Watch Darnell L. Moore’s full lecture, Let’s Get Free: A Case for An Abolition Theology.
This page creates space for academics, clergy, and community members to engage with Moore’s lecture on Abolition Theology. Responses will be collected and listed below the forthcoming video. This collection of resources is maintained by the Center for the Study of Black Faith & Life.
Darnell L. Moore was the speaker for the 2019 C. Shelby Rooks Lecture. To submit a response for posting consideration, please contact Tyler Tully. Nyle Fort serves as the ongoing editor for this project.
“Our wildest and most liberative freedom dreams?” Darnell, you invite my own dreaming.
Mark Lewis Taylor
February 24, 2020
Part of me too has been writing and thinking from a “scene of” – well, “subjection” is not the right word. It is more an encasement within the white world. Any scene of my past is not on any continuum with yours. It is not analogous. My family story below shows no threats of racialized police violence or incarceration, nor the real terror white systems unleash and from which I am mostly protected. But white supremacy’s many cages confine also those of us who can pass as white. Whites do not write from a space of “having it all together.” White pasts are neither pure nor healthy. As one example, I write as Robert’s child who as a boy was thrown up against his bedroom walls by a father, memorably protected then by my grandmother. “You’ve gotta stop,” she told Robert. But she could not always be present. So from my childhood I bear scars of sporadic bursts of corporal punishment. As a young adult I found some healing by often voicing to parents my protests of those scars. I formed anger into critique of evangelical Christian ideologies, those strong drinks my parents mixed to legitimize their punitive ways. Before he died Robert did write to ask my forgiveness for his “roughness.” I accepted his request and thanked him, even though the short note coming to me (“Love, Dad”) seemed another asking for “too-easy-forgiveness.” Did I grant the forgiveness too easily? Did I then too readily place myself at Robert’s bedside as he lay dying? Did I too magnanimously hold his hand there, listening with him to his music of consolation, those U.S. military chorales that mix church voice, brass and organ for spine-tingling patriotic feeling? It was a music I decades before had come to abhor for all the reasons he loved it. But I did love him. He enabled much of me, even instilling some awareness that our nation’s wrongs include American Indian dispossession, white racism and the Vietnam War.
So again, Darnell, your scene(s) of subjection differ much from my scene of white encasement. But I can trace a life-line from my scene toward abolition dreams. Abolish now, I say, white evangelicals’ hold on America, and the abuses they underwrite with their heteronormative patriarchies, militarist nationalisms and terrorizing white supremacy. Over 80% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump, with his pretended faith, his masculinist chauvinism, his white nationalist baiting of the poor, his crony and family-style of corporate rule, his feigned and ineffective “opposition” to U.S. wars.
Abolish also, though, the worlds of civility populated by liberals, most ostentatiously the Democrats who can only oppose Trump-world by an impeachment process driven by logics of U.S. “national security.” They also worship at the altars of the U.S. imperial and carceral state, offering up more funds for military industries than even Trump often requests. They approve the more than $3 billion per year that the U.S. gives Israel for its illegal occupation and war in Palestine. Many evangelicals and especially Christian Zionists foment their holy wars in “the holy land.” I dream abolition “from Palestine to Ferguson” and for all points everywhere and in between. I dream of ending repression by all allies of the U.S. imperial and carceral state. That state is propped up by evangelicals’ nationalist pieties and by liberals’ niceties of imperial civility. Instead of these religions, yes, give me that ol’ time abolition grounded in slave resistances as old as slavery itself.
My own dreams for a theology of “abolition-democracy” are detailed in The Executed God (pages 375-96). Abolition dreams for my own theological institution in Princeton are in the January 2020 issue of Theology Today.
Mark Lewis Taylor is Princeton Seminary’s Maxwell M. Upson Professor of Theology and Culture.
Sweet Dreams, Beautiful Nightmares
February 17, 2020
“[It] will be impossible to radically reimagine theology when some of our “freedom dreams” are the stuff our other people’s nightmares. We can’t possibly reimagine justice for the most vulnerable among us if we believe that God errs always on the side of those who are positioned within this nation state as having proximal access to power…”
Two years ago on my block in Bed-Stuy, someone was arrested. They had a warrant for the arrest. The young person shouted out “every time, I’m sick of y’all, every time.” It was clear this was not their first meeting.
I woke up to the commotion of cops banging on doors looking for him. They were not efficient. They’d disrupted everyone’s slumber. I could see people peeking from their windows.
A white neighbor was standing outside with her two small children.
I asked, “Did they talk to you while you were out here?” I regret asking.
“I have no clue what happened.” She was unbothered. I wondered what her children were making of this display.
When she put eyes on the young Black man in cuffs, she said without missing a beat, “I guess we’re safe now.”
Gentrification is deeper than “trap yoga” and novelty one-item-only restaurants. It imagines that Black people removed from our community will automatically make the rest of us safer.
She had been taught that she was safer without us. She had no ties here. No awareness of names and faces and who the street is named for and who goes to what church and whose children come over for the holidays. Just casual and polite patience. Innocent hoping for us to “leave” (or be removed) so they can settle in peace. These are nice folks, not violent ones. They voted for Obama and went to the Women’s March. Here’s the hat. Here’s the pin.
As a minister, I believe that this logic comes from imagining God as a cop who punishes, polices and favors. Octavia Butler named Him as the “big-cop-God.” Some have been taught that Heaven “has walls” and so should we. We often project our hopes and desires for our own power onto God. You can tell a lot about a person by how they imagine God. And how they dream.
For me, my nightmare is that early-morning snatch-ups will be routine. That we would become so accustomed to the violence of hyper-militarized police forces that we might consider it normal. That we forget who used to live here because they have been “disappeared,” as Angela Davis would say. That we would replicate these dynamics even among ourselves by punishing our children in school when they don’t wear the right tie or bring the right folder. But for this neighbor, somehow this was her sweet dream. Because if someone else can be responsible for moving folks from their homes (or making living here so difficult and expensive that we go elsewhere), it would not be her responsibility or fault. She and her family could be “safe now.” Guilt-free.
For me, my dream is that we can live peaceably among one another. I don’t mean that we smooth over conflicts and ignore disagreements. We already do that and it doesn’t work. I mean, what would happen if everyone had a safe and beautiful place to sleep every night, delicious and affordable food, comprehensive healthcare for all of our physical-mental needs, and places to be free and laugh? Where are the spaces where we can do that and trust that our bodies are safe around strangers? In whose parked car can I confess my fears with the confidence that whatever I say will be held?
That’s what makes me say, “we’re safe now.” We.
Candace Simpson is a sister, preacher, and educator. She is a graduate of Trinity College and Union Theological Seminary. It is Candace’s philosophy that Heaven is a Revolution that can happen right here on Earth.
Pessimism and Abolition Theology
February 10, 2020
Is there a theology for the pessimist, or for those who struggle to believe that “justice” or “otherwise” is possible amidst systems dependent on the domination of the slave and her descendants—in perpetuity? Is there a theology for those who believe that, contrary to popular belief, death does, in fact, “sting” and that the grave might, in fact, have “the victory”? Is there a theology for those who struggle to believe in a God who will free prisoners—like Paul and Silas—coming down from on high to shake “the foundations of the prison,” such that “all the doors [are] opened, and every one’s bands loosed”? (Acts 16:26).
I am not a theologian, but we must contend with Christian Theology, specifically the valorization of Christ Crucified, or as the late Rev. Dr. James Cone put it, “the Cross and the lynching tree”—where Negro after Negro is hung in the name of the god of white supremacy. Jesus, himself, came to know an iteration of this god, or demon, as “Legion”—for, indeed, “[they] are many” (Mark 5:9). They are in the soul of the American Empire, waxing wicked hearts cold (Matthew 24:12).
In such a system, the Black never lives, the Black is never free. To borrow Saidiya Hartman’s words from Scenes of Subjection, within the “laments [of the slave and her descendants] is the longing for an as yet unrealized freedom, the nonevent of emancipation, and the reversals of slavery and freedom” (139). These laments emerge and re-emerge with every spectacularized Black death and with every Negro locked behind a cage, here and abroad, on the border, in the slum, or on an island.
In his meditation on Abolition Theology, Darnell Moore beautifully remembers the slain Botham Jean, and writes, “We too were Black people who were overly cognizant about the precarity of our lives, overly shaken by the reality that we could also be at home, or on the streets, or at a march, or at a church service unarmed, and be struck down by a bullet fired from the gun of another who sees us as threats before we are seen as human.” Admittedly, I have struggled with the very last few words of this particular excerpt: before we are seen as human. I do not believe that the slave and her descendants will ever have access to the category of the human, given its reliance on white supremacist technologies and colonial theologies of brutalization and the eating of Black flesh as ritualistic communion. Yet, as an abolitionist, I know that all theologizing about abolition must, as Calvin Warren admonishes in Ontological Terror, “imagine black existence without Being, humanism, or the human” (171). Sylvia Wynter once described the human as a “theocentric conception,” to which theology has only recently responded. As such, we should consider whether theology is, itself, a prison—a mode of confining the slave while promising a freedom never to be gained or realized.
Ahmad Greene-Hayes is a Ph.D. Candidate in Religion and African American Studies at Princeton University.
“I wanted him gone”
February 3, 2020
“I wanted him gone.” Thus Darnell Moore describes his fervent prayer, born of his longing for the cessation of violence inflicted on his mother at his father’s hands. God could take his father or the police could come get him. Either way, he’d be gone. Gone.
Moore has since come to name his longing as more complex than that four-letter word “gone.” He now describes a hope for more not less, presence not absence. What he really wanted was a thorough transformation of his father, his mother, and his world from a place of injury and anxiety to one of love and joy. He wanted more of the father who showed up in other, healthier ways. Gone wasn’t actually the right word for he wanted, rather “gone was the easiest way to communicate what [he] desired but couldn’t name.”
Moore now has a revised and reinterpreted way of pronouncing justice, but his word “gone” has gripped me in ways that I cannot shake. “Gone” still reverberates because it is an apt description. It is the right word for people whose absence now leaves empty spaces where they resided. “Gone“ is the outcome of the current carceral system, the injustice system that takes and then loses persons who are incarcerated.
The loss, emptiness, and absence we can measure. We track the loss by zip codes. We predict it by test scores. There are even, we have learned, “million dollar blocks” in cities around the country, neighborhoods where the people are gone, and so also are the resources, diverted to mass incarceration and away from every public good, every human good.
Moore’s lecture calls us to the work of re-vision, to a moral and theological abolition, where abolition is understood to mean more that something new is present rather than what was wrong is gone. In Moore’s words, “Abolition, therefore, is ultimately a politics and practice of creation, not just destruction.”
What we now need is a social revision like the personal one Darnell Moore underwent. We can then begin to imagine and create of the world we desire, one in which we facilitate and support the best rather than vindictively reacting to the worst. We need the communal reexamination and re-imagination of “justice” so that we can stop conflating it with absence or cruel retribution. “Gone” is a defeated and devastated word, a word that belongs to a world without redemption and hope. The Spirit beckons us to a world recreated and redeemed. Our religious communities can model and our theology can reflect this world.
Leslie Callahan is the first female pastor of the historic St. Paul’s Baptist Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She has served on faculty at New York Theological Seminary as well as the University of Pennsylvania.