“We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others. The closer we get to mass incarceration and extreme levels of punishment, the more I believe it’s necessary to recognize that we all need mercy, we all need justice, and-perhaps-we all need some measure of unmerited grace.”
-Bryan Stevenson, “Just Mercy”
Rating: 5 stars
Days to read: 6
One of my reading weaknesses is that I rarely read non-fiction. This is possibly because I spend so much of my time in technical science literature that escaping to a fantasy world seems far more enticing when reading for fun. But to be honest, even this is at least partially an excuse. History comes much less easily to me than science, so while I read multiple newspapers daily to stay on top of current events, I rarely dive into the history and context of many of our current problems. Abolishing the death penalty is an issue I feel very strongly about, but only recently did I come to the realization that I knew very little about the history of the death penalty in this country. A good friend who is a lawyer and feels the same way about the death penalty recommended this book and I couldn’t be more thankful that this book and the work of the Equal Justice Initiative got on my radar.
Just Mercy is the story of Bryan Stevenson’s career as a lawyer for death row inmates and children sentenced to life in prison. I was both entranced with his writing as much as I often struggled to keep reading the stories of many of his clients throughout the years. Featured prominently is the case of Walter McMillian, a black man who was convicted of capital murder in Alabama even though there were multiple eye witnesses that he was miles away from the crime scene at the time of the murder. To read about the gut wrenching racism of the prosecutors and jail staff, including using police dogs and other tactics to scare the supporters of the defendant from showing up at trial, I felt sick to my stomach. It made me want to slam my book down in the middle of the coffee shop and scream, this can’t be real, can it? People can’t really treat others this way and get away with it, can they? We know on some level that they can and they do, but each individual story is heartbreaking in its own way. Of course, to be this shocked and surprised is indicative of my relative privilege being white. I get to be unaware of these issues if I chose to, because I don’t have to personally experience this reality. However, to do so perpetrates the culture that allows these wrongdoings to occur. If I’m silent then the voices that demand finding a person to be punished for a crime without regard for real truth, and by extension real justice, become that much louder.
Although this book was published a couple years ago, it felt timely against the backdrop of the current presidential race. The anti-PC pendulum has swung so far that we now call being abrasive and cruel as “honesty” and “keeping it real” (can we abolish that phrase? And “haters gonna hate” while we’re at it, but I digress..). Our sense of justice is so steeped in revenge, or downright swallowed by it, that we conflate mercy with being “soft on crime”. If we are truly to consider ourselves a Christian nation as some candidates would espouse, how can we revel in how forgiving and just God is in dealing with our own sins on Sunday morning and then go cheer on candidates who propose denying that same compassionate justice to our neighbors (especially those that don’t look like us) on the talk shows Monday morning?
The first response I normally hear when I get into these kinds of conversations is something along the lines of, what you just think these people should go free and be allowed to hurt people? Or, yea let’s give these criminals a cushy life, why would they be deterred by prison! The irony of course in this is that a prevailing belief in just mercy is not being “soft” on crime. It is merely the reminder that punishments need to fit the crime, not our desire for revenge and retribution, or worse, to look good in the next election. It feels good to say what we want to do to people who cause great harm to our loved ones and members of our society. But the ways in which we either allow or disallow ourselves from going down that road shapes our culture in profound ways.
Perhaps most indicative of Stevenson’s character, and probably what has allowed him to connect with and therefore better represent many of his clients, is how he recognizes his own brokenness and need for mercy, even (maybe especially) for those who seem least deserving of it. In one of the chapters Stevenson recalls a guard who put him through a strip search (not standard operating procedure at this jail), and among other things also points out his truck in the jail parking lot with a bumper sticker that reads “if I knew it was going to be this way, I would have picked my own damn cotton.” (I have no words for this.) Later that guard is in the courtroom while Stevenson presents his client’s extremely abusive childhood in grisly detail. When the guard next sees Stevenson back at the jail, the guard stops him and asks to shake his hand, explaining that he had a rough childhood himself in foster care and didn’t think anyone had it as bad as him. Instead of dismissing the guard as forever repugnant for his previous actions, Stevenson shakes his hand. Both men are changed by Stevenson’s mercy.
I’m saving my five star ratings for the books that absolutely change me, this book completely deserves it.