When Churches Don’t Call the Police

When Churches Don’t Call the Police April 27, 2018

The Washington Post recently decided to create a radical church-based social movement.

According to the headline, “Churches Make A Drastic Pledge In The Name Of Social Justice: To Stop Calling The Police” (The story was by Julie Zauzmer). Now, further examination reveals that we are dealing with a tiny handful of churches, most of which are in the San Francisco Bay area, where normal rules of consensus reality do not apply. In no sense is this some kind of widespread grassroots movement. But the Post clearly decided this notion was worth puffing to the extent of a substantial 1,100 words. The thought experiment actually does raise a couple of interesting questions, which really should be addressed before the theme is  picked up by other “progressive” churches, as it inevitably will be.

The basic argument is that the justice system is absolutely and irredeemably racist, violent, and brutal, so that faithful Christians should never collaborate with it. An ideal world would have neither police nor prisons, but in the short term, churches should not call the police for any reason – “Not for mental health crises, not for graffiti on their buildings, not even for acts of violence. These churches believe the American police system, criticized for its impact especially on people of color, is such a problem that they should wash their hands of it entirely. …. The police need to be abandoned altogether. The churches call their drastic approach ‘divesting’ from policing.” Some speak of their goal as “abolitionism,” a word with a weighty role in American history.

This cause is orchestrated by a group called SURJ, “Showing Up for Racial Justice.” One activist “said that even in a case of criminal behavior, she would ideally like to see churches not call police, because she doesn’t trust the criminal justice system to deliver a fair outcome.” At worst, police might even end up killing an innocent person. While churches did not require members from refraining from calling police, they hoped that members would learn from the lessons taught.

We will, as I say, hear lots more about this cause that the Post is currently inventing, and the objections need to be listed. Most obviously, as phrased, this stark view of the police is paranoid to the point of lunacy. It may make sense in the Bay Area, but it doesn’t in the United States. Of course there are abusive police, and grave problems of racism and bias that need to be addressed through extensive systematic reform. But abandoning police altogether, at least in any form likely to be achieved this side of the millennium? Nonsense. Among other things, the whole idea massively underestimates the real danger posed by criminal and disturbed individuals, who must never be romanticized as confused victims of racism and poverty. There are some very bad people out there.

To illustrate the difficulties, let us consider a couple of questions that might be addressed in any such policy. Here are a couple of not-too hypothetical scenarios that churches face:

-If a church’s youth pastor is found to have some hundreds of child pornography mages on his office computer, do you call the police? What if a family complains that the pastor has molested their child?

-Does the “police” prohibition apply to other agencies, such as child protective services? Like police, CPS agencies have faced plenty of complaints for alleged racism and class bias. But are there not strict mandatory reporting laws for child abuse, with heavy penalties for non-reporting? And these apply even to fringe religious groups that prefer to settle their conflicts privately.

-Does the no-police policy apply when a man rapes a member of the church’s staff? Should the victim be expected to forgive and reconcile with her attacker, without invoking official action? Do principles of reconciliation, mediation, and forgiveness apply to sexual crimes, or to crimes against children? If not, why not? What makes those offenses so categorically different from acts of violence or robbery? If you believe in reporting the offense of rape, why not robbery?

-If a raving and openly assaultive street person threatens church staff and you eventually persuade him to leave, where does he go? If he goes to the next church down the road and kills someone there, what degree of responsibility do you possess, whether moral or legal? “Mental health crises” are indeed medical emergencies rather than actual crimes, but often such crises portend acts of serious violence, including homicides or even mass homicides. Failing to report grave mental health episodes means that authorities run an even greater risk of missing crucial warning signs. Is not “calling the police” commonly a means of preventing a potential offender from carrying out far worse crimes in future?

-On a strictly practical level: how does a divesting church’s insurance company feel about the no-reporting policy? Does it not vastly enhance the chance of ruinous lawsuits? Would any company continue to provide liability coverage of any kind? I’d be astonished.

The divesting approach runs flat contrary to what we know about effective policing, crime control, and community protection. For a generation now, serious crime rates in the US have been plunging with a speed that has few historical parallels, and this is one of the most significant social trends in modern America. One major explanation for the improvement is a particular style of policing that emphasizes a swift response to minor problems before they escalate to a scale that brings down a whole neighborhood. This is the so called “broken windows” approach to policing. The theory certainly has its critics, but it does have a lot of arguments in its favor, and an impressive track record. Failing to call the police on seemingly trivial issues (like graffiti)  risks the growth of much worse offenses, and rapid community decline. And as in any period, surging violent crime means far more victims who are poor or ethnic minorities.

You certainly can make an argument that passages in the New Testament demand a near infinite forgiveness of enemies, seventy times seven, while early Christians had little or no hope of the state as a force for justice. A total abstention from formal justice mechanisms might work for isolated mystics and itinerant believers in a predominantly pagan society. But can any modern society survive without resorting to the criminal justice system as needed, no police or prisons? Of course not.

And what are the alternatives to formal criminal justice? Historically, societies that loathed and feared formal state justice survived by developing community sanctions and vigilantism, which in practice were far nastier than the worst police practices. In American history, lynching was usually justified as the ultimate manifestation of community-based justice. You honestly don’t want to live in a world of community-based justice.

Even if it were desirable, which it isn’t, “divesting” from formal justice and policing is not even close to the realm of reality.

None of these points is too obscure. Why didn’t the Post journalist think about raising or confronting a couple of them?

Next time, I’ll have more to say about churches and criminal justice.




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