I have always loved fantasy and science fiction writing. Growing up, I devoured books by authors like Madeline L’Engle, C. S. Lewis, Tolkien, and Isaac Asimov. And yet it wasn’t until a few months ago that I picked up Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. I had vaguely heard of Butler, a Black science fiction writer, but I had no idea how pivotal her voice is. And once again, I am noticing the influence of white supremacy in my life reinforcing itself through ignorance and tunnel vision, determining how I see and what I know, shaping my sense of call and my style of leadership.
The Parable of the Sower, written 30 years ago but set in 2024, portrays a nation in the midst of a terrifying existential crisis. The American “empire” of unbridled capitalism, rooted in white supremacy and abuse of the earth, is collapsing amid the stress of climate change. Systems of government and civil society still exist in name, but they no longer function. The wealthy live in walled, guarded communities. Everyone else is a homeless migrant. Water and food are scarce and expensive. Theft, murder, rape, and dehumanizing poverty are the norm. A drug is sweeping the nation that causes people to set fires for the pleasure of it.
In this novel and its sequel, Butler presents an eerie vision of how our future might look. And she draws a portrait of the leadership she believes we will need to move through this crisis toward something better. The main character is a fifteen-year-old Black girl named Lauren Olamina. Lauren foresees the destruction of her home and the scattering of her family. She spends her late teens preparing to migrate north when that day comes. She puts together an emergency travel kit. She trains in the use of weapons and learns about native plants. She develops her own spiritual beliefs and writes her own scripture, probing the overwhelming changes coming upon her world and the adaptations that will allow people to survive.
In the midst of life and death struggle, as Lauren leaves her burned and looted home behind, she chooses to open herself to companionship. She has a condition called hyper-empathy, invented by Butler, meaning she feels everything happening to others as if it is happening to her. This extreme capacity for empathy is dangerous and it is also a source of strength and wisdom. Lauren forms a community that supports the vulnerable and, in return, claims their loyalty. Lauren and her followers eventually settle and build a home together that they call “Acorn.” Lauren’s way of leading, her understanding of power and her vision of collective well-being, is rooted in who she is—a young person, a Black woman, and someone with a life-threatening condition.
Today’s Gospel passage also delves into issues of leadership and community. The text opens with the arrest of John the Baptist by Herod, a pointed reminder of the ominous threat of Rome that has hung over Jesus since his birth. Jesus, as an accomplice of John’s, clearly had reason to believe he might be next. So he withdrew. Actually “fled” is a better translation. Still, it doesn’t seem like Jesus went into hiding. He went someplace safer in order to find the space to make plans, gather followers and prepare to launch a campaign of creative resistance to the empire’s ways.
Jesus fled to Galilee, specifically the territory of Zebulon and Naphtali. In this way, Matthew once again links the life of Jesus to the history of Israel. The Gospel writer quotes Isaiah chapter 9, which refers to the threat of the Assyrian empire centuries earlier. We often hear these stirring words on Christmas eve: “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” I don’t really want to encourage the metaphor of darkness and light (which have taken on such racist connotations in our times). However, the general point is to make an analogy. In both the time of Jesus and in the time of Isaiah, the people were mired in suffering and struggle; their lives were controlled by a system of destruction and death. The dawning light was the promise of a leader who would free the people and bring independence.
The leadership of Jesus, while it drew upon Israel’s history, also diverged from it in important ways. “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near,” Jesus proclaimed. The language would have sounded familiar. The ancient prophets continually called on the nation to repent—to return to God, to restore their loyalty to God’s ways and values. However, this repentance was always wrapped up with familiar models of militarized political power. Jesus’ vision of a heavenly kingdom was different. It was not otherworldly. Jesus certainly sought to build, exercise, and share power among people on earth. And yet he didn’t lead like a King. He didn’t build walls, collect taxes, wield weapons, or command a military. Instead, Jesus focused his leadership on people. He listened to them, ate with them, stayed in their homes. He touched them and healed them. He answered their questions with questions. He told them powerfully transformational stories—puzzling stories we’re still pondering today. And Jesus stretched the term “kingdom” to mean something it had never meant before: a space of healing, a community enlightened by divine wisdom, a way of mutual flourishing.
I think we have often received Jesus’ invitation to the men on the shore to join him in “fishing for people” as a negation of the lives they had already been living. We’ve imagined they were giving up fishing to do something more spiritual, more important. We’ve interpreted their choice to follow as an “either/or”—either nets, boats and families or Jesus; never both. As several commentators point out, however, under the occupation of Rome, the empire strictly controlled the whole enterprise of fishing in the Sea of Galilee in order to maximize profits for elites. Jesus called the disciples to help him establish a new economy that would serve the flourishing of everyone, including fisher-people and their families. So their vocation was not really about leaving behind work or family. It was about their loyalty. Would they continue to give their lives to the empire’s death-dealing ways? Or would they accept the invitation to risk aligning themselves with Jesus, moving with him toward a different kind of community?
In the church, we’ve often identified a “calling” or “vocation” with certain educational paths or professions. We’ve also created hierarchies. Ordained ministers have the best and highest callings. There are other “callings” that are really important, like being a health care provider or teacher. If a person works in retail or collects garbage or is a roofer, accountant ,or IT specialist, then probably it’s just a job, not a calling. And, of course, this whole framing totally excludes people who are unemployed, or stay-at-home parents or caregivers or retired folks. This framing of vocation is narrow, individualist, and classist. Our time is one of chaos. Paradigms and institutions are breaking down. The status quo has given us stability, and it has also poisoned our souls and the soul of our society. So we need new ways to think about calling, new questions to guide our vocational discernment. To what, to whom, do we give our allegiance? What models of leadership will we follow? To what sort of community will we belong? How will we understand and use power? How will we invest in a vision of earth’s flourishing?
Shortly after finishing The Parable of the Sower, I happened to pick up Emergent Strategies by another African American author, Adrienne Marie Brown. I had no idea that Octavia Butler was a primary inspirer of Brown’s work. Discovering them both at one time has felt like a message: pay attention. In the introduction to Emergent Strategies, Brown says:
[Butler’s] leaders are adaptive—riding change like dolphins ride the ocean. Adaptive but also intentional, like migrating birds who know how to get where they’re going even when a storm pushes them a hundred miles off course. Octavia was concerned with scale—understanding what happens at the interpersonal level is a way to understand the whole of society. In many of her books, she shows us how radical ideas spread through conversation, questions, one to one interactions. Social movements right now are also fractal, practicing at a small scale what we most want to see at the universal level. . . . Rather than narrowing into one path forward, Octavia’s leaders were creating more and more possibilities. Not one perfect path forward, but an abundance of futures, of ways to manage resources together, to be brilliant together. (pp. 20, 22)
May it be so. Amen.