Guest blog: with thanks to Marijke Hoek, Co-editor Carnival Kingdom and Micah’s Challenge
When the apostle Paul addresses the variety of gifts within the Christian community, he specifies that the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good (1 Cor. 12:7, italics for emphasis mine). The gift of providing a high quality legal defence for the poorest is most beautifully described in Bryan Stevenson’s recent book Just Mercy. A Story of Justice and Redemption.1
Drawing from thirty years of legal experience defending the most marginalised people in the USA, the author demonstrates the contemporary application of the biblical mandate to speak up, judge fairly and defend the rights of the poor and needy (Proverbs 31:9). As a young lawyer deeply troubled and concerned about the deep fractures and flaws caused by injustice, racial prejudice and inequality, Stevenson was compelled by an urgent sense of vocation to help people plant their feet on higher ground and stabilize their lives. Twenty five years ago he founded the Equality Justice Initiative (EJI) – a pro bono legal practice dedicated to providing high quality legal representation for those who cannot afford it. His commitment to people who are wrongly sentenced, in a criminal-justice system that still supports capital punishment, powerfully demonstrates how advocacy is literally a matter of life and death. Clearly, the legal complexity of Bryan Stevenson’s work requires tenacious commitment, but what emerges most powerfully from this book, is how his work ethic is characterised by a compassionate, respectful and pastoral posture towards each client.
Stevenson advocates, in particular, for a more merciful and restorative approach towards incarcerated children. In view of the harsh sentencing of youngsters and those facing long sentences for non-homicide crimes – in some cases, in the form of solitary confinement over decades – EJI not only advocates successfully for individual cases but also argues with good effect in the Supreme Court for systemic change. The court ruled in 2012 that the mandatory death-in-prison sentences that some states continued to impose on children were impermissible.
So, the ‘redemption’ referred to in the title refers not only to individuals but also to systems and indeed society at large. Stevenson’s audacious pursuit of justice not only aims to secure changes in the judicial process but also has the effect of reorienting individuals and indeed, whole marginalised communities, towards hope. His work reminds me of Jesus’ saying ‘Therefore, every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.’ The treasures which Bryan Stevenson ‘brings out’ are a clearer, higher sense of justice and a deeper understanding of how people, profoundly shaped by the suffering caused by historical slavery, racist lynching, and the civil rights struggle, are in need of reconciliation. The deep wounds that remain call out for a spirited wisdom that is considerate, full of mercy, impartial and sincere; this wisdom makes way for shalom – individual, relational and communal well-being that constitutes this higher ground for human flourishing (James 3:17).
Stevenson’s roots in his faith are implied on every page of this book. Reflecting on his vocation in an earlier interview, he says
For me, faith had to be connected to works. Faith is connected to struggle; that is, while we are in this condition we are called to build the kingdom of God. We can’t celebrate it and talk about it and then protect our own comfort environment. I definitely wanted to be involved in something that felt redemptive. 2
Explaining his life-time commitment to the legal profession, he quotes Matthew 25:34-40, in which it is predicted that in Heaven, Jesus will say to the righteous:
‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ The righteous, perplexed, will ask Jesus when they had fed Him, clothed Him, or visited Him in prison. And Jesus will reply: ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.
Reading Just Mercy makes me ever more mindful of human vulnerability in a harsh world. It makes me deeply grateful for this practice of lawyers who advocate on behalf of ‘the least of these’ and in doing so live out their commitment to the vulnerable in exemplary ways. I am grateful for Bryan Stevenson, whose life is such an eloquent testimony of hope and compassionate presence in dark times. His writings and vocation are a challenge to everyone to use the gifts so liberally given to us for the common good.
May we be found similarly faithful.
1. Stevenson, B. (2015) Just Mercy. A Story of Justice and Redemption, London: Scribe publications