On the morning of March 14th, 2014, Eastern University alumnus and current human rights lawyer, Mr. Bryan Stevenson, drew a crowd of student s that filled McInnis auditorium to the brim. In his usual captivating style of speech, Mr. Stevenson moved his audience by his presentation which was about mass incarceration and rampant social injustice in American society today. Mr. Stevenson reflected on his journey into law school and experience as a representative of death row prisoners, an experience he says has impacted his life a great deal. Stevenson spoke of a unique lesson that he has learned through his experience defending death row prisoners. He said, “There is basic humanity that needs to be respected by the law that is recognized by the face of God.” Stevenson stressed his point in saying that not even the vilest man is undeserving of the recognition of his humanity.
Unfortunately, one of America’s most widely affected groups of people by social injustice and incarceration are children. Even more unfortunate for the state of Pennsylvania, it has the highest number of children incarceration in the world. This is the astonishing and scary fact. One which we will remain confronted by as long as we shun our responsibility to challenge such injustice in our daily lives, Stevenson implied. Unsurprisingly too, given America’s history, the burden of child incarceration is heavily born by children of color. The children who fall into this pit are typically those that have grown up having to bear the constant burden of subordination, victims of their own feelings of inferiority. As a result of an inner battle to defend their dignity, unable to maturely maneuver their setbacks, most of these children find themselves driven into lives of violence and crime.
The most effective way to deal with these broken parts of our legal and social system while truly making a difference, Stevenson suggested, is proximity. Especially in the Christian perspective, “proximity is the key to making our faith actionable,” said Stevenson. He told a story of a prisoner whom he had been assigned to let know would have more time to live, as that man’s execution date had been postponed. Never having met this death row prisoner before or known how in the world to handle the task he had been sent to carry out, Stevenson broke the good news to the man and was immediately overwhelmed by the hearty embrace that he received in return. This man then stared into Stevenson’s eyes and finally uttered, “Just come back again, come back.” Right after, Stevenson vividly remembers this prisoner stopping and planting his feet firm such that he could not be moved anymore, as the guards had been pushing him towards the door in exit. This man then broke out in song saying: “Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.” It is from this encounter that Stevenson understood the power of proximity. A man who knew his death was coming soon had found hope in news brought to him; hope that caused him to sing of higher ground.
As Christians striving to live according to the summoning of Christ, as those called to break the chains of the oppressed and in this way seek true justice, “We need to commit to being hopeful,” Stevenson said. In other words, we need to understand that what Christ offered was hope for humanity and in that confidence do we too take the gospel out to the world. Therefore, social justice can best be healed and renewed in this nation through our refusal to let go of hope. We ought to choose to do those uncomfortable things in the name of this hope. We ought to do this also without forgetting that, like Christ, “we cannot get involved with fighting injustice and dealing with brokenness without being cut.” (Stevenson)