The Shalom Justice Lens – A Review of Rethinking Incarceration by Dominique Gilliard
The Shalom Justice Lens – A Review of Rethinking Incarceration by Dominique Gilliard
Justice summons the church to social stewardship, to the toilsome work of cultivating communities where communal flourishing and shalom are not infringed by systemic injustice, institutional greed, or legislation that dehumanizes people, groups, and neighborhoods. (140)
Shalom isn’t just a concept for seminarians. Christian theology grounded in God’s dream for the world as it should be is essential for how all Jesus-disciples are called to bear God’s image. God’s mission, into which the church is called, is the restoration of shalom. And central to shalom is right-relatedness between peoples, a society where justice is lived reality. Therefore, of all people, Jesus-disciples should be those most committed to restorative justice. But this hasn’t been the hallmark or legacy of Christians in America. Instead, America is a nation that makes up 5% of the world’s population but incarcerates 25% of the world’s prisoners. This is just one of the jaw-dropping facts that has been revealed by the luminary works of Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow) and Bryan Stevenson (Just Mercy), among others. These works do a fantastic job detailing the phenomenon and grotesque injustice of mass incarceration, and of narrating its horrific history. But these works alone will not connect all the dots for American Evangelicals, who have been the arch-supporters of “law and order” legislation and “tough on crime” politicians. For American Evangelicals, it will seem natural to ask questions like, “Doesn’t the Bible teach that criminals deserve to be punished?” and “Doesn’t the Bible teach that their suffering is what brings about their redemption?” This is what Rethinking Incarceration, Dominique Gilliard’s first book, really addresses: The disconnect for American Evangelicals between God’s shalom and the punitive, American criminal justice system they so overwhelmingly support. Dominique Gilliard is a seasoned Christian minister, having served congregations in Atlanta, Chicago, and Oakland. And he is a national leader in groups like the Evangelical Covenant Church (whom he serves as Director of Racial Righteousness and Reconciliation), the CCDA (Christian Community Development Association), and Evangelicals for Justice. Dominique is no outsider, he is a leader at the epicenter of Evangelical engagement with race and justice in America. And it’s this expertise and perspective that he brings to this timely and power-packed book. In Rethinking Incarceration, Dominique challenges readers with a fundamental reframe of an entrenched sacred cow among Evangelicals: criminal justice. Dominique summarizes and encapsulates the work of Alexander and Stevenson so well that readers unfamiliar with their work won’t feel left out. The first three chapters (“The War on Drugs,” “How Did We Get Here? From Black Codes to Neoslavery,” and “Beyond Law and Order”) are packed with jaw-dropping stats and crucial historical detail that are foundational for a discussion of American criminal justice. Those chapters alone would serve anyone seeking to know more about the history and impact of mass incarceration. But Dominique takes mass incarceration research in several new directions, including four overlooked pipelines: 1. Mental Health; 2. Private Prisons; 3. Immigration; (chapter four) and 4. the School-to-Prison pipeline (chapter five). In this way, Dominque updates and expands upon The New Jim Crow and Just Mercy. If that was all Rethinking Incarceration accomplished it would be a valuable addition and worthwhile read. But it does so much more! Dominique also places the canon of mass incarceration research in dialogue with the biblical theology of Christopher D. Marshall, author of Compassionate Justice, among others. He traces the history of Evangelical engagement with criminal justice and the theology that undergirds it back to the Protestant Reformation, in order to shed light on questions like: How did “justice” come to mean punishment for American Christians? It’s no doubt that the latter half the book, with its critique of Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) theology that will be the most controversial. Dominique pulls no punches, pointing directly to this theory about Jesus’s death as a major contributor to the deformation of American Christians' outlook on criminal justice.
Protestant reformers saw physical punishment as part of the salvific process of redemption, largely because of their flawed atonement theology. (108)
From Anselm’s “Satisfaction” theory to that of Reformers like John Calvin, Dominique teaches readers the historical evolution of how Protestants think about the Cross, and it’s not pretty. Protestants have focused on the “wrath of God” being poured out on an innocent victim, releasing redemption and forgiveness. Protestants have also gloried in a theology of retributive justice, complete with people “getting what they deserve.” And according to the negative anthropology of Protestant Reformers, people deserve punishment for their sins.
The church has adopted and supported a meritocratic ethic that declares people get what they deserve. This worldview has subconsciously fostered an unquestioning allegiance to the state, and it has led the church to unwittingly consent to and affirm that crime is primarily a legal offense committed against the state rather than a sin that relationally harms individuals and communities, infringing on the shalom that God intends for us all. (169)
Dominique’s critique of PSA will no doubt illicit the angry objections of those who equate this particular atonement theory with “the Gospel” itself and think that belief in this specific doctrine is what saves a person from eternal damnation. They will likely claim Dominique has absorbed “liberal” theology from some apostate seminary. However, the reality is, a Swedish Lutheran forbearer of Dominique’s Pietist tradition (Paul Peter Waldenström) critiqued retributive and wrathful theories of the atonement long before modern “progressive” Christianity was dreamed of, and from a quite “conservative” theological perspective. He went on to be one of the premier theologians of the Evangelical Covenant Church, an American Christian denomination that holds a high view of both the Bible and the Cross. This critique of PSA is vital if American Christians are going to rethink incarceration. Before Dominique can point to a way forward, like he does in chapters like “Holy Interruptions: Dismantling Mass Incarceration,” he must dismantle the theological foundation upon which retributive justice, support for “law and order” legislation and “tough on crime” politicians, rests. He does this in chapters like “The Spirit of Punishment: Atonement, Penal Substitution, and the Wrath of God.” He aptly illustrates the correlation between a view of the Cross as God’s punishment of Jesus as an innocent victim to get “what we deserved,” and the way American Evangelicals think about prisons and the criminal justice system. Rather than obeying Scripture which calls us to consider ourselves imprisoned like those who are imprisoned (Hebrews 13.3), or to treat prisoners as we would Jesus (Matthew 25.43), American Christians have more often scapegoated the incarcerated, ignored them, or worse. Dominique shows us from Scripture and Christian ethics, that God’s concept of justice is restorative, making people and communities whole, reintegrating society. Rethinking Incarceration is such a timely and important book for American Evangelicals. The 2016 presidential election exacerbated the long-standing fissures in the church between traditionalists and progressives. Lost in the partisan tribalism has been a biblical vision of God’s purpose and will, especially for racial minorities and other marginalized groups (like those who suffer with mental illness). Rethinking Incarceration is a prophetic call to a renewed vision of the world through God’s eyes, a renewed mission of restoration and reintegration. This book is a must-read.