A Theology for Abolition or “We Shall Set the Captives Free”

By Rev. Jason Lydon

The Community Church of Boston (CCB), a Unitarian Universalist congregation, is one of many religious organizations working closely with prisoners in Massachusetts. Many of our members have loved ones currently in prison or have been incarcerated at some time themselves. Our commitment to incarcerated people is not only spiritual, it is a deep political commitment to abolishing the prison industrial complex and supporting prisoner led struggles in the meantime. We recently opened our membership to currently incarcerated people and have welcomed nearly a dozen people into the fold that way. We provide the prisoner membership with reflections from “free-world” members on the Sunday service, copies of the Sunday bulletin and prayer, monthly newsletters, and hope to establish a visiting program in the years to come. Prisoner members provide us with their reflections and their writings to inform us of those things most pressing to them inside the prison walls here in Massachusetts. We strive to nurture the relationship to be as mutual as possible. For those who will one day be released, we will welcome them into our “free-world” community.

Philosopher Josiah Royce suggested that, “the future task of religion is the task of inventing and applying arts which shall win men [sic] over to unity… Judge every social device, every proposed reform, every national and every local enterprise, by the one test: does this help towards the coming of the universal community?” (Charles A. Howe, Clarence Skinner: Prophet of a New Universalism, 1998.) When one looks at the pervasive violence, oppression, and ineffectiveness of the prison industrial complex, it should not be very difficult to find an answer to whether the prison industrial complex is bringing the universal community closer or pushing it farther away. Skinner wrote in his own words, “All great social problems involve theological conceptions. We may divorce church from state, but we cannot separate the idea of God from the political life of the people.” So then, what does God, or the divine as known by other names, have to say about the prison industrial complex?

I understand theology to exist, at its fullest potential, for the service of liberation. According to Gustavo Gutierrez, “Theology must be critical reflection on humankind, on basic human principles… Theological reflection would then necessarily be a criticism of society and the Church insofar as they are called and addressed by the Word of God; it would be a critical theory, worked out in the light of the Word accepted in faith and inspired by a practical purpose.” (Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation, 1988.)

Because of the role of white supremacy in the prison industrial complex, people of color, and particularly Black people, are incarcerated at rates far beyond their representation in our national population. For any theology to be relevant to those working against the prison industrial complex, it must prioritize the experiences of Black people, women in particular, and the writings of womanists and Black liberation theologians. The fundamental connecting point of all liberation theologies is the prioritization of the experience of the particular theologian’s oppressed community as the subject of theological discourse, all of which have a role in shaping a theology relevant in the face of the prison industrial complex. This means that a theology for the abolitionist movement must be influenced by queers, ecofeminists, Black scholars, Indigenous organizers, Palestinian freedom fighters, transgender survivors, and all others struggling for liberation.

For those of us at the CCB, we know that the guiding principles of Unitarian Universalism push us towards the essential work of liberation. We know that those who are locked behind bars and walls are being prohibited from living to their greatest potential, and thus we all suffer because of that. Setting aside the many innocent people behind bars, none of us want to be judged by only the worst thing we have done in our lives. We as individuals are deeply complex and have endless gifts to give. The ministry of the CCB is to understand the gifts that people who are incarcerated have to give and be in relationship with them as we all work to overcome our deeply flawed humanity.

Rev. Jason Lydon is the minister of the Community Church of Boston and a passionate abolitionist organizer, especially focusing on the needs of queer and transgender prisoners.

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