Chapel Talk delivered on Wednesday, January 8, 2020
I worried a bit when I heard Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson’s great book about his life and work at the Equal Justice Initiative, would be featured as a movie, and at first, so did Bryan Stevenson himself, writing: “I’ve seen films based on books that I’ve read, and I haven't felt that those films carried the integrity of the books or the truth of them.”
It was hard for me to believe that a film could honor the majesty and accomplishment of a subject such as this, for Stevenson’s work emerges from the heart, from the spirit, from his belief in justice, equality, and mercy.
Therefore I watched carefully as Bryan Stevenson and Michael B. Jordan came together and created a synergy, mutual respect, and reverence that find expression in the film.
I am excited that so many Americans and global citizens will see Stevenson as the worthy successor of the greatest human rights visionaries and reformers of the past, for I believe he is the most inspiring and important leader and voice in the 21st Century, a person who can lead us to a new expression of justice, mercy, and human rights in this country and the world.
His life, his values, his accomplishments, and his creations are compelling and authentic—they are ever expanding and developing. Stevenson awakens us from fear, paralysis, hypocrisy, and doubt. He can bring us together and affirm principles of human connection and human responsibility. And he invites us all to join him in this work.
This new decade we began days ago cries out for Bryan Stevenson’s energy and hope. In a powerful special edition of The Atlantic Magazine, editor Jeffrey Goldberg called together a number of prominent writers, scholars, artists, and commentators to share their observations on what he called America’s current threat of Civil War.
In his introduction, he writes the following description of American’s precarious position in 2020: “The structural failures in our democratic system...might be our gravest challenge. Or perhaps it is the tribalization of our politics, brought about by pathological levels of technological and demographic upheaval, and the tenacious persistence of racism. Or maybe it is that we as a people no longer seem to know who we are or what our common purpose is...The ties that bind us [as Americans] are fraying at alarming speed—we are becoming contemptuous of each other in ways that are dire and possibly irreversible.”
The writer Tara Westover contributes her perspective to this portrait of our time and country: she suggests that the country suffers from an “experience gap” that has now morphed into an “empathy gap.” She writes: “Social media has flooded our consciousness with caricatures of each other. Human beings are reduced to data, and data nearly always under-represents reality. The result is this great flattening of human life and human complexity. We think that because we know someone is pro-choice or pro-life, or that they drive a truck or a Prius, we know everything we need to know about them. Human detail gets lost in the algorithm. Thus, humanity gives way to ideology.”
She concludes: “Our political system requires us to have a basic level of respect for one another, of empathy for each other. That loss of empathy is what I call the breaking of charity: its a term associated with the Salem Witch Trials, and it refers to the moment when two members of a tribe disfellowship each other and become two tribes. That’s the biggest threat to our country...it’s the fact that the left and the right, the elite and non-elite, the urban and the rural—they no longer see themselves reflected in the other person. They no longer interpret each other as having charitable intent.”
The loss of empathy; the breaking of charity; the desolation of losing the common purpose of our democracy; the rise of racism, intolerance, and hatred—these are the challenges of the 2020 decade in American life. We as a school community must respond to these challenges in the days and months ahead.
Bryan Stevenson’s life and work respond to this broad American crisis in powerful and illuminating ways. He urges us to embrace proximity—a powerful concept that means embracing Westover’s definition of charity and St. Andrew’s own concept of grace. It means we can only know, appreciate, and honor one another when we close the ideological gap, the technological abyss, the elitist, the non-elitist echo chamber and seek to explore our common humanity and dignity.
When Stevenson spoke to us three years ago now, he reminded us that proximity means that we have to go to places, communities, and situations that at first appear to be dangerous and frightening. “To change the world,” he said, “we must be willing to connect, talk, empathize, appreciate, and understand the people and communities that make up our world.”
In Just Mercy, Stevenson honors his grandmother for teaching him the concept. He writes: “My grandmother was the daughter of people who were enslaved in Caroline County, Virginia. She was born in the 1880’s, her parents in the 1840’s. Her father talked to her all the time about growing up in slavery and how he learned to read and write, but kept it a secret. He hid the things he knew—until Emancipation. The legacy of slavery very much shaped my grandmother and the way she raised nine children. It influenced the way she talked to me, the way she constantly told me to ‘keep close’. When I visited her, she would hug me so tightly I could barely breathe. After a little while she would ask me, ‘Bryan, do you still feel me hugging you?’ I said no a lot because it made me happy to be wrapped in her formidable arms. She never tired of pulling me to her. ‘You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance, Bryan. You have to get close,’ she told me all the time.”
Just Mercy features the skill, courage, determination, and brilliance of Bryan Stevenson as he works tirelessly to save prisoners from the despair and degradation of mass incarceration and the death penalty; the book concentrates carefully on the case of Walter McMillian, charged with a murder he did not commit and sentenced to die after years on Alabama’s death row. But along with Stevenson’s reverence for and belief in the legal system’s capacity for change, for reform, and for enlightenment, the book features Stevenson’s love for and care of his clients and their families as fellow human beings. They change him; they move him; they give him grace; they give him the strength and courage to keep working despite the caseload, the multitude of people buried in the legal system calling to him for help. His clients become family members: he visits them, cares for them when they are ill, meets with their families and friends, understands the circumstances that led them to prison. He weeps and laughs with them. He experiences moments of grace in the most unlikely places and situations. Ultimately, Stevenson comes to the conclusion that being open to the broken nature of others opens him up to the essential brokenness in himself, for as he argues, “we are all broken, in need of love, support, and kindness. When we realize this elemental lesson, we can change the world.”
What makes Stevenson so inspiring and important to America is the very scope of his work and the energy and humanity he brings to each one of us. How large is his vision and aspiration? Consider the beautiful exchange between Stevenson and Rosa Parks, featured in the book: Rosa Parks asks the question we should be asking of ourselves every week, month, and year of our lives: “Tell me who you are and what you are doing.”
I love her question, for she perfectly reminds us that we actually have to be doing something, working on something much larger and more grand than ourselves. The work of course is yours to choose, but Parks might say that the work needs to be connected to relieving suffering, eliminating structures of intolerance and injustice, making the world a more kind and affirming community for all. That kind of life is open to us all.
Bryan Stevenson has a very good answer to the question. He responds: “Yes, ma’am. Well, I have a law project called the Equal Justice Initiative, and we’re trying to help people on death row. We’re trying to stop the death penalty, actually. We’re trying to do something about prison conditions and excessive punishment. We want to free people who are wrongly convicted. We want to end unfair sentences in criminal cases and stop racial bias in criminal justice. We’re trying to help the poor and do something about indigent defense and the fact that people don’t get the legal help they need. We’re trying to help people who are mentally ill. We’re trying to stop them from putting children into jails and prisons. We’re trying to do something about poverty and the hopelessness that dominates poor communities. We want to see more diversity in decision making roles in the justice system. We’re trying to educate people about racial history and the need for racial justice. We’re trying to confront abuse of power by police and prosecutors…Mrs. Parks leaned back smiling…‘Oooh, honey, all that’s going to make you tired, tired, tired.’”
It is interesting to note that Stevenson is skeptical of 21st Century citizens who declare that surely they never would have accepted the horror of slavery, lynching, or the Holocaust, had they been living at the time. He writes: “You can’t claim that today if you are watching these systems incarcerating millions of people, throwing away the lives of millions of people, destroying communities, and you’re doing nothing.”
Where does Bryan Stevenson’s brilliance, energy, optimism, humanity, and courage come from?
One day when he was quite young, Bryan’s beloved grandmother took him to Bowling Green, Virginia—she told him to bring his best suit for the occasion. When they arrived, Bryan followed his grandmother through the woods until they came to a shack. They entered together, and his grandmother told him to stay quiet and wait until he began to hear something. Soon, as the silence increased around him, Bryan saw his grandmother begin to cry, the first time he had ever seen her weep in his life. Bryan began to cry as well, but his grandmother squeezed his hand and again asked him to listen. When Bryan said that he heard nothing, his grandmother said, “Yes, you did. Yes, you did.”
Years later, as Stevenson began his work in Montgomery, he often visited the shore of the Alabama River, which was a major portal for the domestic slave trade. Stevenson narrates the following moment of epiphany: “And I was sitting down there one day thinking about my grandmother—that shack was the slave cabin where our father was born—and all of a sudden, sitting there, it felt like I could hear the sounds of enslaved people coming into that river. And I understood what my grandmother was teaching me. I can hear it. When I go into jails and prisons, there’s a sound and it’s a sound of suffering; it is a sound of agony; it’s a sound of misery; when you understand that, it will push you to do things that you otherwise won’t be able to do. There’s a history of untold cruelty that hides in silence in this country, and I think there are things we can hear in these spaces that can motivate us.”
Those voices, that epiphany expanded the scope of Stevenson’s vision to include America’s first truth and reconciliation project surrounding the history of racial oppression and violence and incarceration in our history. What Stevenson describes here as he looks into the river, as he stands in that shack with his grandmother, is what Toni Morrison called “rememory”—the process of recognizing, hearing, feeling, connecting to the souls, the spirits, the voices of the past that need our love and our redemptive mercy. Stevenson connects the movement from slavery, to the era of lynching and terrorism following Reconstruction, to Jim Crow and suffocating segregation, to the crisis he confronts: mass incarceration that now declares that one in three black men will be in prison in their lives. He decides that he has to do more than save lives on death row. He commits to saving the soul of America.
I cannot explain what it is like to visit the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. I would like to go with each one of you—the same way we are going to go to Just Mercy, the movie, on Friday. Stevenson envisioned the Memorial as a sacred space that would honor those lynched, silenced, forgotten.
As you walk the grounds, you see small memorials with descriptions like these:
- Private James Neely was lynched in Hampton, Georgia in 1898 for complaining when a white store owner refused to serve him.
- After an overcoat went missing in Tifton, Georgia in 1900, two black men were lynched, whipped to death while being interrogated in the woods.
- Fred Rochelle, 16, was burned alive in a public spectacle lynching before thousands in Polk County, Florida in 1901.
- After a white woman was found dead, two young black boys name Harrison and James Gillespie were lynched in Salisbury, North Carolina in 1902.
- Horace Duncan and Fred Coker were lynched in Springfield, Missouri in 1906 by a mob of 5,000 people.
- A lynch mob of more than 1,000 men, women, and children burned Zacheriah Walker alive in Coatesville, Pennsylvania in 1911.
- Mary Turner was lynched with her unborn child, at Folsom Bridge at the Brooks—Lowndes County Line in Georgia in 1918, for complaining about a recent lynching of her husband Hayes Turner.
Bryan Stevenson said his grandmother taught him to believe in things he had not seen. He said: “I had never met a lawyer before, certainly never a black lawyer, so I had to believe I could be one, even though I had never seen one. We had to believe we could create an institution that would help condemned prisoners in a state that was very hostile to condemned prisoners. We had to believe we could build a museum and create a national memorial that honors the victims of lynchings, even though there wasn’t really precedent for that.”
At the dedication of the Memorial, Bryan Stevenson spoke beautifully of course: He prayed, “God, we want every heart, every spirit, every mind, every soul that walks through this place to remember, but we don’t want them to just remember. We want them to be inspired, we want them to have hope, we want them to have courage, we want them to have faith; when they leave this place, we want grace and mercy and love to order their steps.”
But whether we make it to Montgomery or not, we all can learn to say, and mean it, No More, Never Again. We can learn to walk with grace, mercy, and love ordering our steps.