Louis Fischer, the famous biographer of Mahatma Gandhi, once reflected that in a world bent on following the Old Testament injunction of an eye for an eye, everyone would go blind.
His warning reveals the great danger in the current cycle of police violence and public recrimination. After the deaths – at the hands of police - of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice, many in those communities felt as if law enforcement had turned its back on protecting the very people it was charged to serve. Likewise, when the lives of New York City police officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos were taken by Ismaaiyl Brinsley, who had expressed anger on social media about the Brown and Garner killings, it felt as if the community had turned its back on the police. And then, as if on cue, officers attending the funerals for Liu and Ramos adopted a protest strategy of literally turning their backs on Bill de Blasio, mayor of New York.
The protests came in response to comments made by de Blasio in which he confessed to training his biracial son how to handle potentially dangerous encounters with the police, simply because of the color of his skin. The comments outraged many officers, who felt the speech only fueled the fires of distrust.
Responses to this police protest were mixed, illustrative of the unending seesaw of public opinion regarding law enforcement in the past year. In an article featured in The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates remained unsympathetic to the officers, observing that “police cannot, all at once, wield the lethal power of gods and the meager responsibilities of mortals.” In addition, he pointed a finger at the entire nation, challenging the values of people whose demands for police reform seemed to disappear as quickly as they emerged. “If the public appetite for police reform can be soured by the mad acts of a man living on the edge of society,” Coates wrote, “then the appetite was probably never really there to begin with.”
Christians need to rightly understand the proper role of law enforcement within the Kingdom of God.
Coates’ piece is only one of a myriad of opinions that have emerged over the last year attempting to process the relationship between communities and those charged to protect them. To guard ourselves from being blown back and forth by such volleys, Christians need to rightly understand the proper role of law enforcement within the Kingdom of God. Perhaps for many of us, recognizing that law enforcement has a God-ordained role is the most important step.
In a December speech given at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, Attorney General Eric Holder said, “The issue is larger than just the police and the community. Our overall system of justice must be strengthened and made more fair.” His words echoed the sentiments of Protestant reformer John Calvin, who wrote in Institutes of the Christian Religion that the role of civil government is “to regulate our lives in a manner requisite for the society of men, to form our manners to civil justice, to promote our concord with each other, and to establish general peace and tranquility.”
This was certainly the perspective of slain officer Rafael Ramos, whose Christian faith enabled him to recognize that he was “doing God’s work because he was protecting and serving his community.” God has ordained the government to foster a world in which His people can flourish as His image bearers. To the degree that police officers do this well, we are humbly submitted to their care. However, when they threaten the very peace they are commissioned to foster, then the highest institution in the land, God’s Church, is called to identify with the victims and hold the perpetrators accountable. Towards this end, there should be no lines that divide us, for Christians and the police are both called to pursue a sense of justice that is anything but blind.