Book Review

Injustice upon injustice

Bryan Stevenson’s call to Christians in "Just Mercy"

August 23, 2019

After giving a talk at a local church one evening, Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, recounts his sobering interaction with an elderly black man who proudly wore his civil rights scars, his “medals of honor” as he called them. Stevenson writes:

“He stopped in front of me, leaned forward in his wheelchair, and said forcefully, ‘Do you know what you’re doing?’ He looked very serious, and he wasn’t smiling. His question threw me. He then wagged his finger at me, and asked again. ‘Do you know what you’re doing?’ I tried to smile to defuse the situation but I was completely baffled. ‘I think so . . .’ He cut me off and said loudly, ‘I’ll tell you what you’re doing. You’re beating the drum for justice! . . . You’ve got to beat the drum for justice.’ . . . He leaned forward again and said hoarsely, ‘You’ve got to keep beating the drum for justice.’ He gestured and after a long while said again, ‘Beat the drum for justice’” (46).

The drum sounds its first thundering rumble as Stevenson shares the case of Walter McMillian, one that landed an innocent man on death row in 1988 for a crime he did not commit. Setting the scene in lower Alabama, the native home of Harper Lee, Stevenson traces the systemic consequences of racial inequality, poverty, and prejudice. 

Now a well-known criminal defense lawyer, Steven purposefully builds a case for just mercy. With every story, a new face of injustice is presented, and the drum sounds another rumble. He makes no call for a revolution, only for true justice. Stevenson begins with death row cases, presenting historical facts and outlining the systemic consequences (racial inequality, poverty, mass incarceration, etc.) of our nation’s wicked history. 

McMillian’s story drew national attention when all of the judges in his fifth appeal to the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that he had been wrongfully convicted. Not held up in Stevenson’s book as a perfectly moral man, but a decent man, McMillian was arrested for the murder of a young white woman in Monroeville County. His case exposed racism and prejudice within law enforcement and the judicial system that overlooked a score of witnesses and evidence that undoubtedly proved his innocence. 

As Stevenson writes, McMillian, a black man, had at one time been involved in a relationship with a white married woman in the rural Alabama community. Once word got out, he was a target, despite having held a longstanding reputation to be a quality businessman in the community. When a young white woman was brutally murdered in the same community, people wanted “justice” as quickly and severely as possible; McMillian was the only suspect in the line of sight. 

Injustice upon injustice

One of the most heartbreaking of all the stories Stevenson tells is that of Charlie. The statistics he presents regarding the United States’ history of children in prison is disturbing, particularly compared to other nations, but this story of a 14-year-old boy who had shot and killed his mother’s boyfriend after watching him beat her nearly to death, forces the tempo of Stevenson’s drum to beat much faster.  

After the judge agreed to trying him as an adult, Charlie was immediately sent to an adult jail. Stevenson arrived three days later after receiving a frantic phone call from the boy’s grandmother pleading for help. Stevenson writes that when he first saw Charlie, he “seemed way too short, way too thin, and way too scared to be fourteen.” For those three nights, Charlie was visited each night by the other inmates who, as he recounted, “hurt me . . . touched me and made me do things.” The reality for Charlie, and many other children like him in our system, is that without the help of an attorney, he would have remained in those conditions facing regular abuse and rape from other inmates. 

From this point on, Stevenson shares the names and cases of many children who have experienced disgraceful, shameful, and horrendous acts of injustice within our judicial system, each case sounding off another thundering drum beat. 

Why should Christians read this book?

Stevenson reveals that the conversation on criminal defense and prison reform has largely been philosophical, not personal. Instead, he brings life to our philosophies and puts faces to our convictions. We cannot read these true stories and remain blind to injustice upon injustice. 

As followers of Christ, we have obtained mercy in the most perfect judicial system, the system in which the only right punishment for us is death. Instead, the righteous Judge fulfilled his own law and satisfied his wrath through the work of Christ on the cross so that he could show mercy to all of us who would trust in him. 

When the world around us heaps injustice upon injustice, we have experienced grace upon grace. We understand better than anyone else the beauty and power of justice and mercy co-mingled. We know full well the redeeming truth of Stevenson’s words:

“The power of just mercy is that it belongs to the undeserving. It’s when mercy is least expected that it’s most potent—strong enough to break the cycle of victimization and victimhood, retribution and suffering. It has the power to heal the psychic harm and injuries that lead to aggression and violence, abuse of power, mass incarceration.” 

Having presented the evidence, he leaves the verdict in the hands of his readers. As Stevenson brings his book to a close, the final beat of the drum sounds off. We are left seeing ourselves in his stories: we are the defendants, hoping for mercy, unsure whether we’ll receive it; we are the prosecutors, seeking justice for these crimes committed; we are the witnesses, raw and willing to testify to what we have seen and heard; we are the judges, arbitrating justice and reconciling the law and punishment; and we are the juries, deciding the fate of the future of our nation. 

What will the verdict be?

*Header image from eji.org.

Laura Thigpen

Laura Thigpen is a pastor’s wife, mom, freelance writer, and an adoption and pro-life advocate. She and her husband, Joseph, serve City Church in Tallahassee, Florida. She has helped start women’s discipleship initiatives, and she writes on these and other topics occasionally for various outlets. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24