NOTE: This post is part of what (unexpectedly) turned out to be a series of posts* in which I wrestle with the notion of police abolition. I’m NOT offering a detailed explanation of how that would work—there are others who can do that far better than me. Rather I present a series of images to help white Christians in particular hear in these calls to Defund or Abolish the Police some surprising echoes of biblical themes … and to encourage us to consider whether God is doing a new thing once again today.
* “Come This Wilderness,” June 8; “Throwing Jesus Off a Cliff,” June 30; “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” July 4; “The Poor Will be With You Always,” July 8; “When Stones Shout” July 9; “From Mount Sinai to Minneapolis” July 12.
Find all the posts collected here: 6-essay set as a pdf.
When Stones Shout – Abolition and the Gospel, Part 5
July 9, 2020 – David R. Weiss
It’s pandemonium as Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Crowds are waving palm branches and strewing them, along with their cloaks, on the road leading into the city. Jesus has chosen—deliberately, provocatively—to ride into the city on a donkey: a rich symbolic echo of a prophetic passage in which a Jewish king enters Jerusalem humbly, mounted on a donkey, and then proceeds to establish peace. The day drips with hope and longing.
Unbeknownst to us when we read that Palm Sunday passage, it’s quite possible that on the same day, another procession enters the city from the opposite side. That would be Pontius Pilate, escorted by imperial cavalry and columns of soldiers. His arrival—like Jesus’ arrival—was timed to sync with Passover. Except, while Jesus was there to celebrate Passover as the great Jewish festival of liberation, Pilate came to ensure—with his display of brute force (a bit like stationing state police and National Guard troops around cities)—that the only liberation celebrated was a distant memory.
So Jesus’ entry and its accompanying pandemonium were fraught—especially for those Jewish leaders who’d struck an uneasy but (for them) workable coexistence with Roman rule. Which is why, when those persons waving palms alongside strewn cloaks suddenly launched into choruses of “Hosanna! Blessed is the king who comes in God’s name to bring peace!” suddenly those Jewish leaders tried to get Jesus to calm the crowd. But Jesus replied, “If these, who acclaim my coming in such joy and jubilation, were silent, I tell you, the very stones would shout out.”
I did not imagine six weeks ago that I would become such a strident voice for police and prison abolition. But as I dug past the hashtags (which are powerful hashtags—I do not second guess the choice of rallying around “Defund the Police” or “Abolish the Police”), I was caught off guard … by the gospel. Abolitionists are the very stones shouting out today.
The more I’ve read, the more I’ve heard in abolitionist writings themes that resonate deeply in the heart of biblical faith. And while I haven’t been surprised cognitively at how quickly and loudly white Christians have voiced dis-ease with these ideas, I have found myself emotionally grieving, because our reaction of discomfort at any notion of abolition reminds me how … estranged … we’ve become from our own heritage. We were born—baptized, commissioned—to change the world through our practice of reckless, abundant love. And yet, in the face of abolitionist “Hosannas,” we’ve become those religious leaders asking for silence, lest our uneasy but workable coexistence with the ways of power be upset.
The creation stories in Genesis assert a number of profound truths about the nature of humanity. (These stories never intended to relate cosmic or earth or human “history,” but they do seek to carry the deep sacred wisdom of our religious ancestors and that’s what I’m lifting up.) I’ll name three things from these stories that strike me as relevant in abolition work.
1. Human beings are imago Dei: the Latin means “in the image of God” (Gen. 1:26-27) This has often been owned by us arrogantly, as though it makes us “better than” the rest of creation. And owned by us racistly—how else could we have dared to enslave others? But this creation tale appeared in Israel’s life at a time when the people were living in exile. Bereft of king, temple, and even land, arrogance was not an option. The truth carried by this designation is closer to Jesse Jackson’s declaration, dating back to the 70’s “I am somebody”—or to the “I am a man” placards carried by striking Memphis sanitation workers in 1968.
To say that we are imago Dei speaks a two-fold truth. First, it says that somehow we humans—because we are self-conscious, because we speak, we know, we symbolize and wrap our world in meaning—somehow Something transcendent, some spark of divinity, inheres in us. Second, the very recognition that we carry within us Something from beyond suggests that this “specialness” is held not as privilege, but as gift: ours to acknowledge, but not ours to designate. Thus, every human being is imago Dei: echoed divinity wrapped in flesh.
2. Human beings are interwoven at the heart. This is true ecologically: from gut to lungs to skin we are interwoven with a host of unseen creatures who “live and move and have their being” in us, even as we have our being through them (the phrasing is borrowed and re-spun from Acts 17:28). But it is equally and more visibly true socially. When the second creation account has God observe that “it is not good for the human being to be alone” (Gen. 2:18), this is an echo of the African recognition heard in ujamaa: I am only because we are. Ujamaa, as a social principle, undergirds a notion of cooperative economics; if the very character of being human is mutual to the core, then we build our life together (or we fail to make a human life at all).
3. We were set in the first Garden to tend and keep it (Gen 2:15)—to exercise our imago Dei so that the garden flourishes—our humanity is grounded in the goodness of work. Far from being punishment, work (the expression of imago Dei within the cooperative economy of a community) is our most primal vocation. For the Medieval mystic Meister Eckhart (1260-1328), work was the locus of our imago Dei. We work, as sacred calling, because God works. (It’s true that the experience of work as “toil” is ascribed as punishment a bit later [Gen. 3:17], although I think it’s more accurate to reckon “toil” as an inescapable aspect of working in a finite world where time and energy impinge on us.)
When abolitionists cry out—like stones on Palm Sunday—to defund/abolish the police or abolish prisons, they do so because they regard each human life as holding consummate value, even lives that have ripped asunder the fabric of our human community. Their concern is that when we “as a society, model cruelty and vengeance” in our response to criminal behavior, we practice the very erasure of imago Dei that we claim to be protecting.  And when we do this through state programs of policing and imprisonment we act as though it is ours to bestow or withhold the image of God. Abolitionists know better. So might we.
Abolitionists trace the arc of criminality to economic exploitation and dehumanizing oppression, running from slavery through segregation, structural poverty, and racialized unemployment. In doing so, they assert that until we address the racist ways that white supremacy seeds—and carefully cultivates—violence in our society, our rush to incarcerate only manifests our denial of the extent to which we have betrayed the imago Dei of so many. Abolition says that the most effective—and I will add, the most Christian—way to reduce crime is to invest as a community in eliminating the very conditions that cause it. And those conditions are the dehumanizing and oppressive socio-economic structures of white supremacy … or as we like to call it, “the American way of life.”
We have made an unholy peace with mass incarceration. Not because it is cheaper or safer or healthier for human community. Only because it benefits white supremacy, the elites who fashioned it, and the twisted set of convictions that uphold it. As Christians, we ought to be committed with our whole lives to mass incarnation: the recognition and support of the image of God in humans everywhere. Hopefully someday (soon!) we’ll do that again. Until then, I’m shouting with the stones.
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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 email@example.com. 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.
 Luke 19:36-40. On the historical background see Marcus J. Borg & John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week: Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 1-5.
 Breakthrough: Meister Eckhart’s Creation Spirituality, Introduction and Commentaries by Matthew Fox (Garden City, NY: Image Books), 1980; also Matthew Fox, Original Blessing (Santa Fe: Bear & Co.), 1983.
 The quoted phrase is from Ruth Wilson Gilmore – www.nytimes.com/2019/04/17/magazine/prison-abolition-ruth-wilson-gilmore.html; the theological spin is mine. The other claims I make about abolition, widespread in the literature, are found in this NYT piece as well.