What makes some people able to empathize more than others, able to help in dire circumstances, able to put the greater good above the personal good? Bryan Stephenson, founder of the Equal Justice Institute, fierce advocate against systemic racism, and criminal defense attorney for those on death row explains: “I do it because I’m broken, too.” That recognition of a common humanity and brokenness by a system that needs changing propels him to fight.
Who among us isn’t broken? Because we all are bound together, we all suffer in an unjust world. Because we all have known pain, we all have the capacity to put ourselves into the shoes of those hurting.
In his book, Just Mercy, Stephenson explains:
My years of struggling against inequality, abusive power, poverty, oppression, and injustice had finally revealed something to me about myself. 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.
We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent. I desperately wanted mercy for Jimmy Dill and would have done anything to create justice for him, but I couldn’t pretend that his struggle was disconnected from my own. The ways in which I have been hurt–and have hurt others–are different from the ways Jimmy Dill suffered and caused suffering. But our shared brokenness connected us.
Paul Farmer, the renowned physician who has spent his life trying to cure the world’s sickest and poorest people, once quoted me something that the writer 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’re fractured by the choices we make; sometimes we’re 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 all 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 humanity
…So many of us have become afraid and angry. We’ve become so fearful and vengeful that we’ve thrown away children, discarded the disabled, and sanctioned the imprisonment of the sick and the weak–not because they are a threat to public safety or beyond rehabilitation but because we think it makes us seem tough, less broken. …We’ve submitted to the harsh instinct to crush those among us whose brokenness is most visible. But simply punishing the broken–walking away from them or hiding them from sight–only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too. There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity.Just Mercy, by Bryan Stephenson
How many of the problems we face today can be mitigated by recognizing our common humanity, by following the Golden Rule of treating others how we would have them treat us, a tenet found in many of the world’s religions? How would we have others treat us if we were the elderly, the sick, the refugee, the hurt, the accused, the other? Each of us would benefit from considering things from this perspective. Bryan Stephenson continues:
Whenever things got really bad, and they were questioning the value of their lives, I would remind them that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. I told them that if someone tells a lie, that person is not just a liar. If you take something that doesn’t belong to you, you are not just a thief. Even if you kill someone, you’re not just a killer. I told myself that evening what I had been telling my clients for years. I am more than broken. In fact, there is a strength, a power even, in understanding brokenness, because embracing our brokenness creates a need and desire for mercy, and perhaps a corresponding need to show mercy. When you experience mercy, you learn things that are hard to learn otherwise. You see things you can’t otherwise see; you hear things you can’t otherwise hear. You begin to recognize the humanity that resides in each of us.
…I began thinking about what would happen if we all just acknowledged our brokenness, If we owned up to our weaknesses, our deficits, our biases, our fears. Maybe if we did, we wouldn’t want to kill the broken among us who have killed others. Maybe we would look harder for solutions to caring for the disabled, the abused, the neglected, and the traumatized.Just Mercy, by Bryan Stephenson
We are all broken. Some of us don’t acknowledge that. We have all hurt and been hurt. It is that humbling insight that can help us recognize our common humanity across all divides. If we just have the eyes to see and the ears to hear. Stephenson refers to an unnamed pastor who would preface singing: “The minister would stand, spread his arms wide, and say, “Make me to hear joy and gladness, that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.” Amen to that.
From Shari: It’s probably obvious from the long post how much Stephenson’s book has moved me. I recommend it to anyone and everyone. It is a masterful look behind the scenes of criminal defense work, as documented in the movie, but it also interweaves the history of systemic racism in our country and highlights many areas that need our focus.
I would love to have your thoughts on this in the comments. All thoughts are appreciated. It feels a bit like whispering into the wind to write a blog. I would love to hear your thoughts to build a sense of community.
All best, S