We Will Not Cancel Us and other dreams of transformative justice
We Will Not Cancel Us reads to me as a love letter to justice-focused folks. In this slim volume, adrienne maree brown explores what she calls “unthinkable thoughts.” She grapples with hopelessness, with harm and mistakes, and the reality that harm is often caused by those who were themselves harmed.
On its surface, We Will Not Cancel Us is a direct response to so-called call out/cancel culture that sometimes divides folks on the left from our allies. Deeper than that, it is an attempt to wrestle with what it means to be human; what it means to want to improve this miserable, lonely existence even as we continue to harm and be harmed, to long for and reject connection, to suffer from fear and shame and disappointment.
My reading of We Will Not Cancel Us came at an opportune time. I picked it up at the suggestion of a comrade in the local Jewish movement for justice, because we are thinking through how we navigate #metoo accusations--whispered and openly stated--against some allies of ours. And then, while I was reading, one of my beloved communities publicly shamed an outgoing member. While I don’t doubt the need for that person’s removal from the community, I was deeply disheartened by the public shaming that accompanied the removal. brown’s volume validated and gave context to my discomfort.
“How do I hold a systemic analysis and approach when each system I am critical of is peopled, in part, by the same flawed and complex individuals that I love? This question always leads me to self-reflection. If I can see the ways I am perpetuating systemic oppressions, if I can see where I learned the behavior and how hard it is to unlearn it, I start to have more humility as I see the messiness of the communities I am a part of, the world I live in.” (68)
With brown’s insights fresh in my brain, I’ve been seeing new, different facets of the “call-out” behavior that disappointed me. In a recent Jewish study session about justice and the justice system, my study partners held up the example of Abraham demanding that God, Themself, be just: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Gen 18:25). This moment was presented, along with the classic Deuteronomy passage that ends with, “Justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deut 16:18-20), as proof that our tradition provides the tools and the obligation to pursue
But that’s not quite the message I take from that Genesis passage. Abraham asks that question of HaShem when discussing the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. God has decided to destroy the two cities because of their iniquities. Abraham’s question is in the midst of his attempts to subvert destruction. “What if there are 50 innocent within the city? Will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it?” our forefather asks God. “If I find within the city of Sodom fifty innocent ones, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” Is God’s response. (Gen 18:24-26)
Abraham keeps going. “What if the fifty innocent should lack five?” They go back and forth like this by fives, Abraham soliciting promises from God not to destroy the city for fewer and fewer numbers of “innocents.” The exchange ends with God’s words, “I will not destroy for the sake of ten [innocent people].” (Gen 18:26-32)
The next chapter sees repugnant behavior from both the Sodomites and Abraham’s nephew Lot, who offers his unmarried daughters to the lustful mob who clamber to sodomize three agents of God (yes, that’s where the word comes from), and then in Genesis 19:24-25, “the LORD rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah sulfurous fire from the LORD out of heaven. God annihilated those cities and the entire Plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities and the vegetation of the ground.”
The conclusion of history is that there were not even ten innocent people in the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. I don’t buy it. In the Book of Jonah, God notes that Nineveh contains “persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well” (Jonah 4:11). It is the primary reason he gives for not fulfilling his destruction decree on the city. It’s true that the Ninevites repent, whereas the Sodomites do not, but what I’m sitting with is just how punitive this ancient and holy text is.
As I sat down to write this, my mind cast about for counter-texts. That’s why I found Jonah. That’s why I sought out Isaiah: “No, this is the fast I desire:/ To unlock fetters of wickedness,/And untie the cords of the yoke/To let the oppressed go free;/To break off every yoke./It is to share your bread with the hungry,/And to take the wretched poor into your home;/When you see the naked, to clothe him,/And not to ignore your own kin.” (Is 58:6-7) But I can’t get away from the punitive, destructive force. From Noah’s flood to Korach’s rebellion, from Nadav and Abihu to poor Uzzah, the Divine of the Tanakh does not seem interested in transformational justice, but in destructive punishment. The Divine of the Tanakh exhibits the ultimate cancellations, with fire and brimstone.
Near the end of We Will Not Cancel Us, brown writes: “I want us to do better. I want to feel like we are responsible for each other’s transformation. Not the transformation from vibrant flawed humans to bits of ash, but rather transformation from broken people and communities to whole ones. I believe transformative justice could yield deeper trust, resilience, and interdependence. All this mass and intimate punishments keep us small and fragile. And right now our movements and the people within them need to be massive and complex and strong.” (74)
I am enamored with the idea of transformational justice, as brown, Mariame Kaba and other thought leaders envision it, even as I struggle to imagine what it could look like. In brown’s formulation of the problem, “we are combatting that which we simultaneously internalize.” (37). The punishment and shame-based attitude toward justice is so old, it is baked into our sacred texts--my sacred texts. How do I hold both? How do I honor the sacredness of both transformational justice and my inherited tradition? How do I sit with the idea that the texts I love are, at least in part, responsible for the toxic and dehumanizing punitive impulse of the society in which I live? I feel certain I must hold onto all of these truths, though making room for all of them stretches me in uncomfortable ways.
“We all have work to do. Our work is in the light. We have no perfect moral ground to stand on, shaped as we are by this toxic complex time… We are all flailing in the unknown at the moment, terrified, stretched beyond ourselves, ashamed, realizing the future is in our hands. We must all do our work. Be accountable and go heal, simultaneously, continuously.” (76)
My wrestling with God and with myself, my wrestling with Torah and with history, this is a part of my work. I endeavor to be grateful for the opportunity to do it.