“Each of us is more than the worst thing we have ever done.”
–Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy
Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson compels me. I am compelled to read it every chance I get. I am compelled to write and talk about the stories it contains. I am compelled to act on what I am learning. In addition to using his gift of writing to generate awareness of systems that demand mercy, Bryan Stevenson also founded the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). He is as brilliant as he is compassionate, with a work ethic driven by a passion he could not refuse. The stories that led him to write Just Mercy and found the EJI compelled him.
“Charlie was fourteen years old. He weighed less than 100 pounds and was just five feet tall. He didn’t have any juvenile criminal history–no prior arrests, no misconduct in school, no delinquencies or prior court appearances. He was a good student who had earned several certificates for perfect attendance at his school. His mother described him as a “great kid” who always did what she asked. But Charlie had, by his own account, shot and killed a man named George.” –Just Mercy, pp. 117
While I do not want to spoil this story for those who have not yet read the book, suffice to say that Charlie’s action, at a minimum, is what we call justifiable homicide. Except that he was a minor; and the horror of his situation rendered him mute. Had it not been for several people who were compelled to invest themselves in making sure the justice for his crime included mercy, Charlie would have been crucified by the very system that is in place to defend him. And while his is one of the stories in Just Mercy that has a redemptive ending, what precedes that ending will surely break your heart.
I have been interested in injustice my entire life. I disagreed with capital punishment before I had the vocabulary or the theological understanding to articulate my objections. The stories I have studied, including–but not limited to–those in Just Mercy, and the experiences I have had witnessing people who have been harmed by the very systems put in place to protect them, have become part of my DNA. They are tattooed into my memory.
I am in the second half of my life now. There is an urgency to this season that I did not experience in the years when I could live dangerously and put off until today what I might have done then. It is a season in which people tend to consider: what do I want my legacy to be? Have I helped the people I was born to help? Have I used my gifts for good? When the someday that comes to us all comes to me, will the world be a better place for my having lived?
I am being compelled to do something more. There is a sense that all I have seen and done has led me to this place, and this place is a jumping off point for something I can only see dimly. In its truest sense, it demands a leap of faith.
Nearly 20 years ago, I heard The Rev. Dr. Hank Langknecht preach a sermon in which he used the image of Jesus as a net. A net that catches us when we jump. Coupled with that image, he spoke of feeling on the edge, which, at the time, I heard as an edge on which one doesn’t want to be: the edge of a bridge way above black water; a windowledge too many stories up.
In this season of my life, I imagine that edge as something both more benign and imminently more important. Crossing this edge is not about taking one’s life — it’s about giving it. The leap isn’t into an abyss — it’s into the life I’ve been preparing to lead. The net of Jesus isn’t there to cushion a fall — it’s there to hold all those who I join on a mission that compels us to not go alone.
I urge you to read Just Mercy. Whether it compels you to action or simply adds to your knowledge base, the time it takes from your life will not be a sacrifice — it will be an investment. On this Memorial Weekend, when we remember those who died so that we might live in the land of the free, Just Mercy challenges us to take more risks to be the brave who call the United States, home.