Unburying Brokenness

Bryan Stevenson’s memoir, Just Mercy, has dozens of stories of triumph. Stevenson and his colleagues at the Equal Justice Initiative have advocated for and freed hundreds of people who were unjustly convicted and sentenced. Those stories are all deeply moving. But I was most affected by a story of failure toward the end of the book.

Jimmy Dill was wrongly accused, convicted, and sentenced to death. He was mentally disabled and suffered a significant speech impediment. Stevenson and his colleagues worked feverishly to have Dill’s sentence reviewed and his execution stayed. But all their attempts were defeated.

Stevenson narrates his last phone call with Mr. Dill, just a short time before the execution. Some of Mr. Dill’s last words to Stevenson were, ““Mr. Bryan, I just want to thank you for fighting for me. I thank you for caring about me. I love y’all for trying to save me.”[i]

As Stevenson sat at his desk, Mr. Dill was executed. Stevenson teetered on the brink of despair. He wondered why he did all this. “I can just leave,” he said aloud to no one but himself. “Why am I doing this?”[ii]

In a few moments, the answer came to him. “I do what I do because I’m broken, too,” he wrote.

My years of struggling against inequality, abusive power, poverty, oppression, and injustice had finally revealed something to 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 and heartbreak, 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.[iii]

Bryan Stevenson was tempted to bury his brokenness in denial and despair. Fortunately for him, and for all of us, he was saved from that tomb.

The Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) tells the tale of a fearful slave who buries his brokenness and inters his insecurities. Jesus makes clear that this behavior is not consistent with what it means to be fully and functionally human. I can’t help but think about President Trump, buried in the White House in denial and despair. What little humanity remaining in that poor soul is draining away from him by the second.

What does the third slave bury? He buries his fear. He fears the punishing power of the master if he gets it wrong. So rather than risking failure, he tucks his fear in a napkin, lays it in a hole in the ground, and covers his anxiety. With his terror safely tucked away, he can get on with his normal life. Normal, that is, until the time comes for the accounting.

With his fear, he buries his sense of vulnerability. But if Matthew is right, it is the vulnerable who are blessed. It is not in the absence of vulnerability but right through it that we find blessings. We can be broken open by our suffering. Or we can become unbreakable. This is the choice the third slave makes. In securing his skin, he loses his soul.

With his fear, he buries his capacities for joy…and love. I return over and over to the words of C. S. Lewis in The Four Loves.

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in the casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless — it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of Heaven, where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.[iv]

It seems that President Trump is simply refusing delivery on the reality of his election loss. The consequences of this refusal range from the comic to the consequential. I know most people are distressed but not surprised by his response. After all, walls are his answer to everything from immigration to protests outside the White House. He seems sure that if he simply denies the loss, it will eventually go away.

Passing judgment on this behavior is easy. But in his current actions, I think Donald Trump is the most American of presidents. After all, we have refused delivery on tragedy, loss, and accountability for much of our history. In this moment, Donald Trump and I are uncomfortably alike in our responses. Too often, Donald and I have believed that brokenness is best managed when it is buried. I know such a response is pathological, even when I do not resist the temptation. President Trump believes such a response is both normal and necessary. I feel sorry for him (a little bit).

What does Joe Biden offer that Donald Trump does not? He offers his brokenness. For me, the most telling line in his speech the other night was when he said he knows about losing. He wasn’t talking about election defeats. He was talking about a cherished wife and daughter, a beloved son. He was talking about how his losses have broken him open.

I do not have 20 years of income to protect and hide (does this refer to the third slave or the forty-fifth president?). I have not lost a national election. But ten years ago right now, I did lose my first spouse, Anne. Repeatedly, since then, I have struggled to keep my heart out of the hole that beckons for its burial. I have not been particularly successful in resisting, so I have a bit of empathy (for a few seconds now and then) for poor Donald.

This parable drives me every three years to another quote from The Four Loves. “If I am sure of anything,” Lewis writes, “I am sure that [Christ’s] teaching was never meant to confirm my congenital preference for safe investments and limited liabilities. I doubt if there is anything in me that pleases [Christ] less. And who could conceivably begin to love God on such a prudential ground — because the security (so to speak) is better?”[v]

I want to bury my brokenness. In the process I become unbreakable. That’s a living death.

The Christian good news is that God embraces our brokenness, finally and fully. That brokenness is wrapped in a napkin and put in the ground…for a little while. But it cannot stay buried. The brokenness of love always gives life. We Christians worship the breakable, and broken, God on the cross.

The third slave buried his brokenness because he did not trust the character of the master. He expected that failure would be punished, that the beatings would now commence. He did not know (or trust) that the master blesses vulnerability and makes risking holy. After all, Creation itself has always been the risk that Divine Love takes for the sake of relationship.

When we bury our brokenness, we lock up the very sources of blessing in our lives. It’s back to the Beatitudes again — poverty of spirit, mourning, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, peacemaking — in our fear we lock away precisely these pains. In the process, we make our hearts unbreakable. We make ourselves unblessable. That is what happens to the third slave. His fear makes him impervious to blessing, so the outer darkness is the only place that can accommodate him.

It is vulnerability which makes God fully human (if we can trust Paul’s words in Philippians 2). And we, who are created in God’s image, can only be fully human in our vulnerability. Becoming unbreakable makes us sub-human, inhuman, and inhumane. If we cannot unbury and welcome our own brokenness, we cannot welcome the brokenness of others. Instead we must punish them for their imperfections and failures.

That practice has been raised to the level of national policy and political philosophy.

As part of our morning ritual, Brenda and I read devotionally from a selection of Henri Nouwen quotes. A few days ago, we read this passage. “Your whole life is filled with losses, endless losses,” he wrote in Finding My Way Home.

And every time there are losses there are choices to be made. You choose to live your losses as passages to anger, blame, hatred, depression, and resentment, or you choose to let these losses be passages to something new, something wider, something deeper. The question is not how to avoid loss and make it not happen, but how to choose it as a passage, as an exodus to greater life and freedom.[vi]

Unburying my brokenness – that’s not a bad description for the daily path of discipleship. And it is my prayer that the current inmate at the White House might, miracle of miracles, discover a bit of his true humanity in the time to come.


[i] Stevenson, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, p. 288. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid., page 289.

[iv] Page 121.

[v] Page 120.

[vi] Quoted in You are Beloved: Daily Meditations for Spiritual Living, page 343.

First Debate: The Howl of the Hollow Man

In the company of millions, I am struggling to process the first candidate debate. I could watch no more than a few minutes of what both my spouse and CNN’s Dana Bash described as a “shitshow” (testimony to my spouse’s obvious political insight and journalistic acumen—no joke!). I was quite able to keep up with the salient points by periodically checking the hailstorm in Twitterverse while I watched Star Trek reruns. I found my initial decision justified at every point. I’m grateful many wise observers had the stamina and fortitude to continue to watch. I couldn’t.

I wondered why (as I often do). I wondered why I couldn’t watch the unfolding train wreck. Along with many others, I found myself in Joe Biden’s place – the subject of an ongoing torrent of irrational, violent, and racist lies and abuse.

Joe Biden has not been able to protect the women and children in his life from disaster, disease, and death. A traffic accident, war, addiction, cancer – these are only the most public realities that have stripped Biden of any delusions of white, male, omnipotence.

I am projecting my own experiences on to the former Vice President, but I see something in his eyes and in the pained smile he shares when under such personal attack. Joe Biden knows the pain, the rage, and the shame of being a white male and failing to keep his loved ones from dying.

After my first wife died rather suddenly – now almost ten years ago – I had no framework for naming and dealing with what and how I felt. I rotated from numbness to suicidal depression to mania and back again. Then I encountered the work of Brene Brown in her first TED talk and in The Gifts of Imperfection.

Brown shared a story about her lack of attention to “male shame.” Her early research focused on women and shame. She shared the story of a husband and father who pressed her on the topic of male shame. Her response was basically, “I don’t do that.” The man replied, “Isn’t that convenient.” He talked about the expectations of the women in his life and concluded, “They would rather I die on that white horse than fall off of it.”

I’m pretty sure he wasn’t being fair to those women, but I understood what he was saying. I had inherited and built a world where male failure was the worst and only sin. I had failed to keep Anne alive. I had failed to care for my grieving sons. And I was drowning in the shame that blossomed from those failures.

I have learned to be a far better swimmer over the years, but the tide continues to ebb and flow. To give credit where credit is due, Brene Brown gave me more than that story. She also opened a door to a different way of living – a life where vulnerability is a gift rather than a punishment, where failure is the doorway to greater depths of life and meaning and joy.

Joe Biden knows the pain of loss and the joy of life in the midst of the losing. I can see it in his eyes, in his smile, and in his shoulders. He bears the shame of white male failure, and he has become more real as he comes to terms with it.

In Trump’s eyes, because Biden has lost, Biden is by definition a loser. Joe Biden has not bullied and bought, denied and deceived his way back to omnipotence. Worse yet, Biden has publicly acknowledged and mourned his losses rather than callously ignoring them (what have we heard from Trump about the death of his brother?).

Biden has put down his armor and embraced his vulnerability. Therefore, in Trump’s world he is a loser. Biden has not retreated into narcissistic self-medication. Instead, he has devoted himself to beliefs and causes larger than self-interest. Therefore, in Trump’s world, he is a sucker. He has remained devoted to one wife (at a time, at least) and has paid his taxes. Therefore, in Trump’s world, he is both simple and stupid.

While Biden has laid down the armor of white, male, omnipotence, Trump has nothing left but that armor. So, Trump is a hollow man, a shell of vitriol and violence, rumination and rage, fakery and fear. He howls without ceasing to drown out the drumbeat of mortality (and spends a lot on hair, it seems).

Joe Biden has also willingly worked for and submitted to the authority of a black man. He has chosen to subvert what Trump sees as the natural hierarchy of being. This is another level of Trump’s contempt for Biden. And it was also on full display last night.

Joe Biden is no paragon of anti-racist, anti-misogynist, anti-colonial virtues. Nor am I, but I think we’re both trying. Biden does, however, refuse to inhabit the opaque costume that American, white, male, omnipotence requires. Trump is nothing but that costume, so proximity to a real alternative (such as Biden) poses an existential threat to him.

It’s not that the emperor has no clothes. It’s that the emperor is nothing but his clothes.

Biden is a loser. He has lost and makes no secret of his grief, or of the fact that his losses have made him a better and stronger person. Joe Biden is open to the possibility that he might become real before he dies. That’s my personal goal as well (but it is surely a work in progress).

Of course, becoming real is the definition of the original sin for Trump. For Trump, reality requires loss and is therefore shameful and disgusting. He would rather kill than lose. And perhaps most troubling is the fact that Trump represents millions who would rather kill than lose.

I will soon be voting for a genuine, flawed, hopeful human and not for an empty set of costume armor.