How to Facilitate Biblical Conversation Around Just Mercy
A Group Discussion Guide
When Bryan Stevenson was young, his grandmother would hug him as closely as possible. Minutes later, she would ask if he could still feel her embrace. If he said no, she would hug him tightly again, offering reassurance of her proximity. Stevenson cherished the words that usually followed: “You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance, Bryan. You have to get close.”
Stevenson learned that being close to others wasn’t something to fear. Yet the examples around him suggested the opposite of his lessons at home. As a young black man, he found himself living in a country strained by centuries of inequalities. Stevenson decided to study law and public policy to defend people against wrongful accusations, highlight the need for racial equality, and advocate for the poor and marginalized.
Restoring Just Mercy
What did Stevenson hope to see happen in a broken justice system? People willing to get in the mess to extend mercy to both the rightly, and wrongfully, accused. “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” Stevenson says in his book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. The book articulates his own journey in pursuing mercy for those often at the brunt of injustices, including women, racial minorities, and children.
The central figure of Just Mercy is Walter McMillian, an African American man, living in Alabama, who is accused of the murder of a white woman based on illogical charges and racist assumptions. His character is reduced to “reckless and dangerous” in the eyes of the law, and the attempts of his community to speak on his behalf are disregarded. McMillian is pronounced guilty after a biased investigation and moved from county jail to death row. Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative take on McMillian’s case in a grueling effort to reveal truth to the community and restore hope to a wrongfully condemned man and his family.
God’s Just Mercy
The tensions Stevenson faced early in his life continue to emerge throughout the narrative. Themes of compassion, truth, restoration, forgiveness, and hope stand vibrantly between distressing narratives of racism, neglect, mass incarceration, extreme punishment, and unchallenged biases.
As I read the book, I couldn’t help but think how closely these themes relate to God’s character—who, through Jesus, stands in the gap for those suffering poverty, mental illness, violence, and all schemes of prejudice. Considering a mercy-filled view of justice can lead us to a deeper understanding of who God is. What God hates. What God loves. How can we extend the heart of God to our neighbors—justly, mercifully, and humbly (Micah 6:8, Matthew 25:31-46)? And how can we learn from Jesus’s example to do this?
Just Mercy offers us an opportunity to think through these biblical themes of mercy, in relation to current events. Use the following discussion guide to help facilitate meaningful discussions around biblical themes extracted from this book.
Group Discussion Guide
Read Romans 5:1-11 and Hebrews 6:19-20
Stevenson writes that “just mercy” is “rooted in hopefulness and freely given. Mercy is most empowering, liberating, and transformative when it is directed at the undeserving.”
Consider the author’s definition of “just mercy.” Do you agree with it? Why or why not? According to these Scripture passages, what is given to us freely? How are we justified?
Partner in the Work of Compassion
Read John 8:1-10
An elderly woman, whose grandson was murdered, tells Stevenson: “I decided that I was supposed to be here to catch some of the stones people cast at each other… Well, it hurts to catch all them stones people throw… I’m just gonna let you lean on me a bit, because I know a few things about stonecatching.”
Who are the “stonecatchers” in your community—those who actively respond to hate with compassion? How can you encourage or partner with them? In the passage from John’s Gospel, how does Jesus show compassion to the woman caught in adultery? What does he say? What action, or inaction, does he take? What does this reveal about what Jesus values?
Speak the Truth in Love
Read Ephesians 4:1-16
Walter McMillian faces harsh accusations throughout his trial, and Stevenson puts his own reputation on the line to defend him. Case after case, we see Stevenson confront authorities on behalf of those who have not been granted a fair trial. He challenges the very officials who assumed he couldn’t be the defense lawyer because of the color of his skin.
What is our responsibility to uncover, illuminate, and speak truth? How does our culture diminish voices that speak truth when it is difficult to hear? Based on the passage in Ephesians, what is the church’s call to unity and speaking the truth in love? What are the implications of this in elevating the voices of the marginalized, disenfranchised, and underrepresented in our communities?
Read Matthew 18:21-35 and Deuteronomy 30
In the book’s epilogue, Stevenson describes telling Walter’s family about their time together. He explains that Walter “genuinely forgave the people who unfairly accused him,” and that this freed him to rediscover a full life after death row, “until it was time to die on God’s schedule.”
How do these two passages of Scripture connect to what you read in "Just Mercy," and how do they connect to each other? Why is forgiveness so important? What warnings does the story of the unmerciful servant give us about choosing not to forgive?
Read Luke 15:11-32
In fighting for mercy, Stevenson discovers that even the worst-case scenarios bear traces of hope and humanity. Rather than giving up on people, he urges us to restore lives to wholeness. He says:
We’ve given up on rehabilitation, education, and services for the imprisoned because providing assistance to the incarcerated is apparently too kind and compassionate. We’ve institutionalized policies that reduce people to their worst acts and permanently label them “criminal,” “murderer,” “rapist,” “thief,” “drug dealer,” “sex offender,” “felon”- identities they cannot change regardless of the circumstances of their crimes or improvements they might make in their lives … I have discovered, deep in the hearts of many condemned and incarcerated people, the scattered traces of hope and humanity - seeds of restoration that come to astonishing life when nurtured by very simple interventions.
Do you believe everyone can be restored to a relationship with God? Is anyone beyond God’s redemption? Read the parable of the lost son in the Gospel of Luke. When someone we deem undeserving receives mercy, what should our reaction be as children of God? How were both the older son and younger son restored to their father?
Read Lamentations 3 and Psalm 42
At the age of 13, Ian Manuel was condemned to life in prison without parole, a sentence that began with eighteen years of solitary confinement. Ian read countless books and wrote poetry during his time in isolation. One of his poems concludes, “If crying brings you to triumph/Then dying’s not such a disaster.”
Read the laments above. After reading Just Mercy, do you have a new perspective on Scriptural laments and cries for mercy? Notice how the authors use metaphors like “he dragged me from the path and mangled me” and “tears are my only food” to describe their intense suffering. Write your own lament to God on behalf of the oppressed. After you’ve written it, pray your laments together as a group. Close with reading Romans 12:9-21.
As you read Just Mercy and reflect on Scripture, pray for vision to lead others in dealing with these complex issues with hope and compassion. Pray that God will give you a clear sense of calling to your community and specific opportunities to be the hands and feet of Christ among the hurting.
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