‘Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption’ by Bryan Stevenson: Introduction

“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

And sometimes, the worst things we’ve done are minute compared to the distorted things our systems do.

I started hearing about Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson last year when it popped up on year-end lists and some black legal scholars I follow mentioned it.  It’s a moving, humanizing take on mass incarceration and the criminal justice system, written by a lawyer advocate for prisoners, the great-grandson of slaves who went to Eastern and then Harvard Law, and ended up

In this introduction, he describes himself knock-kneed and out-of-place in law school, finding an internship and a clearer sense of purpose when he begins working with the Southern Prisoner Defense Committee– and encountering, in bolted down cells, the precious human contact of being face to face with prisoners.  He moves between his description of his first time meeting a death row inmate and the big picture figures and realities we’re starting to fathom, far too late: ballooning prison populations, 1 in 3 black men incarcerated at some point in their lives, a prison industrial complex riddled with moral and political corruption, and grievous sin for a nation with many of them.

if The New Jim Crow articulated our disease with prophetic truth, it feels like Just Mercy will pull on our consciousness and consciences with personal import and awakened compassion.  I’ll keep posting as I read.

(Shout out to New Hope Oakland, my church, for prompting me to read at last.)

Servanthood and Uncertainty

I always consider myself a servant of God’s, which is not to try to baptize all my work or words with sanctity/sanctimony or presume I speak for God, but just to say that it’s my primary role and obligation, as well as my highest honor in life, to operate in the service of a very personal, passionate, and powerful Creator.  St. Paul, who always introduced himself as a “servant” or “slave” of Christ Jesus, littered his letters with revealing honesty, self-doubt and abnegation, tinges of pride and wistfulness… in other words, he was utterly and unmistakably human, himself personal and passionate, sometimes plagued and sometimes maybe even petty.  But it seems to me God chose such a large personality (in a small frame, it seems, and sometimes in an unimpressive package– I always imagine Paul as a kind of Al Pacino of Saints) to commission as the servant of servant, the slave of all, in order to underscore a startling point: Servanthood is not to lack selfhood, but to sublimate it.  Christian spirituality, if it adheres to the recurrent claims of Scripture, does not involve the choking off of the quirks and vicissitudes of our individuality, but it does enrolling all of them in a refining school toward the likeness of a very multifaceted God with a very multifaceted goodness.  Being God’s servant does not require me to dismember the things that make me distinctly me, to disembowel what moves me, but to submit to the maturation process by which those things become channels of righteousness rather than pits of self-satisfaction.

I say that now because I’m finding myself in a strange and somewhat dark period of depression, when I’m still clueless about my future direction or my long-term calling, and uncertain how the small decisions fit in.  I’m always blessed to have some nice invitations and opportunities, but I struggle with making decisions because I’m not altogether sure what I’m supposed to be doing at this stage of life.  I find myself deficient at every turn, as a professional, as a husband, as a father, as a student, as a scholar, as a provider, as a minister, as a friend.  And yet, still wishing to fulfill all of those roles, I find myself fully accountable to none, and unable to answer to any of them adequately.  As such, I suffer from a divided sense of self, unsure of who I am and what I’m supposed to do, pulled along by random deadlines and sudden demands and disgruntled loved ones.  And my fleshly reaction to all this is to sink deeply into myself, to want to steal away.  To go full-bore into escapist obsessions.  To wallow in aggrandizement/pity.  To eat things with cheese melted on them.

All this because, no doubt, I’m undergoing a refinement process, whereby stepping into my primary role as servant of God means not losing who I am or what I’m about, but sanding down many sticky layers of ego that tarnish the solid spruce God can use to sculpt something of lasting value.  I’ve been depressed and confused because I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.  I don’t think God wants me depressed and confused, but he certainly doesn’t want me to think I know what I’m supposed to do.  One of our grand errors is to think that heredity is destiny, that our features determine our futures, that who we are delimits who we’re supposed to be.  Somehow, I’m supposed to pursue the things I am and the things I love, but also expect that those things are being boldly and brazenly revised by Someone with a better plan for me than I do for myself.

The one thing I’m supposed to be, then: a servant.

advent chore.

A Bonhoeffer sermon, on the first Sunday of Advent, 1933, starts with the picture of a buried miner hopelessly trapped, suddenly hearing the pounding hammer of a rescue party.  That is, Bonhoeffer says, Advent, impossible to ignore…”something different than you see daily, something more important, something infinitely greater and more powerful is taking place…”

It strikes me that only in fleeting moments am I something other than the numbed person “who [has] become so accustomed to their condition that they no longer notice they are captive.”  I only faintly recognize my poverty through my hubris, only rarely recognize that gray gnawing as hunger, rather than the addiction.  Or, actually, addictions, one layered atop the other.  Most of the time, “Your redemption is near” does fall on deaf ears and hardened heart, in my case.  Usually I manage to successfully drown out such consciousness with gadgets, budgets, widgets, or nougats.

But Advent is a rattle, an unsettling overzealous supernova lightyears away, a disruptive rumor, a faint, buried memory of the stories of ancient and eccentric myth-makers, threatening to take flesh.  Whenever I get as mired in what’s right in front of my eyes as I am right now, I am Advent-averse.

Could anything more wonderful than for everyone to do whatever they want to, myself above all, really exist?  Is there really any mystery more glorious than what revolutionary new functions the next iteration of the same gizmo will dawn into my life?  Any perfection more satisfying than the reinforcement of my own intellectual and moral superiority?

The glimmers of Advent answer, disturbingly, in the affirmative.  Goodness hearkens.  Redemption invites upturning, if I would dance.

Spiritual gifts, power, and restraint.

“What shall we say then, brothers and sisters?  When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation.  Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.”   -1 Cor 14:26

A dimension of the life filled with Christ is that the same dialectic that played out with Jesus–in full–plays out in us–in part and collectively.  I mean the dialectic of His charismatic power and His loving restraint.  To believe in Jesus as the Son of God is to believe–with a kind of giddy gladness even–that He had (and has) the power to heal, save, calm storms, multiply loaves, etc.  But though we might be giddy and delighted about these potentialities, He in His wisdom and kindness exercises restraint, primarily concerned not with flash or gratification, with instantaneous results, even frankly with our perceived well-being and ideas of justice.  These make us demand the exercise of these powers, demands which He must have perfect compassion for, when we cry for dying children, when we ask for renewed hope and opportunity, when we ache for equity.  Couldn’t God swoop His magisterial hand and clear away sin and abuse and violence, and banish pain and hardship?  Wouldn’t that be what a loving God would do?

But pictures of the meaning of His restraint remind us that what God is primarily concerned with is His ultimate project of redemption, which paradoxically relies on His great power but demonstrated in the most mundane and un-flashy of ways.  Jairus daughter is allowed to die as Jesus is slowed by a roadside bother.  Lazarus too, by His delay.  Wine, loaves, and fishes are transmogrified from nothingness– a few times; but meanwhile, many go hungry and listless.  Despite his public campaign, He asks again and again for His best prospective publicists to keep quiet about the mystery.  And of course, all this not to mention the greatest act of restraint, obedience unto death, not only the not-calling forth of angel armies against the centurions, but the ultimate submission to the very sharp edge of human limitation, death itself.  All of these, and many more, examples of Jesus’ restraint demonstrates that both the exercise of His power and the non-exercise of His power are purposeful.

And the driving purpose is the ultimate redemption of the human beings He loves so fully.  Jairus and Martha’s belief.  The crowd’s right recognition of God and goodness.  A salvation by faith and not coercion or manipulation.  These are the fruits of Jesus’ restraint, and they involve how fully He loves us because they are about us developing farther from the distorted, expectant, often petulant, sometimes faithless flesh-creatures we become towards the patient, loving, afflicted but joyful creation that we were made to be.

This power and restraint dialectic exists in the body of believers too.  It’s part of the gospel, I believe– maybe part 5 or 7, but part of it nonetheless.  Creation, sin, Israel, cross and Easter, Pentecost, and then the church being everything the church is called to be.  But as part of the same unfolding story, we are caught up in the same dialectic in our practice of Christian life together.  If our community of brethren does not welcome the exercise of charismata, of words of instruction and wisdom, of songs and tongues, of service and worship, from the diverse corners of His body, and we are caught up in personality cults and territorial disputes, then we have failed to see Christ’s plan of His power endowed to all His people, the authority granted by the Father to the Son through the Spirit unto we His children.  But at the same time, if we who’ve been given those gifts do not act with loving restraint for the prime directive of loving His bride, serving His mission, and manifesting His project, we are in error.

The question for us who have been undeservedly saved is, now that I have been granted these freedoms and gifts, am I cultivating them and exercising them with faith in their tremendous power?  And then, at the very same time, am I restraining them and attending to their appropriate exercise so that the point is not those gifts or my role, but the point is the good of God’s people?

Thoughts of 1 Corinthians 2:1-5

Because I’m reading 1 Corinthians right now, a snippet from the commentary that changed my life, Richard B. Hays’ First Corinthians commentary from the Interpretation series, on “Reflections for Teachers and Preachers” regarding 1 Cor 1:18-2:5…

“…preaching that focuses on the cross will not be comforting and cheerful.  Such preaching will take the full measure of human depravity and meditate deeply on the radical character of God’s solution.  No upbeat self-help message here!  This kind of preaching may sound foreboding, but in an age when we are surrounded on all sides by sugar-coated public relations hype and superficial gladness, the honest preaching of the cross will strike a responsive chord deep in the human heart.  We want to be told the truth about our desperate situation; indeed, only when that truth is told can the depth of God’s grace be rightly grasped…”  (p. 37).

There’s a fundamental revulsion in my gut when I think about “the full measure of human depravity.”  I think we all attach specific horrors that we cannot help but divorce from our own human capability, violence or hypocrisy or flagrant neglect that we must other-ize or else we could not live with ourselves.  Repugnant things you hear about human beings doing, you rightly disassociate yourself from them so that you can name them evil, as they are.  But taking “the full measure of human depravity” also means the measure that is within us, and to see also our complicity and embeddedness in the structures of sin that perpetuate harm and abuse to self, kin, groups, ecosystems.

The cross is God’s confrontation of our endless appetite for accumulation with a sacrificial act of dispossession.  The cross is God’s salve for our chronic self-destruction and proclivities to war with his relinquishment of defenses and submission to peace.  The cross is God’s shaming of our manipulative grabs for power with a faith-filled obedience.

prophetic peace and whitewashed walls

“Because they lead my people astray, saying, ‘Peace,’ when there is no peace, and because, when a flimsy wall is built, they cover it with whitewash…”  Ezekiel 13:10.

I come to this passage by way of Acts 23, where Paul retaliates verbally with dripping irony when the high priest orders people to strike him in the mouth, despite his innocence.  When Paul is condemned for speaking negatively against the high priest, he remarkably replies he didn’t realize he was speaking to the high priest, which is obvious because he’s a Torah-observant Jew, so of course he wouldn’t speak against the high priest as the Torah forbids, so he must not have known Ananias was the high priest.  Clever barbs, Paul.

I don’t think Paul’s clever for clever’s sake.  Spiritual and moral leaders become unrecognizable when cloaked in the  the sanctimonious falsehood of fear-driven peace.  In Ezekiel, religious dishonesty drives false prophets to claim visions of peace that are cover-up for spiritually desiccated and unjust practices.  In Acts, Paul the prophet confronts the religious leaders of his day for their pretenses of being God’s messengers, when they are in fact unwilling to imagine God breaking in through the person and way of Jesus.  Whitewashed walls pasted over crumbling corruption.

I am stung to the heart.  I usually wish to paper over conflicts with pastel board peace rather than bear through the painful work of carrying bricks or hewing stones.  I’m not even all that comfortable when prophetic voices point out that we are trying to pass off plywood as reinforced concrete.  “Stop harshing the temporary mellow,” I protest, only hesitantly if ever acknowledging the truth that truthtellers tell.  I fidget in my chair, ambivalent about whether to side and then appear sectarian.

I am no prophet.  But I recall that, in many ways, neither was Paul.  Yes, of course he was–seized with a message, unafraid to bear witness, specific about Jesus, bold in confronting corruption–but also, he was a builder, a collaborator, a maker of temporary installations propped up for ad hoc communities and commercial travelers.  He threw around his political weight, played the huckster, worked the angles, and did it deft and shrewd.  Right in this very passage.  But he is prophetic.  Prophetically seeing, prophetically discontented, prophetically unpeaceful insofar as whitewashed walls go.  Maybe Paul would suggest that not only does the Christian have the peace that surpasses understanding, but that the peace that falls within understanding’s boundaries is a “piecemeal peace…poor peace…” and maybe even fraudulent peace.

Disrupted, discontented, unsettled because prophetically, one cannot honestly grow comfortable with the whitewashing of culture, economy, politics, morality, spirituality.

wednesday is the start of it.

Here’s a particular train of thought.  I was listening to a news story about adjusting sentencing requirements for convicted criminals.  I had one of my typical responses, a moment of sadness at the thought of the victims of violent crimes and such, and then the thought that sentences were consequential to these (yes, “guilty”) people’s futures, even to their sense of humanity.  And then the thought of the ravaging effects of years of mandatory drug sentences, for example, feeding a prison industrial monster and, in many ways, dooming lives and hurting communities.  And then, bitterness that the white collar schemers, the Wall Street manipulators and shady big bankers, whose crimes are obscured by systems of respectability, but whose corruption usually does broader damage to society, escape prosecution scot free.  And then, realizing we are all complicit in systems of evil, of injustice, of de-imago-ization, of contributing to pain and death by our decision-making, indulgence, or complacency and neglect.  And then, moving out of the abstract, how despite my best efforts and all my theory/logy and such as a teacher and academic and church worker, I have reproduced so much hurt and hierarchy, so much exclusion and emptiness, by cutting words and misspent resources, by lustful acquisitions and flagrant wastefulness, by favoring the rich and mocking the down-trodden.

And then, the ashes feel right tonight.

a prayer for commons

How would you eschew, circumvent, sidestep, transcend the cultural battles, Writer in the Sand, Coin Flipper, Reviser of the Resurrection?  Blast the ignorance of us the ignorant, and do so with fingertips trembling with the power of compassion, of gut level pain for the cries of the dispossessed and the knots of the wounded, us all.  Teach us how to attend weddings and make them parties, libations following liberations, at the celebration of your secret presence.  But also, help us figure out how to tune a public speech–a hopeless cause, given the symbolic brutality of our political discourse, but then again, nothing is impossible for you.

Empire Criticism: McKnight on Wright

This is some biblical studies nerd stuff, but I’ve been very influenced by Empire Criticism, a current trend in biblical studies that reads a counter-imperial message in Jesus and Paul, and of course particularly the form that NT Wright has advanced.  Scot McKnight, a scholar and blogger whose subtlety I appreciate and interests I share, though I don’t always agree with his nuancing, edited a book on empire criticism (oversimplified: “taken too far”) and responds to Wright’s latest articulation (oversimplified: “not taken too far”) in a manner that I appreciate.  Holler back if anyone else reading this cares; to me, with my theological and spiritual interests, it’s of monumental importance.

From Common Prayer:

Make us worthy, Lord, to serve our brothers and sisters throughout the world, who live and die in poverty and pain. Give them today, through our hands, their daily bread and, through our understanding, love; give peace and joy. Amen.