On August 20, 1965 in Alabama, a sheriff deputy named Thomas Coleman took a shotgun and publicly shot and killed two civil rights leaders, Jon Daniels, a white Episcopalian seminarian who died immediately and Richard Morrisroe, a white Roman Catholic priest who died of his injuries later. Jon died taking a shotgun blast directly to the stomach after pushing Ruby Sales, a 17-year-old black girl to the ground to protect her from the gun-wielding Coleman. An all-white jury later acquitted Coleman of all charges. Jon Daniels was a close friend to Will Campbell, and this is an excerpt from one of his writings in response to Coleman’s murder of Daniels:
What distinctive word, what message of hope does the Christian have for the racial crisis? It may be that he has no word of hope in the sense that hope is understood generally. But he certainly has a distinctive word. That word is The Word. The Word become flesh.
And that Word leads us to the death of Jonathan Daniels and our response to it. What can one say when a brother whom we have set apart and sent forth is dead? We can say, “Our brother is dead. Let’s go bury him.” Then we can say a benediction. And perhaps nothing more is appropriate.
But we who set Jon Daniels apart and sent him forth have said far more than that. We got immediate appointments with the highest official of the Department of Justice. We pressured through releases and statements and marches and court stays for federal intervention. We have said such things as: “We must have federal initiative and involvement in the investigation and prosecution of murders . . .” And now we are considering civil proceedings of our own against the murderer of our brother. We have indicated that the President is a scoundrel for not “doing something.” And worst of all we have said that unless the conditions which we have set forth are met, Jonathan will have died in vain.
Yes, that is the worst of all because nothing, absolutely nothing, any of us do or do not do now will cause his death to have been in vain. That is out of our hands. He can never have died in vain because he loved his killer. By his own last written words he loved his killer. (If one is looking for a martyr in it all, to die at the hands of one you love for a cause in which you believe strongly enough to let the beloved kill you is coming mighty close.) If he had loved only the Negroes with whom he lived and ate and worshipped it might have been different. Then one might set up conditions and issue ultimatums in order to get mileage out of his death, in order to have his death “mean something.” But since he loved his murderer his death is its own meaning. And what that means is that Thomas Coleman is forgiven. If Jonathan forgives him, as he did when he came to love him, then it is not for me to cry for his blood. Any act on my part which is even akin to “avenging” his death is sacrilege. Vengeance negates martyrdom. It never confirms it. The sacramental act was Jonathan’s, not mine.
When he loved his killer he set him free, for that is what love is. We might at least have learned that much from two thousand years of punishing Jews for killing Christ. . . .
The notion that a man can go to a store where a group of unarmed human beings are assembled, fire a shotgun blast at one of them, tearing his lungs and heart and bowels from his body, turn on another and send lead pellets ripping through his flesh and bones, and that God will set him free is almost more than we can stand. But unless that is precisely the case then there is no gospel, there is no good news. Unless that is the truth we are back under law, and Christ’s death and resurrection are of no account.
When Thomas killed Jonathan he committed a crime against the state of Alabama. Alabama, for reasons of its own, chose not to punish him for that crime against itself. And do we not all know what those reasons were?
When Thomas killed Jonathan he committed a crime against God. The strange, the near maddening thing about this case is that both these offended parties have rendered the same verdict—not for the same reasons, not in the same way, but the verdict is the same—acquittal.
The Christian response here is not to damn the “acquittal by law,” but to proclaim the “acquittal by resurrection.” One frees him to go and kill again. The other liberates him to obedience in Christ. Acquittal by law was the act of Caesar. Render unto him what is his. The state, by its very nature and definition, can do anything it wills to do—Hitler proved that much. Acquittal by resurrection was the act of God. And he has entrusted us with that message.
Thomas also committed a crime against Jonathan. And Jonathan rendered a similar verdict when he loved him.
But he also committed an offense against us, against those of us who set Jonathan apart and sent him forth. Thus far we have come out worst of all.
Perhaps it is because we are afraid of the Colemans of this world. Perhaps it is because he rebuffed us in the Delta and elsewhere. But worse than either of these it may be that we just plain do not love him.
Will Campbell, “Law and Love in Lowndes,” in Writings on Resistance and Reconciliation (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2010), 14-16.