Just Mercy

So I was watching Just Mercy, and it got me thinking about whether the cross is enough for us…

On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross
The emblem of suffering and shame
And I love that old cross where the dearest and best
For a world of lost sinners was slain

Just Mercy is a powerful and wrenching film. It deserves a much longer reflection than I intend to give it here. But at least for now, I want to focus in on one special scene that demands our Christian attention. If you’ve seen the film, yes, it’s that scene. I want to talk about the execution of Herbert Richardson. 

To the old rugged cross I will ever be true
Its shame and reproach gladly bear
Then he’ll call me someday to my home far away
Where his glory forever I’ll share

In the film, which is based on true persons and events, convicted prisoner Herbert Richardson is set to be executed by the State of Alabama in the electric chair. The scene where this happens is masterful filmmaking that is both unbearable and demands our unwavering attention. The movie takes a bold stance in this scene from which it never backs down. This scene makes us watch a guilty man face the death penalty and causes us, without preaching at us, to feel sorrow and pain on his behalf. It accomplishes this in a variety of ways – by focusing on his face containing unbridled fear, by cutting to Bryan Stevenson (played by Michael B. Jordan) and his horror at being unable to have stopped this, and to the other inmates who put on a brave spectacle clanging cups against prison bars, even while knowing that one day their turn will come up.

But no part of this scene does more to carry the thematic weight than the music that scores it. Herbert requests that an old hymn, “The Old Rugged Cross,” be played during his execution, and this song becomes the soundtrack for the scene. Ella Fitzgerald’s knowing and divine voice swells and echoes through prison walls, being joined by the hollering prisoners and clanging cups. This is more than movie magic; Stevenson recounts in the book that Herbert requested this song, and that it did indeed play during his execution.

Film language allows a song like this to evoke the meaning of a moment in ways that feel more like memory than reality. Yet it’s no surprise that this song emerged in reality for Herbert Richardson when he contemplated his death at the hands of the State. Black Christians and theologians have always drawn connection between the shame and suffering of the cross to the suffering of black people, never more poignantly than in James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Black Christians understand the cross in a way the rest of us never will, as a symbol of state violence that is disconnected from guilt, innocence, or justice; indeed, an “emblem of suffering and shame.”

And it makes me wonder whether Christ’s death was enough for us, for two reasons. First, Jesus’ execution should be a constant reminder to Christians that the State was and continues to be a poor mechanism to judge who deserves the utmost punishment. Mark Osler wrote an excellent book called Jesus on Death Row that examines the trial and execution of Jesus through the lens of the modern American criminal justice system. In it, he suggests, “The fact that God’s son came to earth as a man subjected to capital punishment seems to reveal God’s intent that we care not only about that man but also that process. The more we focus on that story of Jesus, the more the idea of capital punishment becomes troubling… the process to which Jesus was subjected is not so different from our modern criminal justice routines.” As the end credits of Just Mercy testify, the rate of innocence on death row is too high to justify its finality – and that explicit and implicit racial bias play a huge role in the misappropriation of justice and punishment.

If we take seriously the old rugged cross not just as a historical event but as a theological one., guilt and innocence are not the final word anyway. If Christ’s death and resurrection accomplished for us the forgiveness of sins and our redemption, then what right do we have to ask anyone else to die for their sins? When we execute someone for a crime, we not only ask someone other than Christ to die for sin, but make a declarative statement about the impossibility of their redemption, which is also Christ’s alone to judge. Another theologian wrote, “We call for the legal abolition of capital punishment not because we think the criminal is innocent but because we share his guilt before God who has borne the punishment we all merited.” Do we mock Christ’s sacrifice when we take a life? Do we declare to God that an individual is beyond saving, beyond redemption?

This scene in Just Mercy, contextualizing an unjust execution performed on a guilty man within the larger story of Christ’s cross, is a challenge for Christians. Is Christ’s death enough for us, for Herbert, for all?  How will we respond?

So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross
Till my trophies at last I lay down
And I will cling to the old rugged cross
And exchange it some day for a crown

Theophany’s mission to bring God to light in film has another branch: a YouTube channel of video essays. Check them out, and don’t forget to like and subscribe while you’re there.

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