Jesus Saved an Ex-Con

Political Activism and Redemption after Incarceration

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Edward Orozco Flores
Religion and Social Transformation Series
  • New York, NY : 
    New York University Press
    , October
     2018.
     224 pages.
     $30.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781479864546.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Edward Orozco Flores’s new book, “Jesus Saved an Ex-Con,” is a timely account of political activism of formerly incarcerated people in the United States, many of whom are working to expand the boundaries of social and democratic inclusion. Flores documents faith-based campaigns in Los Angeles and Chicago against what he and his interlocutors call “records discrimination,” or the structural barriers that people with criminal records face which make it difficult or impossible for some to vote, find employment, or shed the stigma associated with their pasts. Flores draws extensively on the theologian Helene Slessarev-Jamir’s articulation of “prophetic redemption” (Prophetic Activism, NYU Press, 2011) to conceive of former prisoners’s activism in relation to their efforts for personal reform. In particular, Flores makes the case that political activism is closely tied to the recovery narratives that characterize many faith-based rehabilitation programs. Activists ritually recount not only their sins, repentance, and punishment; they also lay claim to a legitimate space in social and political life by insisting that they will “give back”—to help create a utopian future. In Flores’s telling, the logics of twelve-step programs, and other Christian rehabilitative programs, leave little if any distance between the personal and the political: redeeming one’s self is inextricable from efforts to redeem broader society by campaigning against violence, racism, and inequality.

Jesus Saved an Ex-Con opens with a chapter co-authored with Jennifer Elena Cossyleon and dedicated to explaining how faith-based organizations came to occupy prominent roles in, and adjacent to, US criminal justice systems. Flores and Cossyleon highlight the privatization of probation systems beginning in the late 1980s as well as the widespread use of public-private partnerships—after the 1994 Crime Act—under the rubric of “community policing.” Their descriptions of the machinations of key elite organizations—such as the Council of State Governments, the American Probation and Parole Association, and the Urban Institute—in shaping religious organizations’s involvement with criminal justice systems provides fascinating reading to scholars interested in issues of church and state, though the chapter misses some opportunities for examining religious groups’s consequential involvement with criminal justice in prior decades. In Flores’s telling, elite organizations’s decisions to partner with religious groups inadvertently created space for faith-based campaigns led by formerly incarcerated people. 

The book then moves on to further develop the idea of “prophetic redemption”—detailing how it takes different forms in cases from Chicago and Los Angeles. Flores argues that the Chicago organization he worked with, Fighting to Overcome Records and Create Equality (FORCE), epitomizes “insurgent prophetic redemption” in that its strategies for community organizing are based in confrontational tactics, issue-based organizing, and in discourses about zero-sum power. In contrast, Los Angeles’s Homeboys Local Organizing Committee (LOC) represents a case of “pastoral prophetic redemption,” and Flores highlights Homeboys LOC’s efforts to build collaborative relationships with elected officials and other faith- and community-based organizations. Flores attributes the groups’s divergent tactics to their respective religious origins, tracing FORCE’s genealogy to racial justice movements in Chicago’s Black churches and the Homeboy LOC’s to Catholic teachings and organizations, such as the Jesuit-founded People Improving Communities through Organizing. Speaking to scholarly concerns with social movements and civil religion, Flores illustrates how philosophies of community organizing and social inclusion draw on religious practices, theologies, and organizations.

Flores is an empathetic ethnographer and a candid writer. He makes the connections between redemption narratives and political claims clear in seven interview-based case studies in which activists explicitly link their projects of political activism to their efforts of personal reform. Yet the most compelling data come from Flores’s own activism with, and on behalf of, formerly incarcerated people. In one scene, Flores recounts a meeting he facilitated, between FORCE members and an Illinois state representative, to seek support for a bill that would, for certain types of offenses, seal criminal records. After the representative wrested command of the meeting from a caught-off-guard Flores, members of FORCE criticized his management of the meeting, saying that he allowed the representative to “take the power” away from him (99). In another, readers learn that FORCE’s leadership structure is modeled on gang hierarchies. The story is a wonderful example of how formerly incarcerated activists leverage their stigmatized pasts to make claims to social, economic, and political inclusion. 

Insight into the ways that recovery practices infuse former prisoners’s political participation outweighs, what I feel, is an overreliance on the concept of “prophetic redemption.” Flores uses the term in contexts when it may have been more accurate to simply note that the personal is entangled with the political. Similarly, Jesus Saved an Ex-Con, at times overstates the distinction between insurgent and pastoral prophetic redemption. As Flores illustrates with an account of how Homeboys LOC maneuvered to prevent an allied organization from speaking at a public hearing (134), both organizations he profiled at times embraced confrontational, zero-sum tactics, while also building collaborative relationships. The overarching argument—that political activism is an obligatory aspect of social reform and an avenue to social inclusion—is compelling enough to withstand a more critical analysis of prophetic redemption in its insurgent and pastoral forms. 

Jesus Saved an Ex-Con provides a crucial account of how, in the United States, religious ideas shape the tactics and goals of campaigns to expand the economic and political rights of formerly incarcerated people. The greatest strength of the book is Flores’s analysis of how recovery narratives encourage political participation—by insisting that “giving back” is a redemptive imperative. The book is also an urgent reminder that grassroots campaigns by and for formerly incarcerated people—not elite, top-down policy organizations—make up the heart of movements to end mass incarceration. Readers interested in religion and social movements, political activism, civil religion, and criminology will find this book useful and relevant.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Cyrus J. O'Brien is a postdoctoral Research Associate at the John C. Danforth Center for Religion and Politics at Washington University, St. Louis.

Date of Review: 
April 17, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Edward Orozco Flores is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Merced. He is the author of God’s Gangs: Barrio Ministry, Masculinity and Gang Recovery.

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