Study Guide

Dead Man Walking Religion

By Sister Helen Prejean


…Jesus' challenge to the nonpoor, she emphasized, was to relinquish their affluence, and to share their resources with the dispossessed. (1.19)

Jesus demands that Christians identify with the poor and the powerless. Does that describe Pat and Robert? They obviously had some power—they were murderers. But neither has much money, which is one reason they end up on Death Row. On top of that, both of them grew up poor and way underprivileged. Prejean thinks her faith demands that she identify and work with the poor—even the undeserving poor. Even the poor who have done terrible things.

Before I had asked God to right the wrongs and comfort the suffering. Now I know—really know—that God entrusts those tasks to us. (1.45)

Sometimes religion can be used as a way to uphold the status quo. "If God wanted things different, he'd have made them different," some people say; or, "If he wanted there to be no poor people, he'd make everyone rich." Prejean rejects these ideas. According to her, it's up to humans to fight injustice and end suffering. Christianity for her requires you to work for justice and peace and not just be satisfied with the way things are.

He is strictly an old-school, pre-Vatican Catholic, and he shows me a pamphlet on sexual purity and modesty of dress that he distributes to the prisoners. (2.13)

Not all Christians necessarily see things the way Prejean does. Not even all Catholics do: the Catholic priest at Angola isn't much for siding with the poor and changing the world. He's more concerned that Prejean doesn't wear a habit than he is about ending the death penalty. Prejean politely and quietly seems to think he's an idiot (which may be why she doesn't mention his name; she's trying not to single him out and say publicly so everyone can hear that he's an idiot).

"I feel sorry for the old man… For him, the human personal interaction of trust and love is not part of the sacrament." (4.107)

Prejean is saying she's sorry for the priest because he doesn't see trust and love as part of his religion. She probably is sorry for him, but that's surely a burn. She's saying he's committed to hollow rituals, not love. Also, she calls him "old." Nuns, it turns out, can dish it like the best of them—even if they have to disguise their barbs.

How is it, I wonder, that the mandate and example of Jesus, so clearly urging compassion and nonviolence, could so quickly become accommodated? (6.35)

Prejean's talking specifically about Warden Blackburn, who's a believing Christian but doesn't feel there's any contradiction between his faith and executing someone. He's got a duty to the state, and his wife is a good Christian who thinks it's all okay—so, he figures, what's the problem? Blackburn's position is easy to sneer at… but then, most people at some point or other do ethically dubious things in their jobs and don't feel all that bad about it. People accommodate all sorts of things; they're an accommodating bunch. But when life and death are stake? That really ups the responsibility ante, right?

The swath of violence cut by Christians across the centuries is long and wide and bloodstained… In fact, surveys of public opinion show that those who profess Christianity tend to favor capital punishment slightly more than the overall population—Catholics more than Protestants. (6.38)

Again, Christianity is based on worshipping someone who was executed by the state, so you'd think that Christians would be reluctant to execute folks. But as Prejean says, that hasn't really been true historically. In fact, Christians are more likely to support the death penalty than the population as a whole, even though very few people believe Jesus would support the death penalty. Prejean doesn't go into this much, but you can see she finds it a bit frustrating.

I prayed, I wrote, I scratched out words and wrote new ones in the margins, I consulted with Bill Quigley and some of the Sisters, then prayed some more. (8.59)

Prejean often mentions praying. Here she's trying to figure out the words to say at Robert's Parole Board hearing. She must know that it's not going to make much difference—but still, it's important, so she asks for guidance. Prayer's a matter-of-fact part of her life: it pops up here and there, without too much fuss, maybe less because she hopes it'll change things and more in order to remind herself what it is she's doing.

One of the things he had told a reporter was that yes, he had religious faith and believed in Jesus Christ, and had a spiritual adviser, but he was no "religious fanatic or nothing…" (9.130)

Robert assures the media that he's Christian—but not too Christian. Prejean sort of assures her readers (and the inmates on Death Row) of the same thing. She talks plainly and doesn't try to convert you. She and Robert don't have too much in common, but maybe that's one thing.

And thus was legitimated for Christians the authority of secular government to "control" its subjects by coercive and violent means—even punishment by death." (9.159)

Prejean thinks Christianity was corrupted or compromised when Constantine made it the official religion of his empire. When Christianity is adopted by the rulers, Prejean thinks, it becomes part of government efforts to force people to do things through violence. In Prejean's view, Christians were better able to follow the precepts of Jesus when they were outlawed and pursued by the state—though obviously that had its downsides as well (like being eaten by lions).

I talk about Robert and the last days and hours of his life and how Jesus taught us to love each other no matter what, and I tell them what Robert had said to the Harveys before he died—how he hoped his death would give them some relief. (10.68)

Prejean speaks at Robert's funeral about Jesus's belief in the importance of loving one another. It's not exactly clear what she's talking about specifically in this context. Does she mean that the people gathered there should love Robert even though he did horrible things? Or that they need to love his executioners, even though they killed him? Either way, she also seems to be emphasizing the fact that Robert acted like Jesus at least to some extent; he forgave those who wanted him dead, and wished them well. The big point may be that if everyone loved and had a little more compassion for each other, all of these problems would sort themselves out without anyone killing anyone else, under any circumstances.