If God is a cop, then every cop is God

If God is a cop, then every cop is God June 12, 2015
"Issaquah WA Police Car," Kurt Clark, Flickr C.C.
“Issaquah WA Police Car,” Kurt Clark, Flickr C.C.

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.

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  • summers-lad

    This is one of your posts which makes me aware of how different the USA is from the UK. Over here, when there are cases of police brutality or violence, no-one would even think to wonder if the policeman in question was a fundamentalist Christian. Anyone in any church I know, if they thought about it at all, would take it for granted that he wasn’t a believer. (They could be wrong, but if they were, the action would be seen as contrary to the faith and not stemming from it.)

    I don’t know about over there, but here, I don’t think many of us believe that “in God’s eyes, every human being is an utterly wicked criminal who deserves to be tortured in hell forever”. This certainly is the doctrine of some of us, but push a little and probably most of us don’t believe it deep down, and don’t act as if we do. I don’t mean to suggest that Brits are morally superior in any way, just that this kind of thinking isn’t part of our culture. You have written a few times about “the total depravity of everyone else” and I find that an excellent insight, but I think that as soon as people become less “else”, they start to become less “depraved”.
    Many of us over here would say the same as Franklin Graham (except that with a mostly unarmed police force, it wouldn’t be shootings). That displays a trust in authority and a lack of awareness of (mostly subconscious) discrimination, but I don’t think it supports abuse of authority or assumes any greater guilt than unwise provocation.
    Although (as someone fairly close to your theological views) I wonder if you may be overstating the case against fundamentalism, I have sometimes wondered if the belief in penal substitutionary atonement contributes to miscarriages of justice – someone has to be punished, whether it is the guilty person or not. I don’t know if there is any evidence for that – just a thought.
    I’ve gone on longer than I meant to on this, but I want to say too that, as so often, I found the spiritual element of your post very insightful. “A God who is in control of every situation cannot be persecuted” – I absolutely love that and will chew over it for some time. I’ve never heard or thought that before.

    • gapaul

      This is a fascinating response, thanks for taking the time. I can’t speak for Morgan, but I suspect that fundamentalist Christianity with its emphasis on penal substitionary atonement isn’t a conscious or direct thought line to this sort of policing. But in more subtle ways it is very much operative. It posits a Manichean world of good and evil that has to be brought to heel. It is comfortable with violence and power, and there is a distinct and masculine dynamic about being in control and being willing to use force as part of one’s “sacred duty.” In places like Texas, but not only Texas, it is the water we swim in. So much so that one can curse at other people like Casebolt and still feel one is standing on the side of the good, the brave and the true. The military, the police — there is a dynamic in the southern US which wraps all this up together with religion.

      • summers-lad

        Thanks for your comment – good to share views.

  • Father Thyme

    Jesus on the cross isn’t much different than Caesar on a Cross, don’t you think? If you disagree, re-read that part when those fellows brought Jesus a coin, and showed him Caesar’s Tropaeum.

    Jesus was Caesar

    • russ, russ! Why do you persecute me!? )=

      • Father Thyme

        Only a moron would feel persecuted by perceiving facts of history.

        • A living god is waiting for you to sober up and come to know him & that’s a fact.

          • Father Thyme

            Having delusions about your imaginary friend again?

          • do you have pet dog or cat?

  • Frank

    Obey the law, listen to the police and you have nothing to fear from them.

    • gapaul

      So Frank, as a teenager, did you ever teepee a house, drink in the woods with friends, “decorate” the rival teams goalposts, drive a little fast? If you’re white and you did those things, chances are you ran when the police came. (I sure did.) And needless to say, they didn’t pull a gun on us, even the mouthier among us. We got in trouble, but we didn’t get shot. Or threatened with a gun. On one particular occasion ( reminiscent of this pool party scene) we ran, but witnesses knew one of us, and eventually most of us were busted. The comparison of the two cops and the firing of the one points to the fact that Casebolt was out of line even by the standards of the police. He and police who are like him — are much to be feared. Especially if you are black.

      • Frank

        Obey the law, listen to the police and you won’t have a problem.

  • ravitchn

    Cops may well be dehumanized because they deal with the scum of the earth.

  • trinielf

    When one researches the evolution of the police force in the US, it is clear to see it was never designed to protect the poor, weak, suffering or non-white. It was designed to protect the upper classes from the lower classes and maintain the apartheid system and a strict hierarchy of power and privilege.

    The castes that fell outside of the privileged circle were served up a very different kind of justice than those within. When you have a rich white man accused of a crime and the judge who is overseeing his trial both belonging to the same fraternity, Lodge, inner circle, what do you expect? There have always been two levels of law enforcement in the USA. There has always been wealthy white people profiting from illegal activity aided and abetted by the police force. Judges, District Attorneys, Prosecutors, Police Chiefs have a history of being “bought” and directing their bloodhound underlings only to the crimes that suit them. They covered for KKK lynchings (some of the police force were actually KKK members), they covered for wealthy children who committed crimes. In fact being wealthy was not always necessary. One “God fearing” white Christian man to another would seek favor with a local police to excuse his son or daughter much like Josh Duggar’s dad did.

    The fear was that allowing non-white, non-Christian folk into the police force will expose and ruin the pact. When it became absolutely necessary to extend access to the police and domestic armed forces to the lower castes it was done gradually, Polish, Irish, Italian, Spanish all protecting THEIR community and especially the illegal activities within it. Irish mob, Italian mob all had their “insiders” in the police force. Once the activities were kept under wraps and there was no headline making violence, all was well. Money filtered up through the system and everyone profited, even churches profited from mob activity. These immigrants who were once oppressed took satisfaction in getting a chance to join the club, instead of changing the culture completely.

    The only group of people in the USA who are expected to actually be law abiding and who are prosecuted the most severely for attempting to get rich through anything but legal means and do not have any internal power within system to gain leeway, are black people.

    Regardless of race, wealth and fame is perhaps the only way you can manage to taste any justice in the USA. If you are poor, working class or even middle class and then on top of that black and ever have to deal with the police, your goose is cooked. The system was never meant to protect you.