Shane Claiborne is the author of “Executing Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why It’s Killing Us.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.
Back in the 1900s, before cellphones and email and the internet were a thing, when George H.W. Bush was in his final year as president, I headed to college. I had moved from East Tennessee to Philadelphia to go to Eastern University, a little Christian college known for holding together faith and social justice.
As I settled in and began studies, I kept hearing about a guy named Bryan Stevenson, an Eastern alumnus, class of 1981, who was doing some pretty amazing things with his life.
Bryan was a bit of a legend at the university, and his story had already been told and retold to me by our mutual friend and professor, Tony Campolo, a well-known preacher who has a reputation for “remembering big.”
But it turns out Bryan’s life is as big as the story Tony remembered. Bryan turned it into a book, and now a film, titled “Just Mercy,” which opened on Christmas and stars Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx and Brie Larson.
Bryan went from our alma mater in Philly to attend Harvard Law School, where he graduated with honors. Immensely gifted and with a Harvard degree, he could have gotten a job with pretty much any firm he wanted, and name his salary.
Instead, Bryan headed to Alabama, where the residue of slavery is so clearly visible in a criminal justice system that enshrines racism. He moved into a one-room apartment in Montgomery “with nothing but a soccer ball” (according to our friend with the tendency to remember big) and started defending people on death row.
A century ago, as Bryan knew well, Alabama was one of the states with the most lynchings, and to this day it’s one of the states with the most executions. It is no coincidence that the states that held on to slavery the longest continue to hold on to the death penalty, in a direct correlation between racism of the past and racism of the present. That’s where Bryan felt led, even called.
Particularly urgent for Bryan were the cases of those who were wrongfully convicted, often because of the color of their skin.
He was not only looking out for the prisoners, but for the system that they had been caught up in. One of the first quotes I ever heard from Bryan was this one: “We have a justice system that treats you better if you are rich and guilty than if you are poor and innocent.” He sought to ensure that “equal justice under the law” was not just an aspirational slogan inscribed on the Supreme Court, but became a reality.
In 1989 he founded the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, which has now helped save the lives of over 125 men on death row and in 2018 opened the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice, known as the National Lynching Memorial.
His TED Talk got the longest standing ovation in the history of TED Talks and has been viewed over 6 million times. South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu called Bryan “America’s Nelson Mandela.” Time magazine recognized him as one of 100 most influential people. There were even whispers that someday Bryan might be a justice on the Supreme Court.
Stunned by the simplicity and humility of his life, one reporter said to Bryan, “Why would you be this kind of lawyer?” Bryan’s winsome response: “Why would I not be this kind of lawyer?”
The more I learned about Bryan, the more his decisions made sense. He had grown up in segregated public schools and steeped in the historic black church, where liberation and justice flow like baptismal waters. (At Eastern, he had directed the gospel choir.) Early in his career, as he arrived to defend a young white man at trial, he was scolded by the judge who said only “counsel” were allowed in the courtroom.
For many, Bryan Stevenson is a superhero akin to the Avengers fittingly played onscreen by the actor who played Erik Killmonger in “Black Panther.” Jordan has said he was intimidated when he first met Bryan.
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Source: Religion News Service