In the past couple days, the Durham-Chapel Hill area received some more sobering news. One of the men accused of murdering Eve Carson had actually shot and killed another area student several months ago. He had been arrested and detained for the crime, but due to some sort of paperwork error, he was inadvertently released back into the community.
Upon learning this news, I was outraged. Of all the mistakes to be made, this one is inexcusable, and now a family must suffer an irreplaceable loss because of it. It’s also frightening to wonder if this kind of error has been made before. Are there other murderers wandering our city unchecked?
Now to some extent, the anger I feel toward the murderers, and the Durham justice system, is warranted. A horrible thing has happened, and we are grieving a loss. BUT, my pastor said something this morning that really put my self-righteousness in check.
In his sermon, my pastor mentioned a local elementary school in which 64 students are currently homeless. He then proceeded to explain that those homeless children are at the highest risk for turning to crime and getting involved with gangs. And I can understand why–when you don’t have a home, your life becomes a matter of survival, and you do whatever you can to get by.
But upon hearing these statistics, I had a startling realization–the blood of Eve Carson is on my hands. There are 64 homeless students at one school alone, 64 students who are much more vulnerable to gangs and criminal activity, and I am doing nothing about it. All that those children need is for Christians like me to intervene in their lives and provide them with other options, but because we are failing to act, our city remains the same.
Similarly, these men who are accused of Eve’s murder came out of that broken system. They fell through the cracks, and now they are facing a life in prison. But I hesitate to point my finger at them. I also hesitate to point my finger at the Durham justice system. Why? Because the blame does not lie with them alone. We, as a community, have failed those young men. When they needed help, and when they needed direction, we were not there.
You see at the end of the day, sin is never individual–it is corporate. This theme is particularly salient in 1 Corinthians. Paul indicts the Corinthian church as a whole when one of their brothers is sleeping with his father’s wife. Rather than place all the blame on the single adulterer, he holds the entire community responsible–Where were they when this man first began to feel tempted? And where were they when he needed accountability? Nowhere. And for that reason, the man’s sin was not merely his own, but the entire church’s.
We need to take this same approach to sin. Whenever something heinous occurs in our community, we need to pause and ask, “What was my role in this?” Rather than climb up on our high horses and separate ourselves out from the sinners, these incidents should remind us all the more of our own sin. What are we doing about the gangs in our cities? What are we doing about the children who go to school hungry? What are we doing for the children who don’t have a home to live in? Scripture does not tell us to rely on the government to provide these things, or to sit around stewing about how sinful other people are. On the contrary, it is OUR call to act, and to act now. When we fail to act, then we lose the right to be angry when our community falters.
I don’t know about you, but that reminder is supremely humbling for me. Looking back on the inmates with whom I worked this week, there was no “us” and “them,” and there was no “guilty” or “innocent.” We were all profound sinners. Some are forced to wear their guilt on their bodies, but apart from Christ our souls look just the same.
That, I believe, is a a healthy reminder in the face of such a loss. Not only did I fail to act when our community needed it, but without Christ I might have been the very one committing that crime. Praise be to God that I did not, but let me now show the same grace to others that God has shown to me.
I Corinthians was written to a group, so many of its injunctions might reasonably seem to be plurally addressed. However, the judgment Paul pronounces in I Cor. 5:3-5 sounds like it’s directed against the particular sinner. Romans 14:12 similarly seems to emphasize individual responsibility.