The First Congregational Church of Old Lyme
Texts: Genesis 4: 1-10; Matthew 12: 46-50
January 15, 2017
Am I My Brother’s and My Sister’s Keeper?
Steve Jungkeit and Rose Jones
“Someone must have been spreading lies about Josef K, for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one morning.”
Those are the opening lines of Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial, published in 1925. Kafka was a Prussian Jew, living in Prague at a time when anti-Semitism was at its most virulent. Kafka knew what it was to live an existence as one condemned, simply for the crime of being. And so it’s not an accident that his novel has resonated with those living a minoritarian existence, for the accusation leveled against Josef K is not specific to any particular act, but general, a guilt incurred just for being alive.
I got to thinking about that novel, and those lines, when our Wheels of Justice travelers passed through Montgomery, Alabama a few months ago. We had rolled into town late in the day after attending a morning worship service at Emory University. Montgomery’s not large, and we soon turned onto Commerce Street, where the Equal Justice Initiative is located. We tumbled out of our vans and made our way inside, where we were shown into a lecture hall. The hall is ordinary enough in most respects, except that on the back wall, several hundred glass jars of dirt are displayed, each of the jars bearing a name, and each of them filled with soil of different hues. The wall is a memorial to the more than 4000 individuals who were lynched in America during the years 1877-1950, and the soil collected in each of the jars comes from the site where the individual named on the jar was murdered. It’s an extraordinary and visceral way to confront the truth of our country’s racial terrorism, and it made for a sobering way to begin our visit to EJI.
But none of us could have predicted what happened next. Two staff members from EJI gathered us, and told us a little about the work that goes on at EJI. For those of you who don’t know, it was started by Bryan Stevenson, an attorney and the author of the book Just Mercy, which many of you have now read, and which some of you will be discussing later today. For years, Stevenson has worked to provide legal counsel to death row inmates and to others who may have received inadequate legal assistance at the time of their hearing. These days, EJI employs a staff of about 50 people, all of them dedicated to insuring that our justice system functions in a manner that is humane, merciful, and compassionate. The two lawyers who met with us described some of that work, and then they showed us a video from ABC’s Nightline News program, about a man named Anthony Ray Hinton, who had recently been exonerated after spending 30 years on death row, an exoneration that occurred because of EJI’s persistent interventions, which reached all the way to the Supreme Court. It was a powerful video, a testimony to the ways issues of race and class undermine the justice system in America. None of us were unfazed.
The video ended, and the lights came back on. A man walked from the back and took his place at the front of the room. It took a moment to realize that it was Anthony Ray Hinton himself. For the next hour, he shared his story with us in detail, a story not unlike Kafka’s brutal and absurd novel, where a man can be arrested without having done anything wrong.
I’d like to share some of that story with you this morning. It feels right to do so on this Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend. And it feels especially right to do so as we enter a new era of our country’s history later this week. Mr. Hinton’s story is a reminder of the acute dangers faced in this country by people of color. But it’s also a reminder of the sheer power of the human spirit, the power of encounter, and the possibilities that arise when we recognize ourselves as brothers and sisters of one another.
Three portions of Mr. Hinton’s story strike me as important: the absurdity, the fantasies he constructed while in prison, and then the aftermath. I’ll offer a word about each.
First the absurd. Mr. Hinton shared that in 1985, he was mowing the lawn at his mother’s house, where he was living at the time. A police cruiser rolled up, and officers got out. They wanted to know if he was Anthony Ray Hinton, and he replied that yes, he was. They began to question him about a murder that had recently taken place, and suddenly he was placed in handcuffs and arrested. Mr. Hinton shared that he assumed it was a terrible mistake that would shortly be remedied when his alibi was checked out – he had been at work when the crime had been committed. But he also shared that the sheriff working the case wasn’t concerned about things like facts. The sheriff told Mr. Hinton, “It doesn’t matter to me if you did it or not. We’re going to find you guilty.” Later, the same sheriff told Mr. Hinton that he was seeking the death penalty, and that he was confident that he would win. When Mr. Hinton asked why, the reply was that the judge was white, the prosecutor was white, the jury was white, and Mr. Hinton was black. “That’s how I know you’ll be convicted,” the sheriff said. Despite inconclusive evidence from a ballistics report (conducted by a so called expert who was blind in one eye), despite a rock solid alibi, despite passing a polygraph test, despite it all, the sheriff’s words came to pass. Mr. Hinton was sentenced to death. That’s the absurd: to be caught within a mechanism that renders you powerless, one that defies logic or reason, one that is pitiless and also faceless. I take it that Mr. Hinton’s case exposes the absurd at the heart of the racial caste system of America, one that renders everyone’s life, whether black, brown, or white, more than a little senseless.
Mr. Hinton proceeded to tell us about how he spent the next three decades of his life. It’s here that we encounter the power of imagination, fantasy, and dreams, the second lesson of Mr. Hinton’s tale. For thirty years he was confined to a 5×7 cell, forced to sleep in a fetal position, with his legs pulled against his chest. During that time, he witnessed the state execute more than fifty individuals, men that he came to know in his time on death row. He was allowed out of his cell for an hour every day, but it was thirty years before he felt the rain on his face again. In those long hours, Mr. Hinton said that he went deep into himself. He said he traveled the world in his mind, taking a long journey to England, where he was privileged to have tea with the Queen. In his dream, the Queen was intensely interested in his story, and asked him about his life while they had tea at Buckingham Palace. Mr. Hinton said that in the long hours in his cell, he took many such trips, and met all sorts of interesting people. Somehow, that imaginative power gave Mr. Hinton the courage to continue appealing his case, to continue to insist upon his innocence, and to begin reaching out to people who might help him. Ultimately, the power of imagination helped him to win his freedom. That’s the second lesson I would have us learn from this story: we need the power of imagination to propel us into the impossible. In our case, we need the power of a utopian imagination to actually continue to dream about what racial equality and justice would look and feel like. Any of us concerned with racial justice need to have a part of ourselves focused not on what is, but on what might be, impossible as it might seem. That’s the second lesson.
The third lesson of Mr. Hinton’s story brings us around to our Scripture readings for the morning. Upon his release, Mr. Hinton told us that he struggled to process all the ways the world had changed during his long incarceration. The first thing he wished to do when he gained his freedom was to visit his mother’s grave. She was Mr. Hinton’s lifeline, and she had died while he was in prison. A driver plugged in directions to GPS system, and as Mr. Hinton and his driver set out for the cemetery, a voice spoke within the car. “Turn left at the next intersection.” Mr. Hinton said that he jumped, and looked around the car. “There’s a white woman hiding in this car,” Mr. Hinton told his friend, who laughed, and explained the GPS system. But there were other realities to contend with as well. The unresolved feelings he had about the sheriff who falsely accused him. The feelings he had toward the state, which robbed him of thirty years of his life. The ways racial tension in the United States actually seemed worse now than it had in 1985. Mr. Hinton was faced with yet another decision: to hold onto all that bitterness, allowing his heart to grow hard, or to practice a radical forgiveness. He chose the latter. “They took 30 years of my life,” Mr. Hinton said. “But they can’t take away my joy. They can’t take away my love.” Through tears, Mr. Hinton described the way he refused to harbor bitterness within him. He had suffered the worst that can befall a human being, but through a deep act of devotion, he chose to walk in a spirit of openness, grace, sorrow, truth telling, and forgiveness. He chose to become a brother to his fellow human beings.
Mr. Hinton’s decision about how to live the remainder of his days links to our Scripture passages for the morning. Throughout the book of Genesis, story after story unfolds about broken relationships between siblings. I’ve chosen Cain and Abel, the first of those stories, as the exemplar, but they continue throughout the book. After Cain and Abel have their falling out, something similar happens between Ishmael and Isaac, between Jacob and Esau, and between Joseph and all of his brothers. These are heartbreaking stories, as bitter rivalries spiral into cycles of violence and desperation. It’s all exemplified by that terrible question posed by Cain after he murders his brother. Asked about his brother’s whereabouts, Cain responds, “How should I know? Am I my brother’s keeper?”
The answer, of course, is yes. Cain was his brother’s keeper. As Isaac was Ishmael’s, as Jacob was Esau’s, as the eleven brothers were Joseph’s. Failing to understand themselves as their brother’s keepers produced years of heartache and misery, not only for themselves, but for those caught up in their dramas. Not all of those stories turn out well. A few, however, do. Jacob and Esau reconcile. Joseph weeps and embraces his brothers when they show up in Egypt, starving and destitute. Healing can happen, and it does. Like Mr. Hinton, those characters come to a crucial juncture, and they choose to embrace one another, rather than ruining themselves further with bitterness and resentment. Like Mr. Hinton, they make the choice to become their brother’s keeper, even when they have every reason not to.
In the Gospels, Jesus extends that question – Am I My Brother’s Keeper? – and that ethic, when he says, in effect, that those ties have to do not with blood, or family lineage, but a shared purpose. “Anyone who does the will of my father is my brother and sister and mother,” Jesus says. In other words, we’re all brothers and sisters of one another, keepers of one another.
I would contend that those stories in Genesis, and the words spoken by Jesus, might also apply to race in America. White, black, of Middle Eastern descent, or Latino descent, or Asian descent, or whatever, we are meant to be brothers and sisters of one another. The great tragedy of our history is how little we’ve treated one another that way. The great promise, however, detailed in stories like those found in Genesis and coming from Mr. Hinton, is that it’s still possible to tell a different story, and to preserve one another from further soul crushing damage. It’s still possible to dream, to imagine, and to move forward, even in a moment that seems particularly fraught with danger.
To help imagine what that might be like, I’ve invited Rose Jones to share some of her thoughts this morning. Rose is a member of our community, and a friend who traveled with us on the Wheels of Justice journey. She composed a set of reflections shortly after that journey, reflections that I’m glad she’s going to share with all of us. It’s an honor to be able to share the pulpit this morning with Rose.
My Vision for a Better World – Rose Jones
As we huddled around in a dialogue circle at a rest stop in Maryland during our final lunch, one of the questions Steve posed to our group was…What is your vision for a socially justice world?
I thought, wow…such a profound question. It’s so easy to offer our expressions of what’s unjust in our world. But rarely, are we task to articulate the world we’d like to see…
Having pondered this question…I invite you to join me in spirit, hope, and prayer of what could be…as I share my reflections with you.
My vision for a Socially Just America is that ancient hate becomes present love…
My vision for a Socially Just America is the realization that prisons are not the highest and best use of its resources…and that it open its doors to hold public conversations on forgiveness, and restorative justice…
My vision for a Socially Just America is that citizens ask that a national apology be extended to indigenous people on this continent…
My vision for a Socially Just America is that Congress pay reparations to indigenous peoples and African Americans for the 300 years that they gave free labor and the years that they were denied the right to an education…
My vision for a Socially Just America is that descendants of the enslaved receive free college education and adequate health care as compensatory settlement for the physical, economic, emotional, and psychological suffering the African Americans and Native Americans have endured in the United States…
My vision for a Socially Just America is that fear based organizations that espouse hate and separation work toward a new mission, with objectives to be inclusive, caring and loving to all people in America.
My vision for a Socially Just America is that we do what President Bill Clinton call us to do in a speech more than 20 yrs. ago…He asked every governor, every mayor, every business leader, every
He asked every governor, every mayor, every business leader, every church leader, every civic leader, every union steward, every student leader, and most important every citizen in every workplace, learning place and meeting place across America to take personal responsibility for reaching out to people of different races, for taking out time to sit down and talk through this issue, to have the courage to speak honestly, and frankly, and then to have the discipline to listen quietly with an open mind and an open heart, as others do the same…
This is my vision for a Socially Just World.
The Work begins with US.
Rose offers the kind of vision we need to boldly and courageously pursue, now more than ever. And so I’m grateful that we’ve all been able to hear that vision named.
I’ll close with words that Bryan Stevenson shares at the end of a film called The 13th, about some of the challenges we all face around racial justice, particularly given the era we’ll be entering this coming Friday. Stevenson says: “We all like to imagine that had we been around during the time of slavery, we would have heroically resisted. We like to imagine that had we been around during the time of racial lynchings, we would have been the ones to stand up and call it wrong. We like to imagine that during the era of Jim Crow segregation, when water fountains and lunch counters and hotels were segregated according to skin tone, we would have stood up to power, and said ‘This is wrong.’” Stevenson continues: “But it continues to happen today in different form. Where are you now?”
It’s a brave new world out there. How shall we be keepers of our brothers and sisters? And what does it mean to call oneself a Christian in a time such as this? Let the conversation begin. Let the work begin. Amen.