The Christian Imperative to #FreeThemAll

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Illustration: Daisy Daniels
The Christian Imperative to #FreeThemAll
by Lauree Anne De Mattos

“Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.”

— Hebrews 13:3

As COVID-19 has devastated the United States, it has also revealed the inequalities that infect the very soul of the country. Our political leaders have chosen the comforts of the few over the lives of the many, and nowhere is this clearer than in our nation’s prisons and jails. From San Quentin to Rikers to OCCC, incarcerated people are facing the daily indignities of life in prison compounded by fear of a deadly virus that these facilities have failed to contain. The fifteen most prominent coronavirus clusters in the United States are all prisons and jails. Testimonies from prisoners across the country highlight overcrowding, insufficient PPE, and unhygienic living conditions. Authorities have largely chosen to ignore these concerns, insisting that these people uniformly pose a risk to their communities and therefore should not be granted compassionate release. 

So we have chosen to let them get sick.

After all, who would speak for the prisoners? Even in the midst of a global pandemic, who would proclaim their freedom?

Activists both on the inside and out have responded to this crisis with calls to #FreeThemAll, arguing that the prisons themselves are a threat to public health, and that no person deserves to live in a cage, especially during a pandemic of this scale. It is the moral and theological responsibility of the Church to join these demands. 

Christians are uniquely beholden to prison abolition because Christianity created and enabled the prison as we know it today. The United States is a Christian prison nation. Prisons originated as a Quaker reform of the capital punishment system, and the state of religion in the United States contributed to the modern, bipartisan mass incarceration crisis. The rise of mass incarceration about fifty years ago coincided with a change in the religious landscape of the country. “Religion came to mean an individual’s choice to believe—in a personal God or in no God at all,” and the Church lost its previously essential organizing potential. However, because this is a religious nation, the blueprint for collective action and a true, transcendent justice remain. The Church organized to fight for the abolition of slavery and for civil rights in the past, and it must mobilize again to support the prison abolition movement.

Abolition is not only a political obligation, moral imperative, or progressive case, but it is “a profound statement of the Church’s faith and eschatological hope in the reality of the Kingdom of God.” The practice of Christian faith, to live in the Kingdom of God, requires the abolition of prisons. 

Isaiah 61:1-2, which Jesus reads in the synagogue of Nazareth upon his return from temptation in the wilderness, states:

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,

 because the Lord has anointed me

 to proclaim good news to the poor.

 He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,

 to proclaim freedom for the captives

 and release from darkness for the prisoners,

 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

In the book of Luke, Jesus says to the people of Nazareth, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” If this reading is to be taken as a declaration of Jesus’ ministry, Christian abolitionists accept that Jesus’ call to “proclaim freedom for the prisoners” in Luke 4:18 is a literal call to set the prisoners free. 

The story of the Passion of Jesus also provides a framework for understanding abolition. 

Jesus’ violent punishment renders punishment itself unnecessary. It allows us to begin to imagine justice that is more than just retribution, and it is the job of Christ’s followers to seek restoration. To truly proclaim the death of Christ for our sins frees us from blindly seeking vengeance. When the desire for retribution is eliminated, we open up the potential for practices that truly allow both the person who did harm and the person who was harmed to seek justice and healing, with a focus on truly meeting the victim’s needs. 

It is difficult to imagine a world without prisons. Such a world would require the eradication of capitalist violence in the forms of poverty, domination, and empire. Our communities would have to be radically restructured in order to effectively address harm when it inevitably occurs, without the intervention of state violence. We would have to make sacrifices in order to provide for the needs of every person, ensuring that we all have equal access to what we need not only to survive but to thrive. In other words, we would have to see Christ in every person. 

This may seem impossible, but believing in the impossible is an act of faith. Abolition requires constant imagination of a world that is completely remade. Why not remake the world the way that Christ desired? If we can imagine the Kingdom of Heaven coming to Earth, why must we limit our imaginations at all?

There can be no prisons in the Kingdom of God. In the Kingdom, all people will be free. 

COVID-19 has exposed the cruelty of incarceration, but it has also offered an opportunity to liberate people from the cages to which they have been condemned in the name of justice. To be a Christian is to live the teachings of Christ, even when doing so is difficult or controversial. Now more than ever, Christians must organize the Church, embrace the virtues of justice, mercy, and compassion, and demand that all people be set free.

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