America’s Sister

[1] In the days leading up to having dinner with Sister Helen Prejean, and hearing her speak in public at Princeton University, I made people laugh by telling them that I would really look forward to dinner with Susan Sarandon-who played Sister Helen Prejean in the Hollywood film, Dead Man Walking. However, after conversation with Sister Helen over dinner, and after her hour-long speech, I no longer had any fantasies of face time with her Hollywood surrogate. Sister Helen struck such a fine tone of self-deprecating yet confident humor, passionate yet compassionate conviction, that she seemed to incarnate her vision of an American society where we might each strive to be a “face of love” to neighbors who suffer. I was so impressed that I’ve taken to thinking of her as America’s Sister.

[2] Sister Prejean is best known for her opposition to the death penalty. A New Orleans native, and Sister of St. Joseph, she was drawn to practice her piety as politics in 1982 when she became the pen-pal of an inmate on Louisiana’s death-row, Patrick Sonnier. Eventually, Prejean became Sonnier’s spiritual advisor. In that role, she accompanied him to his execution on April 4, 1984. Shortly thereafter, she dedicated herself to “work full time to talk to the public about the death penalty,” and since then Helen Prejean has advised numerous death-row inmates, and counseled the families of victims and perpetrators. The film based on her book, also entitled Dead Man Walking, is a composite portrait of her first two sets of relationships. Released in 1995, it received four Academy Award nominations.

[3] Sister Prejean was at Princeton to promote her most recent book, The Death of Innocents. It documents her involvement in two cases where she became convinced that the individuals executed were not guilty. I was invited to dinner with her as a Fellow of the Center for the Study of Religion. The night started with a little drama. One of the other guests at dinner simply blurted out: “You don’t look like a nun. You’re not pious-looking enough.” To which Sister Helen replied, getting out of her chair at the end of the table: “Here, let me do my best pious pose for you. And she knelt down, hands held together in prayer before her eyes, head tilted toward the sky, in her best “Song of Bernadette” look. I guffawed, and thought immediately: “I love this woman.” The dinner conversation went uphill from there.

[4] In her talk at Princeton, Sister Helen didn’t simply do a celebrity reading-which I’m sure would have been interesting enough. Instead, she spoke without notes and with quiet passion and gentle humor across a range of topics in what might be called American public theology. She received a spontaneous standing ovation after her hour-long talk.

[5] Mostly she told the story of how she discovered her vocation. She did not choose her life’s work, she implied, but was chosen for it. The principle she followed was a mantra used in her community: “Never leap ahead of grace.” She learned mostly by listening. And what she learned is that everyone suffers, and that all people need compassion-a face of love.

[6] For instance, Sister Prejean showed how her work on death row, and with the families of murder victims, taught her to value the irreplaceability of any human individual. “No one should be killed. Every human life has dignity. Whenever a human being is taken from us, that’s a life that can never be replaced.”

[7] And Sister Prejean deftly acquainted listeners with the undeniable role of race in capital cases. Fully 50% of those on death row are persons of color, but 80% of their victims were white. This contrasts with the reality that persons of color also constitute the vast majority of the victims of murder across the U.S.. As practiced, in short, capital punishment in America is arbitrary, at best, and racist, at worst. “We have never pulled out of slavery,” the Sister concluded.

[8] But finally, Sister Helen Prejean counseled listeners to practice forgiveness, as brothers and sisters to one another. She learned this from meeting face to face with murderers, and finding common humanity with them, and from meeting face to face with the family members of victims, who are not, she asserted, unanimous in a desire for vengeance. The death penalty is distilled and legalized vengeance. But it rarely brings closure, she suggested, to those most affected by any crime. It’s a secret ritual, in which the State presumes the power to kill, on behalf of all citizens, in a contradictory effort to stop killing.

[9] It is when, by contrast, we recognize that spiritually-speaking “we are all brothers and sisters to each other,” that we can discover the foundations for a more forgiving and just society, and discover the will to address the root causes of violence in a way that does not depend on vengeance.

[10] Through her example, as America’s Sister, Sister Helen Prejean incarnates the very spirit she calls people to recognize in practice and policy. She’s an inspiration to me, and I’m honored to be her brother in Christ.

Jon Pahl

Jon Pahl is the Peter Paul and Elizabeth Hagan Professor of the History of Christianity at United Lutheran Seminary.