Theology Current Events Christian Living Relationships/Family Identity

Authority, Accountability, and the Death of Walter Scott

Duke Kwon

To many, the death of Walter Scott appeared to be the most clear-cut case among many tragic shootings of unarmed black men by law enforcement. After all, he was unarmed and shot multiple times in the back while fleeing on foot — an incident clearly (it seemed) captured on video. That’s why the news that the trial of former South Carolina officer Michael Slager had been declared a mistrial was especially discouraging. It wasn’t surprising, but it was deflating.

Make no mistake: The trial’s outcome — which evidently turned on the judgment of a single juror — is a clear reminder that literally every individual counts in the fight for racial justice; that one can never dismiss racial indifference, ignorance, or hostility as harmless, inconsequential, or the problem of “just a few bad apples”; and that injustice anywhere, whether in a particular locale or in a particular person’s heart, is indeed a threat to justice everywhere.

And yet, some will continue to question the legitimacy of concerns about racialized police brutality. Others will deepen their resolve to interpret such judicial outcomes as evidence of misguided activism. Indeed, even among those who are committed to the urgent fight against racial injustice, some have wondered aloud whether police brutality is the most strategic or most pressing battlefront.

After all, it’s often noted, the number of deaths caused by law enforcement make up a relatively small portion of total Black deaths by homicide. Are protesters, anti-racism advocates, and increasingly the general public, barking up the wrong tree? Is the heightened scrutiny of police behavior an example of well-intentioned, but misdirected zeal?

Let’s say it again: No.

In the last year, I’ve found myself processing these tragic shootings (and these verdicts, or lack thereof) in light of my calling as an ordained minister. What I mean is that I have pondered the officers involved (Mr. Slager, for instance) and considered the nature of their authority and mine, both civil and ecclesiastical. And I have appreciated afresh how they and I have been vested with real power — a heck of a lot of it.

Law enforcement, like clergy — and, I might add, like teachers — are offered an intimate and sacred trust that is simply unparalleled in society. We enter into a covenant of responsibility for human vulnerability in our precincts, parishes, and playgrounds. We are called “to protect and to serve” in our respective spheres of authority: in the case of clergy, to protect souls, in the case of teachers, to protect minds, in the case of law enforcement, to protect bodies. Our successes reveal the grand dignity of each office; our failures lead to the severest of life-altering consequences.

This is a consecrated authority. We must grapple with its moral gravity; it should bring us authority-wielding “officers” to our knees. More than that, understanding the way power operates in the absence of scrutiny, it should motivate us to invite, rather than resist, appropriate forms of accountability. This is the only way to ensure that such power is exercised properly, according to its intended life-giving and life-protecting purpose.

Once again: Heightened authority warrants, even demands, heightened answerability. That is true of law enforcement officers, including the one involved in Walter Scott’s death, as well as the criminal justice system in which they operate. And that is true for me as a minister, too. God help me.

Because everyone exercises power and make mistakes in their respective callings. But when we execute the duties of our respective offices with excessive force, something in people’s bodies or souls is violated, and something sacred is lost.

Sometimes forever.

1 Comment

  1. george canady

    Praying for us now.

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