Christianity, Race, and Mass Incarceration

October 13, 2017
HDS Assistant Professor of Ministry Studies Matthew L. Potts
Professor Matthew Potts.

On Thursday, October 19, and Friday, October 20, Harvard Divinity School will host a conference on Christianity, Race, and Mass Incarceration. Organized by Matthew Potts, Associate Professor of Religion and Literature and of Ministry Studies, and Michelle Sanchez, Assistant Professor of Theology, the conference is free and open to the public, but registration is requested.

Scholars from around the country will participate in conversations alongside activists, organizers, and formerly incarcerated persons in an effort to advance a critical study of carceral punishment, especially as it relates to questions of Christian thought and practice.

Potts recently took time to answer some questions about how mass incarceration has evolved, Christian theology’s role in addressing the issue, and the divide in attitude toward imprisonment among Christians.

HDS: Mass incarceration impacts over 2 million adults and youth. How exactly did we get here?

Matt Potts: The answer to that question is really complicated, and I'm not going to be able to give you a thorough history, but one point that I think your question raises is that we did get here. Things weren't always this way. That punishment is the proper response to wrongdoing, that physical confinement is the proper form of punishment—these aren’t necessary conclusions. Even what counts as a crime is highly contingent. For our present moment, what’s most disturbing is the correlation between the control of specifically black and brown bodies and the escalation of incarceration in America. The US prison population is more than 10 times larger than it was in 1970. After other forms of control have been eliminated—slavery goes away and eventually Jim Crow segregation laws fall apart—what rises in their place is the targeted criminalization of mostly African American, but also other non-white people. These people are arrested and incarcerated at a staggering rate. So, the answer to the question of how we got here is really complicated. But one thing that we can say pretty definitively is that we are here because of the way race and racism affects incarceration policy as well as the sometimes troubling approaches to punishment that are a part of our Christian inheritance.

HDS: What does Christian thought and practice tell us about incarceration, and what's typically been the church’s role in addressing mass incarceration?

MP: This question about incarceration and Christianity is really a question about the connection between punishment and sin. Why do we exact punishment after something goes wrong in the world, after someone does something wrong? Why do we think that punishment is the appropriate response? For many people, it is a natural assumption that if you do something wrong, you have to pay for it. When somebody comes out of prison, we say, “Oh, they paid their debt to society.” So this language that wrongdoing incurs a debt that must be paid comes out of a particular account of sin from within the Christian tradition, specifically the way we talk about how Jesus paid for our sins. The way he paid for our sins was through the corporal punishment of torture and death. You could also say he was incarcerated, that he was taken to hell for three days and his body was held. The idea that wrongdoing must be paid for also assumes that payment is the way we are freed from the wrongdoing. In the Christian tradition, we’re free from our sins not because punishment doesn’t need to follow sin but because Jesus took our punishment. God’s justice could not be satisfied unless somebody was punished, somebody’s got to be punished.

But that’s just one version of the language around sin and punishment in the Christian tradition. Christianity, like any religious tradition, is deeply complicated and not always consistent or coherent across its many traditions. Other strands of Christianity think really differently about the relationship between sin and what should follow sin, not least being Jesus, who spoke a lot about forgiveness. We see it played out in contemporary policy crises, like mass incarceration. The Christian tradition speaks about the possibility for redemption and the possibility for new life, but then we have life without parole sentencing in this country. One of the reasons the prison population is so high is because so many crimes carry the sentence of life without parole so people stay in forever. People can't get out of prison. This is one of the things we should question. What does it mean theologically to say that you will never be redeemed, you are unredeemable? That seems really contrary to the Christian talk that we hear every Sunday morning about the possibility for redemption, the possibility for new life, the possibility for repentance and reparation for whatever a person might have done. Although the Christian tradition contributes to the assumption that punishment must follow sin, the Christian tradition also has a lot to contribute in helping us think about other ways for communities to respond to wrongdoing, for communities to flourish in the wake of wrongdoing, to think about how we can move forward, move on.

HDS: A recent poll showed that the vast majority of Christians who responded believed that the main goal of the justice system should be the restoration of the victim, the community, and the person responsible for the crime. At the same time, 53 percent of the Christian respondents also said it was acceptable for someone to be punished more than their crime deserved. It seems like a lot of Christians are torn about what their attitude should be toward the incarcerated. And that may be, as you’ve already mentioned, because there are multiple versions of the language that exists regarding punishment and sin in Christianity. But why do you think there are multiple versions and such a divide?

MP: The Christian theological tradition and scriptural tradition is divided against itself. If you want to find justifications for retributive violence and retributive punishment, you can find them. If you want to find language about redemption, freedom from retribution, and freedom from retributive violence and punishment, you can find that language too. What worries me is that a survey of Christians might show that ambivalence, but our carceral policy in this country certainly doesn’t show any of that same ambivalence. If you look at the statistics of who is incarcerated and for how long, the second half of that ambivalence—that there should be the possibility for restoration and redemption—just does not exist. And the fact that it doesn’t exist almost entirely on the backs of black and brown bodies should further trouble us. It should trouble us that ambivalence exists if the perpetrator is white, and especially if they commit crimes against people who are not white. The fact that language starts to really weigh heavily on the retribution side and ambivalence all at once disappears when the perpetrators are non-whites, and especially if their victims are white, is really troubling. That’s why race also has to be part of the conversation when we speak about carceral policy.

HDS: So, why is HDS a good place for this conference?

MP: Because of Harvard's position within the academic landscape, and because of Harvard Divinity's position within the landscape of theological education, it’s important for us to stand up and say that this is a question that is pressing and demands accounting, demands consideration. It doesn't mean I think we’re going to fix it this weekend, it just means that we need to start talking about it, really start owning up to the complications of it. I think Harvard is a good place to do that because we’re an important place in that landscape. Apart from that, we have so many resources here. Outside our theological faculty, we have faculty from the history department that are coming to present, and we have colleagues from the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at the Law School, who are participating. So, we have others on this campus who are asking these questions in serious ways. And because of the way that we study religion and do theological education at Harvard, we want those people to be part of our conversation. We’re not a standalone seminary, we’re a place that is answerable to all the other disciplines that want to be working alongside each other in thinking about these issues.

The purpose of the conference is for us to try to tease how we got to the point that we are at in mass incarceration, so we’re inviting historians of the nineteenth century to come and talk about what happened in the nineteenth century, what the roots of these issues are. We’re inviting historians and political scientists of the twentieth century to come and say what happened in the mid-twentieth-century, what’s happening now. And we’re inviting theologians and people who work in religious studies to think about, if race and religion are caught up in this thing from the beginning, how thinking about race and religion can help us find a way out of this problem. There’s something really exciting about asking a person like Naomi Murakawa, who’s a political scientist from Princeton, to come and think about religion explicitly in a way that she may not in her work usually. Or to invite a historian like Jennifer Graber from Texas to come here. She thinks about religion as a historian of religions and works in a history department at a large public university. But in coming here, she’ll be in a place where ministerial formation is one of the things on the table and where half the people in the audience may be students of ministry at HDS. I think these possibilities and intersections make HDS a really great place to actually advance this work in a significant and important way.