The older white man sitting next to me leaned in as the talk came to a close to ask if I was okay. “Am I okay,” I thought? No, no, I am not. I am broken. And I live in a world of brokenness. And I feel trapped by all of this brokenness. And I go through my day shutting the brokenness out, perhaps allowing myself to look at it in little doses like I might look through the crack in the door, worried that if I looked at it any more directly I would be washed away in all the brokenness.
I appreciated the question coming from my neighbor, but I was struck by it at the same time. Had we not just listened to the same talk? What kind of response did he really want to hear from me? Was he ready to be responsible for the tears that covered my face and turned it red? Was I ready to share my brokenness with this stranger? And why was he not crying? How could he have listened to these stories and ask me if I was okay? I wanted to ask him if he was okay, but that seemed flip. How can any of us claim to be okay?
It wasn’t the stories of the children on death row, or the white people that got out of the pool when Black children got in, or the lynching. Sure, all of those stories affected me. I felt something. But it wasn’t until our speaker, Bryan Stevenson, asked us, “Why do we want to kill all the broken people?” that something began to turn my body hot. As the crescendo of his point began to build and he started to remove the distance between his broken clients and the broken system I could sense what was coming with as much anticipation as dread. “I do what I do,” he said, “because I am broken too.” And the secret was let out. Once again. I am broken too.
I am broken too.
And I am not broken in that safe, liberal way. The one that talks about systemic injustice but always refers to it as somehow existing out there, the one that champions education as the answer, the one that says if only we try hard enough we can fix ourselves. My brokenness is greater than anything I can fix on my own. It is greater than the limits and boundaries of my ego. My community is broken. My culture is broken. This is not the sin of one person. We live with collective sin and collective responsibility for this great brokenness.
Still, I do believe Bryan Stevenson when he says that our brokenness is also a common source of our humanity and that embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains is our best hope for healing. But how do we do this? I look over the landscape of liberal religious communities and the rituals for embracing brokenness have all but been banished. What tools remain for reconciling our shared brokenness?
I understand that the history of the church promoted a damaging narrative of human wretchedness and that the church fathers used this narrative to manipulate people. I understand why people are so reactive when it comes to talking about human brokenness. These church fathers were wrong. They are wrong. We are not wretched. But walking around pretending that the brokenness isn’t part of us either…or is someplace abstract, someplace out there in the system…also is wrong.
I am not above my culture. The brokenness of my family, of my nation is mine also. I can feel it. I can’t quite see all of the dimensions of the wound, but it is there. It is what propels me onward. Healing this wound is the greatest part of my spiritual call. I would be a liar if I said I do what I do solely for other people. I am trying to save myself as much as anyone else, but healing the brokenness requires me to bring others along with me to the best that I am able. We will find our salvation together.
If you have never heard Bryan Stevenson speak, please check out the following sermon he gave at the National Cathedral. If you only have a few minutes start at minute 14 and listen to the end. This portion contains the story that moved me to tears. Follow this link to follow his work at The Equal Justice Initiative.