I am about to be a public defender, and not one that just helps the system move along or only works hard for innocent people, but the kind of public defender that shuts things down. At least, I hope so.
I am a pastor’s kid, raised in the church. My parents are the true-believer type — showing us how to live out our faith in every aspect of our lives. Not only were we taught the Bible in church on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings, but our dinner table conversations were full of catechism questions, dogma, and philosophical theology.
I don’t believe all that I once did, but my understanding of grace, mercy, and redemption first came from Jesus on the cross. And I believe that it was those concepts that gave me the framework to understand and join the ranks of some of the most amazing people — prison abolitionists.
My journey toward becoming a prison abolitionist began with an understanding of how slavery is connected to the criminal legal system.
After slavery was abolished in 1865, we saw an uptick in the number of prisons in this country. Some plantations turned directly into prisons (Google: “Angola, Louisiana”) and those incarcerated there, often in the form of convict-leasing, were forced to pick cotton, again. Explicitly racist laws referred to as “Black Codes” and the rise of Jim Crow segregation created a world where black people were hyper-criminalized and where process in the courts was just a superficial display — if they made it that far. (Lynching by white mobs was a prevalent form of racial terror between 1877 and 1950).
Today, we have the world’s highest rate of incarceration: 716 per 100,000, 2.3 million people. Our probation and parole numbers are far greater. Black people are incarcerated at a rate five times that of white people. Racist laws and systems (and the racism written on our hearts) have worked in a plethora of ways to dehumanize, segregate, disenfranchise, criminalize, and otherwise oppress black people.
Another part of this journey has been my growth in understanding why people commit crimes, and thus better understanding what we need to do in order to prevent them. In her book, Are Prisons Obsolete?, Angela Davis explains what prisons cannot do for us:
The prison…functions ideologically as an abstract site into which undesirables are deposited, relieving us of the responsibility of thinking about the real issues afflicting those communities from which prisoners are drawn in such disproportionate numbers. This is the ideological work that the prison performs — it relieves us of the responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society, especially those produced by racism and, increasingly, global capitalism.
If you can understand that crime is not an issue of evil people doing evil things, but rather people going through life with a lack of support, a lack of resources, systemic oppression, etc., it becomes easier to recognize that prison is where we throw away the people we have failed.
Okay, so let’s get into the Jesus stuff.
Remember the story of the prodigal son? Jesus was talking with his disciples, and he told them this parable (“an earthly story with a heavenly meaning”): There was a wealthy man who had two sons. The youngest son asked for his inheritance early so that he could go travel and experience life on his own. The older son stayed home and helped his father take care of their property. Unfortunately, the younger son squandered his inheritance and ended up so hungry that the slop they fed to pigs started to look appetizing. He remembered the love and care of his father and decided to head home. Luke 15:20 says, “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” Then they had a huge party.
The older son, at this point, was pretty pissed. He had done all that was required of him; he had remained faithful, and he had stayed while his brother had left. So, he refused to go to the party. He said to his father, “I have been here this whole time. I have never left you and yet you never celebrated me. My brother comes home from wasting your money, and you throw a party for him!” The father replied, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad…”
In other words, “Show some grace!”
Thankfully, God is still the God who runs to embrace us when we run away and the God who loves us through our jealousy and self-righteousness. God is still the God that shows us more mercy and more grace than we deserve — and the type of father who lovingly nudges us to do the same.
I think it is fair to say that the moment where we get the clearest view of Jesus’ mercy and grace is when he is hanging on the cross. Next to Jesus were two “criminals.” The Bible says they were thieves; we don’t really know much else. One thief ridiculed Jesus, and the other asked for forgiveness. Jesus said: “Truly, I say to you, today, you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).
My favorite theologian, Rachel Held Evans, once said this about that night:
We could not become like God, so God became like us. God showed us how to heal instead of kill, how to mend instead of destroy, how to love instead of hate, how to live instead of long for more. When we nailed God to a tree, God forgave. And when we buried God in the ground, God got up… Perhaps we’re afraid that if we get out of the way, this grace thing might get out of hand. Well, guess what? It already has. Grace got out of hand the moment the God of the universe hung on a Roman cross and with outstretched hands looked out upon those who had hung him there and declared, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
As creator of the world, as knower of all things, Jesus understood something we often miss about mercy — it moves us in ways that punishment, that getting what we deserve, cannot.
Bryan Stevenson, my favorite lawyer, put it this way in his book Just Mercy: “When you experience mercy, you learn things that are hard to learn otherwise. You see things you can’t otherwise see; you hear things you can’t otherwise hear. You begin to recognize the humanity that resides in each of us.”
If we claim to follow Jesus, we need to actually follow Him.
When our system of incarceration and policing is so biased and harsh that one in three black baby boys will end up in jail, that is on us. When society decides to lock someone in a cage for the rest of their life, that is on us. When our government decides to repay murder with murder, that is on us.
If Jesus were alive today, I think he would be a prison abolitionist.
He would be shouting into the megaphone during the abolish ICE protest.
He would be putting his body on the line and getting arrested in court as that judge in Cleveland ordered a defendant to have his mouth covered in duct tape during his sentencing.
I think he would say, “abolish the police,” and then share a meal with one — even one on the dirty cop list.
He would hold close every survivor and every person who has been harmed — including those whose harm and pain brought on convictions and incarceration rather than the healing they needed.
I think he would spend his weekends in the visiting rooms of all the local prisons. And he would do other radical things and love and show grace in ways that I can’t even imagine, because he would be a better prison abolitionist than all of us.
So let’s stop getting in the way. Let’s show grace, have mercy, and cherish redemption in the ways that Jesus taught us to.
A modified version of this article first appeared at Relevant.