Henry Fonda as juror number eight and Lee J. Cobb as juror number three star in a scene from the trailer of “12 Angry Men” (1957). WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/PUBLIC DOMAIN

Commentary

Classic film teaches us to look at our own hearts

A little while ago I watched “12 Angry Men” again with my older children. The 1957 film is about a jury that deliberates in a cramped room on the hottest day of the year about whether to pronounce an 18-year-old kid guilty and send him to the chair. There was much in it that helped to shed light on matters today. (Warning, there are some spoilers below.)

For instance, juror number ten was an older man, suffering from a summer cold, who was prejudiced against “those people.” He did not care about the facts of the case. The kid was “one of them.” “They’re all like that,” he kept saying, “you know, their kind.” Then there was juror number three. A large, loud man who blustered regularly, the facts did not matter to him either. It was obvious the kid was guilty. Obvious. The wise-cracking juror number seven only cared about getting to his baseball game in time. He did not care about the facts one way or another. He just wanted to be done with the whole business.

The film’s jury room is a kind of microcosm of what the world is now. There are all different types of people. We are all a bundle of biases, good and bad. Not that much has changed about human nature, except that there are seemingly more and more people today who do not care about facts. And this does not speak well of our culture.

You see, the film made it clear that there was not necessarily anything wrong with the reasoning capabilities of these three men. It was just that juror number ten was blinded by bigotry. Number three mourned the lost relationship with his only son and was taking it out on the defendant. Number seven did not care about anything or anyone but himself and his own diversions. All three had something wrong with them. Their minds worked. The problem was in their hearts.

Still, in the face of prejudice the others did not scream at juror number ten or try to “cancel” him. As he spouted his bigotry, they simply turned their backs. That was enough to make number ten realize that maybe he was wrong. Juror number three, the last holdout for a guilty verdict, is finally moved to change his vote as he comes to terms with his broken heart. The others do not gloat over him. Rather they pity him and are kind in the end.

Our nation is suffering right now from the divisions that come from injustices past and present. There is a disunity so deep that all sides are, like the men in that film, mad with fury at each the other. And so, I would argue that we need now more than ever to look at our own hearts.

We must advocate for justice as the protagonist of the film does in opposition to the majority. However, we will never truly achieve peace without hearts in right relationship with the Lord. The Church’s social teaching makes this point repeatedly. Even if every person receives justice, justice can be cold. We still need charity and specifically the charity poured forth by Christ Jesus because peace is not merely the fruit of justice but of justice, and higher order of love.

And so I pray that we can set aside our own bigotries and biases against “them” and ask the Lord for that new heart promised us in Ezekiel. I pray that we stop trying to “cancel” each other, stop trying to scream. I pray that we all embrace the Lord who forgives us our sins according to how we forgive our neighbor’s trespasses.

Deacon Omar Gutiérrez is director of the Pontifical Society for the Propagation of the Faith in the Archdiocese of Omaha. Contact him at ofgutierrez@archomaha.org.