There are many times when people refuse to call out for grace because they feel they don’t deserve it, or they don’t want to owe anybody. The mystery of grace encompasses the reality that often we have gut instincts that tell us to reject it when it comes our way, or we refuse to extend it to people who recognize their need for it.
The movie Dead Man Walking, based on a true story, brings Matthew Poncelet to the forefront as he waits on death row to be executed for being part of the killing of a young couple and the rape of the woman. He asks Sister Helen Prejean to help him with an appeal and to be his spiritual advisor. As she makes this final journey with him, she incurs the wrath of the parents of the couple and many others who feel he deserves to be put to death.
Sister Prejean says, “I’m just trying to follow the example of Jesus who said every person is worth more than their worst act.” One of the parents, Mr. Percy, responds with anger. “This is not a person this is an animal. No, I take that back. Animals don’t rape and murder their own kind. Matthew is God’s mistake. And you want to hold the poor murderer’s hand? You want to be there to comfort him when he dies? There wasn’t anybody there in the woods that night to comfort Hope when those two animals pushed her face down into the wet grass.”
She responds, “ I just want to help him take responsibility for what he did.”
Mrs. Percy says, “Did he admit to what he did? Is he sorry?”
Mr. Percy goes on. “If you really are sorry and you really do care about this family, you’d want to see justice done for our murdered child. Now you can’t have it both ways. You can’t befriend that murderer and expect us to be your friend too.”
When grace overrides the desire and call for justice, bitterness can come to those who long for the situation to be made right. Sister Prejean, despite the opposition, offers her love to Matthew in the form of grace.
Her acceptance of him allows him to come to a place of sorrow at what he has done, something he refuses to consider at the beginning of their relationship when he denies his crimes. He faces up to his part and in his last words before he dies says he hopes his death will make things easier for the parents.
At the end of the movie, when they are burying Matthew, Mr. Delacroix, the father of the murdered boy, stands at a distance watching and when Sister Prejean walks over to him, he says, “I don’t know why I’m here. I don’t have your faith.” She replies, “It’s not faith, I wish it were that easy. It’s work. Maybe we could help each other find a way out of the hate.” We later see them praying together at the back of a church.
In the end, Matthew was put to death by the state and many saw that as justice being done. But Sister Prejean fights to this day against capital punishment.
Somebody touched me
Making everything new
Somebody touched me
I didn’t know what to do
Burned through my life
Like a bolt from the blue
Somebody touched me
I know it was you
Bruce Cockburn from Somebody Touched Me on Nothing But a Burning Light
Off the Beaten Path:
Dead Man Walking scene of reconciliation: https://youtu.be/xQyYa3DBhNA
Sister Helen Prejean’s book: Dead Man Walking: The Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty That Sparked a National Debate
Sister Helen Prejean’s website: https://www.sisterhelen.org/
Bruce Cockburn sings Somebody Touched Me: from his Nothing But a Burning Light album: https://youtu.be/9wYdB_2M2lM
For a thoughtful exploration of justice see Megha Majumbar’s A Burning: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/jan/13/a-burning-by-megha-majumdar-review-a-brilliant-debut
For a discussion on justice and love see To forgive her daughter’s killer, Wanda Derkson turned to her faith by Paul Douglas Walfall in Broadview magazine, May 14, 2021: https://broadview.org/wilma-derksen-dispelling-the-clouds/
See Lauren B. Davis’ Even So, a novel that considers the situation of watching yourself head down a destructive path that causes great pain to others, and the way back. For an interview with David Worsley about Even So with Lauren B. Davis see https://youtu.be/Q4ITvqYsN6c.