The deeply institutionalized injustice in the news these days has profoundly distressed me. The unchecked deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner are only a sampling of a woeful pattern so evident that I no longer have doubts that there is something broken in our criminal justice system. Broken in the normative sense: the system is working as designed but not as it should be designed. To the those who still doubt: engage with Rawls’ original position and, if any conceivable resulting structural set-up results in the outcomes we have witnessed, please share your findings.
My doubt that the current set-up is broken is no longer up for debate and I have a growing sense that a lot of people feel the same way. Amidst this clarity of the brokenness, hope seems to be in short supply. The recent tragic murders of two police officers only exacerbates our weary collective spirit.
I have to believe that we can change this. I have to believe that we can overcome hidden mistrust. I have to believe that we can stop damaging assumptions in their tracks. I have to believe that we can budge a stubborn status quo. I have to believe that that we are not too far gone. I have to believe that there is hope.
In the middle of studying for my first set of exams for law school, I went for a run on Stanford’s campus early in the morning after the news of the grand jury’s non-indictment in the case of Eric Garner’s death. I was full of anger. I always run past the law school at the close of my runs, driven by a foolish notion the work is not done until I am past the learning, the buildings of the law school standing in for the “learning”. Cooling down and walking through the law school’s courtyard, I came across a bunch of fallen leaves:
Looking at the scene, I dwelled on the idea that, like us humans, leaves are in some existential struggle. Always a few must hold on in hope that new ones come to take their place and, as seasons change, continue the work of growing. The fall? Inevitable. The growth? Not so much, requiring sunshine and a dogged fight against gravity. Though gravity will inevitably throw us to the ground, we can still grow. We can still reach. We can still know hope. This belief in hope made me recall an essay by Victoria Safford titled “The Small Work in the Great Work” that I have returned to many times in recent months. Stafford writes:
I have a friend who traffics in words. She is not a minister, but a psychiatrist in the health clinic at a prestigious women’s college. We were sitting once not long after a student she had known, and counseled, committed suicide in the dormitory there. My friend, the doctor, the healer, held the loss very closely in those first few days, not unprofessionally, but deeply, fully — as you or I would have, had this been someone in our care.
At one point (with tears streaming down her face), she looked up in defiance (this is the only word for it) and spoke explicitly of her vocation, as if out of the ashes of that day she were renewing a vow or making a new covenant (and I think she was). She spoke explicitly of her vocation, and of yours and mine. She said, “You know I cannot save them. I am not here to save anybody or to save the world. All I can do — what I am called to do — is to plant myself at the gates of Hope. Sometimes they come in; sometimes they walk by. But I stand there every day and I call out till my lungs are sore with calling, and beckon and urge them in toward beautiful life and love…
There’s something for all of us there, I think. Whatever our vocation, we stand, beckoning and calling, singing and shouting, planted at the gates of Hope. This world and our people are beautiful and broken, and we are called to raise that up — to bear witness to the possibility of living with the dignity, bravery, and gladness that befits a human being. That may be what it is to “live our mission.”
Let me shout at the gates of Hope for a moment.
Days after that run, my class at Stanford took our first exam. Fitting, it was Criminal Law. I couldn’t help myself from, when answering a policy question on rape, going to war on the unacceptable gap between law in theory and law in practice.
An hour after finishing the exam, Stanford Law School gathered for a Die-In while the sky around us darkened with much-needed rain in a California severely wounded by drought:
As it was the first protest I’ve been part of, I know not of the efficacy or value of this kind of peaceful statement in the age of social media activism. Still, I showed up and am among the mess of bodies that laid silent for four and a half minutes. When the time had passed, we chanted “Black lives matter”, a chorus of voices strained by tragedy. Somewhere in the cascade of dwindling volume I heard whispers of hope, almost as if our discordant voices had softly merged into one powerful note. I will hold very tightly to that hope. It is why, although it easy to mock the idea of these Die-Ins as empty statements, I think these gatherings are important because they help us know much-needed hope.
I believe we are at what Seamus Heaney calls a “meeting point of hope and history”. Safford writes:
Once you have glimpsed the world as it might be, as it ought to be, as it’s going to be (however that vision appears to you), it is impossible to live compliant and complacent anymore in the world as it is… And so you come out and walk out and march, the way a flower comes out and blooms, because it has no other calling. It has no other work.
I am interested in what Seamus Heaney calls the meeting point of hope and history, where what has happened is met by what we make of it. What has happened is met midstream by people who are — among the multitude of things we are — spiritual beings and all that that implies of creativity, imagination, crazy wisdom, ancient wisdom, passionate compassion, selfless courage, and radical reverence for life. And love—for one another absolutely, and that love that rises out of us, for something larger than ourselves, call it what you will. I am interested in the place, the places, where history is met by the hope of the human soul, life’s longing for itself. I am interested in hope on this side of the grave — for me there is no other kind — and in that tidal wave of justice that could rise up if only we would let it.
I know hope. Not the hope that will effortlessly come to fruition because of some enlightened generation or the steady march of time. No, the hope I know lays bare the extreme demands of compassion. We all must be blacksmiths, relentlessly hammering the moral arc of the universe at the furnace, bending it towards justice. These injustices are impermanent only if we make it so.
Our failings are numerous and inevitable, but we have to keep feeling, keep discussing, keep learning, and, most of all, keep knowing hope. For we must know it. There is no other way.