THE BLOG
08/19/2011 09:19 am ET | Updated Oct 19, 2011

The Utopic Monster: Perry, Obama and Winning the Future

Minister: "Peace of the Lord be with you!"
People: "And also with you!" --The sharing of the peace, a part of many Christian worship services.

"As-salaam Alaikum" --Traditional Islamic greeting, wishing peace to each other.


Several months ago in his state of the union address President Barrack Obama created a refrain meant to inspire a generation of young Americans: Win The Future! Infused with the same hope that fueled his presidential campaign this one tiny phrase resisted the dire warnings of economic, environmental and terrorist apocalypses that have so dominated American thinking for the last several years.

"Win the Future" means that the future is not a monster seeking to devour us but is instead a promised land of possibilities whose potential rests in us, the people claiming its potential as alive. Not a utopia, but the utopic. The future is where we make our home. If that home is to survive, it is for us to each claim the moment to win the future.

When Texas Governor Rick Perry finally announced his presidential bid he slipped in a quick reference to Winning the Future, but referred to in the negative. You cannot win the future, he said, by selling America to foreign creditors.

His announcement for a presidential bid is laced with references to a future that is out to get us in one form or another. His announcement named fears of economic and moral apocalypse as well as the danger of abandoning our borders and our Middle East partner, Israel. For Perry a monster looms in a future ruled by president Obama and a "liberal" government.

Let us not fool ourselves that this is a Republican issue alone. Do we remember the dangerous future we all dreaded under George W. Bush? For every instance we were correct about that future, we had equal number of times that we were wrong. True believers of any system -- religious, cultural, political -- must dwell in fear of the monster in order to justify their present activities.

Oppression of a people -- women, black, gay -- can always be justified if their equality will usher in a monster of the future. When Rick Perry speaks about the need to protect the border, it is from a future of Spanish speaking immigrants that he wants to protect us, a monster of a future that would overwhelm us "normal" folks.

Fear of a system can be justified when we can imagine a monster of a future that comes with it. Under George W. Bush we all feared military tribunals and an erosion of rights and policies meant to continue the discrimination of LGBT folks. Nowadays, our Republican brothers and sisters fear socialism and the erosion or expansion of certain rights. Regardless, both are operating from a place of fear of the monster.

The idea of utopia is much misunderstood. Too often we construct our utopic as ideal worlds where perfection has been achieved and, one assumes, the great cultural conversations and debates that bring vitality have somehow evaporated in the light of perfection or have been suppressed. From the communist manifesto to Ayn Rands "negative utopias" ("Anthem," for instance, shows a world with out an objectivist perfection) to Gene Roddenberry's 1960s-tinged, liberal vision of the future in "Star Trek," the idea of the utopia has long been with us.

Overwhelmed as we are culturally by the idea of the utopia, we tend to dismiss utopia dreams and schemes as pie-in-the-sky scenarios so in love with their own perfect society that they are divorced from the real world. We don't want to hear about a perfect society as we struggle to find work and feed our babies.

But the utopia can be something vastly different. As it appears in the work of Gustavo Gutiérrez, the famous Liberation Theologian, the utopia has no place predicting the future or presenting an idealized world, though it must still use these tools. The utopia is something much different in the liberation theology tradition: It is a vision of the future that invites the present to change. The utopia is the future that is always coming, but which never fully arrives. It is always in a process of emerging.

It is the present where we live our lives. If politicians live in fear of the future, it is because they live in fear of the present. If a candidate has no option but to trade in tales of the monster to secure his position, then he has failed in the task of human flourishing in the current age.

We do not need any more apocalypses. We need a future that we can live into with integrity and, let's face it, hard work. Utopia is not something that happens by itself it is something that happens when we all become enamored with a vision of the future that is worth working for.

President Barrack Obama put out a challenge to us -- to win the future. Like many, I am of two minds about the President. I am in love with his vision but disappointed by his performance, which has been either hindered by a lack of leadership skill or by fierce resistance from the opposition. Regardless, a vision of the utopic is one that we must all get behind.

Winning the future is an agenda of the utopic; it requires a vision of the future that is rooted in a sense and desire of possibility in spite of the odds. Once we open ourselves up to the monster of the future, we become disengaged from the realities and implications of our ideas and worldviews.

The Monster seeks a villain in order to justify its own tragic self. Monsters dominate while utopias invite, call and ultimately disappoint. The future the utopia vision promises is one that can never fully arrive. It is an ideal future that can only exist somehow separate from the variety of conversations and day-to-day realities that the human condition is embedded in. The utopia is always arriving in increments but never fully arrives. This is why the work of culture, of politics, of theology, of philosophy and of activism is always ongoing. When we open ourselves to utopia we open ourselves to a new world and we open ourselves to being disappointed by a world that can never live up to our expectations.

The monster, on the other hand, thrives in an absolute. The Other is always a villain and the future that is pregnant in her/his being must always be resisted. We can see this in the fear-mongering around Park51, the ground zero mosque. Conservatives railed on the dangers of the Islamic extremist but balked at the idea of a moderate-progressive Islamic group operating near New York's ground zero. The future was a monster for them if an Islamic group operated near ground zero. Park 51's moderate-progressive theology played no part in their rhetoric, nor could it. Their vision of the present could only work if they kept us afraid of the monster in the future.

But we have heard this sort of thing before. Every year some politician or pastor will come out claiming some sort of tragedy was the result of the presence of gays and lesbians within American borders. There is a dreaded monster future that is placed on the backs of a marginalized people group. The monster depends on their continued oppression.

But a utopia vision -- a vision of gay and lesbian rights, of a strong and supported Islamic voice in the United States, of a strong American government empowered by its citezens -- defeats the monster by insisting that despite our fears the future is still a place we can thrive. The monster can never arrive if utopia has seduced us into working for a changed world.

I opened this by wishing peace in the language of two great religious traditions. There can be no peace without a vision of the future. There can be no peace if we are not driven by a passion for the utopic. A future inhabited by a monster is a future that has no room for peace, for new direction or for becoming a new creation.

We do not have to live in a future that is defined by apocalyptic visions, by monsters. We can wish each other peace and respond in kind by creating a vision of utopia. If the future is winnable, it means that we -- you and I -- must create a workable vision of the future, one that is winnable and one that is worth working for.

"And also with you" --The response in Christian worship to the passing of the peace.

"Wa-alaikum-salaam" ("And unto you be peace") --Traditional Islamic response to being wished peace.