“I do what I do because I’m broken, too” Bryan Stevenson and Just Mercy

Notes from Monday, 12/11/17

Today I finished reading Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, a death row lawyer who founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit that provides legal aid to those prisoners who have been wrongly convicted and more. While the book is a memoir and therefore isn’t very plot driven, I will be jotting down some of the revelation and best pages in my post so please stop reading this if you feel that may ruin your reading experience (you can also just watch his TED talk to get a feel of the book). Otherwise, this is merely an initial reflection I have on the book’s final pages that underscore its larger themes of how we may not just cope with, but begin to mend a broken justice system full of broken people.

“Do you ever think about dying?” he asked me. It was an unusual question for someone like Walter to pose. “I never did before, but now I think about it all the time,” he continued. He looked troubled. “This right here, is a whole ‘nother kind of situation. Guys on the row talk about what they’re going to do before their executions, how they’re going to act. I used to think it was crazy to talk like that, but I guess I’m starting to do it, too.”

I was uncomfortable with the conversation. “Well, you should think about living, man — what you’re going to do when you get out of here.”

“Oh, I do that, too. I do that a lot. It’s just hard when you see people going down that hall to be killed. Dying on some court schedule or some prison schedule ain’t right. People are supposed to die on God’s schedule.”

The way Stevenson depicts Walter McMillan so innocently was for me reminiscent of John Coffey in The Green Mile by Steven King — to see kindness and hope in such a dark place is an incredible testament to the human capacity for goodness. It also (forgive me for taking such a beautiful, intimate moment and using it to think about broader philosophical questions) raises questions about why it is so wrong for anyone to take a life, including their own. Thinking about dying and the way having a deadline (to take the word literally) can severely affect the psyche both positively and negatively is a common idea but I had not thought at any considerable length about putting discretion over death entirely outside the domain of human privilege. There are so many other aspects of life in which we operate in the realm of gods: surgeons cut open and sew up bodies, we work to design and breathe life into artificial intelligence, and in court we rule judgement over those we barely know. Yet despite this, in so many religions — even beyond Christianity, which is an underlying tone in the memoir and of course a dominant belief system in America — suicide and murder are both considered grave sins. So many of us hold an opinion on the death penalty, but it wasn’t until the end of a memoir with stories about prisoners on death row that I came to really reassess my beliefs. Some of us believe that the death penalty is justified because there are people too heinous to keep alive without risking the welfare of society. Others might believe that the death penalty makes more sense and might be less cruel than a life sentence without parole — to many the latter may seem a crueler punishment. Others, holding steadfast to some moral compass, may be entirely repulsed by the mere thought of capital punishment for the same reasons as Walter’s. And yet these questions, like all questions tied to our character, are incredibly important. Who are we to allow others to kill, regardless of who the victims are? It’s easy to shelve such questions because they are so difficult, but these are the issues we must confront if we are to really know who we are not just as individuals but as a people living in the world’s greatest democracy.

While Just Mercy was for me more compelling for its intimate scenes involving not just prisoners on death row but also the people in communities that stand up against injustice and the hearts that are moved by EJI’s work. For example, a black woman who runs out of the court after seeing a guard dog that reminded her of Selma comes back the next day and conquers her fear because she knows just how it important it is to stand there as a witness. In what may have been my favorite scene in the book a white correctional officer who is initially extremely racist and degrading of Stevenson, eventually changes his behavior because he sympathizes with Stevenson’s a client, one who had mental problems caused by terrible foster care. Despite the lack of larger philosophical epiphanies, the cliches rang through loud and clear, this chapter in particular:

I do what I do because I’m broken too.

My years of struggling against inequality, abusive power, poverty, oppression, and injustice had finally revealed something to me about myself. Being close to suffering, death, executions, and cruel punishments didn’t just illuminate the brokenness of others; in a moment of anguish and heartbreak, it also exposed my own brokenness. You can’t effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression, or injustice and not be broken by it.

We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent. I desperately wanted mercy for Jimmy Dill and would have done anything to create justice for him, but I couldn’t pretend that his struggle was disconnected from my own. The ways in which I have been hurt — and have hurt others — are different from the ways Jimmy Dill suffered and caused suffering. But our shared brokenness connected us…

…We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity.

The Christian undertones are strong in this passage, but should make sense to anyone regardless of creed (also because it is common among so many). That arrogance and corruption of power — that bending towards a belief that one is divine — is an evil all of us face everyday in workplaces, on the street, and even, for an unfortunate many, at home. The idea that love is stronger than evil, that humility and acceptance of one’s broken self is central to taking steps towards a better self and world, are common themes but not any less true for it.

In this article/interview Stevenson explains that his intention in writing this book was, in part, to inform those not in the legal system about the injustices in our world today, that one’s mindset and illusion about a “fair justice system” must be shaken if any progress is to be made. In thinking about that and the larger ramifications of a broken justice system, I want to conclude by noting that throughout my reading I felt more and more concerned for the generations that will follow me. Perhaps this is due to the many stories Stevenson includes about children who are incarcerated despite their immaturity, and the fact that many children are tried as adults. As I spend more time beyond college I can’t help but think more about the importance of power and its many temptations that may lead one astray from making the world a better place for those who come after us. This seeming obligation to want to help those younger than us, those who do not even yet exist, may also be central to our humanity and capacity for compassion.

*Featured photo is one I thought to be more fitting than any glamorous photos of Stevenson giving a TED talk. Taken in 1989, this is Stevenson in the early stages of founding EJI, and it’s extremely humbling that one could pursue such a noble career without regard for the temptations of materiality.

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