As the leader of Abolitionist Sanctuary, a coalition that empowers Black churches to embody emancipatory theology and abolitionist principles, I have long found nourishment in the writings of Vincent Lloyd. Himself an abolitionist, a Black scholar of religion, and an academic organizer, Lloyd’s writings bring together the Black radical tradition and Black Christianity to resource today’s anti-racist movements.
Lloyd directs the Center for Political Theology at Villanova University, and he has just published a new book, Black Dignity: The Struggle Against Domination. He spoke to me from his rowhouse in West Philadelphia. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You can hear Nikia Robert and Vincent Lloyd discuss these issues further on the Abolitionist Sanctuary podcast here.
I see many theological justifications for challenging the prison system: Jesus was ethnically profiled as a brown Palestinian Jew, was considered seditious, was arrested by the Roman Empire, was hanged in between two criminals and died a criminal’s death. God cared so much about the criminalized body that God broke into history through Jesus, who was criminalized. For Christians, Jesus died a criminal but did not wake up one, he died a malefactor but rose as the messiah. Could you share with us how you are making connections between theology and abolition in your work?
In an earlier book, the Jewish scholar-activist Joshua Dubler and I tapped a variety of religious traditions that have resources for thinking prison abolition, with a particular focus on the Hebrew bible and the evangelical revival that was the Second Great Awakening. We also looked at where the energy is today in faith-based abolition movements, holding that up and explicating it to aid coalition-building.
Without a faith-based movement, mass incarceration is not going to end. Secular approaches to ending mass incarceration generate lists of reforms, like ending incarceration for drug offenses, ending cash bail, and so on. But all those reforms together might reduce the prison population by a hundred thousand or a few hundred thousand. That still leaves more than a million folks in prison. That still leaves the US with mass incarceration, with an incarceration rate an order of magnitude greater than other countries. It is only by faith, by imagining the impossible, by trying to put into practice something that the world says is impractical, that mass incarceration will end.
The same is true for anti-Black racism. If we take anti-Black racism as a system of domination that constitutes our world, that forms who we all are, that is interlocking with other systems of domination, capitalism, patriarchy, colonialism, then all the reform proposals we put on the table are not going to end anti-Black racism. We have to imagine an end of this world and a new world. That is exactly what religious and spiritual communities have been doing for so long, imagining a new world which is radically different from our present world. There is no path that can be charted from our present world to that new world: pursuing it takes faith and hope.
When people think about the abolition of prisons, it can also be a hard concept to digest – irrational, impossible. Faith encourages us to think beyond the confines of rationality to something that is transcendent that goes beyond our suffering to something greater and something bigger. In slavery, servitude was not the end of the story. Our ancestors had hope that one day the system of slavery would end. With all the anti-Black racism that has been emboldened by Trumpism, we see the antithesis of Black dignity. The concept of anti-Blackness is something you have spent a lot of time exploring in your work. How is Black dignity a response to anti-Blackness?
Often when we hear people talk about dignity in the media, it is in one of two senses. It might be an older sense, connected to high status or aristocracy, the dignity of a bishop or a king or a judge, a dignitary. In the modern period, dignity was democratized. Dignity became something to be found in everyone, the inherent worth and dignity of every human being. Those two senses of dignity are still with us, yet they miss the way dignity has been used in Black political movements, historically and up to the present. The Movement for Black Lives platform starts, in its first sentence, with an affirmation of dignity.
Black dignity is not about dignitaries and also not about all lives mattering, about all people having dignity. It is a kind of dignity that comes about in struggle. It comes about by recognizing domination and pushing back against domination. By organizing together to bring about a new world free of domination.
I think we need to move between activist language and theorizing, philosophizing, and theologizing to clarify what that activist language means – and what it doesn’t mean. Dignity is not respectability. That’s one of the great insights of the last ten years in Black political discourse. Respectability is a hollow copy of dignity. It’s a two-dimension version of a three-dimensional phenomenon. Dignity in a three-dimensional sense is in motion. It’s performed. It is something one does, not something one has or is. It is performed at a protest, or in the nitty-gritty of an organizing meeting, or artistically, in music or movies. Sometimes it is performed in silence or in prayer.
I think it’s really important to assert that dignity is not respectability. I’m wondering: is dignity part of defending human rights?
The language of dignity is enshrined in more than one hundred constitutions. Founding documents of the United Nations affirm dignity. But one of the things I found in the writings of Paul Robeson – the extraordinary Black activist and actor and football player and lawyer and many other things, including son of a preacher – is that he uses the language of dignity at the United Nations, but that wasn’t the only way he uses dignity. He also talks about dignity in his artistic performances, in his activist work outside of formal political spaces, and he talked about the dignity of his preacher-father.
We need to care about dignity in a human rights framework, but we can’t limit our discussions of dignity to that framework.
In your book you echo the skepticism found in social movement spaces about the role of non-profits. We have this non-profit industrial complex. I’m part of it, as the founder of Abolitionist Sanctuary. There’s also skepticism of churches and religious communities and their pursuits of justice. So, to whom should religious or spiritual people turn for leadership on justice issues?
That’s a question that doesn’t have an easy answer. Some of the problem with our current discourse, and some of the toxicity of our current discourse, comes from the sense that there ought to be easy answers. That we ought to be able to come up with a list of good guys and bad guys, the organizations or people who are worthy of support and others that ought to be cancelled.
In fact, it’s a fallen world – from a religious framework, and from the perspective of anyone who pays attention. We’re forced to make hard decisions about how to align our political energy with struggles in the most effective ways. Rather than offer doctrine, one of the things I try to do in Black Dignity is to model a process of inquiry, of discernment – something religious communities know quite a bit about. It’s something that takes time, that is never-ending. It takes engagement but it also takes solitude.
We need to be clear about our values, about opposing domination because it is idolatry. Setting yourself up for mastery runs against faith commitments. Our activism and struggle aims to end mastery, to end domination. Once we have clarity about that general principle, we have to start the difficult work of figuring out what are the resources at hand, what are the relationships that we have, what tactics we can use that don’t end up contaminating that work more than furthering that work.
More and more academics, you and me included, are striving to connect our theories with social movements. In Black Dignity, you emphasize racial justice movements as authoritative sources for ethical reflection. How do you see that emphasis fitting with religious or spiritual understandings of justice?
I think of the experts on domination as those who are dominated. If we’re looking for wisdom, if we’re looking for tactics and strategies, turning to those who are experiencing domination has to be a starting point – it doesn’t have to be an ending point, but it has to a starting point. This is something we also find in religious traditions, though it’s not always emphasized in religious traditions. In Catholic social teaching, the option for the poor is not just about offering charity but is about acknowledging the epistemic privilege of the marginalized, that the knowledge produced by those who are marginalized has priority. Various Protestant traditions turn to the model of Jesus as someone who affirmed and associated with “the least of these.” They take the Holy Spirit as a force fueling struggle against empire, against various forms of mastery in the ancient world and today.
I’m excited that you are in conversation with the wonderful tradition of Black liberation theology as well as womanism and Black feminism. Could you say more about the thought partners you are in conversation with, who help you think about dignity in a different way?
Audre Lorde is at the center of my book. She helps me make explicit what is implicit in political rhetoric that we’re hearing around social movements. To understand what Black rage or Black love or Black family really mean, the best starting point is Audre Lorde. Her thoughtfulness, her attention to the complexity of Black life but also to the eloquence of the written word is a great model – one that I certainly can’t come close to myself but that I take inspiration from. Her work should be picked up more in religious and spiritual spaces where the deep reflections on what is essentially religious ethics at the center of Lorde’s writing ought to be informing what they are doing at the Society of Christian Ethics meeting and the Society of Jewish Ethics meeting, and in other academic spaces that often insulate themselves from wisdom coming from outside the academy, and particularly Black women’s wisdom.
How is Black dignity used to repair harms that the church and educational institutions have caused?
Black dignity is very much like the abolitionist political framework that is emerging, in that it has two sides: a critical side and an affirmative side. Dignity is something that is performed against the powers that be, against the wealthy and the powerful and the white. To affirm Black dignity is to say no to the ways of the world, to create friction, whether it is in protest, in organizing, in art, in prayer, or in silence. The positive side involves Black love, Black family, Black girl magic, Black futures. Sometimes we hear these hashtags and say, “that’s just rhetoric.” Actually, these hashtags form a coherent moral and spiritual vocabulary. They affirm Black being in the world, and they are grounded in Black dignity.
This affirmation of Blackness we need to recognize and appreciate: it has developed in the last five or ten years in a way that it hadn’t for the last half century. We are reclaiming Blackness as something that is good and true and beautiful!
Today’s abolitionist projects are reclaiming the goodness of Black people. The assertion that Black Lives Matter is a statement of Black dignity. Black dignity as an abolitionist project shifts the narrative from Blackness as associated with everything bad and deviant, that needs to be controlled and disciplined and punished, to an identity that is good. Good according to the imago dei, the image of God – worthy of justice and freedom, worthy of beneficial policies that will allow Black people to flourish. As a theological project, we see Black dignity in Scripture. If I can put on my Black evangelical hat that my mother gave me through the old time religion: the fool shall shame the wise, the last shall be first, we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.
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