Christian leaders respond to video of Walter Scott shooting.
No video cameras, no justice.
That’s the way a number of Christian leaders responded to the video footage showing Walter Scott, an unarmed African American man, being shot repeatedly in the back by a North Charleston, South Carolina, police officer.
“I can’t judge the officer’s heart. But I can judge the officer’s actions and they were wrong,” said Derwin Gray, pastor of Transformation Church in Indian Land, South Carolina. “His life was in not in danger.”
Michael T. Slager was arrested Tuesday night and charged with the murder of Scott, a 50-year-old Coast Guard veteran.
Slager had originally claimed the April 4 shooting was in self-defense, saying that Scott had taken the officer’s electronic stun gun in a struggle.
“Police allege that during the struggle the man gained control of the Taser and attempted to use it against the officer,” reported The Post and Courier in Charleston the day of the shooting. “The officer then resorted to his service weapon and shot him, police alleged.”
But a video filmed by a bystander showed Scott fleeing from Slager, who fired eight times, hitting Scott in the back. The video, which also shows Slager standing over Scott’s body and placing something appearing to be a Taser near Scott’s body, was published by The Post and Courier and The New York Times, leading to Slager’s arrest.
Gray said seeing the video left him heartbroken. Scott was no threat to anyone, he said.
“If this is what ‘my life was in danger’ looks like, then God help us,” he told Christianity Today in a phone interview.
This morning, Gray said that Christians should pray for the family of Scott as well as for Slager and his family. He also praised the North Charleston Police Department for acting quickly once the video surfaced. (Officials confirmed on Wednesday that Slager had been fired.) Gray hopes that will head off the kind of angry protests that followed the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York.
Gray also planned to call the local sheriff’s office near his church, offering to buy body cameras for officers there.
“Body cameras are a necessity,” he said.
Most Americans agree. More than 8 in 10 (86 percent) said they support body cameras for on-duty patrol officers, according to a December 2014 Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Other pastors, writers, and Christian leaders spoke out in response to the Scott video.
“Now is the time for Christians to deploy in the streets and personify the compassion of Christ to a world that is asking “in the midst of our crisis, where is our Christ at?” ,” said church planter and preacher D. A. Horton in a statement. Horton spoke in North Charleston, at Charleston Southern University’s chapel on Wednesday, which he credited to the “Lord’s providence.”
Horton told CT in an email that he preached from the Sermon on the Mount about “radical righteousness” and later was approached by a retired North Charleston police officer who is good friends with Slager.
“He shared a heartfelt thank you to me for handling the situation biblically instead of politically,” wrote Horton. “He was touched by the words of Christ.”
“Without cameras, without transparency, without accountability, without honesty, without coverage, there is no justice,” said Peter W. Chin, pastor of Rainier Avenue Church in Seattle, on Twitter.
“This is many things—heartbreaking, sad, disappointing yes—but let’s not forget that it is also WRONG,” tweeted Calvin College resident director Austin Channing. “It. Is. Wrong.”
“Not even remotely satisfied with an arrest,” tweeted Joshua DuBois, former head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. “For #WalterScott and with this video, justice is a conviction.”
“The needless slaying of Walter Scott pulls us back into the maelstrom of racial tensions that have intensified in recent months but have always been present in the United States,” Jemar Tisby, the president of the Reformed African American Network told CT in an email, suggesting that Christians should come together “to advocate for policy changes and accountability among law enforcement officials.”
“In so doing, we will demonstrate our solidarity with ethnic minorities and the poor to the glory of our God who loves justice and mercy,” he wrote.
An RAAN contributer also called for justice in response to Scott’s death.
Gabriel Salguero, pastor of Lamb’s Church of the Nazarene, a multicultural congregation in New York City, said in statement the video shows the need to address the tension between “some law enforcement departments and communities of color.”
“What is needed is genuine leadership from all of us to work endlessly for honest and fruitful conversations that lead to justice and healed relationships,” he said. “I earnestly pray that evangelicals are part of that solution.”
“The killing of Walter Scott is horrific. In this case, the country has viewed this awful act with our own eyes. Given the past year, we needed no reminders that racial justice and reconciliation are needed desperately in our communities. Even so, we have received another such reminder, at the awful cost of another human life,” said Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, in a statement.
“There exists no justification for the murder of the innocent,” wrote Samuel Rodriguez of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. “The diluting of God’s image in every human being without exception continues to expose the barbarism that only the Spirit of God can address. Walter Scott should be alive today.”
“The Walter Scott murder is another sad example of how much our justice system needs to improve, showing once again how little black lives matter,” said Word Made Flesh executive director Leroy Barber in a statement. “We as Christians must continue our fight to honor the image of God in all people.”
Noel Castellanos, the CEO of the Christian Community Development Association, called Scott’s death “tragic.”
“More than ever the church’s message and example of radical reconciliation and justice is desperately needed,” he said in a statement.
The tension between police and people of color was raised in a recent open letter from a group of African American, Hispanic, and Asian American leaders in response to recent comments by Franklin Graham.
Graham’s organization, Samaritan’s Purse, has been praised for the work of its chaplains in Ferguson after the death of Brown. But his Facebook comments in March about obeying police—as a simple way to prevent shootings—drew criticism.
“If a police officer tells you to put your hands in the air, you put your hands in the air,” he posted.
It’s not that simple, noted the authors of the open letter.
“As a leader in the church, you are called to be an ambassador of reconciliation,” they wrote. “The fact that you identify a widely acknowledged social injustice as ‘simple’ reveals your lack of empathy and understanding of the depth of sin that some in the body have suffered under the weight of our broken justice system.”
On Tuesday afternoon, Graham posted a statement about Walter Scott’s death. He referenced his comments about obeying the police, and called people to pray for Scott’s family.
“Saturday there was another tragic shooting of an African American by a police officer who has now been charged with murder,” he said “This death was unnecessary and avoidable. Unfortunately many in our society are faced with racial injustice, hatred, and bigotry from those who are in authority, and this needs to be addressed.”
Christena Cleveland, professor of reconciliation studies at Bethel University in Minnesota and author of Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart, wrote about how Christians can respond to racial divisions in America, in a post on Ed Stetzer’s blog responding to the Trayvon Martin verdict in July 2013.
In order to minister effectively, in order to be neighborly, in order to love across differences well, privileged Christians need to practice standing in solidarity with diverse people. We’ve grown so accustomed to our homogenous churches with their culturally-familiar problems that we’ve forgotten that cross-cultural advocacy is central to the work of the cross (Phil. 2:5-8). Privileged people of the cross seek out, stand with, and stick their necks out for people who have problems that are nothing like their own. Privileged people of the cross resist the magnetic draw of our culturally-polarized society. Privileged people of the cross jump every societal hurdle in order to understand the perspective of, stand with and advocate for the other.
CT’s previous reporting on Ferguson includes the Christian effort to rebuild it, why Christians should care despite the facts, whether the gospel mandates racial reconciliation, and how black and white Christians think differently about race.