“Breaking Free” Rev. Kristin Grassel Schmidt
When we think of imagination many of us think about the fun parts. The fun we’ve had as children at playtime. Imagining finally getting to do all of the things we miss most during the pandemic – that first hug, that first dinner out at a restaurant, that first pedicure. We might imagine what it would be like to win the lottery, where we would travel, paying off that student debt, never having to clean the house ever again. And here at church we do a lot of imagining the world we feel called to manifest, a world that doesn’t just work for the wealthy and the powerful but works for all people.
But imagination isn’t always a force for good. Some of us may spend too much time imagining things as we wish they were without taking action to help make them that way. Others might find it difficult to stop imagining things, troubling things, things we know probably won’t happen, and yet the thoughts still come. But sometimes it’s someone else’s ideas of who we are supposed to be that are the problem.
Many of us have our own stories of breaking free from the roles and ideals that society, families, first faiths might have assigned to us. Some among us have had to break free of other people’s ideas of what women should do and be in the world. Having to fight to get into majors like math and science, and then deal with professors asking why they weren’t at home making dinner for their husbands. Some among us have had to break free of other people’s ideas about gender, facing doctors who don’t understand, putting up with invasive questions about their bodies. And as we heard just moments ago in our reading, a great many people in this country have been harmed because of how the white imagination has defined who they are.
In her book Citizen: An American Lyric Claudia Rankine writes “because white men can’t/ police their imagination/ black men are dying.” In an interview with the Guardian in 2015 she said “When white men are shooting black people, some of it is malice and some an out-of-control image of blackness in their minds. Darren Wilson told the jury that he shot Michael Brown because he looked ‘like a demon’. And I don’t disbelieve it. Blackness in the white imagination has nothing to do with black people.”
You may be as familiar with the statistics as I am, but here they are anyway: according to a study done by Mapping Police Violence, black people were more than three times as likely to die from encounters with police than whites were in 2019. In the same year, 24% of all police killings were of black people, while black people make up only 13% of the national population. And according to the same study, 99% of all officers involved in police killings faced no criminal charges. And this happens not only because of white America’s image of blackness, but because of its image of whiteness.
It is this same image of whiteness, what whiteness is, what whiteness confers, that made it possible for former President Trump to incite an armed insurrection in the Capitol and not be removed from office. It is the same image of whiteness that allowed the largely white group of insurrectionists to leave the grounds of the Capitol of their own volition while far too many peaceful protestors have left that supposed temple to democracy in police vans and body bags.
From its formation, this country chose to privilege white wealthy men over and above everyone else. And while some laws and protections have changed, the white imagination that shaped the American government, systems, and institutions is still a powerful force. In the white imagination, freedom is quantitative, it is transactional – freedom for others must therefore mean less freedom for you. And the white imagination is manipulated in every single election in order to try and keep poor and working class people of all colors from uniting and finally breaking the power that monied interests have over our government.
The white imagination is a powerful force for harm, but it is not the only powerful sense of imagination. Our liberal religious movement is one of many, and has its own painful threads of history, but we share a powerful image of who and what our communities are called to be and do in the world. Our tradition is one that recognizes how precious freedom is, and that it is not meant to be hoarded but something that gets stronger and better as it is shared and spread and cracked wide open. We may not all imagine the details the same way, but our vision of a world community that works for all people, where every life truly matters, overlaps and intersects with the visions of many religious and secular movements and traditions. It is with these shared visions and imaginings we can work to break free from the hold white imagination has on us and on this country.
One of the most powerful ways we break free from other people’s images of who we are and should be is by re-imagining ourselves. And art, music, and other forms of expression are a huge part of what make that possible. In Art as Religious Studies, a book he co-edited, the late Rev. Dr. Doug Adams writes these words:
“For those living in oppressive situations, social justice means integration. The human imagination contributes to this personal integration through interiorization. To be imaginative means that we have the ability to respond to the reality around us. The visual arts are a way in which we can modify our world (with its oppressive structures) so that we can responsibly engage it. If the world of sinful structures dominates, we may be forced to come to a standstill.
Through the human imagination, art provides movement by generating a sense of being at home with ourselves, of being familiar with ourselves. The way we can be just to ourselves and just for others is by acquiring this sense of intimacy that allows us to move out of ourselves because we experience goodness in our inner selves. Such intimacy is possible in the imaginative life nurtured by the visual arts.” (p. 175-176)
Audre Lorde has also written about the importance of expression to growing our own imagined senses of self. In Poetry is Not a Luxury she writes “The white fathers told us, I think therefore I am; and the black mothers in each of us -the poet- whispers in our dreams, I feel therefore I can be free. Poetry coins the language to express and charter this revolutionary awareness and demand, the implementation of that freedom.”
In a world very much still structured according to the male imagination, the straight imagination, the cis imagination, the white imagination, it is a holy and a necessary task to reimagine who we are, to understand ourselves not in relationship to some dominant image of who we should be, but as we truly are.
And it is holy and necessary work to invite others into our imaginations, not as we’ve been told they are, but in the fullness of who they truly are. In a society that has told retail employees and restaurant waitstaff, teachers and medical professionals, elders and children that their lives don’t matter as much as other people’s right to make money or not wear a thin piece of cloth over their mouth and nose, it is sacred work to reimagine and reclaim our worth.
In a world that operates as if exactly the opposite is true, it is sacred to proclaim the truth through word and deed, song and visual art, that black lives and indigenous lives, trans lives and disabled lives and immigrant lives and gay lives matter. In a world so shaped by imaginations, in a world that treats so many people as nobodies, it is a holy thing to know that we are somebody, and so is everybody else. May it be so. Amen.