This interview is part of The Reconstruct, a new weekly newsletter from Sojourners. In a world where so much needs to change, Mitchell Atencio and Josiah R. Daniels interview people who have faith in a new future and are working toward repair.
One of my favorite passages in the Bible is from Isaiah 61:1: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.” Christians will be familiar with this passage as Jesus quotes it when he stands up to read in the synagogue during the early days of his ministry (Luke 4). It’s a passage that gives me some hope for Christianity, since the central character of our religion believed that even the worst-of-the-worst deserve forgiveness.
I like to imagine a world where Christians make this message from Jesus the major focus of our religion while we continue to educate ourselves about the prison industrial complex. In this hopeful imagining, this would lead us to act in ways that imagine a world beyond punishment, police, and prisons. Activist, writer, and mom Hannah Bowman is imagining such a world.
Bowman describes herself as a “Christian abolitionist,” which means she not only believes that Jesus was crucified, buried, and raised to life, but also that Jesus meant it when he said he came to bring liberty to captives and set prisoners free. Practically and politically speaking, Bowman’s convictions are manifested in the abolition movement, a movement focused on defunding or completely eliminating police and prisons and then reallocating those funds to be used for social services, education, libraries, or other community programs.
Maybe you’re thinking, “That sounds nice,” but you have some questions. Abolishing police and prisons won’t necessarily abolish harm, so what do we do about that? If prison isn’t the answer, what do we do about someone like former President Donald Trump, who is facing 91 criminal charges and still running for president in 2024? Is there support for abolition from survivors of violent crimes? Is there any joy to be found in the rather serious world of abolition activism? For that matter, is there any joy in being a Christian?
I had similar questions, so I sat down with Bowman to discuss.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Josiah R. Daniels, Sojourners: Tell me a bit about who you are and what you do.
Hannah Bowman: I run the website Christians for the Abolition of Prisons and I am engaged in activism and education around Christian theology and prison abolition. I’m also a graduate student in the master of arts in religious studies program at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Los Angeles, where I am studying Christian theology and prison and police abolition.
What is “Christian abolitionism” and why are you a Christian abolitionist?
So, I had sort of one religious epiphany when I became a Christian in college, and I had another kind of almost religious epiphany when I realized that it was possible to be a prison abolitionist. I had a moment of thinking, “Hey I’ve been going around thinking prisons and police are terrible, but we have to have them. It’s just a necessary evil.”
And suddenly, in the course of engaging with the work of other prison abolitionists, I had this moment of realizing, “Oh, I don’t have to keep defending this. We can just turn our attention to building a better way of life, a better way of being a society.”
And so, for me, that project then became a way of trying to help other Christians, and I would say my context is mostly white Christians, have similar realizations and trying to say what it is that I’ve found life giving in Christianity, what it is that I’ve found that’s life giving in prison abolition, police abolition, the whole prison industrial complex (PIC) abolition movement — as well as in the restorative and transformative justice movements, and how can I put that in terms that will be intelligible to Christians.
This is really about correlating these insights that have been gained from secular movements with Christian theology. How can I take the things that I’ve learned from these other movements and let them influence, not just my ethics, but also the way I think about Christianity and the way I think about my theology? How can I look at the ideas that we see in Christianity about everything from forgiveness to what it means for the church to be the body of Christ and to act ethically as that body? How can I bring all of those ideas to other people and how can I bring all of those ideas back into the work for abolition and liberation?
What was your “Paul on the road to Damascus” experience that converted you?
I was sitting on an Amtrak train in central Connecticut in the middle of the night. But I was reading a book by Maya Schenwar, Locked Down, Locked Out, which was her book about why prison doesn’t work and how we can do better.
Although I was aware of the movement in the struggle against police violence, I really came into this work from an interest in prison ministry and prison reform, and then grew into a larger understanding of the problems with incarceration as a solution.
It was in this moment on the train, reading that book, when I had this profound sense of relief: “Oh, I don’t have to keep defending the idea of the prison.”
And I think I had for a long time been holding on to this idea that prisons were terrible, but of course that’s inevitable — we have to have them, we’ve got to do it — but we should try to make them better.
And I had this overwhelming sense of ease and relief. I don’t have to keep defending this. I can just stop defending prisons. And so, for me, that was the experience. And it was a kind of quasi-religious experience. I associate that sense of ease with the Holy Spirit.
All of a sudden, a better way of being becomes visible for a moment.
And just to be clear too, it’s not only a matter of you coming to a sense of ease about not having to defend prisons anymore but that also applies to police, correct?
Absolutely, yeah. I tend to use the term prison abolition because that was my entry point into it, but it really is about abolition of the entire prison industrial complex, or really the forms of the carceral state: the forms of violence and surveillance and punishment. And I think it is also about how we move past the very idea of punishment, whether we’re talking about that in the setting of schools, families, how we raise our children, or how we engage with one another. How do we move past the idea of punishment as the way we respond to harm?
The next question that I have is about punishment in a specific situation. Former President Trump is possibly going to prison. If he were convicted, and the judge sentences him to prison time, should Christian abolitionists support his imprisonment?
So, I don’t like should questions because I don’t want to speak for all Christian abolitionists. I do not believe that imprisonment produces accountability. I do not believe that Trump going to prison would be a form of accountability. I don’t believe it would make him willing to take accountability or responsibility for the harm he’s done. I don’t believe it would materially help any of the people he has harmed. I don’t believe it would make restitution.
For me, abolition means we don’t look to prisons and police as the solution.
Having said that, life is complicated, right? And people’s views are complicated. And I’ll just stop there.
What do you think it would look like for Trump to take accountability? And then for some system to be set in place where he would make recompense to the people that he harmed?
I think that’s a very big question and one that I am not qualified to answer. So, I’m going to qualify my answer with that.
But I think, at the very least, accountability is about becoming the kind of person who won’t do the same harm again, right? Fundamentally, that’s what accountability is about, even more than making restitution. And that’s why it’s something you can’t do for somebody else. It’s something that, I think Danielle Sered says this, but that accountability can only be taken, it cannot be imposed. Accountability is something that you have to take responsibility for yourself.
The first step that I could see would have to do with Trump not being in power and not seeking power over other people. Because it’s from positions of power that he has done great harm. And so, I think him taking accountability would start with him not running for president. Obviously, that doesn’t make up for what he’s done, but that’s the absolute floor.
There is this tricky aspect within the abolitionist movement where you do not want to use the criminal legal system to reify the injustices that are already happening within society, even if you are perhaps punishing someone like a police officer who has murdered someone. It’s very complicated when a police officer goes on trial and there’s this feeling of, well, if they’re convicted, that at least gives us some modicum of “justice.” But if they’re not convicted, then that sort of proves the larger point about how unjust this system is. So, what do you do there?
I do think that being able to obtain a conviction can sometimes be a way of saying, “This was wrong.” I think it can sometimes be a way of vindicating the victims — that’s really the key thing about a conviction. Having mechanisms for removing those cops from ever being cops again is essential. I want to see cops who have used violence never be cops again, right? That’s why I would say the solution is not conviction. The solution is defunding and abolition. But at the very least, I don’t want those cops to be back in positions where they can use the power of the state to hurt more people.
I think that the thing that comes to mind is when police are put on leave or the trial comes to a conclusion and they’re maybe dismissed from the police force, but then they move somewhere else and they work as a security guard, or they work as a police officer in a different state or a different city.
I want to avoid exactly that situation where they leave one department and go and join another one. For me, for them to have to be behind bars is where it crosses the line into punishment.
I don’t want those cops to be in prison because I don’t want to give more resources to the state. But I do want them to be fired and their position not to be filled by another cop. I want the police department to get smaller. That’s a very poetic way of putting it because, obviously, that’s not how it works I want us to take it out of the budgets of the departments instead.
What might a Christian abolitionist’s response be when a person has committed an act of sexual violence?
So that’s a very complicated situation to which I hesitate to give a prescriptive answer. I think we have to start by recognizing the extent to which the current system is failing survivors of sexual violence. Most acts of sexual violence are not reported, or if they are reported, action is not taken or convictions are not obtained. Or even if in the very small percentage where convictions are obtained, that the process tends to be really re-victimizing for survivors.
It’s really important that the discussion of “what do we do” be led by survivors.
And if you look at resources about transformative justice, many of those are coming from survivors of sexual violence. I’m thinking of INCITE Women of Color Against Violence. These are groups that are coming from the perspective of survivors of violence, people dealing with violence in their own communities, where they either can’t or are unwilling to involve the state in responding to it.
They look for ways to respond that will be in line with their own principles of emphasizing community accountability. There are enormous resources for this. There’s the Creative Intervention Toolkit, which is all about interpersonal violence, by which they mean sexual/domestic violence.A lot of work has been done by people who are survivors and who have worked in this space to give people tools for doing transformative justice.
I think, from a Christian perspective, it’s really important that we not try to oversimplify the situations. It’s really important that Christians not run too fast towards the language of forgiveness and reconciliation, because those are important, but they cannot be your starting point in really difficult situations of harm.
The language I keep coming back to is the language of mercy, and the idea that somehow, even when forgiveness and reconciliation are not appropriate, and I would not tell survivors of violence to forgive, but there is an underlying mercy or a commitment to non-punitiveness which I think are bolstered by Christian theology. And that can help lead toward some of these transformative justice models that survivors are developing — which start from a position of saying, “Hey, we’re gonna recognize the humanity of the person who’s done harm as well as the humanity of the person harmed, and we’re going to keep that value central to our work.”
But prioritizing the safety and agency of survivors and what they need at every step is critical.
What is the joy of being a Christian abolitionist?
It goes back to that conversion aspect we were talking about earlier. There was this sense of ease and relief in saying that we can imagine something better. And I think that is something very much in line with the Christian imagination.
Part of our self-understanding as Christians is that God has intervened in the world in a way that makes it better, and God is doing something that is fundamentally changing the world and that changes what we can imagine as possible. There’s something really liberating in being able to reject violent and death-dealing structures. In very traditional Christian terms, there’s something about repentance being very liberating. That it feels good to turn aside from your sins and follow Jesus and all that old-timey language.
And I think that’s something that we can have available to us when we start learning from and being open to this sort of renewed imagination of abolition. We see people imagining the world outside of the grip of death and violence and we can be part of that.
But I should add that one of the key insights of abolitionists is also that we need to be reinvesting in care and communities and the basic ways that we care for each other — even outside of crisis situations and harm. We need to practice being accountable to each other.
And so, it is this very holistic way of being that’s offered. It’s not just saying, “Hey, let’s not give money to the police department.” It’s also saying, “Let’s fund schools, and community organizations, and parks, and beautiful places for people to be, and community potlucks…” which I don’t think anybody’s actually suggesting we fund but there’s this entirely different — and really life-giving — way of caring for each other. Let’s practice hospitality with each other. Let’s contribute to each other’s needs. Let’s — I’m just quoting things from the book of Romans here.
That brings to mind a quote from Ruth Wilson Gilmore, where she explains that abolition is not absence, it’s presence.
What might you want to say to people who are losing their faith?
Honestly — and I’m sorry if this sounds tongue in cheek —but read the Psalms.
And it is true that the struggle is really hard, and the work is really hard, and figuring out how to be accountable to one another is really hard. And a lot of times we don’t know how to do it.
We’re trying to change these enormous systems and we’re trying to figure out how to interact with each other in ways that are in accordance with our values. And we all screw up all the time.
What you find in things like the Psalms is that there’s so much about the ongoing relationship of God and God’s people, through all of these ups and downs and horrible things that happen and good things that happen.
But I find that, for me, it’s a real source of comfort. It’s where I go and find something that relates to the struggle that I am facing — that reminds me that God is working in this world and we can engage in, participate in, and argue with God. We can be angry, lament, all of those things.
What’s your favorite psalm?
I really love 42 and 43. There’s this repeated line in 42 and then also repeated at the end of 43: Put your trust in God for I will yet give thanks to God who is the light of my countenance and my God.
And in those two Psalms, some of it is lament, and some of it’s, well, things are terrible now and I don’t know how I’m going to go on. But I find that particular phrase — I will yet give thanks to God — it’s just sort of a mantra I can come back to.