by Mark Lewis Taylor
Over the years and recently again, I have found it necessary to explain why I consider my political advocacy and work for Mumia Abu-Jamal to be integral to my professional work. I even dedicated my last published book to Mumia Abu-Jamal. I am grateful to a former Dean many years ago – in the 1990s – who invited me to write out thoughts like the following. I post them here for the record and in case it is helpful to others.
Dr. . . . [name omitted], Academic Dean
Office of the Academic Dean
Princeton Theological Seminary
[Date: several times since the late 1990s]
Dear Dean ________:
In conversation with our Vice President for Financial Affairs I have learned that my faculty secretary is unhappy doing correspondence and secretarial work associated with my research, writing and witness, when pertaining to the journalist on Pennsylvania’s death row, Mumia Abu-Jamal.
I will visit with my secretary about this to discern whether this is a problem relating to her fear and sense of vulnerability, or just a difference of values and politics between us. Because of my respect for her and her competence, I would in no way want to force this upon her.
This matter, however, raises the larger issue of whether and how this work I do in relation to the movements for Mumia Abu-Jamal is a part of my professional work at Princeton Theological Seminary. [The Vice President for Financial Affairs] suggested that you, in previous correspondence with him indicated that this was not part of my work.
With all due respect, I would like to suggest that it is a part of my work, (1) as a scholar trained in the academic community, (2) as an ordained minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ and (3) as a theologian at this seminary. My warrants for this claim can be found in each of these three areas, and I share them with you, now, in hopes that we may be in better dialogue and understanding with each other.
As a scholar trained by the academy I am subject to the canons of scholarship. This means I am obligated to respect disciplined inquiry, to undertake my research and writing in ways that value the most carefully worked out criteria for truth.
I have studied carefully the transcripts of the capital case against Abu-Jamal, and the environment of 1970s and 1980s Philadelphia within which this award-winning journalist worked and in which he was eventually convicted of the murder of Philadelphia police officer, Daniel Faulkner. I have found his conviction to be not just a violation of justice in a political realm, but also a violation of the criteria of truth and reasoned inquiry. Evidence has been spurned and manipulated even as great injustice has been done to Abu-Jamal.
I am by no means alone in this. Over 600 scholars, on campuses across the country and the world have joined in calling for a new trial for Abu-Jamal. These include some of the most respected names in the U.S. academy, award-winning writers and professors who signed on with my organization, Educators for Mumia Abu-Jamal in 1996 – a few being Adrienne Rich, Leslie Marmon Silko, Martín Espada, Rudolfo Anaya, Achille Mbembe, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Included also were scholars like Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Stephen Gould and Harvey Cox – all of Harvard University. Working and speaking out for Mr. Abu-Jamal, one finds also Noam Chomsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Nell Painter and Toni Morrison of Princeton University, Houston Baker and Farah Jasmine Griffin, formerly of the University of Pennsylvania, now of Columbia University, and Dr. Anthony Monteiro of the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. The new President of the American Sociological Association, University of Florida scholar Joseph Feagin, is also a strong supporter. A special note should also be made of the well-published scholars, Manning Marable and Michael Dyson of Columbia University.
Nobel laureates like Desmond Tutu, Wole Soyinka, and José Saramago have joined with writers and scholars to call for a new trial for Abu-Jamal. Professors from distinguished law schools across the country – e.g. Patricia Williams (Columbia), Burton Caine and David Kairys (Temple University) and others – have also joined with us. Critical theorist Judith Butler included in her address to the Annual Meeting of Comparative Literature scholars a sustained analysis of the works on prison abolition by Angela Y. Davis and Abu-Jamal.
All of these scholars are not simply engaged in political advocacy, but acting as scholars. We write about this issue in our academic guilds. We organize sessions in our Annual Meetings about the case and the wider issues involved. This is a matter of scholarship relevant to a challenging an important issue of our time. It is not just a “radical, political exercise.” (I enclose a recent article from the Philadelphia Inquirer about an academic conference I organized in Philadelphia’s Church of the Advocate, in December of 1998. It demonstrates the integrity of our organizing work as academicians.) My “theory book” – The Theological and the Political: On the Weight of the World – was a way to develop the philosophy and critical thinking of scholarship that lives in synergy with political advocacy for dispossessed communities, whether we are ourselves part of those communities or in solidarity with them from standing in more powerful groups.
It might be helpful to note also that the mainstream journal, American Lawyer, published an exhaustive study of several sides to the case and applied rigorous criteria of inquiry. The selected writer of the study did not share the political opinions of Abu-Jamal; in fact, he found them repulsive. Yet, still, this lawyer/writer himself concluded, on the basis of evidentiary issues, that he was joining the “save Mumia movement right now.” Former prosecutor, law professor and author, Patricia Williams, has also called for a new trial and stay of execution.
To be sure, there are scholars and others who disagree with our conclusions. That is hardly a new feature of academic life, however. My main point here is that simply because there is disagreement with my academic position (amidst my co-workers here or in the wider public), that does not mean that my academic work relevant to Abu-Jamal is not part of my work as a scholar. This is scholarly activity by me focused on an important issue of the day, and it is thus part of my professional work as a scholar.
Second, I can also use some rather traditional language of the church and observe that as an ordained minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ, I am “captive to the gospel” as the Apostle Paul famously is recorded to have written. Thus, I can construe my work for Abu-Jamal as a response to my being constrained to exercise faithful leadership relevant to that gospel.
Of course, everything depends on just what precisely we mean by “the gospel of Jesus Christ.” Again, there will be disagreement about that. But I want to emphasize here that my work for Abu-Jamal is informed by my commitment to what I take to be gospel according to the most rigorous understandings of that term, historically and politically, as well as theologically. Further, because commitment to the gospel is, according to the mission statement of the seminary, part of my professional life at this seminary, I believe there are, in fact, strong warrants for my choice to express my Christian faith in working for Abu-Jamal.
In the terms of my institution’s mission statement, the work for Abu-Jamal we could say is one of the ways in which I am in “response to God’s sovereign claim over all creation,” seeking “to engage Christian faith with intellectual, political and economic life in pursuit of truth, justice, compassion and peace” (The Princeton Seminary Catalog, p. 27).
More particularly, I understand the gospel as the good news of God’s integral (multi-dimensional) liberation of all peoples from the many forms of oppression. The liberation “of all peoples,” however, demands a firm and particular watchfulness and advocacy on behalf of the materially impoverished who are not only poor, but also excluded and repressed. They are also racialized, criminalized and viciously stereotyped in multiple ways. Practicing Christian faith in the United States context entails watchfulness and advocacy with and on behalf of the structurally decimated and marginalized groups, especially of Native American and African Americans (and their descendants), and with any and all others who make up the growing and ever changing face of the poor in this country. The whole body politic and the entire public good are in jeopardy if one does not give primacy of concern to what the New Testament referred to as “the least of these.” I also believe that this “option for the poor,” this strategic hermeneutical prioritizing of the oppressed, is well attested to throughout the scriptures. The God of the bible makes freedom for all by calling all to particular solidarity with oppressed peoples. This is what I mean by “the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
That I am committed to these values does not mean that I am personally some noble exemplar of these virtues. I am not. In many ways, looking over the course of my individual life and career, I know how much I have failed. But I am nevertheless part of a collective struggle seeking to implement such values. Therefore, when I as an ordained minister, encounter a situation like Abu-Jamal’s, where a racist adversarial politics in Philadelphia has apparently led to yet another railroading of a black man to death (and, in this case, a well-published and distinguished Black man without any previous criminal record and with an impeccable record for speaking out for all America’s poor and not just for himself), then I am compelled to participate in God’s liberating practice for such a one, alongside the many others whom “God raises up” for such work. That Abu-Jamal has long been a “voice for the voiceless” for black people on urban streets, as well as for rural American poor, for the dispossessed of Palestine, for Latin America and the Caribbean, and for the dispossessed also of colonized Asia and Africa (see for example Mumia’s essays “Puerto Rico: Under U.S. Colonial Law” and “Decolonization: The Influence of Africa and Latin America on the Black Freedom Movement” in Writing on the Wall: Select Prison Writings of Mumia Abu-Jamal – all this has made a focus on working for Abu-Jamal both particular focus and a world embracing advocacy.
Working for Abu-Jamal is by no means the only practical way by which I try to express my understanding and commitment to this gospel. Included also would be my time-consuming work and publications relevant to indigenous peoples struggle for land reform and cultural autonomy in Chiapas (where I do research several times a year). I would also refer here to my many ways of community organizing in Imani Community Church of Trenton, NJ, where I was a “theologian in residence” and a routinely worshiping and working member.
Again, many may disagree with me on what I take the “gospel” to be. Many may register caveats about my decision to express commitment to the gospel through watchfulness and advocacy pertinent to Abu-Jamal. Many may know little about the details of the case other than what they see on television news. Whatever the differences, however, because this work is thoroughly integrated with my commitment to the gospel, which in turn is intrinsic to the professional work of a Christian faculty member who is also an ordained minister, I would regret if this work were dismissed as “not part of my professional work.”
As a theologian at this seminary I focus on reflection and doctrine as these express and critically examine movements of what I have termed “reconciliatory liberation.” That is to say, my reflection comes from engagement in historical communities (ecclesial, cultural and political) which create “liberation” that also “reconciles,” i.e. which seeks first a just freedom (liberation) but in a concrete politics that ultimately unify (making reconciliation).
In my first major theological book, Remembering Esperanza: A Cultural-Political Theology for North American Praxis (Orbis, 1990, Fortress 2005) and then in two very different editions of The Executed God: The Way of the Cross in Lockdown America (2000, 2015), I argued very forthrightly that to be “in Christ” – to use that traditional language – was to be a participant in cultural-historical movements seeking to effect this kind of liberation (pp. 175-81). This is part of my professional life, “my work” and “my job” in both thought and action. The claims I developed in my books were favorably reviewed in such theological journals as Theology Today, Theological Studies, Word & World, The Journal of Religion and others (not without helpful scholars’ criticisms, of course!). I know my books have also been read in classes and by scholars outside theology, especially in anthropology, sociology and political science.
I even have developed this kind of understanding of Christian theology as what we term around this institution “Reformed.” I did this in an article published in a Festschrift for former Princeton Seminary professor, Reformed ethicist Charles Converse West (See my “Immanental and Prophetic: Shaping Reformed Theology for Late 20th Century Struggle,” in Shin Chiba, et al, Christian Ethics in Ecumenical Context: Theology, Culture, and Politics in Dialogue, Eerdmans 1995, pp. 149-66). I identify even more with a tradition of Reformed liberation theology that is represented, in part, by former Princeton Seminary professor M. Richard Shaull, still widely respected throughout contemporary Latin America.
My political theology of liberation, especially around Abu-Jamal, is very appropriately related to movements having to do with prisons, police brutality and capital punishment. All three of these areas have become crucial sites of trauma and injustice in contemporary life. U.S. prison construction and maintenance is now one of our most booming, domestic industries. Resort to walls of concrete, steel and razor-wire has become our major way of dealing with delinquency and social fault. More than 3,000 are now on death row, with executions of the innocent, of the mentally retarded and of juveniles being not at all unusual. Police brutality, as I wrote in 2000, has become such a rampant problem that even Amnesty International has pointed to the problem as constituting a major violation of U.S. citizens’ basic human rights. It has become ever more apparent that these developments are intrinsic to fully developed and nuanced theories of U.S. imperialism, capitalism and long legacies of colonial domination through settler colonialism.
All this is to say, that my theology as developed at this seminary, as published in my field, and as favorably reviewed by theological colleagues, calls for the kind of work I express in my organizing and writing on behalf of Mumia Abu-Jamal. This is no mere avocation, nor a mere politics. Again, I make no claims to be exemplary or some model. I have to be more “an expert,” if that, in my failures than in my personal and professional successes. I view my work for Abu-Jamal and on other matters of social justice to be just as viable a professional activity for a Christian theologian, as are my colleagues’ (and my own) organizing work in churches and denominations that are more traditionally viewed as signs of a theologian carrying out his or her work with great faithfulness.
In short, differences of interpretation (as to academic inquiry into the facts, as to the meaning of the gospel, as to what theology is) all need to be acknowledged and examined in dialogue and critical debate. I welcome such dialogue and debate.
My main concern is to stress that I do not think it appropriate, however, to refer to the organizing I do for Jamal as “not part of my work,” when it is precisely my understandings of excellence in academic inquiry, of faithfulness in ordained Christian ministry, and creative rigor in theological reflection, which lead me to such organizing.
If I was organizing for Mumia in ways discordant with my academic credentials, with my Christian calling to ordained ministry, or with my theological vocation, then I could understand the judgment that this is “outside my work.” I hope, however, that I have said enough here to show just how integrally related the struggle for Mumia Abu-Jamal is to my role as a Christian academic theologian in this place.
Again, because I value and respect [my secretary] and her efficient work, I will not ask her to do something she feels might compromise her beliefs. I would not wish her to have to do that anymore than I would wish a Methodist secretary to have to do professors’ work on some Reformed doctrines and practices that she may find offensive, or any more than I would wish a unionized secretary to be forced to offer support to a corporate management that enforced policies detrimental to our office workers or ground maintenance staff.
I certainly understand that my organizing for Abu-Jamal could bring certain criticisms toward not only me, but also toward the Seminary. I know the school’s switchboard has “blown up” with ugly hate messages at times when I’ve been very public with my advocacy. I want to be understanding of the Seminary’s position, and hope you will communicate with me about that.
I appreciate the way the Seminary’s lawyers once defended my academic freedom to have Mumia Abu-Jamal phone live into my classroom even though a Pennsylvania state law ruled that to be a crime (a Pennsylvania federal district judge later overthrew the law as “flagrantly unconstitutional”).
Many powerful figures of our day with monied interests and with support from law enforcement officials consider Mr. Jamal a veritable “Public Enemy No. 1.” Within the ambit and orbit of their vision, my work will be made to look naive, irresponsible, “un-American” they say. Liberal academics drunk only on the latest theories of higher education will see my work as insufficiently “complex” “insufficiently theorized” (even when it is!), only some political avocation of my eccentric self that most self-respecting professional academics or theologians should allegedly avoid. That vision of my work, however, as I hope the Seminary will recognize, is a limited one that stands the tests of neither critical inquiry nor of faithful Christian deliberation.
There are also many in the public and religious realm who believe that it is outside a Christian theologian’s professional duty to organize concretely on controversial political issues of the day. I trust that at a Reformed institution like Princeton, we will all be able to see through that distortion. The witness of Reformed thinkers, from Calvin to Barth, to the Niebuhrs, to Allan Boesak, Katie Geneva Cannon and Nicholas Wolterstorff – enables us to see that distortion as a fundamental betrayal of the gospel – a gospel that is both gift and work, always “beyond” every politics but also incarnate in concrete struggles for kin(g)doms of justice and love.
Mark Lewis Taylor