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.