Joshua Dubler and Vincent W. Lloyd, Break Every Yoke: Religion, Justice, and the Abolition of Prisons, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2020.
264 pp. $35.00. ISBN: 978-0190949150.
I spent the past two years working regularly on a church harassment policy intended to address sexual harassment and abuse between congregational members. A large part of the process was familiarizing myself with existing abuse and harassment policies as well as paying more attention to the stories arising out of the #MeToo movement. Part of these conversations revolved around the sentencing of criminal forms of sexual abuse. As I tried to increase my understanding and support of survivors, it seemed natural to also add my support for increased convictions and prison sentences for those who abuse. I mention my experience because the project of prison abolition touches on a wide range of issues and experiences across the political spectrum that can make abolition easy to dismiss outright because of some sense of justice that we hold to.
In Break Every Yoke, Vincent Lloyd and Joshua Dubler give voice to the varied and diverse religious expressions that both gave shape to the modern prison and worked for its abolition. There has been no monopoly on how Americans have understood and practiced “justice.” Prison abolition often emerges from basic principles that reject caging human beings and affirm the potential and value of each human. Tied to, but not fully equated with these convictions, is a deep understanding of the injustices present within the current justice system. That is, prison abolitionists will renounce current injustices but will also reject the philosophy that simple reform will render prisons beneficial or just for humanity. This is, however, to put the matter too reductively, and, even with a focus on the religious dimensions of prison and prison abolition, Break Every Yoke is a reminder of the diverse groups and individuals opposing the prison system in part or in whole.
The book focuses primarily on the period from the 1960s to the present and gives substantial attention to the shift that occurred from the 1950s into the 1960s and then through the 1980s (the period of mass incarceration). The 1960s is singled out for its significance in representing a larger cultural shift that had a massive impact on the future of prisons in the United States. Given the religious history of the United States, it is not surprising that the prison system developed along theological lines, with early prison models speaking of penitentiary reform or providing theological justification for punishment. However, by the 1960s, many mainline Protestant groups rejected outright the role and function of the prison system. The problem was that mainline churches were losing their last cultural foothold in mainstream America and being replaced with the seemingly odd couple of secularism and evangelicalism that privileged the individual and the rights of the individual, namely in the form of private property as a right. This lent itself to “law and order” policing and criminalizing poverty.
So while prison reform and abolition voices emerged in the 1960s, dominant cultural values had ensured they would not gain traction. This shift found one culmination in Ronald Reagan, who enshrined in religious language the values of economic individualism whereby the state did not support the individual structurally and economically but rather enforced and defended the practices of the free market and the corporate interests within. This occurred through expanding both the military abroad and prisons, and policing domestically. While these changes initially gained approval from the political right wing in the 1980s, this law and order approach bled over into the center and left, where increased prison and punishment were taken up as the appropriate responses to things like hate crimes and violence against women. While some of the religious language still used by Reagan faded under Clinton, Bush, and Obama, prisons (as well military campaigns overseas) continued to be furnished with the moral language of individual freedom that needed to be defended by capturing and incapacitating those who are a threat to that freedom.
In the midst of the larger social movement toward mass incarceration, and many of the attendant religious connections, there remained religious ferment around prison abolition in the 60s and 70s, both within prisons and from the outside. A major portion of chapter 3 focuses on the work of Mennonites in this period. The authors outline a sustained push among Mennonite leaders and communities to name the injustice of the criminal system and to work actively for alternatives in what most would recognize broadly as restorative justice. For a period of time, these were not fringe parachurch concerns but were brought forward in denominational meetings and at Mennonite educational institutions, with Mennonite leaders also making inroads into other groups such as the International Conference on Penal Abolition. While viewing these groups as offering tools for an abolitionist project, the authors note that most movements such as these eventually get appropriated into a reformist mode, if they have any impact at all.
Chapter 4 tracks moments of the abolitionist spirit inside prisons. Alongside the more familiar movements such as the rise of Black Muslims in prison, the authors explore lesser-known groups like Church of the New Song (CONS). CONS was a religion started in 1970 by prisoners led by a charismatic leader who wrote his own scripture and developed rituals. A key element of their organized expression, like Muslim groups in prison, was demanding rights under the First Amendment regarding the practice of religion. The question of First Amendment rights for these groups became the question of how much space the prison system allowed groups, CONS in particular, whose very agenda was in opposition to the prison system itself. What is interesting with CONS is how it forced the question of what constitutes religion. While CONS won early court victories, those victories were eventually overturned, and CONS, among other groups, was deemed political as opposed to religious and therefore not afforded protection.
By the turn of the millennium, many religious expressions were stripped of their political power and reduced to individual reform more in keeping with the overall logic of the prison system. Today, organized responses within the prison system tend to reflect particular injustices or cruelties rather than an overall abolitionist agenda. These groups may have religious connections, but many are not framed and structured as religious movements were in previous decades.
The concluding chapter gathers a vast array of current abolitionist forms. Many forms are coalition-based organizations in which religion may or may not play a part. In addition, any religious framing may or may not take traditional forms; it might reflect ad hoc syncretistic forms or take completely novel expressions such as mainline priests following the lead of LGBTQ atheists, leaders cobbling together forms of ancestral naturalism, activists converting to orthodox Christianity promoting the primitive communism of the Acts church. Whatever role religion may or may not have, there is little consistency or continuity with previous institutional or orthodox forms. Within these crucibles, foundational statements continue to be formed such as that coming from the Oakland Peace Centre, which states simply that “in their goodness, human beings deserve better than to be made to suffer” (204).
This chapter sprawls out like a shotgun blast aimed at the prison system, with image after image of the abolition spirit. Toward the end, the authors finally ask, “In aggregate, are the preceding examples religious or are they secular?” There is, of course, no way to adjudicate this question without doing some interpretive injustice along the way. But the authors also acknowledge that to simply leave “religion” too broad and encompassing is to make it empty and useless.
The hope in this scattershot is that one might sense the spark and powder of human freedom and justice animating these seemingly disparate forms and expressions. But does such a blast, without nuance or aim, dismiss and disable gains in prosecuting and binding the powerful who harm the vulnerable? And, more specifically to this book, does there remain any necessity for seeking out what is religious in all this?
The book began with a sense that one could not speak of abolition and justice in America without speaking of religion. This seems true at least in the sense that one can hardly speak about anything in America’s past without speaking of religion. But the authors go further; they wager that “in pushing us to envision the impossible . . . a religious attitude is here an essential component of the abolitionist cause. For the abolitionist, justice cannot be reduced to worldly terms (not the terms of this world, anyway)” (17). This is a more suspect move, in my opinion. Although Christianity will be the primary source for my own engagements with and expressions of abolition, such religious commitments seem unnecessary in movements I have encountered and that are given witness within this book.
The underlying agenda of this book in promoting a sort of implied natural theology of justice seems somehow underhanded. Let simple statements like those coming from Oakland Peace Centre be enough, or even from one of the author’s own concluding reflections stating that “principled commitment to a cause is one thing; the binds of intimacy are a different order of obligation” (236). Mennonites have ample principles from scripture and our peace tradition to engage abolition work. The question remains: will we forge intimacies with the vulnerable and suffering both outside and inside prison walls, affirming finally and fully that in their goodness human beings deserve better than to be made to suffer?
David Driedger is Associate Minister at First Mennonite Church of Winnipeg.