Last week I had the privilege of attending a talk by Sister Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun, an advocate against the death penalty, a spiritual advisor who has accompanied several death-row inmates to their executions, and the author of “Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States” and “Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions.”
In preparation for attending the event, I began reading “Dead Man Walking,” and discovered several things. First, I found Sister Prejean to be an excellent storyteller and an honest guide through the journey of befriending a death-row inmate, learning the ins and outs of capital punishment in the United States, witnessing executions, balancing all of the feelings and struggles that come with advocating for murderers, learning to talk to victims’ families. Secondly, I discovered that after reading this book for about an hour, a certain feeling of nausea began to set in. I felt like I had been punched in the stomach as I read accounts both of the inmate’s heinous crime, and of the process of executing inmates. I have always been against the death penalty, but it always seemed to be a philosophical, theological question rather than an actual thing that happens in the actual world. Sister Helen Prejean brought the issue right there into my living room where it became real. I thought I was going to be sick. I had to put the book down and walk away for a while.
I didn’t so much as look at the book again before her talk at IHM a few days later. I was greeted warmly by the members of the church, and Sister Helen Prejean’s storytelling voice once again drew me in. Sometimes, activists tend to pump themselves up and act like they have always been a glowing example of justice, but not Sister Prejean. She was honest, and told us the story of how she grew up in the segregated south and hadn’t thought much of it. She told us how, when she first became a nun, she knew that “things weren’t fair, but that’s the way the world has always been” and that nuns weren’t social workers. She didn’t used to buy all of this social justice stuff. But “Sneaky Jesus” had other plans for her; “grace jolted her out of her groove” and opened her eyes to a world of suffering and injustice, a world where she could no longer be complacent. She met us where most of us were on our social justice journey, because she had been there too. But we can’t stay there. I had the privilege of getting nauseated and literally putting a bookmark on injustice, but not everyone has that privilege.
She told us all about the complexities of a broken judicial system that is supposedly unbiased, but that winds up being manipulated by race and class. She told us that most of the murderers who are executed are being punished for killing white people, even though the majority of murders happen to people of color. She told us about how people with decent money hardly ever wind up being executed. She told us that North Carolina death row inmates are “killed in our name.” Ours.
I hadn’t thought of it in those words before. Here we are approaching the Easter season where we remember the One who was an innocent man who was executed on a cross in our name, the man who was to be the ultimate sacrifice. But here we are in 2015 still having people killed in our name. This season we are remembering the One who taught us that we shouldn’t seek eye-for-eye revenge but should extend mercy to those who wrong us, no matter how hard it is. But here we are in 2015, repaying a crime eye-for-eye. This season we are remembering the One who taught us to forgive, but here we are in 2015 making forgiveness look weak. This season we are remembering the One who tended to the poor and the sick, but here we are in 2015 focusing our energies on snowballing violence in poor communities and killing people rather than healing broken communities and systems. This season we are remembering the One who taught us that love, companionship, forgiveness, and prayer can heal us, but here we are in 2015 trying to heal our broken hearts by killing. In 2015, there are still Christians who support eye-for-eye murder.
But I am not really writing today to talk about capital punishment, you can read all about that in Sister Helen’s book. But I want us to remember as we approach this Easter season that the Jesus that we are commemorating is not just to be praised in theory, but to be obeyed in practice. It is easy for us to get comfortable in our privileged religious walk, with our coffee and bible study, with our air conditioned churches, with our monthly donations to the food bank. But as Sister Prejean reminded us, “the Gospel has to be lived.” That Jesus that we are talking about this Easter is alive and working in our lives, and has something better than comfortable complacency in mind for us. “Sneaky Jesus” has a way of surprising us with a calling, waking us up to the real-world injustices, lighting a fire of passion in our hearts to actually go out and live the Gospel teachings. “For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited me in; naked, and you clothed me; I was sick, and you visited me; I was in prison, and you visited to me.” What is “Sneaky Jesus” calling you to go out and do?
(Author: Emily Albert)