Over the past year, as police brutality against people of color has come under increasing scrutiny, a core group of white fundamentalist Christians refuses to concede that any cop in any of the questionable interactions has done anything wrong. While I imagine there are a variety of reasons for this ideological commitment, I wonder if part of the foundation is theological. If God is always described and contemplated as an authority figure whose primary vocation is to judge and punish, then the people in our society whose job is to judge and punish are the most like God.
First of all, even though I know we only skim what we read online, let me start off by making it very clear that I’m not trying to dis cops in general. I can’t imagine a more difficult job especially in today’s hostile climate. I can’t imagine having to keep my cool while I’m interacting with human beings who hate me because if I let myself get sucked into doing something stupid, I’ll become a youtube sensation. I can’t imagine the challenge of making snap judgments when my adrenaline is racing. To be a good cop who is both firm and gentle must require the spiritual discipline of a monk.
Former police officer Seth Stoughton explains that the latest incident in McKinney, Texas showed two different police mentalities on display. The first cop who arrived exhibited a “guardian” posture. He listened patiently. He explained that running away when the police arrive attracts suspicion. He let people go when they argued there was no justification for their detention. As Stoughton describes, the “guardian” approach to policing “can de-escalate tense situations, induce compliance, and increase community trust over the long-term.”
The posture of Corporal Eric Casebolt was to enter the scene as a “warrior” with the assumption that everyone there is a potential criminal whose will and dignity must be brought into complete submission. Stoughton reflects on the response to Casebolt’s approach:
We shouldn’t be surprised that the kids Corporal Casebolt was yelling at weren’t eager to do what he was ordering them to do—no one likes being cursed at and disrespected in front of their peers, and people of all ages, especially teenagers, resent being treated unjustly. That resentment can lead to resistance, and Police Warriors—taught to exercise unquestioned command over a scene—overcome resistance by using force.
My hope is that the long-term impact of the troubling police incidents over the past few years will be that cops are better trained to build trust as guardians rather than assert complete dominance as warriors. But if in God’s eyes, every human being is an utterly wicked criminal who deserves to be tortured in hell forever, then maybe Corporal Casebolt’s disrespectful, abusive behavior towards the black kids was entirely appropriate. I have no idea whether Corporal Casebolt is a fundamentalist Christian, but I have had exchanges with white fundamentalist Christians who think that what Casebolt did was absolutely justified and his police chief should resign for having disciplined him.
According to fundamentalist Christianity, the only interactions that God has with human beings are like the interaction that Corporal Casebolt had with the black kids at the McKinney pool. In this theology, the reason that Jesus died on the cross was to give God somebody to beat up so that he could calm down enough for the people who believe in Jesus to enter his presence for eternity. What the cross shows us is not God suffering at the hands of sinful human authority figures, but God imposing suffering on his son in order to satisfy the math equation of retributive justice.
A fundamentalist Christian understanding of human authority figures is taken from Romans 13:1: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.” This is why Franklin Graham can wave off all the police misconduct cases by saying, “Listen up–Blacks, Whites, Latinos, and everybody else. Most police shootings can be avoided. It comes down to respect for authority and obedience.” And this is why all white fundamentalist Christians immediately denounce anyone who says anything disrespectful about President Obama because that’s exactly what Paul was talking about. Oops.But what if Jesus’ cross is supposed to promote a different, more subversive kind of authority? What if Jesus’ authority over us is derived in the fact that we murdered God and he forgave us? We don’t have to invent an uncrucified God who was entirely in control of the situation as his son’s executioner in order to preserve our sense that the people in charge are always right and the people who are right are always in charge.
When Peter preached the very first sermon about the cross, he didn’t threaten his listeners with hellfire and damnation. He convicted them in Acts 2:36 by saying, “Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah,this Jesus whom you crucified.” The next verse says that many in the crowd were “cut to the heart” by Peter’s words. They asked to be baptized in Jesus’ name because they realized they had murdered their anointed king. The authority that Jesus had over them was not the authority of brute force, but the authority of an unjustly persecuted victim. In other words, Jesus’ authority is analogous to the authority of Dajerria Becton, the girl who was abused by Corporal Casebolt. The moral authority of Dajerria’s victimhood in the eyes of millions of Internet viewers was what caused Casebolt to lose his job.
Lest you think that Peter’s sermon was an anomaly, it’s the same way that the greatest evangelist in Christian history was converted. When Saul of Tarsus was on his way to persecute Christians in Damascus, what did Jesus say to him? Did he say you know you’re going to spend eternity in hell for your sins unless you accept me as your personal Lord and savior? No! He said, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4). A God who is always in control of every situation cannot be persecuted. So that’s the wrong way to think about God’s authority. Like he did with Saul, Jesus establishes his authority over us by showing us how we’ve been persecuting him.
If you’ve never had your heart cut by the messiah whom you and I persecute and crucify every day, then you’re probably not a Christian disciple, no matter how many Bible verses you have memorized. If your God is simply the one who judges and punishes everybody else and not the one whose unjust punishment judges you, then you haven’t met the real Jesus yet. It is the authority of Jesus on the cross that puts us in check when we have the power to hurt other people without consequences. If Corporal Casebolt had seen Christ in Dajerria Becton, then he would not have treated her like a dog. Of course, we should see Christ in Corporal Casebolt too. His lawyer shares that he’d had two really rough calls earlier that day. That doesn’t mean that he shouldn’t face the consequences of his mistake. It does mean that Jesus died for his sins too.
Cops are not God. They’re human beings who make mistakes. They need a better work environment with better training and accountability so that their stress-load doesn’t result in tragedies for other people. And our society needs to work through the systemic racism that shapes all of us but manifests itself most plainly in police misconduct against people of color. As Christians, we can be part of the solution by recognizing the way that God judges us through the cross. Jesus says in Matthew 25 right before his crucifixion that whatever we have done to marginalized people in our society, we have done to him. Then he shows us through his crucifixion in Matthew 27 what we are doing to the marginalized people in our society.
There’s more than one message in the cross. But one of its messages is that human authority figures really do make mistakes, even up to the point of crucifying their own savior.