Since the incident with George Floyd, I’ve been mindfully reading books from Black authors. I read Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue, The Hate U Give and On the Come Up both by Angie Thomas, and I recently finished Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson.
With the recent execution Brandon Bernard, Bryan Stevenson’s book resonates even more. Bernard was 18 years old when he participated in a double homicide. Executed at age 40, he spent more time in prison than he did outside of it. He wasn’t the one who killed the youth ministers, but as a low ranking, not even full-fledged gang member, he was given the task of disposing the evidence of the murders. Stevenson’s book could have just as easily referred to Bernard’s story; a young man who was sentenced to death for a murder he didn’t commit. Although he matured from that impulsive adolescence, he was still tied to the devastating decisions he made as a young man. He paid for it with his life. Bernard’s attorney, Robert Owen, said in a statement, “Brandon’s execution is a stain on America’s criminal justice system. But I pray that even in his death, Brandon will advance his commitment to helping others by moving us closer to a time when this country does not pointlessly and maliciously kill young Black men who pose no threat to anyone.” Bernard participated in outreach activities and maintained a record of good behavior during his time in prison.
Bernard doesn’t deny his participation in the crime and there should be justice on behalf of the victims, but does an execution equal justice?
What does Brandon Bernard’s case have to do with Stevenson’s book Just Mercy? Bernard’s case is one more example of our flawed judicial system. It demonstrates a system where people abuse their power, where evidence is withheld, and where racism still exists. When do death penalties stop being a synonym for justice?
Bryan Stevenson’s shares his journey of defending the poor and overlooked in the legal system. More specifically, he works for those on Death Row who slipped through the system and were wrongfully accused or not given a fair trial. Stevenson’s book focuses on the story of Walter McMillian, a man wrongfully accused, charged, and tried for a murder he didn’t commit. However, through the book Stevenson weaves other stories from his work though the Equal Justice Initiative , a “…nonprofit organization that provides legal representation to people who have been illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced, or abused in state jails and prisons.” They “challenge the death penalty and excessive punishment and… provide re-entry assistance to formerly incarcerated people.” And they “challenge racial and economic injustice, and protect basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.”
As I read Stevenson’s story and his valiant effort to save the broken, lost, and mistreated in our legal system, I was struck most by his thoughts on Chapter 15, Broken; which I believe is the crux of his book. As he wrestles with the thought of fighting a system who abuses its power Stevenson acknowledges his own brokenness and comes to term that it is through his work he can embrace a shared humanity with the people he works so hard to help.
In exploring his own brokenness, Stevenson has a revelation that we are all broken and through our brokenness, we embrace our humanity. We are more than our mistakes. This sentiment is also shared in Angie Thomas’ book, The Hate U Give. But how do we get people to see beyond our poor choices? And how do we rehabilitate society, our communities, our judicial system? How do we infuse empathy and humanity in our interactions with one another?
Instead of helping the very people who would benefit from mercy, understanding, or rehabilitation, the system discards and hides them from society, essentially breaking them or further breaking them. Stevenson’s work helps to right the wrongs from a judicial system that’s flawed. While he’s created a strong team, there are still many more who needs his help.
Stevenson shares that when we welcome our brokenness we are able to open up to other people’s humanity. We share a vulnerability and through it we can have compassion for those who need it most. We can support and heal one another when we see the whole person; there’s “reciprocal humanity.” When we accept the whole person then we can work towards solutions, rehabilitation, and move away from adding sin upon sin by killing the broken among us.
By the same token, if we are unable to develop compassion and grace, then we continue to hide behind our own, “…deficits, our biases, our fears.” We discard human life and we tell them they are not worth the life they have.
What if we started looking to find a solution and helped the traumatized, the abused, and the neglected? What if we looked beyond their choices? What if we looked at the biases that guided decisions? Do teenagers who don’t commit murder belong on death row with adults? According to Stevenson, it’s happening. What if looked at the vulnerable and truly see them for who they are? Isn’t their life worth something?
Bryan Stevenson’s words are so eloquent as he describes brokenness and what would happen if we acknowledged each other’s humanity. In a time where we are seeing grown men call for their mama and a kind boy brutalized and ultimately killed because he was “different” should’t this be our wake up call that we have allowed our biases to dictate how we should act towards one another? Let’s redefine who we are. In the face of tragedy and mistreatment, let’s examine our social conscience and look to see if we can find the humanity in one another and embrace our vulnerability. Let’s work to support and find solutions for those who need us most: the neglected, the traumatized, the abused, and the discarded. Let’s embrace our brokenness and find our shared humanity.