Listening to the World by Candace Walworth, Peace Studies Chair

I’ve been thinking about what it means for Naropa to participate in the Dead Man Walking School Theatre Project. Naropa’s mission states that we prepare graduates “…both to meet the world as it is and to change it for the better.”

The DMW School Theatre Project is an attempt to build a university and community-wide learning community that strikes both chords (“meet the world as it is” and “change it for the better.”)

First, meet the world as it is: Listen!  Listen to the mother and father who cry out for revenge, as well as to the parents who say “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” will not assuage our grief. Sister Helen dedicates her book The Death of Innocents to “Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, who show us the way.”

Listen to the men and women sitting on death row. Find out who they are, how they got where they are, and who isn’t where they are. (Who isn’t on death row?)

Listen to the stories of defense attorneys, prosecutors, “peacemaking criminologists” and to human rights advocates who investigate the underlying dynamics of race and class that affect death-sentencing in the United States.

Listen to the voices within diverse religious communities, as they struggle with the ethical questions: “Is there another way? Are there nonviolent alternatives to capital punishment?”

Listen to the poets who raise the question, “How can death be a “penalty?”

Listen to the arguments of the Supreme Court justices and to Sister Helen Prejean’s dialogue with the justices and their constitutional arguments (Chapter 3, The Death of Innocents).

The last few days I’ve been re-reading Sister Helen’s book Dead Man Walking. She seems to be speaking directly to Naropa, as she tells the story of her personal journey as a nun whose religious community made a commitment to “stand on the side of the poor” in 1980.

Sister Helen describes her reluctant acceptance of this view, and how it challenged her childhood faith — “where what counted was a personal relationship with God, inner peace, kindness to others, and heaven when this life was done. I didn’t want to struggle with politics and economics. We were nuns, after all, not social workers, and some realties in life were, for better or worse, rather fixed — like the gap between the rich and poor” (p. 5).

It’s here, I think, that the DMW School Theatre Project challenges Naropa to the second chord of our mission (“…to change the world for the better.”) The project requires that we, too, struggle with politics and economics and with the voices (within and without) that say, “All we can do is to be kind be kind to ourselves and others.”

As I understand it, the DMW School Theatre Project says “yes” to inner peace and developing kindness, and it says “yes” to taking a next step — to investigating the roots of violence in ourselves and in the public policies that we support, ignore or work to change. Rather than asking us to side with inner or outer transformation, the project asks that we embrace the totality of our mission.

Candace Walworth, Chair of the Peace Studies Department, Naropa University

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