By Hannah Bowman
Criminal justice reform is increasingly in the news. From the First Step Act to the Movement for Black Lives to the Nationwide Prison Strike, many Americans are increasingly aware that our system of mass incarceration is disproportionate to the rest of the world, unjust, and forms a system of racial control that Michelle Alexander calls “the new Jim Crow.” The impetus to reform our prison system is bipartisan and has evangelical Christians’ support from organizations such as the late Charles Colson’s Prison Fellowship.
But there’s a chasm in anti-prison activism between reformists, who want to improve the current criminal justice system, and abolitionists, who want to end any system of punishment by incarceration. By and large Christians (at least white Christians) have found ourselves on the reformist side. We engage in prison ministry and advocate for better conditions of confinement and fairer sentencing, but the leap to envisioning a justice system free of prisons goes too far. Instead, the movement for prison abolition has grown out of the work of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people and racial-justice activists, who argue that a just society can make prisons “obsolete” (to quote Professor Angela Y. Davis), and that human rights and dignity require a world in which no one is put in a cage.
The arguments for prison abolition are rarely made in Christian terms — but there are deep biblical and theological reasons to support the wholesale abolition of prisons. Prison abolition is not just another progressive cause that the Church should support, or just a moral imperative based in the baptismal vow to “strive for justice and peace, and respect the dignity of every human being” (1979 Book of Common Prayer, p. 305) but is a profound statement of the Church’s faith and eschatological hope in the reality of the kingdom of God.
Fundamentally, the Christian case for prison abolition is the one made by Jesus in his first appearance in the synagogue in Galilee, when he reads the prophecy from Isaiah,
The Spirit of the Lord is on me,because he has anointed meto proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisonersand recovery of sight for the blind,to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Isa. 61:1-2).
He adds: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:17-19, NIV). In other words, Jesus’ ministry is the inauguration of the kingdom of God, the peaceable kingdom in which the sick are healed and the captives freed. Abolitionists take Jesus at his word here — we believe that when he proclaims freedom for the prisoners, that really calls us to set the prisoners free.
Author Lee Griffith, in The Fall of the Prison: Biblical Perspectives on Prison Abolition (Eerdmans, 1993), places Jesus’ proclamation of freedom to prisoners within the context of the Old Testament witness about justice. He connects “the year of the Lord’s favor” that Jesus proclaims to the Mosaic Laws for the Jubilee and Sabbath years, when debts are forgiven and slaves set free:
In the social/legal terminology of Israel, the Sabbatical and Jubilee liberations were based on God’s standing as the [kinsman-redeemer] for Israel’s slaves. … In effect, God became the next of next of kin to the most hopeless of captives … The ransom had already been paid for all future captives when God served as [kinsman-redeemer] for all of the covenant people in the liberation from Egypt. (pp. 99-100)
In other words: Jesus’ proclamation of freedom to the prisoners is rooted in the liturgical traditions of the Jubilee and Sabbath years, which are rooted in the foundational narrative of the Exodus from Egypt. Freedom for captives is woven deep in the fabric of the Old Testament story of Israel.
While the Exodus is primarily a narrative of freedom from slavery, the line distinguishing types of captivity is never a clear one: Griffith writes that during the Babylonian exile, “‘prisons’ and ‘prisoners’ became important symbols for Israel” as the experience of slavery was replaced in recent memory by the experience of imprisonment (p. 102). And even today, activists have noted the ways that incarceration in the United States acts as a loophole through the 13th Amendment’s prohibition of slavery. Prisoners form essentially a new caste of enslaved people.
God desires justice, but — throughout the Old Testament and in Jesus’ proclamation of the arrival of God’s kingdom of God (Luke) — God also shows a desire for freedom for captives. God’s justice does not require or allow for continuing imprisonment. In the kingdom of God, prisons are obsolete. So for us Christians who live in the power of the kingdom — proclaimed in Jesus’ ministry and then inaugurated with power in his resurrection — why support them now?
Of course, there are objections to prison abolition: in particular, the question of what the role of the state and the community is in dealing with harm done to its members. Prisons were intended at one time as a more humane alternative to capital and corporal punishment. Christians played a central role in the 18th-century “criminal justice reforms” that started the American love affair with prisons. The first “penitentiary,” in Philadelphia, was founded on Christian principles by well-meaning Quakers. In it, prisoners worked and were held in constant solitude for the sake of their souls (Griffith, The Fall of the Prison, p. 174).
We have now realized how harmful solitary confinement is. It does profound harm to mental health, such that that the United Nations considers more than 15 days in solitary to be a form of torture. The United States holds more than 80,000 people in solitary confinement, sometimes for years or even decades.
This example of Christian efforts at prison reform illustrates why we must turn our attention to abolitionist solutions that set people free rather than looking for better ways to cage and punish, or rehabilitate within a context of imprisonment. Prisons, intended to take the place of capital or corporal punishments, ended up recapitulating their cruelty as retribution won out over rehabilitation and torturous conditions of confinement were mainstreamed.
Meanwhile, capital punishment is still practiced today. Sentences of “death by incarceration” (life sentences or sentences so long they amount to life sentences) affect more than 200,000 American prisoners, and prisons have expanded so drastically that now 2.3 million Americans are in prison, and — including those on probation and parole — almost 7 million are under some form of correctional supervision today.
Prisons — with their violent conditions, forced labor, frequent sexual assault, and inadequate food and healthcare — are not the humane alternative we wish they were.
The state does have a responsibility to address harm for the sake of public safety. Christians often understand that responsibility in light of Romans 13:1-4:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.
This passage is often taken as support for prisons — the sword borne by authorities to execute God’s wrath — but it is useful to re-read it in light of the surrounding context. A few verses earlier, Paul writes: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (12:19). In light of this injunction against retribution, the Romans 13 verses are intended to limit the taking of vengeance by restricting it to the state. They should not be read as an excuse for Christians to support or construct retributive laws or social policies. There is a vast difference between submitting to the authority of the state by obeying its laws and granting it retributive power in our name.
If the state bears God’s wrath toward wrongdoers, we have to ask: What is the role of God’s wrath in the world today, in light of the death and resurrection of Christ? God promises final judgment of evildoers, but Jesus’ death on the cross has changed the Christian understanding of judgment.
After all, Jesus says that in him, the judgment of the world has already taken place on the cross (John 12:31-32). Jürgen Moltmann writes in The Crucified God (Harper, 1974):
In the context of the apocalyptic expectation of the final triumph of the law, the “resurrection of the dead” is a two-edged expectation. But the resurrection of the crucified Christ reveals the righteousness of God in a different way, namely as grace which makes righteous and as the creator’s love of the godless. Therefore the resurrection hope of Christian faith … shows the cross of Christ as the unique and once-for-all anticipation of the great world judgment in the favour of those who otherwise could not survive at it. (p. 176)
The cross has changed the world’s relationship to God, and what God’s judgment requires: the cross has taken the place of the dreadful judgment.
After all, the substitutionary view of the atonement teaches that Jesus bore the weight of God’s wrath for every sin on the cross. God’s wrath has been fully satisfied. The punishment for every crime has already been paid by Jesus! What this means for Christians living in light of the cross and resurrection is that there is no more punishment — not eternally and thus not temporally.
Just as Jesus’ death and resurrection conquered and destroyed death, Jesus’ punishment and vindication conquered and destroyed punishment. By taking into himself the punishment for sin and crime and harm, Jesus destroyed the necessity of punishment in order for justice to be done. Justice can now be fully restorative — based in rehabilitation and accountability — with no need for retributive or vengeful measures. (Pastor Morgan Guyton has offered an excellent development of this theology.)
Christian support of prison abolition and restorative justice is therefore a profound affirmation of faith: when we act as though we believe that justice is about accountability rather than punishment, we are “proclaiming Christ’s death until he comes,” making a theological claim that the atonement accomplished on the cross is a present reality that guides our lives and the way we structure our society.
Abolishing prisons does not mean letting crime run rampant, but the opposite. Abolition is grounded in the idea that justice should occur among those with whom the offender has relationships, rather than through banishment via incarceration. A community-based restorative-justice program requires much more of offenders than simply locking them up does: it requires them to participate actively in their accountability, to develop empathy and understand the harm caused by their actions, and to make amends.
Such programs already exist, frequently for juvenile offenders or minor property crimes and even rarely for serious violent crimes. Usually, the process involves offenders, victims, and community representatives coming together for a circle in which victims and community members share the effect the crime had on them and offenders have a chance to share their side of the story and the context for the crime and to take responsibility for their actions. The participants in the circle then work together to develop a plan for the offender to make amends. Meeting the needs of the victim is always the first priority in restorative justice.
This secular process clearly has theological overtones, with its emphasis on contrition, confession, and ultimately restoration of the offender “in a spirit of gentleness” (Gal. 6:1) tothe community of God. Its closest analogue, perhaps, is to the church discipline found in Matthew 18:15-20 and in the immediately preceding parable of the lost sheep. Scholars Ched Myers and Elaine Enns have developed an extensive analysis of Matthew 18 as a restorative justice text in their book Ambassadors of Reconciliation, Vol. 1 (Orbis, 2009), in which they write of the restorative justice implications of that parable:
Not only are those who are “scandalized” the moral center of the community; the offender too, as an errant member, must be “found” and restored. Both victim and offender are wounded and vulnerable. The moral of the story is: “It is not the will of my Father that one of these little ones should be lost!” (p. 63)
Prisons are places of banishment, but God’s desire for justice is to restore into the community those who have done harm as well as those who have been harmed — and to do so in a way that leads to sincere repentance and amendment of life. Prisons, which separate people from every relationship in the community that might lead them to repentance, do not meet that goal.
Prison abolition is an act of Christian discipleship. It is an act of discipleship and not only a moral imperative because it is a proclamation of faith. Fundamentally, Christian support for prison abolition is based in our eschatological hope that the kingdom of God is real and “within us” (Luke 17:21). Jesus tells us there are no prisons under the reign of God, so we should live now as citizens of the kingdom, as though there are no prisons. “We can spend the rest of our lives inventing new handcuffs and building new prisons, but that won’t change the fact that Jesus proclaims liberty for the captives and the prisons have fallen” (The Fall of the Prison, p. 228, emphasis mine).
When offenders see the effects of their actions through processes of restorative justice, we glimpse as if in a dim mirror what reconciliation in the kingdom of God looks like: a foretaste of that blessed day when “we shall see face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12) and “God shall wipe every tear from their eyes” (Rev. 21:4).
Prison abolition has the potential to transform not only society but also the Church. It forces us to grapple with the implications of the faith we profess and revitalizes our proclamation of the gospel as a hope for the world right now, not only in the age to come.
I volunteer as a lay chaplain in the Los Angeles County Jails. Some Sundays, after our church services, we walk the rows of solitary confinement cells, singing whatever hymns we can think of (usually “Amazing Grace”). Those hymns — the only music ever heard in that hallway — are a voice crying out in the wilderness of the jail, proclaiming that the kingdom of God is breaking forth into our reality, proclaiming that Jesus is already present, having gone before us into every prison cell and every cage.
Our work for prison abolition, as Christians, can be a similar voice for the world at large: a new way of proclaiming the gospel by which sinners are forgiven, victims are healed and reconciled, and all who have been held captive are set free.
Hannah Bowman is a layperson in the diocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Christians for the Abolition of Prisons. She volunteers as a chaplain in the LA County jails with Prism Restorative Justice.