“For every nine people who have been executed in the U.S., one person on death row has been exonerated and released, a shocking rate of error.”
This is the gut-wrenching statistic that appears on the screen as the last scene in Just Mercy fades and the credits begin. On the heels of the stinging racial injustice brought to life in the film, it feels like a knife turning in the wound.
Just Mercy is based on a memoir written by Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) — an organization in Montgomery, Alabama that challenges racial injustice and champions criminal justice reform. Throughout his career as a civil rights defense attorney, Stevenson has defended those caught in the throes of America’s broken criminal justice system.
Stevenson, played by Michael B. Jordan, moves to Alabama after graduating from law school to provide legal representation for men on death row. One of the cases he takes on is that of Walter McMillian, a man who was wrongfully accused of murdering an 18-year-old white woman in Alabama in the 1980’s. To the criminal justice system, McMillian is just a guilty black man. But upon examination of the evidence and his own research, Stevenson realizes that the evidence is unequivocal: McMillian is innocent. And yet, he remains ensnared in the criminal justice system for a crime that he did not commit. “You don’t know what you’re into down here in Alabama,” McMillian says to Stevenson in the film. “Here, you’re guilty from the moment you’re born.”
Stevenson is taken aback by the glaring injustices in the system, but he is undeterred and obstinate in his cause. He works tirelessly to win relief for McMillian, spending hours sifting through evidence and making trips out to see McMillian’s family and hear their side of the story. Even when members of the town threaten Stevenson, he continues to fight for McMillian’s life. His commitment to justice and to the truth is inspiring to behold.
Just Mercy forces us to confront the racial injustice deeply embedded into our society. It’s a lucid representation of the ways in which our social systems and patterns of life disadvantage people of color. Beyond this, the movie leads us to question how we might channel the force of mercy in our own lives to create a more just society as Stevenson has done.
My favorite definition of mercy comes from the Jesuit James F. Keenan — author of The Works of Mercy. Keenan defines mercy as “the willingness to enter into the chaos of another.” The two words that jump out in this quote immediately are “willingness” and “chaos.” By the standard of this definition, mercy is something we have to actively work toward. We must be open to giving mercy and welcoming it into our lives. Additionally, we are called to then enter into the “chaos” of others’ lives — the grittiness and sometimes unpleasant experiences that bring us closer to God’s love. As Pope Francis said in one of his homilies, “Mercy towards a human life in a state of need is the true face of love.”
What might that mercy look like in our own lives? Perhaps working for a nonprofit that serves underprivileged populations or volunteering at a human rights organization. To be merciful means confronting injustice that is causing suffering and marginalizing others — it begins by acknowledging our role in those systems and humanizing them.
But there are also more covert ways to live out a life of mercy without making it our 9-to-5 job. Perhaps it is lending a listening ear to a coworker who’s struggling or calling a friend who just lost a family member. We are all on a path to healing of some kind. It is our willingness to show mercy that helps lift others out of suffering and into love.
As Stevenson says in Just Mercy, “If we can look at ourselves closely and honestly, I believe we will see that we all need justice, we all need mercy, and perhaps we all need some measure of unmerited grace.”