RR Book Group: Just Mercy

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  • I intended to read this thread and reply, but I can’t seem to do it yet. I’ve started reading. I have managed the introduction and the beginning of chapter 1, but I am already finding things too overwhelming. It doesn’t help that I live in Alabama, and I’m going to know people who are reflections of ALL the people in this story. There are going to be both “heroes” and “villains” in this story who are reflections of people that I know and love and can at least somewhat understand and identify with. I want to be able to love all of them without any shirking of the reality of the wrongs that they commit. I suspect that is going to be very hard, if I actually face what specific people may have done. I suspect that there were probably some hardcore racists in my childhood church, or at least in the local community where I grew up. There is some type of “shadow” there where People of Color are still reluctant to come to that area. They know something I don’t, and that I am afraid to know. But I suspect that people who loved me and taught me about God may have been involved in AWFUL things, or at least stood by while others committed them. That is hard to face. But even in a less direct conflict, I’m afraid that some of the ideals that I have held in the past, and that I can believe in the abstract, have become too twisted and corrupt to be relied on. Swift punishment for wrong behaviors seems like a good thing and ought to deter the wrong behaviors- unless the system is corrupt and justice is not really happening, or some people are being punished more strictly than others, or those with power are abusing it to suit their own needs, etc. Individual responsibility matters, but has to be weighed against systemic inequality. It isn’t just a thing for people in an ivory tower to try to figure out, it is what real people have to figure out in their daily life, when there isn’t a clear “right answer” anymore.

    Any suggestions on how to really dig in and engage with this, while not letting it overwhelm me too much? I want to learn and grow and at least TRY to make my home state a better place, and I know that isn’t going to happen if people like me are not willing to face what has and is happening. But I also don’t know how to do this in a way that is helpful and activating rather than just leading to despair about the state of the world and my little corner of it. Maybe I just need to keep reading, but I’m finding that I am already overwhelmed by the memories of injustices that I have seen and know about, and the echoes of things that I DON’T know about but can still see the shadows they cast. I can’t change any of them, and without a way to respond, I don’t know what to do with these feelings.

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    @misslinda, that is hard stuff. i wish i had a good answer for you. i’ve lived in the midwest almost all of my life, and unless Texas counts i’ve never lived in the South, so my experiences and parallels will be completely different from yours, and we’re likely starting in different places even just in recognizing what’s happening. But i feel that same desire to engage and to effect change without a clear sense of where to start. For myself, my hope is that this discussion becomes a place to start and gives me a few avenues to explore. But i’m with you. This is hard. i don’t know. Yet.

    If this would help, i give you permission to read at a slower pace. Maybe taking breaks for gloaning in between chapters, even if that means getting less read each week, will help you keep going without giving up.

    This afternoon in my Intro to Mentored Formation class we talked some about practices that we can engage in our growth process, and one of the things that stood out to me from the list, which might be helpful here, is writing prayers of lament. Maybe that would help with the feelings that don’t have a place to go yet.

    i am just flinging words out right now. Forgive me if those ideas were the wrong ones or land in the wrong spots.

    @misslinda Thanks for your honesty. Truly. It’s a really difficult book to read, and I understand where you’re coming from, because I felt some similar things.

    I haven’t talked about this yet because it’s hard for me to articulate, but I’m going to try… I have family in rural North Florida, right near the Alabama line. (Dothan, AL is mentioned in the book. I remember while I was visiting them we would drive to Dothan just to get a pizza.) I’ve spent a bit of time in the area — not a lot of extended time, but enough to get a sense of the culture — and sometimes while reading this book I couldn’t shake the feeling that, my goodness, the white “villains” in this book could quite easily be my relatives, or friends of my relatives. In fact, I remember the first time I heard openly racist talk was from a prison guard from this area, and I felt so shaken and confused… the thinking was so foreign to me. And yet, this was a person I knew, a mostly good-natured country guy. (I also remember as recently as the 2016 elections some people from this area flipping out on my mom because she said “yeah, I can’t stand Donald Trump” but that’s another story…”)

    Absolutely take your time with the reading. Grieve if you need to. (Laure’s prayer of lament idea is a great idea!) And yes, it’s important to recognize the complexity of all the people in the story. I can tell you I had a rough time reading the first part of the book. Bryan’s stories shocked me like those racist comments I heard or my mom’s stories about segregation in our hometown. It’s shocking, painful, and even embarrassing to think these things could happen in our lifetimes.

    But I’m happy to say when I finished the book I felt hopeful. I hope that will be your experience too. Just take all the time you need and we’ll be here to help you process.

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    @misslinda I agree with @mrs-hittle regarding lament. In Walter Brueggeman’s The Prophetic Imagination, he makes the point that Jeremiah and Lamentations are prayers of lament in prophetic opposition to/criticism of a numbed and entrenched “royal consciousness” embedded in the Jewish monarchy just prior to exile. The royal consciousness is the culture of the comfortable oppressor, who advocates for the status quo and expects it to continue in perpetuity. Note that you do not even need to benefit from the oppression to be taken in by this royal consciousness. What this means is that lament is the means by which we penetrate the numbness in our own society around racism and its current instantiation in our prison system and beyond.

    What this means is that lament is the means by which we penetrate the numbness in our own society around racism and its current instantiation in our prison system and beyond. I think for many of us, lament is the good and proper response, and yes, I can only read this book in short doses because of the combination of grief and anger I feel. I try to do about a chapter per day if I can.

    For what it’s worth, Brueggeman also talks about a prophetic energizing in response to despair. Once Israel is in exile, despair sets in, and the prophetic response is that of Isaiah, casting an energizing vision of what God is doing, His Kingdom, and nothing less than the renewal of all creation. He also links both of these concepts to Jesus in the Gospels, and Jesus’ response to the injustice he faces. I mention this because lament may lead to despair but we are not intended to remain there.

    I’ll need to come back to the discussion questions because I need to get back to my day job right now. However, if we need to bring things a bit more into the present, check this out:


    “With all the stories of heroism and tragedy in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Harvey, one group of people have been left out of sight and out of our hearts: the incarcerated men and women in our federal correctional facilities.”


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    @jblocher, that article is so troubling. What really strikes me is that according to the writer, the prison officials and prisoners are telling directly conflicting stories.

    @misslinda I also appreciate your honesty about your wrestling with this. What I have found is that one tangible way to combat despair is to get involved in some way with the issue that’s breaking your heart. This is, of course, a risk. As is illustrated later in the book, as you get closer, your heart might be broken over and over. But also, more importantly, I think, you get to be part of pushing back against that particular darkness. This builds hope. I agree with @jroseyokel about feeling hopeful after finishing the book. It’s ridiculously encouraging to know that EJI exists in this unjust world. It’s, of course, sad to know that their work is so necessary, but this is the world we are living in and as hard as it can be, we must live with our eyes and hearts wide open.

    know the gospel; understand how the gospel provides hope for criminals and for victims; know your DA/SA/CA candidates; and vote/advocate accordingly.

    Thanks @dmitchel for your input here.

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    These are some great questions.

    #1, I grew up in the upper-middle class Maryland suburbs of Washington D.C. It was rather multi-cultural and so I would say I grew up “colorblind” in both the good and bad sense of that word. It also means I saw our criminal justice system as basically fair, good, and accurate. I remember my first wake-up call was the Rodney King incident in LA, but even that struck me as an anomaly, not the norm. The past few years (news events and my own reading and education) have shown me how naive and sheltered I’ve been.

    #2. I think we need to realize that “we” is all of us. In our individualized culture, we have a tendency to be pretty self-oriented. Charlie would be a tragedy and we get angry, but we don’t feel responsible. I think that is not the right way to think about it, especially as a Christian. I agree with the saying “you should judge a culture not based on how it treats the powerful but how it treats the marginalized and poor” or something like that. On that metric, the US fails miserably.

    #3. This is related to what I said earlier (somewhat restated): our justice system isn’t really about justice, it is about punishment. It is also (perhaps moreso) about power and maintaining the current power structure – i.e. those in power do not want their power threatened. This is why Alexander calls it “The New Jim Crow” – it is a new system designed to maintain the existing power structure. We can’t look at our incarceration rate and credibly claim that what we are doing with the criminal justice system is at all related to ‘justice’ or ‘public safety’ or anything like that. I call B.S.

    Therefore, it isn’t really about the victims. It is pretty clear, over and over, that prosecutors don’t really care what the victims want. Victims, having themselves experiencing violence often do not want more violence against the offender, but prosecutors go for the death penalty anyway because that is the best way to maintain the existing power structure. I think Stevenson implies that victims get treatment according to social class/wealth. This seems about right to me, but I don’t think that is the entire story. I think it is a symptom, not itself a root cause of injustice.

    What needs to change? We need to reform the whole system. I don’t think you can separate our treatment of victims from our treatment of offenders. We need a system of restorative justice that seeks to right the wrongs, heal the offense, and reconcile that which is broken. This sounds like utopianism, but New Zealand is working on it: https://www.justice.govt.nz/courts/criminal/charged-with-a-crime/how-restorative-justice-works/

    #4. Tennessee is, unsurprisingly, about the same as Alabama. I didn’t know this before you asked the question, but I suspected it. Children often get tried as adults for violent crime and homicide means a life sentence behind bars at a minimum.


    Since I mostly identify as a northerner, I have to be careful not to look down my nose at the south. I think it is pretty important that many of Stevenson’s anecdotes come from northern cities as well. If there is one thing I’ve learned recently, it is that the north isn’t all that different from the south when it comes to racism, we are just a bit better at hiding it or couching it in justifiable terms.


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    Charlie would be a tragedy and we get angry, but we don’t feel responsible. … We need a system of restorative justice that seeks to right the wrongs, heal the offense, and reconcile that which is broken. This sounds like utopianism, but New Zealand is working on it. … Tennessee is, unsurprisingly, about the same as Alabama. I didn’t know this before you asked the question, but I suspected it. Children often get tried as adults for violent crime and homicide means a life sentence behind bars at a minimum. … If there is one thing I’ve learned recently, it is that the north isn’t all that different from the south when it comes to racism, we are just a bit better at hiding it or couching it in justifiable terms.

    #2 This is hard, and i think you’ve nailed it. Where is our anger coming from, and where is it directed? And if we don’t feel responsible, is it possible that the reason we feel angry is as much about ourselves as it is about the victimized juvenile offender?

    The NZ restorative justice initiative looks amazing. What in particular strikes me is that the offender can seek restorative justice, and that the judge can take the results into account during sentencing. i would think that just the desire to face one’s victim, hear them, and do what’s needed to address the damage caused is worth at least half of any punitive sentence.

    #3 This line from the article you linked caught my attention: “…a rethink makes it possible for Tennesseans to see juveniles being treated in the same manner they would want their own children treated.” A willingness to see each other as neighbors rather than others, to put offenders alongside one’s own children, could not help but have radical results in sentencing.

    @jblocher, thanks so much for these links and thoughts.

    This afternoon i read and listened to “Of the Coming of John,” the short story mentioned in chapter five. It was good and hard. i’m thinking that W.E.B. Du Bois might be the non-white author i’ll read first. This is nerdy, and may or may not be useful in this conversation, but toward the end of the story i saw a line in German that i had to look up: “Freudig gefuhrt, ziehet dahin.” It’s from the opera he had attended earlier, but when i looked it up i found that Du Bois had changed the wording. Where the opera had “faithfully led, pass along to that place,” Du Bois renders it “joyfully led.” i don’t know what to make of this yet.

    Has anyone else read this story? Stevenson gives the sense of it in his book, but it’s worth checking out. The text and audio narration are available here.

    i haven’t looked up the laws in Colorado yet regarding juvenile offenders. i’m stuck on a case from when i was in college in Minnesota. i was working with a church youth group and this case was all over the newspapers, and what really bothered me about it was that the defendant was the age of “my” kids. It took me forever to track this case down, as i didn’t recall any specifics of the case, just how young he was and the anguish i felt when thinking about what had led him there and what lives were lost as a result. i had encouraged my youth group kids to pray for him and write him encouraging notes, which i promised to mail for them. i don’t remember if anyone took me up on that, but i found the photo i’d printed out from the news article, on which i’d written “My name is Andy… please pray for me.” With that tiny detail i tracked him down: Charles Andrew Williams, sentenced as an adult in California (not Minnesota) at fifteen. He served the first three years of his sentence at a juvenile detention facility after which he was transferred to an adult prison, and will be eligible for parole when he turns 66. An appeal to retry him as a juvenile was denied several years ago. There have been some efforts at getting his sentence reduced, but as for right now he’s incarcerated and apparently doing well. i found an interview he gave about four years ago, and it was hard to read, but i’m glad i did.

    Update: Apparently in Colorado one can be tried in a district (i.e. non-juvenile) court as young as 12, if the crime constitutes what would be for an adult a class 1 or 2 felony. But looking up what those classes of felony indicated did not entirely clear things up, because the example they gave of class 1 was murder, and the example of class 2 was selling Schedule I or II drugs (heroin, LSD, cocaine, marijuana, morphine, codeine)… and then class 3’s example was patronizing a prostituted child and class 4 was sexual assault. i cannot fathom how selling drugs is worse than “patronizing” a prostituted child. But when i tried to read the documents around how the system actually works i very quickly bogged down. It looks like the state is trying to address juveniles as juveniles and acknowledge bias based on race, ethnicity, and gender. But i couldn’t find statistics on how many 12- and 13-year olds are actually tried and sentenced as adults. (Sources: this, this, this, this, and this.)

    I promise I will eventually come back to the questions (and new ones go up tomorrow! ack!) but this was in my inbox today, and it’s super pertinent. Thoughts on lament and reconciliation from pastor/author Steve Wiens* via Seth Haines’** email newsletter: http://tinyletter.com/sethhaines/letters/tiny-letter-53-oppressed-or-oppressor-on-experiencing-scripture

    I know it’s uncomfortable to read the Exodus story and consider the possibility that you’re an Egyptian. Stay with me. We can’t talk about restoring the entire world if we don’t talk about repenting of our part in breaking it. Sometimes, seeing to the shalom of your brothers and sisters puts you in a position in which you need to realize you have been part of what has kept them enslaved, even if you haven’t knowingly done anything to keep them enslaved. And Moses is a perfect candidate to lead us there.

    Moses was a person with an identity crisis. Though he was Hebrew by nature, he was raised in an Egyptian household, with Egyptian values, from infancy until well into his adulthood. It’s why he thought he could see to the shalom of his brothers and sisters by murdering the Egyptian slave driver. When we don’t really know the life of someone who is enslaved, we tend to resort to answers that don’t really help. It took Moses forty years in the wilderness to take Egypt out of him.
 If Egypt was in Moses, it’s possible that it’s also in me.

    * Steve is great. He led a workshop at our church last year (I think?), and afterward mutually geeked out about The Rabbit Room/Wingfeather Saga with me and Chris. Y’all would like him.

    ** Seth is also great. You should totally read his book and subscribe to his email letter.

    Week three’s questions!

    1. After how Walter’s hearing went in chapter 9, were you surprised by the judge’s decision in chapter 11? Why do you think things turned out that way?
    2. How can hope create justice? (p 219)
    3. Read and reflect on 2 Corinthians 1:3-7. How has someone mitigated for you? Is there someone you can mitigate for?
    4. How do we address mental health as individuals, families, society, and the church? How can we improve?

    As always, feel free to keep talking about chapters 1-8 as well as anything this week’s reading brought up for you.

    I’m way behind and reading at the pace of a snail. But I am still in this, even if I am not going to be anywhere near keeping up. This is partly because life got busy, but also partly because I am not staying focused very well. Reading the book makes me think of other topics and questions and I get side-tracked with those too. I may have to make a series of posts rather than just one, because I cannot seem to stay focused.

    First, I have done some research into the history of the area I grew up in, and so far I have found… nothing. That is a huge relief, since what I was researching was lynchings. Sadly, I can believe that people from my childhood community (perhaps even my church) would be rude to, or even threaten and harass, a person they did not want living near them. Some would probably even think they were doing the right thing by “protecting” their families in that way, although I struggle to understand why they would have felt so threatened. But I am relieved that at least there is no official record of killing here. Whatever the shadow is on this area, at least it doesn’t look like it was that. I am considering whether or not to ask some of the few older people of color that I do know, whether they know anything about the history here. I don’t want to reopen old wounds, and I wouldn’t want to put them in a situation that feels threatening or uncomfortable. I’m pretty sure that this is a social taboo that they have been trained from childhood NOT to talk about, especially with a white person, so they may not be willing to talk about it anyway. But I also don’t want to ignore things if they need facing, and understanding the micro-culture where I grew up is going to be part of understanding how racism has shaped me. I was insulated from it somewhat by my parents, but I’m pretty sure that you can’t be surrounded by racism and be untouched by it. Even just the simple fact that when I was growing up it seemed normal to me not to have any racial diversity around me will have left some type of impact in my heart. I just can’t exactly recognize or pin it down yet. These are things I have thought about at certain times in my life, but probably not as much or as deeply as I need to. I do not want those unconscious influences from childhood to be controlling how I see people now or my assumptions about the world if I can help it.

    Second issue- that article about the prisons. I’m really upset by this. I should know better than to be surprised, but I still was. I am most upset, I think, by the conflicting reports about the conditions and the fact that no one was allowed inside to check on the situation. Power without accountability is a recipe for corruption. Even if some people have the integrity to handle the power well (and I believe some do), the larger the organization becomes and the more people involved, the more likely that is going to break down and power will be misused. In a case like this, it is possible prisoners could be lying about the conditions they were in, but it is much more likely that they are telling the truth. I do not know who is responsible for emergency preparedness plans and for figuring out what to do in a natural disaster and making the decision whether to evacuate or not, but it is horrible to think of people being trapped and unable to even try to secure their own safety. I know that there is a balance of some sort that has to be reached- prison isn’t meant to be comfortable or fun, and I am not expecting people to try to make it that way. But when one human being is given power over another (in any setting, from children with their parents to nursing homes and everything in between), they are also given the responsibility to meet that person’s needs, at least as far as they are able. Physical safety, shelter, food, and water are the most BASIC things. When we (as a nation, or state, or county, or city) fail to give those to a prisoner under our care, no matter what crime they committed, we have failed in a huge way. I do not know what accountability systems there are in place now, or what there need to be, but I hope that this issue will not be ignored.

    On the other hand, it is yet another big cause that is out of my reach to do anything about, which frustrates me. Worse, I know that I don’t know what is happening. I don’t want to criticize the people who work there when they may be doing the best they can with the resources and power they have… often the “front line” people, like guards or teachers or nursing staff have little to no say in how the larger organization is run. Even the people who are “higher up” and made the decision not to evacuate may have good reasons for what they decided, like knowing that they couldn’t move all those people safely or having nowhere to take them. But if that is the case, I hope they are using what they learned this time to build better plans and systems so that this won’t happen again. Even when there are signs of gross negligence or outright abuse in an organization, there are usually good people inside it trying to be faithful with what they have as well as those who are failing the charge entrusted to them. I cannot sort them out, especially from the outside. But what I read saddened me and I hope for change.

    Ok, my post is taking too long and I still haven’t gotten to the book at all. I’m just going to post this now and come back to the other things later.

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