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Maintaining dignity amidst death

Sitting in that chair does not erase all your humanity ./ Lee Honeycutt
Sitting in that chair does not erase all your humanity./ Lee Honeycutt

A Catholic nun gives insight into the value of life on death row.

Author: Patrick Malone

On Thursday Mar. 5, 2015, Campion College hosted the 35th annual Nash Memorial Lecture, presented by anti-capital punishment advocate Sister Helen Prejean, well known for being portrayed by Susan Sarandon in the film Dead Man Walking. As easy as it is to sagely agree with her profound conviction that we must recognise a shared humanity between all persons, it is in fact a great challenge to see this quality in all persons, especially the guilty.

Sr. Prejean described meeting Elmo Patrick Sonnier, an inmate on death row, and expecting to see the face of a monster. Both parties were incredibly anxious about the encounter, as neither knew how she would react to meeting a convicted murderer. Ultimately, she saw the face of another human person. For her, human dignity is not blotted out by guilt, no matter how immense that guilt is.

I don’t know that we have the resources to talk usefully in public about guilt anymore. On one hand, we have online lynch mobs expressing rage that is disproportionate to the point of self-parody. On the other hand, we re-elect politicians who have violated the public trust and we say, like the hit man, Ken, in the film, In Bruges, that we are good people who simply have to reconcile ourselves to the fact that yes, we have killed people. Guilt is less a transgression from which one is redeemed than blame that is to be assigned, and accepting responsibility for error has become a strategic PR maneuver.

Sr. Prejean’s response to Sonnier’s guilt was neither to ignore nor to make it the totality of his identity. It was to provide spiritual direction, to help him learn how to respond to his guilt. This is very much a response to an individual’s needs, not society’s need to have a debt repaid, but both needs can be tended to. This is the great challenge that Sr. Prejean offers. It goes against what are our most justifiable prejudices to offer help to those who are guilty of great evil, to invest our resources in their human needs. They deserve punishment, and have a great debt to pay, but Sr. Prejean can dedicate herself, not just as a public activist but also as a friend, to those paying their debts. That love is truly difficult, but necessary if we are to treat our fellows as such, if we are true humanists.

We, as a society, by and large refuse to see any shared humanity in persons whose physical limits entail that others must invest resources in caring for them, either, because of physical deterioration brought on by age or because of aesthetic imperfections detected in the preborn. This refusal also applies to the guilty. I was very much struck by Sr. Prejean’s description of how inmates are led to their execution. Their legs are chained, and six guards surround them. Like both the young and the aged, those on death row have radically limited control over their own bodies, but this time that powerlessness is imposed. As much as limiting a prisoner’s power makes sense for security reasons, one cannot help but note the parallels between the various demographics of persons whom the state has decided or may decide it is permissible to kill. In all of these cases, physical limitations and the judgment that a person’s life is forfeit go together. This perspective, however, profoundly limits our own ability to recognise humanity.

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