A friend of ours, Greg Lucas, is a police officer. He writes in to ask: “Pastor John, what can a white, Christian, police officer who loves Jesus, and his fellow man, do to make a God honoring difference in the race issues facing our country?”
I would say to Greg: Why am I teaching you anything about this? I am the one who ought to be sitting at your feet at this point. In fact, I really do believe we need to sit at the feet of godly policemen right now and have them talk to us, because John Piper may be a bit naïve in things that I write and say in my reaction to police. But he beat me to the question, so perhaps I have to say something.
My respect for Greg Lucas is enormous, especially because of his care for kids with disabilities, and his own thankfulness as a dad, and his book Wrestling With an Angel. Greg is a thoughtful, caring, fair-minded dad and police officer and, of course, there are thousands like him. And he is a Christian and so the way he posed the question comes out of that.
Four Pieces of Advice for Christian Police Officers
Can a white officer who loves Jesus and his fellow man make a God honoring difference in the race issues? And the answer is: he can. And maybe even though I am saying this with great hesitancy because I have never been a policeman. I have never stared down anybody with a knife or a gun or anything that would make my heart beat so hard I would probably just collapse in the moment. I am going to say some things and then expect the officers who listen to take them and do whatever tweaking and adjusting is necessary to give them a flavor of reality that I have never walked through.
1. Cultivate thick skin and patience.
So here is my first suggestion. Greg, and all the other officers, develop a God-given thick skin. Everybody who leads — and all police officers lead and pastors lead and pretty much everybody leads in some way — but everybody who leads, especially publicly, will be criticized, often unjustly. There are bad apples in every barrel — white barrels and black barrels and community barrels and police barrels. There are bad apples in every barrel, and some people criticize the whole barrel, and the good apples can really get easily angered and hurt, so that even the good apples, then, can start to be part of the problem. And that could be prevented if there was a God-given thick skin, able to hear angry words and not be wounded or made vengeful by them.
Or here is another way to say it more positively: we need to cultivate — whether it is police officers or anybody — seeds of patience. I think Christian police officers will help others see that there are historic reasons for outcries against the police, and that there are some situations where there is warrant for the outcry. But that does not mean that all officers are being indicted, though it may feel that way in the moment. And I think it is just a great mark of maturity and patience to be able to hear criticism and only own what is yours and not what is not yours to own. Speak to the issue of racial harmony in the department, the police force, when it is not a red-hot public issue. In other words, when the issue goes away from the front pages (and it will go away from the front pages), that is the golden moment, I think, to talk about the issue of racial harmony and racial conciliation and diversity and justice. And you want to sow seeds of ethnic harmony rooted in the Christian vision of man created in the image of God and man reconciled to God through Jesus Christ.
2. Speak on race at the right time.
And then I would say: cultivate freedom from personal revenge as a motive in the use of power. And here is what I have in mind. Just yesterday I read an article in the New York Times about a navy pilot. He happened to be a classmate of mine — I didn’t even know about this — from Wheaton. He was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam and flew five hundred combat missions. And what gave it such a personal twist is that his dad was a missionary in North Vietnam and had been killed by the Vietnamese. And how easy it would have been for this navy pilot flying five hundred combat missions to have his teeth grinding every time with revenge!
And here is what he said in the article, “I was taught that vengeance was the Lord’s, and you defer to that.” This was in a major newspaper. He said, “After a strike, I was pleased that I could say, ‘Mission accomplished.’ But I never felt, ‘Ah, I got somebody back.’ In fact, if I had a junior officer that I knew was out for revenge, I would probably keep him out of the air.” Now I suspect that is probably good advice for police officers as well, which simply means: I think Christians want to sow the seeds that there is justice to be done here, but it is not an occasion for personal revenge. And where personal vengeance is starting to take the upper place, the officers are going to probably not do their job as well.
3. Call out unjust policies, not just individual behavior.
And then I would say: spot and expose policies, regulations, rules, procedures, traditions in the department that might be expressing or shaping racist attitudes. In other words, give attention to this whole issue of structural stuff, and not just individual stuff. In November right after the Michael Brown case had calmed down with the non-indictment of officer Wilson, I tweeted this:
An indictment of Wilson may not have been the way, but what’s needed from police now is good evidence of firm resolve of equal treatment.
And I got a lot of up-swell of like what? And so my next tweet, just an hour later, maybe, was:
E.g. 1) empathetic public resolves, 2) redoubled effort to hire and train minority officers, 3) increased R&D in how to disarm w/o killing. And I think all three of those are important and serious.
4. Point to examples of positive policing.
Lastly, I was just reading a few weeks ago — and I put this in an article I wrote recently after our experience down in Memphis. Richmond, California, a city with a high crime, rate has not seen any deaths from policemen on community since 2007, and the reasons were given like this:
- an emphasis on alternatives to bullets, like tasers and pepper spray;
- an ethos of accountability: every bullet has your name on it;
- monthly firearm training, quarterly role-playing in hard situations;
- a strong force of manpower and money to deploy and train wisely;
- a change in culture from the top down;
- strong efforts in neighborhood relations; and,
- all of this flowing from a new culture-changing leader.
So those are just random ideas and thoughts about how Christian police officers might move toward creating change for good and racial harmony and just treatment.
Instruments in God’s Hands
But, again, I just want to say how thankful I am in my neighborhood for policemen, and how much I tremble for what they face over and over again, and how much I don’t want to second-guess them, and how much I respect them because, biblically, I am supposed to pray for them. They are the instruments, in God’s hands, for my protection and for the doing of justice.
And so if they hear anything in this that sounds naïve or like it is really out of touch with reality, it probably is, and forgive me. But if anything could be helpful, I offer it.