Radvent Day 23, Morning – Set Prisoners Free

…and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He 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 year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 
Luke 4:17-21 (NRSV)

Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies
Tell me lies
Tell me, tell me lies
Oh no-no, you can’t disguise
You can’t disguise
No, you can’t disguise
Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies
“Little Lies” by Fleetwood Mac

Although this passage has been oft-quoted in the “radical litany” of Jesus’ words, perhaps the most radical part of this passage is what Jesus chooses to omit in his reading from Isaiah. The verse after this selection in Isaiah is “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God” (Is. 61:2).

But Jesus chooses not to read it. Jesus does want liberation for prisoners and the oppressed, but he wants the kind of liberation that rejects vengeance for those who oppressed and imprisoned others — the police, the correctional officers, the prosecutors, the judges, the president, the attorney general, the rich, and the powerful. In other words, Jesus wants a complete abolition of our carceral systems and of our minds. 

Derek Flood argues that it was this omission by Jesus that incensed his listeners so much, they were “filled with rage” and tried to “hurl him off the cliff” (Lk. 4:29). 

To seriously consider abolition would mean facing – instead of looking away from – the humanity of those whom we imprison or desire to imprison. To take abolition seriously would mean taking issues like anti-racism and socialism seriously.

Angela Davis writes in Are Prisons Obsolete? that:

“We thus think about imprisonment as a fate reserved for others, a fate reserved for the ‘evildoers’… The prison therefore functions ideologically as an abstract site into which undesirables are deposited, relieving us of the responsibility of thinking about the real issues afflicting those communities from which prisoners are drawn in such disproportionate numbers… it relieves us of the responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society, especially those produced by racism and, increasingly, global capitalism.”

In my apartment in Brooklyn, my girlfriend and I have a few drawers we like to stuff with objects (receipts, warranties, loose change, instruction manuals, coupons) we don’t want to deal with, but we know we should put away somewhere. The drawers get so full, but it doesn’t matter—we keep stuffing them anyways until they burst open. We want to avoid sorting through the pile, one by one, looking at each object in the eye and then deciding what to do with them. This is how we treat objects. Human beings should never be subject to the same treatment. 

Maybe the first step is acknowledging that prisons are held up by our love for “little lies”, as Fleetwood Mac honestly sings. The lies we love to tell ourselves about the objects that lie in our societal drawers, and what keeps them there. May we pray, this Advent, that we are liberated from our mental cages so we can dream and build towards a society that offers full liberation and justice for all. 

Sarah Ngu (@sarahngu) is a writer in Brooklyn, NY; member of Democratic Socialists of America’s Religion & Socialism working group; and executive director of Forefront NYC Church. 

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