You can take the pastor out of the church, but you can’t take the Church out of the pastor.
The conscience of law enforcement
Can the church become a bridge between the police and the community?
by Derrick L. Weston
There have been an appalling number of people killed by police this year. Sam Dubose is the most recent to grab headlines. I fear there will be another between my writing of this post and the publishing of it. An astonishing number have died in police custody. Sandra Bland was the highest profile of the women who died, but her name sits beside Kindra Chapman, Ralkina Jones, Raynetta Turner, Joyce Curnell, and Sarah Lee Circle Bear. Those, along with Native American activist Rexdale Henry, are just the names that popped up on my Facebook feed.
I find myself wanting to give our law enforcement officials the benefit of the doubt. Their job is difficult and dangerous. They wrestle with their own traumas. Most of them are good men and women just trying to serve the public good. I want to believe that . . .
. . . but I’m terrified. I’m terrified because I know my fading veneer of respectability won’t save me if some officer thinks I have an attitude problem. I know that, because of the neighborhoods I work in, I might have the same features as the target of an investigation and may find myself at the wrong place at the wrong time. I’m fearful for my youth workers whose short tempers could one day find them staring down the barrel of a gun. I’m fearful for my son, that one day some officer may not care that he’s half white because of how dangerous the black half is.
What is the role of people of faith in communities where the sworn protectors are the predominant sources of terror? We can answer that question by examining the church’s relationship to the state, and Martin Luther King Jr. gave, in my opinion, the definitive answer to that question: the church is neither master of the state nor servant of it. The church, rather, is the conscience of the state. When I watch videos of police pulling people from their cars without justification or using excessive force on unarmed people, I see an institution that is in desperate need of a conscience.
‘I’m terrified because I know my fading veneer of respectability won’t save me if some officer thinks I have an attitude problem. I’m fearful for my son, that one day some officer may not care that he’s half white because of how dangerous the half black is.’
I know of very few churches that have ongoing relationships with the police department. I’ll fully confess that this might be a result of my limited experience. If that is the case, however, we need to start having more public conversations about what those relationships could look like. I have a friend or two that has served as a chaplain for the police department, but aside from those individual relationships, I know of no real concerted effort by the faith community to surround law enforcement with encouragement, inspiration, and yes, accountability. I would love to see the faith community take the lead on sensitivity and diversity trainings for PDs. I would love to see a congregation that is just as likely to beat down the door of the police chief’s office, when an officer has acted outside their authority, as it is to show up at the bedside of an officer injured in the line of duty.
I don’t think it is hyperbole to say that we’re dealing with an epidemic of police brutality. Communities of color have been experiencing this epidemic for decades, and it is being seen in the public eye like never before. There is a leadership vacuum that the church can fill. We can be the ones reminding law enforcement that they exist to serve and protect us. Innocent people should feel comforted by police presence, not afraid of it.
‘I would love to see a congregation that is just as likely to beat down the door of the police chief’s office, when an officer has acted outside their authority, as it is to show up at the bedside of an officer injured in the line of duty.’
We as communities of faith should be the ones building bridges between the police and the community. We should be the ones highlighting best practices of law enforcement in other countries. We should be the ones calling out the officers who defend the “bad apples” that are supposedly spoiling the bunch. When the wagons circle to protect the bad cops from the consequences of their deeds, we should be the ones speaking out against the systems that place police above the laws which they are meant to uphold.
Please note that just because I am calling for the church to step up and become a voice of conscience within our police departments, that doesn’t mean I am not calling for the church to be the same conscience elsewhere in our communities and along all number of justice fault lines and needs. I say this because many seem to have the tendency to dismiss arguments by attributing bias to focus. If you talk about Palestinians, for instance, they want to know why you’re not talking about Christians being killed in Iraq. Talking about one issue does not preclude another.
It may sound paranoid to say such a thing, but I worry that we’ve already become a police state where “law enforcement” is simply about protecting the interests of the rich and suppressing the voices of minorities. In an age of for-profit prisons, is this too hard to imagine? The cause of the poor and oppressed should be our rallying cry, and it is they that bear the weight of over-policing. If the church is looking for a place of leadership in our culture, a place of relevance, this is it.
Derrick L. Weston is a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), a community builder for the 29th Street Community Center, and cohost of the podcast God Complex Radio.