by Hannah Bowman
August 21, 2018 marked the start of a national prison strike across the U.S. Incarcerated people made demands for improved conditions including an end to prison slavery and an end to “death by incarceration” through long sentences without the possibility of parole.
Christians engage in all sorts of prison ministry, inspired by Matthew 25:36 where Jesus tells the righteous “I was in prison, and you came to Me.” But there’s a disconnect between the ministry and reform efforts led by Christians and the more radical calls for solidarity made by the prison abolitionist movement.
The prison abolitionist movement draws primarily on the experiences and expertise of incarcerated and formerly-incarcerated people, like those leading the August 2018 prison strike. It traces its foundational ideas to anti-racist activists like Professor Angela Y. Davis whose “Are Prisons Obsolete?” is a seminal text of the movement. Its work depends on those people of color most closely affected by America’s system of mass incarceration which, as Michelle Alexander has written, forms a system of racial control she calls “the new Jim Crow.” Abolitionist work these days is primarily anti-racist and secular, not religious, leading Professor Joshua Dubler to wonder back in 2013, “Where are the Christian prison abolitionists?”
There was a time when Christians were deeply involved in abolitionism, when the injustice to be abolished was slavery. Abolitionists from William Wilberforce to Frederick Douglass drew on their deep Christian faith as a primary source of their opposition to slavery.
Without diminishing the strong arguments against prisons based in a secular understanding of human rights and anti-racism, there are uniquely Christian arguments for prison abolition:
- Jesus proclaimed his reign as one of liberation: on his first visit to the synagogue in Galilee, he declared that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him to set the prisoners free (Luke 4:18). By his death and resurrection, he broke the bonds of sin and death. Prison abolition takes his word of liberation as a real command for us today.
- Prisons are based on the idea that we can find the “bad people” in our communities and cast them out in order to make our communities safe. But as Christians, we know that all of us are sinners – that there aren’t “good people” and “bad people.” By his death, Jesus paid the penalty for sin so that all can experience the forgiveness of God. Prisons are places of banishment, but ultimately God desires for justice to be worked out within his community of love.
Abolition is the moral imperative of our time. But for Christians, it’s more than that. Setting prisoners free is a proclamation of our hope that, as Jesus promises, the kingdom of God is already within us (Luke 17:21). As a proclamation of the kingdom in concrete terms, prison abolition has the potential to revitalize our understanding of the gospel.
I volunteer as a lay chaplain in the Los Angeles county jails. I remember bringing communion to a man in solitary confinement. To give him communion, we had to place the host on a piece of paper on the filthy jail floor and slide it under the door.
This holy moment was a reminder that Christ’s broken body is given for every one of us, but also a reminder that our world should not be this way. At the marriage supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19:9), God will gather all his people to himself. No one should have to receive the Body of Christ through a locked door, because Jesus has come to set the prisoners free as a sign of God’s liberating grace.
Hannah Bowman is a layperson in the Diocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Christians for the Abolition of Prisons, an organization dedicated to theologically-informed advocacy and education about prison abolition for the progressive church. She also volunteers as a lay chaplain in the LA County
image: At the infamous Angola prison in Louisiana, prisoners earn just 4¢ an hour working each day. Photograph: Bill Haber/AP