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 Twelve: “Mother, Mother” and Chapter Thirteen: “Recovery”
IVC’s reflection guide for this month cites Blessed Archbishop Oscar Romero: “A church that doesn’t provoke any crisis, a gospel that doesn’t unsettle, a word of God that doesn’t get under anyone’s skin, a word of God that doesn’t touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed, what kind of gospel is that?” In these two chapters Bryan Stephenson once again writes words that qualify as the kind of gospel Romero would approve. Marsha Colbey’s story in chapter twelve is as unsettling as anything we have read so far, and we have very often been unsettled. It’s not only the injustice which she endured in being wrongly imprisoned, but also the terrible rapes and abuse that went on in Alabama’s Tutwiler prison. These injustices and violence get under our skins and move us to do what we can to change the attitudes leading to such abuses of justice. At the same time we feel powerless to bring about the changes in attitudes that are needed to keep these evils from continuing to destroy the lives of our fellow citizens.
Stevenson, however, also undercuts that feeling of powerlessness because we see that he and others like him, by doing what they can, are changing attitudes and righting wrongs. Nor should we forget that God, who surely wants a different world than the one Stevenson describes, also can’t change attitudes, it seems, as quickly as we would want, and perhaps as God would want. God, too, seems hamstrung by our unwillingness to be the images of God we are created to be.
Chapter thirteen also unsettles. It was hard to read how mean-spirited so many states are in compensating prisoners unjustly convicted for the time spent in prison and also of Walter McMillian’s recurring fears and nightmares after his release from prison. It hits close to home for me, and perhaps many of you, because I have gotten close to an African-American who was sentenced to prison for life for a murder he did not commit and has spent 31 of his 50 years of life in prison. The Massachusetts Innocence Program has taken on his case and, we hope, will get the conviction overturned. But the years in prison leave scars. My friend, Darrell Jones, tells me that he will feel like an alien in our world after all these years. Our justice system is deeply flawed by racist attitudes that poison all of us. God will have to work overtime to transform us, but God does not give up on us.
Even the terrible conditions of the Tutwiler prison did not prevent the grace of God from touching the hearts of Marsha Colbey and other prisoners who were moved with compassion for their fellow prisoners. It was very moving to read of Marsha’ concern, even after gaining her own freedom for the prisoners left behind. Walter McMillian comes across also as a man of great humanity in spite of what was done to him over the years on death row. Finally, the Swedish people who listened to Stephenson and especially the high school boys who sang for him also reveal that the Spirit of God is still actively working to move us to become human. We need all the help the Spirit of God can give us.
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.