Repairing the Breach: Faith-Based Community Organizing to Dismantle Mass Incarceration
mass incarceration, faith-based community organizing, white supremacy, racial equity, retribution, social capital
Public awareness of the injustices of mass incarceration has grown significantly over the last decade. Many people have learned about mass incarceration in church contexts through book groups, study campaigns, and denominational statements. In recent years, faith-based community organizing (FBCO) networks have increasingly turned their attention to mass incarceration in light of the growing awareness of many Christian individuals, congregations, and denominations. Mass incarceration, however, presents three distinctive challenges to FBCO. First, dismantling mass incarceration requires overtly and conscientiously confronting white supremacy and advancing racial and ethnic equity; faith-based community organizers have avoided this work in the past for fear of dividing their base. Second, streams of Christian theology based in retributivism have provided justifications for increasingly punitive practices and policies, thus contributing to mass incarceration; FBCO networks must construct and uplift alternative theological streams to support alternative practices and policies. Finally, several practices and policies tied to mass incarceration deplete the political power of individuals, families, and communities most deeply impacted by it. Organizing against mass incarceration requires new strategies for building social capital and creating coalitions among groups who have been disenfranchised, marginalized, and undercounted by these practices and policies. Together, these challenges have required FBCO networks to adapt assumptions, strategies, and relationships that had previously been effective in addressing other issues, such as healthcare, employment, education, and transportation. Based on ethnographic fieldwork, this paper explores the insights, struggles, and innovations of ISAIAH, a network in Minnesota, as its members work to dismantle mass incarceration and confront its unique challenges.