This piece first appeared in Political Theology volume 23, issue 4, a special issue on Incarceration and Decarceration. The full issue is available here.
It was a typical Friday morning at Lee Arrendale State prison when she passed me—Rachelle—the letter. It was a single piece of notebook paper with the date written on top: March 1, 2018. “Just something I thought of today. It’s for the chaplains, but it might be for theology teachers too,” she smiled. That was all the explanation I received. No other context or caveat. She simply packed her belongings and left as our Biblical Foundations class in the theological education program ended in this US prison for women.
As the classroom emptied, I read words I was not expecting, words that would linger with me for years. It was written like a Pauline epistle and the portions that remain with me went something like this:
I appeal to you all to take your ministerial (and educational) position more seriously.
Remember that man (sic) nor a university did not and could not call you.
God has given you a crucial assignment and you are charged to take it serious.
I admit, I was taken aback. I passed the letter my friend who co-directs the program. As he read aloud, we thought: is this a critique? A challenge? A hope? What does a letter to chaplains have to do with those of us teaching in theological education?
The more time I spent with Ms. Johnson, the more I came to understand her expectations. First, she expected that those of us who were teaching and directing a theological education program were shaped by or impacted by the material that we taught. Second, she expected that people associated with Christianity would understand their work to be distinct from whatever happens in prison – distinct from the domination, disenfranchisement, and debasement of the prison. Ms. Johnson was clear that there was something in the Christian faith, for her, that requires a different stance. Third, she saw the work of religion and theology as connected to the work of God, as given by God. Ms. Johnson made little distinction between the roles of scholar, teacher, minister, or chaplain. She cared little for whether we considered theology as traditioned or secular, God as real or serious fiction. For Ms. Johnson, to participate in work that is religious and theological is to situate yourself within the realm of religious responsibility. Ms. Johnson has high expectations. I offer Ms. Johnson’s words here as Josh and I invite you to consider the work of political theology amid the realities of human caging: what is the work and responsibility of political theology in relation to incarceration and the crisis of mass incarceration? What might be expected of us as we examine, assess, and imagine our philosophies, perspectives, and practices?
The Work of Political Theology
As we see it, political theology has much to contribute toward unraveling the threads that uphold carcerality. As a negative project, political theology offers us grounding for critique. As a positive program, it can help us to stitch together old fragments into new patterns that might nudge us towards an abolitionist horizon. As a mode, political theology is theoretical and practical, historical and futuring. It is multifaceted and capacious. There is room enough for us all in this work.
Political theology invites us to consider the religious antecedents of American mass incarceration and the enduring shaping power of religious practices and topoi for contemporary regimes of punishment. In a time where debates about confederate monuments, the 1619 project, and critical race theory pervade social discourse, the on-going historical and genealogical work of exposing systems of domination that emerge from within Christian practice can offer leverage for critiquing how religious traditions have been complicit with structures of domination. Amid the US prison crisis is an invitation to consider the question raised in this issue by Rev. Lynice Pinkard: “are American prisons and American churches two sides of the same coin?”
Political theology amidst and against human caging must carry out continued rigorous analysis of the practices that support this system. It must continue to critique the social power wielded against liberation by American Christians historically, and contemporarily as well by non-Christian religionists and seculars who have accepted the terms implicit in the contract with whiteness.
The theoretical work in political theology can help us challenge the stories and myths that animate carceral logics. Secular as it may well be, painting the suffering of transgressors as edifying has Christian roots. As we work to demythologize old stories, we construct new stories. Political theology is an invitation to consider how theological logics undergird carceral logics and how, during the era of mass incarceration, are American theologies themselves desperately in need of decarceration. Political theology in an age of mass human caging is an invitation toward genealogical investigations of theological-juridical concepts like guilt, punishment, mercy, forgiveness, redemption, and transformation, which circulate in Sunday sermons, in parole board hearings, and in myriad spaces in between. We need critiques of the politics of disposability, of the logics that designate many for ongoing torture and only the lucky few as worthy of relief. We need theological meditations that offer resources for reconfiguring our economies of vengeance.
Stories matter, but our understanding of political theology is dissatisfied with remaining in the realm of analysis. We encourage change in perspectives, policies, and practices. Practical and praxis-oriented work of political theology is needed to imagine new practices and perhaps retrieve old practices for new use. Political theology must address the praxis of the Christian church and of other religious communities. Our questions are also then quite practical: scholars, teachers, and other practitioners who move in and out of carceral spaces (and in a society like ours that designation applies to far more than prisons and jails) how are we to navigate between care and complicity? What images from religious texts, theological concepts, histories of community involvement do those looking to thrive within and transform these spaces use to sustain this work? Whether religious or secular, what models are available for conceptualizing working relationships within carceral institutions that resist the dominant carceral logics? What does an abolitionist politics look like inside prisons and jails, as practiced by incarcerated people, staff, and volunteers? How about on a majority-white university campus with an armed police force?
The work of political theology urges us to take up these questions: as writers, teachers, ministers, agitators, practitioners, and as members of our communities.
Special Issue Themes
This special issue on religion, incarceration and decarceration ventures forth on some of the paths we outline above and invites continued exploration. In the pages to follow, authors explore how theological and secularized theological concepts, along with religious and spiritual practices, inform, articulate, mutually reinforce, and potentially interrupt the ideologies and practices of human caging. In the words that follow you will encounter different imaginations and ways of bringing political theology to bear on mass incarceration from academics, ministers, and organizers. You will encounter political theology as academic essay, as sermon, as dialogue, and as practical resource. You will experience academic practices of genealogical and historical critique, encounter real examples of people harvesting resources from religious traditions to demystify, to reimagine, and to transform.
You will also encounter the spirit of abolition. Abolition is an elastic, animating orientation: it can and must continue to be many things to a growing number of people. Abolition is an ethos, a radical no! to systems of domination. Abolition is a banner under which an oppositional, justice making mass may congeal. Abolition is a horizon—a world without prisons–that invites the dreaming of new possibilities and the launching of new experiments. At present it is easier for most Americans to imagine a savior returned to earth than it is to imagine a world without prisons. By means of the contributions in this issue, we hope to contribute to the growing project of ending not only mass incarceration but incarceration as such. Even in its more secular expressions, the call to abolition resonates in an eschatological key. By harvesting theological ideas and religious practices, we hope to further nurture abolitionist potentialities and potencies, which might help to push on in toward the abolitionist horizon.
Systems of domination transcend geographical and religious boundaries. Dismantling carceral logics requires a global, ecumenical approach. For coherence’s sake, in this issue we have limited ourselves to the tradition of Christianity and the region of the United States. We hope our fellow strugglers elsewhere can learn from the thinking and doing presented here, as we learn from them.
Through this journal issue, we hope to inspire continued pursuit of questions: How might theological discourses and religious practices help to prefigure a world without prisons? How can political theology help dream another world into being? How can political theology against human caging embody a praxis that is legible within the academy but is in full solidarity with those who are in the cages? How might these words on a page be given life in and beyond the practices of writing, teaching, and learning?
We hope that the work we’ve assembled here evinces the seriousness worthy of its subject matter. Ms. Johnson would require nothing less.