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Advance applause goes to the Democratic National Convention Committee for its decision to include Sister Helen Prejean author of Dead Man Walking in the historic interfaith service opening the 2008 Democratic Convention in Denver on August 24th.
Whatever you think of the death penalty, Democrats have on this occasion avoided the interfaith milquetoast trap. Too often political officials select the blandest brands of religious officialdom for worship services–seeking a kind of spiritual good-house keeping seal of approval for their policies and platforms. In so doing politicians deprive themselves and society as a whole an important faith-based tradition: the prophetic pain-in-the-neck.
The DNCC won’t make that mistake. On August 24th Sister Helen Prejean, long time Roman Catholic anti-death penalty social activist will join Bishop Charles E. Blake, prelate of the Church of God in Christ, Dr. Ingrid Maatson, President of the Islamic Society of North American, and Rabbi Tzvi Weinreb, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union in leading the first-ever interfaith service to open a convention–Republican or Democratic. Respected and learned religious leaders all, Sister Helen Prejean makes up in scripturally-sound social activism what she might lack in ecclesiatic ranking within her tradition’s hierarchy.
Like secular anti-death penalty activists, Sister Helen’s rationales for ending the death penalty include its racial and economic bias and the strong likelhood of wrongful executions. Another powerful argument grounded in Sister Helen’s Roman Catholic faith is the “collateral” damage done by the death penalty on the wardens and corrections officials who are directly responsible for overseeing executions. What are the spiritual costs to men and women like Texas Warden, Jim Willett who from 1998-2001 oversaw 89 executions?
“There are times,” Willet said in an award-winning NPR radio show Witness to an Execution, “when I’m standing there, watching those fluids flow and wonder whether what we are doing here is right. It is something I’ll be thinking about for the rest of my life.” The same program chronicled Fred Allen a member of the tie-down team in Texas’ Wall Unit who after 120 executions had a mental breakdown and retired from his work.
Given continued popular support for the death penalty in large parts of the United States, it may not be surprising that both Presidential Candidates John Mcain and Barack Obama have expressed their support for it. Let’s hope both parties–not the Democrats alone–have the courage to engage diverse religious leaders faithful who will pose uncomfortable and untimely questions to their people and political leaders. In this case, Sister Helen Prejean’s concerns about the spiritual impact of the death-penalty on the humanity of those who implement it is an appropriate subject for a pre-convention interfaith service at the Democratic National Convention and the policy debates to follow.