Impossibility Aside – Abolition IS our Business
David R. Weiss – May 17, 2021
I love it when I sit down to Sunday morning worship simply hoping for a good church service only to discover myself smack in the midst of an abolition revival. Thanks, Pastor Sarah!
Full disclosure: I rather doubt anyone else heard ABOLITION echoing like a crescendo throughout the Call to Worship. And I’m not certain Sarah was thinking “abolition” when she selected the opening litany … (but I can hope, can’t I?).
Just a couple weeks ago I blurted out my impatience and frustration with well-meaning friends in this meme (May 4, 2021).
Please. Stop. Telling. Me. Abolition. Is. Impractical. Impossible. For the LOVE OF GOD, Utopias R Us. Paul describes the faith that saves us as faith in “God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” (Romans 4:17) We are called to be utopian because that’s who our God is.
In other words, the seeming impossibility of abolition may be a sound reason for many level-headed persons to be cynical about it as a real alternative to policing and imprisoning as we know them. I’ll grant you that. But for Christians it’s a whole different ballgame—because we’ve pledged allegiance to a God who regularly traffics in the impossible. (I’d say that’s true of any religious-humanist tradition that trades in utopian ideals, but I’m speaking up as a Christian.)
Maybe we should criticize or even oppose abolitionist ideas because they’re overly simplistic (except they’re not), or unjust (except, they’re not), or counter-productive (except, they’re not), or foolishly idealistic (except they’re not).
What abolitionist ideas are is a direct threat to the status quo dynamics of domination and exploitation that have riddled Western society for the past several hundred years (but NOT since forever). And if you read between the lines of even your illustrated children’s Bible you can tell that the biblical God is precisely the sort of deity that overturns the status quo dynamics of domination and exploitation. I’d say that’s even God’s “middle name”—except it’s not: it’s actually God’s FIRST NAME. (When Moses’ asks that Holy Presence speaking from the Burning Bush for a name, the response given is YHWH, “I am that I am,” or more likely meant to be rendered, “I will be Who I will be,” a name connoting limitless surprise, untamable freedom, and the absolute commitment to do whatever is required to deliver liberation. THAT’S OUR GOD.)
Now, I won’t say that bringing about abolition is “peanuts” for God. I mean, did you see Egypt’s living room after the Exodus? That was a messy plague-ridden affair. But the same God who undertook the Exodus—against all odds—THAT God is also all-in on abolition. And if we want to be on the right side of history, we might choose to be all-in on abolition, too.
I understand that abolition might set us on edge. After all, if we have the guts to be honest, we who are white are like the ancient Egyptians in this contemporary Exodus tale. We are the ones whose entire way of life has been built, fashioned—and mortgaged—on the production of people enslaved to our “benefit.” In the original era of U.S. slavery, talk of abolition was met by incredulity. Who will work the cotton fields? Who will do the domestic work on plantations? Who will supply the raw materials for northern factories? Abolish slavery and our whole way of (white) life will be in jeopardy!
Of course, slavery was abolished … and life didn’t collapse. Except. It didn’t become just either. Enter black codes. Police violence. Jim Crow. Segregation. Police violence. Red-lining. The war on drugs. Police violence. Mass incarceration. Environmental racism. Voter suppression. And police violence. Slavery, it seems, had a dozen or more fall back provisions. All to ensure that there would be no true Exodus here in America.
And yet, some of us claim to believe in and pledge our fidelity—the faithfulness of our whole life—to a God who is content with nothing less than justice for persons once enslaved. Which is why I’ve been a bit flustered by the way my white Christian friends want to decry the rhetoric of (and, of course, the very idea of) calls to defund the police. Abolition? That’s a non-starter. Utopian fantasy.
Except: GOD. We Christians routinely claim to believe in baptism that bestows genuinely new life; in bread and wine that (somehow!) become body and blood; in a community no longer misshapen by the inequities of gender, status, or ethnicity. We profess faith in resurrection—both for Jesus and for ourselves. And, if you follow John’s Gospel, we affirm that eternal life—that is, life rooted infinitely deeply in love—begins here. And begins now.
But our faith seems faint when it comes to abolition. And I find that a rather damning commentary on the state of Christianity today. But for now, just sit with me in the pew at church on Sunday. (This was our call to worship, italics added by me.)
One: Because Jesus ascended and sits at the right hand of God, a new world has broken into ours—
All: a world in which justice does come for the poor, freedom comes for the prisoners, and healing for the sick.
One: Because Jesus ascended and sits at the right hand of God, a new community has been formed—
All: a community that loves and cares for all its members, a family that welcomes all who are abandoned and rejected, a place where all find a place of belonging.
One: Because Jesus ascended and sits at the right hand of God, a new creation has begun—
All: all that was distorted is being restored, all that was corrupted is being renewed, all that was broken is being made whole.
One: Because Jesus ascended and sits at the right hand of God, God’s new world has begun—
All: Let us worship God!
If that’s not an affirmation of abolition, I don’t know what is.
Amos is adamant, the only worship that counts is justice rolling down like might waters. Isaiah says our worship ought to inspire us to break every yoke. Jeremiah measures piety by how much we defend the cause of the needy. Ezekiel fantastically calls dry bones back together and back to life. Jesus takes as his very platform God’s promise to free prisoners and call them forth from dark dungeons.
Impossibility aside, abolition is our business. More than this, it’s the very heart of our faith.
For more reflections on this theme, you can check out my unexpected six-post reflection on abolition and faith from last summer (2020)—sort of my “road to Damascus” moment regarding abolition. Find the first post, Come This Wilderness, here. It includes links to the other five, and link to a pdf set of all six essays.
And these more recent pieces: Anamnesis and Liturgical Rage (April 15, 2021); Awaiting a Verdict … While White (April 20, 2021); Having “the Talk” – as White People (April 26, 2021); and Abolition and the Octopus (April 28, 2021).
* * *
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.