“Release to the Captives”

In today’s video, [1] Candace Montgomery of Black Visions Collective calls for the abolition of policing. For those who call themselves “abolitionists” there is a fundamental, fatal flaw in the system of policing. Yes, there are good people within the police force, and yes, there are many who seek to reform the work of policing with hearts very genuinely in the right place. And, yet, abolitionists argue, the whole institution needs to go, because it is steeped in the ethos of slavery, in its many forms. The system is not broken. It is doing what it was designed to do: control people of color for the sake of protecting the wealth of white property holders. For this reason, it isn’t reformable or redeemable. That’s why Montgomery is calling for a process of defunding policing incrementally, while simultaneously increasing funding for initiatives that actually create safety.

Perhaps this critique and this vision doesn’t sit quite right with you, doesn’t fully make sense to you. Maybe a voice like this brings up difficult feelings, or triggers the urge to debate and argue. I would invite all of us to do some countercultural things when we hear a voice like this. Listen, not to respond, but to understand. Don’t worry, at first, about whether you agree or disagree. Assume, particularly if you disagree, that this person knows something you don’t yet know, and need to learn. Open up your imagination. Enter into the vision as completely and wholeheartedly as you can. There is a need, of course, for us respond, out of our own experience and critical thinking. I believe our responses will be most productive if we have first listened in the way I just described.

This week, we consider what Jesus’ experience of arrest, trial, imprisonment and execution has to say to our contemporary conversations about public safety. I was struck by Jesus’ silence at key points in his trial. We could interpret that silence as his way of accepting his fate, embracing the role of the innocent victim. But I wonder if Jesus simply knew the futility of speaking in his own defense. Maybe he understood that his truth could not be heard, and that whatever he said would be used against him. The nature of Rome, revealed by all those thousands of political crucifixions, was to silence all dissent.

We know that in our time, many on death row have been wrongly convicted. And similarly, we see how this system that killed Jesus was not one of justice, but one that condemned innocent people to death, and that punished crime with an utterly inhumane form of torture. Seen in this light, perhaps the release of the supposed murderer, Barabbas, was actually an enactment of Jesus’ mission: release for the captives. I noticed there was one moment when Jesus broke his silence. He spoke, not to defend himself, but to proclaim his vision. Yes, I am the Messiah, he answered Pilate. “God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the jubilee year when debts will be paid, land will be returned, and slaves will be liberated.” And, yes, this vision can become a reality, even when all that we fear seems to have the last word.

There’s a lot to fear these days. And we are afraid for good reasons. The trajectory of this pandemic is terrifying. Will hospitals and healthcare workers become overwhelmed? Our political situation is also very scary: the lack of an orderly transition, the very real possibility that there won’t be a peaceful transfer of power. And we fear the escalating violence in our neighborhoods. When I shared a Facebook post this week, expressing my opposition to the plan to add more police on the north side, my neighbor, whom I greatly respect, strongly disagreed. She said: “I’m afraid in my own neighborhood and we need to have protection or else our community won’t be safe anymore. I just don’t see any progress with addressing crime.” I’m scared too, as bullets fly, cars speed, and lives are cut tragically short. And yet I do not believe that more police will help. We’re living with a terrible tension. We need to begin moving toward something radically new. It’s a monumental transformation that will take time. And yet our fear just keeps shutting down our imagination and constricting our vision. Our fear keeps pulling us back into the false narrative we’ve constructed—that policing creates safety.

A few of us from First Church are taking part in a seminar on abolition led by colleagues in the Sacred Solidarity Network. In the first session I had an “aha” moment. I realized that abolition is not only about policing. It means dismantling a bigger system that many call the “Prison Industrial Complex” (PIC), which includes the police force, courts and prisons, as well as media, politics and private business. The organization Critical Resistance puts it this way:

Abolition isn’t just about getting rid of buildings full of cages. It’s also about undoing the society we live in because the PIC both feeds on and maintains oppression and inequalities through punishment and violence. . . . Because the PIC is not an isolated system, abolition is a broad strategy. . . . Abolition is both a practical organizing tool and a long-term goal.[2]

Returning to Jesus’ story, what strikes me is that he was not just a victim of an unjust system. He resisted this system. And he did it in the only way that is actually effective. He responded to violence with non-violence. He found a path to create justice amid injustice.  Perhaps resurrection is a way of a talking about the fact that Jesus’ torture did not strengthen Roman brutality but undermined it. Jesus’ death did not squelch rebellion, but encouraged it to flourish. His integrity, courage, compassion, and faith made a crack in the system of oppression that eventually caused it to crumble.

In a recent article, Parker Palmer puts forward “five habits of the heart to heal the heart of democracy.”

The habits are:

An understanding that we are all in this together

An appreciation of the value of “otherness”

An ability to hold tension in life-giving ways

A sense of personal voice and agency

A capacity to create community

They all struck me as valuable and they are interconnected. I highly recommend reading the entire article. However, the second and third habits seemed especially relevant as we seek to allow the Spirit of God to liberate us from the grip of an empire that is powered by our fear. About “An appreciation of the value of ‘otherness,’ Palmer writes:

We spend most of our lives in “tribes” or lifestyle enclaves—and that thinking of the world in terms of “us” and “them” is one of the many limitations of the human mind. The good news is that “us and them” does not have to mean “us versus them.” Instead, it can remind us of the ancient tradition of hospitality to the stranger. . . .  Hospitality rightly understood is premised on the notion that the stranger has much to teach us. It actively invites “otherness” into our lives to make them more expansive, including forms of otherness that seem utterly alien to us.

And, about “An ability to hold tension in life-giving ways,” he says:

Our lives are filled with contradictions—from the gap between our aspirations and our behavior to observations and insights we cannot abide because they run counter to our convictions. If we fail to hold them creatively, these contradictions will shut us down and take us out of the action. But when we allow their tensions to expand our hearts, they can open us to new understandings of ourselves and our world, enhancing our lives and allowing us to enhance the lives of others.[3]

Friends, as the community that follows Jesus, let us answer his prophetic call to release the captives, including our own captive hearts. Let us choose faith over fear. Let our lives be deeply rooted in a tree of liberation that grows from the stones of prison cells, that reaches toward light and air through the bars of our confinement. Let us imagine a world in which all of us are free.

[1] (In worship, we watched a video presentation Montgomery made as part of a panel discussion:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6NR9Ubm4sP0&feature=emb_logo 26:15-30:19)

[2] http://criticalresistance.org/about/not-so-common-language/

[3] https://www.globalonenessproject.org/library/articles/five-habits-heal-heart-democracy?fbclid=IwAR3eqd53GkUr5k5mdHfF8bjQpExZupqZDmqHZLf7J-tVb0PvgwBtlkS-DrQ