Last Thursday I noticed a news headline on MSNBC.com about an Arlington, Texas pastor who had been killed. Having been born and raised in Texas, I did a quick search to find out more and was shocked to learn that this pastor was a seminary classmate with whom I had graduated in 2008. Clint Dobson had been the pastor at North Pointe Baptist Church, an offshoot of First Baptist Church of Arlington, for nearly three years when he was killed at the church in what appears to have been a robbery attempt. He was only 28 years old.
Even though we both went to Baylor University for undergraduate degrees, I didn’t know Clint before seminary and I didn’t spend much time with him outside the classroom, but we did have several classes together and I knew him well enough to be able say that he was not only an excellent student and gifted preacher, but a kind, compassionate, personable and genuinely good guy.
I had not kept up with what he was doing after graduation; so reading a news article about his death was shocking to say the least. The nightly news almost always has a report or two about someone’s tragic death somewhere in the world, but it often seems remote and distant unless and until it’s someone you know. When it is someone you know, when it is someone whose story is so similar to your own, when it is someone who is so young and whose future is so bright, when it is someone whose death is so pointless and tragic it is numbing.
In moments like these your emotions lead you to seek justice, which usually means vengeance—“an eye for an eye,” “a tooth for a tooth.” In moments like these you really want to ignore the “turn the other cheek” message of the Jesus whose way of life you seek to follow. In moments like these, you feel a sharp divide between your emotions and your theology. I don’t really know what to do in these moments when the theology that I proclaim and believe in seems insufficient to deal with the darkness of life.
Since the day I first read about the tragedy, I’ve been reading updates to find out what I could about the exact circumstances and I’ve been reading the comments some people have posted at the end of the news reports. Most of them have been compassionate—prayers for the family, the friends, the church, even for the murderer. Some have been vengeful—pleas for the man’s conviction, critiques of the Texas judicial system, calls for his execution sooner than later. I have felt emotions that mirror the compassionate as well as the vengeful comments.
To be perfectly honest, I am unsure how to respond to this tragedy beyond shock and sadness. I don’t know what it looks like to apply “turn the other cheek” in response to an act of needless, mindless violence. Do you keep turning the other cheek when the person is a repeat offender like the young man arrested for the murder of Clint? How do you turn the other cheek and yet denounce the action? By what means do you apply Jesus’ teachings to forgive and yet do so in a way that seeks to change the person for the better? How do you let “mercy triumph over judgment” without letting the person feel like there are no consequences for their actions? How do you respond in love and grace, compassion and mercy when one news report makes it seems like this young man appears to care nothing for the significance and dignity of human life, seems to lack any sign of remorse, any sense that what he did was wrong, any notion that his mindless violence caused deep, irreparable loss and inconsolable grief to Clint’s family and friends? How do you believe in the power of love over evil in these moments?
All I know to say is that I have to keep believing–however painful and frustrating, confusing and difficult it may be–that mercy, that grace, that goodness, that love has and can and will somehow triumph over vengeance, wrath, violence and evil. All I know to do is continue to follow Jesus in praying for those who persecute, those who harm, those who kill–however difficult and disturbing it may seem at times.
A young man who would take the life of another person for any reason, much less a few items from an office that anyone would gladly give away freely in exchange for their life, is clearly troubled. A young man whose brief 24 years have included multiple crimes is obviously in need of help. A young man who can laugh about killing someone when he sees it reported on the news has obviously allowed much evil to grow within. And so, there must be some form of punishing the crime, some way of showing disapproval for the atrocity, some means of pointing out the sin, some avenue for acknowledging the error, some path of making sure that everyone is aware that the person and the action has been rebuked and condemned, but that still leaves open the possibility of this man’s future redemption.
I’m reminded of what was, for me, the most powerful scene in the movie Ghandi. A man comes forward fearing that he is going to hell for killing a Muslim child in response to a Muslim killing his son. Ghandi, starving himself to death in hopes of shaming the combatants into reconciliation, opens his eyes and tells the man that the way out of hell is to adopt a Muslim child and raise him as his very own. Hell, in Ghandi’s eyes, is the evil of violence and hatred that threatens to enslave and destroy us. The way out of hell is a love wide enough to embrace one’s worst enemies, to welcome them into your family. It is profligate love.
What it looks like to turn the other cheek and to practice profligate love in this situation….I simply do not know. All I know to do at this moment is to lean into the darkness and dare to believe that if any good can be wrought from this terrible evil, it will have to be the result of love and not hatred, compassion and not vengeance, reconciliation and not retribution, “turn the other cheek” and not “any eye for any eye.”
God give this family grace as they mourn this tragic, needless loss; and God grant us grace as we seek to find a redeeming justice and just-filled love in our world.