Answering the Call:
How the Church Can Respond to the Call to Defund the Police
Deirdre Jonese Austin
Growing up in the Black Church, I have been raised in a context in which call-and-response is invoked often. In call-and-response, a singer sings or a preacher issues a call, and others respond with an answer. One may greet another with “God is good all the time,” and the response would be “All the time, God is good.” The soloist may sing, “Swing low, sweet chariot,” and the choir may respond, “Coming for’ to carry me home.” While there are many ways to respond to the call, there is often one answer that is best. Today, organizers have issued a call to society to defund the police, and the question I hope to explore is how churches can not only respond, but answer that call.
On June 6, 2020, local black organizers issued a call to the mayor of Minneapolis, Jacob Frey, at one of the many protests following the killing of George Floyd by police officers on May 25, 2020. The call came in the form of a question: “Yes or no, will you commit to defunding the Minneapolis Police Department?” While Mayor Frey responded, “I do not support the full abolition of the police department,” he did not answer the call, for the call required more than he was willing to commit to at the time. Nevertheless, the call to defund the Minneapolis Police Department was heard by the Minneapolis City Council. They not only responded, but they answered the call and voted to begin the process of disbanding the police department the following day. This call to defund the police is one that is now echoing throughout the nation at Black Lives Matter protests and will soon be knocking on the doors of churches.
As I have come to understand through readings and interviews with notable abolitionists, defunding the police is about investing more in the community and working towards a society where police and prisons are no longer needed. In calling to defund the police, organizers acknowledge that the police have not functioned in a way in which all are included in those the police “protect and serve.” In many ways, black people have been perceived as the enemy or those others need protection from. The call to defund the police recognizes that the police have never made black communities “safer” and at times have caused more harm. It is the systems and institutions themselves that are built on faulty foundations and riddled with unjust practices that often disproportionately impact black people and people of color. Additionally, there is a recognition of the need to address the root causes of the harm and violence we see in society. Thus, we must invest in education, mental health resources, economic institutions, and more. To gain a true understanding of what it means to defund the police, we must do our research and commit to learning from those who have been doing this work.
The call to defund the police has been given, and it is time for churches to begin to reflect on the ways we can not only respond, but answer. First, churches must realize the limitations of their role as it relates to the call to defund the police. This call is not an invitation to co-opt or take over the movement, which has been largely led by black women and in some instances, queer black women. Yet, it is an invitation to join in solidarity with those who have been doing this work for years and even decades. It is a time to elevate and highlight the voices of those who have been doing this work, rather than to center our own. Churches must recognize that this is a time for us to learn from and listen to organizers and abolitionists, such as Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and Mariame Kaba, including Christian abolitionists, such as Micah Herskind.
Next, in responding to and answering the call to defund the police, we must acknowledge the harm that Christians have caused in supporting oppressive systems, institutions, and policies. Christians played a role in the development of the prison institution with its punitive function, even in efforts to reform. There are Christians who continue to support and defend the death penalty. While Christians have varying beliefs as it relates to policing and prisons, it is important to note that white evangelicals are more likely to support police as they are included in those who often perceive that they benefit from the presence of police and prisons. In addressing Christian support of oppressive systems, institutions, and policies, it is important to address the fact that Christians, including but not limited to those who support President Trump, have been supporters of “law-and-order” politics or politics that emphasize the need to be “tough on crime” and have contributed to the over policing of black communities and mass incarceration. Even black pastors were included in those who supported President Clinton’s crime bill. There are many churches and many individuals within the Christian community who support punitive systems, institutions, and policies, which at times, seem to contradict the messages of the Bible. Hence, the role of the Church in responding to the call to defund the police is all the more important.
In answering the call to defund the police, we must be willing to interrogate and examine the text we claim to follow — the Bible — and what insights it may offer. While abolition may be new to some, I recognize that there are Christians who have already been involved in this work. In completing research for this article, I learned of the group Christians for the Abolition of Prisons. In “A Christian Case for Prison Abolition,” Hannah Bowman, the founder of Christians for the Abolition of Prisons, addresses some of the ways in which the Bible can be used to understand abolition. Notably, Bowman discusses Jesus quoting Isaiah as found in Luke 4:17-21. Additionally, Bowman mentions the use of the Exodus story in understanding the call for liberation and abolition.
Moreover, we can look at scriptures on justice and vengeance to better understand the call to defund the police and abolish related institutions. The Bible repeatedly warns against responding to wrong with more wrong in the New Testament, and there are mentions of vengeance being the Lord’s in the Old Testament and the New Testament. In considering these scriptures, we can examine Romans 12:17-19 specifically: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” In these scriptures, we see a call to live peaceably and a warning against doing vengeance. Some commentators have interpreted vengeance as pursuing justice in a way that favor’s one’s self and/or is biased. In reading it this way, we can recognize the ways in which current punitive systems of punishment in policing and prisons seem to be people enacting vengeance, manipulating justice in a way in which it is biased and unfair. There is no justice in the current criminal justice system, especially around policing and incarceration, for black people and other people of color. Thus, this scripture seems to speak against punitive punishment and warns against avenging or employing biased justice. If we read the scripture in this way, we can better understand the case for the abolition of institutions that seem to run counter to the message of God and the justice of God.
As it relates to those who commit offenses, we can learn how to extend grace and show love by following the example set by Jesus. To begin, the scriptures in Matthew discuss the need to “love your neighbor as yourself.” In considering love, it is also worth reflecting on the Cornel West quote, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” We see Jesus offer justice and love in extending grace to the woman at the well. Not only is she a Samaritan (an enemy of the Jewish people) and a stranger to him, but she is one who has been divorced many times (it is worth noting that husbands initiated divorce for a variety of reasons, so the fact she is divorced provides little detail as it relates to her behavior and character). Yet, Jesus looks beyond her circumstances and invites her into the community of the gospel in offering “living water.” We see Jesus offer justice and love in extending grace to Zacchaeus, the rich tax collector, who was perceived as a sinner. In Jesus entering his home and inviting him into the community of the gospel, Zacchaeus is willing to be reconciled and repair the harm he has caused in saying, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Hence, offering justice and love and extending grace can even cause enemies to change. We also see Jesus offer justice and love in extending grace to the woman who was “caught in adultery” and about to be stoned. None can condemn her because they too have sinned, and thus, she is not stoned. Jesus has challenged the law of the day and introduced a new understanding. Additionally, Jesus then acknowledges her potential as it relates to living a different life going forward. What would society look like if we as Christians and as the Church decided to offer justice and love and extend grace to those who commit offenses? This is one question that can allow us to better respond to and answer the call to defund the police and the broader abolitionist call.
Furthermore, in answering the call to defund the police, we must be willing to do the work of helping those in our own faith communities reimagine what society can look like. We can do this by looking to abolitionists and restorative and transformative justice practices as well as referring to the Bible and the example set by Jesus. This will require that we come to understand in the words of Bryan Stevenson, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” In addressing harm and violence, we must be able to create and imagine institutions that address the root problems. We must be able to dream of a new future. As I sit and reflect, I imagine the following.
Education: In the call to defund the police, there is also a call to invest in educational institutions in a way that can counter the school to prison pipeline. Schools must be provided with the funding and resources needed for all children to be able to receive an equitable education, regardless of the demographics of the neighborhood in which the school is in. Additionally, cities must be willing to invest money in youth and young adults to contribute to the development of community infrastructure such as community centers. Support for education should continue beyond high school. It can entail more training programs for those entering more skill-based careers and college preparation courses for all students who desire to go to a college or university, regardless of their income level. Moreover, it should be ensured that students have the funding, resources, and support needed to be able to afford a higher education and be successful at a college or university. As it relates to policing and schools, rather than punishing students for certain behaviors and increasing the presence of police in schools, which often disproportionately impacts black students, schools should be provided with more mental health counselors and other community representatives to help address the root problems as they relate to student behavior.
Economic Systems: The call to defund the police requires a recognition of the role of education systems and economic systems as they relate to harm and violence, given those arrested multiple times tend to be unemployed and underemployed and also have less education. We can respond to this by ensuring that people have a living wage and can afford all their living necessities and even desired luxuries. There is also a need to ensure that there are jobs for people and social mobility is possible. Additionally, there must be affordable housing, and we must also be willing to address gentrification and displacement. Not only should housing be affordable, but all should have the housing and resources they need, specifically concerning those who are currently homeless. Thus, in imagining a different society, there is a need for sustained economic systems that are not dependent upon the exploitation and oppression of those within them. In helping people reach a point of economic independence, we will address some of the causes of harm and violence.
Healthcare: In answering the call to defund the police, there is a need to ensure that people have access to healthcare. In considering harm and violence, this is especially important for those who may have mental health concerns as they are more often killed and brutalized by police and incarcerated as a result of something as simple as a wellness check. There must be community members and mental health workers who are able to respond to crises in a way that considers the health and safety of all involved. There also must be loving and caring community institutions and support systems for those who need them.
Relationships and Mindsets: The call to defund the police requires some learning and unlearning of perspectives, mindsets, and prejudices. People must be willing to name and address oppressive forces such as anti-black racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, and more. We must teach the next generation what it means to love their neighbors as themselves and how they can show care and compassion to others. This is especially important as it relates to patriarchy, misogyny, and transphobia as many are incarcerated as a result of actions taken in instances of domestic violence and gendered violence. As it relates to domestic violence, there should also be an investment in resources and organizations that support those who are being abused as incarceration is not the answer. There should also be resources to address the roots of harm and violence as it relates to those who perpetrate abuse.
Accountability: The call to defund the police is a call to realize that punitive punishment is not often the answer as it does not repair the harm and/or offer the opportunity for reconciliation. In working to address the root causes of harm and violence, there is a need to address the offenses themselves in the meantime. There are restorative and transformative justice practices that work to hold people accountable while also repairing the harm caused. Restorative justice practices can be utilized in schools, justice systems, and more. In the case of an offense, the offended and the community play a role in determining what the means of accountability will be and how the harm will be repaired. It considers the needs of all the involved parties while specifically centering the victim. In imagining a better world, we must imagine a world beyond one that inflicts suffering as punishment, one that sees the potential and value in each person and looks beyond the worst thing a person has ever done. Transformative justice as a part of the abolitionist vision invites us to not only consider the ways that offenses can be addressed, but to work to end offenses, harm, and violence altogether.
Addressing Drug Offenses: In regards to drug offenses, one can consider the ways in which investing in other institutions can impact drug offenses. As the criminalization of drugs also disproportionately impacts black people and people of color, it is worth reconsidering the ways drugs are criminalized and decriminalized. It is also important to consider the ways in which drug offenses can be linked to substance abuse and addiction. This is the goal of some drug courts in which people are redirected to drug treatment programs. For those who need help breaking addictions and treatment, there is also a need for resources and programs to be affordable and accessible.
While these are in no way comprehensive, I have attempted to provide some examples as to what it means to imagine a new society. We must be willing to help those we serve and minister to both imagine different and to have faith that different is possible. We must lean into who we know God to be. We serve the creator of the universe and all that is on the earth. We serve the God who delivered the Israelites to freedom from slavery in Egypt. The God who parted the Red Sea so that they could cross. The God who used a small teenage boy to defeat a giant. The God who protected his people from the threat of a lion and a raging fire. We know the Jesus who healed people with just the touch of his garment. The Jesus who walked on water. The Jesus who brought the dead back to life. The Jesus who was crucified but rose from the dead early Sunday morning. If we truly believe God to be all we have claimed God to be, then we can surely imagine a world where we not only no longer have police and prisons, but a world in which they are no longer needed. A world without police and prisons seems impossible until we remember that we serve a God who can do the impossible. This is how we, as a Church, not only respond to the call, but answer the call. ♦
Deirdre “Jonese” Austin is a Master of Divinity student at Candler School of Theology. Her research interests include the Black Church and the intersections of religion, race, politics, and social justice, and you can learn more about her at DeirdreJoneseAustin.com.