07/22/2005 01:50 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Imaginations Taken Captive to Empire

Where there is no vision, the people perish. Prov. 29:18a

Is there a vision guiding the unfolding of events in the US and world today? If so, what is it and where is it leading us? Vision is often conceived as a looking forward to a preferred future, a future different from the present. This citation from the bible recognizes the importance of vision. Without it, we perish, for hope evaporates under the withering sun of all that is wrong with the present. Of course, one must not draw the conclusion that the opposite is true, i.e., the claim is not that where there is vision, the people prosper. Visions themselves may be good or evil. There must be vision and it must be a good one if the people are to flourish.

It is obvious, isn't it, that an essential aspect of visioning is imagination? To be able to see an alternative, preferred future, we must be able to imagine something that is not, but that might be. Sometimes, I think we conceive imagination too narrowly, connecting it with "flights of fantasy" or disconnection from the "real world." But, this does not do justice to our faculty of imagination. Without imagination, there could be no creative literature or poetry, but just as surely there could be no scientific discovery. Also, what often constitutes great leaders is the ability to imagine a better future and to encourage us to join them in the great quest to realize the vision.

At the same time, we should not overlook the threat constituted by the ability to envision a better future, for what is viewed as a better future by some may be a threat to others. It is no accident, then, that various socio-cultural institutions seek to capture and to enslave our imaginations. For example, at different times the bible has been withheld from oppressed people. Why? Because the Good News of the bible, from beginning to end, is that God sides with the oppressed over against their oppressors. Now, I fully realize that the bible has often been used as a tool of oppression, and this fact is a source of great distress. Yet, at the same time, I recognize the biblical text's ability to rouse within us what Arianna has often called "our better angels." Those in power have often realized this and have tried to control the liberating power of the biblical message either by withholding it or by clever interpretation that turns the Good News on its head.

Slave owners who restricted access to the bible did so because they did not want the imaginations of slaves roused by the story of Moses and the Exodus. What if slaves got the idea that their predicament was analogous to the Israelite slaves in Egypt? What if they began to imagine God would intervene on their behalf; what if one of them began to imagine himself/herself a modern day Moses called to lead an Exodus? No, better to avoid all that by simply keeping that story out of their hands! In order to salve the conscious of slave holders, clever preachers were able to interpret the bible in a way that set the Exodus account (and so much more!) aside in order to warrant slavery. This is unbelievable to most of us today, but it happened. In what way is the bible being misused today?

Over the course of my next several posts, I want to explore the ways in which our culture functions to capture and enslave our imaginations. How does it function to preserve the status quo by denying our ability to imagine a better tomorrow? I will offer a sneak peak into what I think we will find: the biggest threat is the manner in which are imaginations have become hedged-in to defend a particular concept of economic-political empire. For example, those who suggest an alternative way to engage the "war on terrorism" are immediately shouted down as "naive," "dangerous," "unpatriotic," etc. Our imaginations are captive so that only one line of thinking is deemed worthy of consideration. To embody a better way of being, we must first free our imaginations in order to summon up a better vision of life together.

I try to read through all the comments you write in response to my posts, and this time I am particularly interested in the areas you would like me to explore under this broad heading of "captured imaginations." And, as always, for discussions on matters at the intersection of politics and theology, join my colleagues and I here.