They Killed Sister Dorothy

“Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”  (John 15:13)

“Then he said to them all:  ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.  For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.'” (Luke 9:23-24)

There is a clarion call to self-sacrifice in the Christian life.  Yet the example of Jesus also shows us that living a life that embodies the Kingdom of God might also lead others to want to take that life.  The Prince of Peace modeled (models) a non-violent approach to violence that might temporarily signal defeat but that actually, we hope, works to bring about victory over evil in the end.  A recent documentary, They Killed Sister Dorothy, captures something of this in an engrossing true story.

An American nun, Dorothy Stang, committed her life to the service of the poor, oppressed, and the environment.  She lived and worked in the Brazilian rainforest helping to implement a land grant program, PDS, which sought to provide the poor with access to land which had been monopolized by loggers and cattle farmers.  For her efforts, she was murdered in cold blood in broad daylight.  The documentary, narrated by Martin Sheen who, like Dorothy, was from Dayton, Ohio, and is a devout Catholic, picks up after her murder and follows the trial of the men who conspired to commit the crime, a study that uncovers unbelievable corruption and injustice.

The brilliance of Daniel Junge‘s documentary is its objectivity.  The DVD includes a statement from the director, who said, “I feel it’s necessary to avoid a propagandistic treatment and to ask deeper questions.  We all know that cutting down the rainforest is bad…but why is saving the rainforest (in this case, a mere 100-square mile parcel) so difficult?  We all know that the murder of a 73-year old nun is reprehensible…but what conditions and complications lead to such an act?”  Junge makes good on these approaches to his filmmaking.  He and his team cast no judgment upon the murderers and their accused accomplices through narration or editing.  The legal proceedings, and ever-changing testimonies of the accused, are damning enough.  On the other hand, Junge does not embellish Sister Dorothy’s life either or set her on a pedestal.  We learn nothing about her decision to become a nun, why she chose to focus on working with these specific people and in this location.  In fact, her murderers and their defenders even accuse her of wrong-doing…supplying ammunition to the poor and even committing murder herself.  Junge leaves it to the viewer to judge the accuracy of these accusations, again allowing the proceedings to speak for themselves.

As effective as Junge’s objectivity is, the film does suffer from a lack of clarity, specifically regarding the program, PDS, in which Sister Dorothy was involved.  Is it a government-sponsored event?  Is it a church-sponsored event?  Nevertheless, They Killed Sister Dorothy raises significant questions for discussion, not the least of which concerns the presence of American missionaries in foreign countries and the most effective means for countering political oppression and injustice.

They Killed Sister Dorothy (around 90 mins.) is unrated (there are gruesome images of Sister Dorothy’s corpse) and is available on DVD.