Beyond Guilty: Longing for Abolition and Accountability

By: The JTM Team

If even our “victories” aren’t justice, how do we keep pursuing these important legal tactics in the movement toward racial justice, acknowledging their partiality and complexity, and still maintain our hope for justice?

“Nothing will lessen the pain of Ahmaud Arbery’s tragic murder, but today is a step toward justice for his family. Hearing the guilty verdict brought tears to my eyes. Injustice against Black people is the norm. We have much work ahead, but today offered a glimmer of hope.” – Barbara Lee, US Representative

“This conviction doesn’t change this country. This conviction doesn’t make this place less white supremacist. This conviction doesn’t and won’t change these men. This conviction doesn’t move us closer to abolition…Ahmaud Arbery deserved abolition and protection. We all deserve abolition and protection.” – Patrisse Cullors, author of When They Call You a Terrorist, An Abolitionist’s Handbook and co-founder of Black Lives Matter

The last months of 2021 saw a number of significant legal cases in the movement toward racial justice tried in courts across the country. From the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse to the trial against white supremacists in Charlottesville, to verdicts in the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and Daunte Wright, there have been long days of waiting to see how our legal system would navigate the racialized dynamics of these important moments of legal action. And, despite celebrations of “victory” in several of the cases – and alongside moments of anger and despair in response to the injustice of others – a general sense of dissatisfaction seemed to pervade movement circles. While we recognize the important role that cases like these have in setting precedent, in shifting expectations of accountability, and in requiring new standards for training, policies, procedures, and laws, the lack of restorative healing and transformative justice leaves many with a sense of disillusionment.

It is hard to celebrate guilty verdicts and sentencing decisions if our hearts are set on abolition. When we recognize the inherent inhumanity of the carceral system and its tremendous limitations in moving individuals and communities toward restoration, then it becomes difficult to revel in anyone’s incarceration. What is more, while there may be a sense that these legal proceedings provide some measure of accountability, we know that it is only partial. While individuals are having to face consequences for their actions, the systems that shape and support their actions remain untouched. As the Minnesota Attorney General pointed out, “I believe we have achieved accountability in this case. Accountability is not justice. Justice is restoration. Justice would be restoring Daunte to life and making the Wright family whole again.” So, how do we keep pursuing these important tactics in the movement toward racial justice, acknowledging their partiality and complexity, while still maintaining our hope for and expectation of justice?

In a recent reflection in her project, Black Liturgies, Cole Arthur Riley invites the holy practice of leaning into tension as a sacred space. In doing so, she opens us to the eschatological art of grounded hopefulness. For her, this practice of leaning into tension means, “It’s ok to look up from the debris long enough to catch your breath on something beautiful.” There is no denying the “debris;” there is no false promise that we have arrived at the realm of justice, love and liberation that God intends for us. But there is beauty and goodness with which to fill our gasping lungs. There are glimpses of grace that awaken our spirits if we are paying attention. Riley points out, however, that “finding the beautiful is not the same as naïve optimism.” The spiritual practice of already, but not yet, of living in the space between the goodness, beauty, and love we know in our bones and the long wait for justice to roll down, holds these experiences and longings together in a tension that is not resolved. “Beauty cannot be destroyed by sorrow, but sorrow is not to be destroyed by beauty. You don’t have to become numb to one to hold the other. They each grant the other the courage to remain,” Riley says. Perhaps practicing this eschatological courage to remain in the tension can form us for navigating our longings for something more than a guilty verdict.

The debris of injustice and suffering and the beauty of God’s goodness are not separate from one another, nor do we need to deny one to pursue the other. We know there will be more trials and more verdicts and more moments when what is supposed to be justice doesn’t live up to our longings for accountability and abolition. Perhaps it is precisely in these moments, in all their complexity and partiality, when we can lean into the assurance that there will also be more beauty, more goodness, and more freedom to lift up our hearts. So as we learn to practice the courage to remain in the tension, may this be our prayer:

“God of tension and beauty, we will not become numb to suffering. It seems there is so much at stake in the world and in ourselves, that to look away would be callous neglect. But sustain us, God. Give us the gift of the beautiful as we try to survive the tragedies of this world…Remind us…that our love, our lament, our rage, are each in their own way messengers of beauty in an aching world.” – Cole Arthur Riley


“Perhaps practicing the eschatological courage to remain in the tension can form us for navigating our longings for something more than a guilty verdict”

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