“12 Angry Men” is almost 70—and still relevant for Christians

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“12 Angry Men” is almost seventy—and still relevant for Christians

February 19, 2024 -

FILE - A modern juror's box in black and white featuring 12 empty chairs, representing the setting of the 1957 film "12 Angry Men." By ehrlif/stock.adobe.com

FILE - A modern juror's box in black and white featuring 12 empty chairs, representing the setting of the 1957 film "12 Angry Men." By ehrlif/stock.adobe.com

FILE - A modern juror's box in black and white featuring 12 empty chairs, representing the setting of the 1957 film "12 Angry Men." By ehrlif/stock.adobe.com

With an oversaturation of streaming content, it’s difficult to discern what’s worth viewing. But the best of art can point us to divinely inspired truths, helping us to understand our calling as Created Beings a little more clearly.

Today, let’s examine Sidney Lumet’s 1957 classic, 12 Angry Men, a film that not only bears rich artistic value but can also bear a weight on our spiritual lives.

What is 12 Angry Men about?

If you’ve never seen 12 Angry Men (currently available on Amazon Prime), or if it’s been so long that you can’t remember the details, the setup is simple enough.

After listening to the trial of a young ethnic boy charged with the murder of his father, twelve jury members convene on the hottest day of the year to agree upon their verdict. If the boy is innocent, he’ll walk; if he’s found guilty of premeditated murder, then the jury members will be sending him to his death in the electric chair.

At the outset, all but one jury member (played by the starry-eyed Henry Fonda) believes the boy to be guilty. Juror 8, Fonda’s character, suspects a rigged trial and implores his fellow arbiters to reexamine the evidence.

Bit by bit, the jury members question the facts, the justice system, and, ultimately, their own presuppositions. Heated temperaments combine with sweltering temperatures as the jury room inches to the brink of anarchy.

We’re still the jury

Lumet’s film will turn sixty-seven years old in April. This is astounding when considering the parallels between the movie’s context and our context today.

These men embody the same attitudes we may find ourselves guilty of possessing.

  • Juror 10 stereotypes those who share the defendant’s ethnicity (which is unspecified), which leaves him hardened to the facts that suggest the boy’s innocence.
  • Juror 7 flippantly moves through his life, aiming for the path of least resistance. As a result, the movie implies that he has a feeble sense of morality. He only wants to give a verdict that will get him to his baseball game the quickest.
  • Juror 3 shows bitterness toward his estranged son, which keeps him from seeing the trial without bias. He desires to heap retribution intended for his son upon the head of the defendant.

As Juror 8 works to reveal the evidence of the trial in a new light, no jury member is left impervious to the probing of their deepest-held worldviews in the face of justice.

What does 12 Angry Men say about our society?

At the heart of 12 Angry Men’s view of justice lie two core beliefs:

  1. Guilt must be declared only if the evidence proves itself beyond reasonable doubt. If any reasonable doubt does, in fact, exist, then the verdict must be reassessed in order to go deeper into the truth of the matter.
  2. The common man’s responsibility (represented by the jury) is to advocate for the marginalized—to give ear to their story, in other words—when nobody else will.

However, the movie seems more concerned with the men’s outlooks on the boy than whether or not he is actually guilty. The revelations are not that the boy is found innocent but rather that the evidence against the boy that each man has exploited for their convenience is found to be deeply flawed.

Each man is left questioning their willingness to send this boy to his death. In this way, the movie questions a society that has let this boy down.

What does the Lord require of us?

The advocacy represented in the film’s view of justice should be mirrored in our own understanding as Christians. Micah 6:8 asks, “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”

In Generous Justice, the late Tim Keller denotes that the Hebrew word for mercy in this passage, chesedh, means God’s unconditional grace and compassion. To follow after God, we must hold justice to be an active compassion toward the vulnerable. So says Keller,

If God’s character includes a zeal for justice that leads him to have the tenderest love and closest involvement with the socially weak, then what should God’s people be like? They must be people who are likewise passionately concerned for the weak and vulnerable.

In 12 Angry Men, it’s clear that the defendant has had no one in his life to advocate for him in his broken state. This is why Juror 8 fights to look past the evidence presented to the jury and why he implores his peers to do the same.

Likewise, we must be sure that we’re looking beyond our initial interpretations of social narratives in order to see the marginalized as they are and not how we’ve been trained to see them. This is as true for the single mother considering an abortion and the child considering a sex change as it is for the immigrant or the racial minority.

Of course, this does not mean that we should advocate for decisions that go against God’s plan for his creation. But it is the body of Christ’s role to look and act with compassion upon those whom, in their suffering, make such decisions.

Our understanding of this Christ-ordained work becomes clearer when we consider the cross. Jesus, in his infinite mercy, advocated for us in our suffering by placing the retribution of God upon his shoulders. Because of this, we no longer have a jury deliberating a verdict on our behalf—instead, we have the ear of our Creator, who understands our pain and empathizes with our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15).

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