Jesus once told a cabal of religious leaders anxious to stone a woman caught in adultery: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to cast a stone at her” (John 8:7, NIV). In his bestseller, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (Spiegel and Grau, 2014; Amazon Kindle edition), New York University School of Law Professor Bryan Stevenson calls us to a different task, that of catching the stones cast by others.
Just Mercy recounts Professor Stevenson’s founding of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a legal aid organization based in Montgomery, Alabama that advocates for those who are victims of shortcomings in the U.S. criminal justice system – the wrongfully convicted, prisoners on death row, and juveniles tossed into the chaos of the adult prison population.
Caring about prisoners is a biblical mandate – “Remember those who are in prison as though in prison with them…” (Hebrews 13:3a, ESV) – so books like Mr Stevenson’s invite the Church to engage an issue too often shunted aside. Well-told stories seize the reader’s heart and won’t let go, stories like Walter McMillan, exonerated after having spent 6 years on death row for a murder he couldn’t have committed. Then there’s Joe Sullivan, convicted with dubious evidence and testimony at 13 years old of rape and sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole, what Stevenson calls “death in prison.” These and a dozen other vignettes – bolstered by troubling statistics of the sheer number of incarcerated Americans, disproportionately African-American – tell the story of sectors of a criminal justice and prison system tainted by racism and sexual abuse, desperately needing reform.
Underlying the conversation is a question long overdue for renewed public debate:
Should the purpose of imprisonment be punitive or rehabilitative?
It is here that the word “redemption” in the book’s title gives the reader a clue. While Stevenson is in favor of abolishing the death penalty – a view that I share – he is not arguing that offenses should be overlooked, only that redemption should be our objective. Sentences must be tempered by a compassion arising from the knowledge that each of us is “broken” in some way. He observes (location 4485):
I guess I’d always known but never fully considered that being broken is what makes us human. We all have our reasons. Sometimes we’re fractured by the choices we make; sometimes we’re shattered by things we never have chosen. But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our search for comfort, meaning, and healing. Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion.
Just Mercy wears its religion lightly. No doubt this is intentional, to appeal to a broader audience. Yet as a Christian theologian, I wonder:
Is justice alone enough?
Put differently, is a wrong ever completely righted merely by setting the wrongfully imprisoned free or reducing the sentences of those punished too harshly? One key ingredient is lacking: reconciliation. What is striking in Just Mercy is how rarely victims of injustice and those who inflicted it ever make peace with each other. Yet if the Gospel teaches anything, it is forgiveness, Christ on the cross praying: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34) Mr. Stevenson is the expert, not I, but I wonder:
Is it possible to forgive someone then turn around and sue for millions?
Sometimes it is argued that this will prevent crooked prosecutors and judges from inflicting the same harm on others, but can this be when – should any damages be awarded – they are shouldered by the taxpayer and not the perpetrator? Even if the award were only $ 100,00.00, if it were levied directly on the official at fault and not upon the government entity who employs them, would that not be a greater deterrent than the current system? What lesson does a prosecutor who suppresses evidence or a judge who abuses his or her power learn when someone else bears the brunt? Surely more creative solutions are possible, including dismissal of crooked officials or (as merited) prison time. Unfortunately, Just Mercy suffers from tunnel vision, focusing only on monetary awards and never questioning whether the current system of who-pays- what short-circuits the reconciliation that is inseparable from redemption, both for victim and perpetrator.
The Church needs to challenge the darkness that overshadows too many parts of the criminal justice and prison system. Books like Just Mercy should convict us about how little we have done for those who need our help. Particularly, we must do more to engage adolescents at-risk before they are caught-up in a too-often heartless criminal justice machine. Professor Bryan Stevenson has gifted us with a masterful and moving book, a clarion call to stop throwing stones and start catching them. Rocks are jagged and our hands will get bloody, but can we as the People of God do any less?
UPDATE: The wording regarding Joe Sullivan has been changed to reflect an error in the original post, describing his offense as “non-violent.” In fact, he was convicted (though with dubious evidence and testimony, according to Mr Stevenson) of rape. I regret the error.
Book cover: Deathpenaltyinfo.org
Professor Stevenson: Vimeo.com