Bryan Stevenson graduated in law from Harvard University and went to work for men on death row in Alabama. He established the Equal Justice Initiative to provide legal support for those who had not received fair representation and whose convictions were based on weak evidence.
Just Mercy is a great film about the story of this work. The plot focuses on the case of Walter Macmillan, a black man facing the death penalty for the high profile murder of a young white woman. Stevenson overcomes police intimidation and political pressure to expose the lack of authentic evidence for the conviction and show Macmillan’s innocence.
Understanding systemic injustice
A lot has been said in the last few weeks about systemic or structural racial injustice. I have also heard others struggle to grasp what this means and counter-react with impatience or defensiveness. To anyone feeling like this, I would recommend they watch Just Mercy.
It is easy to grasp the injustice in explicit forms such as the apartheid laws in South Africa or the ‘Jim Crow’ laws of segregation in the southern states in the US in the 1950s.
Today, injustice is more likely to be seen implicitly. Laws may be equal but cultures, practices and resources are not. Whole groups of people from some backgrounds remain far more likely to be marginalised or treated differently.
Addressing these forms of racism goes beyond just tackling individual acts of discrimination.
It means examining the institutions we are part of – our workplaces, churches and sports clubs – and making them fairer and more open to all. It also means examination of how law enforcement, housing and education can be reformed to be fairer and more representative.
The blinkers of individualism
Christians must grasp this imperative. We must reject the blinkers of individualism which turn faith into a ‘private matter’ about a God interested only in saving individuals.
Far too many of our contemporary songs are very individualistic. Too often its ‘My Jesus, My Saviour’ – there is far too much ‘I’ and ‘Me’ and not enough ‘Us’ and ‘We’.
In his study of Biblical ethics, theologian Christopher Wright has written of the need for a “reorientation in our habitual pattern of ethical thought” because of our tendency to “begin at the personal level and work outwards”.
In contrast, Wright stresses that the “primary ethical thrust of the Old Testament is necessarily social” and that even the personal ethics within the Bible are “community shaped” (Living as the People of God p10 & p197).
Justice and religion
The book of Amos offers great insight into systematised oppression and the terrible conspiracy of silence it creates:
‘You oppress the righteous and take bribes and you deprive the poor of justice in the courts. Therefore the prudent man keeps quiet in such times, for the times are evil.’ (5:12-13)
And Amos condemns religion which ignores or helps legitimate injustice:
‘I hate, I despise your religious feasts, I cannot stand your assemblies…away with the noise of your songs…but let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never failing stream.’ (5:21,24)
At the moment there has never been such a high profile for systemic injustice and racial concern. There is an opportunity to make a society more just.
But structures and systems do not change without personal commitment.
No one articulated the personal commitment to social justice better than Martin Luther King. He inspired people to invest themselves personally in the battle for social and structural change. It was in this fusion that the civil rights movement found its power.
And, just as with Stevenson’s work, faith is right at the heart of this fusion. King’s biographer, Stewart Burns, writes:
‘The American sickness was simultaneously institutional and personal…Yet the young Marxists had become so obsessed with ‘structure’ that they lost sight of the actual people inhabiting the structures. King understood that the religions of structurelessness and of soulless structuralism – quests for meaning, for truth, for certitude – each led to dead ends, to a nihilism of the Spirit.’
The power of hope
We need to take structures seriously and work to reform them. But alongside this, what can we do as friends, as neighbours, as people? Who do we invite round to our houses? Who do we invest time in getting to know? Who do we care about? How are issues of justice personal to us?
It is in our personal commitments that we avoid the dead-end, the ‘nihilism of the Spirit’. It is though personal commitment, that we best express hope.
And hope is a vital ingredient in the quest for social justice. As Bryan Stevenson says:
“It’s not a pie in the sky hope, it’s not a preference for optimism over pessimism. It’s just an orientation of the spirit. I think we have to be willing to believe things we haven’t seen…I think hopelessness is the enemy of justice. I think injustice prevails where hopelessness persists. And so, hope is our requirement, it’s our superpower.”