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Practicing Abolition Under the Shadow of the Cross

Content Warning: References to violence.


With the Lord on my side I do not fear. What can mortals do to me?...

It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in princes….

The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone….

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.


It is with these blessings that we begin Holy Week every year. It begins with a joyous march of thousands, gathering to celebrate Passover. And it will culminate in just four days, when Jesus will be hunted down by a lynch mob, locked up pre-trial, sentenced, tortured, and crucified. He will die, not as a substitution for human sin, but simply “of being human” in a world ruled by the crucifixion system. His death will be unremarkable. Like so many Black and brown people in this country, we would not know his name if his loved ones had not documented his death.


This is a troubling and disturbing week. And yet, we find ourselves back here year after year. Why, I ask myself every year, do we keep returning to the crucifixion? Why do we keep returning to punishment, to torture, to death? What God would call on us to find Holiness here, this week? Why does the long shadow between crucifixion and resurrection seem to grow longer every year? Why can we not break free of this cycle of violence?


I think that is what this week asks of us: God shows up in this week of violence and invites us to build a new world centering the wisdom of the crucified, a world where those who face crucifixion are protected, a world where crucifixions are unimaginable. Jesus calls for nothing less than abolition.


This past summer, in uprisings around the world, we heard the call to “defund the police.” We have lifted up this call here in our church. But defunding and abolishing policing and prisons are not new demands. For decades, Black and brown communities, especially Black and brown women and femmes, have called for abolition, which they define as the transformation of the conditions under which policing and prisons become the solutions to our problems.


Abolition, in the words of scholar and organizer Ruth Wilson Gilmore, “Is about presence, not absence. It’s about building life-affirming institutions.” It is not a far-off heaven, but the daily act of creating alternatives to violence, punishment, and the caging of human beings. It is about changing the conditions that make prisons and police “the answer” to social problems. So today, I’m going to talk for a bit about Jesus the abolitionist and what it means for us to practice abolition as Mennonites.


This is not Jesus’ first crucifixion. He grew up under the constant threat of death: An uprising of sharecroppers in Galilee in his early childhood was put down through thousands of state-sponsored lynchings. Crucifixions were not only acts of physical violence, but usually involved sexual violence at the hands of Roman guards. Jesus faces constant threats of violence from crowds during his ministry. Jesus grew up in a context of violence, at the hands of both the occupying Roman forces and his community.


Jesus grows up in a context of ongoing trauma and violence. The crucifixion system does not heal survivors, it makes new victims. It’s purpose is not justice. It is to control and punish those already deemed “guilty,” be they Galilean peasants or Black and brown and poor communities today. Mariame Kaba writes,


“There is not a single era in United States history in which the police were not a force of violence against black people. Policing in the South emerged from the slave patrols in the 1700 and 1800s that caught and returned runaway slaves. In the North, the first municipal police departments in the mid-1800s helped quash labor strikes and riots against the rich….

“So when you see a police officer pressing his knee into a black man’s neck until he dies, that’s the logical result of policing in America.”

What is Jesus’ response to living life under the shadow of the cross? He heals the sick. He distributes food to those who are hungry. He gathers together a coalition of disciples who should wish each other dead—the Zealot and the tax-collector and the poor agricultural worker—and teaches them they are family.


When I think of Jesus the abolitionist, the story that leaps to mind is when Jesus takes a small child in his arms, and tells his disciples, “You think this kid is the one with the problem? The Kin-dom of God is like this child. They need care, not control. They grow with love, not punishment.” Abolition is care work, it understands that “hurt people hurt people,” that “no one enters violence for the first time as a perpetrator.”


I was not born an abolitionist. Six years ago, I showed up to a meeting of the Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration (or CADBI) in West Philly. I learned that over five and a half thousand people in our state have been sentenced to die in prison because they were convicted of murder. Nearly all of them were younger than I am now when they were locked up. Many were teenagers. And I thought, “Ok, when they’ve served a few years, they should get a second chance.” Or, “Some of them have reformed, but others are really dangerous.”


But the past six years changed me. Many of the incarcerated people and their loved ones who lead CADBI stand at the horrific crossroads of “dual victimhood”: They’ve buried one child due to gun violence, they’ve lost another child to the prison system. They have taught me to give up the lie that a system of surveillance, guns, cages, separation, isolation, torture, and death will somehow make our neighborhoods safer. If all our modern-day crucifixion system offers is punishment, it is no wonder that less than half of survivors of violence report what is done to them.


Giving up the lie means giving up the parts of myself that desire control and punishment. I am very lucky to be in a relationship with someone who also seeks to practice abolition. And it’s not easy: When we get into conflict, especially when I have done something hurtful, I expect to be punished. It seems easier: I know my place in it. Sometimes before she can even bring up what I did that is hurtful, I’m already mad at myself, already punishing myself. So over and over again, she has had to tell me, “I don’t want you to feel shame. I need you to be accountable. I don’t want to punish you, I need you to grow.” Practicing abolition means giving up the false promise of punishment, and embracing the often-much-harder work of accountability and transformation.


Through CADBI, I now have relationships with many people who have taken lives. And I have yet to meet someone who was incarcerated who was not taught that violence solves problems. We have all grown up under the shadow of the prison, just as Jesus grew up under the shadow of the cross.


The abolition movement has taught me this: No one’s life should be defined by the worst thing they have done, or by the worst thing that has been done to them.


No one’s life should be defined by the worst thing they have done, or by the worst thing that has been done to them. If that isn’t a definition of grace, what is?


We can live by this definition of grace. We can be abolitionists when we parent and teach and love each other from the radical perspective that people learn and grow best when they get their needs met, instead of being punished. We can be abolitionists when we imagine new ways of being family, new ways of caring for each other, rooted in accountability, not control. We can be abolitionists when we listen to those in our church who have been harmed, and center their needs and their agency. We can be abolitionists when we find support and love that neighbor who is living with an abusive partner, when we diffuse the fight without calling the cops. We can be abolitionists when we support Carmela, her family, and others who seek to live into a world without deportations, declaring that there are places and people over which the forces of death do not have dominion. We can be abolitionists when we reject the idea that Jesus had to suffer to save us, that any of us deserve to suffer for the salvation of others. The prison system teaches a punishment theology. We can instead proclaim with our whole lives that our God is not a God of crucifixions, and cages, and abuse, but a God of liberation, a God who sits with us in the darkness of our tombs but who refuses to give up hope, a God who promises that the story does not end here.


But it’s not Easter yet. Jesus stands here, today, on this side of the cross, knowing with near-certainty that the machinery of policing, incarceration, and punishment will eat him alive this week. And he asks his disciples to get him a colt who has never been ridden, a young and wild animal, on which he will ride as he proclaims freedom.


Abolition is a wild vision of freedom. Seasoned organizers make clear that they do not know what a world without policing and prisons will look like, only that the crucifixion system cannot make us whole.


This week, Jesus, riding his wild donkey, descends into the depths of the crucifixion system in order to abolish them. We are invited to follow. You are invited. To worship and follow the God of freedom more fiercely than you fear the false gods of punishment. To call out punishment and control whether it shows up in your school, your workplace, your neighborhood, or this church. To care and love fiercely with your whole being. To embody a grace that knows that none of us are the worst things that we have done or the worst things done to us.


This year, as we move through Holy Week, as we once again cycle through this story of violence, I invite you to remember this blessing from Eddie Ramirez, incarcerated at SCI-Phoenix:


My words, my soul, I share with you all. I offer myself in solidarity with your struggle as you have offered yourself to mine. I cannot march alongside you, but know that my spirit is there—as yours is here. I hope to comfort you, as my brothers and I are comforted by your presence and commitment. ‘If the abolition of slave manacles began as a vision of hands without manacles, then this is the year.’

Let this be the year that keeps warm the feet of those who march towards freedom; let the light of day shine magnificently on the hearts of those who boldly proclaim their solidarity with justice….

Let this be the year that fear is forfeited and bravery is born….

Let this be the year that hunger is met with the Angels of Bread, ignorance is confronted by the understanding hands of love, and greed is overcome by the will of The People who believe that investments should be made in the liberation of people rather than their confinement.

Amen.



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