RR Book Group: Just Mercy

Forums -› Welcome to the Forums -› The Rabbit Room Forum -› RR Book Group: Just Mercy

Viewing 20 posts - 1 through 20 (of 32 total)
  • Author
    Posts
  • Welcome to the Rabbit Room Book Group! Jen Rose Yokel (@jroseyokel) and i (@mrs-hittle) are glad to have you join us for this discussion of Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson.

    For those of you reading along, here’s the discussion schedule (note that the first day of each week is a Tuesday):

    Week of September 5 – Introduction and Chapters 1-4
    Week of September 12 – Chapters 5-8
    Week of September 19 – Chapters 9-12
    Week of September 26 – Chapters 13-16
    Week of October 3 — Break for Hutchmoot and catch-up
    Week of October 10 — Epilogue, Postscript, and wrapping up

    Each week I will provide discussion questions to get us started, but please feel free to dive right in with your own thoughts and questions also. There’s a lot here to talk about.

    So who’s in?

    2 users thanked author for this post.

    So excited to start this! 🙂 Week 1 questions are coming soon!

    1 user thanked author for this post.

    My book isn’t here yet, but I’m going to participate once I can.

    2 users thanked author for this post.

    My dear Rabbits, i am grateful to have this conversation with youa timely one for me as well as for our world and church. Maybe you, like me, are struggling to find ways to think about race and justice, about division and discrimination, about our common humanity in the face of so much disunity. i’m hoping we can help each other process these hard issues. Welcome to week one’s discussions. Here are a few questions to get us started (also posted on the blog):

    1. Stevenson remarked that Henry looked like everyone he’d grown up with. (p 9) Do prisoners look like people we know? Do they look like us?
    2. What is the most surprising part of the Morrison murder investigation so far? What doesn’t surprise you?
    3. What do you anticipate or expect when a police officer approaches you? What would you have done in the situation Bryan faced with the SWAT officers?
    4. Think of Rena Mae’s aunt: “We don’t want to have to grieve for him, too.” (p 81) How does this perspective challenge your perception of justice and of community?

    So what all struck you in these first few chapters?

    This book has been extremely difficult to read. I’ve been tempted to stop because it’s been too horrifying at times. Stevenson certainly accomplishes his goal of pulling us closer, into the lives of those we’ve condemned and forgotten.

    1) Stevenson’s main point, that “each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” is profound. As I’ve read the stories he’s told, I’ve been struck by how quick I am to strongly associate each of the perpetrators with their worst act, to dehumanize them and view them simply as a representation of their crime. I have even sensed a reluctance within me to open my ears, eyes and heart to their stories. I don’t think that prisoners look like me because I have closed my eyes, ears and heart to their stories.

    4) Something that I’ve never really thought about is the effect of this type of injustice on the community at large, including on victims’ families. In the case of Walter, so many people could testify to his whereabouts during the time of the murder and yet they were not seen or heard. What happens to a community when it experiences such blatant injustice over and over, for generations? How does this type of trauma change a community?

    3 users thanked author for this post.

    Intersecting this book with Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness”, it is interesting to note that prisoners are really the only group in the U.S. against which it is acceptable (legally and socially) to discriminate. What I see is that we in the U.S. have oriented our justice system towards retribution and punishment, not restoration and recovery. There is a cultural norm that prisoners are irredeemable, even if we don’t speak it out loud. Most of them permanently lose voting rights, access to poverty-alleviation programs, and have a harder time getting jobs such that “prisoner” ends up being a scarlet letter.

    My comment here also assumes that the prisoner is actually guilty. Our system is even more outrageous when you consider unjust prosecutions and what that means for the accused.

    On #3, this story is one of the most searing for me so far. As an upper-middle class white male, I have no context for this and have always assumed the police were on my side and that any law-abiding citizen had nothing to fear. I think it is tempting to think “Wow, I didn’t realize things have become like this” as if it is new. I think we need to realize that what is happening to us is an revealing of what has been, not some new trend that is just now happening. I’m very tempted to think the latter.

    I also want to be careful not to demonize the police – they are human like all of us. This gets to question 2. It seems clear that the police simply want to charge someone, anyone to “solve” the case. Why? In some ways, this feels like another untold story – how did they become this way? I’d love to stand here and say “if it were me, I would never do that” but I’ve lived long enough to know that under the right circumstances, I’m capable of anything, and so I’m reticent to judge them. But the injustice is staggering.

    1 user thanked author for this post.

    Hello, friends!

    I am still working through the last two chapters of this weeks reading, but wanted to pipe in on what I’ve observed so far:

    1.) Stevenson’s comments in the introduction about proximity are the first thing to come to mind with this question. I think that we forget that prisoners really are human like us. They do look like us. But, sometimes, our fear leads us to believe otherwise.

    2.) Gosh, I have struggled through reading about the way Walter McMillian was treated as the murder trial got underway (and pre-trial as well). My heart hurts and I just want to hug him. The most striking thing is simply how illogical the prosecution’s case is against Water, especially because he has a rock solid alibi. I just don’t understand how the “justice” system was able to work around that.

    Also, I keep having this lingering thought of the similarities of Walter and Jesus here. Several things happened illegally to Jesus when He was arrested (like being arrested at night, the Sanhedrin trying a case, etc.). Walter experienced some illegal things, too – like, being held on death row without a conviction. What if Walter, a prisoner, has the face of Jesus in this way? What if this is true for the unnamed prisoners we don’t know as well? (This is a super messy, unrefined thought – but it’s rolling around in my head/heart – there’s a lot to be considered in those questions.)

    3.) I sometimes feel afraid when a cop approaches me (lead foot, here). But, I have never thought that a cop would physically hurt me. I tried to put myself in Bryan’s shoes as I read the encounter, and honestly, I think my first instinct may have been to run as well.

    And, I haven’t made it far enough yet to answer #4. I’m left scratching my head – it is so hard for me to wrap my head around. But, I am so grateful to be a part of the redemption that Jesus is bringing about in the midst of all this brokenness.

    1 user thanked author for this post.

    @chinwe I had a similar experience at several points…. I remember there was one chapter in particular (can’t remember which one) where I had to stop for a day or two because I was so sad and angry. Ultimately, I think there’s hope in the story, but it’s so hard to read sometimes.

    As I’ve read the stories he’s told, I’ve been struck by how quick I am to strongly associate each of the perpetrators with their worst act, to dehumanize them and view them simply as a representation of their crime. I have even sensed a reluctance within me to open my ears, eyes and heart to their stories. I don’t think that prisoners look like me because I have closed my eyes, ears and heart to their stories.

    Me too. Part of the book’s power for me was how carefully he characterizes them.

    @jblocher It would be really interesting to read The New Jim Crow next. Thank you for all your thoughts, particularly this statement: “What I see is that we in the U.S. have oriented our justice system towards retribution and punishment, not restoration and recovery.”

    I want to come back to the police discussion / #3 later — absolutely agree that we need a way to talk about systemic problems without demonizing the police — but I want to digest it a bit before responding. I’m troubled by the opposite of demonizing too. It appears that saying, “Hey, these police encounters gone badly keep happening and that’s not okay” can all too often turn into, “Why do you hate the police? They’re heroes!” We need a respectful, balanced way to talk about these problems, and I’m not sure how that happens yet when there’s pressure to take a side.

    #4) “We don’t want to have to grieve for him too.” My default perception has been when someone commits a horrible crime (or in Herbert’s case, causes a tragic accident) the community wants justice, especially when a child is involved. And yet, who doesn’t love a story about a victim’s relative publicly forgiving the person who caused so much pain?

    Rena Mae’s aunt sees a wider and (considering what Herbert’s actions cost her) surprising perspective: “We can’t cheer for that man, but… there shouldn’t be no more killing behind this.” Honest, but empathetic, and even more poignant as Stevenson notes that Herbert was an outsider in the community.

    2 users thanked author for this post.

    I also want to be careful not to demonize the police – they are human like all of us. This gets to question 2. It seems clear that the police simply want to charge someone, anyone to “solve” the case. Why? In some ways, this feels like another untold story – how did they become this way? I’d love to stand here and say “if it were me, I would never do that” but I’ve lived long enough to know that under the right circumstances, I’m capable of anything, and so I’m reticent to judge them. But the injustice is staggering.

    @jblocher I know what you mean. Like @jroseyokel I too had a similar reaction to your comment about demonizing the police, especially within the context of conversations about abuse of power. I know that the recent police shooting videos have led to increasingly politicized conversations about the police. The thing is that in the interactions between police and individuals, it is clear where the power lies. The person with the gun and badge has the power, so it is deeply tragic when that power is abused. And that power is not benign, but deadly. One of the aspects of this book that I’ve appreciated is that Stevenson illustrates, albeit tangentially, how the broken system also affects those in power – the law enforcement personnel, etc. They are operating within a broken system and no-one is immune to that. The tragedy is that far too many victims pay with their lives as a result of this brokenness.

    We need a respectful, balanced way to talk about these problems, and I’m not sure how that happens yet when there’s pressure to take a side.

    Agreed!

     

    1 user thanked author for this post.

    This is already a good conversation.

    i meant to check in yesterday, but instead i ended up in an hour-and-a-half-long conversation with one of my Geeks about race, criminal justice, institutionalized racism, discrimination, ghettoization, etc. etc. It was a fantastic and challenging conversation. The Geek in question, Jesse, is visiting from St. Louis, where he recently moved. He was telling me about the various neighborhoods in and around the city, where because of nothing more than tax codes the poshest neighborhood (palatial houses with Roman columns) is a block away from a neighborhood that, he said, looks like a war zone. He said that a key factor in Ferguson is simply that they cannot afford to have a police force, and are not being served by an adjacent community. And when i told him about the chapters in Just Mercy about children being tried as adults, he told me a gut-wrenching story about a cousin who’d been gunned down along with the rest of her family by  her step-brother, who had been abused by his dad, her step-dad, for years. The part of this story that blew my mind (aside from just realizing that i actually know someone who had this sort of situation happen in his own family) was where the cousin’s father realized why the boy (16 or 17 at the time) had killed the family, and, despite his own daughter being a victim, went on to advocate for the boy and offer to take him in and give him a home. Jesse doesn’t know what happened after that; he shared a birthday with this cousin but wasn’t close to that side of the family. But i cannot get over the father’s response.

    Despite writing these questions myself, i am still figuring out how to approach them. One thing i can’t quite get past is the first question—do prisoners look like us? When i read that revelation of the author’s—”He looked immediately familiar to me, like everyone I’d grown up with,” my first response was to realize that the author was black. That hadn’t actually registered, despite the photo on the back cover. i assume that people, just generally, look like me. And then i realized that not only do i assume that whiteness is normative, but i assume that maleness is normative. i mean, the author is male; there aren’t many female Bryans, probably. But this double realization was disquieting. i don’t know what i assume prisoners look like. i don’t think about prisoners, really ever. But i do know that when i’m reading a book i assume a white person wrote it. i think i need to seek out more books by non-white authors.

    What I see is that we in the U.S. have oriented our justice system towards retribution and punishment, not restoration and recovery.

    This is where my mind has been going lately as i’ve been thinking about the problem of how the justice system treats victims. If the system is built around punishment rather than on restitution (much less restoration!), i think that explains a lot of why victims are not better cared for. (That’s a spoiler for next week.) i think this fundamental orientation is super important. How are we going to fix this?

    I am delighted that the RR book group has taken up a book written by a working lawyer — and if you’re going to pick up a timely and trenchant legal memoir Mr. Stevenson’s is certainly both. I’ve been listening him a lot this summer: lectures, oral argument before the Supreme Court, and the Just Mercy audiobook (which he reads himself). Among his many virtues, he’s an outstanding lawyer.

    A few observations:

    Re. question 1. If you can’t be a lawyer — a profession that affords considerable opportunity to visit jails and prisons — I highly recommend getting involved in prison ministry somehow. It will change the way you view the criminal justice system, prisoners, families of prisoners, and the world that creates such an ungodly method of dealing with wrongdoing.

    Re. question 2. The way Mr. Stevenson, from defense counsel’s point of view, describes law enforcement officers and prosecutors agrees with my own (much less extensive) experience. Personal ambition, pride, reluctance to jeopardize political capital, and racism all can and do interfere with sound decision-making, proportionality, mercy, and reasonable willingness to look at a case afresh. Not all the time, maybe not most of the time, but some of the time — and too often.

    Also, the vindictiveness of law enforcement officers in response toward those suspects, defendants and prisoners who dare (in person or by their legal counsel) to question the LEO’s methods or conclusions is a significant problem. In multiple cases in which I’ve filed motions questioning the legality of police actions, I have seen flagrant retaliations against clients. In those cases neither I nor my clients have received even a sheepish off-the-record apology from prosecutors for the retaliatory tactics of policemen.

    One final observation, not directly related to any of the asked questions: The references to the To Kill a Mockingbird museum in Just Mercy are incredible. The scenes Mr. Stevenson describes show a kind of history that operates as a talisman against having to reckon with the present — or even the past — rather than historical memory serving as a means of seeing the ugly historical recapitulations unfolding before our eyes. I have not yet finished Just Mercy, so I do not know whether Mr. Stevenson takes up the present “monuments controversy” in its pages (he has elsewhere), but the Mockingbird museum should be a warning to us all about the kind of misuse of history that creates historical amnesia.

    3 users thanked author for this post.

    Hey everyone. How’s the reading going? This week we’re discussing chapters 5-8 (Laure will have a new batch of questions on this forum thread tonight, and they’ll be posted on the blog tomorrow)  but please feel free to keep going with the current questions though, if you have more thoughts to discuss!

    I just shared this (slightly uncomfortable) thought) on the blog post, and thought I’d copy over here to keep it in the discussion thread…

    So here’s a twist on question #1: it was painful how much the white community in this story looked like people I know. I have family in North Florida/Southern Alabama and have spent a little time there over the years. I want to be careful not to pass a blanket judgement or make it sound like something I’ve experienced a lot, but I have heard comments regarding race and prisoners that made me go “wait, did he just say that?” So… the attitude shown by some of the people in this story, unfortunately, doesn’t surprise me much. But the way those attitudes are wielded in the justice system are shocking and frightening.

    Has anyone else felt challenged in this way while reading Just Mercy?

    Also, here are a couple of bonus question for chapters 1-4:

    • How do you judge someone’s credibility? What causes you to increase or decrease your confidence in their account or character?
    • Talk about a time you served on a jury. What did you experience? What did you learn?
    1 user thanked author for this post.

    But i do know that when i’m reading a book i assume a white person wrote it. i think i need to seek out more books by non-white authors.

    @mrs-hittle I really appreciate this. It’s so important to take practical steps to combat our (sometimes subtle) biases. I encountered this recently when I was watching a documentary about a West African visual artist. I found myself feeling so impressed and surprised at the international recognition he had gotten. When he started to answer a highly technical question from an art critic, I wondered whether he was able to give an intelligent answer. And I’m West African! I grew up in Nigeria, but I found that I had somehow started to believe (though unconsciously) that true legitimate visual artists are white. I decided that I needed to seek out more visual art created by non-white artists and I needed to learn about (and possibly watch interviews of) non-white working artists. The images we see everyday matter and influence how we see and think about the world. Unfortunately, we often have blindspots about our biases (You don’t know what you don’t know). Related to the issues discussed in this book (and following @dmitchel and the first question about recognizing the accused), what are some ways we can increase our visibility to these issues and people? Definitely getting involved in prison ministries and/or getting involved with Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) or local organizations that deal with any of these issues. I’ll definitely be doing some research here in Baltimore.

    FYI: The artist’s name is  El Anatsui, by the way. He’s listed in this article about 10 contemporary African artists: https://theculturetrip.com/africa/articles/10-contemporary-african-artists-you-should-know/

    1 user thanked author for this post.

    @mrs-hittle That story your friend shared is so painful, but so incredible. The father’s response, wow. Reminds me of a story later in the book, buuuuuut I won’t spoil that for everyone else. 🙂

    The images we see everyday matter and influence how we see and think about the world. Unfortunately, we often have blindspots about our biases (You don’t know what you don’t know).

    Yes, this @chinwe. When I look at my bookshelves, I realize how much the authors look alike… shoot, there was a point in the middle of last year where I was looking at the list of books I’d read that year and realized I’d barely read anything by women authors, much less non-white authors. And yet when I do, I always learn something. I think that’s why Just Mercy has been so eye-opening for me. And I’m sorry to say it’s a book I might have never picked up on my own… I only read it when Pete asked me to review it.

    @dmitchel I’ll have to track down some of his lectures and arguments. His TED Talk was great, so I’m sure it’s really fascinating to listen to him at work. I’m sorry to hear that you’ve experienced similar vindictiveness and hostility toward your clients. (because, oh how easy it is to read this book and think “well, that was the 80s… surely things are better now?”)

    I’m inclined to think our legal system would be fair in theory, but the corruption shows up when you involve pride and bias and people generally being awful to each other. What are your thoughts on that as a working lawyer? What could be done to help it become more fair and honest?

    1 user thanked author for this post.

    I’ll have to track down some of his lectures and arguments. His TED Talk was great, so I’m sure it’s really fascinating to listen to him at work.

    One of the more interesting one was that he was half of a panel with Tim Keller.

    I’m sorry to hear that you’ve experienced similar vindictiveness and hostility toward your clients. (because, oh how easy it is to read this book and think “well, that was the 80s… surely things are better now?”) I’m inclined to think our legal system would be fair in theory, but the corruption shows up when you involve pride and bias and people generally being awful to each other. What are your thoughts on that as a working lawyer? What could be done to help it become more fair and honest?

    If we’re talking about criminal law, fairness in administration starts with prosecutors. My criminal procedure professor in law school — himself a long-time defense lawyer — made this point: you can have the biggest impact on criminal justice not by being a zealous defense lawyer, but by being a fair, ethical prosecutor. Which is true. How many of the people described in Just Mercy would have had their lives spared, or spent fewer years in prison, had prosecutors simply vetted their cases more thoroughly?

    But most local/State prosecutors are elected, and federal prosecutors are appointed by the Executive branch, so the kind of prosecutors one gets depends crucially on voters. Which raises the question: are voters looking for a prosecutor who’s “tough on crime,” or a prosecutor who’s wise and demonstrates perspective, respect for constitutional process, a sense of proportionality, and equity? The electoral process too often makes the latter kind of prosecutor or candidate sound like a squish — when he really might just be a Faramir of Gondor.

    The outstanding feature of criminal justice-gone-wrong is an obsession with swiftness and finality in scapegoating. “A crime has been committed — someone must pay. Here is a suspect — we must charge, convict, and punish him. If you question the conviction or punishment, you must be questioning the gravity of the crime and the injury to the victim.” The scapegoating dynamic has been really compellingly drawn by Rene Girard (of whose work I thought regularly while reading Just Mercy). And what the scapegoating machine circumvents is any concern for these questions: “What if our chosen scapegoat is innocent?” “What if our procedure for determining innocence or guilt is unfair and prone to error?” “What if punishment is really just thinly-veiled bloodlust, and not measured, proportional, and (where possible) restorative to victims?”

    The scapegoating mentality runs deep in the world, and seems particularly deeply rooted in the United States — particularly among white people, who are less likely to be accused wrongly of a crime and also less likely to be crime victims. There are usually only two events that will bring someone to question the scapegoating process: (1) being accused of a crime, or having a loved one be so accused; (2) being a victim of a crime. That scenario (1) might lead one to question what we call “criminal justice” is obvious enough. On the other hand, (2) seems counterintuitive. But it isn’t. Just as the scapegoating machine is oblivious to pleas of justice or mitigating factors, it is also strangely indifferent to the actual concerns of victims. The way criminal laws are written, and the way prosecutors apply them, too often have more to do with abstract concepts of “justice” than making victims whole.

    To bring this around to an answer to your last question: know the gospel; understand how the gospel provides hope for criminals and for victims; know your DA/SA/CA candidates; and vote/advocate accordingly.

    2 users thanked author for this post.

    i’m sorry, everyone—the forum has been giving me issues this week. i did intend to have week two’s questions up tonight, and it’s going to have to wait until morning. Thanks for the bonus questions, Jen. i’ll check in tomorrow and catch up with the discussion.

    Here are week two’s discussion questions. As always, feel free to branch out from here if something else strikes you, and no need to feel rushed if you’re still chewing on chapters 1-4.

    For chapters 5-8 of Just Mercy:

    1. Walter’s sister Armelia vocalizes the family’s pain and fears, and asks what they are supposed to tell their children. (p 93) How would you answer her? What narratives have you believed about police, crime, and the justice system?
    2. Who is the “we” who caused Charlie’s abuse? (124) Where are we in the “we”?
    3. Why are some victims more protected and valued than others? (p 143) What needs to change in order for victims to get the support they need?
    4. What are the laws in your state regarding juvenile offenders? Can you recall any local cases of children being tried in adult courts? Where are those kids now?

    Warning: This is going to be long. We had a wedding last week and a minimoot yesterday (both wonderful) and i’m still catching up.

    The scenes Mr. Stevenson describes show a kind of history that operates as a talisman against having to reckon with the present — or even the past — rather than historical memory serving as a means of seeing the ugly historical recapitulations unfolding before our eyes.

    “A talisman against having to reckon with the present”—ow. That’s well-put. i can’t help but feel that this is what’s going on on a larger scale, too—that the fact of emancipation and the Civil Rights movement means racism is no longer a factor. Blacks are no longer slaves; they can vote and own property and sit at a counter with whites. It’s settled. Why are we still talking about this? And the convenient thing is that since all that is long ago enough that nobody here was around at the time of the Civil War and the younger generations don’t even remember the Civil Rights movement, we don’t even have to reckon with our own involvement or disinvolvement. Our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents fixed this for us.

    @mrs-hittle I really appreciate this. It’s so important to take practical steps to combat our (sometimes subtle) biases. I encountered this recently when I was watching a documentary about a West African visual artist. I found myself feeling so impressed and surprised at the international recognition he had gotten. When he started to answer a highly technical question from an art critic, I wondered whether he was able to give an intelligent answer. And I’m West African! I grew up in Nigeria, but I found that I had somehow started to believe (though unconsciously) that true legitimate visual artists are white.

    @chinwe, that’s scary to realize how implicit bias can creep in despite your own background, just from being around such bias. i am going to go look up that artist you mention. This is uncomfortable to admit, but when i’ve seen your own photography there’s a difference in how i’m able to see images that look familiar to me and images that look unfamiliar. i love, love fiction; i eat it and breathe it (and probably aspirate it at times in the process), and one of the things fiction is so powerful for is to help us inhabit the Other’s perspective and learn to humanize people different from ourselves. But i am much more abstract-verbal than concrete-visual, so i have yet to learn how to lean into this in art. i wouldn’t be surprised to realize that when i’m reading about another person i am somehow subtly seeing them as me rather than the other way around. Visual art won’t let me do that.

    On the topic of reading books by non-white authors, i was on campus a couple of weeks ago (i’m a student at Denver Seminary in Littleton, CO) and walked past the display case of new faculty publications and saw one called Confronting the Legacy of Racism: The Challenge to Christian Faith. It turned out to be part of the monograph series published by our school’s Vernon Grounds Institute of Public Ethics. i thought i had better pick it up and read it, so i went to the library. When i went to check it out the student staffing the desk was a black man who’d been in Hebrew tutoring with me a few years back. He said, “That is a good book,” and told me about two of the chapters that had really stood out to him and about his experience of how implicit bias and generations of oppression have seeped into the black community and resulted in bias against one another. i was so grateful that he talked to me about this. So that is a start, but i do need to find more books. And i probably need more visual cues to help, too. We had @jeffreyoverstreet out for a film seminar this summer, and one of the films he showed us was The Fits. It was incredible; some of the best cinema i’ll see this year. But again, i need more of this. (Jeffrey, do you have a list somewhere of movies to challenge racial bias or open up dialogue about race?)

    “If you question the conviction or punishment, you must be questioning the gravity of the crime and the injury to the victim.”

    Dang.

    This is a problem.

    And I’m sorry to say it’s a book I might have never picked up on my own… I only read it when Pete asked me to review it.

    @pete made me read it, too. XD #blamePetePeterson

    #blamePetePeterson always and forever, lol.

    @dmitchel, thank you for such a thorough and helpful response! Everybody, go read it all the way through if you missed it.

    I have to ponder this week’s questions a little more before responding. I am doing a little research on question 4 though, because I in fact do not know my state’s laws. Good question, Laure.

Viewing 20 posts - 1 through 20 (of 32 total)

You must be logged in to reply to this topic.