As I’ve written elsewhere, I am currently giving Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway another try after bouncing off of it a while ago. Because I bounced off of it so hard the last time, I’m surprised by how much it’s resonating off of me as I give it another go. This past week, I’ve been listening to a lot of Walkaway on top of doing a lot of religious reading: assignments for the Ministry of the Disciple class I’m taking through the Community of Christ Seminary’s Center for Innovation in Ministry and Missino, Gérard Siegwalt’s Reinventing God’s name [La réinvention du nom de Dieu], and various scriptures for today’s liturgical readings.
A somewhat surprising throughline for all of these readings has been the need to reinvent what religion means. It’s not all that surprising that Siegwalt and the Community of Christ Doctrine & Covenants overlap, but I was surprised today when D&C 162:1 was read during our congregation’s service, and I found myself thinking about Doctorow’s writing.
Here’s the Doctrine and Covenants passage in question, taken from a document submitted by W. Grant McMurray in 2004:
Listen, O people of the Restoration—you who would become a prophetic people, embodying in your life together the ministries of the Temple. Listen to the Voice that speaks from beyond the farthest hills, from the infinite heavens above, and the vast seas below.
Listen to the Voice that echoes across the eons of time and yet speaks anew in this moment. Listen to the Voice, for it cannot be stilled, and it calls you once again to the great and marvelous work of building the peaceable kingdom, even Zion, on behalf of the One whose name you claim.
“Prophetic people,” “ministries of the Temple,” and “peaceable kingdom” all echo Community of Christ’s emphasis on peace, social justice, and wholeness in the entire world. The titular “walkaways” of Doctorow’s novel are after something similar. It’s hard to find a single passage in the book that summarizes all of this, but here’s one conversation between two characters reconciling after a dispute described earlier in the book. Limpopo (the “she” in the dialogue) is after something very similar to the Community of Christ/Restoration vision of Zion. Earlier in the book, an antagonistic Jimmy (the “he” in the dialogue) took a tavern she’d put together with other walkaways by force, convinced that he could improve it with gamification and leaderboards rather than with an idealistic vision of everyone contributes what they can, everyone takes what they need. Rather than fight, Limpopo and the other tavern crew walked away in the faith and hope that there was sufficient for everyone to have what they needed—that they could build back better and stronger without having to fight. Jimmy is now humbled and repentant, reconciling with Limpopo after seeing the error of his ways:
He laughed. She peered through his visor. He had a lightyears-away look. “When you walked away from the B&B, I mean.” He laughed again. Tears rolled down his cheeks. “It was beautiful. I was so pissed at you then, felt like the world’s biggest asshole. You could not have ruined me more if you’d curb-stomped me. I never recovered.” Raspy breath. “Never recovered. I’d arrived with my gang, you saw them, boys who thought the sun shone out of my ass, completely bought into meritocracy, not just as a way of figuring out who got what, but as a way of salving all our problems.” Another faraway look.
“I don’t think you got that. My guys looked at the world like Plato, you know, The Republic. Every person has something he’s good at. You find those things and help those people get there and that makes everyone happy and productive and we’ll all be better. You don’t need to order people to do jobs they hate. Just use ranking to make sure that if you’re doing a job you’re not good at, everyone knows it, including you. You get a smaller share of teh collective loot than you would if youwere doing something you were better at.
" Once you get hold of this idea, you can turn it into math, modl its game-theory, findits Nash equilibrium. It’s such a beautiful idea. It models perfectly. Under it everyone is happier. Everyone gets nudged into doing the thing they’re beest at, which is the best way to make everyone happy.
“When you walked away, when you didn’t even argue, you made it into bullshit. For weeks, we pretended it wasn’t. But you’d had a place where everyone took what they needed. You didn’t need to polish it or give people token certifying they’d earned the right to be there. It just . . . worked.”
Limpopo adjusted her crouch in the snow, flopped onto her butt. Her calves ached from crouching. “Whoops!” She brushed the snow that showered from her snowshoes off her visor. “The stuff you’re describing, it’s the kind of thing people do in emergencies, when there’s rationing. It’s like the rules for a lifeboat captain, you know, barking orders to keep everyone in line so everyone gets out of it alive.”
“It’s funny: back when no one was sending tanks after me, I felt we were in a state of emergency. There was not enough to go around, at any moment we could be nuked or starving. Now I feel as soon as we find somewhere to stop, we’ll rebuild everything we’ve had and more. Like there’s no reason to ever turn anyone away.”
I’m struck by the similarity of the radical hope of Doctorow’s characters, and when I have trouble suspending my disbelief that such a radical hope is worthwhile, I remember that my ancestors in 19th century Mormonism expressed similar radical hope. I also think how grateful I am that my co-religionists in the 21st century Community of Christ still preach this radical hope—that we still believe in a denomination that humanity can find a way fo there to be “no reason to ever turn anyone away.”
It still seems odd, though, to see Doctorow’s weird-but-amazing science fiction as a representation of my (and my denomination’s) religious ideals. There’s a lot more swearing and sex in Walkaways than even the relatively liberal Community of Christ would probably be comfortable with. Yet, to loop back to Siegwalt, I think it fits. For Siegwalt, traditional religious language has been abused and misused to the point that many people in our modern world cannot bring themselves to hear those terms. I’m early in the book, but it’s pretty clear that his thesis is the need to reinvent this language and these concepts for the modern world.
To close the circuit entirely, that’s also expressed in D&C 162, in the verse following the one that I quoted before:
As a prophetic people you are called under the direction of the spiritual authorities and with the common consent of the people, to discern the divine will for your own time and in the places where you serve. You live in a world with new challenges, and that world will require new forms of ministry. The priesthood must especially respond to that challenge, and the church is admonished to prayerfully consider how calling and giftedness in the Community of Christ can best be expressed in a new time.
It’s certainly not what Doctorow would have expected, and I don’t know if it’s what Community of Christ members would want, but I find myself tonight asking myself what a “walkaway church” would look like.
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