Every person in America needs to read Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson. Fresh off the press, this book is as riveting as it is shocking in its exposure of injustice in the criminal justice system. Stevenson is a gifted storyteller and he weaves his own memoir as lawyer for the non-profit Equal Justice Initiative with the stories of incarcerated people he has served. One may ask what this has to do with the Old Testament, the focus of this blog. Everything, actually. Recently, I wrote a post entitled: What is the Kingdom of God? Not a “Ticket” To Heaven. The Kingdom of God is characterized by righteousness and justice. The pillars of God’s throne are righteousness and justice (Psalm 89:14). God betroths us to himself in righteousness and justice (Hosea 2:19). We are to imitate God in cultivating and promoting a culture of righteousness and justice. Even though Stevenson’s book is not being distributed as an explicitly Christian one, it captures the essence of what Scripture means when the prophet Amos said, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream” (5:24).
America has a catastrophe on its hands. In just forty years, the prison population has exploded from only 300,000 to 2.3 million. And it’s not because crime has increased. The numbers are a direct result of the well-intentioned but misguided War on Drugs. America now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. The problem is exacerbated by a new industry of private for-profit prisons and a proliferation of harsh 3-strikes laws. Mass incarceration is destroying the lives of many people who are non-violent offenders, along with their families. Unfortunately, this blight disproportionately affects people of color. In Milwaukee where I currently live, fifty percent of all black men will have been incarcerated by age thirty. Fifty percent. This has a drastic effect on the entire community. Often people who are incarcerated have a difficult time getting jobs once they have been released making recidivism more likely. A prison record is like a Scarlet Letter permanently branding a person regardless of how much he or she committed to being a good citizen.
Tragically, innocent people have also suffered. Stevenson recounts the heartbreaking story of Walter McMillian who was a hard-working, successful businessman falsely accused of murder. As a result of gross racial discrimination and governmental corruption, he was placed on death row where he languished for six years until Stevenson was able to demonstrate his innocence. By then McMillian had lost his business, his wife, and his sense of dignity. He eventually developed early dementia likely as a result of the trauma. Despite his proven innocence he was still rejected from a nursing home because he had been in prison. The corrupt officials who knowingly put McMillian in prison despite lack of evidence have gotten off with no consequences and continue in their positions of authority.
Even Stevenson, a Harvard educated lawyer, has suffered injustice. He was targeted by police while parked in front of his house listening to the radio—all because of his skin color. On another occasion he went to a prison to visit a client and was humiliated by a racist prison guard who demanded Stevenson submit to a full strip search before seeing the client. But despite all the injustice he has seen and experienced Stevenson is a model of grace. He demonstrates by his own response the only way past our problem: mercy. He is calling upon us as American citizens to establish a more humane criminal justice system—a more just and merciful system. He calls on us to be “stonecatchers” instead of stonethrowers:
At the church meeting, I spoke mostly of Walter’s case, but I also reminded people that when the woman accused of adultery was brought to Jesus, he told the accusers who wanted to stone her to death, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” The woman’s accusers retreated, and Jesus forgave her and urged her to sin no more. But today, our self-righteousness, our fear, and our anger have caused even the Christians to hurl stones at the people who fall down, even when we know we should forgive or show compassion. I told the congregation that we can’t simply watch that happen. I told them we have to be stonecatchers (308-309).
In order to be stonecatchers we have to be imitators of God—the One who held out his hands all day long to a people who rejected him (Isaiah 65:2). For us to be merciful, we have to recognize how much we ourselves have been shown mercy. As Jesus said, the one who has been forgiven much, loves much (Luke 7:47). Stevenson writes:
After working for more than twenty-five years, I understood that I don’t do what I do because it’s required or necessary or important. I don’t do it because I have no choice. I do what I do because I am broken too. My years of struggling against inequality, abusive power, poverty, oppression, and injustice had finally revealed something to me about myself. Being close to suffering, death, executions, and cruel punishments didn’t just illuminate the brokenness of others; in a moment of anguish and heartbreak, it also exposed by own brokenness. You can’t effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression, or injustice and not be broken by it. We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent . . . our shared brokenness connect[s] us (288-89).
Author John Grisham, commenting on the book, said Stevenson is “doing God’s work fighting for the poor, the oppressed, the voiceless, the vulnerable, the outcast, and those with no hope.” This is the same work the Old Testament prophets preached. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. rightly interpreted Scripture: “Amos’ emphasis throughout seems to be that justice between man and man is one of the divine foundations of society. Such an ethical idea is at the root of all true religion. This high ethical notion conceived by Amos must always remain a challenge to the Christian church.”
Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Don’t let this day go by without remembering what it is about. As Stevenson’s ample evidence demonstrates, racism and classism are not things of the past. They exist now. Take some time today to watch these videos, order these books, ponder this post. Then consider how God may be calling you to participate in his Kingdom of righteousness and justice.
1. Bryan Stevenson gives a TED talk (see also his non-profit organization Equal Justice Initiative):
2. Michelle Alexander also wrote an excellent book on the problem of mass incarceration called The New Jim Crow. She discusses some of the concepts in this brief video.
3. When slavery officially “ended,” it did not really end. Instead black people were arrested on ridiculous charges (e.g. being unemployed) and forced into a system of convict leasing. Convict leasing legally perpetuated slavery until well into the 20th century. Watch this documentary Slavery by Another Name.