Jesus Got Shot for You: The Gospel in Contemporary Images (or An Extended Allusion to Romans 1-8)

Walter Scott and Eric Harris, both unarmed black men fleeing from police, were shot and killed in the span of six days at the beginning of April. The officers who shot them have each been charged with crimes, and the public response to the killings has generally been outrage at such unjustified use of lethal force.

But there just below the surface a thought broods, an interpretation, a suspicion that hangs an asterisk on the outrage and denunciations, that qualifies just how unjustifiable the killings were. At first it surfaces in the intellectual garbage dumps known as the comment sections of online news stories. All sorts of nasty things live there, so maybe it’s not surprising. But then there are bits and pieces of conversation that sound familiar, not about hoodies and cigarillos, nor toy guns and loose cigarettes, but about running from the police.

Eric Harris’s video shows an unarmed black man being shot and killed by police, but it shows much more. In a clear example of how policing is an extension of our values and beliefs as a society, the video shows the heat and pressure of powerful cultural assumptions finally explode onto a Tulsa street. As Eric Harris is pinned to the street and about to die, crying out, “He shot me! He shot me!”, an enraged officer shouts in his face the only explanation he would ever hear: “You ran, motherf*cker! You hear me? You f*cking ran!”

Walter Scott and Eric Harris shouldn’t have run from the police. This is true. Walter Scott and Eric Harris shouldn’t have been shot for running. This is more true. The greater injustice should generate the greater response. When the lesser injustice generates the greater response, it’s confusing. And when the lesser injustice is used to suggest that the greater injustice is somehow understandable or even justifiable, it’s appalling.

“If you don’t want to die, don’t break the law.” As if being killed should not be a surprising outcome of fleeing from police, which is commonly a misdemeanor. “Obey the law and you will live.” But you who judge, are you alive because you have not committed a misdemeanor? Have you stolen anything, even a newspaper? Have you committed vandalism or trespassed? Have you used the 4H Club emblem or the “Smokey Bear” character or name without permission? Would you be surprised if you got shot for any of these offenses?

If it’s not surprising that Walter Scott or Eric Harris should die for a misdemeanor offense, then it is surprising that any of us should live. Everyone has broken the law, and if misdemeanors merit death, then all should die.

America was founded on a promise that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are inalienable rights, a promise that was sealed and enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. Eleven years later the Constitution was written, and over the last 240 years innumerable laws have been passed to guarantee the promise of America. But the system created to enforce the law became preoccupied with death, incarceration, and the pursuit of revenue.

So the law could not deliver the promise, but only identify those who should be excluded from it or limited in its enjoyment. The law, which came later, became a hurdle too high to clear. Everyone trips over it at some point, and somehow the tripping explains the loss of the promise of life.

It would be so much easier to feel sympathy if the victims weren’t guilty of anything, and somehow we allow their guilt to explain our callousness. Or maybe we feel strongly about it, but who would jump in the way if the moment presented itself? Maybe for a loved one or a saint we might dare to take a bullet, but not for a guilty stranger.

Jesus demonstrated what love looks like when he stepped in the line of fire and took a bullet for the guilty. He had marched, he had taught, he had healed, he had spoken truth to power, but he showed us above all what God is like when he got shot for criminals. We might call that obstructing justice, but that day love fulfilled the demands of the law and freed all those condemned by the law. Jesus got shot for you and that changes everything.

The law was supposed to guarantee the promise of life—just obey and you will live. But everyone disobeys at some point, and the law can only judge the guilty, not conquer their guilt so the promise can be restored. Worse, the justice system took up the law as an instrument of judgment to find and punish the guilty. It took the opportunity afforded by the law to justifiably cut the guilty off from the promise of life.

Christ came to rescue us, to free us from the law and thus restore the promise of life. The innocent one had to be executed so that it would finally be clear to all that something was wrong. It was always too hard to tell. The condemned man always had some guilt, or at least some suspicious and threatening appearance. Maybe the system hadn’t gotten it quite right, but that didn’t mean it was all wrong. We were blind to the conflict of interest in a system that validates itself by the very law it uses as an instrument of judgment.

So the guiltless one had to die so the system could be indicted and removed from power. As long as those who died could be found guilty of something, the system could retain power. Even if the condemnation seemed more severe than the guilt, the system could be defended as at least an approximation of justice, as at least an action in the proper direction, if not the proper degree.

But now the Son has died, so either God himself is not godly enough to escape judgment, or else it’s a lie that the righteous live because of their good works. The law was powerless to give life to those who obey, because it was always weakened by some small offense, some misdemeanor that muddied the waters and made it appear as if perhaps death was appropriate.

So God fulfilled the promise by sending his own Son as one who fit the description of a suspect, though he had never committed even the smallest offense. By his death the system was exposed and disarmed, stripped of its authority and indicted, and by his life the promise of life has been restored. His death was the death of condemnation, of the lie that violence serves justice, and of the illusion that judgment guarantees life. And his life is the triumph of mercy over judgment, and of the promise of life over the law of death.

Now the resurrected Son, vindicated by God, has ascended to the highest post, having fulfilled the law and condemned the system of condemnation. He has holstered every weapon and promised that no one who comes to him will be condemned, for he died for all. And since he died for you, consider yourself dead to the old system of “obey and you won’t die.” And since he lives for you, you too have life, a new way of life, a new path to the promise under a new reign and a new law. How do we attain life? By trusting the one who died and rose again, who has received all power and authority from God.

And what does it look like to trust? We’ve been deputized by this new Chief to act on his authority, as long as we wield that authority in the way he did. “You know the officers of the old system used their power to intimidate, judge, and condemn,” he said. “Not so with you! If you want to be promoted in my department, you have to be everyone’s servant—not only the rich and privileged, but especially the poor and vulnerable. Not only those you like, but your enemies too. Then you may be promoted to Lieutenant or Captain.”

Just be careful that as his deputies you use only the armor and the weapons he used, that you remember the training he passed down. And then go and deputize others, immersing them into this new way of life right now, training them as you were trained. Power and authority from the Son will remain with you as long as you do this.

But be very careful not to go back to the system you’ve been freed from, which accuses and condemns and executes, that uses violence to safeguard law and order. Everything is different now that the Son is in charge—and he is actually in charge right now. Life will result from his rule, not death. Therefore, you cannot kill in his name, because every death sentence has been pardoned.

Everyone who had been victimized under the law has been freed. And everyone who had been deputies of the old system, all the officers who were instruments of judgment, have likewise been offered a day of amnesty. Today is that day, the day of salvation. Hear the voice of the Son and do not turn away. Come one and all, confess what you have done and what has been done to you. Bring your warrants and your fines, and turn in your officers’ uniforms and your prison jumpsuits, for mercy has triumphed over judgment for all.

Come and put on the Son’s uniform, clothe yourselves with humility and love. All you who are weary and hopeless, all who were caught in the old system, all the criminals and all the victims, all the oppressors and all the oppressed—come as you are. Put on his uniform and the badge of his authority and you’ll see how much easier life is for you and for all.

The new Chief has jurisdiction over everything, though he is meek and humble. Those who are meek and humble will reign with him with incredible power, a Spirit of power unlike any that has been wielded before. It is the power to deliver the promise of life through the way of love. Nothing in all the world will ever be able to take away the power and authority the Son gives to those who live in love. They will be the conquerers and no one will make them afraid.

That’s the good news amidst all the bad news.