Throwing Jesus Off a Cliff – On Abolition and the Gospel
June 30, 2020 – David R. Weiss
The congregation … was pissed. (Okay, Luke says “filled with wrath/rage” (KJV/NRSV) or simply “furious” (NIV), but “pissed” works, too.) In fact, they were so pissed, that this synagogue sermonette, the very first public message in which Jesus announces his “platform,” is nearly his last. Luke tells us that the congregants “filled with rage, got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.” Luckily, for Jesus, Luke adds quite matter-of-factly, “But he [Jesus] passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” (The full scene is in Luke 4:16-30.)
It isn’t entirely clear what so provokes their anger, but there are a few clues. Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Some scholars note that Jesus stops reading right before the ‘really good stuff,’ where it says: “And the day of vengeance of our God.” (Is. 61:2) That is, Jesus announces good news to the Jews, but he stops right before he’s supposed to announce judgment on the Gentiles.
Luke describes their reaction as being “amazed at his gracious words” (NRSV), but the Greek behind “amaze” is more ambivalent than we might guess. It can mean ‘puzzled,’ even ‘disoriented,’ and if his listeners were waiting to hear about God’s anger being unleashed against their enemies, then perhaps they were, in fact, “puzzled, disoriented at his gracious words [because there was no vengeance in them.]” But Jesus doesn’t leave it there. Apparently sensing their desire for an angrier God (angry at the Gentiles, of course!), Jesus takes a teachable moment … and rubs salt in it. He says he’s brought no miracles with him to his hometown, and reminds them of two key incidents in the lives of other prophets when God’s grace was poured out precisely upon Gentiles rather than Jews. No wonder they’re pissed. Hometown boy—“Joseph’s son”! (you know, the handyman’s boy!)—grows up, forgets where he came from, and snubs his own people.
No wonder these folks are ready to throw Jesus off a cliff. But we are, too.
And that’s what I want to talk about today. In case you missed it, Jesus has just placed abolition of prisons, police, and ICE at the heart of his gospel message. He’s named the poor, the prisoners, and the oppressed as the central recipients of the Lord’s favor. And those blind who recover their sight? Well, there will be others whose actual vision Jesus restores later in the gospel accounts, but in this passage—given the context and the parallelism often used in Hebrew poetry (this is Isaiah’s prophetic poetry after all)—“the blind” are those who have been in solitary confinement, now blinking their eyes against the light as they are drawn up out of a dark pit where they’ve been held.
For Jesus, abolition is God’s work. Yet many of us, when we hear “Defund the Police” or “Abolish the Police,” cannot help but say “What?! Wait, you can’t do that!” And we say it as good Christians committed to “law and order” in our communities. But … when we say that on impulse, we are the ones rushing to throw Jesus off a cliff. (And even as I say that, I’m looking for the nearest exit in case any of my good Christian friends start looking for a cliff with my name on it!)
But seriously, if Jesus declares that abolition is God’s work (which he does!), and if Jesus claims God’s work as his work (which he does!), then he also commends abolition to us as our work. That would be … discipleship. And if we find that so hard to believe today, that says more about the domesticated Jesus that’s been preached to us than about the foolishness of the idea itself. I’d argue that Jesus died in faithful witness to God’s abolitionist agenda—and that the church was born as a resurrection community bearing witness to abolition in its imagination and, at least initially seeking to live it out in its life. So maybe we should, too.
I’m not even close to being an expert on abolition as a philosophy or practice or strategy or policy. But I’ve spent the last several decades listening for the rising call of justice in the biblical tale, and in my initial reading in abolitionist literature I hear a lot that resonates with biblical faith. I’ll write more about some of these things in the coming days. Here are just a few images to get started.
The historical truth of American policing is not pretty. It is wholly bound up with white supremacy and protecting the property and wealth of the rich. In the South this took the shape of slave patrols specifically commissioned to terrorize slaves into submission and to capture any who sought their freedom. It was a system designed to attract, cultivate, and reward racist sadists—most of whom went to church every Sunday. After slavery ended the slave patrols helped birth the KKK as well as the Southern police whose job was keeping Black people in their place. In the North policing originated in the need of the wealthy to control the restless masses of poor, immigrants, and Blacks. In a manner only slightly less brutal than Southern slave patrols, Northern police were used to harass and intimidate and brutalize—particularly those who agitated for fair wages or working conditions, or who simply lamented their grinding poverty, or even those who just dared too raucously to celebrate life.
In other words—listen carefully—from their inception as organized rural-local-state forces, police have been those whose actions Jesus’ words in Luke 4 were precisely aimed to overturn. It is fair to say that there is no chapter of American history in which police have not posed a threat to the safety of black, brown, and red bodies in this country. This is not to indict every individual officer, but it is to utterly indict the police system. Policing was established to make sure that Mary’s Magnificat was never more than a quaint song that soared in choral strains but never took shape in the streets of America.
When ‘Defund’ and ‘Abolish’ started showing up on posters and in hashtags everywhere, a lot of people second-guessed the “branding” of those phrases. They can’t be serious, so why use phrases that sound so absolute? Besides which the phrases (which must be mostly evocative, since they can’t possibly be serious) are too negative. These are the reactions of persons who’ve never had their blood run cold when a police light flashes behind them. And I don’t mean a momentary racing of nerves—I’ve had that when stopped for speeding. I mean the chilling of blood that tells you your life is in danger. Once you’ve known that fear, then ‘Defund’—or better yet—‘Abolish’ are not at all negative phrases. They’re life-giving, liberating utterances. The very fact that white people saw fit to second-guess them just reveals how little we know of the desperation that characterized the people Jesus set at the center of God’s abolitionist energy.
Would you believe that in the 1970’s—I was hitting my teenage years then—there were actually penal experts who expected prison abolition to happen … soon? There was a growing sense that prisons were not effective either at deterrence or rehabilitation and that a civilized society could—of course—do better. And then you know what shifted? Well, a bunch of things. Civil rights threatened to let that Magnificat echo in American life until the New Jim Crow rolled in. Economic shifts and political shifts also played a role. But … so did Christianity. That’s right. As mainline liberal denominations waned and evangelical Christianity rose, so did the ease with which we as a public imagined that vengeful God that Jesus’ first audience longed for. Christianity slipped from (an admittedly limited) vision of a renewed society to an interior, moralistic faith that traded in fear of otherness and prepared a nation to cast “others” of all sorts endlessly into cages.
In July 1980, as he accepted the Republican presidential nomination Ronald Reagan claimed God as the chaplain for his presidency, asking “Can we doubt that only a Divine Providence placed this land, this island of freedom, here as a refuge for all those people in the world who yearn to breathe freely?” Meanwhile Black men continue to cry out, “I can’t breathe.” Moments later he concluded, “God Bless America”—the first time a presidential nominee used those words in a speech. He later used the same phrase to end his State of the Union address—as has every president since then. During his eight years in office the prison population rose by more than 300,000 persons, effectively doubling—and disproportionately putting persons of color behind bars. It’s fair to say that Reagan publicly—presidentially—baptized mass incarceration as a Christian endeavor. And no president since has dared to do otherwise.
Jesus, however, only ever announced an abolitionist God. It might be time for us to do the same.
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David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.
 “Origins of the Police,” David Whitehouse: www.libcom.org/history/origins-police-david-whitehouse; “The History of Policing in the United States,” Gary Potter: www.plsonline.eku.edu/insidelook/history-policing-united-states-part-1
 For this paragraph and the next see Joshua Dubler and Vincent W. Lloyd: Break Every Yoke: Religion, Justice, and the Abolition of Prisons, Oxford University Press, 2020, esp. pp. 65-103.