Friday, May 15, 2009
Everybody is worth more than the worst thing they've done in their lives
At right is my terrible photo of Sister Helen Prejean speaking at Celebridée on Wednesday night. Yes, my poor beleaguered lungs and I slouched down to the Mirror Tent (I prefer Spiegeltent, and better photos are here and here!) to hear her speak. The film version of her book, Dead man walking, moved me immensely as a teenager when I first read it. I was drawn to Sister Helen's compassion (and confusion!), to Matthew Poncelet's acknowledgement of his own guilt, and to the haunting music (I have a serious thing for Eddie Vedder, and grew to appreciate the genuis of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Rezlings can testify - I think they all hated that CD by the end of our time living together...). The movie was also a landmark in the sense that it depicted a killing by lethal injection in almost clinical detail, and, watching it again last weekend with my husband, I noticed that the final 20 minutes of the film correspond roughly to the final 20 minutes of Poncelet's life. The first time I saw it, I was struck primarly by the fear and anger in that room, and by Poncelet's shaking.
Seeing Sister Helen in person was really interesting: for one thing, she is much more warm that Susan Sarandon seems in the film (no that I don't love Susan Sarandon, but Sister Helen is very jokey - she kept teasing Lawrence Greenspon! - , and has a warm Southern accent). She shed some additional light on the story captured in the film (you know this if you've read the book): Poncelet is a composite character made up of some pieces of the various people on death row for whom she has acted as spiritual advisor. Sister Helen also stated that Lloyd Leblanc is the real hero of the story - in the film, that would be Earl Delacroix, the father of the boy killed by Poncelet, who we see in the final frames of the film praying with Sister Helen. Since the execution scene was so emblazoned on my teenage memory (I first saw it in MRE in high school - I think my friend Alice - who became a doctor this spring, whoo-hoo! - brought it in to illustrate a point in a presentation about capital punishment) I was interested to hear that after that first execution she witnessed, she promtly went outside and threw up. I think I would have, too.
Sister Helen made some allusions to Canadian politics, citing our committment to social justice and less punitive penal system. She did, however, allude to the Omar Khadr story, reminding us that this is how winds change in countries and urging us to "stand on guard," as our anthem says, against slippages of this kind.
She said the heart of who we are as a society is contained in the issue of capital punishment: the issue involves related issues of poverty, racism, and violence. She quoted Martin Luther King, Jr., who said that the most moral document you'll ever look at is a budget. The implication being that the United States could be spending money on .... instead of on the immense expenses of one prisoner on death row.
Sister Helen emhasises that the issue of justice is integral to Christianity (although some, including the prison chaplain in the film, and her real-life archbishop, could stand to be reminded). Everyone asked her, as depicted in the film, why she was doing this: acting as spiritual advisor to these men who so clearly had done something utterly reprehensible (well, in some cases, not even that - many were falsely convicted, but that's another point entirely). She countered that with the beautiful statement that isn't "everybody worth more than the worst thing they've done in their lives? Wouldn't you want to be thought more of than the worst thing you've done?"