Rethinking Incarceration: Advocating for Justice That Restores
Reviewed by Joyce del Rosario, Ph.D. Candidate, Fuller Theological Seminary 1
Dominique DuBois Gilliard approaches Rethinking Incarceration: Advocating for Justice That Restores as both a thoughtful scholar and a seasoned practitioner. The thesis of the book is two-fold and highlights both sides. As a scholar, Gilliard’s methodology is deliberate in focusing on the role of the Christian church throughout the evolution of modern day incarceration, and, as a pastor, he focuses on what can be done to advocate for reforms from a Christocentric viewpoint. Gilliard’s knowledge and research on the topic of incarceration balances steadily between speaking to an audience of church leaders who may be seeking to lead their congregations toward this type of advocacy and the social justice advocate who wants to see if and how the Christian church can do anything about the disparities within the systems of mass incarceration.
From the beginning, Gilliard recognizes the temptation to compare this book to Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2010) and Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2014). While Alexander’s book in particular was groundbreaking in its work to uncover what had long been embedded in mass incarceration, she approached it from the perspective of a lawyer and activist. It would not be a fair to compare the books, because Gilliard’s focus and goal for his book are quite different than those of his predecessors.
Gilliard’s goal is to move in a direction that Alexander’s and Stevenson’s books did not. What makes Gilliard’s book unique is his intended audience: the Christian church. Gilliard situates the church within the historical and present day context of mass incarceration, demonstrating how it has been complicit in some of the ways the injustices have developed while also pointing to ways for the church to restore justice today. Divided into two parts, the book first looks at the history of mass incarceration and second looks the church’s role during this evolution.
Gilliard starts Chapter 1 with the War on Drugs and how that frames the current position of incarceration today. Chapter 2 lays out the sociopolitical system that would increasingly become a for-profit and privatized endeavor, impacted even further by other factors such as institutional racism, sexism, and classism. Chapter 3 uncovers more of the Evangelical Christian church’s political relationship to incarceration as Gilliard explores law and order. Chapter 4 delves deeper into the issues that have problematized the system of incarceration by looking at how immigration, privatization, and mental health have all contributed to the snowballing of mass incarceration. To end the first section, Gilliard focuses Chapter 5 on the juvenile justice system and the school-to-prison pipeline.
The second section of the book is where Gilliard starts to roll up his sleeves and begin the task of constructing the role of the church, its theology, and possible ways to move toward a more just system. In Chapter 6, Gilliard gives a fair account of prison ministries that have developed over the years, noting what the church has done well and critiquing the areas where there can still be more improvement. In Chapter 7, Gilliard looks at chaplaincy in the prison system. Chapter 8 warms up to the driving force behind this book, a theological critique of the Evangelical church’s understanding of penal substitution and the ways it has perpetuated retributive justice. In Chapter 9, the book takes the critique from the previous chapter and sets it against biblical scriptures focused on justice and righteousness. Gilliard continues his construction by moving toward a theology of restorative justice. Having detailed the history of incarceration and the church and the constructed theology around justice, the book ends with new approaches the church could adopt to help build a more just system that ends mass incarceration.
Methodologically, Gilliard walks the practitioner through the history and theological construction of mass incarceration in a patient but non-patronizing manner. His dialogue on the history of the relationship between church and state (“state” being the prison systems, although privatized) is more descriptive than accusatory or congratulatory. This even-keeled description allows Gilliard to articulate what needs to be elucidated in the memory of the church, namely its complicity in the development of mass incarceration. As damning as Gil- liard’s claims are, they are a part of his deep hope that the church can and should be part of the restoration of this unjust system. Because this book was written for the church, the book ends with constructive examples of what this restoration can look like.
As a missiologist, Gilliard’s methods strike the right balance between academic and practitioner, past and present, the sociopolitical ecology of the context and the call to move toward a more just system of imprisonment. I also find this book helpful due to Gilliard’s theological reframing of what restorative justice can look like. The author’s critique of meritocracy punctures the traditional theology around incarceration and forces the reader to truly rethink incarceration:
Christianity is predicated on grace, which opposes meritocracy and the rugged individualism we pride ourselves on. Meritocracy insidiously compromises our vision. It distorts how we see ourselves and perverts how we relate to and how we interact with our neighbor. (170)
Reframing the theology about incarceration is the first step in reframing the missiological approach to those who have been incarcerated.
Even more specifically, this book appealed to me as an urban missiologist, as Gilliard assesses the historical, socioeconomic, and sociopolitical urban ecology of Brown and Black people who have been disproportionately targeted for incarceration. It would be difficult to participate in ministry in the urban neighborhoods of the United States without having connections to families impacted by mass incarceration. From teen moms to foster kids to single mothers, mass incarceration has changed the landscape of our Brown and Black urban communities.
For other disciplines in Christian scholarship, this book may only be a prolegomena to further research that must be done in this area. A theologian focused on ethics, for example, might feel this book only whets the appetite for further dialogue around sociopolitical realities and the need for more public theology. An ethicist might want to delve deeper into the impact of the privatization of prisons. A Christian education scholar may long for more focus on prison ministries and how better to develop methods for discipleship and outreach for inmates. While Gilliard does a fairly thorough job addressing the issues around atonement and sanctifying retribution, a systematic theologian might want to take more time analyzing these views before moving on to restorative justice. This of course was not the whole focus of the book, but one could argue that much more could be (and has been) said around atonement and sanctifying retribution.
Gilliard moves the book toward a theology of hope. Not a passive, wishful hope, but a hope that things can change through the efforts of a church that seeks the same justice God seeks for us all:
Restorative justice never diminishes the significance of a violation (crime); it summons all parties affected to collectively determine how to heal, repair, and restore relationship after the violation. It prioritizes disrupting cycles of harm and violence by creating pathways for healing and restoration. (175)
This is the kind of hope that presses the conversation forward. This is the kind of hope that can stir the imaginations and passions of church leaders seeking to do more in their communities. This is the kind of hope that practitioners and scholars involved in community development can dream and implement new life-transforming initiatives for the restoration of not just the individuals incarcerated, but the system itself.
To underline those possibilities, Gilliard ends the book with examples of current ministries seeking to redefine how the church responds to those who have been in prison. Homeboy Industries, Old Skool Café, and Restorative Court are just some examples of organizations that have been operating with restorative justice in mind.
As someone who has seen firsthand the work of Homeboy Industries, it is hard not to want that kind of ministry for every community. Hearing the redemptive stories of the ex-gangbangers humanizes what has often been seen as a monolithic mass of criminals. Gilliard’s book reminds us, the church, that we are to love our neighbors, all of our neighbors, as ourselves.
Cite this article
- In full disclosure, since taking on this assignment as book reviewer, I have joined the national board of directors for the Christian Community Development Association, along with the author Dominique Gilliard. Recognizing this potential conflict, I still attempted to review this book as objectively as possible with the lens of a fellow practitioner and critical scholarly colleague.