One month ago, a 29-year-old black man named Tyre Nichols was mercilessly beaten by police officers and died in hospital three days later.
The Memphis Police department has released bodycam footage of the beating, which shows a shockingly graphic account of the incident (I couldn’t bring myself to watch it). Written accounts describe Tyre being beaten and kicked as he lay defenceless on the ground, crying out for help while a group of bystanders passively watched.
Sadly this is not the first uniformed abuse of power we have seen recently, not even close. Already 2023 has ushered in the appalling revelation of one of the UK’s MET police officers admitting to multiple incidents of rape. And with the Sarah Everard case still in recent memory, such events draw even more attention to the already problematic culture within the police itself. We have been here too often and frequently – witnessing the steady attrition of trust in those who are paid to protect us and uphold the law. There is so much to disturb us – the abuse of power, a culture of unaccountability, racism, questions of recruitment, training and character. All of these demand attention, investigation and redressing.
While Tyre Nichols was beaten by black police officers, it’s hard to imagine this happening to an unarmed 29-year-old white man. This article asks the uncomfortable question of whether this dehumanisation is something that the mind does more easily when the object is a black man.
As each new case comes to light and is narrated in the press, the calls for justice are stark. Heads must roll, as the saying goes, but as this article avers, there is a difference between justice and making things right again. The dead remain dead, and the abused remain abused; each event still occurred, even if someone is appropriately punished. This is important to dwell on because while the wheels of justice might turn, they do not clean the stain or resolve the discord; often, they barely touch the hem of it.
One of the most shocking and yet appealing beliefs in the Christian faith is that God entered this world and suffered with it and for it.
The Bible tells the story of a frothing mob baying for blood until they saw an innocent man crucified. Jesus’ death was also at the hands of the authorities- there to ensure peace and justice, while bystanders did nothing, passively cooperating with them. We ask ourselves whether we would have been one of them; almost certainly, is the uncomfortable answer. The violence inflicted on Jesus was extreme, mindless, and demonstrably without cause. This strange centrepiece of the Christian faith offers relief for the suffering, who find that God is not peering down from a throne in the heavens but relates to and understands those on the sharp end of injustice. As the English writer, Francis Spufford puts it, “…the most essential thing God does in time, in all of human history, is to be that man in a crowd; a man under arrest, and on his way to our common catastrophe.”
The darkness and confusion of that moment are not to be skipped over, even if we know how the story ends. The darkness is real and valid, and we are to feel that and dwell on it. Though within the desolation, the story does not end here. In the resurrection, there follows the promise of justice and of making things right. The resurrection account of Jesus betokens a world being restored and made new. While we may still live under the shadow of unresolved pain and sadness, this resurrection story contains the promise that it will not always be so. Pain, however raw and visceral, is haunted by the hope of a better world to come. Even though we see only glimpses of renewal, of some wrongs being made right, the story is ultimately one of faith, hope and love in spite of apparent circumstances. These three virtues may be hard to hold onto and express – at times, they will barely feel possible, though surely they are part of bringing about the better world we hope for.
As nations reel in the wake of revelations about Tyre Nichols’ death, we may wonder what the appropriate response is; rage, fear, cynicism – all of these would feel justified. Though in reflecting on the event and wishing the world was a better place, perhaps the observations of the 20th-century American theologian and ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr are worth taking on board: “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope….Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.” This is not something that can be achieved on our own. The Christian message requires us to look outside of ourselves to do this.
For tragic injustices like Tyre Nichol’s death, the Christian faith does not provide soothing cliches for the suffering. Instead, it offers a story that can hold the weight of the moment in its fullness while promising to transform that pain with the hope of a better world. Surely that’s a story worth paying attention to.