Dead Man Walking
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Dead Man Walking

I'd seen "Dead Man Walking" for the first time just before I first wrote this down. For those who don't remember, it stars Susan Sarandon as Sister Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun, and Sean Penn as the Death Row convict Poncelet, with Prejean serving as his spiritual counsel. And the majority of characters go through the movie at least partly blind. There are a number of core beliefs that I have long held, and believe are central to Christianity, which are disregarded, ignored, forgotten, or discarded.

To begin with, the nature of sin is always the same, regardless of the details. Sin is taking a luminous being, created and beloved by God, and making an object of it. When you steal, you ignore the fact that your victim has as much right to keep what they make as you or any other person does. When you lie, you deny the fact that other people deserve to be told the truth, just as much as you do. And it is almost impossible for any of us to kill somebody unless we first deny their humanity.

Poncelet puts a lot of people into the category of "not people." He makes lots of angry and bigoted statements about blacks, using the term "nigger." He praises Hitler. He thinks that terrorism and blowing up government buildings is "useful." In many ways, large and small, he dehumanizes others.

And he takes no responsibility for it. When Sister Helen asks him how he learned to hate blacks, he tells about some black kids in his neighborhood that jumped him and his brother when he was very young. He blames the black kids for it. And then, as an afterthought, he mentions, "We were throwin' rocks at 'em the day before," as if that should not matter.

But he's not the only one who is blind, who dehumanizes others. The film is loaded with death penalty advocates. The filmmakers present their feelings and arguments honestly, as far as I can tell. But they all ring hollow to me, because they all dehumanise the criminal as thoroughly as he has dehumanized his victims, or as Hitler dehumanized the Jews, or as Stalin dehumanized the kulaks and bourgeoisie.

"They're not people. They're not even animals. They're monsters." "How can God forgive such a thing?" "How can you care anything for us [the victim's family] if you care anything for him?" "They don't deserve to live." One and all, they insist that the murderer is not human and demand vengeance.

But vengeance is not for mere humans. It is too dangerous for us to handle, because we mess it up so often. That is why God makes a specific claim of ownership over revenge: "Vengeance is mine, sayeth the LORD." And in spite of this, many death penalty advocates claim that the death penalty is God's work.

More disturbing is that the families of Poncelet's victims think that it's not enough for him to die. They also want him to burn in Hell. While that's very human, it is not Christian. A Christian's first goal is always to help as many souls gain Heaven as possible. All of us have sinned. But God can forgive any sin, when the sinner is repentant and comes to Him for salvation.

The victims' families hate Poncelet. They forget that Jesus commanded us to love and pray for our enemies. And it is their hatred that drives their desire for revenge and insistence on the death penalty for him. Only in one instance have I ever seen an argument for the death penalty which does not base itself on the desire for revenge. It was presented in Robert A. Heinlein's novel, "Starship Troopers." (It was one of many subtleties that did not make it into the Paul Verhoeven Nazi propaganda film based loosely upon the book.)

In "Starship Troopers," one of the volunteers in Johnny Rico's training company deserts. Some time later, he kidnaps a 12 year old girl, then rapes and murders her. When he is captured by the civil authorities, it's discovered he was never discharged, so they return him to the company for a court-martial. He's found guilty, sentenced to death, and hanged in front of the entire company. After a lot of introspection, Rico concludes that death was the most merciful penalty in this sort of case.

To Rico's way of thinking, the killer was a mad dog, and he had to be put down like one to keep him from killing again. He didn't think it was possible to make him into a moral person. And even if the killer could be cured, and made to have the respect for human life and personal responsibility required to function in society, then he would hate and loathe himself so much that he would have to kill himself.

I am not going to argue the deterrent effect of the death penalty. When my little sister was in the 7th grade, she wrote a paper on the death penalty, fully expecting to find that it had no deterrent effect. In spite of the limited research resources available to her at the time, and her limited research skills at the time, she found otherwise.

I do have problems with the number of innocent men who have been sentenced to death. It's impossible to restore them and their families. Justice can always be mistaken, and death is too final.

In the end, it falls to Poncelet to state the moral, Christian position, just before he is executed by lethal injection. "Nobody should kill anybody. Not me, and not the government."

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