A Review of Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy

It is often said that the mark of a compelling literary work is one which the reader cannot put down. Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy is a book that you are going to want and need to put down in order to reflect.  You must put it down as it hits you smack in the face with some of the most tragic and horrific humanitarian accounts I have ever come across.

I would like nothing more than to burn Just Mercy’s pages, and the stories that fill them, from anyone’s working memory.  Not because the accounts are not compelling, they are just too tragic.  It is simply astonishing the horrors our brothers and sisters, and our children, have endured – and, sadly, continue to endure.  But the accounts are necessary medicine if we are to get a healthier place as a people.  There is indeed plenty of work to be done.  Do not let anyone tell you otherwise without offering them the deep yet sorrowful learning experience that is Just Mercy.  Regardless of one’s political ideology and/or upbringing and cultural experience, as Americans — as human beings — we ought to all be on the same page when it comes to basic human rights and access to the legal system.  And if we are on different pages for whatever reason(s) – it is most definitely a goal worth striving for.

If you are one that is interested in the intersections of race and poverty, mass incarceration, the death penalty, the marginalization and abuses of women, and the prevalence and abuses of children in prison, then you are interested in attorney Bryan Stevenson’s work as director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, which is a private nonprofit organization that provides legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners who have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system. Just Mercy is Bryan Stevenson’s candid reflections about his battle on the frontlines of racial inequality, and the gross pervasiveness of a corrupt, and oftentimes inaccessible, legal system.

I could not complete Just Mercy and feel at peace with the status quo, and my limited role in the social justice movement.  I could not even finish the first couple of chapters without feeling like my life has been largely meaningless, sheltered, and privileged, despite my constant quest to seek new information and to keep an open mind about nearly all matters.  I cannot be at peace with the fact that so many have not, and likely will never, be afforded the same access to opportunity as I have.  I cannot be at peace about the fact that my access to justice is so much different than so many others’.  I cannot be at peace about the fact that as a white male, I am so much less likely to face any systemic abuses that have shattered the lives of so many others.  In the eyes of the criminal justice system, I am special.  However, the United States Constitution instructs me that all men [and women] are created equal, and that there are certain inalienable rights inherent in every human, among which are the preservation of life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  These inalienable rights are endowed by our Creator.  My soul tells me the same.  These are basic principles.  But the world is, sadly, not such a basic place.  Far from it.

Just Mercy will compel the reader to confront challenging and at times frustrating questions such as why is there so much hurt and sorrow in the world? What is justice, really?  Is our criminal justice system, just?  And if it is not, what can be done to change it?  Is our criminal justice system broken?  Who broke it?  Was it ever really “fixed”?  What step(s) can we take to change it?  How should the system really operate?  Are we fighting a fight of idealism vs. realism, and is justice even attainable?  How do we purposefully and radically strive for peace, love, and understanding in the world?  How do we celebrate our differences?  Are criminals worthy of our love and understanding?  What is a criminal?  What is true reconciliation, and is it even possible in this social justice context?  Are our relations with one another clouded by misunderstandings, biases, prejudices, and/or the machinations of the political and prosecutorial processes?  How do we give those with no voice a place to start to defend themselves against the abuses of the system?  How do we give those whose voices have been silenced the strength, courage, and tools to mount a defense that carries real weight?  How do we have the fortitude to do and consider all of this — despite how steep the climb may be — no matter how formidable the fight may be?  How do we stem the tide, break through the shackles that bind us, and put a just and rightful end to all of this happening in the first place?

If we here at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church truly are to be a crowd that effects good change for the world, and a place known for radical love and welcome, and a beacon of hope in Center City Charlotte, we must first take a step back and understand the depths of the injustice and sorrow that permeates our world today. Though it slaps us square in the face and shatters our souls, Just Mercy provides a lens through which the social justice ministry can provide greater understanding, lead to further dialogue, and foster even more growth.  We must first fully come to grips with the abominable realities facing our brothers and sisters, and children, today.  And then we as church body must find some way(s) to effectively and compassionately serve others in the cross hairs of systemic racial injustice.  Doing so will fully mount St. Peter’s as a beacon of hope for our city, and perhaps even our nation as a whole.  As Bryan Stevenson so beautifully illustrates, changing — or even saving — one life is worth the world.

Bryan Stevenson is fighting the good fight with all his might. He is giving all that he can, despite the enormous discrepancies in power structure and resources he and his team face.  He implores us to have the courage, and the unconditional love for our brothers and sisters, to do all that we can do to fight alongside him and the Equal Justice Initiative.

As brothers and sisters in Christ, we are commanded to love the Lord with all our hearts, and with all our souls, and with all our strength, and all our minds. And to love our neighbor as ourselves.  Bryan Stevenson dutifully shows us the way in Just Mercy.  What is it that we are called to do?  Are we giving it our all?

– By Parishioner Walt Hutchinson