Archived Voice Articles

Dead Man Walking gets the campus talking

By Sally Jongsma

The death penalty, restorative justice, and the place of confession and forgiveness in the Christian community was the theme of a series of events held on the campus in late February.

Senior Jonathan Shaftstall played Matthew Poncelot in this spring’s production of Dead Man Walking. The play was the centerpiece of a week of activities in which the campus community thought about issues related to the death penalty.

Senior Jonathan Shaftstall played Matthew Poncelot in this spring’s production of Dead Man Walking. The play was the centerpiece of a week of activities in which the campus community thought about issues related to the death penalty.

It began with Theater Professor Jeri Schelhaas’s selection of the play Dead Man Walking for the spring main stage show. In purchasing rights to perform the play, the college had to agree to create other forums in which the audience could think about these issues. The theater department joined with the Social Justice Studies Department and the Co-curricular Committee to plan a series of events for the campus community.

“It’s a very smart thing to do,” says Schelhaas about plays that focus on important issues in our culture. “Grounding a performance in examination of the issue from a variety of angles, allows viewers to reflect more deeply about it.” Dordt’s theater department has done something like this before by engaging other departments in discussion of issues raised in a play, but this year’s effort was more comprehensive.

In addition to the seven performances of Dead Man Walking, three evenings of activities gave nearly 150 students the opportunity to think about the death penalty and its implications. In Monday evening’s event titled “Live People Talking about Dead Man Walking,” four students gave ten-minute presentations for or against the death penalty, offering thought-provoking and contrasting perspectives. The presenters were members of English Professor David Schelhaas’s Advanced Composition class, which had been assigned to write a paper on the topic. Schelhaas selected four of what he considered to be the best papers.

“The process created an opportunity for students in the class to think through the many sides of the issue and come to their own conclusions about what they believe is a just response to capital punishment,” says Schelhaas.

“Sweet Freedom” was the topic of speaker Doug Tjapkes on Tuesday. Tjapkes is the founder and president of an organization called INNOCENT, a non-profit prisoners’ rights group. He is also the author of Sweet Freedom, which relates a ten-year effort to free Maurice Carter, an African-American imprisoned for twenty-nine years for a crime he did not commit. Tjapkes, who shares a Reformed background and worldview, is a former broadcast journalist, radio station owner, and the winner of the prestigious Advancement of Justice Award presented by the State Bar of Michigan.

“The Death Penalty: Vengeance or Justice?” was the topic on Wednesday, and featured presentations by invited guests Sister Maureen Fenlon and Gail Rice. Sister Maureen is the national coordinator of the Dead Man Walking School Theatre Project; has done pioneering work to humanize the U. S. prison system; and has served as national coordinator of NETWORK, a Catholic social justice lobby based in Washington, D. C. Gail Rice has served on the CRC synod’s Restorative Justice study committee. Rice has been involved in issues of capital punishment and prison ministry for years, a commitment that grew after her brother, a Denver policeman, was murdered during a botched burglary attempt.

In addition to these events, invited guests spoke in several classes and chapel.

Social Work Professor Abby Jansen, says the goal was to help participants understand the complexity of criminal justice, punishment, and forgiveness issues that form the context for thinking about the death penalty.

“We weren’t out to change people’s minds, but to have a meaningful dialogue about the issue,” she says. The student debate arguing both sides set up some of the issues to think about on both sides of the argument. Because Iowa does not have the death penalty, the planners found it harder to find people actively working in the justice system to talk in support of the death penalty who were also knowledgeable about many issues related to prisoner treatment and restorative justice.

“The statement we wanted to make was that it is not easy to make a decision about the death penalty,” says Schelhaas. “Methods of imprisonment and of killing change. It needs to be looked at again and again. Issues are not clear cut, and in a college community we cannot simply accept quick answers and opinions. We must examine the nuances and understand what is involved in such decisions.”