“Prisons are the new plantations!”

On mass incarceration as structural violence

by Rachel Bundang

This month at the Lane Center, we are hosting some events on the topic of race and incarceration. This is an issue that is emerging once again, not only because of the cumulative impact of incidents of police actions on persons and communities of color. More recently, it has come to light that Attorney General Jeff Sessions wishes to return to the practices of mandatory minimum sentencing from the drug wars of the 1980s and ‘90s which were so devastating to poor and minority communities.

As background to these issues, I wish to recommend the Oscar-nominated Netflix documentary 13th, by director Ava Duvernay (most recently known for the 2015 film Selma and the current television series Queen Sugar). The film is named for the the thirteenth amendment to our constitution: yes, it abolishes slavery, but it restricts the rights of those we consider “criminals.” From Angela Davis to Newt Gingrich and everyone in between, she interviews scholars, activists, advocates, and the incarcerated themselves, as well as their families, mapping out carefully and unflinchingly the ways that systemic, institutionalized racism, from the slavery era onward, and fear of black bodies in particular affect our justice system in the United States. She argues, in fact, that mass incarceration is itself a legalized extension of slavery, with specific impact on African-American men.

Periodically, throughout the film, with each presidential administration from Nixon onward, we see the exponential growth of the prison population as “law and order” policies and tactics get passed and enforced. Low-level crimes in particular are hit not only with mandatory minimum sentences, but also programs that reward police and prosecutorial toughness: plea bargains, stop and frisk, three strikes, and more. In addition, most convicts remain disenfranchised even after they have served their time and been released– they are denied the vote. Former prisoners also encounter difficulty finding work because their previous convictions make potential employers hesitant to take a chance on them. They are denied the opportunity to become self-sufficient, fully contributing members of society, and they risk recidivism in their efforts to sustain themselves given limited options. Families of the incarcerated are strained: prisons are often far away from home, phone calls can only be placed at price-gouging rates (for a literally captive population), and even upon release, they may be forbidden to have ex-convicts in residence with them in subsidized housing.

In a damning coda to the film, Duvernay also draws to our attention parallels between the mass incarceration of African-American men and the mass detention of (undocumented) immigrants. Companies such as the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and conservative organizations such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) build their repressive policies and practices into our laws and profit from undeniable of structural violence. It is a condemnation of our past and present practices, and a call to do better by the poor and marginalized among us.

Social Justice, Immersion, and Praxis

by Clarisse Bautista ’17


I participated in the Casa Bayanihan alternative study abroad program in which the experience is based on praxis and immersing oneself in the daily realities of the Filipino people of particular urban communities in Manila, Philippines. In three words, my semester long experience was challenging, intense, and life-giving. One of the most important things I learned was the notion that there is no substitute for contact. Often times we learn various concepts without really engaging reality. I think what makes an immersion experience so transformative is the fact that it requires one to be in contact with others in a way that encourages learning about and sharing in their experiences. Twice a week over the course of the semester, the students in my program would spend the day at our respective praxis sites. This routine allowed us to develop relationships with the people in our praxis communities and my experience in sharing in their daily realities helped me to form intimate bonds with individuals and learn more deeply about the struggles and joys they faced. By participating in their daily routines, conversing with them, and ultimately building relationships with one another, it allowed us to reach a point where we became more comfortable with each other and could feel open to share personal stories and experiences.

Something unique about my praxis site was that many of the families in the community had at least one family member who was abroad as an Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW) or had a family member who was a former OFW. Many Filipinos often struggle with finding work in the Philippines that can adequately sustain their families. This causes individuals to go to other countries as OFWs in order to find work so they can send money back to their loved ones. By the middle of the semester, I began to hear some of the stories and struggles of being an OFW or having a family member who was one. I learned about how the male OFWs in Saudi Arabia had to grow beards, the prejudice that Filipino men and women encountered there, and how OFWs had to assimilate to the culture and customs. I also learned about the children’s pain and confusion regarding the absence of a parent since some kids expressed envy about why their mother or father was not with them when they saw other children with both their parents. In addition, I gained better insight into why individuals decide to be OFWs which is mostly based on trying to alleviate their struggles due to their current socioeconomic situation as well as in hopes to give their family a better life by earning more money to send back to them.

Through their stories they shared with me about their personal circumstances and the decisions they had to make out of need, I learned more about the socioeconomic climate in the Philippines and developed a better understanding of why some of my relatives were OFWs. My praxis community revealed to me how they utilize their respective faiths as nourishment and resilience. They also showed me how they have such a strong community by being of service to each other because they understand one another’s situation and have a strong sense of connectedness. The relationships that develop from immersion experiences like this not only teach and encourage individuals how to be women and men for others, but how to be women and men with others.

Is it time to revise our courses on Catholicism and peace?

8218389431_04d155ae1d_mEarlier this year, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and Pax Christi International gathered with others in Rome to consider the Catholic Church’s approach to peace and invite the Church to deepen its commitment to the Gospel of nonviolence. Although just war theory was not the focus of the Rome conference, the most controversial aspect of the group’s final statement suggests that the Catholic Church should “no longer use or teach ‘just war theory.’”

As someone who teaches peace in the Catholic social tradition, I have been following the debate and considering the implications for my courses. And as someone who wrestles with the Christian mandate to promote peace in a culture marked by violence, I have been reflecting on this conversation as an opportunity to respond to the signs of the times.

There is widespread consensus among Catholic social ethicists that just war theory has been misused and needs to be revised in light of contemporary contexts. There is also a shared concern that few people have taken up the Church’s challenge to develop a spirituality and virtuous practice around peacemaking. But experts in Catholic social thought are divided on how to interpret the relationship between just war and nonviolence in Catholic social teaching and whether or not just war theory is compatible with Jesus’s nonviolent example.

Lisa Cahill, who participated in the Rome conference, points to the paradox that exists in recent papal teaching on peace. She offers examples of John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Pope Francis using “absolutist language” to condemn violence while at the same time permitting the limited use of force. How should Catholics experience this tension? In the Challenge of Peace the US bishops frame it eschatologically, “Christians are called to live the tension between the vision of the reign of God and its concrete realization in history.” While this might make sense theologically, it does not resolve the tension Cahill identifies. The question of how the Church as a whole and how individual Christians are called to witness to peace is subject to debate.

Some scholars of Catholicism defend the merits of the just war tradition. The problem with the Rome conference, according to Mark Allman and Tobias Winright is that it fails to take into account the limitations of nonviolence to protect the innocent. Similarly Roger Bergman cautions against rejecting just war theory as a resource for resolving international conflicts, where nonviolence has yet to be proven as an effective model. Allman and Winright argue that the conference overemphasized the papal shift away from just war theory in Catholic social thought while at the same time failing to highlight important developments in just war theory. They point to Bernard Prusak’s evaluation of contemporary approaches to just war theory. Prusak will present his research at the upcoming Lane Center event Catholic Perspectives on Peace, Just War Theory and the Power of Nonviolence.

In conversation with Prusak, Eli McCarthy will speak on his experience at the Rome conference and lift up the Catholic approach to nonviolence and just peace. For McCarthy, the Gospel mandate to embrace nonviolence should be reflected by the Church as a whole, not just by individual pacifists. He assumes, following examples of effective nonviolence, that the Church can embrace its responsibility to protect the innocent and promote justice without the use of force. Even if the principles of just war theory still have a place in international law, McCarthy contends that the Church should be a voice of nonviolence, conflict resolution, and healing.

We don’t have to look far to consider the significance of this conversation. The visual saturation of violence in the media—from cell phone videos capturing police brutality against people of color to images of Syrian children pulled from the wreckage of the latest airstrike—should compel us all to look wherever we can for resources to promote peace. As people informed by Catholic social thought lift up the tensions and insights of this tradition, it is an exciting time to enter the conversation.