Death of an Angel
This article is, perhaps, a bit different from what you’ve seen so far from Theo + POP. If nothing else, I hope it will prompt you to see the film under discussion and to ask yourself the questions posed at the end in an authentic way.
A little over a week ago, Pope Francis, now known for his off-the-cuff remarks, gave an unprepared speech in Campobasso, Italy on good stewardship of the earth. In this speech the pope branded environmental exploitation as both the “greatest challenge” and greatest sin of our time. Pope Francis has also been highly critical of unfettered capitalism and has called for a reigning in of the “economy of exclusion.” In this vein, the present pope lends his voice to similar calls made by other popes, environmentalists, liberation theologians, activists – to name a few groups. As we continually read news stories about the threat of global warming, the collapse of bee colonies, the crisis of unaccompanied minors at the U.S. border, it seems that Pope Francis’ words are not so much prophetic, as a diagnosis of what is really going on in our globalized world and what Christians and all people of good will are called to take seriously.
In the midst of all these things (which can seem overwhelming), I am reminded again of a poignant documentary from 2008 titled They Killed Sister Dorothy, the story of the murder of a 73-year-old Sister of Notre Dame de Namur in Anapu Brazil and its aftermath. Because of the wide net the film casts – dealing with issues of environmental and economic justice and sustainability, the social sins of power and corruption, and how the United States has been involved in global social sin – I always show this documentary to the Introduction to Christian Theology classes I teach.
Without giving a synopsis of the narrative that unfolds in the documentary, Sr. Dorothy worked in the Amazon for over thirty years, advocating for the poorest of the poor. She became a proponent of the PDS program, developed by the Brazilian government to give landless workers plots of rainforest to farm in a sustainable manner. Sr. Dorothy’s advocacy for the poor and for the mind-boggling (sarcasm) idea that “Everyone can share in a prophetic way” in the earth’s resources eventually led to a conspiracy by landowners to have her assassinated. The majority of the film follows Sr. Dorothy’s brother, David, as he goes to Brazil to see through the judicial hearings of those involved in the murder.
From a theological perspective, They Killed Sister Dorothy is interesting because it turns the camera back around to the reality of a martyr’s death. It is not the sanitized and edifying depiction of martyrdom a la The Robe (1953), or reminiscent of Romantic artistic renderings. Sr. Dorothy died quietly — alone on a deserted road in the rainforest – the sharp burst of gunfire and then silence. Yet, like martyrs from the Roman arena, Sr. Dorothy’s witness (μάρτυς is the Greek word for “witness”) still gives hope – in this case, hope to the people of Anapu. Hope that, like a Biblical promise, the mighty will be cast from their thrones and the lowly raised up.
It also shows that with a martyr’s death there is not necessarily a happy, Hollywood ending. The community in Anapu continues to wrestle with corrupt politics and spotty enforcement of laws regarding the PDS. One of the conspirators to murder is initially sentenced to 30 years in prison, but is retried a year later and found not guilty. The main rancher involved in the plot never comes to trail. Yet still Sr. Dorothy’s life and death offers hope. The hope is for another way – another possibility for how the community can be in the world despite the power of greed and the political leverage of money.
A decade later and a world away, the realities depicted in They Killed Sister Dorothy, continues to shine a light on injustice and abuse of power. What the film illuminates is a microcosm of sin, analogously applicable to our global macrocosm. It begs us to question ourselves, “Where do we stand?” in this complex web.
How are we heeding Sr. Dorothy’s voice to live in the world in a sustainable way? How have we responded to Pope Francis’ call to participate in just economies? These questions need to be asked and need to challenge us: Do something.
By: Seth Alexander
 Daniel Junge, They Killed Sister Dorothy. Home Box Office, 2008.
Tags: amazon, amazondeforestation, angeloftheamazon, economicjustice, environment, environmentaljustice, globalwarming, liberationtheology, popefrancis, socialjustice, sustainability, whokilledsisterdorothy