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?