READING from Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
Toward the end of his memoir, Just Mercy, lawyer Bryan Stevenson tells about an elderly black woman who was at the courtroom when he was defending a client. The woman said to him:
"All these young children being sent to prison forever, all this grief and violence. Those judges throwing people away like they're not even human, people shooting each other, hurting each other like they don't care. I don't know, it's a lot of pain. I decided that I was supposed to be here [at the court] to catch some of the stones people cast at each other."
I chuckled when she said it. During the McMillian hearings, a local minister had held a regional church meeting about the case and had asked me to come speak. There were a few people in the African American community whose support of Walter was muted, not because they thought he was guilty but because he had had an extramarital affair and wasn't active in the church. At the church meeting, I spoke mostly about Walter's case, but I also reminded people that when the woman accused of adultery was brought to Jesus, he told the accusers who wanted to stone her to death, 'Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.' The woman's accusers retreated, and Jesus forgave her and urged her to sin no more. But today, our self-righteousness, our fear, and our anger have caused even the Christians to hurl stones at the people who fall down, even when we know we should forgive or show compassion. I told the congregation that we can't simply watch that happens. I told them we have to be stonecatchers.
When I chuckled at the older woman's invocation of the parable, she laughed, too. '"I heard you in that courtroom today. I've even seen you here a couple of times before. I know you's a stonecatcher, too."
James Luther Adams wrote an essay about the five smooth stones of liberal religion. The five smooth stones are a reference to the Biblical story of David and Goliath. For Adams, each of those stones came to represent a central value and commitment of religious liberalism. Each represented a spiritual resource for living one’s faith. Each stone provides a method for ethically engaging in the world.
In brief, the five smooth stones teach that 1. truth is ever unfolding, 2. relationships are based in mutuality and freedom, 3. creating Beloved Community is a moral obligation, 4. good is the result of human effort, and 5. hope is transformative.
It is helpful to understand the context in which Adams developed the five smooth stones. Adams lived in the 20th century and died in 1994. He wrote a number of books and taught at Harvard and Andover Newton in Boston and also at Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, one of our two Unitarian Universalist seminaries.
His theological convictions were informed and deepened by a year he spent in Germany from 1935 to 1936. There, Adams witnessed the Nazi government squashing dissent. He himself was interrogated by the Gestapo and narrowly avoided imprisonment. He was questioned as a result of his involvement in church-related resistance groups.
After that year, he returned to the United States convinced that the tendency of religious liberals to emphasize what he called platitudes about open-mindedness made liberal churches irrelevant in the face of evil. In other words, the ways that liberal religious people were describing and thinking about and living their faith was failing to take into account the harsh and troubling realities of genocide, hatred, racism, persecution, and other stones people were throwing at each other. (http://uudb.org/articles/jameslutheradams.html)
Unitarian Universalist Minister Jude Geiger says, “For James Luther Adams, the five stones become a metaphor for how we can combat systems of oppression in the world. What are the five things we can do that will unbind the oppressed? In modern language – how do we end Racism, Homophobia, Classism and Misogyny – to name a few.” (https://revwho.com/2016/09/11/the-five-stones-2/?fbclid=IwAR0QxEIybOrKcO7yqsTsIBAOgNxXyZZmfnFKrYdqgP3wyzhBxmt9faNq_B4)
The five smooth stones of liberal religion carry the message of how to unbind the oppressed, for how to be a standing stone for another person, how to be a stone catcher. (reference to Melanie DeMore’s “Standing Stone” song). The stones are our tools and resources that show us how to act in the face of injustice and inequity. They are spiritual tools and resources that support us in our human interactions with others. They guide us when interacting with someone who has made a mistake or when we have made a mistake--whether that mistake is having betrayed a spouse or partner, having made an error on the job, having made a comment that you discover was a micro-aggression against a person of color, having mistreated another person, or having remained silent in the face of evil.
How do those five stones help us? I want to take a few minutes to explain what each of these stones has to offer us and how they can bolster us in interpersonal exchanges at work or at home as well as in our efforts to dismantle systemic oppression.
The first stone reminds us that we are continuously growing and learning as we encounter new experiences and new truths. This is often expressed with the phrase “revelation is not sealed.” The idea that religion evolves, that the human spirit evolves, and that truth unfolds serves as a stark contrast to those beliefs that rely on unchanging creeds, absolute authority, and infallibility. For Unitarian Universalists, the emphasis is on freedom of conscience and the discovery of ever unfolding truths and meaning. This approach to religion is admittedly challenging. No one will tell you what you are supposed to believe. But that freedom comes with tremendous responsibility. It requires an honest searching of oneself in a spiritual community that holds us accountable. This means that we must wrestle with what we are learning about racism, evil, science, our human limitations and potentialities. This stone insists that people’s minds, hearts, and spirits must be free to pursue truth. Without freedom, there can be no justice.
The second stone reminds us that we enter into relationships and community freely. There is no coercion. Instead there is mutuality. This stone acknowledges that our social bonds are essential. Adams often said, “By their groups you shall know them.” There must be mutual support and community. This requires that we make space for each other to arrive as full human beings with our gifts and talents and identities, and also our difficulties and limitations. This is an undertaking that requires a balancing of individual and collective needs. We need each other to do that. We need each other to be fully human.
The third stone reminds us of our moral responsibility to create just and loving communities—to work toward the Beloved Community. There is an obligation to strive for equity.
The fourth stone teaches that good things happen as a result of human effort. We can’t just wait around. The necessity of social incarnation means we must do good by embodying good. We have to live our faith in our everyday lives. Shoveling an elderly neighbors’ sidewalk, offering a kind word to someone who is struggling, and other small everyday actions are what this stone is all about. This is what it means to be someone’s standing stone. A necessity of liberal religion is that faith becomes witness. It is not just a grand idea or belief but also a way of being in the world. It attests to the importance of human action and that what we do matters.
The fifth stone reminds us to remain hopeful. Despite tragedy and heartache, liberal religion recognizes the potential for transformation. It also holds out hope that others will catch us when we fall. We are each other’s stone catchers.
Each of these five smooth stones in their own way lifts up the promise of what can be if we become stone catchers.
In 2017, I had the opportunity to hear lawyer Bryan Stevenson speak at our Unitarian Universalist General Assembly. He was the featured lecturer. Stevenson wrote the memoir, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. In it, he describes the role of churches as stone catchers. Yet, the church has often failed to live up to that role. During most of the history of slavery, for example, the larger religious community remained silent.
Today, worldwide slavery is still with us, as well as terrorism, segregation, and mass incarceration. The existence of these evils implicates the church. Religious communities, says Stevenson, need to actively and intentionally take measures to intervene in situations where stones are being thrown. Churches have to challenge systems of oppression and intervene for people. This message is consistent with the message of Adams’s five smooth stones. Stevenson says:
I don’t think the church is judged by the size of the buildings that it creates. I don’t think it’s judged by how many members we attract. . . . We are judged by our witness in a world where there is slavery and terrorism and segregation and mass incarceration. What we say in response to that is how we are going to be judged.
He explains using biblical scripture. Stevenson describes the story in which scribes and Pharisees brought before Jesus a woman who had been caught in adultery. They were testing Jesus, wanting him to say something they could use against him. They were not seeking mercy, forgiveness, or compassion for her. The law commanded that such a woman be stoned. They asked Jesus what to do. He said, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” They all went away, and Jesus was left with the woman. And he asked her: “where are they? Has no one condemned you?” And she said, “No one.” Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” (John 8: 3-11) That scripture is still calling us to a caring and compassionate response.
As Stevenson says,
today that scripture is still there, that challenge is still there not to judge. But people are picking up stones and throwing them left and right. I think the new church has to be willing to be stone catchers. We’ve got to be willing to stand in places where we bear the burden of those who have been wrongly accused and condemned. We bear the burden of those presumptively treated as if they’re dangerous or guilty. We have to bear the burden of those disfavored communities in our country and across the world, those religious minorities, those sexual minorities, those undocumented communities, people who are black and brown. We have to bear their burden. We have to stand up and catch the stones cast to them and then we make a witness.(https://summitforchange.com/portfolio-item/stone-catchers/)
This morning I invite you to reflect on the ways you are a stone catcher. Who are you catching stones for? Who is catching the stones being thrown at you? How is this spiritual community catching stones or failing to catch stones being thrown at those who are hurting, weary, or oppressed?
When we catch the stones thrown at those who have been wrongly accused, those who are presumptively treated as guilty, those who are disfavored, those who are weary, those who are hurting, those who are in need of mercy, then we make a witness. That is to live our liberal religious faith.
Amen. Blessed be.