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Just Mercy & The Changing of a Mind

How do you change a person’s mind?

We live in a polarized age. Even when tectonic events happen in our society, like the Ferguson Uprising or the Sandy Hook massacre, it seems inevitable that we will all hold the line in our ideological trenches, most if not all of us failing to cross the No Man’s Land to have even a conversation with those on the opposing side.

So how do you change a person’s mind? The film Just Mercy leads us towards an answer.

May our revolutions be embodied before they are ever televised. Kale Uzzle

The film investigates this question via the relationship between Bryan Stevenson (protagonist and author of Just Mercy) and Tommy Chapman, the loathsome District Attorney played convincingly by Rafe Spall. Chapman, a white Southerner perhaps ten years older than Stevenson, is smarmy and condescending, surpassing even the open vitriol of Sheriff Tate. His suggestion for Stevenson to check out the “Mockingbird Museum” on his way out of Monroeville, the county where Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, is dripping with contempt, particularly as it comes after Chapman’s flat rejection to give Stevenson any help in re-opening and reconsidering McMillian’s murder case. This rejection contains within it every ounce of Chapman’s greater refusal to even entertain the thoughts of a black, Harvard-educated attorney from the North in what he believes to be a settled matter in his Alabama county.

As the movie progresses, this relationship becomes the crucial turning point of the story. Stevenson fails to convince Chapman of the need to reconsider the evidence in their first meeting. At one point, he shows up at Chapman’s house to plead with him to consider being on the side of justice, even if it costs him his reputation. You can sense the weight on Chapman’s mind but, once again, he refuses to engage the conversation and boots Stevenson off his property.

At the film’s zenith, a final courtroom showdown between Chapman and Stevenson, the weight finally becomes too much to bear. As Stevenson asks for the Circuit Court to dismiss all charges against McMillian, the judge asks for Chapman as the District Attorney to represent the opposing arguments. After a long, painful silence, he finally changes his mind, opting to join Stevenson and the defense in asking for the charges to be dropped.

Even having read Just Mercy when it came out a few years ago, this scene moved me, certainly because of the actors’ performances, but perhaps more so because of the nature of the victory. Stevenson certainly gives an Atticus-Finch-level speech to set up the scene but, in the end, he doesn’t beat Chapman by the force of compelling courtroom rhetoric. He doesn’t exactly “win” at all; he convinces his opponent to forfeit, to pay the price of losing a very public case in order to remove the moral weight from his shoulders.

Why does this work? Why does Tommy Chapman—who, by the way, was re-elected three additional times after McMillian’s exoneration in 1993, finally retiring in 2012—change his mind about his need to hang the murder of a teenage white girl in rural Alabama on the head of Walter McMillian, a black man sitting on Death Row awaiting execution?

How do you change a person’s mind?

Bryan Stevenson, like Martin Luther King, Jr. before him, managed to do so through the practice of prophetic persuasion, the public embodiment of a value so completely that it compels enough cognitive dissonance in the observer to allow them to consider that they might actually be wrong in how they are viewing or behaving in a given situation. This practice includes speaking boldly, but words are a mere accompaniment to and interpretation of clear and effective action.

Walter McMillian

Contrary to much of how we think about ourselves as rational creatures, our minds actually tend to follow our bodies and hearts. As James K. A. Smith writes, “We learn to love, then, not primarily by acquiring information about what we should love but rather through practices that form the habits of how we love.” Our worldview may be reinforced by the intake of information but it is changed by practice, by the embodiment of previously unseen realities. In some sense, it is the body that changes the mind—both my own mind and that of the other.

Prophetic persuasion practices that which it preaches even before it begins to preach. It incarnates into the world, letting the mouth bear witness to what the body has already practiced. We love in action and let our words offer the interpretation of that action.

St. Francis instructed us to “Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” This is not an excuse not to speak. Rather, it is a call to put a thumb on the precise scale our age is most tempted to neglect—that of quiet, sacrificial action not intended for Insta stories or Twitter likes. It is a call to allow our words to come only when our bodies and our bank accounts are already on the line. It is to preach a lived word instead of a theoretical one. It is to exit the clean offices and kitchen tables of our minds and enter the messy world on our hands and knees, praying and working for the world yet to come.

This is the power of Bryan Stevenson and others like him today—his talk shines through with the light of his walk. He speaks as one with authority. I want the same to be true in my life and in my generation as a whole.

May the words we speak, tweet, and share come from the deeper well of a heart transformed by experiences lived and sacrifices made.

May our revolutions be embodied before they are ever televised.

May our persuasiveness be the fruit borne by seeds planted in struggle and watered by our own tears, sweat, and blood.

May the first mind we change, even if it is the only mind we change, be our own.


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