Obeying authority: on cops, violence and race

168852_600July 7, 2016 was “the deadliest assault on U.S. law enforcement since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.” (Source) That day, five police officers in Dallas were ambushed by a sniper who voiced his hatred for “white people.” 10 days later, another three officers were killed in Baton Rouge. Both shootings demonstrate the rage felt among some in the black community after two black men were shot by police in questionable circumstances – one in Minnesota and one in Louisiana.

These shootings came almost two years after riotous upheaval in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, 2014 when Michael Brown was killed in a police shooting. They came a year after the death of Freddie Gray in April 2015 in the back of a police van in Baltimore which led to riots there.

The killings of black men by police have stirred outrage among many in the black community at the perceived systemic injustice being perpetrated. I’ve not experienced the racial divide in my lifetime as intense as it has been in the last few years. When President Obama was elected as the nation’s first black President, most of us assumed that he would being dialogue and diplomacy to race relations in the U.S. It seems that the opposite has occurred. Rather than mediate, he has inflamed.

At this point in 2016, our nation is experiencing a 78% increase in police shootings since 2015. This includes “an alarming increase in ambush-style assaults.” (Source) Historically, the 1970s saw more police killed in the line of duty than any other time (peaking at 280 in 1974). The stats take into account all officer-related deaths. For a clearer picture of officers “feloniously-killed,” you can check out these stats.

Infographic: 124 Police Officers Were Killed In The U.S. Last Year | Statista

There is significant disagreement culturally about what is taking place in our nation. Racism’s ugly head is evident as accusations fly back and forth. Celebrities and politicians, coffee shops and universities have all waded into the fray. Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly uses one source to show that whites are killed more frequently in police shootings than blacks, and Syndicated columnist Nicholas Kristof reports “young black men are 21 times more likely to be shot and killed by police than young white men.” Which is true?

When it comes to violence in law enforcement (committed by police and against police) a problem (and everyone concurs) is that statistics are not kept well about law enforcement shootings. Depending on what sources you look at (FBI and CDC data being two of the primary sources), you realize that only a fraction of police stations across the country report officer-involved shootings to a database.

What this means is that there is a lot of uncertainty about the actual numbers. One quote you’ll hear a lot is this:

Young black males in recent years were at a far greater risk of being shot dead by police than their white counterparts – 21 times greater. (Source)

One thing is certain. The 21x stat is false. And yet it is the most quoted stat in news reports – TV, newspaper, blogs, etc. As an example, see this Huffington Post article.

…the original 21-fold claim is based on worse than unreliable data. ProPublica acknowledges that the data on justifiable police killings are “terribly incomplete. . . . Vast numbers of the country’s 17,000 police departments don’t file fatal police shooting reports at all.”

But they don’t make it clear that literally only a couple hundred police departments (217 in 2012, just 1.2% of all the departments in the country) report these numbers.

Even worse, the very few police departments that do report are predominantly urban areas, which tend to have much higher concentrations of blacks. This skews the numbers to over-represent black deaths.

ProPublica justifies its use of the flawed data by quoting David Klinger, a University of Missouri-St. Louis professor. However, Klinger told me that he told ProPublica that the FBI Uniform Crime Report data on justifiable police homicide is “no good,” a common view of those who work with the data. (Source)

The unfortunate reality in a nation addicted to bad news is that the media publishes what gets them the most viewers, the most web traffic and followers. They do this in order to sell advertising. To make money. That’s how it works. Sometimes truth is inconvenient for a journalist’s intention to grab attention. It needs to be “news,” after all. As the saying goes, if it bleeds, it leads.

Public perception is then shaped by what is reported because that becomes posted on Facebook, tweeted and shared. Most people simply read the headline of what is shared, and as a result, Americans become some of the most ignorant informed people around.

People fail to remember that cops are also people, and they are making split-second decisions with significant consequences in either direction. Then, they get Monday morning quarterbacked (to death) by media, protesting groups, and “informed” citizens on social media.

In Phoenix, an activist critical of police use of force was invited to participate in a force-on-force training drill so that he could see for himself what cops deal with every day. He said, “I didn’t understand how important compliance was, but after going through this; yes my attitude has changed, this happens in 10-15 seconds.”

If you believe headlines and posts and politicians, you’ll begin to think that our nation’s law enforcement is out-of-control. As a result, some will act out of their ill-informed frustrations and do something stupid. In reality, when you do dig into the data, you must conclude that “lethal uses of force [by police] are exceedingly rare.” (Source)

A common perception is that blacks are treated worse by law enforcement than other races. Statistics in some cities do seem to bear this out; however, you may be surprised by recent findings:

“A new study on police force found no bias against black civilians in police shootings in 10 cities and counties, including Houston. It did find bias against blacks in every other type of force, like the use of hands or batons.” (Source)

Roland Freyer is the author of An Empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force which points out this disparity in how blacks are treated.

What does this mean?

I want to try and respond to growing polarization among friends, family and especially Christians on this issue of race, law enforcement and even ignorant hysteria. There are some many dimensions to address, and I know that any attempt to do so will be met with criticism. My attempts are founded in convictions:

  1. All people are created equal.
  2. Yelling at one another doesn’t accomplish anything.
  3. Authority has been established by God.
  4. Real people and families are being hurt.

All people are created equal.

Thomas Jefferson wrote into the Declaration of Independence in 1776 that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal..” This sweeping statement of equality is a foundation of global human relationships for democratic societies.

It took our nation another 89 years for the 13th amendment to be ratified (December of 1865) which freed all slaves in the United States and its territories.

151 years later, people still struggle with racism. It’s not just Americans that do so. We’ve seen racism on a global scale that is shocking. Nazis hating Jews. Chinese hating Japanese. Hutus hating Tutsis. The list goes on… and on.

Racism is actually just a small subset of the real issue – which is hatred.  It’s people. People are hated for their race, their religion, their wealth. Heck, people are hated for the sports team they cheer for.

We don’t need our founding fathers to remind us that we are created equal. We need our forever Father reminding us.

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:39)

Jesus even told a parable – about the “good” Samaritan to illustrate that our neighbor includes those that it’s tempting to hate due to nationality or race.

Simply put, we are not allowed to hate people. Period. People are eternal. People are created by God. Elsewhere, the Bible describes how people are carefully crafted in love. The person who hates – whether a rogue police officer or an white stay-at-home mom – cannot please God because the object of their hatred is simultaneously the object of God’s love. They’re swimming against divine current.

Yelling at one another doesn’t accomplish anything

The sheer volume of “discussion” in our country today is ear-splitting. Politicians, celebrities and the talking heads on news channels seem unable to simply dialogue. The absence of genuine dialogue prevents people with different opinions from reaching understanding of one another’s core convictions. Because we don’t want to understand, we resort to yelling. Yelling is not polite. It’s a selfish activity. And technology has made it easy.

You may not call it yelling, but a pointed, sarcastic tweet is really yelling. A Facebook post on an inflammatory issue is yelling. A belittling comment left on a blog is yelling.

I actually anticipate getting yelled at by this post.

Some thoughts to avoid yelling:

  • If you think differently on an issue, try beginning your thoughts with “have you considered..” and then gently articulate your position.
  • Ensure that you have attempted to listen and understand the point of the person speaking/posting.
  • Determine if you could be wrong.
  • Evaluate if your response is loving or helpful. If your response only adds heat rather than light, resist speaking up.
  • Wait. Your emotions may provoke a quick response when waiting for 12-24 hours to respond may help you think and allow your mind to engage the issue better than your emotions.

Authority has been established by God

Our culture is in danger of casting off all authority. Heck, every July 4th we celebrate our independence – which was really a casting off of England’s authority. We are born rebels. The American Experience celebrates individualism and freedom. Yet authority is as necessary to society as a skeleton is to the human body. It gives us structure.

And authority is actually a gift from God. Consider Paul’s words:

 

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.” (Romans 13:1-5)

When we rebel against authority, we rebel against God. It’s powerful to contemplate that Paul wrote this under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who knew that the Roman emperors of Paul’s day were ungodly and even attempted to rob God of glory by declaring themselves to be God. Christians are instructed to be prayerful toward all human authority.

“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior..” (1 Timothy 2:1-3)

What do these passages suggest about those who would disrespect, belittle or even desire to hurt those in law enforcement?

Real people and real families are being hurt.

As I wrap this post up, it’s 11:24 p.m. I’m about to pick up a book I’m reading and take a hot bath before bed – one of my favorite routines. While the rest of my family is in bed asleep, and I’m winding down, do you know what’s NOT happening right now across America?

Protests. Picketing. 

That’s because it’s late on a Friday night. Even angry people are either in bed or out partying.

But do you know who is working even as the rest of us are in our homes or enjoying time with friends on the weekend?

Law enforcement personnel. 

Across our country tonight, thousands of cops are on duty – serving us. Do you know what their families are doing? Praying that these moms and dads, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters in blue come home safely from their shifts.

It’s a luxury to protest and to complain. It is their work that provides us with a society in which we have the freedom to assemble peacefully.

Reality TV seems to have neglected one angle that is all too real for law enforcement – their families. Husbands and wives kiss their spouses goodbye and pray for their safety every day. Children regard their parent in uniform as a hero.

Yes, there are bad apples in law enforcement. But you know what? Wake up! There are bad apples in every single profession. There are even bad apples at Apple. 😉 Everything we know now about Steve Jobs tells us he was a jerk to a lot of people. In fact, it’s the Christian worldview that teaches us that we all are bad apples at heart. That every person is a sinner by nature. We need redemption.

But have you thought about all the real people and real families behind the uniform?

Let’s also consider that those who are breaking the law have real families as well. It’s easy to disdain the lawbreaker, especially a repeat offender (as many of those who are involved in violent episodes are). However, the parents, spouses, and children of those who have committed a crime struggle far more deeply than we ever see. We may see glimpses of them on the news for a brief moment, but we are not exposed to their stories of heartache and the death of their dreams for their loved ones.

Wrap-Up

It’s a hard reality to face head on – whether you’re a Christian or not. These issues of race, law enforcement and cultural ignorance. Naïveté whines, “Why can’t we all just get along?” without acknowledging real issues that divide real people.

The admonition of Jesus to His followers is never more cutting to the soul of humanity, when He said,

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” (John 13:34)

13700010_10208172102718066_8542798883256539236_nLove. It seems like an outdated concept. It seems inadequate to deal with the problems of race, violence, power and oppression. Yet, it’s the only thing that can truly transform lives and societies.

One of the officers murdered in Baton Rouge, Montrell Jackson, posted a powerful message on his Facebook account on July 8 – four days after the shooting of Alton Sterling – and one week before he was killed in the line of duty. He said, “Please don’t let hate infect your heart.”

No society can stand if it does not respect authority. No person is perfect. So we are called to love. Jesus calls us to love on such a deeply challenging level:

“But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” (Luke 6:27-28)

We cannot love others and forgive them if we are not deeply aware of how much we ourselves have offended and been forgiven by God. (Luke 7:47)

We should grieve as a nation and as individuals when a police officer is killed in the line of duty. We should grieve over those whose sense of justice is so perverted that they celebrate the killing of an officer.

We should think twice before we use our social media accounts to thoughtlessly post inflammatory articles. Remember, we have a press that is driven to magnify injustice and corruption. They rarely report on the overwhelming amount of good – above and beyond the call of duty that police perform every day in communities across our nation.

I unequivocally “back the blue.”

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On this day...

4 comments

  1. Marylee Noble says:
    Very thorough, thoughtful, and thought provoking! Your essay reminds us that God’s Word is still the answer to society’s problems and personal attitudes and biases.
  2. Josh Deng says:
    Hey Jeff, I can’t friend you for some reason so I’ll just comment here. Thanks for posting. I have an honest question: is this challenging to your congregation? I’ve been long waiting for any church leader in our town to engage the black-white conflict going on in our country for the past 2 years, but unfortunately the exhortation I’m hoping for is not the one you gave. In your church and my church alike I have no trouble finding people who will agree with your sentiments of honoring and praising law enforcement. I feel like that is a common narrative of rural conservative areas like SWVA. The harder message for people around here to understand, I find, is to put oneself into a black man’s shoes for a while and to experience racial oppression. What does it feel like to be prejudiced against for years and years? What would drive a man to come to a point where they would want to publicly protest?

    I think you’ve written some good points about all of us being image-bearers of God and being of equal value. But the direction I’m taken by the end of your piece is not one of peacemaking, but more one-sided. Would love to hear more thoughts from you on this. Peace.

    1. Jeff Noble says:
      Josh, thanks so much for your response and its civil tone. I’d like to respond briefly here and would welcome a coffee shop conversation to ensure that we are both agreeing on important points and preserving relationship.

      First, when you say “the exhortation I’m hoping for is not the one you gave,” I am curious as to whether you specifically disagree with Paul’s exhortation in Romans that I quoted in the blog entry:

      “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” (Romans 13:1-2)

      I’m assuming you don’t, so honoring and praising law enforcement is not just a “rural narrative.” It is in fact important to not only the preservation of orderly society but it is also biblical to respect authority and to view it as God’s gift to humanity for orderly cultures.

      To your other thought, “to put oneself into a black man’s shoes for a while and to experience racial oppression,” I certainly believe that the New Testament teaches that God shows no partiality and so neither should we. (Acts 10.34, James 2.1) The issue of loving ALL people was EXACTLY the point of my entry, and I only through genuine love of others will we experience relational and racial peace. Any band-aids that society offers are not sustainable. Transformation must happen at a soul level.

      Experiencing racial oppression is not necessary to cultivating a Christ-like attitude toward those who are slighted and mistreated in any society. Rather, we focus on what is good, right and true. As Christians we look to Christ and replicate His heart toward all peoples.

      So I was somewhat surprised that you thought the article led you away from peace-making. I’d like to hear more from you about that. On the other hand, if you think there can’t be peace unless we disrespect and tear down the institution of law enforcement in order to legitimize violence and anarchy? I just can’t believe that is your point. I assume the best and feel like you unequivocally support the institution and the God-established authority it’s intended to be.

      1. Josh Deng says:
        Well Jeff, I took 2 days and deliberated at where to start replying, but I can’t get to a good place. A face to face conversation may be better to continue with, as you said. I’ll leave a few points just to try to answer what you’ve asked me, briefly:

        The Bible is indeed my authority and I subject myself to God’s word, including Rom 13. I agree that we ought to be subject to law enforcement, in the same way that a man subjects himself to Christ or a wife submits herself to her husband. But I think there is room to acknowledge that sin permeates all of humanity, including the police (and I’d argue that there is a deep rooted sin in America’s police especially in relation to black people). “Be subject to”, yes, but “obey” or “back” the police, not necessarily.

        The peace I seek is that the church would be a catalyst in reconciling the long-standing conflict between police and African Americans, one that reaches back to days of slavery. To that end, I believe the un-oppressed in the Lord ought to be prompted by the Holy Spirit to listen intently to the oppressed.

        Psalm 10:17-18
        O Lord, you hear the desire of the afflicted;
        you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear
        to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed,
        so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more.

        Thanks for engaging with me. I can only take so much race talk at a time but let’s talk soon!

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