In the movie Dead Man Walking, Sister Helen Prejean visits an imprisoned man in the Louisiana State Penitentiary named Matthew Poncelet, convicted to die by lethal injection for the murder of a young couple. Prejean agrees to act as his spiritual advisor, uncontroversially, in the weeks leading up to his execution. More controversially, however, she agrees to advocate on his behalf for a reduced sentence to obtain life in prison rather than the death penalty. The families of the murdered couple cannot fathom why Prejean would advocate for such a depraved man who refused to admit his guilt.
Ultimately, Prejean’s efforts to reduce Poncelet’s sentence fail. On the day of his execution, after many sessions with Prejean in which she told him directly that he would not receive forgiveness unless he took responsibility for his actions, Poncelet finally admits to murdering the teenage couple and asks for forgiveness from the murdered boy’s father. After Poncelet is executed, the father attends the funeral and prays with Prejean, ending the movie.
When the movie was released, many people saw it as another far Left, Hollywood propaganda campaign. After all, super-Progressive icons Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn were the major stars of the film (Sarandon played the Prejean character, while Penn played Poncelet), while radical Lefty Tim Robbins was the director. And, indeed, a major emphasis of the film was political, rather than the theological and spiritual issues that motivated the real life Helen Prejean.
But even though the film may have been motivated by American political issues, there has been a long tradition in Christian history (especially in the Catholic church tradition) to advocate for convicted criminals. Sister Helen Prejean is just one example from modern times; over the last 2000 years, there have been thousands upon thousands of cases where the church has interceded with the state on behalf of the guilty. Why does the church do this?
Ian Drummond, a new Writer for the All Saints’ Center for Theology, answers this question in the Summer issue with his essay “The Pastor as Intercessor: Augustine, the State, and Interceding for the Guilty.” Ian, a classics scholar by training and a future priest in the Anglican Church in North America, focuses his attention on a case from the 4th century where St. Augustine of Hippo interceded with public officials to reduce the sentence of a condemned criminal. As Ian explains, Augustine interceded for the criminal not because he had utopian, sentimental views of justice, but because he had tremendous faith in God’s redemptive power. Augustine fought for the criminal because he fought for God; if the church was allowed more time to work toward the criminal’s repentance before his execution, then God’s kingdom would be advanced and the gospel would be communicated in a very public manner.
Augustine’s example inspires Ian to recommend practical steps pastors can take to witness to the gospel by interceding with the state on behalf of criminals. As Ian understands it, an important role of pastors within the public sphere is to intercede on behalf of the enemies of the church and society — not to spite justice, but rather to favor repentance and forgiveness.
Ian’s essay, as part of the Center’s Think Tank, encourages open debate and discussion in order to identify proper and wise ways the church can address some of the issues raised by his argument. We encourage the community to discuss here in the comments thread the role of pastors in the intercession for the guilty. First, read Ian’s essay, and then come back here to add your own thoughts!