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Awakenings by Luz CC BY-NC 2.0
The Brink

Break Every Yoke

Abolition is not just about closing prisons. It’s not just about stopping police or closing police departments, but it’s also about abolishing the police in our heads. It’s also about abolishing the prisons in our imaginations that prevent us from thinking about new ways and better ways to treat each other and to keep each other safe.

This piece first appeared in Political Theology volume 23, issue 4, a special issue on Incarceration and Decarceration. The full issue is available here.

The following has been excepted from a September 23, 2020 event hosted by Columbia University’s Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life (IRCPL). Moderated by Kendall Thomas of Columbia Law School, the panel was structured around Joshua Dubler and Vincent Lloyd’s Break Every Yoke (Oxford University Press, 2019). Lynice Pinkard is a preacher, writer, and organizer, and spiritual director. Kempis “Ghani” Songster is a Philadelphia-based abolitionist practitioner. A video of the entire event may be streamed from IRCL’s website.

Rev. Lynice Pinkard: Thank you so much. It’s such a blessing to be here with all of you and to be able to see your faces for the very first time. And I want to say, especially, I’m honored to be with another abolitionist soulmate, brother Ghani Songster. I’m honored to be on this panel with you. Thank you so much.

What within us is anxious to protect the inner chains that bind us? My joy is gone. Grief is upon me. My heart is sick. I am filled with dread as I anticipate a festival of humanism. What within us is so sick that he clings to our conditions of existence, precarious though they are. Hear the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land. Is the Lord not in Zion? The audience is inundated with yes-we-can rhetoric and unbounded optimism. What is so exhausted from troubles, jolts, needs, that on a given day tomorrow seems farther away than the moon. The harvest is past. The summer is ended, and we are not delivered.

One speaker after the next describes a bright future where Black life is valued and Black people are respected as humans if we just keep fighting. We’re almost there. What is constructed on the basis of effort always ends up collapsing from exhaustion. Is there no balm in Gilead? Here come the charts and graphs laying out voting patterns and districts and talk about how if Black people just voted in huge numbers, then we could put a stop to voter suppression. We could stop anti-Black police practices and make the world a better place. The audience always claps enthusiastically.

Is there no physician there? Somebody implores the audience to keep fighting for legal change because the law is a powerful weapon for ending discrimination and restoring justice. What is so enthralling that we don’t feel the water that is already bathing our legs? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored? We just need to return to the principles that founded our constitution – liberty, equality, and justice. The audience shouts and applauds.

Why do we think that we can make something happen by lifting the lever of bad conscience, by scratching our scabs in public? Oh, that my head were a spring of water and my eyes a fountain of tears so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people. In the end, we’ll transform everything into a boy. The drowning are known for that – for trying to turn everything they touch into a life preserver.

Things are getting better despite the increasing death toll, the unchecked power of police state, the prison industrial complex and the modern re-enslavement of an entire generation. The unbelievable Black infant mortality rate, lack of jobs for Black youth, and the debilitating poverty. Disbelief goes nicely with the filthy landscape.

The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not delivered. The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not delivered. The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not delivered. The harvest is past. The summer is ended. And we are not delivered.


There is a balm in Gilead

To make the wounded whole

There is a balm in Gilead

To heal the sin-sick soul

And then I saw it. Right on the page. I read it with my very own eyes, lurching beyond impossibility. Hear these words from the prophets Dubler and Lloyd. It is worth noting that the strain of abolitionism is being revived. The appeal of abolitionism is not just about the depth and scope of the injustices and perils we confront, but also because of a gathering understanding that our civic institutions as they are presently constituted are wholly incapable of doing anything to fix them. Abolitionist dreams begin where impossibility leaves off. Reading from the gospel according to an incarcerated journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, abolitionists are, simply put, those beings who look out upon their time and say no.

Inside us there lives something that the society that seeks to control us can never know or reach. That something is a largely incoherent and irrepressible energy which has demolished empires. Every state without exception coops, corrupts, and seeks to destroy all those capable of saying no. But no state has ever been able to foresee or prevent the day when their most ruined and abject accomplice or most expensively dressed prostitute – the church perhaps – will growl this far and no further.

I am inspired by Joshua and Vincent’s call to sing abolition in a religious key. It is time to do abolition church. I ask, are American prisons and American churches two sides of the same coin? When we raise this question, does it make you anxious? I feel this anxiety too but I want to stay with the good trouble. To grapple with what such questions open up. Abolitionist thought teaches us that when an institution, whether slavery, the prison, or the church, has become attached to so many real and meaningful anxieties about politics and purpose, life and living, it has come to will the force of necessity. Indeed, churches resist knowledge of themselves, as any local pastor accountable to a denominational body often bulwarks against the real power of our faith knows. The epistemological refusal of knowledge that constitutes the institution as such works by constantly normalizing its modes of forgetting behind the veil of institutional obviousness. Such an institution resists both theory and praxis alike because of how fixedly it attaches to what we value in the world: status, security, wealth, and power.

So abolition offers an occasion to trouble the church as we know and inhabit it and as it inhabits us. We are asking a different question. What would an abolitionist church look like? First we must admit that all the walls are falling down and we must stop trying to prop them up. The truth of the matter is that God has left the building and all that is not born of the spirit has to die. Yes, grieve. Really grieve. I am not talking about being tired and depressed and giving up. I am talking about grief as the kernel of a prophetic consciousness that examines what critique looks like when it gives up the urge for rescue and permits itself to bear the wounds of devastation and loss. I am talking about when things come undone and there is no answer in philosophy or refuge in reason. Despair is despair because it does not know the way out. And Kierkegard, Jeremiah, and Jesus, not to mention a score of Christian mystics have shown what Joshua and Vincent are pointing to which is that faith is the only real way out of despair. And this is not the work of rational reflection and systematic knowledge. Faith is not about the proof of God’s existence. Faith is aligned with the absurd. The incommunicable and the extraordinary embedded in ordinary life. Whether you were thinking of Theodor Adorno, the Frankfurt School bunch, George Bataille, Frantz Fanon, Jeremiah of Anathoth, or Jesus of Nazareth, the question is what does freedom look like and feel like when it is fastened to a rupture – fastened to things coming undone and breaking apart. I am talking about a despair that is aligned with freedom and is a viable source of abolitionist vitality.

We are being delivered from the lives for which we have been so carefully prepared by the grace of God. We have to choose between two crimes: engaging in the moral crime of taking part in the orgy of destruction brought on by these deathly systems, or, as we struggle to desert them and bring them down, engaging in acts that will be deemed crimes and punished by the law and order agents of these systems.

I leave you with this: Christianity in the United States has not always been beholden to White supremacy. While the plantation church enforced chattel slavery through the racist proof texting of biblical submission narratives, another Christianity was being born in the antebellum hush harbors. Rejecting the segregated rafters of Black only balconies, this church stole away to the wild places – the woods, swamps, uninhabitable wastelands where the spirit would lay waste – white supremacist Christianity. Ring shouts would conjure this spirit along with ancestral African spirits filling those who dare to join this clandestine church with a power that could not be chained. The Bible became a talking book where reading ability wasn’t necessary to learn the story songs of the faith, the true stories of liberation and freedom, not the co-opted Pauline narratives of mastery. Liturgical elements included sodden blankets and an overturned pot to muffle the sounds of such christian joy. In these hush harbors a church was born, a church riskier and in greater rhythm and reliance with the natural world than any we’ve known. With the risk came the reward, an untamed spirit discovered in the ring shout. Where Biblical languages of liberation were learned and deep African memory was cultivated from earth, branch, root, and sky.

The spirit of the hush harbors persists still in our time.

Ghani Songster: As I listen to my sister Lynice, I ask myself, why on Earth did y’all have me go behind her. But I think it’s important, what she just did, what she lifted up and the language that’s lifted up and the ideas that’s lifted up in Break Every Yoke is where our survival lies moving forward. Because that is a language that is a reservoir of power that the forces of ill will that seeks to keep us enslaved and keep us oppressed cannot contend with. Because it is irrational. It’s radical. It’s unpredictable. And that’s what the law is really about. The law is not about good behavior. It’s about consistent, predictable behavior. And people of faith that are driven by faith are not predictable.

In my thirty years of incarceration – I went in at the age of fifteen in 1987. I was sentenced to life without parole, or what we increasingly and more aptly refer to now as death-by-incarceration because in Pennsylvania life without parole has no number and then you’re eligible to see the parole board like in other states. Not twenty years, not twenty-five years, not thirty years. No amount of years. You’re sent to prison to die. And no matter what you do you will never be eligible.  The only reason I am here is because of a pretty much miraculous US Supreme Court ruling that came down in 2012 that said that it’s unconstitutional for children or people under eighteen years of age to be sentenced to mandatory life without parole. I was released five years after that, thirty years and three months later, on December 28, 2017 at the age of 45.

And, let me say, that it is a miracle to be standing here before you after having went to prison, no hair on my face, 130 pounds and light skin, let me throw that in there, because in 1987 when prison was still prison, jail was still jail, and there was no cameras like they have now, there was a lot of blind spots where you could be gotten. Being young and small and light-skinned makes you a prey. The fact that I am here today in front of you, that I made it through 30 years of that fully intact, is a miracle. And it was because of my ability to tap into some spiritual things, some deeper things. Because it’s no way you can go through a situation like that or up against a monolithic and gargantuan opposition that we’re dealing with and that our ancestors had to deal with through slavery without tapping into something above and beyond our own selves. Everything that sister Lynice talked about, that’s the only way that we could contend. And Josh and Vince I salute and applaud you for this book because it is so relevant and important especially now in this time of moral reckoning, spiritual reckoning, and spiritual awakening. And when I’m talking about spiritual awakening, I’m not just talking about awakening to our knowledge of God, even though that’s a very important part, but our spiritual awakening to our connectedness, each of us to one another and to everything and to our planet. And it’s that connectedness, that intricate web of relation, that thread that binds us all together as one, that thread where if there is an injustice anywhere else in this planet or happening to anyone else, we feel it and it animates us. That’s the spirituality that I’m talking about.

And it’s this one part in the book I want to just lift up to ground what I want to say. And it’s the part that’s on page 46 where it says in the last paragraph – and Josh and Vince, y’all laid it out so eloquently – y’all said:

The will to abolish is what comes forth when pessimism about the possibility for affecting justice hits rock bottom and careens back up in the form of righteous fury. Like Kierkegard’s knight of faith who must first pass through infinite resignation, abolitionism is both the abandonment of hope and its weaponization. In ways that can only be read as dangerous, abolitionism is both apocalyptic and messianic. It is the struggle of good against evil. And though it acknowledges that death will almost surely take you and me before the struggle is won, it is unyielding in its sense of urgency.

So it’s a couple of things in that I want to lift up. The part about pessimism is so crucial. During this time of uprising, we’ve seen some unprecedented things happen. We’ve seen the cry for defunding the police become more popular than ever. We’ve seen fifteen cities all across this country cry for defunding the police. Minneapolis even talking about dismantling and disbanding its police department. Mayor Garcetti of Los Angeles defunding the police 150 million dollars, Seattle defunding the police by 50%, New York talking about defunding the police by 1 billion dollars. Things that was unheard of and that were nonstarters just last year, today they are popular things. We’re arguing these points. All of this is pitted against this backdrop of a global pandemic, which everybody may not have been exposed to, but everybody has been already exposed by. We’ve all been exposed by this virus. The system has been laid bare by this virus.

And I saw an appeal that was made for the bringing of the Maroons to the foreground in Black intellectual history. And the Maroons, for everybody who might not know, were those – not just Africans because they were also Indian Maroons and white Maroons. You have to read Russel Maroon Shoatz’s Real Resistance to Slavery in North America. Maroons were those enslaved people, mostly Africans though, who ran away from the plantation into inhospitable areas, whether it was the mountains of Jamaica or the everglades of Florida or the dismal swamps from Virginia to North Carolina or the palm forests of Brazil or the woods of Hispaniola, now Haiti and the Dominican Republic, all over the new world, who resisted the plantocracy. We resisted the plantation system and almost grinded to a halt. Gave birth to this idea called marronage, which is short for maroonage. And it’s a spectrum of resistance from petit marronage to grand marronage. Petit marronage was when there may have been truancy, we may have ran away to go visit a relative on another plantation, or we may have dragged our feet in our work or we may have spit in the slave master’s food. To grand marronage – running away from the plantation and setting up entire communities in these inhospitable areas, war camps and hideouts, coming back to the plantation and liberating others and taking them to these places of liberty. Grand marronage and waging war against the plantation system for 150 years. The underground railroad was grand marronage. The Seminole Wars was grand marronage.

And out of that culture of Maroon or grand marronage came a politics of pessimism. And this pessimism is a pessimism kind of like you articulated, Josh and Vince. We don’t hold the states’ feet to the fire, necessarily. At least not in the hopes that it will be improved. It doesn’t think or hope the state will one day get better. Indeed, as it says, Black marronage is by definition the escape from the central spaces of the white supremacist order of voting with the feet. It’s an expression of a fundamental pessimism about the colonies’ capacity to improve and to do so in a timely fashion, like now. Maroon politics recognizes the fugitives’ inability to overturn the state of things and so flees to spaces where it is possible to live outside of the reach of this racist power. It’s a pessimism about what the state can give us, but it’s an optimism about what we can give ourselves. It’s a faith in our own capacity to shape our own future and our own destiny. Or we flee and retreat to a better position.

And in freeing, there is also a recognition of settler colonialism’s inability to rid itself of its founding ideology which is racist violence. And this incapacity, a lot of times the liberals present it as failures. This is not a failure. They present it as the failure of the state – the prison and the cities and states are failing Black communities, the system is failing Black patients, it’s failing Black voters, it’s failing Black students, the system is failing. No, no, the system is not failing. The system is incapable. It’s an incapacity. The system, if it is succeeding, it’s succeeding at doing what it’s designed to do. And so representing incapacity as failure implies the possibility that it will eventually succeed, and we wash our hands in that belief. We don’t think that the state can succeed. We don’t think that the state or the system as it is now can be redeemed. We believe that human beings can be redeemed and individuals can be redeemed and our communities can be redeemed. But we don’t believe that this current criminal legal system – we don’t believe that this system that’s rooted in oppression and white supremacy and slavery can ever be redeemed. And so the Maroon is Sisyphus escaped. We are Sisyphus escaped.[1]

And so that piece that you lifted up about that pessimism – and this is not a pessimism where we walk around with our heads low and dejected. This is a pessimism where we could walk down the street whistling a happy tune because we are fully awoke to the possibilities that exist in us when we come together, when we realize what we have the capacity to do in this moment. And in this piece, this very important and urgent book, which you present as the abolitionist horizon, I think the most important part is the language that it liberates in us. It liberated our imagination. It liberates in us a language, an unfettered language, a language that is unfettered by the limits of secularism and is just set free by a language that’s full of miracles and possibilities and poetry, like sister Lynice just broke down.

And when you read Frederick Douglass, one of our premier abolitionists – when he said in his Fourth of July speech in response to those people in the audience that felt as though he should engage in more argument, he should engage in more persuasion. They said if you would persuade more and denounce less, if you would argue more and rebuke less, maybe your cause could find success. And his response was that where everything is plain, nothing needs to be argued. Slavery is a foregone conclusion, why should I have to convince you that slavery is wrong? I will denounce slavery as America’s gravest sin in the gravest language that I can command. And it’s a quote that always resonated me, and I’m gonna quote this from memory where he said – and think about today, where we’re at right now in this time – he said, “at a time like this, scorching irony not convincing argument is needed. Oh had I the ability and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would today pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire. It is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened. The conscience of the nation must be roused. The propriety of the nation must be startled. And the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed and it’s crimes against God and humankind must be proclaimed and denounced.”

That is the heritage that I think is important for us moving forward. The heritage of not mincing any words, not allowing our tongues and our imaginations and what we know to be right and wrong to be limited and handcuffed by secular language, by statistics, by policy arguments, by strategies. No, the kind of language that Martin Luther King lifted up. He gave a vision. He spoke about that divine justice. He spoke to the heart of America. He spoke to the soul of America. He spoke to America’s better angels. And he charged the better angels of America to stand up. And I think moving forward, what I get as most important from this book is the liberation of our imagination, more than ever. That’s what’s important for us moving forward. Because, in my view, abolition is not just about closing prisons. It’s not just about stopping police or closing police departments, but it’s also about abolishing the police in our heads. It’s also about abolishing the prisons on our imaginations that prevents us to think about new ways and better ways to treat each other and to keep each other safe.

And so, sister Lynice, thank you for setting us at liberty with that beautiful spiel you gave. I think that what you said really encapsulates what this book is about. Josh and Vince, I pray that the circulation of this book widens and that its course through the veins of this society picks up because we need to think about new ways to combat this system that we’re being oppressed by right now. Our salvation is in the liberation of our imagination and we have to tap into the power of spirit in this time. The spirit of humanity because this is a struggle about how we all become more fully human. And this is what it’s about. How do we all become more fully human in this moment? How do we tap into that distinct human capacity to see our connectedness in each other and to this planet and draw on that strength?

[1] See Yannick Marshall, “An Appeal –Bring the Maroon to the Foreground in Black Intellectual History,” Black Perspectives, June 19, 2020

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