Radvent Day 25, Morning – Set Prisoners Free

Remember those in prison as though you were in prison with them, and those ill-treated as though you too felt their torment.
Hebrews 13:3 (NET Bible)

“…the whole world is a penitentiary!”  
Fred Hampton

Oh, freedom, Oh, freedom, Oh freedom over me
And before I’d be a slave
I’d be buried in my grave
And go home to my Lord and be free
No more weepin’, no more weepin’ no more weepin’ over me
And before I’d be a slave
I’d be buried in my grave
And go home to my Lord and be free
They’ll be singin, they’ll be singin, they’ll  be singin over me.
And before I’d be a slave
I’d be buried in my grave
And go home to my Lord and be free
O Freedom (negro spiritual)   

***

“Warden Nixon.” 

That’s what Chicago’s Black Panther Party chapter chairman, Fred Hampton, called President Richard Nixon in a 1969 interview with ABC News. Hampton went on to explain the reasoning behind the moniker he had given the 37th president of the U.S:

“I call him ‘Warden Nixon’ because the whole world is a penitentiary, and he’s just the warden of the whole world.” 

In this short explanation, he unveiled the nature of the settler colonial empire we call the United States and its primary orientation in the world. The U.S. is a “carceral state.” Put simply, this nation is organized around inhumane logics of captivity and punishment. Though it fancies itself as a nation rooted in the ideals of freedom and “justice for all”, a short look at its past and present demonstrates otherwise. With religious devotion, this nation has enacted forms of captivity from its inception to the present. In fact, Americanism is a religion. Whiteness is its shrine. Patriarchy is its canon. Capitalism is its liturgy. Black, Brown, and Indigineous people are its ritual sacrifices. Like sheep for the slaughter, we are targeted and disproportionately delivered up to sites of incarceration. Our schools act as a nexus to prisons. The systematically neglected neighborhoods — the hoods, the barrios, the rez — we live in are surveilled and policed spaces of captivity. Our worlds are indeed a prison. 

What would it mean to approach the writer of Hebrew’s admonition “‘to remember those in prison as though you were in prison with them, and those ill-treated as though you too felt their torment” with this understanding? How might it both sober and enliven our struggle to bear witness to Jesus’s liberating power? How does the season of Advent resource us for this struggle? 

When we wrestle with these questions we join the long tradition of what I call “advent longing.” Advent longing is the practice of active waiting. It’s not passive, it is participatory. It’s the kind of praying, singing, and organizing that opens people and communities up to what Ashon Crawley has called “otherwise possibilities.” The coming Christ-child of Advent – whose Mother sang that he would “bring down rulers and exalt the oppressed” –  was “otherwise-possibilities” made flesh. His life-acts of preaching good news to the poor, creating beloved communities, setting the oppressed free, and proclaiming freedom for prisoners are invitations to the possibilities of abolition. To riff off of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, abolition is not just about getting rid of death-dealing systems. It’s about building life-giving institutions. For Jesus followers, it’s about participating in the activity of a Christ who overthrew the principalities that hold the world captive. It’s about life in the Spirit of a Jesus who came to abolish the works of Satan.

In this season of Advent may we embrace a holy disinterest in projects to “save” the carceral state. Yes, Jesus saves. But there are some things that Jesus slays! There are forces of evil he abolishes. As 20% of the U.S.’s prisoners are infected with COVID-19, may we bear witness to the healing justice of the Lamb who slays the carceral beast!


Terrance Hawkins is a son and practitioner of the Radical Black [Church] Tradition and a life-long resident of Winston-Salem, NC. For close to two decades, he has built in solidarity with his community as an organizer, preacher, and an artist. Follow him on Twitter at @terrance_tweets 

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