I sat in the conference room at the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. I came to learn about justice – knowing I’d need to confront injustice on the way. How do you prepare for a pummeled heart?
I listened to Anthony Ray Hinton tell us what happened to him at the hands of our justice system. As a young man he was arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit. He spent 30 years on death row. They took his 30s, 40s, 50s he said. But, he added, “they could not take my faith or my sense of humor.” And it was clear as he spoke that his faith was masterfully hewn, his humor nimble. His tears reminded us of his humanity, lest we think a year and a half out of prison had healed the injustice of those 30 years.
I wept. I could not control the incessant stream of tears as he shared. What have we done? We robbed him of things we can never restore. We inflicted pain we can never heal. I felt the hot sting of complicity: Look what I’ve done. I wanted to run somewhere and just collapse and cry, to repent and beg forgiveness.
Today I am reading the words of Isaiah as he speaks of jubilee. For the first time I read the familiar passage with Anthony Ray Hinton’s face in mind. “…proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners.” Today I realize jubilee is not enough. Jubilee is not the happy end to the story. Anthony Ray Hinton teaches me that jubilee is where we begin. We turn from injustice and start the work of justice on behalf of the oppressed among us.
The prophet says he is anointed to proclaim good news of release. These are the words I know well. The prophet goes on to say that once emancipation happens we turn to those mourning and comfort them, provide for them, give them reasons for joy and not tears. If the first movement of jubilee is release, then the second is to strengthen the mourners with tangible comfort in the wake of their immense sufferings.
Then Isaiah says that they – the oppressed, those who mourned – will be called oaks of righteousness. If they are anything like Anthony Ray Hinton, tall and sturdy with a rooted faith, I can see the resemblance. They will build up the ancient ruins, raise the former devastations and repair the ruined cities. They will do it. They are the only ones who can.
We work toward the release of the oppressed; we comfort and strengthen those who mourn. But they work to rebuild and repair our broken cities for all our posterity. Our role is to follow their lead, to join their construction crew. Our job is to heed the wisdom of the oppressed and learn the way of those who mourn. This is how we build the New City, resplendent with justice.
This Advent I believe that a prisoner will lead us.