Recently I finished reading two remarkably disturbing, yet moving books. No coincidence that those adjectives often go together. You could certainly place both books on the “Social Justice” shelf, but they are two very different stories. “What Is The What”, technically a novel, tells the very real story of Valentino Achak Deng’s journey from war-torn Sudan to the far-from-Utopian United States of America. And it is in this country that Sister Helen Prejean tells her story in the book, “Dead Man Walking.” Rather than separating these two powerful stories into a couple of reflections, I thought it might be useful (interesting?) to tie them together. As you may have noticed by my Hunger Games post, I’m no literary critic. Rather, I enjoy throwing some thoughts against the wall to see if they form something meaningful.
The journey across Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya and then over the Atlantic that so many young Sudanese men made over the course of the 80s, 90s, and into the 2000s is one that I thought I knew a good deal about. Attending Curry College with Peter Nhiany, one of the men who made that journey as a boy, opened my eyes to a world I had been totally ignorant to before college. But after reading “What Is The What”, I realize that I had only scratched the surface of their story. So deep does this book take the reader into the mind of one of these boys and then men, that I found it to be – without overstating – life-changing.
That same word, life-changing, can be said of Sister Helen Prejean’s story. Her story is wrapped up with the story of death row inmates, whom she serves as Spiritual Adviser. What I mean by that word, life-changing, isn’t some outward change abruptly pushed upon me. It’s this deep change in the way that I think about, well, life. The frailty of life and our ability to save or take it away. Of course I’ve had my own life-changing experience, fighting (beating) cancer. I’ve had just a small taste of that frailty and the unending gratitude; knowing that my life has been saved. Truly, saved.
Maybe it is that past experience upon which my convictions bubble up when reading these two stories. Maybe those past experiences are what makes it so hard to put words to these convictions as I type. If only we had the technology to transfer feelings right onto the page – words 2.0? Hmm, that could be scary.
So here is how I simplistically tie these two stories together. In both stories, human beings are sentenced to die. Valentino impressed upon my brain an image I will never forget: some boys, along the long path to escape their warring country, would finally sit for a moment on the sidelines, up against a tree, while the others continued walking; just sit there, with there head against the tree and fade into the ground. “His flesh returned to the earth.” And Sister Prejean, she too impressed an image, one of a young man sitting this time in a chair. This time with electricity taking his life. Lives lost. Lives taken. Death sentenced.
The way I see it, in both circumstances, human beings were sentenced to die. The latter case may be more evident; men and women upholding laws that tell them sometimes it is not only okay, but right to murder our citizens. In the other case, I believe the sentence is just as brutal; first there is the sentence dealt out by war, pushing these boys to flee, sentencing some of them to their deaths. Then, there is the world that knows of these boys, and many more children and adults around the world who are struggling to survive, but does not reach out to help. In both cases, there were opportunities to help save lives. Indeed lives are saved when we reach out to those in need across the globe or when we come out against the death penalty in this country. So too are lives lost when we fail to act.
Though the deaths that I read about in both of these books are very different, I have to believe that they are connected under one system by which, in which, under which we’re okay with killing people. It’s this sort of numbness to killing that scares me. I’m so far removed from it. And yet, I contribute to that system. My taxes; some portion of the work I do on this Earth, contributes to taking life. But more than financially sponsoring the electric chairs, the bombs, the guns, we take a stance politically by our inaction. By not speaking up and out against this system, we are standing with it. As Sister Helen Prejean so perfectly sums it, after being “enlightened” by Sister Marie Augusta Neal, “To be apolitical or neutral in the face of such injustices would be, in actuality, to uphold the status quo – a very political position to take, and on the side of the oppressors. (p 5-6).”
I am wholly convinced that it is never right to take a human life. Whether we’re sentencing a person to death by electric chair and lethal injection, bombs and guns, or by starvation and poverty – if we accept killing as a fact of life or a means to an end, what sort of civilized society can we ever be?