Book Review: Break Every Yoke: Religion, Justice, and the Abolition of Prisons by Joshua Dubler and Vincent W. Lloyd

[1] After years of activism and protests, the simple statement “Black Lives Matter” became more than a hashtag or a chant. It made the leap from the streets to homes, offices, and institutions. It became part of our personal conversations and our national conversation. Even those who react negatively cannot deny it or make it go away. Decades of protests gained new momentum in 2014 and caught fire in 2020. The fight for racial justice was front and center and unavoidable.

[2] Well, some of it was front and center and most of it was unavoidable. Other parts of this fight became easy targets with our typical labels, “fringe” and “extreme.” “Black Lives Matter” seems to be more palatable to the culture at-large than “Abolish the Police” or its counterpart “Abolish the Prison System.” These ideas frighten many people. If change is scary, then surely large-scale cultural and institutional change is nothing short of terrifying. For many, the mere thought of a nation without its police and prison system is enough to induce panic. How dare we question our institutions, after all? This is the very foundation of the comfortable society we enjoy. It manages our anxieties and allows us to feel secure. How can a moral nation throw out such a core piece of its justice system and still claim to be moral?

[3] These questions allow us to ask a much more significant question: Is any of this moral in the first place? Into this moral dilemma step Joshua Dubler and Vincent W. Lloyd.  Their task in writing Break Every Yoke is formidable, since they are asking the reader to question a central, centering belief of America itself. Their effort joins a movement of theologians and ethicists determined to revitalize a core component of religious belief that is desperately needed: imagination.

[4] Dubler and Lloyd essentially ask the very simple question, “Is this the best we can do?” This is a smart approach that scholars and pastors would do well to emulate when approaching any closely held belief that few dare to even question. Listing the deficiencies of a system or idea raises peoples’ defenses. Inviting others to imagine the possibilities allows us to be realistic together while also becoming open to new options.

[5] Break Every Yoke is not a book that eschews reality. Rather, it embraces the full, complex reality of what it truly means to seek justice. With moral clarity, Dubler and Lloyd present a clear picture of the prison system and incarceration that most of us are happy not knowing. The popular approach to what are determined to be harsh, unavoidable realities is looking the other way. We do not want to know what war or prison are like. They become acceptable evils, which allows for enough moral relativity to discourage questions, transparency, or accountability. Even when the realities of prison are presented to us, they are often couched in the form of entertainment. Millions of people have watched “Oz,” “The Wire,” “Orange is the New Black,” “Rectified,” and other shows exploring the prison system. But they are “just TV shows,” so we choose what we take from them. We watch them comfortably as we pick and choose the lesson (or lack of lesson) we learn. Dubler and Lloyd offer no entertainment for us. They force us to see people instead of characters. Once the veneer is gone, the picture is clear and deeply uncomfortable.

[6] Break Every Yoke is built on a form of moral deliberation that begins with a simple question, usually in the “how can we be/say this and do that” format. Dubler and Lloyd ask, “How can we believe in forgiveness and redemption while maintaining and expanding a system that prioritizes punishment over rehabilitation?” Rather than allowing this deliberation to oversimplify, they give life to it while still maintaining the heart of its central inquiry into our shared values.

[7] Dubler and Lloyd are not historians, so the reader should not expect an exhaustive timeline of the prison system and its expansion. The history they focus on is that of why this happened, charting our religious and cultural beliefs, myths, and obsessions. Such an historical, political, and religious history helps develop the framework for meaningful religious, practical dissent. They argue that the culture shifted, which means that it can shift again. More than that, we can shift as a direct result of our intentions rather than waiting for a shift to happen.

[8] The challenge faced by Break Every Yoke is that of so many problems steeped in politics and muddied by religion: complexity. In some ways, an honest reckoning is the inevitable Achilles heel of such movements. We want a soundbite or a rallying cry or a simple ballot measure that will fix the problem. We want to be decisive and final, and we want to celebrate our victory. But we cannot fix the prison system or the justice system this way because, like all such issues, it was not created this way.

[9] Many readers will likely wish for a comprehensive action plan or some kind of guide to successful activism. But Dubler and Lloyd make no such attempt. This may frustrate. For other readers, like me, this will be refreshing and inspiring. Subverting the expected step-by-step guide or action plan, Break Every Yoke ends by encouraging the reader that the work is possible. The authors draw their own comparison to other massive undertakings, like addressing climate change, and make clear that no response is the worst response. Freezing in fear is more dangerous than reacting negatively. Disagreement creates dialogue. Inaction enables the problem to continue unchallenged.

[10] In their closing arguments, the authors work to humanize the scale of advocating for prison abolition. We are talking about people, after all, they remind us. “So long as we are trying to shrink the system and not to grow it, we should also feel licensed to try and fail, and to try again” (226-7). Here is the heart of prison abolition. The work begins with humanization. The prison system thrives when we define others by their offenses, allowing us to prioritize punishment and allow the destructive culture that grows in its midst. To see the person once again plants the seed for possibility. Dubler and Lloyd call this the opportunity “to respond—to prepare the world for the unpredictable, exuberant flow of divine justice, a justice not yet of this world, the justice each one of us is rightfully owed and rightfully owes in return” (227).

[11] As a call to moral imagination on an uncomfortable topic, Break Every Yoke is a stark but hopeful read. This is a natural complement to a book or study group that has read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow or any reader in need of a fearless guide on a topic few are willing to discuss.




Michael Pickett

Michael Pickett, M.Div., STM, is a former youth and campus minister dedicated to building transformative, healing communities for spiritual outsiders.