Bryan Stevenson is the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, and a professor of law at New York University Law School. He has won relief for dozens of condemned prisoners, argued five times before the Supreme Court, and won national acclaim for his work challenging bias against the poor and people of color.
Stephenson has written a book entitled Just Mercy, a Story of Justice and Redemption. Much of the cover of the book is taken by quote by John Grisham, the best- selling writer of many legal procedural novels. Grisham says,
“Not since Atticus Finch has a fearless and committed lawyer made such a difference in the American South. Though larger than life, Atticus exists only in fiction. Bryan Stevenson, however, is very much alive and doing God’s work fighting for the poor, the oppressed, the voiceless, the vulnerable, the outcast and those with no hope. Just Mercy is his inspiring and powerful story.”
My heart is in prison ministry because I spent many years volunteering in jails and visiting and writing prisoners. So I was very excited to read the book. It far surpasses my expectations! I recommend it to anyone who cares at all about how the “least of these” are treated in America. Bryan Stephenson has represented abused and neglected children who were prosecuted as adults, mentally disabled people whose illnesses have landed them in prison for decades, innocent men sentenced to death row and brutally executed even when mountains of evidence proved their innocence. Here is what he says about his thirty years of working in legal clinic in Alabama.
“I’ve represented people who have committed terrible crimes but nonetheless struggle to recover and find redemption. I have discovered, deep in the hearts of many condemned and incarcerated people, the scattered traces of hope and humanity – seeds of restoration that come to astonishing life when nurtured by very simple interventions
Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice. Finally, I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.
We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupted 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 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.”
Each of us can bring hope or destroy the hope of those who suffer from unjust treatment from the systems that hold them down. The pages of the New Testament show Jesus talking, eating, healing those very people we make invisible by locking them away. Hope and reconciliation, for individuals and for our society, begin with putting ourselves next to those who are abandoned by everyone else and finding a way to serve them.
Just this week I received a letter from a prison inmate in North Dakota forwarded by Words of Hope. He found my name in the devotions I wrote for that booklet this winter. He is asking me to find a publisher for his story as a bi-racial child (black/native American). He describes a life lived in 17 foster homes and now in prison with PTSD and ADHD after “substance abuse, death, car wrecks, beat downs, and bullying” etc. How can I help him when I live hundreds of miles away. I decided to write him back and encourage him in his writing. Perhaps this will be one of his rays of hope.