The legacy of Christian Abolitionism
We need to abolish the culture of policing on every level, including how it tracks and critiques the behaviors and expressions of others.
by Jo (Foderingham) Brown
“When we say abolish police. We also mean the cop in your head and in your heart.” — Tourmaline
Liberation theology is defined as “a movement in Christian theology that emphasizes liberation from social, political, and economic oppression.” This philosophy has been utilized in freedom struggles from Latin America to Palestine, including the Civil Rights Movement in America. But liberation theology must be taken further to emphasize abolitionist thought and practice.
As young Black people, most of us know someone who has stopped going to church or denounced Christianity as a whole because of the toxicity they experienced in their religious community. I don’t blame them — the modern Black church is notorious for its homophobia, transphobia, misogynoir, and ableism. For many, the church is a place where bodies and behavior are policed to an extent rarely seen in modern public spaces.
It’s a place where Black women are explicitly told to be “seen and not heard” or are victim-blamed for assault or violence. It’s a place where Black autistic people must repress self-regulatory behaviors like vocalizing or stimming. It’s a place where Black queer people must go back into the closet. It’s a place where Black trans people must answer to their deadname and incorrect pronouns. It’s a place where talking behind someone’s back or telling people how they should dress or act is accepted and encouraged in some cases.
As a queer, gender non-conforming, disabled Black woman, I know the violence of the church from firsthand experience. Some of the earliest panic attacks I can remember having were at church, specifically when I’d have to sit near certain people who were notorious for bad-mouthing their fellow congregants.
As a modern abolitionist, getting rid of prisons and law enforcement agencies isn’t enough. We need to also abolish the culture of policing on every level, including how it tracks and critiques the behaviors and expressions of others. The fact of the matter is, Jesus wasn’t a cop — so why should we act like cops to our community members in Jesus’ name?
Many Black churches and Christians think of themselves as “good Christians” in a war with “nonbelievers.” Those who do not conform to certain rules of comportment are inherently “sinners.” That label is often placed on multiply marginalized Black folks who refuse to be unquestioningly submissive to arbitrary, repressive rules.
To me, this dichotomy of “good Christians” versus “sinners” is all too reflective of our larger culture of disposability: one that portrays people who believe in the racist police state as “good citizens” or “good Americans” and people who defy that system as “thugs” or “criminals.” There are many religious communities where someone can get shunned and removed from the community for breaking a rule that doesn’t hurt anyone; how dissimilar is that to the way people are removed from society and thrown in prison for committing victimless crimes?
Some Christian sects fixate on the rapture, when they believe “good Christians” will receive eternal life while “sinners” will be sent to suffer forever in hell. The idea of hell is merely an eternal carceral facility; it’s a place where people’s agency is taken away in the name of punishment. Other denominations focus heavily on the Old Testament of the Bible, which is rife with examples of God punishing humans deemed sinful. These fixations are used to police church members and keep them living in perpetual fear that they are not good enough, and therefore will be damned in the afterlife.
What is faith without the idea of hell or the rapture — the idea of eternal punishment? What is faith without punching down on others for supposedly not being good enough in the eyes of God? What happens when Black churches abolish these carceral ideas and instead recognize that we are all imperfect, mortal, and ultimately, human? What do we really believe in when we take policing out of our faith?
Abolishing police and prisons is an important step of abolitionist praxis. But we also need to abolish our dependence on policing as a mechanism of maintaining order. Policing doesn’t actually maintain order; it merely creates a fearful underclass so that people with privilege can keep their power over others. In our wider society, that fearful underclass is Black people; in Black churches, that underclass is Black women, disabled people, and queer and trans folks. Our faith communities, which have long been revolutionary and liberatory spaces at odds with a racist America, should not be reproducing oppression.
Policing, whether by the state or by a community, is policing — which means it needs to go. Abolition necessitates transitioning from a society dependent on policing, disposability, and fear to a society with acceptance of all identities, experiences, and expressions at its core. If you advertise your faith community as a loving and accepting space, it must not police its members. Your church should and must be abolitionist.
Jo (Foderingham) Brown (she/her/he/him) is a Black, queer, gender non-conforming woman from Georgia, currently living in DC. Common subjects of her work are misogynoir, Blackness, body politics, popular culture, and her Jamaican heritage.