Towards a Black-Womanist Theology of Mass Incarceration

My experience as a formerly incarcerated convicted drug felon from a low-income brown family has led me to ask the question, what does God mean for those under the oppression of mass incarceration? To speak of mass incarceration is to speak of a system of racial oppression.[1] It is also to speak of the failure of that system to rehabilitate persons, and the victims this failure creates. To speak of mass incarceration is to speak of the creation of nonpersons out of criminally convicted persons by replacing names with inmate numbers, personal histories with criminal histories, and by withholding social and political power through felon disenfranchisement laws and the institutionalized legal discrimination of criminal offenders.[2]

In this essay, first, I will describe and employ the task, sources, and Christology of black theology to locate God’s liberating work in the efforts of those who are working to dismantle mass incarceration at an institutional level. Then, I will describe and employ both the survival/quality-of-life tradition and Christology of womanist theology to locate God’s involvement with those who are not liberated, but have to endure through the struggles of mass incarceration instead.  Finally, I will explore the tension between these theologies and offer a third way to see the meaning of God amidst mass incarceration. The goal of this essay is to utilize the aforementioned elements of black and womanist theologies to argue that God is involved in the dismantling of mass incarceration and in ensuring the survival and quality of life of those who have to endure it.

BLACK THEOLOGY AND MASS INCARCERATION

The task of theology, according to James Cone, is to investigate the meaning of the gospel of Jesus Christ in such a way that all those who are oppressed would believe that God is both with them in their suffering and in their struggle for liberation.[3] This is so because Yahweh sided with the poor and oppressed of Israel, and because Jesus sided with “the oppressed, the poor and unwanted of society, and against oppressors.”[4] Therefore, theology must articulate how God sides with the oppressed nonpersons in society today. In light of slavery, Jim Crow, segregated ghettoes, and continued racial disparities in the U.S., the best description of oppression in America is found in the “ontological symbol and visible reality” of blackness. [5] Since white supremacy has been and still is the source for the racial oppression of blacks, then whiteness, in black theology, is a symbol of the oppressor. In other words, Christian theology in the U.S. must either be identified with those who are oppressed by white supremacy, in general, or identified with the black community, in particular. Therefore, in relation to a system that is at least operating in the form of a racially discriminatory system creating nonpersons disproportionately out of the black community, black theology affirms that God is on the side of those who oppose this system. We can now examine the sources and norm of black theology that affirm this idea.

One of the sources of black theology is the black experience in America.[6] Cone asserts that among other things, “The black experience is police departments adding more recruits and buying more guns to provide ‘law and order,’ which means making a city safe for its white population.”[7] When Cone wrote those words in 1970, the prison population was one-fifth what it is today.[8] However, according to Cone, black experience is not just “encountering white insanity;” it also includes God’s work in empowering black people to strive for their social and political liberation in the face of that insanity, such as in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. As outlined in Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, the current system of mass incarceration was conceptualized by the Nixon administration as an effort to appeal to disgruntled racist white voters in the South who felt they were being disenfranchised by the gains of blacks during the Civil Rights Movement. Nixon regularly associated the Civil Rights Movement with “lawlessness” by alluding to the race rebellions and civil rights protests in major cities across the country. In other words, white supremacy was the initial force behind the “tough on crime” mentality that galvanized mass incarceration. Since mass incarceration was an attempt to quell the events of liberation in the black community, specifically, and it reinforces white supremacy via the disproportionate criminalization of black and brown people, generally, then black theology must identify God’s presence in any community that is affected by, and attempts to dismantle, this system.

Revelation, as a source of black theology, urges black theology to take seriously the system of mass incarceration. As evidenced by the exodus, revelation for the Christian faith is God’s work “in human history for the oppressed of the land.”[9] Therefore, for black theology, “Revelation is a black event – it is what blacks are doing about their liberation.”[10] In a more general sense, revelation of God occurs when “a condition of oppression… develops into a situation of liberation.”[11] In relation to mass incarceration, revelation provides a source for describing God’s work not only in opposing mass incarceration on the institutional level, but for transforming the lives of individuals who have been affected by it as well.

Prisoner reentry and rehabilitation have the potential to be some of the most fertile processes for the manifestation of God’s revelation in the lives of individuals. Criminal behavior such as the selling and using of drugs, theft, and other crimes can be the result of internal oppressive forces. Even before being literally incarcerated, addiction was my metaphorical prison. If God’s revelation occurs when the oppressed are set free, then God’s revelation occurs whenever a habitual criminal or addict changes her or his life around for the better. In this sense, the fact that 7 out of 10 released prisoners are rearrested within three years[12] can be interpreted as the rate at which God’s revelation is denied in the life of criminally charged or chemically dependent persons. Exploding prison populations and the lack of decline in drug use demonstrate that the system is not helping to free drug offenders from the throes of addiction or associated lifestyles such as drug dealing. For this reason, black theology must describe God’s revelation as present in the process of opposing the system of mass incarceration through the rehabilitation of criminals and successful prisoner reentry programs.

Finally, black theology affirms that the person of Jesus Christ is the manifestation of God’s revelatory event. Cone asserts that “black theology takes seriously the historical Jesus” because Jesus was “the Oppressed One whose earthly existence was bound up with the oppressed in the land.”[13] Because of the resurrection of the oppressed Jesus, it means that Jesus is not only “present today” in oppressed communities fighting for liberation, but he identifies with those communities as well.[14] Therefore, Jesus is identified with the oppressed black community. In other words, Jesus is black. Today, prisoners who are working to liberate themselves and their families can find hope and strength in the Jesus who identifies with their struggle to be liberated from: the self-oppressive chains of addiction (or some other self-destructive behavior) and the oppressive forces of a system that disproportionately incarcerates low-income black and brown people in the United States.

WOMANIST THEOLOGY AND MASS INCARCERATION

While black theology is useful for describing God’s work of liberation through the dismantling of mass incarceration, Delores Williams’ womanist theology can best describe the experiences of those who are not liberated by God. Williams asserts that the norm of liberation in black theology does not work for the experiences of African-American women.[15] Instead, she finds the representation of black women in the story of Hagar in Genesis. First, like the experiences of many female African-American slaves in the U.S., Hagar was a female African slave “who was forced to be a surrogate mother” for her slave master.[16] Similar to African-American slaves who ran away, Hagar also ran away. Given the high chances of infant mortality during her day, especially if she was to give birth in the wilderness, Williams believes that God directed Hagar to return to her oppressor’s house because it was the only way for Hagar and her child to be saved. Thus, for Williams, God seems more concerned with survival than liberation. Finally, after Hagar and her child (Ishmael) were exiled into the wilderness, God promised that their “descendants will be numerous,” and that Ishmael would be a warrior and skilled hunter. This suggests, for Williams, that liberation “is not given by God; it finds its source in human initiative” through resources for survival and strategies to improve one’s quality of life.[17] Williams names this reinterpretation of Hagar’s story the survival/quality-of-life tradition of African-American biblical appropriation.[18]

We can see God’s response of survival and quality of life to Hagar’s predicament as parallel to God’s response of survival and quality of life to persons behind bars. This is evident through my experience of being incarcerated at the Cook County Jail. Prior to my arrest, I was shooting heroin into my veins daily and smoking innumerable amounts of crack cocaine. At best, my life as a drug addict on the street was rapidly approaching death. Though under radically different circumstances to Hagar, my time behind bars can be interpreted as God being more concerned with my survival than my liberation. At that time, there may not have been any other way for me to escape inevitable death other than to be incarcerated. Despite the fact of unjust enforcement of laws, most people behind bars have serious issues they need to overcome, and maybe they can find hope in the fact that God is still concerned with their survival despite the fact that they are behind bars.

Next, I believe the prison experience is similar to the wilderness experience of Hagar. In the wilderness, Hagar had “serious personal and salvific encounters with God… which aided Hagar in the survival struggle of herself and her son.”[19] Like Hagar, inmates enter into a situation that seems grim and hopeless. But it is in this state of being that I believe persons are most able to encounter God – at least that was my experience. Behind bars, in a seemingly grim and hopeless situation, I believe I had a personal and salvific encounter with God. This type of encounter is not unusual and is sometimes referred to as a “jailhouse conversion.” The problem is that many times, inmates may have a personal encounter with God in prison, but will fail to take the human initiative to acquire skills for improving their quality of life. Granted, the system does very little to help this initiative, but neither did Abram and Sarai do anything to help Hagar in the wilderness. The Hagar story does not justify mass incarceration, but it does say that despite this injustice, inmates can find hope for survival and improved quality of life by taking human initiative. When they take that step to improve their quality of life, in the same way and with the same faith that Hagar did, inmates and released prisoners can trust that God is with them.

Finally, we can see the meaning of God in the reality of mass incarceration by understanding the Christology of womanist theology. Williams would agree with Cone, that there is redemption in the person of Jesus Christ, but in contrast to Cone, she rejects the salvific and redemptive power of the cross.[20] According to Williams, to glorify the cross by portraying Jesus as a surrogate who suffers in the place of others, all too often results in the exploitation of black women who are told that God intends for them to suffer as Jesus suffered. Williams says black women must reject the notion of Jesus’ surrogacy as a redemptive act. However, Williams believes that redemption can still be found in Jesus Christ through his ministerial vision. According to Williams, Jesus did not intend to redeem humanity through death on the cross, but through a “perfect ministerial vision… giving humankind the ethical thought and practice upon which to build a positive, productive quality of life.”[21]

In dealing with mass incarceration, it is important for the loved ones of criminal offenders to reject the surrogacy role and to embrace the ministerial vision of Jesus. I know from personal experience that the loved ones of both literally and metaphorically incarcerated people often believe that they must stick by their loved one no matter what. Especially when a person is behind bars or in some sort of trouble, there is the potential for their loved ones to feel they have to personally fix all of their problems. Often times this results in a sort of surrogacy role for the men and women who suffer right alongside their loved ones in prison. In dismantling mass incarceration, theologians must affirm that there is no redemption in senseless suffering. This does not mean that people should abandon their incarcerated loved ones, but if abuse is any part of that relationship, then nobody should believe that God intends for them to suffer in that relationship in order for the other person to be redeemed or liberated.

JESUS, LAZARUS, AND THE CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY

There is a clear tension between black and womanist theologies in addressing the issue of mass incarceration. In the former, liberation comes through systemic changes and programs that would eliminate the oppressive nature of mass incarceration and provide rehabilitative services for criminal offenders. In the latter, redemption and salvation comes from human initiative, in which those who are directly affected by the system, such as inmates, see that God is with them when they take the human initiative to change their lives for the better. I believe a melding of these visions can be seen through the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead in chapter 11 of the Gospel of John.

After receiving the news about Lazarus’ illness, Jesus told his disciples that he would go to him in Judea. The disciples, deeply concerned, questioned the efficacy of going into dangerous territory to help Lazarus, but Jesus was not deterred. When Jesus came to Lazarus’ sister, Mary, she was deeply worried that it was too late to save her loved one because “he had already been in the tomb for four days,” but Jesus comforted her by reminding her that he is the resurrection. Even though Jesus knew that he would raise Lazarus from the dead, upon witnessing the pain of Mary and the community of those who loved Lazarus, “Jesus wept.” Finally, Jesus told members of the community to remove the tombstone. Then, he called out to Lazarus, and Lazarus responded by coming out of the tomb. Finally, Jesus called on the community once again to unbind Lazarus and to let him go!

In this story, Lazarus is the prisoner. As a former drug addict and inmate, I can attest that being in this bondage can feel like one is spiritually dead. Like Lazarus’ loved ones, even the loved ones of inmates can sometimes lose hope that the inmate can overcome being “dead.” But like Jesus, the Christian community is called to be compassionate and to empathize with the pain of others—indeed, even weeping alongside those whose pain would otherwise not directly affect one’s self. Jesus did not raise Lazarus from the dead alone; members of the community were involved in removing the stone. As such, the Christian community must be involved in removing the structural barriers that keep inmates ‘dead’ and going in and out of prison (i.e. advocating for macro social prison reform). Like Lazarus, inmates must respond to Jesus’ call by taking the human initiative to walk out of the tomb. This is similar to the human initiative to improve one’s quality of life in womanist theology. Finally, Jesus calls on the Christian community to help Lazarus and the inmate re-enter into society by “unbinding” Lazarus and helping him to remove the vestiges of his former state of being. In this story, we can see that God’s involvement in mass incarceration involves structural changes, human initiative, and a Jesus who is the resurrection and raises the dead (i.e. rehabilitates individuals) even before and after the event on the cross.

CONCLUSION

 I believe we have an adequate answer to the question: What does God mean for those under the oppression of mass incarceration? Cone’s black theology showed us that God sides with the community that is working to dismantle an oppressive system that is in the business of creating perpetual nonpersons out of poor and disenfranchised racial and ethnic minorities. As evidenced in the book, The New Jim Crow, this system is truly massive and oppressive and without a theology that attempts to overthrow social structures for the liberation of the oppressed, we will not fully address the problem. Similarly, Williams’ womanist theology is crucial for giving hope to those who do not receive liberation, but who endure a prison sentence, either as an inmate or an inmate’s loved one, instead. This womanist approach is crucial for addressing the reality that despite the oppressive nature of mass incarceration, criminal offenders must take some responsibility for working to improve their own lives as well. Without this view we would not fully address the problem of mass incarceration, either.  Instead, I’ve offered a potential melding of these two theologies by showing how each uniquely addresses the problem and by offering a third tradition of Jesus, Lazarus, and the Christian community to demonstrate that the work of dismantling the system of mass incarceration is the work of doing God’s will.


[1] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow : Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York; [Jackson, Tenn.]: New Press ; Distributed by Perseus Distribution, 2010).

[2] Ibid.

[3] James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, 2nd ed. (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, c1986.).

[4] Ibid., 6.

[5] Ibid., 8.

[6] Ibid., 24.

[7] Ibid., 25.

[8] Alexander, The New Jim Crow : Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

[9] Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, 31.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 48.

[12] Alexander, The New Jim Crow : Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

[13] Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, 118.

[14] Ibid., 31.

[15] Delores S. Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness the Challenge of Womanist God-talk (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, c1993.).

[16] Ibid., 2.

[17] Ibid., 5.

[18] Ibid., 6.

[19] Ibid., 3.

[20] Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness the Challenge of Womanist God-talk.

[21] Ibid., 165.

© Daniel Aguilar and thetatteredrose.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Daniel Aguilar and thetatteredrose.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

About The Tattered Rose

Daniel Ismael Aguilar Studying Liberation Theology Master of Divinity Candidate at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York B.A., Sociology, Wheaton College in Illinois “I'm for truth, no matter who tells it. I'm for justice, no matter who it is for or against. I'm a human being, first and foremost, and as such I'm for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.” ― Malcolm X
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One Response to Towards a Black-Womanist Theology of Mass Incarceration

  1. Pingback: Genealogy of a White American Jesus: From Slave Master to Billy Graham | The Tattered Rose

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