As reported by multiple outlets and buzzing on social media, New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, a Black megachurch in metro Atlanta, raised $120,000 to bail out 23 non-violent offenders before Easter. The money will also support an eight-week program for the released participants with weekly check-ins and one-to-one mentoring and a fund for the educational needs of the children of released detainees.
Scholars at UCLA note that organized bail funds in the United States go back to at least the 1920s, and currently operate in over twenty cities across the US., But, Jocelyn Simonson argues that only in the last five to seven years have bail funds as “formal charitable bail funds…formed expressly for the purpose of posting bail” expanded as a tool of racial justice activists. New Birth’s Easter bail out may be the beginning of a new trend in bail outs by Black megachurches, already deeply involved in community development and direct service to poor communities. However, the way that pastor Dr. Jamal Bryant has celebrated and promoted the New Birth bail out initiative casts some doubt on whether New Birth can simultaneously sustain a theology of personal redemption for the incarcerated and a critique of pretrial detention that does disproportionate harm to poor communities of Black and Latinx people.
Minor legal offenses are committed in every community, but are policed and charged more aggressively in poor communities of color. Assigning cash bail is nominally an incentive for court appearance, but not being able to pay cash bail for release causes job loss, social stigma, negative health impacts, and puts one at high risk of physical assault and sexual abuse while held. Pretrial detention places pressure on the person being held to plead guilty and accept a permanent criminal record, truthfully or not, so that they can return home. Cash bail thus criminalizes the poverty of accused persons. It undermines the presumption of innocence before trial which many US citizens hold as a fundamental national value and human right.
The basics of bail out initiatives are fairly simple. Bail outs are a collectively funded strategy that posts bail for people who can’t afford it, allowing them to return to their homes, families, and communities until trial. They can keep their jobs and and put a defense together under better conditions. One bail out collective, the Bronx Freedom Fund, found that 55% of the cases of clients whose bail they paid resulted in a dismissal of all charges and 40% resulted in a violation charge which carries no criminal record (similar to a traffic ticket). A key focus of many bail outs, including the New Birth initiative, is reuniting people with their families, especially dependent elders, stand-in or solo caregivers, and children who are deeply impacted by the incarceration of their loved ones.
Bail outs have an immediate impact on detainees, but they can also challenge the justice of the money bail system on both due process and equal protection claims. In Georgia, where New Birth Missionary Baptist Church is located, courts heard multiple suits against pre-set bail schedules and the money bail system in 2016 and 2017. In 2018, amid concerns about legal action against the city, Atlanta passed new ordinances eliminating cash bond requirements for some low-level offenses. Under Gov. Nathan Deal the state passed SB 407 which gives judges the ability to avoid requiring defendants charged with non-violent offenses to pay a cash bail based on their financial status, although this reform legislation continues to have legislative opposition.
Racial justice activists have made clear the advocacy and consciousness-raising role of bail out actions. Yet, despite connections to Black Lives Matter and other movements for racial justice, the press coverage on the New Birth initiative sends mixed signals about whether advocacy is a key part of its vision for the work of the Easter bail out.
Dr. Jamal Bryant, the recently installed pastor of the Atlanta-based megachurch, has been a supporter of Black Lives Matter: he spoke and was arrested in Ferguson, he pressed other pastors to support Black Lives Matter, and gave the eulogy for Freddie Gray when he was still pastor of Empowerment Temple, an AME megachurch in Baltimore.
CBS reported that Bryant claimed that the bail out responds to the church’s responsibility to be on the “frontline” of change in the carceral system: “Prisons have taken the place of plantations of how it is that we are unduly charged and sentenced.”
But in another interview Bryant was quoted as saying the church was “affirming that everyone deserves a second chance” and that the bail out was to “provide these young men and women with an opportunity to reunite with their families, resurrect their lives and get back on the right path.” By using language of a “second chance” tied to the image of resurrection Bryant perpetuates the idea that those detained are guilty. This language implicitly supports their initial detention as risk assessment until the church makes a monetary commitment as their substitute. This theological logic undermines the advocacy work which the bail out could do to oppose money bail as an unjust burden upon poor communities, because along with the mainstream culture it associates merely being charged with a crime with guilt, just punishment, and a permanent record.
Contrast the Easter bail out with bail out work in Atlanta and beyond by Southerners on New Ground (SONG), a regional Queer Liberation organization. In 2017 and 2018 SONG coordinated with the National Bail Out Collective (NBOC) to coordinate annual Mama’s Day Bail Outs, an initiative to bail out Black Mamas (cis and trans women caregivers) so that they could spend Mother’s Day with their families and to raise consciousness of the inherent racism of money bail. (See this year’s ongoing #FreeBlackMamas Bailout). The program also provides fellowships and employment opportunities to those who they bail out. The fellowship program not only provides support for transition back out of the carceral system, but has the explicit aim of “creat[ing] a national community of leaders who have experienced incarceration” in keeping with the NBOC political philosophy that the reform effort must be led by coalitions of individuals and communities “most impacted by cages.”
Reflecting on their work in 2017, SONG noted that the bail out action made them realize “more than ever that the next step in our work is to abolish the system of cash bail.” It verified the reality that the “longer our folks are held hostage in the cage, the harder it becomes for our people to survive outside of it.” Their experience also tested and modeled the needs assessment, risk assessment, and community discernment which could sustain a fully abolitionist politics which takes seriously the potential for recidivism, mental health care deficits, and gaps in the regional social safety net. SONG is committed to a vision of social community in which self-determination meets collective responsibility, and their experience in the first Black Mama’s Bail Out put them on a path to continued advocacy for a needs assessment bail policy in Durham NC through courtwatching programs and other related organizing strategies.
What’s the value of such a comparing the New Birth Missionary Baptist bail out to SONG for readers who value diverse strategies and collaborations in the work for racial justice in the South?
The highlight is this: the work of New Birth Missionary Baptist shows that black megachurches are still struggling with the question Bryant identified in an interview with the Atlantic on BLM in 2016: “How do you become a part of something you don’t lead?”
Prior to coming to Atlanta, Dr. Bryant noted that the movement for black lives is less firmly rooted in the Black church than the civil rights movement was. He supported and called on other church leaders to support the movement. Black churches, megachurches and small parishes, are engaging in the struggle for black liberation from mass incarceration. By holding a separate Bail Out, which is “all about redemption” for non-violent, first-time “offenders” New Birth Ministries builds on the momentum of Black Lives Matter, the new cultural moment for opposing the racial injustice of mass incarceration, and a shared commitment to Black self-affirmation while sidelining the more radical political and cultural critique for which BLM activists like SONG advocate.
SONG’s projects are consistently collaborative with other grassroots organizations like the Black Youth Project, All of Us or None, the Transformative Justice League, Georgia Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, Project South, National Bail Out Collective, and the Transgender Law Center. There is persistent, visible leadership in SONG, e.g. a board and a paid staff, but the movement is committed to an intersectional, collective, long-term strategy of capacity building for political and cultural transformation which is constantly re-assessing its tactics and its vision with the active and distributed membership that is central to the work. They call this being “member-driven.”
The promotion of the Easter Bail Out on social media gives Atlanta and the wider Christian world another look at Dr. Jamal Bryant as a “Black Lives Matter” pastor. But while $120,000 for bail outs in Georgia is something to celebrate, the optics and public theo-logic of the media around the bail out are not good.
Where is the rest of the church in these announcements? (I couldn’t find a single article or press release which gave a quote from any other member of the church, and only one article which interviewed someone other than Dr. Bryant, one of those released by the Easter bail out.) Dr. Bryant is the focus, as is common in megachurch culture, but contradictory to the BLM focus on collective action and distributed leadership. Where are the coalition partners in the fight for justice? Bail out partnerships with rapper T.I. and VH1’s Scrapp Deleon look like the high visibility partnerships of other megachurches with celebrity figures, in which pastors and celebrities benefit from one another’s dedicated audiences and become even bigger “influencers.”
Most black megachurches offer a variety of community outreach and development programs, but overall these have a focus on economic uplift. While the megachurch mentality and rhetoric often imagines the church’s outreach efforts spread a transformative wave into whole neighborhoods, cities, and international spaces, the programs tend to emphasize service and social redemption while social action and advocacy which directly challenges oppressive structures and systems that make up the status quo are much less common, especially in the South. In 2016, Harold Dean Trulear argued that public theology in the African American church is waning, “To the extent that when congregations do respond to social ills and problems, they have exhibited a propensity toward reducing their efforts to more individualistic means of engagement… theo-therapeutic solutions to worldly challenges and brokenness, without considering that there may be something amiss with the system, worldview, and institutions within which such problems emerge.”
Historically, a key role for public theology is defining or rearticulating social problems for members of the faith community: integrating social action and advocacy into a holistic vocation within a religious cosmology. A commitment to social activism in the spirit of Black Lives Matter and opposition to the New Jim Crow, is at odds with a message which accommodates traditional evangelical narratives about the importance of individual redemption. Operating outside of the coalitions formed by grassroots activists, without even gesturing to the history or inspiring example of such movements, instrumentalizes these movements, coopting their strategies and public acclaim. Such rejections of interdependence and mutual accountability are at best naive. More troubling, insofar as the Easter bail out initiative remains rooted in or rhetorically reliant upon a political theology of redemption through the carceral system it reinstates the very ideology of the practices it purportedly seeks to overcome (in some articulations).
As Tanya Erzen recalls in her study of evangelical prison ministries common in Southern states, prisons were originally called “penitentiaries” because work, isolation, and “opportunities” for prayer were deemed suitable methods of reshaping the lives of confined criminals to sufficient submissiveness to the status quo such that they could be entrusted with their freedom, such as it was. Inasmuch as prison and jail ministries make prison more humane by providing services such as GED classes, mental health care, college education, vocational and recreational programming to prisoners, such ministries continue this tradition of preparing individuals to be respectably rehabilitated individuals. Such programs maintain the public’s faith in jails and prisons as an appropriate segregation of the bad from the good, offering a taste of deterring punishment with a side of appropriate rehabilitation programs for the redemption of individuals who have made bad choices or refused personal responsibility.
At the same time, mass incarceration studies have shown that disproportionate surveillance, policing, and mandatory sentencing laws, etc. in poor minority communities is not responsive to harms done to those communities, nor focused on the control and “reform” of individual “bad actors” who disrupt social control, but on establishing the segregation and docility of whole segments of the population “among whom individualization is limited to a crude form of risk assessment.” Christian ministries aimed at humanizing state-provisions for individual conversion of law-breakers into model citizens and redeemed Christians, therefore, have failed to reckon with the transformation of the carceral system into a mechanism of indiscriminate warehousing of “surplus” people for whom society would prefer not to provide equitable access to public education, health care, social services, jobs, and the vote.
Can the redemption narratives of Easter—of God’s love shown for all in the resurrection of Jesus as one who broke the confining cage of death by his total fidelity to God’s creative will even unto death on a cross, of God who came to die amongst humanity in order that we might live with God—be a relevant theological logic for a bail out action? If so, how should we speak of the redemption and freedom of Easter morning for the individuals and communities affected by pretrial injustice and mass incarceration?
The redemption, i.e. “purchase,” of life by the payment of bail for “sins” cannot connote the sin of the accused individual as a community debt without simultaneously exonerating the carceral system. Instead, in order to confront the inequities of the carceral system, bail outs must be aimed at redeeming from bondage those who are held without regard for their innocence or guilt, but because of their poverty. Redemption buys freedom, not from the internal bondage of sin, but from the externalized sins of white supremacy which dehumanize and devalue some of the children of God in order to profit others.
One model of how redemption language is itself being “redeemed” might be found in the work of Edward Orozco Flores who in his discussion of “redemption scripts” available to the released emphasizes a distinction between programming which asks prisoners to transform and responsibilize themselves into law-abiding, i.e. state-manageable citizens and programming which uses redemption as a therapeutic discourse motivating political resistance and collective action. As Flores makes clear, drawing on the narratives of many people with records who work in faith-based community organizing, it’s not a simple either/or. Changing and challenging the way that people see and receive previously incarcerated persons involves both critical response to social institutions in and around the carceral system and personal re-assessment and self-work.
However, churches engaging previously detained or incarcerated persons have to take into account their own positionality and the frequency of over-charged or innocent detainees: churches cannot be party to redemption narratives which exonerate the carceral system and at the same time partners with those they bail out, even where those they bail out may be in need of community intervention in order to avoid doing future harm.
New Birth Missionary Baptist isn’t alone in responding to the needs of those in pretrial detention or in responding as a matter of faith. Other churches and Christian-movement groups are raising money for community bail out funds in Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and St. Louis as well as serving as venues and hosts for Participatory Defense forums. In order for churches to become integrated partners and effective participants in the movement for pretrial justice, Black Lives Matter, or the re-imagining of a just and mutually accountable nation for diverse people, they will continue to have to wrestle with how the societal influence of Christianity will manifest in this time and place and the role that pastors and church initiatives have in envisioning and advancing justice work. Framing the issues is key. Redemption is a powerful economic metaphor within Christian theology, but in bailing out detainees it can best be used as a communal rather than individual narrative: all are in need of redemption from both systemic evils and personal complicity in them. The road to redemption is long and we will need partners along the way, especially amongst those who know the harms of the system best. In the Easter story Christians can be affirmed in the belief that whether for profit or as part of an exclusionary narrative of the common good suffering at the hands of the State doesn’t have the final word.
Framing the issues is key. Redemption is a powerful economic metaphor within Christian theology, but in bailing out detainees it can best be used as a communal rather than individual narrative: all are in need of redemption from both systemic evils and personal complicity in them. The road to redemption is long and we will need partners along the way, especially amongst those who know the harms of the system best. In the Easter story Christians can be affirmed in the belief that whether for profit or as part of an exclusionary narrative of the common good suffering at the hands of the State doesn’t have the final word.