This is old news. I meant to make this post a couple weeks ago, and then thought it would fit on Divine Mercy Sunday. But the message is timeless. I am sure that by now everyone has seen the horrific video from South Carolina of Walter Scott, a black man, being shot eight times in the back by Michael Slager, a white police officer. (Indeed, this is now old news, with the media having moved on to the brutal death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore.) I am not sure I have much more to add to the discussion about this crime, except to share my belief that this killing is further evidence of the continuing legacy of racism in America.
But, in reading about killing and its aftermath, I stumbled across the following detail in a Guardian profile of Slager:
Slager’s wife, Jamie, eight months pregnant with Slager’s first child, has deleted her Facebook page. A photograph on another of her social network pages shows Slager smiling with who appear to be his two young stepchildren at his side. At a press conference on Wednesday, North Charleston mayor Keith Summey said the city would continue to pay her medical insurance until the child is born. Calls to her cellphone went unreturned. (Emphasis added)
This is being treated as a small thing—I quote the entire paragraph to give a clear picture of the way in which this is being reported in passing. But it is a powerful, important gesture. It would be easy to paint Ms. Slager with the same brush that is being used to paint her husband. And it would be even easier for elected officials to avoid controversy and simply ignore her and the real problems she would face because she has lost her health insurance a month before giving birth.
It is far too easy to shun Michael Slager’s wife and family, to treat them with the same anger and contempt that people feel for him. Indeed, Facebook friends of mine are in high dudgeon, posting all caps comments condemning the media for sympathetically portraying the grief felt by Michael Slager’s mother as she tries to reconcile what happened with her love for her son.
Our anger and grief overflows onto anyone connected to the crime: they share in the blame, they have no existence or concerns separate from the perpetrator. Their feelings do not count. I am reminded of a story told by a colleague of mine, Renny Cushing of New Hampshire. Renny is an anti-death penalty activist whose parents were brutally murdered in 1988. In the documentary The Empty Chair, he recounts the almost paradoxical bond he felt with the son of his parents’ killer. Renny, as a victims’ family member, felt cut off from the other people in his small town. But he discovered that this other man was equally ostracized by the town, which was convinced that he shared in his father’s crime. The rumors kept repeating the cliche, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
It is much harder to respond contrary to the general tide. We have seen this once before. In 2006 a gunman burst into an Amish school house, killing 10 female students before killing himself. In the immediate aftermath, the Amish reached out to the killer’s widow, including her in their prayers and tending to her family’s needs. The press reacted with surprise and gave their response a great deal of attention. The reporting seemed to suggest that this was unnatural—not how “normal” people would respond—and could only be explained by their “foreign” religious beliefs. The Lord’s Prayer—“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”—though prayed by countless people seemed to have no bearing on their actions.
I do not know what caused Mayor Summey to do this: whether he is motivated by Christian beliefs, a prudent decision, the advice of the town lawyer, or something else. But I think it was worth highlighting, because irrespective of his reasons, it was the Christian thing to do.