Just Mercy: Bishop's Fall Book Selection

Just Mercy: Bishop's Fall Book Selection

by Anne Clarke, Lifelong Christian Formation Coordinator, The Episcopal Diocese of Northern California

Below are a few suggestions and resources for ways in which we can learn together from Bishop Beisner’s book selection for this fall, Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. If you use any of these resources, or develop your own, please share them with Anne Clarke, Lifelong Christian Formation Coordinator, at anne@norcalepiscopal.org, so that we can all learn from your experience!

Suggestions and Resources

1. Host an Adult Forum or book discussion night on Just Mercy:
(See discussion questions on the next page)

2. Work together to get involved in criminal justice reform. Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), the organization described in the book, have several suggestions: http://bryanstevenson.com/resources/

Some of the suggestions include:
- Use EJI’s videos as the basis for a Criminal Justice Reform event at your church
- Volunteer with a local re-entry or reform organization
- Write your legislators and encourage their support for Prison Sentencing Reform.

3. Prayers
For Social Justice:
Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart [and especially the hearts of the people of this land], that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

For Prisons and Correctional Institutions:
Lord Jesus, for our sake you were condemned as a criminal: Visit our jails and prisons with your pity and judgment. Remember all prisoners, and bring the guilty to repentance and amendment of life according to your will, and give them hope for their future. When any are held unjustly, bring them release; forgive us, and teach us to improve our justice. Remember those who work in these institutions; keep them
humane and compassionate; and save them from becoming brutal or callous. And since what we do for those in prison, O Lord, we do for you, constrain us to improve their lot. All this we ask for your mercy's sake. Amen.

4. Resources for children: Children’s books with themes of justice and mercy (thank you to Storypath for the suggestions and descriptions!)

The Beatitudes: From Slavery to Civil Rights by Carole Boston Weatherford, Ages 6-9
http://storypath.upsem.edu/the-beautitudes-from-slavery-to-civil-rights/

This is a story of African American history in the United States from slavery to present day. The author highlights 13 historical figures and shares a bit about their story through the lens of the Beatitudes. The book emphasizes that as God’s creation we have a responsibility to love and care for one another. Life in Christ commands us to be devoted to one another through care, honor and sincere love.

Hank Finds an Egg by Rebecca Dudley, Ages 4-8
http://storypath.upsem.edu/hank-finds-an-egg/

Hank, a small teddy bear, finds an egg on the ground in the forest. He picks it up carefully and searches for the nest from which it has fallen. The nest is far too high for Hank to reach but he perseveres. Hank is a wordless picture book. This is a simple story of kindness and compassion and of the effort, perseverance, ingenuity, and cooperation required to be compassionate.

Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson (Written for Grades 4-6)
http://storypath.upsem.edu/lectionary-links-sunday-october-31/

In Chains, readers find injustice, lament, patience, and persistence. Isabel sustains patience as she helps others in need. As she waits for justice, she finds comfort in the memories of her deceased parents, persistence in the desire to be reunited with her sister, and after many small acts of bravery, strength and courage within herself. On Christmas day, Isabel realizes even as her master may physically bind or harm her, her soul cannot be chained. She lives by her faith, listens to the voice within, finally setting herself free.

 

Discussion Questions for Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

In the story of Herbert Richardson’s execution, Stevenson recounts his first experience with an execution and the lasting impression that this close-up view left on him: “Everyone I saw at the prison seemed surrounded by a cloud of regret and remorse…abstractions about capital punishment were one thing, but the details of systematically killing someone who is not a threat are completely different” (p. 90). What surprised or stayed with you from the close-up view of the criminal justice system that Stevenson shares with us?

Walter McMillian’s legal battle was notable for the attention that it received and the blatant injustices that constituted much of his initial trial. As his appeal concludes and Walter McMillian is released, Stevenson describes a feeling of anger instead of elation: “We were about to leave court for the last time, and I started thinking about how much pain and suffering had been inflicted on Walter and his family, the entire community…I thought about how certain it was that hundreds, maybe thousands of people were just as innocent as Walter but would never get the help they need” (p. 224). In the face of these injustices, what role do we have as people of faith? What ways could we respond as individuals or as a community? Why do you think that some of the injustices of Walter’s trial were so difficult to contest?

Stevenson’s story describes long decades of work, often with a frustrating lack of results and an exhausting amount of effort on behalf of people who are not always innocent of their crimes in the way that Walter McMillian was. The book concludes with an encounter with a woman whose grandson was murdered, and who came often to the courthouse to sit with those whose family members were on trial for crimes like those that ended the life of her grandson. She says, “I decided that I was supposed to be here to catch some of the stones people cast at each other” (p. 308). Her words, and the story that she is referencing, in John 8, invite us into some complicated and painful questions of judgment, forgiveness, and mercy. What does it mean to be a stonecatcher in the way that Stevenson and this woman describe? What are some of the challenges of that kind of ministry?

At the beginning of the book, Stevenson describes his first meeting with a prisoner on death row. As a guard roughly moves him from the room, Henry, the prisoner, begins to sing:

Lord, lift me up, and let me stand
By faith on Heaven’s tableland
A higher plane, that I have found
Lord, plant my feet on Higher Ground

Stevenson reflects on this encounter with Henry: “He gave me an astonishing measure of his humanity. In that moment, Henry altered something in my understanding of human potential, redemption, and hopefulness” (p. 12). At the end of the book, he returns to the idea of hope and resistance, how Walter’s ability to “stand strong in the face of injustice” had made us all a little stronger (p. 313).
Did Stevenson’s stories of condemned prisoners alter anything in your understanding of humanity? What do the stories and experience of our faith bring to our understanding of the human capacity for resistance and hope?

 

Just Mercy: More Resources

Interviews and Reviews:

New York Times Book Review

Desmond Tutu: “Why Desmond Tutu Thinks Bryan Stevenson Is ‘Shaping the Moral Universe’”
“Over the millennia, people have asked, If God is on the side of justice, why do injustice and inequity abound on earth? When will discrimination and prejudice end? Not frivolous questions.

In the United States of America, the land of the free, 2.3 million people are imprisoned, with one in three black male babies born this century expected to join them—together with 1 in 17 white boys. The U.S. is the only so-called Western country to still impose the death penalty; more than 3,000 prisoners currently await execution. Recent research indicates approximately 4 percent of them were wrongfully convicted!

You might assume God is not paying attention. But God does not use strong-arm tactics to ensure that justice is done, nor directly intervene to stop injustice. God empowers us to identify the path of righteousness. When we make mistakes, meander, slip, and sometimes fall, we find the means to gather ourselves, reset our compasses, and continue the journey. Justice needs champions, and Bryan Stevenson is such a champion.”

Bryan Stevenson’s TED Talk: “We need to talk about an injustice”
“For every 9 people who have been executed, we have actually identified one person who has been exonerated and released from death row…In aviation, we would never let people fly if for every 9 planes that took off, 1 crashed. But somehow we can insulate ourselves from this problem.”
“We will ultimately not be judged by our technology, we won’t be judged by our design, we won’t be judged by our intellect and reason. Ultimately, you judge the character of a society not by how they treat the rich and the powerful and the privileged but by how they treat the poor, the condemned, the incarcerated.”

Bryan Stevenson on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart

Bryan Stevenson on NPR’s Fresh Air

PBS Video Interview of Bryan Stevenson

Study Guides

Publisher’s Study Guide: Includes discussion questions for each chapter and activities for further research. Would be appropriate for middle and high school students as well as adults.

Young Adult/Adult Study Guide (written for college freshmen):
After working with low-income and incarcerated people for many years, Stevenson came to believe that “the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.” How do you see poverty affecting people’s lives in Just Mercy? Are there any examples of poverty and justice existing at the same time? What are some of the different meanings of the word “just” used throughout the book? Have Stevenson’s experiences influenced your own definition of justice?

Related Resources

A Way Forward: Reflections, Resources & Stories Concerning Ferguson, Racial Justice & Reconciliation
From The Episcopal Church

- Includes a discussion guide for discussing Ferguson in congregations

Action

Resources for Getting Involved, from Bryan Stevenson and Equal Justice Initiative

Episcopal Church Domestic Policy Action Network on Sentencing Laws and Prisoner Re-Entry


 

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