We have a problem with racialized policing in America. As Christians, we need to speak clearly about this problem, not only for the sake of justice, but also for the sake of love.
I don’t remember when I realized that we have a problem with policing in America. It may have been when I met John and Vera Mae Perkins as a senior in high school. John and Vera Mae are well-known today as evangelical civil rights leaders and pioneers of the Christian community development movement. In the 1960s and 70s, before gaining notoriety, they were faithfully working to serve the community of Mendehnhall, Mississippi. On February 7, 1970, John was arrested, beaten, and brutalized by Rankin County police officers. They used a bent fork, shoving it up his nose and down his throat.
It may have been when I read sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day and learned about police practices in Chicago housing projects in the 1990s. Officers routinely resorted to beatings and shakedowns in their interactions with gang members and other community members.
It may have been when I was in college and heard about the film Fruitvale Station and the shooting of Oscar Grant in Oakland in 2009. It may have been when I saw #icantbreathe trending on my news feed and learned of the choking of Eric Garner in New York City in July of 2014. It may have been when I saw the news coverage following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri that August.
A Story in the Stories
The difficulty with individual stories like these, about police violence or other impositions that appear racially motivated, is that every story has its complexities. Human beings are not simple. Sometimes an innocent victim is a plausible suspect with a rap sheet. Sometimes the fraction of a second it takes to act in legitimate self-defense is too short to tell the difference between a cell phone and firearm. It’s hard to be a cop.
At the same time, even with all the nuances and complexities that every story has, when there is story after story after story, there’s a pattern. There’s a bigger story that all of these smaller stories add up to. It’s a story of destructive police engagement with people and communities of color, especially African Americans. It’s a story that stretches across the United States, north to south and coast to coast.
Ferguson provides a helpful example of this bigger story in the smaller story. Journalist and author Malcolm Gladwell (himself a biracial Christian) offers a helpful analysis of the situation. The Department of Justice conducted two separate investigations in the wake of the incident. One was of the shooting of Michael Brown: the smaller story. The other was of the patterns of policing in Ferguson community-wide: the broader pattern. In the case of Michael Brown’s death, the report states there is no evidence that Officer Darren Wilson acted in bad faith. But in the case of police practices, the report condemns systematic abuses that disproportionately affect African Americans. These abuses include unlawful stops and arrests without probable cause, motivated by a plan of generating revenue through fines and fees.
Whenever a story like Ferguson’s hits the news, it’s not just the particulars of the one incident that people are responding to. It’s the bigger pattern that forms the backdrop for that incident. The reports of one more death splash onto a canvas that’s already covered with incidents of racism in policing, big and small—including the deaths that can indeed be called murders.
The kind of racialized policing practiced in Ferguson obviously undermines trust among community members, especially people of color. But what’s to be done? The Department of Justice report recommends specific procedural changes that can help reform such policing. Many of the recommendations are both laudable and practical, and could be extended to many other communities.
Sin in the Family
But as Christians, we need to think beyond procedural change and the accountability provided by state structures like a federal investigation. As Christians, we know that patterns of racially-motivated abuse are not just a matter of poor planning or procedural error. Racial injustice is a matter of sin—and often as not, a sin of Christians against Christians. Racism has both personal and structural components, and the dynamics of racism in the story of America—and the story of the church in America—are deep. Reading our history, and our news pages, demands both thorough reflection and the response of lament and repentance, individually as Christians and collectively as God’s people.
In the case of racialized policing, we need to remember that many, perhaps most, U.S. cops are Christians. So are most African Americans. Jonathan Edwards, the sheriff who oversaw the brutal treatment of John Perkins, was likely named for the (slaveholding) Puritan revivalist. Oscar Grant, who was killed in the Oakland shooting at Fruitvale Station, was a Christian. Eric Garner was raised in a Christian family, as was Michael Brown. I don’t know the faith background of the officers involved in each of these killings, but it’s likely some of them came from Christian families, too. Professed Christian faith and racial bias are both so common in America, they are bound to show up side by side in police forces.
There are many lenses we can apply as we look at the problem with policing in America. But one lens we need to apply is that of sin of Christian against Christian. For the people of God, racialized policing is a family matter.
When Jesus taught on sin in the family of God, this is what he said: “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24, NIV). If you’re going to worship, naming a grievance comes first. A brother and sister matters too much to let the sin go unaddressed.
As Christians, that’s our starting place for an injustice in the family. We need to name the grievance. We need to speak clearly about it. And then, by God’s grace, we can begin to move toward repentance.
Use your own words to name the injustice of radicalized policing. Or use this prayer:
Have mercy on us, and on me.
Have mercy on our nation, and on your church.
Forgive me for any way I have been complicit in racial injustice, and cleanse my heart.
Forgive the Christian police officers who have been complicit in unjust policing, especially those who have committed murder or other grave sins. Uphold all the officers who bravely work for justice and peace.
Strengthen and encourage the families of victims, and those who face the burden of injustice even today in their own neighborhoods.
Teach us your way forward. We trust in you.
Image credit: Erin Clark for the Boston Globe