Grace and peace to you and through you
Jesus’ first sermon is a list of the areas God declares freedom from oppression, including freedom from poverty, ill health, and economic injustice (Luke 4:16–21). Within this passage, Jesus specifically states “He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners.” Jesus is not only saying prisoners should be free; he is declaring that prisoners already are free and that it is not God but humankind who tries to deny this freedom through imprisonment. Yet, when people first hear about efforts to abolish the prison systems around the world, they commonly respond by writing it off as a utopian fantasy. There is a belief that we need prisons and the suggestion that we do not need systems to confine or punish people seems too far-fetched, and in general, people aim lower than the call of freedom Christ issued.
At times in history, the church has even reinforced the idea that some people need to be removed from society; it was Quaker and Methodist penitentiary models that birthed solitary confinement from a belief that those convicted would be humanly rehabilitated through “penance” for their crime. But such a perspective reinforces the view of empire which tries to designate some as “good” and others as “bad,” some as “worthy” and others as “undeserving” be it of freedom, housing, health care, or even another chance. In her fantastic book, Are Prisons Obsolete Angela Davis reminds us that prisons also serve an ideological function, relieving communities of their responsibility to address the problems of society by scapegoating particular people as the cause problem and then isolating them from society.
If we find our self asking “but what is the alternative to prisons?” then we have yet to escape the belief that the world cannot operate without punishment and isolation. We see this at a social level but also within our relationships. How often have we said relationships with those unlike us are too hard or that we don’t want to be associated with that person who is “nothing but trouble”? Often it is easier to isolate ourselves from, or punish others, rather than do the hard work of addressing problems of society or relationships. What we are saying in these actions is that institutions, relationships, and people are beyond God’s redemptive reach. We sell God short, not because God cannot, but because we have trouble imagining beyond the possibilities currently before us.
We lack a long-term imagination, but throughout scripture, we are invited to see the world beyond what we are currently experiencing. Hebrews 11:1 defines faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” The biblical call is to love ones’ neighbors (Mark 31), free the captives, care for the oppressed (Luke 4:8, James 1:27). The disciples did not live in a world where each of these calls were lived out by the entire community. But the vision scripture puts forth is one they could, and we may, participate in when we can imagine life being different than how we currently experience it — not in the afterlife or a different place, but here on earth within our and future generations.
A handbook, Instead of Prisons explains that abolitionists believe “Imprisonment is morally reprehensible and indefensible and must be abolished. In an enlightened free society, prison cannot endure for it to prevail. Abolition is a long term goal; an ideal. The eradication of any oppressive system is not an easy task. But it is realizable, like the abolition of slavery or any liberation, so long as there is the will to engage in the struggle.”
Be it the struggle for prison abolition, or imagining a world without anxiety, unemployment, or relational breakdown, faithfulness is a willingness to engage in the struggle for the world Jesus has already proclaimed, with an assurance that one day a freedom we can currently only imagine will be our experienced reality.