We love to hear stories, and many of us like to tell stories, as well. Our brains are evolved to look for patterns and connect the dots of our experience into a coherent narrative. A new book has just been published that recounts a disturbing story. Distinguished law professor, MacArthur Foundation grant recipient, and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, Dr. Bryan Stevenson has written Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Stevenson tells the story of his experiences defending the poor and wrongfully convicted in the South. In particular, he tells the story of Walter McMillan, an African American convicted of murdering a white woman in Alabama. After a trial of only one and a half days, in which prosecutors withheld exculpatory evidence, the judge imposed the death sentence—over the jury’s recommendation for life imprisonment. Behind MacMillan’s story lies another, deeply insidious story. But first, two other stories told, and redeemed.
I have always found “The Three Little Pigs” a deeply troubling story—and my concern hasnothing to do with kashrut. Traditional versions are quite clear in telling us that the first and second little pigs, who build houses of straw sticks and spend their time happily enjoying life, deserve to be gobbled up by the vicious wolf because they were lazy. Only the industrious third brother, a humorless and joyless workaholic, deserves to survive. The story takes what I can best describe as a dim view of human nature—the story it tells reflects a story about people in general. Recognizing that this story is part of the cultural canon in which my children were growing up, but abhorring its Puritanical subtext, I found a version with many commonalities: three little pigs heading out into the world, encountering people who give them materials with which to build houses, and a wolf who supplies the existential threat. In this version, however, the first little pig runs to the home of the second little pig for refuge, and then they both run to the home of the third little pig, who shelters his brothers from the wolf. In the end, the three brothers live out their lives together—happily.
How a story is told makes all the difference. The version I read to my children, and the way I read it to them, emphasized that the porcine siblings were deeply connected and could relay on one another for food, shelter, and emotional comfort. In the hands of the person who wrote this version it became a very different story, one about sibling loyalty and mutual nurturance, not about judgment and punishment.
The Flood account is an example of how tone, nuance, and perspective make all the difference in the meaning of a story. In the ancient Near East, there were other flood stories, including the Berossos account (dated to ~275 B.C.E. and preserved largely in Greek histories), the Epic of Atra(m)hasis (which survived in fragmentary form), and the Epic of Gilgamesh, found in excavations of Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire in the 7th century B.C.E. All of them, along with the story in the Bible, were most likely preceded by an Ur-text that we do not have, a flood story that inspired many versions, just as the earliest version of “The Three Little Pigs” has spawned many subsequent versions. And just as the way I chose a version of “The Three Little Pigs” for my children, and layered it with my emphasis and interpretation, so too, the way Torah retold the Ur-text flood account and imposed its concerns and values on it, reveals a great deal. The Torah’s flood story seems remarkably similar to the one in the Epic of Gilgamesh, but in reality it’s a very different story.
Here is the story of Gilgamesh, the most complete version of the ancient flood stories, in brief:
Gilgamesh is the
king of Uruk and the most powerful king on earth. He is two-thirds god and
one-third human. His people complain that he is harsh and abusive, so the
creation goddess Aruru creates a wild-man named Enkidu to be Gilgamesh’s friend
and soul mate (and, it appears, distraction). Gilgamesh and Enkidu set out on
an adventure of truly epic proportions—this is, after all, an epic tale—and in the
course of events, Enkidu is killed. Gilgamesh is overcome with grief and slips
into an existential crisis. How can he avoid Enkidu’s
fate? How can he avoid death? Gilgamesh sets out on a new journey: he seeks
immortality. He hears that there is one, and only one, man who has escaped
mortality. His name is Utnapishtim and he lives with his wife far away from any
society on an island hard to reach. Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh the story of
the great flood, from which he was saved by building a boat to ferry himself
and his wife through the storm. Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh not to wish for
immortality because it is very lonely. The Epic of Gilgamesh addresses the
existential crisis of mortality: Why can’t we be
immortal? Why do we have to die? Our Torah addressed that question in last week’s parashah, in the story
of the Garden of Eden.
The Flood story in parshat Noach and the deluge account in the Epic of Gilgamesh share a host of common features: Both Utnapishtim and Noah are ordered to build an ark of several stories with one door and many compartments, seal it with pitch, and fill it with animals to repopulate the world following the flood. Each releases birds following the flood. Both arks land on a mountain top. Utnapishtim and Noah both offer sacrifices after emerging from the ark and are blessed in return.
For all their similarities, however, the story of Noah is wholly different from the tale of
Utnapishtim. In the hands of the biblical writer, the story explores an entirely different topic: evil. People have become corrupt. It sounds like a précis of much that is happening in our world today: The earth became corrupt before God: the earth was filled with lawlessness. (Genesis 6:11). God, disappointed and disgusted, seeks to wash away human evil and corruption with a massive flood. Noah and his family build an ark to preserve the seed of life that will repopulate the earth after the flood waters finally recede, more than a year after the first raindrops fall to earth. In the end, however, God brings a rainbow as a sign of the divine promise never again to bring a devastating flood. Why? Not because destroying evil is wrong, but because God’s plan did not work. How do we know? No sooner are the people out of the ark than Noah plants a vineyard, makes wine, gets rip-roaring drunk, and his son Ham commits a terrible sin. There is still sin in the world because sin is not “out there” somewhere; it’s “in here” – the potential to do evil lies within each and every human being.
The seemingly small differences in the two stories speak volumes, as well. Gilgamesh comes from a polytheistic society; the gods bring about a flood to destroy humanity because they are annoyed that people have disturbed their sleep with their noise. There is no moral order to the universe here; just the caprice of gods with limited power and patience. The sacrifice Utnapishtim offers after the flood leads to quarreling and recriminations among the gods. Their blessing is for Utnapishtim and his wife, alone; then they are removed from society and must live alone. In contrast, God’s purpose in flooding the earth is to destroy evil and end corruption among human beings. The story pre-supposes a moral order that has been violated. God realizes the plan is a mistake when God comes to understand the nature of human evil: it is inherent in our free will. Noah’s sacrifice therefore leads to God’s promise never to flood the earth again, and to God’s blessing and covenant, which are for all humanity, not just for one man and his wife.
This brings us back to Bryan Stevenson’s telling of the story of Walter McMillan. Just as a gloomy view of humanity lies behind the original version of “The Three Little Pigs,” an insidious story lies behind the account of Walter McMillan’s trial. The Sentencing Project, a group that advocates for prison reform, reported last year (August 2013) that, “Racial minorities are more likely than white Americans to be arrested; once arrested, they are more likely to be convicted; and once convicted, they are more likely to be incarcerated than white males and 2.5 times more likely than Hispanic males.” Shamefully, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. In 1972, our prisons held 300,000 prisoners; today they hold 2.2 million, an increase in excess of 700%. The report warned that one in three black males born today can expect to go to prison during their lifetime. The story behind the story of mass incarceration in America, and particularly the imprisonment of African Americans, and the instruments for these dramatic and alarming statistics include the Three-strikes Law (in 24 states), mandatory sentencing, and the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 that increased penalties for crack cocaine use, despite the fact that it is consider the same as cocaine in Schedule II of the Controlled Substances Act. The report tells us that, “The United States in effect operates two distinct criminal justice systems: one for wealthy people and another for poor people and minorities.”
The story behind the story Stevenson tells and the Sentencing Project confirms, goes back to the 1970s “politics of fear” (pumped up in no small measure by conservative politicians and media pundits) and the 1990s myth of the “Super predator” (described by Princeton political scientist John J. DiIulio, Jr. as “a young juvenile criminal who is so impulsive, so remorseless, that he can kill, rape, maim, without giving it a second thought”). Dilulio studied crime statistics and predicted a tidal wave of death and destruction committed by violent teenagers, with crime rates doubling or tripling by the mid-2000s. “We’re talking about a group of kids who are growing up essentially fatherless, godless, and jobless.” Northeastern University criminologist James Fox predicted a “blood bath of teenage violence” by 2005. The rhetoric of the “super predator” ignited extreme fear directed largely at young black males.
Criminologist Barry Krisberg has pointed out that race became the central issue when DiIulio predicted that half the “super predators” could be young black males. Soon most every state enacted laws to crackdown on juvenile offenders—just as juvenile crime rates began plummeting, though not because of the new laws passed. DiIulio now says his prediction was entirely erroneous, off by a factor of four: “The super predator idea was wrong. Once it was out there, though, it was out there. There was no reeling it in.” As Krisberg has pointed out, DiIulio, Fox, and all those who jumped onto the “super predator” scare-wagon, created a myth—a narrative or story—that became “truth” to a wide swath of America.
Despite the fact that DiIulio and Fox disavowed their dire predictions and signed onto an amicus brief for the Supreme Court in 2000 that would ban mandatory life sentences for juveniles convicted of murder, and despite the fact that the Supreme Court decided in favor of the amicus brief, the myth remains potent. We now live in a world in which DWB (“Driving While Black”) has entered our lexicon.
In 1988, Walter MacMillan was convicted of murder and sentenced by a judge to death—despite the fact that the prosecution had a witness who saw the victim alive after the time they claimed she had been murdered (evidence they hid) and despite the fact that at the time of the murder, MacMillan was at a church fish fry attended by a dozen people prepared to testify to his alibi. Thanks to Bryan Stevenson, MacMillan was exonerated in 1993—after spending five years on Alabama’s death row.
Every time we tell a story—from Torah or from our own lives—we invest it with meaning, both good and bad. An erroneous and dangerous story needs to be redeemed. In 1997, Eugene Trivizas published a gem of a children’s book entitled, “The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig” (wonderfully illustrated by Helen Oxenbury) that brilliantly does to the original “Three Little Pigs” what Noah does to Gilgamesh: turns the story inside out and brings to it a new world of meanings. Gone is the negative assumption about humanity’s nature and potential. Gone is the selfishness condoned by the original “Three Little Pigs.” Do yourself a favor and get hold of a copy; I reread it recently and it has stood the test of time. (And it’s funny, to boot.)
Stories are gifts that keep giving: both good and bad. They have an enormous effect. I hope that Stevenson’s telling of Walter MacMillan’s story, and his tireless efforts to impose genuine justice on our less-than-just judicial system will help correct the false narrative that prevails in America and lead to much-needed change. I hope Just Mercy will help redeem the situation we are in.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman