Magazine article The Christian Century

Dead Man Walking

Magazine article The Christian Century

Dead Man Walking

Article excerpt

Be not afraid." In the climactic scene of Dead Man Walking, Sister Helen Prejean sings this hymn to condemned prisoner Matthew Poncelet on the night of his execution. The movie itself is less about the polities of the death penalty than about courage--the courage to face the truth, the courage to accept responsibility for one's actions, the courage to answer God's call to love the unlovable.

Based on Prejean's 1993 book with the same title, the film shows how Prejean, a sister of St. Joseph of Medaille who works in-a Louisiana mission with the poor, was drawn ("pulled," her film character says) into providing spiritual support to death-row inmates at Louisiana State Penitentiary. This ministry began simply enough when the Louisiana Coalition on jails and Prisons asked her to correspond with a death-row prisoner.

When Poncelet first asks her to visit him, she is afraid to enter the cold, ugly prison-but she goes. As her commitment to Poncelet develops, Prejean's mother warns her she is in "deep water"--and Prejean agrees. When the father of one of Poncelet's victims challenges her to visit him, she admits that she is seared--but she visits him and tries to form a relationship with the families of both victims. In overcoming her fears and being a trustworthy friend, Prejean gives Poncelet the courage to confess his guilt. "I'm yellow, I'm a chicken," he admits, recalling how he participated in a horrendous rape and murder. "You've done a terrible thing," Prejean tells him. But having admitted his guilt, he is able to go to his death with some dignity ("They cannot take that away from you," Prejean says).

Director Tim Robbins has worked a miracle of sorts: he has produced a film in which religious faith is portrayed with sophistication and unapologetic frankness. The usual Hollywood nun is either hopelessly naive or neurotic, but Robbins presents Prejean, played by Susan Sarandon in an Oscar-winning performance, as an ordinary, likable woman whose faith leads her to take extraordinary steps.

In befriending Poncelet (played superbly by Sean Penn) she engages in more than conversation: she seeks his reconciliation with God. She offers no cheap grace, however. To make Jesus relevant to Poncelet, she speaks of Jesus' ministry to the poor and the social outcasts, and how that made him a rebel, a courageous challenger of those in power, and she recommends that he read about Jesus' crucifixion. …

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