Transformative Justice and Mass Incarceration: Can Faith Communities Help Create a New Frame?

by Peter Laarman Below are excerpted remarks from an address to United Methodist Women in Los Angeles, April 27, 2013.  Rev. Laarman is Executive Director of Progressive Christians United in southern California, and a good colleague and friend.  
Extreme individualism is a hallmark of American culture that owes a great deal to the Protestant concept of individual salvation. We believe that everyone can succeed, that everyone can choose to do good, and that those who fail to achieve and do good must be morally tainted in some way – must in fact be among the damned. In his book, Protestantism and the Spirit of Punishment, theologian Richard T. Snyder links Protestant-infused individualism to a criminal justice system that dramatically separates human beings into the saved and the damned. Our model is one of exclusionary punishment: persons convicted of criminal activity are excluded from normal society and punished thereby. Sometimes, through solitary confinement, persons are even excluded from all human contact – and are slowly driven mad as a consequence.
Thanks to this sharp division between the saved and the damned, the good and the bad, many Christians who visit incarcerated people understand themselves to be crossing the border between pure and impure realms. They may hope and pray for the redemption of some individual prisoners, but they are not inclined to hope and pray for the radical transformation of a system that generates such prisoners.
We can say with accuracy that the basic frame for mass incarceration in the United States is a profound “othering” of the people caught up in the system – people who most often are Black or Brown and thus already subject to a major degree of “othering.”  Without such widespread fear and loathing of the “other,” racialized mass incarceration could not sustain itself.
As I have already indicated, conventional Christianity helped to create this framing and easily accepts it. But conventional Christianity – i.e., white, middle-class American Christianity – is not the way of Jesus. Not by a long shot. It is more reminiscent of the mindset of those who first criminalized and then wrongly executed Jesus of Nazareth as a rabble-rouser from Galilee.
We should recall what this itinerant preacher said and did. He repeatedly crossed the boundary between “the good people” and “those others,” between the impure and the impure. He told parables about how when you give a dinner party you shouldn’t invite fancy people but should invite the lost and the least to sit at the head of the table. And, of course, he practiced what he preached: he surrounded himself with the outcasts of his time—with criminals and sinners. Instead of condemning a so-called “fallen” woman, he challenged her accusers: “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone!” Most crucially, he condemned a radically unequal society in which the poor were criminalized for being poor while their exploiters continued to grow rich by inflicting social violence upon the weak and vulnerable. We should not forget that the provocation that ultimately got Jesus killed was his direct attack on the money-changers who had set up shop inside the temple court in Jerusalem. These were people who did more or less what our payday loan operators do today – that is, charge extortionate rates of interest to drive their borrowers further and further into poverty and eventually into debt peonage and slavery. They were loan sharks who enjoyed the friendship and protection of the religious authorities.
I mention this because Jesus was a social critic who defined his mission in terms of what is called the Jubilee Tradition. When he introduced himself at his home synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4), he picked up the scroll and read the jubilee text found in Isaiah 61: “I have come to liberate the captives and let the oppressed go free – to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Jesus was a social critic, not a social worker, and certainly not someone whose hunger for justice could be satisfied by individual redemption stories. He came to us seeking social redemption, real social transformation, and the creation of a just society in which the rich can no longer control the poor by criminalizing them.
What are the implications for us today in relation to our work against mass incarceration?
First, we should never fail to look at incarceration within the overall context of a radically unequal and radically unjust society. The economic backdrop to this can never be ignored.
Second, we should learn to locate the roots of racialized mass incarceration in the same race-based domination system that has prevailed in this hemisphere for over 400 years – a system that Rev. James Lawson sometimes refers to as “plantation capitalism.” Third, we should follow Jesus in making friends with the people at the bottom of this system—with those targeted for criminalization and with those who have directly experienced the brutality of incarceration. Our movement will have no integrity unless such persons are part of its leadership. Fourth, we should practice speaking the language and understanding the principles of restorative justice so that we can begin to grasp more clearly how restorative justice contrasts with retributive justice. Finally, we should use our imaginations and apply our political will in order to begin moving our society in the direction of a public health model for public safety.
What do I mean by a public health model for safety? Well, a truly safe society is one in which every human being is cherished and made welcome, where all are given a chance to thrive, and where, as the prophet Zechariah put it so memorably, the old folks can sit at peace while the laughter of young children rings out in the city streets and squares.
A safe society is a first and foremost a just society. In that respect we have an awfully long way to go.  Let’s not waste any more time.