Dominique D. Gilliard: Mass incarceration is antithetical to the gospel

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The church is called to stand against the phenomenon of mass incarceration in the United States, says a pastor and author of “Rethinking Incarceration” in an interview.

The United States accounts for only 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of people in jail or prison, a development that defaces the very image of God, says Dominique D. Gilliard.

“When we are involved in the defacement of the image of God -- even if it’s supporting legislation, consciously or unconsciously -- then we’re culpable,” Gilliard said.

In his new book, “Rethinking Incarceration: Advocating for Justice That Restores,” Gilliard examines the history of mass incarceration in America and Christianity’s role in its evolution and expansion. It’s a phenomenon that is antithetical to the gospel, he said.

“Christians have to understand that we can’t buy into the same meritocratic way of thinking and being as the rest of the world does,” Gilliard said. “We know that we are sinners saved by grace. And that grace that allows us to be reconciled to God and to one another marks how we respond to crime and violence in the world.”

Restoration, not punishment, is at the heart of God’s justice, Gilliard said.

“Divine justice is restorative and reconciling, not retributive and isolating. And the restorative nature of God’s justice is woven throughout Scripture. God works amid brokenness, restoring victims, communities and offenders.”

Gilliard is the director of racial righteousness and reconciliation for the Love Mercy Do Justice initiative of the Evangelical Covenant Church. He is an ordained Evangelical Covenant minister and has pastored churches in Oakland, Chicago and Atlanta. He has a B.A. from Georgia State University, an M.A. from East Tennessee State University and an M.Div. from North Park Seminary.

He spoke recently with Faith & Leadership about mass incarceration and how Christians can respond. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: How did you become interested in the issue of incarceration?

It really started with the story that I open the book with -- the case of Kathryn Johnston, a 92-year-old grandmother who lived in a community in Atlanta where the police routinely used “no-knock” search warrants.

No-knock search warrants are issued by judges at the request of law enforcement to acquire evidence that can be quickly destroyed. The rationale is that if the officer has to first knock or display the warrant, then the people involved in drug trafficking will have time to dispose of the evidence by flushing it down the toilet or whatever.

They are mostly issued in impoverished, governmentally neglected communities of color, with failing schools, a lack of economic opportunity and drug trafficking.

In Mrs. Johnston’s case, three Atlanta police officers invaded her house, without displaying a warrant or identifying themselves, with weapons drawn, and ended up killing her.

The police said that they had staked out her house and knew that it was a center for drug trafficking. But when they searched the house, they didn’t find drugs or drug paraphernalia. So the officers planted drugs in her house to try to legitimate what had transpired.


These stories, essays and Q&As from the Faith & Leadership archives address issues of mass incarceration, the jail and bond system, the death penalty, and rehabiliation and re-entry for former inmates.

When what actually happened came out in court, that moved me to get involved. I realized how vulnerable people in these communities were.

The second thing that got me interested was that my African-American studies professors in college implored us to become activists and advocates for people living in these communities, and to raise how vulnerable they are to this kind of violence

But my faith community was not calling me to be involved in any way, shape or form. I remember having this dissonance -- that if anything should compel me to get involved with advocating for vulnerable, marginalized people, it shouldn’t be an academic institution but my faith in Jesus Christ.

Why didn’t my faith community see itself as connected to this overt violation of civil and human rights?

Q: And what opened your eyes to the situation in prisons?

When I was in Oakland, I pastored a church in a very socioeconomically challenged community. It was a majority African-American community, but the church was multiethnic, majority East Asian and Caucasian.

Part of the reason they hired me was because they wanted me to get the surrounding community to start coming to the church so they could reflect the community they were in.

After I got there, I realized that I couldn’t knock on four doors in a row in West Oakland and not find somebody who was impacted by mass incarceration -- whether themselves or a loved one or somebody else. But our church had never uttered the words “mass incarceration,” or “incarceration” period. We had no outreach or anything.

I later told the other pastor on staff, “One reason people don’t come here is because they don’t see our ministry as reflective of the reality they’re living in. To be blunt, they’re having a hard time understanding how the gospel we’re preaching is good news to them in their lived reality.”

Some church leaders were not real ecstatic about that response and weren’t willing to shift our ministry programs to include prison or jail ministries. When I looked at other churches in socioeconomically challenged communities of color, I saw that they too weren’t offering prison ministries or speaking to the topic as a theological issue. I realized how prevalent that situation was, and it disturbed me.

As I prayed and went back to the text, the connection between Scripture and incarceration jumped off the page. After a lot of prayer and discernment, God was like, “OK, you see the problem. What are you going to do?”

That’s how the book came to fruition.

Q: You’re not a criminologist or a historian, but you did a lot of research about the prison system for this book. Give us a quick overview of the prison system today in America.

We’re in dire straits, to be blunt. We’re in a watershed moment.

The U.S. represents 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population. Today, it’s predicted that one in three black men will spend time behind bars in their lifetime, and one in six Hispanic males.

Women are the fastest-growing population in the prison system. And 80 percent of women who are incarcerated are mothers.

In 13 states, there’s no minimum age for prosecuting children as adults. There have been 8-year-olds tried as adults. When children are tried and convicted as adults, their sentences are more severe and they may be housed in adult prisons instead of juvenile facilities, which means that they are more likely to be sexually assaulted or commit suicide.

Q: How did we get here? How did we get in this situation?

I quote a criminologist in the book, Elliott Currie. She says, “Short of major wars, mass incarceration has been the most thoroughly implemented government social program of our time.”

That’s a powerful statement. But I think we got here a couple of ways.

Theologically, we’ve misunderstood God’s justice as just about divine wrath. And because God is holy, we think God cannot be connected in any way to unrighteousness.

Our system has theologically encoded some of that in zero tolerance policies, “three strikes, you’re out” policies and other punitive responses to crime -- as opposed to restorative responses that are rooted in our atonement theology.

Politically and historically, there’s been a fundamental misunderstanding that mass incarceration started with the declaration of the war on drugs.

Historically, mass incarceration has its roots right after the Emancipation Proclamation and during Reconstruction, with what is known as the “Black Codes” -- legislation that criminalized blackness with things like vagrancy laws.

Blackness in and of itself became criminalized, and that led to the convict leasing system. You had people who were incarcerated, working for people who owned them just months prior.

But in addition, I lay out in the book five pipelines that are funneling people into incarceration.

The first, which most people know, is the war on drugs. The second is the school-to-prison pipeline, which people are also familiar with.

The next two, people don’t realize how impactful they are as conduits into the penal system.

The first is the war on immigration, where immigration arrests increased 610 percent from 1990 to 2000.

Then there is the deinstitutionalization of mental health. Mental health professionals have said that prisons are the new asylums.

And finally, there is the privatization of prisons. People have heard of privatized prisons, but I don’t think we fully understand how they function and why they’re so problematic.

They literally financially incentivize incarceration. Private prisons are most often situated in sparsely populated rural communities that need jobs and economic revitalization. So when you bring a private prison, you bring jobs. The prison has a contract that dictates bed minimums, which range from 70 percent occupancy every night to 100 percent occupancy.

In Arizona, they have three private prisons that require 100 percent bed occupancy every night. If you have unoccupied cells within the facility, you’re in violation of the contract and the private prison company can sue the community. That has happened; I talk about one case in my book.

So if you don’t want to be in breach of contract, what do you do? You target the most vulnerable communities, poor communities of color, where people are undereducated and under-resourced.

Q: You say in the book that mass incarceration is antithetical to the gospel. How so?

To target entire communities through no-knock warrants or to prey on the most vulnerable is to deface the image of God inherent in people. When we are involved in the defacement of the image of God -- even if it’s supporting legislation, consciously or unconsciously -- then we’re culpable.

Christians have to understand that we can’t buy into the same meritocratic way of thinking and being as the rest of the world does. We know that we are sinners saved by grace. And that grace that allows us to be reconciled to God and to one another marks how we respond to crime and violence in the world.

Otherwise, we forfeit our birthright and we forget who we are and whose we are, and how God’s justice is inherently about restoration and not punitiveness.

The Bible consistently reveals that restoration, not punishment, is at the heart of God’s justice. Divine justice is restorative and reconciling, not retributive and isolating. And the restorative nature of God’s justice is woven throughout Scripture. God works amid brokenness, restoring victims, communities and offenders.

Q: What should the church be doing? And what can local congregations do?

There are four ways that the church can be involved.

We can be involved in the work of prevention through tutoring, mentoring and adopting schools that are in need. Many teachers pay for supplies out of their own pockets because of inadequate funding. The church can adopt schools and become a source of partnering that breeds life.

The church should be involved with prison and jail ministries, where we go behind the walls and are present with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

There’s a reason why Jesus in Matthew 25 says, “When you visited the prisoner, you visited me.” We have not taken seriously the call to be present with Jesus behind the prison walls. When we fail to go be with Jesus behind prison walls, our faith is impoverished.

The church also is called to walk alongside people with incarcerated loved ones. We need to be present with people whose brother, sister, father, mother are no longer in the picture. How can the church step up and fill that vacuum? What is our role and responsibility in that work?

Think about all the kids who have incarcerated parents. A 2015 report cited in USA Today found that 1 in 14 children have a parent who has been incarcerated.

No one is stepping into that vacuum; no one is playing that role. How can the church fill those spaces?

Q: How can the church open people’s eyes to the importance of this issue?

Proximity. We have to become proximate to suffering. That’s why being behind the prison walls is so important. You can hear all the stats about race and incarceration, but when you go behind the prison walls and you’re in a classroom with 40 men, and 38 of them are black or Hispanic, you feel it in a different way.

One way that churches can engage this conversation is to find out how many kids in your local school are on free and reduced lunch. Then ask what happens over the holidays or during the summer when school’s not in session. How do all these kids eat? Where do they go?

Ask questions like that and you start to have a greater awareness. When schools are closed in the summer, churches can volunteer to become feeding programs for kids who are on free and reduced lunches. If your church does that, you start to interact with all of these kids and develop relationships that can inform what your mission and vision and outreach look like.

Another stat [that opens peoples’ eyes] is that we live in a nation where 1 out of every 25 people sentenced to the death penalty is innocent.

We know that. Yet we continue to support the death penalty. And Christians are some of the most ardent supporters of the death penalty, even though our faith revolves around someone who was falsely incarcerated and unjustly sentenced to death.

Given what happened to Jesus, you’d think we would think differently about capital punishment, but we don’t.