Bearing the Sword In Vain in Ferguson

For the sake of what I want to say here, I am going to assume a couple of things.

First, I assume that the narrative emerging through first hand reports, photojournalism and other sources about what’s going on in Ferguson, Missouri, is more or less accurate. In other words, I’m assuming there has been no mass conspiracy between hundreds of people to systematically misrepresent the events of the last few days (that doesn’t mean everything that has been published is true). If that assumption is shown to be wrong, I will recant it and apologize.

Secondly, I will assume that the death of Michael Brown was avoidable and unnecessary (I am not going to assume it was murder, though it might have been). I’m assuming that there was no compelling reason why the incoming college freshman was shot multiple times despite not having a weapon on him. If that assumption is proved incorrect, again, I will say so and apologize.

Given those two assumptions, I believe that what we are seeing from law enforcement in Ferguson is a jettisoning of respect for law and fidelity to civic and constitutional responsibility. The scenes are truly frightening, not least because they look quite repeatable. There’s nothing about Ferguson or St. Louis that makes it an especially subversive or terroristic threat, the kind that would possibly justify the militarization of community police that we’re seeing.That means that, though today it is Ferguson, tomorrow it could be anywhere.

As a child I was taught to respect and trust the police. As an adult I am just beginning to learn that such lessons were not as applicable to others, particularly black males. I have no idea what it is to live in fear that an armed and legally protected man might decide he’s tired of “my kind.” I still get a little nervous when a police car ends up behind me in traffic, but that’s because I’m afraid of doing something that will get me in trouble–not being something.

But here’s the thing. People can be racists–virulent ones, even–and still be reined in by the rule of law. Racial, sexual, religious or personal hatred can take up room in a person’s mind, slowly decaying their soul, while at the same time the person is restrained from carrying out acts of hatred by laws, courts, and punishment.

What we are seeing in Ferguson appears to be a police force that has ascended above the rule of law. It is not clear at this time whether the mandate “protect and serve” is intended for the benefit of the citizenry or for the enforcers. Whether racism is what is motivating the police seems almost incidental. Before we can talk about race and prejudice, sniper rifles must be put down. You cannot have a productive conversation, or even investigation, about race and policing while citizens–not colored people, CITIZENS— are being tear gassed, held without cause and needlessly assaulted.

If you’re like me, you were probably taught Romans 13 as a child. Listen to what the Apostle tells the persecuted church about government:

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. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 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, 4 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. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.

Paul is teaching Christians that supreme allegiance to Christ supersedes–but does not supplant–submission to worldly authorities. In fact, Paul goes the other way with it: It is God, the Christian’s supreme authority, who designates less authorities as vessels to carry out justice and righteousness.

Look at verse 3: “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.” Is this always true? Were not Caesar and the Roman legions terrors to those Christians who were ruthlessly murdered? Yes they were. What does Paul mean then? Paul means that the institutions of human governance are from God in order to uphold virtue and control evil. That is their properly functioning role. Christians, according to Paul, must think of their civic authorities in relationship to the sovereign justice of God.

What about Ferguson? It appears that the government of Ferguson is, currently anyway, bearing the sword in vain. They have turned it on the wrong people. Rather than suppressing evil they appear to be suppressing scrutiny. For Christians, this means that authorities of Ferguson have, for now, abandoned their divine mandate. That makes what is going on an issue of moral importance for God’s people.

We are blessed with a democratic system that Paul was not blessed with. We are given the opportunity to effect real change in our country through real people who believe in real principles. That’s why it is important that Christians speak out about the excesses by the government in Ferguson. It is an endorsement of injustice, an abandonment of righteousness. It’s not “conservative” or “Christian” to refuse to join hands with those who cry out against injustice on the basis that “police are always our friends.” They can and should be, but this time they aren’t, and according to the Bible, God is watching.

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