DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Social Justice & Sr. Helen Prejean
This interview is about a famous nun and activist against the death penalty, Sr. Helen Prejean, whose life was featured in the film Dead Man Walking. Among other things, this interview explores reasons for and against the death penalty, which is legal in several states in the U.S. What do you think of the death penalty, before watching it?
1. Sr. Prejean used the metaphor of an “explosion through fire” as a way of describing her inspiration for helping prisoners on death row. She came to realize that these “voiceless,” sociologically disadvantaged people were the same type whom Jesus defended, and felt compelled to help them since Jesus would have. Does this seem like a good reason to devote one’s life to anti-death penalty and prisoners’ rights issues? Why or why not?
2. Sr. Prejean talked about America’s desire for “legalized vengeance.” Why did she think Americans want such vengeance? Why do you think Americans do?
3. Imprisoning someone abridges this person’s right to freedom, so the state needs a reason just to imprison someone, and a much stronger reason to kill them. There are four common justifications of why it is permissible, maybe even required, for the state to punish a criminal: punishment is needed in order to (1) deter others from doing the same thing; (2) prevent the same person from committing the crime again; (3) rehabilitate the criminal; and/or (4) make it so justice is served, that is -- a crime deserves a punishment that fits it, period, whatever else punishment may be accomplishing. Which of these four reasons might a proponent of the death penalty use to justify it? How would you respond to them?
4. Do you think the death penalty provides closure for the victim’s family? Why or why not?
5. Sr. Prejean thinks mercy can benefit both the victim’s family and the convicted: “Mercy preserves our own lives and keeps [them] from deteriorating and moving into hatred and bitterness. If not, that has power over my life and I cannot be the loving person I was meant to be.” Do you think mercy has this power?
6. Could you exercise the same kind of mercy Lloyd LeBlanc did when it came to the execution of his son's killer: “I’m a kind person; I would have to have all of this hating inside me to want someone dead”? Explain why or why not.
7. Are there things people can do to bring themselves to be merciful or forgiving?
8. How do you feel about Sr. Prejean’s assertion “we are all one”? If we all really are one, does it follow that the death penalty is wrong?
9. Do you find Sr. Prejean’s concept of “reconciliation” compelling? She describes it as “what we call it when we hold together things that look like opposites. And the unifying thread of it is what we call love; when it is love in its full force of reaching out to both, and not choosing between the two.” Do you think this is a realistic approach? Can you think of a time when two or more things needed reconciling in your own life? Would love help the reconciliation to happen? How?
10. Do you think Sr. Prejean’s work would be more effective were it not tied into her faith? Why or why not?
11. Could it be rational to have apparently conflicting interests within one’s own beliefs—to be anti-abortion but pro-death penalty, for instance? Use Catholic Justice Antonin Scalia as an example for analysis.
12. Suppose for a moment that we end the death penalty. What should we do with the people who would have once received it? Why?