Penitence, Plantation, and the Penitentiary: A Liberation Theology for Lockdown America (Harvard Graduate Journal)

In Penitence, Plantation, and the Penitentiary, the founder of Abolitionist Sanctuary, the Rev. Nikia S. Robert, Ph.D., interrogates Christian interpretations of punishment through atonement theories from the early church in the East and West by looking at the life, ministry, and death of Jesus in proximity to criminality. Dr. Robert argues that Anselm maintains a hegemonic influence on atonement theories, but the Eastern concept of theosis provides a helpful theological alternative that points toward abolition. To support this claim, Dr. Robert explores the ways in which Jesus demonstrates an act of restorative justice on the cross when extending salvation to a penitent thief. Jesus sees the divinity in this thief and restores him to the imago dei. Not just in death, but In life, Jesus’ ministerial purpose was to “set the captives free.” Moreover, one of Jesus’ requirements for discipleship was to visit the ‘least of these’ who are imprisoned. Jesus was surveilled, arrested on trumped-up charges, and persecuted by a State sanctioned execution as a criminalized, brown, Palestinian Jew. To resist the punitive forces of the Roman empires, Jesus became a 1st century abolitionist to transcend criminality. This is to say, Jesus died a criminal but did not wake up one. On the cross, Jesus provides hope for liberation over and against carceral systems of sacrifice.

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