The Rapidian

Ethics and Religion Talk: Should We be Abolitionists Today?

Amy C. asks, Are people of faith called to be modern day abolitionists today?

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at http://topics.mlive.com/tag/ethics-and-religion-talk/. More recent columns can be found on TheRapidian.org by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

/The Rapidian

[Note: Abolitionists are people who try to dismantle the institutions, such as the criminal justice system, that benefit from modern day slavery.]

The Reverend Colleen Squires, minister at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, responds:

“My direct answer is absolutely yes. The word Abolition often makes people think in the historical contexts of the 1860’s to end the practice and institution of slavery in the United States but it is also being applied to modern day institutions like the for-profit privately-owned prison systems, capital punishment, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agency and local policing.

“Most institutions will naturally or eventually come to an ‘end’ whether we engage or not. But to abolish something means to actively take part in ending a system. It is first to declare a stance against the practice and institutions in our society that are destructive, abusive, and target the marginalized people in our community and then it is to actively work to dismantle the entire system that supports the institution. It is to break down the structure so that it will never be able to function again. This is not a passive act. To allow something to merely end is a passive act but to abolish something requires us to actively take part and to get truly involved. And at times our involvement will come with some personal risks attached.  

“I do believe all people of faith are called by their religious traditions to be modern day abolitionists; to stop institutions in our society that are destructive, abusive, and target the marginalized people in our community. I know no faith that preaches to turn away from those who are suffering under oppression. Unitarian Universalists are called to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person, in Judaism Leviticus 19:34 states ‘You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.’ In Christianity Matthew 22:37-40 Jesus replied, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” In Islam, taken from A Divine Perspective on Rights: The Right of the Brother - He must help his brother whether he is an oppressor or an oppressed one. (Helping an oppressor means to prevent him from acts of oppression, but helping an oppressed one means helping him to get back what is rightfully his.) In Buddhism the Udana-Varga 5:18 states ‘Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.’ Hinduism, the Mahabharata 5:1517 teaches ‘This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you.’ And in Native American Spirituality, Black Elk teaches, ‘All things are our relatives; what we do to everything, we do to ourselves. All is really One.’ 

“Currently there is a call to abolish ICE in Grand Rapids sparked by the detainment by ICE of a US citizen and Marine Corp veteran Jilmar Ramos-Gomez. Nationally there are also calls to abolish ICE due to the inhumane treatment of children and families. As Archbishop and Nobel Prize Laureate Desmond Tutu has said, ‘If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.’ People of faith cannot remain neutral or silent.”

Rev. Ray Lanning, a retired minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, responds:

Historically, Presbyterians have been faulted because some of them saw fit to defend the institution of slavery as it existed in the American South before the Civil War. What is often forgotten is that other Presbyterians saw fit condemn slavery, root and branch:  “We declare that slaveholding—that is, the holding of unoffending human beings in involuntary bondage, and considering and treating them as property, and subject to be bought and sold—is a violation of the law of God, and contrary both to the letter and spirit of Christianity” (United Presbyterian Testimony of 1858).

So yes, today’s Presbyterian and Reformed Christians ought to be abolitionists, so long as this evil institution exists in any form, anywhere in the world. But to extend this obligation to lawbreakers and prisoners is a bridge too far. Convicts owe a debt to society, which they can repay in part by useful labor. If some are condemned unjustly or forced to labor under brutal conditions, these abuses must be reformed and corrected as a matter of securing justice for the oppressed. “The LORD executeth righteousness and judgment for all that are oppressed” (Psalm 103:6), and so must we.

Father Kevin Niehoff, O.P., a Dominican priest who serves as Adjutant Judicial Vicar, Diocese of Grand Rapids, responds:

“Yes! The Seventh Commandment of the Decalogue ‘forbids acts or enterprises that for any reason – selfish or ideological, commercial, or totalitarian – lead to the enslavement of human beings, to their being bought, sold and exchanged like merchandise’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, p. 580). The biblical source is Paul’s letter to Philemon, chapter 16.

“Any reduction of human beings to less than their dignity because of gender, ethnic origin, skin color, etc., is morally wrong. No human being is ever deserving of poor treatment.”

 

This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up in the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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