The spell of bitter cold which descended on St. Louis this week seems to have heightened the sense of anticipation in preparation for the grand jury’s decision regarding Darren Wilson. The Governor declared a State of Emergency this week, and some folks are alarmed; several of our concerned friends have generously invited us to stay with them until the trouble blows over. At the Lotus House, daily life continues uninterrupted – school, work, daily prayers, daily chores. The main source of fear and hand-wringing that I’ve noticed is from the white folks, where gun sales have increased 700% in the past few days.

As we wait to hear the verdict, I am reminded of a similar situation which occurred in 1965 in lower Alabama. A local sheriff, Thomas Coleman, shot and killed two civil rights activists, an Episcopal seminarian named Jonathan Daniel and Richard Morrisroe, a Catholic priest. Despite his obvious guilt, Coleman was quickly acquitted by the State. The news of Coleman’s release sent waves of shock through the activist community, who rightly recognized the betrayal of law and justice. The murdered men were close friends of the civil rights leader Will D. Campbell, and he more than anyone else seemingly had a right to call for Coleman’s head; instead, he began to question the whole enterprise of the “law” and even of the contemporary civil rights movement (or at least white liberals’ involvement in that movement). Shortly after the event he wrote: “The Christian response here is not to damn the ‘acquittal by law,” but to proclaim the ‘acquittal by resurrection.” This statement speaks to our current situation.

He went on to say, “The notion that a man can go to a store where a group of unarmed human beings are assembled, fire a shotgun blast at one of them, tearing his lungs and heart and bowels from his body, turn on another and send lead pellets ripping through his flesh and bones, and that God will set him free is almost more than we can stand. But unless that is precisely the case then there is no gospel, there is no good news. Unless that is the truth we are back under the law, and Christ’s death and resurrection are of no account.”

The death of his friend Jonathan at the hands of Sheriff Thomas was a turning point in Campbell’s life and ministry. Through a disturbingly frank conversation with an unbelieving friend in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, Campbell came to see that both his righteous friend Jonathan Daniel and the racist sheriff Thomas Coleman were equally children of God. Which is to say that Thomas Coleman was loved by God, despite his act of cold-blooded murder. “Loved. And if loved, forgiven. And if forgiven, reconciled. Yet sitting there in his own jail cell, the blood of two of his and my brothers on his hands. The thought gave me chills in August….”

Thomas Coleman was a monster. He brutally killed two men simply because of their association with blacks. The Ku Klux Klan, which killed many and made life difficult for many more, was evil. But Campbell came to see that that these were men like him – Southerners, and most of them committed Christians, albeit racists. He spent the rest of his life preaching to these people about the love and forgiveness of God who made all people in his image. More importantly, Campbell came to see himself as not so different from Coleman and the Klan. Fallen, sinful, monstrous, yet capable of redemption, worthy of forgiveness and in need of grace.

Darren Wilson is no Thomas Coleman. Whatever occurred in Ferguson is much more ambiguous that what happened at the grocery store in Lowndes in 1965, and we may never know the full story. There are not clearly innocent or guilty parties here. What is abundantly plain, however, is that our community is deeply divided in much the same way as Campbell’s community was divided, and Christians today, like Christians then, are placing an inordinate amount of faith in “the law.” Whatever the grand jury’s verdict, we can be sure the law will fail. Even if the system “works” and this situation plays out peacefully (and I hope it does), the law will fail us in the future. Christians shouldn’t stop advocating for justice or reforming the system; we don’t have a choice about that. But Christians can remember that the law is not the final word. Love is.

I think we would do well to consider Campbell’s concluding words and we await the grand jury’s imminent verdict: “The Christian response here is not to damn the ‘acquittal by law,” but to proclaim the ‘acquittal by resurrection. One frees him to go and kill again. The other liberates him to obedience in Christ. Acquittal by law was the act of Caesar. Render unto him what is his. The state, by its very nature and definition, can do anything it wills do to – Hitler proved that much. Acquittal by resurrection was the act of God. And he has entrusted us with that message.”

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:18-21).

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law (Romans 13:8).

[You can read the full story of the Coleman affair and Campbell’s conversion in his memoir, Brother to a Dragonfly (Bloomsbury, 2010). His reflection “Law and Love in Lowndes” was originally published in Katallagete (December 1965), 11-14 and can now be found in Richard Goode’s collection, Writings on Reconciliation and Resistance by Will D. Campbell (Wipf & Stock, 2010), 11-16. Both are worth reading in full.]

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