taking the words of Jesus seriously

When it comes to the school-to-prison pipeline, groups such as Advancement Project’s National Office, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Dignity in Schools campaign, Children’s Defense Fund, the Alliance for Education Justice, and Racial Justice NOW are undoubtedly trailblazers. For decades, these Black-led organizations have diligently fought to ensure educators, schools, and school districts see the humanity in all children, especially Black and Brown youth and young people.

These civil rights and education justice organizations grew tired of seeing Black, Brown, and Native American children, sometimes as young as 5, handcuffed and pushed out of the classroom and into the criminal justice system. They grew impatient with seeing Black, Brown, and Native American children over-suspended and subject to exclusionary discipline, such as expulsions and arrests. They were determined to stop the criminalization of youth of color propelled by harmful systems and practices. They have worked to change systems that disproportionately push out children with disabilities and LGBTQ+ young people as well. They have done and are doing their work.

Their example is clear. But for those of us who follow Jesus, the question becomes, “Are we doing our work?”

Are faith leaders and faith-based organizations doing all we can to stop the school-to-prison pipeline, the patchwork of policies and practices that disproportionately target, punish, and criminalize children of color for the same offenses for which white children are gently reprimanded? Or are we allowing beloved children of God to be funneled away from academic success and rerouted toward the juvenile justice system?

What are people of faith doing to ensure that school systems, police departments, and policymakers do more to honor and celebrate the humanity of Black, Brown, and Native American children? Jesus said the “kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” What are we doing to build a system that shows grace to all children, not just some?

If we continue to allow systems and institutions to treat children as disposable “disruptions” — labeled as problems to be managed instead of children to be cherished — then what does that say about the depth (or shallowness) of our own faith?

Jesus was not shy about challenging the “powers and principalities” of his day. Jesus consistently expressed righteous indignation over injustice and, once he expressed outrage, he took steps to make things right. He did so even when doing so was personally risky.

For instance, the Gospel of Mark, chapter 11, recounts how when Jesus entered the temple in Jerusalem and saw people selling and buying in the temple, exploiting the poor and treating the temple like a “den of thieves,” Jesus got upset. He overturned tables and drove out the people gathered inside. He disrupted the environment and admonished those in attendance that “’My house should be called a house of prayer for all people…”

While Jesus’ disciples sought to “protect” him from interruptions — especially from children and women in need of healing — Jesus regularly admonished his adult male disciples harshly for taking such a rigid and misguided approach to ministry. Indeed, Jesus commended the woman who grabbed at his garments uninvited, saying “Daughter, your faith has made you well.” The disciples chastised parents who brought their children to Jesus for a blessing, but Jesus was “indignant” at such treatment (Mark 10:14) and instead embraced and blessed the children with stern words for the disciples: “Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (Mark 10:15).

A special love for women and children shouldn’t be surprising, nor should a ready willingness to disrupt systems of violence and embrace those a system of violence calls “disruptive.” After all, Jesus described his own mission in no uncertain terms: “preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).

Jesus’ charge to the church was clear. But that doesn’t mean we have been faithful to that call, especially when it comes to recognizing the humanity of children by challenging the school-to-prison pipeline. This moral gap is especially evident when it comes to the white church. Many white women of faith, especially, have had the option of looking away, choosing to ignore how children of color are criminalized in schools. But following Jesus means choosing not to look way.

People of faith do not have to be experts in education equity; we do have to be willing to learn from and be led by directly impacted people, particularly young people of color. We do not need to have all the answers, but we must be willing to ask the questions and then listen well. We do not have to fix it all, but we should be fed up with inaction.

United Methodist Women is working to help disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline by organizing local workshops, webinars, and panels to raise awareness about education justice for United Methodist Women members, friends, and the wider faith community. Currently, these educational events have been held from Sarasota, Florida; to Harlem, New York; from Waco, Texas; to Lincoln, Nebraska; and next year the school-to-prison pipeline will be the focus of our annual mission study in all 50 states. Meanwhile, our Holy Disruption initiative has brought together a mix of 19-37-year-old teachers, social workers, moms, organizers, seminarians, and more to build a community of learning and practice focused on organizing, faith, and the school-to-prison pipeline.

The phrase “Holy Disruption” reminds us that Jesus was, himself, labeled a disrupter, and called his followers to do likewise, disrupting injustice, and resisting oppression. The name also reflects the experience of too many Black, Brown and Native children who are wrongly labeled “disruptive” and then pushed out. Using this term helps us begin to reframe this narrative and honor the holiness of children and youth wrongly criminalized.

There is much work and much learning for all of us, and we want to continue learning and growing together.

United Methodist Women appreciates the powerful work of so many Black-led and/or youth-led organizations that have been working on this issue for decades. We want to join this work by educating and mobilizing United Methodist Women members and friends — both those directly-connected and those who might otherwise never engage — to work together to interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline locally and nationally.

Our faith calls us to do more to stop the criminalization of Black, Brown, and Native American youth. Maybe yours does, too.

About The Author

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Emily Jones is the Executive for Racial Justice for United Methodist Women. She is based in New York City.

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