The Witness

Black Lives and the ‘Perfect Victim’ Illusion

John Richards

Fact-Checking Before Lamenting

We don’t really know all the facts. Those are the words we utter before the cultural fact-finding mission begins. Google serves as our personal private investigator. We make sure our imaginary jurors’ badges are snug against our bodies. Our eyes dart back and forth across the screen reading articles, looking to explain violence against black bodies. Maybe the person has a checkered past. Michael Brown. Check. Sandra Bland. Check. Laquan McDonald. Check. We return verdicts in virtual speedy trials. But wait. Tamir Rice didn’t have enough of a past for it to be checkered. He was 12 years old when he was shot and killed a little over a year ago by two uniformed police officers.

According to others, he had already sped through puberty. He looked much older. Prosecutor Tim McGinty speculated about the likelihood that Tamir Rice’s “size made him look much older”. Yesterday, McGinty also announced that an Ohio grand jury had decided not to indict the two police officers who killed Tamir Rice.

Perhaps Rice’s 12-year old faculties were housed in a 18-year old’s frame (One of the officers who called in the shooting assessed that Rice was “maybe 20.” Perhaps he carried a toy gun—something I am sure that many 12-year old boys found under Christmas trees last week. Perhaps the gun looked real (though officers were responding to a call about a person in the park pointing a gun that was “probably fake”). Wherever our fact-finding mission takes us, we have to ask ourselves, Why do we require a perfect victim to lament (or to join others who lament)?

Lamenting With Others

The psalter has several psalms of communal lament. The Sons of Korah cry out to the Lord as they lament the destruction of Jerusalem: “For our soul is bowed down to the dust; our belly clings to the ground” ( Psalm 44:25). David lamented: “Have you not rejected us, O God?” ( Psalm 60:10). In Psalm 79, the psalmist asks for God’s compassion to “come speedily to meet” the worshiping community because they were “brought very low” (Psalm 79:8). Us. We. Our. Communal words in communal laments.

Have we lost the ability to lament with others for the sake of political correctness? We are called to be slow to speak, but can we still mourn with those who mourn even when we don’t know all the facts (see Romans 12:15)? Is it not our Christian duty to recognize the image of God in others and grieve violence against it?

The Only Perfect Victim

In past conversations with colleagues, I have always expressed my opinion that it would take a perfect victim for widespread incredulity. Until then, some adopt a wait and see approach before joining other brothers and sisters in lamenting. The silence is deafening, really. Wait and see never materializes into anything. Maybe others think it will just go away if they just give us some time. But the pain never subsides. The news cycle elixir continues to serve us doses of reality, while it serves others in our culture with stories that scream normality and complacency. None of the stories paint pictures of perfect victims—precisely what we look for to join the conversation.

While we look for perfect victims, we are reminded that every one of us falls short (Romans 3:23). We are reminded of sin’s stain on all humanity (Romans 5:12). We search and search, hoping to find the perfect victim, only to find imperfect men and women who have tragically lost their lives.

When these tragedies occur, maybe we should stop searching for a perfect victims and look instead to Christ. In all of history, there was only one Perfect Victim. He is the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 53), the Lamb of God, offered sacrificially to take away our imperfections (John 1:29), and the Victim without spot or blemish who ransomed us (1 Peter 1:18-19). He is the Perfect Victim who now calls us to offer ourselves, in view of God’s mercy, as living sacrifices (Romans 12:1).

In a year that has prominently featured the #BlackLivesMatter conversation, we can’t lose sight of that truth. In view of God’s mercy (i.e. the compassion that caused God to refrain from giving us the punishment we deserve punishment and give us the forgiveness we do not deserve), we’re asked to be a living sacrifice. That means sacrificing our own cultural comfort to comfort others. That means complete surrender of self, yes, even our investigative selves who preach patience before we join brothers and sisters in lament. We can only accomplish this in view of God’s mercy, a mercy that sent a Perfect Victim to die for us, so that we could live for Him. That’s the only fact worth knowing. And I pray that it’s a fact that checks us and not the other way around.

The Cross of Christ is where a Christian’s fact finding mission should begin and end. Then, and only then, can we feel the pain of other members of His body and grow together in community (Colossians 2:19). May we all recapture the essence of communal lament and may we always recognize the value of God’s image, even in the imperfect.

Question: How have you handled the idea of imperfect victims in your interactions surrounding this issue?

1 Comment

  1. Bruce Donaldson

    There’s no better place to look for an example of this kind of loving consideration, than to the people who raised the “imperfect victims.” While they know their loved ones weren’t leading perfect lives, they fully understand they might have to pay for their “sins,” they still grieve when a prison sentence is served…and have every right to scour for truth when the sentence/consequence is death–especially without a juried trial. More importantly, they are baffled by the judgemental indifference–if not a Jerry-Springer, Roman-coluseum joy–about the demise of a fallen, imperfect victim.

    I talked to a father, over this past holiday. His son, merely accused of a crime, has been sentenced to jail time as part of the prevailent corrupt plea-bargain scamming. He knows his son runs with the wrong crowd. His son has done wrong in the recent past. But the son is in school trying to make himself marketable career-wise. That man offered to serve the time himself, in his son’s stead. Just as Christ died for *all* of us.

    The least we can do is offer compassion to the “sinner” as this man does–as most any parent would do–as Christ has done for us…as ugly as we are ourselves.

    Rather than seeking vengeance, shrugging off, or even *rejoicing* in the death/demise of a “societal enemy,” remember that “except for the grace of God, there go I.”

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