Embracing Our Brokenness

"I understand that I don't do what I do because it is required or necessary or important.  I don't do it because I have no choice.  I do what I do because I'm broken too.  My years of struggling against inequality, abusive power, poverty, oppression and injustice had finally revealed something in me about myself.  Being close to suffering, death, executions, and cruel punishments didn't just illuminate the brokenness of others; in a moment of anguish, it also exposed my own brokenness.  You can't effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression, or injustice and not be broken by it.

Paul Farmer, the renowned physician who has spent his life trying to cure the world's sickest and poorest people, once quoted me something that the writer Thomas Merton said: We are bodies of broken bones.  I guess I'd always known but never fully considered that being broken is what makes us human.  We all have our reasons.  Sometimes we're fractured by the choices we make; sometimes we're shattered by things we would have never chosen.  But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis of our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing.  Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion.

 We have a choice.  We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing.  Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity."

-from Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson


I can only call Bryan Stevenson's book Just Mercy a revelation.  After Bryan graduated from Harvard Law School he became a legal advocate for death row inmates and those facing unjust and cruel sentences in Alabama.  The book centers on Bryan's representation of one Walter McMillian who was unjustly accused of murder.  Through painstaking work over many years Bryan uncovered the real facts of the case and won Walter's release.  As I thought of Bryan's confrontation with a racist and corrupt criminal justice system, I wondered how he kept his composure and simply pressed on through many setbacks and occasional victories.  I attributed his stick-to-it-tive-ness to his professionalism, but still wondered if even this quality was the secret of Bryan's strength.  In a poignant disclosure, Bryan revealed the truth- his capacity to endure in the face of overwhelming injustice and prejudice was his own brokenness.

What did the admission of brokenness grant Bryan?  What does it potentially grant us?  I think of Jesus in the wilderness and in the garden.  By revealing his own temptations, his own weakness, Jesus becomes part of our shared humanity.  He is human as we are human.  He hurts as we hurt.  He is not on the other side of our experience and that is why he can become our guide.  As he struggle for wholeness we can find courage to face our own demons and seek release.  Jesus give us assurance in our human struggle by telling us that we are not alone.  I have been where you are.  I understand what you are going through and I will accompany you in your journey.

After declaring that admitting his brokenness joins him with others in a shared humanity, Bryan quotes Paul.  Paul, as we remember, discovered that his very weakness, that thorn in his flesh, was his strength.  He says that God told him, "My grace is sufficient.  My power is made perfect in your weakness."  Paul discovered that his own vulnerability created a need and desire for mercy.  The presence of this mercy enabled him to say, "When I am weak, I am strong."  Bryan came upon the same power in his own brokenness.  He says, "Even as we are caught in a web of hurt and brokenness we're also in a web of healing and mercy."  Experiencing mercy for himself, Bryan was able to show mercy.  Bryan concludes his mediation on brokenness by recalling words he heard while working as a musician in a black church in a poor section of West Philadelphia.  He would play the organ before the choir sang.  The minister would stand, spread his arms wide, and say: "Make me to hear joy and gladness, that the bones which thou hast broken, may rejoice."  Acknowledging his brokenness with broken people, Bryan knew at last the meaning of these words.

Oftentimes we believe that if our thoughts just align with others, that if we are both in sync as to what we believe, we will have shared intimacy.  And often we believe that if we just lead what we deem a morally good life we will have intimacy with God.  Bryan's insight reveals something far deeper.  It is only by going downward in acknowledging our flawed humanity, that we ascend upwards in compassion for ourselves and others.  And it is only by acknowledging our weakness and our inability to redress it though our own will, that we become open enough to receive and know God's grace which empowers us when we have no power.

by Rev. Glover Wagner