2015 is not long under way, and already six men have been shot dead by police officers in the US. Not unusual you may think, but in each of these particular cases the fatality was an unarmed black man, and the shooter a white police officer. The most chilling for me is the shooting of Walter Scott two weeks ago. He took four shots in the back as he ran away unarmed from a police officer (Michael Slager) who initially stopped Scott for a malfunctioning brake light. It was the most chilling for me because I saw it happen – on camera. A passerby with a camera phone captured the whole thing, including the officer standing beside his dying cuffed victim without offering any first aid or assistance. Each of the six fatal shootings has hit the headlines throughout the western world, each has caused an outcry claiming racism and deep seated prejudice in American law enforcement institutions, and questioned how blind law enforcers are to their prejudice. America is not Britain, but these have headlined British papers and news channels, and human nature is human nature. Here are two reflections that challenge me as a Christian.
- Blind prejudice has many manifestations. On the video evidence I judge Michael Slager guilty of the death of Walter Scott, but is there a plank in my own eye in my judgement (Matthew 7:3)? Sure, I haven’t pulled the trigger of a gun pointing at someone but is there within me, unseen prejudice against my Scottish brother or sister that means my judgement incriminates me? In short, do I count any life as less worth than another? Do I count anyone’s life worth less then my own? A Muslim? A Sikh ? A youth on a street corner? A sex worker? A heroin user? A homeless person? An Asylum seeker? A convicted sex offender? If I act as if anyone’s life is worth less than another does not the same kind of prejudice lurk in my own heart as lurks in any racists heart? Prejudice throws a blanket over the many but all men and women are created equally under God, made in his image and with the breath of life from Him. All men and women. That’s the blanket Christians throw over everyone. In some ways I might not be all that different from Michael Slager.
- Evidence available makes all the difference. For some reason the video footage only emerged three days after the shooting, and during those three days Michael Slager’s words provided the bulk of evidence available. Many say Walter Scott’s death was well on the way to being swept under the rug – but for the video surfacing. How many times in my own mind have I been the only source of evidence on an issue where my actions are morally questionable. And my evidence has been very convincing, but I must remember its not the only evidence available. The apostle Paul reminds me that it is not a supreme or high court (made up of men and women) that judges me, but God who will judge me. Video evidence is purely visual – we can’t see the motives and intentions of either of these men on video, but Gods evidence is not so limited. ‘He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart‘ before sentencing (1 Corinthians 4:5 NIV). Who knows what was going on in Michael Slager’s mind or what he convinced himself had happened – I was recently shocked at how blind I was to my own prejudice in a situation until my wife (who is frequently my God given spectacles) pointed out my glaringly obvious bias. God sees all evidence without prejudice.
Michael Slager will be tried for murder and may face life imprisonment or the death sentence. That makes my relation to him all the more sobering.
Mercifully there is a path to acquittal. Psalm 139 says ‘Search me O God and know my heart; try me and know my thoughts. And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting‘ (v23-24 ESV). This prayer asks for blind prejudice to become visible prejudice, today, so it can be repented of – not in the courtroom before the judge. It’s a prayer for the evidence God has to be made available to us, and for us to be led by him in the path of acquittal.