Christianity Is Empty If It Doesn’t Address the Racist Carceral State

Religion becomes an empty theological exercise if it does not address human suffering — and this includes the anguish wrought by systems of mass incarceration and policing.

I believe this deep down as a philosopher whose religious sensibilities are informed by an African American prophetic tradition that emphasizes courageous speech, deep lamentation, and outrage in relationship to those who undergo social and existential agony.

Forms of religiosity that fail or refuse to concern themselves with “the least of these” risk becoming manifestations of empty idolatry and theological abstraction that leave by the wayside those in need of compassionate community, loving grace and spiritual support.

Given the clarion call for defunding the police within the context of the killing of unarmed Black bodies, religious leaders and institutions in the U.S. must confront the evils of policing, which is undergirded by the legacy of white supremacist domination.

Policing is inextricably tied to deeply problematic normative assumptions and institutional, structural practices and policies that define as suspect, criminal and abject those who are vulnerable (racially, economically, socially, psychologically). I am speaking not about “bad apple” officers, but about policing as a mode of power, control, confinement, gratuitous violence, inhuman isolation, civic death and forms of social death that must be abolished.

Increasingly, a wide range of religious communities are engaging with the struggle to abolish policing. To discuss the effort taking place within Christian communities, I spoke with Mark Lewis Taylor, who emphasizes the indispensable importance of linking the ideology and practice of carceral America with the historical Jesus, who faced a form of policing governmentality by imperial Rome that saw to Jesus’s torture and execution.

As a white ordained minister and theologian, Taylor insightfully and critically engages his own whiteness, emphasizes the importance of Black resistance as agency, critiques white Christian nationalism, highlights the importance of political ontology as a crucial point of politico-religious embarkation and pulls from the wisdom of political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Taylor is a professor in Religion and Society at Princeton Theological Seminary who earned his Master’s in Divinity at Union Theological Seminary (Richmond, Virginia) and his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Among his most recent books are Religion, Politics, and the Christian Right: Post-9/11 Powers and American Empire (2005) and The Theological and the Political: On the Weight of the World (2011). Taylor received the Best General Interest Book Award for his 2001 book, The Executed God: The Way of the Cross in Lockdown America (2nd edition 2015).

In addition to years of anti-death penalty work and activism for political prisoners, including founding the group Educators for Mumia Abu-Jamal (EMAJ), Taylor remains active in solidarity work against U.S. wars and especially against U.S. dominance and exploitation in Central America. He has taught the course “Critical Race Theory as Theological Challenge” for 20 years at Princeton.

George Yancy: I’m interested in posing a question about your understanding of the historical Jesus in relation to your critically engaging work within the context of carceral logics and prisons as sites of oppression, marginalization, alienation, fragmentation and dehumanization. I am interested in the specific Christological question: “What would Jesus do vis-à-vis mass incarceration?” Cognizant, of course, of falling into a problematic presentism, speak to how you understand the telos of the historical person known as Jesus and how, were he alive today, he would respond to mass incarceration. His own crucifixion was linked to the oppressive structure of the Roman Empire, execution by the State, and those who would rather see him dead. So, there is that sense of being an outcast. I think here of Black bodies which are disproportionately imprisoned, those racially embodied persons who are seen as the abject (etymologically, “to throw away”). How could the historical Jesus not be critical of our contemporary hegemonic prison practices and ideology?

Mark L. Taylor: I definitely agree with the answer you suggest we give: The prophetic Jew from Nazareth in Palestine would have been critical and run afoul of today’s “contemporary hegemonic prison practice and ideology” in the U.S., in “lockdown America” — just as he did amid the religiopolitical repression of first-century Roman Empire. Not to say and live this, while claiming some kind of faithfulness to Jesus is, as I write often, a “betrayal of the gospel,” understanding “gospel” as the core meanings of Jesus’s life and teachings.

Even as I make that claim, however, I want to issue two warnings. First, because of today’s problematic Christian supremacy, this claim is neither the most-needed thing to say nor the first thing that needs to be stated. The first and most important thing to voice is lament and outrage over the violating attacks today on Black people of African descent who labor still in the afterlife of slavery. Also, we must know the resilience and resistance by those rendered abject. Without this, any counter-carceral or counter-imperial Jesus will make little sense. I tell my students, and have stated in my Theology Department, that I am a human-in-the-world before I am a follower of Jesus.

This means I have to reckon with the kind of human I am — with a personal history and thus a political, racial, social, economic way of being in the world. All this is integral to — indeed, I think a precondition for — any faith claims I may want to make. This is why I have stressed (in The Theological and the Political) that a certain kind of political ontology of my being, of my embeddedness in societal and historical antagonisms, is preliminary to a sense of the theological. And if you permit me another reference to my own work, I emphasize in the preface to The Executed God, that I do not, in that book or elsewhere, propose Christian discourse as having a premium on the thinking and practice necessary for resisting and living amidst and against the carceral and imperial logics of lockdown America. “Muslims, Jews, engaged Buddhists, the Yoruba, traditions of Caribbean cultures, secular activists as well as many others abroad and in the U.S. — all must be engaged to take on Lockdown America.” All this is part of resisting Christian supremacy.

My second warning is that we must exercise a strict epistemic humility in talking about “the historical Jesus.” We really know very little about the historical Jesus, so little that in fact I sympathize with those who even doubt that he was. But we need not go that far. In fact, biblical scholar Bart Ehrman — himself an avowed agnostic and humanist — has written an entire book entitled, Did Jesus Exist?, in which he argues that a disciplined historical method will show “a Jesus of Nazareth who existed in history, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate.” In her book, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, New Testament scholar Paula Fredriksen also emphasizes that “the single most solid fact about Jesus of Nazareth is his death: he was crucified by the prefect Pilate … in the manner that Rome reserved particularly for political insurrectionists, namely crucifixion.” This may seem a stripped-down minimalist Jesus to many Christians today. Or they find it too fearsome a thing. In all likelihood, Jesus met the fate of many if not most of the crucified: being left to the birds and beasts of prey before being tossed ignominiously into a mass lime pit. No wonder many Christians of both conservative and liberal persuasions prefer certain orthodox “grand scenarios” for interpreting Jesus’s death. They look away, abstracting from this ugly history. They intone instead the grander themes: he came to forgive sins, to make expiation for human sin, to satisfy on the cross God’s wrath, to pay ransom with his death on the cross to appease an angry God, to die intentionally to show self-sacrificing love, and so on.

My work, to the contrary, takes as a starting point the neglected historicity of Jesus’s torture-death, his imperial execution. I ask what it means to remember that, and how any life can come from remembering that. To be crucified was a shameful, terrorizing thing. Early Jesus movements barely survived the stigmatizing that went with being associated with a crucified Jesus.

Even today, especially in the U.S., Christians prefer the grand scenario interpretations of Jesus’s death to a thoroughgoing identification with Jesus as counter-imperial, political insurrectionist who met a torturous death. I emphasize, though, that even with this more limited, “solid” historical claim about Jesus, to ask today, “What would Jesus do?” and to answer “Well, he would criticize and resist today’s death-dealing, torturous ways of U.S. state violence” — even that answer requires first an awareness and serious reckoning with our violent U.S. State, driven by a warrior-elite today buttressed by the ways of white supremacy, empire and a long history of European and American coloniality of power. Feeling and thinking those antagonisms, I repeat, is the condition for the possibility of a liberatory retrieval of the historical Jesus.

Aware that none of us are beyond reproach, which I think helps us to maintain a certain religious and ethical humility, speak to what it is that contemporary ordained ministers and theologians have failed to do regarding the deep political, social, economic and existential problems of incarceration. I’m thinking here of the failure, assuming that this is what you would call it, of ordained ministers and theologians to embody forms of outrage that are linked to practices that are intended to liberate those who have been subjected to forms of carceral injustice. This raises the issue of praxis, a Christological mode of being-in-the-world that imitates the work of the historical Jesus. Assuming that there is a “failure” here, is it one that is linked to a certain insular, apolitical understanding of Christian theology? Is it a case of fear of enacting fomenting practices that challenge the U.S. empire and its ruling elites who support forms of carceral rule and domination? What are your thoughts?

Yes, indeed I agree. Most “ordained ministers and theologians” have “failed,” and in all the ways you mention here. Having experienced as I have some versions of white evangelical Christian traditions (even if I thoroughly rejected them decades ago), and though now I work in a theological institution often seen as a flagship seminary for especially mainstream Protestantism (primarily Presbyterian mainliners, but also some evangelicals) — given all this, indeed I have to work with a profound sense of “religious and ethical humility.” Better said, perhaps, I have to own a kind of complicity, an embeddedness in white institutions and ethos that conditions not only my conscious life, but also my unconscious. Thus, my whiteness will be at work in many of my reflexive gestures, opinions, modes of expression, relationships to others and at times in my selected theoretical positions, and often in spite of my best intentions. (And then, how often do we whites even have good or “the best” intentions?)

At work here is something more than “complicity,” since complicity usually suggests some kind of involvement that you can become aware of and then lay aside or grow beyond. Again, my whiteness and its anti-Blackness are aspects of conditions of political being, an ontology of being-white that puts Black life “under erasure,” as Calvin Warren writes about it in Ontological Terror: Blackness, Nihilism, and Emancipation. Because this persists, due to the history and politics into which I have been thrown by sheer birth and acculturation (as well as by my individual choices and failures), there is for me great lament and outrage. Those ontological conditions include Western modernity’s slavery-based racial capitalism, U.S. wars and empire-building, as these are continually reinforced by and reinforcing a heteropatriarchal gender and sexual system. I cannot just renounce all this. Nor, of course, can I go to an anti-racist training seminar to get over my “white fragility.” It’s a white forcefulness with which I must reckon, the very power of which is marked by my body (again, whether I intend that or not). Admitting this is the stuff of white loss of innocence. James Baldwin’s essay, “The White Man’s Guilt,” should be read annually in all white churches. Alas, many of my white students have not read it.

Most of the church and its leaders are ensconced in a reconciliatory dreaming that starts from problems of generalized guilt and sin that “Jesus came” to do something about. This again foregrounds Christian theology’s grand scenarios. This is to abstract from the problem of how one might find life, possibly, by remembering Jesus’s political insurrectionary torture-death. But abstracting away from this Jesus is often a piece with Christian leaders’ abstracting also from any outrage over their own thoroughgoing whiteness as a form of radical evil (again, I mean not only whatever personal manifestations of whiteness they may show, but also whiteness as racial capitalism, as gender and sexual subjugation and erasure of Black lives, etc.). This chronic abstracting is part of the heart of whiteness, as I have argued since my 1990 works, and it is a vicious thread running through various modes of subjugation. In sum, I don’t think Christian leaders will be outraged about the carceral logics of our time until they/we sink into and own a lament and outrage over their/our own emplacement in a political ontology of whiteness.

Speak to how you understand the relationship between coloniality and U.S. mass incarceration. When I think of the two, I think of usurpation, expansionism, exploitation, domination, control, subjugation, the attempted creation of docile bodies, marked bodies, raced bodies, dangerous bodies. I assume that part of addressing the relationship between coloniality and U.S. mass incarceration would also involve processes of decolonization, yes? If this is true, then it seems to me that we must ask (demand?) of ordained ministers and theologians to become better decolonizers. Please explore.

Again, I have to say that before ordained ministers and theologians can become “better decolonizers” or to engage in decolonizing at all, they need to counter the de-historization of Jesus’s death to which they contribute by continuously narrating any number of the grand scenarios about Jesus’s death on the cross. These scenarios mask the insurrectionist and mundane political meanings of his imperial torture-death. Decolonizing, or “de-linking from the coloniality of power” — as decolonial thinkers such as Samir Amin would say — requires also a “de-imperializing” commitment. Imperialism is the brutal commandeering power of colonial expansion and maintenance. If there is not a re-politicization of Jesus understood as one who not only suffered but challenged imperial practices of torture and the forced subjugation of the body, then Christian leaders and their communities will hardly find the will to be “decolonizers” at all.

If we are serious about decolonizing, the road ahead is tangled and will demand our utmost. The “colonial matrix of power” presents a foreboding set of intersecting dynamics of power. Summarizing the work of one of the most influential of decolonial thinkers, Peruvian sociologist Aníbal Quijano, I have argued elsewhere that the coloniality of power is “a matrix of four ambits of social structural and cultural practices. These include, first, labor (structural practices of global capital), sex and sexuality (structural practices of hegemonic masculinism and heteronormativity), subjectivity (structural practices of Eurocentric white racism), and state authority (structural practices of state boundary fortifications). These four ambits are not separate circles of operation. They should be seen as overlapping, with various interactions specifiable between them.” In the ambit of “state authority,” Christian ministers today have a special responsibility to challenge the current directions of the U.S. State. Long-existing American traditions of white supremacy are now consolidating their hold over security, military and police functions with the aid of newly energized white Christian nationalism. It has been easy for many Christian liberal ministers and theologians to distance and differentiate themselves from this Christian right wing. But they have yet to really call them out and challenge them, organize to block their fascist aspiration. During the years of George W. Bush, I attempted to sound the alarm with my book Religion, Politics and the Christian Right: Post-9/11 Powers and American Empire.

As a white male ordained minister and theologian, how do you understand the tensions that exist between the liberation work that you do and your own whiteness? I have long argued that white religious folk have failed to give critical attention to their whiteness, especially in terms of how their whiteness is linked to structures of power, hegemony and violence. It seems to me that well-intentioned white religious folk must do the work of removing their masks of “innocence,” as James Baldwin would say. Without a critique of their own whiteness, they will continue to be complicit in anti-theological structures. Then again, white racism is so deeply pervasive and encrusted, I imagine that self-critique is not enough. One can rage against the machine of whiteness and still benefit from and perpetuate racialized injustice. There must be something far more global and systemically insurrectionist — not simply reconciliatory, but abolitionist. In short, how do you critically address your own whiteness, what insights have you learned, with respect to living the life of a white male ordained minister and theologian who is committed to social justice, especially as you also teach at an elite academic institution that has roots within slavery?

As you can imagine from the foregoing, the status as “ordained minister,” which I took on over 35 years ago, is a difficult one to maintain. I grew so uneasy with the status that 15-20 years ago I went on non-active status in my ecclesial judicatory. I still will speak in churches, but I am no longer a celebrant of its “priestly” functions and practices. I respect the many good things that some do in their roles as ordained ministers, but personally, I am no longer comfortable with such a role. It is so difficult to extract white ecclesial functioning in the U.S. from white supremacist and U.S. imperialist formations. Even “theology,” at least as the guild discipline it has become, is one from which I have distanced myself (see my book, The Theological and the Political). There I articulate a notion of “the theological” that frees it from the doctrinal genre that usually defines it, and from the transcendentalizing discourses that usually lead theology into abstractions that slight, or neglect altogether, the concrete and historical demands of faith and practice (like remembering the death of Jesus as an imperialist torture-death, comparable to lynching, as James Cone emphasizes). But the theological of which I would now speak is one that stays close to some very ancient meanings of the term. The theological is a discourse that traces awe-inspiring spectral forces born of remembering those who suffer the deep antagonisms of history (Ignacio Ellacuría’s “the crucified people”), and those who, when remembered, portend a disruption of the standing order and generate practices of struggle to birth other possible worlds.

Any of these changes though, any specter for overcoming the antagonisms spawned by white supremacy’s anti-Blackness, demand that whites lay aside our innocence. Our whiteness dogs us at every step…. I might make some progress shaking off some of the more egregious marks of individual white prejudice, but my place in structural racism, my having been thrown — as I’ve already stated — into the political ontology of whiteness, keeps me always a racist and my reflexive thoughts and actions can always surprise me to remind me of that uncomfortable fact.

So, what then? I argue that the way forward for a white person is to find our places in a collective struggle against the structures of white supremacy. Expect yourself to make mistakes. Watch out for them. Acknowledge them when they happen, but then keep moving forward, at the cues given by the leadership of Black, Indigenous and other leaders of color. There are times when leadership from whites against white supremacy is essential. But usually this has to happen from within a collective of movements against white supremacy. Along this route there is no gaining of purity or renewed innocence for the white individual. Such a collective route should not become another prominent adventure displaying a white person’s descent into display of our valiant wrestling with whiteness and then some rising into restored, emancipatory whiteness (or worse, some claimed “no-longer white-ness”). That is to chase again the will-o-the-wisp of purity and innocence. All too often it is only the foregrounding of yet another white hero narrative — a claimed sojourn “up from whiteness!”

As a hopeful Christian theist, I am also haunted by skeptical and pessimistic sensibilities. This partly accounts for my use of the term “hopeful.” It’s not just the epistemological question of God’s existence, but the sheer magnitude of being sick and tired of, for me, anti-Black racism. This would include questions of mass incarceration, the policing of Black bodies, the killing of unarmed Black bodies, social and civic death, the investment in Black bodies as “criminal,” “disgusting,” “morally incorrigible,” “subhuman,” “hypersexual.” When I think of liberation, through what I see as a form of racial realism à la Derrick Bell, I think of truncated forms of adjustment, one after another. I think of the arc of white American history that is only prepared to bend to the extent that whiteness remains hegemonic, where hope, therefore, functions to sustain Black people from taking far more serious and perhaps dangerous revolutionary action against their dehumanization. There are times when I think that systemic forms of anti-Black racism are just too embedded within the structures and psyches of white America, and that at the end of the day, my Black humanity will still be denied. It is at these crucial times that I want to avoid the seductions of Karl Marx’s dictum that “religion is the opium of the people,” which implies a form of deception, where one exclusively looks beyond this life to the one (allegedly) to come. Yet, there are times when the weight of human misery is so great, and the ethical, moral and spiritual imagination (strength and capacity) of human beings seems so meager, that I think that there is nothing that will liberate us short of the eschaton, which I see not simply as a reckoning but as a day of ending all evil and suffering, something like a metaphysical intervention in human history. Do you see the tension here? Speak to this in terms of how you deal with what I’m trying to articulate.

Yes, I share in the heaviness of being “sick and tired” of my own whiteness but especially of the structural anti-Blackness with its roots in multiple streams of the past and sustained by the many ambits and levels of the coloniality and neo-coloniality of power today.

So, maybe I need to be very concrete here both about my own pessimism for all the reasons you note so eloquently here, but also about my own … well, I won’t say hope, surely not optimism — but something like hope. I do find myself unable to let go of an arts-nurtured spirit of defiance toward the future, which in combination with others’ defiance, maybe especially at work among today’s youth of struggle, can keep the future open.

And this is where it is so important to keep our struggle broad, our focus on anti-Black white supremacy understood as also animating the multidimensional coloniality of power. And that coloniality does have a historical beginning in the constellation of modernity’s colonizing powers. We are still on the way to undoing those powers. We need to strike multiple blows at not only the micro- and macro-aggressions that so obviously mark white racism. We need also to join with people of every nation who know U.S. imperial power is animated by a transnational whiteness and accumulative systematic greed that drives down so many of us. I know Maya activists in Guatemala who live and fight on the underside of U.S.-backed genocide in their country and who tell me that the changes they fight and hope for will not come until their grandchildren’s time. I know well one political prisoner, Mumia Abu-Jamal, who insists on finding something to laugh about every day as a way to hope. With Mumia still in prison in spite of my years of work in movements for him, the temptation to despair is real. Yes, I am convinced that movements for him got him off death row, but now he endures a “slow death row,” as he puts it, with a life-without-parole sentence. While he is still in prison, I am about to retire after teaching the whole four decades that Mumia has been in prison since 1982, the same year of my first Fall as a professor in Princeton. I’m headed for retirement maybe with some comforts on the eve of death. Black activist and revolutionary Mumia is still in prison. There’s the difference that whiteness makes right there! What hope can there be?

I’m not sure, but I hold onto some artistic form, some song, some poet, the love in my life and family — any of which might at the very least support in me and us a spirit of defiance toward any future that still seems overwhelmed by anti-Blackness. A lyrical but uncompromisingly political reggae song can often carry me a long way; and I confess that almost any ballad by even a white troubadour — one who is ready to sing of workers’ struggles toward unity with a whole “motley crew” of international rebels against Western colonialism, white supremacy, capitalism and imperialism — is also a defiant spirit welcome to my being. It is in this spirit that I also receive the hand-painted notecards that Mumia occasionally paints and sends to me (and to others). Defiant spirit is especially operative in such sites of organized liberatory action as the Campaign to Bring Mumia Home. Indeed, as you say, part of this future means holding open the possibility of a “dangerous revolution,” but it will have to come when the most victimized by colonizing white supremacy call for it and dare to seize, and make, the right time for it. Moreover, maybe it will not come until the churches, even churches of the dispossessed, cease offering prayers that some God will mitigate the ways of white supremacist corporate monopolists.

Maybe those prayers need to stop. We mainly need prayers that align us with a spirit of defiance for another future. And I do look for this on this side of what Christian theologians call “the eschaton,” and on this side of what Afropessimists term “the end of the world,” fixing as they do on that one phrase plucked from midway in a poem by Aimé Césaire and as cited by Frantz Fanon. We cannot wait for that. I’m not proposing we trust some liberal reformism instead. That’s deadly too. With the arts nurturing a spirit of defiance, we need to break liberals’ “freedom-speak” open to a more radical thinking and acting toward freedom. We need to create new spaces and discourses that defy any future that looks only like more of the same. The arts nurturing defiance, if well-crafted and inspiring, help me (us?) “taste” that future and to live defiantly toward it. In the meantime, I recall Mumia’s words that I have cited often, about the urgency and possibility of resisting the U.S. and its imperial force: “…what history really shows is that today’s empire is tomorrow’s ashes, that nothing lasts forever, that to not resist is to acquiesce in your own oppression.”

I know these words do not assuage the angst amid the repression of now, but it does display an intelligent spirit of defiance toward the future that maybe we can embrace.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and concision.