16 September 2007
So, last week I got an email asking me to speak at Perspectives, an EU event where professors come and talk about "hot" issues in our society. I was invited to speak about capital punishment, which was a dead giveaway that I was not the first person invited to speak! No, I imagine that several other professors passed up the invitation before the ball bounced down to me. Nevertheless, whatever the circumstances, I'm glad to do it. The death penalty, in my mind, is a travesty of justice and a sign that America's little experiment with Enlightened forms of governance is far from perfect, far from completely successful.
At any rate, as part of my preparation, I decided to re-watch the 1995 film, Dead Man Walking (dir. Tim Robbins; writ. Tim Robbins, based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean; starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn). I had remembered that it was a good movie, period--quite apart from any value it may have as an "issue" film. And I was right. Dead Man Walking is well-written, well-directed, and well-acted. It tells the story of Sister Helen Prejean and her first experience with serving as a friend and spiritual advisor for a death-row inmate, Matthew Poncelet (Penn). It is probably the most intensely and deeply "Christian" movie I've ever seen in my life. Yes, more Christian than Gibson's Passion of the Christ. More Christian than, oh, I don't know, Ben-Hur or The Greatest Story Ever Told because Dead Man Walking shows us a vivid and heart-wrenching example of what it means to follow Christ today.
Perhaps because I'm thinking of the movie in the context of this upcoming lecture/discussion event, one thought that is forefront in my mind is that I appreciate this movie especially because it is not propaganda. To talk about this, I guess I need to define "propaganda." To me, propaganda is the deliberate and often skillful use of overwhelming emotional techniques to compel audiences to adopt a given viewpoint, attitude, idea, or behavior that, if contemplated quietly and rationally, they may or may not adopt. "Brainwashing" is the rather loaded and extreme synonym, and indoctrination is a very similar notion. I think some very good things can be "pushed" through propaganda: seat belt safety, abstinence from sex and drugs, salvation, etc. The thing is that propaganda can be used to push anything--it is a communication medium that cares nothing for its own content. Adolf Hitler and Billy Graham can both use propaganda to push their agendas, and it can be just as effective (as far as that goes) for both.
My problem with propaganda is that I think good ideas should be accepted because of their merits, not because I use propaganda to compel you to accept them without giving them careful and prayerful consideration. If you want to see a great case study of propaganda (indoctrination, brainwashing) at work, rent the documentary Jesus Camp, which shows some ways in which a particular breed of fundamentalist, evangelical Christians inculcates their specific set of beliefs, attitudes, opinions, and values into young children.
I am a teacher, and sometimes teachers cross the line from teaching to propaganda, but there is actually a significant difference between the two practices. Namely, teaching, when it is persuasive (and not all teaching is!), makes plain its persuasive agenda, forefronting it so that students can scrutinize it in relatively pressure-free circumstances and decide how much of it (if any) they choose to accept as their own. I like to think that teaching is putting a variety of foods out on a table, discussing the merits of each, and, perhaps, recommending a good menu, while propaganda is more like finding out what your audience's favorite food is and then somehow disguising the food you want them to eat as the food they most like to eat (kind of like soy turkey or something).
Dead Man Walking is a teaching film, not a propaganda film. While it focuses on Helen Prejean's decision to walk alongside Matthew Poncelet, it does so without making Poncelet into a criminal with a heart of gold or explaining away his evil deeds, it does so without ignoring the deep grief and anger of his victims' families, it does so without turning Prejean into a saint or an angel, and it does so without dictating the "correct" position on the death penalty. I'll have to show the movie to a group of students sometime, but I have a feeling that a pro-death penalty person could watch this movie and feel unchallenged in his opinion, and that an anti-death penalty person could watch it and feel some doubts, just as easily as the movie could raise hard questions for death penalty advocates or affirm the position of abolitionists.
That said, the movie definitely presents a deeply Christian, restorative, redemptive vision of justice and love. Prejean does argue that the state has no right to take a human life (as does Poncelet, whose concurring opinion might act as an argument in favor of capital punishment). She claims that one of the lessons of Jesus Christ was that a person is more than the worst thing s/he ever did. She asserts that while the Old Testament calls for retributive justice, it also mandates the death penalty for adultery, breaking the Sabbath, trespassing, and many other offenses. She identifies redemption and grace as the heart of Christ's teachings. I guess that, to the extent that one identifies with Prejean, it would be hard to feel strong pro-execution feelings during the movie. Still... the film refuses to soft-pedal the heinous nature of Poncelet's crime or to argue that his mitigating circumstances (a childhood with little love, a life of poverty, etc.) absolve him of responsibility.
Most of all, the movie shows that Christianity demands that we love the unlovable. It's not hard to love the good, the innocent, the gentle and kind. It is nearly impossible to love a murderer and rapist who espouses neo-Nazi, white supremacist ideologies and spews hatred toward blacks and toward the parents of his victims. But Prejean does. Not with a doe-eyed, Hallmark love that survives by ignoring the monstrous in Poncelet's life, but a deeply Christian love that sees that the monstrous deed he's done are not the man--that the murderer is, in fact, a human being, a "son of God" and that there is no better reason than that to love any person on earth.
This movie is often called a film about the death penalty, and it is that to a great extent. But today, I think that it's much more a movie about loving "the least of these," and, as such, it is a movie that Christians should see as a routine part of their Christian education. It won't indoctrinate anyone, but it will put some very rare and expensive food items on the table.
For more information, not on the film, but on the death penalty, please start with Bryan Stevenson's heroic organization, the Equal Justice Initiative. Bryan Stevenson is, and mean this in all love and sincerity, my hero. http://eji.org/eji/