Sister Helen Prejean, activist nun, talks about getting Jesus 'right'

Religion News Service | 8/30/2019, 6 a.m.
Sister Helen Prejean wants to get religion “right.”
Two decades after her anti-death penalty work was transformed into an Oscar-winning movie, “Dead Man Walking,” Sister Helen Prejean’s campaign continues with the backing of Pope Francis. RNS photo by Rosie Scammell

Sister Helen Prejean wants to get religion “right.”

But too often, she said, people use religion, including Christianity, for the wrong reasons.

That includes Scripture used by politicians to justify separating families at the border, said Sister Prejean, 80. Or Jesus’ death being used by Christians to defend the death penalty. Or thinking that praying for justice is the same as acting for it.

“It took me a long time to get Jesus right,” she said. “It took me a long time to not just live Christianity as practicing charity to those around me who were pretty much people just like me, to getting involved with justice, which is the true call of the gospel.”

That desire to get it right prompted Sister Prejean — an anti-death penalty activist whose book “Dead Man Walking” was the inspiration for the Oscar-winning 1995 film by the same name — to write her latest memoir, “River of Fire.”

In the new book, which ends where “Dead Man Walking” picks up, the nun describes her journey to the Sisters of St. Joseph — and how religious life changed after Vatican II.

Sister Prejean talked to Religion News Service about how she became involved in social justice, why she thinks the death penalty is on its way out and how she got to “bump into two popes along the way.”

How did you get involved in the social justice movement?

I basically would pray to God to solve the big problems, but I was never engaged directly in social justice. And so I tell in the book about awakening, being jolted out of that. The line that got me was, “Jesus preached good news to the poor.”

The good news to poor people was that it wasn’t God’s will for them to be poor — that they had a right to strive for what was rightfully theirs and to have a decent life. In other words, poverty had to be resisted, not just something accepted because God’s going to reward you in another life. You have to work for justice.

When I heard that, I didn’t even know any poor people, and I lived in New Orleans. We had 10 major housing projects for poor black people and I’d never been to any of them. I was always in the suburbs with other white people like me. God helped wake me up (and realize) that the gospel was about being on the side with people who had no voice, anyone marginalized and who was struggling. Then I began to learn. I realized that to work for justice, you can’t just pray for God to solve these problems, you’ve got to get involved.

So to get an invitation to write a man on death row kind of just fit in.

Capital punishment has been back in the news with U.S. Attorney General William Barr reinstating the federal death penalty. But you’re actually hopeful about ending the death penalty. Why?

Pope Francis on Aug. 2, 2018, made a declaration that we’re changing the Catholic catechism that under no circumstance could we ever allow state governments to execute their citizens. So now you’ve got a document. Now you’ve got words on a page. You’ve still got to bring words to life.