Maybe we are finally beginning to learn what Jesus meant.
As the “Defund the Police” movement gains momentum throughout the United States, people are starting to redefine what “service” and “protection” mean from a perspective of compassion, not criminalization. Across the nation, more and more people are awakening to the realization that weapons and prisons so often do more to erode than uphold security. Some cities are imagining and implementing alternatives to armed officers to diffuse volatile situations and serve vulnerable people. And we are finally recognizing that providing for the needs of the people produces a healthier, more harmonious society than cultivating and then criminalizing poverty through demonization and marginalization.
The Spirit of Mercy is breaking through the front lines of our sacrificial order.
But policing is, indeed, merely the front lines of a sacrificial order that runs all the way to the core of our nation. By “sacrificial order,” I mean an organizing principle that bases the prosperity and security of some on the poverty and punishment of others. In a nation forged in slavery and genocide, a status quo built by violence continues to be upheld by violence.
“Service and protection,” in this case, means service to the powers that uphold systems of inequity and protection from those scapegoated, dehumanized and criminalized.
Although there are good police officers committed to protecting the vulnerable, true protection would be better served through a system of mercy.
How would Jesus, our model for living into restorative justice, serve and protect? How would Jesus “police”?
I know this is a bizarre question. I can hear the pushback in my head now: “Jesus may be our model for restorative justice, but police reform? What can we possibly learn from Jesus’s nonviolent example about dealing with criminals? A just police system makes sense, but a merciful one? That sounds soft on crime…”
Well, it’s a good thing my imaginary debate partner is asking these important questions, because answering them may just be the best way to advocate using Jesus as our model for transforming our understanding of police altogether. So I’ll walk you through my mind as the skeptic in me demands answers from the “hope-timist” who believes that real transformation is possible. The only way to serve and protect everyone is to shift our consciousness on what it means to serve and protect. Instead of cultivating fear and thinking of ways to punish others, we must hold ourselves in mutual, loving responsibility to one another.
Ultimately, following Jesus would transform not only policing, but our very culture itself, from sacrificial to merciful.
(For readability, the skeptic in my heart will ask her questions in bold. But despite appearances, hope is bolder than skepticism!)
… following Jesus would transform not only policing, but our very culture itself, from sacrificial to merciful.
Okay, you can’t be serious. How is using Jesus as a model for police reform going to make real change? What about the line between church and state?
You’re right; there should never be a police reform policy called the “Jesus Christ Policing Act.” That would actually scare the hell out of me.
But if we follow Jesus, we are called to re-imagine and re-build our culture on the foundation of mercy, not sacrifice. We are called to spread the leaven of mercy and love through positive mimesis – modeling and drawing others into the joy of compassion.
If we are called to view everything, including law enforcement, through the lens of mercy, then we do not look through a prism of judgment. We do not look for potential criminals, but seek to help everyone live into their fullest potential. We hold onto faith in redemption for all people, even when mistakes are made or wrongs deliberately committed. We believe in consequences that facilitate repentance rather than accelerate anguish.
If the purpose of law enforcement is to maintain social order, then we are called to ensure that we maintain a merciful, rather than sacrificial, social order.
But isn’t that naïve? How does mercy keep us safe?
Mercy is not foolproof. But a system of sacrifice leaves everyone vulnerable and actively harms the most marginalized.
Jesus refuted the sacrificial interpretation and application of God’s law by the authorities of his time, an interpretation that perpetuated inequity and suffering. By standing in solidarity with the marginalized and serving them with compassion, Jesus exposed the violence of the sacrificial order and enforced the law of mercy.
Following Jesus, we, too, must confront the violence of the sacrificial order that our police system reinforces.
At the core of our national violence is the “otherizing” process by which the dominant, sacrificial American identity was formed. This process manifests in the triple evils of racism, materialism, and militarism. Whiteness was formed as a unifying identity against people of color, the myth of self-made prosperity masked exploitation and demonized poverty, and force to subdue those deemed “enemies” was glorified with a might-makes-right authority. Together, these otherizing forces falsely justified unbalanced power structures and created scapegoats and enemies out of the most vulnerable.
Police systems were developed to maintain imbalances of power and offer protection against the demonized and marginalized. Early police systems in the South grew out of slave patrols, while in the North, one of the earliest duties of police officers was breaking labor strikes when workers protested unjust, dangerous conditions designed to maximize profit. Throughout the country, police enforced an order that valued property and profit over people, terrorizing and punishing the most vulnerable.
The fruit of such a system is tainted to this day. Patrisse Cullors, Black Lives Matter Co-Founder, asserts, “We, as in black people, as in poor people, as in marginal people… police are not used to keep us safe…. [B]lack people [are] being killed, humiliated, violated, sexually assaulted, maimed by law enforcement. And it hasn’t gotten any better.”
It cannot get any better until we acknowledge that the policing system in this nation was not designed as protection for but protection from people of color and the poor. The good intentions of some officers are not enough to heal the damaged roots of this system, because the violence that plagues our culture goes far beyond police.
Mercy – recognition of human dignity and serving the needs of the people – provides real (if not total) security. When no one is demonized, no one has reason to be irrationally afraid. When people live not only in equity but in compassion, relationships are forged that are stronger than prohibitions and punishments, maintaining a harmony that comes not from fear of consequence but from mutual accountability.
Cultivating equity and compassion in our nation requires the exposure of our sacrificial order and the transformation of the triple evils. It requires truth and reconciliation and reparations. It requires all of us.
Most of the work of mercy lies outside of law enforcement altogether. It lies in seeing the world through a lens of love and interconnection, rather than fear and competition. Following Jesus, we are called to see the reflection of Love in every human being, and to magnify the love within us as we recognize it all around us. In that spirit, we learn and meet one-another’s needs and share in each other’s joys in all aspects of life.
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Okay, I get how cultivating mercy changes our environment. But won’t there still be dangerous people and a need for cops?
I am not so naïve as to think cultivating mercy would create conditions that would always keep people from harming or being harmed. And I believe there will always be a need for those who can restrain and separate people who harm or attempt to harm others.
In an environment of mercy, however, officers (along with everyone else) would recognize the humanity of those they are charged with restraining. While crimes would exist, we would always remember that people are more than criminals. Officers would be trained in de-escalation and cultivate the self-restraint to use no more force than needed. De-escalation would be far more effective in an environment of mercy that does not cultivate fear.
Ultimately, I believe that living into mercy is living into God’s Kingdom, or the kindom of Love. When that comes on earth as in heaven, there will be no need for police. In that sense, I am ultimately an abolitionist.
But right now, I believe policing needs not abolition but transformation. Our entire culture needs transformation. The “Defund the Police” movement, reallocating resources from force and punishment to service, is, ultimately the work of transformation of society as a whole, not just policing. I believe this transformation will be most successful if it is consciously grounded in the divine call and a collective desire to cultivate mercy, not sacrifice.
But would Jesus say “Defund the Police?” That doesn’t sound like mercy. It sounds like an attack.
The truth is, we must be specific about how to cultivate a world of mercy. We must reprioritize as we reorient ourselves. We have long spent not only too much money, but too much thought and energy, on a system of sacrifice and particularly its enforcement. Our mind, time, and money must shift from punishment and weapons to people and wellbeing.
But Jesus would not single out police. He would identify all of us within the system of sacrifice, showing most of us how we are both victims and perpetrators of it. He would call on all of us to defund sacrifice – to transfer our time, talent, energy and resources from racism, materialism, militarism and division – and teach us how to reinvest them in mercy.
I understand. But I still think sometimes people need an armed authority to protect them.
You are far from alone.
But let’s remember everyone for whom that kind of “protection” has never been protection. Let’s remember that in a system of sacrifice built on racism and dehumanization, some people have never had that security. And ultimately, when some lack that security, that security breaks down for all of us.
The security of sacrifice always breaks down. It’s built on the faulty premise of separation and denies the fundamental truth of unconditional, irrevocable human dignity.
Let’s recognize our fundamental interconnection and build a deeper security on a foundation of mercy.