REFLECTION: Nicole Pressley

Cornell West famously reminds us that justice is what love looks like in public. As Unitarian Universalists, our work for justice is an expression of deep belief that all people are worthy of love and liberation. Today, that work often looks like resisting the criminalization of people’s identities, their bodies, and their communities.

In recent years, this has looked like Unitarian Universalists supporting people seeking, aiding, and performing abortions in Texas, Kansas, Michigan and Kentucky when abortion has been criminalized. We’ve raised money to bail out Black mothers and Water Protectors. We’ve supported ballot initiatives to decriminalize marijuana in Oregon and Colorado, and paid off fines so returning citizens can vote in Florida.

As a strategy, decriminalization sets us on course to heal, to be held accountable, and to be fully human with one another. Decriminalization cultivates the conditions for wider and deeper transformation. 

Decriminalization is a crucial response to the horrors of the prison industrial complex – the web of forces including the legal system, policing and law enforcement, and mass incarceration whose main goal is the oppression of many for the benefit of a few. Increasingly, our laws make it a crime to be fully human – to be homeless, to seek and provide healthcare, to ask for asylum or to migrate, to be Black or brown, to honor our children’s evolving genders, to teach the real history of this nation. In the US, the criminal-legal systems collude to diminish the power and autonomy of the body politic, whether by disenfranchising entire communities through mass incarceration and voter suppression, or literally wiping people out of existence through both death sentences  and extra-judicial killing.

But decriminalization isn’t only about policy wins; it is about the victory of literally being with our people once again. We get to embrace them when they are released from jail; we watch them grow up without the trauma of family separation or the death sentence of a forced pregnancy. We rally with them, side-by-side, to express ourselves through a democratic process in which we are all able to participate. Decriminalization is about fighting for a world in which our communities are whole and free – places that recognize and nurture the divinity within and among all of us. 

Criminalization is a fracture of relationship, codifying the belief that some groups matter while others do not. In a criminalized society, the State is empowered to target whomever it likes in order to justify its own existence and concentrate its own power. Not only is criminalization antithetical to our belief that all people have inherent worth and dignity, it is anathema to our understandings of consent, of democracy, and – perhaps most importantly – of covenant.

My favorite description of the transformative power of covenant is in Rev. Howard Thurman’s 1980 speech to Spelman graduates, “The Sound of the Genuine.” He talks about how we as individuals must find the “sound of the genuine” in ourselves as a journey of self-discovery, where spirit and purpose unite in a sacred becoming. But we cannot stop with the individual – it’s not enough to just engage in work that we simply find personally meaningful and fulfilling. Rather, Thurman suggests that what we most deeply desire is to feel both “completely vulnerable” and “absolutely secure.” He states, “I can run the risk of radical exposure and know that the eye that beholds my vulnerability will not step on me.” That kind of vulnerability and trust, however, can only happen when we do the hard work of healing our wounds – individually and collectively – and committing together to build a world in which all of us are free and thriving.

What if our work for justice were grounded in a fundamental commitment to dismantling oppressive power wherever it lives, including in ourselves? What if our commitment to “building a new way” unequivocally included a practice of solidarity with those who are most at risk, most targeted? What might we discover in ourselves, and in each other?

Thurman closes his speech, “Now if I hear the sound of the genuine in me, and if you hear the sound of the genuine in you, it is possible for me to go down in me and come up in you.” I cannot imagine a better description of the interweaving of interdependence, compassion, and worth and dignity to create the collective experience of Beloved Community. To get there, we must resist the tools and tactics of criminalization that devastate communities, and honor sacred covenants that call us to build anew, embodying our faith to create cultures of healing and conditions that look, feel, and taste more like liberation.

May we resist all systems telling the lie that safety comes from control and punishment, rather than healing and restoration. May our work for justice be rooted in an unwavering faith that all of us are worthy of love and liberation. May we–once and for all–commit to building a world where Tortuguita, Tyre Nichols, and so many more of our beloveds would be alive and thriving, today.

In faith and solidarity,

Nicole Pressley

Side With Love Field & Programs Director