Just Mercy: Rosh Hashanah 5778

The pick-up truck was parked outside a prison in rural Alabama. It was festooned with Confederate flags and bigoted bumper stickers; there was a shotgun in a rack. Bryan Stevenson was a young lawyer, fresh out of Harvard Law School, coming to visit a new client imprisoned on death row there. He noticed the truck and gave it a look before heading inside. As an African American in Alabama, Stevenson had good reason to worry about that truck, and his concerns were magnified when he met its owner—the very guard who greeted him at the prison gate. He had a Confederate flag tattooed to his arm, and he wasn’t smiling at Stevenson. The guard treated the young lawyer roughly—strip searching him and making him sign the visitor logbook, both against the established protocol for attorneys. The guard grabbed Bryan’s arm and told him that it was his truck, his prison, and his rules that would govern their visit.

Still, Bryan Stevenson persisted, because he was deeply motivated to help some of the most desperate people in our country—death row prisoners. He tells this and other stories in his powerful book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. We learn how Stevenson set up the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, and how with great effort he exonerated Walter McMillian, an innocent man who spent six years on death row for a crime he did not commit.

Today, however, Bryan Stevenson was not visiting an innocent man. Avery Jenkins was a killer, of that there was no doubt. When he committed his dreadful crime, however, he was psychotic after a lifetime of abuse, and needed to be in a facility that would treat his illness. Avery was childlike and often incoherent. Whenever Bryan visited, all Avery would ask for was a chocolate milkshake. Bryan wasn’t allowed to bring anything at all into the prison, so the meetings were frustrating for both parties.  Still, the time came for a hearing, and Avery was transported three hours to the courthouse, where Bryan Stevenson brought witnesses and established the whole tragic story of Avery’s childhood—orphaned at age one, then there were 19 different foster placements, including one with a woman who tied him to a tree in the woods and abandoned him. He was found three days later by hunters—starving and screaming. Drugs and alcohol were his reprieve, but they only exacerbated his illness and abetted his descent into madness and murder. In the court, all of this was well-established, but Bryan Stevenson had little hope that the judge would mitigate the sentence and shift Avery to a mental prison more appropriate to his condition.

Waiting for word still several weeks later, Bryan decided to visit Avery in prison again, and to his horror, there was the old truck, and the guard with the Confederate bumper stickers and tattoos waiting once again for him. Only this time, he was surprisingly gentle and even friendly. It turns out that this same guard had transported Avery to the court hearing and sat through the three days of proceedings. Now he took Stevenson by the shoulder again, but this is what he said:

It was kind of difficult for me to be in that courtroom to hear what y’all was talking about. I came up in foster care, you know, I came up in foster care too. Man, I didn’t think anybody had it as bad as me. They moved me around like I wasn’t wanted nowhere. I had it pretty rough. But listening to what you was saying about Avery made me realize that there were other people who had it as bad as I did. I guess even worse. I mean, it brought back a lot of memories, sitting in that courtroom. (201)

This speech stunned Bryan Stevenson, and they began a kinder conversation. Just before the guard let Bryan go in to visit Avery, he added one more thing:

Listen, I did something I probably wasn’t supposed to do, but I want you to know about it. On the trip back down here after court on the last day—well, I know how Avery is, you know. Well anyway, I just want you to know that I took an exit off the interstate on the way back. And, well, I took him to Wendy’s, and I bought him a chocolate milkshake. (202)

Avery Jenkins certainly didn’t have much good luck in life, but he found a powerful advocate in Bryan Stevenson and did get removed from death row and transferred to a facility where he could receive mental health treatment.  He also got his milkshake, courtesy of a guard who was broken and hateful, but also human and capable of change. Avery smiled when he told Stevenson about his milkshake—grateful for the unexpected act of kindness.

What did that guard get in return from his encounter with Avery? Stevenson relates that he heard that the guard left his job in the prison not long after that.  Perhaps this guard with the Confederate tattoo found a passage out of his own prison of anger through this opportunity to express compassion and to demonstrate his humanity.

I do not believe that a moment of kindness can redeem a lifetime of violence. Avery was still a killer, and perhaps the prison guard was still a bigot. Both had done great harm to others, and that damage could not be erased by moments of grace. But stories like this one, and there are many of them, remind us that people are complicated, and that we don’t fall into simple categories of good and evil.

The Torah takes a similar approach in presenting the characters in today’s reading. Who is wholly innocent, and who is wholly guilty? Did Abraham do all that he should have done to allay the concerns of his jealous wife Sarah, and to protect his first son Ishmael? Did Hagar not provoke her mistress? Did Sarah not show callous disregard for the life of Ishmael? Didn’t every adult in this story bear a measure of responsibility for the suffering that it involved? None of the adults in this story is innocent, but none is truly evil either. They are complicated people, just like you and me.

We are not innocent—we have thought impure thoughts, and acted improperly this past year. We have failed to take sufficient responsibility for the needs of others. In this season of woe, with hurricanes and earthquakes, fire and water, we have watched with sympathy but acted timidly. I’m speaking about myself here—I have done a bit, but certainly not enough. Maybe you feel that way too.

In a year of angry, polarizing, hateful rhetoric, we too have said hurtful things. We have rationalized our own failures, and we have mocked others for their own. The political environment within which we are living has made it much, much harder to be generous in our assessment of others. When a politician we dislike says something that sounds stupid, we are quick to give it the worst possible spin, and loathe to consider more generous interpretations. We listen to commentators and comedians who reinforce our views, and we heap scorn even on decent people.

I don’t intend to wade deep into the muck of our political reality. It has been a stunning year, a disorienting year, a tragic year, of that many Americans can agree. Perhaps the most disturbing moment was the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, the predictable violence and the killing of Heather Heyer, who was a peaceful protester with a kind heart. It is hard to believe that heavily armed men with Nazi flags may march around an American city with impunity, and not draw clear and immediate rebuke from every leader, starting with the President. It is extremely dangerous to allow such vicious anti-Semitic, racist and violent rhetoric go unchallenged. Of course, violence from the left must also be condemned. The most important thing for our leaders is to name actual threats to public safety, to act effectively to defuse dangerous situations, and to pursue justice as a society.

But, I am not running for public office, and this is not a stump speech. I am not looking for villains to blame, but rather, for opportunities to heal and grow more compassionate, just and righteous. Too many people are giving themselves license to express anger and violence right now—righteous people seek peace and pursue it as the Psalmist says, בקש שלום ורדפיהו. Moreover, moral people realize that the world is not divided between sinners and saints. Each person has their moments of failure, but each has the capacity to do better. Our task today is to build structures that allow for improvement—in ourselves, in our communities, and in our nation.

We are told to love the Lord, בכל לבבך, which literally means with all of your hearts. The rabbis said that the plural “hearts” includes not only our good inclination, but even our bad inclination (b. Brakhot 54a). Somehow even the part of us that is cool, cruel, and hurtful—even that mean part of ourselves is important to our ability to love God. What we need, however, is the ability to break up the malign force of the bad inclination, and train ourselves to act with more compassion, more kindness, more faith and more love. This is the power of repentance, or teshuvah, which means returning to the righteous conduct of which we are capable.

The Psalmist sings קרוב ה’ לנשברי לב, God is close to the broken-hearted. When we can recognize the brokenness within ourselves, then we can look at others, even others who have done terrible things, and find a path to helping them escape the prison of their own anger, and to become the people that God wants them to be.

Bryan Stevenson confesses in his book to a time of despair, when he became discouraged by the vast tide of injustice and felt completely inadequate. But then he came to realize that in brokenness there can paradoxically be strength. He writes,

Embracing our brokenness creates a need and 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 that you can’t otherwise see; you hear things that you can’t otherwise hear. You begin to recognize the humanity that resides in each of us. (290).

He goes on to tell a story of his own moral failure—when as a child he mocked another kid with a speech defect, horrifying his mother, who forced him to apologize and to tell that boy that he loved him. Bryan was shamed and horrified by the request, but heeded his mother, and the little boy surprised him by hugging him, and saying that he loved him too. Reflecting on this incident decades later, Stevenson writes,

I understood that even if we are caught in a web of hurt and brokenness, we’re also in a web of healing and mercy. I thought of the little boy who hugged me outside of church, creating reconciliation and love. I didn’t deserve reconciliation or love in that moment, but that’s how mercy works. The power of just mercy is that it belongs to the undeserving. It’s when mercy is least expected that it’s most potent—strong enough to break the cycle of victimization and victimhood, retribution and suffering. It has the power to heal the psychic harm and injuries that lead to aggression and violence, abuse of power, mass incarceration. (294)

Rosh HaShanah is a day dedicated to justice—Yom HaDin. The premise is that we must be honest with ourselves, with each other, and with God. We are flawed people, we have made serious mistakes, and we have caused real harm. It would not be just for these errors to remain hidden and these consequences to remain unaddressed. Teshuvah requires remorse, and confession, and effort to change.

But teshuvah alone will never suffice. We will never live in a world of perfect justice. We need mercy, and we therefore must show mercy. Yes, we must pursue justice, but we must also pursue peace, and that requires mercy. In a few moments, we will blast the shofar and ask that God regard us not only in our flawed state, but also with mercy. In fact, we emphasize that we are not worthy of this mercy on our own—this is why we read stories of our ancestors, whose brokenness lies exposed in plain view, but whose acts of dedication and kindness outshine their flaws.

May we use these ten days of repentance to become self-aware—of our strengths and weaknesses, our merits and our mistakes, and make specific plans for how to become better versions of ourselves. May we realize that others around us are also a blend of merit and mistakes, and may we show them more mercy. If we can do this, building from brokenness to mercy, then we may yet attain a Lev Shalem, a whole heart, and be worthy of forgiveness and love. As the book of Proverbs (3:4) says, –may we find favor in the eyes of God and each other. ונמצא חן ושכל טוב בעיני אלקים ואדם… And may we be sealed for a new year of goodness, health, joy, and meaningful life.