Which Deaths Do We Grieve?

UnknownThe much-publicized deaths of young black men at the hands of white police officers has prompted a certain amount of soul-searching in me. But this little blog post is not an attempt to pass judgment on who was “right” in the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. If I’ve learned anything since the death Michael Brown, it’s that we have to wait—much longer than our knee-jerk impulses want to allow us to wait—to form such judgments. And I hope it goes without saying that I agree who was wrong in the assassination of the Dallas police officers.

I don’t know for sure whether the shootings of Sterling and Castile were justified according to the standards of the law. In fact, more evidence is coming out even now about these cases. What I do know is that two human lives were lost, and this is what has captured my attention: as a Christian, how should I think and feel about the loss of these two men compared to the loss of five police officers just days later? The juxtaposition is stark, isn’t it?

Or what about Micah Johnson? Is it proper to mourn the loss of the five Dallas officers as well as the assassin who shot them and six others in cold blood? In the end, I’ve become convinced that if we don’t intentionally mourn both, we are perpetuating the hostilities and not responding in a way that mirrors the the heart of God.

Let’s re-frame the question. Which is more grief-worthy: a life taken away or a life thrown away? In the case of Micah Johnson and the officers he murdered, we have five cases of the former and one of the latter. Of course we all mourn the deaths of the officers who lost their lives in the line of duty. They went into the streets that day like every other day, not knowing whether they would go home again. My admiration of them can’t be overstated. I dearly hope that I will never have to mourn the loss of any of my own friends who are police officers.

imagesBut what is our attitude toward the murderer? Do we shake our heads sadly, shrug our shoulders and say with indifference (or grim satisfaction), “well, he got what he deserved; this is the fruit of the choices he made”? I think we owe the human race and its Creator more. In the end, I agree that Dallas police did the right thing in ending Johnson’s life—he was hell-bent on killing and was not going to stop. He threw away his life. Is this not something to be grieved? That a man made in God’s image not only lost his life but wasted it?

This is one reason why God said to Ezekiel, “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord GOD, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?” If God himself takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, then neither can those who follow his Son.

In the cases of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, I don’t know whether their lives were lost as a result of racist injustice or their own wicked choices in the heat of the moment, or both, or neither. But I don’t need to know that in order to feel their loss to the human race and grieve over it. Even if all the awful things I’ve heard about them are true, their deaths are grief-worthy as lives thrown away, as much as the deaths of the officers are mournful as lives taken away.

There’s much talk about what (and especially who) “matters” these days. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it seems to me we can’t just say, “well of course black lives matter—ALL lives matter!” if we do not mourn all of their deaths. How can we claim they matter to us if we do not grieve their loss?

  • Karl Heitman

    Interesting. Well, many things come to mind re: this post, but lemme just share the one point I can agree with: the cop-killer, Micah Johnson, certainly wasted and threw away his life and is now suffering in hell for eternity. That, I can mourn. Maranatha.

  • Jason

    Thank you Andy for writing this, your shepherd’s heart comes out. I’m praying for every family involved in these tragedies.

  • Shaun Marksbury

    We should indeed pray and mourn with and for all involved. Yet, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to have more than one thought and feeling about the murderer. We can’t level off the mourning, grieving the officers lost in the same way we grieve a life turned over to Satan. The image bearer in this case shed the blood of others, and God’s ministers do not bear the sword in vain. You’re right that this is not to be a gleeful for Christians, for the Lord takes no delight in the destruction of the wicked. Even so, we recognize it as God executing His justice in this world, and we can be thankful for that. So, yes, we should grieve all the lives lost. Even so, and with that in mind, grim satisfaction that justice is served can be another godly response to this – as long as it doesn’t arise from self-righteousness (he had the same sinful heart we’re all born with) or hatred for a fellow image-bearer.

    • Andy Snider

      Hi Shaun – yes, your comment essentially develops the distinction I’m trying to make between how we grieve a life taken away vs. a life thrown away. And I’m trying to slow us down from too quickly leaping from genuine grief to that “grim satisfaction,” because I sense that the former is often skipped in the desire to show support for law and order. And speaking only for myself, I think I’ve sometimes made that skip in my own thinking because I don’t want to deal with my own remaining prejudices. It’s a subtle form of self-righteousness, I think, that we as followers of Jesus must diligently root out by God’s grace. Thanks for stopping by, brother.

    • Karl Heitman

      Well said, Shaun. You put it more eloquently than I could. It’s sad to see Christian men, especially leaders, claiming to have some knowledge and maturity, downplay a cop-killer’s murderous rampage at the expense of trying to “be like Jesus.” In Sterling’s case, sure, grieve his wasted life. But then, don’t turn around and act like it’s the same as the Dallas incident. That’s utterly ridiculous. One was a criminal who was fighting police. The others were ministers of God, protecting the people who hated them. Stark difference.

      • Andy Snider

        Karl, I’m not sure we have much chance at a fruitful interchange here, since I assume I’m the one you’re describing as “claiming to have some knowledge and maturity.” But I’ll give it a try. Toward the end I said, “Even if all the awful things I’ve heard about them are true, their deaths are grief-worthy as lives thrown away, as much as the deaths of the officers are mournful as lives taken away.” You see that I’m making a distinction between the cop killer and the cops killed? The difference between lives thrown away and lives taken away? The OT clearly shows God grieving over lives thrown away (I cited Ezek 18 as one example). In the NT Jesus weeps loudly over Jerusalem and their impending rejection of him (Matt 23:37-39). We conservatives often seem to have little grief over the life thrown away. But I don’t for a moment “act like it’s the same as the Dallas incident,” other than to note that both murderer and murdered are in the image of God, which is what stimulated the pondering that caused this post. We mourn them both, but each differently (remember: “thrown away” vs. “taken away”). I would never suggest that we celebrate the life of a murderer alongside the lives of the brave men he murdered. And I struggle to see how it’s fair to conclude that’s what I’m proposing above.

        • Karl Heitman

          Thanks for trying, Andy. I love and respect you, and always will, but sometimes I wonder what “conservative” means anymore….

        • What is too often forgotten is that whether a person throws away their life or has it taken, those persons, apart from the presence of the saving grace of Christ in their life, will experience the eternal judgment of God against their sin. The unbelieving murderer and the unbelieving murder victim share the same hell, just as we all would apart from Christ’s unmerited grace. How can we who have experienced God’s grace not be moved to sorrow for both?

      • Jason

        I am sad and mourn the police officers death. I appreciate their sacrifice & service to community. I’m thankful for them. I’m sad for their families most of all. I mourn their kids growing up now without their father and wives without their husband. I can’t imagine how horrible it is for them . . . not even going to pretend. I’m sad because this entire situation exists because of sin. But also sad about the sin of this world and the fact that the Dallas PD killer felt like he needed to go to the roof to kill police officers. I’m sad his state of mind and sin led him to that point. I don’t blame the #blm for his actions, but hold him responsible. It saddens me that he felt like this was the only way to have justice (even if his perception was wrong). I’m sad because his actions do not coordinate with the hope of the Gospel, a hope that when we possess, we endure hardships and unjust actions (or perceived injustice) for the glory of God even when we’re angry. I mourn death, the context, and that these situations even exists. It makes me want Christ to come all the more and to be under His leadership in His Kingdom. I pray every family and person involved in this situation comes to see the hope of the Gospel and that reconciliation would be the main focus for everyone involved. How glorious to see us forgiven and I pray we can rejoice and find joy in this hardship because people came to know Christ in this situation!