Reflections on “Just Mercy”

death penalty

The first year students at Gettysburg College are all reading Just Mercy:  A Story of Justice and Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson.  Stevenson is a lawyer who founded the Equal Justice Initiative, an organization that works to defend those most in need of an advocate, especially those wrongfully convicted–including those on death row.

It is a powerful book, and last night, in conjunction with the book, Anthony Ray Hinton spoke about his own experience with the criminal justice system.  Hinton was released in April 2015 after spending 30 years on Alabama’s death row for a crime he did not commit. He was released with the help of Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative. He now serves as EJI’s Community Educator and travels both nationally and internationally to speak about his experience.   It was a sobering talk, as we heard how, at multiple points in his arrest, conviction and incarceration process, blatant lies were told about him, and clear evidence that would have exonerated him immediately was ignored.  But even more than all that, it was clear that simply because he is black,  his guilt was presumed, and there was absolutely no sense that he was owed justice, fairness, or respect.

As a privileged white woman, the book was hard to read:  even though I am well aware of the racism in American society in general and in the criminal justice system in particular, I also never bear the brunt of it, and so I can conveniently ignore it whenever I choose.  Growing up in a segment of society where it was ingrained in me that “the policeman is your friend,” I can’t imagine what it would be like not to trust the institutions that are supposed to uphold human values, and not trust the people who embody them–because you know they don’t think those values apply to you.

I tend to be an optimistic person [and, I admit, naive, too…], and so I am repeatedly and continually shocked when I read accounts of how poor [and not necessarily poor] people of color are treated:  cast aside, abused, ignored, violated, exploited; the examples of the children in this book were particularly heart-rending.

That’s why I was grateful for the hope that came at the end of the book, and the metaphor of being a “stonecatcher”:  instead of casting stones, we are called to be the one to catch them, and keep them from landing on their targets.  I love this image not least because it reminds me of one of my favorite stories about Jesus in Scripture–the one where he stands up for the woman caught in adultery, and keeps those stones from destroying her.  We all can be stonecatchers in that way.

“Just mercy” is a great title:  we do need both justice and mercy; but to me, the title suggests that when we have true mercy, there also is justice in that as well.  I think we need to start looking at justice through the lens of mercy, rather than the other way around.

It’s a great book; I recommend it.

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