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Imagine yourself convicted for a crime and sentenced to death. Imagine the hate in the society towards you. What kind of a soul would you have? How would you feel about the thought knowing when you are going to die and in what way? How will you react? Who will help you out? In the novel Dead Man Walking, Sister Helen Prejean, was asked to correspond with Pat Sonnier, a man sentenced to die by electric chair for the murder of two teen-agers, which he did not commit. Dead Man Walking, gives a moving account of her spiritual journey as she became knowledgeable about our system of capital punishment through her involvement in the lives and deaths of several convicted murderers, their families, the families of their victims and the people whose job it is to carry out executions. Sister Helen brings a profound compassion to all the people she meets, reflecting on her experiences from an engaged Christian perspective. She helps the two death row inmates by loving them even though society despises them. The soul of a man is reached and articulated through the assumption of those who love without judgment.
Sister Helen?s novel is a classic example of the practice of attentive love, and of its consequences. Throughout the novel, Sister Helen quotes Albert Camus extensively on resistance to the death penalty. The soul comes into articulation not through the discipline of punishment, but through the practice of love, a process that the death penalty may initiate. When a human being is being subjugated to the power of the state, he may enter into a religious functionary willing to be attentive to his needs for companionship. In that exchange lies the possibility of construction?maybe the reconstruction?of the soul. Her description of the relationship that developed between herself, Patrick Sonnier, and Robert Willie, whom she is able to touch and love, is clear testimony to the expression that is given thereby to the souls. ?I have never known real love,? Patrick Sonnier tells Sister Helen: ? ?It?s a shame a man has to come to prison to find love.? He looks up at [her] and says, ?Thanks for loving me?? (Prejean 82). By loving Patrick Sonnier, Sister Helen brings him into awareness of himself as a soul, of his worth as a human being. That awareness entitles a process of correction, including the assumption of blame for the wrong he has done. Sister Helen?s work, with the help of psychologist Sharon Lamb?s new book, The Trouble with Blame, construes people as
?vehicles and representatives of moral values,? and argues that a ?right to be punished?? coincides with the right to be ?regarded as a responsibility agent?: ? ?to be punished ? because we gave deserved it ? is to be treated as human person made in God?s image.?
Perpetrators not only deserve blame but are worthy of it, in the fullest, most human sense of the word (Lamb 185-186).
The experience of death includes a moment of shocked self-recognition in which the self, the soul, views the damage to its own body as if it were an other, the Other, separate. Sister Helen challenges the current taste for public executions, which seems rooted in the desire to participate personally in the act of vengeance. (Consider, for instance, the hundreds of volunteers who responded to Gary Gilmore?s request for execution by firing squad.) Sister Helen believes that the most convincing means of demonstrating to the citizens of this country that capital punishment is wrong are visual. She argues that we are able to tolerate such killings only because we do not see them:
There is an elaboration ruse going on here, a pitiful disguise. Killing is a camouflaged? [W]hen executions were public, it was not a pretty sight? It was awful to see, and fascinating. And visible. It was truthful? It was cruel. It was unusual. And it was obviously punishment. It was death. Forcible, violent, premeditated death (Prejean 218).
The condemned man himself observed this dreadful process in horrified fascination. For Sister Helen to illustrate the dangers of working on push barges, Robert Willie tells her that once he had witnessed with his own eyes a cable snap and whip around and cut a man in half. ?Right at the wrist, it cut him in two like a knife and his waist and legs dropped into the water, and he just looked down and died. I think the shock killed him, watching half his body drop into the water like that,? (Prejean 206). What Sister Helen accomplishes in her conversation with both Patrick and Robert is a refusal of the separating gaze, an insistence in connection between two human beings who enable one another to see what it is they do. She asserts congruence between what the body does, what the eyes see, what the mind thinks, how the soul responds. She insists that neither the condemned men, any of the government functionaries involved in execution, nor the citizens of this country separate how they act from what they see. Speaking, for instance, with the head of the Louisiana Department of Corrections, she has ?a hunch that if this man were to ? see with his own eyes this killing laid bare, he?d quit,? (Prejean 105). If Sister Helen did not love Robert Willie, she would not have the conversation about what he saw and what it meant.
On his last walk, Patrick Sonnier asks one favor: ? ?Can Sister Helen touch my arm??? It is the first time, she reports, ?I have never touched him? (Prejean 92). Having done so, she cannot bring herself to watch his death: ?I close my eyes and do not see ? the executioner? do his work? (Prejean 94). Yet when she does look, and hears the warden announce the time of death, a moment of shamed recognition occurs: ?His eyes happen to look into mine. He lowers his eyes,? (Prejean 94). Therefore, witnessing her second execution, Sister Helen insists that seeing is an act of connection and of responsibility. Like the condemned man, she watches: ?Robert takes one more look around the room at the world he is leaving. He looks at me and winks, and then they ? kill him. This time I do not close my eyes. I watch everything,? (Prejean 211). Although Sister Helen holds Patrick Sonnier blameworthy, her ultimate project is not one of the identifying culprit: ?He seems to accept that he is responsible for what had happened even though he claims not to have killed the teenagers ? I suspend judgment. With the electric chair waiting, with death close like this, who the triggerman was seems not the point. It is not only the death row inmate?s souls that are defined by those who love without judgment, it is Sister Helen?s soul. In the beginning of the novel, Sister Helen is worried about meeting her death row inmate. She is worried about what to say or how he will react to her. However, by talking to this man and having a ?relationship? with this man, she sees that he is human. She realizes that this man has feelings. This man can laugh, cry, and even feel sorrow. Sister Helen feels she has done the right thing: help these men get through all the emotions a death row inmate must go through and make them feel loved. In return, these men gave love back to Sister Helen and defined her soul.
The soul is reached, and brought to articulation, not through punishment, but through its mitigation, through the companionship of those who love without judgment. The soul is brought into being through love, a practice which we can recoup what is threatened, what is lost, in the tortured experience of awaiting execution. It is important to qualify this argument in two ways. First, the threat of death needs not to be the necessary prerequisite for such love. We can make it available to one another elsewhere at other times. The great misfortune of the lives of Patrick Sonnier and Robert Willie is that the love of Sister Helen, or the rest of us, was not extended to them before they reached death row. If it had, they might never have gone there. Secondly, the alternative genealogy traced here is one that smacks strongly of privilege. If identity is the result of individual care, if soul is the product of compassion, where lie the souls of those who do not share their particular histories with others, those who are not loved at all?
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