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Sister Helen Prejean's speach at the DNC interfaith gathering 2008:
OUR SACRED RESPONSIBILITY TO OUR NATIONJesus 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."
If we understand what we're doing in our own killing chambers we will more readily understand what happened at Abu Ghraib and what's happening in Guantanamo and why we're at war in Iraq and Afghanistan and how it has happened that our attorney general and lawyers for the Justice Department have employed shocking legalisms to bypass the Geneva Conventions in order to legitimize torture of suspected terrorists.
And perhaps better comprehend the mindset of one of our Supreme Court Justices who in a recent interview said openly that "so called torture" of a suspected terrorist is not forbidden by the U.S. Constitution, that it is permissible within the law to "smack his face or drive needles under his fingernails" to get necessary information.
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, who allowed or even willed that his own son, Jesus, be sacrificed on the cross in payment for our sins. And when we kill criminals for their crimes, God accepts their death in payment for their sins so they can go to heaven.
What kind of father would demand the death of his son?
Is this God or an ogre, a monster projection of our own violent impulses?
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.."
When I got the opportunity to dialogue with Pope John Paul II about my church's teaching on the death penalty, I asked him, "Does the church only uphold the dignity of the innocent? What about the guilty? When I'm walking with a man to his death and he's shackled hands and feet and he says to me, "Sister, please pray that God holds up my legs," where is his dignity? There is no dignity in this death.
Now, happily, my church works to abolish the death penalty. The development in understanding in my church has everything to do with a new understanding of human rights. 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," the vulnerable, and when Pope John Paul II changed church teaching on the death penalty, for the first time he put the abolition of the death penalty squarely in with the other life issues the Catholic church holds dear: respect for life from life's beginning until natural death. In Catholic circles we call this the "seamless garment of life."
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? Wouldn't it be life-giving and hopeful if every schoolchild in America would learn non-violent conflict resolution, and wouldn't it be downright exciting if Congress would offer to be the first to engage in the pilot curriculum? Are we ready to begin shifting funds from our bloated $800 billion dollar defense budget into mass transit, affordable homes, health care for all, and massive green technology – harnessing solar and wind energy to seriously address global warming, new industry that can provide jobs for our unemployed?
And are we ready to follow Australia's example and formally apologize to our Native Americans for violence we wreaked on them, for lands we stole from them, for herding them onto reservations, and for our blatant noncompliance of the treaties we made with them? Are we ready to begin this dialogue?
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.