Last Saturday night I went to hear Sister Helen Prejean speak about the dignity of human life and her experience ministering to death row inmates. As a result of her experiences, she has become an advocate for the abolition of the death penalty. I'm really glad I went, it was very thought-provoking and inspirational.
She spoke about the journey she's taken and how it's a journey we all must take - dealing with the tough questions of human dignity in relation to giving the State the God-like power to take life as punishment. Her experience ministering to many death row inmates has shown her the frailty and humanity of the system, which she documents in her most recent book, The Death of Innocents. The story of Joseph O'Dell really struck me. Steve Watson testified that O'Dell had confessed the murder to him while they were in jail; as a result O'Dell was convicted and executed. Watson later admitted that he had lied, and was continually haunted by images of O'Dell.
She explained how difficult the death penalty can be for both families. Sometimes the victim's families are under a lot of pressure because the language of our society tells us “in order to love and honor the victim's life, we must ask for the life of the criminal”. Where does the vengeance of the death penalty really get us, though? The father of one victim told her, “They killed my son, but I cannot let the anger take control or they will have killed me too.” Further, she emphasized that “forgiveness is not weakness; it does not dishonor the victim and it does not condone the act.”
“Whenever we say that someone must die for our safety - whether it's a criminal, a terrorist, or whoever - we are failing to view them as children of God, as made in His image.”
“No human being is one act.”
“[God's] call to reconciliation is deeper than the polarity of our culture that tells us to choose sides. It's about respect for life on all sides.”
She summed up the heart of the challenge with, “abhor the evil; find and respect the human dignity.”
If you get a chance to hear her speak, I highly recommend it. She will challenge you and hopefully spark a dialogue in your community.