One of the best books I read during my sabbatical was a book entitled Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. A New York Times bestseller written in 2014, Just Mercy is authored by Bryan Stevenson, who is the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama and a professor at New York University Law School.
An accomplished graduate of Harvard Law School back in 1985, Bryan Stevenson likely could have found a job working with any law firm in the country or in a government position of his choosing. But driven by a lifelong passion to fight for those in society who are the poorest, the weakest and the most vulnerable, Stevenson chose instead to spend his life representing and advocating for people of color, people with disabilities, juvenile offenders, and other low profile defendants. Especially and specifically, people facing the death penalty in a criminal justice system where innocent people are sometimes wrongly accused and convicted, and too many fall victim to systemic bias and discrimination.
In the introduction to the book, Stevenson describes the two core beliefs that motivate him on a daily basis. First, “each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” And second, “the true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.” Those values are rooted in Bryan Stevenson’s faith…values that were taught to him and ingrained in him from an early age growing up in the African Methodist Episcopal church tradition.
Over the course of the book, Stevenson tells stories of some of the men, women, and youth he has represented. The stories are poignant and heartbreaking. The stories point out human injustice and lack of fairness in magnitudes that are hard to imagine. The stories make you shake your head, make you angry, make you want to do something to try and fix a process that fails too frequently.
As I neared the end of the book, I kept coming back to one lingering question. How does Bryan Stevenson do it? How does he maintain his stamina and his commitment and his optimism when the need is so overwhelming? And the defeats are so disheartening? And the victories are sometimes small and sometimes fleeting, but always hard to come by? What keeps a person like him going day after day?
In a moment of profound self-reflection, Bryan Stevenson answered my question in the penultimate chapter in the book:
“I looked at my computer and at the calendar on the wall. I looked again around my office at the stacks of files. I saw the list of our staff, which had grown to nearly forty people. And before I knew it, I was talking to myself aloud. “I can just leave. Why am I doing this?”
It took me a while to sort it out, but I realized something sitting there… After working for more than twenty-five years, I understood that I don’t do what I do because it’s required or necessary or important. I don’t do it because I have no choice. I do what I do because I’m broken, too.
My years of struggling against inequality, abusive power, poverty, oppression, and injustice had finally revealed something to me about myself. Being close to suffering, death, executions, and cruel punishments didn’t just illuminate the brokenness of others; in a moment of anguish and heartbreak, it also exposed my own brokenness.”
Bryan Stevenson and I do not have the same job or the same training. We don’t share the same life experiences and we look at human struggle from a different angle. Nevertheless, his confession about who he is and what pushes him to do his life work strikes a chord with me. As I reflect on my own life and ministry, the truth is that I do my work for the same reason. Because I am broken…
My own brokenness is not a concept I ponder often. Even though I know I make mistakes and get things wrong, it’s still the kind of thought I typically avoid. Especially in a suburban community like South Windsor, Connecticut, where many of us, myself included, go out of our way to give others the impression we have it all together. I know I, for one, like to appear as though I know what I’m doing and where I’m going and how I’m planning to get there.
The flip side of keeping up appearances for me is that it’s not easy or comfortable to admit shortcomings. It’s unnerving to feel exposed and vulnerable. Letting people see underneath the facade to the place inside where I hold onto insecurities and fears and doubts. I don’t know many people who are good at revealing those things.
On the other hand, I believe naming and claiming my own brokenness opens new possibilities for me in my personal and pastoral search for meaning and comfort and healing. And I trust the same is true for all of you as well. Every single one of us is broken by something. We have all hurt someone and we have all been hurt. We have all fallen short in different ways.
We have been broken by childhood abuse and trauma, by addictions of different kinds, by harsh words spoken in anger and by people we’ve trusted who have betrayed us. We have lost jobs and with it our sense of self-esteem. We have lost relationships and with it the security of companionship. We have lashed out against people we loved without provocation.
There were times when we clung stubbornly to our own sinful pride and arrogance, even when others could see we were hurting and begged us to let them in. The ones we love the most get sick and they’re involved in tragic accidents and they die and leave us behind. And what we took for granted is suddenly lost and shattered in pieces. You and I and millions of God’s people share the human condition of brokenness even if the degree of brokenness we have experienced during our lifetimes is not equivalent.
Noted Catholic writer and mystic, Thomas Merton, once said that we are all bodies of broken bones. Sometimes we are fractured by the choices we make. And sometimes we are shattered by things we would never have chosen. Yet our limitations, our imperfection, our human weakness enable us to nurture and to sustain our capacity for compassion. And compassion, for me, is right at the heart of ministry.
As Bryan Stevenson points out so eloquently, there is a strength and a power in understanding brokenness. For when we embrace our brokenness we create a need and a desire for mercy. And when we create a need and a desire for mercy, chances are good we will seek mercy.
Faith assures us that mercy is one of life’s greatest teachers. When we receive mercy or show mercy to someone else, we learn things we can’t learn any other way. We see things we can’t see otherwise. We hear things differently. And most of all, we recognize and honor the humanity that resides in each of us.
I wonder now that my sabbatical is over what it would be like if we acknowledged our brokenness more freely here in this church…I mean really tried to be open and vulnerable and admit our biases and fears and insecurities. I think it’s more of a process than it is a quick fix. But this coming week, for example, when we know our Jewish neighbors will spend time atoning for their wrongs over Yom Kippur, it might be a good time for us to do likewise. Maybe if we confessed our own failures, you and I wouldn’t be quite so eager to judge those around us. And we wouldn’t be so quick to label one another and to put one another in boxes.
Moreover, if we began by confessing to ourselves we could then begin to look even harder for solutions to the human problems that face us on a larger scale. Like reaching out to our sisters and brothers who have been stigmatized and violated on account of their race or their physical ability or their sexual orientation or their history of abuse and neglect…
In the end, even as we are caught in a web of hurt and brokenness, God reminds us in Jesus Christ that we are also caught in a web of healing and mercy. Even when we mess up and we don’t deserve love or reconciliation or compassion in that moment, mercy weaves its way in anyway. Mercy belongs to the undeserving. Mercy comes when it’s least expected. Mercy is strong enough to break through victimization and suffering. And mercy has the power to heal the harm that results from aggression and judgement and condemnation.
To put it simply, mercy is what keeps me going. It’s what keeps us going. Coupled with the realization that there is plenty more work for each one of us to do.
“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications. If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with you so that you may be revered.
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.” Amen.