The crowd in Clowes Memorial Hall on Oct. 5 likely would have been satisfied simply to hear Bryan Stevenson share stories about the experiences that have led him to become a best-selling author and highly sought-after speaker. And while he did include a few of the stories that contributed to Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, the audience was even more enthusiastic about the guidance Stevenson provided to those who want to reduce poverty and increase justice. What they heard was a call to do the difficult things that will drive real transformation. Following are a few of the lessons we learned listening to Stevenson.
Get close to those who need grace and justice. “We’ve got to get proximate,” said Stevenson, who learned on his first visit to a man on death row the power of simply being close to people. Being near enough to hear people’s needs, to hear their struggles and to hear their pain allows you to contribute to justice. “In proximity you’ll understand your capacity to be an agent of love in the world,” he said. “You’ll understand your power to make a difference in the world.”
Change the narrative. America has allowed its fear and anger to shape its culture … the same kinds of fear and anger that have fed genocide, the Holocaust and more. “Our atmosphere has been polluted by the narrative of bigotry and injustice,” Stevenson said. “We have to change this narrative.” How? By having difficult conversations and acknowledging our failings. “We’re going to have to talk about some things that our foreparents didn’t talk about,” he said.
Stay hopeful. If we are to change the fortunes of people who have been marginalized, we must imbue ourselves with hope. “We have to actually believe we can alleviate poverty, eliminate poverty,” Stevenson said. “We have to believe we can bring down the prison population, we have to believe that we can create a true healing in our communities when it comes to overcoming this burden of racial injustice.” Doing those things will make great things possible, he said, adding, “I really do believe that hope is our superpower.”
Live into brokenness. We are all broken, and it is in responding positively to brokenness that we can transform our world, Stevenson taught us. “It’s in the broken places that God’s love and grace can fill you up,” he said. “It is the broken ones who can teach us what it means to do justice. It is the broken ones who can teach us what it means to love mercy. It is in the brokenness that we begin to understand our capacity for redemption and progress.”
Do things that are uncomfortable. Intrigued by the power of doing the uncomfortable, Stevenson said, he did research on historic figures and moments of change and affirmed his hypothesis: “Good things have only happened when somebody did something uncomfortable and inconvenient.” The challenge, he acknowledged, is that we are “biologically and psychologically programmed to like comfort.” As a result, we must consciously choose discomfort and commit ourselves to doing uncomfortable things. Only then can we create transformation.
Change the way we think of incarcerated people. Somewhere along the way, our justice system forgot that it deals with people, Stevenson said, and came to believe that it puts crimes in prison, not human beings. “People aren’t crimes,” said Stevenson, adding a phrase for which he is well-known: “I believe that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve done.” If we will truly remember that those who are incarcerated are human, then we can no longer dismiss them as less than, and no longer sentence them to lives on the margins.
Do more for people coming out of prison. Our support for people who are incarcerated cannot end when they are released, nor should it wait to leap into action until they are settled into the community. “If we’re not actually sending people to be at the prison gate each day when people are walking out lost, confused, with no place to go, we’re not actually serving those in need in our community,” he said. “I think that no one should leave prison without someone being there to help them understand what the pathway forward might look like.” The church, he added, should be a key driver in this presence.
Give mercy to those people that society might consider undeserving. We might have greater success in fighting poverty, Stevenson suggested, if we worried less about economics and more about justice. “The opposite of poverty isn’t wealth,” he said. “The opposite of poverty is justice.” Where society too often fails is expecting people to somehow “deserve” the mercy and grace that supports justice. In this, we’ve got things backwards. “Mercy is what we give to the undeserving,” he said.
Become stone catchers. Citing the story of the woman who was about to be stoned until Jesus challenged the people by saying, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” Stevenson said that today we have too many people who believe they are worthy of picking up that stone. As a result, it isn’t enough for us to simply stand by and not cast stones. “We have to be stone catchers,” he said. “We have to stand in front of those who have been condemned … We have to represent what love and grace and mercy means.”
The church must lead in the fight for justice. Too often in the past, the church has stood by silently and watched injustice occur, justifying inaction and standing complicit by its failure to speak up. It must not do that again, Stevenson said. “This is not a moment for the church to be silent,” he said. “This is a moment of crisis.” As such, this time demands that the church speak out for those on the margins, take up the cause of those who face injustice, and demonstrate what it claims to represent. “What does it mean to be a loving institution?” he asked. “At the very minimum, we have to meet the needs of those who are vulnerable.”
Lindsey Nell Rabinowitch,
Director, CTS Faith & Action Project