Do you remember the film Dead Man Walking from a number of years ago, the story of a convicted killer on death row and his relationship with a Catholic sister, Helen Prejean, who serves as his spiritual director? There is a scene near the end of the movie, set on the final evening before the scheduled execution. He learned that all appeals for clemency had been denied, and so this condemned man and his spiritual director talk honestly about the horrific crime he committed—they talked of the impact on the victims’ family, and the readiness of the convicted killer to face death.
It was a serious conversation as you would expect. In the midst of that conversation, the sister speaks words of faith and promise. She says to him, “You are a son of God.” There is a long pause, a moment of shocked silence, and the man facing death confesses, “No one’s ever said that to me before. Plenty of times I’ve been called a son of something else, but never a son of God.” It was a remarkable scene in the movie, in the midst of tragedy and an impending execution for a terrible crime. And yet there is something here worth thinking about.
How tragic it is when people spend their entire lives without hearing, let alone even beginning to grasp this fundamental truth, that each one of us is a child of God. Is it any wonder that many find themselves living in a sea of unhealthy relationships? Do we really understand that God loves us unconditionally, and is wanting to share our lives? If we did think about it, I have a feeling it would make a big difference in the way we relate to others. In that movie Dead Man Walking we catch a glimpse of a wonderful nun who reached out in compassion to a man many despised and wanted dead.
Sister Helen Prejean says, “Energy comes to us because we get involved in something bigger than ourselves and our hearts have been moved by people’s suffering, and we can’t remain neutral.” Some would argue that this prisoner got what he deserved for a terrible crime—but it took Sister Prejean to show a great step of compassion to reach out to him in his final hours here on earth. Would you have done that? Would I have reached out to a convicted man like that?
More than fifty years ago the noted scientist Albert Einstein said: “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, thus we are drifting toward a catastrophe beyond comparison. We shall require a new manner of thinking if humankind is to survive.” A new manner of thinking that comes from embracing a vision of reaching out to others with care and compassion, even when it’s not a popular thing to do. The apostle Paul said in Romans 12:9, “Be sincere in your love for others. Hate everything that is evil and hold tight to everything that is good. Love each other as brothers and sisters and honour others more than you do yourself”. Our problem is that very often we would rather judge another person than love them. It was Gandhi who said, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ”. We in the church have criticised and condemned others and not cared for them, and in so doing have let down the cause of Jesus Christ.
If you read the Gospel stories in the New Testament, you will read again and again how Jesus found himself embroiled in conflict during his earthly ministry. So much of that conflict was with those who were in the business of limiting the promise of God’s love only to people who fully conformed to their rigid requirements. The religious leaders of the day rejected what Jesus stood for, and what he sought to communicate in his relationships with the people of his day. The love of Jesus knew no limits, and he reached out to anyone who needed help, and he did what he could. He showed compassion—do we follow his example?