Tag Archives: justice

Imagining the Unimaginable

MedeaListen. This is a story that has to be told.

That was the opening line of the classic Greek tragedy, Medea, that my wife and I attended at Pepperdine over the weekend. If you are familiar with the play, it is a story that you probably wish had never been told. But we continue to show up for resurrections of Euripides’ terrible tale century after century—so maybe it is true that the story is unavoidable.

I try to attend anything produced by the Fine Arts Division Theatre Program at Pepperdine because every production is always fantastic, and given that our friend, Brad, was the director of and that our friend, Lincoln, composed original electronic music for this particular performance, we marked our calendars for Medea months ago.  But wow, what a heart-wrenching story.

I remember the name, Euripides, from some high school textbook mostly because I thought it sounded funny.  (“Euripides pants and you’re in big trouble, mister!”)  But wow, how unhinged must this classic playwright have been to write such a horrible tale of cold-blooded, unthinkable revenge? What demented mind could imagine Medea, the character?

Obviously the mind of one of the more important playwrights in world history.

Maybe there was method to such madness.  Maybe Euripides wrote such a messed-up story to shine a light in the ugliest places of our world so that we might sheepishly walk out of a dark theater committed to building a world that is brighter?

I read that Euripides is known as someone whose work sympathized with society’s outcasts. In Medea we encounter someone so powerless that she resorts to maniacal actions to scream at a world in which she had heretofore been silenced. It is only through unimaginable actions that she is heard.

But I hope we do more than hear her screams. I hope that we listen. I hope that we listen because this is a story that has to be told. If not, we may find ourselves destroyed by the last resorts of the voiceless should their predictable actions not be prevented by the only safeguard remaining — the goodness of their own hearts.

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#winning

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We live in a world of competition.

This weekend, a mind-boggling number of people will tune in to see who wins and loses when Jimmy Fallon hosts the Golden Globes a few miles down the road at the Beverly Hilton.  Since I watch more football than movies, I will be more interested in the winners and losers of the College Football Championship and the wildcard round of the NFL playoffs.  Whatever your fancy, there is a competition for it—just look at the ridiculous number of reality competition shows on seemingly every network, e.g., Cupcake Wars; America’s Next Top Model; Last Comic Standing; The Bachelor/ette; Whisker Wars (yes, that was a real show).

And why should it surprise us that a former reality show celebrity emphasized “winning” so much in his shockingly successful presidential campaign?

Our entire social order is based on competition.  Our justice system is adversarial with the thought that the fight to win will produce just results.  Our economic system is designed to pit businesses against one another so that prices are lowered and products are improved.  Our political system sets parties against one another to determine the will of the majority and promote compromise.  And sports and entertainment?  Well, again, just turn on your television.

We live in a world of competition.

Even if I thought competition was a bad idea, any attempt to speak against it would be a losing battle (Ha!).  Competition is apparently inherent to human existence, but it sure makes it hard to promote love for and cooperation with others in a world that teaches us to see each other as competitors.  What’s a blogger to do?

In 2011, actor Charlie Sheen had a public meltdown and in a series of bizarre statements famously declared that he was “winning” and created one of the more popular Twitter hashtags to date.  Unwittingly, he also may have solved my dilemma.  You can apparently redefine what it means to win!

So here’s my proposal: Be a winner, sure, but first pick a battle that is worth the struggle and then carefully consider how to calculate true success.

Forging Pathways

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“Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Waze calculates thirty-four miles from Pepperdine University to East Los Angeles College; the Pacific Coast Highway to East Cesar E. Chavez Avenue; the celebrity-populated western side of Los Angeles to Cheech Marin’s East L.A.; Malibu to Monterey Park.  It sure seems longer, even in rush hour traffic.  They are two different worlds.

I serve on the advisory council for the East Los Angeles College (“ELAC”) Pathway to Law School Transfer Program, a coalition of educators and practitioners brought together to destroy obstacles that stand in the way of a young person advancing from high school to community college, from community college to a four-year college, and from a four-year college to law school.  It is an inspiring group, and I am honored to be a part.

It is also personally disconcerting.  I’m not exactly sure how I, a first-generation college student from rural Arkansas, the son of a butcher who dropped out of high school to provide for his family during the Great Depression, am suddenly the picture of white privilege in a room full of impressive human beings, but as a lawyer who drove over from his condo in Malibu, even my expertise in denial simply tossed in the towel and admitted the truth.  I may be the most reluctant privileged person around.

It was dark when the meeting ended, and on the stroll across the ELAC campus to drive back to idyllic Malibu, I noticed several classes in session.  Maybe I was wanting it to be so, but it sure looked like all of the students in those classes were engaged in the instruction and not bored on Facebook.  I’m just sure of it.  I then wandered by the math tutoring center, and it was undeniably a hub of academic activity late on a weekday evening.  All this made me feel particularly hopeful in this perplexing world of ours.

If I must come to terms with privilege, and I just might have to, I must use it to help those inspiring students hungry for knowledge in those hushed classrooms gleaming in the darkness.

On Exploiting Hopelessness

In addition to the steep learning curve associated with a new position at work, I have been preparing to teach a course titled, “Apology, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation,” for the Master of Dispute Resolution program at our West Los Angeles campus.  It is a fascinating and ever-timely topic in this world of ours with no shortage of moving literature, including the book I saved for last, The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness, by Simon Weisenthal.

Weisenthal survived the Holocaust and gained fame as a “Nazi hunter.”  The Sunflower tells of his being summoned to the bedside of a dying Nazi soldier while a prisoner in a concentration camp where the soldier confessed his deeds and asked for forgiveness.  Weisenthal offered only silence.  Soon afterward, he questioned his response, and in fact, ends his section of the book by placing the reader in his place and posing the heart-wrenching question, “What would I have done?”  The rest of the book shares answers to the penetrating question from fifty-three people around the world, from the Dalai Lama to Desmond Tutu.

Two days after finishing the book, I finally visited the Museum of Tolerance in L.A. and didn’t know whether to be amazed or embarrassed to notice that it was described as “A Simon Weisenthal Center Museum.”  Um, perfect timing?  Although it addresses a variety of topics, the heart of the Museum is the Holocaust Exhibit that guides visitors through the development of Nazi Germany and the terrible atrocities that followed.  It was sadly fascinating to learn that the Nazis began as a few guys sharing burgers in a beer joint, but what struck me most was the statement that this humble beginning grew to such perplexing power to influence fellow citizens to carry out unspeakable acts because they “exploited hopelessness.”

Well, my first inclination was far too easy: Write a blog lamenting how terrible it is to exploit hopelessness and title it, Exude Hopefulness.  But there’s a problem.  Exuding hopefulness is exactly how you exploit hopelessness.  Promise hopeless folks better days ahead.  That’s exactly what the Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Greens, and lots of other folks are doing at this very moment.

Hopeless people have to be wary, I guess, but I suspect that wariness is not high on the to-do list of hopeless people.

So, for the sake of the world, I have two thoughts to offer instead.

First, remain hopeful.  You.  Don’t tell others to be hopeful.  You remain hopeful yourself.  Losing hope is too dangerous, and we are susceptible to such terrible things.

Second, remove the reasons others are hopeless.  Actions over words.  Hopelessness is not to be used.  It is to be subverted.  Love people.  Seek justice.  Feed hungry folks.  Give someone a job.  Volunteer your time and your money.

Humanity is both capable of and susceptible to terrible things.  But wow, the possibilities for good are limitless.

Just Mercy

My colleague, Jessie, said that I needed to read Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. I told her that I already had a sizable stack of books to read. She brought me a copy anyway. I read it. She was right.

Cue the Twilight Zone music because in the middle of the inspiring, troubling, quick read, I learned that Bryan Stevenson was scheduled to speak at Pepperdine this semester. I attended the lecture this past week and had the distinct honor of attending a dinner with Mr. Stevenson afterward. It turned out that I needed to hear him speak, too.

So you can quit reading and buy the book now and thank me later.

If you need further encouragement, how about Desmond Tutu?

“Bryan Stevenson is America’s young Nelson Mandela, a brilliant lawyer fighting with courage and conviction to guarantee justice for all.”

Wow, you still haven’t purchased the book? Let’s try John Grisham:

“Not since Atticus Finch has a fearless and committed lawyer made such a difference in the American South. Though larger than life, Atticus exists only in fiction. Bryan Stevenson, however, is very much alive and doing God’s work fighting for the poor, the oppressed, the voiceless, the vulnerable, the outcast, and those with no hope. Just Mercy is his inspiring and powerful story.”

Okay, I’m not playing around now. If justice and/or the American South and/or the United States of America and/or humanity means anything to you, read this book.

That’s all I need to write today, but as a bonus consider arguably the best line from Stevenson’s book: “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” Think about it: What is the worst thing you have ever done, and does that define you? Are you really best described as: Cheater? Thief? Addict? Criminal? Liar?

Well, if you answered Yes, I join Stevenson in declaring that you are not. But for those of us who answer No, then what allows us to define anyone else by their worst moment?

Brothers and Sisters

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“Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.” – Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail (April 16, 1963)

Three years ago, I wrote an essay for the Pepperdine Dispute Resolution Law Journal titled, “From Integration to Multiculturalism: Dr. King’s Dream Fifty Years Later.” The essay questioned whether the changes in race relations in the United States in half a century signified actual progress toward Dr. King’s dream. The skepticism I expressed in the essay has not improved while watching the news over the ensuing three years.

And what exactly was the Dream? Although the terms equality and freedom and justice, words with a legal flavor, were prominently featured in Dr. King’s speeches, it is the family metaphor of brotherhood (with apologies for the non-gender inclusive language of the time) that stands out in the speeches as a better characterization of the Dream. As King famously stated, “I want to be the white man’s brother, not his brother-in-law.”

Check out the epigraph to this essay that closed out the Letter from a Birmingham Jail to see what I mean. Check it out again and tell me that we are in shouting distance of such a dream. I think not.

So has this all been a waste of time? Are we simply left with a new holiday? Of course not, but although there has been much good, it is naïve to think that we are anywhere near a world where we see one another as brothers and sisters across the various social lines that divide us. Watch the news. Heck, join me in taking a good look at our own hearts.

So what now? Well, I say that we keep dreaming. And keep hoping. And keep working. For equality and freedom and justice, sure, but climb up on the mountaintop and see beyond those lofty words to an even loftier ideal where we all live together as brothers and sisters.

That is some dream, and it is worth remembering today.

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Indomitable Freedom

post1Christmas added several items to my sports movie collection, and the first new flick into the DVD player was The Hurricane, a 1999 movie featuring Denzel Washington as Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a boxer and convict whose triple murder conviction was set aside after decades in prison due to the love and dedication of others. It was Rocky meets Shawshank Redemption meets To Kill a Mockingbird, which is quite the inspirational combination.

The most memorable scene occurs just prior to Carter’s exoneration when he and his young friend, Lesra, have a brief conversation through prison bars. Carter utters the most famous line in the movie: “Hate put me in prison; love’s gonna bust me out.” His young friend brazenly-yet-facetiously responds, “Just in case love doesn’t; I’m gonna bust you out of here.” Carter erupts in laughter, and then, tenderly, reaches through the prison bars to wipe tears from his young friend’s face, and says, softly, “You already have.”

Yes.

This entire blog is predicated on the idea that humanity can be liberated from any circumstance that aims to imprison us—that in our hearts, we can rise above anything. I believe that in the depths of my soul. Argue with me all you want.

But even those who buy the premise may want to argue with me on how we rise above our circumstances, but as we square off, know that my contention is that it is love that busts us out.

Hate imprisons. Love liberates.

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• Click HERE to see Bob Dylan in 1975 singing his protest song, “The Hurricane,” while Carter sat in prison (and remained there for another decade).

Starting With Me

“All my life, I’ve always wanted to be somebody, but I see now I should have been more specific.” – Lily Tomlin

Of all its strong selling points, my initial attraction to Pepperdine University School of Law was its Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution. I recently had the opportunity to be a student again and enroll in the Straus Institute’s twenty-eighth annual Professional Skills Program. It is always good to spend time around peacemakers.

It takes two thoughts to explain my passion in life: peace, and justice. If I just said peace, it might imply a desire to get along at the expense of addressing the injustice around us, but if I just said justice, it might imply that we make things “right” with no attention to reconciliation. The subtitle of my blog—inspiring positive change—imagines positive change as peace and justice working in concert.

This is why I love where I work. Pepperdine Law pursues justice, and its Straus Institute reminds us to simultaneously pursue peace.

This may also explain why I have no hair. How does one simultaneously pursue these two lofty goals that often seem diametrically opposed to one another?

The answer I believe lies in Gandhi’s observation, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him . . . . We need not wait to see what others do.” Or, if you prefer a negative framing, Tolstoy said, “Everybody thinks of changing humanity, and nobody thinks of changing himself.”

If I want the world to love and respect each other while making real progress—and I do—then instead of primarily focusing my energies on changing people who I may never influence, I should change myself toward this noble dream.

Soren Kierkegaard reportedly once told a parable about ducks. The ducks waddled to a duck church where they sat in duck pews, sang duck songs, prayed duck prayers, and heard a duck preacher say: “Ducks! You have wings, and with wings you can fly.  Fly, ducks fly!” The ducks all quacked, “Amen!” and then got up and waddled home.

For all our blustery talk about the state of the world, things begin to look up when I change me.