In Ferguson’s Wake, Part 1: Law and Justice

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]f Americans are smart—a condition with which we seem rarely afflicted these days—the single word “Ferguson” will join the lexicon of terms indicating a significant change or challenge in race relations in the United States. “Brown vs Board of Education,” “The Voting Rights Act,” “The Rodney King Riots,” and “Amadou Diallo” should gain company.

Another tragic death of a black American man, demonstrations, riots, looting, devastated parents, and a grieving community. Then, questions about aggressive law enforcement tactics.

Through my years I’ve had the privilege to minister to a number of civil servants including police officers. I’ve counted among friends patrol officers, detectives, state investigators, a parole officer, a bomb squad member, jailers, a drug task force member, and probably others, both male and female. I served on pastoral staff with a PD chaplain, a FD chaplain, and made a couple of death notifications myself.

Not something for which I’m cut out.

In all my years of friendships I have never personally known a crooked cop, never has a friend of mine been indicted or fired for misconduct. I cannot imagine that any of them would use deadly force against a person not perceived as menacing to themselves or someone they are sworn to protect.

It still holds true, I think, that the vast majority of police officers in the U.S. serve an entire career without firing their service weapon except on the practice range. It still holds true that the vast majority of arrests happen to the intended target without be officer being severely wounded or the suspect being riddled with bullets. It still holds true that the vast majority of arrest warrants are served on the right person in the right house. And, most officers are men and women attempting to rightly do the job for which they were hired.

For these reasons and others many Americans seem to think of the U.S., with the exceptions of L.A., Chicago, New York, and a few like urban areas, as Mayberry with law enforcement updated versions of Andy Griffith. Good people get what they deserve, i.e., are left alone, bad people get what they deserve, i.e., arrested and convicted, and it all works out in the end.

Not exactly.

The events of Ferguson, Missouri over the past two weeks have highlighted the problems about which people like John Whitehead and Radley Balko have been warning for a while. Domestic law enforcement agencies provided with military grade equipment will often act like armies rather than policemen. Protests in the wake of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson’s shooting of Michael Brown were to be expected. MRAPs, military-style riot gear, teargas, snipers and bogus arrests of the press were not.

Common arguments that law enforcement needs to be ever better armed to deal with ever better armed criminals seem worn. Even after the Bank of L.A. shootout and 9/11 officers are killed in the line of duty with guns, in automobile accidents and assaulted with fists, not with RPGs, tank shells, or helicopter gunfire. A militarized police force sent out against megaphones and poster board, as happened during the first day time protest in Ferguson, is neither protecting nor serving the public. It is the response of the fearful dictator of a banana republic.

In such times many turn to only Romans 13:1-5 to inform their thinking. “We should support the law, stand for the law, obey the law, because God ordained the law and all those who carry out the law are His instruments,” they say. This is a truth I believe.

But should followers of Jesus support those who, tasked with carrying out justice, abuse or pervert it instead? We live in a country not remotely bereft of stories of corruption in law enforcement, in the judicial system, by elected officials, and within the military. In fact the proliferation of injustice at the hand of those sworn to administer justice is more readily apparent than ever.

Doing justice does not mean blind support of law enforcement, or any government entity. Yes, Romans 13 does instruct Jesus’ followers to obey civil authorities. However, Micah 6:8 says God’s people should “do justice.” Justice is a divine standard to which all civil law must bow. You will be pressed to find a follower of Jesus who supports China’s one-child policy because it forces abortion, the taking of innocent life. That is, it is an unjust law, and Christians are right to stand against it. But we must note that the justice God demands always supersedes human law, not just when Communists are involved.

A longtime friend and his family were residents for a number of years in an Eastern European country. If the working citizens of that country had paid every tax the government enacted, each would have paid more than 110% of their income in taxes. In other words, it was illegal to pay less in taxes than a person earned. As a result, every single person, follower of Jesus or not, stole from the government. Everyone made a choice which taxes they would pay and which they would not. The law was unjust and disobeying it was just. The pursuit of justice (not to mention mathematics) made disobedience to the law not only necessary, but right.

(The purpose in the law was so the government would always have a reason to arrest you if it needed one: you did not pay your taxes.)

Christians should recognize Scripture as the authority over all of our lives, governing both private and public behavior. Christians should also obey the supreme law of the land of their residence since we are taught to honor the king and obey civil authority. For Americans this would be the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, as well as the laws derived therefrom (federal, state and local laws, for instance). Obedience to scripture means obedience to the law, so long as that law is not unjust nor the ones tasked with enforcing it acting unjustly.

Doing justice goes well beyond mere civil law keeping. Many people have violated the law in order to call for justice. If we are obedient to God we will, at some point, likely contradict the laws of man. Unjust laws demand to be disobeyed. If followers of Jesus never disobey unjust laws, then civil law has been elevated to divine.

Doing justice means that we stand against actions of authorities that violate civil law, unless that law itself be unjust. Doing justice means we call for biblical justice to be exemplified and when it is not, we do it ourselves.

In the days of institutional slavery in the U.S. unjust laws were subverted by the Underground Railroad. In the Jim Crow era, unjust laws were subverted when white people treated black people the same as they treated other white people. Laws and mores were challenged when white and black people stood together against lynching, against beatings, against discriminatory housing and voting laws, against economic oppression and on and on. For those in law enforcement it means crossing the blue line when necessary to expose abuses of power, like these California officers who reported their own coworkers.

Doing justice means obeying laws that protect life and property, and supporting officials who are attempting to do the same. When Ferguson was hit with a 12:00am – 5:00am curfew, alderman Antonio French, who supported both the right to protest and the rights of protestors, tweeted his support for the curfew. He supported obedience to the law while at the same time speaking against what he perceived as unconstitutional abuses. Positions like this do not conflict; the tension that exists is necessary. If we are being faithful to the Bible the tension may exist more often than it does not. Attempts at easy answers may be nothing more than skirting the difficult questions.

Micah reminds us that loving mercy and walking humbly with God are part-and-parcel with doing justice. Loving mercy means we reject rushes to judgment, though a rush to mourning is expected when appropriate (Romans 12:15). Walking humbly with God means we submit ourselves to the standard of justice He has enacted. Justice is not about “getting away with it.” Justice means the righteousness of God is displayed and evil is punished, something for which Christ’s followers should hope, pray and work.

Featured image credit.

Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.