This blog post from Fr. William Barry, SJ, is a reflection on Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, written by Bryan Stevenson. Ignatian Volunteers across the country are reading and reflecting in community on this book this year. This piece is written on Chapter Fourteen: “Cruel and Unusual” and Chapter Fifteen: “Broken”.
These were two wrenching and powerful chapters, weren’t they? We come to realize how cruel our prison system has become as we read the story of Joe Sullivan, a badly abused and mentally disabled boy of thirteen sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for a rape that he, most likely, had nothing to do with. In prison he was repeatedly raped; after developing multiple sclerosis and confined to a wheel chair, he was kept in a cage while out of his cell, a cage so small that the guards had to muscle him out, causing great pain, for a meeting with Stevenson. We learn that his case is only one of many such cases of children sentenced to die in prison. At the time Stevenson’s team had appealed Joe’s case and other to the Supreme Court the United States was the only country in the world that sentenced children to life imprisonment without parole. Then Stevenson tells us about Walter McMillian’s dementia and how his wrongful death sentence still haunts him in a nursing home. With the story of the failure to stop the execution of Jimmy Dill Stevenson himself seems to come to a breaking point. As he talks to Mr. Dill just before his execution, Stevenson begins to cry almost uncontrollably and recalls a scene from his own childhood when his mother reprimanded him for laughing at boy who stuttered, thinking that the boy was making a joke. She ordered him to apologize to the boy, to hug him and to tell the boy he loved him. That memory seems to have pulled him out of his funk and led to the most moving part of his book so far, this memory and the following reflection on brokenness.
God’s hand, I believe, has been an abiding presence in Stevenson’s stories and especially in the way his own story intertwines with those of his clients. I felt that hand slowly bringing him to see that all of us are broken and that the admission of our shared brokenness is the only way for us as a people to find common ground. As Stevenson writes, “We are all broken by something. …. But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing. Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion.” IVC volunteers have chosen to embrace our brokenness, by the grace of God. In Jesus, God has chosen to chosen to share our brokenness; we are never alone because God with us forever.
Fr. Bill Barry, SJ is a Spiritual Reflector for IVC New England. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1950 and was ordained in 1962. He earned a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Michigan in 1968. He has taught at the University of Michigan, Weston Jesuit School of Theology, and Boston College. Bill is the author or co-author of 20 books, including The Practice of Spiritual Direction, God and You, Finding God in All Things, Spiritual Direction and the Encounter with God, Who Do You Say I Am?, Contemplatives in Action, and A Friendship like No Other. For more on his writing please visit Loyola Press.