12.02.2019

toni morrison on good and evil in literature

Graphic via
Students Exploring Inequality in Canada
For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by stories of forgiveness and redemption. I believe endlessly in the human capacity for redemption, and that belief that has only been strengthened as I've seen more of the world.

The stories that interest me the most are when people who suffer loss do not seek vengeance.

I first came upon this idea in the book Dead Man Walking, the 1994 book by Sister Helen Prejean. Prejean is foundational for me, and this book had a profound influence on my worldview. (I already opposed capital punishment when I read it.)

Stories of people who lost loved ones to violence, and opposed the execution of the murderer, always get my attention. I don't see them as often now, as I follow US news very closely.* But the Death Penalty Information Centre gives many examples of this.

The National Coalition Against the Death Penalty has many resources for and about people seeking an alternative to vengeance, such as Murder Victims Families for Human Rights.

The ACLU published Voices from California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

Recent studies have questioned the idea that executing murderers brings "closure" to the families of victims.

For myself, a few memorable examples come to mind.

A father who lost a daughter on the attacks of September 11, 2001 spoke out against the invasion of Iraq, and against the death penalty for anyone responsible for the attacks. He said his daughter unequivocally opposed capital punishment and he honours her memory by picking up that cause.

The people of Norway after "22 July", as it is known there, refused vengeance, and refused to sacrifice human rights or civil liberties in response to the attacks.

And this powerful story, told here by Toni Morrison.
On an October morning in 2006, a young man backed his truck into the driveway of a one-room schoolhouse. He walked into the school and after ordering the boy students, the teacher and a few other adults to leave, he lined up 10 girls, ages 9 to 13, and shot them. The mindless horror of that attack drew intense and sustained press as well as, later on, books and film. Although there had been two other school shootings only a few days earlier, what made this massacre especially notable was the fact that its landscape was an Amish community — notoriously peaceful and therefore the most unlikely venue for such violence.

Before the narrative tracking the slaughter had been exhausted in the press, another rail surfaced, one that was regarded as bizarre and somehow as shocking as the killings. The Amish community forgave the killer, refused to seek justice, demand vengeance, or even to judge him. They visited and comforted the killer's widow and children (who were not Amish), just as they embraced the relatives of the slain. There appeared a number of explanations for their behavior — their historical aversion to killing anyone at all for any reason and their separatist convictions. More to the point, the Amish community had nothing or very little to say to outside inquiry except that it was God's place to judge, not theirs. And, as one cautioned, "Do not think evil of this man." They held no press conferences and submitted to no television interviews. They quietly buried the dead, attended the killer's funeral, then tore down the old schoolhouse and built a new one.
Morrison used this story as an introduction to a lecture to the Harvard Divinity School in 2012. After Morrison's death earlier this year, the New York Times published the text of the talk. I loved reading this and perhaps you will also enjoy it.

Toni Morrison on "Goodness: Altruism and the Literary Imagination".



* The US remains the only so-called developed country that still executes, keeping company with North Korea, Iran, and China. Despite more than 150 exonerations of death-row prisoners, and despite all that is known about capital punisment, 29 states still use the death penalty.

No comments: