On Reckoning

I teach a college course called “Until We Reckon,” inspired by the title of Danielle Sered’s fine book of the same name that contains the best chapter on accountability I’ve read. In her book, Until We Reckon: Violence, Mass Incarceration and a Road to Repair, she posits the re-humanizing effects of accountability. Acknowledging and addressing harm, being responsive, amending one’s behavior evinces agency and connection.

As I tell my co-learners accountability is hard, often painful. Reckoning with the harm we cause—or as my friend Randy says, the consequences of what’s come before—means acknowledging the impact of our behavior, regardless of intention. In my experience, developing self-compassion—the genuine capacity to understand the context and causes of our behavior, offering tenderness instead of shame, enables me to bear the weight of accountability. Unless we know in our bones that we are worthy of love and belonging—and in fact, experience ourselves as inextricably woven into the fabric of Creation, incapable of being riven from the whole— the most elemental parts of ourselves will sense the danger of exile, and the mere whiff of alienation will armor us against accountability.

We are creatures hardwired for empathic connection. Recent research in interpersonal neurobiology establishes this. We co-regulate with one another. Our mirror neuron activity demonstrates ubuntu: I am because we are. We neither thrive nor act in isolation. From the moment we emerge from the womb, umbilical cord severed so that we can exist outside the amniotic sac, we turn our attention to re-connection—via touch, eye contact, vocal cues, interaction and empathy.

This seeds the question, in the absence of perceived connection, what happened on May 19, 2021, when Texas governor, Greg Abbott, signing a bill banning abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, declared “Our creator endowed us with the right to life” —the same day he refused to grant clemency or a stay of execution for Quintin Phillippe Jones. How does the governor reckon with his emphatic stance on the God-given right to life while insisting that the state he governs carry out the execution of a man on death row?

That the man, unlike the governor, fully engaged in a process of accountability, acknowledging his actions and their impact— expressing genuine remorse, healing the trauma and addiction that shaped his life and ultimately ended the life of his great-aunt Berthena Bryant, whom he beat to death in a drug-addled quest for money to buy cocaine— matters. That Mr. Jones suffered extreme violence, sexual harm, poverty, gangs and the ubiquity and terrorism of white supremacy as a young black boy matters. That a jury determined him to be irredeemable, beyond redemption, that a so-called psychiatric expert witness declared him psychopathic while IQ tests indicated intellectual disability, even though Mr. Jones maintained years-long correspondences offering support, empathy and spiritual healing to individuals undergoing life-threatening cancer treatment or grieving the death of a child by suicide, matters. That his twin brother and his other great-aunt attested to his utter transformation and pled with the governor to spare his life matters.

But even in the absence of any of that, even if Mr. Jones had not experienced a lifetime of trauma, had not expressed remorse, had not changed his ways or demonstrated compassionate connection with people far beyond prison walls, we would be left with a governor who declares the sanctity of life, right down to embryos, while insisting a man must die because he had the audacity to end a life.

Long before I learned of Mr. Jones, and even before I began corresponding with another man in the same unit, Mr. Obie Weathers, I wrote a short play about a man on death row reckoning in his last moments with his actions and a longer play about a man in jail, arrested for sexually harming a child. I have long sought to understand the underpinnings of harm. In childhood, I began writing fiction as a way to investigate the incomprehensible. I instinctively knew that if we don’t bother to understand what happens to a person to sever that sense of inherent belonging, we will continue to live in a world rife with harm.

And now on a Thursday morning, following the execution of Quintin Jones, I am left to reckon with my grief and my rage, and summon a most reluctant curiosity about Greg Abbott. What could have happened to him to create a man espousing the inherent sanctity of all human life while insuring the execution of a human being in his carceral care? To deny such hypocrisy must require such contortions. And anyone who has to contort himself to ostensibly remain “in power” must have very little internal sense of self. To lack that can cause serious, even lethal harm.

The other question I ponder relates to justice: not what constitutes justice but what function it serves. Yesterday, in conversation with three wise friends, one of them posited that our need for justice, perhaps loosely construed as righting wrongs or being in right relationship, rests on a faulty assumption that we are predisposed toward violence and mayhem, malevolence and war. Since we will inevitably come to blows we must create and maintain a conceptual justice that addresses the transgressions to come. If instead, we accept at our core the human propensity for warm accompaniment—for empathetic connection, and ask ourselves what blocks that and how will we dismantle the obstacles to it, would we need justice? Perhaps, a commitment to removing the blockage, going upstream to investigate what causes trauma (collective, historic, epigenetic—not just individual adverse experiences), inequity, and disconnection effectively replaces a need for a system of justice.

The questions entwine. If I could trace Governor Abbott’s trajectory, and those of the Parole and Pardons Board, the jurors in Mr. Jones’s trial, the employees of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice who administered the lethal injection, the citizens of Texas supporting the death penalty, and all the rest of us who idly bear witness be we aghast or complacent, I would find moments when the tether of interconnectedness frayed, disrupting the recognition of relationship.

If we truly conceive of one another as relatives, as co-constituent expressions of life’s longing for itself, we would not justify murder as a life-affirming response to the consequences of disconnection. Nor would we construe it as justice. We might justify intentionally ending a life of what we consider a lesser being (plants and animals) for food, shelter, research— or we might, as creatures incapable of photosynthesis, simply accept the inevitability of consuming equally worthy beings (plants and animals) for nourishment and survival. Let us not confuse our heterotrophic status (feeding on the nutrients of other beings) with an inability to cultivate and prioritize our hardwired disposition for nurture and connection.

Ultimately what I seek for Quintin Jones the day after his execution is accountability, primarily from Governor Abbott, who singlehandedly wielded the state-endowed power to save him from execution and declined to do so while declaring the sanctity of life. I hunger to hear the governor acknowledge responsibility for his actions. And finally, I wonder what must occur for the governor to experience remorse and amend the attitudes and misconceptions that promulgate disconnection.

 Quintin Jones did not excuse his act of lethal violence. Instead he did what he could to balance the harm he caused by drawing on the source of belonging that births compassion. He died knowing that 183,350 people signed a petition for his clemency, leaving behind hundreds of letters from people he never met who wrote expressions of love and support. He died with the forgiveness of his great-Aunt Mattie Long who visited him regularly. He died strapped to a gurney, murdered with intentionality, in an act of torturous punishment masquerading as justice because a dozen jurors, fifteen political appointees and an elected official felt no empathetic connection. It is not the people on death row we need fear. It is our own interrupted mirror neurons.

Leaf Seligman

20 May 2021

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