Where Have You Gone Mr. Robinson?
Perhaps you have noticed that there’s been a hiatus in my blogging?
No big mystery. My MacBook required repair. The “logic board” was whacked, or so I was told. I found that a little amusing. “The ‘logic board’ is busted,” seems an accurate diagnosis of our nation’s situation these days.
A highlight of the week or so I’ve not been storming your email was hearing Anthony Ray Hinton, the author of The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row.
I first heard of Anthony Ray Hinton when I read Bryan Stevenson’s terrific book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. As many of you will know, Stevenson is an attorney who has championed death row inmates and is the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. Stevenson describes Hinton’s case and his advocacy on Hinton’s behalf at length in his book.
Last year Hinton came out with his own book, The Sun Does Shine. And last week he spoke here as part of the Seattle Arts and Lectures series.
What struck me most about Hinton’s story was that it really was a testimony, a testimony to his (faith in) God. It was very powerful. And there wasn’t a thing contrived or inauthentic about it. Nor was he the kind of pseudo-sophisticated person who has learned to trim faith’s sail before the secular wind of a place like Seattle. He was simply himself and faith is integral to who he is.
And his faith provided an interpretative lens on his experience that allowed him to find meaning when others might have seen none. This is really a prime function of faith: to furnish the imagination with stories that allow us to make sense of our experience.
He also talked a lot about his mother, her faith and influence on him. With Mother’s Day coming up this book might be a terrific gift. Another powerful Mom, on par with Trevor Noah’s mother in his recent memoir.
Listening, I thought of the Genesis story of Joseph. Joseph too was unjustly imprisoned, rung up for a sex crime he did not commit. But, as the Bible tells it, God worked through multiple layers of evil to bring about healing and new life. Such themes were very much present in Hinton’s story.
Had I been in Hinton’s place — unjustly accused and convicted, on death row for 28 years — I’m not sure my faith would have endured and even deepened. I’d like to think so, but I’m not sure.
Of course, a part of the point made by both Stevenson and Hinton is that my chances of ending up where he did, given my race and class, are vanishingly small.
Hinton did have an initial three years of anger and rejection aimed at God. He threw his one book — a Bible — across the room in frustration. Not a far throw in a 5′ x 7′ room. Thirty years in 5′ x 7′!
But over time Hinton’s faith in a God whose power and purposes are sure and who brings good out of evil did prevail. That faith made Anthony Ray Hinton a free man, even when he was in prison. He knew that the State of Alabama did not control him, not really. He would not let the state or the penal system take away his dignity or faith.
Nor did he let it deprive him of his sense of humor, which bubbled like a mountain stream. He regaled the audience with stories of his visits with Queen Elizabeth and marriages to Halle Berry and Sandra Bullock. These were fruit of a remarkable vivid imaginative life that kept him going in jail.
There’s much more. Hinton found on death row a radical new human community. All the distinctions that meant so much in the wider world — of race and class, color and religion — dropped away on death row. One of his closest friends was a former KKK member, who in Hinton’s words, had been “taught to hate” from the earliest age.
Hinton’s story joins other great modern classics of prison literature, such as Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. While no one wishes incarceration on anyone, jail has proven time and again a place of spiritual power and meaning.
You can check out some of Hinton’s talks and appearances on-line and at You Tube. But get his book. The State of Alabama has given him nothing — no apology, no restitution, no compensation for 30 lost years — so I’m sure he appreciates the royalties.
I kept thinking as I listened of Paul’s words, “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (I Corinthians 1: 26). Anthony Ray Hinton is a living testimony to the truth of Paul’s paradoxical words.