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Our Collective Imprisonment and the Revolution of Love

By Lucas Johnson
Our Collective Imprisonment and the Revolution of Love

The University of Denver campus was alive with discussions about mass incarceration when I arrived in Colorado in mid-February. Professor Michelle Alexander – civil rights advocate and litigator, and author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness – was there to minister, testify, and preach to the injustice in our midst. Sponsored by the Veterans of Hope Project, the Iliff School of Theology, and a number of Denver organizations and institutions, Alexander offered more than a series of lectures – the three-day event bore resemblance to a religious revival. The Spirit moved as she spoke to the faculties of law and theology, as she addressed a packed sanctuary of conscientious people at Park Hill United Methodist Church, and as she listened intently to the concerns of high school students, former gang members, and law enforcement officials. Mothers wept, preachers prayed, and convicted felons testified to the truth of her words.

What became clear was that Alexander was not simply talking about a particular strategy of prison reform, nor merely discussing the details of the law and/or Supreme Court decisions. She was doing something more profound: echoing brother Martin in saying that America must be born again. She was trying to evoke in us the courage to love.

As I experienced her words and the dynamic response it provoked, I was drawn to her book’s conclusion, where Alexander quotes from James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. I recalled another of Baldwin’s writings:

Love does not begin and end the way we think it does. Love is a battle, love is a war; love is growing up. No one in the world – in the entire world – knows more – knows Americans better or, odd as this may sound, loves them more than the American Negro. This is because he has had to watch you, outwit you, bear you, and sometimes even bleed and die with you ever since we got here, that is since both of us, black and white, got here – and this is a wedding.

Whether I like it or not, or whether you like it or not, we are bound together forever. We are a part of each other. What is happening to every Negro in the country at any time is also happening to you. There is no way around this. I am suggesting that these walls – these artificial walls – which have been up so long to protect us from something we fear, must come down. (James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name, adapted from an address to Kalamazoo College titled “In Search of a Majority,” February 1960.)

Love would never result in millions of lives being ruined in the name of “corrections.” Love – and our failure to love – seems to be at the center of what Alexander is telling us. And as a movement committed to the power of love and truth, I believe that we in the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) must redouble our efforts to end not only mass incarceration, but the poisonous ideas that gave it birth.

As fatigued as we may be of discussing racism, both the facts and love demand that we do. No matter how much we yearn for it to be so, the struggle against racism, the struggle to love, is not over.

Alexander’s research makes it painfully clear that the origins of the “drug war” are racist. More importantly, if we examine our memories and listen to our own souls, the racism of this war would be revealed as truth. If we allow it, our conscience will spark our memory to flash those black and brown faces peddled in front of the television cameras as the image of drugs. We will feel in our stomach the truth as we remember the white faces who use, deal, and buy with impunity. If we are honest about how we got here, we must confess that it was because of our inability to see ourselves in the lives of our neighbors, our countrymen and women, those persons who, if our society were not structured against loving, we would more intimately know.

We want to believe that the justice administered by the courts is blind, and that if we ignore race then we will not contribute to the problem. Yet Alexander explains that “Our [collective color blindness] prevents us from seeing the racial and structural divisions that persist in society: the segregated, unequal schools, the segregated, jobless ghettos, and the segregated public discourse – a public conversation that excludes the current pariah of caste.”

Too many of us have failed to understand that racism is not a problem of one community or group of communities any more than cancer is a blight isolated to one part of the body. Racism is a cancer to us all; but what drives many people to ignore the destruction of racism around us and to believe in racial superiority is their fear that without it they would be at the bottom of a very cruel society. The truth is that those thousands of people languishing in American prisons tell us something about who we are; and more than any electoral outcome, they tell us something about what America has become.

Vincent Harding, activist and eminent historian who invited me to Denver on behalf of the Veterans of Hope Project, was clear that FOR and Michelle Alexander must connect. His hope in FOR is rooted in his agreement with the words and teachings of the great mystic Howard Thurman, whose life and legacy have made a tremendous impact on FOR’s history as a movement. Thurman teaches us that:

Perhaps the authentic moral stature of a man is determined by his choice of weapons which he uses in his fight against the adversary. Of all weapons, love is the most deadly and devastating, and few there be who dare trust their fate in its hands.

FOR’s history is rooted in a determined commitment to love, and that love has found expression in our pacifist convictions. We have refused to believe that one people more than another are deserving of having lives ripped apart by bombs and bullets. We have expressed desire that none should suffer in this way. And, because we have held on to the conviction that no one deserves violence, we have often found ourselves among the most significant movements of the past century. It is this conviction that landed founding FOR member Roger N. Baldwin in prison for his opposition to war and which led him help found the American Civil Liberties Union, the organization to which Alexander has devoted much of her life.

If we consider the dramatic shift that would be necessary to end mass incarceration – the number of jobs that would be lost, the congressional districts that would be smaller (prisoners are often counted as “members” of districts where they are held, rather than their home districts), and the immense profits that are otherwise tied to the system – nothing short of a revolution would get us from where we are to where we need to go.

The task is tremendous, but there is a river. Like the movements that have come before, that revolution has to result in a transformation of lives. The “blind” must “recover sight.” We must cease our fanciful notions that “the criminal” is constitutionally other than ourselves. We must stop pretending that the marijuana the suburban teenagers are smoking is not the same substance that the unnamed teenager in the “other” part of town is arrested for holding. We must love our neighbor enough to realize that whatever is happening to “any Negro in the country at any time is also happening to you.”

The love that we must find is simply a realization of what is already true. As Howard Thurman writes in The Luminous Darkness:

The Religious experience as I have known it seems to swing wide the door, not merely into Life but into lives. I am confident that my own call to the religious vocation cannot be separated from the slowly emerging disclosure that my religious experience makes it possible for me to experience myself as a human being and thus keep a very real psychological distance between myself and the hostilities of my environment. Through the years it has driven me more and more to seek to make as a normal part of my relations with men the experiencing of them as human beings. When this happens love has essential materials with which to work. And contrary to the general religious teaching, men would not need to stretch themselves out of shape in order to love. On the contrary, a man comes into possession of himself more completely when he is free to love another.

Love is not simply about how we act, but who we are and who we are committed to becoming. It also has a great deal to do with who we refuse to be. There are many in our movement today who express discomfort with our pacifist roots, preferring to talk instead of nonviolence. This I believe to be a false dichotomy as I regard pacifism to be the beginning of nonviolence.

Pacifism is about who we refuse to be; it describes our resistance to the systems of domination and control. I think that A. J. Muste steered us in the right direction when he said that our “only valid objective … is the transformation of society, not the building of a shelter for the saints” and that “… In a world built on violence, one must be a revolutionary before one can be a pacifist … a non-revolutionary pacifist is a contradiction in terms.” I regard these ideas as pivotal because we must resist and teach others to resist the dehumanizing of criminals. We must lead others in remembering that every criminal is also a person, and personhood is not granted or taken away by any court of law. The task before us is to restore consciousness of the humanity of those regarded as the enemy.

A commitment to nonviolence must be rooted in a deep commitment to love, which is simultaneously to recognize that our enemy is nothing more and nothing less than an extension of ourselves. Our commitment to love must recognize and lead others to recognize that we are in prison, that we are criminals, that we are drug offenders. White mothers must see themselves in their black and Latino sons. The rich must realize that they cannot succeed in walling themselves off from the poor. Black bodies, mass incarcerated, must be recognized as the chain around each of our own ankles. Individuals must be transformed, and America must be born again.

 Remembering the nonviolent revolution that brought down the Berlin Wall, we must bring our pots, our pans, our minds, voices, shoes, and chisels all to be in service of our one and best “weapon,” a revolutionary love powerful enough to make “these walls, these artificial walls which have been up so long to protect us from something we fear,” finally come down.

The Rev. Lucas Johnson lives and works in Atlanta, Georgia. He serves on the National Council of the U.S. Fellowship of Reconciliation, the International Committee of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, and the board of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America.

(Photo of Vincent Harding & Michelle Alexander by Angelle Fouther/ The Denver Foundation. Used with permission.)