By Tommy Airey
“It’s not simply: better jails, better police, better training. It’s no police, it’s no jails, no prisons. It’s creating a new means of justice that’s not based on criminalization but based on affirmation and reparation, and by reparation that is trying to repair relationships that have been damaged and destroyed as a result of five centuries of warfare against Indigenous peoples, Africans, poor white people, Asian-Pacific Americans, and Latinx populations.”—Robin D.G. Kelly
Lent starts next week. A season to take spiritual inventory. To assess crucifying realities. To grieve. To confess our complicity. To rise up into newness of life. This year, the Lenten journey begins on Wednesday, February 17—four weeks into a new Presidential administration committed to “going back to normal.” This year, more than ever, Lent resists “normal.” Lent lifts up what Dr. King called a radical revolution of values. Protecting people over profit motives and property rights. Black people. Brown people. Indigenous people. Immigrant people. Poor people. We want nothing to do with a “normal” world of racism, materialism and militarism. Following Jesus of Nazareth, we are inaugurating a world that brings good news to the poor and proclaims release to the captives. We are rolling away the stone guarded by those who protect and serve empire.
This year, we are prodding pastors and Jesus people to consider giving up police and prisons for Lent. By “giving up,” we mean imagining and advocating for a world without them. Repealing them and replacing them. Not “reform,” but resurrection. Over the past fifty years, police departments and prisons have expanded exponentially. The punitive shift away from programs of social uplift was fueled by white rage festering in the wake of Civil Rights gains in the 1960s. Black and Brown advancement always leads to white American anger—a well-documented trend in U.S. history. The push for policing and punishment is promoted by racist myths that persist in the white mind (both liberal and conservative) about the criminal nature of people of color. Police stalk and stop and frisk and arrest and cage and kill poor people of color—so everyone else can feel safe. The stats are staggering. More than 2/3 of prisoners are not white. Black people make up 12% of the U.S. population, but 28% of the people killed by police in 2020. There’s plenty more.
For forty days, we are inviting folks of faith and conscience to consider the radical proposal of abolishing police and prisons. We are composting empire with an abolitionist spirituality. At the end of our wilderness journey, on Easter, we can each discern, moving forward, what it looks like to rise up with Jesus and release the captives. This year, Resurrection Sunday arrives on April 4, the anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination in 1968. A perfect day for a big decision: to give up the normal idea of police and prisons forever. To become an abolitionist. To cast a vision of a country without captives. This is a big decision. Lent gives us forty days to study, dialogue, pray and fast about it. This topic, informed by racist myths for too long, deserves our time and energy. It is such a big deal that it requires an entire season. #LentenAbolition
We are not offering a fixed formula or prearranged protocol for giving up police and prisons for Lent. We can let our hearts lead, each according to our own context. Some of us will commit certain times of the day to pray for abolition. Some of us will fast on Saturdays, in solidarity with those policed and imprisoned. Our souls groaning, our bellies grumbling. Some of us will invite friends, family members and faith communities to join. Some of us will gather via Zoom to share what we are learning and where Spirit is leading. Some of us will post to social media—and some will even hashtag it. #LentenAbolition. Some of us will simply let these things simmer in the secret chambers of our souls. When asked What are you giving up for Lent?, some of us will respond: Police and Prisons. A terrific conversation starter for those committed to resurrecting justice.
We are providing some links below for study. Make use of them however you are led. For reading, reflecting, meditation, grief, prayer, organizing and advocacy. For imagining a new world. For fueling #LentenAbolition.
Ruth Wilson Gilmore makes the case for abolition on a two-part podcast interview with The Intercept.
A New York Times article: “Is Prison Necessary? Ruth Wilson Gilmore Might Change Your Mind” (April 2019)
Getting Real About the Police: Chenjerai Kumanyika writes a letter to Barack Obama (The Intercept, June 2020)
Michelle Alexander on the punitive culture of “the new Jim Crow” in an On Being podcast interview (2016)
Policing is the Laziest Response: DeRay McKesson on a podcast interview with Cornel West and Tricia Rose (February 2020)
A Message From the Future: The Repair Years (an 8-minute video)
A few months ago, Abolition For the People published 30 short essays from authors and organizers
Are Prisons Obsolete? By Angela Davis (2003): a free digital version
For more theological resources, check out Christians for the Abolition of Prisons
Sign up for this Showing Up for Racial Justice tool-kit for faith communities compelled to stop relying on police
Tommy Airey is a retired high school teacher and post-Evangelical pastor. He is the co-curator of RadicalDiscipleship.net and author of Descending Like a Dove: Adventures in Decolonizing Evangelical Christianity (2018).