Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson is the author’s memoir chronicling the stories of clients he represented when no one else would (perhaps when no one thought they could). Published in 2014 by Spiegel & Grau, the book paints a compelling narrative and highlights many of the problems that plague the American justice system today.
The troubling and lingering influences of racial bias, poverty, and mental illness are issues that the criminal justice system needs to face head-on and work to resolve now as much as ever. It’s clear just from Stevenson’s relatively short account in this book that much progress has been made, but it is equally clear that much remains yet to be done. Many Americans, however, have probably not really wrestled with the problems to which Stevenson draws attention. Whether that full accounting simply gets lost in a crowd of other issues or is drowned in the flood of the 24-hour news cycle, Just Mercy is the kind of medicine (strong, at times) that the average Americans needs. I highly recommend it.
There are two reasons, however, that I cannot find full agreement with Stevenson.
First, although it would be difficult to write a book of this sort without the author injecting some of his political opinions, Stevenson does so unnecessarily on a number of occasions (as, for instance, when he refers to infant mortality rates in the United States as compared to other countries without putting those statistics in context). When issues as weighty as the systemic problems with the imposition and application of the death penalty are the topic, partisan political swipes (even as relatively sparse as they are in this book) have no place, I think. Which political party may be most to blame (aside from being a question with no perfect answer), really does very little to work toward a resolution of those kinds of issues, but rather puts people on the defensive and impedes progress. For as much as Stevenson rightfully decries prejudices that cause people to be treated as members of a group rather than as individuals, the few occasions on which he swiped at political opponents with a broad brush were jarring.
Secondly, and more importantly, is the concept of “just mercy” itself. Justice, by definition, is getting what one deserves. Mercy, by contrast, is a withholding of justice and can never be deserved or it would not be mercy. So, in fact, what Stevenson argues for (and he makes a compelling case, no doubt) is really just plain mercy or plain justice, not the “just mercy” that forms the premise of his book. It was an injustice to imprison people for crimes they did not commit; releasing them was an act of justice. To call it an act of mercy is to do a disservice to those people by implying that their release, as an act of mercy, was not something that they really deserved. Perhaps Stevenson would acknowledge the distinction between the concepts, but if he does so, that is not entirely clear from his book.
It is especially important for Christians to distinguish between the concept of justice and the idea of mercy. Writing in a similar vein, Jacob Brunton pointed out the problem with making an “equivocation between charity and justice.”
Remember that I said charity is a picture of the gospel? That’s why it’s such an important practice for the Church: it demonstrates the grace of God. Now, ask yourself this: if charity is a picture of the grace of God in the gospel, then what message are we sending about the grace of God, and about the gospel, when we preach that charity is deserved? Answer: We are teaching that God’s grace is, likewise, deserved. When we teach that we owe money to the poor, we are teaching that God owed us the cross. When we teach that the poor deserve monetary assistance, we are teaching that we deserved what Christ accomplished for us. When we teach that “economic justice” consists of giving to those in need, we are teaching that divine justice consists of the same — and the inevitable result is a grace-less universalism in which everyone gets all the blessings of heaven, because they need it. You cannot pervert the meaning of justice in “society” or in the “economy,” and not expect it to bleed over into theology. You cannot have one standard of justice in Church on Sunday morning, and another for the world the rest of the week.
I think the same holds true for the meaning of “mercy.” The stories Stevenson tells and the problems he addresses are ones that Christians should know about and should do something about to the extent that they can. At the same time, Christians must be vigilant to guard against anything that would distort or dilute the message of the Gospel.