In the Light of the True Narrative

Just Mercy, part 4

“Make me to hear joy and gladness,
that the bones which thou has broken may rejoice.”

(Psalm 51:8. KJV.)

In Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson weaves a narrative that illustrates the power of narrative to control us, even when the narrative isn't true. Here’s a sample – one of so many.

When Stevenson, an attorney, first begins to work on Walter McMillian’s case, Stevenson gets a call from the judge who had convicted McMillian: Judge Robert E Lee Key.
“Bryan, this is Robert E. Lee Key. Why in the hell would you want to represent someone like Walter McMillian? Do you know he’s reputed to be one of the biggest drug dealers in all of South Alabama? I got your notice entering an appearance, but you don’t want anything to do with this case.”


“This is Judge Key, and you don’t want to have anything to do with this McMillian case. No one really understands how depraved this situation truly is, including me, but I know it’s ugly. These men might even be the Dixie Mafia....”

“Dixie Mafia?”

“Yes, and there’s no telling what else. Now, son, I’m just not going to appoint some out-of-state lawyer who’s not a member of the Alabama bar to take on one of these death penalty cases, so you just go ahead and withdraw.”

“I’m a member of the Alabama bar.”…

“Well, I’m also not going to appoint you because I don’t think he’s indigent. He’s reported to have money buried all over Monroe County.”

“Judge, I’m not seeking appointment. I’ve told Mr. McMillian that we would . . .”

The dial tone interrupted my first affirmative statement of the phone call. (Just Mercy 20-21)
As the reader learns more about Walter, his humble home, his small trucking pulpwood business, the ideas that this judge has gotten in his head seem out of touch with reality to the point of mental illness. Drug kingpin? Dixie Mafia? Money buried around the county?

As the book unfolds, we see a number of powerful people deeply invested in a story of African American depravity and untrustworthiness. They really want to believe Walter McMillian is guilty. They want it so bad they coerce witnesses to lie. The local press and the community want to believe they’ve got the killer. When Walter is finally exonerated after six years on death row, it’s not safe for him to return right away to his home because community sentiment so strongly wants to believe that a black man, who was having an extramarital affair with a white woman, just had to be utterly depraved.

We get stories in our head, and get attached to the story, and then all we want to hear is evidence that confirms our story. We get further out of touch with what is.

Here in New York, it might be tempting to tut-tut about those benighted Southerners. I understand. I’m a Southerner, born and raised. I was born and grew up as a liberal and a Unitarian Universalist Southerner, so I was never in thrall to that story, but I certainly recognize it.

We all have our stories, and they distance us from compassion: whether it’s the story certain white Alabamans tell themselves about black people so that mercy, compassion, and human recognition and connection may be withheld -- or whether it’s the story certain New Yorkers tell about white Alabamans so that mercy, compassion, and human recognition and connection may be withheld. The story makes us want to believe it.

One story makes a person believe that his troubles are black people’s fault, makes him project upon that “other” everything he doesn’t like about himself. Another story makes a person believe that racism is a Southern thing, makes her project upon that “other” the fear and anger she doesn’t like about herself.

There is no evil in any human heart that isn’t also in yours and mine, no brokenness we do not all share. I like to think that I manage it better than some people do – better than the law enforcement community in Monroeville, Alabama in the late 1980s, for example – and I like to think that you also manage it better than examples like that – but however we might manage it, it is in there. There is no evil in any human heart that isn’t also in yours and mine – no brokenness we do not all share.

The key step – the most basic step – in managing it is knowing that it is, indeed, there. We make judgments about people’s trustworthiness or lack thereof based on how they look. We look for signs of tribal connection – who is in my tribe and who isn’t.

For me, if you’re wearing a chalice pendant or pin, I know you’re in my tribe. Less reliably, but still functioning in our subconscious if not consciously as sign of tribal connection, is skin color. It’s there. And we are all broken by that. If we recognize our common shared brokenness, then we cannot throw the first stone, or the second, or the third, or any stone.

As Bryan Stevenson eloquently writes,
“So many of us have become afraid and angry. We’ve become so fearful and vengeful that we’ve thrown away children, discarded the disabled, and sanctioned the imprisonment of the sick and the weak – not because they are a threat to public safety or beyond rehabilitation but because we think it makes us seem tough, less broken. I thought of the victims of violent crime and the survivors of murdered loved ones, and how we’ve pressured them to recycle their pain and anguish and give it back to the offenders we prosecute. I thought of the many ways we’ve legalized vengeful and cruel punishments, how we’ve allowed our victimization to justify the victimization of others. We’ve submitted to the harsh instinct to crush those among us whose brokenness is most visible. But simply punishing the broken – walking away from them or hiding them from sight – only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too. There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity…. There is a strength, a power even, in understanding brokenness, because embracing our brokenness creates a need and a desire for mercy, and perhaps a corresponding need to show mercy. When you experience mercy, you learn things that are hard to learn otherwise. You see things you can’t otherwise see; you hear things you can’t otherwise hear. You begin to recognize the humanity that resides in each of us.” (Just Mercy 290)
The true story -- the narrative that leads toward rather than away from mercy, toward rather than away from compassion, respect, recognition, connection -- is the story of our shared brokenness. William McMillian’s brokenness is mine. Sheriff Tate’s and Judge Robert E. Lee Key’s brokenness is mine. All the brokenness of all the pain in the world breaks my bones. It has to. For only in taking that on, taking that in, owning and accepting all the pain, do I have any chance of putting down the stone with which to break the next bone.

Only then do I have any chance of becoming not a stone thrower but a stone catcher, protecting in what ways I can the life around me.

Only then can healing begin, and my very wounds begin to shine with gladness.

Thus in the light of the true narrative do I pray, “Make me to hear joy and gladness, that the bones which thou has broken may rejoice.”

* * *
This is part 4 of 4 of "Just Mercy"
See also
Part 1: 'Just Mercy' Reading
Part 2: Death Penalty and Race
Part 3: Progress. So Slow.

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