Race and Policing: How the Church Can Help

October 25, 2016
Creating a just society is always a challenge.  It seems to be even more so in the present political and social climate.  Animosity between ethnic minorities and law enforcement has long been a fact of life in America’s urban centers, but that animosity has recently flowered into open conflict.

So what can the church do to help?  How can the church speak meaningfully into this situation, given that we ourselves are divided along racial and ideological lines?  And even if we do speak with one voice, how will our witness be received given that, according to some experts, we are living in an increasingly post-Christian society?

Certainly, there are better people to address these questions than me.  I am neither a member of an ethnic minority nor of law enforcement.  Like everyone else, I have opinions about the relative frequency and effectiveness of racial profiling, about the use and misuse of deadly force, and about the personal pain and political agendas of all involved.  But, like most other pundits, my opinions are not particularly meaningful, since they are not based in theoretical knowledge and practical experience.

There is one thing, though, that I do know–the church and its mission.  As I reflect upon what I know in light of the conflicts between minority communities and police organizations, it occurs to me that there are at least three things we Christians need to be doing right now in response to this situation.  They are simple things, and they won’t win us praise from the activists at ESPN or the secularists in academia.  Nevertheless, they are things that only we can do, and they have the potential to do far more good over a far longer period than all the protests and all the legislation put together.

  1. We need to win more police officers to Christ.

There are a lot of Christian police officers out there.  There are also a lot of officers who do not yet know the good news about Jesus and who have not yet decided to follow him.  As we go about the work of sharing the gospel with the whole world, we must not forget to share it with the men and women who risk their lives each day to protect the public and enforce its laws.

The reason is simple.  There is a book on my shelf entitled Can We Be Good Without God?  Those of us who follow Jesus know that the answer to the book’s question is “no.”  In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis explains why this is the case.  Sooner or later, systems designed to ensure that humans treat one another appropriately break down unless the people embedded within those systems are themselves committed to living a virtuous life.  Living a virtuous life requires a radical reorientation of our priorities and a radical reformulation of our perspectives.  More importantly, it requires us to relinquish our illusions of self-sufficiency, cease our rebellion against the true Author of all virtue, and seek reconciliation with both God and one another.  

Christians call this process repentance.  We know that people of varying religious and philosophical backgrounds have sought to understand and live according to justice, but we also know that those efforts are doomed by the human penchant for self-absorption and self-deception unless repentance accompanies our quest.  And we know something else; only God (through the atoning death of Christ and the empowering presence of the Spirit) can enable repentance.

  1. We need to make the Old Testament’s call to justice an indispensable part of our discipleship efforts.

There has been a lot of debate about what “justice” means in the Bible.  But there can be no debate that it is an essential aspect of the Old Testament’s message.  As such, it needs to be part of the core curriculum for everyone who wishes to follow Jesus.

Justice cannot be a theoretical construct of interest only to theologians, philosophers, and political scientists.  It cannot be the sledge-hammer that activists use to bludgeon their political opponents into submission.  Its application cannot be limited to the legislative, judicial, or economic spheres of life.

Rather, it is about how all of us use the physical, social, economic, and political power that is given to us.  Do we use it to oppress and impoverish others for our own benefit?  Or do we use our power to defend the weak, heal the broken, bless the righteous, and enrich the lives of all who want good things?  

The demands of justice do not apply only to police officers, although they certainly apply to them.  They also apply to judges, attorneys, and especially jurors.  They apply to gang members and others involved in criminal enterprises.  They apply to average people just going about their average lives.  We may not always agree on what justice looks like in a given situation, but all of us who follow Jesus must be clear that justice is a mandatory part of the life of discipleship.  And we must be ready and willing to renounce any behaviors that violate its rigorous demands.

  1. We need to share our stories.

Part of being in the body of Christ is that we share our experiences with one another.  I think that this is particularly important when it comes to encounters with the police.  Sharing these experiences will have at least three benefits.

First, sharing our stories with one another will help us understand that there are a number of factors that impact our interactions with law enforcement.  One of the many benefits of having members of law enforcement in our congregations is that they can help to guide us through this sharing process, providing helpful feedback when appropriate.  I have done this myself, and I found the process to be quite helpful.

Second, sharing our stories helps us to see the full range of experiences that people have with law enforcement.  Not all experiences are good, and not all experiences are bad.  Sharing the whole range of experiences will help us better appreciate the variety of feelings that people have towards police officers.  It will also help the officers who work with us to see how their actions affect the people that they serve.

Third, sharing our experiences will (hopefully) build trust between people of different racial and socio-economic groups.  It is one thing when someone with whom you do not have much in common shares a story that does not conform to your own experience.  Rightly or wrongly, it is difficult for most people to trust that kind of story.  But when someone who looks and lives like us has a similar experience, it becomes easier to think that the person who is not like us really is telling the truth.

As we strengthen our bonds with one another and build a more accurate understanding the challenges related to policing in a multicultural society, we will develop the ability to more accurately apply the demands of justice to the problems we face.  More importantly, we grow in the love that Jesus said would mark his true disciples (John 13-34-35), and, in so, doing, we bear witness to the world that he really is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).

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