Wearing God—Oscar’s Show of Faith?

“You’re not disabled by the disabilities you have, you are able by the abilities you have.”
—Oscar Pistorius

In many ways, Oscar Pistorius’s life personifies the mythical “hero’s journey” as defined by Joseph Campbell: Pistorius is the lame Hephaestus who fought for the right to sprint upon his metallic limbs as an able-bodied athlete in the Olympics; who won glory and gold and became a hero to his country and to disabled athletes worldwide; and who was banished from Olympus not by fate but by his own actions. After being found guilty of culpable homicide and sentenced to five years in prison, Oscar Pistorius’s motto, above, has become somewhat ironic. The truth is that he was never brought down by his disabilities. Like many men with two feet planted firmly on the ground, he was brought down by his able-bodied ability to shoot a round of bullets at an innocent woman.

Because South Africa does not have a jury system, the presiding judge and two advisors are responsible for deciding the verdict, after which the judge alone imposes the sentence. In this case, Judge Thokozile Masipa, a black woman with a strong and considered demeanor (and no pushover in normal circumstances), seemed to buy Oscar’s argument that he thought he was shooting at a burglar who was supposedly hiding in his bathroom. Yet, in a country where domestic violence rates are among the highest in the world, women’s rights advocates in South Africa are outraged by what they consider to be a lenient sentence for a rich, white, privileged murderer with strong arms, a great mind, an athletic body, and obviously good eyesight, albeit one with no legs.

Pistorius runs first round of the 400m at the 2012 London games. Photo by Jim Thurston.

Pistorius runs first round of the 400m at the 2012 London games. Photo by Jim Thurston.

Criminals have often put on an overt belief in God along with a clean shirt for appearances in court, and one wonders how much Pistorius’s courtroom behavior—vomiting, sobbing, carrying rosary beads and praying publicly—swayed the judge. It’s easy to be cynical about these displays of religiosity and say it was all an act, but in one respect that would be disingenuous. Pistorius has always professed a strong faith in God—even when he was sprinting to the top of Mount Olympus. A biblical passage, Corinthians 9:26-27 is tattooed on his back; the words, “I execute each strike with intent,” are both a declaration of physical determination and a chilling foreshadowing of human defeat.

The judge has said that the sentencing was her decision and hers alone and I would like to know how she was able to justify the taking of a human life against such a light sentence. As a South African, I can’t help but wonder if it has something to do with our society as it is today. While most South Africans now believe Pistorius deliberately intended to shoot Reeva Steenkamp, many still have a hint of doubt and even sympathy for him. True, as noted before, domestic violence in South Africa is amongst the highest in the world, but so is other crime—burglaries, car-jacking, murder, and, especially, rape. White South Africans, by and large, do still live a privileged life compared to black South Africans, but crime affects everyone. When a close friend, or loved one, or even an acquaintance is murdered or raped many people become afraid. They build walls, install alarms, put bars on windows, buy guns, and could, in certain circumstances, overreact to the possibility of a burglar hiding in the bathroom. Perhaps it was this understanding as much as Oscar’s sobbing and vomiting and overt display of religion that helped to sway the judge.

But still, that is no excuse. Pistorius built himself a safe house and Reeva Steenkamp entered it willingly and with love and trust. I can imagine her fear as she huddled in the bathroom, desperately trying to create a barrier between herself and a man who has the words “executing each strike with intent” tattooed on his body.

Did Oscar Pistorius intend to kill Steenkamp or did he think he was protecting her from an intruder? We may never know. But whatever the truth, another South African family is mourning the loss of a daughter, and Pistorius is now imprisoned behind some very strong walls and bars for his crime. For however long he remains in prison (and it may not be over as both the state and the defense have the right to appeal), he’ll be at risk for deteriorating health and bodily injury. And, as someone commented online, there is another irony: right now, in prison, Oscar Pistorius really does have a burglar in his bathroom.