboration meant no sharing of ideas, no envisioning an alternate world, and -- most importantly -- no rebellion or revolution.
New opportunity blossoms as the remnant of citizens, activists, churches and nonprofit-workers try to create a “new society within the shell of the old.” The Boggs Center and their friends try to recreate humanity from the ground up, attempting to spark new imagination through simple acts of love, imagination and community. They try to turn the mind's’ eye away from industrialism, policing, classism, racism, sexism, and away from the normalization of wage labor. “A job ain’t the answer” said Jimmy Boggs. Grace Lee Boggs said: “To make a revolution, people must not only struggle against existing institutions. They must make a philosophical/spiritual leap and become more ‘human’ human beings. In order to change/transform the world, they must change/transform themselves.”
She said, “People are aware that they cannot continue in the same old way but are immobilized because they cannot imagine an alternative. We need a vision that recognizes that we are at one of the great turning points in human history when the survival of our planet and the restoration of our humanity require a great sea change in our ecological, economic, political, and spiritual values.”
In the end, sounding like a preacher herself, Boggs said, “These are the times to grow our souls. Each of us is called upon to embrace the conviction that despite the powers and principalities bent on commodifying all our human relationships, we have the power within us to create the world anew.”
We, in Savannah, need to play the long game, too.
As Vincent Harding wrote and Martin Luther King, Jr. preached: “We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
Our ancestors created not only systems of oppression, but they created a way of thinking, a way of seeing the world with walls, a world with segregation, violence, enslavement, alienation from the land, and wage labor. They used the popular Christian narrative, aesthetic (art, music, preaching, poetry and language) to create a different worldview, a worldview based on dominance, industry, and alienation from the earth and each other. And I believe that, since the church helped create this mess, it’s the responsibility of the church, alongside others, to reverse it. Aesthetics, the arts, can transform minds and therefore the world, in the long run.
Dr. Willie Jennings’ lecture from his spring 2015 class: “The Christian Imagination and the Formation of the Racial World," cf. The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race by Willie Jennings.
Rolf Hochhuth, in his controversial The Deputy, a Christian tragedy (1964)