Let us study Lauren’s Earthseed verses. They’re slim, featuring between one and five (occasionally seven) words per line. There are a lot of declarative statements. Also commands, imperatives like “Embrace diversity / Or be destroyed” (196). No questions. Frequent use of second-person — references to “You” the reader. “You with whom I speak.” Meaning all of us. Many of the verses insist on Earthseed’s central claim: “God is Change” (270). Lauren avoids all mention of herself. There is no “I” in these verses, but there is a collective “We” — members of Earthseed communicating with each other across time. Her journal entries narrate the creation of this community. We see a spontaneous, non-coerced collectivity arise in search of land where the group hopes to establish an armed commune, like David Koresh’s in Waco or John Africa’s MOVE community in Philadelphia. Unlike those other groups, though, Earthseed is matriarchal, multicultural, and democratic. Those of you who wish to learn more about MOVE, I recommend the 2013 documentary Let the Fire Burn, about the city of Philadelphia’s bombing of the group’s headquarters in 1985. Filmmaker Jason Osder incorporates an impressive array of found footage: TV news reports, live coverage of the bombing, press conferences, interviews, testimonies before an investigation commission, the works. The movie is heartbreaking, shocking: a story about “failure to resolve ‘conflicting lifestyles’ in a peaceful way,” as Commission Chairman William H. Brown III notes in an opening testimony at the start of the film. It fills one with anger and outrage and sorrow, so be warned. MOVE, after all, was a revolutionary organization. Members lived their lives in revolutionary opposition to the System. For this they were punished by the city’s ruling elites. But MOVE was also more than just a revolutionary organization; it was a religion. Its members lived their lives as part of a cosmic drama — spiritual warfare between the forces of good (or what MOVE members called “The Law of Mama”) and the forces of evil (i.e. “The System”). This is what grants the MOVE narrative its power. It teaches that this is what the Empire does: it prevents the formation of new religions and new religious movements. We see it meting out the same punishment in Butler’s sequel, Parable of the Talents, where a group of Christofascists invade Acorn, the first Earthseed community. Buildings are torched. Several people die; others are enslaved. And a similar story is told in Parable of the Sower — only the characters have switched parts. Reverend Olamina’s Baptist congregation is the religious community, and drug users and the poor are the ones who invade. Somewhere in this is a lesson about discernment. The name to say loudly now is “Breonna Taylor.”
Earthseed is a religion that worships “change,” figures “God” as a force or a process rather than a person. Change is a condition of being, in a sense — but not just a fixed fate. It can be “shaped.” Lauren Oya Olamina’s journal entries act as living testimony. Hers is a life of massive change, much of it painful. But Lauren plots and wishes and writes the story of her survival. She acquires followers through the sharing of her teachings while fleeing north following the destruction of her neighborhood. Is Earthseed political? Can we interpret it in light of political theology? As answer to these questions, consider the following. Butler’s novel was published in 1993. The following year, Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, an act signed into law by President Bill Clinton. It’s also known as the Biden Crime Law. Current president-elect Joe Biden, serving at the time as Senator of Delaware, drafted the Senate version of the legislation. In a 1993 speech promoting the crime bill, Biden warned of “predators on our streets” who were “beyond the pale.” “We have no choice,” he said, “but to take them out of society.” Biden’s 1993 “predator” remarks are remarkably similar to comments made by then-first lady Hillary Clinton in 1996 warning of “superpredators” who had “no conscience, no empathy” and who needed to be “brought to heel.” Lauren, the inventor of Earthseed in Butler’s novel, uses this same language, imagining dangerous “predators” lurking near commercial water stations during her journey north (202). Lauren’s Earthseed religion encourages her to think this way. “Hyperempathy” makes one wary of “predators.” Lauren’s saving grace, though, is her distrust of police. That’s what distinguishes her from, say, Watchmen‘s Angela Abar.
As I reflect upon Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Talents, I think first of the cruelty of the parable itself. It’s a parable that presages evolutionism, is it not? The ones rewarded by its god are those who go forth and multiply. It appears in two synoptic gospels: Matthew 25: 14-30 and Luke 19: 11-27. In each of its versions, the parable features a relationship between a master and his servants. The servants are placed in charge of the master’s goods while he’s away. Upon his return he “assesses” their stewardship. Measures, quantifies, ranks some numerical output or product. And then punishes the one who had the least talent and saved it — the one who produced no surplus. The one who profiteth not. The master, meanwhile, is a slave-master, described by the servant as “an hard man”: one who reaps where he has not sown, gathers where he has not strawed. By parable’s end, the “unprofitable servant” has been cast into “outer darkness.” The master promises, “There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” So how does Butler, whose ancestors were slaves, respond to this parable? She tells the story of a different god: the god of Earthseed, the god of change. Yet change is a hard master too, is it not? Look at how the god manifests in the lives of Butler’s characters! Comparing Butler’s reply to the parable with the one given by John Milton, I prefer Milton’s: “God doth not need / either man’s work or his own gifts; who best / Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best.” Milton’s god is the more merciful of the two. Other famous authors have critiqued the parable as well. In his Threepenny Novel (1934), Bertolt Brecht presents it as a component of capitalist ideology. “And…all who relate such things, I condemn!” he writes. “And I’ll go further: whoever listens to it and dares to refrain from taking immediate steps against it, him I also condemn!” Perhaps Butler’s great genius, however, was to place this parable in dialogue with another: the Parable of the Sower. Sower precedes Talents in Matthew and Luke, as it does in Butler.
Butler’s version of Afrofuturism is far more pessimistic than the versions crafted by immediate precursors like Sun Ra and Samuel R. Delany. Christianity appears prominently in her work as both early influence and adversary. Think, for instance, of her use of gospel parables as structuring principles. Her narratives are “true” to the parables — grant the parables a kind of truth — even as they formulate Earthseed, a new religious movement discovered by Butler’s heroine and put into practice as Baptism’s replacement and successor.
In the second book in the Parable series, Parable of the Talents, Earthseed’s status as a religion places it into conflict with neighboring creeds, especially hostile, intolerant ones like US President Andrew Steele Jarret’s Christian America. With Earthseed, Butler creates for us a black feminist reimagining of John Africa’s group MOVE and its 1985 conflict with the Philadelphia Police Department during the reign of Ronald Reagan. Butler projects that earlier conflict forward into a twenty-first century America presaged by the LA riots of 1992. If one teaches this book, one should encourage one’s students to sit with Earthseed. Read its verses. Try it on, test it out as a belief system. Which aspects of it appeal to you? Which, if any, trouble you, and why? My attitude toward Earthseed is a bit like Zahra’s when she tells Lauren, “I don’t care about no outer space. You can keep that part of it. But if you want to put together some kind of community where people look out for each other and don’t have to take being pushed around, I’m with you” (223). After reading Nick Estes, I also find myself pondering Lauren’s relationship to settler-colonialism. Is Earthseed settler-colonialist, both in its establishment of Acorn (a literal settlement intent on growth) and in its advocacy for the spread of a “survivalistic” earthly biology into outer space? Or is its pursuit of multiracial community in fact the only real alternative to settler-colonialism? Settler-colonialism has already, for the past 500 years, been the case here on Turtle Island, and will remain so, unless and until groups commit to decolonization and antiracism. With Earthseed, Butler imagines for us a movement that does this. Earthseed resists the white settler-colonialist project, given that the biology Earthseed wishes to propagate is ethnically and racially diverse. All are welcome. To join, one simply agrees to live by Earthseed’s creed: a belief system that demands only that we serve and protect each other and come to each other’s aid — no more and no less.
Earthseed isn’t the first religion invented within the context of science fiction. Scientology comes to mind as another, invented by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. I’m also reminded of Discordianism, a religion of sorts propagated in part by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus! trilogy. Like Hubbard’s Scientology, Earthseed is nontheistic — at least in the sense that the latter’s god is simply “change,” a process said to lack consciousness, yet capable of being “shaped” toward humanity’s “destiny” among the stars. Earthseed refuses to console with any promise of an afterlife. (A bit like Stoicism, in that sense.) As a belief system, I find it overly grim.
Earthseed, the religion founded by Lauren Oya Olamina, the heroine who narrates Octavia E. Butler’s novel Parable of the Sower, resembles other faiths (including the Baptism of Butler’s upbringing) in its evangelical cast. Lauren spreads the word and seeks converts, her church being a kind of mutual aid society. Together, she and her followers form a traveling, changing community — a “team” or “tribe” of sorts, decisions made organically based on the group’s capacity to survive amid thieves, murderers, cannibals, junkies, wild dogs, and arsonists. Lauren’s view of the world is paranoid, but it’s a paranoia borne out by lived events of trauma. She “experiences” and “shares” the pain of others due to what she calls “hyperempathy syndrome.” She has an ability that makes her vulnerable, and thus cautious of who she can trust. We needn’t think of this as mere delusion. The reactions to bodily harm sometimes manifest physically, another’s pain sometimes drawing blood. However we view this aspect of Lauren’s experience, it leads her to seek followers. She wants others to believe her, offering in exchange a path toward survival.