G-d Is An Abolitionist

  • The liberation of Israelites from enslavement in Egypt is an act of abolition. Their enslavement included the “policing” of their labor (Exodus 1:11) and their reproduction (Exodus 1:15 on), with punishment occurring for not meeting labor quotas or for bearing children perceived as boys. So we should understand “the Exodus” as liberation not simply from a geographical location, but from oppressive systems that included what we would define as policing. We can also understand the time in the wilderness and the many instructions to the community in the rest of the Torah as un-learning the narrow ways of Egypt (empire), so they would not simply replicate Egypt in the new community they were building.
  • The Psalms (yes, Psalms!) speak of liberation in many places. Two examples are Psalm 102:19–20 “From heaven [the Divine] looked at the earth, to hear the groans of the prisoners, to set free those who were doomed to die;” and Psalm 146:8 “[the Divine] sets the prisoners free.” (Both NRSV). A world in which prisoners go free implies that there are better forms of accountability for those who might have enacted harm, and that the Divine is committed to dismantling structures that police and criminalize those considered “other” and “threat.”
  • In later chapters, the prophet Isaiah is writing in the aftermath of Babylon’s destruction of Jerusalem and the people’s return from exile to begin to rebuild their community. Isaiah insists that this rebuilding must include the “liberation of prisoners” (Isaiah 61:1, JPS Tanakh), a call that is later reiterated by Jesus (Luke 4:18) in the midst of Roman violence that included mass crucifixion (state execution) and imprisonment of those considered threats to Rome, including Jesus and his community as well as other Jewish resistance movements of the time.
  • Isaiah also stresses the importance of investing in collective well-being (ch. 58 is but one example): assuring all people have food, shelter, clothing, beauty, clear water, community, and care for their bodies.
  • Jesus teaches on alternative accountability practices that avoid the Roman courts and prisons of his time (e.g. Matt 4), as does Paul (e.g. 1 Cor 6). The communities they were trying to build — including practices for collective well-being such as sharing food and housing, and democratizing access to care for bodies — are thus intended to counter the impacts and practices of Roman colonization.
  • Generally (though with a few exceptions, such as the Canaanite/Syrophoenician women), Jesus does not police people’s bodies, abilities, ethnicity/nationality, ability to “pay” for food or care, or even beliefs. He teaches his community to do the same, with practices and theological grounding rooted deeply in his Jewish tradition. Note: We need to understand his work as being in opposition not to Judaism or even “the Pharisees,” but in opposition to Rome and the ways in which Rome controlled, surveilled, policed, and punished the Jewish people — and how narrow Roman ways got embedded into people and needed to be dismantled.
  • We might even understand the apocalyptic triumphal vision of Revelation as an abolitionist vision: the final crushing of the Roman Empire and thus an end of the suffering they inflicted via policing, punishment, state violence, and imprisonment. “[The Divine] will wipe every tear from their eyes…mourning and crying and pain will be no more” (21:4) is the experience of an abolitionist future.
  • As Rabbi Aryeh Bernstein notes, in Talmud Yerushalmi, Hagigah 1:7 (6a-b), 3rd Century Palestinian Jewish Rabbinic sages go on a nation-wide campaign to develop public education. When they encounter one body politic that has invested heavily in law enforcement and divested from public education and culture, they make a forceful case that it is universal education and culture that provides a community true protection.



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Showing Up for Racial Justice

Showing Up for Racial Justice

SURJ is a national network that organizes white communities to join fights for racial and economic justice.