Just after midnight Tuesday morning, police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, shot and killed a black man during an altercation outside a convenience store. Alton Sterling died in the parking lot of the Trip S Food Mart after police responded to a call that a black man in a red shirt selling CDs had threatened the caller with a gun. The confrontation was caught on camera by a watchdog group in Baton Rouge called Stop the Killing Inc.
Then Wednesday evening near Minneapolis, Minnesota, police shot and killed another black man during a traffic stop. The victim’s girlfriend said that Philando Castile declared to police that he had possession of a weapon and was licensed to carry. Confusion arose around the cop’s instructions to Castile, and Castile was shot when he reached for his driver’s license. Castile’s girlfriend recorded the aftermath on her phone, posting the footage on Facebook Live.
The US Department of Justice has opened a civil rights investigation, in cooperation with the FBI and Louisiana State Police, into the Alton Sterling shooting. And the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension in investigating the Castile shooting, while the Minnesota governor has asked the White House for a Justice Department investigation as well.
Both shootings, within days of each other, have garnered national attention and incited protests in their respective cities. Over the past 3 years awareness has increased about shootings under similar circumstances, where a white officer has shot a black male. Many believe that racism plays a role in these kinds of deaths.
America’s history of slavery, racial prejudice, and black poverty all twist together when shootings like this happen. Mistrust between the police and the black community continues to swell and simmer. Beyond the incidents themselves, the investigation and legal proceedings that follow after are often also handled by predominantly white authorities. Questions of racism, whether intentional or subconscious, continue to meet us at every turn.
Standard police protocol after events like this is to place the officers on administrative leave, pending investigation. Reaching resolution takes months and years.
The Bible also had clear protocol for events like this. It handled the human desire for vengeance and justice with common sense. And it carefully established a means for resolving the injustices at stake. It protected the killer until the community could determine their guilt or not. Using a system of “asylum-cities,” killers could flee the scene of the crime or accident to a designated city where they could safely await a fair trial. If they were found guilty of murder, they paid with their own lives.
Like ancient Israel, we continue to pursue justice for those who have been killed. And we seek to avoid further injustice by giving their killers a fair trial. One tragic death is not fixed by another tragic death. We continue to pursue a more just society by investigating each death and understanding the intentions and motives of those involved. Read this passage that describes the practical approach that Israel had for killings that happened under questionable circumstances.
God spoke to Moses: “Speak to the People of Israel. Tell them, When you cross the River Jordan into the country of Canaan, designate your asylum-cities, towns to which a person who accidentally kills someone can flee for asylum. They will be places of refuge from the avenger so that the alleged murderer won’t be killed until he can appear before the community in court. Provide six asylum-cities. Designate three of the towns to the east side of the Jordan, the other three in Canaan proper—asylum-cities for the People of Israel, for the foreigner, and for any occasional visitors or guests—six asylum-cities to run to for anyone who accidentally kills another.
“But if the killer has used an iron object, that’s just plain murder; he’s obviously a murderer and must be put to death.
“Or if he has a rock in his hand big enough to kill and the man dies, that’s murder; he’s a murderer and must be put to death.
“Or if he’s carrying a wooden club heavy enough to kill and the man dies, that’s murder; he’s a murderer and must be put to death.
“In such cases the avenger has a right to kill the murderer when he meets him—he can kill him on the spot.
“And if out of sheer hatred a man pushes another or from ambush throws something at him and he dies, or angrily hits him with his fist and kills him, that’s murder—he must be put to death. The avenger has a right to kill him when he gets him.
“If, however, he impulsively pushes someone and there is no history of hard feelings, or he impetuously picks up something and throws it, or he accidentally drops a stone tool—a maul or hammer, say—and it hits and kills someone he didn’t even know was there, and there’s no suspicion that there was bad blood between them, the community is to judge between the killer and the avenger following these guidelines.