First, let it be known that I am a suburban white woman, well-educated, with a good car and a nice house. Which is to say, privileged. In my encounters with police officers, personally or professionally, I have always been treated with respect and fairness. Perhaps that is not a function of guilt or innocence on my part, but of my privilege.
I am doing some painful learning about my privilege and about how racist attitudes are embedded into my psyche, simply because I am part of white American culture. It’s humbling and sobering work to become aware of those attitudes and my implicit bias and intentionally address and recover from them.
I can’t pretend to know what it’s like to face the police in Black skin.
But based on all I have read and heard and watched over time, I know it is often different than my experience. The killing of George Floyd in police custody is a clarion call for our communities to come to terms with the racism that is baked into our system. From Minneapolis to Louisville to Kenosha and everywhere, it’s time to ask big, hard questions and work together for real reform. I am calling for an end to racial bias in all systems, including policing and the entire criminal justice system.
So, what are we, as people of faith, supposed to think about police and policing? Surely, humans of any faith, or no faith at all, were horrified to witness the brutal killing of George Floyd. We all know we don’t want that. Ever again.
But defund the police? Abolish it? That sounds too drastic! We’re not sure we want that, either. So what do we want? Where do we begin?
Perhaps it’s time for some practical theology, beginning with the reality of human sin.
In the long arc of human life on this planet, we saint-and-sinner human beings, as Martin Luther called us, have never managed to live together as God would have us live: in perfect love toward God, self, and neighbor. Never even come close! We hurt each other and ourselves in a million different ways - always have, always will. So there must be law.
As a Lutheran pastor, I am drawn to Martin Luther’s first use of the Law — that of keeping communities safe by bringing order. Think about speed limits. No one likes being pulled over and ticketed, but we don’t want to drive on roads where anyone can go as fast as they like, either. The law can be our friend.
When it comes to enforcing the law, it is far more practical to pool our resources — that is, pay taxes — and hire someone else to do it for all of us, rather than each of us doing it ourselves. And so officers, constables, sheriffs, cops, highway patrol, whatever their title, are necessary and needed.
As community members, we give these women and men authority to apprehend and arrest lawbreakers on our behalf, within certain carefully laid down limitations required by democracy. We ordinary citizens don’t want to put ourselves in danger or witness firsthand the thousands of ways human beings abuse one another.
I don’t want to be the one that walks up to a house or a car where potential danger lurks and wonder what’s about to happen. Police work requires courage, understanding, quick thinking, integrity, good judgment, patience, compassion. It’s risky. Officers take on this risk, for the sake of the community — you and me.
Luther’s Doctrine of Vocation reminds us that God can work through any of us in our various vocations.
Teaching, parenting, accounting, taxi driving, medicine, food service, whatever we do for the sake of the common good can be a means by which God cares for God’s world.
So, can policing be holy work? Absolutely, yes. And I know that there are police officers who see their work that way — as a divine calling — because I’ve met them. God bless them; what a gift they are to their community!
But as much as an honorable officer is a life-giving force in the community, a dishonorable officer does just the opposite. A dishonorable officer can bring death not just to physical bodies, but to the health and vitality of neighborhoods. It erodes the trust that should bind citizens to law enforcement, to the reputation of police in general, and especially to the security and well-being of our black and brown friends.
Here is what I thought when I first saw the George Floyd video, before I had time to engage my brain. “Oh, my God, they’re killing him! Why isn’t someone calling the police?” (Again, privileged white suburbanite). Then the sickening realization that it was a police officer doing the killing.
Truth is, we ask police officers to do a lot. But we allow them to do a lot too. Things ordinary citizens can’t do. We put a uniform on them, pin a badge to their chests, teach our kids to obey them, then put weapons in their hands and send them into the community.
Then we white folks turn our heads and go about our business, because when that power is used perversely, it is seldom in white neighborhoods or on white bodies.
So what distinguishes an honorable cop from a dishonorable one? Maybe this: an honorable cop is one who can carry the power and authority we give them without abusing it, one who stays strong and true in the face of temptation and strain. A dishonorable cop is one who abuses that power and authority, who succumbs to the temptations that authority always brings. But consider this: A good citizen is one who pays attention to both — in order to encourage the honorable cop and stop the dishonorable one. A bad citizen is one who looks away, because it doesn’t affect them (It does of course, but that a topic for another time.).
Racism — American’s original sin, as some have said — is epidemic in our society. It rears its ugly head in every system: churches, schools, hospitals, business, and in law enforcement.
Radley Balko, in a June 10, 2020 commentary in the Washington Post writes, “… after more than a decade covering these issues, it’s pretty clear to me that the evidence of racial bias in our criminal justice system isn’t just convincing — it’s overwhelming. But because there still seems to be some skepticism, I’ve attempted below to catalog the evidence.” Balko lists eleven aspects of policing and law enforcement.
Before we white people climb up on some sort of high “I’m not to blame” horse, let’s admit that police officers reflect both the best and the worst of the communities they represent. They are us, in all our saint-and-sinner flesh as Martin Luther described it. We won’t end racism in policing until we end racism in our community and institutions at large. And we won’t end racism in our community until we end racism in our own hearts and minds.
This is spiritual work, my friends, the work of our congregations and faith communities. Church (virtual or physical) is where we come to acknowledge and confess the sin of our racist attitudes and behavior. Our repentance opens us up to God’s grace, and offers us a chance to do better. Together, we learn what it means to include all people in God’s “love your neighbor as yourself” command. Together, we do the hard but vital work of becoming anti-racist.
And how about this: how about if your congregation “adopted” the local police station?
Churches “adopt” schools all the time, why not do the same with those who do police work? Drop in on them once in a while. Bring officers in to talk to your faith community about what it’s like to police your neighborhood and hear from residents about their experience with policing. Let them be honest about the joys and challenges. If there are officers in your congregation, be sure you know them by name and stay in touch, especially now. Pray for them regularly and by name. Help them stay strong, in work and in faith.
So, what do we, good people of faith, want from police and policing? We want justice — for all. We want safety and security — for all. We want to be worthy of our honorable cops and bold in calling out the dishonorable ones. We yearn for God’s good creation – in all its parts – to flourish. “Defund” may not be the best word to describe what needs to be done. But change needs to happen. And it has to happen now, before we all forget what we saw happen to Mr. George Floyd and slip back into complacency.
This post by Pastor Susan Weaver is part one of a series to represent the diverse perspectives of the community on policing. If you would like to share your thoughts, e-mail email@example.com.
Susan Weaver is a retired ELCA pastor, a spiritual director, a former parent educator and teacher. She is grandma to two beloved little girls and loves to read, learn and think out loud with others. She blogs occasionally at pastorgrandma.com
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