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Truth-telling is essential to freedom and justice, says US lawyer Bryan Stevenson

09 November 2022

Marc Gascoigne/StMitF

PEOPLE of faith have a critical part to play in truth-telling — and without truth there can be no justice, the US lawyer and campaigner, Bryan Stevenson, said this week.

“We’re supposed to be the people who can teach others about the power of truth-telling, about truth and reconciliation, truth and restoration, truth and redemption, truth and reparation,” he said. “You can’t say, I want salvation and heaven and all that good stuff, but I don’t want to admit anything.”

Mr Stevenson — once described by Desmond Tutu as America’s Nelson Mandela — was speaking in St Martin-in-the-Fields in London as part of the autumn lecture series “What Am I Living For?” Mr Stevenson is the founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama.

“I am living for the truth of God’s grace made real,” he said. “We’re living at a time with too many people who no longer believe in grace. They no longer believe in redemption. They don’t believe in forgiveness. They don’t even believe in love. And they’re putting grace and mercy and love on trial.”

Mr Stevenson, whose book Just Mercy: A story of justice and redemption (Spiegel & Grau, 2014) was made into a feature film in 2019 starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx, talked about his “fixation” with justice, inspired by the call in Micah to “do justice, love mercy, and we walk humbly with God”.

He said: “I believe we have to commit to getting proximate to the poor, the excluded, the neglected, the disfavoured, the marginalised. We’ve got to get closer to people who are suffering injustice and inequality.”

It was becoming close to a condemned man in prison when he was a law student that set him on his career, he said.

“I believe there are answers waiting for us in proximity to those who are suffering. There are callings waiting for us in proximity to those who have been neglected. There are truths waiting for us that will not only empower us to do justice, but they will change and enrich our lives.”

Just as necessary was the need to change some of the public narrative in the face of the politics of fear and anger.

“It’s everywhere,” he said. “There are people who are trying to govern through fear and anger. And what they want is for everybody to be afraid and everybody should be angry because the truth is, is that when you allow yourself to be governed by fear and anger you tolerate things you should never tolerate. You accept things you should never accept.”

Fear and anger were the “essential ingredients of oppression and injustice”, he said, and led to abuse, bigotry, and racism.

Both Britain and the United States needed to face up to uncomfortable truths, he said. “In America, I think we have to talk about the fact that we are a post-genocide society, because what happened to indigenous peoples when Europeans came to that continent was a genocide. We killed millions of native people and we’ve never acknowledged it.

“We haven’t talked about it. We kept their land, we kept their words, but we made the people leave. We created a constitution that talked about equality and justice for all, but we didn’t apply those concepts to indigenous people.”

The “same narrative” was used to justify two-and-a-half centuries of slavery. “We created this false narrative. We said that black people are less capable, less worthy, less deserving, less evolved,” he said.

Recovery would not be possible without telling the truth, he argued. “I think we have to memorialise and acknowledge the history. We shouldn’t fear it.”

In Montgomery, Alabama, Mr Stevenson has established the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum, to help share stories and tell the truth about the history of slavery.

“The powerful thing is that when we have the courage to talk truthfully about these histories . . . I genuinely believe there’s something better waiting for us,” he said.

“I think there’s something that feels more like a freedom, more like equality, more like justice, that we have yet to experience. I think there’s something that feels more like freedom — where no black or brown person ever feels disfavoured or marginalised. But to get there, we have to commit to truth-telling.”

Then there is hope. “I am persuaded that hopelessness is the enemy of justice. Injustice prevails where hopelessness persists,” he said. “Our hope is our superpower. If you let anyone take your hope, you’re letting them take away the thing that empowers us to be agents of change.”

Fourth, we have to be willing to do things that are “uncomfortable and inconvenient”, he argued, in spite of our biological and psychological programming to do otherwise.

“I believe really simple things. I believe that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. I think if someone tells a lie, they’re not just a lie. I think if someone takes something, they’re not just a thief. I think even if you kill someone, you’re not just a killer.”

The St Martin in the Fields series continues on 14 and 21 November. smitf.org/lectures

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