Symposium Introduction

2014 marked yet another contentious chapter in US history on the politics and deployment of law enforcement. The deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Akai Gurley underlined that pervasive and damaging perceptions about race often continue to shape police action and legal decisions to the harm of non-white individuals and populations. In response, protests punctuated the United States to insist that “black lives matter” and demand a stop to the implicit and explicit targeting of black bodies in the name of securing seeming safety and stability.

While theological responses to the issue of mass incarceration exist,1 the current backdrop of events makes Amy Levad’s work, Redeeming a Prison Society: A Liturgical and Sacramental Response to Mass Incarceration, all the more prescient. Redeeming a Prison Society highlights how the policing of non-white bodies takes place in the larger milieu of the United States’ status as “the first genuine prison society . . . distinguished by the practice of imprisonment” (16). The stark reality is that the United States not only incarcerates its citizens at higher rates than any other nation but also incarcerates more people in total (11). This is ground recently and comprehensively covered in Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, where Alexander argues that the dynamics of mass incarceration reflects the persistent construction of a racial caste system in the United States.

Drawing on Alexander’s work, a critical component to Levad’s argument is that the reality of mass incarceration in the United States arises from the pairing of social justice and criminal justice. While this observation once made may seem self-evident, within the context of Levad’s book it performs two crucial functions. One, mass incarceration is removed from its isolated reality—both psychic and geographic. Prisoners are literally removed from society (prisons are often located in rural, majority white populated areas) as well as disenfranchised (particularly with losing their right to vote); consequently prisoners are often thought to be solely within the purview of criminality. That is, we often view crime and the pursuant administration of criminal justice as limited to the actors directly involved along with those who determine the appropriate legal response to the crime. Levad’s linking of criminal and social justice redistributes the burden of responsibility in such a way that we begin to understand mass incarceration as a social justice issue, so that any vision of a just society includes how we build communities that help resist the increasingly prevalent “cradle-to-prison pipeline.” Mass incarceration is no longer a “not in my backyard” problem but a personal one, as Levad herself notes and Brandy Daniels shares in her response.

Two, then, this linkage opens up the theological space to consider the Eucharist, along with the rites of penance and reconciliation, as the place within which we can begin to see the possibilities for redeeming a society that is financially, psychically, and racially indebted to and invested in the prison and criminal justice system (as it often functions) as an optimal response to crime. Levad recognizes that these three sacramental and liturgical events (but primarily the Eucharist) face several significant challenges in terms of how they are situated and understood. However she argues that they can dismantle the logic of punitive exchange and provide constructive resources by which to offer a redemptive vision of justice. This redemptive vision is one of radical inclusivity but does not neglect to engage those who commit crimes as agents who bear responsibility in creating a more just society. In fact, she suggests that only by recognizing the human agency of those who commit wrongdoing can we begin to collaborate on more rehabilitative and restorative approaches to justice that are based on a teleological model of good living together rather than deterrence and fear.

Levad openly affirms that her constructive argument is firmly situated within Catholic tradition and discourse, which she nevertheless critiques in her analysis. However she also hopes that her engagement is catholic enough to offer resources for coalition building both with theological and secular partners. The four panelists for this forum represent a spectrum of such partners. Brandy Daniels (Vanderbilt Divinity School) and Jason Sexton (Cal State University, Fullerton) offer Protestant Christian responses. While both of them appreciate the spirit of Levad’s argument, Daniels and Sexton share concerns about an idealized Eucharistic imagination and ecclesiology, respectively. Joshua Dubler, speaking as a secular scholar of religion who has provided ethnographic analysis of religion within the prison setting, finds Levad’s analysis of mass incarceration as social sin particularly effective insofar as it motivates us to recognize our own roles in the creation of a prison society and therefore spur all of us to action. Finally, Kathryn Getek Soltis (Villanova) provides a Catholic perspective (Soltis being one of the models that Levad engages in her book). Along with Dubler she also finds helpful the framing of mass incarceration as social sin, but presses for more clarity of the connections between social and criminal justice as well as justice’s variable definitions.

We welcome you to follow the exchange that occurs over the next two weeks, and hope you will be compelled to engage in the discussions that unfold.


  1. See, for example, Mark Lewis Taylor’s The Executed God: The Way of the Cross in Lockdown America or the certificate for theological studies program offered for incarcerated women throkugh a collaboration between the Atlanta Theological Association and Arrendale State Prison’s Chaplaincy department.



Which Justice? Whose Social Sin?

IF YOU WANT TO inspire someone to start thinking—and hopefully caring—about our criminal justice system in the United States, one of the best things you can do is get them into prison. I have had the privilege of bringing some of my undergraduates behind bars and I have watched as they wake up to the devastating reality of mass incarceration, a reality they had either been oblivious to or taken some comfort in up until that point. There is no substitute for introducing human beings to other human beings. It is a point not lost upon Amy Levad, author of Redeeming a Prison Society: A Liturgical and Sacramental Response to Mass Incarceration. Levad suggests that her own journey of concern had its origins with the experience of a loved one who was incarcerated. Yet, for those who may not have a close connection to mass incarceration, Levad’s book is the next best entry point, particularly for those who take their faith seriously.

Deftly engaging the signs of the times, Levad offers a comprehensive portrait of the cotemporary United States as the first true prison society. In doing so, she cites all the most important and influential scholars and sources. Yet, the real engine behind her discussion is the identification of resources of the Catholic tradition that can positively address the nation’s criminal and social justice crises. And in this she excels again, developing an expansive account of sacramental and liturgical ethics that can provide the foundations for an interreligious and multiracial movement that might eventually dismantle mass incarceration. Levad is a careful and disciplined writer who utilizes a handful of key linguistic formulations throughout the book to make the consistency of her analysis visible and easy to access. The prime example of this can be found in her articulation of criteria for an adequate response to mass incarceration. Beyond reforming our responses to crime and individual wrongdoing, there must be attention to the ways social injustices have helped create our criminal justice crisis and, furthermore, how mass incarceration itself helps sustain social injustices. This sensitivity to the interconnection between social justice and criminal justice is absolutely crucial and, as Levad notes, it is one she and I share. However, as she also notes, this sensitivity is sorely lacking in theological considerations of criminal justice, particularly those out of the Catholic tradition. Levad’s critiques of the U.S. Bishops and the work of Andrew Skotnicki are right on point. The alternative vision that she develops in the book represents some of the most responsible and promising theological thinking on mass incarceration to date.

In this essay, I wish to focus on three elements of Levad’s argument: the relationship between criminal justice reform and efforts to address social injustices, the variable meanings of justice, and the naming of social sin. I suggest the first two would benefit from further development while the third warrants further emphasis.

Reforming Criminal Justice and/or Addressing Social Injustice

Levad asserts that “[s]ocial and criminal justice in our society are fundamentally intertwined, so any effort to address either must address both” (41). There are many claims made in the book that commend it to readers but this claim is by far the most important. Yet, despite the legitimacy—and urgency—of this statement, there is a significant practical complication. I expect that many people, especially those coming to the issue for the first time, will find it quite difficult to keep social and criminal justice intertwined in their minds. Levad demonstrates the challenge of this herself by splitting into separate chapters her treatment of criminal justice reform and social justice recommendations (chapters 4 and 5, respectively). In the introduction, Levad makes a strong stipulation that readers “should not read chapter 4 separately from the preceding or following chapters.” It is a worthy stipulation but at the end of the day its effectiveness is unclear. For many in our society (and in the faith community), questions about guilt and punishment lead down a very distinctive road, one that does not intersect with the questions of social justice. Despite the more-than-compelling case that has been made by Levad in chapter 1 and by a number of scholars of mass incarceration in recent years, there remains an assumption among many fellow citizens that discussion of social justice in the context of crime is little more than an attempt to excuse and deflect attention away from the personal guilt of offenders. This tendency reveals our general proclivity in the United States for measuring everything in the key of personal responsibility, with other social factors merely leading us toward a spectrum of potential mitigation (or amplification) of culpability. Does a history of untreated mental illness reduce responsibility for the criminal actions? Might an environment of scarcity and blight influence the rational choices of an offender? On our good days, we may be willing to entertain these queries but, as a nation, we seem far less likely to inquire about the conditions that led to the possibility of untreated mental illness or the policies and social responsibility that are implicated in the scarcity and blight. My impression is that our society tends to lack the imagination that is required to perceive its members with multiple identifiers. An offender can simultaneously be victim without one reality usurping, or merely tempering, the other. Our avoidance of this sort of complexity contributes significantly to the prison society we have become.

Levad cannot miraculously transform these predispositions of potential readers, of course. And she does a superb job of laying the scholarly ground to challenge them. However, as she applies her sacramental and liturgical resources to chapters 4 and 5 (criminal justice reform and social justice recommendations, respectively), the two main sacraments are split between the two chapters. Outside of a few mentions of the Eucharist in chapter 4, Penance/Reconciliation is the primary lens through which Levad proposes the reintegrative and restorative reform of current approaches to crime. Outside of a few mentions of Penance/Reconciliation in chapter 5, Eucharist is the primary lens through which Levad proposes the radical inclusiveness of a truly just society. It makes perfect sense why each sacrament is emphasized in this manner, but there is need to contend with an asymmetry between these two sacraments in the contemporary ritual lives of U.S. Catholics.

Levad pursues a sacramental and liturgical approach in this book since it exists at the core of Catholic tradition and since the ritual lives of Christians ought to shape them toward the justice disclosed in God’s reign. She is careful to note the various challenges that can arise, including the difficulty of translation within a pluralist society. In addition, she notes briefly that the formative power of sacraments may be limited by our own weaknesses in terms of participation. However, this latter point needs considerably more attention, particularly in light of the fact that Penance/Reconciliation is no longer a regular practice of the vast majority of U.S. Catholics. Despite referencing three new penitential rites introduced by Vatican II, Levad leans heavily on the penitential practices of the early Church. And for good reason. These practices are oriented clearly toward reintegration and exist within a deeply communal context. Still, the fact remains that these are not the ritual practices that are currently shaping U.S. Catholics. While early Christianity’s model of Penance and Reconciliation demonstrates theological support for reforms of our criminal justice system, we lack a basis to expect that believers have internalized this disposition. I agree wholeheartedly with Levad that we must recognize the ways that criminal justice and social justice are intertwined. Yet, I am deeply concerned if our resources to address these crises of justice—the sacramental vision of Penance/Reconciliation and the Eucharist—are not themselves essentially intertwined in the lives of U.S. Catholics.

The result of this ritual disassociation can reinforce the skepticism about bringing social justice into the conversation with criminal justice. With Eucharist more accessible, this vision has potential to lead Christians to have concern for the poor and marginalized. Yet, with reintegrative penitential practices feeling somewhat foreign, people of faith may remain unshaped by God’s vision when it comes to matters of guilt and wrongdoing. As a result, Christians can care for the innocent victims of social injustice, but once a person bears significant and public guilt, they are no longer fit for our vision of mercy and inclusion. Truth be told, I have found this very disposition time and again among people of genuine faith. The logic of God’s justice takes them only so far when it comes to the suffering and outcast of society. Once a person has violated a law, a punitive logic enters as if God’s vision ends where the legal system begins. This feeds itself back on the challenge of recognizing social justice as relevant for criminal justice because they appear to operate in such separate spheres. Theologically, Levad’s argument is deeply compelling; the visions of Penance/Reconciliation and Eucharist and most closely related and point in the very directions she indicates. But the community of faith needs to reckon with the fact that we are not being ritually shaped by both of these visions. If Catholics will find a way to the take the sort of prophetic stance that Levad rightfully finds lacking in the U.S. Bishops’ approach, we may have to find new rituals to shape us.

Defining Justice

The temptation to treat criminal justice and social justice as if they occupied entirely separate spheres does not only align itself with a split in sacramental practices, it also tracks to the way we use the term “justice.” Over the course of the book, Levad magnificently captures a vision of God’s justice that is committed to the flourishing of every person and does not abandon us to our sin and guilt. Yet, while she notes that this vision exists in contrast to our worldly assumptions regarding justice, there is no clarification about the content of this latter perspective. The book would benefit from a more precise account of the variable meanings of justice so that readers can see laid bare before them the contradictions they may very likely harbor. This is particularly pressing if, as I suspect, many readers of faith subscribe to religious thinking (e.g., forms of penal substitutionary theories of atonement) that supports the maintenance of one understanding of justice in the context of crime and a completely different understanding when it comes to social inequalities.

In her discussion of a Eucharistic vision of justice, Levad notes that such a world-picture “is particular to God’s reign and opposes the reign of the principalities and powers of this world and their understanding of justice” (151). With such an important contradiction at stake, I was surprised that Levad did not give space to defining worldly notions of justice. This became especially unnerving in her discussion of restorative justice (which precedes the Eucharistic elaboration by two chapters). She presents a restorative notion of “doing justice” that includes attaining satisfaction of all stakeholders that justice has been done (114). Yet, if there are such different understandings of justice roaming about, ought we to construct this satisfaction of justice in such a subjective way? There are other indications in the text that Levad is not actually suggesting stakeholders get to define their own sense of justice. Still, the “doing justice” definition she presents does seem problematic and alternative language from restorative literature may be better able to prevent confusion. However, most effective in dispelling confusion would be a direct confrontation with some of the versions of justice that need to be rejected.

Simply put, we cannot redeem a prison society if justice is understood as getting what one deserves, particularly when desert in the context of crime is considered proportionate suffering. We use this idea of justice quite often when we stand outside the courtroom doors and decide whether “justice has been served” depending on the length of the prison sentence a person has received for a particular crime. Two years for murder would be a “miscarriage of justice,” as would thirty years for shoplifting. If justice is simply about balancing scales and finding a punishment that fits the crime, then it does indeed seem rather different from a social justice that proclaims equality, dignity, and radical inclusion. They seem to be utterly separate conversations. But justice ought to be justice—whether in response to social inequity or individual wrongdoing. To merge the conversations, we need a notion of justice that speaks of criminal justice and social justice with the singular voice of dignity, inclusion, mercy, and an unwavering commitment toward continued and increased participation in the community. This is, of course, a gesture toward God’s justice that both Levad and I take to be central for responding to mass incarceration. The trajectory of her argument is exactly right in my view. I simply suggest that along the way, we spend more time unpacking the definitions of justice that can so often take people off the path. Ultimately, the danger of leaving contradictory notions of justice unexamined is that we have yet another obstacle in place to disassociate criminal and social justice. For justice to be credible, however, it cannot mean one thing when we are talking about innocent victims of marginalization and another thing when we are talking about those who are guilty of harm. And not least because they are so often the same person.

Mass Incarceration as Social Sin

It had been a thought before, but after the opportunity to meditate further on these matters through Levad’s excellent work, I am now convinced that the U.S. Catholic community could benefit from a more explicit articulation of our moral crisis. In short, mass incarceration is a social sin in which every U.S. Catholic is complicit. Imagine a pastoral letter from the U.S. Catholic Bishops beginning with this thesis. I don’t expect to see the missive anytime soon, but it would be significant . . . and overdue. Levad uses the language of social sin at various points in the book, and I don’t have any reason to believe that she would disagree with my assertion. However, the specificity of the statement—both in naming mass incarceration as the sin and in naming every U.S. Catholic as bearing guilt—confronts individuals and communities with a force and urgency that seems appropriate in our moment. Levad is a bit more diplomatic, inviting Catholics to put their sacramental vision into practice through any number of efforts and initiatives that would reform our criminal justice system and challenge our social justice crisis. I fear, however, that some readers could put the book down convinced of the legitimacy of Levad’s claims but lacking the will to join the movement for justice that she outlines. Readers might assent to the abject failures and injustices of our criminal justice crisis. They might assent to the dignity of all persons, the preference for restorative justice, and the need to eliminate the racial, social, economic, and political factors that sustain and reflect this human tragedy. But at the end of the day, isn’t mass incarceration just one more way in which the world is different from how it ought to be? Sure, some who are particularly inspired can join the fight, but the rest may just have to throw up their hands and sigh heavily at the large and complicated mess that’s been made. That’s my fear. Thus, what I think needs to be emphasized is that mass incarceration is bearing down on each of our souls. Millions of Americans are either caged or let out on a short leash (i.e., parole, probation) and it is all done in our name.

Mass incarceration is able to exist because we need order, safety, and protection. Levad notes (164–65) that we can do nothing else for social justice without first ensuring safety. Thus, it is essential and relevant for every member of the common good that there is security. We must admit that, broken as they are, we derive some benefit from the criminal justice systems that protect our rights and give us a sense of safety. If at night I hear a loud noise downstairs, a phone to call 9-1-1 is just inches away. Quite a few people have had to pass criminal background checks in order to care for my daughter. When my car was broken into and property destroyed, there was someone to take the report and acknowledge the violation. If I were to be a victim of a personal assault or business fraud, there would be someone to investigate and try to prevent it from happening again. Without these and many other assurances and protections, it would be very difficult indeed to live my life as I do. Even as I perceive the monstrosity of our criminal justice system that dehumanizes and destroys under the cover of purposes that are only sometimes legitimate, I also depend upon that system. This is my monster. And I contend that each one of us in the United States, even those caught up in the system, do depend on it in some way. This is your monster. So then, let’s be clear about the moral implication of our inevitable participation in this monstrosity. We are each guilty of the sin of mass incarceration. It is a sin we carry with us every day and we consent to the sin—deepening and deadening—unless we take responsibility to resist it.

It is not just U.S. Catholics who are guilty of this social sin, but it would behoove our community of faith to be most explicit in including ourselves. Levad’s worthy project is directed primarily though not exclusively to Christians and especially Catholics. The book intends to show why Catholics should participate in an interreligious and multiracial coalition and why they could be particularly good partners in it. My desire is to add even a bit more vigor to this goal. Does living in the world’s first prison society make any urgent difference for how Catholics understand our moral responsibility and for the way we live out our faith? It should.

Levad calls for the Catholic community to be more welcoming and inclusive. To this, I would like to add being more proactive. We must develop accessible rituals that demonstrate the restorative and reintegrative impulses of our tradition. What would a Catholic liturgy of reentry look like? Taking the notion most literally for the purposes of mass incarceration, I can imagine designated monthly reception masses for those who have been recently released from prison. Instead of coffee and donuts in the parish hall afterwards, there would be a gathering of community members and various resources to translate the welcome into concrete material services and offers of sustained relationship. But are our best resourced parishes largely isolated from those who might be returning from prison? There is ever a need for mixed parishes that defy socio-economic enclaves. Or at the very least, instead of a suburban-urban sister parish relationship, why not one between a parish on the outside and the parish of sorts on the inside? And imagine the outside parish regularly celebrating an open-air mass near the prison, highlighting how this crisis makes genuine community impossible. These are just a few of my musings after reading Levad’s book and wondering what U.S. Catholics might do with their sacramental and liturgical life if they take serious their social sinning. The answers are not actually internal to the Catholic community, of course, and interfaith partnerships (and rituals) are highly desirable. What is not desirable is thinking we can opt out of efforts for the millions upon millions of Americans who are seriously harmed by our criminal and social justice crises. Indeed, mass incarceration is a social sin in which we are all complicit. And Levad’s book is the most complete and compelling examination of conscience available.


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    Amy Levad


    In Response to Kathryn Getek Soltis


    Chances to engage in sustained, thoughtful conversation in academia are unfortunately rare, so I am grateful for this opportunity to discuss my work in Redeeming a Prison Society with Kathryn Getek Soltis, Jason Sexton, Brandy Daniels, and Joshua Dubler. Each respondent raises important issues, including the meaning of justice, the role of the church in working for it, and the possibilities of the church being effective in addressing our criminal and social justice crises. Because each of these authors write from differing perspectives—Catholic, Protestant, and secular—they highlight varying ways in which our conversation might be deepened and clarified. I am thankful for their insights.

    While I am grateful for their contributions, I am compelled to note a shortfall of our conversation. All of the contributors, including myself, are white. I am left to wonder what insights might have been offered had our discussion included perspectives from non-white contributors, especially because mass incarceration has affected African-American and Latino/a communities so radically. How might our conversation been further deepened and clarified? I hope that this shortfall can be repaired to some degree through the comments that follow each response.

    The following discussion explores many topics, but the topic that I found constantly turning over in my head as I thought about these responses was hope. Especially in my responses to Kathryn Getek Soltis and Joshua Dubler, hope is framed in terms of the distance between reality and my aspirations in Redeeming a Prison Society. The realities of Catholic belief and practice, the realities of mass incarceration, the realities of social injustice—these all suggest that my proposals in this text indeed present an excessively hopeful vision of what Catholics (indeed, anyone) can or would do in response to our criminal and social justice crises. Confronting these realities, as we must attend to the brokenness of our world, should lead us all to “a sense of conviction for our failures as church, community, and society.”1 However, I fear that no one will be drawn into work to dismantle mass incarceration by a sense of conviction alone, which tends to paralyze with the burden of guilt, shame, and powerlessness. I believe that we must also have a sense of hope, a vision of what could be, an assurance that we have the power to bring about change. Others may find hope in other sources, but “for Catholics, we must also base [the work for justice] in the hope for the in-breaking of God’s reign disclosed in the Eucharist.”2 This belief undergirds much of what follows in response to Getek Soltis, Daniels, Sexton, and Dubler. Again, I thank them for their contributions.

    *  *  * 

    As always, Kathryn Getek Soltis requires me to think more carefully and precisely, and for that, I am grateful for her contribution to this conversation. In her response essay, she offers three areas for further reflection that can deepen and expand my argument in Redeeming a Prison Society: reforming criminal justice and/or addressing social injustice, defining justice, and mass incarceration as social sin. I would like to take her insights as an opportunity to append my previous work, building upon her recommendations and pushing them further than she suggests in her essay. I will focus on the first two areas for further reflection; as for the third section, because of the limits of space, allow me simply to say “amen” to all that Getek Soltis writes there.

    Regarding her first section, Getek Soltis begins by observing the difficulty of holding together our crises of criminal and social justice in U.S. culture, which is often apparent in a refusal to recognize the ways in which “an offender can simultaneously be a victim without one reality usurping, or merely tempering the other.” We emphasize personal responsibility. As a result, we refuse to acknowledge that the advent of mass incarceration lies not in higher crime rates (which are currently at a remarkable low point), but in an increasingly punitive culture. Furthermore, we fail to acknowledge our own complicity in this culture, ignoring our participation in social sin and the ways in which we, as a society, offend against the poor and vulnerable in our midst.

    When few Catholics participate in practices of Penance and Reconciliation, Getek Soltis is right to question whether this sacrament can offer meaningful resources in responding to this predicament. Like her, I have heard people of faith express the sentiment that once someone is suspected, arrested, convicted, he is no longer worthy of our love and forgiveness. We revert to retribution over reconciliation, and we focus only on the individual’s wrongdoing and not the context in which he is being held accountable for it.

    I admit that the moral vision I find in the sacraments is more aspirational to me than based in reality. While many Catholics dutifully and joyfully partake of the Eucharist, we balk at participation in Penance and Reconciliation. I find hope in what this sacrament has been and could become, but our current practices certainly leave a great deal to be desired. I will say more about the gap between reality and my aspirations in response to Joshua Dubler, but would like to address here what Catholics are missing in light of poor participation in this sacrament.

    Despite the emphasis on personal responsibility in our culture, we prefer to hold others personally responsible, rather than examine our own shortfalls. Consider the wording of public apologies. “Mistakes were made,” instead of “I did wrong.” “I regret if people were offended,” instead of “I offended and for that I am sorry.” We devolve into the passive voice rather than acknowledge that we were the agents who made choices and committed actions that harmed others. Perhaps our denials of responsibility are a fundamentally human flaw. The man in the Garden of Eden blames the woman for giving him the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil; the woman passes the blame to the serpent. Getek Soltis observes that we avoid complexity in seeing another person as simultaneously victim and offender. Likewise, we avoid complexity in seeing ourselves as fallen people, unwilling to stand convicted by our faults.

    The problem with our failure to acknowledge our own sins is that we become awfully judgmental in view of others’ sins. We attend to the motes in others’ eyes instead of the planks in our own. Among Christians, our judgmentalism is rooted in our failure to grasp that we are forgiven by God despite our failings, not because of our righteousness. I have become attracted to the idea that we, the church, are forgiven forgivers and reconciled reconcilers. This language helps to convey the sense that we are sinners who seek to repair broken relationships. This idea, however, depends upon the recognition that having been forgiven and reconciled presupposes that we did wrong and we are forgiven and reconciled because of the grace of God alone. If we were to participate more regularly and meaningfully in the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, we might experience more regularly and meaningfully both our own significant guilt and our liberation from its weight in the mercy and inclusion of God. In turn, we might then be more willing to offer the liberation of our own mercy and inclusion to others who bear guilt. Poor participation in the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation leads to a failure not only to confess our sin, but also to experience fully the grace of forgiveness that could open us to forgiving others.

    Yes, this argument is more aspirational than grounded in the reality of penitential practice among U.S. Catholics. Getek Soltis concludes by noting that if we are not being ritually shaped by Penance and Reconciliation, then “we may have to find new rituals to shape us.” As long as I am in an aspirational mood, I wonder whether restorative justice practices could be these rituals. While I could say a great deal about how restorative justice could be useful within the church (for example, in responding to clergy abuse scandals and their cover-ups), for now allow me to conjecture how participation in restorative justice in secular settings could shape Catholics, in addition to non-Catholic participants.

    Through my ethnographic work in restorative justice, I have observed a common outcome: a sense of collective responsibility and individual accountability among participants.3 I do not mean here the accountability and responsibility of the person identified as the offender, although that also frequently occurs. Rather I have seen participants in restorative justice acknowledge their own wrongdoing, even when they are the victims, community members, or facilitators. For example, participants reflect that they have committed the same or worse offenses as the person identified as the offender, but they did not get caught. These admissions of wrongdoing help participants in restorative justice to acknowledge that we all do wrong in our lives. In Christian terms, we are all sinners.

    Similarly, I have seen participants acknowledge their collective responsibility for circumstances that have contributed to an offense. For example, participants often reflect upon the failures of our society in supporting families, schools, healthcare systems, and other social institutions and resources. These admissions help participants to acknowledge that we all participate in a society that too often ignores the well being of certain members. In Christian terms, we all bear the guilt of social sin. Gaining this sense of individual accountability and collective responsibility opens the possibility of identifying with the person identified as the offender, seeing him as a human being, and recognizing social justice as relevant for criminal justice.

    Again, I am writing in an aspirational mode. Nevertheless, I see some possibilities in the rituals, so to speak, of restorative justice in leading Catholics to rethink the rituals of Penance and Reconciliation, as well as our understanding of sin, both personal and social. In my ethnographic work in restorative justice, I have heard numerous participants, religious and not, deem restorative justice practices as “sacred.” I wonder whether restorative justice has the potential of leading Catholics back into our own liturgical and sacramental traditions.

    Regarding her second section, which she titles “Defining Justice,” Getek Soltis asks me to clarify what I mean by “our worldly assumptions regarding justice” in contrast with “a vision of God’s justice that is committed to the flourishing of every person and does not abandon us to our sin and guilt.” She points especially to the need to reject a retributive definition of justice, a notion that has supported substitutionary theories of atonement, which have in turn undergirded ever more punitive penal practices in Western societies since Anselm’s writing in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. For readers interested in these ties, Timothy Gorringe’s God’s Just Vengeance is fundamental.4 I have also been deeply informed by Christopher Marshall’s Beyond Retribution: A New Testament Vision for Justice, Crime, and Punishment, which clearly explains the contrast between God’s justice as illuminated in scripture and justice defined retributively.5 I concur entirely with Getek Soltis that God’s justice cannot be reconciled with retributivism.

    In addition, I feel compelled to address some additional worldly assumptions regarding justice that cannot be reconciled with God’s justice. As I write, a little more than a week has passed since a grand jury in Ferguson, MO refused to indict Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown. Less than a day has passed since a grand jury in Staten Island, NY refused to indict Daniel Pantaleo for killing Eric Garner. For many Americans, the outcomes of these grand juries indicate that justice has been done. Witnesses testified. Evidence was examined. A grand jury failed to find probable cause. Case closed. Justice served.

    Protestors, however, question whether justice was served. These killings occurred within a political, social, cultural, and economic context, and they cannot be fully understood in isolation from that context. This context is rooted in a history of vilifying African-American men and boys, seeing them as “super-predators,” “black brutes,” “demons.” These cultural tropes contribute to explicit and implicit bias that contributes to viewing all black men and boys as criminal and uncontrollable. The effects of these stereotypes are exacerbated by de facto racial segregation cemented by decades of white flight and deindustrialization that have left impoverished minority communities isolated within pockets of urban areas. These communities then have been policed by forces that do not draw upon their populations in recruitment. As a result, police forces tend to be disproportionately white relative to the populations they are policing. They are also increasingly militarized, treating communities as insurgent forces in opposition to “law and order” and handling members of these communities as enemies through practices such as zero-tolerance, broken-windows, and stop-and-frisk policing. As politicians send in the National Guard and give armored vehicles designed for use in war to local police agencies, they claim that they are “tough on crime.” Context matters here. Protestors are not only protesting the killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and numerous other black men and boys. We are not only protesting the failures of the grand juries to indict. We are protesting the political, social, cultural, and economic context that supports the views of many that these killings are just.

    When I write about a vision of God’s justice in contrast to our worldly assumptions regarding justice, I am writing against retributivism. But I am also writing against distorted interpretations of justice that would deny that black lives matter as much as any other human lives, that would permit police to use deadly force in response to minor infractions, that would ignore the broader context of social injustice that has enabled incidents such as the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner to occur. I believe that God’s justice, which will bring about wholeness, redemption, reconciliation, and peace, stands in opposition to these distortions of justice, and that this vision of justice calls all Christians to stand with those who have been marginalized, impoverished, degraded, and even killed as a result of our criminal and social justice crises.

    Thanks again to Kathryn Getek Soltis for this opportunity to develop my thought on these issues.

    1. Amy Levad, Redeeming a Prison Society: A Liturgical and Sacramental Response to Mass Incarceration (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2014), 98.

    2. Ibid.

    3. For more detail, see my Restorative Justice: Theories and Practices of Moral Imagination (El Paso, TX: LFB Scholarly, 2011).

    4. Timothy Gorringe, God’s Just Vengeance: Crime, Violence, and the Rhetoric of Salvation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

    5. Christopher Marshall, Beyond Retribution: A New Testament Vision for Justice, Crime, and Punishment (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001).



Re-focusing the Incarcerated Redeemed within Society’s Prisons

AMY LEVAD HAS WRITTEN a helpful book on one of America’s most important social issues today—mass incarceration. In major ways this problem has appeared on the agendas of courts, legislators, local communities, governments, academics, activists, churches and other ministries, along with various shareholders and beneficiaries of the current status quo. While voices ambitiously clamor to address the issue, the weight of the problem is both complex and overwhelming. On one hand, Levad’s acknowledgement that America is the first genuine “prison society” is no new discovery; that she’s given us another book on prisons is not novel. Yet how she opens the hatch with her book Redeeming a Prison Society: A Liturgical and Sacramental Response to Mass Incarceration—framing the problem of criminal justice in its relationship to social justice1—is not only very helpful, but also very important. Mass incarceration is locked into a vicious cycle that contributes to and is fueled by social justice issues that disproportionately harm racial and ethnic groups that are already socioeconomically disadvantaged, especially blacks and Latinos. This much is clear, and beyond dispute. What’s not clear is how to address the matters, both of them, with meaningful and workable solutions that labor toward a better common society. Levad sets forth her proposal in this book, arguing for “an expansive view of liturgy and sacraments as the public service of the church in making the grace of God perceptible to us, thus consecrating our lives in the world” (5).

Such talk may sound awkward to many criminologists and others staking claims in the current, very lively, conversation about these issues. But it shouldn’t sound awkward at all when it’s understood that Levad is harnessing rationale from her own field of Catholic social ethics and moral theology to give a properly interdisciplinary response to the problems as she sees them.2 On her account, this book considers the criminal and social justice crises in America and aims to chart a more “adequate response” than what others are giving. Levad aims at both mass incarceration and social justice, reasoning that when the problems of both criminal and social injustices (whether known or unknown) are not simultaneously treated, neither is properly addressed. As the book builds its argument, Levad aims to provide theological rationale for the Church to respond sacramentally and liturgically to the problems, and does so in conversation with contemporary criminology research, especially in the final two chapters (chs. 4–5).

After a compelling introductory chapter loaded with virtually all the relevant data3 needed to get up to speed on America’s shameful and tragic incarceration problem, Levad gives a survey of Catholic responses to the issues. Starting with a recent monograph by Peter Koritansky and the 2010 Boston College PhD thesis from Kathryn Getek-Soltis, another participant on the present Syndicate panel. Each of these draw from Aquinas and that punishment is teleological or “medicinal,” serving a greater purpose at the end. Soltis herself served as a Catholic Chaplain for two years. Levad then engages the 2000 work of the US Conference on Catholic Bishops, Responsibility, Rehabilitation, Restoration, building upon Pope John Paul II’s message earlier that year, Jubilee in Prisons. And finally, Levad considers a serious critical proposal from Andrew Skotnicki, who argues that the role of prisons serve a good by reconciling offenders both to God and neighbor through penal discipline. Levad strongly disagrees with each of the Catholic contributors save Soltis for the integrative role justice plays in her proposal, and since she recognizes the link between social and criminal justice (55–56). But each of the other approaches she either finds weak (e.g., on this point Soltis sees), or not engaging in criminological research well enough, or else simply wrong. While affirming human dignity, rather than arguing for a “penitential” place akin to a monastic and ecclesial prison, Levad looks for solutions in the sacraments and liturgy, the heart of Catholic moral and theological tradition.

Levad argues that theological and ethical reflections that begin with the liturgy of the sacraments provide resources for Catholics to adequately response to today’s criminal and social justice crises, which have found Catholic voices largely absent from these conversations (47). Accordingly, this book is written by a Catholic, and for Catholics (176), for whom Levad owns an irresponsibility and failure on the part of Catholics to take social ills seriously (3). As such, the kind of proposal Levad sets forth not only aims to inspire and motivate Catholics toward a proper response to the tragic state of affairs, but she seeks to summon her largely Catholic audience to become more seriously involved, passionately calling them out on the basis of a Eucharistic vision that “awakens our eschatological imaginations in remembrance of Christ’s death and resurrection and in anticipation of God’s reign” (152). Here she invites Catholics (and others) not only to confront present social injustices but also to recognize the basis of this sacrament of the Eucharist, demanding moral transformation that is both “spiritual and otherworldly” (95). This transformation of the self and the relationship to others in response to divine grace is what takes place thorough the celebration of the Eucharist (81) which while done “in the world” (86) and indeed collapsing time so that its participants simultaneously experience God’s past, present, and future and thus “hear the call to seek social justice most loudly and clearly in our celebration of the Eucharist” (95–96).

In her exposition of the liturgical and sacramental approach to justice, Levad is cautious to avoid the dangers of the privatization and politicization of worship. The first instance is where either the liturgy changes nothing about the worshipper and therefore leaves her disengaged with the world and its decay; the second leaves the worshipper focused so much on the problems in our polis that we forget that worship is about what God has done in and through Jesus (81–82). Through this understanding, then, Levad is very careful to advocate the essential engagement with culture and society while shirking any notion of “Christianizing” it (83, 88, 100). Thus one of the challenges to “liturgical and sacramental ethics is to find ways to express the work of the church community in response to worldly problems while still respecting the individual consciences both of its members and of people outside of the church in a pluralistic world” (83).

In the above ways the church is not to impose its ethical (sacramental and liturgical, by Levad’s account) ideals upon others outside the church, nor ought it disrupt the natural pluralism within the church. In fact, Levad’s model creates space to work within the public space and, in true ecumenical and inclusivistic post-Vatican II fashion, to affirm the good work being done by other groups working there. In describing the work of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, “Healing Communities,” Levad notes, “It ought not matter whether a religious congregation is large or small, rich or poor, white or black, Catholic or Protestant, Christian or not—it has some capacity to offer material, emotional or social support to people who are incarcerated, returning citizens, and their families” (163–64; cp. also the other “communities” that offenders are to be reintegrated into after wrongdoers experience the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation). There is something here, however, that seems to undercut the momentum of Levad’s ecclesial (sacramental and liturgical) vision amid the societal vision presented in this book. Of course, a number of the structures that may help people listed in chapter 5 are set forth as operative structures that themselves, at least on a Barthian account of the nature of revelation, cannot hear divine revelation, including the state itself. And yet Levad argues that even the Catholic “‘medicinal’ understanding of Penance and Reconciliation may serve as a basis for supporting rehabilitative efforts within criminal justice systems” (126). Whether this claim is true or not, surely some form of penitence and reconciliation or resumption will be ideally sought in the process of punishment.

Levad notes that the history of the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation acknowledges wrongdoing as best understood as a violation of relationships which then leads the offender toward an effort to transform those relationships and the character of the offender in the process which was ultimately the reason for the preeminence of forgiveness, both recognizing our solidarity in sinfulness and also the forgiveness already ours through Christ (106). This, of course, raises issues about the role of forgiveness in penal policy; although, perhaps more importantly is the transformation of life and character this forgiveness brings about in the life of the member of the ecclesial community. Even still, it shows forth in a disposition that it’s not only people who commit crime that need social reintegration and internal reform; “the Eucharist reminds us that we are all called to these tasks, especially through the endeavor for social justice” (98). And this is so because everyone is both a victim and offender. Yet much more so when Christians have for their Lord the one who became a convicted criminal for us and who self-identified in solidarity with the prisoner.

The final two chapters of this book take on a slightly different voice and tone, with chapter 4 speaking almost as a juvenile counselor and chapter 5 speaking more like a social worker. I gather this has something to do with Levad’s conscious effort throughout both chapters to engage in dialogue with the discipline of criminology (110), seeming to suggest that this discipline may speak with one voice on any point. Levad’s engagement itself, however, far from adapting various conclusions offers her own conjectures and conclusions throughout. For example, she’s not unwilling to put a practice like restorative justice in its place, arguing for its best-suitedness for low-risk offenders. Levad, then, offers her own model for criminal justice reform (ch. 4) and then for a wider movement of social justice for all affected (ch. 5). Her response to the issues of incarceration, as well as to the wider societal issues at play that continue to feed the situation, show a contentment with nothing short of a full response to both matters. For a Catholic attempt, it’s brilliant. But more reformist Catholics will need to keep moving toward more localist ecclesiologies, which might have changed what Levad wrote a bit had they been considered. Her approach was clearly not meant to exclude other Christian groups (be they hierarchical and, by nature, paternalistic, or be they locally-constituted free churches).4

For my part, I do worry that there is a bit of patronizing that marks the work of those from eucharistic traditions (e.g., Timothy Gorringe, etc.), and often with a disposition lending toward a more colonialist style of mission.5 I will explain more in a moment, even though this is surely the “paternalism” that Levad wants to avoid (187). Yet I wonder if she can, or if her ecclesiology will let her. From the first pages of the book, I wondered who the “we” throughout the book makes reference to, who are “caring about people in prison” (2), helping to “provide resources” for “wrongdoers” to change their lives for the good (3), etc. The ambivalent spirit is also propagated by thinking that incarceration is only affecting whole groups of people (15). More patronizing approaches are also described in the restorative justice scenario (116), which bears similarities to the sacrament of Penance and Justice that Levad advocates, albeit fully aware of dangers in restorative processes. And again, a racist paternalism is the farthest thing from what Levad’s model advocates (187). But with every good intention I cannot get past the fact that this is a proposal from a responsible citizen genuinely trying to help, but which still may lack the conceptual tools (or at least the most fitting kind of proposal) needed to give an appropriately theological account of the entire situation. She provides few resources, for example, for the lifer inmate who may pick up her book and who will never be released, and risks maintaining a strong “us” over against “them” paradigm.

And what about the integrity of Catholic or other Christian persons in prison who will never be released, or those who find themselves in solitary confinement for weeks or months at a time? Who must administer the Eucharist both to him and to the others there? This is a question about ecclesiology, of course. If the one to celebrate is always and only the ordained priest (“ideally”), then it seems that this truly sacramental vision that Levad begins to sketch is undermined by a theology that in this way does not truly allow the incarcerated church to be what it truly is: the incarcerated body of Christ, already broken there within the prison for the sake of the world. And whatever benefit “we” might be able to offer in serving “them,” it seems that they not only have the ability to serve themselves in the most meaningfully beneficial ways, but that “they” may also instruct “us” on how best to help them (in complementary ways probably better than our proposals foreign to their indigenous context); and “they” may also offer “us” far more resources for our role and witness as the body of Christ than we could imagine. So rather than the peoples we are trying to “help,” as any missionary would in particular ways, perhaps the members of these incarcerated communities—the incarcerated church, if you will—are truly the salt and light of the earth, truly the sanctified body of Christ, celebrating the eucharistic table in precisely the ways that Levad describes this (185–86). And perhaps they can help us more than we might imagine (as the church and as a wider society) if we would build the kinds of structures that would allow us to listen to our brothers and sisters there.

I think Levad would want to see this happen; she wants to listen to the social ills on the ground. But perhaps this may best be done by listening to the voices within the prisons, either through her own ethnographic findings that she may drum up through further research, or perhaps by continuing to draw from the criminological and other work being generated to both cultivate and distribute voices within the prisons.6 Research like this will help to cultivate a listening ear rather than merely offering quite breezy criminological reflections, which prison life is anything but. Prison ministry and solidarity-building between incarcerated and non-incarcerated churches are also anything but simplistic.

Of course, Levad knows all this. But if she does, I wonder why her vision went for the “idealistic” (152; cp. 6n8). The prison church is not idealistic. And here may be where the ecclesiology that Levad offers is ultimately inadequate for what is happening in the context of the incarcerated church. More than mere ritual, the body of Christ is no longer spiritually, mystically, or idealistically about the life and death of Christ and that of his followers. The incarcerated body of Christ is, quite literally, about the life and death of its members who are joined in union with their Lord’s very life and death, or not at all. This is the essence of what it means to truly participate in the life of the church in prison. In other words, following Christ in the prison is not about the kind of transformation that is optional on the streets. There must be transformation or there is no church. And where there is church—which will by virtue of being by nature the one “new humanity” (Eph. 2:15), the interracial, intergenerational kind constituted as new creation by the Holy Spirit—it will often be met with worldly hostility.

But here is where a deeper understanding of the incarcerated church can help. As it currently stands, while offering very little direct help for the prison church suffering the pain from both issues of social and criminal justice, I am unclear whether Levad’s vision is a social or ecclesial vision (149–50). It seems to mix the two in ways that leave off deeper theological rationale and vision for strengthening the particularities of social justice in chapter 5. For example, where is the robustly theological rationale for economic inclusion (especially concerning the matter of forgiveness in penal theory)?; for involvement in political life, especially reckoning with gerrymandering and the matter of community-vice and development?; for repairing families and the theological vision given by the apostle Paul of the church as family?; along with safe and rebuilt communities and the privilege that Christians have of being salt and light in a broken world in need of the church’s presence? Each of these could summon explicit theological development and responses. And whereas Levad opts for the more sacramental notion for her ethical vision, I found myself throughout the book wondering what of the place of a theology of love.

In conclusion I would like to ask, where is this redeemed prison society? May I suggest that it is there within the prisons in ways that Levad’s proposal didn’t get around to quite fully acknowledging? She shows us glimpses of it in her sacramental and liturgical response to the social and criminal justice issues behind the dreadful reality of mass incarceration. Although perhaps she’s not even quite realized the full extent of her proposal for these other issues, and what it might mean ecclesiologically. Yet this deeper vision is something she highlighted at points—for example, in the case of the women described in the acknowledgments, those “living letters,” who were part of the prison church. One even helped Levad build a library for other women, leaving behind what she had for the good of the rest—broken for the sake of the world.


  1. Drawing especially from the acclaimed work of civil rights attorney Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The Free Press, 2012) .

  2. Of note, the current governor of California, Jerry Brown, has often appropriated concepts and rationale from Catholic social teaching [even from the medieval period!], although not always in his reading of the situation with our prisons.

  3. I say, “virtually all” because it’s a near given that once something is published in American criminology, being as dynamic and complicated as it is, the situation has often already changed and the conversations have already moved on.

  4. See the reference to “other Christians” at page 5, 8, 9, 79, 86, 98, 138, 150, 163, 185–86, 194.

  5. I have made this point elsewhere in “Toward a prison theology of California’s ecclesia incarcerate,” Theology (2015): forthcoming.

  6. For example, Doran Larson, Fourth City: Essays from the Prison in America (Michigan State University Press, 2014).

  • Avatar

    Amy Levad


    In Response to Jason Sexton

    I want to thank Jason Sexton for his thoughtful and thought-provoking response to my book. He raises important questions about ecclesiology and mission that I would like to address. Before getting to those issues, however, I need to ask for clarification on a couple of points. Perhaps through the comments, Sexton and I can reach better understanding.

    My first question arose at the end of the sixth paragraph, where Sexton writes, “A number of the structures that may help people listed in chapter 5 are set forth as operative structures that themselves, at least on a Barthian account of the nature of revelation, cannot hear divine revelation, including the state itself.” He suggests that because of this understanding of the accessibility (or lack thereof) of revelation outside of the church, my ecclesial vision is undercut in terms of what it can offer for social transformation. I am not certain whether I have adequately captured what Sexton means. Perhaps we are speaking past each other because of denominational and doctrinal differences. For Catholics, I do not think it is strange to say that the church has wisdom to offer the world, while also saying that the church must be in dialogue with the world, including garnering wisdom from outside of the church. For example, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World from the Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, instructs that the church has the goal “to carry forward the work of Christ under the lead of the befriending Spirit.” The text continues, “To carry out such a task, the Church has always had the duty to scrutinize the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel. . . . We must therefore recognize and understand the world in which we live, its explanations, its longings, and its often dramatic characteristics.”1 This idea is a foundational tenet of Gaudium et Spes, but also one that a Barthian account of the nature of revelation would express some qualms about. A few words from Sexton to clarify his concern and whether I am interpreting it correctly would be helpful.

    My second question concerns the end of the eighth paragraph, where Sexton refers to reformist Catholics. I am not sure whom he is talking about. Does he mean Catholics oriented by the Second Vatican Council? If so, I count myself among this number. If not, I am not sure whom he means. Sexton suggests that had I considered more localist ecclesiologies ascribed to by reformist Catholics, then what I wrote may have changed a bit. If he could provide some specific examples of the ways he would see my work changing, it would help me better understand his concern and what he would have me do differently.

    I will give my best assessment of what I think he had in mind. Because Sexton finds Catholic ecclesiology to be inherently “paternalistic” and “patronizing,” he would have me stress the local church, especially the local church behind prison bars—the “incarcerated church.” He would have me begin with ethnographic work that cultivates and distributes the voices of people in prison. Behind prison walls, he would have me find the “incarcerated body of Christ,” the “redeemed prison society” that, simply by existing, stands in opposition to the death exemplified in the prison itself. The church present in the prison could then help to redeem and instruct us Christians outside of prison about how to support people in prison. This project sounds amazing and worthwhile to me; I think someone should do it. (To some degree, I think another respondent in this conversation, Joshua Dubler, has already done this project with his book, Down in the Chapel: Religious Life in an American Prison.2) Sexton seems to indicate that this project would offer much more than my book to the “lifer inmate,” “Catholic or other Christian persons in prison who will never be released,” and “those who find themselves in solitary confinement for weeks or months at a time.” I do not disagree. If asked to choose a book to give to a person in any of these circumstances, I would recommend Robert Altland’s A Path of Penance (described in Dubler’s review) or Dubler’s book before recommending my book—and I would recommend them, in part, because they seem to fit the bill of the project Sexton describes.

    While I am intrigued, even compelled, by Sexton’s suggestion, I also believe that my project in Redeeming a Prison Society has much to offer. However, I think it has much to offer to groups other than the groups lifted up by Sexton. I think the issue ultimately may be one of audience. To put the question in ecclesial and missional terms: whom am I trying to convert? When I wrote, I did not picture the lifer inmate or the person in solitary confinement as the people who would pick up my book. I reckon that I thought of these people, like the women I worked with in Georgia prisons, as my proverbial choir, already knowing the injustices of mass incarceration and the transformational vision of God’s justice better than I ever could.

    The minds I most wanted to change were those of the supposed “us”: Catholics (and other Christians) outside of prisons who see ourselves as righteous although we are sinners, who are not aware of how our criminal justice crisis is caught up with social injustice, who have been cushioned by privilege so we have been able to avoid the kind of transformation that is not optional in prison. In particular, I often thought of two specific people as my audience. One was a woman who was converting to Catholicism, who I met briefly as part of a catechism course in which I taught about Catholic moral theology. When she learned about my work on prisons, she asked, “Well, those people . . . can’t we just cut them off, like a bad toenail clipping?” That’s not an exact quote, but the phrase “bad toenail clipping” has stuck with me. The other is a woman who is a “cradle Catholic” and who will in all likelihood be a “grave Catholic” when the time comes. I have had a much longer relationship with her, in which we have had difficult conversations in which she maintains that no one in prison can or should be forgiven, that incarcerating people makes the rest of “us” safe, that people who are poor are simply lazy, and that I am no more than a naïve academic. My hope in writing was that these two Catholic women could finish the book and assent that maybe, possibly, perhaps I had a point about the problems of our prison society and why Catholics have a duty to respond in light of our complicity in this social sin. Maybe my book is not for the lifer inmate or the person in solitary confinement, but they were not necessarily the people I wanted to convince.

    Because I had a primarily Catholic audience in mind, I did not address certain questions raised by Sexton because they are fairly settled questions in a Catholic context. For example, Sexton asks for a “deeper theological rationale” for economic inclusion, involvement in political life, repairing families, and rebuilding communities. I agree that “each of these could summon explicit theological development and responses.” However, this deeper theological rationale fell outside of the scope of this book. Sexton may note that on the pages he cites in reference to his query (149–50), I appeal to “a rich heritage of [Catholic] social teaching” that addresses questions such as, “What kind of people do we want to be? What do we want our communities to be like? . . . What barriers prevent us from achieving a common good in which everyone is treated as a fully human person? If not a genuine prison society, then what type of society do we wish to create?” For Catholics, our answers to these questions are both social and ecclesial; our ecclesial lives bear implications for our social lives and vice versa. We find the rationale for these implications within the fundamental principles of Catholic social teaching, which are ultimately grounded in a theology of love of all neighbors, regardless of religious identity. For Christians who maintain different ecclesiologies, my assumptions about these issues arising from Catholic social teaching may be a barrier to accepting my arguments as truly ecumenical.

    I think that many of the points of contention between Sexton and myself are rooted in denominational, doctrinal, and ecclesial differences, which unfortunately cause us to speak past each other a bit. While I hope the book is accessible to an ecumenical audience, it is, as Sexton notes, “written by a Catholic and for Catholics.” Where it falls short for people with other Christian identities, I hope that they feel called, at least by the first chapter, to consider the resources of their own traditions and how they would formulate a theological response to mass incarceration. To respond to our criminal and social justice crises, we will need a movement that crosses denominational, doctrinal, and ecclesial lines. I have made my best argument for why Catholics should participate in it, and I leave it to Christians in other traditions to discern why they should participate as well. Some theologians have already done much of this work, including James Samuel Logan, Richard Snyder, and Mark Lewis Taylor.3 In the end, we will need to work together both outside of prison and with the incarcerated church. With a spirit of cooperation, I am grateful to Sexton for engaging in dialogue.

    1. Gaudium et Spes, para. 3–4.

    2. Joshua Dubler, Down in the Chapel: Religious Life in an American Prison (New York: Picador, 2013).

    3. James Samuel Logan, Good Punishment? Christian Moral Practice and U.S. Imprisonment (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008). T. Richard Snyder, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Punishment (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001). Mark Lewis Taylor, The Executed God: The way of the Cross in Lockdown America (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001).

    • Avatar

      Jason Sexton


      Clarifying church life: local and incarcerate

      I’m very grateful to Amy Levad not only for writing an important book but now for her careful interaction with those of us privileged to engage it in this space, including my own review. I should also note how helpful it is to have a forum like this to interact with colleagues working on critical subjects—in this case, mass incarceration—from different angles and academic disciplines, focusing on different areas of such a harrowing problem. For this we’re particularly indebted to Christian Amondson for his hard work creating Syndicate Theology and for allowing all this to happen.

      I’m especially thankful to Amy Levad for her generous response to my review, for offering me the opportunity to clarify a few points, and for taking serious stock in the Protestant evangelical free church ecclesiology from which I’m working. I’d like to begin my response here by addressing the ecclesial issues she raises in hopes of offering some nuance and clarity regarding my perspective. I do think that we are (or could be) closer ecclesiologically than she seems to think we are, and hopefully I can show this through some additional reflections.


      Church and world

      On her first question, I do indeed think the church has extraordinary wisdom to offer the world, although not a wisdom of this world. I agree with the points she makes in drawing from Gaudium et Spes. I believe the church qua church functions as the “subversive fulfillment” (Hendrick Kraemer’s term highlighting the gospel’s discontinuity with culture) of various storied governance structures within the prison. It stands as both a witness to the truth of the gospel as the ultimate hope for the world, and as a critique of these other structures within the prisons, which may run anywhere from prison gangs to the range of reform programs or the formal prison structures themselves (warden, guards, psychologists, etc.), including religious programming.

      With this, just as it is not possible for the modern state to embrace (or acknowledge) heaven, it’s not possible for the state to embrace the church or its mission. This is a fundamental problem seen with the role the late 18th and early 19th c. chaplains played in the British prisons, which merely fueled the state’s power to incarcerate—surveiller—these bodies in the first place. There is, of course, a much earlier catalyst for this incarceration impulse in the western world, but this is beyond my point. The point is that the state is not the church; the church is where one can (and must) expect true transformation to happen for individuals and communities. In other words, while the state can punish, it cannot heal. Only the work of Christ, appropriated by the Spirit in the lived community of the church can experience that.

      Further, while I hold the point tentatively since I do not have hard data on this (although would love to see a dissertation on it), I have a nagging suspicion that the development of different religious programs in the late 20th c. (e.g., Prison Fellowship Ministries, etc.) may have even contributed to the rise of mass incarceration, making it easier to lock people up, and for longer. This is not to question the sincerity of the organizations’ founders or workers, esp. since I have personally seen enough good work come from these programs and the individuals within them. Yet it seems that the emergence of groups like PFM parallels the tough-on-crime emphasis and the mass incarceration situation we find ourselves in, which Levad masterfully accounts early in her book. This is part of what fuels my concerns about different externally-engineered and foreign-imported religious programs that aim to help prisoners. In this way, I don’t see the church or its theology, whether with “medicinal forms of Penance and Reconciliation” or anything else, as providing any real or even instrumental value to the state or prison. In fact, if history has anything to say here, it’s that the state has often used religion to its own advantage, co-opting and abusing it.


      Church, locally-constituted

      To Levad’s second question, I was mainly referring to one leading Catholic theologian who I’ve been in dialogue with since 2011 about some of this, and who whenever I see her at the usual academic conferences invariably helps me work some of this out and has agreed (to my initial surprise) on the point about prison theology that it’s important to acknowledge the incarcerated church as locally constituted within the prison. My critique, then, was not of every high ecclesial tradition, and certainly not of Catholic ecclesiology writ-large! I do not at all think that Catholic ecclesiology is inherently paternalistic or patronizing necessarily, and so I want to emphatically reject the statement where Levad suggests I believe this; I do not. Yet I do think that all foreign ecclesiologies infused into the life of the prison church run the risk of infecting it with potentially malforming features not indicative of or essential to the incarcerated church’s actual life. It seems that eucharistic ecclesiologies are more often than not (perhaps Levad can clarify this point) requiring that it is an outside priest or ordained minister who the incarcerated church is dependent on for its very life. If, on the other hand, the church is locally-constituted by the Holy Spirit, which some “reformist” Catholics might be happy to see happening apart from the external work of the priest, etc., then the incarcerated church’s own life must be already understood as actually established there in that unique context, as an indigenous ecclesial community. This is something that the non-incarcerated church has been far too reticent to acknowledge.

      What I also remain deeply concerned about, and perhaps could have stated more clearly, are attempts to respond to the problem of mass incarceration whilst not allowing those most affected by it to speak—i.e., the prisoners themselves. Dubler’s work, Down in the Chapel, is massively helpful and on point, even though it lacks essential theological contours that dynamically account for prison “belief” and “practice” (these two are disconnected somewhat in Dubler’s assessment and thinking which any properly theological account would want to account for together) beyond the safe zone of the chapel life and under the watch of a visiting surveyor. Dubler might have found a much richer account of the situation in a prisoner’s account of a year in the prison, if the prisoner/s themselves were allowed (by some publisher, say) to speak and write freely and honestly, insofar as this is possible.

      The failure to recognize this point continues to, in effect, elevate the non-incarcerated church (Catholic, Protestant, whatever) to a status above the incarcerated church. And we still are not doing the best things “we can do to encourage them to find their voice and be the church in the truest sense of what that might mean within the prison communities. I think the incarcerated church, by its own subversive life and presence as church (even as a sacrament—broken for the sake of the world) can offer a much better response than any we can give.


      Hello? Is there anybody in there?

      This leads to the point of Levad’s comfortably numb audience for the book. I don’t mean to sound reckless on this point, but the elitist who writes off the prisoner like a bad toenail clipping may themselves perhaps best be written-off by those otherwise laboring to see change; such a disposition is even said to have eternal consequences (cp. Mt 25:40–46). If this is the case, then I hope and pray Levad’s campaign for her audience is successful, winning over the hearts of Catholic practitioners—her Catholic brothers and sisters—that they might become more inclined to pray and care for prisoners in better ways, or to care for them (episkeptomai) at all. This would be great, and makes Levad’s project massively significant if for no other reason. But then what? I reckon there are a lot of different people who will pick up Levad’s book expecting to find a helpful response to mass incarceration—prisoners or families affected by incarcerated loved ones. Because of the timing of the book, many actual prisoners (who do often obtain books and read them) will pick up this book looking for resources and unfortunately will not find the liturgical and sacramental resources available to them in the same way that they appear to be available to those outside. I don’t want to belabor this point because it really is not Levad’s aim for the book to speak to prisoners. And I think she has understood this part of my critique. But why not? There certainly are Catholics in the prison who are longing to respond to the wider social issues and can probably do it better than we can out here, who hate themselves (who kill themselves), and are disillusioned. They know exactly where it hurts, as it were. Addressing the issues of social injustice, then, which Levad is committed to, must also address the issues (including drug abuse, etc.) still ongoing in the prisoners’ lives whilst they’re incarcerated. Especially if they are Christians who profess faith, they desperately need serious resources, far more than the folks outside who have written them off. They need the kind of resources to realize the transformation that will be real and lasting, and within the prisons.

      Yet some so-called resources, as in the case of many prison ministries, and I think prison seminaries(!), being set forth with sincere desire to help often make the incarceration just that much easier for everyone, making it easier to lock more people up. All the while, professional seminary professors or professional clergy shaped in the arms of their own institutions and traditions (which are not necessarily the prisoners’ . . .) are being imported into the life and consciousness of the incarcerated church. By inserting any foreign ecclesial structures (even with the best efforts), which I deem paternalistic and patronizing, I think they simply are not producing the kind of good they mean to deliver. For Levad to have acknowledged that an incarcerated Catholic might have picked up her book to develop his/her own response to the wider situation may have slightly altered the voice of the book, but not the content. Indeed, it may have expanded her audience and empowered some incarcerated Catholics with resources they have at their disposal (perhaps this is for the revised version of Levad’s book!). After all, where else do people find the kind of creative space to interpret the whole world and its history, as well as ecclesial, social, and cultural developments, than in the prison? This is what Bonhoeffer did in the Nazi prison, recasting and reinterpreting the entire world, church, religion, etc.; and it’s been the story of many others.

      I think also that acknowledging more explicitly that there is a church within the prison provides potentially significant ground for further ecumenical dialogue, since the indigenous church in the prison has not experienced the debates and controversies that the eastern and western churches have. In this sense, the prison church may very well be potentially more pure by its very nature. And many of the doctrinal debates that we’ve had (between Catholics and Protestants, say) may simply serve as unhelpful impositions, aside from what they may learn from our major debates and doctrinal development.

      So stated positively, my position really is a desire to see those most affected by mass incarceration resourced with Levad’s proposal (esp. for Catholics) and others like it. Unlike Soltis (and I imagine, Dubler), I do not think there is that much of a problem with a supposed chasm between Levad’s theory and the actual situation, or between aspirational hope and reality. I am, after all, a theologian and so am committed not only to the speculative work of theological reflection but also to drawing richly from the tradition for a framework to think into as we seek to live faithfully in light of our confession of the hope of the gospel message of divine reconciliation through Christ. Incidentally, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, himself a prisoner, also worked out an aspirational theory that connected with practice, declaring that Christian witness in the present age as limited to prayer and good works (see Letters and Papers from Prison, DBW vol. 8, [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010] 390).

      I find the strength of Levad’s proposal, which may benefit the incarcerated and non-incarcerated alike, showing how to draw from one’s theological tradition to robustly respond to mass incarceration today. This is perhaps where this book may also stand the test of time as a serious Catholic response to the issue of mass incarceration. It would be wonderful if in the next five years we saw Methodist, Lutheran, Reformed, Orthodox, and other responses to mass incarceration in ways Levad has shown is possible. Perhaps some of these may even be efforts by current prisoners that may reach an ordinary readership as well as their fellow inmates. We need all the help we can get to reverse the situation we find ourselves in as a prison society. And Levad had given a substantial effort at doing just that, for which I and many others (esp. who are in the pipeline to prison) should hopefully, or at least one day, be grateful for, even as we re-focus our attention not merely on the structure of the prison situation itself, but also those caught up in it—especially the incarcerated redeemed.



Is Reform Enough?

The Limits and Possibilities of Eucharistic Theology

While we may always need prisons on this side of God’s reign in fullness, our use of prisons could be reformed to minimize the harm they cause both to the imprisoned and to those of us who are ultimately harmed by the loss of full relationship with all of our neighbors.
—Amy Levad, Redeeming a Prison Society
One should recall that the movement for reforming the prisons, for controlling their functioning, is not a recent phenomenon. It does not even seem to have originated in a recognition of failure. Prison “reform” is virtually contemporary with the prison itself: it constitutes, as it were, its programme.
—Michel Foucault, Discipline & Punish
Forget about reform; it’s time to talk about abolishing jails and prisons in American society . . . Still—abolition? Where do you put the prisoners? The “criminals”? What’s the alternative? First, having no alternative at all would create less crime than the present criminal training centers do. Second, the only full alternative is building the kind of society that doesn’t need prisons . . . a decent sense of community that can support, reintegrate, and truly rehabilitate those who suddenly become filled with fury or despair, and that can face themselves not as objects—“criminals”—but as people who have committed illegal acts, as have almost all of us.
—Arthur Waskow, Institute for Policy Studies


I MUST ADMIT, I struggled with this book. Though when I thought about it, I realized that such a struggle was inevitable. To be a bit hyperbolic about it, my engagement with Redeeming a Prison Society was doomed from the start for a number of reasons, some of them being:

  • I am not Catholic. While there are undoubtedly important ecumenical implications of Levad’s argument, the book is definitely directed to a Catholic audience, and rooted in Catholic theology.
  • While, despite not being Catholic, there is much in Catholic theology that aligns with my own theological presuppositions and frameworks (i.e., various aspects of Catholic social teaching, Trinitarian theology, etc.), and though I share Catholic theology’s strong emphasis on the Eucharist and its theological significance, the ways in which the Eucharist functions in my theology differs quite significantly. Not only does my understanding of sacraments in general, and of the table in particular, differ, but my assumptions about what the Eucharist does—and, rather, does not do—is markedly more cautious. While this seems to be more of a methodological and practical/ethical matter than a doctrinal one per say, it nevertheless deeply forms and impacts the shape of my own theological arguments, as well as shapes how I engage with others’. Put bluntly, I have a visceral (negative) reaction to theological arguments that use the Eucharist as an answer to social problems. I’ll say quite a bit more about this later.
  • Finally, perhaps the biggest underlying cause of my unexpected struggling with this text is that it was precisely that—unexpected. I had high expectations for this book, and high expectations rarely, if ever, are fulfilled, especially in scholarship, where critique is ingrained into our education and demanded of our reading practices.

Perhaps the best way to begin, then, is to give an account for these expectations by giving a little bit of context. Just as Levad begins Redeeming a Prison Society by explaining her own interest in the work, I too want to explain a little bit about mine, which will also begin to explain some of my unmet expectations.

I read this book with one of my best friends and housemate, Kayla, in mind. While I am not Catholic, Kayla is. Moreover, she happens to be the person that initially got me interested in and involved with prison advocacy work and theological engagement of such. After finishing her MDiv, Kayla began a CPE residency at Edwin, a maximum-security prison in Tennessee.1 From the beginning, Kayla fell in love with the work, and at the same time was quickly exposed to the deep injustices and painful realities of mass incarceration. I started getting involved at Edwin because a) Kayla was looking for more volunteers and I wanted to help, b) I was curious about and intrigued by the kind of work she was doing and wanted to learn more about it, not to mention that I wanted to put faces with all the names and stories that Kayla would tell me about, and c) to be completely honest, some part of me thought that working at a prison would give me some kind of theological street cred.

While getting involved definitely fostered my own interest in prison advocacy, it’s nearly impossible to disconnect my connection to the work from my friendship with Kayla. This is, in part, because in the midst of falling in love with the work, Kayla ended up also falling in love with one of the people she worked with. An insider. Or, in more common parlance, an inmate. A “criminal.”

Kayla was quite fastidious about boundaries in her work—given not only the delicate nature of the work and the ethics involved therein, but also because the work kept her very, very busy. Unsurprisingly, given the nature of the work, and especially her gifts for ministry, insiders would frequently ask to correspond with her to become “pen pals.” She would always politely decline, and connect them with volunteers who they could be pen pals with, who could have the kind of theological conversations and friendship that she couldn’t give them at that moment. Kayla eventually left her job at Edwin to take a position that let her do the same kind of work that she loved but in a different capacity (she now does more direct advocacy work, investigating capital [read: death row] cases). These requests for correspondence not only continued but became more common after she left Edwin—it made sense, people missed her and the work she did. She had been gone from Edwin for awhile, not even having time to serve as a volunteer anymore, when she got yet another request, the first one she ever said yes to. This one was from Chris, an insider she had previously had some deep and complex theological conversations with—conversations that had always challenged her and made her think. Surprisingly, on a whim, she agreed, and they began to write occasionally. Eventually, those letters turned into phone calls, and her and Chris found themselves becoming friends. It was somewhere along the way, long after, that she realized she was actually falling in love with him. He happened to be having the same realization at around the same time. While the details of their story are not mine to tell, nor do I have the space here to give it any kind of justice (um, pun kind of intended?), Kayla and Chris eventually began to date, “long distance” so to speak, and are now engaged.

I share all of that (with Kayla and Chris’ permission, of course) as a long introduction to explain 1) why this stuff matters to me in ways I never expected it would (because Kayla is family to me, and so now, Chris is family to me too); 2) why I had such high expectations for Levad’s text; and 3) as a way to try to begin to contextualize what specifically I struggled with in reading Levad, which is that I read her argument as simultaneously (and paradoxically) giving too much power, and at the same time not giving enough power, to the Eucharist and, subsequently, to sacramental and liturgical theology/ethics.

Before I get to the specifics of what I struggled with, there was a great deal that I appreciated about Redeeming a Prison Society. First and foremost, there’s the fact that this book exists at all, which is unfortunately more significant than it sounds or even should be. As Levad points out, theological responses to the vast and significant crisis of mass incarceration have been sparse, to say the least. This is even more so the case when Levad looks at the response of her faith tradition, Catholicism, in particular. Moreover, when there have been theological engagements, Levad points out how they have failed to take the broader systemic issues into account. Redeeming a Prison Society, then, is a great gift: Levad not only draws attention to the subject, but does the important work of contextualizing it—in relation to the broader crisis of criminal and social justice, in relation to her own faith tradition, even in relation to her own experiences. One of my own theological convictions is summed up quite well in Kwok Pui Lan’s assertion in her essay “Theology and Social Theory” that “we must see theology and politics not as two separate spheres, but as necessarily interacting with one another. The issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, and colonialism are not added on or tangential to theology, as if they can be separated from discourses on God, Christology, ecclesiology, etc. Every discussion about God is also a discussion about power, about human relations, about sexuality, about our being in the world.”2 Or, as others have put it more bluntly, all theology is contextual.3 In this book, Levad expresses this reality, and for that alone, it is a deeply important and worthwhile text.

At the crux of Levad’s argument is the sacrament of the Eucharist (along with Penance and Reconciliation, but even that is rooted in a theology of the Eucharist)—that “the liturgy of the sacraments draws us more deeply into the world in anticipation of the ultimate mystery of God’s reign in which life, freedom, justice, love, and peace fully take hold in our existence” (5). As I noted above, this was one of the things that caused me to struggle with her book. Why? In short, because I have seen the sacrament of the Eucharist used as a sort of get-out-of-jail-free card (pun kind of intended again), as an action that absolves those who participate from doing further work on whatever social issue the sacrament is applied to in said situation—in this instance, the problem of mass incarceration and the injustices of the prison industrial complex.4 This is something that Levad seems to acknowledge herself, as she suggests that “our ritual lives in church communities ought to shape Christians toward the justice disclosed in the vision of God’s reign conveyed in worship” (5, emphasis mine). Yet, as Rachelle Brown Green aptly notes in her review of the text, “While [Levad] admits that there are injustices inherent to the practices of the Church that have historically prohibited [the transformation of Christians to live lives of justice] from occurring, she does not place enough emphasis on this dilemma. . . . If the Church cannot learn to act with justice within its own walls, can the practices of the church necessarily bring about the transformation for which Levad is calling?”5 Or, to put it another way, Levad doesn’t give justice to the reality that there are many of us who have been more hurt than helped by the church, often in the name of the church fulfilling it’s mission.

While I agree with Green that this is “the single most threatening aspect to her plan,” and that it demands more time and attention then Levad give it, as I continued to reflect on the text, I wondered if my frustration was more of a semantic one. If Levad is suggesting that the Eucharist somehow in and of itself does the work of transforming the injustices of the prison industrial complex, then I think it has serious limitations. However, Levad seems to instead use liturgy and the sacraments as theological resources for why we should care about the injustices of mass incarceration. Her assertion that “sacramental and liturgical ethics provide theological support for reforms of our criminal justice systems based in restorative justice,” well, I’m down with that (116)! Thus, the semantic frustration—I read this text not as a response to mass incarceration, but as a theological argument against it.

And therein lies the other side of my argument—I don’t think Levad goes far enough. To finally turn to the theme indicated by the epigraphs to this essay, Levad speaks to the need for prison reform, but is reform sufficient? In grounding her argument in the Eucharist, Levad speaks at length about how the sacraments “form who we are” (79), specifically about how the Eucharist, as a “real encounter with the Saving Lord and a central Catholic sign of justice and peace,” provides a moral vision for our lives6 (93). This moral vision “fosters visions of God’s justice,” and should make us aware of the injustices in our own communities and inspire us to “work for redemption, healing, and inclusion of all people” (97). Given her theological convictions about the Eucharist and it’s role in promoting justice, inclusivity, and grace, alongside her recognition of the injustices of the prison system, why then stop at reform? Levad even raises concerns about Andrew Skotnicki’s call for “better” prisons, suggesting that not attending to broader systemic social justices matters misses the point. And yet, she never even hints at the notion of prison abolition, and speaks only to the possibility of reform.

If, as Levad suggests, the Eucharist is such a “motivational force” to seek social justice, if it signifies the transformative justice and grace of God’s work in the world, does reform do enough? (96). If so, Levad doesn’t exactly indicate how reform functions as such, or what said reforms should look like.

As Foucault notes in Discipline and Punish, the idea of prison reform is embedded within the very idea of prisons themselves, evidence of the reality that prison is not only a form of punishment, but a disciplinary apparatus functioning to produce a particular type of identity, to produce docile bodies.7 Thus, though Levad speaks to the injustice of the system, in some ways she seemed to inadvertently perpetuate its existence—not only through limiting a response to the injustice through the language of reform, but also through the assumptions made—or, rather, not left unchallenged—about those who are incarcerated. While she repeatedly calls our attention to the injustices that contribute to and sustain mass incarceration, that create “criminals” that turn into prisoners, Levad nevertheless assumes the creation of something called a criminal, and in doing so reproduces an “us vs. them” logic that exacerbates the very problem she is trying to remedy.8 Within a Foucauldian framework, this view of the prisoner as the other—or, as he would put it, the move from the offender to the delinquent—is concomitant with the notion of reform as reification of the system: they are mutually constitutive, they operate with a circular logic.9 Renowned scholar and political activist Angela Davis points to this reality. She explains, “We take prisons for granted but are often unable to face the realities they produce. . . . We thus think about imprisonment as a fate reserved for others, a fate reserved for the ‘evildoers’ . . . The prison therefore functions ideologically as an abstract site into which undesirables are deposited, relieving us of the responsibility of thinking about the real issues afflicting those communities from which prisoners are drawn in such disproportionate numbers.”10 While this text does not make any effort at absolving us of responsibility—to the contrary, the text calls us to action—her un-interrogated assumptions about subjectivity and criminality do seem to do this to some extent, undermining her broader argument for social justice.

Finally, Levad seems to gesture towards something more than just reform, in the theological imagination she calls forth with the sacrament of the Eucharist and it’s function as “characterizing activity” and as “countersign”11 (84). The sacrament of the Eucharist, she argues, discloses “the in-breaking of God’s reign” (98). Is the in-breaking of God’s reign a shift in the current order of things, or is it, as womanist ethicist Emilie Townes puts it, “a new heaven and a new earth. One in which the dominant norms are challenged and debunked. One in which a new reality and project for full humanness emerge.”12 This moral vision seems to have far more deep resonances with abolition then with reform. In their essay in the excellent volume Captive Genders, Morgan Bassichis, Alexander Lee, and Dean Spade describe prison abolition as “not just about closing the doors to violent institutions, but also about building up and recovering institutions and practices and relationships that nurture wholeness, self-determination and transformation. Abolition is not some distant future but something we create in every moment when we say no to the traps of empire and yes to the nourishing possibilities dreamed of and practiced by our ancestors and friends. Every time we insist on accessible and affirming healthcare, safe and quality education, meaningful and secure employment, loving and healing relationships, and being our full and whole selves, we are doing abolition. Abolition is about breaking down things that oppress and building up things that nourish. Abolition is the practice of transformation in the here and now and the ever after. . . . To claim our legacy of beautiful impossibility is to begin practicing ways of being with one another and making movement that sustain all life on this planet, without exception. It is to begin speaking what we have not yet had the words to wish for.”13 Is this not precisely what the Eucharist signifies and calls us toward?

In summary, Levad’s argument that the Eucharist provides a compelling theological resource for a moral vision and response to the injustice of mass incarceration is a profound and important one; so much so that I can’t help but think that it is even more transformative and radical then she suggests, that it calls for and engenders not just reform but for something apocalyptic. In Notebook of a Return to my Native Land, the revolutionary intellectual, poet, and politician Aimé Césaire reflects poetically on the identity of black Africans in the midst of colonialism. He writes:

this attitude, this behavior, this shackled life caught in the noose of shame

and disaster rebels, hates itself, struggles, howls, and, my God, others ask:

“What can you do about it?”

“Start something!”

“Start what?”

“The only thing in the world that’s worth the effort of starting: The end of the world, by God.14


Perhaps this is precisely what the Eucharist calls for, and calls forth, in our response to the injustices of the prison industrial complex.

  1. The names of some identifying details have been changed.

  2. Kwok Pui- Lan, “Theology and Social Theory.” In An Eerdmans Reader in Contemporary Political Theology. Edited by William T. Cavanaugh and Jeffrey W. Bailey (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2012), 615.

  3. Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology, 3rd edition. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2014), 197.

  4. Levad herself references many of the texts I had in mind in this regard, most notably William Cavanaugh’s Torture and Eucharist and Geoffrey Wainwright’s “Eucharist and/as Ethics.” See Levad, Redeeming a Prison Society, 93, fn45.

  5. Rachelle Brown Green, “Review: Redeeming a Prison Society.Practical Matters 7 (2014), 117.

  6. Levad is quoting the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ document Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration here. See 93, fn43.

  7. See Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, Translated by Alan Sheridan (New York: Random House, 1995), 231–56.

  8. This was, I think, exacerbated by the lack of voices from those inside prisons themselves. Moreover, while it was laudable for Levad to begin the text by situating her own relation to mass incarceration as a loved one to someone incarcerated, the way she frames her own context runs the risk of reifying such “othering” that I suggest she fails to combat.

  9. Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 251.

  10. Angela Y. Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? (Toronto: Publishers Group Canada, 2003), 16.

  11. Fn 15; 189, fn 75 (referencing Don Saliers and Shaun Copeland respectively).

  12. Emilie M. Townes, In a Blaze of Glory: Womanist Spirituality as Social Witness (Nashville: Abington Press, 1995) 122.

  13. Morgan Bassichis, Alexander Lee, and Dean Spade, “Building an Abolitionist Trans & Queer Movement with Everything We’ve Got,” in Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex. Edited by Eric A. Stanely and Nat Smith (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2011) 36–37.

  14. Aimé Césaire, Notebook of a Return to my Native Land. Translated by Clayton Eshleman. (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2001) 56.

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    Amy Levad


    In Response to Brandy Daniels

    As I read Brandy Daniels’s response to my book, I see two main points of criticism. The first is easily handled. Daniels worries that I may be arguing that “the Eucharist somehow in and of itself does the work of transforming injustices of the prison industrial complex.” This interpretation of my text is inaccurate, which is apparent in my inclusion in Redeeming a Prison Society of numerous, specific, and practical courses of action that need to be taken by Catholics and our Christian brothers and sisters away from the eucharistic table to transform these injustices. I believe that Catholics can be inspired by their participation in the Eucharist and can be drawn into these courses of action by the moral vision found within liturgy and the sacraments. But the Eucharist is not magic; Catholics actually need to do things to change our world. Daniels suggests an alternative reading of my book with which she would agree: “Levad seems to instead use liturgy and the sacraments as theological resources for why we should care about the injustices of mass incarceration.” This summary better encapsulates my argument than the summary quoted above, so I believe that Daniels and I could agree thus far. Or, as she writes, she is “down with that!”

    My response to the second criticism is more complex. In short, Daniels is disappointed that I am not a prison abolitionist and that I “stop at reform” in my response to mass incarceration. She admits that “Levad seems to gesture towards something more than just reform” (emphasis mine), but then calls me to task (drawing on the words of Bassichis, Lee, and Spade) to work for prison abolition through working for social justice.

    I do not want to be flippant in my response, but it seems to me that this criticism is based on an incomplete reading of Redeeming a Prison Society. While I advocate for criminal justice reform—including closing most prisons and releasing most prisoners1—I always situate the call for reform within a broader call for social justice. As I note about chapter 4, “A Model for Criminal Justice Reform,” “Standing alone, the argument of this chapter does not meet the criteria of an adequate response to our criminal and social justice crises because it focuses only on criminal justice reform” (7). I reiterate this caution at the opening and closing of the fourth chapter and at the opening of the fifth chapter.2

    Chapter 5, “A Movement for Justice,” then provides detailed discussion of the demand to work for social justice rooted in the moral vision of the Eucharist and delineates actions by which we can “insist on accessible and affirming healthcare, safe and quality education, meaningful and secure employment, loving and healing relationships, and being our full and whole selves” (to quote Daniels’s excerpt from Bassichis, Lee, and Spade). These courses of action include the work of organizations such as the Harlem Children’s Zone, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Children’s Defense Fund, and Healing Communities as well as campaigns to “Ban the Box” on employment applications, to end prison-based gerrymandering and restore voting rights to people with criminal records, and to reform policing practices in communities affected by concentrated incarceration. I go on to call for a multi-racial, cross-class, interreligious movement to dismantle mass incarceration.3 If insisting on the transformation of our communities and society along the lines described by Bassichis, Lee, and Spade is “doing abolition,” then I am uncertain why the argument of the book as a whole falls short for Daniels. She also indicates that I am naïve about the historical failures of prison reform. However, the core of my argument against Andrew Skotnicki in chapter 2 is based upon my recognition of these failures, which is one reason why I do not “stop at reform” (67–77).

    Perhaps the book is ultimately disappointing to Daniels because I never use the words “prison abolition.” I stand guilty as charged on this point, and it may have been useful in the book to state why I avoid this language. Allow me to do so now.

    I have found the phrase “prison abolition” to be murky, requiring a great deal of explanation with relatively little pay off, despite the seeming power of the rhetoric. People who use the phrase often mean different things by it. Some argue for complete abolition (I think Daniels may be among this group, although I am not certain). Others argue for the closing of prisons, although not all prisons—but at a minimum enough prisons to bring our incarcerated populations in line with similar industrialized democracies or in line with historical rates prior to the 1970s. Another group, which overlaps with both of the two previous groups, calls for a moratorium on prison building. When I have encountered people using the phrase “prison abolition,” we often have to stop to ask, “What do you mean by prison abolition?”

    I also believe that the term can be alienating when trying to build coalitions to dismantle mass incarceration. Despite the various definitions of “prison abolition,” most people who hear the phrase for the first time assume that it means “close all the prisons,” and frankly, they think that is a crazy idea and stop listening (this issue relates to the question of audience for Redeeming a Prison Society, a question that I took up in response to Jason Sexton). Among many people who have worked and practiced discourse on issues related to mass incarceration for a long time and who perhaps ascribe to the latter two senses of “prison abolition,” clarifying that we do not necessarily mean “close all the prisons” can lead potential allies who do mean “close all the prisons” to peg us as moderates who ask the oppressed to “wait for a ‘more convenient season’” (to quote Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail). Are people who want to close most of the prisons guilty of “lukewarm acceptance” of the call for justice? Are we preferring an order that is actually a “negative peace” absent of justice? Are we paternalistically setting “the timetable for [others’] freedom”? I do not necessarily think so, but determining whether we are guilty of these charges requires examining our work in writing and advocacy in more detail to determine the quality of our calls for justice. I have seen the language of “prison abolition” build walls between potential allies from across the political spectrum, and if we are going to dismantle mass incarceration, we are going to need all of the allies that we can get. I am more interested in actually building the multi-racial, cross-class, and interreligious coalitions that we will need to get people out of prison than I am in using the phrase “prison abolition.”

    I suspect that Daniels might ask, “But why do you not want to close all the prisons?” A fair question. In addition to criticizing moderates whose reticence is “much more bewildering than outright rejection,” King draws upon Catholic tradition, specifically Thomas Aquinas, to distinguish between just and unjust laws, and he writes, “One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws.” Just laws “uplift human personality” and “square with the moral law or law of God.” Unjust laws degrade human beings, enforcing the will of people in positions of power against the well being of people who are marginalized and oppressed. King also writes that a law that is just on its face may be unjust in its application, and that one may have a duty in conscience to break an unjust law “openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.”

    While mass incarceration emerged from the establishment of many unjust laws, such as the sentencing differential between crack and powder cocaine, and many seemingly just laws that were unjust in their application, such as determinate sentencing policies, I concur with King and Aquinas that just laws applied justly must be upheld. Also, some people violate just laws not because they “suddenly become filled with fury or despair” as the epigraph from Arthur Waskow would have it, but because they disregard the good of the other and of the community. Some people who violate just laws refuse to accept responsibility for the harm that they cause others. Some people also would continue willfully to violate just laws and harm others if not restrained in some way. I am hesitant to employ scare quotes around the word criminal in describing their behavior, as if mass incarceration or social injustice or even I (simply by naming them) created them. Some people rape, abuse, and murder others for the sake of raping, abusing, and murdering. The cradle-to-prison pipeline does create “criminals,” but not everyone who commits criminal acts was created by this pipeline. I appreciate Foucauldian analysis of our criminal justice systems, but where it denies that some people really do commit crimes; really do victimize others; really do murder, abuse, and rape; and really do need to be made “docile” (for lack of a better word, using Daniels’s term), even against their wills, I find it lacking.

    According to Daniels, in naming the fact that some people willfully commit crime, harm others, and would continue to do so if not restrained, I am risking maintaining an “‘us vs. them’ logic that exacerbates the very problem [I am] trying to remedy.” Jason Sexton might say that I am being “patronizing” or “paternalistic.” However, I wonder whether people who are committing such grievous offenses are not the ones who are alienating themselves from others; conviction and sentence merely name the reality of their blameworthiness and of their rejection of right relationship. (As I say this, I want to stress that the majority of people in prison under the conditions of mass incarceration indeed have been made “criminals” by these systems; in this paragraph, I am writing only of a relatively small number of people in prison who need to be incarcerated for the purposes of public safety.) While recognizing the real criminality of some people, however, I also want to preserve the reality that the image of God borne by human beings is inalienable and that we all bear the marks of sin. God invites all of us to redemption, including people who have committed the gravest offenses. This side of God’s reign, I do not see how we will not continue to need prisons, but we must also recognize that our continued need for prisons is a tragic failure on the part of our communities and society in creating the circumstances for social reintegration and internal reform of people who would continue to cause great harm.

    To say that prisons are still necessary to a limited degree is not to say that prisons are good. Also, to say that some people may need to be incarcerated is not to say that everyone who is in prison ought to be there or that even those who may need to be incarcerated for now will always need to be incarcerated. While we should work toward shutting down most prisons and releasing most prisoners, we cannot turn our backs on those people who must be incarcerated, at least for a time, because of the danger they present to others. In Redeeming a Prison Society, I discuss how prisons must change (138–44). I also highly recommend Kathryn Getek Soltis’s dissertation on how to reform prisons so that they can better lead people who have rejected the good of others and of the community to the recognition and service of the common good.4 I discuss her dissertation as well within my text (53–56).

    I hope that this response clarifies my avoidance of the phrase “prison abolition” as well as why I do not believe that we can simply eliminate prisons, while also illuminating the ways in which I go beyond a mere gesture towards something more than mere prison reform in Redeeming a Prison Society. I thank Daniels for her response and for the opportunity to clarify my stance on these important issues.

    1. Redeeming a Prison Society, especially pages 135–38 and 144–46 on concrete strategies for downscaling prison populations.

    2. Ibid., 112, 146, and 149.

    3. Ibid., 182–86, 190–95.

    4. Kathryn Getek Soltis, “Just Punishment? A Virtue Ethics Approach to Prison Reform in the United States,” (Ph.D. diss., Boston College, 2010).

    • Avatar

      Brandy Daniels


      On Unintentional Conseqences

      I want to start off responding to your response, Professor Levad, with a thank you. As I read through earlier symposia engagements with your work, and the conversations that have ensued as a result, and then read over my engagement, I realized that I sounded a little more . . . critical . . . then I intended to. While the content of many of my critiques still stand, I nevertheless find your work to be incredibly important, theologically astute, and thoughtful, to say the least (and your responses to the engagements with your work to be all of those things as well)—so, thank you for the important work you are doing and have done, and my apologies for not being as forthright about that in my engagement. With that in mind, I would love to respond to your response . . . (And I’m going to switch to third person now, since that just seems easier to both write and read . . .)

      Regarding Levad’s first point, where she addresses my worry and notes that “the Eucharist is not magic; Catholics actually need to do things to change our world.” To that, there is nothing really more to say other then amen—or, just to reiterate what I’ve already said, which Levad has also already referenced, then, yes, I’m down with that.

      To turn then to Levad’s response to my criticism regarding the language of reform (vs. abolition). Yes, I think Levad is right to call my critique of her account of reform into question/to see it as an incomplete reading. I wonder if, in my engagement, I did a poor job at highlighting the emphasis or subtly of both of the concerns I was trying to raise. (and by wonder if, what I really mean is, I think that I did do a poor job at articulating my concern and the particularities emphasis of language-power in said concern.) While I noted that at least my first concern was a semantic one, what I didn’t attend to really was the broader questions/concerns I have about how language functions performatively and productively . . . which is to say, my concerns about the role of the Eucharist and the language of abolition vs. reform are not so much substantive concerns in terms of the theological/doctrinal/ethical rationale or response that Levad utilizes and calls for, but rather is my concern about whether the language Levad at times employs works against precisely what she seems to be calling for.

      On one level, I could turn here to conversations/debates/reflections on different methodological approaches to social change, as it seems as though one of the potential points of divergence—or, rather, points where we might diverge: Levad favoring a more incrementalist or rationalist approach, whereas I’m seeming to favor a more radical, revolutionist or separatist approach.1 Though that’s not where I want to go in this response, in large part because I don’t think the different accounts of social change are all that easily heuristically and theoretically mappable. There are just too many overlapping factors at play for clear approaches to be easily delineated and defined—from how one thinks about human nature psychologically and theologically, to how one understands and conceives of time and space, to how one organizes and conceptualizes community and sociality, to what one might envision as the goal of said change, etc . . . etc . . . etc . . . Not to mention that this only exacerbates the semantic concerns I’ve brought up—I mean, what counts as a “liberationist” approach? Who defines liberation and what it entails? Is language of reform necessarily incommensurate with language of revolution or even abolition? I think these were some of the distinctions that Levad was calling into question when she (quite fairly!) questions (what she interpreted as) the accuracy/incompleteness of my reading of her project/aims. While I think reflecting upon different theoretical frameworks of change and the assumptions they hold and invariably reproduce is incredibly important—God knows it’s been, and continues to be, a major topic of conversation and debate in feminist and queer theory—I also don’t want to “go there” here because I’m not sure if my approach would actually differ all that much from Levad’s. This, on the one hand, again comes back to the question of semantics (is what she’s calling reform what I mean by abolition, etc…), and on the other hand, reflects my own ambivalence and as-of-this-moment-agnosticism, or at the very least eclecticism regarding social change; which is to say, I’m not yet convinced that there is one clear approach to social change that works best or most effectively, but instead think there’s room for a variety of different approaches and strategies, in terms of how we think about the prison industrial complex/criminal justice system/the social injustices that sustain and perpetuate said systems, as well as about how we think about any number of societal and cultural and institutional injustices and ills . . . .

      Instead, then, what I’m interested in dialoging more about is how language functions to produce and shape subjects. In her response to my engagement, Levad notes that “If insisting on the transformation of our communities and society along the lines describes by Bassichis, Lee, and Spade is ‘doing abolition’ then I am uncertain why the argument of the book as a whole falls short for Daniels.” I would respond to such uncertainty by saying that such confusion is certainly fair, and that, within this frame, the argument of the book as a whole does not fall short by any means! Moreover, at least on some level, I understand the concern with the murkiness of the phrase “prison abolition” and the desire not to be “alienating” and close off folks to pursuing work that actually, at least according to some definitions, is that very work of “prison abolition.” And, though she may find it surprising to hear (it appears I came across as quite the gung-ho abolitionist in the most extreme sense of the term), I’d even agree with Levad’s argument that there are in fact instances where individuals may need to be incarcerated for the purposes of public safety, though that begs the further questions of 1) what kind of system would function best/most justly/least oppressively in said rare circumstantial needs for incarceration (the Scandanavian prison system, for instance, comes to mind…), and 2) it calls for further reflection on the purpose of prison, and, concomitantly, what reform might call for/entail (i.e. how to think restorative justice and rehabilitation in light of the realities of serious, serial offenders—what Levad refers to as the “real criminality of some people”).

      Here’s the rub for me, though (finally, after many digressions!)—given the realities of the prison industrial complex in the U.S., a system that Levad details the injustices of in great detail, and given the realities of common perceptions of “criminals,” especially, sad as it is to say, amongst Christians (a point Levad also acknowledges and is seeking to remedy!), I can’t help but wonder how the language of moderateness and reform, the often quite subtle “us and them” logic, bolsters the undergirding logic that is foundational for the system as it currently is. I can’t help but wonder about the ways in which we seek to tread carefully and slowly in order to prevent rather then to “build walls between potential allies from across the political spectrum,” that if in doing so, we’re creating far subtler but sturdier interior, psychic “walls” through our discourse and the practices that accompany them, walls that become that much harder to tear down. In our efforts to be cautious in our language, in order to be politically efficacious (which are undeniably understandable and worthy aims!) do we, in fact, end up creating and producing docility to the system not (just) amongst the insiders (read: inmates, the incarcerated, the criminals) but in and as a part of our own selves? As Foucault puts it—in Discipline and Punish, his book that is precisely about prisons and punishment, about the panopticon’s gaze and the production of the docile body—“the soul is the prison of the body.”2 For Foucault, this interiorized self is not a given, but rather something that has been and continuously is constructed by and through language and practices, and the means and mechanisms through which power functions.

      The fact that Foucault charts the genealogy of these “pastoral” and disciplinary techniques of power through by which “human beings are made subjects” as stemming from the Christian practice of confession simply makes this concern all the more salient for me, not to mention somewhat chilling.3

      My intent in rehashing that little bit of Foucault wasn’t to start travelling down the Foucauldian rabbit hole into reflecting about various techniques and regimes of power and subjectivity and all that. Rather, I was thinking about Levad’s comment where she explains: “I appreciate the Foucauldian analysis of our criminal justice systems, but where it denies that some people really do commit crimes; really do victimize others; really do murder, abuse, and rape; and really do need to be made ‘docile’ (for lack of a better word, using Daniels’s term), even against their wills, I find it lacking.” While I’ve already talked above about how I am not against the need for incarceration in some circumstances, what struck me about Levad’s comment was where the emphasis was placed. Is it that some people “really do need to be made ‘docile,’” or, rather, is it that far, far too many of us, especially us “on the outside,” have already been made docile by and towards the system—to the prison system and to the racial, economic, and other social inequalities and injustices that perpetuate it? We’ve been constructed as subjects that see other, particular subjects, as criminals and construct them as such, which in turn contributes to their construction of themselves as such, by way of recognition and interpellation etc . . .4

      Now, luckily, while some read Foucault’s account of these incredibly pervasive, self-constituting effects of power as nihilistic and thus quite depressing/hopeless, Foucault himself doesn’t seem to think so—rather, I read him as simply taking the realities of power, the realities of formation, very, very seriously. But not nihilistically, because, as Foucault puts it, “there is no relationship of power without the means of escape or possible flight.”5 For Foucault, one of the (primary? key?) ways of resisting this power is “not to discover what we are to refuse what we are.”6 Or, as he puts it in Archaeology of Knowledge, in what is one of my favorite—perhaps my most favorite—of all his ‘money quotes, as I call them: “Do not ask me who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order. At least spare us their morality when we write.”7 This, for me, is also extraordinarily theological, in thinking about the ways in which our identities are changed and formed in and through Christ—through his work, his identity, and our participation in that in and by the Spirit—and how that frees us. Or, as Karl Barth puts it, “as participators in this possibility, we are a riddle to ourselves.”8

      So—and forgive me for sounding preachy here (which truly is not my style)—but, in being cautious in how we think and talk about change (whether it is changing the prison system or the realities that create it and many other injustices along with it), might we risk stifling the work of the Spirit? Or miss opportunities to recognize it? Again, this is not an argument against Levad’s project or aims, not in the least! Rather, I just wanted to press a bit more into what lies behind my concerns about language and its effects. In many ways, I think Levad’s project is incredibly Foucauldian, as she’s calling attention to how practices shape us and how the practices of Eucharist and Penance/Reconciliaton can (re-)shape us towards prison reform and social justice. I just continue to have concerns/questions about how we speak to, alongside, and about that work and the various folks involved in the system (ourselves included)—because I think that Foucault’s right when he says that, “when we speak, whole worlds are spun.”9

      1. A brief aside: in trying to find some sort of heuristic on the various theories of/approaches to social change, I ended up stumbling across a whole slew of resources on how to statistically code and analyze social change—not exactly what I was looking for! All that to simply say, my apologies to any social scientists/quantitatively-minded folks if/when I use what is assuredly incomplete/inadequate/antiquated language on this topic . . . I now have a newfound level of respect and admiration for the work that goes on in the Community Research/Development and Action programs at Vanderbilt over in the Peabody School, as well as a renewed commitment to/sense of vocation to my own work in the humanities! And thanks for Austin Sauerbrei-Brown and his Community Development & Action education and knowledge, for helping me sift through some of these approaches and better clarify my questions!

      2. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 30.

      3. Foucault, “Subject and Power,” in James D. Faubion, ed. Power (The Essential Works of Foucault, 1954–1984, Vol. 3), 326, 329. For more from Foucault on the confessional, see Foucault, History of Sexuality, volume 1: An Introduction, In HS1 as well as in “Subject and Power,” Foucault examines how the practice of confession has become “one of the West’s most highly valued techniques for producing truth,” a process that has seeped far beyond the ecclesiastical institutions it began in and has “spread out into the whole social body” (HS1, 59; “Subject and Power,” 336). The confessional was key in how our subjectivities have come to be produced by power relations.

      4. Foucault talks about this at length in Discipline and Punish in the chapter on Docile Bodies.

      5. Foucault, “Subject and Power,” 346.

      6. Ibid., 336.

      7. Foucault, Archaeology of Knowledge, 17.

      8. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/2, §6.2 (267–8).

      9. Michel Foucault, (1969) ‘Interview with Claude Bonnefoy’, Unpublished typescript, IMEC B14, 29–30; also available as Michel Foucault à Claude Bonnefoy—Entretien Interprété par Éric Ruf et Pierre Lamandé, Paris: Gallimard.



Both Liberator and Jailor

The Religious Roots of Mass Incarceration

Christ has called us to “abundant life” and freedom. We can only begin our journey to that freedom promised to us in Christ from where we are. An important contextual element in our situation as prisoners must include “factual guilt.” We are not the innocent seeking justice but the guilty seeking redemption and reconciliation. Our status as prisoners is not the defining point of our guilt however, but rather it is our common heritage as “sons of Adam.” Yet in a particular way we are “guilty” because of those sins we have committed against others in our offences. In this light, we affirm that we have wronged and injured our neighbors by our crimes (sins) and our relationship with God and neighbor has been broken. We also assert that we have arrived at the point of repentance and have turned to God in Christ. In Him, we seek to realize the promise given in the gospel of St. John when Jesus tells us why he has come, “I come so that they [all of us] might have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). As part of our “conversion” from “futility” and “death” to “abundant life,” we are committed to addressing the harms caused by sin (generally and our own particularly) and working for reconciliation. This is the path of Penance.1

SO BEGINS “A PATH OF PENANCE,” a program proposal that breathed into life a local chapter of the order of Secular Franciscans. The group’s location was, and remains, Pennsylvania’s State Correctional Institution at Graterford, a maximum-security prison outside of Philadelphia. The proposal’s author, an extraordinary man named Robert Altland, is, for the crime of homicide, serving the sentence of life in prison. Like all Pennsylvania Lifers, Altland is ineligible for parole, and barring a revolutionary turn in the law or in prison administration, Altland will die in prison.

Altland was not born a Catholic. Rather, a one-time religious seeker and a voracious intellectual, Altland chose to be baptized as a Catholic when he determined that of the many traditions he’d investigated, Catholicism best equipped him to access both the numinous and the mystical aspects of religious experience, and by extension, God. But, for Bob, it’s not solely about God. “A Path for Penance” also evinces Bob’s attraction to Catholic theology as a platform for ethical engagement. By melding Franciscan ideas and practices into a program for restorative justice, Bob is working to call the broken men with whom he lives to the abundant life. From Bob’s perspective, the imperative to be radically transformed is incumbent on each of us, not merely those who carry the stigma and supplemental burden of criminal conviction. As the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, we’re all broken. But between original sin and the sin of murder there lies an important mid-level sociological plateau, and it is on this plateau were you and I find ourselves. In “A Path of Penance,” the brokenness that concerns Bob most of all is the brokenness that attends being a principal of a criminal justice system—the American criminal justice system—that systematically violates, injures, dehumanizes. It’s not just offenders and victims that are broken by this machinery of vengeance and mutual debasement. We, the people, in whose name this systemically wanton violence is being done, we are broken too.

I begin with “A Path to Penance” for a couple of reasons. Secondarily I do so to show where I’m coming from disciplinarily. Under a pseudonym, Bob Altland appears in my book Down in the Chapel, a narrative ethnography that takes place in Graterford’s interfaith chapel. This connection to this material at hand also signals my limitations. I am an ethnographer of American religion and an engaged critic of mass incarceration, but to a discussion of Catholic theology and practice, I am very much an outsider. Primarily, however, I start with Bob’s proposal in order to flag my most important contribution to the present discussion, which is this: the Catholic response to mass incarceration is well underway, and its primary agents are incarcerated men and women. To grow this movement, and to grow it in a way that truly shatters the dehumanizing logic of mass incarceration, it’s imperative for conversations like this include people such as Bob.

For readers like me, Amy Levad’s intention with Redeeming a Prison Society is to “show that Catholics share [my] commitment to justice . . . and how they could be good partners in such a coalition” (9). In this regard, the book is an unmitigated success. Levad writes that “social and criminal justice in our society are fundamentally intertwined, so any effort to address either must address both” (41). This notion is absolutely right, and right in a way that should be equally compelling to secular readers and religious readers alike. The way that a particular society executes its criminal justice system is necessarily embedded in a set of other social institutions and practices, and any strategy to address the problem of prisons must also confront these other sites of injustice, oppression, and systemic neglect.

One place where Levad’s Catholic perspective has something valuable to offer secular readers is the religious language by which she manages to radically redistribute responsibility for the problems at hand. Simply, to sustain what, after sociologist Loic Wacquant, Levad calls history’s “first genuine prison society” (16) it takes a village, or rather, a nation. As Levad writes, “Everyone is complicit in social sin that creates the broader context of individual wrongdoing and that fosters the injustices that undergird poverty, marginalization, and oppression” (7). I find this religious language exceedingly appealing. Social sin. In thinking about the roles that we all play actively and lazily in sustaining mass incarceration, “complicity” seems too cold and flat. “Sin” better captures the burden, the urgency of the problem, and the costs of inaction, both collectively and individually. I happen to not believe in Levad’s God, but I whole-heartedly agree that we are all substantially living in sin. By means of our daily actions and inactions, each and every one of us works to sustain the disgraceful system that incarcerates so many, so unjustly.

If, especially from knowing men like Bob, I was not wholly unaware of what Catholics have to offer to a coalition to combat mass incarceration, I was nonetheless somewhat floored by just how progressive, under the aegis of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Catholic Church has truly been. Perhaps my surprise registers more than anything the abiding conservatism of our own era. Nonetheless, from the vantage point of today’s neoliberal common sense, documents like 1973’s “Rebuilding Human Lives,” which highlights the overrepresentation of the poor in America’s prisons (58), and 1978’s “A Community Response to Crime, which addresses the root causes of crime and proposes ways for local churches to combat the problem (60), read practically like Marxist tracts. To her credit, and because she has skin in this game, Levad doesn’t crow about these things. Instead, she goes after the Catholic Bishops from the left for having consistently taken “a less prophetic stance than is necessary to address our justice crises” (78).

As an outsider to this tradition, but, more significantly, as an ethnographer, my concern is somewhat different. How much, I wonder, does official church doctrine tell us about contemporary American Catholicism, or more to the point, the attitudes of contemporary American Catholics? Do the Bishops speak for them? What is the relationship between official missives from above and the vocabularies and attitudes that animate discussions about criminal and social justice on the ground? If a coalition is to be forged, such work will likely take place at the community level, and toward that end, insight into what my Catholic friends and neighbors are likely to think about these issues would be indispensible. If obliquely, Levad does provide a window into where contemporary Catholics are at, and this picture is less rosy. Levad criticizes the drift of Catholic ritual practice, the ways that it has been privatized, has turned other-worldly, and has studiously marginalized matters of politics (82). But for Levad, this sort of religious orientation that snugly accommodates itself to neoliberal politics and economics is to Catholicism something of an alien intruder. For Levad, for whom Catholic liturgy and sacraments properly rendered are antithetical to social injustice, this sort of privatized, depoliticized Catholicism is less Catholicism than it is Catholicism betrayed.

“Punishment,” Levad states unequivocally, “cannot be justified in utilitarian or retributive terms, from a Catholic perspective” (57). Again, I understand that Levad is a theologian, and that she is writing her book with a profound and clear sense of what Catholicism ought to be. I would be disappointed were she, in her rendering of the tradition, any less normative than she is. This would be the case whether or not I shared her politics—and I emphatically share her politics! But as an empiricist, I worry what Levad’s normative commitment to an idealized Catholicism might cause her to miss in Catholicism a set of historical and sociological actualities, full attention to which might complicate her picture. Levad writes that we must address the “social, cultural, economic, and political factors that led to the creation of the first genuine prison society” (4). Strangely absent from this list, however, is religion itself. Is Levad’s “bad” Catholicism, which is to say, privatized, otherworldly, apolitical Catholicism merely a secondary symptom of other causes? This strikes me as improbable. If true, moreover, then from the standpoint of political analytics, this fact would likely doom her project from the start. For if in the advent and maintenance of mass incarceration bad religion is merely a consequence, then how are we to believe that good religion is capable of effecting an ameliorative change?

It is an appealing and important insight that sees in religious ideas and practices a potential storehouse of tools for undoing the first genuine prison society. Given the power of hegemony to limit the moral imagination generally, and the pervasiveness of mass incarceration as a cultural phenomenon in particular, resources for effecting substantive change are necessarily in short supply. We must seize them wherever we can find them. But in order to do so, we must first account for the ways that American religion has not merely been accommodated to mass incarceration, but has contributed to it and actively sustained it from the start. That is to say, if religion is to truly play the role of liberator, we must also come to grips with the ways that it has played the role of captor and jailer. I will leave it to Catholics to do this genealogical work in their own tradition. Painting with a somewhat broader brush, however, I would like to remind people that in its advent, the penitentiary was a religious concept. That suffering is somehow redemptive is quintessentially a religious proposition. God may also forgive and save, but at the heart of the Abrahamic traditions one finds as well a punishing God from whom transgression tends to elicit overwhelming force. In secularized and in less secularized ways, such ideas are not merely symptoms of mass incarceration; rather, they were a significant precondition. Mass incarceration isn’t something that merely happened to American religion; religion underwrote mass incarceration. Both in the spirit of fair play and to ensure maximal effectiveness, as we move forward collecting and generating religious (and secular) ideas and practices for ending mass incarceration, we must also keep an eye trained for the ways that religion has and continues to underwrite the righteous infliction of excessive punishment.

Not only because of my ethnographic training do I foreground religious practices alongside religious ideas. For Levad, herself, this emphasis is crucial. Paraphrasing Iris Murdoch, Levad writes that religion “one way to alter consciousness.” (90). This transformation of consciousness is a profoundly material process. From Levad’s Catholic perspective, its medium is liturgy and sacramentality. Or to put it stronger, prayer and other sacramental practices become crucial technologies for shaping consciousness. As Levad makes clear at the outset: “I argue for an expansive view of liturgy and sacraments as the public service of the church in making the grace of God perceptible to us, thus consecrating our lives in the world. Rather than otherworldly, apolitical, or privatized religious practices, the liturgy of the sacraments draws us more deeply into the world” (5). This drawing in, and the attendant personal transformation, is as big as the self, as big as the world, and as big as God. Specific rituals and liturgies do particular work. In the Eucharist, the Catholic practitioner forges a covenant with God that is racially inclusive, where he or she becomes a servant to others, especially the excluded (95). In the practices of Penance and Reconciliation, the Catholic ritually remembers Bob Altland’s point that “people who commit crime are not the only people who need social reintegration and internal reform” (98).

Levad has tremendous faith in these practices’ performative power to effect personal and social transformation. “To participate in a communal and public discipline of bodies,” Levad quotes William Cavanaugh as saying, “is already to be engaged in a direct confrontation with the politics of the world” (88). Ergo, in Levad’s view, “Liturgy and sacraments are already political acts” (88).

Once again, my uneasiness reasserts itself. Are these practices truly “already political?” I can see how this might be true in theory, but what about in practice—how are they functioning there? To answer that question we would have to look not only in texts but also in the pews. We might discover that the sacraments are not particularly political. Or we might discover that their politics in which they participate favor exclusion over inclusion, and vengeance over mercy. Or, alternatively, we might discover that the politics are righteous, but that the rituals are merely rituals, and that the “world-picture rehearsed in liturgy and sacraments” (6) fails to make it out the church door and down the steps; or that it does make it out, but it makes it only as an idealized picture in the mind’s eye and not as a spur in the practitioner’s side..

In a way, this final possibility, that these rituals do manifest a world-picture but that this picture remains limited to the realm of ideas, strikes me as the most probable, and therefore the most worrisome, potentiality. This worry comes from the premium that Levad places in “caring” about prisoners. Care: the word appears six times in the book’s first eleven lines. But caring is the easy apart. Every good liberal cares. As properly diagnosed by Jonathan Kozol in The Night is Dark and I am Far from Home, we teach our children, (and therefore, in time, ourselves) “to look upon the cost-free exercises of ‘compassion,’ ‘care,’ and ‘concern’ as if they were real forms of ethical behavior. They take on the illusion of completeness. Little by little, they begin to stand-in for their own intended end-results.”2 Consciousness is shaped by this moral education, that is to say, but the change stops with consciousness. In the ethics that follow, care becomes not the precondition of action; it becomes instead action’s postponement, and eventually, action’s replacement. Ethical aspiration becomes its own form of action, and indeed, the preferred course of action. Meanwhile, those who take actual risks are written off as crazy people. When Kozol made this argument in 1975, the United States had 400,000 people in prison and jail. In the years since, that number has gone up six-hundred-percent. That the preferred mode of ethical action in response to injustice (on the left, especially) has been caring about injustice is not incidental to the rise of mass incarceration—it has been, rather, a constitutive cultural practice. And for this reason, it is important that we remember to tabulate care without attendant action among our social sins. Indeed, for those of us who already do care about the lives of prisoners, the self-satisfaction of caring, and merely caring, might be our most damning sin of all.

In no way is Levad ignorant of this pitfall. “I hope,” she writes, “that readers will come to care about people in prison as I have and to feel the same sense of urgency to act” (9). It is with this aim in mind that Levad’s normative, practically minded—and very appealing—portrait of Catholicism is to be read. In substance, the sacraments are to be what today’s Catholics will make of them. And what I hope they make of them is something profoundly and disruptively political, where politics is expressed not via a declaration of conviction or felling, but via the throwing of oneself into the world. By means of Penance and Reconciliation, I hope that Catholics in America come to foreground “not only personal sins, but also social sins” (107); that they assiduously work to demarginalize the excluded “criminal;” that they come to terms with their own social sins; and that they labor to destroy the disgraceful system we have collectively wrought. As Levad writes, “reform is not sufficient” (112). We must wield ideas that break hard toward justice, and we must shape our ritual practices to drive these ideas into practice.. This is precisely what Levad is doing in this encouraging book, and this is the critical work that we must all do in our communities, whether those communities be religious or secular, academic and otherwise.

  1. Robert Altland, “A Path of Penance.” Unpublished manuscript (2005).

  2. Jonathan Kozol, The Night is Dark and I am Far from Home (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1975) 159–60.

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    Amy Levad


    In Response to Joshua Dubler

    I greatly appreciate Joshua Dubler’s contribution to this conversation. I am particularly grateful for his sympathetic engagement from a secular stance with my very Catholic text. A good ethnographer, he raises important questions about the extent to which my argument in Redeeming a Prison Society is grounded in contemporary American Catholicism. As I mentioned in my previous response to Kathryn Getek Soltis, I would like to come back to the issue of the distance between this reality and my aspirations here.

    Dubler highlights a significant gap between reality and my aspirations in terms of what the church (read: the hierarchy) teaches and what typical lay Catholics in the United States hold to be true. While noting the progressiveness of the U.S. bishops in the 1970s, Dubler asks, “How much . . . does official church doctrine tell us about the attitudes of contemporary American Catholicism, or more to the point, the attitudes of contemporary American Catholics?” The percentages of contemporary American Catholics who use birth control or who support the death penalty indicate that this is a fair question. Often, what the bishops say holds little sway over the people in the pews, sometimes because the bishops are not convincing and sometimes because the people in the pews are not actually aware of what the bishops say (usually, if we are being honest, both).

    A thorough and representative analysis of “what my Catholic friends and neighbors are likely to think about these issues” is beyond the scope of what I can do here. However, through personal experience in the church, I can fairly say that, like most Americans, typical lay Catholics know little about mass incarceration and its roots in social injustice. They are also unlikely to have read any statements by any bishops ever, let alone any of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ statements on criminal justice. In presentations at churches, I have encountered many Catholics who hold views similar to those described in my response to Jason Sexton. They are often unwilling to consider any problems in our criminal justice systems or to contribute to the dismantling of mass incarceration. In many ways, the picture on the “lived ground” of the Catholic Church in the United States is bleak.

    Nevertheless, I am not without hope because I do not think this general picture fully captures the reality of all, or even most, Catholics on these issues. Anecdotally, I would lift up two examples of Catholics who have played important roles in raising awareness about the links between our criminal and social justice crises. The first is Father Gregory Boyle, who founded and runs Homeboy Industries, a gang-intervention program in Los Angeles. The second is Sister Helen Prejean, whose ministry focuses on the death penalty. In terms of the questions raised by Dubler, the examples of these two people are interesting less because of the work they do (which is, of course, worthy of attention). Rather they are interesting because of how contemporary American Catholics have received the work they do. Each has written about his or her work (Tattoos on the Heart and Dead Man Walking, respectively).1Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion (New York: Free Press, 2010). Helen Prejean, Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States (New York: Random House, 1993).2 Each is much sought after for speaking engagements around the country. Both Boyle and Prejean have been able to influence many people in the pews on these issues more than any bishops have. I assign the work of both authors frequently in my courses, and students often report sharing the books with their friends or family. Catholics at churches where I have presented regularly share about their reading Boyle’s or Prejean’s books or about hearing them speak. The reception of these two suggests to me that many contemporary American Catholics are open to learning about social injustice, mass incarceration, and the demands of their faith in responding to each.

    While I lift up these two examples, I also believe that they are representative of many other Catholics who are engaged in work similar to Prejean’s and Boyle’s efforts. These are people I have met in parishes who volunteer with restorative justice programs, who drive children of prisoners to visit their parents, who bring the Eucharist to prisons and hear the confessions of prisoners, who represent people who cannot afford lawyers in court, who teach in high schools in communities that see their children on the cradle-to-prison pipeline. In Redeeming a Prison Society, I offer a short discussion of the many resources of the Catholic Church in the United States—on hierarchical, institutional, congregational, communal, and individual levels—that can be developed in a movement to undo mass incarceration and to mobilize for social justice (190–94). On these various levels, there are already many people who persistently work for justice and who are well prepared and eager to organize within the Catholic Church and with partners outside of the Catholic Church for redeeming our prison society. Without doubt, they need more of their Catholic brothers and sisters to join them.

    The work of these many people provides some empirical grounding for my “profound and clear sense of what Catholicism ought to be.” I must also admit that I hold a “normative commitment to an idealized Catholicism,” primarily, as a theological disposition. Instead of describing what the attitudes of contemporary Catholics are, I am trying to make an argument that could change the minds of many Catholics based upon the call to love and justice found within the liturgy and sacraments. As a result, I emphasize what has “not yet” been fully realized, the idealized, the aspirational (even within the church)—despite what God has “already” accomplished through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This vision of the “not yet” is the basis of my desire and hope for God’s reign of life, peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation. The celebration of the Eucharist holds before Catholics this vision not as a sort of “pie in the sky” that enables us to ignore the harsh realities of the world (at least, it ought not to do so). Rather because this vision is held alongside the narrative of Jesus Christ’s death as a convicted criminal, it “enables us to see our world as it would become fully in the reign of God as well as to recognize the extent to which our world remains fallen” (96). I hope for wholeness even amidst the reality of our brokenness, and the tension between wholeness and brokenness produces within me a yearning to work for justice and love as it will be realized in fullness in God’s reign.

    Dubler directs me to attend to an aspect of the brokenness of the world and of the church that requires more attention: “the ways that American religion has not merely been accommodated to mass incarceration, but has contributed to it and actively sustained it from the start.” He is correct in saying that I do not do much “genealogical work” in tracing the formative roles of Christianity generally and Catholicism specifically in creating prisons in the U.S. context. Readers interested in this genealogy might look to Timothy Gorringe, Andrew Skotnicki, Rima Vesley-Flad, and Ulrich Lehner.3Timothy Gorringe, God’s Just Vengeance: Crime, Violence, and the Rhetoric of Salvation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996). Andrew Skotnicki, Religion and the Development of the American Penal System (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2000). Rima Vesley-Flad, “The Social Covenant and Mass Incarceration: Theologies of Race and Punishment,” Anglican Theological Review 93.4 (2011): 541–62. Ulrich Lehner, Monastic Prisons and Torture Chambers: Crime and Punishment in Central European Monasteries, 1600-1800 (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2013).4 However, these authors will not bring us into the 1960–1970s, the advent of mass incarceration, and I do not know of anyone who has done the historical task of examining how religion contributed to and sustained mass incarceration in this time period. I suspect (but do not know) that one would find that, in contrast with earlier time periods, most Christians qua Christians withdrew from questions of crime and punishment and left them to the professionals and politicians operating in secularized spheres. One would also provide a minority of Christians who engaged in criminal justice work, but in ways critical of our society’s dependence on the prison. Among this minority would be the bishops who wrote “Rebuilding Human Lives” and “A Community Response to Crime.” It would also include, for example, many Anabaptists who led the development and spread of restorative justice. I am speculating here, but hope that someone will do the project suggested by Dubler so that we may better know how and to what extent religion interplayed with political, economic, social, and cultural factors in creating mass incarceration over the last fifty years.

    In noting the pitfalls of merely caring and not also acting for justice, Dubler also directs me to another aspect of brokenness of the world and of the church. He is right that caring alone does little or nothing to alleviate the suffering caused by injustice, and I hope that readers will find in Redeeming a Prison Society that caring about people in prison is only the first step. While I do use the word “care” six times in the first eleven lines of the book, I also spend the last two chapters describing numerous courses of action that people who care could take: from volunteering with restorative justice programs to advocating for quality rehabilitative services, from hiring people who are leaving prison to calling for the restoration of their voting rights, from providing support for families to fostering less destructive and more effective policing strategies, from providing adequate healthcare to building a cradle-to-college pipeline in vulnerable communities. Including these courses of action was important to me in writing this book because I wanted readers to find hope that the brokenness of our world is not preordained and that we can create a different kind of society. I also hoped that readers in any number of walks of life—ministers, teachers, lawyers, business people, educators, healthcare professionals, parents, community members, citizens—could see ways that they personally could join a movement today to end mass incarceration.

    Much of what I have said here in response to Dubler is based on personal experience and anecdotal evidence. The expertise and skill of a good ethnographer (as well as a historian) could help us a great deal in moving our conversation forward with more representative evidence of the reality of “what my Catholic friends and neighbors are likely to think about these issues.” Perhaps this evidence would prove that my project is indeed doomed from the start. Maybe it is too much to hope that the liturgical and sacramental lives of Catholics can spur our spirits into joining this movement and doing this work. However, hope—even (or especially?) in the face of brokenness—is, for Catholics, a virtue. What I know is that my liturgical and sacramental life has spurred my own spirit in this work. I also know that many other Catholics engaged in similar work, such as Boyle and Prejean, have also been fed by the vision of inclusion, mercy, love, and justice found at the eucharistic table.



    I would like to close this conversation by noting several questions, issues, or projects that arose in the discussion, but that require more work in the future. I hope that contributors and readers might take them up.

    Kathryn Getek Soltis raises the issue how we can hold together our crises of criminal and social justice in U.S. culture, especially in light of the recognition that we are all complicit in social sin as well as guilty of individual sin. She leaves us with the questions of what rituals can adequately shape us (specifically, Catholics) to take a prophetic stance against these crises, considering lack of participation in Penance and Reconciliation. I have suggested that restorative justice could offer one model for such rituals, but this question requires much more exploration. What would Catholic participation in restorative justice in secular contexts look like? Could restorative justice be brought into church practices? Might it be useful in responding to clergy abuse scandals, for example? Would restorative justice practices lead to the transformation of consciousness of Catholics necessary for us to hold together our crises of criminal and social justice?

    Jason Sexton’s response suggests the limits of my text for ecumenical engagement in an interfaith movement to dismantle mass incarceration. Where my proposals fall short or are not translatable for readers who are not Catholic, is there still room for partnership across denominational, doctrinal, and ecclesial lines? If a response based in liturgical and sacramental ethics does not work well outside of a Catholic context, what might non-Catholics propose in order to generate a response that attends to both our criminal and social justice crises? As we go about this work, how can Catholics and non-Catholics both listen to the “incarcerated church?”

    Brandy Daniels ask us to consider “prison abolition,” while I point out the limits of this rhetoric. Ought our aim to be to close all prisons? If not, who ought to be incarcerated and why? If some people must be incarcerated, how do we preserve their human dignity? How do we extend the possibility of redemption, social reintegration, and internal reform even to people who have committed the gravest offenses and who have not assumed any responsibility for their wrongdoing? How can we overturn an “us vs. them” logic even with people who have chosen alienation from their neighbors and communities?

    Finally, Joshua Dubler’s response points to the need for historical work on the ways religion has contributed to and sustained mass incarceration, especially over the last five decades. He also asks us to examine the attitudes and practices of contemporary American Catholics and whether they can be drawn into not only caring about people in prison, but also acting for social justice and the end of mass incarceration.

    A sign of a good conversation is that it draws its participants into thinking more deeply and clearly while also fostering more questions. Getek Soltis, Sexton, Daniels, and Dubler have each led me to clearer and deeper thinking, and clearly, they have generated questions, issues, and projects that merit more attention. For their engagement, I am grateful.