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Abolition Is Gospel Work

Jesus’ mission to “bring liberty to captives” (Luke 4:18) and his self-identification with prisoners in Matthew 25:36 call his church to particular care and concern for incarcerated people and their liberation. A deep faithfulness to this calling suggests that the church should not only engage in compassionate ministry with incarcerated people, but also seek to work against the powers of exclusion and punishment that underlie the dehumanizing and racially inequitable system of prisons and policing in modern American society. A proposed resolution for General Convention this year — D034, Support and Advocacy for Restorative Justice and a Moral Commitment to Abolition of Prisons and Policing — calls the Episcopal Church to take a clear moral stance in favor of a deeper justice than can ever be found in the current system.

I am part of the group that wrote this resolution (and I have written and spoken previously on this topic, here and elsewhere). I believe the time is now for the Episcopal Church to make a clear moral commitment to prison abolition.

Why Abolition?

The racial justice protests in the summer of 2020 brought the concept of prison/police abolition to mainstream consciousness. That uprising was a cry of lament in the face of racialized police violence. While the changes to the system since 2020 have unfortunately been minor, the violence has continued. Over a thousand people a year are shot by police. The United States has the highest incarceration rate of any nation, and incarcerates people of color, especially Black Americans, at a horrifying and disproportionate rate. The church knows these things, and justice requires that we act. Support for abolition is the church making a categorical moral claim: that God’s desire is for the liberation and reconciliation of all people. Our current systems of policing and prisons consistently enact violence and impose racial hierarchies; this is not consistent with God’s way of love. And so, though we do not perfectly see what a world without police and prisons looks like, we can bear witness to the current system and say: this must not be. Something must change, and we are called to be part of that change.

The Church Supports Restorative Justice.

While the vision of abolition is indeed radical, Resolution D034 envisions the Episcopal Church’s work toward that vision as rooted in moral commitments we have already made. The resolution follows on and deepens commitments to end mass incarceration made in Resolution 2015-A011. It also builds on moral commitments to oppose solitary confinement (Resolution 2018-D029), private prisons (Resolution 2015-D067), monetary bail (Resolution 1973-D097), and the school-to-prison pipeline (Resolution 2015-D068). A moral commitment to prison abolition recognizes that the violence and dehumanization within each of these specific instances of the carceral system is more broadly characteristic of systems of policing and imprisonment as a whole.

Resolution D034 calls for parishes, congregations, and dioceses to intentionally deepen their participation in restorative justice programs. Not offering only policy proposals, it encourages every Episcopalian to find a role to play in the transformative work of mercy found in restorative justice programs and solidarity with incarcerated and criminalized people. 

Resolution 2015-A011 already calls the Episcopal Church to a commitment to “intentionally dismantling our mass incarceration system.” Scholars Joshua Dubler and Vincent Lloyd write that in light of the scale of mass incarceration, most reform proposals will barely release enough people move the needle on such dismantling. Therefore, they argue, a commitment to abolition is the most effective way to build political will for the reforms needed to truly end mass incarceration:

Whether, like us, you regard locking a person in a cage as a moral abomination categorically, or whether you regard imprisonment as perhaps socially necessary but recognize the racism and classism that haunt our systems of imprisonment from top to bottom, by collectively assuming an abolitionist stance against human caging we open up space for moral imagination and practical experimentation, and we gain leverage for securing marginal political victories. … As the pragmatic rejection of pragmatism, abolitionism is the orientation we require if we are to actually win the struggle at hand. (Break Every Yoke: Religion, Justice, and the Abolition of Prisons (Oxford University Press, 2020), 35)

The insistence that the current system cannot stand helps move political will for necessary changes. Our radical moral witness empowers incremental changes.

Support for Abolition Meets Our Baptismal Calling.

Fundamentally, this resolution is not grounded in political strategy, but in our baptismal calling. Our vow to “proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ” (BCP, p. 305) requires us to name God’s desire for liberation for those incarcerated and for forms of justice that aim at accountability and reconciliation rather than punishment. Our vow to “seek and serve Christ in all persons” (BCP, p. 305) demands especially that we act in solidarity with people who are incarcerated or criminalized, with whom Christ has specifically identified himself. Our vow to “strive for justice and peace” and “respect the dignity of every human being” (BCP, p. 305) requires us to set ourselves against systems of prisons and policing that act over and over to demean human dignity in ways large and small, from needless death at the hands of police to the manifold small dehumanizations that come with life in a cage. Perhaps most importantly, though, we vow at baptism to “persevere in resisting evil, and whenever [we] fall into sin, to repent and return to the Lord” (BCP, p. 304). We are all complicit in the harmful and dehumanizing actions of our system of prisons and policing, because they are state violence done in the name of our safety. Our moral commitment to abolition is a collective act of repentance on the part of the Church. 

But the baptismal grounding of an abolitionist commitment is not only about fidelity to specific vows, no matter how important, but about the reality that in baptism, we are “transferred into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son” (Col. 1:13). The way we live, as baptized members of the body of Christ, is in the way of God, not according to the powers of the world. Our moral commitments are to mercy, restoration, and reconciliation, not exclusion, control, and punishment. Fundamentally, to make a claim that abolition is a moral obligation is to look at the powers of the world that do violence and declare that we are seeking a different way, with God’s help.

Abolition Is an Act of Faith.

One question I often receive about abolition is about how it works in practice. What does a world without prisons and policing look like? How do we assure safety without these structures of punishment and exclusion?

Neither I nor any other abolitionist has a complete answer to that, although there are many examples of communities practicing strategies for safety, such as through restorative justice diversion programs like Common Justice in New York, which offers restorative justice conferencing between offenders and victims instead of incarceration after violent crimes, or alternatives to police such as sending unarmed responders to individuals in mental health crisis, like the Cahoots program in Eugene, Oregon. Our church explicitly supports restorative justice programs in the juvenile justice system (Resolution 2015-A011), and this resolution would extend our support to developing and building such programs for adults. This resolution is a first step, encouraging the Episcopal Church to be part of building and growing such practical alternatives.

Support for abolition means that we face the future with courage, committing to the values of restoration and care instead of exclusion and punishment, as we do our part in building the structures of safety that will allow us to move toward a world without prisons and policing. As such, abolition is an act of faith. We expect the end of prisons and policing as “the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1, NRSV). As people of faith, we commit to values because they are good and true, not because we have seen with certainty where they lead, and we trust in the Spirit of God to guide us in living out those values. The “how” of abolition is the practical work of opposing mass incarceration and building restorative justice alternatives to which this resolution calls us, building on the church’s already-established commitments and practices toward those ends. Our faith is that as we engage in that practical work, the Holy Spirit will “guide and govern us” (BCP, p. 100) to an end that reflects the free and life-giving reign of God.

That said, Resolution D034 does make some practical policy recommendations. For example, it suggests that the Episcopal Church support efforts to close prisons and reduce police budgets, to invest public money instead in community needs such as affordable housing, health care, and education (all of which reduce crime), and to support restorative justice efforts within the criminal legal system. In general, the specific policy recommendations are drawn from abolitionist organization Critical Resistance’s framework of “non-reformist reforms” — reforms of prisons and policing that work to shrink and disempower the carceral system, rather than unintentionally granting it more scope or power. The idea is to enable us, as individuals, parishes, dioceses, and the national church, to take incremental action to improve the treatment of incarcerated people and our processes of criminal justice, while always keeping our focus on the ultimate goal of reducing reliance on prisons and policing to address social problems. The policy recommendations are meant to avoid supporting policies that end up reinforcing carceral systems, by investing more money into them (as in building new jails or prisons to address overcrowding, to use an example given by Critical Resistance) or by increasing the scope of their activities (as in community policing frameworks that increase contact with police, an example from Critical Resistance).

The framework of non-reformist reforms allows us to work in coalitions — including those members of our church who are prison abolitionists and those who are not — on necessary incremental reforms, without unintentionally reinforcing mass incarceration. It gives us effective ways to take steps of immediate practical benefit in the world as it is, while also holding to a countercultural moral insistence that prisons and punishment have no place in the kingdom of God.

This resolution is intended to make space for a variety of views within the Episcopal Church by allowing for cooperation toward dismantling mass incarceration, even where we disagree on the ultimate goal of abolition. Even if you are not sure that we can live safely without prisons and police, you can find a place in the work of building restorative justice alternatives and engaging in acts of compassionate solidarity for incarcerated people.

Yet the resolution is at the same time a stark challenge to the church for moral clarity: a challenge to stand against a dehumanizing and violent carceral system, and to stand instead for restoration, mercy, and reconciliation.

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