At the beginning of his book Just Mercy, which explores the need for compassion in our criminal justice system, attorney, law professor, and Equal Justice Initiative Executive Director Bryan Stevenson tells the story of how he stumbled into this area of advocacy. It begins with a nervous encounter with a man sentenced to death in the State of Georgia. His name is Henry.
Bryan, a paralegal intern at the time, was sent from Atlanta to rural Jackson, Georgia on behalf of the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee to inform Henry that, while they still didn’t have a lawyer to take up his case, he would not be executed for at least another twelve months. When Bryan arrived bearing what he felt to be ambivalent news at best, he describes his nervousness, his anxiety, the hovering sense of his own deep insufficiency.
The first words Bryan and Henry exchanged were filled with all the awkwardness Bryan had feared, but when Bryan shared what he thought to be ambivalent news, Henry was overjoyed. “Thank you, man. I mean, really, thank you! This is great news… I’ve been talking to my wife on the phone, but I haven’t wanted her to come and visit me or bring the kids because I was afraid they’d show up and I’d have an execution date. I just don’t want them here like that. Now I’m going to tell them they can come visit. Thank you!”
Bryan was astonished to find that his news had been received so well. Both he and Henry relaxed into the rest of their meeting, sharing stories and getting to know one another, talking about everything from family and music to life in prison, extending their meeting well past the original 1 hour time frame. When Henry began singing a hymn as the prison guard escorted him out of the visitation room, Bryan noted that “Henry had altered something in [his own] understanding of human potential, redemption, and hopefulness.”
Before Henry, Bryan had experienced legal practice as theoretical and aloof. But through Henry, he discovered that proximity has the ability to humanize. As Bryan’s grandmother wisely noted to Bryan when he was a child, “You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance, Bryan. You have to get close.”
Our faith stories allow us to get close to some of the heroes of our sacred tradition in order that our proximity to those who came so close to God might humanize and color our interactions with one another. Today we hear the stories of two women, two rivals, two mothers – Sarah and Hagar.
Sarah was the wife of Abraham and Hagar was her slave. The two women should not have been rivals except that a few chapters before we encounter the part of the story we have just heard, we see the part of the story where Sarah (then called Sarai) gives Hagar to Abraham (then called Abram) in order that he might conceive a child, the heir he longed for. The problem comes when Sarai’s plan actually works and Hagar conceives and gives birth to Ishmael. Sarai becomes envious because with all her wealth and privilege as the wife of Abram, this slave-woman has something she cannot seem to have for herself – a son.
What is truly at stake here is a question of value: who matters and why? The ancient Near East was not exactly a society that greatly valued gender-equality. Men and women had very different, very rigid expectations. A woman’s value was often placed primarily on her ability to produce male heirs for her husband. Sarai was unable to have children and quite advanced in years. That’s why she “laughs” when she overhears God tell Abram that they will conceive a child. So when Hagar actually does the thing that Sarai (now Sarah) is supposed to do, Hagar has seemingly (but against her will) usurped Sarai as the woman of the house. Even though Sarah later conceives and gives birth to her own son, Isaac, the die is cast for a dramatic showdown between these two unnecessary rivals, made enemies because of how society decides to apply value to their humanity.
This is the backdrop of today’s story. Isaac is three years old, Ishmael is seventeen, and these two brothers, whose mothers were set against each other as unnecessary rivals, are found playing, literally “laughing” together. The scene enrages Sarah who demands that Hagar and Ishmael be sent away, ostensibly to die. The rivalry we witness in this story appears be based on a scarcity perspective of Abraham’s inheritance. This question of value and who matters and why is projected onto the next generation – onto two brothers playing and laughing together.
Dear friends in Christ, our world seems filled with unnecessary rivals. Our rivalries are racial, or religious, or political, or national, or ideological. We seem almost preprogrammed to see scarcity rather than enough, and as a result we hoard and collect when God is asking us to give and share. What we are left with is a world that has been carved up and divided among different tribes – Christians over here and Muslims over there, white and black people in different neighborhoods and schools, citizens and immigrants on separate sides of a wall. I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that divvying up our world only prevents us from being able to see its rich abundance, and gives us fear and anxiety instead.
But if our story from Genesis is any consolation at all, God enters our greatest fear and anxiety with a counter-cultural message: there is enough. God hears Sarah’s anxiety about the inheritance for Isaac, and even subverts Sarah’s myopic request that Ishmael and Isaac not inherit together by saying that God will make a “great nation” of both Isaac and Ishmael. “I will make a nation of [Ishmael] also,” the Lord assures Abraham, “because he is your offspring.” With God there is always enough.
And when Hagar and Ishmael are out wondering in the wilderness, God did not abandon them to death. Even when Hagar was at the end of her rope and left her son to die, or more likely to be picked up by slave traders, God is with them. God hears the prayer of Ishmael.
We are not told what Ishmael prays. We aren’t told whether it was Rite I or II. We aren’t allowed to overhear his plaintive cry. We aren’t shown a map of the tracks of his tears. But we are told that God hears him and God responds.
I’m not quite sure what to do with this void that scripture leaves us with. Oftentimes in scripture we tend to focus on the powerful voices: the Joshuas who conquer cities, or the Davids who slay giants, even the prophets who denounce rulers, but I wonder what we are to do with this void of voicelessness in the context of unnecessary rivals.
And I wonder if we aren’t being invited to offer it to those who feel voiceless around us:
Mothers burying sons at the hands of police brutality and the activists fighting for fundamental human value.
Families priced and pushed out of their homes in a housing crisis with no where to go.
Immigrant families searching for a better life.
Older people who aren’t quite sure what to make of all these changes.
Folks around us, in this very neighborhood, struggling with secret pain and destructive addictions, devoting all of their energy to maintaining the façade of perfection.
Maybe even our own voicelessness in the face of a world spinning wildly out of control.
I wonder what would happen if we filled our own prayers with the voiceless ones who should, by all accounts, be our rivals, but are the very people God wants us to see as human. I wonder what might happen if we prayed, not for God to change them, but to possibly to change us, to open our own ears to the voiceless ones around us.
And then, like Bryan, to have our hearts so moved by their songs, that we can’t help but respond with love, and compassion, and mercy.
 Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2014), 3-18.
 Genesis 18:5
 Genesis 21:13