A Theological Mandate to
Abolish Policing in America

By Rev. Nikia S. Robert, Ph.D.

Policing in America is a social problem that is also deeply religious. The politics of policing is rooted in covetous whiteness and the protection of private property. During chattel slavery, Black people were considered the property of whites. Thus, white people had a vested interest in controlling Black bodies. Womanist theologian Kelly Brown Douglass argues, “As chattel, the Black body remains in its constructed space, lives into its created nature, does not disrupt the order of things, and is under the control of white people; therefore, it is not dangerous. The moment the Black body is no longer chattel and thus free, it becomes dangerous.”1 When not controllable property by whites, Black bodies are seen as guilty bodies and a threat to cherished whiteness.

With the abolition of slavery, dominant society invented new hegemonic systems of control that perpetuated the subjugation and servitude of Blacks. The chattel slave body evolved from fugitive and dangerous, to guilty and criminal. Slavery ended with President Abraham Lincoln’s Proclamation of Emancipation, but in its place emerged similar systems of legal and economic enslavement. Namely, convict leasing, Black codes, and vagrancy laws ensured that freed slaves remained bound by economic debt. Indentured servants could only repay with labor and sharecropping. Likewise, the legal system policed the movements of freed Blacks–whether wandering, whistling, or walking the town past sundown. Consequently, jails that were once mainly occupied by whites, became exclusively reserved for freed Blacks.

Today, prisons continue to disproportionately target Black people. According to legal scholar, Michelle Alexander, there is a new legal system that functions like the “New Jim Crow.” The War on Drugs exposes the dangers of colorblindness that overtly obscures race but covertly design laws to perpetuate punitive disparities that impact Blacks more harshly than whites. Alexander instantiates her claims by uncovering drug sentencing disparities. For example, cocaine, a drug associated with wealthier whites has a lesser punishment than crack-cocaine, which is a drug commonly used by poorer Blacks. Thus, there is a double system of justice that grants leniency and impunity to whites, but harshly and discriminately punishes Blacks.

The historical obsession with controlling Black bodies is supported by religious teachings. White supremacists used literal translations of scripture, out of context, and rendered interpretations of, “Slaves obey your masters,” as a way to divinely sanction the oppression of Blacks. In addition, good white Christians left church on Sundays after the benediction with their bible in one hand and tied nooses in the other while bringing their families to spectate lynching and participate in the public worship of white supremacy. These religious contradictions uphold carceral systems that target and disadvantage Black people.

Today, Christian nationalism colludes with white evangelicalism and American exceptionalism to embolden antiBlack racism. The Alt-right forges ahead in full throttle to advance neo-conservative legislature overturning Roe v. Wade, banning books and critical race theory, protecting voter suppression, supporting gun laws, upholding law and order policies, and reinforcing other harmful policies. On January 6, 2021, white supremacists staged a coup at the State Capital and grossly undermined American democracy. The stakes of redressing white supremacist theologies have high stakes for laws and policies that are constituted by people who weaponize religion to oppress and harm Black people.

The life and ministry of Jesus reveal the theological and political requirements of a liberative faith. The historical Jesus was a brown Palestinian Jew who was ethnically profiled and arrested on trumped-up charges for his radical ministry that subverted dominant social norms. Jesus was persecuted and hanged on a cross between two criminals, and died a criminal’s death. Jesus preached that the poor (and not the rich) shall inherit the earth. He is recorded as communing across ethnic and gender lines, touching the defiled, turning upside down social orders so the last becomes first, and holding accountable the tax collectors and others who exploited the least of these. According to these subversive social teachings, the Roman empire charged Jesus as seditious. Ultimately, his radical ministry of resistance landed Jesus on the Roman empire’s most wanted list.

According to the Christian story recorded by the synoptic gospels, the arrest of Jesus led to a trial by the Sanhedrin and the judicial order for crucifixion by Pontius Pilate, the governor. Barabbas, a “notorious prisoner,” was pardoned. Jesus, however, who committed no crime was punished and sentenced to die an ignoble criminal’s death. However, after Jesus is executed by the State, one of the officials attests to Jesus’ innocence and mistaken identity. A Roman centurion who supervised the execution states, “surely this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39). Some scholars have viewed this as an admission that Jesus was innocent of the charges against him, and therefore falsely convicted.

The persecution of Jesus was not the last time an innocent person unjustly forfeited their freedom on death row or and by the death penalty, or wrongly sentenced. In fact, in 1989, five Black boys were forced into an illegal confession and falsely arrested, charged, and convicted for raping a central park jogger. They were dubbed as the Central Park Five. I lived in the same apartment building as three of them, Korey Wise, Yusef Salam, and next door to Kevin Richardson. I also lived in the same neighborhood as Antron McCray and Raymond Santana. 

Abolition is a matter of life and death. Our children and future generations are at risk of state and divine sanctioning of punishment and violence that will limit and foreclose their human dignity, civil rights, and freedom. Jesus was a first-century abolitionist. There is a theological mandate, as followers of Jesus, to do what Jesus did: to set the captives free. When Jesus reads from the scrolls of Isaiah in the Gospel of Luke to announce the purpose and inauguration of his ministry, he says “The spirit of the Lord is upon me. He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners…”(Luke 4:18-21). Against fundamental biblical readings of “slaves obey your masters,” Jesus conversely requires us to set the captives free. Any system that is not aligned with the goals of emancipation is the anti-Christ and must be abolished—including policing in antiquity and America.

[1] Douglas, Stand Your Ground, 46.