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Death Does Not Come for the Deserving

November 10th, 2020 | 10 min read

By Ian Olson

At that time, some people came and reported to Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. And He responded to them, “Do you think that these Galileans were more sinful than all Galileans because they suffered these things? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as well! Or those eighteen that the tower in Siloam fell on and killed—do you think they were more sinful than all the people who live in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as well!”

(Luke 13:1-5)

In the span of one week the American furor over race and social justice detonated and three lives were lost. On Tuesday, August 25, Kyle Rittenhouse shot three men in Kenosha, Wisconsin, killing two of them. On Saturday, August 29, a man affiliated with the group Patriot Prayer, Aaron Danielson, was shot and killed in Portland, Oregon, as a caravan of Trump supporters clashed with protestors.

Three human beings are dead. Three bearers of the image of God have breathed their last, have had their lives extinguished at the hands of other image bearers. The killer of two of them has been whitewashed as a flawed but unsurprising symptom of contemporary anomie. The killer of the third was immediately maligned and the victim canonized before any details had even emerged as to what had actually taken place.

Sadly, these deaths have been instrumentalized so as to prove a point. The two men killed in Kenosha, Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber, have been claimed by some conservatives, including Rod Dreher, to be the “real” problem. Dreher writes,

All three of the men shot by Rittenhouse were bad guys who were only out on the streets of Kenosha that night to cause trouble. They are violent men who died violently, or, in Grosskreutz’s case, will live maimed as the result of his violence. Kyle Rittenhouse seems like a good kid who got in way over his head, but who is not the villain here.

The Kyle Rittenhouses of America are not America’s problem; the Joseph Rosenbaums, Anthony Hubers, and Gaige Grosskreutzes are. So are the Jacob Blakes.

In this instance as well as in the cases of George Floyd and others, criminal records have been invoked to demonstrate the victims of violence are not, in fact, victims at all but “bad guys” needing to be neutralized so as to restore law and order. Aspersions have been cast upon the character of these victims so as to invite the conclusion that the violence perpetrated against them was righteous, that they “got what they deserved.” The implicit reasoning at work here is that these persons’ injuries and deaths are witnesses to their villainy, displays of the proper outworking of justice in the universe.

But this is fallacious: affirming the consequent, to be precise. Their deaths do not prove they deserved to die. Kyle Rittenhouse did not execute a warrant issued by God or the universe against Rosenbaum and Huber. Furthermore, it glosses over the nature of Rittenhouse’s actions, rationalizing it according to the fallacy of relative privation: Rittenhouse’s actions may be bad, but they aren’t as bad as Rosenbaum’s or Huber’s.

No one should suffer any illusion that leftists are immune to such devilish logic. The reign of Sin binds progressive as well as conservative under its subjection. Theoretically, at least, there is little of which anyone is incapable, and to presume otherwise is to put too much confidence in the flesh: “Therefore let anyone who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). But, despite affirming this is so, I must confess I have yet to find Aaron Danielson being hung in effigy by high profile, published leftists in the same way Rosenbaum and Huber have been.

Political urgency is a necessity in such a time as this, but the temptation to flatten the complexities of a Christian response to this crisis by attaching ourselves to a partisan narrative will present itself once the immensity of this moment is acknowledged. Constricted within the moral matrices we inhabit it’s easy to overlook how evil befalls all human beings indiscriminately: “Mankind is born for trouble as surely as sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7). It’s too simple, too cynically motivated, to conclude the sufferers of such disaster are especially deserving of such an end.

An incident in the New Testament mirrors this moment. In Luke 13:1-5, some people bring news to Jesus of a massacre of Galileans carried out by Pilate as they were offering sacrifices at the Temple. Something in their account of these Galileans’ deaths provoked Jesus to criticize the presupposition they seem to hold that the mingling of their blood with their sacrifices evidenced the enormity of their guilt before God. They are wrong to presume these Galileans are exemplary sinners above all others, Jesus counters.

But he goes on. “Unless you repent you will perish in the same way,” he warns (verse 2). He then deepens the dilemma of rushing to such judgment by asking about a recent incident in which respectable, law-abiding people from Jerusalem were killed by the collapse of a tower. “Do you presume they were worse sinners than others in the city?” he asks (verse 4). Of course not, he tells them, before repeating his prior warning: “But unless you repent you will all perish in the same way” (verse 5).

What is Jesus doing here? Is he suggesting that all of us deserve such deaths?

Jesus employs two different words to describe the Galileans killed by Pilate and the residents of Jerusalem killed by the collapse of the tower. The Galileans are referred to as “sinners” (hamartoloi) whereas the people from Jerusalem are referred to as “debtors” (opheiletai). The designator “sinner” was a common one at the time, typifying the existence of those outside the norms of Second Temple Judaism as exemplifying sin, whereas the appellation “debtor” softened that charge to suit Judean prejudices.

Jesus raised the stakes in posing the question of the people of Jerusalem killed by the tower’s collapse. The Galileans were regarded with a measure of contempt by the Judeans, for whom divine judgment was a reasonable inference from sudden, violent death. Jesus complicates this inference, though: If residents of Jerusalem can die in a manner similar to the Galileans, does that make them similar objects of divine wrath? Are they guilty in the same way the Galileans have so easily been presumed to be?

The Galileans who were slaughtered as they were offering sacrifices aren’t far removed from the Jerusalemites who were likely purifying themselves in the pool at Siloam when the tower collapsed. Both groups were engaged in the apparatus of worship: how can the same outcome between them not hold the same verdict for both? Death doesn’t come for the deserving— it comes for us all.

The myopia of partisanship renders invisible the reality that all of us contribute to what is wrong with the world. That none of us are exempt from judgment. That all of us have wrongs to answer for which we hope we never have to. That the world is broken in painfully unique ways because of our actions or our failures to act. Those with whom we disagree are not solely responsible for the shape of the world’s brokenness. We are all participants in the ruination of our common home.

The uncritical assumption of purity and superiority will see in the deaths of Galileans and Joseph Rosenbaums and Anthony Hubers and Aaron Danielsons evidence of God’s judgment upon “bad guys,” upon sinners, just the same as the inhabitants of Malta presumed Paul’s being bitten by a viper evidenced his guilt (Acts 28:4). But Jesus’ warning extends to all who presume to penetrate through the operations of Death to pronounce the victory of right: if you will tenaciously cling to such moral blindness your own judgment will arrive in similar fashion.

This is not an exercise in moral equivalence. The sins of Donald Trump and his enablers are egregious and, as they are perpetrated under the guise of Christian values, the more heinous. But the fact that varieties and modes of sin can be weighed as greater or lesser and thus require different responses must not obscure how every human being born is a participant in the dominion of Sin, the anti-God and anti-human Power which has claimed our world for itself. The awareness of our collusion within Sin’s regime should chasten our claims to moral perspicacity and thus our proclivities to pronounce this or that person’s death as justice having been served.

The point is not that all human beings are equally in the wrong: this is patently untrue. This is the Jesus who said that temptation to sin comes to all but pronounced woe upon those through him those temptations come, solemnly stating that it would be better if a millstone were tied to them and they were thrown in the sea if they should cause others to stumble (Luke 17:1-2). He therefore doesn’t claim the category “worse sinner” is meaningless in Luke 13— he simply rejects the inference that the violent death of a person demonstrates their belonging to that category.

Schadenfreude is a rhetorical world of iniquity lit by the fire of Hell (James 3:6), feeding the flames of Hell already loose in our world. When it is indulged a false solution is presented to the world’s problems: If only those people got what they deserved. It comes to expression in glee over harm coming to those with whom we disagree. This is a failure of Christian moral imagination, one which views mercy and justice as separate entities. But the only justice worthy of the name is an imaginative justice which generates new possibilities by offering mercy within and besides the necessary pronouncement of guilt.

The tyrant Sin rules over the human race through the operation of our fallen intuitions of right and wrong which, in turn, are inculcated and reinforced by our social identities. “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the Law,” Paul writes (1 Corinthians 15:56). Sin and Death are correlated with one another and their power distributed through the moral frameworks by which we define ourselves over against others. The reductionism which Charles Taylor in Dilemmas and Connections: Selected Essays dubs “code fetishism” (351-353) absolutizes communal moral codes and loses sight of the vertical dimension against which these codes gain any meaning.

Death is not God’s verdict echoing through the cosmos that this person is guilty above his or her fellows. Death comes for us all regardless of our relative righteousness before God and humankind. Death does not exist to satisfy our expectations of right and wrong or to validate our moral identity. It doesn’t serve the purpose of confirming our biases or our sense of moral superiority. It simply is. It is an enemy to be defeated, ours no less than our opponents’.

Neither the conservative nor the progressive are true to the principles they espouse if human deaths can be rationalized as the evidence of those persons’ unworthiness of life. Death is not the boundary marker of those who belong to righteousness and those who do not. It is not a tool of ideology. The storied architecture of partisan biases will imprison us in the very apparatus of Death we claim to be against.

If you and I will not permit ourselves to enter into the holy scrutiny of the God who bestowed his own image upon us all we degrade ourselves and invalidate the visions of justice to which we subscribe. We will not be able to arrive at anything remotely close to a principled consensus of peace so long as any of us are unwilling to pretend we are morally untainted by commerce in this world.

The dominical command to attend to the obstructions in one’s sight before presuming to come to others’ aid in recognizing theirs’ (Matthew 7:1-5) is mordantly applicable here. One cannot presume, implicitly or otherwise, a God’s-eye-view of the events in Kenosha to claim that Rosenbaum’s and Huber’s deaths prove they were worse offenders, especially when a blind eye is simultaneously cast upon the misdeeds of those with whom we feel we can identify; in this case, claiming that Kyle Rittenhouse has beens misjudged and is “not a bad guy.”

The furor that comes to expression in statements such as Dreher’s masks a sinful inconsistency which must be exposed. Christian involvement in political matters can meaningfully distinguish between the categories of “sin” and “crime.” But this distinction cannot be absolute, for if it is one reality in which we are all enmeshed then a boundary exists at which the two meet or inform each other. But that boundary cannot be read off the surface of the world. Concrete knowledge of the good arises out of the encounter between human beings in their need or between humans and God. If that is so then the prioritization of religious belief and practice over good civic conduct is often, in fact, a cloak for motivated reasoning, a coping mechanism for adhering to one’s preferences in the face of contrary convictions and evidence.

This sinful inconsistency shows itself whenever “sin” or “crime” are arbitrarily assigned greater importance than the other in such a way that another misdeed is obscured. We neither can say that “sins” are more egregious, as if to claim that those who commit them are the ones who ought to die, nor that “crimes” are the real problem as that can paper over the fact that many injustices have been perpetrated which bore legal legitimacy; for instance, the 14th Amendment’s exclusion of Native Americans from citizenship. If one claims to care about wanton disregard of civic peace, good: now do so consistently and stop shielding Rittenhouse from scrutiny. But follow that same logic further and pursue the rectification of historic injustices. If you say you are committed to the broader shape of right and wrong in a world created by this God, then attend to those ramifications and engage in public discourse with others who do not share that same conviction precisely because you claim to care about the well-being of them as well.

Law and order are not upheld by teenagers breaking the law or by anyone else assuming the role of vigilante. Neither is rectification made by the death of a Trump supporter. The sorrowful joint that unites the two is the sudden death of a human being. To flippantly justify such a thing is to forget our own culpability before God, to disparage his image in human beings, and to invite the very same judgment upon ourselves.

The human face of sin is yours. And because it is yours is also Jesus Christ’s. Sin and Death are not overcome by motivated reasoning, by the pretense of moral purity, or by forceful coercion. So long as we pretend the world’s wrongs can be righted through the deaths of those we oppose we will go on contributing to the deadly stalemate between calcified code fetishisms. None of us can claim a moral superiority which refuses to reckon with the ubiquity of Sin’s influence and impairment, which pretends that influence and impairment has been effectively overcome in our case. For in so doing we prove the justice we endorse does not originate in God and, instead, present ourselves as servants of Death.

Editors note: An earlier version of this essay used the phrase “the murderer of two of them” and “the criminality of Rittenhouse’s actions.” The piece has been changed to read “the killer of two of them,” and “the nature of Rittenhouse’s actions.” I (Jake) took this action because “murder” and “criminality” are terms with specific legal meanings and it is my general policy to avoid using those terms prior to a trial. In this case, I simply missed those words during my editing process. The error is my own and I apologize for the mistake.