Of the many public figures whose passion for social justice inspires me, Michelle Alexander is one of the most intriguing. Well known for her best-selling book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, she has gained prominence for helping to awaken American society to the vast injustices and racial disparities that characterize our current criminal justice system. Her message began garnering national attention just as I was completing my graduate studies in public policy in 2011 and beginning to advocate for criminal justice reform in my home state of Texas. As I worked to address issues of mass incarceration at the state and local levels — first at the ACLU of Texas and later at a small nonprofit that assisted inmates in county jails — I appreciated how Alexander was raising awareness all across the country about the problems I was witnessing first-hand in Austin.
Then in September 2016, Alexander made a move that was surprising to some, leaving her position as a law professor at Ohio State University to take a position as visiting professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Explaining the transition, she shared, “I no longer believe we can ‘win’ justice simply by filing lawsuits, flexing our political muscles or boosting voter turnout. Yes, we absolutely must do that work, but none of it — not even working for some form of political revolution — will ever be enough on its own. Without a moral or spiritual awakening, we will remain forever trapped in political games fueled by fear, greed and the hunger for power.”
Her words echoed with a truth that I had been increasingly feeling in my soul, and her announcement came as welcome encouragement for my own vocational journey, as less than a month before I had moved from Texas to the East Coast to begin a Master of Divinity program at Boston University’s School of Theology. Driven by similar conclusions as those drawn by Alexander, I had decided that incremental policy change alone – while critical – was ultimately not going to change the larger misguided paradigms of retributive justice that formed our social consciousness. So, I packed my bags and embarked on a course of study exploring how religious communities, theological frameworks, and ethical leadership might inform a movement of liberation in America. Reading Alexander’s career announcement, I was grateful to find that I wasn’t the only one feeling compelled to set out on such a journey.
In the year since making this decision, as I’ve immersed myself in coursework on biblical justice, conflict transformation, and constructive theology, I have been curious about how Michelle Alexander’s exploration was unfolding. When I saw that she would be speaking in Boston this past November at the American Academy of Religion (AAR) annual meeting, I jumped at the chance to hear her speak about her developing work. Particularly exciting to me was that she would be co-hosting a panel with one of my favorite BU professors, Dr. Walter Fluker, on the influence of black theology – especially the black mystical tradition of Howard Thurman, James Baldwin and others – on prophetic advocacy, moral revolution, and building social movements.
The discussion at the panel did not disappoint. In responding to the three academic presentations, Alexander and Fluker ushered those in attendance into a spacious reflection on the importance of connecting spiritual practice and faith communities with the work of healing trauma caused by mass incarceration and racial injustice. They spoke passionately about the need for those who have been directly impacted by unjust practices of policing and imprisonment, as well as those working to reform our justice system, to both be nurtured and sustained while healing from and functioning within oppressive social realities. This necessitates that an individual not only engage in the introspective work of sifting through their fear, pain, and disappointment, but they also need the opportunity to practice living with others in healthier, life-giving ways.
This need to have places to practice living in right relationship with God and with other people was characterized by Alexander as a “longing for congregation.” And while much of the conversation involved drawing on wisdom from Christian thinkers such as Thurman, Baldwin, and Thomas Merton, Alexander was quick to advocate for an interfaith approach to such congregations. She noted that she finds it difficult to believe that any one religion holds all of the truth, and thus has felt alienated from faith communities that excluded what other traditions might also contribute. Similar commentary was given about how members of the Black Lives Matter movement have sought out sustenance from a variety of spiritual resources, especially when they felt that traditional black churches could not provide them with space and support relating to LGBTQ matters.
What might it look like for justice-minded seekers to form communities that are interfaith in nature, in which people could practice living out the kind of revolution we long to see? How might we maintain our distinct identities while learning from one another? Fluker suggested it will involve creating a commons where folks can congregate, conjure, and conspire, acknowledging this may not look like traditional congregations. I agree and believe it will be one of the great tasks of emerging spiritual leaders to experiment creatively in nurturing new ways of cultivating community for the many folks who need not just co-laborers in the work for justice, but genuine companions in the pursuit of peace and joy.