An Interview with Sr. Helen Prejean

Prejean wave

“Our communities must learn to forgive each other”

July 12, 2016, Call To Action’s Just Church blog

“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 CapeCod luncheon detailing her experience defending a young man, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, with few friends in America, who has been condemned to death by our courts.

For the past several decades, the 77-year-old Sister of Saint Joseph has worked tirelessly to accompany death row inmates, and to inspire and educate activists and politicians to “wake up” to the sin of capital punishment. Through her writing and lectures, she has transformed an ugly political war of talking points into an experience of art and dignity.

Sr. Helen found her calling through the unplanned spiritual accompaniment of two death row inmates in the 1980s, which eventually became the story of her seminal novel about her experiences, Dead Man Walking. Her work has remained popular since the film version, starring Susan Sarandon as Sr. Helen, won an Academy Award in 1996.

The sister’s life journey colored her address on Cape Cod and later Q&A session after a viewing of Dead Man Walking, sponsored by Call To Action. Her stories encompassed mass incarceration, growing up in segregated Louisiana, and the shared values of so many families affected by capital punishment.

I had the honor of staying at the same house on Cape Cod as Sr. Helen for two days during the event, and was delighted to have casual breakfast-talks and car-talks with Sr. Helen, who in those moments spoke intimately about her work within the Church, about meeting Pope Francis in January, and about heavy matters on her heart—her sister who is terminally ill.  Her demeanor is kind and funny, intelligent and organized, with a spiritual strength that radiates.

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 about her upcoming and previous books, and the film, and how she followed the spirit to where she is today.

“I just did that one little thing, write the book, talk about what I saw. We don’t have a blueprint of all the steps, but life emerges, life unfolds. It’s the way the universe works. That’s the spirit in our hearts.” –Sr. Helen

 Though I read Dead Man Walking 10 years ago in college, I had not seen the film prior to the event. Viewing the violence and emotional trauma on the big screen for the first time, 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.

“Nobody’s ever asked me about the violence, in particular, before,” she said.

Execution in America is just one of many ways violence is endemic. Violence and trauma in our society stunt not only our ability to forgive each other, but also, ourselves.

Here is a brief excerpt of our conversation:

“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,” Sr. Helen explained, citing a theological reason some people support state-sanctioned murder.

“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 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. Her 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, to act with conviction, and to forgive.