The deepest problem in America’s culture war is that the Christians have grown ditzy about the theological virtue of charity. It’s bad enough when the new Visigoths (usually representing some government agency) ride in preaching a false compassion that denies the old law even as it imposes a harsh new one.
But even most Catholics now think charity a limp niceness that tells people they are not responsible or that what they’ve done isn’t really evil. (It’s society’s fault, or only an old taboo.) We absolve by fudging. This is a far cry from the fierce charity of Jesus, who did good to all even as he told hard truths. St. Paul, ever the eager disciple, explained that giving food and drink to our enemy usefully heaps “coals of fire on his head.” The old charity involved the sharpest realism.
I was reminded of this watching the extraordinary film Dead Man Walking. In it, Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon), a Catholic nun in Louisiana, casually starts a correspondence with Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn), a death-row inmate. Until then, she had worked in a ghetto. Even as a child in a middle-class home, she brought home stray dogs and cats. In short, she’s the kind of religious figure who, in most popular culture, has an attitude—about society, the Church, men, capital punishment, racism—the whole modern litany. So when she visits the prison you expect Hollywood weepiness about capital punishment and the evils of America, or at least a properly improper romance between sister and the prisoner.
What happens is far more shocking. First, Sister Helen has a true religious vocation. She opposes the death penalty, but with humility, not with the usual self-righteous rage against the system. When she meets the families of the two adolescent victims at a hearing, she recognizes that she understands less than she thought about evil and its aftermath. The parents are not bad people (one pair are even solid, if simple, Catholics), but they feel righteous anger when someone says a life sentence is a just punishment for the rape and murder of two kids. Sister Prejean is a good soul, but she comes face-to-face here with evil that admits of no easy denial or forgiveness.
While she’s trying to reach out to the parents, her death-row case (who claims he’s innocent) starts playing the reverse race-card in the press: Louisiana is only executing a white man, he says, because the previous two executions involved blacks. He’s tired of blacks bringing up slavery as an excuse all the time; he grew up poor too. Hitler went a little far, but, you know, he wasn’t all wrong about the Aryan race. Back in the ghetto, Sister hears from her black neighbors about how she’s neglecting them for a murderer who’s a crude racist. Even her family, who understand and admire the kind of person she is deep down, think she’s in over her head.
So what’s a Catholic to do in 1996, when the bad guys you’re trying to help get worse and the good people feel you’re betraying them?
Her answer is to try showing charity to everyone. This may sound like an uninspiring conclusion, but only because we have grown so vague and jaded in our notions of Christian love.
One of the first things real charity means is that death may be transcended. The murdered kids are gone forever, but love toward them and the survivors leaves a door to reconciliation and peace open—just a crack. Simple views for or against capital punishment, or that blame society or the economy for murder, are also transcended without abandoning justice. Poncelet may live the rest of his life in prison or he may die by lethal injection, but the one thing certain is that unless he accepts personal responsibility for what he did, confesses, and repents he will find no peace, living or dead.
Charity displays its full force here. The policy debate about capital punishment is important. In fact, you might say that deciding who lives and dies, and under what circumstances, is the political question. I do not believe capital punishment is cruel, unusual, or unconstitutional. But in line with recent papal teaching, I am opposed to it except when necessary. This particular case did not seem to demand death; others easily might. Yet the need for charity, even toward the evildoers we execute, is indisputable. Just in case you think real, evil separates out neatly into religious and political questions, Poncelet dies with some dignity, but only because Sister Helen leads him to true repentance on the one hand while the state of Louisiana demands justice on the other. He may have ended the same way had he served a life sentence, but for real hardness of heart, absent the need to make a decision, the odds are long.
We have mistaken our needs as a nation so deeply that we think perfect justice or social reform or racial integration or education or mere niceness will spare us the need for charity. These are certainly goods; but today, not even the churches have a firm grip on charity. It’s much easier to issue policy statements. Yet charity, one of the names of God, is not mocked. There are thousands, millions of religious people in this country who every day do for others what Sister Helen did for a murderer. They will get no fanfare for their trouble on the nightly news, which cannot understand charity.
Trying to make politics a subdivision of charity is a mistake; that way tyranny lies. But without charity we inhabit the most naked and cruel public square of all, a square that will contain neither real justice nor love. By all means in politics let’s seek all the light we can find. But let’s not forget, where all of politics and human life fail, that one thing may still succeed.