December 16 – On Punishment

By: Dr. Sharon R. Fennema, Join the Movement Toward Racial Justice Curator, UCC National

O Sovereign God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people's prayers? You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure. You make us the scorn of our neighbors; our enemies laugh among themselves. Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved (from Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19).


“Abolition is an action world.  It is a daily practice…
Abolition is questioning ourselves first –
why we believe that prison is the only form of justice for people who live in the headlines like I once did.
Who taught you that prison was justice for any human?
…From where did you first hear that vengeance is what healing and accountability looks like in public?
Modern abolition requires that we ask these questions.”
– Marlon Peterson,
Bird Uncaged: An Abolitionist’s Freedom Song

A young person in my church community was recently prompted by an announcement regarding this Abolition Advent Calendar to ask the pastor about what abolition meant.  The pastor talked about the historical movement to abolish slavery and its connections to contemporary movements to imagine something beyond prisons, detentions centers and other forms of incarceration.  The young person responded, “but what about the people who need to be punished?” Asking this question and wondering about our own notions about punishment, accountability and healing are the place where modern abolition begins.

I’ve always been drawn to how complicated and multifaceted the psalms are – filled with deep and diverse emotions, powerful imagery, and heartrending prayer.  Psalm 80 is no exception.  As with many of these evocative verses, the poet songwriter of this psalm addresses a God who is both angry and metes out retribution and a God who restores life and protects God’s people.  Here the psalmist imagines that the struggles of the community are a result of God’s anger, divine retribution for some wrongdoing or breech of relationship.  But the psalmist also turns to this same angry God as the source of restoration, confident that the same God who seems to have turned their back on the people can also shine God’s face on them, offering restoration and salvation.  The Holy One who in one breath imprisons the community in struggle and suffering, with the next, breathes abolition dreams.  Our scriptures plant both seeds in us: the seeds of retributive justice and the seeds of restorative justice.

Contemporary abolition movements don’t ask us to erase these kinds of complexities.  Rather, they invite us to deepen our understanding of what guides us in this work.  They encourage us to delve below the surface, to find our core values, and to act in alignment with those values.   Abolition starts when we begin to wonder about what ideas of justice pulse in our veins.  So, what God have you come to know?  What song of justice sings in your spirit? What stories live in your bones about who deserves to be punished and how?  How have you and your understandings of accountability – the price of and penalty for wrong-doing – been shaped by the narratives of scripture and society?  Where do your abolition dreams start?


O Mystery beyond our words and understanding,
yet come to dwell among us in flesh and bone, body and blood,
we long to know you and your will fully and deeply.
Keep us attentive to your dreams of restoration and redemption,
your freedom songs, always unfolding in our midst.
Come to us, abide with us, our beloved, Emmanuel.  Amen.


Artwork: “Abolish” by Yohana Junker (discover more at:


"Abolition is about abolishing the conditions under which prison became the solution to problems, rather than abolishing the buildings we call prisons." – Ruth Wilson Gilmore

Take Action

Where Abolition Begins

  • Dwell: Listen to the “Moving Beyond Punishment” podcast with Miriame Kaba and consider the stories about punishment, accountability and justice that have shaped you.
  • Study: Journal, create a piece of art, or write your own psalm poem about this constellation of concerns. What did justice and rightness, restoration and forgiveness, accountability and healing look like in your family, your community, your faith?  What could they look like? What do you imagine God wants them to look like?
Listen to the Podcast

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