Sustainable Activism, Prison Abolition, & the Spirituality of Recovery

We are excited to continue our Religion and Mass Incarceration: New Scholarly Directions series with a blog post from Mauricio Najarro on 12-Step Program spiritualities and our collaborative work of liberation and prison abolition!

Sustainable Activism, Prison Abolition, & the Spirituality of Recovery:
Christian Dispassion as the Affective Dimension of Liberation

by Mauricio Najarro

Photo by Skip Goodman,
Photo by Skip Goodman,

Confronting the problem of mass incarceration in the United States today requires not only commitment and investment, but also endurance, compassion, and humility. It is, however, very difficult to cultivate these virtues while honestly and courageously acknowledging the debilitating emotional reactions that accompany sustained contact with police brutality, radical socioeconomic inequality, and the disavowals and apathy that constitute the privilege of some achieved at the expense of others.

Theological reflection on liberation from enslavement to the emotional consequences of structural sin can provide orientation and inspiration leading to sustainable activism. Affective liberation, freedom for action and from affective attachment, has the ability to ground both conscientious educational initiatives inside prisons and spiritually nourishing activist movements beyond prison walls.

Working within prisons and towards prison abolition, while building communities and coalitions, demands a significant investment from individuals who are called not only to action but also to self-examination. Learning the truth of oppression often elicits a deep and debilitating rage. Anger, particularly in the form of self-righteous indignation, is a toxic fuel that poisons the communal atmosphere and corrodes the possibility of meaningful dialogue. Individuals both inside and outside prisons must transform their justified anger from self-righteous and corrosive indignation to orienting, productive, and enabling outrage. Outrage, unlike resentment, results in liberating praxis that recognizes the dangers of codependency in social justice work. Liberation in its broadest sense thus includes a struggle for justice within a freedom from affective attachment and codependent obsession.

Non-attachment, coupled with effective and vigorous action in the world, is the affective dimension of liberation that is deeply resonant with ethical and political dimensions of theological reflection originating in the work of Latin American liberation theologians and US Latino/a liberationist thinkers committed to critical thought and strategic interventions in the service of the brutalized and oppressed. Jesuit theologian Ignacio Ellacuría writes:

Liberation is a concept that represents the very essence of the revealed message and God’s salvific gift to humanity. That message and that gift may be viewed from other points of view, but if they are not viewed from the perspective of liberation, they remain substantially reduced and often mischaracterized.[1]

Drawing from the work of Paul L. Gavrilyuk, Angela Y. Davis, Ignacio Ellacuría, and R. Michael Wyatt, I present 12-Step Program spirituality as a model for the liberating praxis of sustainable Christian activism inside and outside prison walls. 12-Step Program spirituality, with “its somatic focus, its reservations about cognition, and its reliance on the mutually informing life of the group,”[2] offers unique and valuable insights into the daily discipline of freedom from active addiction and codependent obsession.

In my work, I recover Christian Patristic authors’ concept of dispassion (apatheia) as the affective dimension of liberation, enabling and sustaining the ethical and political engagement required of authentic Christian discipleship. Dispassion, which is never apathy, complacency, or inaction, can be understood as the freedom to feel feelings that do not control or determine behaviors. Contemporary ethical and political engagement requires the rigorously honest recognition of the dangers of codependence masquerading as Christian care. A dispassionate approach to activism requires a healthy skepticism regarding the vociferous and passionate enthusiasm that is often mistaken for deep and abiding commitment. Building coalitions and fostering relationships among unlikely allies requires both mindful discernment and the active cultivation of impersonal instrumentality. This is a kenotic emptying of selfhood and a rejection of an egotism that binds. Such an approach can be depicted as a grafting of the Patristic notion of dispassion to the practices of liberation — at once “physically concrete and spiritually open”[3] — of men and women in recovery from active addiction.


[1] Michael E. Lee, Ignacio Ellacuria: Essays on History, Liberation, and Salvation (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2013), Kindle Locations 812-814.

[2] R. Michael Wyatt, “Experience and Community: Twelve-Step Program Theory, American Pragmatism, and Christian Theology” (PhD diss., Emory University, 1996), 3.

[3] Wyatt, 199.

Mauricio Najarro is a doctoral student at the Graduate Theological Union

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