Union Theological Seminary Academics


Rima Vesely-Flad

Rima Vesely-Flad

Social Ethics
Theology Consortium


3041 Broadway
New York, NY 10027



Ph.D., Union Theological Seminary, expected 2013

M.Phil., Union Theological Seminary, 2011

M.I.A., Columbia University, 2003

M.Div., Union Theological Seminary, 2002

B.A., University of Iowa, 1997

Research/Teaching Interests

Social Ethics, Public Policy, Moral and Political Philosophy, Reformed Theology, Critical Race Theory, African-American History, Environmental Justice Movements, Buddhist Ethics


Title: Punishing Black Bodies: Race, Morality, and the Politics of Crime in U.S. Society


Gary Dorrien (Chair), James H. Cone, Euan Cameron, Eduardo Mendieta, James Logan

Statement of Research Interests

The United States supports the largest carceral system in the world: It contains less than five percent of the world’s population but confines twenty-five percent of the world’s prison population.  Black men are disproportionately impacted by the rise in mass imprisonment: One in three black men are in prison, on probation, or on parole.  Nationally, sixty percent of black men who have not completed high school have felony convictions by their early thirties.  In major cities targeted in the War on Drugs, as many as 80 percent of young men of African descent now have criminal records.  The dominant discourse today treats people in prison as offenders who have broken the social contract.  And yet, while volumes have been written on disproportionate black incarceration, there is little acknowledgment of how a moral politics of crime has been constructed and sustained.  Some sociologists—such Katherine Beckett, Bruce Western, and Devah Pager—have usefully analyzed racialized moral discourse in the politics of passing crime bills. Yet this same scholarship on contemporary social policy largely ignores the historical and ideological construction of black immorality.  To encounter substantial analyses of how criminality is associated with blackness, one must look to the fields of religious studies and philosophy.  Scholars such as Mark Taylor, James Logan, and T. Richard Snyder address the role of racism in moral discourse and contemporary mass imprisonment.  However, the religious ethics espoused in these texts is geared towards practicing Christians and does not address broader audiences of social science scholars and policy advocates.  Despite much excellent work on the expansion of the U.S. penal system, scholars of sociology and religious ethics have not yet fully explored how historical notions of black immorality shape current debates on crime policy.

My dissertation “Punishing Black Bodies: Race, Morality, and the Politics of Crime in U.S. Society,” explains the religious, philosophical, and historical background for disproportionate black imprisonment and argues that liberal criminal justice advocates fail to adequately address the construction of immoral black bodies in debates on crime policy.   My project begins by asking whether the policing practices of Stop-and-Frisk in New York City reinforce racialized moral consciousness in the public mind, and how liberal advocates address the moral subtext of the exercise of penal power.  When liberal reform advocates accept crime-and-punishment paradigms, they refrain from challenging dominant racialized constructs of immoral character and images of evil, and instead emphasize fairness, rights, and resources.  The liberal failure to engage in moral politics, I argue, focuses policy makers on criminal acts rather than criminalized bodies, and thus they do not effectively shift rates of black imprisonment.

I use the social theories of Durkheim, Foucault, Wacquant, and Davis to raise questions about how morality is encoded in criminal law and to query the social function of punishing black bodies.  I argue that contemporary discourse on crime policy reiterates two interpretations of Christian morality.  One upholds a punitive version of heaven and hell, and argues that individuals become good with the threat of punishment.  The other emphasizes social culpability for crime and disorder, and insists that the community is responsible for advancing moral behavior.  Contemporary mass incarceration institutionalizes the first worldview by harnessing sophisticated penal apparatuses to pessimistic interpretations of moral law, black bodies, and social order.  Indeed, this strain of thought exploits the image of an immoral black body incapable of adhering to social norms.  This representation, in turn, undergirds the passage of minimum-sentence drug laws, discredits rehabilitation programs, and functionally shifts the prison’s purpose from inculcating moral habits to managing waste—that is, tainted black bodies—in remote, rural facilities.  

While this strategy has devastated black communities and failed to adequately correct the social disorder it seeks to remedy, the alternative camp also lacks sufficient strategies, for it does not explicitly address the moral frameworks that justify disproportionate black imprisonment.  Using the social ethical framework of American neo-pragmatism, I illuminate the deficiencies in liberal approaches to crime policy.  I investigate the strategies of four New York City coalitions working against Stop-and-Frisk policies and ask how they engage the construct of the immoral black body, raise questions about the function of mass imprisonment, and use moral language in their quest to dismantle it.


Vesely-Flad, Rima, “The Social Covenant and Mass Incarceration: Theologies of Race and Punishment,” Anglican Theological Review 93, 4 (Fall 2011), 541-562 [Peer-Reviewed]

Vesely-Flad, Rima, “Confronting the U.S. System of Punishment,” Fellowship 77, 1-3 (Spring 2011), 3

Vesely-Flad, Rima, “Silence at the Root of Activism: Reflections on Challenging Prisons and Punishment,” Turning Wheel (Summer/Fall 2008), 42-44

Vesely-Flad, Rima, “Against Poverty and Prisons: Organizing to Restore Justice in America,” Fellowship 74, 1-3, (Spring 2008)

Vesely-Flad, Rima, “Disenfranchisement and Democracy: The Appalling Hypocrisy of a ‘Free’ Nation,” Fellowship 72, 9-12 (Fall 2006)

Selected Awards and Fellowships

2012 Fund for Theological Education Dissertation Fellowship

2011 Daniel Day Williams Fellowship, Union Theological Seminary

2011 Fund for Theological Education North American Doctoral Fellowship

2007-2011 Episcopal Church Foundation Transformational Ministry Fellowship

2007 Union Square Award for Grassroots Activism

2006-2010 Howard Moody Doctoral Fellowship, Union Theological Seminary

2002 Julius Thomas Hansen Memorial Award, Union Theological Seminary

2001 Third Wave Foundation Women’s Leadership Scholarship

2001 Davis-Putter Activist Award

1997 Fulbright Fellowship, Cape Town, South Africa

Teaching Experience 

From the Plantation to the Prison: Criminal Justice Policies, Visiting Professor of Public Policy, Sarah Lawrence College: Fall 2008, Spring 2009, Fall 2011

The Offensive Against Civil Rights: Crime Policy and Politics, Visiting Professor of Public Policy, Sarah Lawrence College: Spring 2010, Spring 2012

Prison Ministry and Advocacy, Co-Instructor, Union Theological Seminary, Fall 2008

Ethics and Public Policy, Teaching Assistant, Union Theological Seminary, Spring 2008

Sociology of Religious Communities, Instructor, Sing Sing Prison, Fall 2004 – Spring 2006

World Religions, Instructor, Sing Sing Prison, Spring 2005


Rima Vesely-Flad is a doctoral candidate in social ethics at Union Theological Seminary.   Her publications explore the influences of Reformed theology and Enlightenment philosophy on the development of Slave Codes, Black Codes, and contemporary criminal law, as well as the present-day expansion of the U.S. penal system.  She specializes in the History of Christian Thought, Religion and Politics, and Critical Race Theory.  In 2004, Rima founded the Interfaith Coalition of Advocates for Reentry and Employment (www.nyicare.org).   For several years, she led a coalition of direct service providers, advocacy organizations, and communities to faith to change barriers confronting people with criminal convictions.  ICARE currently serves as an online resource for activists and scholars.

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