“Our communities must forgive each other”: Sr. Helen Prejean sets Cape Cod hearts on fire
“We’ll have no talk of a “God of love” in this courtroom because we’re trying to kill this kid.” – Prosecution Attorney to Sr. Helen Prejean during the trial of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
Sr. Helen Prejean began her keynote at this May’s Fellowship of Reconciliation Cape Cod luncheon reflecting on her experience defending in court a young man who has few friends in America, who our government has sentenced to death. I had the honor of staying at the same house as Sr. Helen during this event and a Call To Action-sponsored viewing of her book-turned-film Dead Man Walking, where I accompanied this prophetic woman for two days.
“There’s nothing worse than being paralyzed.” -Sister Helen Prejean
Sr. Helen has found a way to turn capital punishment, the ugly political war of talking points in America, into a personal, human, moral issue of utmost importance. For the past several decades Sr. Helen has worked tirelessly to accompany death row inmates, to inspire and educate activists and politicians to “wake up.”
The 77-year-old Sister of Saint Joseph was a spectacular speaker at the Cape Cod events—she is kind and funny, intelligent and organized, with spiritual strength that simply rubs off onto everyone around her. I was honored to have casual breakfast-talks and car-talks with Sr. Helen, who in those moments spoke more intimately about her work within the Church, about meeting Pope Francis in January, and about the heavy matters on her heart during her travels—at the end of the week she would be traveling to her hometown of Baton Rouge to be with her sister who is very ill.
In the fall Sr. Helen will take a break from her rigorous travel to work on an upcoming book, River of Fire which will be a spiritual prequel of sorts to Dead Man Walking. Sr. Helen was generous to speak with me in a video interview (link below) about her book and how once our eyes are opened to injustice our spirit is changed and allows us to act. “I realized that when you begin to act it’s really liberating, it’s not doing anything that’s hard,” Sr. Helen said.
Sr. Helen found her calling through the unplanned spiritual accompaniment of two death row inmates which inspired her to dedicate herself to advocating for the end of capital punishment. Her seminal novel about the experience, Dead Man Walking, has remained popular after it won the highest of award in film—11 years ago Susan Sarandon won an Oscar playing Sr. Helen in the film adaption of the book.
Though I read Dead Man Walking 10 years ago in college and actually met Sr. Helen then when she signed my book, I had not seen the film before. Viewing the violence and emotional trauma on the big screen, with Sr. Helen in the audience, was extremely moving. I was so effected by the violence of the film that the next day I asked Sr. Helen about the “secret ritual” of the death penalty, which Dead Man Walking brought into mainstream consciousness. The legal execution of prisoners in America is just one of many ways violence is endemic in society, so I asked Sr. Helen how the violence of the death penalty affects society as a whole.
Sr. Helen answered the question starting from the beginning, citing the theological reasons why many people do not object to state-sanctioned murder and allow the violence to continue.
Many Christians cite St. Anselm’s juridical model of atonement, where only the death of the son of God could atone for the sins of man, as a reason why so many people support the death penalty, Sr. Helen explained.
“Only the death of the son who is also divine can make atonement for the divine who has been offended. It’s substitutionary violence, he pays and the rest of us benefit. And that’s what redemption means [to some Christians], that’s what Jesus dying on the cross means and that’s embedded into the lives of many Christians.”
“When there’s a death committed God will only be satisfied by another death—now what does that make of God? We’ve made God in our own image. That’s an ogre—a projection of our own violence that we’ve put on God.”
Rather than to succumb to an endless cycle of violence, Sr. Helen said rather, we must have restoration and forgiveness built into the way we live our lives. “That Easter night when Jesus came in on the apostles, he said the forgiveness of our sins is to each other, that the community must forgive each other, because that is what keeps the community alive and it’s the only way we can function. Otherwise we are all keeping tabs and demanding retribution.”
Sr. Helen’s peaceful words echo the strength of a church that is built on the simple and radical idea that forgiveness is always the only option. No death will ever be atoned by another death.
Sr. Helen has made important strides in anti-death penalty legislation, and in the lives of so many death row inmates and activists. Spending intimate time with someone I’d consider a modern-day saint has a profound effect on me. Sr. Helen’s peaceful demeanor throughout a grueling schedule of travel and her talent at public speaking, at conveying her message and changing hearts, were thoroughly inspiring and life-giving.
In this complicated and hurting world Sr. Helen’s example is encouragement for us all: to create space to find where the spirit is calling us, and to act with conviction.
by Sophie Vodvarka