WWW: Wednesday’s Word of the Week – Jeremiad

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption” by Bryan Stevenson was a New York Times best seller, has won numerous awards, and was the recent selection in Cory Booker’s book club. Even though I’m only 34% of the way through the book (thanks Kindle), I can see why.

Here is an excerpt from a review in the New York Review of Books by David Cole:

Just Mercy is every bit as moving as To Kill a Mockingbird, and in some ways more so. . . . [It] demonstrates, as powerfully as any book on criminal justice that I’ve ever read, the extent to which brutality, unfairness, and racial bias continue to infect criminal law in the United States. But at the same time that [Bryan] Stevenson tells an utterly damning story of deep-seated and widespread injustice, he also recounts instances of human compassion, understanding, mercy, and justice that offer hope. . . . Just Mercy is a remarkable amalgam, at once a searing indictment of American criminal justice and a stirring testament to the salvation that fighting for the vulnerable sometimes yields.”

There were tears running down my cheeks as I read about the last few moments that Stevenson spent with death row inmate Herbert Richardson before he was executed. I’ve always been against the death penalty, and this book just reinforces my belief that such a sentence is inhumane and should be abolished.

It was while reading Just Mercy that I came across the following passage:

That experience left Bagwell disillusioned and angry. He wrote a scathing letter published in the state bar association’s journal in which he vowed “never to take another death penalty case, even if they disbar me for my refusal” and urged other civil lawyers not to take death penalty cases. Bagwell’s public complaints made it hard for courts to appoint other civil lawyers for last-stage appeals in a death penalty case, not that they were particularly inclined to do so. But it had another effect as well. Prisoners got word of the latter and talked about it among themselves, especially about a chilling comment buried in Bagwell’s jeremiad: “I generally favor the death penalty because mad dogs ought to die.”

Besides the outrageous nature of his comment favoring the death penalty (and this from someone who had just defended, unsuccessfully, someone on death row) the word jeremiad stood out.

While I could make a guess as to what the word meant from the context in which it was used, I was not quite sure, so I looked it up using Google, and here is what I found:

A jeremiad is a long literary work, usually in prose, but sometimes in verse, in which the author bitterly laments the state of society and its morals in a serious tone of sustained invective, and always contains a prophecy of society’s imminent downfall. (wikipedia)

The word is named after the Biblical prophet Jeremiah, and comes from the Book of Jeremiah which prophesies the coming downfall of the Kingdom of Judah, and asserts that this is because its rulers have broken the covenant with the Lord.

I wish I could find a complete copy of the “scathing letter” that Bagwell wrote so I could get a full sense of what a jeremiad looks like, but the brief passage above from Just Mercy would seem to indicate that the letter was indeed a jeremiad.

While I’ve never written a jeremiad, I think once I finish reading Just Mercy I may be compelled to write one about the death penalty.


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Jim Borden

Accounting Prof. at Villanova; happily married for 30+ years; father of 3 outstanding young men; vegan; interests: fitness, creativity, education, blogging, social media.

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