Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson. Spiegel & Grau. 354 pages. 2014.
Lecrae is one of my favorite music artists. His new album All Things Work Together is brilliant, and one of the top releases of the year. Recently, he announced that he is “divorcing ‘white evangelicalism’”. Read John Piper’s response here. I was saddened when I read this, and reached out to Lecrae. He suggested a number of books I could read to help with understanding where he was coming from. From those books, my wife Tammy and I chose to start with Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson.
Bryan Stevenson is the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. This well-written and powerful book weaves in some stunning statistics about the problem of mass incarceration in the U.S., while telling the heart-breaking story of Walter McMillian (and many others) from thirty years of his work. It’s the best book I’ve read this year.
Bryan’s story began in 1983 as a 23-year old student at Harvard Law School working with the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee (SPDC). SPDC’s mission was to assist condemned people on death row in Georgia. When he finished his internship he was committed to helping the death row prisoners he had met. He returned to law school with an intense desire to understand the laws and doctrines that sanctioned the death penalty and extreme punishments.
His time on death row revealed that there was something missing in the way we treat people in our judicial system. This is about how easily we condemn people in this country and the injustice we create when we allow fear, anger, and distance to shape the way we treat the most vulnerable among us.
He writes that there are more than two million incarcerated people in the United States, with an additional six million people on probation or parole and an estimated sixty-eight million Americans with criminal records. Other statistics about the U.S. prison system that I highlighted from the book were:
• We have the highest rate of incarceration in the world.
• One in every three black male babies born in this century is expected to be incarcerated.
• By the mid-1980s, nearly 20 percent of the people in jails and prisons had served in the military.
• Convincing empirical evidence that the race of the victim is the greatest predictor of who gets the death penalty.
• By 2010, Florida had sentenced more than a hundred children to life imprisonment without parole for non-homicide offenses, several of whom were thirteen years old at the time of the crime. All of the youngest condemned children—thirteen or fourteen years of age—were black or Latino.
• Over 50 percent of prison and jail inmates have a diagnosed mental illness, a rate nearly five times greater than that of the general adult population. Nearly one in five prison and jail inmates has a serious mental illness.
• Most women on death row are awaiting execution for a family crime involving an allegation of child abuse or domestic violence involving a male partner.
• The number of women sent to prison increased 646 percent between 1980 and 2010, a rate of increase 1.5 times higher than the rate for men.
• Most incarcerated women—nearly two-thirds—are in prison for nonviolent, low-level drug crimes or property crimes.
• Between 1990 and 2005, a new prison opened every ten days. Prison growth and the resulting “prison-industrial complex”—the business interests that capitalize on prison construction—made imprisonment so profitable that millions of dollars were spent lobbying state legislators to keep expanding the use of incarceration to respond to just about any problem.
• We are the only country in the world that imposes life imprisonment without parole sentences on children.
• Lethal injection had become the most common method for the sanctioned killing of people in virtually every death state. But questions about the painlessness and efficacy of lethal injection were emerging.
After graduating from law school, Stevenson went back to the Deep South to represent the poor, the incarcerated, and the condemned. He writes about McMillian’s case, which taught him about the system’s disturbing indifference to inaccurate or unreliable verdicts, our comfort with bias, and our tolerance of unfair prosecutions and convictions.
Stevenson tells us that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice. He states that the true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.
The EJI opened in 1989, dedicated to providing free, quality legal services to condemned men and women on death row in Alabama. He writes of developing a maturing recognition of the importance of hopefulness in creating justice. The kind of hope that creates a willingness to position oneself in a hopeless place and be a witness, that allows one to believe in a better future, even in the face of abusive power.
He writes of the realization of his life being full of brokenness. He worked in a broken system of justice. His clients were broken by mental illness, poverty, and racism. They were torn apart by disease, drugs and alcohol, pride, fear, and anger.
In their broken state, they were judged and condemned by people whose commitment to fairness had been broken by cynicism, hopelessness, and prejudice. He began to understand that he didn’t do what he did because it was required or necessary or important. He did it because he was broken too.
You can’t effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression, or injustice and not be broken by it. He states that there is a strength, a power even, in understanding brokenness, because embracing our brokenness creates a need and desire for mercy, and perhaps a corresponding need to show mercy. He writes that when you experience mercy, you learn things that are hard to learn otherwise.
He writes of EJI’s work – in trying to stop the death penalty, to do something about prison conditions and excessive punishment, to free people who’ve been wrongly convicted, to end unfair sentences in criminal cases and stop racial bias in criminal justice, to help the poor and do something about indigent defense and the fact that people don’t get the legal help they need, to help people who are mentally ill, to stop them from putting children in adult jails and prisons, to do something about poverty and the hopelessness that dominates poor communities, to see more diversity in decision-making roles in the justice system, to educate people about racial history and the need for racial justice.
He writes that the power of just mercy is that it belongs to the undeserving. It’s when mercy is least expected that it’s most potent—strong enough to break the cycle of victimization and victimhood, retribution and suffering.
Important victories have been won by EJI in the U.S. Supreme Court. The number of death row prisoners in Alabama for whom EJI had won relief reached one hundred at the time of the writing of this book. He believes that much of our worst thinking about justice is steeped in the myths of racial difference that still plague us.
There is some hope, however. He shares the following statistics:
- By 2010, the number of annual executions fell to less than half the number in 1999.
- Alabama’s death-sentencing rate had also dropped from the late 1990s, but it was still the highest in the country.
- For the first time in close to forty years, the country’s prison population did not increase in 2011. In 2012, the country saw the first decline in its prison population in decades.
So, did the book help me understand where Lecrae is coming from in divorcing white evangelicalism? No, not really. However, we did get to read a really good book – the best I’ve read thus far this year. It will make you angry, and yet hopeful for the work that EJI is doing. Well-written and powerful, reading this book will be well worth your time. You may find yourself asking what you can do to help.
- Crucial Questions: 28 Free eBooks from R.C. Sproul. Three new books have been published in R.C. Sproul’s Crucial Questions Check out those and all 28 free ebooks in the series.
- Christianaudio Free Book of the Month. This month’s free audiobook of the month from Christianaudio is a good one – Why the Reformation Still Matters by Michael Reeves and Tim Chester.
Top 17 Books of 2017. Tony Reinke shares his top 17 books of 2017, along with a few that almost made the list.
- The 20 Best Books for Christian Men. Stephen Altrogge shares this helpful list of books for men. I’ve read a few of them (by Packer, Piper, Traeger Gilbert, Horton, Bridges, all of which I would recommend.
- The Truth About Suicide. Morgan Lee inteviews Al Hsu, author of Grieving a Suicide: A Loved One’s Search for Comfort, Answers, and Hope (InterVarsity Press), first published in 2002 and re-released this year.
- 50+ Notable 2018 Books. My friend Kevin Halloran compiles some books of interest to be published in late 2017 and 2018.
BOOK CLUB – Won’t you read along with us?
The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place by Andy Crouch. Baker Books. 224 pages. 2017
In this important new book, Andy Crouch, author of Culture Making, draws on in-depth original research from the Barna Group, and shows readers that the choices we make about technology have consequences we may never have considered. He takes readers beyond the typical questions of what, where, and when and instead challenges them to answer provocative questions like, Who do we want to be as a family? and How does our use of a particular technology move us closer or farther away from that goal? Anyone who has felt their family relationships suffer or their time slip away amid technology’s distractions will find in this book a path forward to reclaiming their real life in a world of devices.
Chapter 7: The Deep End of the (Car) Pool
- Car time can be some of the best conversation time of all—if we nudge ourselves in that direction.
- The author Sherry Turkle, who has done so much to help us realize the dangers to real relationship that come along with technology’s promised benefits, suggests in her book Reclaiming Conversation that most conversations take at least seven minutes to really begin.
- Something about the confined quarters and limited options of the car brings out the very worst in all of us at one time or another. Of course, that too is part of developing wisdom. But those same confined quarters can also, if we persevere with patience and creativity, eventually bring out the best in us.
- So set the pattern early: car time is conversation time. We’re on this trip together, and to make it to the end and gain wisdom and courage along the way, we’re going to need to talk, for seven minutes and more.