All of the arts – dance, literature, music, painting, photography, sculpture, theater – have a significant role to play in our capacity to express and reflect upon the values that we and our society hold dear.
When I learned that the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music was going to perform the opera “Dead Man Walking” I knew this would be an exceptional opportunity to engage students, faculty and the broader Indiana community in a dialogue surrounding one of the most difficult ethical questions of our society: Are there legal, moral or religious grounds that justify the State of Indiana intentionally taking the life of a citizen?
In making ethical and social justice choices, reasons can be put forward in support of both sides in cases like capital punishment. As decision makers, we accept some of these reasons as persuasive and reject others based on our individual and collective values. Moral argument is one important way we work through these difficult choices. How, then, do the arts contribute in this process of decision-making?
As a writer, Sister Helen Prejean recounts her experiences as the religious advisor to a man convicted of a rape and the double murder of two young people. Her book “Dead Man Walking” recalls the struggle she experienced as a Roman Catholic nun in her effort to comfort the parents in their loss and who wanted only revenge, while also being true to the Christian commandment to love even the man who took the lives of those children.
In the opera “Dead Man Walking,” composer Jake Heggie and librettist Terrence McNally use Sister Helen’s novel as the basis for a performance in music and lyrics. In performance, the words from the page become song, the scenes take 3-D shape, the music touches us in ways that factual arguments do not. Is it seeing and hearing the way grief, sorrow and love are portrayed that gives the artistic endeavor its power? Or, is it being part of the artistic experience that helps us understand how values shape our lives as individuals and as a community?
The IU opera performances of “Dead Man Walking” provide a unique opportunity to explore fundamental questions of how religious belief shapes questions of social values and action. What is the role of a spiritual advisor to someone who is condemned to die? The opera also exposes the emotional impact on the victim’s family and the society as we struggle to cope with the loss and the way our legal system has developed to represent how we treat others who have committed a crime.
Given that all major religious denominations in the U.S., with only two exceptions, have publicly stated their opposition to the death penalty, the question facing religious leaders is how does faith help people resolve the moral dilemma of the death penalty?
Legally one of the most fundamental obligations of the state in civil society is to protect its citizens. Capital punishment is lawful in 31 states, although 19 states plus the District of Columbia have outlawed the death penalty, and 30 states have not carried out an execution in the last 5 years. Internationally, over 140 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or practice. How should our society respond to criminal actions? What is the appropriate punishment for a capital offense? And, how does our legal system and the way we treat someone who has done wrong reflect the character of our society?
To further examine these controversial issues, faculty from across the Indiana University Bloomington campus, community leaders across the state, and national activists are collaborating in a series of educational programs focused on the religious and social justice issues related to capital punishment.
The Association for Practical and Professional Ethics (APPE) has developed these lectures and panel discussions to support the Jacobs School of Music performance of the opera Dead Man Walking. These educational programs are free, and students, faculty, and members of the broader community are encouraged to attend. Biographical information about Sister Helen Prejean and all of the panel members are available on the APPE website or by calling the APPE office at 812-855-6450.
- 7 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, October 13, Musical Arts Center lobby Clergy representing the Disciples of Christ, Jewish, Southern Baptist, and Unitarian Universalist denominations will gather for a religious leaders panel discussion.
- 4 to 5 p.m. Sunday, October 18, Musical Arts Center Auditorium Sister Helen Prejean, an internationally recognized activist against the death penalty and author of the book on which the opera “Dead Man Walking” is based, will present a public lecture.
- 7 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, October 20, Musical Arts Center lobby A second panel, composed of a former federal prosecuting attorney and a former death row prisoner–now exonerated–will join IU faculty from the Department of Criminal Justice and the Maurer Law School for a social justice panel discussion on the issues surrounding capital punishment.
The educational programs have come together through the support of colleagues and friends at the Maurer School of Law, the Media School, the departments of Criminal Justice and Religious Studies within the College of Arts and Sciences, the Poynter Center for the Study of Ethics and American Institutions, the Hutton Honors College and the Wells Scholars Program. My deepest thanks to all.
I hope you will participate in the panel discussions, attend the opera “Dead Man Walking” and let me know what you experienced.