Originally written February 1, 2017. Read the book, or see the recently released movie of the same name based on the book. Both are highly recommended.
Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption hammers away at its main theme from the first to the last page: courtroom justice in America, contrary to common perception, is not readily attainable if you are poor. Especially if you are poor and brown or black, and living in one of the former slave-holding states. I would have amended the subtitle: Stories of Justice, Redemption, Injustice, and Inequality is much more descriptive of the formidable contents of the book. Stevenson is founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a nonprofit organization based in Montgomery, Alabama, providing legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners denied fair and just treatment in the legal system.
My reading experience of Just Mercy was akin to reading Dee Brown’s heartbreaking and daunting Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, the crucial retelling of late nineteenth-century westward expansion and attempted extermination of Native Americans by US government policy and dominant Anglo culture. Both books are must reads for anyone truly desiring to understand modern American society and its complex history.
Admittedly, I’m late to the game in reviewing this provocative memoir published in 2014. I read it recently as a comparative book for a new writing project (concerning retributive and restorative justice) and discovered the insidious theme of inequality prevalent page after page.
Stevenson describes his coastal Delaware home area as poor, rural, and “unapologetically Southern” where Confederate flags flapped in the wind and defiantly defined the 1960s’ cultural landscape in which Stevenson grew up. Church helped shape his early understandings of justice; he studied at Eastern University in Pennsylvania and Harvard Law School. While serving a legal internship at the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta in the early 1980s, he discovered his life’s calling – working with death row inmates.
This calling of more than thirty years has crystalized two primary learnings for Stevenson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done and our brokenness is the source of our shared common humanity. Toward the end of the book, after presenting the cases of more than twenty prisoners represented by EJI, Stevenson utilizes the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery from John 8 to illustrate the synergy between these two primary learnings.
In 2013, Stevenson and EJI scored a great success at the Orleans Parish courthouse in New Orleans. Two inmates of Louisiana’s Angola prison (the setting of Sister Helen Prejean’s work in Dead Man Walking) had life imprisonment without parole sentences restructured – both men, African Americans, had been condemned and sentenced for non-homicide serious crimes as juveniles. Both men, elderly and infirm after having spent nearly fifty years in Angola, would soon know freedom. Stevenson walked down the imposing courthouse steps after the legal proceedings concluded and was stopped by an African-American woman he recognized from the restructuring hearings. He inquired of her connection to either of his clients. She responded she didn’t know either of them. She explained, however, that she started come to the courthouse fifteen years previous when her sixteen-year-old grandson was murdered by fellow juveniles.
“This place is full of pain, so people need plenty of help around here . . . someone to lean on.” She continued: “Those boys were found guilty for killing my grandson, and the judge sent them away to prison forever. I thought it would make me feel better but it actually made me feel worse.
“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 to catch some of the stones people cast at each other.”
She told Stevenson that she could tell he was a “stonecatcher” too – just like her.*
Life is difficult and people throw plenty of stones – actual and metaphorical – at one another; fewer people, however, do the good work of catching those stones midair. Jesus’s example and teaching in John 8 encourages the practice of compassion, forgiveness, acceptance, and standing firm in the face of injustice. Stonecatching, as described by Stevenson, is a modern-day interpretation of John 8 to help this society live up to its stated credo of liberty and justice – not for some – but for all.
The stonecatcher story is but one of many in the book that underpin Stevenson’s wise assertions about the shared human condition. Though not an overtly theological work, Stevenson’s tome is strongly supported at its foundations by two precepts advanced by healthy faith communities: love of neighbor and the confrontation of oppressive power with truth.
As children we are taught to differentiate between small and big, boy and girl, right and wrong, black and white. Important and necessary, these elementary learnings help us navigate our early years. Later, however, change and maturity compel us to adopt more nuanced understandings of the world and its peoples: the best of us are not perfect; the worst of us have redeeming qualities; we have more in common than that which makes us different.
The newly elected president uses the elementary language of “us and them.” It helped him win election; I’m not convinced, however, that it will help this society progress. Stevenson doesn’t use the language of “us and them,” he simply uses the language of “us.” An understanding of shared common humanity permeates Just Mercy – an understanding that will help this society not only progress but heal.
* Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (Spiegel and Grau, 2014), pgs. 307-09.
T. Carlos “Tim” Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of a dozen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin, Texas. I’m the author of There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, 2019).
I’m also the author of Just a Little Bit More (ACTA-Chicago, 2014), which traces the history of economic inequality in American society. Reviewing Just a Little Bit More, journalist Sam Pizzigati says, “Anderson, above all, writes with a purpose. He’s hoping to help Americans understand that an egalitarian ideal helped create the United States. We need that ideal, Anderson helps us see, now more than ever.”