“People are not crimes.”
That brief phrase has stuck in my mind ever since I heard human rights lawyer and best-selling author Bryan Stevenson speak during a public conversation with him on September 21 at Duke Chapel. In Just Four Words Stevenson, the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, shared an important insight into justice, mercy, faith and salvation.
“We [in the United States] have the highest incarceration rate in the world, and we have it because our policymakers actually believe they can put crimes in prison,” Stevenson said at the Seeking Justice and Redemption in the Public Square event, which marked the inaugural event of the William Preston Few was lecture. “I want them to understand that you can’t put a crime in prison. You don’t have the ability. You can only put one person in prison.”
“[People] can commit crimes, but they are not crimes,” he said.
People are not crimes! We should shout that from the mountain tops and on Abele Quad. Humans commit crimes, but ontologically they are not crimes.
In his book Just Mercy, Stevenson describes the portrayal of a man named Walter McMillian on death row. Stevenson’s experience of eventually proving McMillian’s innocence taught Stevenson the lesson that the criminal justice system “continues to treat people better when they’re rich and guilty than when they’re poor and innocent.” Another attorney told Stevenson early in his career that the death penalty meant “those without the death penalty get the punishment.” A system originally set up to reform people has turned into a den of dehumanization, especially of the poor. Our criminal justice system has lost sight of the distinction between the person and the alleged crime.
Another key moment for me in conversation with Stevenson was when he said he had an important lesson from a case where he failed to save a man from execution. His client was a man with intellectual disabilities who was not released from his death sentence. The two men had one last affectionate phone call before his execution. Stevenson described driving home that night heartbroken to hear a preacher on the radio quoting from the Bible, particularly 2 Corinthians: “Knowing that all things are for the good of Christ, I am quite content with my weakness and with insults. hardships, persecutions and disasters. Because when I’m weak, then I’m strong.”
At that moment, Stevenson said he realized that he too was broken and that it propelled him in his work for justice and mercy. “That night was powerful for me because it made me understand myself and my struggle and position myself among the broken… just how I felt in that moment,” he said. “Indeed, it’s the broken among us who can sometimes teach us what recovery is about—what salvation is about.”
Behind these ideas – people are not crimes and human brokenness – lies a deep sense of shared humanity. Despite all his degrees and accolades, Stevenson’s feet are grounded in his humanity. He recognizes that we are all broken, finite creatures.
Yet though people are broken, Stevenson does not suffer from hopelessness, which he says is the opposite of justice. He recognizes that we humans are not just broken; we are also beautiful and talented. Humans are not crimes because, at our core, we are not. We are more than any crime we may commit. We are more than any action or identity. We are human beings and as such we have dignity and worth, regardless of what the prison industrial complex may proclaim.
During our conversation, Stevenson referenced another encounter that shaped his career. He was a legal intern working in Georgia when he visited a man named Henry on death row to tell him he would not be executed for the next year. What was supposed to be a brief meeting lasted three hours. Stevenson writes of the meeting in Just Mercy: “It turned out we were exactly the same age. Henry asked me questions about myself and I asked him about his life. Within an hour we were both deep in conversation. We chatted about everything… I was totally engrossed in our conversation, we laughed at times and there were moments when he was very emotional and sad.”
Stevenson is even more impressed when Henry is tied up again and begins singing the anthem “Higher Ground” as he is being taken away. This song completes the shift in Stevenson. He says: “I didn’t expect that [Henry] to be compassionate or generous. I had no right to expect anything from a man sentenced to death. And yet he gave me an amazing measure of his humanity. In that moment, Henry changed my understanding of human potential, salvation and hope.”
Henry was accused of committing a crime, but he himself was not a crime. He was human and shared his humanity with Stevenson, who shared his humanity with all of us during the Few Lecture at Duke Chapel. That night he called us to a higher level. I hope that in the coming days and years we will put our feet up there.
Rev Dr Luke A. Powery is Dean of Duke University Chapel. His column runs every other Monday.
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