Tomorrow is Martin Luther King Day. The civil rights and equality for which he brilliantly, courageously and prophetically fought and gave his life for, have not been fully achieved in this country.
I’m almost done reading a new book entitled, Just Mercy, a Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson. Nobel Peace Prize winner Bishop Desmond Tutu, says, “Bryan Stevenson is America’s young Nelson Mandela, a brilliant lawyer fighting with courage and conviction to guarantee justice for all.”
Bryan Stevenson is a real life Atticus Finch, the fictional lawyer from the classic book and movie, To Kill a Mockingbird. Like Atticus Finch, Stevenson defends those wrongly accused, and wrongly condemned. He defends the poor, women, children and victims of racism and bigotry. And he does so in the South – in Alabama.
One of his early cases was that of Walter McMillian. After the senseless murder of a beautiful young white woman, months go by without finding the killer. There is mounting pressure on the local government, the police and later the district attorney to pin this crime on someone.
Eventually, based on corruption, lies and no good evidence, they pick up, try, convict and condemn to death an innocent black man, Walter McMillian. Ironically, he was from Monroe County Alabama – the setting of Harper Lee’s, To Kill a Mockingbird. The real life killing for which McMillian was falsely convicted happened in 1986.
One of the reasons I’m bringing this story up is to remind us that we all need to pray for God’s mercy and grace to enlighten us about right and wrong, about the truth, and about how we treat each other.
Human beings are the crown of God’s creation, honored so much that God’s Son, Jesus, became one of us. Still, without God’s help, without some humility anyway, presumably sane and functional people often allow ego, prejudice, selfishness, and blind spots to override overwhelming hard evidence if they don’t like what the hard evidence says.
It was clear that Walter McMillian was innocent, but I’ll give you only the most obvious piece of hard evidence. At the time of the murder he was at his own home with a dozen church members who were selling food from the front yard to support the church. And the minister was Walter McMillian’s own sister.
But even with the alibi of many people at his own home and others who saw him who came for the church sale, who all vouched for him, Walter was convicted anyway. A racism so blinding and virulent that the testimony, credibility, and humanity of all these witnesses was discounted or disbelieved.
Sadly, patterns of racism continue up north as well, as evidenced in the videotaped homicide in Staten Island of Eric Garner for which no one has been held accountable. Now we’ve been praying for racial justice as well as for the 2 officers who were murdered.
I’ve heard some of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous speeches and I’ve read hundreds of pages of his brilliant writing. Today’s bulletin insert mentions one of his last books entitled, Where Do We Go from Here? Chaos or Community? Our insert rightly says that the questions from his book title still resonate today. What I’ve just been saying makes that point – we still have a ways to go toward a community of justice and equality.
Even if we here are a generally enlightened people who support justice and equality, we all can grow in awareness. You might think that reading Bryan Stevenson’s book on multiple cases of injustice would be depressing. And the injustices in the book are hard to take. But Bryan Stevenson is an inspiration and he’s had many successes. He and his team enduring much resistance and obstruction, including death threats, got Walter McMillion’s death sentence and conviction overturned and he was again a free man. After 6 years wrongfully imprisoned on death row.
And Bryan Stevenson recently argued at the US Supreme Court against imposing life imprisonment without parole sentences on children. The United States was the only country in the world that did this. His arguments persuaded the Supreme Court to declare life sentences without parole for children unconstitutional. A big victory.
I recommend his book. And now I’ll briefly connect all this to our reading from 1st Samuel. I suggested connections earlier when I spoke of our need for humility and God’s grace to give us the courage to rise above blind spots and prejudices in order to make wise and discerning decisions in regard to others. Decisions that see more than skin color or title or class or sex or disability.
1st of all we’re called to listen to God. As the priest Eli told young Samuel, we’re called to say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” God is good and God is kind and God has words of love for us. None of this is about guilt – it’s about paying attention to God so that we can see others and ourselves aright, and love one another rather than harm one another. Not without mistakes, but with growing success.
Though Eli was a good priest in some ways, Samuel received a hard word from God for him, because Eli did not restrain his own out of control, blaspheming sons, who like Eli, were priests. Eli was unwise as a father to his sons. He wasn’t responsible for his son’s choices; he was responsible for not disciplining them at the proper time.
As community leaders and others can enable racism and profound injustice, Eli enabled and ignored his own son’s terrible behavior.
St. Basil, one of the 4th century Church Fathers, an early monk and hermit, said, “Through Eli’s example we learn that extending kindness to the wicked betrays the truth, assaults the community and harms the one who extends it.”
Tomorrow is Martin Luther King Day. Even if most of us are not racists, all of us can go deeper in our awareness of and commitment to equality. Amen.