A Reflection from Sabbatical

“I am a member of a racial minority. Often, a person I do not know will take pains to bring a matter to my attention (a news article, movie or lecture) that features the subject of my race. I don’t pretend that people are color blind. But I am put off when a person I have just met tells me that I should read a book on my group’s experience with the American justice system. How should I respond?”

This question came to the NY Times advice columnist, Philip Galanes. In his February 25 column, Galanes suggested several thoughtful ways to respond, including asking them “Why, exactly, do you suppose that book will interest me?” Then the columnist added “(And if the book is “Just Mercy,” everyone should read it.)”

Everyone should read this book. I’m grateful to Alice Levine for recommending it to me a year ago. When I finally picked it up last month, I could not put it down.

Lawyer Bryan Stevenson is a marvel. He is obviously a skilled and talented attorney, who has freed hundreds from unjust prison sentences. He has argued to change incarceration laws for juveniles successfully before the U.S. Supreme Court. Twice. His organization, the Equal Justice Initiative continues to work successfully on behalf of those “who have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system.”

Stevenson is also an engaging writer as he unfurls the tale of Walter McMillian, a death row inmate who was arrested, imprisoned, tried, and committed to death row based on flimsy evidence (at best) and corruption and racial bias (at worst). In alternating chapters, he also describes how women, children, mentally handicapped, and poor people fall victim to our broken criminal justice system. Nearly every chapter broke my heart.

Surprisingly, this book also offers redemption and hope. Just as he depicts the system as unbearably out of whack, Stevenson’s honesty and personal commitment provide a stirring model for making real change.

The title of the book encapsulates Stevenson’s inspiring approach to his life and work. “Justice” and “mercy” are usually opposing goals. On Yom Kippur, we ask God to set aside justice and become merciful with us. Others in our culture embrace punitive justice without regard for mercy. (Angry reactions to the recent sentencing of Philip Chism are just one example.) “Just mercy” implies that these two truths can (and ought to) coexist.

The prophet Micah implores us to find a balance between justice and mercy in our everyday relationships. “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with…” (Micah 6:8) Micah lived through a time of upheaval, moral degradation, dislocation, and fear. He witnessed the Assyrian conquest of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 721 BCE and the exile of its leaders. He surely knew the suffering of the people of the Southern Kingdom of Judah, who endured the Assyrian siege of the fortified city protecting the capital, Jerusalem. Micah was one of the first to have foreseen the ultimate fall of Judah, which finally occurred more than a century after his death. Despite the terrors of war and destruction, Micah continued to preach a message of hope: “Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with…”

In our own day, we are also witness to upheaval, moral degradation, dislocation and fear. We may be filled with despair. Like a prophet, Stevenson offers us a path out of our fear and anguish. At the end of the book, he tells us that he’s learned that “fear and anger are a threat to justice; they can infect a community, a state, or a nation and make us blind, irrational, and dangerous.” Then he turns around and instructs us that “mercy is just when it is rooted in hopefulness and freely given.” That is, through love we can find the way to overcome injustice and to embrace hope.

One of the many gifts of having sabbatical time is having time. Period. Time to read. Time to write. Time to think. Time to cook healthy meals and enjoy being with loved ones. Time to do one thing at a time.

Coming back from these nine weeks “away,” I felt reinvigorated. It feels good to do the work that I love. I’m delighted every time I see someone who has been out of my line of sight for two months. I’m particularly grateful to learn that, while people are happy to have me back, the temple and its programs ran very smoothly during my absence.

One teaching I hold onto from this sabbatical time is not to wait until the next one. My book project has a long way to go. You are a part of that project, as I continue to think about Micah’s teaching of justice, mercy, and humility. From time to time I will share these thoughts with you, to continue to learn how these prophetic words can make a difference in our lives.



Posted on March 2, 2016 .