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A friend gave me this 2014 book to read and I was immediately struck by the name, being the same as that of this e-newsletter.

Bryan Stevenson delivers a powerful and emotional true saga about an area of which I knew little, but soon found connecting to our very nature as Sisters of Mercy. His topic is the American justice system and particularly the discrimination and racism that led to his outstanding work as a lawyer defending those on life and death sentences. He tells of people trapped into death sentences at the age of thirteen and life sentences for non-homicidal crimes with no proof of evidence. Most of his clients are from poor, black or mentally ill backgrounds. His works spans from 1983 to the present, and in this time I got the sense that the ‘justice’ system is only slowly coming to deserve its name.  

Two stories stand out among the well-crafted chapters. The first is the story of Walter McMillian, a black man who was given a death sentence for a crime that he clearly did not commit. His story is woven throughout the book, in moments of hope at new evidence and then further defeat in the courts. The system is so prejudiced against him that it seems that multiple alibi witnesses, rescinding accusers and white experts will not prevail to expose his innocence. But I will let you read the book to discover the final outcome.

The second story is that of true redemption – and it comes in a most unlikely place. The scene is set in the deep South, where Bryan goes to visit a mentally ill man on death row who always asks for a forbidden chocolate milkshake. On one occasion, Bryan meets a prison officer with proudly Confederate and racist tattoos, guns and bumper stickers. The officer subjects him to a strip search and threats, which he naturally tries to avoid. Later the officer is present at the death row hearing in which the tragic upbringing of the prisoner is presented. As Bryan goes to see his client after the hearing, he meets the officer for the last time. The officer has had a complete reversal of attitude and tells Bryan that he was moved to think of his own broken childhood. He congratulates Bryan and finishes by telling him that on the way back from the hearing, he took the prisoner to Wendy’s and bought him a chocolate milkshake.

The most inspiring part of the book is Chapter 15, where Bryan is forced to confront his own vulnerability and exhaustion after years of this demanding work. He faces his demons and concludes: “I told myself that evening what I had been telling my clients for years. I am more than broken. In fact, there is strength, a power even, in understanding brokenness, because embracing our brokenness creates a need and desire for mercy, and perhaps a corresponding need to show mercy. When you experience mercy, you learn things that are hard to learn otherwise. You see things you can’t otherwise see; you hear things you can’t otherwise hear. You begin to recognise the humanity that resides in each of us.”

Thank you, Bryan, for learning that the hard way, and showing us that we can cooperate with God to bring about true justice through the worn path of mercy.

Messages to: Elizabeth Young rsm