Obedience and authority. The two favorite words of white conservative evangelical Christianity. They are at the center of the cultural crisis on display in our almost daily incidents of racialized police brutality. Who really has authority? Is it the cop who body-slammed a high school girl in Columbia, S.C. this week or the girl’s classmate who took the cellphone video that held the cop accountable? Is authority derived in the threat of physical violence or in the outrage of witnessing another person’s unjust suffering? That is the difference between the authority of the badge and the authority of the cross.
Ben Fields, the cop who assaulted the high school girl, went to a Christian private school growing up. His father Wayne is the director of the Olive Gospel Mission, a Christian homeless ministry where Ben worked before becoming a cop. I imagine that Fields thought his violent deed was a perfectly appropriate and perhaps even “biblical” response to the student’s challenge to his authority. His violence is the perfect embodiment of the theology of white conservative evangelicals like Franklin Graham, who lectured all the black people on Facebook last year that when an authority figure tells you to do something, you don’t talk back; you simply obey.
To be clear, the issue in the Columbia, S.C. incident was entirely a question of complying with commands. It wasn’t about safety, disruption, or another concern. The student who was assaulted by Fields was not creating a disturbance in her classroom. According to a student witness, she had taken out her cellphone and the teacher demanded that she hand it over. When she apologized and put the phone away but refused to hand it to her teacher, an administrator was called. She refused to leave the room with the administrator so Officer Fields was called. When she refused to leave voluntarily, he assaulted her and threw her out of her desk.
At every step of the way, each adult could have made a different set of choices to deescalate the power struggle and change the outcome. It was because the impasse was viewed purely as a question of authority and obedience that violence became the only option. Ironically, the math teacher’s original need to assert his authority by confiscating the student’s cellphone probably means that no student in that class will ever trust or respect him again. The possibility of any learning taking place in that classroom has been completely sabotaged for the rest of the school-year.
The takeaway lesson from this incident for high school students everywhere is quite chilling. A student was assaulted for refusing to give up her cellphone. The only reason her assault became a problem for the authorities was because another student was breaking the rules by taking out a cellphone out to record it. If that other student had had his cellphone confiscated, this incident would have done nothing beyond terrorizing all the students in that high school math class. So the moral of the story for high school students everywhere is that school officials cannot be trusted when they try to confiscate your cellphone, because without your cellphone, you have no defense against their violence.
Our culture is going through a major shift right now in its understanding of authority. It’s not a given anymore that being an adult with some kind of badge or title automatically means that youth are going to obey your commands. Authority has to be earned in today’s culture, which does make it a lot more challenging for teachers and any other adults who work with youth. With the advent of social media, our society is being democratized to an even more radical degree than it was when the printing press was invented. The possibility of a viral video puts a check on the threat of violence that is the subtle or not-so-subtle foundation for most systems of authority and obedience.
But let’s think about why the viral video works. It works because of the authority of the cross. When people witness a person being brutalized unjustly with violence, the wrath of God is kindled in their hearts. They are wounded with empathy (if they haven’t been taken captive by an ideology which has straight-jacketed their hearts). The authority of the cross is its exposure of injustice. Paul writes that through the cross, Jesus “disarmedthe rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it” (Colossians 2:15). Jesus wins on the cross because of the ugliness it reveals about the religious authorities who crucified him.
When Peter preached the first sermon about Jesus’ cross in Acts 2, he didn’t win Christianity’s first 3000 converts by holding the threat of eternal violence over their heads. Peter told them, “God has made him both Lord and Messiah,this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36). In response, the crowd was “cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37) and they asked to be baptized. They weren’t scared by hellfire into becoming Christians. They were convicted of the evil of their sin by the authority of Jesus’ cross.
The gospel of modern white evangelicalism does not rest on the authority of Jesus’ cross, but on the threat of eternal violence. Instead of submitting ourselves to the slain lamb of God, white evangelicals enthusiastically line ourselves up behind our hero bad-ass God-cop whose most defining characteristic is his love of violent punishment. Instead of being convicted through the authority of Jesus’ blood of all the ways that we continue to crucify him through our injustice, we crucify others with authority as deputies of our bad-ass God-cop.
It is our theology that makes violent authority figures like Darren Wilson, Brian Encinia, and Ben Fields feel completely justified in their savage behavior. Jesus’ cross cannot save us if it is only the receptacle of the violence of a bad-ass God-cop we’ve invented to justify ourselves. Jesus’ cross only saves us to the degree that we recognize it as the place where we have violated God. The blood of Abel continues to cry out from the ground in the blood of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and so many others. But if there are any true Christians in this land, then there’s power in that blood and the authority of the cross will ultimately triumph over the authority of the badge.
If there’s a hero in the story from Columbia, SC, it would have to be Niya Kenny, the classmate of the assaulted girl who got arrested for speaking out in protest of what happened. If you want to talk about obedience, Niya is the one who saw Jesus crucified and was obedient to the authority of his cross. Let us take up our crosses like Niya and do likewise.