Saturday, December 11, 2010

Sister Prejean Walks in Atticus' Shoes

Sister Prejean studied English, education, and religious education. Her dedication to the church and to a life of service took her beyond high school classrooms, however. She is now perhaps best known for a Pulitizer Prize winning book, Dead Man Walking, and for her personal journey in forgiveness, a journey that has brought her to condemn the practice of capital punishment. Her life proves the American dream: courage and conviction have carried her from humble beginnings to a position of authority and honor. She has earned awards such as the National Abolitionist, the Sanctity of Life, and the Champion of Liberty, each in recognition of her work to put an end to capital punishment and to defend the dignity of all men, even the lives of men who have taken life.

Sister Prejean’s stand begins in the belief that men convicted of heinous crimes have not lost their right to simple human kindness. That belief allowed her to become the pen pal of a convicted murderer, imprisoned in Louisiana. Her letters encouraged the convict, Patrick Sonnier, to request that Sister Prejean become his spiritual advisor. In that role, Sister Prejean acquired experience in prison practices, including execution, for she walked beside him, guiding him to accept responsibility and his own death. Her walk tested her own conviction and capacity for forgiveness. She emerged as a religious servant and educator on a world stage after explaining her journey in the book, Dead Man Walking.

What draws me to Sister Prejean is not just her stand against capital punishment, one with which I agree. What compels me to admire her is her very human struggle to forgive and her belief that forgiveness is not the same as being soft on crime. In her own words, Sister Prejean thinks that

Forgiving violence does not mean condoning violence. There are only two alternatives to forgiving violence: revenge, or adopting an attitude of never-ending bitterness and anger. For too long we have treated violence with violence, and that's why it never ends.

She is right, but she is not in sync with conventional wisdom. Mel Gibson has made a reprehensible career and obscene amounts of money by playing against forgiveness. His most recent film, Edge of Darkness, is a revenge movie disguised as the pursuit of truth and/or justice in spite of evil adversaries who care nothing about either. His earlier films, especially the gritty film Payback or the historical spectacle The Patriot, are identical. In these, Gibson portrays men who commit violent, depraved, brutal acts, but we spectators celebrate them and even condone the violence because Gibson’s characters have standards, including fierce loyalty and a love for loyal women. We agree to believe that violence done by such men has some sort of moral imperative whereas violence done by evil-doers simply begets more violence.

On the world stage, some would argue that events playing out in the Middle East are excellent examples of the hazards of an inability to forgive and triumph over revenge, never-ending bitterness, and anger. Slights, spites, and injustices committed hundreds of years ago inspire divisiveness, tyranny, oppression, and violence. No act of revenge has quelled the turmoil and hatred. Neither simmering bitterness nor explosive anger has brought about peace and prosperity. Violence simply begets more violence, and treachery breeds savagery. While forgiveness may not be an easy or likely strategy, it may be the only viable one. Would that it were part of an international plan to win the hearts and minds of nations.

We cannot lead the world or our own little corner of it except by example. Sister Prejean is leading. She searches her own heart and mind to forgive those to whom evil has been done and who often do evil in return. She searches her heart and mind to summon empathy for victims of poverty and violence, their surviving family members, and their community. She tries to walk in their shoes, as Atticus Finch advised, while guiding them toward forgiveness, sure that liberation and empowerment will follow. As Catherine Ponder, author and minister, puts it, “When you hold resentment toward another, you are bound to that person or condition by an emotional link that is stronger than steel. Forgiveness is the only way to dissolve that link and get free.” Forgiveness is also the more courageous course.