This month's book response comes from Ariel Hesse who serves the city through YWAM Lebanon.
As we read through book responses, may our ears be attentive to the Spirit and may our minds discern and consider truth well. Also remember the words of the Preacher from Ecclesiastes: The writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body. The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments
Bryan Stevenson is a lawyer who has a passion for helping the poor, mentally ill, veterans and children. He founded Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) to help these people. The EJI is a non-profit organization that provides legal representation to prisoners who may have been wrongly convicted, poor prisoners without effective representation, and those who may have been denied a fair trial.
In this book, you see many people, both innocent and guilty, sentenced unfairly. This is a story about seeking justice for these people who have been wronged. I have to admit this book was hard for me to read, it was hard for me to understand how there could be so much corruption in our courts. It was difficult for me to read about the injustice and even for the people that were guilty to be given the death penalty. It made me rethink a lot of things.
“Capital punishment means ‘them without the capital get the punishment.’”
This is the first memorable statement, from Steve Bright, made to Stevenson when he began working with prisoners on death row. Stevenson never intended to make a career out of working with these people but after meeting one, named Henry, and being shocked by how rawly human he was, things changed. Henry and Stevenson spent three hours talking about life. The meeting ended with Henry being roughly dragged away. During the dehumanizing interaction with the guard, Henry began to sing an old hymn to calm Stevenson down. From then on, Stevenson knew he had to help these people who were otherwise defenseless.
If one statement in the book could define it I would say it’s this one:
“We’ve become so fearful and vengeful that we’ve thrown away children, discarded the disabled, and sanctioned the imprisonment of the sick and weak – not because they are a threat to public safety but because we think it makes us look tough, less broken.”
While this story focuses on many cases that Stevenson takes that all fall under that statement, there is one case that defines this book. It’s the case of Walter McMillian. McMillian is a poor African American man who is accused of and then sentenced to death row for a crime in 1988. As the story goes it’s clear to see that he had a clear alibi for and no connection to the murder. As someone who grew up in the Deep South, I am no stranger to how blunt racists can be. However, it shocked me how close to my lifetime the events of this case occurred were.
We also learn the story of several children who have been sentenced to life in prison. As Stevenson helps them the EJI takes on a case going up to the supreme court to declare that sentencing children to life without parole to be unconstitutional. This opens up a lot of cases to be retried during this time.
I realized on my second time reading the book that Just Mercy, the title, doesn’t mean Only Mercy, it’s core meaning is Mercy is Justice. When we think of Mercy we often think that Mercy is opposite of Justice, however that is not the case, Mercy and Justice are partners that go together. Understanding our brokenness creates a need for mercy; when you experience mercy it changes you, you learn things that you couldn't have known before.