George Floyd and the Need for a Theology of Policing
Yesterday a verdict was rendered in the murder of George Floyd. Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer, whose knee on Floyd’s neck led to his death was found guilty on all three counts. Many of us breathed a sigh of relief that justice had been done. Now George Floyd wasn’t a saint, but he didn’t deserve this fate. But George Floyd wasn’t the first or the last African American person to die in encounters with police. If we grant that every case is different, we must also grant that there is a history of encounters between African Americans and police that require our attention. It seems that every day there is another story of a person being killed by the police, and we wonder why things happened as they did.
I approach this question from a particular position in life and society. First of all, I’m a white male pastor. I’ve had my encounters with the police. That is, I’ve been pulled over on occasion, but not because of my race nor have I ever feared for my life because of such an encounter. I didn’t have the “talk” with my son as he grew into adolescence. Secondly, I am a volunteer police chaplain for the local police department. I took this position because I have high regard for the department’s leadership and believe that they are committed to serving the community. They’re not perfect, but I do believe that they have been trained not to act as Derek Chauvin did. Nevertheless, I do believe we’re at a tipping point where the conversation about the relationship between people of color and the police needs to go beyond simple reform. I don’t believe we should defund the police, but we do need to have a conversation about what policing should look like. We should also have a conversation about whether we are asking police to do work that they’re not equipped to handle. That is, we have turned over mental health concerns in our communities to the police, who likely are not trained to handle them. Police may need to be involved, but are they equipped to take the lead in, for instance, dealing with domestic disturbances? Would a social worker have been able to deescalate things in the George Floyd case?
I titled this post “George Floyd and the Need for a Theology of Policing” to bring theology into the conversation. More specifically I’d like to point to the work of Esau McCaulley, an African American biblical scholar teaching at Wheaton College, whose recent book Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope takes up this concern. In his chapter titled “Freedom Is No Fear: The New Testament and a Theology of Policing,” he begins by sharing the fear of the police that he grew up with and the encounter he had that reinforced that fear. He notes that he has been stopped by police between seven and ten times “for no other crime than being Black” (p. 28). With this personal experience as a background, he lays out a theology of policing. He does so by looking at Romans 13, which he suggests “asserts the sovereignty of God over the state. Paul states that the state’s policing duties should never be a terror to those who are innocent” (p. 29). He also brings in the ministry of John the Baptist as presented in the Gospel of Luke, where, McCaulley suggests, John the Baptist called “on the soldiers/law enforcement officers to do their job with integrity” (p. 29).
In this chapter of McCaulley's book Reading While Black, he points out that the Roman army served as the police force, and that they were ubiquitous. In other words, Rome was a police state. While that is true, as McCaulley notes, for Paul, not only did individuals have responsibilities to the state (obey the laws as best you could), he also spoke of the responsibilities the state had to individuals. Ths, “the state must remember that it is not divine or infallible. It is a steward of that which belongs to God.” Concerning police work, he writes that it is part of our calling as Christians to “remind those charged with governing of their need to create an atmosphere in which people are able to live without fear. This has been the Black person’s repeated lament. We should not live in fear. Good should be rewarded and evil punished. The United States, historically and in the present, has not done that. Instead it has used the sword to instill a fear that has been passed down from generation to generation in Black homes and churches—but that fear has never had the final word. Instead Black Christians remembered that we need not fear those who can only kill the body” (Reading While Black, p. 45). Nevertheless, their birthright as God’s children shouldn’t be purchased with their blood and mental health. Therefore, “A Christian theology of policing, then, is a theology of freedom” (p. 46).
He writes further that a Christian theology of policing calls on the state to remember its duties to its people, all its people. In other words, Black lives do matter. So, we must hold the police accountable to a high standard of behavior. Yes, their job is difficult and dangerous. But, it can be done in a way so that people of color need not fear their encounters with the police. If only, my African American friends and others like them could have the same sense of security in their encounters with the police that I have, then we would be moving in the right direction. May that be the legacy of George Floyd.