|Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson|
JustMercy, by Bryan Stevenson, is the story of Walter McMillian, who was sentenced to die for a murder he didn't commit. Walter's trial, conviction, and treatment are gut-wrenching, but I think EVERYONE needs to read this book. It not only goes through Walter's story, but also sheds a light on the way we treat the millions of people processed through our jails and prisons. The result is one of the hardest, yet humanizing and redeeming books I've ever read.
I'll be honest that for the vast majority of my life, I've hardly ever thought about the incarcerated. It was easier to not think about them, after all who wants to think about horrible crimes (never mind that a good portion of those incarcerated are for non-violent crimes). In addition, why would I think about them when they're "getting what they deserve?" While my ignorance was bliss, it was also a sign of privilege, faulty thinking, and I believe, a sign that I had ignored a large part of Jesus' ministry.
As with so many things, the subject of criminal justice is extremely multi-faceted and I will be quick to point out that I am not an expert on any of those facets. But I have started seeing this topic, as a whole, in a new light; a light in which society has often failed those we have incarcerated. As Stevenson says, "each of us is more than the worst thing we've done." Really think about that statement for a minute. Think about it in terms of the worst thing you've ever done. Think about it in terms of the worst thing a family member or friend has done. Is that one action who you are? Who they are? No. We are all an amalgam of good and bad actions. Yet, our criminal justice system tends to treat people as only the worst thing they've done. Of course, this is not to say that people don't deserve punishment. (As a side note, I strongly believe that one part of the multi-faceted conversation needs to be around crime prevention (i.e. investing in humanity) versus punishment, but that's for another day.)
What has challenged me the most in terms of incarceration, especially as a Christian, is the idea that "the true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned." With Jesus as my example, I believe this to be true. What kind of redeemer would Christ be if He treated us by the worst thing we've done? Thank the Lord that He doesn't, because none of us would have salvation. We also wouldn't have a good portion of the New Testament if Christ had treated Paul only as Saul, one of the biggest persecutors of early Christ followers.
But let's be honest, it's far easier to think of someone who commits a crime, especially a bad one, as only bad, because we then feel justified in throwing them away. But "by simply punishing the broken - walking away from them or hiding them from sight - it only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too. There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity." As Stevenson points out, this not only hurts those we are throwing away, but also us. "We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others. The closer we get to mass incarceration and extreme levels of punishment, the more I believe it's necessary to recognize that we all need mercy, we all need justice, and - perhaps - we all need some measure of unmerited grace."
Just Mercy has caused me to constantly evaluate how I think about and treat those who do wrong, whether it's those who commit a crime or those who just say or do the "wrong" thing. It's hard, and I'll admit that I have wanted to throw a lot of people away in my mind. It requires Christ's love and strength to think otherwise. Fear and anger make us vengeful and self-focused. Christ's love enables us to see those who do wrong as a human being created by God. Again, this doesn't mean that people shouldn't be punished or reprimanded, but love needs to be involved. The goal of punishment should not be to throw someone away, but to show them, and others, that there is a better way; that humanity can be better.
If I could ask you to read any book (beside the Bible, of course), I would ask you to read this book. I believe it is a book our "law and order" and "cancel culture" societies desperately need to read and wrestle with. Throwing others away, either through a school-to-prison pipeline or by cancelling them, doesn't make them less broken. It also doesn't make us less broken. It will only continue to splinter us. It is time we try something new; it is time to root ourselves in love and practice the acts of compassion and mercy to everyone...especially those who have faltered.