Sister Helen Prejean Speaks to the Interfaith Gathering at the Democratic National Convention

I received this email recently sharing the words of Sister Helen Prejean to the Interfaith Gathering at the Democratic National Convention. Here are some excerpts:


Jesus said, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see, the ears that hear what you hear.” O God, give us ears to hear and eyes to see. Oh, say, what do we see by the dawn’s early light? We are a nation in crisis, a nation with eight out of ten of us sensing that we’re going down the wrong road. I speak today as a woman of faith, a woman in the Christian tradition, to address our sacred responsibility to our nation – sacred responsibility is the language of the soul, of the holy, the call to responsibility that goes deeper than politics. My deepest lessons about sacred responsibility to our nation I have learned in government killing chambers, the darkest, most hidden corner of America. As spiritual advisor I have accompanied six human beings to their deaths. I do not know what these six men experienced physically as they were killed, but I do know that they experienced great mental anguish, preparing for death, anticipating death, and so dying in their minds a thousand times before they died. Inherent in the practice of the death penalty is the practice of mental torture. I have also been privileged to accompany murder victims’ families in their search for healing. The real heroes of my book, Dead Man Walking are a father and mother, Lloyd and Eula LeBlanc, whose only son was murdered. Lloyd said, “Jesus told us to forgive. I am not going to let hate take over me because then I’d be dead too.”

… What has happened to us? Practice of the death penalty on our own soil has, I believe, developed a mindset that makes it easier for us to kill those we designate as enemies – or suspected enemies – and to torture them. The death penalty, far from being a peripheral moral issue concerned with the punishment of a few criminals, reveals the very soul of America, and it lays bare our deepest wounds: our racism, our assault on poor people, and our ready instinct to use violence to solve social problems. The death penalty is riddled with racism. Overwhelmingly the punishment of death is meted out to those who kill white people – eight out of every ten persons on death row is there for killing a white person. Rarely is the death penalty sought for those who kill people of color, even though most victims of homicide – 50% plus – are people of color. Disproportionately singles out poor people. 95% of death row prisoners are poor. Death is almost exclusively punishment for poor people. And the third wound. our country’s almost-DNA-gene instinct to kill the enemy as the only way to be secure. Here’s the pattern: target the enemy, dehumanize the enemy, kill the enemy. And if needed,torture the enemy since he or she is not human anyway. I invite dialogue with both presidential candidates on this issue of the death penalty: no matter how restricted your criteria for use of the death penalty, e.g., that it should only be applied for crimes so heinous that the full outrage of the community must be expressed. The problem with this criterion is that outrage of the community is very uneven, very weighted around the murder of some citizens and almost nonchalant about the murder of others. Thirty two years of experience have taught us that outrage is almost always around the death of white people, seldom over the death of poor people or people of color, no matter how terrible the crime.

…Conversations about the death penalty across this country have led me to understand that there is a deep religious underpinning to our support for the death penalty and for war against foreign enemies. It’s because many of us still have an image of a God who demands “eye for an eye,” a God pleased with sacrifice… There are contradictory images of God found in the Bible. On which one will we model our lives? Jesus forgave his executioners and showed us the way of compassion, showed a way of inclusive love that calls no one enemy, showed how we must forgive those who hurt us. He once said to a young lawyer and he says to us today: “Go and learn what this means. I desire mercy, not sacrifice…”

…No matter how terrible a person’s crime, no human being should be tortured; no human being should be killed. All religions teach that life is sacred, but Jesus showed preferential love for the “least of these.” Spiritual paths always involve change of attitudes, conversion of life. Is it not time for us as a nation to be converted from our pursuit of violence to become a nation that embraces dialogue and diplomacy with our adversaries? Are we ready to build a Peace Academy alongside our military academies?

…Oh, say, what do we see in the dawn’s early light ? Bombs bursting in air? Or a newly budding America, respectful of human rights, refusing violence, actively engaged in diplomacy with our adversaries? I’ve brought mediation books with me, Dead Man Walking and The Death of Innocents. I invite you to read them and to join me in abolishing government killing on our native soil and in inaugurating new ways to cherish and protect our Mother Earth. O God, give us eyes to see and ears to hear. Amen.

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