SUMMARY: American Christians have lost their prophetic and Biblical voice when it comes to justice and punishment as we have wedded church and state together over hundreds of years. Pastor Dominque DuBoise Gilliard‘s clear prose tells the history of incarceration and the churches role and theological posture – both good and bad – with incarceration in the United States before tracing the history of Christian’s views on criminals and crime to retributive justice that is at odds with the Bible.
“Mass incarceration is a byproduct of the church’s failure to sustain a witness that subverts the power of empire,” Gilliard says. “It is evidence of what transpires when the church forgets its mission, ceases its prophetic witness, and cowers before imperial power.”
Since the church and state are wedded together the church has given up the distinction between governmental justice and biblical justice. This has lead to most Christians viewing the state as responsible for doling out justice.
Rethinking Incarceration is split into two parts. The first part focuses on the roots and history of mass incarceration while the second part details the church’s support of incarceration that dehumanizes large parts of the American population. Gilliard identifies five prison pipelines that contribute to the disturbing fact that, “the United States has 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated.”
Some of the pipelines, such as private prisons, stretch as far back as slavery and many of them came to be with the support of the Western church’s support of law and order at any cost along with the theological belief of retributive justice. Government polices such as no-knock warrants and mandatory minimums disproportionately affect people of color – especially black people.
“Christian theology has emboldened a punitive culture of hyper incarceration, one where our pursuit of justice has manifested a blatant disregard for the dignity of human life, particularly for poor blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans,” Gilliard writes. “We have perpetuated a retributive culture that depends on the state for justice despite the blatant racism our justice system is entrenched in.”
To fix America’s mass incarceration problem the American church, specifically the white evangelical church, must regain its counter cultural, prophetic voice, and advocate for the vulnerable – specifically for those in jail. The church must acknowledge its past mistakes, lament, repent, and advocate for restorative justice as told in the Bible.
“Where the law suggested that order comes through purging out the criminal,” Gilliard writes. “Jesus shows us that order is restored when our communities are reconciled. Jesus calls us in the face of crime to move forward together — both the violated and the violators — under the confines of covenant relationship.”
Rethinking Incarceration is a must read.
When you are done reading Rethinking Incarceration we suggest Chris Marshall‘s The Little Book of Biblical Justice, which Gilliard quotes from often, and Postcards from Babylon by Brian Zahnd that discusses how America and Christianity have become synonymous.
KEY QUOTE: “The church has been blind, unable to see the true impact of our criminal justice system. We have not noticed that mass incarceration is predicated on dehumanization, exploitation, and profiteering. We have not understood the communal effects of drug-war legislation, law-and-order politics, and zero- tolerance policies. We have not realized that most people behind bars are nonviolent addicts who need medical interventions, not incarceration. We have been unable to detect that mass incarceration has evolved into a sinister social strategy to quarantine and exploit the most vulnerable, undesired, and stigmatized populations. We fail to see because many of us have circumvented Scripture’s call to be present in prisons.”
BONUS: Gilliard has developed a free seven-part video series to accompany the book in addition to a discussion guide at WalkingTowardsLove.com.
BONUS II: Listen to Gilliard talk about the school to prison pipeline, the history of police and schools, and much more on The Fascinating Podcast – skip to 10:45 to get to the interview.
DID YOU KNOW?: Sunday to Saturday has a Good Reads page where we post all of the books we have read – even the ones that didn’t make the cut.
More curated books on policing and justice:
From rising homelessness that the police are tasked to deal with to shootings of both minorities and police officers to endless mental health issues involving both police officers and the population American police are simply expected to do too much. Author Alex Vitale argues that the structure of American policing, and the U.S. legal system, protects the interests of those in power and/or with money and needs to be dismantled. Simply put, Americans need to rethink the mission of the police and how we police those within the borders of the United States.Read more
Former gang member Victor Rios grew up in the ghetto of Oakland, California so he knows the realities of Black and Latino males in the ghetto, but this is not his story. Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys is based off of Rios Ph.D. thesis at Berkeley that he penned after spending three years following 40 Black and Latino males in Oakland.Read more
What does it mean to do justice? Is justice a primary concern in the Bible? Can we separate justice and evangelism? What characteristics should make Christians unique and distinct in the world? Pastor Tim Keller answers those questions and more in a thorough explanation of Biblical justice while making the case that justice and the pursuit of justice is a primary concern of the Bible and Jesus’ ministry on earth.Read more