As much as I love reading, it takes a lot for a book to make me cry. Usually I cry at movies because the screen is right in front of me. But a book has to be written in such a way that I can literally imagine myself standing in the same room as the one being hurt, and feel bad for him/her.
Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption was written in that exact way.
This book was another read recommended by the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit. The book was so well-written that I literally read it cover to cover. I even read the Acknowledgements!
While reading the book, I thought that I was reading a fiction novel. The book was written in a descriptive narrative that appeared to be omniscient perspective. Stevenson had been able to perfectly replicate the feelings, thoughts, and actions, and motives of all the people who he highlighted in his book, just like a novelist would.
But that wasn’t the only reason why it felt like a fiction novel.
The book summary highlights the story of Walter McMillan, a man who was put on death row, having been wrongly accused of murdering Ronda Morrison of Monroeville, Alabama. However, Stevenson also includes the stories of other cases that he had helped, especially children who had been sentenced to life without parole for non-homicidal actions. McMillan’s story, as well as the others, exposed the racial injustice in the judicial system that Stevenson’s agency, Equal Justice Initiative, fights to correct. The injustice that I read in the book was so terrible that I had wished throughout the entire book that it was a fiction novel. I couldn’t believe that this was true, that these events had actually happened in our country.
The book is a timely novel in that there is currently debate over whether racism still exists today. For such a touchy subject as racism, Stevenson does a brilliant job of appearing unbiased toward the criminals as well as toward the victims. Since the book was written in 2014, and the trials that he discusses took place between 1980 and 2010, it seems that Stevenson wants to continue the conversation of racial injustice in the judicial system so that it does not continue. History has a habit of repeating itself. If we forget about the mistakes of our ancestors, we run the risk of making the same mistakes.
While I was reading the book, my husband noted how often I would gasp. I didn’t even realize I was doing it. My gasps were in response to the incredulous actions of the court. There were situations where they disposed of evidence in favor of the defendant, they forbade people of color to enter the courtroom, and they even sentenced the defendants to life without parole without any credible evidence that they committed the crime. For the most part, the court just wanted to blame someone.
My gasps were also in response to the terrible lives that these criminals had to endure. Stevenson writes in detail what it actually looks like for people to be executed in the electric chair. I cried right along with them as the flesh was burning off of their skin. One little boy was so small that the headpiece of the chair fell off his head when they did the first shock. Stevenson also shares their backstories. Some kids had watched their mothers get sexually and physically abused right before their eyes. Some kids were good kids, but they hung around the wrong crowd. Some had mental illnesses.
What Stevenson portrays in his book is that these people are, well, people. They are people created in the image of God who have been tainted by sin, who have been broken by the world. Just like all of us. Maybe killing the broken people of this world isn’t the best way to make the world right.
To present a critical analysis of this book, I must point out a message that may not be clear to every reader: the fact that these criminals have terrible backstories does not excuse their behavior. These stories may explain their behavior, but they do not excuse their behavior. If a rape victim murders somebody because she feels paranoid that everyone is out to get her, it’s sad that she feels that way, but it does not make the fact that she murdered someone okay. These kids did commit acts of violence that were completely and totally wrong. What I think Stevenson is trying to argue, however, is that there should be a different way of dealing with these situations, such as through counseling or other correctional programs. Simply killing someone (or letting someone rot in jail) who made a mistake does not fix their behavior.
For more information about Bryan Stevenson’s work with the Equal Justice Initiative, visit his website (click here). The work that EJI continues to do demonstrates that the issues in this book are not completely resolved. Pray about the part that you will play in promoting justice and mercy in our society.