Last Thursday, a group of about thirty students and faculty from the Mount attended a lecture by Bryan Stevenson in Frederick. Bryan Stevenson, a successful lawyer and the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, has dedicated his life to advocacy for those who face discrimination at the hands of our broken criminal justice system because of their race or socioeconomic status. If you are interested in learning more about Bryan Stevenson, he has also published a book entitled Just Mercy and has given a Ted Talk about injustice that I highly recommend!
In his lecture on Thursday, Stevenson spoke about issues related to racial inequality and poverty. He repeatedly made the point that there is “power in proximity.” By this, he meant that in order to truly understand the very real problems faced by humanity, we must make ourselves physically and emotionally proximate to these problems. We can no longer allow ourselves the luxury of analyzing the problems of poverty and discrimination from a safe distance because the reality is that these issues affect real people everyday – real people with real dignity who are worth our time and care. The implication is that proximity requires us to have authentic encounters with people unlike ourselves. Often, this means we have to make ourselves uncomfortable, to challenge ourselves to see the humanity in everyone. It requires us to suspend judgment, seek understanding, and offer hope.
In order to give hope to others, we must first have hope ourselves. Having hope does not mean that we ignore the brokenness in the world around us or even that we believe that someday it will be eliminated completely. These approaches would be naïve and unproductive.
Bryan Stevenson noted in his lecture that he has come to the realization that the people we seek to eliminate from society or those we ignore are those who are the most broken. This idea led him to another realization: he does what he does because he too is broken. Just like his clients, he is a broken person living in a broken world. He is representing people who are also broken and have fallen victim to a broken criminal justice system that focuses on punishing people for their brokenness instead of helping them to heal. To have genuine hope means to acknowledge that we are all broken, but to believe that our brokenness can unite us, inspire compassion, and that we have the power to leave the world a little less broken than we found it. To have hope is to believe that change is possible.
While we can all draw inspiration from the experiences of Bryan Stevenson, it is not enough to be inspired. Inspiration is only constructive if it is backed up by actions. With that being said, part of the beauty of people is that we all possess different gifts and vocations. Not all of us will be lawyers like Bryan Stevenson, called to represent minority populations living in poverty. And that is a good thing! The world needs doctors, accountants, teachers, social workers, and journalists who are dedicated to social justice.
So what breaks your heart a little extra? What lights a passion in you? And how will you use your gifts to change the world we all share? How can we, as a Mount community and as individuals, leave the world a little less broken?