Over the past few weeks, I have noticed that a particular blog entry of mine from early in my writing has been very popular, that relating to the scripture in the law that refers to righteous blood calling out to heaven to avenge its being shed. As is common when I deal with biblical passages, my intent in looking at that passage dealt with the biblical law from a theological fashion and also discussed matters of biblical forensics involved in dealing with those bodies who had been killed of unknown causes in remote places. We may note that God cares a great deal about righteous blood, and demands a sacrifice from people to affirm the value of innocent life and to make sure that the town itself is not responsible. So who counts as righteous blood? We know that human beings are not particularly righteous in general, and that the longer we live, the more we have to answer for, although many people in our contemporary age feel that acts of pillage and destruction and violence are an appropriate response to what is viewed as the death of righteous people.
But are they righteous? Let us remember them by name. The death of George Floyd is the initial spark that led to the present uprisings. During the course of his life, Floyd was arrested nine times, the first time for dealing cocaine, then a couple of cases for theft, a few days in jail for failing to provide information to a police officer, possession of a small amount of cocaine, criminal trespassing, and another case of dealing and then for possession, as well as aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon. When he died he had attempted to use a counterfeit $20 bill to buy some cigarettes. Now, I think it is safe to say that as a consistent petty criminal that Floyd was not an innocent person. It is equally obvious that he did not deserve to die by being chocked out by a police officer. In other cases, we have seen even less justification for hostility to police officers. Rayshard Brooks was fatally shot at a Wendy’s in a case where nearly everyone involved escalated things to a level where deadly force was justified if unfortunate. Brooks drank and drove, passed out in a drive through lane, and tried to taze officers multiple times after having stolen the tazer from one of the officers. Of course, part of Brooks’ own panicked response that ultimately led to his demise was due to the fact that he was on probation for prior offenses and that he would likely have been given a “substantive violation” which would have led to much higher penalties. Again, the question must be asked, is this a righteous person? No. As is frequently the case, unfortunately, once someone has some interaction with the justice system the difficulties of maintaining the straight and narrow make it hard for them to avoid future negative interactions with the justice system that tend to lead to people being seen as professional members of the criminal class, with correspondingly negative treatment being handed to them.
More to the point, though, when we see a passage like Deuteronomy 21:1-9, and we are dealing with unsolved murders, the issue is generally a cold case where there are no witnesses and no one willing or able to provide information about the unsolved murder. As it is written: “If someone is found slain, lying in a field in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess, and it is not known who the killer was, your elders and judges shall go out and measure the distance from the body to the neighboring towns. Then the elders of the town nearest the body shall take a heifer that has never been worked and has never worn a yoke and lead it down to a valley that has not been plowed or planted and where there is a flowing stream. There in the valley they are to break the heifer’s neck. The Levitical priests shall step forward, for the Lord your God has chosen them to minister and to pronounce blessings in the name of the Lord and to decide all cases of dispute and assault. Then all the elders of the town nearest the body shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the valley, and they shall declare: “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done. Accept this atonement for your people Israel, whom you have redeemed, Lord, and do not hold your people guilty of the blood of an innocent person.” Then the bloodshed will be atoned for, and you will have purged from yourselves the guilt of shedding innocent blood, since you have done what is right in the eyes of the Lord.”
There are definitely cases where this is still a problem. Some years ago a body was found of a frozen chalcolithic age man affectionately named Otzi on the border between Austria and Italy. It was found that this man had been ambushed and killed by arrows from unknown assailants. Such an act against an isolated traveler is a clear example of the slaying of righteous blood where the perpetrators are unknown and where it would be appropriate to mourn the death of someone to violence who had been minding his own business and slain by brigands who cannot be brought to justice because the case is quite literally far too old and far too cold. In the cases we previously discussed, though, there is no need for righteous blood to cry out against God because the cases have witnesses and evidence and can be tried in courts. Of course, what makes such cases so problematic is that there are multiple perspectives of these cases that are wildly at odds, to the point where what looks like systemic racism and oppressive police violence to one side looks entirely justified if unfortunate acts of violence against hostile and dangerous criminals on the other side. I happen to believe the latter rather than the former, and the issue here is not one of evidence so much as the way that evidence is seen and the worldview through which it is interpreted, which is a different matter entirely.
Who then gets to count as righteous blood whose blood is shed in unacceptable violence. The most obvious example of righteous blood is that of innocent unborn slain by murderous abortionists. Here is a case where people’s only supposed fault was being inconvenient to someone. Similarly, where we know that someone has been killed because their identity or their religious beliefs and who have committed no criminal acts nor any violence or hostility to the state or its officers, we can recognize such people as being righteous blood as well. The martyred believers of early Christianity and many contemporary believers who are persecuted all over the world in such places as China and Nigeria and the Middle East fall under this category, to be sure. After that, things get considerably more murky. To what extent do the crimes and attitude and behavior of people in their interactions with police officers justify the use of violence against them? This is a subject where reasonable people disagree. There might be a broad consensus that police have a responsibility not to use their state-given power to intimidate others (see the advice of John the Baptist to Roman soldiers) but a large degree of leeway may be given based on the stress of the situation. Any resistance or violence committed against police officers will make a situation far more dangerous for someone being arrested. This world has no need of supposed martyrs against imaginary views of systemic racism. What we have need of is people who are willing to discipline themselves and avoid subjecting themselves to the criminal justice system in the first place. But such righteousness appears uncommon in our evil generation.