The other day, my colleague, Rev. Robert Bushey, Jr., spoke at a vigil for two men who died in prison while awaiting trial.
Some people might wonder, “why bother speaking at an event like this?” or “why bother organizing an event like this?” or “but what about their victims?”
In 2000, I began working for a civil rights lawyer, and one of the cases that was just beginning when I started working for her was us representing six Black men who had been beaten and almost killed in prison. At first, I really didn’t understand.
My first thoughts (that I kept to myself) were something like “Really? What’s the point of this? Aren’t they in prison for a reason? Don’t they deserve whatever they get?”
Slowly, though, as I got to know these men from their letters to the lawyer and their phone calls to the office, I began to have a different perspective. Yes, they were in prison for a reason. Yes, they deserved punishment for their crimes. But no, they did not deserve to feel unsafe and did not deserve to get beaten up.
And these two men today didn’t deserve to die.
These were men who had made bad choices, no doubt about it. But they were also real people, humans created in God’s image, with names and faces and hearts and souls, who had their own hopes and dreams. I learned that Black Lives Matter before it became a well-known phrase.
Something else that people seem to forget is that when people are arrested, they have rights. These rights are not for people who do not commit a crime or who are not suspected of a crime. Rights are for everyone, and specifically for the potential of crimes being committed; a right to a speedy trial isn’t a right for someone who has no need of a criminal trial, but for someone who has been detained, awaiting their day in court.
Too often, I see people post that a person should just not have committed a crime. Well, yeah. But that is short-sighted, because in any society there is going to be crime. And if you were arrested for a crime, whether or not you actually commit one, wouldn’t you want to make sure your rights were being upheld?
Would you be ok with you or your loved one dying in prison while waiting for your trial?
It’s easy to put ourselves in the position of “I would never do what they did” and look upon criminals with judgment. So for those of us who would never do anything wrong and never get arrested, let’s ask this question:
- Jesus was arrested as a criminal.
- Jesus was flogged as a criminal.
- Jesus was put to death as a criminal.
The crowd wanted him to die. They wanted Barabbas, in prison for insurrection and murder, released.
While Jesus was on the cross, people taunted him. Mocked him. Told him to save himself. Instead, he stayed in solidarity with condemned criminals, identifying as one of them.
So back to the recent vigil.
These men had been arrested but not yet convicted of a crime. Does that make a difference to us? Or is any arrest a reason for a death sentence just because we think “they shouldn’t have done it.”
The crowds surrounding Jesus wanted him to die. They didn’t care if he was innocent or guilty. His acquaintances, especially the women who followed him, stood by him. They didn’t demand Rome’s crucifixion of him. They stood by him, watching, and later, caring for him. Joseph of Arimathea asked for his body, wrapped it, and put it in the tomb.
Why care for a criminal? That’s the attitude we have today.
Would we have had the same attitude in Jerusalem, as we watched Jesus dying on the cross?