Last night I heard the clarion call of justice from the prophetic Bryan Stevenson, death row lawyer and author of Just Mercy, at B’nai Jeshurun with my book club. Here was his message:
1.Get closer to the poor.
2. Change the narratives.
3. Have hope.
4. Do uncomfortable and inconvenient things.
I elaborate on each point below.
- “Get proximate,” is the term he used. Stevenson talked about his grandmother’s hugs and how he felt her tight squeeze for hours afterwards. When they were separated, she would ask,”Do you still feel me hugging you?” We must, too, embrace one another. Even on her death bed, his grandma squeezed his hand.
2. Addiction and dependency are health care problems and the criminal justice system is not equipped to be a healing place for ill people.
We must not be governed by fear and anger, but by compassion for the suffering.
Also, children are not “super predators.” They are worthy of our protection — they must not be tried or sentenced as adults.
And, let’s face it, he said, we must recognize we live in a post- genocidal world. The United States has committed atrocities. Other countries — South Africa, Rwanda, Germany — confess and learn from their crimes against humanity. Citizens of the United States ought to remember and reflect on our history of the attempted extinction of Native Americans and the reality of the slavery of African Americans.
His remark on ‘making America great again,’ — ‘What decade, would, I, as an African American, want to return to?’ — drew applause.
3. “Injustice prevails when hopelessness persists – your hope is your superpower,” Stevenson said. As my friend Jean noted, this makes sense on a personal level, too. After all, we can not seek changes in our lives if we do not believe change is possible.
4. “Why do we want to kill all the broken people?” ‘It’s a broken system. We have to get to know each other — because we are all broken.’ Personally, I have always been against the death penalty because I have known that grace and redemption are possible. We must not look exclusively at what the indicted have done, but what we, as a society, are doing to the incarcerated. As a people, do we really want to kill people?
“The opposite of poverty is not wealth but justice.” And we cannot measure our success the same ways others do (simply by our financial gain).
In answering a question from the group about how to persuade people to our point of view, Stevenson spoke about meeting people where they are. Listening.
He noted that politicians have much trouble apologizing. “Saying I’m sorry does not make you weak. It makes you strong. We don’t do sorry well.” The crowd laughed when he noted that we can learn from couples married for 50 years: ‘They have learned to apologize.’
Stevenson said that the U.S. needs Truth and Reconciliation like in South Africa. This reminded me of the book, Dear White America: Letter to a New Minority by Tim Wise who starts by saying, basically, that as a country, we are asked to ‘Remember the Alamo’ and ‘Never Forget 9/11,’ but when the topic of systemic enslavement for hundreds of years of African American people emerges, white people, basically, say, “Oh, get over it!” This is why, I believe, his museum, The National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the lynching memorial, and the study of the history of Civil Rights work in Alabama, is so important. We must never forget. We must make amends.
Another take-away: “Ask not ‘How do I help?’ but, ‘How do I serve?'”
As for the question I asked (and others too) on the new make up of the Supreme Court, he said, “They (the justices) cannot be indifferent to suffering.”
I woke this morning with so much hope — hundreds of people were at this event and the message was energizing. Our book club even talked about heading to Alabama for a long weekend to visit the new museum.
If he’s ever giving a talk in your area, go learn from Bryan Stevenson, an amazing and motivating speaker. His delivery was impassioned; he spoke without notes and without rancor.
His message was clear: “Stay on the side of love.” ‘We cannot go to the side of hate.’ As for me, just for today, I will not give up fighting for justice. My dream is to someday see Bryan Stevenson on the Supreme Court.
Until then, my friend, continue to beat the drum for justice.