Day 12: Just Mercy {31 Days of #WOKE}

This book changed my life. I tell everyone who will listen to read Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson.

“You won’t enjoy it,” I say. “In fact you may even hate it. But to be a responsible human being, you should read it–in a ‘everyone should watch Schindler’s List‘ kind of way.”

As of today, Just Mercy has five out of five stars on Amazon, a composite of 2,292 reviews.

Sot it’s not just me.

Here are some quotes from the book:

“Today we have the highest rate of incarceration in the world. The prison population has increased from 300,000 people in the early 1970s to 2.3 million people today. There are nearly six million people on probation or on parole. One in every fifteen people born in the United States in 2001 is expected to go to jail or prison; one in every three black male babies born in this century is expected to be incarcerated.” (p. 15 emphasis mine)

“Some states have no minimum age for prosecuting children as adults; we’ve sent a quarter million kids to adult jails and prisons to serve long prison terms, some under the age of twelve.” (p. 15 emphasis mine)

“Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. My work with the poor and incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.” (p. 17-18)

“The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.” (p. 18)

“Most incarcerated women–nearly two-thirds–are in prison for nonviolent, low-level drug crimes or property crimes. Drug laws in particular have had a huge impact on the number of women sent to prison … one of the first incarcerated women I ever met was a young mother who was serving a long prison sentence for writing checks to buy her three young children Christmas gifts without sufficient funds in her account.” (p. 236)

“In 1996, Congress passed welfare reform legislation that gratuitously included a provision that authorized states to ban people with drug convictions from public benefits and welfare. The population most affected by this misguided law is formerly incarcerated women with children, most of whom were imprisoned for drug crimes. These women and their children can no longer live in public housing, receive food stamps, or access basic services. In the last twenty years, we’ve created a new class of ‘untouchables’ in American society, made up of our most vulnerable mothers and their children.” (p. 237 emphasis mine)

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Bryan Stevenson couched the above statistics within the narrative of one larger story–that of a man condemned to death row. But each chapter supports his story arc with many different personal stories of his clients. So don’t expect a dry read as you pick up this book, but do expect to have an emotional connection to the people you meet in its pages.

Expect to be changed.

I wrote out some questions for group discussion for my book club that you are welcome to use. You can find them here.

I also went to hear Bryan Stevenson speak in the fall. You can read my notes on his talk here.

A great companion to reading this book is the documentary currently showing on Netflix called 13th. It features Bryan Stevenson as well as many other justice warriors.

What other books on the issue of racial justice have been transformational for you?

If you read Just Mercy, I’d love to hear how you liked it in the comments section!

New to the Series? Start HERE (though you can jump in at any point!).

A 31 Day Series Exploring Whiteness and Racial Perspectives

During the month of March, 2017, I will be sharing a series called 31 Days of #Woke. I’ll be doing some personal excavating of views of race I’ve developed through being in schools that were under court order to be integrated, teaching in an all black school as well as in diverse classrooms in Chicago and my experiences of whiteness living in Uganda and China. I’ll also have some people of color share their views and experiences of race in the United States (I still have some open spots, so contact me if you are a person of color who wants to share). So check back and join in the conversation. You are welcome in this space.

**includes Amazon affiliate links

This is Not Our America

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Emma Lazarus (November 2, 1883)

I used to teach this poem to my seventh graders in the public school in Chicago along with our Constitution unit. Breaking into groups, students from Ghana, Korea, Nigeria, India, Iraq and Mexico discussed what it meant. I never told them why this poem was famous or showed them any image along with the poem, but had them read and reread, marking symbols and figurative language with pencils and encouraging them to jot notes in the margins. We’d reconvene and discuss.

“What is this poem talking about?” I’d ask.” Why are certain words capitalized?” “What is the deeper meaning?”

After discussing, I’d eventually flip on the overhead projector (it was 2004), illuminating a picture of the statue that stands as a symbol of America, the Statue of Liberty. And we’d reread the poem:

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”

And the white, brown and black, atheist, Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Hindi children in my class would discuss what this poem meant to them—to their family, identity and future. How once upon a time their families, too, had been welcomed and ushered into a new kind of freedom. Just as my white Irish, English and German ancestors had.

Our country is flawed and is still recovering from the wounds of slavery and oppression in our history. But until yesterday, I was still proud to be an American. I loved knowing that we were a refuge for the refugee, a hope of a new future for the destitute and a place of safe landing for the homeless. Today, I am ashamed.

Last night as the news was still covering a march for life, President Trump sat down to sign a ban of all refugees and restrictions on travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries effective immediately. His order literally left tired and weary refugees stranded at the airport in the very country they hoped would offer them relief from their years of running.

This is not our America.

As a believer not just in a higher power, but a man named Jesus, I pray the church would take up this cause and advocate for the very people Jesus would fight for. Christian colleges, missions organizations and youth groups send followers of Christ to the 10/40 window—an area located between 10 and 40 degrees north of the equator–where the least reached with the message of Jesus live. Most of those fleeing war-torn nations come from the very nations we fund missionaries to go to. The mission field was coming to us.

Most Christians chose Trump because of his stance on abortion, though he is not “pro-life” in any other arena. This week, evangelicals have seen that more than pro-choice or pro-life, our new president is pro-Trump.

Our country needs people to take a stand for freedom again. These organizations are mobilizing and working to help refugees. Please get in touch with them and see how you can help:

World Relief

We Welcome Refugees

UNHCR

(*If you know any others who are doing this work, please leave a link in the comments.)

God is with the poor. When we welcome, open our homes, offer our food, give clothing and furniture and make sure our borders remain open to the poor, we serve Jesus himself.

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty, and you gave me drink; I was a stranger, and you invited me in; naked, and you clothed me; I was sick, and you visited me; I was in prison, and you came to me…to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of mine, even the least of them, you did it to me.” –Matthew 25: 35-36, 40