Bryan Stevenson is an inspirational figure who founded and leads the “Equal Justice Initiative.” The mission statement of his organization reads: “Ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, challenging racial and economic injustice, and protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.”
The nuts and bolts of that sweeping statement is this: Stevenson defends those wrongly or unfairly convicted, especially those who are on death row. Troubling, recent studies reveal that since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, for every ten Americans put to death, one death row inmate is exonerated and released.
Stevenson has been instrumental in many of these exonerations, advocating for those convicted without proper representation; those condemned in spite of suffering mental illness; and those sent to death row for crimes committed while they were juveniles. He keeps taking the hardest cases because he believes in both justice and mercy – for all people – and because of his moral convictions.
Bryan Stevenson says, “The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.” This echoes the words of Jesus from Matthew 25, where he made clear that our spiritual destiny will be determined by how we respond to the “least of these” among us, those who are “hungry, thirsty, alienated, naked, sick, and imprisoned.”
In the ongoing debate about the death penalty I know axes are finely ground and wielded with point and counterpoint made, yet one must ask some basic questions: Does the death penalty actually work as a deterrent for crime? No. Is it fair in its application against African Americans and the poor? No. Can every person wrongly convicted be guaranteed an exoneration? No. Does the state’s execution of an offender relieve the survivors’ pain? No.
These are all soul-searching questions, but I am thankful that Bryan Stevenson brings his argument back to one of morality, character, spirituality, and yes, life. Christians use a phrase that is typically confined to arguments about the unborn: “The Sanctity of Life,” it is called.
“As beings made in the image of God, all life is inherently sacred and should be protected and respected at all times,” is the argument. Why is it so hard to make this application in the courtroom not just the delivery room? A “consistent ethical concept of life” would demand as much.
Maybe President Ronald Reagan said it best. Speaking of his evolving opinion on the “Sanctity of Life,” he said, “If there is a question as to whether there is life or death, the doubt should be resolved in favor of life.” I think that is the exact, moral stance for which Bryan Stevenson and his organization so tirelessly works and advocates.
And in a society filled with systematic injustice, retaliation, and death, those who seek life – life even for “the least of these” – provide a moral example for us all; and hopefully, show us the way toward a more merciful world.