Incarnation and Incarcerated Bodies


A course on the U.S. carceral state and followers of Jesus today.
This course creatively reworks the Christian idea of incarnation, “God becoming flesh,” in light of U.S. mass incarceration, police violence, the death penalty – in short, the U.S. carceral stater. It also examines the political dimensions of Christology, as they illumine issues in  contemporary mass incarceration. Special focus on what beliefs in “God becoming flesh” could mean in relation to the human suffering of long sentences, isolation and abandonment, rape, torture, and despair—and sometimes resistance and hope—in U.S. prisons and detention centers.

Theoretically, the technology of U.S. imprisonment is read as a site of crossing for white racism and imperialism; the historical backdrop is read through decolonial criticisms of the “coloniality of power” (Quijano, Mignolo, Matsuda). Theologial readings draw from diverse prison writings about Jesus, as well as from prison-related Christological reflections of Barth, Bonhoeffer, Moltmann, Ellacuria, Sobrino, and other theologians. Not only recommended for chaplains in prison ministries, but also for those seeking critical analysis of Christian faith in relation to the “1 in 100” U.S. residents now behind bars.



The antagonisms at work in U.S. prisons include the documented experiences of torture, rape, “harsh interrogation,” and solitary confinement – and the concentration of many incarcerated bodies of U.S. penal systems. The course traces how these experiences create other social antagonisms in the U.S., in collateral consequences of family suffering, neighborhood disintegration, and abandonment of social support for schools and social programs. Other equally important antagonisms also receive necessary theorization, namely, the relation of mass incarceration to the histories of (neo-)colonialism, empire and white racist legacies in the present.

The arts receive special analysis, especially the painting, music and other creative modes used by the imprisoned themselves to survive. We turn also to the arts of protest which prison activists use in seeking to stem the dramatic, harsh rise of U.S. mass incarceration. Special exploration given to possibilities of using the liturgical arts that christian communities might forge in relation to the challenges of U.S. mass incarceration.

Existing social movements are integral to the course, and made central to both theoretical analysis and new material practices for any future that promotes justice and a real peace for a society suffering the many “incarcerated bodies” of its time. Students set up task forces in the classroom that begin to bridge from classroom to social movement. We thus examine new theological understandings of Christian ideas of “incarnation,” alternative meanings for the long-running belief that “God becomes flesh.”