To Challenge Morality: Batman, Death Row, and Me

Compass.2

Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman was the first film I saw in a movie theater. My dad took me to the only cinema in our small town for opening night. I remember how excited he was. To take me to my first movie, to get popcorn, that the movie was Batman. I didn’t know anything about comics or superheros. I was six years old and proud to be Madonna’s number one fan. I knew the lyrics to all of her songs and fantasized about owning her white pumps that I would show off to my kindergarten class.

My days in kindergarten were spent coloring, playing house, and trying to see how loud I could belt ‘Like a Virgin’ on the swing set. I was not yet aware that my childhood was a bit different from most kids in my class, that I was barely sheltered and definitely over exposed to things like drug use, alcoholism, and non-age-appropriate cultural trends. I didn’t know there were words to describe the confusion or anger that I often felt. I didn’t even know that what I felt was anger.

I remember my teacher talking about foreign countries like they were all lesser than the great United States of America. Like every other country was part of the third world and a collective place to be pitied. A certain American propaganda was in the air in the 80’s, and its implications did not escape me. I knew as a six-year-old pop music aficionado that I was also touched by the issues faced by other people. I knew I would one day advocate for the poor, uplift the oppressed, and fight for civil rights. I just thought it would be in one of those other countries.

When I saw Batman on the big screen, a slow realization began to creep in. Something far more important than a love of 80’s pop music was brewing. I suddenly recognized some of the loss in my own life, though it would take decades to decode and process it all – I’m still processing. My eyes were forever opened to the injustices in the world, in my own beautiful America. I felt lied to by my teachers. I wondered why more of the adults in my life weren’t talking about hate crimes or inequalities in the U.S. Two major things happened to me when I first connected with the Dark Knight: I knew that crimes against humanity were real; and I identified with the vigilante’s crusade against injustice.

I’ve always been a fan of the underdog. I like to see people step out of shadows, speak through the silence, and break down walls. I also enjoy challenging my own rigid thoughts and ideas. When an online book club I recently joined announced that we would be reading Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson this month, I knew this was exactly the book for me. It’s the type of challenge my morality needs during this season of renewal.

Bryan Stevenson is a lawyer and Executive Director of Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit organization located in Alabama that “litigates on behalf of condemned prisoners, juvenile offenders, people wrongly convicted or charged with violent crimes, poor people denied effective representation, and others whose trials are marked by racial bias or prosecutorial misconduct,” according to their website. In Just Mercy Stevenson offers an honest, firsthand account of working with an innocent man on death row. Random House says Just Mercy is, “A powerful true story about the potential for mercy to redeem us, and a clarion call to fix our broken system of justice…”

This isn’t a book review. Though I would recommend this read to anyone searching for a broader understanding of our justice system as specifically related to minorities and inmates on death row. A week ago, I had an easy answer if asked, “What do you think of the death penalty in America?” This book frustrated me, it made me sad, and it made me want to strap on my batsuit and kick some ass. I’m not even sure whose ass I would kick. That’s just my emotional response to the story. As a humanitarian, a person with a deep faith in my fellow human beings, I am instead reposing this question to myself, “What do you think of the death penalty in America?” and repositioning my moral compass. I’m fighting against what I thought I knew about myself. I would challenge you to do the same. Regardless of your thoughts on capital punishment; anytime we can challenge ourselves to dig deeper and open ourselves to a greater truth, the closer we are to freedom.

I love the ways I identify with Batman. The way the character’s existence validates my own fears, my reactions to injustice, and the daydreams I’ve had for revenge. I love these questions about Batman and how they relate to myself, “How far will he go to protect the innocent, and will he sacrifice his humanity along the way?” Batman is exciting. He’s powerful. He’s a force not to be reckoned with. He’s fighting for a better Gotham. I think the superhero’s traits resonate with all of us, in some way at some time in our lives. He is after all, in the end, just a human like the rest of us. But how can I actually be like Batman in my own life, for my family, or for my own community – without sacrificing my humanity?

In this self-challenge, I have tried to slow down my emotional reactions to the stimuli of social media. Before clicking the ‘Like’ button or signing a petition that could forever change another human’s life, I am pausing to evaluate what I actually know about the situation to determine if I can in fact, draw a conclusion. Too often I can’t, and my moral compass is left spinning. If I always let my inner Batman, my emotional reactions, be the driving force behind the justice I’m seeking for the world, I’m sure I’d make a lot more messes and cause more harm than good. Fury and vengeance are rarely the only ingredients needed for true justice to be served.

When I look at the list of people working with Bryan Stevenson and the EJI, I am inspired by the ways they have all donned their batsuits for justice and mercy and grace. Real life people are Batman when they go to law school to help free wrongfully convicted innocent men, women, and children from prison; or when they become teachers so our kids learn to read and to think for themselves; or even we they become pop stars who use their celebrity for good. We don’t all get to wear glamorous capes or intense tool belts, or get paid millions to entertain people, but we all have the potential to “protect the innocent.

I think I can start by harnessing the wild energy that fills me like the Spirit of Vengeance when I read stories of injustice, of hate crimes, race riots, violations of civil rights, abuse, inequality, and all the things that set me on fire. I can reign in the passion I feel and direct it toward goodness. I can work for a non-profit that protects and advocates for abused children. I can volunteer in my community. I can vote on legislation to break down walls and rebuild communities of hope and love. I can teach my children to love, to serve, and to forgive. What can you do in the name of justice and humanity?

We should never be complacent with our morality. I hope that you will find ways to challenge what you thought you knew about yourself. You might find assurance for your beliefs, or you might realize something new, exciting, and wonderful.

Agere Contra, friends.

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