Monday, May 29, 2017

Mercilessness by Bryan Stevenson

Stevenson is the director of The Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, working on appeals for those condemned to death, juveniles serving life-without-parole sentences, and women jailed under laws that criminalize bad parenting or the murder of abusive husbands  and partners. The book exposes the mercilessness of the judicial system in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana and in the U.S. generally. He portrays the sense of helplessness, injustice, dread and plain terror experienced by African American communities when their members are  accused, incarcerated and/or executed without evidence and with few opportunities for appeal. He also describes the courage and resilience of folks suffering  almost unimaginably horrible conditions of poverty and repression; their capacity to maintain hope and to find redemption in understanding, and mercy. He describes the brutal futility of American prisons in the age of mass incarceration.

In perpetuating these injustices politicians, prosecutors, judges, prison officials and guards all seem to be operating in line with public sympathy and the will of the voters. But one aspect of the scenes and events that struck me forcefully was the passivity, unwarranted trust and sense of helpless subordination that characterized southern white society’s relationship to their  superiors. African Americans suffered the most under this hierarchal social system, but all seemed afflicted to one degree or another, to whatever degree they imagined they were free or self-determining. It was “only a pawn in their game” , a situation which Stevenson could have discussed at greater length, or drawn more vividly, in my opinion.

The book didn’t seem to me particularly  well written though what is to be expected from someone with a mainly legal education who life was so massively devoted to  work for thousands of individual clients ensnared in a harsh and insensitive judicial system? If he wants to describe events and his reactions to them over the course of thirty years in ways  that ordinary human memory would seem naturally unable to support, who can justly gainsay him?

Here is the passage where Stevenson gets closest to what might be said to underpin Justice in the best possible sense. See

 Paul Farmer, the renown physician who spent his life trying to cure the world’s sickest and poorest people, once quoted me something the writer Thomas Merton said: we are bodies of broken bones. I guess I’s always known but never fully considered that being broken is what makes us human. We all have our reasons. Sometimes we’re fractured by the choices we make; sometimes we are  shattered by things we would never 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.

We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and ,as a result, deny our own humanity . . .there is no wholeness outside our reciprocal humanity.

Is it really a question  of imperfection, of ‘shared’ experience’ or such a stark- one way or the other- choice?  Isn’t ‘brokenness’ a bit of a cop out, short-hand for something more complex and disarming?

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