Greater Proximity, Greater Mercy
Friday, September 11, 2020
Love is the motive, but justice is the instrument. —Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971)
Bryan Stevenson is a lawyer, social justice activist, and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.  In his book Just Mercy: A Story of Redemption and Justice, he makes the case that it is distance—physical, social, and spiritual—that allows injustice to flourish. Proximity to one’s neighbor—and remember, we’re all neighbors according to Jesus—is what turns our hearts towards love and restorative justice. Stevenson writes about his first interaction with an inmate named Henry on death row: two men, exactly the same age, one studying at Harvard Law School, one condemned to die:
Henry asked me questions about myself, and I asked him about his life. Within an hour we were both lost in conversation. . . .
I had no right to expect anything from a condemned man on death row. Yet he gave me an astonishing measure of his humanity. In that moment, Henry altered something in my understanding of human potential, redemption, and hopefulness. . . . Proximity to the condemned and incarcerated made the question of each person’s humanity more urgent and meaningful, including my own. . . .
I’ve also represented people who have committed terrible crimes but nonetheless struggle to recover and to find redemption. I have discovered, deep in the hearts of many condemned and incarcerated people, the scattered traces of hope and humanity—seeds of restoration that come to astonishing life when nurtured by very simple interventions.
Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice. Finally, I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.
We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others. The closer we get to mass incarceration and extreme levels of punishment, the more I believe it’s necessary to recognize that we all need mercy, we all need justice, and—perhaps—we all need some measure of unmerited grace.
 For more information about the museum and the organization, visit https://eji.org
Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (Spiegel and Grau: 2014), 10, 12, 17-18.
Epigraph: “The Meaning of the Birmingham Tragedy, 1963,” interview with Reinhold Niebuhr, James Baldwin, and Thomas C. Kilgore, Jr. (September 22, 1963), sponsored by the Protestant Council of the City of New York.