A Community's Agony Over the Schatzes

by Matthew Raley Kenneth and Elizabeth Schatz pleaded not guilty last Thursday to charges of torture and murder in the death of their 7-year-old daughter Lydia. The D.A. cited an autopsy concluding that she died of "'blunt force trauma' over a period of hours on Feb. 5, which caused a breakdown of muscle tissue fatally damaging her kidneys and other vital organs." The defense attorney said he is "exploring extensively ... other explanations for the death of this child."

For me this is not a news item or an abstract legal issue, but a regional agony.

I do not know the Schatzes. But I know and love many of their friends, a group that includes some of our church's families. This wide circle of people is grieving for Lydia and for her surviving brothers and sisters, whose lives have been upended.

Friends of the Schatzes are also grieving for the parents, praying for them and trying to understand how they could have committed such crimes. These friends cannot match the picture of the Schatz home that has emerged in news reports with the family they thought they knew.

I can empathize with their sorrow, and I have no desire to add to it.

There is a larger group of local believers. The vast majority of Christians I know are sickened and enraged by Lydia's death, and by the "not guilty" plea. They have no personal acquaintance with Kenneth and Elizabeth Schatz, and feel at liberty to vent.

It is tempting to hold one perspective as more pure than the other. Friends might feel that they're maintaining love toward two sinners, no matter how extreme their sin. The wider community might feel that such love is twisted. Both perspectives have problems.

How should Christians conduct themselves in relation to the Schatz family? Some thoughts:

1. In their grief for the accused parents, the friends of Kenneth and Elizabeth Schatz are not defending or rationalizing child abuse. Anybody whose loved one has committed a crime knows the feelings of watching justice be done -- understanding that it must be done, but also mourning over the personal losses. Friends have a right to grieve over this couple without their motives being impugned.

2. The community's expressions of rage against the Schatzes are understandable but unhealthy. Comments that I have read on local news sites are frequently violent, profane, and hysterical. (If this describes you, don't bother venting off-topic here. I am now moderating all comments.) The surviving Schatz children will eventually be exposed to the community's rage against their mom and dad. The children can't be shielded from it. Their grief will be long and complex, and they will not feel in the least comforted by the braying of a mob. Christians in particular should not join in. Justice is cool and deliberate for a reason.

3. I would urge friends of the Schatzes that this is not a moment for wishful thinking. Some may offer conspiracy theories about trumped-up election-year indictments or persecution of Christians in the media. These speculations blur the issue. The defense attorney's suggestion that there could be a cause of death besides the beatings will stand or fall on evidence. But it in no way invalidates the claim that there were beatings. This grim reality, reportedly established by the autopsy, is not now in dispute. We have to face the horror of the abuse. The glare of media attention on it is right.

4. There is inevitably the foolish person who wants to find "the good that God is doing" through Lydia's death. If you are this person, let me advise you as a pastor, and as a firm believer in Romans 8.28, that this is an excellent opportunity to keep your folly to yourself. Flippant applications of that verse are never a balm to those in mourning. There are times to grieve, to feel the bite of loss. This is a time for our whole community to feel the loss of a 7-year-old girl -- a loss that will not be restored in this life. Grief is good for us.

Our hope for Lydia and for ourselves is not in some repair of this life, but in the redemption stored up in the next.