Krista Tippett had a conversation with Bryan Stevenson on the latest “On Being” podcast. You might find that on a local public radio station this weekend. But the podcast can be accessed at https://onbeing.org/series/podcast/.
Tippett is the founder and long-time host of the programs and the beating heart of a much larger enterprise devoted to, for lack of a better phrase, faith, hope and love in a changing world. Stevenson is the author of Just Mercy, and the founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative, another enterprise, as he notes in the interview, that has grown into a much larger and multi-faceted effort than he originally envisioned.
Stevenson is committed the need for “proximity” in the work he does. “I think sometimes when you’re trying to do justice work, when you’re trying to make a difference, when you’re trying to change the world,” he said, “the thing you need to do is get close enough to people who are falling down, get close enough to people who are suffering, close enough to people who are in pain, who’ve been discarded and disfavored — to get close enough to wrap your arms around them and affirm their humanity and their dignity.”
This is a very Advent-y sentiment, for us Christians who are into such things. We are in the season of remembering and celebrating the God who chooses proximity to humanity as the path to redeeming Creation. It shouldn’t surprise us to hear that we, who are made in the image of that God, do best when we choose proximity as well.
Stevenson knows that getting close to people is one thing. How we see people is an additional thing. In his writing, he talks repeatedly about seeing ourselves and loved and seeing those around us as beloved. “Beloved in the Lord,” one of my seminary professors would regularly announce, “God knows you better than you know yourself — and loves you anyway!” No matter how many times I heard Jim Qualben say that to a class, a congregation, or a meeting of conflicted parishioners, it made my spine tingle.
In my atheist years, I was drawn back to the church in part by way of Psalm 139.
O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
At first I found these words offensive. I didn’t want anyone that far up in my business. And I certainly didn’t want some purported deity there. But I came to treasure these words as a source of great comfort and peace. The gift of being fully known — deeply searched out and understood (and loved anyway!) — was a source of calm and joy like no other. That hasn’t changed.
N. T. Wright talks about the “epistemology of love.” He often quotes the line from Wittgenstein, who wrote, “It is love that believes the resurrection.” He writes of this way of knowing in a recent article in First Things.
Pure objectivity about other persons would appraise them at a distance, rather than engaging with them; pure subjectivity would use them to gratify one’s own whims or desires. Love means not just allowing others to be themselves but relishing them as being themselves, as being both other than ourselves and other than our initial hopes and expectations of them.
Bryan Stevenson practices the epistemology of love. He knows by coming close, by engaging, by becoming involved. He doesn’t maintain the distance of cool objectivity. He doesn’t have good boundaries when it comes to connection with his clients and causes. He is perhaps obsessed and is certainly consumed by his work. A certain perspective would describe this as unhealthy behavior. Stevenson would describe it as his life, his work, his love and his passion.
Objectivity is an Enlightenment conceit. It can never be achieved, even though it can be approximated. Objectivity may be useful in theoretical physics or higher mathematics or similar disciplines, although the best scientists are always the most passionate about their work. But objectivity leads so easily to privileging one position or perspective above all others. In the West this leads to privileging whiteness and making it the norm and standard by which all others are measured.
Engagement — the epistemology of love — is part of the Christian account of the good news of Jesus Christ. God comes close to you and me — closer than our very breath. God is a slob just like one of us and knows us better than we know ourselves.
The deepest element of an epistemology of love is enacting that love. Stevenson calls it “stone catching.” In his conversation with Krista Tippett, he remembers the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8. He says, “it’s a powerful story about mercy and redemption and grace, and what I’ve realized is that in this era, I don’t think our righteous would put their stones down. I think that we have too many people who would, despite that exhortation, would still cast the stones. They feel insulated from the hypocrisy and judgment that that implies.”
That assessment could leave us hopeless and despondent (dare I say “acedic”?). But not Stevenson. If people are going to throw the stones anyway, then some of us must dare to become “stone catchers.” He describes it this way: “just because people won’t recognize what the right and just thing is to do, that it’s not right and just to cast those stones, doesn’t mean that that’s the end of the struggle. We have to stand up. We have to stand in front of those who are vulnerable and we have to catch those stones.”
Seeking proximity, looking with love, and then catching the stones — who says that Advent waiting is passive!