Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Will kindness heal their memories?

Would we be justified in thinking that the jury might possibly have been prejudiced? Twelve “good men and true” - all-white, of course - found the man guilty. In 1983, in the American State of Louisiana, a black man, Glenn Ford, received the death sentence, found guilty of the murder of jeweller Isadore Rozeman. In spite of his plea of innocence and several appeals, Ford spent the next 26 years on Death Row. Recently new evidence caused a judge to throw out the case altogether, rule on Ford’s innocence and order his release. Now aged 64, Ford walked free from prison. When journalists asked what were his plans, he simply said that he was going to get something to eat. Poignantly, he also remarked that when he was first imprisoned, his son was a baby and is now himself a father. That said almost everything. Thanks to what appears to have been a prejudiced verdict, Ford has, in many ways, lost his life without needing to go to the electric chair.

During his many years in prison, an innocent man will have seen many of his fellow prisoners walk that final walk towards execution. He will have wondered how long it would take before he himself would make same journey, his final appeal rejected. His family and friends shared his anxiety. The difference was that they anticipated the death of a family member whereas, for Ford, he expected, in full health, to be dispatched by the State Executioner. Now that he is free and exonerated of all guilt, how many times that he think of “what might have been”? Will he feel resentful and angry? How will he return to a normal life when his normality for so many years has been limited by iron bars and the keys of his jailers? Can society possibly give him adequate compensation for all that she has lost?

Take another scenario. This time it is in Syria. A journalist was recently released from prison after being held for more than a year and, during that time, tortured on more than one occasion. His crime? He tried to take photographs of government troops brutalising civilians. We speak of the freedom of the press: he had been trying to do his job, trying to tell the world of injustice and to bring about peace. That, however, was insufficient. In a gross miscarriage of justice, this unnamed journalist received no trial and no apology when the prison doors opened. It was only in leaving his country, that his tale was told.

Yet another scenario. This was also an occasion when a young man rocked the proverbial boat and upset the authorities. He was probably aged around 30 and had gathered a small group of followers. An itinerant preacher, he attracted attention for challenging the political and religious leaders of his day. Interestingly, his words were never directed towards the occupying power which held his country in thrall, but only towards his own people. It was they watched and eventually arrested him on the word of a traitor. We know the story - or think we do. Jesus was arrested during the Jewish celebration of Passover, the sign of his betrayal being the supposedly affectionate greeting of a one-time friend. Every year at this time we hear and reread the story of his passion, death and resurrection. It is so familiar that the reality is often overlooked.

It seems that the soldiers based in Jerusalem were not the elite troops who were the glory of Rome. They seem to have been a mixture of conscripts and mercenaries, possibly from Syria and the countries around Israel. Poorly trained and many of them antagonistic towards the Jews, they were not over-concerned about gentleness, justice and integrity. Possibly they welcomed the occasional opportunity for unsupervised brutality towards the people they controlled and who resented their subjugation by Rome. Capturing a young man who made no effort to fight back, it was easy to mock him in ways which went beyond their immediate remit. Pontius Pilate had ordered that Jesus be scourged, not that the troops responsible for his “chastisement” should then drape him in a cloak, adorn him with the crown of thorns and then further humiliate him. This is, of course, a scene with which we are familiar in our religious setting, but how often, in reality, will bored guards abuse the vulnerable captive for whom they are responsible? Jesus was simply one in a very long line of victims. We know about him simply because he was important to us: there are many of whom we will never hear and whose fate might remain unknown even to their families.

Pilate was a small-time official in an insignificant State of little importance to Rome. It seems that he resented his responsibilities in Jerusalem and was certainly disliked by the Jews whom he governed. Fearful of higher authority and not exactly outstanding in his practice of mercy and of justice, the loss of one life, even that of an innocent man, was not very important. Concern for his own position and comfort, he made little effort to stand up to the High Priests and their machinations-and so, Jesus died. We know the story. We hear it every year.

Yet the miscarriage of justice which led to the crucifixion is replicated time and again today. In this country, we pride ourselves on the independence of the judiciary. Compared to certain other countries, the integrity of our legal system is outstanding. Yet here, too, mistakes are sometimes made and the innocent can suffer as a result. The hen-pecked Mr Bumble in Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, declares, “The law is an ass! It is an idiot!” It is blunt, but, sadly, sometimes true.

In Shakespeare’s play, The Merchant of Venice, Portia, disguised as a lawyer, speaks eloquently of the quality of mercy. She declares that, “Earthly power is most like to God’s when mercy seasons justice”. Yet the play also includes a plea for understanding from an unlikely quarter: Shylock, the Jewish moneylender. “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is?” It seems that Pilate could not overcome his own blindness and see that Jesus deserved both mercy and justice. In the case of Jesus, justice would have meant freedom, a physical freedom which he was denied although spiritually, he was supremely unfettered.

Nelson Mandela realised that unless he forgave the injustice he had experienced, he would remain imprisoned for the rest of his life. Will Glenn Ford and the unnamed journalist be able to practice such magnanimity? Will the kindness and goodness of those around them heal their memories? On the cross, Jesus prayed, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” How did those who hear him respond to his words? We do not know. We will probably never learn of the official reaction to the freedom of Ford and the journalist. May their new life also be one of resurrection. 

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