Myths and stories breathe life into the way we construct our societies. Stories explain our origin, dictate our afterlife, and assign meaning to everything in between: friendship, marriage, and families. As such, stories are a powerful force for social change. Jonah Sachs, author of Winning the Story Wars, defines stories as “a particular type of human communication designed to persuade an audience of a storyteller’s worldview.” Sach’s mission is to help storytellers of our modern age craft stories that matter, stories that create lasting change, and stories that make our world a better place.
But sometimes even the most powerful, well crafted story fails to connect with its audience. Bryan Stevenson, in his moving memoir, Just Mercy, documents his journey as a young lawyer to fight the injustices within the incarceration system in the South. The central story of his book focused on a black man named Walter McMillian who was falsely accused of murder and placed on death row. Walter was an educated, industrious entrepreneur in his community; his harsh sentence of capital punishment for a crime he didn’t commit was clearly inflicted by the entrenched racial prejudice of his town.
Walter’s story contains a dark irony. He was from Monroe County of Alabama, home to Harper Lee, author of the award winning, national bestseller, To Kill A Mockingbird. As can be expected, Monroeville fully embraced their claim to fame by putting on grand productions of the film’s adaptation and even building a “Mockingbird” museum, attracting national and international tourists alike.
The hypocrisy of a town celebrating a story of an injustice against an innocent black man in a fictional story while condemning an actual innocent black man in their own community enraged Stevenson. He writes, “Sentimentality about Lee’s story grew even as the harder truths of the book took no root.”
What makes it possible within the human psyche for such a profound disconnect to exist between story and real life? What blinds the community of Monroe County, preventing them from seeing the same injustices told in the best-selling novel play out right under their noses? In what ways are we participating in the same kinds of hypocrisy, refusing to allow stories with hard truths to speak prophetically into our own communities?
My friend, Caris Adel, suggested the Hunger Games as a more recent example. Millions flocked to the theaters to watch Jennifer Lawrence play the unlikely young heroine, Katniss Everdeen, but how many of us walked away convicted by how the post-apocalyptic tale of economic inequality and political oppression mirror our current state of the world?
I think at the core of our engagement with stories, something has gone awry where we have come to prize sentimentalism over substance. We want feel-good stories and we align ourselves to the protagonists of a story instead of letting the story critique us as potential perpetrators of evil. The residents of Monroe County read To Kill A Mockingbird and saw in Atticus Finch the white hero they can all become, the brave champion of justice. It doesn’t bother them that Tom Robinson, despite his innocence, gets convicted and shot seventeen times while escaping prison. His is a side story and has no resonance in the white readers of Monroeville.
This is why in our 24-hour news cycle, there are journalists who disregard the dignities of news stories’ victims to deliver sensational stories. The point isn’t about changing the lives of the people for the better, it’s about making the viewers feel good. We pat ourselves on the back as the footage of suffering people elicit compassion in us.
We forego exploring long-term systemic causes of injustice in exchange for short-term satisfaction of a more palatable resolution.
As Christians who care about social justice, it is easy to turn justice work into another opportunity for sentimentality: feeling good about being compassionate and painting ourselves as heroes. But we have to take a good, hard look at stories about injustice and see that maybe we are not the protagonists, but the ones who are inflicting the pain. That is a bitter pill to swallow, because most of us are decent-hearted people and we struggle to conceive ourselves as complicit in such deep evil. And yet, the systems which oppress and deny dignity to the marginalized are made up of individuals, and sometimes we are the ones inextricably tangled up in that system.
Justice is not sentimentality, it is a movement for change. And it happens when we stop being spectators and involve ourselves in the stories of suffering and redemption. It happens when we align ourselves not as the heroes, but as participants in broken systems, bearing both the cause and the consequences of injustice. It happens when we stop telling feel-good stories, and instead live genuine stories of faithfulness.