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.
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. ↩