It was dark in the wee morning hours of Feb 4, 1999. Amadou Diallo, an immigrant from Guinea, was standing outside his low-income apartment building on Wheeler Avenue in the South Bronx. The neighborhood was ear-marked for surveillance by a special police unit in an effort to curb drug related crime.
Diallo was not typically considered to have a threatening presence. He was a short, light-weight man with an unassuming demeanor, and a shyness stemming from a severe stutter. But on that fateful night, his loitering attracted the suspicion of four police officers in an unmarked car. Spotting the halted car, Diallo’s curiosity was piqued enough to look around for what might be holding their attention. When he realized he was the object of their scrutiny, he became nervous and quickly retreated into the shadows. The cops interpreted this as the skittishness of a lookout abetting a crime.
Two of them, wearing civilian clothes, concealed bullet-proof vests, and not-so-concealed sidearms, ominously approached him. They asked if they could have a word. Apparently the fearful guy’s stutter prevented him from answering. Diallo freaked out and instinctively darted to his apartment door. He grabbed the doorknob with his left hand and started digging frantically in his pocket with his right. One policeman shouted “Show me your hands!” but Diallo turned his body and crouched low in what appeared to be a classic close-combat tactical stance—one the police were familiar with from their own training. Suddenly he presented a black, rectangular object and proffered it to his presumed assailants.
“Gun!” shouted one officer and drew his weapon. A shot rang out.
Startled, the other cop retreated, clumsily falling backward and in panic also discharged his weapon. Instantaneously the other two policemen appeared in the mêlée of crackling gunfire. Seeing one colleague on the floor and the other shooting, they joined the fray.
The whole incident was over in a few seconds. In that time 41 shots were fired. When the smoke cleared they found bullet-ridden Amadou Diallo’s body, with an outstretched hand, clutching a black wallet.
The media used the Diallo shooting to ignite in effigy the reputation of the NYPD as trigger-happy thugs. But the court case showed the fiasco wasn’t brutality. It was a tragic blend of unforgivably poor judgment, and mutual misunderstanding.
The police believed Diallo was acting suspiciously; he believed they were robbing him. They assumed he was grabbing a gun, he assumed he was giving them what they wanted. They were on edge because he didn’t respond to them; he was on edge, which is why he couldn’t speak. They thought he was in a dangerous combat stance; he thought he was being submissive. And yet, does the misunderstanding obviate all culpability? We may understand why the cops did what they did, but they still did it. It’s one of those cases that will have to be resolved in eternity by the all-wise Judge. But the incident contains a spiritual lesson for us.
In religion, an equally distressing scenario can develop if we are not cautious. When people harbor preconceived notions of what God is like, how he operates, and what he expects, then when he shows up and acts, they are in danger of not recognizing him. This misunderstanding can soon escalate into an irretraceable rejection of the Savior, which is what Jesus warned against in the parable of the trigger-happy tenants.
In Matthew 21 Jesus crafted a gripping tale of tenants entrusted with a vineyard. Upon his return the landlord of the property required the payment due him, and he dispatched a messenger to that effect. The tenants callously mistreat the servant and send him back empty-handed. This transpires multiple times before the landlord eventually deploys his own son. In an over-the-top plot climax, the story ends with the murderous tenants summarily executing the son. The persistence of the landlord borders on irresponsibility. His patience and grace in giving the tenants ample opportunities to undo what they started, is inhuman in its forbearance. And that is the point. Jesus, in fact, baits his audience into delivering the punch line themselves, by asking: When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”
They spring the trap with their understandably emotional response: They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”
And indeed he shall. Message received. The Jews ignored, rejected, and/or killed many of God’s prophets. Instead of wiping them out, he sent his Son. But because of their expectations of a political, revolutionary Messiah, they mistook Jesus for an imposter. They believed the Messiah should assume a combat stance; Jesus took on the role of a servant. They called for an overthrow of Roman rule; Jesus offered freedom from sin. They wanted him to wipe out all unrepentant Gentile wickedness; Jesus wanted the Jews to repent and be baptized as if they were wicked Gentiles.
But as with the 41 shots in the Bronx, the crucifixion of the innocent Lamb of God on Calvary will have incalculable repercussions in eternity. The Jews were too quick on the trigger when they rejected Jesus, and for that the nation has been paying dearly for centuries. But the New Testament warns those of us in the Christian church to beware of not making an identical travesty of our privilege. Let this warning ring in our ears like the echo of a gunshot:
Hebrews 10:29 How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?
If you have been attending church and have grown tired of being told you are a sinner who needs to repent, you may be tempted to change churches. But be aware that truth is the best medicine, and sometimes it hurts to hear. Pastors who preach hard-hitting sermons are being faithful. They may appear antagonistic or combative. But before you disregard the message, take time to scrutinize what they are offering in their hands. The gospel can sound offensive, but it’s not dangerous. It may just save your life. Don’t be too quick on the trigger to shoot down a gospel presentation. And whatever you do, don’t shoot the messenger.