March 31, 2014

Trigger-Happy Tenants: Don’t Shoot the Messenger

by Clint Archer

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.

smoking gunDiallo 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.

41 bullets protesterThe 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.

1 bulletBut 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.


Clint Archer

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Clint has been the pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church since 2005. He lives in Durban, South Africa with his wife and four kids.
  • george canady

    D.M. Lloyd- Jones Says it like this in reference to those who interpret Romans 12:6 cessationist dogmaticly: ” that is not interpretation, it is prejudice.” see; Romans An Exposition of Chapter 12 Christian Conduct pp 215

    • Yes, we love DMLJ. Even when he is being a bit dogmatic himself!

      • george canady

        Man, Clint, your not going to believe this. I’ve been following the GTY blog the last few weeks and it coincided with my 5 year study of Romans with Piper 9:1-23, MacArthur commentaries and Lloyd-Jones with the Fridaynighters. Last week and today my study with Lloyd-Jones through Romans 12 finds J.M. in total disagreement with him and Piper.

        • It keeps things interesting.

          • george canady

            I trust you would pray for me as one who would be interested in my spiritual growth through our grappling with this weighty issues.

  • Philip

    Should we shoot the messenger if he’s not telling people that they’re sinners and calling them to repentance?

    • Mm. Maybe try shepherding before shooting.

  • Ken Miller

    Great post! You drew me in with the illustration and really drove the nails into the coffin at the end. The truth can pierce and search us very powerfully. Not bad for some casual reading on my lunch hour!

  • Katie

    Hi Clint, First I wanted to say that I appreciate your blog articles (and the ones on Cripplegate in general). They have been very helpful to me in my spiritual walk.

    I realize that your point to this article was not about the NYPD shooting, but about misunderstanding God’s message and rejecting Jesus. But I took exception to your comment about the officers showing unforgivably poor judgment. And I wanted to address the picture of the sign saying “41 bullets – Why???” I think the NYPD story is compelling, but I’m going to disagree with your take on it.

    (I do, however, most definitely agree with your last paragraph warning people not to shoot the messenger of God’s gospel presentation. Yes, the truth can hurt,
    but boy do we need it! So I am all in agreement with you there. Preach it

    But here’s where I’d like to challenge you a little bit—when it comes to police behavior, I think you don’t realize the whole picture.

    As a wife of a cop who had to shoot and kill someone just last month, I wanted to provide an answer to the question of “Why 41?” Because there is an answer that every cop (and cop’s wife) knows, but that the general public probably does not. The answer is that when the police are forced to shoot someone, they are trained to shoot until the threat stops. And contrary to the movies, when people are shot (even with multiple, fatal wounds), they often do not stop for several minutes. Even with a gunshot to the heart, people can still run, they can still shoot, they can still kill others. Shooting someone one or two times does not necessarily STOP them.

    What this means is that when my husband runs into your child’s school (knowing that he potentially could be sacrificing his own life), he knows that if he just shoots the bad guy one time, the bad guy has potentially 120 more seconds to keep popping off rounds into the nearest 100 kindergarteners. THIS is why the police are trained to keep firing until the bad guy stops.

    When my husband shot the bad guy last month, he shot him 7 times and the other officers shot him multiple times as well, for a total of 37 shots.

    This is how the police are trained, and it is for a good reason.

    So why 41? Why 37? Why any at all? Because this is a fallen world. Evil must be stopped and police officers are the legitimate arm of the state authorized to do so in life and death situations. The NYPD story is a sad one to be sure. Amadou Diallo was not evil, he was not committing a crime—the fact that he was probably terrified that he was being robbed and was doing everything he knew to defuse the situation is achingly ironic. The fact that every action he took made the police mistake his intentions even more is awful. I’m sure the One who comes to steal, kill, and destroy was delighted.

    But this does not make what the police did wrong. We are all fallen, we see imperfectly, we see through the lenses of our own culture, training, experiences, life situation, etc. Cops also see through the lens of extreme danger. I do not think it appropriate to condemn the NYPD officers for the sad situation. Thank goodness that God IS the ultimate judge because you can be sure that it is a terrifying day for a cop to be in the hands of what he knows to be the so-very-Unjust justice system and in the hands of human judges who so often pervert justice and who care little for truth and righteousness.

    My heart goes out to Diallo’s family—I do not discount their suffering. God cares very much. My heart also goes out to the officers. God cares very much about them too. The whole shooting is very sad. All involved are victims of the sin and evil in this world.

    Thanks be to God that He has provided an answer through Jesus Christ. Through HIM, all is made right. I can’t wait for our future hope of a new world where Jesus dries every tear and where sin and death are gone. But until then, don’t be too quick to condemn those who carry the badge and the gun. Their bullets are for the safety of society. This side of heaven, it seems like all good things have an edge. Every 41 bullets are the means to save kindergarteners, and yet every 41 bullets are also the means to bring sorrow and loss. We live in a broken world and eagerly wait for the redeemer to make it whole again. Come soon Lord Jesus!