Religion and Mass Incarceration: New Scholarly Directions

"Dust to Dust," installation by Hannah Bertram at Eastern State Penitentiary. Photo by Laura McTighe.

An Ordinary Kind of Ornament,” installation by Hannah Bertram at Eastern State Penitentiary. Photo by Laura McTighe.

Mass incarceration and, more broadly, the US criminal justice system are attracting an increasing amount of scholarly attention. From anthropology to sociology, from critical criminology to critical race studies, from literature to history, scholars are turning their attention to perhaps the most pressing social problem in the US today. What can explain the explosion in the prison population? What can explain the continuing, largely ignored violence of “justice” afflicting the most marginalized?

Religious studies scholars and theologians are beginning to address these same questions. We are beginning to ask whether there might be a uniquely religious history of mass incarceration. We are beginning to ask whether the theological significance of such concepts as law and justice, violence and peace has not so much been forgotten as it has been repressed or transformed. We are beginning to ask how religious practices, languages, and histories might be recovered in order to challenge the enormous injustices routinely enacted by the US “justice” system today.

In late October, 2014, we brought together, in Syracuse, NY, an exemplary group of the next generation of religious studies scholars and theologians: graduate students from around the country writing their dissertations on religion and mass incarceration. What made the conversation so exciting was not only the intellectual vigor of our discussion but also each participant’s deep commitment to social justice and grassroots activism.

The graduate students presented works-in-progress, often portions of their dissertations, and faculty experts responded, asking probing questions and suggesting new ways to broaden and deepen our conversation. Participants found the experience exhilarating and inspiring, and we look forward to continuing the work – both scholarly and activist work – in conjunction with the Religion and Incarceration Network in the months and years that follow.

In the posts to appear here in the coming weeks, these graduate students will be presenting summaries of their research projects. We believe that these projects will provoke and inspire, opening new ways to think about mass incarceration inflected by questions of spirituality, church history, political theology, feminist theology, and more. Sometimes the connections between these scholarly endeavors and grassroots activist praxis are obvious; in other cases, querying those connections may lead in unexpected directions. In all cases, we hope that these posts will encourage both scholars and activists to join in the conversation, whether in the classroom or in the office or in this blog’s comments section.

We are grateful to the Religion and Incarceration Network, the Syracuse University Religion Department, and the Central New York Humanities Corridor, through a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, for supporting this work. We are especially grateful to Laura McTighe, Joshua Dubler, Vincent Lloyd, and Debbie Pratt for providing the logistical support to make the event, and this blog series, possible.

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