In October 2014, a podcast called Serial was released. Hosted by NPR’s Sarah Koenig, Serial tells “one story, week by week.” That first season told the compelling story of Adnan Sayed, who was convicted during his senior year of high school for the murder of his ex-girlfriend in 1999, but who has long maintained his innocence. The use of Sayed’s voice, intriguing plot points, and the brilliant weaving together of all the aspects of storytelling made Serial an instant smash hit. It was the first podcast to reach 5 million downloads. Serial was an overnight cultural phenomenon.
Which is strange. Here was a show that, while officially objective, was sympathetic to a convicted murderer. Here was that murderer’s own voice, not a secondhand caricature of him. The gripping story and questionable evidence helped spawned multiple spin-off podcasts, all of which examined the details of the trial and advocated for the overturning of Sayed’s conviction.Somehow, by painting the picture of a real man suffering for a crime he may not have committed, Serial turned “tough on crime” America into a merciful nation of podcast listeners passionate about righting an injustice. Not only that, but Sayed is Muslim, and much of America was being kind and merciful to him, and that’s not something often seen in the media. We have that that quality in us, somewhere.
As the Fall Equinox approaches and we look into the time of darkness, it can be important to remember that many people’s darkness is deeper than our own. While many of us watch the sunlight slip away as we sink into winter’s coldness, others don’t have homes in which they can take shelter from that cold. Others, like Sayed, who may very well be innocent, don’t even have the freedom to leave the walls that surround them. To me, the way we treat those people, people over whom we have much power, is the essence of the virtue of mercy. And who has less power than prisoners?
Helping prisoners is hard to swallow for some. Despite the reaction to Serial, many in America still have a “throw away the key” attitude toward the incarcerated. There’s still an attitude that prison should be for punishment, not rehabilitation. There is still a clear lack of mercy toward prisoners.
Leslie Hugo, the Lead Capricorn Minister for the Temple of Witchcraft, would disagree. She has been doing prison ministry, mercifully reaching out to the least powerful people in her home state of Utah, for almost three years. She explains that, “Most of the over 200 inmates I work with are under 30. They made mistakes when they were young, usually still teenagers, involving drugs or gang related activities. At this point, they want out of the lifestyle they had been involved in. Many have expressed their dreams and desires to get out of prison, get married, find a good job and raise a family.”Counterintuitively, mercy toward the incarcerated may actually help society in the end. Once someone has experienced prison, they usually don’t want to go back, yet recidivism rates are high. One possible explanation for that is the lack of monetary, spiritual, and physical resources for released prisoners to make a life for themselves. By helping to provide them these things- spiritual training, job training, education- we help ourselves.
Hugo emphasizes that, “more than 80% of these inmates will be released, and they will be living and working in a community side by side with us.” With that in mind, it makes little sense to take all spiritual and societal resources away from them. “It is in everybody’s best interest that these individuals have a strong spiritual path that can help and give them support when they are released,” she said.
Thanks in large part to Serial and the effort of its listeners, Adnan Sayed’s conviction has been overturned. He will get his day in court again, and it all came about because millions of people took mercy on this one unlikely person. Others, both behind bars and on the outside, don’t have that same opportunity. Homeless people suffer in America every day. A racial divide still eats away at our country. There are opportunities for mercy all around us.
If you think about it, human beings are the only animal that truly demonstrates mercy. It’s not easy for us to do. It’s often not our natural reaction, but we are capable of it. That puts us in a unique place. Think of what society could be like if it were structured around mercy for those who struggle rather than turning a blind eye. We are special. Mercy does exist within us. It can make the world a better place, but only if we all find it within us. If we can’t, we will never find it outside us.
Virtues of the Goddess is a series on the eight virtues mentioned in the Charge of the Goddess and their relationship to the sabbats of the Wheel of the Year. This is Part 7: Mercy.