Sergeant Jonathan Mattingly, one of the officers who killed Breonna Taylor in Louisville, KY, sent out a mass email to his colleagues on Tuesday in which he wrote, “It’s sad how the good guys are demonized, and criminals are canonized.” Though I have no idea what Mattingly’s theological background is, his outcry echoes the perspectives I have heard from many white evangelicals online regarding the recent protests of police brutality. Police are the good guys because they punish criminals just like God does. In white evangelical theology, God is a cop, which means that every cop is God.
The white evangelical perspective on police violence was recently summarized by Joel Berry, creator of white evangelical satire site Babylon Bee, who tweeted, “Police violence is good. Police are trained to be ruthlessly, effectively violent when they need to be and that’s a very, very good thing.” Notice that there isn’t even a possibility for Berry that police violence could be unjustified. It is simply a very, very good thing regardless of the context in which it occurs, like a no-knock warrant being served at the wrong house. Authoritarian violence is always right because authority is always right.
This sounds very much like the way white evangelical pastors talk about God’s violence in the Old Testament of the Bible. Is it possible that some of the Amalekites God slaughtered were innocent people? No, because whatever violence God inflicts is always righteous since God is always right. Do you see how this logic is transferible and becomes the basis for a fascist view of authority? Even though evangelicals say that all humans are totally depraved sinners, this designation doesn’t apply to cops because cops are given the authority to punish sin just like God. Who’s a criminal? Whoever the cop decides to shoot.
And of course all of this can be justified using Romans 13:1-3 (white evangelicals’ favorite three verses in the Bible, except when there’s a Democrat in the White House): “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended.”
Romans 13:1-3 reads like white evangelical Facebook comments whenever a black person is killed by a cop. And to a white evangelical reading this, now the burden is on me to come up with some other reading of this passage or else I lose the argument. But I reject that playing field. What I’m concerned about is whether a way of thinking, even if it’s entirely biblical, is resulting in a mentality of entitlement and divine authority that makes it normal for police officers to kill black people without accountability and causes a tribe of people, who are supposedly followers of a divine man who was killed by police violence, to reflexively take up for the cop, no matter what the circumstances.
One day when I meet the apostle Paul in heaven, I will ask him what he was thinking and whether he has any regrets about putting those three verses in his letter. But I’m pretty sure that he’s among the divine instigators behind our current apocalypse that is exposing the blasphemy of a civilization built upon using God’s word to justify its own authoritarian empire. The authoritarianism that is so grotesque and obvious to us right now is not a new thing; it just wasn’t ever portrayed quite as clumsily in the past centuries than it has been by Donald Trump. But Donald Trump is simply a caricature of every white male authority figure we have had throughout our history.
One has to wonder to what degree has the theology been shaped to justify the behavior and to what degree was the behavior a reflection of the theology. How hard did white slavemasters beat their sinful slaves after coming home from a Jonathan Edwards revival? Did any of the Great Awakenings awaken anything about the abomination of slavery and racism or did they reinforce the smug self-assurance of white slavemasters who knew they were God in the equation and their slaves were sinful humanity?
I hope that the exposure we are experiencing now finally dismantles the power of the authoritarians once and for all. But I recognize this is simply the latest chapter of a neverending cycle. Jesus’ cross supposedly made a “public spectacle” of the “powers and authorities” (Colossians 2:15). But all the powers and authorities had to do was find an alternative explanation for the cross: God is not showing us that he is every black kid the cops crucify; God was just punishing his son for our sin. They will keep finding alternative explanations everytime God exposes them. I just want God to come down and wag his finger in their face when they do that.