“Everything is militarized, from police to surveillance to border patrol and beyond. The war machine is all around us,” warned Dr. Robyn Henderson-Espinoza, consulting professor at United Methodist Duke Divinity School and founder of the Activist Theology Project, an initiative which seeks to blend politics and faith and “bridge radical differences.”
The Boston University School of Theology, which’s also United Methodist, invited Henderson-Espinoza to speak for the Spring 2021 Lowell Lecture on April 21, a day after Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of the murder and manslaughter of George Floyd. Named one of the “10 Faith Leaders to Watch in 2018” by the Center for American Progress, a progressive policy institute, Henderson-Espinoza identifies as non-binary, trans, queer, and Latinx, and uses the pronouns “they/them.”
The topic of Henderson-Espinoza’s talk was “Composting Supremacy Culture: Stewarding Life-Affirming Systems in the Face of Today’s Norms.”
Henderson-Espinoza deliberately uses the term “composting,” a type of recycling that involves decomposing plants and food waste into organic matter to be used by other living things, as a metaphor for systemic change. According to Henderson-Espinoza, composting in an academic context “takes a holistic perspective and invites the whole of the system, whatever the system is, and doesn’t just dispose of the waste or the negative qualities, but uses all of what the system is comprised of and transforms it into something beneficial.”
The Duke Divinity School professor denounces academia and the “institutional church” as systems “tethered to supremacy culture” that need composting. Henderson-Espinoza defines supremacy as “the state or condition of being superior to all others in authority, power, or status.” Race, economics, and “the military war machine” make up the three pillars of supremacy culture.
Overcoming supremacy culture means “becoming imperceptible,” gaining “a sense of being free” and “not having to mask ourselves,” in relation to things like surveillance and racial profiling. Henderson-Espinoza takes this concept of imperceptibility from the work of Félix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze in their book Nomadology: The War Machine.
“Becoming imperceptible is the peak… of our search for liberation or being released from that which seems to be so good at dominating, confusing, and capturing our potential energy and capacities,” said the activist theologian. “We are all up against the militarized war machine.”
Henderson-Espinoza advocates for a “hard pivot” away from today’s systems rooted in “violence, supremacy, and accelerated harm,” and instead towards “life-affirming systems.”
Referencing a passage from Acts 2:44-45, which states that the believers had all things in common, Henderson-Espinoza questioned why Christians today do not do the same.
“We often hear things like holding all things in common as a model, proud to lean into a different system, and I want to suggest to us as Christians and as people of conscience, we might want to consider actually holding all things in common, not just as a useful metaphor, but our real pragmatic and ethical orientation that composts the bullshit we’re all facing and returns to some of the roots of our lineages.”
Henderson-Espinoza explained that many Christians in fact do not desire to hold all things in common, the reason being because “Whiteness and the culture of White supremacy breeds scarcity and breeds a kind of selfishness, and, you know, we actually don’t know how to share with one another, and we don’t know how to practice abundance.”
Henderson-Espinoza noted that a culture of “White supremacy and capitalism and violence” harms everyone, not just people of color. “White folks are also victims of White supremacy,” the professor insisted.
The violence embedded in Henderson-Espinoza’s idea of supremacy culture comes from an inability to properly relate to two things: power and freedom.
“As a result of not knowing how to be in relationship with those things, we don’t know how to be responsible agents in the world, which is why we get evangelical theology where a White man can have a bad day and go kill a handful of people,” Henderson-Espinoza asserted.
The scholar-activist called attention to the spiritual side of the war machine as well. “This is spiritual warfare. We have to be clear minded about this, and we have to have a discerning spirit to swim in these unclean waters. I don’t see a lot of people wanting to unbuckle their grasp on these systems which, by virtue then, our communities have no models to practice or to hold all things in common.”
Henderson-Espinoza stressed the importance of building models of life-affirming systems through stewarding ethical practices. “When we steward ethical practices, we are composting the bullshit otherwise known as supremacy culture.”