Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson is the 2015-16 UUA Common Read. This beautifully written book looks closely at the life stories and circumstances of people who have been sentenced to die at the hands of the state or to live out their lives in prison. The author explores ethical, moral, and spiritual questions as he uncovers truths many would prefer not to know. In story after story, he details the horrors faced by people on the margins of United States mainstream society—poor people, mentally ill people, children, and people of color—when they come in contact with the systems we have built to respond to criminal or antisocial acts.
Stevenson’s central story is of a black man who found himself framed for murder and sentenced to death. Only painstaking effort and skilled legal work by the team led by Stevenson forced acknowledgment of the justice system’s shoddy practices and the humanity and innocence of the person who was sentenced. Stevenson asks not, “Does this person deserve to die?” but rather, “Do we as a society deserve to kill?”
Stevenson writes not only about the wrongfully convicted, but also about some who committed the criminal acts of which they are accused. In each case, he helps the reader to understand the life circumstances that created the conditions leading to the crime. Particularly heart-wrenching are the stories of juvenile offenders. He questions our legal system’s propensity to try children as adults and sentence them to die in prison (since a Supreme Court ruling disallowed the death penalty for children). He tells compelling stories of people with disability, mental illness, or a history of trauma whose lives go terribly wrong in one ill-considered moment, saying, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
Stevenson’s is a call for mercy and compassion. Grounded by his grandmother’s wisdom, “You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance... You have to get close,” the author takes us close. The stories touch us and call out to our own humanity in a way that statistics never can.
The Unitarian Universalist Association discussion guide for Just Mercy provides two options: a single 90-minute session or three 90-minute sessions. It explores values and ideas that are vital to us as a people of faith: justice, mercy, compassion, redemption, restoration, and hope. It invites people to identify experiences in their own lives that connect them to the lives of those incarcerated. It asks readers to stop turning away from the harm that is happening in our name and on our watch and, instead, to act with mercy and compassion toward people less able to advocate for themselves. It urges us to advocate for changes that make our criminal system truly a justice system.
Purchase Just Mercy or find it at a public library. Invite others in your congregation, group, or family to read it, too.
Organize a Common Read discussion group for Just Mercy. State your intent to move together from reading to discussion into action; suggestions in the UUA discussion guide will help you.
Explore the video and print resources on the website of Equal Justice Initiative, the nonprofit organization founded by Bryan Stevenson.
Take part in prison ministry with your local congregation or through the Church of the Larger Fellowship.