Spring 2005, Vol. 8, No. 1

Table of Contents
Spring 2005

Quick Links:
Articles in this issue

From the Editor:
What's In a Name?

Getting Right with the Pope

Why Moral Values Did Count

What Athens Has To Do With Jerusalem

Evangelicals Discover the Culture of Life

Sin and Redemption in Atlanta

The Faith-Based Initiative Re-ups

Same-Sex Toons



Sin and Redemption
in Atlanta

by Rebecca Fowler

March 11 brought another one of those shocking episodes of ultra-violence that saturate the national media for a news cycle or two. In Atlanta’s county courthouse, a man on trial for rape wrestled a handgun away from a sheriff’s deputy, tracked down and killed a judge and three others, and then escaped. 

The man proceeded to carjack several vehicles, along the way pistol-whipping one driver who happened to be a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and succeeded in eluding the police dragnet in downtown Atlanta. With the entire Georgia law enforcement apparat and a host of journalists in pursuit, he disappeared into the night.

Up to that point, this looked to be a one-day story about rage, violence, and rebellion. Then something happened that turned it into a more sensational and longer- running tale.

Twenty-six hours after the shootings in the courthouse, the suspect, Brian Nichols, 33, surrendered to police after a woman he had held hostage overnight in her apartment persuaded him to give himself up peacefully.

Let’s restate that with a little more contextual detail: In the Deep South, an African-American man, an accused rapist and alleged murderer, held a young, white woman hostage in her own apartment and, after spending the night in intense spiritual conversation, was persuaded by her to go quietly into police custody.

And so, a violent crime story pivoted into a classic American morality tale that boggled the minds of cops, reporters, and millions of citizens. “The story is simple, powerful and profound: a rampage of pure evil followed by an act of pure redemption,” Eugene Robinson wrote in the Washington Post on March 18, capturing the deeply appealing essence of the story.

Ashley Smith, 26, formed a bond with Nichols by sharing her evangelical Protestant faith and making him pancakes for breakfast.

“After we began to talk, he said he thought that I was an angel sent from God,” Smith explained in an interview with CNN on March 14. “And that I was his sister and he was my brother in Christ. And that he was lost and God led him right to me to tell him that he had hurt a lot of people.”

She may have been an angel to Nichols, but to law enforcement officials in Atlanta she was a hero. Headlines across the country adopted both monikers.

That, however, was not all. In the third phase of the story, details about Smith’s background came to light, and a new metaphysical plane was reached. As Michelle Hiskey’s front-page article in the Journal-Constitution put it March 15, “Smith is an angel with a troubled past.” 

For all her evangelical upbringing, Smith had a record of petty crime, including a drunken driving arrest, and had done a stint in drug rehab. Four years earlier, her husband had died in her arms after being stabbed in a bar fight, and their five-year-old daughter was living with relatives while Smith struggled to put her life back together. 

The key foible, though, was her penchant for Marlboro Lights: It was as Smith was returning from a late-night cigarette run that Nichols allegedly took her hostage. As Andrew Sullivan put it in his Time magazine column on March 28, “One was a monster, the other a woman unable to care for her 5-year-old, looking for cigarettes in the dark.”

So Smith the angel morphed into an even more potent religious figure: the “wounded healer.”

Many journalists were puzzled by how fiercely Smith’s co-religionists, including her own family, embraced the wounded healer image. Family members “accept media reports of Smith’s criminal background as part of the story they want the public to know,” Hiskey and S.A. Reid of the Journal-Constitution reported March 16. “This is a wonderful platform for Ashley to give her testimony, that everyone is worthy of a third or fourth start,” Smith’s aunt, Kim Rogers, told them.

Numerous articles reprinted Rogers’ explanation about what had enabled Smith to reach someone like Nichols: “She felt the sadness and she felt the aloneness; she could relate. I don’t think a socialite or a squeaky clean could have done that,” Shaila Dewan and Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times reported on March 16.  This struck a chord with commentators, and it became the key to the story’s powerful appeal to so many people, “She talked with him as one hurting soul to another.” Ashley Smith’s story “became an instant classic of sin, redemption and grace.”

Smith’s new identity was only enhanced by the revelation that she had achieved her healing mission (at least in part) by reading to Nichols from the current Christian publishing phenome-non, The Purpose Driven Life, by California megachurch pastor Rick Warren.

“This is a woman who understands grace,” Warren told USA Today on March 23. “She’s gone through some tough times in her own life, and that’s why she was able to be gracious to Brian. Ashley saw him as someone who was hurting.”

Nor did it hurt that the Nichols-Smith story broke just in time for the Easter season. “In this season of redemption, the symbolism of that encounter is resonating with the faithful,” Neely Tucker and Manuel Roig-Franzia of the Washington Post wrote on March 20.

In Atlanta, Smith became a popular subject for Palm Sunday sermons, the Journal-Constitution’s Hiskey reported on March 26. “Her story features the elements of faith marked during Holy Week: sin, sacrifice, grace, redemption.” 

For a week or so, the saga received huge play almost everywhere in American journalism: in news stories, features, columns, editorials, network news broadcasts, cable news chat shows, morning programs. Anyone who had ever met Smith, it seemed, was paraded in front of cable news cameras. 

As the story swelled, more and more people noticed how smoothly, efficiently, and adeptly the American media, usually pilloried as hostile to religion, handled the Christian inner meaning of the story. On March 16, the Christian Science Monitor chalked it up to the growth of evangelicalism: “The idea that her calm stemmed from trust in divine Providence has already hit American pulpits and tapped into the nation’s growing evangelical streak.” It is also likely that, since the story took place in Atlanta, journalists from other parts of the country were conditioned to buy into what they assumed were the local evangelical mores.

The journalistic embrace of the evangelical message was so enthusiastic that it triggered several alarms. Frank Rich, writing on March 27 in the New York Times about Lee Ratzmann, a Wisconsin man who allegedly shot three of his fellow congregants in a Lutheran church, complained that “the religious elements of these stories, including the role played by the end-of-times fatalism of Mr. Ratzmann’s church, are left largely unexamined by the same news outlets that serve up Ashley Smith’s tale as an inspirational parable for profit.”

In the May 2 issue of the New Republic, Lee Siegel took a similarly dim view: “Consider the past few weeks, in which American television discovered God. First you had the television news people popping up in Atlanta and transforming themselves into evangelical Christians in order to perform—not report—the story of Ashley Smith, who claimed that God had used her as a divine instrument in his (disconcertingly messy) plan to bring a sinner into the light.”

Yet even as journalists recognized and celebrated Ashley Smith’s evangelical tale of sin and redemption in the South, they danced carefully away from the elephant in the room: race.

It has not been that long since lynchings took place in the Deep South for far less than what Ben Nichols did to Ashley Smith. Indeed, the story of Smith’s hostage-taking took place just as FBI investigators, with much fanfare, were planning to exhume the body of Emmett Till, the teenager whose lynching in Mississippi in 1955 helped usher in the civil rights movement.

In other words, even as they wallowed in the conventions of Southern religion, journalists proved unwilling to explore the symbolic heft of that ugliest of Old South stereotypes—the black male predator who terrorizes the flower of Southern womanhood.

Doing so would have made clear that in the early 21st-century South, or at least in metropolitan Atlanta, white supremacists demanding instant justice seem to have disappeared. A similar marker of a new day in Dixie was the fact that Brian Nichols was better educated than Ashley Smith and came from a more stable family background. On the other hand, attention might have been paid to the possibility that Nichols’ rage was fueled by what, according to Beth Warren’s March 15 story in the Journal-Constitution, he perceived the “systematic slavery” of African Americans in the Georgia prison system.

Meanwhile, all was perhaps not quite as advertised on the religion front. For however strong the spirit of purpose-driven repentance was that Smith communicated on the night of March 12, it’s worth noting that after being charged with murder and aggravated assault, Nichols entered a plea of: Not Guilty.


Hit Counter