"Simon the Hammerman"
In this very troubling way we actually treat human beings with less inherent dignity than inanimate objects. If there is any moral pressure beyond which a human is commonly known to break I've never heard of it. Of course we know that people do break under torture, but is there a point where we then find them innocent, as in acknowledging they were stretched beyond all possible expectation? We won't admit confessions obtained under torture in most modern courts, but I have never heard of a moral equivalent: a point beyond which no human being could survive without breaking morally, meaning a place of innocence beyond all reasonable expectation. Otherwise we would hold certain criminals innocent, such as murderers with PTSD, who simply behave exactly the way they were trained.
So it is I find myself returning over and over to the compelling story–which reads more like a legend from the book of Job than a real life––of Simon the Hammerman. Simon might be the loneliest man in history. He is the only person I've ever heard of who I think might be, incredibly, both a mass murderer and a saint.
Simon Mpungose was a real person who was executed in South Africa for multiple murders in 1985. But let's look at this remarkable man. Ostracized by his community, the Zulu, before he was born, he grew up as basically a wild child; orphaned and never educated or even socialized. In his whole life he had only one friend: briefly as a child he lived with another kid in the bush before that kid was killed by police. Later on Simon stepped into a trap he'd been totally unaware of, the result of being a black man born into a racist nation: he stole a loaf of bread from a white person. As a result he was sentenced to years of hard labor breaking rocks in a brutal prison camp.
Being totally unsocialized means his moral compass was set not by his community with instruction, but by his internal religion that was revealed to him in his dreams. During his internment in the camp he had a powerful prophetic dream in which his god revealed to him that the white rocks he was compelled to smash with his hammer all day long were really symbols for the unbreakable white heads that ruled his nation so brutally. But despite enduring the most inhumane upbringing possible, Simon was blessed with a good heart that could not be crushed. Simon knew that the instructions his god gave him would hurt people. So when his sentence was up and he was to be released, he went to plead to his (white) warden to be kept in prison so that he would not have to hurt white people––the very people who had abused his people for hundreds of years––as his god demanded of him. But the warden only laughed at him and shoved him out the gate anyway.
Simon tried then to isolate himself from whites by taking jobs in all-black industries like gold mining camps. But every attempt to save white people from his terrible mission was brutally foiled by the very people he tried to protect. Eventually his strong, loving heart lost out to the compelling vision of his dream, and he took up his hammer to do what he was trained to do in prison: smash white heads. Thus he earned the name "Simon the Hammerman", by killing and injuring a number of people with his hammer. But Simon's pristine logic did not fit with South African law. He was of course arrested and tried. Knowing that death would be just recompense for his acts, at his trial he instructed his court-appointed lawyer not to defend him. Instead the lawyer hired a psychologist to declare him insane. But the psychologist found Simon to be not only not insane, but full of courage and wisdom, a man of "superior intelligence". So in the end everyone agreed: all South Africa could see in Simon was a murderer, and the only thing it could offer him turns out to be the only thing it ever gave to him at all: death.
Simon knew that each side in the trial was following their own moral code and this was how it must be. Accepting his fate graciously, before being led to his execution Simon delivered a powerful and poetic speech that is also a gentle but terrible indictment of a blind culture that may as well be yours or mine. Those who heard it witnessed one of the most remarkable moments in history.
The contrast between what he gave us and what we gave him should humble every soul. In the end did Simon––following the moral dictates of his internal god––break under pressure, or did he actually break the moral system used to try to crush him? You tell me.
[I urge you to read the full account of Simon in Rian Malan's stunning book, My Traitor's Heart) He raises questions that I wish had never been asked. But now that they are I cannot help but stand with him and say, here is a good man, innocent of his very real crimes by virtue of having endured a life of more torture than any single human can stand.]
Image links: (all images by Tim Holmes Studio)
"Simon the Hammerman", oil, 58 x 79 cm, by Tim Holmes:
"Weight of Responsibility; Simon the Hammerman", charcoal, 64 x 46 cm, by Tim Holmes: