All the World's a Classroom
Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (Spiegel & Grau, 2014)
It has been a while since I’ve heard or read about a life so impressive as Bryan Stevenson’s, author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. His chosen line of work, or calling, is to defend the poor and imprisoned, individuals sentenced on death row, condemned children, the mentally ill—those who can not otherwise defend themselves.
Just Mercy is a memoir and social commentary that will sadden and madden its readers, but also will inspire hope and compassion, all to the author’s credit. Its main thesis convincingly establishes that the poor and minorities become the recipients of excessive punishments in the justice system, disproportionately, not necessarily because they are the guiltiest, but because they are defenseless and seemingly inconsequential. As a nation, we are largely oblivious to this inequity, because “injustice is easy not to notice when it affects people different than ourselves,” wrote Nicholas Kristof in his review of the book. Stevenson is that Good Samaritan who does not pass by.
The story of Walter McMillian forms the backbone of the book. McMillian spent 6 years on death row due to a series of false witnesses and systematic disregard of credible evidence that he was innocent. He was wrongly convicted of a murder of a white woman, a convenient scapegoat, becuase his public reputation was already tarnished due to an affair with another white woman. McMillian was black, and this was Alabama in the 80’s.
Stevenson’s tireless efforts in McMillian’s defense helped free him in 1993, but freedom couldn’t erase the trauma of being in death row nor promised him life as before. He parted ways with his family, even though they loved and supported him, as the social and emotional costs of being associated with him became too much to bear. The rest of his life was a struggle, with Stevenson being one of his only close friends until he passed away in 2013.
McMillian and Stevenson’s many other clients become Stevenson’s arguments that reveal flaws in the justice system. Children tried and convicted as adults, ending up in adult prisons and suffering sexual and physical abuse; women inmates raped by prison guards, especially those who are mentally ill, and ignored; young people spending years or decades of their lives in solitary confinement, 23 hours a day. There is also a lack of infrastructure to rehabilitate the imprisoned to re-integrate into society… Stevenson and his organization, the Equal Justice Initiative, are determined to fix these things towards a better society.
I was pleasantly surprised to find Stevenson’s voice narrating his own audiobook. This first-person account has had quite an effect on me, and I’ve come to find him as a beacon of compassion. The amount of sympathy this man has toward those whom we largely overlook is admirable. He believes that we are all “better than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” and the bravery he shows to persevere in his lifework is a symmetric reflection of his belief. I feel privileged to have spent a few days with this memoir and to get to know its worthy author.
“Ultimately, you judge the character of a society, not by how they treat their rich and the powerful and the privileged, but by how they treat the poor, the condemned, the incarcerated.” Bryan Stevenson
Watch his TED talk here:
Originally published here.
Updated and revised. A continuation of the thoughts in a previous post, Human Strudel.
Studying the Israelite sanctuary system is like opening a treasure box. There are many glowing things to behold, and each time something different shines more brilliantly than before. Much of the language in the New Testament is infused with elements from the Old Testament sanctuary system, and understanding the mechanisms of the sanctuary unlocks many ‘hidden’ facets of Biblical passages.
Doves in the Temple
Recently, one small piece of the sanctuary system has had a deep impress on my mind: the doves. There was one particular event in the life of Jesus where He stood in the temple and with authority, kicked out the people who had turned the temple into a marketplace. The commodities were sheep, ox, and doves – animals that were to be sacrificed in the temple as offerings for sin.
And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, and said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves. Matthew 21:12-13. (Also see Mark 11:15-17, John 2:13-16)
It is interesting that in these passages, those who sold doves were particularly singled out. The words “My house shall be called the house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves” were particularly directed to them. Why?
Back in Leviticus, we learn that lambs were not the only animal offerings for burnt, sin, or trespass offerings. In Leviticus 5, for example, one could bring turtledoves for sin and burnt offerings if he could not afford to bring a lamb. “And if he be not able to bring a lamb, then he shall bring for his trespass, which he hath committed, two turtledoves, or two young pigeons, unto the Lord; one for a sin offering, and the other for a burnt offering” Lev 5:7. Further, if he could not afford turtledoves, he could bring an ephah of fine flour (v. 11).
Thus, the people who were selling doves were not selling to the rich and affluent; they were selling to those who had little money. The buying and selling in the temple gave occasions to greed and fraud where the poor were taken advantage. On top of that, the Pharisees convinced them that they would not be worthy of forgiveness without the sacrifice. No wonder Jesus was not indifferent to this situation, to say the least.
Poverty and Jesus
In Luke 2:21-24, we read about the time when Jesus was brought to the temple as a baby. His parents, as they consecrated Him to God, brought two turtledoves as sacrifice, telling us something about their socio-economic status. This was Jesus Christ, in whom dwells all the fullness of God! God was not joking when He said, “though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9)
When Jesus said, “My house shall be called a house of prayer,” he was quoting the passage in Isaiah 56, which probed the question, Why did His mind think of this passage?
3 Neither let the son of the stranger, that hath joined himself to the Lord, speak, saying, The Lord hath utterly separated me from his people: neither let the eunuch say, Behold, I am a dry tree.
4 For thus saith the Lord unto the eunuchs that keep my sabbaths, and choose the things that please me, and take hold of my covenant;
5 Even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place and a name better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off.
6 Also the sons of the stranger, that join themselves to the Lord, to serve him, and to love the name of the Lord, to be his servants, every one that keepeth the sabbath from polluting it, and taketh hold of my covenant;
7 Even them will I bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer: their burnt offerings and their sacrifices shall be accepted upon mine altar; for mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all people.
8 The Lord God, which gathereth the outcasts of Israel saith, Yet will I gather others to him, beside those that are gathered unto him.
God’s house, the temple, is supposed to be a refuge for people from all nations and tongues, especially those who are outcast, who don’t belong anywhere else, and who have no other home. It is His prime interest to gather all of these people in His house, where He will give them a name, a family, and security.
So, when Jesus saw men standing in between God’s house and those whom He wanted to gather, men who made merchandise out of mercy, salvation, and grace, ‘the zeal of God’s house ate him up’ (John 2:17). It was antithetical to what God wanted to do in His temple, that system that was divinely inspired for the purpose of reconciling sinners to God. That structure was a shadow of Jesus Himself, in whom we all are reconciled with God.
The buying and selling were antithetical to the sanctuary; it was antithetical to Jesus’ mission.
In kicking the sellers out, Jesus was saying, “This is not what I’m about, not what my Father is about.” Justice was restored, and those who were held afar from God by the sellers drew near to His presence.
God is not a respecter of person. In a world where affluence makes social status, this truth is entirely wonderful. It makes absolutely no difference how much money one has; God’s acceptance is full and free all the same. And God is serious when anyone tries to convince people otherwise.
“…if you are a Christian, you ought not to consider poverty a crime.” Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre.
Leading up to GYC: Before Men and Angels, it seemed more than fitting to embark on a year-long project to read the Conflict of the Ages (COTA) series. Hence, back in January 2013, the time when all resolutions were made, I began reading Patriarchs and Prophets with others who made the same commitment. And as group efforts usually go in the 21st century, a Facebook group was born.
The COTA series is a treasure chest of truth and wisdom. Here are the few gems that I personally gleaned from reading the series this year:
1. God’s Concern for Man
Unlike the Hellenistic gods of mythology, the God of the Bible does not dwell in the lonely splendor of heaven aloof from our history. He is deeply concerned with humanity and is affected by our acts, our prayers. Our predicament is His predicament. Our sin grieves Him and our faith gladdens Him. His thoughts are about the world. In fact, it’s a wonder that God has time for the unfallen worlds given His preoccupation with humanity. God’s divine pathos towards humanity is a Biblical fact.
For thus says the high and lofty One
Who inhabits eternity, Whose name is Holy:
I dwell in the high and holy place,
And also with him who is of a contrite and humble spirit,
To revive the spirit of the humble,
To revive the heart of the contrite. Isaiah 57:15
2. The True Witness of History
“The Bible is not man’s theology but God’s anthropology.” – A. J. Heschel
God is the true witness of human history, thus His Word testifies most truthfully about the plight of men and nations. The Bible records the fall of its celebrated heroes. The wisest man in Israel and all the super stars of the Bible, save Jesus Christ, fell. The evil kings in Judah and Israel outnumbered the righteous ones, and the righteous ones were faulty. Yet one thing remained constant through the passing kings and kingdoms: God’s law. His Word survived periods of history when it seemed like no one abided by its precepts. The trend of the time never changed God’s testimony about His people. To this day, we hold the testimony that they “did evil in the sight of the Lord.” Evil does not become good when everyone does evil, because God holds the standard of justice and righteousness. God’s law never changed and it never will. God’s Word is infinitely more trustworthy than the most trusted man.
3. The Way God Sees Things
“The apostasy of Israel was an evil more dreadful than all the multiplied horrors of famine. God was seeking to free the people from their delusion and lead them to understand their accountability to the One to whom they owed their life and all things. He was trying to help them to recover their lost faith, and He must needs brings upon them great affliction.” Prophets and Kings, p. 127.
This is one of the most shocking quotes to me. The horrors of famine in the Old Testament were horrendous, to say the least. Yet in God’s estimation, infidelity to Him was even more horrendous. We are callous to apostasy, injustice, and cruelty of man. Infidelity to God’s Word is society’s norm, and we think it a light thing to disobey God. Yet in God’s eyes, sin is exceedingly sinful, and He would rather sacrifice something physical to achieve something eternal.
4. The Education of the Universe
“God could employ only such means as were consistent with truth and righteousness. Satan could use what God could not—flattery and deceit. He had sought to falsify the word of God and had misrepresented His plan of government, claiming that God was not just in imposing laws upon the angels; that in requiring submission and obedience from His creatures, He was seeking merely the exaltation of Himself.” Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 42.
Satan accuses God of injustice and self-exaltation, and the apparatus of evil is more diverse than the apparatus of goodness. Satan makes claims that falsify God’s word. He makes statements that contradict what God says. As a result:
“It was therefore necessary to demonstrate before the inhabitants of heaven, and of all the worlds, that God’s government is just, His law perfect. Satan had made it appear that he himself was seeking to promote the good of the universe. The true character of the usurper and his real object must be understood by all. He must have time to manifest himself by his wicked works.” Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 42.
In the face of Satan’s accusations, God takes it upon Himself to demonstrate, by words and action, over a long period of time, the falsity of His opponent. Out of all the options to handle rebellion (e.g., ignoring it, quieting it, taking a hands-off approach and letting everyone figure out who’s right), God chose the one option where He ultimately paid for Satan’s rebellion and the sin of mankind. In fact, God is wooing His own creation to believe Him, convincing men and angels that His government is just, His law perfect.
Such is the humility of God. Who is before men and angels? God is.
5. The Humility of Christ/Why Jonah was Angry
Jesus commissioned the disciples to begin their work in Jerusalem. We’ve commonly spiritualized Jerusalem as our homes, the place directly surrounding us. But the reason why Jerusalem became the disciples’ first work was not necessarily geographical or by convenience. It was tilled ground. It was also the home of those who just killed the Son of God.
“You have been witnesses of My life of sacrifice in behalf of the world, He said to them. You have seen My labors for Israel. And although My people would not come to Me that they might have life, although priests and rulers have done unto Me as they listed, although they have rejected Me, they shall have still another opportunity of accepting the Son of God. You have seen that all who come to Me confessing their sins, I freely receive. Him that cometh to Me I will in no wise cast out. To you, My disciples, I commit this message of mercy. It is to be given to both Jews and Gentiles—to Israel, first, and then to all nations, tongues, and peoples.” Acts of the Apostles, p. 27.
How can you reject God more than killing Jesus? Yet to these people the first Gospel mercies were shown. Jesus gave them another opportunity to repent, and if they did, regardless of what they did, He would accept them gladly. What humility was Christ’s. “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” – that prayer was real and God really answered it.
God’s goodness and longsuffering is beyond comprehension. But He also demanded this same compassion from His disciples, those who would work for Him, even if they could not comprehend it. Jonah was angry because God was good, but the disciples, transformed by the Spirit, obeyed. Jerusalem then, who just rejected Christ in the most visible way, became the home of the first Christian church.
“There are in our world many who are nearer the kingdom of God than we suppose.” Acts of the Apostles, p.140.
6. Beware of Prosperity
The godliest kings of Israel and Judah fell not during adversity, but during times of prosperity.
“Affliction and adversity may cause sorrow, but it is prosperity that is most dangerous to spiritual life. Unless the human subject is in constant submission to the will of God, unless he is sanctified by the truth, prosperity will surely arouse the natural inclination to presumption.” Prophets and Kings, p. 60.
It’s time to rearrange our prayers.
7. Finishing Is Harder Than Starting
Reading the series was an object lesson in itself. The second half of the year was much harder than the first half, when there was much excitement in the novelty of the commitment. Even now as I am writing this post, I’m still catching up on my reading. What a striking object lesson for last-day living.
(I’m done now. This was written last month =] )
Reflections from others in the Conflict of the Ages in One Year Facebook group.
My favorite so far is the “Desire of Ages.” Christ truly lived a selfless life. All Christ had: His royalty, authority, power – He gave up, so to be the “Emmanuel” with mankind. And being with us, Jesus took up, poverty, ridicule, and snares. He did it all for us. From the beginning to the end of His life on earth was not of self, but the subjects He came to save.
One of my favorite quotations is from the chapter entitled “Calvary” (p. 751):
“Men may exercise power over His human body. They may pierce the holy temples with the crown of thorns. They may strip from Him His raiment, and quarrel over its division. But they cannot rob Him of His power to forgive sins. In dying He bears testimony to His own divinity and to the glory of the Father. His ear is not heavy that it cannot hear, neither His arm shortened that it cannot save. It is His royal right to save unto the uttermost all who come unto Go by Him.” – Johnny Loi
My favorite is also “Desire of Ages”. Christ’s perfect character was revealed to me and beholding Him has been sweet. My prayer life has been changed – instead of seeking His hands, I’m reminded to seek His face and see who He really is. I’ve been reading Isaiah 53 along with DA and I can say that I am more in awe of Him now than ever.
“It would be well for us to spend a thoughtful hour each day in contemplation of the life of Christ. We should take it point by point and let the imagination grasp each scene, especially the closing ones” (DA p. 83)
“When we see Jesus, a Man of Sorrows and acquainted with grief, working to save the lost, slighted, scorned, derided, driven from city to city till His mission was accomplished; when we behold Him in Gethsemane, sweating great drops of blood, and on the cross dying in agony,—when we see this, self will no longer clamor to be recognized. Looking unto Jesus, we shall be ashamed of our coldness, our lethargy, our self-seeking. We shall be willing to be anything or nothing, so that we may do heart service for the Master. We shall rejoice to bear the cross after Jesus, to endure trial, shame, or persecution for His dear sake” (DA p. 439-440) – Katherine Elia