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Tuesday, 13 May 2008

The Death Penalty as Social Sin - An Essay

The Death Penalty as Social Sin

To Examine Sr. Helen Prejean's book, Dead Man Walking, by the four levels of social sin outlined by Gregory Baum in his 'Critical Theology' we must first examine what Baum means by 'critical theology' After we have determined that, we can examine Prejean's book in light of his theories. Therefore we will undertake to
summarize what Baum's view of 'critical theology' is and then look at each of his four levels of social sin from the context of Prejean's book. Then finally we will look at Prejean and her book as being active in the role of critical theology, as she lives and learns about the death penalty and her growing activism against it.

Baum states "Critical theology enables the church to assume theological responsibility for its social reality." (e.g. Baum 195) From this we know that our book Dead Man Walking may be critical theology, it is a book about the death penalty and a nun. We have religion and the social issue of the state killing people. Baum goes on to declare: "For the extraordinary Christians who courageously walk in the way of identification with the poor often find themselves exposed to contempt of the authorities and marginalized even in their own churches."(e.g. Baum 212) Prejean gives us an example of this. First she says "I've come to St. Thomas to serve the poor, and I assume that someone occupying a cell on Louisiana's death row fits that category."(e.g. Prejean 3) As such she is living this life on the edge, identified with the poor and the persecuted.

Baum views that "The first level of social sin is made up of the injustices and dehumanizing trends built into the various institutions…which embody people's collective life."(e.g. Baum 201) Prejean causes us to consider this from a number of different angles. She declares "I also notice that when residents of St. Thomas are killed, the newspaper barely takes notice, Where as when white citizens are killed, there is often a front-page story."(e.g. Prejean 9) We have here an example of the dichotomy in society, the privilege of money and what gets media attention and the duality of justice and social awareness of the death penalty "race, poverty and geography determine who gets the death penalty - if the victim is white, if the defendant is poor, and whether or not the D.A. (District Attorney) is willing to plea-bargain."(e.g. Prejean 50) Therefore: if you are a victim who is poor your case will not receive as much attention, and conversely if you are a criminal who is poor you will receive a greater punishment or persecution in your prosecution. Prejean goes even further and claims: "That's why you're never going to find a rich person on death row."(e.g. Prejean 49) Even how we view inmates, especially those on death row is biased. Prejean had originally seen Mr. Sonnier as not human just a death row inmate, but she later states: "We soon become steady correspondents, and I Begin to think of him as a fellow human being."(e.g. Prejean 13) She also later says "and I am surprised by how human, even likeable he is."(e.g. Prejean 31) She had dehumanized him prior to getting to know him because of his situation.

Prejean quotes: "Amnesty International defines torture as an extreme physical and mental assault o a person who has been rendered defenseless."(e.g. Prejean 105) And Baum's "Second level of social sin is made up of the cultural and religious symbols, operative in the imagination and fostered by society, that legitimate and reinforce the unjust institutions and thus intensify the harm done to a growing number of people."(e.g. Baum 201) The process of waiting on death row is torture, even the language we use reinforces that injustice, death row, the death house, last meal, last rites, and so on all confirm to reinforce the injustice and also reinforce the torture on the inmate. Living in a cell imagining and dreaming of your death again and again. Living a thousand deaths in your mind is torture of the utmost kind. It is also a torture for your friends and family as they must go through this with you, knowing the day and hour you will die, and how.

According to Baum the third level of social sin "refers to the false consciousness created by these institutions and ideologies through which people involve themselves collectively in destructive action as if they were doing the right thing."(e.g. Baum 201). Prejean gives us an example of this in speaking to a leader in "the DOC (Department of Corrections), he maintains, 'don't have to take any personal responsibility for what they are doing. It's their job. They are told to do it. They are told how to do it. They are told how long it's going to take and what you do when you do it. It's like a drill, like an exercise, so they have no personal responsibility'."(e.g. Prejean 103) Thus these men are fulfilling the third level of social sin. They are destroying a life, the life of a criminal, but also a life of a son, a father, a brother, a mother …and as such the system has turned the state sanctioned killing into just an action, a job, much like many of the Nazi's marching the Jew's to their deaths. Prejean highlights this as follows "I cannot accept that the state now plans to kill Patrick Sonnier in cold blood."(e.g. Prejean 30)


"The forth level of social sin which is made up of the collective decisions, generated by the distorted consciousness, which increase the injustices in society and intensify the power of the dehumanizing trends."(e.g. Baum 202) The clearest example of this by Prejean is a conclusion made after talking with D.A. Dracos Burke. She concludes that Burke's view of the death penalty is "As if some among
us-not-as-human-as-you-and-I are disposable. And who selects and eliminates the disposable ones?"(e.g. Prejean 113) She also summarized her view of the warden in this process: "He is calm reasonable, organized, professional, and he's planning to kill someone two days from now."(e.g. Prejean 79) Her conclusion about the death penalty is: "If we believe that murder is wrong and not admissible in our society, then it has to be wrong for everyone, not just individuals but governments as well."(e.g. Prejean 130) This conclusion clearly makes the point of the distorted consciousness of those involved from the Government's side in regards to the death penalty.

In conclusion I believe that Prejean's book does indeed live up to the criteria of critical theology as set forth in Baum's writings, for as Baum states: "It is the Task of critical theology to bring to light the hidden human consequences of doctrine, to raise the consciousness of the believing community in this regard, and to find a manner of proclaiming the church's teaching that has structural consequences in keeping with the gospel."(e.g. Baum 195) Prejean's book, the movie about it, and her continuing efforts through speaking tours and her new book The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions (Random House in 2005) continue her efforts to raise concerns about the issue of the death sentence and call the believing community to be active in the political sphere to call for change. Or again as Baum declares: "What people who stress the conversion to Jesus as their personal savior fail to see is that the evil in society has a twofold root, in the sinful hearts of men and in institutionalized injustices, and that this can only be overcome by a movement that includes social change."(e.g. Baum 209) Sr. Helen Prejean is at the forefront of that movement on this issue and is pushing for that change. She summarized in her book "that no government is ever innocent enough or wise enough or just enough to lay claim to so absolute a power as death."(e.g. Prejean 21) She concludes that the only way to end this social injustice, this social sin "we must persuade the American people that government killings are too costly for us, not only financially, but - more importantly - morally."(e.g. Prejean 197) Therefore I would state that Sr. Helen Prejean is active in Critical theology, and has met the four criteria for social sin in regards to the death penalty based on Baum's writings.

(First written for RS 100L Evil Fall 2005.)

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