Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption
One World, 2015
368 pp., 17.00
Our Shared Brokenness
When I was an undergraduate, I had a conversion experience that turned my life around and shifted my career goal away from bioengineering to pastoral ministry and, later, teaching literature. One influence that precipitated the conversion came from a cassette tape someone had suggested I listen to. It was a message by Tony Campolo, delivered at a conference for children's pastors, about the way postmodernism was changing our approach to Christian education. His last point emphasized relying less on technique and technology and more on the power of the Holy Spirit to release visions and dreams in young people, and he told a story to drive it home. One of his students, Campolo recalled, went on from what was then called Eastern College in Pennsylvania to graduate from Harvard Law School near the top of his class. But rather than take a high-paying position after graduation, he lived off donations in Montgomery, Alabama while defending people on death row. That example, along with an English course I took on prison autobiographies, helped to make mass incarceration a subject close to my work in the ministry and at the university.
Over the years, while preaching sermons and teaching courses on the topic, I occasionally wondered what happened to that student—whether he continued to defend the poor. Fifteen years went by, and then I came across his name on a TED video about mass incarceration: "Bryan Stevenson: We need to talk about an injustice." It was a moving speech that managed to avoid the debilitating effect such a topic can sometimes have on audiences. In fact, Stevenson's talk was so empowering that it garnered "one of the longest and loudest standing ovations in TED's history" and in the days after raised over $1 million toward ending excessive punishment of minors in adult prisons. In 2015, Stevenson argued successfully before the US Supreme Court that mandatory life sentences without parole for minors qualify as cruel and unusual punishment.
A recipient of the MacArthur "Genius" Award and the Olaf Palme Prize for his work as founder and Executive Director of Equal Justice Initiative, Stevenson followed his TED talk with the publication of his first book, Just Mercy. It begins in 1983 recounting his experience as a law student and ends with the death in 2013 of his most famous client, Walter McMillian, whose case provides the narrative thread throughout the book. Whereas Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow, another bestseller on the same subject, puts forward a provocative thesis focusing on the history and structure of mass incarceration, Stevenson's book is a deeply personal account. If Alexander's stated purpose is to equip her readers with the necessary facts to make a case against mass incarceration, Stevenson's aim is to tell us how he's made such a case in the last 30 years. It's not difficult to take issue with this or that part of Alexander's argument, which many critics have done. But it's hard to imagine anyone not being moved to compassion by the stories of wrongful convictions, the plight of the mentally ill, and the vulnerability of women and children in parts of our criminal justice system. Prison reform in recent decades has been on the progressive political agenda. But as Eli Lehrer has recently written in National Review and for The Heritage Foundation, it seems some conservatives are prepared to reconsider the issue too. If they are, I haven't found any citing Just Mercy to support their argument just yet. But I don't think it's entirely inconceivable that advocates on both the right and left might find useful material from the book, since Stevenson stakes his claims on moral rather than partisan grounds.
Just Mercy takes its epigraph from Reinhold Niebuhr: "Love is the motive, but justice is the instrument." And though Stevenson does not cite every biblical allusion, it is unmistakable that he is driven by the prophetic call to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly before God. When he writes about what he's learned from his experience, he says, "mercy is just when it is rooted in hopefulness and freely given. Mercy is most empowering, liberating, and transformative when it is directed at the undeserving. The people who haven't earned it, who haven't even sought it, are the most meaningful recipients of our compassion." In contrast, "fear and anger are a threat to justice; they can infect a community, a state, or a nation and make us blind, irrational, and dangerous." The strength of these conclusions comes not from some groundbreaking new moral lesson, but rather from the credibility and persuasiveness Stevenson and McMillian earn through their shared story. Here is a book with a clear flesh-and-bones testimony about what it means to persist in the struggle for hope and justice.