I’m reading Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercy, A Story of Justice and Redemption. It is both brutally honest and extraordinarily encouraging. As Desmond Tuto says,
“Bryan Stevenson is America’s young Nelson Mandela, a brilliant lawyer fighting with courage and conviction to guarantee justice for all. Just Mercy should be read by people of conscience in every civilized country in the world to discover what happens when revenge and retribution replace justice and mercy.”
But this book is not all hope and optimism. For 30 years, Bryan Stevenson has listened to hundreds of horrific stories of injustice, lies, political cover-ups and corruption. He has worked with innocent people on death row whose trials were shams and mentally ill people who were thrown in the prison system because prosecutors and jurors just didn’t want to deal with them. And it eventually got to him. Here is his poignant and beautiful story about when he finally couldn’t take it anymore:
“I looked around my crowded office, at the stacks of records and papers, each pile filled with tragic stories, and I suddenly didn’t want to be surrounded by all this anguish and misery. As I sat there, I thought myself a fool for having tried to fix situations that were so fatally broken. It’s time to stop. I can’t do this anymore.
“For the first time I realized that my life was just full of brokenness. I worked in a broken system of justice. My clients were broken by drugs and alcohol, pride, fear, and anger. . . . by war, by poverty, by disability. In their broken state they were judged and condemned by people whose commitment to fairness had been broken by cynicism, hopelessness, and prejudice.
“. . . . It took me a while to sort it out, but I realized something there while Jimmy Dill was being killed at Holman prison. 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. . . . 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. You can’t effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression, or injustice and not be broken by it.
“. . . Thomas Merton said: We are bodies of broken bones. I guess I’d always known but never fully considered that being broken is what makes us human. We all have our reasons. Sometimes we are fractured by the choices we make; some times we’re shattered by things we never would have chosen. But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing. Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion.
Bryan Stevenson gives us a lot to think about here. Where are you broken? How did you become broken? Are you embracing your brokenness? Or are you reliving your anger and fear in your interactions with others, in your prejudices, in your need for power. Stevenson asks, “What would happen if we all just acknowledged our brokenness, if we owned up to our weaknesses, our deficits, our biases, our fears? . . . if we acknowledged our brokenness, we could no longer take pride in mass incarceration, in executing people, in our deliberate indifference to the most vulnerable.”