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A Personal Prayer of Repentance

Class with Dr. James Cone today awakened something in me that had been dormant for a couple years now.

This is my confession, that in my righteous desire to reject the anti-Christianity of conservative white evangelicalism (and even some “liberalism” that has no sense of urgency for the liberation of Oppressed Peoples), I became arrogant and self-righteous in my demeanor towards my God who instilled in me the only faith that could rescue me from the horrors of heroin and crack addiction.

This faith was the very simple faith that a lowly Nazarene named Jesus loved me enough, and deemed me worthy enough, to sacrifice his life so that I may have life to the full.

Yes, in my justified effort to rid myself of a dead religious tradition, I turned my back on the One who saved me quite literally from spiritual, emotional, psychological, and even physical hell on earth.

It was a deep abiding faith in the power of Jesus’ sacrifice for me, which is rooted in divine love for me, that empowered me to love myself enough to believe in myself enough to surrender my understanding and my will to my God who was the only One who could get me through hell 100x’s stronger than I was before.

It was faith in Jesus’ love for me that kept me from giving up on life as I sat in a sunless jail cell for 18-hours a day during the first three weeks of my five-month stay at the Cook County Jail.

CCDOC ID - Redacted CopyIt was a faith that was given to me, not by any merit of my own, that emboldened me to hope for a better future for myself and for the people I encountered.

It was faith in the cross and the Resurrection of Jesus that gave me a peace that surpasses all understanding, because it made no rational sense for me to have been given the hope that despite being a three-time convicted felon, despite burning every bridge with everyone who had loved me—somehow—my God would make a way out of no way—and somehow—not only would I survive but I would thrive beyond anything I could ever ask or imagine.

I’m here to testify that, even though I can’t explain theologically or rationally how it happened, my God delivered me from hell.

Somewhere down the road, I became unfaithful.

As I achieved many of my dreams such as earning a bachelor’s degree and going to graduate school, I became ensnared and enamored by some of the glitter of a privileged rejection of faith.

Well, it caught up to me, and the conviction hit me hard today that I mustn’t turn my back on the One who’s never let me down.

I think it’s a combination of a few months of really intense activism (to say the least) and a couple of years of wrestling with questions about God, along with the simple truth (which James Cone spoke in class) about a simple faith in the Jesus who identifies with the oppressed, which have brought me to this prayer of repentance.

To be clear, I STILL reject the white Jesus of white western Christianity;

I still have no desire to fully embrace as “Truth,” the Christian creeds which were created by flawed human beings who were influenced by the Roman Emperor Constantine;

I still believe that no one religion is the “chosen” religion of God;

I still believe that divinity is manifested in myriad ways to different people, including through non-theistic, non-“religious” experiences;

I still believe that diversity of religions is actually part of a divine order.

However, as for my personal experience, all I know now is that I need Jesus.

Thanks be to God that divine love, forgiveness, and grace are everlasting.

Amen.

http://www.facebook.com/HolyWeekOfResistance

Related Links:

The Evangelical Ethic and The Spirit of Colorblind Racism

Addicts Need Treatment Not Jail

Towards a Black-Womanist Theology of Mass Incarceration

#FergusonOctober: a glimpse of a movement for real justice

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Religion, Theology, and Science: Thoughts on Durkheim’s Study of the Elementary Forms of Religious Life

The Elementary Forms of Religious Life

In the book, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, I found Emile Durkheim’s conclusions regarding the objective reality behind religion to be sound and applicable for both the study and the practice of religion today. Durkheim seems justified in stating that, “the unanimous feeling of believers down the ages cannot be mere illusion;” thus, it follows that “religious experience” actually engenders sensations and sensibilities that are grounded in reality.[1] However, the ideas and perceptions that arise from this grounded experience do not necessarily conform objectively to the reality in which they are grounded. In fact, Durkheim rightly asserts that the infinite variations, in different times, through which this reality has been (and can be) conceived demonstrate that these conceptions have typically failed to accurately express it.[2] Thus, prior to addressing “the demands of practicality and vital necessities” that force us to contemplate that which science cannot investigate (i.e. prior to “doing” theology), we must first apply a scientific analysis to the sensations of religious life.

One conclusion of Durkheim’s analysis is that, “Religious representations are collective representations that express collective realities; rites are ways of acting that are born only in the midst of assembled groups and whose purpose is to evoke, maintain, or recreate certain mental states of those groups.”[3] Through intense rituals, which bring about “a state of [collective] effervescence that alters the conditions of psychic activity,” the collective consciousness will tend to transfigure and imagine the clan or society in some sort of sacred form or concept such as a plant, an animal, or a god.[4] For example, the religious totem, once conceived, emblematized, and affirmed through rituals, symbolizes “both the god and the society, [which means that] the god and the society are the same.”[5] Therefore, through rituals that sacralize certain collective representations, religion serves to strengthen the solidarity of a given society itself.

As a person of faith, I do not believe it is sacrilegious to identify Divinity with the whole of human society, that is, with the whole of humanity. One need not resort to pantheism, because as Durkheim recognized, society-itself is “a reality sui generis; it has its own characteristics.”[6] Thus, the representations that express both God and society, as Durkheim states, “have an altogether different content from the purely individual representations.”[7] Of course, Durkheim’s conception of the collective consciousness does not affirm an metaphysical reality sui generis, but rather an epistemological one. Still, Durkheim’s conception neither denies nor affirms any theological claim about said reality being divinely transcendent.

It is clear that our tumultuous world needs a system of morals that guides our actions toward peace, justice, freedom, equality, and love of all of humanity, but science meets its limits in the realm of morality. Moral philosophy may very well inform the masses (including religion) of the “right” way to live. However, religion serves its optimal function in creating the sacred, and thereby espousing faith, which as Durkheim states, “is above all a spur to action.”[8] It is this spur to action—guided by a global ethic, consisting of collective representations, which positive and negative rites evoke, maintain, and re-create into sacred principles—that is desperately needed to unite humanity into a global moral community that moves to actualize those sacred principles in the world.[9] However, the privileged position that religion once had in interpreting the natural world must be conceded to science.[10] That is, religious speculation must always reckon with science on science’s terms; it “should affirm nothing that science denies, deny nothing that science affirms, and establish nothing that does not directly or indirectly rest on principles taken from science.”[11]

Tragically, somewhere down the line, religious rituals began to sacralize a god who was wholly other, separated from society, and even opposed to it. Thankfully, Durkheim rightly asserts that, “religion seems destined to transform itself rather than disappear.”[12] As such, today’s religious practitioners and gatekeepers must re-envision and transform religion into “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things,” which strives to unite all people of the world, not into “a single moral community,” as Durkheim states, but rather into a global moral community.[13] Instead of sacralizing things that divide humanity, such as conceptions of a god who “chooses” one People over another or ordains this or that war, religion must acknowledge that society-itself is sacred. Religion must affirm universal humanity-itself as sacred, and establish a universal sacred bond of kinship among all peoples, since indeed, this is what its true function is. In our 21st Century, globalized, and pluralistic context, and in the age of the Internet, YouTube, and social media, it is necessary to investigate the possibility of fostering or imitating positive and negative rites both virtually and globally.

[1] The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, ed. Karen E. Fields (New York: Free Press, 1995), 420.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 9.

[4] Ibid., 208, 424.

[5] Ibid., 208.

[6] Ibid., 15.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 432.

[9] Collective representations of sacred principles such as peace, justice, freedom, equality, and love of all of humanity.

[10] Of course, this means that science itself must be its own vehement critic to ensure its own intellectual honesty, but the moment religionists begin to address scientific claims they must cease “doing” religion and adopt the methods of scientific enquiry. Even as science grows (including the social sciences, e.g., sociology, psychology, etc.), however, religion still serves a necessary function for society—albeit in a transformed manifestation.

[11] The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, 433.

[12] The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, 432.

[13] Ibid., 44.

Genealogy of a White American Jesus: From Slave Master to Billy Graham

Through five years of immersion in what is arguably the “holy land” of white evangelicalism in Midwest, USA (i.e. Wheaton has “more churches per capita than any other town in America”), I have come to the conclusion that white evangelicalism has a “White American Jesus” problem. While some white evangelical institutions are engaged in what some scholars call “race-bridging,” they are few and far between (less than 7%), and are unconsciously “Christ-centered” on a “white American Jesus.” As such, racial reconciliation efforts by white evangelicals have had little to no impact on the segregated nature of their white evangelical institutions (Christerson, Edwards, and Emerson 2005; Emerson and Woo 2006; Lichterman, Carter, and Lamont 2009). Below is an excerpt from a larger work of mine, entitled: The Evangelical Ethic and the Spirit of Color-blind Racism:

white jesus

SLAVE MASTER’S JESUS VS SLAVE’S JESUS

In my opinion, the root of white evangelical color-blind racism is insidiously hidden in the history of pro-slavery “Christianity.” An analysis of pro-slavery “Christianity” will elucidate the Christological differences between Black and White Church traditions today. W.E.B. Du Bois described how Christianity in the Colonies functioned to justify slavery (2000). White Christians claimed that “slaves were to be brought from heathenism to Christianity, and through slavery the benighted Indian and African were to find their passport into the kingdom of God” (Du Bois 2000:70). Eventually, whites were confronted with “the insistent and perplexing question as to what the status of the heathen slave was to be after he was Christianized and baptized?” (Du Bois 2000:70). Many slave owners questioned whether to expose their slaves to Christianity due to “the implications of equality in the Bible and…the fear that education might cause the slave to fight for his freedom” (Cone 1997:75).

The measure taken by white Christians to appease this contradiction is still with us today—that is, the “White” Jesus of the slave master was completely divorced from any implications of freedom or justice related to civic matters (Du Bois 2000; Cone 1997). As such, “It was expressly declared in colony after colony that baptism did not free the slaves” (Du Bois 2000:71). The crux of pro-slavery “Christianity” was to ensure peace, by creating “good slaves” that would emulate “White” Jesus’ “meek-and-turn-the-other-cheek” side. While many abolitionists were eventually motivated (in part) by their Christian faith, the majority of the White Church then, as the White Church today, was silent about the oppressive and racist structures of America (Cone 1997; Emerson, Smith, and Sikkink 1999). Like the slave masters’ “White” Jesus, the “White” Jesus of evangelicals today is not concerned with ameliorating the plight of the oppressed on Earth as much as he is concerned with “order” and “saving individual souls” (Cone 1997).

Conversely, black slave ministers emphasized the God of the Exodus who freed the slaves from Egypt. Many who led slave rebellions were black slave ministers who identified with the suffering of Jesus and saw his resurrection as the triumph over the oppressive forces of his day (Du Bois 2000; Cone 1997). In addition to eternal salvation, the Jesus of the Black Church has historically identified with the poor and oppressed of the land, unlike the Jesus of the White Church today (Cone 1997). In this way, “Black Christianity” has operated as “the expression of…and also the protest against real distress…the sigh of the oppressed creature;” White evangelicalism, on the other hand, even if unintentionally today, has operated as “the opium of the [oppressed] people” (Marx 1975:175). Today, white evangelicals usually claim “objectivity” in their Christology, but have forgotten the racist roots of their “White-American Jesus” who is not concerned with social justice. This is why both White and Black Church traditions can be “Christocentric” while having incredibly different interpretations of what it means to emulate Christ—i.e., to be concerned with saving individual souls or concerned with justice on Earth as well as saving souls.

ANTI-STRUCTURALISM AND THE BILLY GRAHAM GOSPEL

Following the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust, Americans questioned the modernist claims of “progress” and the “inherent goodness of the human being.” America was ripe for the fundamentalist message to “return to Christian values,” to be “saved from the evils of men.” Even President Dwight Eisenhower spoke of returning to the “Judeo-Christian” roots of the U.S. (Belton 2010). However, it was the Cold War hysteria that prompted the masses to seek a blatantly “Americanized” version of the Gospel as salvation from the “evils of this world” (Belton 2010). Much like the “Terror Alerts” of our Post-9/11 World, after the Soviet Union successfully tested an atomic bomb, it was perceived that the “world was on the brink of a nuclear holocaust” (Belton 2010). In this ethos of fear, no single individual did more to marry an individualistic and anti-activist Gospel with right-wing ideals than Billy Graham.

Graham came to be “the primary engine of America’s cold war religious revival” (Belton 2010). Preaching to thousands, Graham presented the Gospel as the only means of salvation from not only eternal hell, but from the “evil forces of Communism” as well:

The battle is between communism and Christianity! …When communism conquers a nation, it makes every man a slave! When Christianity conquers…it makes every man a king! (Belton 2010)

The preaching of Graham was noticed by “media baron William Randolph Hearst, a staunch anti-communist,” who instructed his newspapers to “Puff Graham” (Belton 2010). Hearst’s mass media support provided the medium that “rocketed Graham,” and evangelicals, “onto the national stage” (Belton 2010). Graham’s anti-communist Gospel contributed to the marriage between conservative evangelicalism and right wing politics and economics, which oppose macro social programs aimed at racial equality today (Belton 2010; Brint and Schroedel 2009).

It is true that Graham occasionally spoke about “racial tolerance,” but according to Graham, “racism [and all social injustice] is not a social/structural issue; it is merely a symptom of sin;” Therefore, all we need to do to save the country is to convert individuals to Christianity (Belton 2010). Graham’s simplistic—“All you need is Jesus”—Gospel, required very little more than an outward expression of personal piety and church attendance, systemic efforts toward social justice be damned. Similarly, most white evangelicals today are focused on a Jesus who has little concern for macro social justice reforms that appear to be part of the “liberal-agenda.”

BILLY GRAHAM’S JESUS VS MARTIN LUTHER KING’S JESUS

It is noted that “one of the feats of Billy Graham…was to refocus the evangelical movement around the figure of Jesus in a way that cut across denominational lines,” thereby creating stronger ties among evangelicals (Wuthnow 2009:29). However, since white evangelicals have failed to take seriously the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and systemic racism, they have failed to deconstruct the figure of Jesus that was promulgated by slave masters in the U.S. That is, the Jesus that Billy Graham made popular among evangelicals was eerily similar to the Jesus who was preached to the slaves—One who was concerned with obedience and an outward expression of personal piety, divorced from notions of social justice such as achieving racial equality in the U.S. To be clear, I am not suggesting that Graham was trying to create “good” slaves, however, he did very little to oppose other white evangelical “leaders and congregations [that] frequently condoned and sometimes actively supported segregation and subordination of African Americans up through…the 50s and 60s” (Lichterman et al. 2009:192; Vesely-Flad 2011). While Billy may have sincerely wanted to save souls from hell, his obsession with the afterlife and conservative political leanings were more important to him, and most other white evangelicals, than the racial oppression that was happening right before their eyes.

Graham went so far, in April of 1963, along with other white preachers, as to call on Martin Luther King, Jr. to “put the brakes on a little bit” regarding direct action to end segregation (Anon 1963; Belton 2010). While Graham preached a few “integrated” crusades, all he really did was remove a rope that divided white and black people at his crusades. His “efforts” paled in comparison to those of the children who were hosed down, bitten by dogs, and arrested for protesting segregation in the South. The complicity of white preachers, including Graham, in maintaining segregation prompted Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, in which he chastised the “white moderate [and preacher], who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice” (Belton 2010; King, Jr. 1963). Herein lies the theological distinction between white evangelicals and the Black Church today. The Jesus who identified with the oppressed is the same Jesus that motivated Dr. King and many other champions of the Civil Rights era—unlike the Jesus that motivated Graham’s individualistic, anti-structuralist, pro-conservative-politics gospel, which influences evangelical thinking on race relations today.

ANTI-LIBERAL RISE OF THE CHRISTIAN RIGHT

            The end of the 1970s gave birth to a plethora of politically conservative organizations such as The Christian Right, the Christian Voice, and the Moral Majority (Brint and Schroedel 2009:5). Since the 1980s, evangelicals have pledged uncanny allegiance to right-wing politics. I would argue that a theological orientation that required nothing more than a personal relationship with Jesus and a life of individualistic repentance from sin, with no call to social justice, and selectively “literalist” interpretations of the Bible on issues of gender roles, homosexuality, and abortion are the primary orientations that influence evangelicals to detest progressive reforms that they believe are violating “biblical values.” The propensity for “order” over justice seems related to religious roots in the slave master’s Christology that elevates personal piety over notions of justice and freedom related to civic matters. This anti-liberal ethos against Civil Rights reforms continues to cloud white evangelicals’ views on racial inequalities today.

In the decades following the desegregation of public schools (Brown v. Board of Ed.), and the Civil Rights years of the 60s and 70s, thousands of white families, including white evangelicals, moved to “more desirable locations,” and even opened privately-owned all-white “Christian” academies (Emerson and Smith 2000; Massey and Denton 1993; Vesely-Flad 2011). Today, many of these schools and neighborhoods remain just as segregated as they were forty years ago.

In my paper, The Evangelical Ethic and the Spirit of Color-blind Racism, I outline several seemingly “race-neutral” cultural and theological orientations of white evangelicals today that guide their actions toward color-blind racism. The color-blind racism of white evangelicals includes the denial of systemic racism, which results in dampened support for programs that would mitigate racial inequalities on a systemic level. The most damning evidence for white evangelical color-blind racism can be found in the fact that “for every 1-unit increase in number of white evangelical congregations per 1,000 non-Hispanic whites in every county in every region across the country, there were significant increases in all measures of segregation” (Blanchard 2007).

In this excerpt I presented the genealogy of a “White American Jesus,” who influences white evangelicals to perpetuate inequality by subordinating social justice to personal piety and church attendance. I would hope that if they want to be true to the message of Jesus Christ, that they would take some time to learn from traditions that have championed causes for the poor and oppressed in the name of Jesus Christ.

WORKS CITED

Anon. 1963. “Billy Graham Urges Restrain in Sit-Ins.” New York Times, April 18, Archives. Retrieved (http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=FA0B15F9385D117B93CAA8178FD85F478685F9).

Belton, David. 2010. “The Soul of a Nation.” God in America. Retrieved (http://www.pbs.org/godinamerica/transcripts/hour-five.html).

Blanchard, Troy C. 2007. “Conservative Protestant Congregations and Racial Residential Segregation: Evaluating the Closed Community Thesis in Metropolitan and Nonmetropolitan Counties.” American Sociological Review 72(3):416–33.

Du Bois, W. E. B. 2000. “Religion in the South.” Pp. 69–89 in Du Bois on Religion, edited by Phil Zuckerman. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Brint, Steven G., and Jean Reith Schroedel, eds. 2009. Evangelicals and Democracy in America. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Christerson, Brad, Korie L. Edwards, and Michael O. Emerson. 2005. Against All Odds : The Struggle for Racial Integration in Religious Organizations. New York: New York University Press.

Cone, James H. 1997. Black Theology and Black Power. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis.

Emerson, Michael O., and Christian Smith. 2000. Divided by Faith : Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

Emerson, Michael O., Christian Smith, and David Sikkink. 1999. “Equal in Christ, but Not in the World: White Conservative Protestants and Explanations of Black-White Inequality.” Social Problems 46(3):398–417.

Emerson, Michael O., and Rodney M. Woo. 2006. People of the Dream : Multiracial Congregations in the United States. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

King, Jr., Martin Luther. 1963. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Retrieved (http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html).

Lichterman, Paul, Prudence L. Carter, and Michèle Lamont. 2009. “Race-Bridging for Christ? Conservative Christians and Black-White Relations in Community Life.” Pp. 187–220 in Evangelicals and Democracy in America, edited by Steven G. Brint and Jean Reith Schroedel. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Marx, Karl. 1975. “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law.” in Karl Marx, Frederick Engels: Collected Works, vol. 3, edited by Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx. New York: International Publishers. Retrieved (http://www.columbia.edu/cgi-bin/cul/resolve?clio6961573.008).

Massey, Douglas S., and Nancy A. Denton. 1993. American Apartheid : Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Vesely-Flad, Rima. 2011. “The Social Covenant and Mass Incarceration: Theologies of Race and Punishment.” Anglican Theological Review 93(4):541–62.

Wuthnow, Robert. 2009. “The Cultural Capital of American Evangelicalism.” Pp. 27–43 in Evangelicals and Democracy in America, edited by Steven G. Brint and Jean Reith Schroedel. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

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.

Christians should abandon all elements of Christianity that have nothing to do with the Jesus Movement of 1st Century Palestine! But also, we should adopt anything that promotes the full humanity of all people, even if it wasn’t present in the early Jesus Movement.Why? Listen to Audre Lorde:

“For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. Racism and homophobia are real conditions of all our lives in this place and time. I urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives here. See whose face it wears. Then the personal as the political can begin to illuminate all our choices.”