Speaking Sunday at SLC's First Unitarian Church, environmental activist-turned-theologian Tim DeChristopher said something that will come as a shock to many of his supporters—he will not pursue a pardon and would turn one down if offered.
His conviction in federal court makes DeChristopher a felon, meaning some states may bar him from voting and other civil rights and, to most of society, he will carry a social stigma for the rest of his life. But DeChristopher says his 21 months in prison taught him non-violent felons are an oppressed group—the victims of shame, racism, poverty and discrimination. Yet, many of his supporters and friends were astounded to learn he had made close friends in prison, he says. "The majority of felons are non-violent people like me. ... They'll live as second-class citizens, always remembered for the worst thing they did in their lives."
"I'm grateful for it (his incarceration)," DeChristopher said, explaining his lock up gave him time for reflection, tested his values and forced him to develop empathy for his fellow felons, a group that is misunderstood even by many liberals.
"The main thing that is taught by prison is shame," he said. "And it destroys people's lives."
DeChristopher challenged the church full of supporters who came to see him off to Harvard Divinity School to stop seeing non-violent felons—many imprisoned on mandatory minimum drug charges— as "the other." (U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder seems to agree.)
"I think this church needs to stand up on the side of this oppressed community," he said, urging the Unitarians to reach out to other freed convicts as they had to him.
DeChristopher, who went to prison for disrupting a 2008 federal oil lease auction in an environmental protest, also has a message for friends who think he "didn't deserve" to go to prison for his civil disobedience. In prison, he realized he also "didn't deserve" all the advantages he has had in life—including a privileged background, a loving family and a good education.
"I can't say I deserved those anymore than I deserved to go to prison."