Good Places

Thursday, February 23, 2023

From Michael Anthony Howard, Minister of Faith in Action,
Living Water Association, Ohio North East, UCC

Tags: Streams of Connection | From Our Association Ministers | Faith in Action

The language of utopia resonates deeply with the vision of becoming communities healed by Christ. Indeed, Scripture is loaded with passages about building places of justice and shalom. The early church, who held everything in common (Acts 2:42-27; 4:32-27), trusted in God’s grace to follow Jesus and live as the embodiment of God’s justice in the world. Through their faith, Christ was tearing down dividing walls and abolishing enmity; their resurrected relationships now constituted a new humanity. This, according to the writer of Ephesians, is how peace in Christ happens (2:14-15).

We have Thomas More’s 1516 work, Utopia, to thank for the language. The original name of More’s imaginary island was Nusquama, Latin for “no place.” He opted instead to name it Utopia, borrowing from the Greek prefix “ou-” meaning “no” and “topos” meaning “place.“ The name was intended to emphasize the work’s fictional nature. It was a thought experiment, not something More thought had or ever will exist. As a fictitious no-place, the term utopianism came to mean wishful thinking, emphasizing the human impossibility of constructing a perfect society.

Rather than a vision of an unachievable no-place, the notion of utopia is a central concept in liberation theology. In Gustavo Gutiérrez’s work, utopia is a deeply spiritual word that refers to the gospel vision of right and fruitful relationships. This vision, however, becomes a reality through our willingness to become a new kind of humanity committed to bringing about a just society. Drawing from the work of Paulo Freire, Gutiérrez explains that the utopian vision is always characterized by a twofold relationship with the present. It is a denunciation of the existing order and an annunciation of what yet will be.

Thomas More’s Utopia was a critique to specific problems in the England of his day, mainly the dispossession of land. In it, he imagined another place with a different history than his own. It created a contrast of the world as he knew it with the world as it could be. It opened a way for us to see that the world around us is more malleable than we imagine. In other words, utopia was not merely an unachievable fairytale; it was a reminder to us that things do not have to be the way they are.

Many of our modern places are the result of an insatiable desire for a disastrous kind of worldbuilding, founded on the imperialist logic of capital accumulation, private property, and whiteness. It is a dystopian logic, rooted in ideas of human perfection that make a mockery of God, continually using progress to justify the destruction of countless communities, innumerable ecosystems, and never-ending cycles of violence and oppression. So often and for so many, the dream of a better world keeps hope alive as a means of survival against the dystopian reality of everyday life. The gospel calls us to denounce and disrupt the disastrous impact of human world-making. We cannot acquiesce to a simple life-after-death utopianism. We need a gospel vision that announces a not-yet world and orients us with a hope for the here and now.

One thing I deeply love about my call is meeting people whose utopianism doesn’t make the perfect the enemy of the good. If we consider “eu-,“ a Greek prefix for good, then creating eutopias—good places—has always been our calling. For me, the gospel is a way of life that turns “no places” into “good places.” Maybe we cannot create perfect places, but with God’s help, we can strive to make good ones.