Christians should respond with godly grace and wisdom to the shooting death of unarmed black citizen Walter Scott at the hands of white police officer Michael Slager, an urban ministry leader and a criminal justice professor said in the days after the officer was charged with murder.
D.A. Horton, a pastor, hip-hop artist and North American Mission Board national coordinator for urban student missions, addressed the incident during the April 8 chapel service at Charleston Southern University, just miles from where the incident occurred in North Charleston, S.C.
Radical righteousness as opposed to retaliation should prevail when such tragedies occur, Horton said.
“Radical righteousness is lived out when we work to see a criminal receive proper punishment, instead of private revenge; public order instead of personal retaliation; and respond with practical righteousness in place of our personal rights,” Horton said at the Baptist-affiliated university. “So whatever you do, wherever you go, whatever cause you’re going to champion, do so advocating the justice of God.”
Slager, 33, was arrested April 7 and charged with murder after video from an observer’s cellphone surfaced showing the officer fatally shooting 50-year-old Scott in the back as he fled the scene of a traffic stop. Slager said he had stopped Scott for having a tail light that wasn’t working.
Screen capture from CBS News
Christians can neither pretend law enforcers will always uphold the law, Horton said, nor rush to a judgment based on personal emotions and individual experiences. But the church must seek the radical righteousness God prescribes in Matthew 5:38-42.
“So when I see situations like this go down, how dark and depraved things look, all I know is I don’t have all the answers; I don’t have all the insight,” Horton said. “I was not present for Mike Brown [in Ferguson, Mo.], for Tamir Rice [in Cleveland, Ohio], for Eric Garner [in New York City], for Ezell Ford [in Los Angeles] and for the multitude of names that have been going down. I wasn’t there when the officers got gunned down in Brooklyn.
“… But what I do know as a believer, there was a real world with real hurt. There [are] real issues going on out there. And if believers cannot look to the words of Christ, and be words of comfort and clarity to our culture, then we don’t need to be claiming to be the church.”
Joshua Styles, who teaches criminal justice and Christian studies at North Greenville University, another Baptist-affiliated university in South Carolina, said the incident reflects a fallen world.
“This is where the gospel and the Christian message really speaks to this. We would hope that in a just world … even if we know there’s going to be wrongdoers, we would hope that the state and that those who represent the state would be perfectly just in their execution of justice,” Styles said. “But frankly speaking … because of sin, even those in authority are going to abuse their power.”
Styles, who holds a law degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and attended police academy in Raleigh, N.C., said police officers are taught to employ deadly force based on a “use of force continuum” of circumstances.
“The reason we call it a continuum is depending on the circumstances second by second, whether or not you have the right to use deadly force, it kind of ebbs and flows, based on the situation. So once that threat has stopped … it really doesn’t matter what happened up to that point … the officer is no longer justified in using deadly force,” Styles said. “The only time that deadly force is justified is when there is an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury to you or to people surrounding you, a third party.
“In that video there is no imminent threat because the guy is running away,” Styles said, referencing the cell phone video taken by a bystander who witnessed Slager shooting Scott in the back.
While the officer and victim are of two different ethnicities, the public should not assume race was the motive, Styles said.
“We do not know that’s why he shot him. Correlation does not equal causation, necessarily, it doesn’t,” Styles said. Even given the diligence that police academies might employ, some candidates are promoted who do not have the proper character to hold the power of the law. Other officers might react inappropriately because of adrenaline or their mental state at the time of an incident, he said.
“I’m a white American so I have not experienced what [African Americans] have in the past, and what they actually still do experience to this day. African Americans perceive law enforcement differently,” Styles said. “We do, I think as believers, need to be very empathetic in caring toward a minority community who would struggle with an issue like this. We need to respond with grace … but we don’t want to overblow things like the media would just for the sake of sensationalizing.”
Horton, in his chapel message, said God’s law embraces the rights of the criminal as well as the victim, and seeks a punishment appropriate to the crime. If people filter the world through their sinful nature, he said, justice becomes subjective and is no longer objective.
“When we allow our opinion to be the gospel in our life, that’s when we know we’re wrong in the eyes of God,” Horton said. “We have to allow the gospel to be the gospel truth in our eyes, so that we can in humility subject our opinion to it, and say, ‘Lord help me navigate through the tension that I’m in as a representative of Christ Jesus.’”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Diana Chandler is Baptist Press’ general assignment writer/editor.)