We can’t keep doing the same things over and over while crossing our fingers hoping for a different outcome.
A chapel speaker during my high school years put it this way, “If we always do what we’ve always done, we’ll always get what we’ve always got.”
This insight has stayed with me, coming to mind often as I have considered the limitations and failures of the prison industrial complex in the U.S. and the ways some people are calling for reform of this harmful system.
Many have been calling for reform for decades, so I am late to the conversation and am just beginning to learn. If you are in a similar position, I encourage you to lean in closer rather than tuning out.
If we want to effect change in the existing structures in our world, we must start differently. To discern what needs to change, I believe three things must occur (in no particular order).
First, we need to develop an awareness that what currently exists does not promote the flourishing of life and may even cause harm.
Second, we must be willing to critically evaluate existing structures, no matter how ordinary and permanent they may seem.
Finally, we must develop an imagination for something entirely unlike that which currently exists.
From the inception of our country and throughout history, many of the systems and structures that were created to govern the U.S. were based on historically Eurocentric theological claims, including that of the so-called Great Commission.
But we must ask what those theological claims were intended to do, what purpose they served and who benefited. For example, white people found permission to take land and commit heinous genocides in the theological claims of manifest destiny and white exceptionalism.
If we want to reform the prison industrial complex (or any other system in the nation), we must dig deep to consider how our theologies support the laws we create.
In this particular case, widely held atonement theologies need to shift from a crime-and-punishment model to something more healing and transformative.
The atonement theory many adhere to is relatively new. Substitutionary penal atonement, introduced by John Calvin at the time of the Protestant Reformation, is rooted in legal language and thought.
God established laws that humans have broken. They must be punished, and since they cannot adequately meet God’s demands, humans need someone more than human to save them from eternal damnation.
It is a very individualistic atonement theory focused mostly on the afterlife. It is also one of several interpretations of Jesus’ death, and none of the church councils ever set forth one atonement model as “orthodox.”
Yet, this metaphor has been accepted by many Christians who are largely unaware of other perspectives.
Other models, such as the nonviolent atonement conceptions deriving from the work of René Girard, offer very different vantage points from which to consider the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus.
But what if we dropped the metaphor and lived into the reality that Indigenous missiologist Randy Woodley affirms – that “there is no place we can go where Jesus is not already present and active”?
This is neither a radical nor heretical claim, but it does challenge our preconceived notions.
Living into this truth would challenge us to listen more deeply to those around us and to open our eyes to see what beauty and goodness the Divine is already growing within our communities that we may be currently unwilling to see.
“When a (dominant) community realizes that at best it holds only fragments of truth, it should begin to seek genuine conversation with other (nondominant) communities who also possess fragments of truth,” says Brad Braxton, founder of The Open Church of Maryland.
“The more that fragments of truth mix, mingle, collide, but above all converse with one another, the more likely it is that liberation will occur for all parties involved. In short, there can be no common ground as long as white culture assumes that it is the sole owner of the field.”
When white Christians in the U.S. start to listen and seek real conversation with others, we may begin to understand that salvation is more than a supernatural legal transaction that guarantees one’s place in a celestial kingdom.
Jesus came to our material earth in a physical body and lived among us because our bodies matter. Similarly, Jesus’ declaration in Luke 4:18-19 was not simply ethereal; it was also tangible, practical and wholistic.
This is an invitation to all of us who have been disconnected from this conversation to do our homework.
This four-minute overview on mass incarceration in the U.S. is a good starting point. Then, we need to start asking questions about our justice system and of ourselves.
What are the Department of Justice statistics in your location? Why is it this way?
Are there unjust laws or other policies that need to be changed? Are there tangible ways you can participate in flipping the tables on this unjust system?
And how do our atonement theologies need to shift so that these shifts can occur?
The answers to these questions – and others – may point us toward a world in which all people may flourish.