So about the police…
“There is no good police versus bad police,” avers Brock University sociologist Tamari Kitossa. “In a social order that is based on social inequality, even the most benign and friendly cop is little more than an ideological prop to make us grateful that the state can be merciful and is your friend.” Indeed, Kitossa says, we’re living in a police state and we just don’t know it.
This is the kind of overheated overstatement we don’t need just now. Gas on the fire? Thanks a lot. Happily, the Bible offers some helpful perspective here.
Dr. Kitossa isn’t entirely wrong. He correctly suggests that police forces manifest the authority of the state, and the state always serves primarily the powerful people who run it.
To keep the rest of us compliant, we have been sold self-serving myths about power structures in our culture, including the police—namely, that they somehow differ essentially from every other power structure in human history: noble, kind, and at your service. You know: the Mounties.
Well, they don’t.
Our police forces, like our states in general, are morally better in some ways than those in other cultures. They’re worse in some ways, too. Essentially, though, they are what they are: power structures. And the Bible is pretty clear about what the people of God, and the people in general, can expect from such, whether ancient Israelite kingship in the Old Testament or the Roman Empire and its client kings in the New.
They will seek their own good and provide for the good of everybody else only as it suits their interests. But this isn’t news. It’s as old as King Saul’s monarchy.
And yet: God expects Israelites generally to work together for the common good, and that means cooperating under the rule of this or that disappointing king . . . and they’re all disappointing.
Likewise, God expects Christians, as citizens generally, to submit to the authority of the (anti-Christian) state. Why? Because the state and its armed forces are there to “protect and serve”? Well, some officials and officers are good people intent on protecting and serving, yes. I’ve met some such, and likely you have, too.
But the main reason is realism: the alternative to state authority is worse. A long line of political theory back to Thomas Hobbes states the fundamental truth that we have to surrender a measure of freedom and a measure of justice in order to benefit from group security.
Is this arrangement a kind of “protection racket” in which we are paying both for safety against outsiders but also against the state itself? Well, yes, it is. But this corrupt arrangement is what’s available in a fallen world.
It should come as no surprise to Christians, therefore, that some police officers are wicked. (Some theology professors are, too.)
It should also come as no surprise to Christians, however, that police forces, as loci of heavily armed and heavily privileged power, intrinsically and inescapably foster abuse. Lord Acton, a staunch Christian, meant it when he said that power tends to corrupt. It also tends to magnify corruption people already bring to the situation.
So are we to somehow do away with police forces? This is where Dr. Kitossa’s argument leads us. But anyone who has survived a policeless society—even for one lawless day or night—is unlikely to agree. The irony of his defense of the poor and powerless, doubtless genuine, is that it is the poor and powerless who are the first to feel the effects of police absence.
Should we instead simply condone what has gone on these last weeks, and years, and centuries? Of course not. This is a special moment and we need to seize it to do all the good we can.
Discipline transgressive police officers and forces? Certainly. Alter them for the better as we can? Absolutely. Expect them to behave properly all the time? Not a chance. Quietly put up with abuse? Never again.
What about redirecting some funds toward social workers and mental health professionals? Police forces are hammers, and hammers are valuable tools. But not every social problem is a nail. If we need more money for other tools—and of course we do! Look around!—then let’s not try to make social workers and mental health professionals out of police officers. It’s not fair to the officers, and it certainly isn’t best for those who are to be served and protected.
Liberal democracies are exercises in compromise, and compromise at lots of levels. They include taking on board an unavoidable quotient of crap: stupidity, venality, laziness, and violence. But realists know that we can’t do without the state, and we can’t do without police forces (and you’ll note I’ve avoided the euphemism “services”). Not until Jesus returns.
In the meanwhile, however, let’s reduce the (vast) amount of crap as much as we can. And let’s build up creative forces of healing and construction—not just necessary forces of restraint, let alone unacceptable forces of repression.