This week, the Senate is set to begin voting to confirm Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson's nomination to the Supreme Court. But I can’t stop thinking about Jackson's confirmation hearings in late March, which featured two different perspectives on personal harm and community rupture.
The first perspective was encapsulated by a line quoted in the hearings from a speech once made by Jackson: “all of us are more than just the worst thing we’ve ever done.” I know that line because it’s the creed I live by. I’m a pastor in the Mennonite church and my job is to create space for confession, return, and healing. We are people, and people hurt one another. When that happens, we have a choice: Do we use the resources available to us to name that harm and then create paths that point back to community? Or do we embrace the belief that there are people in our world who are expendable?
Oftentimes, the paths that point back to community are not easy. They require robust truth-telling and costly reparation. Sometimes, our communities will never look the same because the hurt is so deep. Alternative forms of care and community may be necessary in order to protect vulnerable people. Some relationships are going to end. Navigating these waters takes guts and forgiveness.
The second perspective on display can be encapsulated by the questions Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) put to Jackson during the hearing. Hawley claimed that Jackson’s consideration of a broad variety of factors in her sentencing of child sex crimes amounted to toleration of abuse. One of those cases, from 2013, involved a 19-year-old convicted of looking at images of child sex abuse. Despite the conspiracy theories that accused Jackson of being sympathetic to pedophiles, the rationale she offered to the Senate for why she settled on the conviction that she did was firm but fair: “I wanted him to understand that what he had done was harmful, that what he had done was unlawful, that what he had done violated the law and needed to be punished not only by prison, but also by all of the other things that the law requires of a judge who is sentencing in this area.”
At the same time, Jackson took into account the remorse of the defendant, Wesley Hawkins, and the seriousness of his emerging mental illness. After reviewing the evidence, Jackson spoke to Hawkins from the bench, “I do not believe that you are similar in intent or as culpable as some of the depraved older adults,” she said. Hawkins still served his prison sentence, he served time in home detention, and he was also sentenced to six years of supervision, spending his last six months of that supervision in a half-way house.
In a recent interview about his crime, Hawkins said: “When I got to a place that I could think about what I had done, retrospectively, I was disgusted,” he said, “and if someone else wants to continue to see me that way, I can’t stop them. But what I hope is that when people look over time they can see he was just a young man, that he’s grown and learned from his actions.”
Hawley's accusation that Jackson is soft on crime reveals a troubling perspective on people who enact harm. Hawley is one of several Republican senators who sorts the world into two types of people: People who are evil and, if given the chance, will commit horrific, reprehensible crimes over and over again, and people like the rest of us, people who need to be protected from the evil people. According to this line of thinking, ensuring this protection shouldn’t rule out the harshest measures of isolation and punishment the state can enact. We separate “them” from “us” by forever marking them as dangerous.
But the world is not so simple. I know it from a decade in church ministry. I’ve held the complexities of people’s marriages and families, I’ve helped people in negotiating ethical questions related to their work, and I’ve acted as a mediator for people processing small and big harm. I know it from years spent in ministry with women at our local prison, learning about the regret and shame they carry post-crime. They often articulate how incarceration offered no resources to repair the harm they caused and no way to return to public life with the support, accountability, and oversight they need in order to be integrated back into their communities. These women, my friends, live in a world absent of redemption.
When I hear about horrific, sometimes unimaginable crimes against vulnerable people, especially children, it’s easy for me to revert to wishing that these people be sent to a world absent of redemption. I’m a mother. I’ve watched a beloved mentor and an important church leader get caught in horrific, serial sexual abuse of women. My high school band director is in prison for child sexual abuse. I am raw with anger and betrayal.
All of that is real. The survivors and victims who came before Jackson’s bench deserve justice and safety. And while that is true, this is also true: Justice can also include repair and a return to the community for the offending party. If we want to deter harm and crime, then we must attend to social concerns like poverty and addiction. We can imagine a world where we invite one another to walk the paths of accountability and repair that lead to restoration. We can share in Jackson’s hope that we are not the worst thing we’ve done.