The Reverend Dr. Eboni Marshall Turman discusses mass incarceration and the black church.
One in 31. That's how many Americans are in in jail, in prison, on probation or on parole. In the US, our incarceration rate is 10 times higher than that of other countries while our actual crime rate is lower than those same countries. Citing a 600 percent increase in the prison population since the 1960s, with no correlating increase in crime, Michelle Alexander has called mass incarceration "the new Jim Crow." When people of color represent 30 percent of the U.S. population, but 60 percent of those incarcerated, we are in league with David, staring at a towering giant, armed with a prayer and a handful of stones.
While the work before us is daunting, people of faith are called to fight giants. The Spirit who we remember in Pentecost, the Spirit who set the world on fire, has trusted us with this work. We are giant slayers, by God's grace. For this reason, it is fitting that we revisit the story of the first giant slayer, a young boy who tended sheep and fought off bears and lions.
We must remember that when David was gathering those stones, the giant was still standing, still sucking in the air that those on the other side of the valley were desperately trying to breathe. We live in a time when too many giants are still standing. Poverty. Racism. Discrimination. Oppression. Inequality.
I imagine for many of us, the story of David and Goliath has lost its suspense and fear. It has been used in too many Bible School stories and sung in too many cheery children's songs. The story is so commonplace, so unreal, that it feels more like a fairy tale than a story that tells the truth.
God's just world is elusive and fleeting, living fully in the holy imagination, never fully established here on earth. While we pray the Lord's prayer in church, "thy kingdom come" rarely happens "on earth as it is in heaven." Down here, the giants suck in too much air while those at the margins of the valley cannot breathe. The young shepherd in the valley with five stones in his pocket has much to teach us in our quest.
Making Eye Contact
The thing you should know about giants is this, seeing them is half the battle. The most powerful giants are the ones who are hidden. But once we see them -- really see them -- once we can call them by name -- the stones are ours for the throwing.
Let's take one injustice -- one giant injustice -- and use it as an example. I've asked my friend Nikki Roberts to join me by sharing her story. When Nikki was 29, she found herself unemployed, evicted, and desperate. She brandished a fake gun in an empty restaurant and demanded money from a cashier. She walked out with $195 dollars, but within hours a SWAT team surrounded her, responding to a call to apprehend a "black female, armed and dangerous." She surrendered, confessed, and handed over what she had stolen and an additional $180 that she had on her. Nikki was sentenced to 20 years in prison and served 10 years before she was paroled. She is still on probation, and will be until 2024.
While Nikki was in prison, she made eye contact with a giant called mass incarceration. Here is her story in her words...
Being an incarcerated adult hit me hard. I lost my right to have discourse, to have a voice, to think, because I had once made a bad choice to commit a crime. I never understood how prison could help change your thinking or choices by stripping away your rights to those very things.
Being commanded to do basic functions -- sit! stand! go! stay! -- with the expectancy that you will obey in silence can make you feel like an animal. You are told not to give eye contact to any prison staff. You get reprogrammed to a zero-level of dignity. You follow commands, much like house-training a dog, except there are no treats for good behavior. Having to hold your head down and request permission to speak isn't as troubling as when you get denied the 'privilege' to talk. "Sir. Permission to speak sir?" an inmate would say to a male officer, eyes on the floor. He may bark back, "Denied! Get out of my face!" The inmate is to keep her arms at her side and march away like a scolded animal.
Discipline is one thing. I broke the law and I understand that I have to face consequences for that action. But what happened to me for 10 years of my life while incarcerated had very little to do with making me connect to why I committed a crime and re-entering society as a healthy-minded human being. Prison continually breaks you and then releases you in broken pieces.
Looking Up Instead of Looking Down
In some ways, the ability to see giants depends on your point of view. While all people of faith are called to be giant slayers, some fail to recognize the giants in their midst. The ways in which we experience privilege changes the air we breathe. Privilege makes us too tall, towering above others, almost as tall as a giant. For those who have privilege, it is easy to breathe because we stand above those who are gasping for breath. Privilege causes us to make friends with giants rather than slay them.
Our identities intersect with privilege and oppression in multiple ways. The more privilege we experience, the more difficult time we have identifying giants. Even so, learning to see giants is not impossible. To establish a just world we need to start by breathing someone else's air. We must watch as they trace the outline of the giant that must be defeated.
Remembering the Giant Has Brothers
When we think about our world and the many giants that stand against justice, we must remember that Goliath had brothers. If we see a giant injustice as disconnected, we miss the whole story. We cannot talk about mass incarceration without talking about for profit-prisons or the racist legacy of controlling black bodies. If we do not remember the giant of Jim Crow, then we will not know how to recognize him when he is resurrected in prisons and policing.
The brothers of mass incarceration are many. It is "broken windows" policing that fills our for-profit prisons and steals the last breath of too many black and brown bodies. Ferguson and Baltimore are not unconnected to mass incarceration or the death penalty. Racism is the giant that undergirds them all.
Practice Makes Perfect
Goliath might have been David's first giant but he had plenty of experience with a slingshot. He told King Saul that he had "killed both lions and bears; and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them" (I Sam. 17:36). If we want to slay giants, there is no shame in starting small. Train your eyes. Abdicate your privilege. Practice your breathing. See things from the other side. If your hands are unsteady, join others with experience. We are giant slayers, by God's grace, but we are not in this alone.
Throwing Your Stone
There are stones that must be thrown. We can aim them at the woman caught in adultery and throw a stone of guilt, or we can save our stones instead for toppling the giants. The good news of the gospel for our time is this -- giants can be slayed with small stones. The young people leading #BlackLivesMatter campaigns across the country are teaching us this lesson. The world will watch if we respond to injustice with faith and courage.
My 4-year-old daughter has five smooth stones from the Valley of Elah. My mom chose them for her on a recent trip to Israel and came home and told her the story of David and Goliath. My prayer for her life and for the life of the people of God is that we will choose wisely our targets.
Where will you throw your stone?
Special thanks to my writing collaborator and friend, Nikki Roberts.
Bible Study Questions
- This article talks about mass incarceration as a giant that people of faith must tackle. What other giants might you name? Are they connected to this giant or any of this giant's "brothers?" If so, how?
- Do you think understanding the concept of privilege and learning to abdicating privilege help us better reconcile ourselves toward the goals of creating a more just world? If so, how?
- If you were asked to imagine a just world, what would it look like? How would you describe it?
For Further Reading
Mass Incarceration and People of Color, Southern Coalition for Social Justice
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. New York: New Press, 2011.
Levad, Amy. Redeeming a prison society : a liturgical and sacramental response to mass incarceration. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014.
Kalief Browder, Held At Rikers for 3 Years Without Trial, Commits Suicide, The New York Times
Nikki's video from Kelly Gissendaner's clemency campaign
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