Being religious is often conflated with being conservative, but there are radical change-makers on the left who are combating systemic issues every day as part of their faith. One such issue is prison-industrial complex (PIC) abolition. Abolitionists believe in dismantling the entirety of the carceral state — freeing people from prisons, ending policing and providing communities with the resources they need to thrive. The idea of PIC abolition is not new; it has been theorized and organized around for decades, mostly by Black feminist theorists like Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Mariame Kaba and Rachel Herzing.
Organizers with Believers Bail Out (BBO), a Muslim abolitionist organization that bails people out of jail who cannot afford to do so themselves — and provides support for them upon release — also works to spark conversations about PIC abolition rooted in Islam.
“This past Ramadan, Believers Bail Out hosted four sessions titled, ‘Dua and Chill,’ where individuals could share Quran, and have conversations about what justice and abolition in Islam means to each person,” Nabihah Maqbool, an organizer with BBO, told Truthout. During these sessions, community members, led by the legacies and teachings of Black Muslim communities, discussed ways to struggle together toward a better world, where everyone is treated with the dignity they deserve.
The criminal legal system in the United States perpetuates state violence and systemic anti-Blackness: By surveilling, arresting and imprisoning people — a disproportionate number of whom are Black — the state upholds a historic system through which Black people are left in the margins of society economically, politically and socially. Maqbool says that working to dismantle the PIC is part of embodying “the values of mercy, kindness and fortitude required of [her] as a Muslim.”
These conversations and practices aren’t only happening in Muslim communities, but among many religious communities that interpret aspects of their religion as liberatory and practice their faith in ways that are geared toward liberation work.
“‘Liberation theology’ is a term that catches a lot of different movements,” says Dean Dettloff, a lecturer at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto. “In the Catholic tradition, to which I belong, it emerged largely in Latin America, where theologians responding to social movements described what they call a ‘preferential option for the poor.’”
In the United States, other sources of liberation theology emerged, particularly led by Black people. Black theologians wrestled with questions of liberation, informed by Protestant and Catholic traditions, during the civil rights movement. As the Catholic Church and white Protestant leaders remained complicit or apathetic toward the Black American struggle, Black leaders began asking new questions about how faith can be applied toward liberatory practice.
Dettloff says that all liberation theologies have one thing in common: Those who subscribe to it should be accountable to the oppressed. Thus, someone practicing their faith informed by liberation theologies should be committed to the abolition of oppressive systems, like the carceral state. Though “it’s easy to get lost in the demand for getting rid of something like the prison-industrial complex,” Dettloff says, “the full context of abolition is about creating an alternative society, and liberation theology has always been about exactly that.”
Like Christian liberation theologians, Maqbool sees Islam as a faith of liberation. She points to the chapter of the Quran called An-Nisa’ (“The Women”) to articulate her beliefs. It “calls on believers to ‘stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or poor: for Allah can best protect both.’” To her, and other anti-PIC Muslims, this chapter encourages Muslims to seek out harm wherever it is and work to rectify it.
With BBO specifically, she and other organizers and volunteers are able not only to tangibly support carceral system-affected people, but also to educate and invite the community to practice their faith in an anti-carceral way.
“I cannot separate Islam from liberation. Truly living the values of Islam should require us to push for justice, to be anti-racist and to free ourselves and our communities from the false god of capitalism,” says Maqbool. “For me, to be Muslim necessitates that I am an abolitionist.”
Stefanie Fox, executive director at Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), also sees abolition as integral to reimagining the concepts of safety for Jewish people, who she says are taught through Zionist interpretations of history that they “are alone; that to remedy the harms of antisemitism, we must think of ourselves as always under attack and that we cannot trust others.” Through teaching fear, she says, Zionism convinces people that the best responses are more police, a taller wall, or another checkpoint in Palestine. One way JVP seeks to combat this narrative in practice is the Deadly Exchange campaign, which seeks to end the police exchanges between the U.S. and Israel. The Deadly Exchange describes programs whereby governments, such as the U.S. and Israel, do law enforcement exchanges to learn new tactics and technology. JVP exemplifies the global fight for abolition, working to stop the “relationships and flow of information and technologies between repressive, violent, supremacist states like the U.S. and Israel.”
Fox uses the “deep traditions, practices and ways of thinking within Judaism” to “root and water [her] own work for collective liberation as a Jewish person.” As the leader of a Jewish anti-Zionist organization, Fox leans on Judaism’s spiritual technologies, which are liturgical and practical tools that equip Jewish people to work toward “olam haba, the more liberatory world we’re trying to build.” She sees her anti-Zionist organizing work as holy — a way to build a future of Judaism beyond Zionism. In support of that, JVP as an organization works to embody an abolitionist politic and praxis. This is evident in the ways in which the group structures its campaigns and decides which issues to highlight and connect.
To Nikia Smith Robert, liberation theology reveals a God who “acts in solidarity with the oppressed.” Her practice of Christianity is inextricably linked to the ethic of abolition, articulated when “Jesus stated that his ministry was to set the captives free,” thereby “giving a model and declaration for abolition.” Because Jesus died a criminalized person — but transcended criminality on the cross in the Christian faith — Robert says that the church and Christian people should use religious teachings to guide them toward abolitionist principles “by seeing the humanity in those who society condemns and treating those who are crucified by death-dealing circumstances of racial, gender and class inequities as worthy of restoration and a life of human flourishing beyond the carceral state.”
Abolition is not only about removal and dismantling, as Ruth Wilson Gilmore points out, but it is also about creation and building. Robert expands on this idea by explaining that her practice of liberation theology dictates abolition as repairing harms, restoring relationships and rebuilding individuals and communities “for social thriving beyond policing, prisons and punishment.” To that end, she founded the nonprofit Abolitionist Sanctuary, which launched on Juneteenth 2021. The mission of Abolitionist Sanctuary is to empower Black churches to adopt and embrace liberation theology and abolitionist principles, all while centering the struggle of impoverished Black mothers — a population deeply affected by the carceral state. Through this project, Robert wants to create a national coalition of churches that can create “spiritual and legal sanctuaries for Black women, mothers and [carceral] system-impacted communities.” Abolitionist Sanctuary will assess churches across the country, lead teachings to help these churches understand abolitionist approaches and train churches on real-life implementation of abolitionist praxis, such as, holding expungements and bailouts.
It’s important to note that people who belong to monotheistic Abrahamic beliefs are not the only ones struggling for abolition and liberation. For instance, in Mexico, an Indigenous community in Cherán abolished the police force — opting instead to work communally to stop harm, manage violence and rebuild the nearby forest. Cherán is not the perfect example of a society without police (they have a local militia which could be seen as some type of law enforcement), but they are an example of how we can imagine new worlds that get us closer to full abolition. Indigenous communities globally have long been practitioners of restorative justice, practices that inform the ideas of how harm will be dealt with in a post-prison world.
Though mainstream media often highlight religious conservatives who spend their time calling for more state violence and punishment, there are religious people in the U.S. who are doing quite the opposite. Using their faith as a guide, the religious left is struggling for a better, more just world. In striving for abolition, people of multiple faiths are doing liberatory, radical work.