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 Chapters Ten “Mitigation” and Chapter Eleven “I’ll Fly Away”.
Our work in the Ignatian Volunteer Corps and the reading of Just Mercy bring home a valuable lesson, don’t they? We will never be satisfied with pious platitudes about the blessings of American democracy. We can never forget the countless numbers of Americans who do not share in those “blessings.” Chapter Ten reminds us of the shameful history of our treatment of the mentally ill who are poor, and Chapter Eleven of the shameful history of racism in our country, a racism that still raises havoc on black lives and families. In her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness Michelle Alexander makes the point that if the kind of police sweeps for drugs that goes on in poor Black and Latino communities occurred in middle class neighborhoods there would be great protests. The only way forward, she proposes, is for more and more suburban and middle class people to care about what is happening to the poor in our cities; the more we care about what is happening to our poor brothers and sisters, the more likely we are to raise our voices for change in the way things are. Stevenson’s book brings home to us in vivid story what life is like for so many of our poor Black and Latino brothers and sisters.
I was bowled over by the attitude change of the prisoner guard who was so hostile to Stevenson when he first went to visit Avery Jenkins. We never know how doing the right thing, as Stevenson did in explaining Avery’s mental illness, will affect those who witness it. Nor can we ever give up on anyone this side of the grave. Then, amidst all the euphoria and joy of Walter McMillian’s release, it was satisfying to read of Stevenson’s smoldering anger at the injustice that Walter had suffered and would still suffer as a result of this travesty of justice. We must never forget that Walter and many others are wrongly convicted because of the long, dreadful sin of racism that still afflicts our country.