Just Mercy

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 3/6/16 reflecting on the spiritual crisis centered in our criminal justice system. It draws from the wisdom of author and activist  Bryan Stevenson.

All this year, our social justice committee has been working in collaboration with area UU congregations on educating, advocating and reflecting on the justice areas that intersect with the idea of just mercy.  Our denomination has been reflecting on the work of Bryan Stevenson – author of the book “Just Mercy” – and who is also the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, which fights poverty and challenges racial discrimination in the criminal justice system. Our social justice team asked me to dedicate a sermon to deeper reflection on the areas of criminal justice reform. Some of us have taken part in book discussion groups related to this, and we’ll have a panel discussion coming up next week here in our main hall as well. And although I encourage us all to read “Just Mercy”, I’ve also shared a TED talk with Bryan Stevenson to our Facebook page, that gets at the core of the message for those who won’t be able to find the time for the reading at present, but want to learn more. Our Director of Religious Education, Starr Austin, chose this TED talk for our youth groups to watch and discuss today. We’re all reflecting on this.

In the TED talk, there’s a moment where Mr. Stevenson talks about ‘how some people are educators, but compassionate educators can do more; that some people are doctors, but compassionate doctors can do even more.’ It reminded me of the time when I was a Hospital Chaplain – back when I was studying to be a minister. (We’ll circle back soon enough to the questions at the center of criminal justice reform, but I think this story might help us find our way.) As a chaplain, I was primarily supporting the children and youth in a pediatric ICU. I would go door to door and check in on the patients. Some wouldn’t want to speak, others desperately needed it. Out of respect for confidentiality and privacy, I won’t go into any real detail about the conversation. I recall once, going into a room where the teenager was quite ill. Sometimes I had an idea of who I was visiting, other times I would be walking in right after someone was admitted, without much warning. This was one of those times. The teenager was with their father and the youth had a rare illness that was causing their skin to come off in patches – falling to the floor. The medical community actually didn’t yet know what was causing it or what was actually happening. I am still grateful to this day that I didn’t gasp out loud.

There was absolutely nothing I was going to be able to do for this teenager. No good word. No great wisdom. I couldn’t even say that I had any real idea of what they were going through. This was completely beyond me. I would be able to walk away, maybe stunned, but I’d go back to my life, while this teenager was going to be dealing with an uncertain medical sentence for the foreseeable future. I remember getting on the subway later, and while looking at other commuters, wondering how people went about their normal days, as if what was happening at that ICU wasn’t happening. Well for most of us, it was out of sight, so it was out of mind.

Now, the hospital I was working at, generally was better than most hospitals when it came to their pediatric ICU. The doctors and nurses were warm and loving. But we all know of hospitals where that’s not necessarily the case. And even in the best of hospitals, sometimes human connection can be hard to find. The role of the chaplain is spiritual, but it’s also often simply human; someone there to make sure we all remember that patients are still humans too. For that teen – going through something we could never imagine for ourselves and never would wish on our worst enemy – I was just another person coming by to say the world is still here, they’re still who they are, and they are still loved. Some of us, maybe all of us in one way or the other, come to a point in our lives where we’re on the edge looking out wondering if we can manage this next impossible thing; having someone near to remind us that we are still connected, may make all the difference – even if it can’t be fixed. Compassion – we are better with compassion – both in the giving and certainly in the receiving. We can look at patients as people, or we can focus on the ailment to the exclusion of their humanity – numbers, policies and statistics over tears, hopes and fears.

Often, nationally speaking, when we talk about the criminal justice system and reform – we go to the place of numbers and policies and politics and punishment and strength and what may or may not pass as justice. It become debate points; intellectual bullets that get shot back and forth. We take positions, rather than continue to relate as people. Today, regardless of whatever your personal opinions may be, I’ll ask us all to try to enter into a sort of pastoral imagination. How would we engage with criminal justice if we were chaplains in the face of a life sentence we had no way of changing? Can we take our first principle seriously enough to go to that person remembering that they still have inherent worth and dignity?

Today, we’re not going to fix any policy or law. We’re not going to free anyone who has been falsely imprisoned. We won’t be able to go back in time and help that 13 year old – who was tried as an adult – wipe away their life-in-prison sentence. We’re the only Western Civilization that will sentence teenagers to life in prison – the only one. We won’t be able to change the reality of a nation full of death sentences – something that we know turn out to be wrong convictions 1 in 9 times. Imagine that – we still offer the death sentence even when we know they are overturned 1 time in 9. What hubris.

But we can reflect on the ethics of our criminal justice system. We can challenge ourselves to remain in that place of pastoral imagination – not allowing ourselves off the hook by pretending the human life that’s now behind bars is merely a statistic. That’s too easy to do for those of us on this side of the bars, and too horrifying for those forgotten on the other side.

Bryan Stevenson made a point for me that shook me to my core. I feel foolish for never thinking of it myself, but I guess I wasn’t raised to look for this sort of truth on my own. I think we need to do better as a people. I’ll paraphrase – He was talking with one German official about the death penalty and they said their country could never have the death penalty again – considering their history. Using a sort of pastoral imagination, Bryan reflected that right – a country that had a history of murdering jews could never trust itself to implement the death penalty – especially toward ethnic or religious minorities. He challenged us to think the same way considering our own history with slavery and lynching. When we know we have a history of slavery; when we know we have a history of lynching; when we know we have a history of voter disenfranchisement; when we know we have a history of water hoses and red lining (housing persecution) and school segregation and so on and so on – can we trust ourselves with the death penalty when it comes to African Americans? … We have serious reflection that must be done, and it’s long overdue.

Studying his words, I also came to realize we have blinders on when it comes to the purpose of the justice system. There’s a heavy focus on punitive actions; not restorative. You cross this line, or we think you crossed this line, and there are repercussions. But even the victims aren’t better off. There’s a focus on punishment, but no call for perpetrators to seek to do anything to make their victims better off in some way. Pastoral imagination again – why are we better off focusing solely on perdition, and not redemption or restoration? What does that say about us as a people?

It also traps us in a state of a sort of tunnel vision. The human being before us becomes solely about the crime they have committed. Yes, we can surely say violent crimes need to be handled with severity; but so many people are doing far too much time – if not functionally for life – for non-violent crimes. We can go to a knee-jerk place of imagining every prison inmate is there for violent crimes, but that’s simply not true.

Just six weeks ago, President Obama banned solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prisons. …This means that we were putting teenagers in solitary confinement! What are we doing?! The Washington Post reported the president’s words: “How can we subject prisoners to unnecessary solitary confinement, knowing its effects, and then expect them to return to our communities as whole people?” Obama wrote in his op-ed. “It doesn’t make us safer. It’s an affront to our common humanity.” … It seems to be that we as a people have so over-identified with the sense that any punishment we do must be inherently correct that we’ve allowed our nation to swing so far in a direction that defies common sense. It’s a punitive practice I would imagine done in fascist countries, not a leading democracy; but in 2016 it takes our President to stop tortuous practices being committed against juvenile inmates.

All this year, our denomination is wondering aloud, who are we in relation to criminal justice and what does criminal justice actually look like. Our social justice committee will continue to foster opportunities for deeper learning, and for action. It is for us to stay engaged. It may or may not touch directly on our own lives, but like doctors and educators from the earlier metaphor, as citizens we are better when we are compassionate citizens – and hopefully engaged citizens. This month we are beginning a time of reflecting on what it means to be a people of liberation. The first step may be in developing that pastoral imagination when others are speaking of their own bonds. Can we make room for seeing a wider picture, with a deeper heart?

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